September 30th, 2016
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Revisions are a part of writing, and as much as we wish they’d go smoothly, they don’t always work out like we planned. Some manuscripts fight us and nothing we do makes them any better. When we run into such a troublesome beast, it helps to step back and figure out the problem before we make a mess of our stories.
Here are five reasons why your revision might not be working:
1. You’re Not Done Writing the Novel
It’s not uncommon to reach the end of a first draft and call it, “done.” In many cases, the draft is finished and you’re ready to move onto revisions, but if the story is still rough and there are still things to work out, it might not actually be “done.” Trying to revise when you still have plot holes, or you’re not sure about the character arc, or there’s a subplot that so doesn’t work after you changed that scene in Chapter Fifteen, often results in a revision that feels like it’s not making the novel better.
What should you do to fix it? Keep drafting until the story is the way you want it and you’ve filled in all the plot holes. Once you’re happy with how the story generally unfolds, then start revising. Take the solid story and make it better.
2. You’re Trying to Make Too Many People Happy
Beta readers and critique partners are wonderful things, but if you’re not careful, you could be letting what they want influence your book. If your romance-reader friend wants more romance, but you’re writing a mystery, adding a love interest to make her happy is probably going to knock your plot out of whack and force the story where it doesn’t want to go–just like adding a high-powered action subplot could ruin your sweet romance novel. Revising to make everyone happy isn’t good for your novel.
What should you do to fix it? Choose only the feedback that will improve the story you’re trying to tell. Don’t be swayed by great advice that doesn’t serve your story, and be true to the heart and soul of your novel.
3. You Have No Idea What Your Novel is Actually About
Some ideas come to us and we jump in and write them without really knowing where they’re going. While there’s nothing wrong with this (every writer has their own process), if you haven’t yet figured out the story behind this idea, how can you possibly revise it well? You could end up changing scenes that support that story. A first draft isn’t always ready for revision, and often, it takes a pass or two to get the story the way you want it before you can start to refine it.
What should you do to fix it? Take some time to figure out what novel you’re trying to write and the story you’re trying to tell. Crazy as it sounds, writing a query letter works wonderfully here to help you pinpoint the core aspects of your story–the protagonist, the antagonist, the core conflict, the stakes, the setting, and the motivations. If you can’t write even a rough query, that’s a red flag you don’t yet know what your story is.
Bonus Reason 3.5: The Novel Doesn’t Work
As much as I hate to say it, there are times when a novel just flat out doesn’t work. It’s a great idea, but you haven’t found the right execution for it yet. Maybe you need a different protagonist, or it’s the wrong genre, or the entire idea works better as a short story than a novel.
What should you do to fix it? It’s hard, but let the manuscript sit for a few weeks and then read it again. If you still see no way to fix the problems, let it go and accept that you might still need to figure out a few key pieces before this idea can work. Some stories aren’t ready to be told.
4. You’re Scared You’ll Mess Up Your Manuscript
If you’ve never revised before, or you made a huge mess the last time you tried, you might be scared to start a revision. Maybe you’re not sure about the plot, or you have doubts about the characters, or the theme feels all wrong for the tone. You’re not sure what to do and worry that you’ll change the wrong things and ruin the story.
What should you do to fix it? Save your original draft in another file in the unlikely event that you do mess up your manuscript, and then trust your instincts. You know your story, you know what you want it to be, so take your revision one step at a time and start developing that story. If you’re not sure what to do, ask friends for feedback or hire an editor for guidance.
5. You’ve Never Revised a Novel Before and You’re Lost
If you’ve never revised before, there’s probably a lot you don’t know (and that’s okay, we all start somewhere). You might be trying to work on issues in the wrong order, you might not know what to look for, or even what questions to ask. You might not know what a solid story structure is or the best way to order your scenes. These are all skills that take time to learn and develop, and it can be overwhelming if you’ve never done it before.
