Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

What have you always wanted to ask an agent?

February 25th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

In the month of March we’re going to invite writers to send in the questions they have always wanted to ask a literary agent. Normally we tackle one question per day, and try to go into it in-depth, but in March I want to fill up the calendar with questions, and respond to as many questions as I can from readers of this blog. So just start an email, write down the question you’ve always wanted to ask someone in publishing, and send it to chip at MacGregor Literary (d0t) com. I promise to get to a bunch of questions over the next month. Looking forward to it! You in?

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Before You Write: Part 6, Next Steps

February 18th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’m wrapping up my “Before You Write” series today with a post that’s a bit of a cheat, since it actually has more to do with the end of the writing process than the beginning; that is, what you’re going to do with the finished manuscript when you’re done. It’s worth mentioning because, as I’ve said once or twice (or seventeen times) during this series, the purpose of pre-writing exercises and plans is to make it easier to sustain your momentum during the actual writing process. To that end, knowing in advance what you’re going to do with your completed novel when it’s finished can help you avoid the post-writing slump and take some meaningful action with the result of all your hard work. Having a plan for your finished novel can also help motivate you to stick with it when you hit those middle-of-the-book doldrums.  Here are some suggestions for next steps you may want to have in mind on the front end of the process.

  • Take your manuscript to a writers’ conference. Even if it’s not ready to be published, a writers’ conference can be a fabulous place for a manuscript to continue to take shape. Between writing workshops, opportunities for private critique, and chances to pitch your book to agents and editors, you can leave a good writers’ conference with some really helpful feedback and a better sense of what should actually be next for your manuscript. If you’re an experienced writer or a really fantastic first-time writer, you might come away with some good leads as far as editors or agents who might be interested in your book, and if you’re newer to the writing scene, you will most likely get some valuable direction for how to improve your pitch or your manuscript before seriously attempting to get it published. If you have a rough idea of when you’ll be done with a draft of your manuscript, get online and find out what conferences might be taking place around the same time– if you register now, you’ll be doubly motivated to stick with your writing schedule so as to get the most out of your money at the conference.
  • Write a query letter and proposal for your manuscript. If you know your ultimate goal is to pursue traditional publication for your manuscript, you’re going to need a solid query letter and proposal at some point in the future, so why not harness the momentum that carried you through the writing process and get them down on paper right away after completing your book? You can always come back and polish/expand on a proposal later, but you’ll be glad you gave yourself something to work with before your enthusiasm/writing energy died down. In addition, having a proposal/query ready to go will make you more likely to take your manuscript to a writing group or conference because you’ve already created the documents you’ll need, and helps you to start to think about your novel in terms of the “pitch;” what the big-picture elements are that you’ll want to focus on when talking about your book to others. If creating these documents is part of your post-writing plan, add them onto your schedule/goals now so you don’t stop writing as soon as the manuscript itself is done.
  • Distribute it to a trusted group of beta readers. I talked a lot more about beta readers and where to find them in this post from a couple months back, so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but deciding at the front end of the writing process that your first step post-writing will be to let a select few people read it and offer their feedback is a great first step in getting over the sometimes-terrifying hurdle of letting other people see and critique your writing. Newsflash: if you want to be published, you have to learn how to deal with the possibility that other people will read your book and will not like it. Even if you self-publish rather than pursue publication through agents and editors, you will eventually be in a place where people can access your work and make unlimited unsolicited comments about it. And I know that’s not an entirely pleasant idea, but it’s a LOT easier to get there via baby steps– starting out with two or three beta readers who will be honest but supportive before moving on to agents and editors who will be even more honest but potentially slightly less supportive before ending up in front of Amazon reviewers who will sometimes be honest and will occasionally be complete trolls– than it is to go straight to being judged freely by the Internet at large. If you don’t start out the writing process with a specific commitment, even just to yourself, to let certain other people see your work, you run the risk of chickening out once the manuscript is in your hands and shoving it in the back of a drawer for your grandchildren to discover once you’re dead. For extra accountability, inform/ask your beta readers now that you’re writing a book and let them know your target finish date so they will bug you for copies when the date arrives.

That’s it for the “Before You Write” series; thanks for reading, and come back next week when I’ll hopefully have thought of something else craft-related to blog about! As always, suggestions or questions for future posts always welcome in the comments.

