Posts Tagged ‘editing’

When to start your story


2010
05.30

You’ve probably heard lots of rules about when to start your story. Some of these include, “start at the moment of change,” “never use a prologue,” “never start with a dream,” “start late, end early,” etc.

So when should you start? First and foremost, let’s consider what NEEDS to happen before the end of the first chapter (in my opinion).

Set the Scene – The setting will show where and when, and include some vital details about your world that must be conveyed to the reader. The consequences of not setting the scene properly are severe. You reader could mistake the world for 1800’s China when you mean to write about 3200 England, and when they see a laser gun come into play, you’ve lost them.

Introduce the Main Character – When you reader engages the first chapter, they are subconsciously giving you, the author, a free pass. “Yes, Mr. Author. I will go out on a limb and try my best to become attached to your world, and more importantly, your main character. I will learn what they are like, and I will empathize with them,” they think. They will want to be attached to the main character (and in most POV’s, the narrator). Consequences of NOT introducing the main character are also harsh. Your reader will get all set to read a story about a elderly werewolf getting long-in-the-tooth (sorry, couldn’t stop myself!), then the next chapter, feel totally ripped off when they find out the story is about his great grandson instead.

Set the Tone, Voice and Pacing – Is this an action book, jumping from explosion to fight scene? Or is this a love story, windy and laced with emotion. Perhaps it is a story about internal conflict, where we struggle slowly with the main character as they grow through things like addiction. Also, how does the book “sound” in the readers head? Is the narrative matter-of-fact, or witty and spry? If you setup for something that you don’t deliver in the following chapters, your book will be dropped to the floor.

Hook the Reader – By the end of the very first chapter, your reader MUST be hooked. If they are not hooked, they have no reason to keep reading. How do you hook them? Usually by introducing the main conflict, or having something unanswered that the reader can’t wait to find out. I can write a whole post on how to hook, but for this post, just know it is necessary by the end of first chapter.

Show the Moment of Change – The moment of change in the single action or event that starts THIS story. Now, you can justify ANY moment of your characters life as the “changing point,” but you must really look at JUST THIS STORY. It is easy to say, “Well, if he didn’t apply for this job, the story would have never started.” Or, “If he didn’t meet that girl, he would have never applied for that job,” or, “If he didn’t go to that college, he would have never met that girl,” etc, etc, etc. The fact of that matter is that every single event leads to the next one, so these are poor excuses. What you need to do is find the moment in which the characters life is altered from THEIR daily routine; The moment in which they START the journey that leads to the climax. The moment in which the character starts to chase after his one main goal for the story (whether he knows that is what he is doing or not) is where the story begins.

So, you must set the scene, introduce the main character, set the voice, tone and pacing, hook the reader, and show the moment of change. How are you going to do all this? By timing it perfectly. If you start too soon, you won’t have time to show that first moment of change, and probably won’t hook the reader. You also run dangerously close to infodumping, and even if you can avoid it, you will find you are telling a story that is not imperative to your plot. If you start too late, you will have a difficult time weaving in the settings, the characters personality, and the tone and voice, as the action or tension will take over the chapter.

You are tasked with starting the book at the perfect spot.

About half of a chapter BEFORE the moment of change seems to be a pretty solid rule. You give yourself a little time to set the world and introduce the character so the reader can get a picture of who he is and what his daily life is like. The moment of change also will have more meaning to the reader when you know what is changing in the first place.

The second half of the chapter can start on the journey, all the while giving your reader questions that they are dying to find answers to. This will both hook them and set the tone, voice and pacing.

I find there is not perfect formula. There is no one-size-fits-all, and there is not hard fast rule, rather a set of guide lines, but the previous seems to work most of the time.

I WILL say this, though.

If you have a prologue, it had DARN better be important to the story. SO important, that if it was removed, your audience would be confused. If you don’t introduce your main character in the first chapter, you had also better have a DARN good reason. Your reader WILL be jarred when the next chapter is about someone else, and you risk loosing them. Ask yourself, “is it worth the risk?” In the same vain, you had better have a DARN good reason to show the first chapter from a different POV from the rest of the book… same reasoning as leaving out the main character.

