February 1st, 2017
There are a lot of exciting possibilities for everyone this year, all relating to the changing energies around us. You don’t have to believe in anything “new age” to admit that the first month of 2017 flew by like a rocket. And that’s just the start. I wanted to pull forward some of the ancient lore for a fun look at the potentials for 2017.
First off, Happy Fire Rooster Year!
The Chinese Year of the Rooster just started, so we’ll begin with “rooster characteristics” that can enhance your year:
Honesty: Pay particular attention to what you say and how you say it. Try not to “fudge factor” information by sweetening it to fit the communication. If your manuscript isn’t finished, don’t tell an agent or editor it is.
Energetic: Plenty of energy is available to you this year, but you’ve got to be smart about how you use it. Take care of the physical needs of your body, like sleep, water, and exercise, even if you’re on deadline. Your writing is going to reflect your personal energy. (My non-writer friends know when I’m writing battle sequences. I’m more reactive to getting cut off in traffic, conversations are “terse”-their word, not mine, and I walk faster even though I’m scouting out my surroundings for ambush possibilities. Yes, I actually mentioned that on a trail last month.)
Intelligence: Writing a book requires intelligence. So if you’ve been holding back, or you haven’t finished something you started last year, this is the year to finish it. You’ve got what it takes. Need to fill in plot holes? Put your brain to work. Have to revise an ending? Brainstorm possibilities. Then brainstorm more.
Flamboyance: Okay, this one isn’t my strong suit. I typically try to fly under the radar. But, I’m upping my game in this category because if there’s a time to dip my toe in the water, this is it. I’m committing to being a little flashy (don’t laugh, this is huge for me…maybe I’ll even buy an article of red clothing!), putting myself “out there” in ways I’m definitely not comfortable with (yes, more social media pics). But I’m going to have fun with it. Who knows? Being a little brighter, noisier version of myself could be fun. And I can always blame it on the Rooster.
Flexible: My first book is scheduled to release June 8, 2017. If something happens to the production schedule, I’m going to be flexible without going crazy. (Yes, I know. I can say this now, on February 1.) If I need to change appointments to take advantage of opportunities, I’m going to be flexible enough to do that, too. Flexibility is key to successful revisions, when you’re considering changing from the original vision of your story. Flexibility to the demands of a writer’s life can help you maintain your sanity.
Confident: Embark on this year with confidence that you can attain your dream. Set and work toward reasonable goals. Each time you’ve achieved success, you will be more confident for the next step on your career path.
We all know what a real, living rooster does, especially if you live near one. You’re called to rise and shine and get to work early. Ever watch a rooster strut? Let’s make this a year that helps us all to “strut our stuff.”
You know I’m a mathematician, right? Well, numbers have their own energies. Just ask anyone if they have a lucky or favorite number. Everybody has one. The cool thing is, my lucky number doesn’t have to be the same as yours to be lucky for me.
Pythagorus, a Greek mathematician and philosopher, led a secret society devoted to the study of how numbers
influence our lives. Stay with me. I’m not saying that numbers can be used to predict the future, but if you’ve ever read your horoscope, or if you can answer the question, “What sign are you?” what about the possibility of asking, “What number are you?” Same difference, right?
Along that line, 2017 is considered a “one” year in a nine-year cycle. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we must have just finished a “nine” year, which closed that cycle. Completing unfinished business made last year a difficult one for all of us. But now we have the excitement and potential of this “one” year to begin new endeavors, to try new things. We have a license to experiment, be it with a new genre, a different kind of POV, or just finishing the dang book and seeing what happens. If you haven’t entered a contest, maybe it’s time. If you haven’t sent out query letters or pitched your story, now is the time.
Did I think about any of this number/Rooster Year stuff when I decided to self-publish my books in June last year? Nope. I think last year’s energy helped push me in the direction to finish a big loop in my writing path, leading me to this year’s opportunity. Actually, I thought my first book would be ready to release last November, five months after I made my decision to indie publish. I guess flexibility started early for me.
Here are some additional words and a phrase to notice in your life this year: Adventures. Ingenuity. Curiosity. Joy. Synchronicity. Patience. Resourcefulness. Help each other. Opportunities.