Before You Write: Part 5, Surefire Ways to Fail

February 11th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wI’ve been spending the past few weeks outlining some before-you-write strategies that can help position you for greater success during the novel-writing process. Today, I’m talking about what is probably the easiest step in the whole writing process: quitting! Seriously, you wouldn’t even believe how easy it is to let your writing ambition die a quiet death while your day job and your personal life and your volunteer commitments and your own psyche chip away at your writing time and your confidence and your momentum. I’ve been droning for five weeks about all kinds of exercises and plans and busywork you can do before you even begin to write your novel, and guess what: it only gets harder from there! So who needs that kind of aggravation and stress in their lives, right? Right, you say! You’ve had enough of juggling to make room for writing and then of struggling to get published, you want out! But, you say, you feel so “passionate” about your story, or you “love” writing so much, or you feel such a sense of “accomplishment” when you finish a book, blah blah blah– how can you just let all that go, you may be asking? Well, here are some really good ways to wuss out on writing your novel before you even start.

  • Set an imaginary deadline for yourself. Wait, you might be saying. I thought deadlines could help motivate me? Well, sure, they can when you stick to the goals you need to in order to meet them, but what about when you fall behind? Example: I’ve attempted to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) three or four times, “attempted” being a word which here means “I’ve briefly entertained the crazy notion and made vague efforts towards starting a novel during the month of November.” The problem with NaNoWriMo for me is always the reality that, if I am going to complete 50,000 words by the end of the month, I have to average 1600 words per day. Not impossible, right? But inevitably, early in the month there will be a day (coughthefirstdaycough) when I don’t hit my target word count. And then another day, and another (otherwise known as the second and third days). Now the mental tally I’m keeping reminds me that I either have to write 6000 words in one day to catch up, or bump up my daily goal up by a couple hundred words for the rest of the month. And then I miss another day, falling further behind, and another, and now my daily word count is completely unrealistic and I have no hope of finishing the novel by the end of the month and that’s the whole point of the stupid game, isn’t it, to finish a novel by the last day in November, so if I’m not going to come anywhere close to that I might as well just forget the whole thing.This kind of attitude, especially when your deadline is completely self-imposed (i.e., “I want to finish this novel before my baby is born”), just makes it easy to make excuses for yourself for quitting. “But my goal was to write 5000 words per week and be done with my first draft in four months, and now that I’ve completely missed two weeks and come up short in the third, I might as well just abandon this and try again in a couple months. Or years.” Or worse, “Well, it didn’t happen before I moved/had kids/took that job, so now it’s too late.” Sound familiar? While it is discouraging to fall short of the goals you set yourself, that shouldn’t be a cue to give up completely, but rather a prompt to reevaluate the goals you set and figure out what you need to do differently in order to accomplish them, whether that’s make more room in your schedule or adjust your goals to be more attainable.
  • Be hypercritical of every word you write. Nothing spoils a writing party like letting the Judge show up early. Editing as you go is fine to an extent– many authors prefer to start out their writing time with a quick once-over edit of the content they created the day before– but if you second-guess every word choice, every syntax choice, or every line of dialogue as you write it, you’re going to nitpick yourself into a paralyzed standstill. Not to mention you’re going to rob yourself of the joy/fun of the writing process, which will further lessen your motivation to write. Save the Judge persona for the end of the writing process– after you’ve gotten your story down on paper, polished it up and fixed the trouble spots is the time for you to be ruthless in your evaluation of what’s good and what’s not.
  • Write in a vacuum. It’s ten times easier to let your writing ambitions quietly fizzle out if no one else knows about them. Sure, it can be terrifying to let people know you’re writing a book, especially if you don’t know a lot of other writers or if you’ve never written a book before–  maybe the second you start to tell someone else about your plot, you start thinking how dumb it sounds, or you timidly mention to a coworker that you’re writing a novel and now they ask you weekly when it’s going to be published– but having the accountability that comes from being vulnerable enough to tell some of the people in your life what you’re working on can be invaluable in motivating you to keep pursuing your goals. Using my pathetic attempts to participate in NaNoWriMo as an example once again, I can tell you that HECK no, I didn’t tell anyone I was planning to try and I definitely didn’t join any of those online encouragement groups for tracking your progress– if I was going to fizzle out, I was for darn sure going to do it behind closed doors so no one could witness my shame and failure. Now, for a fairly gimmicky event like NaNoWriMo, the stakes were pretty low if I ended up deciding to quit, but if I’m serious about pursuing a career as a writer, or even just serious about finishing a story I’m passionate about, I owe it to myself to be a little more public about my commitment so I have some positive peer pressure lined up for the days I feel like backing out.

