Posted in writing

Valuable Feedback

One tool that can make the biggest impact for writing is feedback. You might have written what you think is the world’s greatest novel, but if your readers don’t agree, you’ll be stuck with a manuscript that doesn’t sell. The easiest way to find out what others think is to get feedback—be that through critique partners or beta readers.

Getting that feedback can be difficult however. Writing takes a lot of effort and it can occasionally feel a little daunting to ask for someone to read what you’ve written and tell you what they think. At the same time, knowing what is and isn’t working from an outside perspective is a goldmine.

There are a few things to keep in mind when getting feedback.

It shouldn’t tear you down. Very, very rarely is it aimed as a personal attack. When you hear that something isn’t working, it can sting, and for good reason: you’ve spent a lot of time with this story already. It’s very rarely aimed at you as a person, it’s strictly a comment on what isn’t working for that reader.

It’s not all good stuff. Similarly to the above, your feedback shouldn’t be all compliments and fluff. While it might feel great at first, it’s not likely to give you good, useable information on how you can improve. That isn’t to say a compliment isn’t useful at all. Targeted compliments can often highlight things you’re doing well that you can help to strengthen your weak spots.

Multiple sources are fantastic. I know, getting feedback from one person seems daunting, never mind getting feedback from several.  However, if you have five people and three of them highlight a particular passage as being difficult, you know for sure that you need to address it. If however, only one of the five highlights a passage, you can use your judgement on whether or not you need to follow their suggestions.

It’s only suggestions. At the end of the day, even if you have a full editorial critique, you are the writer. That ultimately means you get to decide if you want to act on a suggestion or not. That’s all feedback is, is giving a suggestion on how things could be improved. Since writing is art and art is subjective, not every suggestion will be one you agree with. You don’t have to follow them all.    

Posted in blogging, writing

Personal Writing Process

I’m a firm believer that the writing process is different for every writer. While some of us dive headlong into the story with minimal planning, others take days, weeks and even months to plot, research and develop the story and characters before we ever put a word on the page. And many, many of us fall somewhere in the weird spectrum between plotting and discovering.

Thinking on that made me curious: what does the process look like for each writer? What are some of the ways we all differ from one another and what are the techniques that work best for each of us?

To answer that, I wanted to look at my personal process, from rough draft all the way up to a finished piece.

Normally any story for me ‘starts’ when I get an idea. If I’m in the middle of writing another piece, I tend to jot down a couple of notes on it—maybe a line or a word including with any known Characters, Antagonists, Reasonings, Obstacles, Themes or Titles and possibly the Setting. I’ve been using it for years and it works for me to hold onto a possible idea until I can come back to it.

Starting on the story itself is pretty easy. Recently I’ve moved away from rough drafts and into zero drafts—or, rather, what I typically end up titling as a Story Run. Rather than writing full chapters, I limit myself to ten or fifteen minutes to write a scene. Often because I’m racing to get the words down before the timer rings, I don’t have the option to stop and think, which prevents me from getting stuck. And if I do get stuck on a particular scene, I can simply move ahead to the next scene I know about and come back to it on editing later.

Once I have a complete run I typically move off to another story for a while, letting it sit and stew. Usually I like to give at least a month between each phase of any given story. That lets me work on something else and helps give me a better perspective on what the story needs when I come back to it.

From the zero draft I start expanding, working each chunk of writing up into individual chapters. Sometimes I’ve outlined the expansion, especially when I’m missing scenes. Other times I just add more to each scene, bridging it from one to the next to get a complete rough draft.

When I start on the editing itself, I always start with an outline, as well as a list of characters and their goals. This way I can tighten up any loose scenes or expand on flimsy ones as necessary. Usually my outlines include just a sentence or two about what happens in each chapter. Once I’ve finished the second draft it tends to look a little more like an actual story, but still needs a lot of polish. At this point I can send it to an alpha reader, or if I know there are still some problems I want to fix, I can head into the third draft.

I don’t always need another outline between the second and third draft, but occasionally do. At this point I’m usually working in a side-by-side view with both drafts. Because I tend to draft short, it also means I can keep an eye on my wordcount between the two versions and expand places that need a little more detail.

At this point it’s definitely time to get a beta reader if I don’t already have one lined up. Following beta feedback, I can address any remaining structural issues and start focusing on word choice and sentence flow. Once the next draft is finished, it’s time to rinse and repeat—get more feedback, make more updates. Draft six is usually the earliest I’ll start shopping a piece around, but dependent on what my early readers tell me, there may be more drafts. And if I get critiques while trying to find a home for a piece, I may also put it on hold to do another draft and address any valid feedback.

Writing is an ongoing and oftentimes lengthy process, but that’s only my take on it. I’m curious for my fellow writers: What does your process look like?

Posted in Exercises, writing

Plotting a Series

As a writer, it’s entirely possible that at some point you get hit with an idea that is simply too big for one book. That might be because of complex plotlines, multiple points of view, or even because new story ideas keep cropping up that all connect tangentially back to the same thing. You’re looking at a series, and all the fun territory that comes with it.

Series might seem a little more unwieldy than a single standalone novel or even a duo, but they’re manageable. There are dozens of articles out there that will tell you the key to plotting a series is to give it an overarching goal. I’m not here to tell you that.

I’m here to tell you that as a novelist, you probably already have the tools you need to tackle a series.

Don’t laugh just yet. Let’s start at the macro level. In a series, each book is the next installment in a longer, overarching story. Down to the micro level, in a novel, each chapter is the next installment in a longer, overarching story. See the connection?

