Sunday, November 1, 2015

How do you finish a first draft? Low Expectations

 The trick to writing and finishing a first draft of a novel is simple. Ready? Low expectations. I’m not saying you should adopt this as a philosophy for life, but for a first draft of a novel,  absolutely. A first draft is a pale version of what you will eventually revise your novel into. If you accept that, you can allow yourself, give yourself permission,  to write it, to progress onward through the fog. Yes, the draft will be very much less than you want. Yes it will be so much less than the best you can do.  Yes, yes. But constantly stopping to revise, being disappointed by the awkward language or the less than compelling narrative or the development of character, can wear you down and cause you to give up.  And that means never finishing. LOOK, of course, sometimes you should give up. Sometimes the draft just isn’t working. But many times writers quit simply because they get discouraged by how much less their first draft is than the vague but compelling first vision they had for their story. Don’t let that stop you.        


            One way I think about this is my first draft is like a movie that is out of focus, and with a soundtrack that’s a little off--bits of dialogue going in and out, the wrong songs…you get the idea.  My first draft might have nice moments here and there but overall it’s an embarrassment.  My next drafts are my attempts to bring the story into focus. I do this in a number of ways. I make my description more concrete, more sensory. I tighten info dumps. I give dialogue subtext. I work on the precision and flow of my language. I go through the plot for weak moments. I deepen characters. I try to make motivations clearer and on and on…there are so many things I do. And I get to do this because that’s what REVISION is. And for me writing is revising. I get something on the page and then I work with it and work with it and it gets closer to that vision that  inspired me to want to write the story in the first place.
            But to get to that I have to endure the first draft, parts of which, by the way, are very fun because I discover all kinds of things. That said, it’s never easy—low expectations.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Characters Who Surprise

There are so many things to talk about when you get to thinking about character. We want characters who surprise us--in a good way. By that I mean not in a WTF way--that character would never act like that. Or, I don't understand at all why that character would do what he did or think what he thought. One of the surest ways to lose a reader is to have them feel a character is inauthentic, that he is doing things because the author needs him/her to do them. But a real surprise that fits with the character, those can really involve a reader.

One way to do this is to have the character play against a certain Trope. See this clip from Firefly for a great example of this. The hero acts in a very different way than most heroes and it both reveals characters and entertains...

Another way to do this is to make a character act against some controlling belief they have in themselves. Like they think they're evil and they have done lots of evil things because of this. But some shift in the plot causes them to see the event or time that makes them believe themselves evil in a different light. This causes them to do something that is surprising and different and that also makes their character grow. Anytime a character's actions can advance both character and plot, that's a good thing.

Another way to make a character different (and so surprising) is just to put a character in a situation that would usually be taken by a different kind of character. Make a Buffy a vampire slayer instead of the heroic warrior or make a detective have some personality trait that seems like it would make it hard for them to do the job but, in fact, also helps them to do it. For example, MONK. Not your usual tough-guy detective and interesting because of that.

In screenwriting there is this idea that audiences love the familiar and strange in plot. They want to recognize the type of story they're being told but they want to have twists to it that make them feel they're watching something that is also completely new. I think this is something to shoot for with characters. And one aspect of that is creating surprises.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Story ideas are everywhere

When people learn I'm a writer (at a party or some social event--not a writing function), they often tell me they have an "idea" for a story. It is a great idea they tell me. An idea so original that they are certain it will make them a million dollars. They simply don't have time to write it. Maybe I would like to write it and we'll split the profit 50/50?


Their idea--if they manage to tell me over my protests that I couldn't possibly rob them of half their million dollars simply for writing a few hundred pages --is usually very bad. It frequently isn't even an idea, just a vague notion or a family anecdote.

But even good ideas are fairly common.

An idea for a story, to me, involves a character in some kind of situation. In my writing class last week, after some examples, I broke my class up into four groups and gave them each ten minutes to come up with ten story ideas. All four groups did and two of them came up with more than ten. In ten minutes, the class had 45 story ideas. Granted, not all of them were stellar, but many of them were pretty darn good. This just illustrates how ideas are everywhere. The hard part is not coming up with  ideas but developing them into a full story. If you find the right idea--one you can be passionate about as a writer, one that engages and interests you--that is a great start to writing a story.

Or so I think today.

Friday, July 10, 2015

give yourself time--- between drafts and revision

If you're like me you have a love/hate relationship with your work. You get really excited about a sentence you write or a cool idea or a cool new character. You feel good about it all. Then you feel really bad. Then good again. It's great. It's terrible. But as you work through drafts, you feel better. The story seems to come together. Many aspects of the work that were out of focus are more in focus. You improve your sentences. Your characters are more in the scenes, more real, more developed. They have depth--yes they do.  It all seems to be going somewhere. Hallelujah.

And then there comes the moment when you think you are finished. You have done everything you can. You're done.
Probably not.
Do not be fooled.
If you're like me, you're seeing a manuscript that has been greatly improved by many drafts. You're seeing something that is so, so much better than that first draft. You're  thinking about the cool things in the manuscript and accepting the weakness as not all that weak. You want to believe they're small and of little consequence, like a few tiny chips in armor. Nothing to worry about. And the cool things. Come on,  so cool--it's good--a good story.

This is the point where you need at least a month to get far enough away from the manuscript that you can see that though the cool things might still be cool, those weaknesses of the manuscript are real and need to be worked on. And you will also see that there are other problems you couldn't see before. Sure, it's a little disappointing that after many drafts there are still a lot of areas that need work. But doing this final revision, working on these weaknesses, can be the difference between a pretty good manuscript and a very good one.

Give yourself time and distance from your work AFTER you think it's  ready to go. Doing this has really helped me.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"And know the place for the first time"

 from T.S. Eliot “Little Gidding”

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time"

I was thinking about the Hero's Journey and the way that some writers use it as a method of story structure and I saw this quote and I thought--yeah, that's it. The stages and the specifics of the "journey" structure can be somewhat helpful if not followed too closely, but this right here is what I'm trying to get at with my quest story.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bad Writing Advice: write what you know

If we could only write what we know there would be no Harry Potter, no One Hundred Years of Solitude, no Red Badge of Courage. So many great novels would have never been written because the writer tried to stay on the narrow road of his own experience. Don't write what you know. Write what you can imagine. OK, you can write what you know--sure. BUT you don't have to.

I do think this advice has some truth in it. You have to be emotionally engaged in what you write and you have to find experiences in your own life that will help you be emotionally engaged. These experiences might come from actual life but they can also come from things you've read  or watched in a movies or over-heard at a party. Whatever you use, it is only raw material. For me, at some point, imagination will transform these kernels of experience into something very different, something that fits in the story.

Write what you know is, for some of us, like wearing a straight-jacket. We might as well be coloring by number. Our characters and our worlds won't breathe. There will be no life. Write what you want: What you know, what you can imagine, what you over-hear, read, see, whatever gets your work done.

Or so I think today.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Here's a link to a post I wrote on why character is not plot. I'm thinking about plot a lot lately because I struggle with it so much and because I see other writers struggle with it so much. You have to be able to do a lot of things to get novels published and plot is one of them. But plot was hardly mentioned at all in any of the writing classes I took in college. I think part of that was most of the teachers didn't understand it and part of it was they thought it didn't belong in a discussion of "serious" fiction. But look at the best books. They're good stories first. All the other pleasures come out of that. There are a few that are primarily about other things, like language, but these are the exception. Most good and great novels are good stories first.
 Here's some thoughts on plot and character:

Also, a new video for my novel, UTOPIA, IOWA. Thanks for watching.