We all have magic inside of us. That’s why we’re writers. Bring forth your magic this year. Be amazing.
How does 2017 look to be shaping up for you? Did January leave you in its dust?
* * * * * *
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of calculus lessons gone wrong. She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.
A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now shares her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told. Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard.
When she’s not hanging out at Writers in the Storm, you can visit Fae at http://faerowen.com or www.facebook.com/fae.rowen.
Photo credits: Pixabay
January 30th, 2017
Mumble-mumble-cough years ago, back in my high school days, I was what you might have called a hopeless romantic—in the doe-eyed, day-dreamy way of those who have yet to actually experience romance, let alone real hopelessness. At my bedside was a faux wood clock radio, and every night after my lights were out, I’d curl up in the glow of its red neon time display and tune the dial to “Delilah After Dark.”
I don’t suppose I’ll regain any of the street cred that admission might have just lost me by going on to tell you that even then, the show was far sappier than I was. Still, I liked hearing bits and pieces of other people’s stories as they called in with their requests and dedications. The writer in me liked to supply missing backstory and imagine potential outcomes as the ballads would play in between the calls.
There was a lot of Celine Dion on “Delilah” in those days. Whitney Houston. Boyz II Men. Sometimes I took issue with the song selections, but hey, she was the expert, not me. “Slow down and love someone,” Delilah would remind us over and over, her voice dripping with understanding and hope.
And then one night, a woman called about a troubled relationship, an on-again-off-again sort of thing. I don’t remember the details, but as usual, Delilah empathetically wished her a speedy resolution and told her to stay on the line while she cued up the perfect melody. The opening notes of the song began to play, and the microphone was supposed to shut off then.
But it didn’t. And so the voice that sounded through the darkness of my bedroom was Delilah’s, but it was different. It was the Delilah who existed off the air.
“You know, the real problem,” Delilah told the woman (I’m paraphrasing here, but this was the gist of it), “is that this man is a selfish asshole.”
I bolted up in bed, wide-eyed. A slow smile crept across my face. Holy technical glitch, Batman. The curator of the museum of cheesy love songs just called someone a selfish asshole on the air. I looked around at my stuffed animals, the only other witnesses on the scene. “DID YOU HEAR THAT?” I wanted to say to someone, anyone else. I laughed. I shook my head. I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next. Surely the producers knew what had happened?
Sure enough, after the song, she came back on the air, with a sheepish apology that what we heard was meant to be a private conversation. She tried to move on, business as usual.
But I still want to squeal in delight when I think about it. Because that was the point I stopped being interested in the callers and started being interested in Delilah. Clearly there was more to her than that sugary sweet voice.
I wanted another glimpse.
Calling Character Into Question
In my day job editing Writer’s Digest, I see a lot of craft articles and pitches cross my desk on the subject of character. The vast majority of them advise writers to make sure each character acts and speaks in accordance with his unique persona. Sound enough advice. But I see precious few reminders that as long as you’ve established who each character is (and that is a pretty important as long as—think of how easily you can conjure Delilah’s comfortable, soft on-air persona), a departure from acting in character can be far more powerful.
My novel Almost Missed You, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in March, starts with someone doing something completely out of character. Finn Welsh, by all accounts a devoted husband and father, packs up and leaves his wife, Violet, in the middle of a family vacation—and takes their son with him. Poof: Both are gone without a trace.
Everyone thought this couple had a perfect marriage, the kind of love that’s meant to be. Violet is blindsided, and so is the reader. How could he do such a thing? “This doesn’t sound like Finn,” all their friends and family say. “There must be some mistake.”
Everything is immediately called into question. And it’s not long before the characters and the readers are both asking themselves: Is this out of character, with some bizarre circumstance forcing his hand? Or did no one know his true character after all? Is the boy safe with him? How can Violet get her son back?
The people in his life want to find out. They need to find out. Too much is at stake not to.
Acting out of character doesn’t have to drive an entire story forward, though it can. It can also add a twist, a turn, a layer of interest at any point in your arc. This can work equally well with protagonists, antagonists and even supporting players.