Obviously, if you’ve gotten this far in entertaining the idea of writing a book, there is something about your story or about writing that you’re passionate about and that is worth pursuing. As you begin the process, be vigilant against the easy ways out that will crop up and tempt you to just give up– you started writing for a reason, and you owe it to yourself to see it through!

Before You Write: Part 4, Assembling a Writing Strategy

February 3rd, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on pre-writing techniques that can help position you for a more successful writing experience, I’m talking today about assembling a strategy to help answer the “when,” “how,” and “so what” of your writing process. A lot of the pre-writing exercises I’ve discussed can be used by the savvy writer to put off the actual novel-writing process indefinitely, but if you’re one of those authors who actually wants to write his story instead of just talk/think/brainstorm about it, you’re going to want to put some kind of a plan in place to help you manage your writing time and meet your writing goals.

When are you going to write?

There are lots of people more qualified than I am to tell you how to use your time productively, what time of day/year is ideal for maximum creative synergy, how to arrange your furniture for minimum bad karma, etc., but the fact is that none of those experts is going to be helpful if you don’t start by understanding your specific lifestyle. What works for someone else may not work for you, no matter how much sense it makes on paper. When establishing a writing schedule, start by asking yourself these questions:

  • When do I feel the most energized/alert? If you can coordinate your writing time with the time of day you are mentally the most active, your writing time will be more productive.
  • When do I have the most free time? (Note: if you would argue that you don’t have any free time, answer the question this way instead: when do I spend the most time on Facebook? When do I watch the most TV? See what I did there?) Is there a way you can arrange your schedule so that your free time and your energized time coincide?
  • What can I eliminate/sacrifice in order to create more writing time? If you’re looking at your life and you truly don’t see a place to make writing happen regularly, you’re going to need to rearrange your priorities to make some room. Maybe you get up an hour earlier, or get rid of one show you watch regularly and write in that time slot instead, or plan to eat cereal for dinner one night a week to free up an hour of what used to be cooking time– if you want to write, it’s not just going to happen, you have to make space for it on your calendar.
  • Where have I struggled in the past with finding time to write? If you know that your personal Achilles heel when it comes to writing time is that you always end up spending it on housework, leave the house during your writing time– it’s hard to cheat on your writing time with laundry if you’re at Starbucks. If work email sucks you in every time you go near your computer, try writing on a spouse’s computer, or (radical measures here) turn off your WIFI during your writing time so no new emails can come in and distract you.

How/how much are you going to write?

Once you have your writing time on the calendar, the last thing you want to happen is to sit down and waste three-fourths of it figuring out how to get started. Once you know how much writing time you have to work with each day (or each week), set some realistic goals for what you want to accomplish during that time. Types of goals can include:

  • A word count– P.G. Wodehouse always wrote at least 1000 salable words per day before he’d let himself do anything else. Sometimes he’d meet that goal quickly and spend the rest of the day playing golf, and sometimes he’d spend the entire day in his study, presumably cursing. Some writers like this method of goal-setting because it’s objective– it’s easy to measure your progress and when you hit that magic number, you’re done, even if you didn’t finish a scene/chapter. This works fine for writers on a flexible schedule, but if your writing time is pretty limited, make sure your word count is realistic– you don’t want to set yourself up for frustration by choosing a goal you can’t regularly meet in the amount of writing time you have.
  • A scene/number of scenes– This works well for authors who have planned out their plots in a fair amount of detail in advance. If you already have an idea of the scenes that will make up your novel– the characters they involve, where they take place, what happens in each, etc.– you can chip away at your novel even in small increments of writing time by completing even just one scene each time you sit down to write.
  • A chapter– though this can be a sort of subjective unit of measurement, it can also be a reasonable goal for authors who’ve written enough novels to have a good feel for their normal chapter length/structure, or for authors writing types of fiction such as category romance that often has shorter chapters.

When establishing goals for your writing time, use what you already know about your writing style/preferences as a guide. For example, if you know you have a hard time beginning in the middle of a scene, plan to write a certain number of complete scenes during each block of writing time rather than making a certain word count your goal– this will ensure that you won’t stop in the middle of a scene when you reach your word count and have to face beginning in the middle of a scene the next time you write. If, however, you benefit from beginning your writing time with the momentum of a scene already in-progress, your goal could be to write from one point of tension to another, always ending your writing time at a moment when the stakes are high– a defining moment in a relationship, in the middle of an intense conversation, a situation where a character is in danger, etc., ensuring that you always come back to your story at a high-energy place.

How will you keep yourself accountable?

