Rewrites: Knowing what to throw away – and what to keep

“Every gambler knows/that the secret to surviving/is knowing what to throw away/and knowing what to keep . . .” – Kenny Rogers, ‘The Gambler’ 

This is a line from Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler.” The song is about a young gambler who meets up with an old gambler, who gives him some sage advice about life before dying on the train bound for nowhere. A very cheery song.

But, just as the young gambler ‘found an ace that I could keep’ in that advice, maybe we can, too.

As writers, we also have to know what to throw away and what to keep. Rewrites abound with these choices. We’ve all read books – especially debut novels – where we think hmm, couldn’t that line or paragraph or entire chapter have been cut without doing anything to the book? And in truth, we’re probably right.

Of course, when it’s you in the writer’s seat, and it’s your baby you’r taking a red pen to, those choices are much harder to make! Once someone – a beta reader, perhaps – suggests, ever so gently, that perhaps this paragraph could be cut because .  . . we tend to instantly launch into defense mode. Truthfully? We know they’re probably right. But admitting that is so hard!

It’s really hard to know what to throw away. I’ve been working on that dratted middle part of my novel for the past week, rearranging scenes, editing others for tension and pace, and yes, cutting some entirely.

Oooh. Yeah. I hear the gasps. What do you mean, you cut? Lines? Oh, my goodness. How could you do that? Wait. You cut – gasp! – scenes? (Horrified silence that drags out . . .)

Yup. Scenes. Entire ones.

How do you know if things need to be cut? Well, if you’re like me, you spend 9 years – off and on – making small edits and revisions and hearing a little voice inside telling you that something’s Not Quite Right, but being unwilling to make the hard choices because that will mean Armageddon.

Let’s think about that little voice for a second.

We are writers. We are readers. At least, we’d better be. We know when something feels ‘off.’ We may not be able to pinpoint precisely what that is, but we know it, deep down. There’s a little hesitation when we read certain paragraphs. We gloss over some sentences, unwilling to look them in the eye. We frown over the transitions from one scene to another, or one chapter to another. We scrunch up our faces at character motives and don’t even get me started on how much we dread reading some dialogue! That’s the little voice writers have. It doesn’t magically appear. It’s developed over time, as we write, edit, read, write, edit, read, write . . . We get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, what our voice sounds like, when we’re imitating others.

In short, listen to the freaking little voice. You may not know what’s going on exactly, but stick a Post-It note on that page anyway. Put a frowny face on it. Just remind yourself that Here Be Something To Work On. Because that little voice? It’s there for a reason. It’s there to tell you how to make your novel better.

Another thing to keep in mind is the issue I’m having right now:  scenes that no longer fit. What do you do when you’ve revised and edited, and suddenly that pivotal scene in the middle, the one that once changed the entire thing for your characters, isn’t needed anymore? This is what I did to myself. I had a scene that – okay, let’s be honest. I knew it didn’t work. I knew it was out of character for my MC, Erin, and I knew my other MC, Kai, would never ever in a million years NEVER let her do that. But it didn’t matter. I couldn’t let it go.

And then I made some major changes earlier in the novel, and that scene is now . . . not necessary. So I cut it from the new draft. It just never got copied and pasted over. I’m still wrestling with whether this is good or not!

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2But. Here’s the thing:  if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t belong in your novel.

For a long time I considered this scene sacred, integral to the novel (yes, despite my misgivings about it!). But here’s a sad fact:  if the scene doesn’t go in, it won’t matter. Seriously. It won’t matter to the novel at all.

 (At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I’m not entirely convinced.)

There are other reasons to jettison paragraphs or entire scenes. One is simply that it doesn’t move the story forward. It might be pretty. It might be some of the best writing you’ve ever done. Does it add to the story in any meaningful way? Does it provide for character development, plot twists, new information? If not – let it go. Or, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch put it,

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (On the Art of Writing, 1916).

Or, if you prefer the great Stephen King:

“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)” (On Writing) 

Or, you’d rather, Kurt Vonnegut:

“Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” — (How to Use the Power of the Printed Word)

(And please remember:  just because you don’t use it in THIS novel doesn’t mean you can’t rework it for another one! Nothing we write is every truly gone. Plus, your future readers will never know it used to be there. All they’ll notice is the nice, tight pacing, the flow from one scene to the next, the rapid plot development.)

