Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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Diamonds in the Rough Draft - Writing Scenes that Matter

by Joseph Lallo

raw uncut diamonds

One of the first and most important lessons likely to come from any sort of writing instruction is this: Don’t waste words. In short fiction, you don’t have the words to spare. Spend too much time talking about something that doesn’t matter to the plot and pretty soon your tight little short story is a sprawling novella. If you write comics, pointless digressions can grow into filler arcs that lose readers. Even in screenplays and stage productions, efficient storytelling is key.

“Chekhov’s Gun” states that if there’s a gun hanging on the mantle in the first act, it should be fired by the third or it shouldn’t be hanging there. Lessons that call for concise writing echo through the forums and across twitter threads. They all boil down to: if you don’t need to write a scene, don’t write it. But comparatively rare is the answer to the obvious followup question.

What makes a scene worthwhile? Let’s go through a few obvious reasons to include a scene, and then we’ll discuss one or two that don’t get quite so much attention.

Moving the Plot Forward

This might be the most important rule of thumb available to a writer. Every scene should contain elements that advance the plot. A strict interpretation of this rule is: If you can remove an entire scene and the characters and reader would still have all of the information necessary to solve the mystery, overcome the obstacle, or defeat the foe, then the scene doesn’t need to be there.

On the surface, this seems obvious, but it would surprise you how often even skilled writers can miss the mark. Epic Fantasy writers, military thriller writers, and hard sci-fi writers are prone to tangents and detailed digressions. Read enough epics and you’re sure to run into multipage literary meanderings. These talk about the history of a kingdom, spouting the lines of succession through dozens of generations. They share heaps of political intrigue that never come into play elsewhere.

A military writer might decide that a scene where the characters spot a helicopter is necessary. Then they lapse into a chapter long description of the motivations behind shifting from two blades to five. They show how revolutionary the counter rotating props were. Then onward through the tale without another mention of that helicopter or any other. None of these things bring the characters a step forward. They represent a lapse in pace, and by rigid application of this rule, they shouldn’t be there.

Adding Flavor

But those are passages, not necessarily scenes, right? A story without any flavor or indulgence would be an awfully dry account. So long as there’s something in those scenes that moves the plot forward, they can stay, right? Maybe yes, maybe no. It all comes down to if the plot advancement feels natural.

Let’s take the helicopter example. It’s only unnecessary if the helicopter itself isn’t relevant. Spending three pages describing a war machine that roars through the sky at a pivotal moment is absolutely necessary. Suddenly, an indulgent example of showing your homework becomes a key piece of audience education. Your reader now knows what sort of threat this craft represents. An action scene can be tighter and faster with that information laid out.

Likewise, the history and line of succession in the epic. Let's say a diplomat in chapter 4 has the same name as an heir to the throne that was denied. Your reader now knows there may be dangerous ambition or good old-fashioned revenge driving their actions. These are two examples of important information coming into the story in a natural and flavorful way.

The Tack-on Approach

A novice writer–and sometimes even a veteran–might try to take the easy way out by adding a line or two, adding a plotpoint that doesn’t flow naturally from the rest of the scene. That’s a way to check the “plot advancement” box and thus justify otherwise fluffy and pointless prose. If the narrator waxes poetic about military aircraft for half a chapter, then receives a phone call. A bomb has been found across town. Is that a scene that moves the plot forward? It’s certainly a sentence that moves the plot forward, but if it feels tacked on, the reader will know.

If you must include flowery prose or dense information dumps, there are ways to justify those even in the absence of plot points, however.

Developing the Characters

The plot isn’t the only thing that makes a book worth reading. Plot points aren’t the only things that are essential to a story. When a hero risks her life to protect a former enemy, finally turning that enemy into an ally, that scene won’t make sense unless the reader has seen and felt the hero’s reasons for such a selfless act. Someone doing something out of character to advance the plot is in many ways a far bigger crime than including a juicy scene where nothing important happens. One is inefficient storytelling. The other is lazy storytelling.