Sure, writing should (usually) be fun, or at least enjoyable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s also not extremely difficult at times. There are a hundred other things competing for the time and attention you devote to writing, and even if you’ve arranged your schedule to create some dedicated writing time, there’s still a very real possibility that you’ll sit down and spend it online in the name of “research” or that you’ll find something else to do with that time while promising yourself to “make up for it tomorrow.” Having some accountability measures in place can make a big difference in your productivity. Some ideas for checks and balances include:

  • An accountability partner– someone who won’t take your BS excuses and who isn’t afraid to show you some tough love if you start slacking on your writing time or squandering it away. Maybe this is someone who’s willing to text you at the beginning of your writing time to make sure you’re on track, or who will encourage you when you meet your goals, or who will kidnap your dog and hold him hostage if you don’t text them a picture of some new pages every day. Whatever motivates you.
  • A writing group– if you belong to a writing group (either an online group or an old-fashioned meets-in-person group) where you’re expected to share new content each week or each month, it can motivate you to create content in a way that’s hard to replicate without an actual deadline from a publisher staring you in the face.
  • A reward system– if you know that you’re motivated by something, figure out a way to use it to bribe yourself to be productive with your writing time. Maybe you “pay” yourself by the word and give yourself permission to use all your writing money for a luxury, or maybe you treat yourself to a weekend trip when you finish the first draft of your novel. Since it’s easy to cheat on this one, you may want to enlist a friend or spouse to award the “prize” so that you have to show the completed pages or manuscript to someone before you can collect.

Establishing a writing strategy that works for you before beginning your novel can stack the odds in your favor for a productive and positive writing experience. I’d love to hear from what other time-management or motivational techniques you’ve found helpful in creating a plan for writing success. Thanks for reading!

Before You Write: Part 3, Plotting with a Purpose

January 21st, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on pre-writing, I’m talking today about different ways to plot your novel before sitting down to write. Figuring out your plot at the beginning of the writing process can help you:

  • distribute your writing– knowing in advance all the pieces that your story will need to include keeps you from getting bogged down/spending an inordinate number of words on minutiae or set-up
  • get a sense of your timeline– understanding the time frame of the events of your story helps you identify any out-of-place jumps or pauses
  • develop a plan B when writer’s block hits– if you get stuck in a certain scene or beat, you know what’s coming next and can move ahead and come back later instead of coming to a grinding halt while you beat your head against the wall (but maybe that’s just me)

There are as many ways to plot a novel as there are authors, and no one approach is the “perfect” one, but most authors use some variation of several common approaches to story planning. These approaches can be organized from least to most detailed, and knowing your writing process and the plot areas you most often struggle with can help you determine which level of detail will be most helpful to you– some authors enjoy the organic plot development that takes place when they’re writing toward a climax without a more rigid plan in place, while others get bogged down in the middle if they haven’t figured out all of the plot points that will take the story from beginning to climax. With that in mind, here are three common approaches to story planning and the common plot problems they can help prevent.

1. The Compass: The Story Arc or Line

At its most basic, a story arc charts the rise and fall of tension in a story. From the stasis, or the way things are at the beginning, all plots generally follow a path of increasing tension or increasing stakes to the high point or climax, after which the relieved tension leads to a new stasis or new normal where most elements of the plot have been resolved. If you chart a story arc on a line graph where the Y axis represents tension and the X axis represents the timeline of the story, the arc will be roughly hill-shaped, though will appear sharper the more quickly events escalate to the climax. If you google “story arc graph,” you’ll find thousands of variations on this type of plot organization strategy, and there isn’t one correct version of a story arc, but an effective arc graph usually includes at least the following landmarks:

  1. Stasis (the way things are)
  2. Inciting incident (the action or circumstance or revelation that gets sets the story into motion)
  3. Rising tension (a series of events or a state of being rather than an individual instance)
  4. Climax (the high point of the action where tension reaches the breaking point)
  5. Falling action (the fallout or consequences of whatever went down during the climax)
  6. Denouement (the resolution/introduction to the new normal)