- A man known for having a lead foot gets a speeding ticket on the interstate. He complains to his friends, who laugh and point out that he’d long had it coming.
- A relatively sedate woman is caught going 45 in a school zone, during an hour she was supposed to be at work. Whoa, what was her hurry?
A traffic ticket is a relatively run-of-the-mill occurrence, yet even so, our interest is piqued.
- A known philanderer hits on a coworker at the office Christmas party.
- A father of three who is so devoted to his wife it’s almost a running joke has too much to drink and corners the new hire in the elevator. (Or did he really have that much to drink after all?)
Which do you want to learn more about?
- A bully pushes your kid down during a fight on the playground and breaks his arm.
- Your kid’s best friend pushes him down during a fight on the playground and breaks his arm.
It’s the out-of-character behavior that raises the question, “But why?”
And that’s what keeps people reading.
The next time you feel like your story needs some jazz, see if your characters might be acting a little too in character. Send in that caller who will make them slip and show their true colors on the air.
Your readers will find themselves smiling in the dark, delighted and eager to find out what happens next.
What’s your favorite “surprise” for your characters or characters in books you’ve particularly enjoyed?
Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest, North America’s leading publication for aspiring and working writers since 1920. Her debut novel, Almost Missed You, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in March 2017 and has garnered accolades from Chris Bohjalian, Adriana Trigiani, Garth Stein and others.
She loves connecting with fellow writers (and readers) at Facebook.com/jessicastrawserauthor and on Twitter @jessicastrawser.
January 27th, 2017
Backstory is something writers often struggle with, largely because of the writing myths out there that make it seem like something that’s best avoided. Ironic, because by avoiding backstory, writers tend to doom their novels right out of the starting gate.
The surprising truth is that backstory is the most seminal layer of any novel. Without it, your protagonist has amnesia, so she can’t read meaning into anything, nor can she desire or fear anything except, of course, generically. She wants unconditional love, she fears rejection. Ho hum. Don’t we all?
The damage done by the avoid-backstory-myth goes even deeper. Because writers are often discouraged from using backstory, it implies that they therefore don’t need to create backstory, either. So when asked why their protagonist did something, they’re stumped. Like the client I had who, when asked why his protagonist became a hit woman, paused for so long that it was clear he’d never even thought about it. Finally, he blurted, “Um, because she has abandonment issues?” Nice try.
Show me the person who doesn’t have abandonment issues, and I’ll show you the person who hasn’t figured it out yet. We all have abandonment issues. Story specific backstory would have revealed why she has abandonment issues and why that lead her to becoming a hit woman. Hey, I’d read a book that gave me insight into that decision.
In other words, by avoiding backstory you not only lock your reader out of the story, you lock yourself out.
With that in mind, let’s dive into three very astute questions about backstory culled from the comments on my last post:
From Kathryn Craft: I was wondering if at some point you would address when is the best time to introduce backstory in your novel.
The answer, as the old joke about voting goes, is: early and often. Hopefully, beginning on the very first page. Let’s do a little field research, shall we? (Don’t you just love the fact that we can do field research in our PJs thanks to the trusty Interweb?)
Go to Amazon and check out the first pages of novels from all genres. For example:
- Take a peek at the first page of You Before Me by JoJo Moyes, which weaves backstory into the second paragraph, giving us a glimpse of the protagonist’s “normal” life
- Read the opening paragraph of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, which opens with the line: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.”
- Check out The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison, who not only weaves backstory into the second paragraph (and then throughout that entire chapter), but lets us know what the entire novel will be about in said paragraph.
Backstory is prevalent in every novel, so why do writers almost always ask when to introduce it? Since writers tend to be voracious readers, why don’t we already know that it appears on every page?
The answer is surprisingly simple: Because when backstory is woven in well, you don’t notice that it is backstory. When the protagonist is sweating bullets, trying to figure out what the hell to do in the present – they don’t leave the present, but their mind does. It rips through the past trying evaluate what’s happening, and what their best move is, given their agenda. The protagonist does this because it’s exactly what humans do, too. In literature as in life, right?
