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.

 

Advertisements

The Manuscript is Not Sacred!!

A little while back, I posted about how blindsided I was by the manuscript I’m currently editing. How many things were wrong with it. How many Post-It Notes I have used (an entire stack!). How much ink has been spilled in corrections, cuts, and extensive notes.

But every time I try to sit down and actually make those revisions . . . my fingers still on the keyboard.

I know enough to listen to that feeling. I know there are scenes that just have to go. I know there are others to be put in. But something else was bothering me, as I tried to make my fingers and brain work, something that had nothing to do with the amount of work involved, or how daunting all this was. Been there, done that.

It was the fact that in some small way, I was thinking about this manuscript almost as something sacred.

The fault lies with me. We all get these ideas about things. We remember the taste of something being better than what it really is. We remember reading a book in one sitting – then going back to read it a second time, a few months later, and suddenly realizing that it totally sucks (Twilight and The Clan of the Cave Bear, I’m looking at you!). Or a house being bigger, or our parents being perfect.

That’s the way I was with this manuscript. Even though I had the evidence – 50+ Post-It Notes, scribbles on every page, a mountain of comments in my journal – to provide otherwise, the sad fact was . . . I’d spent so long on this project, put so much of myself into it, loved certain scenes and passages so much, that there was this block in my mind.

So tonight, faced with yet another round of staring at the computer screen, dreading the moment I opened that file . . . I instead decided to confront my issues head-on.

Okay. So what are my problems here?!

I think part of it is still feeling blindsided by how much work there is to do to this thing. I have to get over that. Even if all those edits I made to the manuscript end up being thrown out later, I have to make them. I have to get motivated on this!

A huge part of it is simply – where do I even START?! I have no idea! There are so many issues and so many things wrong that it honestly feels like I need to take the first few chapters, put them in a new file, and then just go from there. Rewrite the entire thing, blank slate, without the cumbersome burden of what I already have. Maybe that’s what’s holding me back – not knowing what to do with what I already have. I don’t want to toss it all. There’s some really excellent things in there. Things that have to stay. But on the other hand – it’s also holding me back. It’s a mental block. It feels like a sacred thing that I can’t deface.

Well. I have to get over that, too. It’s not sacred. It’s a creation. It evolves. As my writing evolves, so does this manuscript. As my writing changes, as my characters change, so does this manuscript. Nothing stays the same. The writing I do now is not the writing I was capable of doing a few years ago, when I drafted this. I have to keep that in mind. The tone and style I wrote Book 1 in, is not the same tone and style that this is written in. All of Erin’s quips and snark is gone – it’s there in the end, sure, and that’s part of the reason why I love the ending so much. But in the middle, it’s nowhere to be found. She’s just whining about the demon. And that’s it, really – she whines. For like 100 pages straight!

And that has to change, too.

So does Kai. Well. Not change as much as just take on more of a role. It’s one of the things that bothers me, the transition from where they are in Book 1, to where they need to be in Book 2. It’s a bit too sudden, maybe, and Kai still isn’t quite trusting her. She still has tons of questions about how he saved her from Rebecca – and the demon. Questions he won’t answer. Is she okay with that? The tension between them feels forced, and not organic. That has to change. That’s a huge issue for me.

Wow. So. I feel better now! I know what the problem is – and much as I hate to say it, I know how to fix it, too. Rip it apart and start from scratch. I know it means a lot of scenes may not return. I know it means that things are going to be cut. I have to be okay with that. And I think I am. I think I know what’s strong and what isn’t, and I think I know what I can leave on the table and what I can use again.

I mean, what I wrote isn’t GONE. It’s not like it won’t be there, in some draft. Maybe it can be used in a different book, like the scene with Abigail. Scenes can be recycled, you know. J Lines, dialogue, situations, even just the germs of the scenes can go in other books. It’s not the end of the world.

