Thursday, February 23, 2012

Character Editing: The Features of Your Nature Trail

Character editing could be considered either "big picture" editing or "little picture" editing, depending on what aspect of the character(s) you're editing.

First is the question "Does this character work?" For my first expanded draft of A Fistful of Fire, the answer was "No." Evonalé was downright whiny, as one friend told me when she couldn't get through the first section.

That whining happened because I had too much paranoia in there, too much of one feature. It's like having a nature trail that's in a forest, but 90% of the trees are all oaks. Some folks will still enjoy it just because they like trees, but people tend to prefer some variety in what they see.

And then there's the question "Does this line work?" This question comes in when you're giving the characters individual voices, their own preferred words, their own vocal quirks*—and when you're making sure that the character's coming across the way you intended.

I had to ask that question in every paragraph and line of every scene as I edited A Fistful of Fire so Evonalé wouldn't be unbearably whiny. But even that is a little-picture application of a big-picture edit.

Writing Destiny's Kiss put me face-to-face with the "little picture" form of "Does this line work?":

With what's already in the scene, does this line go overboard?

Destiny's Kiss features a vampire, Ambrogino Romazzo, who's… an unusual blend of traits, in part because he's had to raise his little sister, who's the narrator's age. The narrator has to figure out if he's a nice guy or a creep, and one little line garnered beta comments that it went too far in the wrong direction.

Granted, I've also received "Ick!" comments on the pair of first cousins who are also a couple in "The Corpse Cat". Folks' "too much" meters differ from each other, but too much of anything will wreck your character.

Nice contradiction there, no?

All you can do is make sure the features balance out and don't all congregate in a particular section. Vary up the oak trees with maple and apple and shrubbery—and intersperse them appropriately, so the reader doesn't get distracted by a sudden willow when no creek's been built to water it.

Having a trusted first reader of a different upbringing than you can help find these sorts of problems—because folks with your same upbringing will probably make the same assumptions you do, understand things the same way, so they won't catch when you leave out character motivations and such—they'll understand what you meant.

At least, folks with similar upbringing to you will be more likely to understand what you meant.

Have you ever read something where a single aspect or line made the character not work? What about written something where something made the character come across differently than how you wanted? Who caught it?


*For an example with fantastic individual voices for the characters, I recommend Chime by Franny Billingsley.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Plot Editing: Your Muse's Nature Trail Type(s)

Last week, we discussed—well, I monologued on—structural editing, comparing it to the paint that marks a nature trail. Another form of "big picture" editing is plot editing, which can be compared to determining the type of trail your muse follows.

Plot editing has one goal: to answer yes to the question "Do the events of this piece of writing line up?"

Does each event naturally lead to the other? Was anything forced? Was anything missing?

One way to find missing parts, by the way, is to look at each event and consider what would happen if that event occurred elsewhere, elsewhen, or to someone else. What else could or would or should result?

For example, let's say one character kills someone. What's the logical result in real life? The authorities find the body, and there's an investigation, maybe some arrests and a trial. If that standard due process doesn't happen, why not? Is killing legal in that story "world"? Was it somewhere nobody would know? Maybe the character is one of the authorities, who killed someone in the line of duty (which has its own set of "logical results" that stem from it).

If your story deviates from standard perceptions of reality (insofar as they are standard), you need to know it, and your story has to support and explain it.

That means you also need causes and effects, so you also want to look at every event in your story and make sure they fit. You might not reveal everything in order, but it does have to occur in order.

I could name one traditionally published novel* where the protagonist is (presumably) more aggressive than usual—before the event that the book later gives as the cause for her unusually high aggression. Personally, I suspect that error was added in the editing. But as a reader, I find myself reluctant to try the author again, even though I think it was her debut novel and it had a few more signs of probable editing damage.

Plot editing, paying attention to the order of things, is meant to avoid situations like that.

There's a reason that skittish little Evonalé pretty much kicks and screams in the end of A Fistful of Fire**; but that fit of temper had causes, which appear in the story, and even her temper itself doesn't come out of nowhere.

(Yes, I realize I'm overlapping "plot editing" with "character editing", here. They're intertwined.)

To include that event—Evonalé losing her temper and pitching a fit—I had to set up previous events that demonstrated: 1) she had a temper; 2) she would blow her top over certain things, despite her skittishness; 3) the ending event was one of those things; 4) she would display her fit of temper that way; and 5) the ending event would actually happen. (Which required quite a bit of setup that I can't say for spoiler reasons—but a political and several previous character events connect to that one.)

So that fairly straightforward plot event required a minimum of 5 things, depending on how you look at it.

This "plot editing" applies to non-fiction, too. Cause and effect must line up.

So look at each plot as a trail. Does the trail go back down the same mountain it took you up? Is there a bridge over that stream? Are there gaps in the trail? Does it ever fold back and double up or mysteriously go back over the same bit of terrain?