Here’s what we miss as readers: Those memories the protagonist rips through are backstory. But because we, the reader, are actively involved in the story, we don’t make that distinction. It’s like the magician’s classic misdirect.
That’s why it’s so easy to believe the writing world when it advises you to stay the heck away from backstory, especially in the beginning of your novel. In fact, writers are often told to avoid “backstory” altogether, as if it will only bog down the story or worse, stop it cold, not to mention bore readers. This couldn’t be less true.
Backstory is the most fundamental layer of story; it is what drives your novel forward, giving everything that happens in it story-specific meaning. Make no mistake: backstory will be present, in one form or another, on every page you write.
Think of it this way — when your protagonist steps onto page one, she brings with her the one thing we never do leave home without: her past. Not merely her memory of past events, but – more importantly – what those events taught her about how the world works.
Our subjective past is the decoder ring we all use to make sense of the world around us. As Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
That’s why you, as the author, cannot write a compelling novel without already knowing your protagonist’s relevant backstory before you get to page one.
So why does the writing world warn us to stay away from it? Because backstory can indeed turn deadly when woven in poorly. Yes, we’re talking about the dreaded info dump. I wrote a whole post on this on Writer Unboxed (here is the link), but right now I want to dive into the next question, so we can figure out how to avoid info dumps large and small, and instead deftly weave backstory into a novel so deftly that no one will even know it is backstory.
From Fae Rowen: After the first, second, and, uh, third readings, my partners here at WITS always tell me my female lead is not likable. It’s definitely NOT because she’s perfect, because she isn’t. She’s usually very angry, though, and there hasn’t been time to sprinkle in the backstory so the reader understands why she acts as she does. How can you be true to your character’s actions and reactions early on?
What makes us care about a character (whether we like said character or not) is not what they do, it’s why they do it. And not simply the surface “why” – as in: Jane just shoved an old man crossing the street because she’s in a hurry and he was walking slow.
What we want to know is something deeper: How is Jane justifying what she just did? What, in her life, taught her that shoving that old guy was okay? Which brings us to the key question the writer must answer: What specifically happened to Jane, in her past, that created the moral compass that this story is putting to the test?
Ah yes, backstory! What the reader comes for is insight into why characters do what they do. And that’s revealed in one way: How is Jane making sense of this? If you take us inside your seemingly unlikable protagonist, and give us insight into how she sees the world as she struggles to achieve her overarching agenda, we will be riveted.
So, how do you sprinkle backstory in? Via your protagonist’s internal struggle as she grapples with the tough choice that every single scene forces her to make. Backstory is always woven into the narrative in service of what’s happening in the story present. This is because the protagonist has called it up to try to figure out what the hell to do in the moment.
So, to circle back around to the question: you’re not looking for places to sprinkle in backstory, you’re looking for places to take us into her head, so we can glimpse her inner struggle – that is: why she’s doing it. In your case, for instance, you might look for the places where your protagonist is doing one of those mean, angry things.
In this pursuit it helps to keep in mind what the German playwright Friedrich Hebbel said, “In a good play, everyone is in the right.” What he meant, I think, is that each one of us has our own subjective reality, and based on that, we are all doing what we believe is right. In other words, no one is mean for meanness sake, or “evil” just because. There is always a logic behind our actions – and that logic is created by what our experiences (yep, our backstory) have taught us. Point being, the more you understand the deep internal why driving what your protagonist does, the more you’ll be able to craft a novel that will have readers caring about them from the get go – even when what they’re doing on the surface isn’t particularly “likeable.” Especially then.
And finally: truth is, caring about a character doesn’t necessarily mean liking them at all. It means being curious about them: not simply about what they do, but about why on earth they’re doing it. Which brings us to the last question:
From Alice Fleury: I am a Joe Friday in writing. Just the facts, ma’am. I am amazed when I read all that stuff the writer pries out of the protagonist’s head. So how does one write more than two sentences of interior thoughts?
