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Continuing my series on pre-writing, I’m talking today about different ways to plot your novel before sitting down to write. Figuring out your plot at the beginning of the writing process can help you:
- distribute your writing– knowing in advance all the pieces that your story will need to include keeps you from getting bogged down/spending an inordinate number of words on minutiae or set-up
- get a sense of your timeline– understanding the time frame of the events of your story helps you identify any out-of-place jumps or pauses
- develop a plan B when writer’s block hits– if you get stuck in a certain scene or beat, you know what’s coming next and can move ahead and come back later instead of coming to a grinding halt while you beat your head against the wall (but maybe that’s just me)
There are as many ways to plot a novel as there are authors, and no one approach is the “perfect” one, but most authors use some variation of several common approaches to story planning. These approaches can be organized from least to most detailed, and knowing your writing process and the plot areas you most often struggle with can help you determine which level of detail will be most helpful to you– some authors enjoy the organic plot development that takes place when they’re writing toward a climax without a more rigid plan in place, while others get bogged down in the middle if they haven’t figured out all of the plot points that will take the story from beginning to climax. With that in mind, here are three common approaches to story planning and the common plot problems they can help prevent.
1. The Compass: The Story Arc or Line
At its most basic, a story arc charts the rise and fall of tension in a story. From the stasis, or the way things are at the beginning, all
Last week, I started a new series about some pre-writing strategies that can help you preemptively fix problem areas in your manuscripts. Since not every author is going to find every strategy helpful, however, I included a list of questions to ask yourself about your writing process to help you in figuring out which pre-writing exercises are worth your time. I’m talking today about some character development tools that you may find helpful if:
- you struggle with writing multi-dimensional characters/relationships
- you find yourself getting bored with your characters partway through a manuscript
- you’ve struggled in writing dialogue for specific characters
- you’ve ever been uncertain of a character’s motivation
- you’ve received feedback about characters acting “out of character” or being inconsistent.
If any of those sound like you, some of these tools/exercises can help pave the way for a smoother, more informed relationship with your characters throughout the writing process.
Interview Your Characters
I’ve mentioned this approach to character development before, but it’s worth repeating. I often read decent, well-written manuscripts that start out with several pages/chapters of backstory and character introduction that I, as the reader don’t need to know right away (and sometimes, at all). What generally happens is that as an author begins writing about a character, that character continues to grow/take shape in the author’s mind and all of that new information ends up in the manuscript, slowing down the opening of the story and delaying the action. While it’s true that a lot of authors learn about their characters by writing about them, that material shouldn’t necessarily end up in the book, and definitely shouldn’t be dumped in a big chunk at the beginning of the narrative. Instead, consider filling out an interview questionnaire for each character that figures substantially in your story, taking some time to answer/invent the answers to a wide variety of questions that reveal the character– physical appearance, family, childhood, education, places
In the spirit of new beginnings, I’m going to be spending several weeks talking about some of the pre-writing processes you may find helpful as you get started on your 2015 writing projects. The more manuscripts that come across my desk, the more I’m reminded that being a competent writer does not necessarily make someone a competent storyteller: I’ve read plenty of projects in which decent writing and a good story idea or concept were undermined by significant plot and character problems. And while the surest teacher in these areas is time/experience, there are many exercises and strategies you can employ at the front end of the writing process that can improve your story structure and character development.
Because not every writer needs help in every area, and because each writer’s writing process is different, the first step in creating your pre-writing strategy is to evaluate what kind of writer you are and what pre-writing exercises will be the most helpful to you, personally. The goal of pre-writing is not to give you a dozen hoops to jump through or a list of ways to help you procrastinate, but to help you make the most efficient use of your writing time by identifying your successes and preemptively shoring up your weaknesses. If your high school experience was anything like mine, you remember the frustration of being required to turn in junk like an outline, research notes, and a rough draft before you could turn in your final draft, just to prove that you went through the “correct” process for turning out a solid paper. (Well, Mrs. Jennings, I wrote my paper first and then created all that other stuff, so there!)