Character development is every bit as important as plot development, and it can serve as justification for including any number of things that simply wouldn’t make a scene important enough to keep.

Back to the helicopter. Putting a lavish description of mounted machine guns and missile pods in the narration could feel unnecessary. But put it in the mouth of a character, speaking passionately about the aircraft he used to work on in his days as an engineer? Now you’ve included the same information, but it’s done double duty of providing backstory for a character, revealing what excites them. Now your character is a little nerdy. If you play it carefully and make their enthusiasm come across, you could even make it drag on longer than would otherwise be called for in order to exasperate the other characters.

An info dump becomes a charming scene that arms your cast with knowledge and skills. Even if that helicopter doesn’t matter for the plot, now you have a mechanic on your team who might just know how to fix the jeep and get the crew out of a jam.

Weaponizing Info Dumps

Bloviating info-dump characters can even serve a purpose in the absence of other skills. Our epic fantasy historian who knows oh-so-much about the lineage of the local patriarch can talk the ear off a scheming diplomat at a party, serving as a crucial distraction so the other heroes can act. Weaponized info-dumps can be great for a laugh, and if you’re feeling really efficient, you can even layer this lesson with the last one and include key information in the info dump. Having a character that everyone tunes out as they drone on about trivia casually mention an exploitable weakness is a plot advancing and character advancing moment.

This isn’t a silver bullet. If you assign one or more characters to info-dump, it can get old fast, and can be just as transparent as tacking on the plot element at the end of the scene. As always, it needs to feel natural, and feel worth it.

Worth remembering, though, is that finding something worthwhile is important from the point of view of the writer, but the writer’s point of view isn’t the only one that matters.

Because the Reader Wants It

Now let’s talk about some reasons for scenes that the more austere writers might leave out. The first and perhaps most often overlooked is, quite simply, if the audience wants the scene. Once more, we look to the helicopter.

Military thrillers attract a specific audience. And a big slice of that audience is in it for the details. A casual reader’s eyes may glaze over at page five of the description of the chain-feeding mechanism for the vulcan cannon’s ammo, but die-hards will eat that up. A treatice on the stealth bomber might not appeal to something meant for a broad readership, but sub-genres exist for a reason. If you know your readers want to know the exact make and model of the pistol on the sergeant’s hip, then that is a key element of the book even if it isn’t a key element of the story.

Different genres have different literary garnish that they crave. Can you fade out the sex scene, shutting the bedroom door and skipping to morning without losing anything important to the plot? Sure. But if you’re writing a steamy romance rather than a sweet one, you just missed a golden opportunity to pay off what many readers saw as the reason for the book. No plot. Maybe even no character, but that bedroom scene was without a doubt an indispensable part of the trajectory of the story and the relationships.

An argument can be made that just because you can get away with something ostensibly unnecessary doesn’t mean you should. Layering in character and plot relevance to those indulgent niche features will make them better. But something doesn’t need to be all things for everyone in order to justify its place on the page.

That being said…

Because The Reader Needs to Breathe

It seems silly in an essay explaining the need to keep pace quick and tight to talk about slowing things down, but it needs to be said. I’ll put my money where my mouth is and give you an example from my own writing.

The Book of Deacon is an epic fantasy series that's largely responsible for my writing career. I intended it to be a single titanic book, but split it into the first three books in the series. This meant that, in essence, book 3 was one big third act. A 150,000 word climax. Now, we can talk about whether or not this was a good idea (it wasn’t) but the end result was a lot of battles, a lot of high-speed travel, and a lot of resolving plot threads that had woven together over two other books. That book contains most of the major battles. But it also contains “The Farmhouse Scene.”

A Reset

There comes a moment between two rescues that the heroes need to rest. They find a barn near a farmhouse and settle down for the night. One of them lets her curiosity get the better of her and slips inside, leading to a face-to-face meeting with an average citizen of this world. Nothing of real importance happens in this scene. A character removes an annoying shackle. A plot irrelevant character is treated for a withering disease.