What should you do to fix it? Learn what to do and give yourself the confidence to move forward. There are plenty of great blogs out there with advice (such as WITS, or my own Fiction University), and hundreds of books with step-by-step instructions (I just released one, in fact–Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft) to guide you. You might even look for classes in your area or online, or hire a book doctor or writing coach to help you learn (if your budget allows–don’t spend money you don’t have, it’s not necessary).
Revisions don’t have to be a hassle and can even be a lot of fun. If you’re facing one that’s causing you trouble, take the time you need to figure out what the problem is and the best way to fix that problem.
Have you ever struggled with a revision?
Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy
Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win.
To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I’m going on a three-month blog tour–and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.
It’s easy to enter. Simply visit, leave a comment, and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. At the end of each month, I’ll randomly choose a winner.
A Rafflecopter giveaway
Looking for help revising your novel? Check out my new book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook, a companion guide to Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft and the upcoming Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It). She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.
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September 26th, 2016
by Kathryn Craft
Turning Whine Into Gold
When writers seeking publication believe we are all in search of the same magic juju—you know, the one that has “New York Times bestseller” on the label—we create a culture of desperation like that of brides grappling at a wedding gown sale. My last post, “What Do You Bring to Your Support Team,” suggests that we instead think about what we can contribute to our important publishing relationships, whether with family members, agents and editors, or designers and publicists. This follow-up, with thanks to commenter Tom Pope who suggested it, will explore how we can learn to best contribute. Since this is a huge topic, it will be my focus over the next several months of my Turning Whine Into Gold posts. Each subtopic deserves our consideration if we care to be a valued member of the publication team.
The control dramas we explored last month, which we defer to when we feel the need to syphon precious energy from one of our support partners, suggests that our most important team contribution is an ideal state of elevated energy. Here are seven ways to maintain that.
1. Embrace the science. You’ve heard it a million times and will hear it again from this holder of a BS in biology and an MA in health education: eat healthy, stay hydrated, sleep well, exercise more. We writers love our coffee and wine memes but a keen creative mind cannot live on stimulants and depressants alone. We need nutrients flowing through our brains because our thoughts, quite literally, need a breath of fresh air. And those endorphins that provide a sense of wellbeing aren’t too shabby, either. Being hung over may add to your tragic persona on social media, but behind closed doors, it will not make you a reliable and valued team member. Strive for maximal health for a longer, better career.
2. Shore up your faith. Knowing who you are and what you believe bestows a quiet confidence that infuses your everyday interactions. I’ve quoted my prolific author friend Katherine Ramsland here before and I’ll do it again today: “It doesn’t matter what you believe, it matters that you believe.” Even if you do not believe in a higher power, you must have faith in your team’s combined talents if you hope to empower them to succeed. After all, “We can do this!” is more powerful than shaming someone with the many ways they’ve fallen short. The publishing industry is stormy on a good day, and the more deeply rooted your faith is, the more turmoil you can handle—and faith can turn turmoil into strength, wisdom, and growth. Faith is contagious. Your team will benefit from it.
3. Make peace with your choices. You will do your team no good if you can’t get beyond what’s already in your rear view. Let go of what those other agents and editors said, and the opinions of those one-star reviewers, because continuing to vilify them will only drain you. Lessons learned can fuel future course correction, but give this team your very best in this moment. Embrace these slogans: “All is subjective” and “Ever forward.”
4. Don’t forget to live life. Writing is a lone endeavor. But if the extent to which we seek seclusion endangers our most supportive relationships, doubt and its accompanying anxiety will trigger your control drama, making you a taker, not a giver. Career growth requires risk, so practice it by leaving your comfort zone on a regular basis. Out among others in the real world, your problems might not seem as all-consuming as you thought. Bring this refreshed attitude to your team and benefit from the energy that doing so creates.
5. Allow emotional reaction to pass before placing that call. The critical and competitive nature of this field takes its toll, to be sure. I need not enumerate the ways. We can protect our team from the rise and fall of our inner turmoil by striving for a more sensitive awareness of when we are starting to feel low. By identifying our control drama, we can note more quickly when it kicks in, and take immediate measures to bolster our energy. Then, when you meet with the members of your team, you’ll be brainstorming solutions instead of expecting them to salve your wounds.