Pre-writing doesn’t have to be like that; you’re an adult, and one of
From all of us at MacGregor Literary
–Chip MacGregor, Amanda Luedeke, Erin Buterbaugh, Marie Prys, Holly Lorincz, and Kate MacGregor
Last week, in between hurriedly throwing a few Christmas decorations at my walls and attending “The Nutcracker” for approximately the 1,247th time, I managed to keep my yearly date with A Christmas Carol. I always caution myself that it cannot possibly be as good as I remember, but every year it’s better. With each successive reading, the charm and earnestness and pure skill of the writing is more apparent, and if you doubt this book’s place in a blog on the writing craft, you probably haven’t read it in awhile. This book was a labor of love for Dickens rather than a serial written to pay the bills, and it shows. Free from the need to sustain a story for months/years on end in order to keep the paychecks coming, Dickens demonstrates a previously unsuspected ability to tell a story taking place over a time span of less than twenty years (I’m looking at you, David Copperfield), and he lets himself go on description and characterization in way he was unable to do in a serial installment expected to advance the plot each week. We see him revel in this independence in the gleeful abandon with which he describes the riches of London shop windows at Christmas time, the passionate cries of the narrator which interrupt the story from time to time, and the flights of whimsy he indulges in in a book not expressly written for children.
Basically, Dickens wrote the story he wanted to write in the way he wanted to write it, regardless of how well it fit the mold he’d found most of his success with, and 160 years later, it’s still his most popular work. The longevity of the book (it’s never been out of print) should serve as a lesson to those authors who are navigating the tricky issue of how to balance profitability and passion– writing to pay the bills is all
If you caught the last couple of Tuesday posts, you’ll know I’ve been talking about the final stages of manuscript preparation– knowing when to stop polishing a manuscript, finding beta readers, etc. I pointed out that finding beta readers who are a good fit for your skill level and your genre is an important step in ensuring that the feedback you get from them is worthwhile and relevant so you don’t go crazy trying to apply conflicting or uninformed advice. Even when you’ve selected your beta readers wisely, however, it can still be overwhelming to revisit your manuscript with three or four different sets of feedback from three or four unique readers– even if all your readers are published sci-fi authors, each one is going to have a slightly different reaction to your book, and deciding which advice to apply and which to ignore can feel like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books, in which every decision you make will result in a different outcome. (The good news here is that the editing decisions you make are highly unlikely to result in being thrown into a volcano or trampled by elephants, unlike CYOA.)
So, how do you decide what feedback, and how much, to apply? Here are a few guidelines to help you as you CYOFD– Choose Your Own Final Draft!
- Decide in advance how much rewriting you’re willing to do. If you don’t have the time and the fortitude to make major plot changes, or to rewrite the entire book from a different character’s perspective, you can cross off suggestions on this scale right away. Don’t waste time agonizing over whether or not a large-scale change would be a good idea if you know realistically that you’re not in a place to make a change like that. Turn your attention to smaller-scale suggestions and don’t drive yourself crazy with “but what it…?”.
- Create a plan
In last week’s post on knowing when to stop polishing a manuscript, one of the strategies I suggested was to solicit feedback wisely and sparingly. Reader Laura asked this question in the comments: “How do I find beta readers? I don’t have a writers’ group, I don’t know know any serious writers in my ‘real’ life… the local universities don’t offer [many] creative writing classes… I don’t have a lot of money to spend on a professional editor or to go to conferences… I’m at the point where I need quality feedback on my third novel, but I’m baffled as to where I’d find it.”
Great question, Laura, and thanks for providing the topic for this week’s blog post!
Location, contacts, and limited budget can definitely be some challenges to finding quality beta readers. Not everyone lives in a mecca of artistic fellowship or can spend $400 to attend a conference once a month to meet other writers and writing professionals. So how DOES one find quality beta readers under these conditions? Here are a few ideas.
Local universities— Laura mentioned that the colleges in her area don’t offer a lot of creative writing classes. Even when that’s the case, any community college or liberal arts school has at least a few faculty members who are (hopefully) qualified to give you feedback on your writing, even if they’re not experts in your genre, so even when there isn’t a writing class available for you to enroll in and connect that way with other writers, you can still try to connect with the adjunct or full-time faculty members who teach the literature and composition classes, and you at least know that these readers have a lot of experience in reading and editing. You can usually find contact info for these faculty members on the college’s website, so consider sending a polite email explaining that you’re a writer looking for quality feedback
Welcome back to the still-unnamed Tuesday blog in which I write about craft and mechanics! I just finished up a series on voice, and before I launch a new series, I wanted to take a week to talk about a writing tool that a lot of authors may not have thought much about and look at why you should think about adding it to your writing regimen.
