WRITING CRAFT RECOMMENDATION: MEANDER, SPIRAL, EXPLODE

I’m a total junkie for writing craft books. Lately, I’ve been fascinated with story shapes. Kurt Vonnegut wrote and lectured on some basic story shapes (his vids are on YouTube and always worth a watch), but Jane Alison’s recent release looks to patterns in nature in order to explore the idea of stories taking on shapes other than the tried-and-true arc.

spiral

From my Instagram: @hollyschindler

I’m fascinated by the idea–and absolutely agree that a story can be riveting and satisfying for the reader without being expected. In fact, it might be more satisfying if it does not employ the traditional arc structure.

Lately, I also feel that when my own manuscripts get stuck–when they just don’t seem to want to come together–it’s because the story doesn’t want to follow the rules. It doesn’t want to come together in that arc, or the POV doesn’t want to simply be limited 3rd-person.

The trick, of course, is to do something unexpected in a way that feels fresh and not confusing for the reader. The book also shouldn’t feel gimmicky, either–the narrative patterns that Alison explores aren’t to be used “just because.” They should have a purpose. Your story should be one that couldn’t be told without deviating from the old arc.

Alison’s work is definitely worth a read. Highly recommended for any author on the hunt for a fresh approach to their latest WIP.

HOW MUCH DESCRIPTION IS TOO MUCH?

I never thought I’d say this, but almost all of it.

I used to be huge on description. Writing it and reading it. I was one of the weirdos who loved long juicy paragraphs filled with artistic depictions and metaphors and…

Well. You get the picture.

Lately, though, I’ve been questioning how much is enjoyable for readers. For the most part, I’d say readers want to know what the story is. “Tell me a good yarn,” a reader will say. “Don’t bog down the story.”

It seems to me, then, that description should further the story. That’s it. That’s really description’s job. It’s not to pretty up the pages. It’s to help drive and shape the plot.

Internal / Emotional Description

Oh, man, this is where I could just spend days as a writer. The internal world of the characters. How they feel at any given moment. What they’re thinking. Again, though, if description’s job is to further the story, the internal world should really be focused on lines of thought that show a character’s motivation. Explain why a character is behaving a certain way. Or about to behave in a certain way. Then those descriptions will inevitably lead to action.

Physical Description

New writers often get lost in this one: describing every character’s outfit. The shape of noses. The way their hair is cut. And really, it’s the type of description you need the least of. You really don’t need much in the way of physical description to bring a character to life. Ask yourself: What kinds of characteristics help paint a picture of who a character is?

For example, a character with a repeatedly-broken nose might be a hothead who winds up ruffling feathers throughout, in ways that create tension and, of course, lead to moments of intense action in the book.

Setting

Nothing sets the tone of a piece quite like setting. But settings also shape what kinds of events can take place. Certainly, small towns offer different types of gatherings and chances for characters to meet up (I just recently discovered the Gilmore Girls, so of course I’m thinking here of Stars Hollow). Sometimes, though, characters can be confined–locked into buildings, or quarantined. They can be in jury duty. Or jail. They might be on a long airplane flight. How is action different in these settings as compared to characters who are in bigger cities, or have freedom to move about?

Where you set your book can have a real impact on the action that can logically take place. When you describe your setting, especially at the opening of a book, think about the plot points you have planned or outlined. And think about what details the reader needs to know in order to be prepared for those events.

Tying description to the action will help keep you from providing too much information, too many long paragraphs that seem (to the reader) to amount to nothing of substance. In this way, instead of bogging your book down, description can actually add propulsion, giving your work a new page-turning element.

 

PUNCHY WRITING

This is one of those areas that sounds simple and really isn’t. As Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” (BTW: How can that quote be Hawthorne? Doesn’t it sound more like Twain? Coulda sworn it was Twain.)

Anyway. Punchy writing. Writing that’s lean. That doesn’t have a bunch of filler. That doesn’t get bogged down. Sounds like it’d be so easy. But it is often so hard to know what to cut. It’s far harder to kill your darlings than you’d think. (That darling bit was Faulkner. Sounds like Faulkner. Still hard to believe that easy reading quote wasn’t Twain.)

A few posts popped up recently about achieving leaner, punchier writing. This one from Jane Friedman’s blog offers tips on cutting the mundane. (Seriously–if you’re not regularly reading Friedman, you’re missing out.) And Lamar Giles stopped by my own MG blog to offer a few tips on writing action. (Hint: cut, cut, cut, short, short, short.)

A GREAT PLACE TO START INFUSING “PUNCHINESS” IN YOUR OWN MANUSCRIPT: DIALOGUE

One area I’ve been hitting in my own writing during the line-edit stage is dialogue. Dialogue tags (he said / she said) can add a ton of unnecessary words. As I draft, I also tend to add lots of completely unneeded direction in dialogue. Characters turn, tilt heads, push hair from faces, light cigarettes, cross legs, frown, etc. Dialogue moves quicker and carries more weight if you get rid of the extraneous description and tags surrounding it.

 

WRITING TIP: GETTING EXCITED ABOUT YOUR NOVEL-IN-PROGRESS AGAIN

We’ve all been there: that project that had lit such a fire in you, about 30k-words in, has become a real slog.

So how do you get it back?

A few simple tricks:

Give yourself permission to write a scene that feels juicy, but doesn’t have anything to do with the WIP as it is right now. Maybe it’s a pivotal scene that you know will take place toward the end, during the climax. Maybe it’s a scene you think is probably outside the current narrative, but that could show your MC in a new light. The idea here is to get away from just staring at the problems in your current WIP. Sometimes, the answer to what’s dragging your WIP down isn’t in the current WIP at all. You still have to discover it. So go exploring! If you write new scenes, play with character development, you can often figure a way out of the corner you’ve written yourself into.

