Alexis wrote on December 2nd, I love writing, but I usually just write with very little in mind, typing whatever comes to me and it ends up this elongated mess with no clear plot and I haven’t the slightest idea on how to do so without constantly worrying about it. When I deliberately set out to make a plot, I think of that chart I get in middle school, where I had to define the rising action and the climax and the falling action and so on. This just seems to take all the fun and creativity out of writing for me, but I know I just can’t write blindly. Can you please help me?
Not all stories have a crisis. Some books are a chronicle, held together by the charm of the characters or the fascination of the subject. Joan Abelove’s Go and Come Back is narrated by a girl in a Peruvian tribe that is visited by two American anthropologists. The story begins with the arrival of the anthropologists and ends a year later with their departure. Many things happen during their stay. One of the anthropologists gets very sick, for example, but her illness isn’t the story’s crisis, because there is no crisis, and yet the book is engaging and hard to put down. I recommend it highly, one of my favorites, and an example of how this kind of story can succeed. For middle school kids and older.
I think I’ve written before that a book or a story can be structured around an event, like summer camp or a wilderness adventure. In such a story, this happens, that happens; maybe there’s a crisis, maybe not. But there’s an accretion of experience. The main character comes away changed, and the reader is satisfied.
Some books are short stories strung together by common characters. Some of the stories may follow a rising-action-crisis-falling-action format and some may not. The reader gets attached to the characters and wants to see them in new situations, wants minor characters in one story to star in another. This works too.
My books are plot driven more than character driven, but that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel like I’m lost in a maze. A while back, in misguided desperation, I bought two books on plot, thinking I might discover a template that would guide me through all my stories. One of the books has this subtitle: “How to build short stories and novels that don’t sag, fizzle, or trail off in scraps of frustrated revision–and how to rescue stories that do.”
Nobody can instruct you so that you – or I – can’t fail. Nobody can do the work for you. I don’t remember this as a bad book. It just promised much too much. We all have to hack our own way through the thicket of plot. We learn by practice.
Now here’s a writing book I definitely do like: What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. I’m not sure about it for kids below high school age. Have a parent or a librarian advise you. What If? has a few chapters on plot and some interesting exercises.
One of its ideas is that plot arises out of character and situation. For example, in “The Little Engine That Could” the little engine faces a huge hill and a string of train cars that have to reach their destination. In the classic, the engine is plucky, determined, and all heart. But what if the engine’s favorite conductor just lost her job, and the engine is ticked off? Or what if it’s winter, and the engine is depressed due to Seasonal Affective Disorder? Where does the plot go? Can you get it back on track (pun intended)? Do you bring in other characters?
Even if you’re a rambling kind of writer, a bit of tension is necessary, whether or not your story comes to a crisis. Think about what interested you originally. What was the spark? Suppose you began with two friends going shopping together, and you wanted to show what they’re like by the way they shop, because you’ve observed yourself shopping and your friends and your family. Or suppose they’re just out for a walk… Or suppose they’re in a field, and they’re both bored. All they’re doing is watching grass grow.
You don’t have to make the earth crack open, revealing a golden stairway to the realm of a lost civilization, for your story to take off. You can put it in flight with the tiniest thing. You can just have one character ask the other, “What are you thinking?” and begin major conflict. After all, how many times have you had thoughts that you do not want to share?
If you feel your story degrading into mush, examine what you’ve got. This means going back into the narrative. Hunt for spots where you can make trouble. You don’t need a grand plan. Just look inside what you’ve written. Twist something small. Drop in a tiny new detail. Make a character angry or unhappy or lonely. Anger can work particularly well because it’s lively. Create a problem in which action is forced on one of your characters. Bring in a new character who will shake things up. You can write notes to explore the possibilities. If you get stuck, go back to your old story for more bits you can use.
Here are two prompts from this post:
Rewrite the story of “The Little Engine That Could.” Make it more complex by changing the engine’s character or its situation.
Have one character ask another about his or her thoughts. Create some kind of disaster – interpersonal or global or intergalactic – as a consequence.
Save what you write and have fun!
Several weeks ago Asma asked a question related to the length of a piece of writing. She suggested (Asma, please correct me if I got this wrong) that long is daunting. I posted a comment advising her not to worry about length. Good short is as good as good long.
Since then I’ve been thinking about length. Before I’d had anything published, in the mid-1990s when I was working on Ella Enchanted, I was told by my mentor at a conference that my book had better be under two hundred pages, and Ella was longer than that. Maybe that was the rule at the time, but nowadays very long books seem to be fine. Publishers buy them, and they make their way into readers hearts.
The shortest novel for kids that I know of is Sarah Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, which is sixty-four pages short and won a Newbery award. Of course there is debate about whether it’s a novel or a novella, and I don’t know the answer. I’d guess that you usually need at least 125 pages for a book to be without a doubt a novel.
There is one law about length: Do not pad.