To be sure, stories can be more complex than nature trails, and they can repeat and double up on themselves like a nature trail can't. Being limited to three-dimensional space, you can't spontaneously walk over the same patch of ground twice without circling around or changing direction. A story, though, has no such physical limitations.

That means it can be a bit tricky, for some books, to figure out when you have a functional trail that connects properly, and when you have redundancies that don't quite work.

But here's the trick: Even redundancies are parts of a linear trail.

Meaning, even though a story trail might have lines or bits that look like they're going over the same bit of ground again, they can't actually be doing that—it has to be a point later on the trail. It might resemble the previous one, or it might even mirror something that's come before, but it must still move the story forward.

Depending on your particular story, that might move things just a hair. But it must move forward.

If your story has multiple timelines, each storyline is its own trail. But each trail has to intersect or at least be in view of each others at the right points.

How on earth do you do that?

You could outline each storyline, possibly even more than once, to make sure they fit together properly. You could set up timelines. Personally, I like 3x5 cards, which you can line up and rearrange so nicely.

But honestly, I personally tend to wing this one, going by instinct for when I need to break it down and look more closely. And that's because I haven't found a method that stops my obsessive side.

When I really get into it, I try to make the structural numbers of my story mean something. For example, due to the major event in Destiny's Kiss being a 17th birthday, I tried to get it into 17 chapters.

Fortunately, I've managed to control that obsessively nitpicky side of me enough that I can ditch those urges if I can't easily indulge them. (That's also why I tend to be oblivious about dust and mess, actually—because otherwise, I get obsessive about how it should be. And then very little gets done because I'm fighting to make it perfect.)

I still want to write a story that perfectly parallels word counts and contains a meaningful number of chapters, though.

Do you edit your writing with an eye for cause and effect? Do you have any other techniques to share?


*I'm not naming the author to be polite. I know of other folks who enjoy her, and I did really like one of her related short stories. She writes some memorable characters.

**I am not calling my debut novel perfect. Nor am I saying that it's an ideal example. It's just one that I know intimately, and I've had more than one reader comment positively on how everything draws together and mention that scene specifically.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Structural Editing: Your Muse's Trail Markers

We've already addressed editing before you write, as well as the two different types of editing.

Now let's look into one type of "big picture" editing: structural editing.

Picture your story as a nature trail. Some trails are easier than others. Some are more straightforward than others. Some only need you to walk in a straight line, while on others, you have to hop across a river on some rocks.

Some trails are easy to see, but most (at least in my experience in the southeastern US) will have a specific paint color and pattern marking the trail every so often, on trees or cliffs or whatever is handy at an alert point.

That trail-marking paint is the structure for the trail. The markers must line up and be placed appropriately, for those who follow the trail must know where to turn when the trail curves and bends, or when it meets up for a time with another trail. The markers must also match the trail you're on—you don't want the markers defining the novice trail on a trail that features 6 days of hiking over rough terrain.

Your story's structure is like those markers. The structure defines the path of your novel—and it often lets the reader know what they're reading. And it makes sure that your story is, in fact, a story and not some random blob.

One easy example of the structure as "markers" is in the x-act structure. (X being 3 or 4 or however many acts you like to use.) Those different points in that structure provide trail markers to ensure that your story actually has a plot.

Plot is conflict. There's a protagonist and an antagonist who are at odds, whose goals each interfere with the other's even if they're not contradictory. The protagonist might be trying to find and save her sister, while the antagonist is trying to seize power using those like the protag's sister (referring to The Shifter by Janice Hardy). Or the antagonist might be a coming flood that's going to wipe out the valley, and the protagonist has to find her daughter, who's aquaphobic, and get her to come outside into the storm so they can evacuate before the flood comes.

Plot = conflict = story.

Well, sort of. Fans of vignettes and flash fiction see story when there's no plot, but I'm talking about the standard definitions for the majority of English readers. A writer who ignores story convention might find some folks who love her for it, but she'll still get dissed.

Shoot, even folks who know what they're doing and break the writing "rules" (of thumb) will get readers who sniff and say they have no clue what they're doing. For example, there's an Amazon review for Hart's Hope by Orson Scott Card that says "a great storyteller will SHOW me not TELL me what is going on"—as if "telling" itself is an illegitimate style. (If you've not read that book, the style is an integral part of the story.)

"Telling" can be used properly, by the way.

But this means that the "trail markers" of structure for your particular story will depend on your particular piece of writing. If you're intentionally writing a vignette, you'll have different trail markers than a short story. And a blog post will have different trail markers from a how-to article or a research paper.

Different genres also have markers specific to each genre. The two lead characters must always be introduced to the reader early in a romance novel, for example—that's a structural marker that "I am a romance!" Mysteries must always have the crime early in the book if not at the actual beginning, and they also tend to feature red herrings. (Rabbit trails that make you think someone else "dun it".)

So the first step to structural editing: make sure your trail markers match your intent for the story—and that they line up in an appropriate order.

Make sense?

Can you think of other types or examples of "trail markers" for writing? Have you used this type of evaluation in something you've written?