I could easily have moved straight from one rescue to the next, and this scene would not have been missed. Do characters develop? Yes, but nothing revelatory. Do we see how far the heroes have come from where they started? Yes, but the reader has been with them along the way and has seen that path. Yet the Farmhouse scene comes up again and again as a favorite among readers.

Why? Because after so much battle, so many triumphs and hardships, it is a moment to relax. It provides a place for the reader to take a break, collect their thoughts, and reflect. And maybe most importantly, it provides contrast. Raw speed and intensity in a plot can make it hard to elevate toward a climax. But taking a moment to breathe can reset, allowing you to escalate toward a final showdown and have it feel like a new high, even if it’s only a return to the norm.

Other Examples

In TV shows, you might call these bottle episodes. Self-contained, effectively inconsequential, but often unique and memorable. After Picard is rescued from being a Borg, he hangs out at the family vineyard for an episode. Walter White, amid his rise toward being a drug kingpin, really needs to deal with that fly in the lab.

As with all things, it still needs to be good. If you can get some plot advancement, great. And you should certainly use this slowdown to provide some character introspection or interaction. But a little break in the pace can be the perfect setup for the final sprint.

And that’s that

Pros can often discourage new writers by telling them to kill their darlings and cut the fluff from a story. That fluff often contains the parts that an author is most excited about. But hopefully this analysis has helped show how to turn the scenes that might feel heavy and pointless into the gems that people remember when the story is told.

If a scene is important to you, as a writer it’s your job to make it important to the reader. Weave your scenes into the story. Add a rung to the ladder right in the center of that scene in the place where it makes the most sense. Have that little nugget of gold be perfectly in character to gush about. Find the audience that can’t live without your juicy lore. And if you’ve been sprinting for long enough, fill a nice little lull with a heartwarming moment for its own sake. So long as it’s natural, and it feels like it belongs, then it’s earned its place and the readers will adore it.

About Joseph

Joseph Lallo

Joseph R. Lallo took a crooked path to authordom. He was educated at NJIT, where he earned a master’s degree in Computer Engineering, and paid his bills in the world of Information Technology until Sept of 2014, when he finally became a full-time storyteller. The international bestseller The Book of Deacon defined his early career, and he has since written dozens of novels, short stories, and novellas. These include the critically acclaimed Steampunk series Free-Wrench and the thrilling sci-fi adventure saga, Big Sigma

Outside of writing, he has co-hosted multiple self-publishing podcasts over the years, including the Six Figure Authors podcast with Lindsay Buroker and Andrea Pearson and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing podcast.

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Tumblr | Wattpad

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Toxic Productivity for Writers - Do You Have It?

by Karen DeBonis

hands stress typing on keyboard

In May 2023, I will become a published author for the first time. Learning as I go and with every new tidbit of knowledge, I realize how much more there is to learn—launch teams, media interviews, book readings, blurbs, Amazon and Facebook ads, trailers, preorders… I have to do it all, I think. I have only one shot. I must succeed. Every time I take a break, I think about all I could be doing, everything I should be doing.

Is this normal newbie jitters? Or have I succumbed to toxic productivity?

This term was first coined in the 1970s by New York Times best-selling author Dr. Wayne Dyer. He defined it as:

"a state of mind where people feel they have to be productive all the time, no matter what the cost, be it personal relationships or family life."

Of course, our Western culture was built on unhealthy expectations of work output. Then, when COVID sent many employees home to work, toxic productivity—also called "workaholism on steroids" began to bleed into our personal spaces as well.

But most writers wrote at home long before the pandemic, so how do we know if our drive to create prose or poetry has become problematic?