With one exception. If you have a school assignment, like a paper that has to be ten pages long or you will flunk and won’t be able to get into college and will be doomed to a life of drudgery and penury (look it up, kids), and if you do your best, but when you get to page nine-and-a-half, you have exhausted everything you have learned about the subject, then you have my blessing to pad, to string adjectives together and pile on the adverbs, to make your handwriting wide and rounded or to find a font, like this one, that takes up a lot of space. But aside from such an extreme situation, don’t. If your book turns out to be a novella rather than a novel or your short story is super short and yet unfolds fully, celebrate and forget about length.
A truism is that a book (or a story) should be as long as it takes, long enough to tell the tale, and no more. This is less than helpful. “Cinderella,” for example, told as a classic fairy tale, takes up only a few pages. Her story – and most stories – can be summarized in several sentences. Yet I wrote it as a novel, and I found out recently that two more novelized versions have just come out.
When I’m in the midst of writing, I never know how long a book is going to be. More than once I’ve thought I had a trilogy going, and sometimes I’ve worried that my story wasn’t complex enough for a whole book. I even fret that a blog post won’t be long enough to be satisfying.
Satisfaction is the key to length. Your main character shouldn’t solve each of her problems too quickly or your reader will be disappointed. On the other hand, if she tries again and again, and her attempts are similar, the reader may become as frustrated as she is. For instance, I based Cinderellis and the Glass Hill on a fairy tale called “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” The hero of the story has to ride a horse to the top of – you guessed it – a glass hill in order to win the princess. Conveniently, he has tamed three marvelous horses, each of which arrived with a full suit of armor, copper armor, silver, and gold. The horses with the copper armor and silver armor are able to climb partway but fail to make it to the top, but the horse with golden armor pulls off the feat. The reader roots for the hero at each attempt, but doesn’t really want him to make it on the first two tries, because the excitement would be over too soon. Success on the third effort is just right. If there were seventeen horses and seventeen attempts, we would want to take a hammer to the hill.
Three is often a pleasing number, so much so that it’s called “the rule of three.” Cinderella goes to the ball three times. The evil stepmother visits Snow White in the forest three times. The queen guesses Rumpelstiltskin’s name three times.
But, despite the rule, to always create three attempts is formulaic. Sometimes your hero should succeed on his first shot and sometimes on the fifth, and sometimes not at all, at least for the time being. Variety adds richness and interest – and length.
In the upcoming third book about the fairies of Neverland, Gwendolyn, the human character, is searching for the fairies, who are hiding from her. She finds the spot where she thinks they live and speaks to them, but they don’t show themselves. She reveals the gifts she’s brought, which also fails to call them forth, so she looks for a dove who would know where they are, but the dove is hiding too. After wandering to other possible places, she sleeps pathetically alone in the forest. When she wakes up, she returns to the original location, gets angry, and throws a mermaid’s lute. This act brings out a fairy. I count five attempts, the right number in this case.
Later in the story Gwendolyn asks Peter Pan for advice to help her help the fairies. She does this once, and it’s enough.
Prompt: It’s early in your story. Your main character has to find the magic cell phone that will let him start his quest. If you don’t like fantasy, it’s a real cell phone, which he needs so he can reach someone who will give him a clue. The phone is hidden in a public garden. Write his attempts to find the cell phone. Vary the way he tries. Who helps him? Who gets in the way? If you like, turn the exercise into a story. Don’t worry about length. Have fun, and save what you write.
On December 2nd April posted this comment: What’s your opinion on placing an emphasis on dialect? For example, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
What about the words accompanying dialogue? Some people are sticklers for only using “said,” even with questions (instead of “asked”). Others use quite a variety of words to give more… shall we say, “expression” to the dialogue. And I know some don’t care either way, so long as the word isn’t an adverb/ends in “ly.” What say you?
I love Twain, and I adore The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But Twain, even though his voice is often modern, wrote in a different era. Different conventions applied. I don’t know if anyone today would name a character after a berry, either. Maybe, but the writer would have to have an important reason for doing so.
A writer would also have to have a powerful reason for using dialect, more powerful than simply establishing a regional feeling. Even if you get the dialect exactly right, which is hard, readers are likely to think you didn’t. Speech rings differently for each of us.
You can describe a dialect in narration, and then the reader will know it’s there. If I were introducing a certain species of New York accent (I’m a New Yorker), I might talk about the tortured r and the distorted long i and the attachment of a final g to the next word when that word starts with a vowel, as in Long Gisland. I might even give a sample as I just did and then return to standard English.
Choice of expression also can portray a region. You all is southern and only southern in my experience. Maybe these aren’t New York-isms, but it seems to me I hear Right? and Am I crazy? a lot here. My late friend from Minnesota used to say oofta! frequently. Pay attention to local phrases and use them, but don’t overdo or you’ll shift into parody – unless you have parody in mind.
There are more tools to situate our characters, because locales often live up to type. My books have taken me all over the country. On the streets of San Francisco and nowhere else I have overheard conversations about spirit channeling and fruit fasting. If I’m traveling for a publisher, I’m assigned local media escorts, who take me to schools and bookstores. In LA my escort one time was a starlet, and a car service driver had written a screenplay. When I sign books in southern states the children seem to have three-syllable and hyphenated first names more often than anywhere else. You can use details like these to establish place.
