Plotter + Pantser = Plantser

Plotter + Pantser = Plantser

Ruth E. Walker

Some writers are plotters. They develop outlines and character sketches. Spend time in archives researching long before putting words on the page. When they sit to write, they are prepared. They have a plot in mind.

Some writers are pantsers. The follow the shiny object of an idea, a snippet of overheard conversation, the allure of an intriguing character. When they sit to write, they are happily adventuring into the unknown.

Which one is right?

Pantsing

If you had asked me earlier in my writing career, I’d be all for pansters. Write by the seat of my pants, that was my motto. I’ve done some fine work that way, writing I’m quite proud of. And it is my way of getting to the page, of discovering the story, the layers of personalities in emotions, actions and reactions. I’m excited to follow their journey. If I had it all mapped out, it would deflate some of the energy that feeds me in the writing.

 

Plotting

After a retreat weekend with author Andrew Pyper, I’m thinking maybe my pantser approach led me to too many half-baked novels that languish in my drawers. Sure they are full of wonderful, quirky characters and great beginnings and even some exciting endings. Yet the middles are not so clear. In fact, that early excitement that led me to the page seems to have led to some deadends. And maybe if I’d had some plot in mind, the story of each might have been different.

But I’m not ready to declare an all-out allegiance to plotting my novels. Instead, I’ve come up with a kind of hybrid. A Frankenstein-ish patchwork that continues to serve my artistic needs as a writer. This method also offers satisfaction to my less-confident left brain approach to writing a novel. I end up with a plot that gives a solid foundation to my characters and themes.

How plotting marries pantsing

It starts with the midpoint of a novel. As the author of 10 successful novels, Andrew knows a thing or two about plotting a novel. He’s clear that the midpoint comes pretty much in the middle of the novel and that getting it right is crucial to the rest of the work. In fact, if the midpoint isn’t smack dab in the middle of the book, well, you’ve likely either not correctly identified your midpoint or put it in the wrong place.

The midpoint needs to do important work with your characters, especially your main character. It’s the place in which you need to deepen your characters or change them. A place of revelation or challenge. A spot where threat rises, opportunities present themselves or choices have to be made.

It also needs to be where the story moves forward or, at least sets up the forward movement. The midpoint can also be the starting point for a writer, with the beginning and end to come to the writer later on.

No write or wrong about it

Working with a midpoint is not prescriptive and this is where the pantser in me gets excited. I can write as a pantser with an awareness of the midpoint. I don’t need to have a detailed outline or even a firm sense of where the story/character is going. I just need to know that at some point in the process, I have to stop to consider where my midpoint is. And then consider if it is strong enough, if it carries the weight the novel needs to pull the reader along as well as pull me along.

You know those half-baked novels in the drawer? Well, I think I have an idea about how I might get them out of the drawer for a second chance. Maybe they will get sent back to the Island of Unwanted Manuscripts. And maybe not. But it won’t be because I didn’t know what to look for.

 

Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers

Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers

Gwynn Scheltema

If there’s a faster, easier way to do something I’m in. I love life hacks. Here are a few computer hacks I’ve collected  to make writing and researching easier. Try them. And if you have other hacks to share, tell us about them in the comments.