Some signs of toxic productivity are common to other stress-inducing habits or work environments: sleeping poorly, fatigue or exhaustion, eating too little or too much, foregoing exercise, neglecting relationships, relying on alcohol or other drugs to relax. But there are a few signs that are specific to toxic productivity. Below, I put them in the context of a writer’s life.

6 signs of toxic productivity for a writer

1. You feel guilty taking breaks. When your partner sees you in the kitchen getting a snack, you feel the need to defend yourself before you hurry back to your writing desk.

2. Downtime makes you anxious. You’re having coffee with friends, but you can’t concentrate on the conversation, you keep looking at the time, and finally invent an excuse to leave.

3. You resist doing things that are not goal-oriented. You stop journaling or writing for pleasure because those won’t get your WIP done.

4. Time spent doing anything other than writing feels like a waste. You lose interest in hobbies you used to enjoy.

5. You’re hooked on self-help books, webinars, and classes. Although self-improvement is a worthwhile pursuit, you’re never content with what you learn and end up feeling worse about yourself.

6. Achieving your goal is unsatisfying because it signals an end of your productivity. You don’t experience joy and satisfaction in a completed or published WIP, but instead feel anxious and purposeless. (Writers may experience this as post-publication depression.)

If these signs don’t help you make a clear assessment of your writing life, the key identifying characteristic of toxic productivity may clarify your tipping point:

The key identifying characteristic of toxic productivity is “producing for the sake of producing.”

And what if you conclude these signs do apply to you? What’s the big deal?

Like any lifestyle that encompasses chronic stress and an intense workload, we associate toxic productivity with a variety of health risks.

Potential health consequences of toxic productivity

Write every day

This has me wondering about one of the most common pieces of advice given to writers: write every day.

Could this recommendation fuel an unhealthy drive to produce?

Some do

Many creatives excel with this type of consistency. Memoirist Marion Roach — my first IRL writing mentor—insists that writing daily is the key to success:

 “The when, where and how of writing…cuts to the chase, shuts down the excuses, stops the long soulful sharing and simply commands that you – wait for it – sit down and write every day.”

Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity secret is to use a large wall calendar to mark off days when he writes jokes. "Don't break the chain,” is his motto, meaning don’t allow a day to go unmarked.

Bestselling author Jeff Goins says,

 “If you want to get this writing thing down, you need to start writing every day. No questions asked, no exceptions made. After all, this isn't a hobby we're talking about; it's a discipline.”

Curious to know more? James Clear, a NY Times bestselling author, investigated the daily routines of 12 Famous Writers, many of whom insist on daily writing.

Some don't

I don’t write every day, unless you count tweets, emails, texts, and grocery lists. And even if I wanted to sit my behind in my chair and tap away for a set amount of time or a certain number of words, my chronic health issues sometimes make it impossible to concentrate. I know I’m not alone. Is there another model to follow? Is daily writing a must?

I dug a little deeper and was surprised to find many successful writers who do not write daily, like Cheryl Strayed, Carmen Maria Machado, and even Lin Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton, who said, "The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton' walked into it.”

And I love this by New York Times-bestselling author Daniel Jose Older:

Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.

Letting go of “shoulds” is poetry to my ears.

As I look over the information here, I think about my own writing life. I’ve never considered myself a workaholic, but I do find it difficult to stop when I’m in flow with any kind of project. I’m currently finishing up my final manuscript revisions, and it’s been all-consuming. When I need to rest or take a break, I revise. I justify it because soon I’ll be handing my manuscript over to the publisher, and then I’ll establish some balance.

Of course, I’ll have marketing to do…

My writing habits aren’t ideal, but remember that the bottom line of toxic productivity is “producing for the sake of producing,” and I certainly don’t do that. But I’m glad to know the warning signs so I can keep myself from that slippery slope in the future.

As far as our writing routine, perhaps the most important tidbit of wisdom to add to your cache, newbie or veteran, is this: you do you and I’ll do me, as the saying goes. Or, in the much more eloquent words of Daniel Jose Older:

“Every writer has their rhythm. It seems basic, but clearly it must be said: There is no one way.” 