But again, be careful and specific, and use a light touch. We don’t want to alienate readers who actually come from these places. It’s fun – and safe – to adapt these techniques to fantasy, to invent regional characteristics for a fictional world. Make up your own, though. Don’t have your Quachappians saying oofta!
I talk about said and other speech verbs in Writing Magic. I like said because it fades into the background, as does asked. I’m not sure I approve of myself for this, but I use cried a lot. Cried suggests emotional intensity better than yelled, which, to me, is just about volume. I’m fine with speech verbs that convey information, like yelled, shouted, whispered, because I can’t tell a character is doing any of those things unless I’m told. Whispered can be used in a scene where quiet is called for. The word needn’t be repeated, because the reader will assume from then on that everybody is whispering unless told otherwise.
I’m opposed to questioned, exclaimed, snarled, blubbered – because they draw attention to themselves and away from the actual speech. I use blurted sometimes, so I guess I don’t mind it, although if you can convey blurting without actually writing the word, so much the better. I just looked at my latest manuscript and found continued, burst out, called, even squeaked, which I think is okay because the character’s throat was closing on her.
My favorite writing teacher insisted that speech verbs have to involve speech, so it’s wrong to write, She laughed, “That’s funny.” because you can’t laugh words. It should be, She laughed. “That’s funny.” or some other way of putting it. Notice the period rather than the comma after laughed.
About adverbs describing speech, like “That’s awful,” he said emphatically. – I’m sure I’m sometimes guilty of them, and sometimes you need them, but as infrequently as possible.
It’s great not to need speech verbs at all. One way to eliminate them is to break speech up with action like this: “I’m scared.” Sally twisted the ends of her scarf. “Did we step into a horror movie?”
We know Sally is the one talking if she has the paragraph to herself, which is a good way to avoid confusion. Action also lets the reader see what’s going on. It can shed light on a character, too, or heighten tension.
Here’s a prompt: A deli sandwich maker, a retired dress saleswoman, a stay-at-home dad, a college student, a lawyer, and a physical therapist are on a train that gets delayed. One of these characters (or any others you choose) starts a conversation, and the rest join in. Some may speak on cell phones as well. Write down what they say. You may want to try the conversation/debate/argument, whatever it turns into, a few different ways, experimenting with speech verbs, action, and placing the characters regionally. Have fun, and save all the versions.
Erin Edwards asked me to expand on this from my post about revising: “Am I leading the reader along properly so that what happens is neither predictable nor too far fetched to believe?” Erin added, “I think this takes real skill and is ultimately what makes a book satisfying.”
Predictability happens to be timely for me right now. I just (ten minutes ago) emailed my mystery novel to my editor, who hasn’t seen a word of it. So I’m wondering if my villain is going to be instantly obvious.
Of course I want his or her identity to be a surprise, but I’m willing to put up with other writers’ predictability in some cases. I’m a great fan of the Adrian Monk TV series, for example, although sometimes I can spot the villain as soon as I lay eyes on him, before the plot has even been laid out. I’m okay with that because I’m there for the laughs and the poignancy of Monk’s sad life.
Readers of my fiction come to it expecting an ending that won’t leave them feeling hopeless. I may write a really sad book one day, and if I do, some people will be disappointed and even angry at me. We go to some books, especially series books, craving predictability. We want to enjoy again what pleased us before. There’s some of that pleasure in rereading books we love.
For tellers of old tales, like me, the story’s ending is known; what’s unknown is how the ending is achieved.
Total unpredictability may be randomness or experimental literature, not my thing but maybe yours. I’ve read that there are just a handful of fundamental plot lines, which writers recycle endlessly, dressing them up in exotic new costumes. I agree.
Having admitted this, there’s still predictability that’s too predictable for my taste, especially sentimental predictability: ghosts who can’t go to their final reward unless some romantic problem is resolved; children who are given up as uneducable until a young idealistic teacher comes along; a super-intelligent life form bent on wiping out humankind because of our base nature. And so on.
A few years ago I read a YA (young adult) book by an author I admire. I liked the book, but I saw the story’s major revelation coming from miles away, and I didn’t like that. I complained to a friend, who loved the book. She said young readers wouldn’t guess the truth, because they wouldn’t have encountered this plot twist before. Maybe she was right, but I didn’t agree. If we’re setting up a shock for the reader, we should aim it at everyone.
How to work within the inevitability of predictability and create the unexpected? Here are some ideas:
Drop in a clue that excites expectation and then go another way. I managed to do this in a scene in The Two Princesses of Bamarre. There are monsters in the kingdom of Bamarre, specters among them. Specters, in my conception of them, can assume any shape and even create fake landscapes. My heroine Addie is on a quest for the cure to the Gray Death. She’s been befriended by Rhys, a sorcerer in training. At this point in the story Rhys is away at a fantasy version of a training program. He’s promised to come to Addie when he gets a break, so when a specter shows up in Rhys’s form, the reader doesn’t catch on. Then I have the real Rhys arrive too and I hope I fool the reader into not knowing which is which. This legerdemain (look it up, kids) is one of my favorite bits of my writing in any of my books.