I do feel a bit better now, having written that. In her book Write it Down, Make it Happen, Henriette Klauser says that sometimes, just writing down all of our fears makes us feel better, because we know. They aren’t lurking in the shadows anymore (like the Turbo Tax commercial!) – they’re out in the open, and once our fears are in the open, we can figure out how to deal with them.

Maybe this wasn’t helpful for anyone else – but if you’re having issues with something you’re working, try writing about it. Just let the fingers do the talking and see what comes of it. It might be nothing. But then again, you might just find a nugget you can use to go forward.

Either way, please remember:  in rewrites, your manuscript isn’t sacred. 🙂

Are You Tough Enough . . . for Rewrites?

Rewrites are really tough.

I don’t mean the nit-picky line edits to catch grammar and spelling errors. I mean the kind of rewrites that require you to rip apart entire scenes and stitch them back together, then rewrite the segues between chapters. The kind that make you look at characterization and character arcs.

We always draft our novels, hesitate over things that don’t seem quite right, and say ‘Well, that’s what rewrites are for!’ but the fact is – rewrites are bloody hard work. 

But. If you ever want your manuscript to see the light of day, you have to do them. Seriously. Think about it. How many times have you read a novel where you threw it across the room because it a.) was poorly edited, b.) had major plot holes, c.) characters did things out of character, or d.) ___ (insert reason here). This is why YOU have to do them – so no one, hopefully, throws your book across a room.

I just finished rewrites on the first novel in my urban fantasy series (which – I am hoping – may actually meet an agent this year), and now that it’s off to my beta readers, I’ve started re-reading and editing the second book.

Here’s the thing:  in my mind, that book was already done. In fact, that book was originally Book #1 of the series, but – well, I discussed this in another blog post ( https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/wrong-path-wrong-focus-whats-your-novel-really-about/ ). It had issues, I knew, but nothing on the scale of the one I was currently working on. Suffice to say that for the past few months, while I’ve been frantically editing and rewriting on Book #1, I’ve been consoled by a single thought:  Book #2 isn’t as bad. In fact, it’s really good. I remember it flows well and the characters do great things and it’s funny and full of tension. It’ll need a few tweaks, is all. 

HAH!!!!

OMG. I long for those halcyon days. They were what, four days ago?!

I’m about halfway through the first read of the draft of Book #2, and I can’t believe I thought this was anywhere close to being done. It’s not. It’s SO not.

I suppose every writer goes through this. Neil Gaiman, when he came to Tulsa, told us that there’s a point about halfway through his books where he calls his agent and tells her he can’t do this and the book sucks and he’s a horrible writer (and his agent says “Oh, you’re at that point in the book.”). In her book Write Naked, Jennifer Probst talks about her rewriting woes as well (in fact, she tells a story about her editor calling with a bombshell:  the book sucks, and you need to rewrite the entire thing in seven days. Probst told her editor that she had two small children, and rewriting an entire book in seven days would be problematic – to which the editor said, “Well, you’ll just have to give your children away for the week.”).

And it’s not even so much that I have to do the rewrites – I knew that was coming – it’s the fact that I could be So Freaking Wrong about how good I thought this manuscript was! The book I have in my memory was 85% complete. It needed tweaked. I remembered a couple of scenes that needed some work, and a few that I wanted to move around for better flow, but after that . . . in truth, I was thinking I’d have this thing wrapped up in a week or two.

Yeah. Well. No.

Maybe this is like when you break up with someone, and after a few months, they want to get back together, and you’ve conveniently forgotten why you broke up with them in the first place. You forgot the hideous laugh, or the crude humor, or the way he strips his transmission rather than go into the proper gear, or . . . whatever it is, you forget it. Then, when you’re back together, poof! You remember!

Like I said, I’m about halfway through that first read-through, making notes and sticking turquoise Post-It Notes to nearly every page. Sometimes two or three per page. Realizing, as I go, that this isn’t a quick fix, and it’s not an ‘edit the existing manuscript’ thing, even.

It’s a let’s rewrite this entire manuscript thing.