Some authors don’t need to know any more detail about their plot at the beginning of the writing process than is provided by a simple story arc graph. By knowing the inciting incident, the climax, and the way things are going to end up, they have a sufficient road map to push the story in the right direction but still have the freedom to let it take shape/surprise them as they write. If you think about it in terms of an actual physical journey, a story arc as a means of plotting can be thought of as the equivalent of a compass as a navigational tool. If you know you want to get to the Pacific Ocean from Denver but don’t want to be tied down to a specific route, a compass will get you there by pointing you due west until you hit the Pacific Ocean. Everything you do and see along the way is up to you, but you’re able to keep moving in the right direction thanks to the compass (or, more accurately, thanks to knowing that the Pacific Ocean is where you want to go and that it’s due west). Identifying the major elements of your story using a story arc graph or outline can give you the same directed spontaneity in your writing.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You like to discover minor characters and subplots during the writing process
  • You struggle to stick to an outline once you’ve made it
  • You’ve been told that there isn’t enough build-up to your climax, or that your climax isn’t dramatic enough
  • You make frequent deviations from your original plot plans
  • Your characters tend to change/mutate significantly during the writing process (not to be confused with regular character growth)
  • Your story ideas tend to be more character driven than event-driven

2. Turn by Turn Directions: The Beat Sheet

Beats are the unit of storytelling used by screenwriters to organize the action events of a movie, and many authors have adopted their use into their own story planning. When you hear the term “action events,” you may jump immediately to high-octane scenes of gunfire and car chases, but in reality, the phrase simply refers to every action performed by the characters that moves the action of the story forward in a significant way. For example, a conversation your protagonist has with her best friend in which she first begins to doubt her boyfriend’s fidelity would be a beat. Sneaking a look at her boyfriend’s phone while he was in the bathroom would be another beat. Confronting him about all the texts from “Alicia” would be another. All these actions, though smaller than a big confrontation at her wedding in which she finally realizes that she’s about to marry a cheater and calls him out in front of all their friends and family (this would be more of a “climax” type of action, and also a beat) move the story forward in significant ways– her thinking is changed in the first one, she takes action in the second one, she changes the dynamic of her relationship in the third, etc.

The number of beats required to lay out an entire plot changes based on the type of story you’re writing, but will generally be between 15 (a category romance) and 30 (a complicated political thriller). If you’re confused about whether or not an event is actually a beat or not, ask yourself if anything is different after it happens– a scene in which your protagonist googles “how to know if he’s cheating” might be funny, but if it doesn’t change her thinking or incite her to action (the conversation with her friend is what really rocked her world/introduced her doubt), it’s not really a story beat. However, because story beats exist to get the actions/decisions of a story pinned down, they leave a moderate amount of space for periphery or filler scenes such as the Google one. Continuing our navigation analogy, a beat sheet is more like specific directions to the Pacific Ocean– “get on I-70 heading west, then take I-15 south, then follow the signs for Long Beach.” You know the specific landmarks and turns you need to make, but you still have the freedom to get off the highway and look around/buy some beef jerky if you want to.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You enjoy having a road map to follow when writing
  • You often struggle with writer’s block
  • Your plots have been criticized for escalating too slowly or too quickly
  • You begin with a clear sense of your major characters and their world/the settings you’ll be using
  • You enjoy (or at least aren’t bothered by) writing scenes out-of-order on occasion

3. The Guided Tour: The Outline

A full outline is the most detailed of story planning devices. Some authors love writing from an outline because a well-constructed outline can serve as a virtual blueprint for a novel, telling you exactly what scenes appear in which order, as well as the setting, the featured characters, and the point of view for each one. Not surprisingly, other authors HATE this kind of story planning, because of the lack of room for spontaneity it offers and the amount of premeditation it requires. If you like the idea of having an outline tell you exactly what you’ll be use your word count on each day, you may want to try this method of plotting. If your beat sheet laid out every action event or scene of significance to the story arc, an outline expands on that to include the trivial and expository content that round out a novel– an outline indicates where you’re going to put the protagonist’s backstory and description, which scenes are going to start out with a description of the setting, which scenes will be told from alternate points of view, where you’ll include “montage”-type scenes which establish a pattern or show the main character in her element (i.e., scenes showing a wedding planner meeting with a couple or chasing a flower girl or wrapping chairs in tulle which aren’t central to the plot but which bring the character’s daily life into focus and provide a backdrop for the action events of the plot), etc.

If story beats are turn-by-turn directions, an outline is a guided tour which takes you on a carefully scheduled and carefully routed excursion on which each rest stop, gas station, and side trip is planned in advance and the guide has a list of views he’ll direct your attention to along the way. Not everyone enjoys traveling this way, but it does ensure that you will get safely to your destination and will have seen everything you should have along the way.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You’re a control freak– in a good way
  • Your subplots have been criticized for being weak or underdeveloped
  • You’ve been told your plots are confusing
  • You have a short time frame for writing
  • You have trouble jumping back into your novel when you come back to it each day
  • You’re writing your first novel/you’ve had trouble completing a novel in the past

Obviously, there are dozens of variations on these three methods, and a quick Google search will yield a myriad of resources to help you use and adapt each one to suit your own needs, but hopefully you recognized an element of your own process or a problem you’ve struggled with and can walk away with a better idea of which story-planning method can best help you position your next novel for success! Where on the spectrum of compass/directions/guided tour does your plotting technique fall?