Another reason is parallel to the one I mentioned above – after you’ve revised, you suddenly have a scene that just doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe your character’s motivations have changed. Maybe you’ve added – or deleted – a character. Whatever the reason, it’s just not necessary anymore. Take heart in the fact that you recognize this, and you’re ready to make the sacrifice for the novel’s greater good!

So if you’ve had paragraphs that you felt were extraneous, or lines of dialogue that don’t go anywhere, or even entire scenes that don’t work anymore, don’t be afraid to cut those bad boys right out of there. Cut them! Do it! Now!

Doesn’t that feel empowering? Scary, yes, but empowering?

Now do one more thing:  save your novel as an entirely new file. And do this every single time you make major revisions and cuts to your manuscript. I just spent about two hours trying to find an old scene that got cut, and now I need again. I was able to find it because I save my novels as new files all the time. No recreating it from memory. It just needs some tweaking to slide right into place.

This way, you can throw things away – and keep them.

 

Re-writers, unite! Or untie. Whichever.

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” —ColetteCasual Chance, 1964

As promised, the theme of this summer is rewrites.

Actually, the theme of this summer is ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may all be living in a fascist hell,’ so I’ve been on as close to a vacation as I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve had gelato for the first time (yes, I’m serious, and YES, I loved it, eat it, I beg of you!), I’ve shopped, I’ve cuddled with the kitties, I’ve planted rose bushes, and I’ve been collecting and shopping for my vintage shop.

But the rewrites have also been ongoing.

Rewriters, unite! Or untie. That’s what it feels like, sometimes – that our manuscripts are great big tapestries, and you’re not quite sure what went wrong where, but if you start tugging at one small thread, the entire thing will unravel.

And guess what? That’s okay. Because in the end, it will be better.

This second novel is hard because, as I mentioned in an old post, I thought it was done. Finito, finished, fin. Then, when I finished the new first novel in the series and went back to this one, I realized that not only was it not done, it also wasn’t even a very good first draft. It had several issues, including:

Characters:  My MC, Erin, is totally kick-ass and snarky in the first novel. In this one, she was afraid and whiny and I hated that. Also, there was very little interaction between her and my male main character, Kai – which is kind of a problem, given that one of the subplots is their developing relationship. So that had to change. Plus, the antagonist’s motives weren’t clear – and neither were its actions. What was it doing? I had no idea, and I wrote the thing!

Plot:  I know, the plot derives from the characters’ actions, and that was a huge problem in this book:  there were no actions! Okay, that’s not quite accurate, but the truth is, the characters weren’t doing anything to drive the story forward. There was a huge chunk in the middle – like 40 pages – where Erin didn’t really do much of anything except whine and react. All that’s either getting cut, or getting rewritten. The really sad thing was, she didn’t have anything to react against. The antagonist wasn’t doing anything, either! There has to be give and take between them. The MC does something; the antagonist does something in return; the MC reacts; and so on. Yeah. Like literally none of that was happening.

The Antagonist:  Your MC can only be as good/strong/intelligent/resilient as your antagonist lets them be. You fill in the adjective. But no matter how great your MC is, your antagonist has to be just as great. Otherwise, where’s the tension? Where’s the fun? And my antagonist just . . . wasn’t. In fact, when I think about it, my antagonist appeared exactly twice – at the beginning, and the end. That’s it. And that’s okay, as long as we know it’s pulling strings behind the scenes – after all, how many times did we see Voldemort in HP#1? Once. Well, twice, technically, but we didn’t know the thing killing the unicorn was him. But he was a constant presence. My antagonist wasn’t even that. So that’s an issue I’m addressing.

Forward Momentum:  Yeah, well, there wasn’t any, and we’re fixing that. ‘Nuff said.