So, dear readers, be very cautious about your beginning. It’s true that every part of your manuscript is important, but the beginning is when you will either earn (and I MEAN earn) your reader, or you will lose them. You must consider every word, every sentence, every paragraph, and every scene. If it is not building the character, starting the plot, setting the scene, or hooking your reader (and really, everything should be doing MORE than one of those at a time), then you need to scratch it.

Your reader is promising you a certain amount of attention. It is up to you to ask them for more. Every word you write is costing you a portion of that “promised time,” so be sure what you “must” keep in is worth the price you are paying… valuable moments of attention that will either earn, or lose, your readers time.

Lexiconicide: Adverbs


2010
05.24

I think I am going to start a new semi-regular topic on lexiconicide, the mass murder of various items from the English lexicon. Yes, it’s a made up word. Yes, there is probably a better word, or one that already exists that means the same thing, but I like this one!

To kick things off, let’s take a gander at the much hated, overused, abused, enabling, etc etc etc… adverb.

Lately, (ha! adverb!) adverbs have been getting kicked around like a Lego that a dad steps on, only to be sworn at and tossed in the trash. Why the bad wrap? Why is it that so many agents say that adverbs are evil? Are they really even saying this, or is it some crazy conspiracy?

Yes and no.

What they are saying, is “ly” adverbs (mostly) are a common sign of weak writing. Typically, (ha! another one!) a stronger verb can be used instead of an “ly” adverb + verb combo. So, to make things easy, they say, “No ‘ly’ adverbs.” Some say never, while others will give you some sort of ratio of what is acceptable.

I think it’s a another case of, “Right problem, wrong fix.”

Want to know my take on the matter? Of course you do, or you wouldn’t be reading this (unless you are my friends and family, in which case, the $5 is in the mail… thanks for following 😉 )

Here is a cleaned up version of something I posted in Nathan Bransford’s forum on this topic.

The rule, “never use adverbs,” or, “only use adverbs that don’t end in ‘ly’,” or all of the other variations out there, was originally intended to make writers throw away week modifiers in place of better verbs. All too often, writers will choose a modifier+verb instead of the proper verb. Example:

“He spoke quietly.”

vs.

“He whispered.” < there are, of course, several different possibilities.

Unfortunately, I think the rule has grown into a monster who feeds on the flesh of new writers. Trained and coddled by unsuspecting lobbyists for the anti-adverb movement, the rule has lost its intention. Instead of helping/forcing writers to use stronger verbs (hence, tighter prose), the rule has been blindly used to abolish the poor little adverb from any manuscript in town.

I suggest that the adverb should only be slaughtered from your sentence if:

1) A stronger verb can be found to replace the adverb+verb combo… the new word must be common enough that your target audience doesn’t need a dictionary

2) The adverb is redundant. IE: “He whispered quietly.”

3) The adverb is replacing emotion that should be shown instead of told. IE: “He laughed happily.” Look here to see what I mean by showing vs. telling

4) The adverb is but one in a series (bad bad bad bad !). IE: “He quickly and quietly jumped over the log.”

5) Removing the adverb doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence at all

6) Most importantly, replacing the adverb with other words to convey the same meaning doesn’t change your voice, flow or rhythm.
On the contrary, if the only way to remove the adverb is to replace it with a million dollar scrabble word, or if removing it would change the meaning and there is no clean way of showing the same thing, while retaining your voice, flow and cadence/rhythm, then leave the little fellow in there. Let him shine, and do his job. After all, adverbs are part of the language, too.

So what say you, dear reader? I’d like to know both your personal feelings on the matter, AND if you’ve heard an agent or editor comment on the matter, what they had to say about it.

Show vs Tell! Woo hoo!


2010
04.21

Showing versus telling has been the issue of the week. I have been going back and forth in a healthy debate between two friends and writers, Ryan Wilson and Toff (check out Ryan’s post to catch up on the details).

I am going to hash out what I think telling is, and you, the reader, may watch, laugh, make fun, and eventually, agree.  🙂

See, most often show vs. tell is applied to either action or emotion. Rarely is it brought up for description. Why? Why should description get off so easy? Dialog and monologue get a free ride, because the character is actually thinking or speaking the exact text that is written, so it is out of the picture all together. Description, however, should not get away free and clear.