When you think of “keeping a journal,” there are probably a number of scenarios that come to mind: Lewis and Clark recording bear attacks and typhoid deaths, Thoreau scribbling introspectively into a notebook on the shores of Walden Pond, or, in my case, your middle-school self in headgear and scrunch socks funneling all her angst into a locking Lisa Frank diary. *Shudder.*
If you WERE like me (hopefully minus the headgear) and you kept any kind of a personal journal/diary during your younger days, re-reading that journal is probably a fairly painful experience. Even if yours isn’t full of pining for Jonathan Taylor Thomas, it’s probably, like mine, full of spelling errors, incorrectly used apostrophes, and run-on sentences, for a start. (Hey, my long sentences now are a VOICE choice, okay?) Beyond that, there is probably a good amount of just straight-up obnoxious content: sentences you’re disgusted with, sentiments that make you cringe for having expressed the way you did, etc. It’s easier to excuse those embarrassing entries from your really young self, but I journaled on and off through college, and there are things I’d slap my 20-year-old self for putting in print, if I could, just obnoxious, cheesy writing that I’m ashamed to be the author of.
Wow, Erin, you may be thinking. What a great idea. Journal now, with some of my already precious writing time, so that future-me can ridicule and loathe myself retroactively. Thank you for that great advice.
BUT. I have another journal from high school, a
Today is the last day of my series on author voice. I’ve spent most of my time over the past few weeks talking about what voice IS– how to define it, how to recognize it, how to develop it– but today, I want to talk about probably the most important factor in developing a strong personal voice as a writer, and that is understanding the need for great voice. I started the series by talking about some of the frustration associated with chasing strong voice, and the nebulous, elusive way we often talk about “great author voice,” and the reality is that the ability to identify or harness a strong writing voice doesn’t come naturally to a lot of writers. Like whatever subject just never made sense to you in school (just the word “chemistry” still prompts a panic response), voice for a lot of people is a frustrating area. You might think you see a glimmer of light when reading a blog post or a how-to article or listening to a lecture on it, but five minutes into trying to critique/improve your own voice in a piece of writing and you’re frustrated, depressed, and ready to forget it. It’s true that voice isn’t as easy to work on as mechanics, or characters, or dialogue, both because it’s less concrete and because there are fewer resources available, but understanding why voice is so important can help keep you motivated to continue working on yours, even if it feels like an uphill battle.
Think about some of your favorite books. If you’re like me, they probably come from one or two of the same genres– maybe your favorite books tend to be romances, or historical fiction, or mysteries. Even if your top five books come from five different genres, each one (most likely) can be categorized with THOUSANDS of other titles in the same genre or sub-genre. Take an easy
She walked for four hours just to meet me.
Her soles were red from Uganda’s earth and she didn’t break a sweat in the high heat. Her eyes shone but she lowered them, looked at her sandals, even as I reached out a hand to touch her shoulder, and I could feel the strength in this peasant farmer’s arm.
She’d lost her husband just weeks earlier to HIV/Aids, an illness people still talk about in hushed tones because of the shame associated with it.
She’d lost her children long before that to this children’s home I was visiting–because she had a sick husband to care for and a farm that wasn’t bringing in money and no way to feed her sons or daughters.
And here I was, able to pay for her kids’ clothes and education while she wasn’t. And not because I worked harder. No, she worked sun-up to sundown and had callouses across her hands and feet. No, it was because I came from a first class country overflowing with food and privilege while the rest of the world is forced to feed from our trash cans.
I smiled at her, but I felt sick.
I am a mother. Every night I walk into my boys’ room and ache for them lying there in their beds, because they’re tucked deep in my womb. I cannot imagine how humbling, or humiliating, it would be, to have to ask someone else to take care of my children. To not be able to give them food or water, to not be able to keep them under your own roof — and THEN, to walk four hours to meet the woman who can?
This woman (me) who flies over in her airplane with her suitcase full of clothes and her bag full of lipstick and her wallet full of money, and says it’s all in the name of Jesus–a God this