Great question! The trouble with “just the facts, ma’am” writing is that it tends to focus primarily on the external facts – that is, what happens. So it traps readers on the surface, locking them out of the real story. Here’s the secret: like info dumps, interior thoughts, in and of themselves, can be deadly. Why? Because unless they relate to something the protagonist (or POV character) is actively struggling with in the moment – something that has an immediate consequence — they will stop the story.
The goal is to avoid taking long trips down memory lane for no real reason. Do not allow a character to muse about things for the sake of musing, and never have characters think about things that don’t impact what they’re going through, but that you – as the author – want the reader to know.
The kind of internal thoughts the reader craves are always in relation to action, that is, to a difficult decision the protagonist is being forced to make in the moment.
Let me suggest an example that highlights everything we’ve been talking about here. Caroline Leavitt’s riveting new novel, Cruel Beautiful World, opens with a 34 page first chapter. The first line of the novel is: “Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat.” The chapter begins that morning, and it’s not till the last page of that chapter that Lucy finally climbs into William’s VW and leaves. The bulk of the chapter is backstory. Over the course of the school day Lucy calls up memories – sometimes in snippets, sometimes in full-fledged flashbacks – as she struggles with the decision she’s making in the story present: to leave home, forever, without telling her sister Charlotte or Iris, the woman who raised them. Both of whom she loves dearly. And yet she leaves, having convinced herself – via her reading of past events – that she’s doing the right thing, and that neither Charlotte or Iris will suffer too much upon discovering she’s gone. You can read an excerpt here, but my advice: read the whole first chapter, it’s a master class in the importance of backstory, and how to seamlessly weave it in.
And now, I’m once again open for questions for my next column – leave them here in the comments, or shoot me an email at: lisa@wiredforstory.
Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Lynda.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.
Lisa has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and she is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in Visual Narrative in New York City. In her work as a story coach, Lisa helps writers, nonprofits, educators, and journalists wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. She can be reached at wiredforstory.com
January 25th, 2017
What in hell do I blog about today, when the world is turning itself inside out every two seconds over one drama or another? What in hell do I write as a fiction author that could matter to a reader when reality is body slamming her, night and day? We all want to escape reality with a good story, but what happens when reality feels more like fiction? What happens to writers and to readers when there is no stable consciousness to allow for the mind to elegantly slip into the place where it learns and dreams and grows fat on possibilities? What happens when it feels like all the stories have stopped?
Or at least the ones we think worth telling. When we’re traumatized, despondent. When our thoughts are just a nonsensical loop.
Well, we end up on Facebook for one thing. Or Netflix. Because guess what? We crave stories instinctively! We are trying to make sense of the world and of ourselves and the only way our wits can stabilize is to follow a narrative from beginning to end. We’ll start picking up any old breadcrumbs faster than damn ducks, hoping that when we get to the end of the trail, we’ll look up, take a deep satisfied breath, and reach some understanding that gives us…peace of mind. Stories are the metaphorical map to hope. And so, that’s what I’m going to blog about because I need the reminder and maybe some reader out there needs it, too.
Stories will always save us. All stories. Any stories. The worst kind of story will still fill your proverbial belly. The simplest kind will sort you out from the inside. The process of story is like breathing for the brain, the rhythm of the collective human experience reminding us that we are all in this together. When it seems all the stories have stopped, think about that rhythm, the beats, the musical score of a character arc; story is a dance for our imaginations. Think about nursery rhymes and those hand-clapping games we played as girls. Think about fairy tales. Oh, don’t get me started there! My first love!
Think of the first storytellers you’ve known, of standing at your grandmother’s side while her hands worked biscuit dough in a bowl and she told you the story of her own grandmother doing the same; her words connected you, a silver thread through time. Think of your grandfather’s voice as he shelled corn on the back porch and told you the tales of his wasted youth and caused your heart to back up against your spine, lest you should know such loss. Think of your mother, telling how you came into the world, a fit of a miracle. Think of the stories told by cover of dark, with nervous giggles and flashlights late in the night, of ghosts and goblins and girls trapped in mirrors. Think of desperate journeys and battle cries and misty mountains, of lost boys who could fly.