It’s not to say that there wasn’t anything good from the original version. There was. A lot, in fact. And those scenes are going to be taken and revised slightly, and slotted back into place, hopefully this time with better, stronger scenes surrounding them! It’s not that they’re darlings I can’t murder; they really are good, strong scenes that drive the story forward and are necessary to the novel. But the fact is, a lot of the manuscript is full of darlings that need murdered. In fact, they’re not even darlings. They’re sort of like the weird neighbor down the street who’s quiet and keeps to himself, and every once in a while you see him digging in the backyard. You’re not quite sure what he’s doing, and you’re not quite sure what he’s doing in your neighborhood, but you’re pretty sure he should probably just go away.

Rewrites are scary. I get that. I swear, I’m the queen of rewrites. But it’s how we learn, and how we get better as writers. The days of Faulkner typing a manuscript, submitting it his editor, and forgetting it, are over. And I’m sure Faulkner revised and rewrote, too.

It really is the only way.

So be brave. You’ve got a manuscript in the desk drawer, don’t you? Maybe it’s finished; maybe it’s not quite done. Maybe you think it’s the best thing since espresso; maybe you think it’s total crap. But the only way to find out what it really is, is to sit down with it, a pen, and some Post-It Notes, and get started. I have to. Stephen King has to. Diana Gabaldon has to.

You have to be ready to be honest with yourself. You have to be honest enough to find the flaws, admit them, and be willing to do something about them. And I’ll be truthful here:  you may not even be able to see the flaws right now. Not all of them, anyway. I sure couldn’t, not for a long time. (Sad thing is, neither did my beta readers.) You have to be ready to decide what kind of book you want this to be – not just genre, but do you want it published or not? Just like with anything worth doing, you have to be willing to stick with it, all the way.

Are you ready to make that commitment? Are you ready to pick up that string you see hanging out of your manuscript, the one that screams This is what’s wrong!, and give it a tug, knowing that once you do, the entire thing will probably unravel before your eyes? Are you ready to face the fact that once you tug that string ,you can’t un-tug it? It’ll reveal more. I promise. Once you tug that loose thread, you’ll see a dozen more. You’ll see flaws and holes and problems you didn’t even realize were actually there. I’ve been working on this book in some version or another for ten freaking years, and I’m still finding plotholes and issues!

If you’re ready .  . . let’s go.

Untie that manuscript. Let’s see what happens.

Happy writing.

 

An earlier blog post on the same subject, apparently:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2018/02/04/the-manuscript-is-not-sacred/

From The Atlantic, an article by writer John Rechy that touches on both Faulkner and his process of rewriting – and why it’s so important to him. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/02/the-key-to-writing-a-mystery-is-asking-the-perfect-question/515799/

Another great story from The Atlantic:  https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/my-pencils-outlast-their-erasers-great-writers-on-the-art-of-revision/267011/

A Love Letter to my Novel

Last night, I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about a million things (how should I refinish the vintage end table I just bought? Do I have to go back to work? So stressed . . .) But one of the things going through my mind was the problems I’m having with Nicky.

Nicky is the protagonist of my young adult novel. I’ve been writing this for about three years now, and while sometimes I think I’m getting closer to finishing – sometimes it also seems that the end is further away than it was three years ago. I’ve been struggling with the plot (there isn’t one), the secondary characters (they’re not doing enough) and a ‘middle’ that has zero forward momentum. It’s become a nightmare, a quagmire of doubt.

But once – once I loved this novel.

So while I was awake anyway, I started reading Author in Progress, a collection of essays by authors on how to get past some of the major issues we all face as writers. And then this little scrap of advice leaped out at me:

Write a love letter to your story and characters. Capture the feeling so you can use it later for fuel. You’ll need it!

I’ve been thinking about that all day. A love letter to your novel. 

So here goes:

Dear Nicky and the novel you’ve helped create: 

I remember the first time I ‘saw’ you. It was late October, 2014. I was on a walk, on a crisp, sunny fall day. I was taking that Young Adult Fiction class from Oxford and that week, our tutor had asked us what we would never want to write about, and I’d answered “History and racism – because I spend all day teaching history, and racism is so emotionally draining for me. I need the escape of magical realism and urban fantasy, so that’s what I want to do.” 

And then you arrived. That houndstooth driving cap and the matching coat that just about dragged the ground, with your pants legs rolled up and held in place by suspenders that had holes stabbed in them – I knew those weren’t your clothes! That spattering of freckles across your nose and those green eyes – but I barely noticed they were green. What I saw was the challenge. The certainty. The dare. And I heard you, loud and clear “Hey you. Lady! Yeah. You. Write my story.” 

