Posts Tagged ‘Revisions’

Two crucial skills for the writing life.

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Each day, we are bombarded by the tasks we must do, by the things we want to accomplish, and by the demands of tasks and people upon our time. There is only so much time, and so often too many things to do. We necessarily must master the skill of multitasking, of doing more than one thing at a time: answering the phone and emails, scheduling meetings and signings, managing children and pets, managing a household, making time for love, tracking our books and our word count.

Writing & publishing have become a multi-skill career, especially for writers, where we must write, have a business plan, set goals, design covers, write a blog, maintain a website, and market our books. Some of us do all of these things, some of us out-source some of it. And most of us do have other demands placed on our time, like family, friends, favorite past-times, other jobs.

And all of this demands that we multitask, and that is necessary. It’s almost a survival skill.

Lost in all of this multitasking, all of this busyness, is the equally crucial skill of … focus. Being able to focus fully, for long periods, is very important. Lost too is perhaps our best work, our richest and most engaging writing, and our real potential as writers. Without focus, our work suffers, our creativity isn’t as great or as deep. The constant interruptions and distractions mean we not only do not get as much done of what is really important for our dreams (writing, for example), but what we do during those crucial hours isn’t of the quality that we could want.

What can we do to more fully apply that skill of mental focus to our work, our writing. On my blog post about writer’s block (filed under Writer’s Life), I recommend using a timer and freeing up the mind from other things that might intrude. It’s kind of like beginning to practice meditation, where other thoughts and distractions must be kept to a minimum, and where mental discipline must be continually exercised. Once you’ve decided that it is more important that you become more deeply focused when you write, then you will probably think of other ways to accomplish this.

Here are some tips on focusing from that previous blogpost:

1) Before ending the day’s writing time, write a few lines of the next scene or a few ideas for that scene, so that it’s easier to pick up at the next session.

2) As you sit there, take the first 10 to 15 minutes to read a section of a book on craft or articles on craft, to switch your mind from the daily grind to writing and craft.

3) Set up your writing time so that all you have to think about is writing. Since you have other pressing things to do in your day, perhaps schedule your day on the evening before, so that when you begin to write, all of those other things are settled, done, and you’re not thinking about all the other things you have to do that day. Instead you’re thinking about and focused on writing. (see No. 5 & 6)

4) Write in a Journal before you begin your writing time, to dump all the things that are bothering you or distracting you. Assign a maximum time for this (5 minutes), otherwise it could take over much of your writing time.

5) Set a timer for the length of time you want to write and then think of nothing else during that time–that is the time you have for writing–until the timer goes off. This allows you to fully focus on your writing, and to set everything else aside for that hour or for whatever time you’ve allocated.

6) When you sit down to write, if other things occur to you that must be done or that are competing with focusing on writing, then quickly create a list of those things you need to do or think about. And then put it aside, so that they’re all written down and will be less likely to distract you.

7) Plan–an outline or variation of one, but at least a general idea of where you’re going with the novel, whether it’s a general statement, a synopsis with the main plot points, or an outline.

And a quote on the subject:  “…when you are completely open, when on all levels you are in complete communication, completely integrated, then there is joy and you begin to create … creativeness is a sense of total self-forgetfulness, when there is no turmoil, when one is wholly unaware of the movement of thought.” — Krishnamurti.

How do you see yourself applying & balancing these skills in your life?



Story Arc … and I pose a question

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

The Story Arc is the essential or main plot, the external conflict that becomes the focus of the hero or heroine through which all the conflict is played.

The external conflict involves the protagonist’s main goal and the obstacles that must be overcome.  A novel begins by establishing the protagonist’s ordinary world, and then moves the action ahead with the Inciting Incident, the escalating conflict and turning points,  the black moment, and concludes with the climax, and resolution.

In my previous blog post about conflict (last week), I wrote that conflict unifies and drives the story.  Without conflict, without a unifying plot of some sort, there is no novel. By definition, a novel must have a plot.

The story arc is set up in Act One, by introducing all the story elements–characters, plot, setting, tone, Inciting Incident, POV. The setup orients the readers and focuses the story line.  The Inciting Incident should happen within the first 3 chapters.

But the setup of the story is not completed when the inciting incident happens. Here I’ll pose my question to readers of this blog: What element that starts with the letter C must be introduced to complete the setup? (I’ll answer the question in a future blog if the Comments don’t provide the answer.)

