Archive for the ‘Writing Advice’ Category

The Door Into Scene

Scenes are the building blocks of the long story.

Scenes are the building blocks of the long story.

One simple step can save your next scene.

Even with the loosest of plot outlines, authors usually have an idea of the next thing that can happen. But there are always options. Refer to the action or insight in a narrative bridge? Bring it on stage by itself? Tuck the information bit by bit into several scenes?

“Forward the plot” is the usual scene advice. But even following that criteria it’s  easy to write tepid, low-interest scenes. So how do we sort out the on-target and meaningful next sequence?

Let your intuition help

Here’s a quick way to help you open the right door into the next scene: Give it a title.

It doesn’t need to be catchy or meaningful to anyone else. But to you, it reflects the dramatic essence of this sequence. Examples from my work in progress:

Blood on the silver screen Read More…

Aphids in the story

Have you got aphids in your story?

aphidAphids are today’s metaphor for repetitive and unnecessary words, paragraphs, and scenes that can suck the life out of your story. Aphids undermine the health of your story by:

  • destroying the pacing
  • inserting flab into lines and pages
  • sending the plot wandering

The story may be strong in all other respects, but flab and even short detours can cause readers to grow bored and annoyed. I’m the last person who should tell you to write tight and short, since I enjoy evocative writing. However, that style is no excuse for aphids.

Look for aphids when you’re ready to revise. Adopt a hunter attitude. You’re going to kill these sap sucking little beasts. You’ll be wearing your editor hat for this task, and adopting an editor’s attitude.

Macro level bugs.

Take a look at your chapter and scene openings. Set up paragraphs showing the character traveling, arriving, and thinking about arriving are tiny little story killers. Begin in the middle of a conversation, or at least when the door is already open and the main character’s ex-wife is standing there, frowning. Aftermath sequences where we consider what just happened guarantee that nothing happens right now. Sometimes you gotta have them, but cut out most of them, or piggy back such internal narrative on scenes that do forward the action. Beware of scenes without plot or structural purpose.

Why? Again, pacing. You don’t need one big action scene after the next, but be fearless in cutting scenes when there is no mission the scene delivers.

At the story level, pacing is a tricky element to get right. Your story’s ideal pacing will be dictated by your material and the style of book you’re writing. Also, the amount of description and context will be influenced by the inherent interest of your milieu. One trick I use to grab an overview is to make a list of every scene (whether or not it’s a chapter) and state what the forward movement is, or the vital mission. I rate the scenes from 1 to 5 for conflict and tension. Too many 2s and 3s, and I can suspect pacing is an issue.

It’s easier for readers to forgive background, exposition and character portraits early on in a book,

10% Solution

when the author is providing context and set up for the story. But after the middle of the novel slow pacing becomes a good excuse to put a novel down.

Micro level critters.

At the line level, watch for those life-sucking little quirks that wilt lines in a hurry: liberal use of adjectives, adverbs, and just plain too many words, saying things twice, plus repeating yourself. Any good book on editing will give you cringe-worthy lists of words or syllables that are indicators of aphids at work, such as -ly, -ion, of, that, was, were.

One of the best is Ken Rand’s concise and classic guide, The 10% Solution.

The Garden as a Whole.

IMAG0206It’s amazing how the quality of the whole story can be undermined by things as  small as habitual word choice and a few extraneous paragraphs. But when we consider the experience of the reader, isn’t it true that the pages themselves have to flourish and shine? Every page we write gives the reader either another reason to go on or reason to consider setting this one aside. At the rate people are downloading books onto reading devices, they always have something else to read. I know I do.

Pick up a page of your manuscript at random. How inherently interesting is it? How many critters lurk in the lines?

It is undoubtedly hard to rewrite. Sometimes we get revision blindness because we’re so close to the work that the critters easily hide from us.

A few diagnostic questions.

Here are some questions I use when searching for flab in my stories.

  • Why will anyone care about this scene? What is the point, here?
  • Is there enough tension in this scene? How far have I strayed from strong emotion?
  • Could I cut 10% from this page without hurting it? (Try it!)
  • Am I using a “cinematic eye”? In this movie-obsessed age, I try to remember that my novel is not a movie. In spite of the fact that I may see a movie in my head, I will never convey this movie by writing visual descriptions.
  • Are there opportunities to accelerate the pace after the midpoint, and then further in the book’s last quarter?

If we’ve worked hard at premise, story, and character, let’s not drop the ball with this part of the execution. The pace of your story and the experience of the reader at the line level will have a huge impact on its appeal.

Discouraged writer walks into a bar…

. . . and it was full of other discouraged writers.

OK, lame joke. But sometimes you just have to laugh. It’s that aggravating. Writing, I mean.

The novel being constructed.

The novel being constructed.

What keeps us at it? Naked ambition. Or, more generously: Love. An idiotic addiction to storytelling. Actually, I haven’t figured this out yet. There are a bunch of reasons not to write, certainly: It’s tough to get published, or if you go indie, tough to find readers; it’s tough to keep readers. Also:

  • Annoying, bad reviews,
  • WIPs that won’t catch fire.
  • The doldrums where nothing much gets done despite best intentions.
  • Watching dreck sell like crazy.
  • Getting carpel tunnel from too much keyboarding.
  • People asking “When they’re going to make a move out of your novel.”

But stop me before I head to the bar.

Really, though. There are decent reasons to write, but it’s just a bit elusive to pin them down. This morning my list is:

  • The amazing experience of plumbing your own depths for a story, and miraculously finding one.
  • Membership in a community of other people who find storytelling an important way to spend time (i.e., other writers).
  • Hearing from readers who found your story meaningful, fun, or both!
  • The odd and mystical experience of loving certain characters one has (after all) made up.

    My Summer Vacation, or Existential Dread.

    My Summer Vacation, or Existential Dread.

  • Reprieve from the incessant demands of other options: finding a real job, paying attention to politics, cleaning closets, and using that exercise machine now doing time as a clothes rack.
  • Keeping existential dread at bay. Um. Just threw that in there, though at some level I believe its true.

I’d like to hear your reasons. But please don’t say: “I can’t not write.” Yes you can. There are always choices. Best to try once in a while to articulate why you chose this exasperating, random, and often rewarding life of a writer.  Make a list. It might provide some surprises.

And keep you from griping in the bar at conventions.

A community of writers, e.g., Mike Resnick, Greg Bear, Peter Orullian, Louise Marley, Sharon Shinn, Jay Lake and daughter Bronwyn, J.A. Jance and her dachshund.



Photo credit: Harry Brink

Jay & Bronwyn

On fear of cons

I’m recently back from WorldCon (Sasquan) in Spokane. There were panels on topics related to books, writing, science, fandom, and issues related to futurism and the changing world. Plus gaming, film, costuming, a great writers’ workshop and schmoozing in the bar.

I meet some aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers who have never been to a con. Many beginning writers are oddly reluctant to learn about the industry which they are so keen to be a part of. Here are some of the excuses I hear: Read More…

Got a question?

If you have a question or two you’d like to ask me about my writing or writing in general, now’s a good time.

GoodreadsI’ve just started participating in Goodreads “Ask the Author” feature. We can talk about stuff like:

  • upcoming books
  • writing process
  • published work
  • breaking in
  • the publishing industry

Next time you’re on Goodreads, navigate over and we’ll talk!