6. Give back. There have been times when my confidence was so rattled that I felt I had no clue what I was doing. Sound familiar? That’s what happens when you reach outside your comfort zone. At such times, I can remind myself how far I’ve come by reaching out to help writers climbing the ladder behind me. And we can carry the resulting sense of good will right back to our team.
7. Remember you are in it for love. Fact: publishing does not guarantee a living wage for hours invested. Neither is getting published a right—it is, and always has been, a privilege. Somehow, once we get published, we forget this, and the complaining begins. No one is putting a gun to our heads here. If you can no longer access your love of what you do, your energy level will drain away and you’ll have nothing to offer your team. Take a workshop, phone a friend, drum up a bigger support crew—do whatever it takes to reconnect to the love that brought you to this place. Because there is one thing I know for sure: the members of your support team are human, and humans always respond to love.
Striving to maintain a high level of energy is key to motivating your team. When you bring your best, others tend to respond in kind. Maybe the magic juju isn’t something we find and grapple for after all, but something we can find and enhance within us. Rather than a culture of desperation, this will allow a culture of abundance with room for us all.
Bonus: every one of these energy-boosting strategies is good for your writing as well.
Does the problem of low energy resonate with you? What about your writing drains you, and what other ways have you found to shore yourself up?
Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” will appear in the forthcoming guide from Writers Digest Books, Author in Progress, available now for pre-order.
Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads workshops and speaks often about writing.
September 23rd, 2016
Darynda Jones’ First Grave on the Right (click on the photo to check out this amazing book)
I just taught a class on Beginning Pages recently, so I’ve been thinking a lot about first lines.
Stephen King had something to say about the magnitude of a novel’s first line:
“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” he said.
“It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
Preach it, Steve.
I’m not saying a killer first line will land you an agent, get your book sold, or make it a NYT bestseller. But it sure won’t hurt your chances. And I’d make a case that a book that achieves all the above, more often than not, has a great first line.
Why is that? A first line is a promise to the reader, telling them what kind of book this is. What your voice is. Maybe who the main character is. A good first line will pull a reader into a story.
But how do you do that? Here are some suggestions of where to start:
- Irony – A contradiction or opposite of some kind, something unexpected.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
You just know from those 23 words, how Jane really feels about this ‘universal truth’. And you could guess how she’ll handle it in the book, right? Jane has just shown you her voice – snark, Victorian style. BTW, many will argue to the death that this was the best first line ever written. Let’s not go there – we’ve a lot more to do.
- Catalyst – The catalyst is what sets your story in motion. A knock at the door, a phone call, please, just don’t start with a dream!
“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.” Anthony Horowitz, Stormbreaker
“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” Paul Auster, City of Glass
- Comparison – A simile or metaphor.
“Unlike the typical bluesy earthy folksy denim-overalls noble-in-the-face-of-cracker-racism aw shucks Pulitzer-Prize-winning protagonist mojo magic black man, I am not the seventh son of the seventh son of the seventh son.” Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle
“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” Roxane Gay, An Untamed State
“He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” Virginia Woolf, Orlando
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.” Donna Tartt, The Secret History
- Question – But be careful using this; it’s been used SO much that has to be fresh and intriguing. NO clichés!
“What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.” Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
- Intriguing Premise – The line itself may not mean much, but after reading it, you HAVE to read on!
“Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.” Vitor LaValle, Big Machine
“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.” Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen
“They shoot the white girl first.” Toni Morrison, Paradise
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Here’s mine, from The Sweet Spot:
The grief counselor told the group to be grateful for what they had left. After lots of considering, Charla Rae decided she was grateful for the bull semen.
I screwed up with that line. I wasn’t going for funny. I didn’t even know it was funny until, when I read it at a writer’s retreat, Tessa Dare snorted wine through her nose. See, bucking bull semen is a legitimate industry – just as racehorse semen is. And Charla Rae owns a ranch where they raise and train bucking bulls. The book is emotional, and deals with grief and forgiveness. So, in this case, the first line breaks its promise to readers (unless they know the bull industry). But you know what? When people meet me, they mention that line. They actually remember it. So I can live with that.