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Update on A Fistful of Earth

After many false starts and much confusion when my subconscious and conscious understanding of the story didn't match up, the end is in sight…

And remember that Kickstarter fundraiser I mentioned? It funded! So that means print copies will soon ensue for A Fistful of Fire and A Fistful of Earth, after my cover artist makes print-quality covers for them. (As things stand right now, the plan is for her to just recreate the cover for A Fistful of Fire in higher quality, not to change it.)

Okay, so "soon" means a month or so, since the funds from the fundraiser won't reach me for 3 weeks, and I don't expect the cover artist to start working until I can pay her, and then there's the shipping time for the proof. (The onscreen preview thing can't function on my computer.)

But I already have the the innards file almost ready for A Fistful of Fire, and then that'll be the template for the innards of A Fistful of Earth.

I'm still tweaking some things like font and page size to try to keep it both legible and as few pages as possible, but right now, it looks like the paperbacks will be 5.25x8 inches and cost $9.99 each.

I'm trying to get the price lower, but I don't see how to do that without making the book the 6x9 size, which I don't like; or by making the book a bit hard to read.

And unfortunately, CreateSpace doesn't offer mass market paperback size. Lulu does, but I'd have to charge something like $15 a copy. For a mass market paperback. Ulgh. Not happening.

So here's where we are. Thanks to those of you who donated and/or helped spread the word, and even to those of you who just help with encouragement. Everything helps. ^_^

Now pardon me while I head to work on my day job and squeeze some working on A Fistful of Earth in. (I'm a freelancer, so I don't have to worry about anyone else owning what I do "on the clock.")

I hope your week's off to a good start!


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Orient Your Muse: Edit Before You Write

If you're any kind of writing perfectionist, someone's helpfully chimed "You can't fix what's not on the paper." I might even be the one who said it.

And it's true: You can't fix prose that's not on the page.

But if your story idea is going in completely the wrong direction, wouldn't it be nice to figure that out before you spend those weeks writing it?

Thought so.

I had a similar problem when I was trying to start writing A Fistful of Earth. (Yes, that one's given me about every type of trouble you can imagine.) I couldn't figure out why it felt like such a mass of… mush, when I thought about it.

So I tried the method of writing the blurb before I wrote the story, which worked. A Fistful of Earth has 3 major events going on, and I had to figure out which one the story was really about: the political problems, the family problems, or the love story.

Yes, it's still all 3, but writing the blurb helped me untangle which were the actual story and which were only what the narrator thought was going on. (That comment will make sense once the book comes out. Or at least it should.)

Now, no two writers are exactly alike. But sometimes, everyone can benefit from a little story analysis before they sit down to write that story. The question is, what are your particular strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and what methods work for checking your weak spots?

So. What techniques can a writer use to make sure a story's ready to be written? (Note: when I say "outline," I'm referring to all types of outlines: sentence outlines, topical outlines, numbered outlines, bullet outlines, cork board plans, note card plans, etc.)

  • The gut check: Does the story excite you? No? That's a major problem sign, right there, even if the problem is that you fear you'll screw up that idea.
  • The elevator pitch: Figure out the "elevator pitch" for your story or book: one sentence that sums it up. Jami Gold really has the definitive post compiling all possible pitch sentence types, as of February 2012. (Specifying because you never know when someone will top it.)
  • The cover blurb: Write for your story or non-fiction piece. Pitches are short, probably 2–3 paragraphs long, and capture the primary conflict of the story or the primary focus and intention of the piece. (This can also be what goes in the query letter.)
  • The structural outline: Take a basic outline of the points involved in 3-act structure (or however many "acts" you want to use) and make sure your story fits the structure before you start writing it.
  • The rough outline: Outline down your goals for the story, which may involve the plot, characters, situations, themes, etc. Make sure they match up. If your theme is that some sins can't be forgiven, making your MC a devout Christian who's theologically required to forgive his enemies may not work—or it might, depending on other details involved.
  • The detailed outline: Organize your entire story before you write it, breaking it down as far as you want, making sure that each chapter or scene (or however far you've broken it down) naturally leads into the next one.
  • The idea tests: Jot down all your ideas for scenes, etc., to have in the story, even the contradictory ones. Arrange the ones that fit best for the story you want to tell, fill in the gaps, and put the ditched ones aside in case you need them later. (This one seems like it would be easiest with note cards.)
  • The research test: Research your idea, whether that means conducting the data research or researching comparable stories (or books). The author's goals will determine if a lack or a surplus of results is better. (For example, if 4,747 people already wrote books comparable to what the author has in mind, she might be pleased at the evidence of a market, or displeased that it's such a well-tapped niche.)

That's all the pre-evaluation methods I'm familiar with, just now, but then again, I only started doing this recently.

Have you ever evaluated something you were to write before you sat down and wrote it? (School papers count.) What method(s) did you use? What worked for you? Do you have any not-listed methods to share?


Popular Posts
(of the last month)