When writing or editing

  • Want to find an opposite, a rhyming word, a word for a phrase? Head to Wordhippo.com. They also have translations and pronunciation help.
  • Paste your finished prose into “Google Translate” and listen to it. Sometimes hearing sentences uncovers clunky bits and mistakes you might not notice by simply looking at it.
  • If you don’t have a grammar program, try Grammerly or Hemmingwayapp.com to help uncover passive voice, identify adverbs (so you can decide if you have overused them) and give you an overall reading level. (especially useful for non-fiction article writers).
  • Looking for a special font? Google.com/fonts is a collection of open source fonts, all optimized for the web.
  • When reviewing, change your font to something you don’t like. It will force you to slow down and read more critically.
Research hacks
  • Is your research article “Too Long Didn’t Read” or TLDR? Add Chrome’s TLDR free plugin to your browser screen to be one-click away from getting a condensed synopsis/summary view of news, blog posts, and other articles online. The plugin analyzes content and creates four different-length summaries.
  • Simple.wikipedia.org will condense the main points of any Wikipedia article
  • Does your Google search turn up too many options? Not sure which are most reliable? Search with scholar.google.com instead for more relevant choices.
  • When you copy from the net, use crtl + shift + V to paste it. This will prevent the text from formatting.
  • If you accidentally close a tab while researching, hit ctrl +shift+ t to reopen it.
  • Use the space bar to scroll down a webpage. Use shift + spacebar to scroll back up.
Keyboard magic
  • Instead of hitting the backspace key multiple times to erase a word., hit crtl + backspace to erase the whole word at once. It works the same for deleting a whole word with crtl + delete.
  • Although you can add symbols (like the copyright symbol ©) to your text using the insert tab, it is worth learning the shortcut keyboard codes for the ones you use most often. Note that these codes work only with a numeric keyboard, but on some laptops adding in the fn key allows them to work too. (e.g. alt + fn + 0169 = ©) You can look up the keyboard codes on the character map (insert tab; symbol; more symbols).
    Here are a few to get you started:
    • © Copyright symbol = alt +0169
    • ™ Trademark sign = alt + 0153
    • ° Degree symbol = alt + 0176
    • ¢ Cent sign = alt + 0162
    • £ English pound = alt + 0163
  • The control key also allows you to keyboard commands without stopping typing. Hold down the control key as you hit the shortcut. The keys themselves are also intuitive as they often stand for what you want to do. S for save. P for print, etc. The ones I use all the time are ctrl + f = find and crtl + z = undo.
    Here’s a full list:

.

There you go. Hack away, writer, and see if all this doesn’t make your writing and researching life easier.

10 Ways to Start a Story

10 Ways to Start a Story

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Whether it’s the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, chapter or act, the beginning of your story must establish time and place, the main players and the normal world they live in. An effective beginning should give enough for the reader to ask questions and care what happens next.

But before you spend hours polishing and perfecting your beginning, please finish your first draft. When you know all about your story, you can more easily choose what will lead your reader into the narrative. And equally important, you’ll have a better sense of the first impression that will best represent your story: its themes, its direction and its heart.

There is no “best way” to begin. Here are 10 ways to consider.

1. In the middle of action  (in medias res)

Starting in the middle of a scene puts readers immediately in the world of the story and sets up reader questions. They’ll read on because they’ll want to know why this is happening, who these people are and what happens next.

Example: Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes. (Animal Farm; George Orwell)

Who is Mr. Jones? Is he always drunk? What are pop-holes? Why are these hen-houses important? Where…..?

 

2. With the inciting incident

Instead of just any action, make it the event that sets the protagonist off on his narrative journey.

Example: He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. (Orlando, Virginia Woolf)

3. Backstory that raises reader questions

Usually it is not a good idea to have backstory early in a story, especially on the first page, but sometimes a short sharp bit of backstory can effectively  set up enough reader questions to hook them in further.

Example: Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. (The Blind Assassin; Margaret Atwood)

4. A strong character

A person who is so intriguing, surprising or terrifying that readers must learn more about them. Most often the protagonist, but not always.

Example: I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. (Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides)

 

5. Begin with the end or close to the end

Often called a circle device, this method offers the end or climax first and then readers want to go back to the beginning to find out how it all happened.

Example: Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez)

6. Setting

“It was a dark and story night…” is touted as one of the worst ways to begin, but many successful stories begin with setting. The secret is to see it through the eyes of the character and have it add to plot or character development or set a mood.

Example: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited. (Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier)

7. Unexpected/surprise

Going contrary to expectation always gets attention. Turning paradigms on their heads opens the way for an explanation that readers will stick around to hear.

Example: On a wintry Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Richard W. D’Souza stood in front of a shelf stacked with gallon jugs labeled Artificial Saliva and Pooled Human Saliva, and spoke about the art of killing. (“Breath Mints: A Hot War for America’s Cool Mouths” By Alex Kuczynski New York Times)

8. Truism

A truism is a statement that is so obviously true that it is almost not worth saying, but using one as a start to a story usually implies that the story to follow is about to prove it untrue, or at least comment on it in some way, and so readers are drawn in to see what the “other take” is.

Example: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice; Jane Austen)

 

9. Pressing fear, disgust, and other unpleasant buttons

In much the same way that we cannot not look at a train wreck or accident on the highway, people are facinated by situations where they can vicariously experience the unthinkable.