Surprise yourself. If you outline, be loose as you lay out the story. If you just write without an outline, hack away in semi-darkness. If you know your destination, don’t take the freeway. Explore the back roads. Visit landmarks that are off the beaten track. Ask yourself as you write, Is there another way to get where I’m going?
When you finish your first draft, and if you’re worried about predictability, take a look at how you figured out your plot. Can you scramble some of the steps that led to the ending?
Ask your characters what they want to do in a situation. You can interview them in writing. Ask them to consider their options.
Make lists. I love lists. When you’re at a plot juncture, make a list of what could come next. Don’t close down the list when you come to the first thing that will work. Twelve possibilities is a nice number, and eight of them can be stupid. Let the stupid ones have their moment. Elaborate on the ones that appeal to you, without deciding. A good possibility can generate more lists. Let them roll out.
Stay away from easy morals, and don’t highlight them. Let the reader draw his own conclusions. Some may object to moral ambiguity, especially for children, but grays make a story more complex and less ordinary.
If you’re in a critique group, ask your writer buddies if your story is predictable. Or show your story to someone you trust. Do not describe the plot and ask if it’s predictable. That question cannot be answered apart from the writing. The story may sound unoriginal and still be full of surprises.
Life itself is both predictable and unpredictable. Giant panda bears are unlikely to march into your bedroom tomorrow morning, but you could get an unexpected insult or an unexpected compliment; disaster could befall you or delight. So here is the difference between fiction and life, which has troubled philosophers through the millennia: In fiction, giant panda bears can crop up anywhere.
Before I get to Hope M’s posted comment about dialogue, I want to mention what I heard on the radio recently in an interview with Madeleine Albright. I’m always on the alert – when I remember – for verbal tics, the phrases people repeat unawares that give a clue to their souls. Madeleine Albright had a telling one. Often, she began an anecdote by saying, “I have to tell you.” This from a former Secretary of State! How many times did she really have to tell a head of state something, and how many times was she unable to say what she wanted to? So, to psychoanalyze her without a license, this oddly candid expression migrated into her ordinary speech.
It’s marvelous when we can find such a revealing conversational tic for a character.
Here’s Hope M’s topic request: I would like to hear what you have to say about dialogue. Although it comes easily to others it most definitely does not come easily to me! It usually ends up going along the lines of he said…she said…he said and so on…droning on and on until I get bored and delete it all.
I’m not sure this is a dialogue problem. The problem may be telling a story entirely in action or in just action and thoughts so that dialogue becomes inessential.
For example, two friends are getting dressed together for a party. One of them, Merry, wants to look particularly great because she’s been teased at school for her lack of style. She tries on one thing after another and is convinced everything looks awful. Her friend, Lara, on the other hand, isn’t thinking about anything except the argument she just had with her father. Lara puts on whatever and sits on the bed, staring into space. The reader, since this is told from a third-person POV, has witnessed both the teasing and the argument with the father and is waiting to see what happens at the party. The conversation that goes on between the friends is polite and inconsequential, because each one has her mind on something else.
That’s okay. In this instance you might keep the dialogue minimal. Or you could go the other way. Merry could ask Lara’s opinion about one outfit after another. Lara could be a polite, supportive friend until she snaps. She says something mean, like, “You’re so insecure it’s ridiculous.” Merry answers with, “You’re so selfish it’s incredible.” They start to get into it just when Merry’s mom knocks on the bedroom door and says it’s time to leave. The argument is unresolved. Both girls have to go to the party bearing the weight of it, and the reader has another reason to worry.
Dialogue that’s working for the story is unlikely to bore you or anyone.
When introducing a character I want to make an impression, often even with minor characters who may have only a few lines. Dialogue, action, physical description, and, depending on POV, thoughts are the major tools for introducing a character. When you’re presenting him for the first time, think about what he can say and what the reader will get from it. For example, in Fairest the Snow White character, Aza, has two brothers who don’t come into the story much, but I wanted to distinguish them, so I made the older brother Yarry blunt. He says whatever he thinks with no tactful coating. If everybody is tiptoeing around a subject, Yarry goes straight at it. He’s the first to say that Aza is ugly. Obviously, he says this in words, dialogue.
Dialogue can move the plot along. In Fairest again, Aza discovers that she’s going to the royal wedding. The revelation comes through dialogue while she’s helping a duchess dress:
“Have you grown taller? I believe you’ve surpassed Ethele.”
“Your skirt next, Your Grace?”
She looked at me appraisingly. “Ethele’s gowns would fit you.”
Occasionally guests gave cast-off clothing to Mother. Dame Ethele’s gowns were clownish. I demurred. “Thank you, but–”
“Not to keep! To wear to the wedding.”
The most economical way to advance plot is by telling, which can distance the reader. But dialogue is economical too. I convey the information about the wedding in just a few lines. As bonuses we see the duchess being imperious and Aza being clueless; character development is enhanced.