Look at the following example:

“He was tall.”

vs.

“He ducked through the doorway as he entered the room.”

Most would say the first is not telling. Why? Because it is description (in Ryan’s case, it is telling because it is ambiguous). I say it is telling, because the narrator is just telling the reader a fact. To show, is to have action (a point that Toff will kill me later for saying). If there is not action — even invisible action (say, blood pumping) — then you are not watching (which I would assume if you are “showing,” then I need to be “watching”).

If you just tell me, I didn’t see anything.

Let’s look at another example:

“She has blonde hair.”

vs.

“She pulled her blonde hair behind one ear and continued to study.”

In the first sentence, nothing “happens,” so there is nothing to watch (hence, nothing is being shown). In the second sentence, there is something to watch, so we are being shown.

Lastly, a more difficult example:

“I tripped over a man. He was bloody from head to toe.”

vs.

“I tripped over a man who was bloody from head to toe.”

While iffy, the second is not telling. Here’s why.

“I                    kicked         a man.              He                     was                       bloody from head to toe.”

Subject     predicate      object.            Subject      (linking verb)       prepositional phrase (as an adverb)

“I                    kicked        a man      who was bloody from head to toe.”

Subject     predicate      object      prepositional phrase (as an adverb)

In the second sentence, there is action covering the whole sentence. Big difference. That brings me to my first rule of telling: a sentence that has a linking verb, with no other verbs, is telling.

I realize that my English skills are… questionable. If anything here is incorrect (as far as how I broke apart the sentence), please let me know. Additionally, I would love to hear your opinion on the matter. Post up and let’s see what happens!

*P.S. I am quite aware that my opinion is just that, and as I learn, I may decide that this is completely bogus, and my friends are correct.

That versus Who


2010
03.18

I was IM’ing with a buddy of mine today when he asked me to proof read a blog post before he published it. I obliged, and found practically no errors (not a surprise, the man is a genius).

Anyway, later in he day, he teased me about missing several instances of the word “that” when it should have been “who.” Example:

“I know a guy that once at a McDonlad’s Cheeseburger in one bite.”

versus

“I know a guy who once at a McDonlad’s Cheeseburger in one bite.”

This sparked a little debate between us. Oh, don’t worry; it was a fun debate… we have them all the time (in fact, we have practically started a list of debates that we can pull from whenever bored). You see, I am not a believer. I don’t think that using “who” when the object is a person is a must.

His point was that there are several (probably in the thousands) of websites that prove that point. Go ahead, google it. To his credit, it is the popular consensus. I, however, do not always believe the popular consensus. This is the perfect example.

I think that you can use either. “That” has been used in literature, instead of “who,” for YEARS. In fact, Websters Dictionary AND American Heritage Dictionary BOTH openly reject the idea that you must use “who” when the object is a person. I found a handful of other websites to back up my point as well, and that brings me to the real point of this little post…

If it isn’t a 100%, undisputed, without a doubt grammar rule, don’t try to nitpick it. Why? Because someone like me, who debates just for the sake of it, will find a legitimate source (like a dictionary) to prove you wrong. Ha!

Now, while I discourage you from nitpicking grammar when there is no “absolute,” I will NEVER discourage you from sharing your opinion with other writers. Just make sure that you disclose it as your “opinion.”

Official Disclaimer: I only took the side of “that” because it was a fun debate. I do think you can do it either way, but I don’t think those who believe that you have to use “who” are unintelligent. I hold no grudges toward those THAT (lol) choose to use “who” instead of “that”. And, for the record, Ryan (the person I debated with) may use it however he wants, and I will still think he is an excellent writer. 🙂

Revising is suprising


2010
02.07

I started revising my main project a few days ago in preparation for the conference I will be volunteering at. Chances are NO ONE will want to see my work. If they do, though, I don’t want to show them something totally rough. While this is a fat cry from possible, better safe than sorry.

I’m surprised to find out how difficult revising can be. See, normally I write a few paragraphs, then revise them. Then I move on, leaving me with a better starting point. Usually, I have to look for showing vs telling, homonyms, and any MAJOR plot/character issues. This last project was started that way, but I kinda flew past the last several chapters.