As I’m reading, I’m struck by several factors that I can’t believe I forgot about. They must have been there – and not lurking in the shadows, either, but right there out in the open. Nearly every page has entire paragraphs that are circled, with a big black REWRITE next to it. A lot of things that were changed in Book 1 need to be addressed – new events, thing that got switched out between Books 1 and 2, motivations. My entire Chapter 1 has to be trashed and redone. Scenes don’t flow – in fact, they don’t even go together in some cases! It’s confusing, convoluted, and crap.

I have the glimmer of some goodness. Some scenes are okay. Some paragraphs are all right. Some sentences can even be left alone. If I can figure out how to fit them back in and where they go, anyway. But overall? IT’S CRAP!

I’m tempted to start rewrites right away, but I need to finish this re-read first. I know it will be a total rewrite. I also know I can do it – but I feel so blindsided! How the hell did I think this was any good?! How?!

My saving grace, I think, is that since I just finished the rewrites to Book 1, I’m in the right mindset to be brutal for these. With Book 1, I was downright brutal – I cut entire scenes! If a scene didn’t propel the story forward, ask or answer questions, and hold my attention, it got cut. By the time I was done, I  was so close to it that I don’t know if I accomplished that or not. We often refer to books as ‘babies,’ but the fact is, when you reach a certain point in the writing/rewriting cycle, that ain’t your baby anymore – it’s the freaking enemy, and all you want to do is defeat it, by any means necessary!

And since I’m still in that ‘it’s the enemy!’ mindset – I’m ready to be brutal!

Yes, rewrites are tough.

We, as writers, have to be tougher.

 

My blog post about seeing Neil Gaiman in Tulsa:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/a-magical-evening-with-neil-gaiman/

And Jennifer Probst’s website:  http://www.jenniferprobst.com/

 

The Procrastinating Writer

If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you probably know one thing about me:

I like to procrastinate.

Well. Wait. That’s not really true. I don’t like to procrastinate; I need to procrastinate. Yes, there is a big difference.

One thing I know about my writing – or anything in my life – is this:  If it feels wrong, if it feels forced, there’s a reason for it. Something with a capital S is telling me wait a minute, hang back, let’s see where this is going, this isn’t quite right, we need to regroup . . . a bit like Bill Paxton’s character in Twister when he thinks the tornado is going to change tracks and if they keep going they’re going to be right in its path.

A lot of people procrastinate for the wrong reasons – they’re bored, or they don’t want to do the work. That’s NOT what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, until yesterday when I heard this fantastic TED talk by Adam Grant. Here’s the link:  http://www.ted.com/talks/adam_grant_the_surprising_habits_of_original_thinkers/transcript?language=en#t-300538

Grant is also the author of a book I almost bought yesterday, Originals:  How Nonconformists Move the World, and his belief is this:  procrastinators are more likely to be creative, and more likely to be world-movers, than non-procrastinators. Let me be clear:  this doesn’t apply to all procrastinators!!!!!! Some are just goof-offs and there’s nothing to be done there. But for some us – and yes, I’m including myself in this subset for one very good reason – procrastination serves a purpose.

It gives us space to think.

It gives us space to be creative.

Seriously. Walk with me for a minute. Let me explain.

We’ve all had writer’s block, yes? I don’t need to explain the mechanics of it to you – the numbing doubts, the overwhelming choices, the dread of putting fingers to keyboard and finding nothing there. Some will tell you it doesn’t even exist; some will tell you the only way to get through it is to keep writing, even if it’s nothing more than dribbles of cold pudding. Write, damn it! Write! Write! Write! Sort of like a prison guard telling prisoners to move these cement blocks over here and stack them and now take them and move them over there and don’t you dare stop! There’s no purpose to moving the cement blocks; it’s just something to keep the prisoners active. Writing, when you have writer’s block, can be the same way.