Are you on the slippery slope of toxic productivity? If not, what is “your way?”

About Karen

Karen DeBonis' memoir Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived, about the collision of motherhood, people-pleasing, and her son's medical crisis, is forthcoming from Apprentice House Press in May 2023. You can read more of her story at www.karendebonis.com.

Top image by Nattanan Kanchanaprat from Pixabay

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Opening the Top-Secret Client Vault on Ghostwriting (and How to Find Your First)

by L.A. Mitchell

Top Secret Vault - open - glowing interior

I’m often asked, “Who pays for ghostwriting?” An all-encompassing response escapes me. My clients are people with the desire and resources to chase dreams, but they lack essential components to get them to the finish line. For celebrities, entrepreneurs, and the elderly, that component is time. For publishers, companies, and professionals at the peak of their careers, that component is writing talent. Clients come to me with vast and powerful life experiences, like musicians whose song deserves to be heard on a guitar with a missing string. 

As a ghostwriter, I am the missing string. 

Respect is the heart of a successful ghostwriting relationship. My clients respect the dedication it took to hone my writing skills. I respect that a missing string, while essential to the song, cannot take credit for beautiful music. 

I’ve amassed a network of remarkable individuals who come to me to be their words. They refer others so I can become their words too. Their identities remain protected, a component of that respect, but knowing more about the types of clients I help elevates the discussion around the often-misunderstood practice of ghostwriting and may encourage writers to share their talents in ways that have the potential to elevate us all. 

Celebrities

Always a fun topic. It’s no surprise that an estimated 70 to 80 percent of celebrity memoirs are ghostwritten. Peak earnings for ghostwriters fall into this category. Legacy publishers keep proven bestselling ghostwriters as favorites in their contact list, so once you’re in, you’re in. 

The main currency of clients at this level is trust. Unless you already know a celebrity, it can take years to build enough of a high-power network to ghostwrite at this level. For me, year nine aligned in a crazy, magical way. Through referrals, I was simultaneously ghostwriting for an international supermodel, a Sundance Film Festival nominee, a songwriter in collaboration with a Grammy-winning producer, and one of the most connected health gurus in Hollywood. One client told a publisher that he would not sign a contract unless I was his ghost. And like that, I was in.

If you over-deliver for mid-level ghostwriting clients, you will eventually run across someone with a powerful connection. The trust you’ve nurtured with mid-level clients transfers to your celebrity referral if that celebrity likes and trusts your mutual acquaintance.  

Entrepreneurs/Thought Leaders/Business Rock Stars

My first ghostwriting client was a software engineer who wanted a choose-your-own-adventure story for the Apple format. My most recent client in this category just launched his own nutritional company. I’ve ghostwritten for business professionals who do improv comedy at night, multi-million-dollar energy companies, and the guy handling my personal investments. What do all these business-minded people have in common? They all have a desire to control their own narrative.

Beyond the buzzwords of authority marketing and social proof, clients in this category want content that works for them, in whatever form best reaches their audience. Sometimes it’s an article in a trade magazine. Sometimes it’s a press release or a regular feature in a periodical. Not everyone has a dream to write a book, but almost every person can better connect to professional goals with quality written content.

You likely already know ghostwriting clients who fall into this category or are (at most) one degree of separation. Announce to your network that you’re interested in taking on writing projects in all forms. Then help professionals brainstorm how written content can turn into multiple revenue streams and elevate their professional visibility.

Mid-list Authors/Self-published Authors/Hybrid Authors

Self-published and hybrid authors who create a publishing company and master the production cycle from idea to release understand that turning a profit is directly tied to the number of releases. One way to increase output is to use a ghostwriter in the creative process.