Now, I am left to get my head back where it was, read, then revise. I often catch myself either getting lost in the read (forgetting I am supposed to be revising), or jumping around, forgetting where I am in the story (hence, putting in something chronologically incorrect).

It’s all part of the process, I suppose. I Definitely like the first stage of writing over the others, though.

Online Writing Groups


2010
01.23

So as a follow up post, I thought I would talk briefly about online writing groups. For some, there are no local groups they can attend. For others, like me, they want as much input/feedback as possible. Kind of like Johnny Five from Short Circuit, “Input! More Input!”

Anyway, there are several great online critique groups available. The three I frequent are:

Sribophile – A very professional approach to online critiquing. Most of the people there seem to know what they are talking about, and the owner, Alex, is on top of things. The free version works just fine, but has some limitations. For a small monthly fee, you can unlock those limitation, and get more feedback on more works, faster.

Absoulte Write – This site is the big kid on the block. They have TONS of forums and TONS of users. Several published authors, agents, editors, and publishers spend time there. The readers/critiquers can be a bit harsh, but they are usually right.

Review Fuse – Similar to Scribophile, but not quite as polished in my opinion. Great community, though, and another great resources to have your work torn to shreds.

Keep in mind, though, that the people on the sites (for the most part) are unpublished writers, and are simply offering their opinion… no matter how passionate they “offer” it.  I suggest using my method of reading feedback. If I agree with it, use it. If I don’t agree with it, toss it. The only exception is when you see a lot of the same comments. If eight out of ten say that your dialog needs reworking, chances are there is some validity there.

So go out and post your work! If you have nothing to post, make some flash fiction (REALLY short fiction, like 100-1000 words) and post it, just to see what you get back!

Writing Groups


2010
01.20

Tonight, while sitting in my writers group, I got to thinking about how lucky I am. The group of people involved are ALL so very talented, that I would have to be a complete moron NOT to learn something awesome.

Mark my words. If I ever become a well known author, it will be because I joined a writers group.

Which leads me to my next point: should you, or should you not join a group? The answer is (as if you couldn’t figure it out by now)… YES.

There is a trick, though. You have to find a good one. Here are some things to look for while looking for a good group:

1) Size. If thee group is HUGE, you will probably never get your work critiqued. Not to say that there isn’t a benefit from editing and reading others work, but you will never know what YOU are doing wrong (or right) until you get good feedback.

2) Genre. While you can be loose with this one, I think it’s easier to be in a group that writes (or at least a few write) in the same genre as you do. That way, you all are on the same page with the expectations of that genre.

3) Review style. I have been to a group where everyone reads their piece aloud. While I am thankful that they let me through the doors, I don’t understand how you can REALLY critique someone’s writing when they are READING it. It is easy to miss things (and impossible to catch others, like typos, etc.) when you aren’t actually reading it. Plus, the speaker/author can put inflection in his voice that might not be in the text, distorting what a reader might catch.

You really should find a group where people actually share the work ahead of time, then give time to read and edit before the meeting. This, I find, provides the most benefit.

4) Competency. While newbies should definitely stick together and help each other out, there needs to be at least some (although, the more the better) veteran writers. That doesn’t mean published exactly, just experienced. Otherwise, it’s the blind leading the blind.

5) Frequency. The more often the better! Now this, of course, will vary on your own schedule, but once a month isn’t going to cut it. At least 3 times a month, and that’s a minimum.

So, what to do now that you have found your group? Jump in head first. Start critiquing right away. I don’t care if your new and have never written before. All that means as that you are providing the opinion of the average reader… which is GREAT!

As soon as you feel comfortable (or sooner if you tend to be shy), submit something. Anything. Spend some time on it, but this will be your signpost for where you are as a writer… kind of like in school when they test you at the beginning of the year to see where everyone is. You NEED to know where you stand, so you can see where to climb to.

I am currently a member of the Fresno Sci Fi and Fantasy Writers Group, or FSFW. We are currently working on a new site, which I will post as soon as it is up. If you are lucky enough to find a group as good as the one I am in, then do whatever you can to join. Your writing will improve ten fold.