More about Story Arc: The story arc and suspense are powered by the turning points, obstacles, barriers, reversals and complications.  The suspense, as a function of that external conflict or story arc, should be strong enough to carry the reader through to the end of the book. If the story arc ends too soon, the novel, action and characters would then have no direction, no purpose.–the conflict ends, the suspense ends and you’ve lost the readers.


I’ll be presenting a workshop on the Novel Arcs: Piloting Your Craft, at the Write on the Sound conference, which is October 6th & 7th, with pre-conference workshops on Friday.

Have a wonderful week!!  And a happy and hot August!

Writing Conflict: some shoulds and shouldn’ts

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Conflict is a key ingredient of fiction. Conflict unifies and drives the story.  In fiction, you have some characters, you have a plot… but it is the characters enacting and reacting to the conflict–obstacles, reversals, complications, turning points–that makes up the plot.

Here are some shoulds and shouldn’ts:

Conflict Should be a part of every scene.

Conflict should build on what has happened previously–escalation.

The Conflict shouldn’t be something the protagonist could just walk away from.

The Conflict should involve something where the goals of the protagonist and villain are mutually exclusive–for example, the villain wants to do something and the protagonist wants to prevent whatever that is from happening.  Or the protagonist and the villain both want something or someone but their goals are in direct opposition and only one can achieve the goal–and thus, the conflict. They might want whatever/whoever it is for different reasons, but the objective is the same. But both cannot win.

The Conflict shouldn’t be something that could just be resolved with a conversation.

The conflict should have a sense of immediacy–the readers should feel the action happening as though they were a part of it, as it unfolds. It is partly this sense of immediacy that keeps the reader turning the pages.


For more on conflict and fiction, I’ll be presenting a workshop on the Novel Arcs: Piloting Your Craft, at the Write on the Sound conference in October.

Have a great weekend and week!!

The Unsympathetic Protagonist–Characterization

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Nearly every writer has heard about this character. From other writers, from editors, from agents. We know that editors and agents will reject a manuscript with an unsympathetic protagonist. They won’t want to read the novel; they believe, rightly so, that readers won’t like the protagonist, won’t want to spend 400 or more pages in close association with that character.

So who is this mysterious character that invades our prose? Who is this masked entity, this unsympathetic protagonist? … What is meant by this term and how can we, as writers, avoid this pitfall and create characters that are, instead, sympathetic? The answer is: By unmasking these characters, by peeling away the layers, by making them real. …

What can be done to change that character so that he or she is considered sympathetic? Three basic things related to characterization must occur to have the reader perceive a character as sympathetic:  (1) the characters must be rounded and believable; (2) the readers must like them and connect with them; thus, the author must reveal the right balance of the character’s good and bad traits for the story being told; and (3) the reader must understand how and why they are how they are; the author must, therefore, make the protagonist known to the reader. …

What are the techniques needed to make the unsympathetic protagonist sympathetic? As stated above, the main way to do this is to make the reader identify with, know and like the protagonist, preferably before any revelations of wrongdoing. …

In Shawshank Redemption, the character, Andy Dufresne,  has murdered his wife. If we’re introduced to Andy without knowing the extenuating circumstances, then we’re much less likely to try to excuse him and to like him when his good or interesting qualities are revealed. Thus, the storyteller immediately reveals that Andy was upset and drinking, that his wife was having an affair with another man, and that he tried to confront them when he was drunk. The audience can’t approve, but we know why it happened, and we can excuse him more, knowing those circumstances–he didn’t, for instance, murder her for the insurance or because she drank his last beer.  …

The following are 5 of the techniques to help make your protagonist sympathetic:

(Note: these techniques should not be used alone. They work best when several are combined  There are  9 techniques in the article.)

1) Make the protagonist someone who is perceived as more likable and less reprehensible within that group of characters. For example, in Pirates of the Carribean [1st movie in the series], Captain Jack Sparrow is not the worst character among those in the film; we see he has a better standard of behavior than the other pirates and that he’s smarter. He’s not perfect, but we can accept him and like him anyway. Early in the film, he saves the heroine, who we have come to like–and he’s funny, rather charming & smart. …

2. ) Make the anatagonist less likable — someone you’d hate more and whose actions/ words make the audience sympathetic to the protagonist. …

4.) Show that the protagonist has … been wronged, betrayed or hurt by someone–something that will get the readers’ sympathy. For example, in Bodyguard of Lies, by Robert Doherty [Bob Mayer], the protagonist Neeley discovers she has been betrayed: “When had she finally known that the man she loved had handed her a bomb to carry onboard a plane full of people.” …

8.) Show in what ways the protagonists might be admired or have them do something readers would admire. This includes doing something really well, or being a leader of some sort…something that makes the character special. …

9.) Show how the protagonist is the underdog within the group of characters. Examples of this are Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; the Titanic  [James Cameron’s movie] hero Jack Dawson; and the protagonist Rye Forrester in A Reason to Believe by Maureen McKade. …

How does your protagonist compare with other protagonists & to real-life people?