One client, a traditionally published USA Today bestselling romance author, uses me for first draft assistance. She gives me a series bible and a detailed book outline. I weave plot threads, arc emotions, drive intimacy beats, and drop cliffhangers. Ultimately, however, readers want her, so she transforms my first draft into her voice. She loves revision, so this method works for her. Her publisher is pleased by her prolific output. She doesn’t get mired in her most challenging phase, and I spend my writing days in her fantastic story worlds.

Another market-savvy indie author client who pays close attention to subgenre trends hires ghostwriters. This allows her to chase reader demand while her personal writing stays in her favorite genre lane. In her case, she ties each ghostwriter to a different pen name under her control. It’s just as easy to tie a group of ghostwriters to the same pen name. Readers don’t notice voice differences the way authors do, or they don’t care. As long as the books deliver on the promise, this model works.  

Ordinary Extraordinary People

Ask almost anyone, “What’s one story from your life that no one would believe?” Answers to this question often deliver the best of humanity—stories that pull at the heartstrings and set us all firmly inside our feelings. 

These clients come from your network or from referrals. They may only have one story, one memoir inside them. That’s okay. One story may not make them the most lucrative client, but they are often the most loyal referrers. My litmus test for taking on such projects is simple: will this project make the world a better place? If hearing their story puts me inside my feelings, I embrace the project. This question helps me steer clear of the people chasing ego or using their memoir as therapy.

Others who fall into this category initially enter my stable as coaching clients but realize that compelling writing is a marathon, not a sprint. After a goal milestone, I ask, “Do you love writing or do you love having written?” For those who adore the community or the romanticized notion of being a writer but not the process, this epiphany sometimes leads to hiring me as a ghostwriter because we’ve shared their creative space for so long. Poets and screenwriters often have trouble translating their gifts into the narrative form, so we’ll tackle novels together. 

Book Packagers & Legacy Publishers

Smaller book packagers who post for contractors on marketplace sites like Upwork enjoy an established framework of contracts, communication avenues, and legal resources backing up the exchange of words for money. Book packagers and traditional publishing houses understand that talented writers travel in talented circles and encourage writers to spread the word among writer friends or ask their established writers to dabble in ghostwriting. Both business models treat ghostwriting with the efficiency of a well-established cog in the publishing machine.

If you want to ghostwrite for packagers or publishers and already have an agent and editor, communicate your willingness and your reasons for ghostwriting with your team. So long as your output doesn’t impact your personal career, you’ll be seen as a team player who prioritizes publisher success. If you aren’t yet connected to a publishing house, a quick internet search leads you to the opportunities offered by book packagers.

Ghostwriting has been one of the greatest blessings in my writing journey because of the scope of incredible clients who enrich my life and creativity. Everyone has a story to tell. Start from a place of respect, nurture your network, and you’ll be amazed at the projects that come your way.

Let’s kickstart that first client connection! In the comments below, identify one person in your network (no names, please) who might benefit from your writing talent, and I’ll help you with that all-important first conversation.

About L.A. Mitchell

L.A. Mitchell

L.A. Mitchell is a freelance editor, writing coach, and ghostwriter with 33+ books in the market and 7 Amazon #1 category bestsellers to her (top secret) credit.

The Nature of Shadows cover

The most recent release she can claim (a co-authored project) is The Nature of Shadows, a memoir set against the brutal backdrop of Liberia’s first civil war in which a discarded boy learns love and belonging from a series of individuals who shape his life.

 For the past 13 years, she’s ghostwritten everything from business non-fiction to epic YA fantasy to sexy romance and believes the best perk of her job—hands down—is her collection of fuzzy, going-to-work slippers. On occasion, you can find her helping talented authors launch a freelance ghostwriting business at Lawson Writers Academy. Visit her at la-mitchell.com.

Links: 

Lawsons Writer’s Academy class: 
https://www.margielawson.com/establish-a-ghostwriting-business-and-finally-monetize-your-talent/

Amazon buy: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1734023414

Website: https://la-mitchell.com/

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