Example: It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. (Fahrenheit 451; Ray Bradbury)

10. Prologue

A prologue establishes context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one. Publishers are not keen on prologues, but in the right genres (e.g. epic fantasy) they have a role to play to help the reader understand the world they are launched into, or to set up an image or incident that will be returned to. If you do use a prologue, keep it short.

The Gift of Flaws

The Gift of Flaws

Ruth E. Walker

“Everybody loves a flawed character.” That’s a truism we hear often. A character with a flaw is, of course, channelling human qualities. After all, even the people we love the most in our lives carry “the stuff” that makes them imperfect.

My beloved aunt, who reads all kinds of books, loves Alice Munro, P.D. James and Margaret Atwood, and is in her happy place with a challenging crossword puzzle yet lacks the confidence to attempt to understand poetry. “I’m not clever enough,” she says.

The woman who loves language and words can’t understand poetry? But I cut her some slack because I love her.

So, too, will your readers cut you some slack when your characters reveal their flaws. But you want more than a reader’s understanding. You want those idiosyncrasies, characteristics and flaws to benefit your story. And they will when you use them deliberately to affect aspects of your story.

The following is by no means a full list of flaws. It’s a sampling just to give you something to think about as you work with your characters. Flaws affect actions, reactions and interactions:

Physical Flaws

Genetic or resulting from an injury, a physical weakness creates opportunities in your story

  • contrast (self against a perceived perfection in other characters)
  • sympathy (plays on your readers’ emotions — especially useful for villains)
  • motivation (especially strong when the flaw relates to character goals)

Consider Shakespeare’s Richard III; a villainous King of England but his motivation for power has a natural home in his deformity and how others treated him. Superman is invincible…except around Kryptonite.

Emotional Flaws

So much of what we do is driven by our emotions. Your characters are no different.

  • baggage (Mother always liked you best — affects every action/reaction)
  • weakness (from dieting failures to adultery — endless plot possibilities)
  • neediness (operating through others’ approval fuels relationships)

The strongest characters in fiction are most successful when they have an emotional weakness of some type. In Game of Thrones, Ser Jaime Lannister is motivated by his forbidden love of his sister, Cersei. Despite his strengths, this one passion affects all of his decisions.

Behavioural Flaws

From obsessive compulsive to egomaniacs, personality flaws drive characters to extremes. And those extremes can form some of the most intriguing characters.

  • focus (sees the trees, sees the forest, sees how it’s all connected)
  • restrictive (painting self into that corner and struggling to escape)
  • creative (artist, scientist, surgeon, magician…endless character options)
  • social (friendly, adulterer, won’t keep their subdivision garden neat)

Sherlock Holmes, anyone? Dozens and dozens of books, movies, television series…all from just one fascinatingly flawed character.

Applying the Flaws

Consider a character that you’ve already started to work with. Add a flaw — physical, emotional, or behavioural.  What changes? Can it affect your plot? Does it enhance your themes? Has the tension gone up a notch? What about relationships — any shifts in how characters interact with each other?

And what if you change up the flaw? A whole new ballgame? Oh, the possibilities are as limited as your ability to experiment.

 

10 Ways to Increase Tension

10 Ways to Increase Tension

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Tension is a huge part of engaging your reader with the story. And it helps to engage you, the writer. No one wants to read a book where the Big Problem is solved in chapter one, or where a character has nothing to overcome, no challenges to face. The cat sat on the mat vs the cat sat on the dog’s mat. Challenges drive a story.

Your job is to create the right amount of tension at the right time to keep readers wanting more. Here’s ten ideas on ways you can inject needed energy whenever your story begins to slow down or fall flat.

1. Raise the stakes

The greater the risk of loss or danger, the higher the tension. If at the start he stands to lose his job, but then his life is threatened, we have rising tension. If his life was in danger at the beginning, but that dissolves and all he stands to lose is his job—rising tension? Not so much.

2. Let your character fail

Each time a character attempts and succeeds at solving parts of the “big problem,” he moves closer to a successful resolution. But if he fails at some of the attempts, he has fewer options to succeed, and often less time in which to accomplish his goal.

3. Escalate threats and obstacles

If the character has just succeeded in winning a major sword fight, having her beat a sparring partner at practice will have no tension. Presented in reverse, both happenings carry tension.

4. Let readers know something the character doesn’t

If we know that a character is being stalked, but she is unaware, we have tension. If we see him get closer or cock a gun and she still is unaware, tension rises.