To grow in our craft, we need to be objective and learn from other writers and from life.  … Analyze why you like certain protagonists. What are their flaws? What do you find endearing or interesting about them?  .. Look at people who you like in real life. What are their flaws? What do you like about them, despite their flaws? Analyzing other protagonists will help you create better characters and increase your repertoire of narrative techniques.

[Excerpt from “The Unsympathetic Protagonist,” an article by Janice Hussein, Document Driven, which appears in Writer’s Digest’s 2010 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. Pages 46 – 50. Link to full excerpt of article’s opening: on my website]


Do you have any techniques or tips for other writers about how to  make a character likable–having readers identify with, like, and connect with a character?

Conversation. Breaking rules in fiction

Saturday, May 19th, 2012

For dialogue, at least in fiction, breaking the rules of conversation can be a good thing.

First, the three rules of rule breaking, as best-selling author Bob Mayer will tell you (applied to writing), are (1) know the rules; (2) have a good reason for breaking the rules; and (3) take responsibility for breaking them. (These rules and other great info can be found in his book, Write It Forward: From Writer to Successful Author. ) This is excellent advice. And that can certainly be applied to dialogue.

What are some of the rules of Conversation?  From an old Linguistics course textbook*, which fell into my lap this week, I found a page covering H. Paul Grice’s Maxims of Conversation**. I thought I’d apply these to writing dialogue. These are some of the rules you’ll want to break in your fictional dialogue.  (Be aware, though, that conversations should probably still make sense, for those who write experimental fiction.) This is just one way of looking at dialogue, a different perspective, to help writers “think outside of the box,” though we usually don’t think in terms of rules of conversation,  except in specific cases, like the rule to not interrupt, and so on. These maxims have been criticized, but are useful as general guides to politeness–they don’t represent the full range of human communication.

What are Grice’s Conversational Maxims?  ***  And how can they be applied to writing dialogue.

There are 4 kind of  Maxims/ Rules.

Maxims of Quantity:  (1) make your contribution to the conversation as information as necessary, which means don’t make comments that seem to add nothing and mean nothing; (2)  but at the same time, do not make it more informative than necessary

This first part of the Maxim should be followed for storytelling–don’t make comments that seem to add nothing and mean nothing.  But they can be broken, for example, when the character is responding from a different perspective, or when that kind of comment is the character’s MO–when avoiding a topic or when frustrated, and so on. For this second part, a run-on sentence of dialogue would be the example of more information than necessary. This could be done to add conflict or humor. Though be cautious of anything that doesn’t add to the storytelling.

Maxims of Quality:

The two maxims of quality are (1) do not say what you believe to be false; and (2) do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Both of these rules can obviously be broken to good effect in fiction–for example, to add conflict and obstacles for the protagonist to overcome.

Maxim of Relation:

The Maxim is to be relevant. Being relevant in dialogue isn’t absolutely necessary, if doing so for a character is actually part of the character or character’s behavior. Or it may be a way for a character to deal with a specific person or situation.

Maxims of Manner:

The four Maxims of Manner are (1) avoid obscurity of expression; (2) avoid ambiguity; (3) be brief; and (4) be orderly.

As far as the form of dialogue, I would be careful about breaking the rules. For content,  so much could be done. Some ways to break these rules in fiction are when the expression is fresh; the ambiguity provides conflict; and the long-winded character has a specific reason for tending to be that way–though again, I’d suggest caution, for any writing that doesn’t add to the storytelling. As for orderliness, human relations and conversation in real life aren’t always orderly–except maybe if you’re at a dinner party where conversation is the objective–and conflict  and dynamic dialogue are the goals in fiction, not necessarily orderliness. 😉

I hope this has helped you think from a different perspective about your approach to writing dialogue . Some writers who are noted for great dialogue and their use of dialect are Amy Tan, Susan Straight, and Elmore Leonard.

For writing fiction, what are your thoughts on creating great dialogue and on rule-breaking?


*An Introduction to Language (4th Edit.) by Victoria Fromkin & Robert Rodman, pg 225.