Five minutes later, I knew enough to run home and get started. I knew what drove you – love of family, a need to take care of them and to make your dad proud, and an intense fear of losing it all and being sent to the poor farm, of being separated from your twin siblings and of having your mother locked away. I knew you’d do whatever it took to keep up the facade that everything was all right – even something illegal. I knew you’d take it as a challenge. 

And paired with what I knew of the 1920s and race relations and Prohibition . . . 

This novel has challenged me in ways I never thought possible. The research has been intense, and if I’m honest, it’s not done yet. That could be part of the reason why I’m not able to see the way out of the woods yet. But I know the bigger problem is this:  I want to protect you. I want to keep you safe, because I know the beginning and the ending of your story and I hate it. You’re too damn smart, and at the same time, not smart enough. You can’t turn away, and  you can’t keep your mouth shut, and I adore that about you. You are the me I wish I was. 

But you’ve got your own problems and relationships to deal with, and I’m not trusting you to navigate them on your terms. And this novel can only be written on your terms. I know that. I knew it from the moment you came to me. I have to let go. I have to trust you. I have to let you be yourself. Whatever comes – I have to let it happen. 

As for Hargrove – I know I’m not being fair to him either. Not letting him do what he should be doing. Simon, too, and Bobby. Simon’s conflicted. He doesn’t tell me about that, but he is. Letting you go running all over, risking your life week after week – he knows, Nicky. He knows, more than you, what the dangers are. He lived through Tulsa. To you, it’s just a story. To him, it’s the thing that wakes him up in a cold sweat night after night, his throat raw from screaming. How can he do this? He asks himself that night after night. How can he let the son of his best friend risk his life for money? He’s gotten you into this. He asked you to run for him. He helped you build Abby. He makes the whiskey and the deals. If he quit that, you’d have no choice but to quit, too. Pastor John asks you once, how much money is enough. Simon asks himself that, too. 

But for both of you, it’s not just about the money. It’s about the freedom. Independence. Simon’s his own man; no white man can tell him what to do in his own house, or with his own business. And you, Nicky – all you’ve ever wanted was to be able to save your family, to be seen as the adult you think you are. Running gives you that. And there’s nowhere on earth you’re happier than when you’re behind the wheel, outrunning whoever thinks they can catch you this time. 

I do love this novel. I know it has issues, but the issues are mine. I need to give you all – ALL – more freedom. I need to have more trust that you all – ALL! – know what you’re doing. I have to get back to why I started this to begin with – which was simply to tell the story. Your story. Crashing a Klan rally. I haven’t written that yet, because you already crashed one Klan lecture and frankly, I’m not sure how many you can get away with. But this seems important to you, so all right. We’ll do it. I have to tell this story on your terms, not mine. 

Even if it breaks my heart. 

 

Here’s a link to Barnes and Noble’s site for Author in Progress:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/author-in-progress-therese-walsh/1123233497?ean=9781440346712

Rethinking the Story Arc in Novels

Writers need to take inspiration wherever they find it. It might not be pretty, or conventional, but if it’s there and you don’t use it – then the moment will pass you by and you’ll probably come to regret it.

Such was the case this summer with my young adult novel.

I’ve been struggling with it for some time. I know the ending; I knew the ending from the first line, in fact, since it’s bookended. I knew the beginning and I had dozens of scenes drafted out, ready to go. What I kept stumbling over was that traditional story arc – rising action on top of rising action, your MC’s journey, his setbacks, his struggles to get to the next level – you get the gist.

Some might say that I didn’t know the story well enough, if that was my problem and there’s no doubt a grain of truth there. I knew my MC. I didn’t know his nemesis very well; his motives were murkier, more difficult to sort out. All I’ve ever gotten from this guy is stone-cold killer, and in that case, why not just take out my MC on page 80 and have done with it? What was holding him back?

But what puzzled me more was all those scenes I had. I thought I knew what order they went in, and yet, when I tried to fit them together into a coherent novel, they refused to fit snugly into place. Stupid puzzle pieces. Don’t they KNOW they’re supposed to go together? 🙂

So this spring, I thought – maybe this isn’t one novel. Maybe it’s really two novels.