5. Play up emotional strain

It’s easy to add physical danger, but psychological strain is just as important. A decision to make; guilt over an action, fear of discovery, a secret suppressed.

6. Balance high dramatic tension with calmer scenes

High tension scenes all the time is exhausting for a reader. Let them breathe with quieter paced scenes so that when the next high-tension scene arrives they get the thrill of rising adrenalin again.

7. Change up the source of tension

If suspenseful scenes only happen when the antagonist is on stage, predictability sets in and tension is lost. If the reader never knows who will instigate the next conflict, threat, misunderstanding, mistrust, dislike or complication, tension is always tantalizing, just on the cusp.

8. Keep characters active

Passive characters who wait for things to happen to them rarely create tension. Characters who act, react and are proactive keep things fresh and moving when they become the source of tension.

9. Limit backstory

While backstory is essential to understanding why a character does what he does, it’s all past action and stops the active story from moving forward. Keep backstory short and meaningful to the active story event. Or save it for areas where you want a break from high tension.

10. Make writing craft work for you

In addition to “just telling the story”, consider the power of setting to create a suspenseful mood. Use loaded symbolism and word choice to heighten what is happening.

Like what you’ve read? You can have 10 on the 10th delivered to you each month by sending us your email in the comment section. You can unsubscribe anytime. You’ll also receive The Top Drawer our Wednesday blog with tips, resources and inspiration for writers. To see past posts, visit: writescape.ca

Theme and Premise

Theme and Premise

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m often asked what the difference is between theme and premise. Here’s my take—with a comment or two from others:

 What is theme?

A story needs to be unified around something, and that something is theme, a recurrent idea or motif.  You can begin to identify your theme by coming up with ONE word to sum it up. That one word is usually a human quality: Friendship. Love. Trust. Fear. Redemption. Abandonment. Freedom. Motherhood. Truth. Ambition. Justice. Revenge. Confidence.Or a universal quality: Duality. War. Confinement.

But the theme of a novel goes deeper. Theme in a novel is not just that one word, say LOVE, but the statement the author makes about the motif with the story.

FROZEN: sisterly love is greater than power.

Generally, theme is linked to the emotional growth of the protagonist, or the personal vendetta of the antagonist.

Sometimes you don’t know what your theme is up front. You might change it, or discover it in the course of storytelling. It evolves. And that doesn’t matter because it isn’t stated anywhere in the narrative. It’s a sense we come away with, a flavour, a key.

Theme can also be several statements/explorations around a human quality. For example, an author could explore different kinds of LOVE through different characters: brotherly love, love of self, absence of love, parental love, love of money over people, love of country etc.

What is Premise

Premise, on the other hand, is the idea behind the story, what the author is writing about, the basic idea and foundation for the plot.

John Truby suggests premise is the simplest combination of character and plot: Some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character and some sense of the outcome.

Author and screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff talks about the premise being “the pitch” for the story. That works too. After all, a pitch is the one-liner distilled version of your book and introduces us to the main character, what obstacles he must overcome, and why.

 

HARRY POTTER: When boy wizard Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts wizard school are threatened by the Dark Lord, Harry must find his magical power to overcome him and become a man and a great wizard.

 

Premise out of theme

Chris Vogler agrees that premise is the basic idea and foundation for the plot but also that it is “a more developed expression of the “theme” idea, beyond just one word. It’s a sentence that you pull out of that one word.”

First be specific.  “LOVE” isn’t specific enough. What kind of love? Brotherly love? Blind love? Love of country? Loving yourself?  What kind of trust? What kind of faith?

And then restate it as a kind of formula:   

X behaviour leads to Y consequences

MACBETH: ruthless ambition leads inevitably to destruction

 

 

Why does it matter?

Premise is useful as you write because it holds the ultimate character transformation in the front of your mind, so you are conscious of your character’s actions and reactions being in step with where he is along the character arc. For instance Harry Potter could never have faced the dementors at the beginning of the series, not only because he didn’t have the wizardly skills, but because he had not yet found his confidence or his loyalty.

As you write, theme doesn’t matter, but when it comes to editing, it provides an umbrella measure to decide which scenes and characters can get cut. Does this scene support the theme better than this one?