Series will be a little more detailed than your average chapter, but you can approach them the same way. Each chapter should have a goal and a conflict. So should each book in the series. And like a series, the entire book should have a central conflict.

So, rather than getting stuck on how long that series is and how difficult it seems to plot it, break it down like you would any other chapter.

For me, I like to write out a one-sentence summary of what happens in each chapter. So it might be something like this:

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.
  2. Snow White’s stepmother is furious to find the King’s will leaves Snow White the only heir.
  3. Stepmother tries to kill Snow White, who runs away into the woods.
  4. The Dwarves find and rescue Snow White but demand her help in exchange.
  5. Snow White solves a problem for each of the Dwarves.
  6. Stepmother finds out Snow White is still alive and sends a hunter to kill her.
  7. The Dwarves and Snow White flee their home.
  8. Snow White and the Dwarves gather an army of forest creatures.
  9. The army is marched onto the castle of the Stepmother.
  10. Snow White becomes queen and begins rebuilding.

You get the idea. Each chapter help builds and resolve the overall conflict. Now let’s take a look at these as if they were books in a series.

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.

On it’s own, it seems pretty simple, but if we’re assuming that’s the overall conflict, then we know there’s more to it, so it might end up being something more like this:

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.
    1. Snow White begs her father not to marry his bride.
    2. Stepmother convinces King Snow is merely grieving her mother.
    3. Snow White discovers proof Stepmother will kill King.
    4. Stepmother blocks Snow White from attending the wedding.
    5. The king is poisoned at supper.
    6. King dies and Stepmother warns Snow White the same can happen to her.
    7. Snow White learns she will be queen when she comes of age and decides to simply wait Stepmother out.

The ending for this one resolves it as a tragedy while still leaving it open for the next story. Snow White will be Queen…if she can avoid angering Stepmother long enough. Likewise, the next book furthers the conflict when Stepmother finally discovers that she’s only Queen until Snow White is old enough to take the throne.

Chapters work the same way. Each one has a smaller conflict in it that must be resolved, but that still feeds into the main plot. First chapters, like first books, open up the main conflict, but still handle their own struggles. Final chapters and books resolve all the conflicts and leave the story with a satisfactory ending.

As an exercise: Take your favorite series and write a one-sentence summary of each book. Then break each book into a one-sentence summary of each chapter.

Posted in Exercises, General

Using the Zero Draft

In full honest confession, I actually didn’t know what a zero draft was until a couple of years ago when a writer friend mentioned she was about twenty-thousand words into one. I asked her what a zero draft was, and the answer I got surprised me: It’s the earliest draft of your story, in which there is no order.

It’s fairly well established at this point that I’m a pantser. I write based on whatever inspiration I have on hand. Up until I’d heard about a zero draft, I figured drafts that meandered, made no sense and generally had gaping holes were rough drafts.

Dependent on your particular process this might still hold true. Your rough draft is for you and no one else. A zero draft however, is often where you throw things in for the story before you write a proper draft. In other words, rather than looking anything like a first draft, it might just be a conglomeration of notes–such as ‘Come up with Witty Banter. Will needs to sound smart.’ or perhaps just a few rough ideas of dialogue. There might be a random character that pops up and then vanishes until two chapters before the end.

More or less, zero drafts are unstructured pieces of writing. This might mean a free writing exercise that takes up dozens of pages. Alternately, it’s just a collection of scenes to help you explore what you want to write. There’s really only one rule:

Write.

More specifically, write uninterrupted. If you get hung up on trying to come up with clever dialogue, then leave a note. If you don’t know what the next scene would be, skip to the one you do know. You can leave a note for what you know should happen next, or you can just hop from one scene to the next and back.

Do not edit. Don’t rewrite anything. Don’t even use the backspace or delete key. Just keep writing.

Give yourself permission to make the worst piece of writing ever. Title that document as your Worst Version Ever. Leave ridiculous notes in the middle of sentences. Ignore basic formatting or even start a new line every sentence. Whatever it takes to just get the ideas down.

 

Posted in General, writing

Deciding On a Rewrite

Writing a first draft is well-known to be rough. That’s one of the reasons why it’s also called the rough draft. Doing an entire rewrite is only moderately easier. If you’re a panster/discovery writer, doing a rewrite can completely spark an all new interest in the story. But, how do you decide on doing a complete rewrite?

For me, that start with the intent to polish a very rough draft. As with everything else I edit, I started by making a list of things that needed attention. This only covered the big arcs of character and plot, and scene-level issues like placement problems and incorrect facts. That ended up being a two-page list of large issues.

From there, I started looking at the major structural problems I was having. The big one was plot. Although it’s got a good base on it, it’s rushed and there are parts of it that feel a little contrived. That was a good note however, I know in my early drafts the plot can be a little wobbly, but the fact I had a decent base meant I also had a good chance of salvaging something.

Characters were also another really big problem. Their motivations either weren’t clear or were utterly nonexistent. The three biggest characters also only differed from each other in very small ways: none of them stood out as a character on their own.  I also had some problems with side characters, who I admit, only seemed to exist to fill in a role in the story.

My setting was good, though it can still use some fleshing out. It offered plenty of place for conflict and both resources and obstacles for my characters. The problem was my plot almost completely ignored those opportunities. Between that and the glaring problems with my characters, the structure of the story itself wasn’t sound.

It was pretty obvious right away that there wasn’t much hope for polish. As it was, the story needed too much structural work. Although there’s a few lines I’m hoping will survive, a handful of sentences out of some fifty-thousand words isn’t a lot.

Starting the rewrite however, first requires going back and building a little more groundwork. To that extent I’m doing some worldbuilding and a few character-development exercises.