And oddly enough, when I thought about it that way and started putting together what I thought was Book 1 – puzzles pieces began to slide into place.Scenes got deleted. Scenes got moved up. New scenes were written. It was smoother and flowed and it wasn’t quite perfect but it was better – and yet.

There wasn’t a story arc.

There was no forward momentum.

I pondered. I walked. I paced. I ate a lot of chocolate cake. I demanded to  know why my characters weren’t doing what I wanted them to do.

And Nicky, my MC, gave me a look from under his tweed driving cap and said “‘Cause you know it’s only one novel and don’t you go thinking you’re gonna change that ending, either, lady. You ain’t.”

So. I had a nice beginning and nowhere to go with it. In frustration, I jotted down every scene on a separate notecard and tacked them to the wall, where I could rearrange them at will. I’ve done that before, with a good deal of success. But not this time. Yes, I knew I could create a story arc, but the very idea felt artificial. It felt wrong. It almost felt like a violation of my characters. And Nicky was absolutely refusing to go along with it, anyway.

I refused to let it go. I had to figure out how this novel went together. I was trying to write, trying to force scenes into place, but it felt like I was stitching together a Frankenstein-esque monster – a mishmash of parts that didn’t quite fit. I spent days wrestling with it.

Then, finally – THANK YOU, UNIVERSE! – inspiration hit.

Maybe I was thinking about it wrong. Maybe instead of trying to make it fit into a story arc model *(which, I’ll admit, is a difficult concept for me to visualize even with flow charts and, well, visuals), I needed to think about a different model. One I know well.

Television series. Television seasons.

Oh, I know. I’m a traitor. Shoot me now. But wait.

It actually worked.

Really. It did. I thought about the first season in a television series – how there’s usually an overarching theme or goal or quest, how you’re getting to know the characters, how by the end of that season, that overarching goal should be reached. It often leaves you on a cliffhanger as well – and if it’s not picked up for Season 2, you write many bad letters to, let’s say, CBS – but not everything is focused 100% on that goal in every episode. It might be mentioned in some episodes, with no visible progress made. And some episodes are devoted to that goal completely.

Take, for example, Season 1 of Supernatural. From episode 1, you know Sam and Dean have some relationship problems, they need to find their dad, and they’re on a quest to hunt the demon that killed their mother and Sam’s girlfriend. That’s not the only thing they do during that season, of course – there are a lot of monsters to hunt out there. 🙂 But. By the end of Season 1, they’ve found their dead, shot the demon they were hunting, and begun to act as a team. We’ll ignore the cliffhanger.

Or Season 1 of my favorite cancelled show ever, Moonlight. From Episode 1, we know that Mick is a vampire living in L.A., he’s in love with a mortal named Beth, and all he wants is to be human again. Oh, and he’s a PI. During the season, he’s forced to reveal his true nature to Beth, and by the end of the season, they are sort of together – though Beth has doubts about how they can fit into each others’ worlds – and Mick is on the trail of something that might make him human again. (And then the bastards at CBS cancelled it.)

For some reason, this makes more sense to me than the traditional story arc idea. I know it’s basically the same thing, but the idea of ‘episodes’ instead of ‘chapters’ somehow made it easier to slot scenes into place. I went to my local coffee shop and three hours later not only had the entire timeline drafted into 20 ‘episodes’ but also had rearranged the entire manuscript, complete with notes about what needed to be added or changed when I got to that point. It wasn’t set in stone – I gave myself permission and room to rearrange as needed – but I had the basics.

Not to say it’s been perfect – I’m still fiddling with it, and just rearranged a pretty major scene yesterday – but the framework is there and I can live with that.

And from there, I can move forward – something I haven’t been able to do for months.

 

‘The Quiet Man’ and Secondary Characters Revisited

I’ve been struggling with my young adult novel, and whenever I find myself floundering, I turn to writing books to kick-start the brain, and look at things from a different perspective. This time, I picked up The Breakout Novelist:  How to Craft Novels That Stand Out and Sell by Donald Maass.