They are still there, the voices of the ages, a timeless narrative telling through us, on us, beyond us- whether we remember to listen or not. We are never abandoned, but built by them. Stories and the human psyche are nonlinear lovers. Infinite. Sometimes we must just remember to do a little listening.
Here’s the truth: When it feels as if all the stories have stopped, that’s the lie every heart should recognize. Remember? This is the place where the wood grows dark, the path twists dangerously and home is lost? What happens next? Ah, now. You know.
Tell me a story.
What stories do you call upon when it feels the stories have all stopped?
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.
January 23rd, 2017
Turning Whine Into Gold
If we are ever to finish a novel there comes a point when we all must ask: is our story (yet) good enough? The question deserves a thoughtful answer. A glib “Hey, it’s better than half the crap out there” is the mindset that once defined “vanity publishing,” and went on to taint the early years of self-publishing. On Amazon, aspiring to be better than half the crap will only get you a ranking in the 6-millions, where your title is likely to never be unearthed.
Writers seeking the traditional route can rest assured that someone else will be making this determination. But consider this important distinction: while yours is only one of many the publisher will put out this year, it is probably your only book, and an important, non-erasable stepping stone in your career.
But a flinch-proof manuscript requires confidence, not hubris. How do you really know if your novel is ready to share with agents, editors, or…gulp…the public?
Work around the obstacles to knowing if your book is good enough
1. Obstacle: Uneven feedback.
Even when opinions are based on industry knowledge, solid craft analysis, and life wisdom, all of them are, in the end, subjective. This is the reason that the same book will be both panned and praised by reviewers.
Solution: I love what Stephen King said about feedback in his book On Writing, which as I recall went something like this: If you give your manuscript to five friends and three of them say you don’t need a certain character, get rid of that character—your public has spoken. If they come back with five completely different opinions, tie goes to the writer. Leave it as it is.
Pro tip: Submission itself, whether to agents or by the agent to publishers, can be an important part of your revision process. Glean all you can from the personalized rejections you receive, and if something smarts with the sting of truth, feel free to pull your work from consideration so you can revise it further. See this free advice for the gift it is and make those changes.
2. Obstacle: The words, “runaway bestseller.”
You can expect unpredictable happenings on a daily basis in the publishing industry, but you can’t count on them happening to you. Even the sales and marketing departments that approve an acquisition aren’t sure when they’ve found a winner—but at least they’ve identified a target audience, and will hedge their bets by making the book as attractive as possible to it. Truth is, this is an industry that runs on gut feelings, fairy’s wings, and loss projections. No one knows the magic formula.
Solution: Stay true to your vision of your book and your goals for its marketing. Unless you are completely on board with suggested changes, don’t revise to trends that may or may not have run their course.
Pro tip: As Dune author Frank Herbert once wrote, “A writer’s job is to do whatever is necessary to make the reader want to read the next line. That’s what you’re supposed to be thinking about when you’re writing a story. Don’t think about money, don’t think about success; concentrate on the story—don’t waste your energy on anything else.
3. Obstacle: Our sense of a job well done is always changing.
For students of storytelling craft, our sense of “finished” is as elusive as the summit of a learning curve obscured by the clouds.
Solution: Ask yourself: am I just rearranging words at this point? (Stop.) Will further revision make it a more effective and engaging story? (Continue to revise.) Will more revision turn it into another story altogether? (Stop revising this one and write a new story.)
Pro tip: It is never too late to revise. Changes can be made that will improve the readability of your novel even after the editor has turned off the lights and the copyeditors are wiping up. Or beyond: my audiobook director kindly let me know of three typos, which my print editor was able to fix on the final printer proofs! The bottom line is in the byline: we are the first to set down words and can be the last to request changes. The buck stops with us.
Call me an unreliable narrator here if you will, because my opinion is definitely skewed: My name is Kathryn, and I am a recovering perfectionist. I want my novels to be the best they can possibly be. In an industry where we can count on little else, the very least we owe ourselves is the sense of a job well done.
Is your work always “in progress”? What’s your bottom line? Beyond “the deadline is here and I have to send this,” how do you judge when your work is “good enough”?
Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.