I may not have the perfect first line when I start a book, but if I don’t, it niggles at the back of my mind until I come up with one – even if it’s after I’ve written half the book!
I knew I didn’t have the best first line for my current WIP – it’s a hard-hitting, right to die novel. Here was my first shot at it:
Funny, how knowing the exact time and place of my death makes me exquisitely aware of being alive.
It’s not bad; it raises a question in the reader’s mind. It’s in the voice of an upper-middle class scientist and professor, which the protagonist is.
But I knew it wasn’t a killer first line. Enter the brilliant Margie Lawson. On a Writer’s Cruise (yes, it was as amazing as that sounds, and they’re having another this year! You can check it out here), she worked with me on my first scene. Together, we came up with the first line:
Today, death rides a bicycle. My bicycle.
So, do you have a favorite first line for us?
Either one of yours, or a memorable one from another author?
September 21st, 2016
And You Shouldn’t Even Bother Me with Your Stable Characters
by Kimberly Brock
Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix with my husband – particularly British crime shows. Well, actually, anything British. I don’t know why. But this blog is not about that. What it is about is the fact that I am always, always, always most interested in the trashiest, quirkiest, strangest, darkest, most unstable characters. Liars, cheats, addicts. Personally, I would rather eat cold, overcooked oatmeal than read about a good character who does good things in a good world where everybody is on time and well-groomed, consuming a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, living life in tastefully decorated rooms with Barry Manilow piped in to set the mood. My husband pointed this out to me a few weeks ago when we were talking about my girl crush on actress Nicola Walker’s character in “Last Tango in Halifax,” which then led to binge watching another of her series, “River.” I actually sank back into the sofa and sighed and said, “Oh, she is so screwed up. I love her.”
My husband was perplexed. But he wasn’t really worried until a few weeks ago when we finished our nightly romp through the “Luther” series. In the final episode, my favorite character, a narcissistic psychopathic serial killer who saves the hero, uttered the most fabulous line to his little wisp of a girlfriend. It was the best line of all time, delivered with steely eyes and a smirk. If you hurt him, I will kill you. (INSERT DELISCIOUS PAUSE) And eat you.
OH, YES! I jumped off the couch, cheering and laughing. I made my husband rewind it. (Do you rewind anything anymore?) Twice. I said the lines with her, dramatically. Gleefully! And my husband, who is a brave man, rolled his eyes. The same way he rolled his eyes later in the week when he caught me making a Pinterest board dedicated to these characters. If you make fun of my Pinterest Board of Psycho Characters, I will kill you. And eat you.
Now, really. I don’t want to kill anyone, much less eat them. But, man! It got a reaction out of me – this character saying those perfect words at that perfect moment and what it meant to the person hearing them. Even though, obviously, the character is quite the psycho, I loved her.
So, why am I confessing all of this to you at risk of sounding like a sicko and losing your readership forever? Because I’ve been trying to work out my fascination with the most unstable characters and why I love them best when I’m a reader. And – here’s the twist – why I’m always so afraid to write them.
Don’t get me wrong! I DO write them. I ALWAYS write them. I write them cloaked in what THEY believe is noble, but they’re screw ups, heroes and villains, alike. Listen, I’ve been to the conferences and the panels and the workshops. Dammit, I teach them! I know what they SAY about how your characters are supposed to be three-dimensional and flawed. I know what they SAY about how a good story is only a good story because there’s CONFLICT. I know how books like Gone Girl have flown off the shelf and been made into blockbuster movies and caused us all to despise Ben Affleck and get our own secret badass undercut bobbed haircuts. Girl Reading This Blog, I know!