One thing I was struggling with was my secondary characters. I don’t know why exactly, but in my previous novels, my secondary characters have been great – they come onstage, they fulfill their roles, and sometimes they even take over scenes. They have voices, backgrounds, traits, goals and dreams. They both further and hinder my protagonists. Which is precisely what a good secondary character should do. But in my YA novel – not so much!

Maass emphasizes that your secondary characters need a purpose. Are they there to be sidekicks to your MC, like Ron and Hermione were for Harry Potter? Are they there to be your MC’s antagonists (like Draco Malfoy)? How do they further the plot, and what role do they play in that (Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Mad-Eye Moody)? If your secondary characters don’t do anything other than be a talking head (unless you’re talking about Bob the Skull from Harry Dresden), then there’s room for improvement.

the quiet manAs I mulled this over (and continue to mull this over), I was delighted to find one of my favorite movies on TV yesterday – John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, it’s about an American boxer who goes back home to Ireland after a tragic incident in the ring, and falls in love with the sister of the town bully. I love this movie – it’s so well-written, so wry and funny. It’s got great tension and conflict. But what struck me as I watched it yesterday is how much the secondary characters play a role!

Sean Thornton (John Wayne) arrives in Ireland to find Michaleen O’Flynn waiting for him at the train station. He’ll be Sean’s sidekick, giving him sage advice, acting as his mediator, and educating him on the social conduct of Ireland (“‘Tis a bold, shameful man you are, Sean Thornton! And who taught you to be playing patty-fingers in the holy water?”) 🙂

Then there’s Will Danahur, the brother of Mary Kate, Sean’s love interest. A typical selfish bully, Danahur has one weakness:  he’s in love with the Widow Tillane. When Sean outbids Danahur on a cottage (owned by the Widow Tillane), he swears vengeance, and when Sean asks for Mary Kate’s hand in marriage, he denies the request.

Enter two more secondary characters, the Reverend Playfair and Father Lonergan. Together with Michaleen, they plot to get Danahur to change his mind by insinuating that if he got Mary Kate out of the house, the Widow Tillane might be willing to marry him. (“Two women in the house. And one of them a redhead.”) That’s not Sean’s doing! He knows nothing of it. These three take it upon themselves to change the fates of all involved. And it works – sort of. Danahur relents, only to screw things up at the wedding and then refuse to give Mary Kate her dowry. Without that, she can’t consider herself truly married.

Notice how little Sean does here? He’s the title character, but it’s this lovely cast that does the major work! Why? Because Sean’s afraid to fight. He killed a man in the ring – he didn’t mean to, but he refuses to risk it again. It’s not until he finally realizes his marriage – and his reputation – are in jeopardy that he stands up to Danahur and they have their major sprawling donnybrook (“Marquis of Queensbury Rules!”). Mary Kate, secure in the knowledge that her husband really does love her, simply saunters off, calling over her shoulder that she’ll “have the supper on when you get home.”

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2THIS IS HOW YOUR SECONDARY CHARACTERS SHOULD BEHAVE. They need to give your protagonist something to react to. If it feels like your story is growing stagnant, don’t look to plot – look to your secondary characters.

 

  • What are they doing?
  • Do they all play a role?
  • If not – cut the ones that aren’t pulling their weight.
  • Is there a way to combine two of them? If so, do it.
  • Can you give them more conflict?
  • Is there a place where one of them might work against the protagonist? Maybe they’re corrupted by the antagonist, or threatened by them, or simply have different beliefs? Highlight that.
  • Is there a place where they can provide aid or information the protagonist needs?
  • And although they won’t have a story arc to match that of your MC – your secondary characters, particularly the most important ones, probably will change over the course of the novel. Make sure we see that. Make sure it’s believable and necessary. How does that change work for or against your protagonist?
  • And . . . remember. At least some of your secondary characters are support for your MC. As you think about how to make his life more difficult, how much support can you remove, and how? Some may die. Some may change their minds, abandon the MC.
  • What about the ones that are against your MC – how can you make them stronger, more of a force that works against your MC? They have story arcs, too!
  • How do they react to your MC’s actions? Just like in real life, there’s going to be backlash for something said or done. How can this add to the tension in your novel?