One last word

Screenwriter Andrew Oye sums the whole thing up very nicely. He says premise and theme are cousins not twins. That the premise is the subject of the story and the theme is the meaning from the story.

 

Following the Pyper

Following the Pyper

Ruth E. Walker

Over the past few years, it’s been my pleasure to take three workshops with best-selling author Andrew Pyper. And I can tell you that those workshops were incredibly helpful to me in terms of craft and technique.

I first met Andrew in 2000. It was shortly after his first novel, Lost Girls, came out. He was a guest at Words in Whitby, a magical reading series that sadly no longer exists. Fortunately, Andrew’s books last—both on the bookshelves and in the memory. On the bookshelves because they continue to sell. In the memory because they haunt you.

The same can be said about his workshops. But that haunting is a good thing because he offers writers the opportunity to understand elements of the craft in approachable and human terms.

An “Artiste” at work

I’m a pantser. Meaning, I write by the seat of my pants. I follow my characters around like a love-struck puppy. I’m content to let them tell me their stories. I write scene by scene and the hell with what kind of book I’m writing—it’s MY book so leave me alone World.  Of course, all that is in the first flush of creativity—that beautiful first draft that glows in the dark and suggests how perfect it is.

Then I have to turn it into a real book with plot and character arcs, engaging themes and all those scenes in the best possible order. I figured I wrote it scene by scene so why wouldn’t it all be in a good order?

My critique group, on the other hand, often points out things like: Why is there so much backstory in the beginning? And This is not the best place to slow down the pacing. And Are you certain you want this climax so early in the book?

Pshaw. What do they know?

They know a lot. Which is why I value them so much. But still, I fought against the tyranny of plot and the three-act structure. Enter Andrew Pyper and his plot workshops.

What Andrew taught me

Plot is not a four-letter word (even though it technically is.) And any pantser who avoids thinking in terms of plot (like I used to) is not doing themselves any favours.

From Andrew, I learned that analysis of structure is an excellent way to understand plot. Whether you use the standard 3-act structure triangle image of rising action, or a straight line divided into three separate acts, or Post-it Notes on the wall…

…you will come away with a visual picture of the frame on which your gorgeous prose hangs. It took me two different workshops with Andrew before I allowed my tentative plotter into the room.

But once I did, it opened up a whole new vista on actually seeing and, more importantly, understanding the frame that plot offers. Once there, I was ready to tackle the next bit of knowledge Andrew shared: the three-act structure is not just three acts.

Act Two = Two Acts

Imagine all three acts; now, divide Act Two in two. Why? Because the middle is the majority of your book. Consider the novels you love, the ones you cannot put down. Are they all relentless, never-ending races through the middle to get to the climax—the big scene, the moment you were dying to reach, the discovery of who the murderer is, of the at-last togetherness of the gal and the guy, that final battle with the monster…?

No they aren’t. In fact, the great books open up even more questions and several smaller crises in Act II, the middle section. They often let you THINK the monster had met its end only to discover the sacred ring was no longer in the protagonist’s pocket and, oh my god, the monster is still alive and the protagonist is trapped in a place she’ll never escape from.

She’s doomed. They’re all doomed.

That is the middle of Act II. Dividing it into two “mini-acts” makes perfect sense. As Andrew pointed out more than once (I was sometimes slow to catch on to this) Act II is always much longer than Act I (the set up/moment of change) or Act III (what Mark Twain called The burying as in let’s get it done quick.)

If you’re going to keep the reader engaged for that big chunk of your book’s middle, pull out some big guns of crisis. Not the BIG crisis; you still have to save the “ultimate battle” scene for the end.

No point in having Inigo skewer Count Rugen or Westley save Princess Buttercup in the middle of the book. But why not kill Westley in the middle of the book and keep Inigo and Fezzik busy trying to bring him back to life in time to save Princess Buttercup? (Yes. I just finished The Princess Bride and recommend it as a great novel for plot analysis.)

Self-reflection

So pull out your current work in progress. Can you apply a three-act structure? Is your middle Act II nothing but the road to one big crisis, with no rest stops along the way and subsequent crisis to threaten everything?

If so, take the time to look closely at the story and see what you need to add to the middle. Maybe move some of the action in Act III and see if it really belongs in Act II.

If you still resist the call of your inner plotter, pull out some of your favourite books and analyze their plot’s structure. Then think a bit about why you loved reading them. More than just great characters and fantastic scenes; it’s how and when and where those scenes appear and those characters behave. In other words: plot.