You can create a character who is prone to vacuous chitchat. In life, people who drone on are usually covering something. If you show the reader what your character is covering, even a motor mouth won’t be boring.
When you’re writing a scene with dialogue, think about the goals of each character. Maybe one is probing, the other concealing. Or their goals may not be related. Maybe one is probing and the other is practicing being charming. Doesn’t matter what the goals are. If the dialogue is backed up by motivation, it isn’t likely to be boring either.
Dialogue is great for emotional tension. In the party preparation scene, suppose Merry fears her friend is slipping away from her. When Lara doesn’t show the interest Merry wants, Merry becomes more and more desperate. Lara, on the other hand, still considers Merry her best friend, and wants some attention for herself, but she is absolutely lousy at asking anyone, even a best friend, for help. You may need more than dialogue to convey all this; you may need thoughts and action, too. But the dialogue can be the most powerful.
I love dialogue. When I have characters showing off their natures, I’m enjoying myself so much that I think more is better. Then I have to go back and trim, or even get out my ax. Sometimes dullness is just overload.
Here are three dialogue prompts:
Write a separation scene. Two characters are parting forever or for a long period. Each is important to the other, but not everything about their relationship has been positive.
Write a first-meeting scene in which each character has big expectations for what will result from the encounter.
Write a reunion scene in which each character is burdened by his perspective of the old relationship.
Have fun! Save what you wrote.
Two posts ago Kim asked: One question: Do you find it difficult to make everything matter in a story, if you know what I mean? It seems like there’s a lot of pressure on a writer to make everything in a story contribute to the story’s progression through plot, character, etc.
There is more to Kim’s question below, but I’ll talk about this part first. I don’t think every sentence in a story has to pay its dues toward plot or character or setting. Most should, but not all.
For example, you’re introducing a new character who is going to play a minor but noticeable role and is important enough to deserve a name and a description. When you describe him, he needs to fit the story’s environment. If you’re writing a Victorian novel, for example, you wouldn’t give him a Mohawk. Beyond that, feel free. If you want him to resemble your Uncle Bobby, go ahead.
If you’re writing something funny and your reader is laughing her head off, she won’t mind that you’ve wandered a city block from your plot.
When your story problem is established and your reader is worried for the main character, you can take a little time to embroider and have fun. Chances are, you’ll charm your reader. In Ella Enchanted, Ella’s visit with the elves isn’t strictly necessary, but she’s in so much trouble that I could get away with giving her and the reader a break – and for my own pleasure, I could imagine elf society.
We are writers not merely to slave and suffer. Occasionally, we are allowed to enjoy ourselves.
Yes, most of what you write should serve plot or character or setting or mood, and a lot of it should serve more than one. But there are acres of leeway in there. For example, in the mystery that I’m revising one of the main characters is a dragon. Aside from the Komodo dragon in Indonesia and in zoos, I suppose, there are no dragons in real life, but there are many in fiction, and I was free to make up my own. I got to decide how big it is, how hot its fire, what its wings look like, how many teeth it has, even the shape of the teeth. I won’t say what I did, but I could have gone any of dozens of ways. This is the freedom within the rigors of plot and character and so on.
I write plot-driven books, so I always have an eye on plot. I define my characters based on the role I have in mind for them. When they talk I want them to say things that will subtly move the plot along. But I also want them to sound like themselves, in the fashion that I, using my authorial free will and glee, make them sound.
You have authorial free will too.
This is the rest of Kim’s comment: How do you accomplish it all without becoming overwhelmed? Is it mostly done by conscious effort, or have you reached the point where it just happens for the most part?
It isn’t unconscious, but it is automatic by now. I’m always asking myself how a scene contributes to my plot or to developing a character, which will ultimately support my plot. But initially I write a lot that I don’t need. Especially a lot that the reader doesn’t need. Last week I mentioned moving my main character from the back of the castle battlements to the front. I’ve spent a lot of time on movement of characters through castle architecture, like who goes out what door and where the door opens into. I’m not yet sure how much of this a reader has to know, but I have to have the information. Even if most readers won’t be able to tell, I don’t want my characters going through a door that used to go outside and suddenly goes inside. Some reader will make a map and be very disappointed in me. As I keep revising I suspect I’ll wind up cutting and simplifying, but I’ll have the underpinnings correct.
No, I don’t get overwhelmed, for a few reasons. Writing comes mostly from the subconscious, and feeling overwhelmed just gets in the way. That’s one reason. Here’s another: I can always revise. If I don’t see where I’ve gone off the rails on this pass I will get it on the next, or the next, or the next, or the next, as many nexts as I want. This is the last reason: I’ve done it before and it’s worked out. The more you write, the more stories you finish, the less overwhelmable you will be.
My prompt is: Go through one of your stories and add to it. Make the story richer. See what you can put in that your ideal reader – the one who most gets you, who best loves your mind – will adore. Afterward, you can take out what is too too over the top, but let the story sit a little before you apply your knife. Have a blast. Save even the parts you ultimately decide don’t belong.