Here’s what I find, and this was the big revelation for me in Grant’s TED talk:  procrastinating gives you the chance to, as he puts it, “doubt the default.” You were 100% sure your novel was going in X direction. But then you get writer’s block. Why? Maybe your brain is doubting the default. Maybe this isn’t the best idea after all. Maybe it’s trite, overdone. Maybe it’s not what your characters would really do. Maybe, if you walk away for a bit, you’ll come up with something better. Here’s what Grant had to say about that:

Vuja de is when you look at something you’ve seen many times before and all of a sudden see it with fresh eyes. It’s a screenwriter who looks at a movie script that can’t get the green light for more than half a century. In every past version, the main character has been an evil queen. But Jennifer Lee starts to question whether that makes sense. She rewrites the first act, reinvents the villain as a tortured hero and ‘Frozen’ becomes the most successful animated movie ever. So there’s a simple message from this story. When you feel doubt, don’t let it go.”

Because here’s the thing:  your brain doesn’t stop thinking about your novel and your characters just because you’re not writing actively. It’s still processing. Somewhere, deep inside, little gears and gizmos are whirling away. Or alternatively, your characters are waiting for you to listen to them again. However you personally look at it. 🙂 Grant noticed this, too:  he said that one reason we like to-do lists is because once we cross something off the list, we can stop thinking about it. But those ideas we procrastinate on? We can’t cross those off the list. They’re just – there. So our brain works on them. We may not know what to do about them. We may not want to do anything about them. We may not know what direction to take next. It’s okay.

We’re procrastinating with a purpose.

Grant talked about this as well. He was writing the book I mentioned above, and had a chapter on procrastination. So:

I thought, “This is the perfect time to teach myself to procrastinate, while writing a chapter on procrastination.” So I metaprocrastinated, and like any self-respecting procrastinator, I woke up early the next morning and I made a to-do list with steps on how to procrastinate. And then I worked diligently toward my goal of not making progress toward my goal. I started writing the procrastination chapter, and one day — I was halfway through — I literally put it away in mid-sentence for months. It was agony. But when I came back to it, I had all sorts of new ideas.

So being a procrastinator can help generate new ideas and more creative angles and solutions to problems than forcing yourself to work through to the end.

Right now, I’m stuck again on Nicky. I had that great revelation a few weeks ago about how the rest of the novel should flow, and that opened me up to a wonderful, absolutely wonderful, run of writing. But now – I’m stuck again.

I’m not worried, though. I’ve been here before. I’ll be here again, with Nicky and with other books. I’m procrastinating, but I trust the process. (Meanwhile, these two new characters just showed up on my doorstep one night to ask if I’d write their story and of course I said yes, get in queue . . . but they’ve decided they’d rather try to jump ahead of everyone else.)

So that last bit is very important – I’m not not writing. I’m still generating ideas and jotting down scenes and listening to these two characters and their crazy romance and doing research. It’s just that I know if I push it on Nicky right now, I will get crap. I don’t want crap. I don’t want to waste time on crap. More importantly, it won’t be the right crap. It won’t be anything I can work with. I know that about myself and my habits by now. Heck, even if I walk away from writing completely for a while, I know I can come back to it and pick up where I left off.

Of course, you can’t procrastinate forever. And there’s a very fine line between creatively procrastinating and being lazy. One gives you space to generate creativity; the other generates nothing.

But if you’re stuck on your novel – give it a try.

 

Here’s some other links on the same topic:

 

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

What Can Writers Learn from Movies?

A couple of years ago, there was a question posted on one of the writing forums that I belong to:  can we actually learn anything about the writing craft from watching movies and TV shows?

The person who posed the question was hard-core NO. In fact, the question wasn’t really a question as much as a challenge to prove her wrong. As I recall, it blew up into one of those multi-page virtual fistfights before the mods shut it down, because many people were arguing that there’s a lot you can learn from other forms of writing.

We always say that in order to write well, you have to read. But what about our other guilty pleasure:  TV and movies?

I say YES! If you’re willing to study them, that is.

Here’s some examples.

