Monthly Archives: September 2013

Argh! The Pressure!

It’s been a helluva week.

Things started out great on Monday. I got to meet my Editor in person, which was beyond awesome—we sat down over coffee and started chatting like old friends. In fact, I felt so comfortable talking with her that it was hard to believe we’d only ever interacted electronically, either via email or story edits.

Maybe that’s why having her expectations about when I might be able to deliver my novel looming over me feels so scary. Suddenly it’s not just family members looking pointedly at their watches and asking me when they can read what I’ve been working on for the last year. Now there’s an actual literary professional who is looking forward to reading and critiquing my book—yikes!

Other tasks insinuated their way onto my to-do list in front of novel revisions, though, and by the time Tuesday rolled around, I’d allowed the Fear of Editor to lapse into background noise. “I’ll get to it here in a little bit,” I kept telling myself.

Enter Twitter’s #MSWL hashtag.

Not only did I lose an inordinate amount of time that day (and a non-negligible amount since) trolling through the agent and editor posts of their “ManuScript Wish Lists” to see if anything remotely matched what I’m writing, but I spent a lot of emotional capital fretting, too. First there was the fretting that I’d seen so many tweets asking for MG/YA/NA manuscripts that it felt like no one wants anything for the adult/general audience to which I write. Obviously, that’s not true, but I’m sure other writers know exactly that feeling.

Then there were the occasions when I did find something that (almost) matched what I’ve got. At that point, I started tearing out my hair because I don’t have a completed manuscript to send out for a query. The sheer weight of revisions needed to make it ready for prime time is staggering. Needless to say, Tuesday left me a mess.

Wednesday was lost to family moving house.

And that brings us to today. Today I struggled with procrastination. (Say what? Writers never do that!) Aside from reading more books on improving one’s writing, I didn’t actually do any writing work until late afternoon, when I took my kids to an after school class. Sitting in the parents’ observation area, I struggled again with how to fit my plot into those pesky Cat-Saving beats.

The damn thing has no zip, no punch. When I whittle it down to those fifteen key elements, I’m left with square plot points trying to fit into round beats. I just can’t crack it.

On the up side, I’m making fabulous progress plotting out the next book beat-by-beat. I’ve even got some thematic and thesis/antithesis strands planned. Funny how much easier it is to create an engaging plot from the ground up than by massaging an existing one.

Too bad I’ve got so much massaging left to do.

Saving the Cat and Other Adventures

Thanks to a tweet by an author I follow, I was recently introduced to the screenwriting self-help book Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. Deciding that I could use all the help I can get, especially with plotting, I bought it and dove in. As I’ve read through it, I’ve been alternately elated and crushed by what Snyder has to say: elated because this will make Book 2 so much stronger from the get-go, crushed because it points out so many flaws in Book 1 (which I’m currently trying to revise).

Right now, I’m struggling most with Snyder’s list of fifteen key “beats” that every good film script (or, as I’m extrapolating it, novel manuscript) has. When I started dissecting Draft Zero (my NaNoWriMo draft) to figure out how my plot was structured, and how it needed to change, I split it instinctually into five sections:

  1. Introduction: Ramp Up to Problem
  2. Sinking Teeth In: Beginning to Grapple with the Problem
  3. Danger! Time: Problem Beats Heroine Down
  4. Regrouping: Time for a Training Montage
  5. Finale: “I Must Face the Peril!”

As I look over Snyder’s beats, I realize I’m on the same general wavelength. My sections align not-too-poorly with his list of beats:

  1. Opening Image
    • Theme Stated
    • Set-up
    • Catalyst
    • Debate
  2. Break into Two
    • B Story
    • Fun and Games
  3. Midpoint
    • Bad Guys Close In
    • All Is Lost
  4. Dark Night of the Soul
  5. Break Into Three
    • Finale
    • Final Image

Somewhere along the line, during all those years of reading, I seem to have internalized good story structure; some of the main elements of storytelling are there. But several others are missing. My timing still sucks, and the beats I’ve got aren’t strong enough. I’m in trouble.

I thought the last couple weeks—slogging through weak verbs with a machete—were rough. Something tells me they’ll be nothing compared to the upcoming ones. But I’m committed to seeing this thing through.

All right, Plot, look out! It’s time to go all Dr. Frankenstein on your pathetic hide!

A Monologue on Dialogue

One of the common writing problems I have (and I know I’m not alone) is the tendency to “tell” rather than “show” details in my story. I have found it almost painful at times to excise a few paragraphs of exposition for something more subtle yet visceral. It’s one of those things that I have to practice until I find it easier to do, and so far I’m not there.