I know it’s emphasized over and over again that your MC drives the novel. But the secondary characters are the foundation on which your MC’s story is built. By ensuring they’re as strong and vibrant as you can, you’ll ensure that your MC’s journey is just as compelling.

Link to Barnes & Nobel, where you can buy Donald Maass’ book:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/writing-the-breakout-novel-donald-maass/1102359686?ean=9781582971827

‘Get a Wiggle On’ in your research

You’re reading a novel. You adore the characters, you LOVE the setting, and you know the topic – it’s about one of your favorite time periods or hobbies or whatever. The author has done their job. Everything flows. Everything’s right.

Until it isn’t.

Until you reach that one sentence where your eyes stumble to a stop. You pause, confused. Because surely the author didn’t get that wrong, did they? You re-read the sentence, certain it’ll be different this time.

But it’s not.

The author has screwed up.

It might seem difficult to believe, that in today’s world of Google and online libraries and Wikipedia and multiple editors, that we could still screw up. Historical novels are especially hard to get right, unless you’ve done your research and have an expert or two in your stable, ready to set you straight if you start to go wrong.

I’m working on these issues right now with my young adult novel. It’s set in 1924, and the dialect isn’t difficult to get right – but the language is! So are a myriad of other things that I don’t know much about, and I’m having to research them.

The 1920s had a language all their own. Most of us are familiar with speakeasies, bootleggers, and flappers. But what about all the other things people said? People who grew up in the 80s can recognize each other within five minutes by the things we say. The 20s must have been the same way. 🙂 What trips me up, though, are the little sayings I keep having to look up.

For example:  there’s a scene where my main character, Nicky, needs to get out of town in order to make a run (of liquor, to a speFord17touring1 -- Abbyakeasy) on time. Originally, I had it written as:

I rolled out of Silverdale – the train was waiting at the station as I went by, and from the way she was puffing I knew I’d have to book it to get to the crossing ‘fore it did.

I probably left that sentence like that for a year before it occurred to me to wonder if ‘book it’ was even a term used in the 1920s. As it turns out, it wasn’t! But a quick internet search gave me a proper 1920s phrase instead, and the sentence became:

I rolled out of Silverdale – the train was waiting at the station as I went by, and from the way she was puffing I knew I’d have to get a wiggle on to get to the crossing ‘fore it did.

There were a lot of terms I could have used there instead, to be honest – but I liked this one.

Then there was the term ‘hot rod.’ That gave me fits! Because it was perfect for the line I had to write when the local sheriff comes to give Nicky the shakedown. But I couldn’t get around the fact that the term ‘hot rod’ didn’t come into widespread use until sometime in the 1930s. So I had to default to ‘roadster.’

On top of that, I have to get the car stuff right, because Nicky’s a car guy. He loves his runner more than life, I think. 🙂 So I had to do a lot of research on that, especially since I love cars, but I can’t tell you anything about the mechanical workings of them. I knew I had a kid with a 1916 Model T and a 1917 Cadillac V-8 and how would he marry them together to form a complete car? I’ve got notes scribbled all over about car dimensions, Cadillac ignition systems, and my Holy of Holies, a 1917 car manual that covers almost every car ever made in that year, including diagrams of all the engines (courtesy a trip to my favorite local antiques store, of all things!). And then there’s the greatest writing trick of all:  vagueness. 

Another favorite trick for this novel is newspaper articles. Since Nicky needs to know what’s going on in his world, he reads the local paper constantly. LOVE the fact that my library has them on microfilm! So easy to work them into the narrative – in fact, there’s one very key scene in which Nicky infiltrates an actual event covered in one article. It’s probably my favorite scene in the book, and the speakers’ words are 90% verbatim from the article. (Yes, it will be cited properly if it’s ever published, thank you.)

Here’s a sad fact:  most of your research will never make it into your book. Diana Gabaldon has a great story about this in her Outlandish Companion – when she was researching Dragonfly in Amber, she ran across some information on how the ladies of the aristocracy used the bathroom at lavish soirees, in those enormous hoop skirts. So how did they do it? Let’s leave it at this:  if you have ever wanted a genuine antique carpet, hold that thought. Forever. 🙂 

So don’t let writing history scare you – there’s loads of resources out there. But don’t get complacent, either.