Ending with self-promotion: If you are in the New York City area on Thursday, December 3rd, I’ll be with a few other kids’ book authors and illustrators at Books of Wonder in Manhattan at 18 West 18th Street from 6:00 to 8:00 pm to celebrate Anita Silvey’s new book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book. The other authors and illustrators will be Jon Scieszka, Ann Martin, David Weisner, Wendell Minor, and of course Anita Silvey. We’ll each read from our favorites and then from one of our own books, I think, and then there’ll be time for questions, and after that we’ll sign. If you can come, I would love to meet you if we’ve never met, and to see you if we have.
Last week Maggie asked, Do you have any tips on self-editing? Like where to begin? Or a process I should follow?
Self-editing sounds a little punitive to me, like correcting mistakes, so I’m going to call it revision, which seems broader, although correcting mistakes is part of revision. But often I’m expanding or condensing or deepening what I have.
I know of only two absolute rules for revision. One: Always save your earlier versions in case you need to go back. Two: Fix the basics – spelling, usage, and grammar – before sending your work into the world of publishing. If spelling and such aren’t your thing, get help – but try to make them your thing. Neglecting them is like neglecting your teeth, in my opinion.
This post will be about revising after you’ve finished a first draft, but even while you’re writing that draft you can pave the way. Be conscious as you go along of the aspects of your story that are giving you trouble, not in a beating-on-yourself way, but as an aloof scientist who’s collecting data. You can make notes of these aspects to help you later. I put such notes above the first page of my story. When you go back you may discover that what you thought was a problem wasn’t one at all. It’s nice when that happens. But it doesn’t always, and then your notes can be the beginnings of a guide.
When you finish a story, put it aside for a few days at the very least. Oddly enough, the shorter your story, the longer you should let it sit. The idea is to forget it a little so you can come back to it fresh. By the time I finish a novel, I have only a vague memory of the beginning, so a few days’ break is plenty.
Some writers read their first draft through without touching it, just making notes. You can try this and see if you like the method. I jump in and start making changes, and I make little and big alterations as I go.
Much of revising is grunt work, like yesterday for me: I realized that I had crammed too much action into too few hours, and I had to shift time around. Mechanical, but necessary, and it took a whole day in real time.
I go through my story in order, mostly, but I bounce around, too. Something I change may call for corresponding adjustments earlier or later in the narrative, so I make them before I forget.
Revision covers every part of fiction: plot, character, setting, voice, detail. Just thinking about it is daunting. Best not to think, just do. You’re unlikely to catch everything in one run through. I revise my books even when they’re in second-pass galleys. After my editor has edited a manuscript a dozen or more times and the copy editor has had at it half a dozen times, I’m still making changes. If all my books were turned back into manuscripts, I’d definitely do some fixing. The thing is, perfection is unachievable. We do the best we can. This is worth embroidering on a pillow or taping over our desks. Perfect impossible, just the best we can.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you move through your work.
Have I caught up all the threads? You may not want to tie up everything, but you want the loose ends to be deliberate. You can leave the reader to wonder if your hero ever reconnects with Sam, his best friend three years ago, but you don’t want to drop Sam because you’ve forgotten all about him. Some threads may be quite minor. For example, in the mystery I’m revising now I came up with an ejaculation for my main character. She says, lambs and calves! – and reveals her farm roots. I need her to use the expression once in a while, not so often that the reader gets irritated, and not so rarely that the reader forgets it.
Are my characters behaving as I’ve set them up to? If there’s a change in behavior, have I explained why? If your main character’s best friend angers easily, and we’ve seen her explode when she thinks a store clerk has an attitude, then we need an explanation if she lets a direct insult slide.
Can I see what’s going on? In a scene I worked on recently, my main character was on the castle battlements and needed to see down to the drawbridge, but I’d put her at the back of the castle, so I had to move her to the right spot.
Am I leading the reader along properly so that what happens is neither predictable nor too farfetched to believe? In my mystery, I want the reader to accept that my villain could have done the heinous deeds but not to see him/her coming.
Are my characters, especially my main character, reacting? If something sad or great or frightening happens, she should show she feels it, through thoughts and physical responses and whatever else is available. In an early draft of Ella Enchanted I neglected to show Ella’s grief when her mother dies. I figured the reader would know, as in, Duh! Of course she’s sad.
Is my main character likeable? (If you want him to be.) I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been having trouble with this. I’ve noticed that I have a tendency, if a disaster befalls another character, to have my main think of the consequences for herself before she reacts with empathy, if she ever gets to the empathy stage at all. I think I do this because the consequences for her are what will move the story forward, but, alas, she comes off as a selfish pig!
Is anyone getting lost in a scene? Suppose your main character’s family is having a meal together, breakfast, dinner, late-night snack, whatever. Say you have Dad, an aunt, an older brother, and baby sister in her high chair. Say the reader knows Dad is quiet because he’s preoccupied with something and the baby doesn’t have many words yet. Older brother, main character, and aunt are having a heated discussion about, say, the best way to apologize. Two pages go by without a peep out of Dad and the baby. The reader will forget they’re there and will get a little jolt if they pipe in. If you need them in the scene, make the reader aware of them occasionally. Have the baby drop her spoon. Have Dad get up for a tea refill.