DID YOU KNOW?

Registration is now open for Turning Leaves, our annual fall retreat. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2018 and we are tickled to confirm that Andrew Pyper (yes, that Andrew Pyper) will be joining us for three days of focus on the craft and practicalities of writing fiction.

On November 2 to 4 at Fern Resort near Orillia, Ontario, this all-inclusive retreat includes Friday night fireside chat with Andrew about the writing life and an intense morning workshop. He’s an award-winning writer, a master of dark and disturbing mysteries and fantasy, and excellent workshop facilitator.

Our limit is 20 participants. A $250 non-refundable deposit will guarantee your spot. We expect there will be a waiting list.

 

 

Trusting Your Reader

Trusting Your Reader

Ruth E. Walker

As a writing coach and editor, I often remind writers to trust your reader. This is not reserved for those new to the craft. Even writers with published work under their belt will slip into the world of telling when they should be nudging.

Show vs nudge

We writers hear it all the time: show don’t tell. It’s great advice and it means to write so that you keep readers engaged. Show is all part of a writer’s essential toolkit of Active instead of (ho-hum) passive writing:

  • use active verbs instead of adverbs
  • watch for info-packed sentences and unnecessary description
  • keep characters reacting physically
  • remove repetition (words, phrases, actions) unless it is important to the story/character
  • avoid clichés and stereotypes—surprise your reader (and yourself)

But it’s not exactly what I mean with “nudge.” I mean something even more subtle, more layered. Something that moves your writing up the ladder. Something that echoes subconsciously for readers.

 

For example

Imagine you are writing a book about a teenager who is a soccer star. Alexia has all the usual teen angst of being confident and insecure. Everyone tells her she defends the net like a world cup pro, that The Beautiful Game will be her ticket to success. But Alexia fears that she’s only a soccer star on her high school team and will be revealed as ordinary when she joins the provincial all-stars.

But what is your story really about? The desire to be a soccer star is just what Alexia thinks she wants. What she really wants is for her mother coaching soccer in Europe to come back home and show that her own daughter is more important than her mother’s career.

That deep longing that Alexia won’t even admit to herself is your ticket to “nudge.”

Avoid the Hammer

My Writescape colleague Gwynn often refers to tell as a Hammer (as in, hitting your reader over the head and saying, “Hey reader, are you getting this?”) Like me, she sees missed opportunities for subtle hints or when the supposed hint is as obvious as…well—a hammer to the forehead.

Back to Alexia’s longing. We could have her write in her diary: I miss my mother. I wish she’d come home. Nope. Hammer.

We could have her watch the other mothers cheer for her teammates and wipe wistful tears from her eyes. Nope. Hammer with a Sentimental Whack.

We could have sit with her best friend and talk about it:

“Why are you so upset Alexia?”

“Well Pat, I really miss my mother. With her over in Europe coaching that semi-pro team I just feel so alone here. I don’t have any grandparents or other family except Dad. And he’s busy all the time and really, I think they’re separated and just not telling me. The seasons over there are longer than ours here and I want her to come back before my season ends, to see me play just once.”

Nope. More than a Hammer, this exchange also qualifies as an As You Know Bob moment, where a writer has their character say things the person listening would already know but wants to make sure the reader has all the important information. All. Of. It.

This is a prime example of not trusting the reader to either have already figured it out OR (and this is just as important) have the patience to piece it together as the story moves forward.

Don’t poke your reader in the eye

Let’s go back to Alexia’s longing. Would you give her a mother figure in the new coach of the provincial team? That would be kind of obvious. Besides, Alexia needs to learn about the complications of mothering and find a way to connect with her absent mother.

One way to do this is to make Alexia be a mother-figure. A pet perhaps? Too unlikely. Maybe a new teammate who is even more insecure than Alexia and she nurtures her along? Too obvious and lacking in energy.

What if the provincial team requirement is a certain amount of volunteer work? What if the winter before she leaves for training camp she gets stuck with 6 weeks coaching at an inner city community centre. Despite her initial frustrations and lack of empathy, she forms attachments. And then finally, she has to leave for training camp before “the big game/event” of the community centre. She has to choose between her soccer career and the “support your team” mantra she kept telling her young charges.