Here’s some links to 1920s – or Jazz Age – language, if you’re interested. 🙂

http://thoughtcatalog.com/nico-lang/2013/09/59-quick-slang-phrases-from-the-1920s-we-should-start-using-again/

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/10/how-sound-bees-knees-dictionary-1920s-slang/322320/

http://home.earthlink.net/~dlarkins/slang-pg.htm

And, because she’s my hero, an interview with Diana Gabaldon about (in part) her research process:  http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2015/01/08/an-interview-with-diana-gabaldon/

When Less is More

It’s something we all hear from time to time – less is more.

But when it comes to writing, what does that mean, exactly?

Yesterday, as I was working on my young adult novel, I was reminded yet again of this adage, and how it affects my writing – generally for the better.

Most writing books will have something to say on this topic. Stephen King will tell you that adverbs are the work of the devil. A lot of writers will tell you that dialogue tags are the first thing that need to go in a manuscript (which has some merit; after all, if your dialogue and action don’t tell who’s talking, then you’ve got some work to do). Description? Of course you need it, but do you need ten pages of description? Probably not. That’s why it’s so important to work details like that into the narrative.

(I read the first page of a manuscript once where it was nothing – nothing! – but a description of this spaceship. I was so bored and confused by the end of the first paragraph that I told him to start with a character and the character’s problem, and work these details in later.)

So yesterday. I was working on my manuscript and I had several places where there were ‘problem sentences’ – sentences that didn’t quite make sense in the context to the scene, that needed rewritten.

Or did they?

Take for instance this one (problem sentence is in bold):

Bart hauled me to my feet and tucked his gun away. “Scrappy little thing, aren’t you?”

“I don’t take nothing off nobody,” I said.

He laughed. “I can see that.”

“Bart.” Sally’s voice came down the hall. “Bring the kid in here.”

And then he dragged me down the hall and into that room. 

Next to that line, I scribbled Why? She needs to ask why Bart has Nicky in the basement. And then I realized that just down the page a bit, she does ask. And so – voila! Less is more.

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Cut the problem line, and it reads just fine.

I can’t tell you how many times that trick has saved a scene for me. Here’s another example:

He stared at me, and for the first time since I’d known him, I saw fear, real fear, in his eyes. “You met Collins? He was there?”

“He liked Abby real well.” I bit the inside of my cheek, trying real hard to hang on to my temper. “Told me it’s a sin to take another man’s runner.”

“He’d know.” Simon picked up another apple, but he didn’t take a bite. “He say anything else?”

This is an example of a time when I had one thing planned for this scene, but by the time the entire thing was written and done, this line didn’t make sense anymore. Through several drafts, I kept coming back to it, wondering if I should – or could – make it work, if there was a way to revise it. And then, finally, I just cut it. And guess what? It works fine.

Of course, it’s not just about a line here or there (though if you’re trying to cut your word count, that does help). It’s also about entire scenes. For example, in this novel, my MC, Nicky, is a rumrunner in 1924. I had a pivotal scene drafted in which he needs to leave at a certain time to make a delivery to a hotel, but Bart delays him – and the next day, they find out that revenuers were patrolling that road at the time Nicky would have been there. But the hotel they were delivering to didn’t exist in 1924. So that kept bothering me. I’m a stickler for historical accuracy. In fact, at one point in the manuscript I wrote The Gueda Springs Hotel is a problem for them AND me! 🙂

But. I had this other thing in the back of my mind – a local Klan parade that I just hadn’t worked into the narrative yet, though I knew it was important. Finally, yesterday, the two clicked (I literally saw the light going on in my head!) and both problems got solved. Rather that mess with the hotel, I changed the scene so that Bart keeps him from getting caught up in the Klan parade (because in the 1920s, the Klan hated bootleggers more than they hated just about anyone). That made me very happy.

Sometimes, sadly, you do have to ‘murder your darlings.’ Entire scenes get cut. Characters get the axe. Ideas don’t work. But sometimes, it works out for the best. And sometimes, rather than fuss with one line that doesn’t make a lot of sense . . . you can just cut it.

Less really can be more. 🙂