But it’s a challenge to actually do it. And I often fail at it before I succeed. Why? When I first sit down to create characters I love they come out fabulously twisted and depraved and socially awkward. But inevitably, I start to lose all confidence that readers will stick with them. I’ll invest tons of energy second-guessing their morality and editing their language. I will smooth out their rough edges and bad habits and cover up their body art. I will make them better parents. I will sweeten up their motives and switch out the shots of whiskey in their hands to a tall glasses of sweet tea. All in an effort to convince my readers they can safely embrace my paper people. They can love us (because, the truth is all of my characters are an extension of me.) We’re perfectly acceptable, if you just don’t notice that little bit of psychopath sticking out from beneath our neatly pressed collars.
Before I know it, my characters turn out like a whole new cast of the Mickey Mouse Club, chilled out on anti-depressants. They turn into cold oatmeal and nobody, not even me, wants to read about them. I’m perplexed. I loved all those super freaks when I started. What went wrong? It’s a common lament and I think I know the answer, but it might not be what you think.
The brave writers are the ones who don’t try to dress up the truth to the taste of their readers. They lay out the reality of who we are without considering the sensibilities of their readers!
Think about it. They trust that instead of being cowards, readers will do what they’ve done for as long as people have been telling stories – they’ll recognize themselves in the mistakes and sicknesses, the betrayals and selfishness, the most heartbreaking falls from grace. The most powerful characters created through literary history have all come from authors who are fearless. Can you think of them? They are made that way by one thing – their authors trusted readers. When this happens, we are all rewarded by an uncensored experience that gives the ultimate gift of human expression. What’s that? You don’t know about the gift? Buddy, I’ll tell you. It’s priceless.
But first, you should know it will cost you. Not all readers will appreciate a straight shooter. They won’t all cheer for the writer that sticks his or her head up too high, who exposes something ugly or tragic or contrary or just plain hard to look at. Because human beings judge. And we preach. And we take stands and get offended. But writers who trust their readers don’t expect accolades and awards and admiration. They expect torches and mobs, condescending emails and ranting blog posts and Twitter *%&!storms. And you’ll know a brave writer by their response to this – they’re smart enough to know that means they’ve done their job.
Which brings me back to my original question – why do I love the weirdo, psycho, screw up characters best? Because they’re true. They’re real. They’re more real than me, even. They are uncensored in ways that implore me to see things their way. They can do and be anything and I can experience it all with them – good, bad and ugly! I can hate them for it or love them for it, but by God, I can feel it with them. And there’s the little gem that this whole quest boils down to for me, the gift of a fearless, trusting author to all us readers – their characters create empathy in us.
Without empathy, none of our stories matter. Empathy can change the world, not just entertain it or appease it. And if I’m going to spend hours out of my life alone in my own head, staring at a screen (which, by the way, is pretty weird), I think at the very least I ought to be doing something brave enough to change the world. And myself. I ought to tell the truth.
So as I work on this next book, I hope it costs me. I hope I let my characters fly their freak flags and don’t censor a single detail to anybody’s liking. I hope I’m brave enough to write like I read, embracing my inner weirdos. All of them. And trusting that if I get it right, Twitter will let me know.
Who are your favorite weirdo characters? Do you read fearlessly? Do you write fearlessly? Would you write differently if you didn’t censor your characters?
Kimberly Brock is the award winning author of the #1 Amazon bestseller, THE RIVER WITCH (Bell Bridge Books, 2012). A former actor and special needs educator, Kimberly is the recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year 2013 Award. A literary work reminiscent of celebrated southern author Carson McCullers, THE RIVER WITCH has been chosen by two national book clubs.
Kimberly’s writing has appeared in anthologies, blogs and magazines, including Writer Unboxed and Psychology Today. Kimberly served as the Blog Network Coordinator for She Reads, a national online book club from 2012 to 2014, actively spearheading several women’s literacy efforts. She lectures and leads workshops on the inherent power in telling our stories and is founder of Tinderbox Writer’s Workshop. She is also owner of Kimberly Brock Pilates.
She lives in the foothills of north Atlanta with her husband and three children, where she is at work on her next novel. Visit her website at kimberlybrockbooks.com for more information and to find her blog.