In brief, a few more questions:
Am I overusing words, repeating sentence structures, starting five paragraphs in a row with I?
Is this scene going on too long?
Have I omitted something important?
Can I give a few characters speech mannerisms that will make them recognizable whenever they open their mouths?
This is not an exhaustive list. Think of your own questions as you take up revision.
I love to revise. It’s my favorite part of writing, because getting the story down is over, and now I’m just polishing. So don’t be hard on yourself. Congratulate yourself for the achievement of finishing and have fun.
Before I move on, I’ve thought of a few more things to say about chapters: Although no editor has ever commented on the length of my chapters, I have gotten many edits on the length of scenes, usually that they’re too long. And sometimes I’ve been asked to cut a chapter entirely.
About ending a chapter with a crisis, I’ve been asked by editors sometimes to end with the crisis plus my main character’s reaction. Here’s an example:
Tammo said, “As he was breaking free, he said he wanted to crisp fairies most of all.”
Gwendolyn gripped her branch to keep from falling.
A dragon is the he above who wants to incinerate fairies. I could have ended with “most of all,” but I added Gwendolyn’s reaction. I’m not sure which is better. My editor felt that Gwendolyn wasn’t expressive enough, which is a good reason for the addition.
Closing with the obvious: A book doesn’t have to be organized into chapters. There are epistolary novels (novels in letters), in which the breaks come at the end of each letter. Monster by Walter Dean Myers is written in the form of a screenplay. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl is diary entries. Some books are a hodgepodge of letters, notes, newspaper articles, journal pages. So far, I haven’t written such a book, but I think an occasional bang at the end of a letter or journal entry has to be good.
That’s it for chapters for now.
After my last post, Dream Creator wrote: Also, I was wondering what you thought about the amount of detail in stories. For example, I can have an awful time describing the scenery and what characters look like, and therefore I use a terribly low amount of detail when I’m writing, but the book I’m writing is in first-person and the heroine is far from eloquent, so would that be okay to get away with? Or should I just insert more detail and practice on getting to the point where using detail is much more of a subconscious act? Or is it up to the author, and either extreme is acceptable as long as it is well written?
Everything is up to you, the author. Please don’t listen to me if what I say doesn’t ring a bell. I’m speaking in generalities and don’t know your story or your voice.
But since you’ve tuned to my station, here are some thoughts. They’re just a bit of the huge topic that detail is, so I’m sure I’ll return to the subject in future posts.
Suppose a main character is in her teacher’s living room for the first time. She says that she feels as if she’s stepped into somebody’s grandmother’s photo album – every bit of cloth has a flower or dozens of flowers on it; chair legs wear skirts, and the bare table legs look disturbingly naked, as if they should at least be wearing socks. As a reader, I don’t need anything more than this. I’m willing to collaborate with the author. I can imagine the wingback chair and the sofa with the cloth coverings over the arms and the embroidered footstool. Another reader will furnish the room in accordance with his idea of cozy or fussy, maybe not a wingback chair and the rest, but a grandfather clock and frilly curtains and a tufted ottoman. Readers don’t need everything, just enough to build on.
In fact, everything is impossible. Years ago I did a detail exercise with the kids I was teaching at the time. I brought in something, a simple object, I don’t remember what. All of us (I did too) examined the thing and tried to write as much as we could think of about it. We did the exercise for half an hour and didn’t run out of purely physical description. You can try this yourself. Pick one of your shirts. Describe it in full, exhaustive detail, without even going into how it came to belong to you and what adventures you’ve had in it. You can do that later, if you want to, and write a poem or story about your shirt. But for now, just the facts. The plain physical description won’t be particularly interesting. It’s just an exercise.
If it takes a boring hour to describe a shirt, how arduous and unnecessary to describe a whole room or a landscape! Your reader needs to feel on solid ground, in a real, even if fantastical, place, but you can achieve that in a few strokes. To get to those few, telling strokes, some writers (like me) have to write a lot and then eliminate.
One purpose of description is to let me see the environment my characters are in. There’s a battle in my not-yet-published Fairies and the Quest for Never Land. I couldn’t write the scene until I could see where the fairies were. It’s a prairie littered with boulders, but that wasn’t enough. I had to establish three landmarks: a pile of rocks, a tree, and a petrified log to be oriented. So first of all, description is for me, to get the movie of the story rolling in my head. After I’ve got it, it’s for the reader, to start the movie in his head.
If you’ve got an inarticulate character on your hands, you still need to show the reader what’s going on, but you have to do it through your character’s eyes and voice. Suppose she’s visiting her uncle who isn’t much of a housekeeper. What would gross her out? Show us that–sight, smell, sound, touch. Maybe she’s inarticulate, but she’s tactile. She touches things to get to know them. What does she touch? Or, what would she think her mother, the uncle’s sister, would most disapprove of? What does she have a reason to notice? Suppose she wants to borrow something that belongs to her uncle. What does she see while she’s looking for it?