** From “Logic and Conversation.”


The Opening — Doorway to a Novel

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

Last week, I promised some authors that I’d write a post about craft. And having just completed one of my  online Submissions Workshops yesterday–query, synopsis, opening, and first 3 chapters–I’m going to write about openings. Having stayed up (way-too) late last night, this may be fairly brief this time.

For readers, the opening is one of a series of doorways–it’s about first impressions. The question, should I read this particular book or another one? Somewhat like a sifting process–the title, author, cover, and  blurb/review–along with word-of-mouth–and not always, of course, in that particular order–and then comes that opening.

(Everything in the novel is related to everything else, affects everything else, so the question with a  post on craft is always, where  to start  😉  …(and stop). )

The opening should establish these things:

1.) Type of book or genre – A mystery starts differently from a mainstream or a romance, for example.

2.) Voice –  Voice includes the POV, the way you write, the characters and their personalities–how they express themselves.

3.) POV – Who is the story about and from whose perspective(s) will readers be experiencing this story, as well as how intimately readers experience the characters–i.e., first person is more intimate than third.

4.) Setting — Where is the action taking place, as well as tone and how description of setting contributes to the type of book, to atmosphere.

5.) Time period – When is the action taking place: historical period, date, time of day.

6.) Characters – Establishing who the main characters will be (depending on the novel). Who is the protagonist(s),  the antagonist? Who are the subplot characters? Fears, desires, and so on.

7.) Goal – What is the initial goal of the protagonist? How does this change with events?

8.) Motivation – What is (at least) the initial motivation for the main characters?

9.) Inciting Incident – What happens to set off the major events in the novel?

10.) Ordinary World – The ordinary world must be established in some way so that readers see what the protag’s world was before “the change”–what s/he has lost, who s/he was at the beginning of the novel–so readers have a reference point for how the protag changes over the course of the novel.

11.) Conflict – What is the conflict? For the scene(s), for the novel? How are the protag and antagonist related to the conflict?

12.) And the opening should in some way foreshadow the ending.

Wishing everyone a great writing week!!

Using a Freelance Professional Editor

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

Today I’m only going to talk about copyediting through a professional freelance editor.  (See the definition below.)

Some of the things  a copy editor can do for you: we can check your grammar, usage, and punctuation, but also suggest ways to smooth the flow of your novel or nonfiction while still maintaining the author’s voice; we can suggest ways to make certain points clearer that may not be clear enough–pointing out and correcting any inconsistencies in content.

When you decide to work with an editor,  you’ll want to settle what the charges are, and how the charges will be paid. Many editors charge by the page or pages and many charge by the hour. Many editors will not confirm an estimate until they’ve seen the manuscript.

The professional freelance association–Editorial Freelancers Association–has the common editorial rates listed at their website. Some of those rates I’ll list here:

Type of work                         Estimated Pace       Range of Fees

Copyediting, basic               5-10 ms pgs/hr      $30-40/hr

Copyediting, heavy              2-5 ms pgs/hr        $40-50/hr

Developmental editing          1-5 pgs/hr             $60-80/hr

Substantive /Line editing      1-6 ms pgs/hr       $50-60/hr

Proofreading                         9-13 ms pgs/hr    $30-35/hr

Depending on the client and the editor, an editor may charge more or less than the fees listed here. Obviously this is something that would be worked out between the two of them. The charge varies according to whether the copyediting will be light, medium or heavy.

I usually charge by the pages–an example: for copyediting, the charge would be about $30 per 10 pages.  Many editors request an initial payment upfront for the work on a book, about half, and then a final payment upon completion, depending on the work to be done. I often work for authors before they submit proposals or manuscripts, whether to agents or to acquiring editors at a publishing house, or to editors at the Acceptance stage after the first Advance. 

When you submit pages that aren’t completely polished or are in rough draft form, then the editing would most likely be developmental editing, since at this stage of the manuscript, we don’t know what will be scrapped or expanded.

If an author submits chapters to be copyedited, then the editor will read the chapters through  several times–what we call “passes”–and when we’ve found all the mistakes and smoothed all the clunky sentences and so on, then we’ll send the chapters back to you. That would complete the editing for those chapters. We generally use the track changes function and the Comment function in MS Word to indicate or suggest changes that should be made. If there is a question about something, then the editor will query the author, probably by inserting a Comment in the manuscript.