Maybe all this helps Alexia see her mother in a different light—the pull between family and career that many women struggle with. Maybe this isn’t the most subtle nudge to keep Alexia’s longing a constant theme. But the point here is that I was nudging you to consider ways in which you can adjust a story—pare it, shape it—and eventually move it into thoughtful territory that nudges readers into deeper engagement with your writing.

It’s actually one of the highest compliments you can give a reader: I trust you to understand what my story is about. And frankly, it’s a lot more interesting to write without a hammer in your back pocket. And, as you know Bob, it’s something I encourage writers to remember.

DID YOU KNOW

Gwynn and Ruth are great writing coaches. It’s been their pleasure to work with writers of all kinds and at all levels. At the next Writescape retreat, Spring Thaw, they get to kick off the retreat with some one-on-one consultation with the writers there. Plus they both provide written feedback for work submitted in advance.

Support. Clear and constructive feedback. And the care and feeding of the writer’s soul that comes at all Writescape retreats. April 20 for 3 days or extend your pen for 5 days.

 

  10 Quick—and effective—Edits

  10 Quick—and effective—Edits

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. To kick off the celebration, we’ve launched 10 on the 10th. This series of monthly resources will bring tips, advice and inspiration directly to your inbox. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Here are your first 10 tips:

 1. Get the action going

Replace passive, weak verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”

  • Before:      It was a dark and stormy night.
  • After:        The storm raged through the blackness. 

2. Keep things moving forward by reducing the use of “had”

“Had” refers to “completed’ action. It has no forward movement. Use “had” once or twice at the start of a section/paragraph to establish the time period, then revert to simple past tense.

  • Before:      She had been the only one in the house, and had paid the rent faithfully each month. She                                   had taken care of the place and had put up drapes and painted.
  • After:        She had been the only one in the house, and paid the rent faithfully each month. She                                          took care of the place and put up drapes and painted.

3. Keep the action going

Delete empty words like very/somewhat/really. Energize the word being modified instead.

  • Before:      Despite the very hot afternoon….
  • After:        Despite the afternoon’s sweltering heat…

 

 4. Keep your actions strong; beware the “-ly” adverb

Can you replace it with a stronger active verb?

  • Before:      He went quickly
  • After:        He ran – or dashed, charged, bolted…

 

 5. Change up the senses you use in description.

We default to the sense of sight. Try replacing visual details with ones of another sense.

  • Before:      Anita set the gold-rimmed tea cup  on the lace cloth…
  • After:        The tea cup rattled in the saucer as Anita placed it on the lace                             cloth…

 

 6. Take your reader deeper into the world of the story

Look for named emotions (happy, sad) or physical states (fearful, tired) and replace with concrete and sensory detail.

  • Before:       She felt disappointed
  • After:        She sank onto the bench and hugged her knees

 

 7. Keep your writing fresh

Look for tired and overused clichés. (Microsoft Word’s grammar checker notes clichés with green squiggly lines.) Create visuals that add to the story or your character.

  • Before:      His beard was as white as snow
  • After:        His beard was as white as his lab coat

8. Eliminate repetition. Eliminate repetition.

Identify any “writer’s tic” that you know you have. Phrases, descriptions, gestures and so on, rapidly  lose their energy when they are overused or placed too closely together.

Example:

  • How many times do your characters “roll their eyes” or “take a deep breath?”
  • How many times have your told readers it’s “a red car?”

 

9. Keep your tricky words tamed

Are there words you constantly mispell…um…misspell? Are you working with strange names or technical terms? Keep them correct and consistent by adding them to your software’s dictionary or AutoCorrect function.

How to:     Right click on the word. Choose either Add to dictionary or AutoCorrect

 

 10. Know your country

Is it color or colour? Are they good neighbours or good neighbors? Writing for American readers, Australian readers or British readers? Incorrect spelling won’t please your publisher. Make sure your  software is defaulted to the “right” English.

How to:     Most MSWord programs have the language default on the bottom info bar. Left click to select your language.

 

If you found this helpful, let your writing friends know. Share it!

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault is a freelance writer with a passion for fiction for young readers. She recently wrote a post for Writescape about the benefits of writing away at the Highlights Foundation’s Pennsylvania retreat. As she promised in that December post, she’s here to share what she learned about getting a novel unstuck:

Whether you call it writer’s block, an empty tank or say your creative well has run dry, every writer has days or weeks when putting words on the page is a challenge. This past summer, I found myself stuck on my middle grade manuscript.