Description for its own sake is description dragged in by its left ear. It’s necessary but dull, unless it has a reason to exist. Everything is connected to everything in a story. At its best, description should do double duty and serve character development or plot or voice or humor or feeling or something else I haven’t thought of.
Here’s a prompt: Take one of your characters – doesn’t have to be your main – with you today and tomorrow, wherever you go. What does he notice? What does he react to emotionally? What does he miss? What does he studiously ignore? Write about the experience, and save what you wrote. Have fun!
After my last post, Freak of Nature asked how long a chapter should be and how many chapters a book should have. I wrote back that a book can have any number of chapters, and each one can be almost any length. But I’ve been thinking that there’s more to say on the subject.
As a child I was a major reader, the kind who reads while brushing her teeth. I read anything, no matter how long or short. But after I became a writer I became less of a reader – much less, for a bunch of reasons, like editing as I read and reading books I didn’t like to keep up with children’s lit. Lately I’ve been getting back to pleasure reading, but it’s still not the same as when I was a bookworm.
The result, I think, is that I’m now a reluctant reader. I won’t pick up a long book unless it’s by an author I love or unless someone I trust has sworn it’s a great book. I always check the number of pages before I start reading, and I recheck occasionally as I go along. I look ahead to see how many pages are left in the chapter I’m reading too, and I’m disheartened if the chapter ending is a long way off, even if I’m enjoying the book. I like to see a break coming up.
When I get to the break I’m likely to continue reading if the chapter ends on an exciting note, or if I know an important moment is approaching. But I’m happy for that little breather.
No editor has ever said a word to me about the length of my chapters, maybe because before I send a manuscript in I even the chapters out, a bit. Or maybe editors don’t care. Any editors reading this and care to weigh in?
Ever is an exception to my evening out. In Ever, the chapters pass back and forth between two first-person narrators, chapter length determined by whose perspective predominates at a particular moment. As a result, Ever is my book with both the longest and shortest chapters. For example, while Kezi is in the underworld, Olus, the other POV character has little to do, so his chapters are short and hers long.
But for most of my books, when I’ve finish a few drafts and before my editor sees a word, I page through. If a chapter is shorter than five pages or longer than thirteen, I adjust it. This is just me; I suspect many writers don’t think about chapter length, and I don’t believe book quality is affected. Anybody want to give an opinion?
The fix for a too short chapter isn’t as simple as gluing two chapters together, and the cure for a long one isn’t a quick chop down the middle. There is the very important matter of chapter endings.
A good chapter ending makes the reader want to – have to – keep reading. More than anywhere else in a book, the chapter ending has to compel or invite the reader forward, because that page turn is such an invitation to turn off the flashlight under the covers or to answer all those text messages that have been piling up.
There is one fundamental principle for chapter endings: something should always be amiss. If one problem has been solved, another should rise from the horizon or come forward from the background. (Time out. I stated the above as an absolute, but there are no absolutes. Probably someone somewhere has written an exciting book in which nothing goes wrong. Maybe you have.)
How to achieve those irresistible final lines? I’ve gone through my not-yet-published Fairies and the Quest for Never Land for ways:
A cliff-hanger. A chapter in Fairies ends with my main character, Gwendolyn, falling out of the sky toward a circle of sharks with their mouths open.
But it may be impossible to orchestrate a crisis every seven or so pages. There are other techniques:
A quiet chapter ending. This works only if big trouble is looming. For example, if your main character expects to be humiliated in school the next day, you can end the preceding chapter with her falling asleep after some tossing and turning.
Worry. If your main character, whom the reader cares about, is worried, the reader will worry too. In Fairies, the second chapter ends with Gwendolyn worrying that Peter Pan will forget to come for her. The worries of a secondary sympathetic character also will do. In Fairies, I ended nine out of thirty-two chapters with a worry.
The villain plotting or doing something awful, which is unbeknownst to your main character. Be careful, though. This is possible to show only from an omniscient third-person POV.
The beginning of a major moment. Peter does come for Gwendolyn. I end his arrival chapter at the moment before the two meet.
A single powerful word. Chapter Eight of Fairies ends “Then a new miracle began.” Miracle is the magic word. Of course what follows has to live up to the promise, in this case has to be a miracle, even if a minor one.
An emotional moment. Suppose your main character has just unwittingly insulted a friend. The chapter can end when he’s realized what he’s done, even before the friend has reacted – especially before the friend reacts – because anticipation is a crucial factor in chapter endings.
A surprise. The readers’ suspicions are lulled. Things have been going pretty well. Someone shrieks. End of chapter.
A threat. You can imagine how this would work.
The absolute worst happens. End the chapter. But the absolute worst can’t happen many times in a single book. You can get away with a few absolute worsts, but probably not many, unless you’re writing comedy.
I’m sure there are more terrific ways to end a chapter, and you’ll find ones that particularly suit your book. Be on the lookout for them as you write. Try going through your manuscript-in-progress to check out the endings you already have. See if you can ratchet them up a notch or two if they need it. Save the results, and have fun!