It doesn’t help that I’m also not yet very good at identifying when I’m doing it. If someone reads an excerpt and says, “too much ‘telling’!” I have a hard time seeing what they mean unless they’ve dropped an anvil on my head with accompanying line edits to point out instances directly.

When I do find a passage, though, I have one favorite “secret weapon” in my arsenal to beat it into submission: dialogue.

I know some writers struggle with dialogue. I’m sure everyone can name at least one film they’ve seen where, despite the cast’s best efforts, the dialogue feels labored and unnatural. For heaven-only-knows-what reason, that has not been one of my challenges (that is, I’ve been told dialogue is one of my strengths).

So when I find I’ve been rambling on at length about action that involves someone besides just my protagonist (once it’s been pointed out to me), I go back and have them talk it over instead. My technique, if you can call it that, is simply a form of roleplaying; I imagine myself to be the character, and write the words that come to mind as if I were actually engaging in the conversation at hand.

Here’s a brief example (not from the actual novel—sorry). To begin, a chunk of exposition:

The two of them spent the afternoon engaged in one of their favorite pastimes: making a crown cake. They spilled some of the acorn meal, got covered in flour, and snitched chocolate from the pan before melting it. All in all, it was one of the most innocuously memorable days Mabel had spent with Gran since going off to college.

Now here’s what it looks like as dialogue:

“So what do you say. Shall we make a crown cake?” The twinkle in Gran’s eye held a spark of challenge.

“You’re on!”

Soon Mabel was grinding the acorns. “Is that enough—dammit!” She scrambled to catch the bowl she’d bobbled as she proffered it for Gran’s inspection before all the precious acorn meal was lost. Gran burst out laughing, and Mabel glared.

“Oh, don’t be such a grumpy gus, Ace. There’s plenty more acorns.”

Mabel sighed. “I know. I just thought I was done!”

“The fun’s in the process, and setbacks are inevitable.” Gran winked. “Don’t worry about it.”

Mabel grumbled darkly with mock fury as she set back to work. Glancing to make sure Gran wasn’t paying attention, she casually reached behind her to snitch a few chocolate chips out of the pot that sat on the stove, awaiting melting.

“Grab a couple for me,” Gran murmured without looking up from the other side of the table.

Mabel shook her head in wonder. “You’ve got eyes where you shouldn’t oughtta have ’em!”

Gran smiled enigmatically and held out a hand for her share.

Laughing, Mabel obliged. “I don’t think we’ve had this much fun together since I left for college.”

When Gran’s hug got flour all over her T-shirt, Mabel didn’t even mind.

While this passage isn’t the finest example of my dialogue, I hope it’s better than the expository paragraph above. At least I’d like to think it involves you, the reader, in the characters more, giving a better sense of their personalities, relationship, and moods. Doesn’t hurt my word count, either (though that’s obviously a fortuitous side effect, rather than a primary goal).

Now the trick is to remember to do that more in the first place.

Minor Breakthrough

Yesterday I emailed my CPs with an uncomfortable confession: I didn’t have anything new for them to read for our next meeting. Since their feedback on a full draft, I’ve been spinning my wheels in the revision mud; I just can’t get any traction on rearranging, cutting, and adding the necessary plot points. But today I had a minor breakthrough.

As mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been trying to cut off relatively bite-sized chunks of novel on which to focus; right now, it’s those troublesome opening chapters. My CPs have accurately pointed out that the action is quite slow to build, and suggested one plot thread that could be moved up as a way to counteract that problem. So, dutifully ripping the old plot structure to tatters, I started writing a new scene to introduce said thread three chapters earlier.

There was a spot that struck me as needing some low-grit PlotPaper™ to smooth it out, so naturally I began there. Excising lines that no longer fit, I began to weave in my new narrative. Eventually I got in a groove, and before I knew it I had over 1400 new words. I just had to find a way to make the scene fit seamlessly with what I already had, and I was golden.

That’s when inspiration hit. I’d sewn my new scene into the wrong part of the chapter!

Giddy with my discovery, I made another copy and started hacking the chapter apart again. The new scene went here, the pieces I’d been sad to take out went back in there… And now an issue I’d had in a completely different point in the novel—again, with the placement of a new scene relative to old material—melted away. Everything seemed to slot naturally into place.

I’m doing my best to ride the high of this tiny triumph. Heaven knows it’s not likely to last long. As soon as I show my changes to my CPs they’ll probably have insightful reasons I’ve not yet considered as to why this arrangement isn’t optimal, either. But when you’ve been slogging through the trenches of revisions and gaining no ground, any little advance is cause for celebration; I’m taking my victories where I can.

Time to reward myself with another pot of coffee!