I created a storyboard (on my closet doors) to help me see the flow of the plot, only to discover there were structural issues I hadn’t noticed before. I could see what the problems were, but had no idea how to fix them. Thankfully, I had already signed up for a workshop dedicated to getting unstuck.

Stop spinning your wheels

In my recent guest post, I wrote about my experience at the Highlights Foundation workshop Getting Your Middle Grade Novel Unstuck. I learned many things at the workshop, but the main focus was how to deal with being stuck.

Beginning, middle or end of your story—there are great techniques that can help move you forward. Instructors Chris Tebbetts and Elise Broach armed me with loads of options. And many of them don’t even involve working directly on your manuscript.

The most valuable piece of advice I took away from the workshop: there’s always something you can be doing even if it’s not writing.

Experiment with play

Sometimes, it feels like anything other than writing a new scene is procrastination. That’s simply not the case.

Anything that moves you forward with your writing, builds your skills, increases your familiarity with your characters or fleshes out your plot is a productive and effective use of your time. That’s incredibly liberating.

Discovering your characters

Successful middle grade writers create characters their readers connect with—and characters the writers know inside and out. Chris and Elise offered lots of suggestions to get to know our characters better. Here’s a really effective one for me:

  1. Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
  2. The two columns are those perceptions that are true or accurate and those that are false. This provides insight into your character’s psyche – what they hide from others and what they hide from themselves.
TRUE/ACCURATE FALSE/INACCURATE
HOW BOB SEES SELF Hilarious

Fun-loving

Always positive

Never afraid

HOW OTHERS SEE BOB Cute but annoying

Makes light of tough situations

Attention-seeking

Over-the-top

Journal as your character. Get at their innermost thoughts, motivations and goals.Other ways of getting in touch with your characters include:

  • Fill out a questionnaire or survey as one of your characters. How do they answer differently than you or another character would?
  • Write about a character’s perfect day. What makes him or her happy?
  • Create a character profile with details like hair colour, favourite movie and best friend. The more details the better.
  • Write a letter to yourself from a character about what you are getting right and wrong about him or her in your manuscript.

Stretch some more!

I learned how writing prompts helped uncover details about our characters and plots. I thought it would be limiting because I’d have to go in a particular direction rather than letting my creativity flow.

I was amazed. Forced to explore areas I might otherwise have ignored, I answered questions not directly related to my story but essential to understanding it. Simple questions like, “What does this character want?” or “Why do I love this story?” gave me a great start.

ReVision to move forward

Editing can be as radical as starting from scratch and rewriting a scene entirely from memory. You’ll likely retain your favourite parts while stumbling onto some new descriptions, dialogue and directions at the same time. With track changes in your word processor, it’s easy to compare the two versions, choosing the best sections to keep.

Or be more conservative and only delete what isn’t completely necessary. Decide what, if any, details need to go back in and what the reader never needed in the first place.

One of my favourite suggestions was when Chris told me to rewrite a section of my manuscript in first person point of view. The purpose was not to rewrite my entire manuscript, (although that is exactly what I will do), but to get me deeper into my main character’s head.

I couldn’t believe the difference it made. No longer hovering over my story, now saw it through my protagonist’s eyes. Changing point of view, or even tense (from past to present, for example), allows you to approach your narrative from a different angle and that can be all you need.

No more excuses

With so many available options, I no longer have any reason to be stuck. Or to use the phrase “writer’s block”. If you’re feeling stuck with a writing project, consider trying some of these suggestions.

Remember to take advantage of workshops and retreats to help propel you forward. My experience at Highlights sure made a difference for me.

Did You Know

Are you stuck? Writescape retreats offer the perfect space to stretch your writing skills, re-imagine your work in new and exciting ways and the safety you need for full-throated expression. Spring Thaw is already half full of eager and focused writers like you, ready to give focus to their work.

Join us for an all-inclusive escape on the shores of Rice Lake. Elmhirst’s Resort boasts cozy fully equipped cottages with fireplaces, private bedrooms and gorgeous sunrise lake views. All you need is your jammies, toothbrush and writing materials; writers at all levels are welcome. Choose either a 3-day or 5-day retreat. April 20-24.

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