S1L-CartazLucifer. OMG, I love this show and the reason why is the characterization. Yes, the one-liners are great and I’m sorry, but the Prince of Darkness as a tall, dark, gorgeous Brit is just icing on my fantasy cake. 🙂 But this show takes the basic premise most of us have grown up with and does a 18o with it. Lucifer is charming, suave, elegant. But he also sees himself as both the hero of his own story, and the victim. It’s a coming-of-age story with a twist. He doesn’t see himself as the rebellious archangel gone bad. He sees himself as a son, unfairly treated and abandoned. (The show is also based on some work by Neil Gaiman, so . . . if you needed another reason to watch, there you are!) If you want an example of how the traditional villain views himself – this is the one to watch.

dpsDead Poets Society. My Philosophy class just finished watching this, and I was reminded anew of how perfectly this story unfolds and draws you in. Sure, it can be difficult to do in writing what movies can do in visuals – set the scene, drop a few hints and clues as to what’s going on – but it’s certainly something to strive for. From the opening minutes, we know we’re at a boys’ boarding school; from the cars, we see it’s the 1950s or 60s; and the convocation clearly demonstrates what the school’s motto is:  tradition, discipline, excellence. We know these are going to be part of the plot; it’s a great foreshadowing technique. We also see quite a lot of book-ending in this movie. Take, for instance, the first class in which Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) has the boys rip out the introduction to their poetry books, and encourages them to stand on their desks in order to see the world differently. Then – that last scene (that always leaves me in tears!), when the headmaster orders them to read the introduction – which they can’t do – and then, when Keating comes back to the classroom for his items . . . the boys stand on their desks in salute to him, even knowing it will result in their expulsion. The lesson is learned, for them; tradition, discipline, excellence have given way to something else.

indexDirty Dancing. Yes, I hear the groans, but again – the character development! Watch it again, and not because those of us in a certain generation still consider Patrick Swayze to be one of the most beautiful men ever. Study the characterization this time, and how the different plots weave together seamlessly and merge in the ending. Look at the themes and the symbolism, like the lift. The lift is about trust, which is one of the reasons why Baby can never do it – until the very end. And watch how the different characters evolve and change, even the minor characters like Lisa. (For this, you need the full version; I swear I see new scenes in this movie every time I watch it!) And watch how the characters’ internal struggles are actually more important than the external forces acting on them. There are no real villains in this story – not even, I would argue, Robbie the Creep. Yet there’s conflict.

76e94e70-1d77-40c7-83bc-ffdf4ab3a32cThe X-Files, Doctor Who, and Supernatural. Yes, I just love them, but . . . even if you’ve never seen them, go online and read synopses of the seasons. What do you see? Story arcs! (Okay, to be clear, I’m talking about The X-Files the way it used to be, not that 6-episode whatsit that Chris Carter gave us in January.) Doctor Who is probably the best at this, back in the days of Russell T. Davies. Clues left in the first episode were perfectly slotted into place in that last episode. Some carried over into the next season, even. For example:  River Song. We firs meet her in “The Forbidden Library,” with David Tenant’s 10th Doctor. She clearly knows him, and knows him well. The question is, how? We don’t really know . . . until three seasons later! Look at the first season of Supernatural. Sam and Dean have two goals:  find their father, and hunt down the demon that killed their mother and Sam’s girlfriend. Yes, there are stand-alone episodes in which they are hunting monsters, but everything comes back to focus on those two goals.

In fact – I think most writers should study how TV series are structured. Study episodes. Look how they open; look at the resolution. Look at all the conflict in each one. Study the flow. Can you make your chapters do this? You should! The best-written chapters, especially for thrillers and mysteries, end on mini-cliffhangers. Never let the reader go. Each chapter should work hard to move the story and all the plotlines forward.

You may not like shows that I do, or movies that I do – but start studying your own favorites. If you’re a writer, chances are that you already like well-written shows with great characters and excellent story telling – you just might not be aware of it. Yet! 🙂