 However, if you revise and add new material to those same pages, and then resubmit those same chapters, then that would be considered new material and the author would be charged again for those chapters–an author doesn’t get carte blanche on chapters and on reworking them forever. That would be like going to the doctor and only paying them one fee for all complaints. However, an author and editor can agree to have the editor only look at certain pages if there is new material, when it doesn’t involve most of the previous work. But if an editor must look through all the pages to do the work necessary then the editor should be paid for the time and effort needed to do that work. Otherwise the editor could be working on someone else’s chapters and getting paid for that time and work.

Here are some editing terms for reference:

Developmental Editing: to develop a manuscript from concept and/ or draft– working through subsequent drafts–suggesting changes in content, organization and presentation.

Substantive Editing: Fiction: evaluates the elements of the novel: plot, viewpoint, characterization, narrative style, pacing, and so on.    Nonfiction: improving presentation, organization, clarity, readability and flow, to create a new draft.

Copyediting: this is much more indepth than proofreading, and involves checking grammar, usage, capitalizations, punctuation, formating, and so on, yet preserving the voice & meaning of the original. Suggests ways to smooth the flow of the manuscript and checks for consistent style and format.

Proofreading: identifies typographical and punctuation errors, inconsistencies and misspellings. Checks for text discrepancies & problems with page layout. May compare two documents for uniformity.nges in content, organization and presentation.

This is a quick overview of the copyediting process. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to input them here.

It’s a mystery…

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

In the movie Shakespeare in Love, the Geoffrey Rush character is confronted by his investors about the playhouses closing.  He tells them:  “Somehow it all works out,” and they ask him, “How does it?” He answers: “…It’s a mystery.”

It’s a mystery. And we, the readers/viewers, are intrigued by this. We want to learn more about this. “How does it?”–we desire to know exactly that. It’s about conflict and suspense. Our curiousity is piqued.

Basically a mystery is a puzzle. It’s “Who Done It,” and the murder(s) and the solution are the important factors in the novel. 

The mystery differs from the thriller usually because of this “Who Done it” factor, with the dead body at the beginning of the mystery, and with the focus on finding out who the murderer was. A thriller is usually focused on something more generally cataclysmic, with more at risk–the free world, the health of a nation, the presidency–and with a setting that may include several states and/or several countries.

Suspense is part of mystery. It’s the secret. And the readers want to know the secret, to solve the mystery and to see good win out over evil–the suspense (and conflict) keeps them reading to those ends. Over the course of the mystery (or other) novel, the suspense can be increased by a number of things, including danger, the ticking clock, and the unknown.  For the mystery reader in pursuit  of “Who Done It,” the writer must use red herrings to deflect suspicion–to make it harder for the reader to guess who the real murderer might be. But at the same time, the writer must present all the clues, or readers will feel cheated.  The Game is afoot. 

At the beginning of a mystery, the writer must establish who is killed, who is affected by the murder, and who is going to solve it and why.  The important characters should be introduced at this point, certainly the victim, the murderer and the sleuth. The best characters, as in any novel, are those that offer the unexpected.

The best mysteries are those that keep the readers guessing until the end, that allow the reader to piece the clues together, while not making the chase too easy.

What are some of your favorite mystery writers/ novels? Why do you think mysteries appeal to readers/ to you?

Characterization: Pt 1

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Who is inhabiting our fictional world?  Creating characters…

Your protagonists and villain, especially, must be fully developed characters, with a detailed biography, even if only part of that biography is used in the story.  Your characters drive your story; thus, to write a great story, you have to get to know your characters. 

There are many methods to do this: the interview; profiling; astrology; character questionnaires; Myers-Briggs; Enneagrams; role-playing; and so on. Your characters, your story, your choice.

As much as possible, get to know your characters before you start writing.

  • What are the characters’ three most enduring, defining characteristics?
  • What do your characters want?
  • What are their secrets?
  • What are the key influences in their lives?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • What events in their lives have made them who they are?
  • What are the things that make them emotional, maybe even unreasonable?
  • What are their best traits, their worst traits?
  • Ambitions?
  • Philosophy of life?
  • Sense of humor…or lack of one?

Just as you and I are defined by our reactions to things that happen in our lives, this is also the case with our characters. Does your character react with humor, with anger, with silence? Knowing your characters means you’ll  know what they would say or do in reaction to obstacles to their goals, to frustrations, and so on.  Who they are drives the choices they would make when faced with those obstacles–this means the character will “ring true” for readers.

According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edit, characterization is the creation and [emphasis added] convincing representation of fictitious characters.  Part 2 of this series on Characterization will be about revealing character.

What method do you use to create your characters? Do you have any key questions that you use to “profile” your characters?