Give yourself permission to write a different project one day a week. This one obviously works if you’re a write-every-day kind of author. The thing is, you can just get worn out looking at the same project day in and day out. Give yourself permission to play with something completely different one day a week. This could be a poem, a picture book, a chapter of a work outside your usual genre. Anything. Just take a break. You’ll often find yourself energized and ready to get back to your work the next day. (The beautiful part of this technique is, your “break project” can actually wind up being a book you publish as well!)

Find a beta reader. Or even an idea-bouncer. Sometimes, a sounding board can do wonders. Just talking through the problem might be all you need to do (here, you’re not asking someone for loads of reading time, you’re just talking through the overall story or plot points). You can find new ideas for your WIP, sure, but sometimes the most valuable part of working with another person can be getting confirmation that you’re on the right track, telling an interesting story or a story that needs to be told. Sometimes, just knowing that you’re not wasting your time can help give you fuel to really dig deep into your project.

Of these, my favorite and moist used is actually #3. We’re writers; we do a lot of solitary work. But sometimes, you just have to get out of your own head in order to move forward!

 

WRITE YOUR NOVEL OUT OF ORDER

I liked the idea but swore I’d never do it: write a book out of order.

Now? I think it might be one of the best ways to draft.

It’s much simpler than it sounds, actually. It’s basically a two-step process:

  1. Write the book’s most important scenes.
  2. Write the narrative thread that connects the scenes.

That’s it. You can start with an outline, or you can start with only the roughest of ideas. Using the latter scenario, you can write random scenes, then use a version of the shrunken manuscript method to look at everything you’ve done and brainstorm that connecting narrative thread.

If you start with an outline, you can write your scenes semi-chronologically. The thing to remember is to only write only the important scenes. Don’t worry about seamlessly connecting them. That comes at the end.

I find that writing this way has several benefits:

  1. You focus on the core of the story.
  2. You don’t have to cut fat during the revision process because you haven’t written a bunch of fat.
  3. You don’t spend days creating pages (and chapters) that feel exploratory in nature, and wind up getting deleted.

The funny thing is, writing out of order sounds haphazard, but I actually find that writing the essential scenes first and then knocking out the narrative thread might actually be the most streamlined drafting process I’ve found yet!

 

QUERY LETTER FORMAT FOR NOVELS

Seems I saw this subject pop up quite a bit on social media this past fall. Right now, we’re in kind of a recognized submission dead zone. (Submissions generally stop between now and the new year. Writers spend their holidays polishing up new books and queries. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this fun fact, though: I did sell my first novel during the holiday season, so there are certainly always exceptions to the rule.) Still, since this is generally the time of the year of pretty intense submission prep, I thought I’d tackle the subject head-on: How to squeeze all your tons of info on your novel into a single page query.

I know when you first start out it just seems completely impossible. You have SO MUCH TO SAY ABOUT YOUR BOOK.

The good news is, like everything else in life, that which seems impossible is actually not quite as complicated as you would make it out to be, first glance.

The queries I’ve written generally follow the same format:

  1. A third of the page devoted to the book itself—talking the storyline here. Think in terms of jacket copy.
  2. A third of the page devoted to the importance of the book—how it fits into the market, how you believe it fills a hole. If it’s children’s literature, how the book would be useful in a classroom, etc.
  3. A third of the page devoted to your credentials.

That’s it.

If this is your first book to query, #1 especially sounds easier than done, I’m sure. It’s always so hard to squeeze your book down to a paragraph or two. One tip is to boil the book down to ONE SENTENCE and then build the paragraph(s) up from there. You really should have a one-sentence pitch on hand, anyway, before you start approaching agents or editors. Also, my jacket copy has frequently been pulled from my initial queries, so I can’t stress how really important #1 is.

Don’t be too literal about the division into thirds. Of course each project is different. Each author is different, too—if you don’t have much of a publishing history, that’s fine. Everyone has to start somewhere. But if you don’t have it, you don’t need to dwell on it. Focus on the project instead. Your understanding of where your book fits into and stands out from an already crowded marketplace will be more valuable to a potential publishing house than your background, anyway. (Trust me on that one—I had a master’s in English, teaching experience, and previous publications, and they didn’t help me get in the door any faster. It was all about the project at hand.)

So there you have it: an easy, three-part query letter. Best of luck getting your submissions in order for ’19!

GET TO KNOW YOUR CHARACTER – WITH A SECRET

We’ve been discussing how to find teen voices this month over at my YA authors blog, YA Outside the Lines. As we discussed the various techniques we all used to tap back into our younger selves (and younger voices), it became apparent to me that a character’s voice can be elusive, regardless of genre or age category. It can be elusive even if you’ve written several books before.

For the most part, when the voice is hard to find, I believe it’s because you don’t quite know who your character is yet.

And often, the best way to find out who they are is to get them to tell you a secret.

What is your character hiding? It could be anything–something they’ve done in the past, something they’re afraid might happen. They might have a secret plan or agenda. Do they have a relationship they’re trying to keep secret? That relationship might be romantic, but it might also be a familial one.  For example, in my first YA, A BLUE SO DARK, Aura is trying desperately to keep her mother’s deterioration (she’s schizophrenic) from the outside world.

The secret doesn’t have to be dark. Do they have a secret dream? A wish? A crush?

Do they have a secret passion? Or hobby? Do they have a secret friend?

The reason secrets work is that they’re the most private, personal parts of ourselves. When a character shares a secret, you know them in a new way. You’re instantly closer. And often, understanding them better means you’re well on your way to finding their voice.