 

Before You Write: Part 2, Developing Your Characters

January 14th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wLast week, I started a new series about some pre-writing strategies that can help you preemptively fix problem areas in your manuscripts. Since not every author is going to find every strategy helpful, however, I included a list of questions to ask yourself about your writing process to help you in figuring out which pre-writing exercises are worth your time. I’m talking today about some character development tools that you may find helpful if:

  • you struggle with writing multi-dimensional characters/relationships
  • you find yourself getting bored with your characters partway through a manuscript
  • you’ve struggled in writing dialogue for specific characters
  • you’ve ever been uncertain of a character’s motivation
  • you’ve received feedback about characters acting “out of character” or being inconsistent.

If any of those sound like you, some of these tools/exercises can help pave the way for a smoother, more informed relationship with your characters throughout the writing process.

Interview Your Characters

I’ve mentioned this approach to character development before, but it’s worth repeating. I often read decent, well-written manuscripts that start out with several pages/chapters of backstory and character introduction that I, as the reader don’t need to know right away (and sometimes, at all). What generally happens is that as an author begins writing about a character, that character continues to grow/take shape in the author’s mind and all of that new information ends up in the manuscript, slowing down the opening of the story and delaying the action. While it’s true that a lot of authors learn about their characters by writing about them, that material shouldn’t necessarily end up in the book, and definitely shouldn’t be dumped in a big chunk at the beginning of the narrative. Instead, consider filling out an interview questionnaire for each character that figures substantially in your story, taking some time to answer/invent the answers to a wide variety of questions that reveal the character– physical appearance, family, childhood, education, places he’s lived, significant relationships, hobbies, fears, religion, lifestyle– the more information you compile about a character, the more choices you have when writing about them.

When I was involved in theater in high school and college, we completed a similar exercise for our characters in each play/musical, even for the insignificant characters (Woman #3 in Fiddler on the Roof, anyone?), the idea being that if every actor onstage had examined his character’s relationships with the others, with the setting, and what was going on in his private life before the events of the play, every interaction that took place on stage would be informed by that knowledge and would be more lifelike because of it. Even if the audience never had occasion to find out that my character hated Woman #4 because her husband had cheated mine in business, knowing that made it easier for me to decide how to interact with her character onstage and made for a more compelling interaction between us. In the same way, your characters’ scenes are going to have more life/more flavor for you having delved deeply into their histories and personalities, and your reader will notice the difference even without being privy to all of that information.

Visit Your Characters’ Pasts

Sometimes, simply knowing that a particular event took place in your character’s life isn’t enough to be able to understand how that event affects their motivations or reactions. For example, I read a manuscript a couple of years ago in which we find out early on that the protagonist’s love interest has some traumatic event in his past, but we don’t find out until two-thirds of the way through what it was (his brother was killed when the two of them came home late one night and surprised a burglar). The story was pretty good until the climactic revelation conversation, and then– flat as a pancake. The dialogue in that scene and the conflict that arose in their relationship supposedly related to his brother’s death just didn’t ring true. I didn’t care, and the conflict seemed contrived. Now, obviously, that event was tragic, and it certainly could affect his relationship, but the problem was that the character just didn’t seem connected to that event– I didn’t buy his motives for pulling back from his relationship, and I wasn’t moved by his revelation. It felt as if the author had simply plugged a tragic event into his backstory in order to create the necessary conflict in the relationship.

A strategy I’ve found extremely helpful is to write out pivotal scenes from your character’s past so you can witness them firsthand. Seeing these determining moments through their eyes gives you a whole new level of empathy/understanding for a character, and gives a ring of truth to their conversations when they talk about it, and their actions when they’re motivated by it. Even if a scene would have no place in your finished manuscript, writing it out can be invaluable in helping you understand your characters and write their words and actions convincingly. If your character was in an abusive relationship, write out a few of those moments, as painful as that may be. If your character had a bad relationship with her parents, write out a few of their biggest fights. If your character was engaged before, write out the scene where he proposed to his first fiancee. Having these scenes in your mind will inform your writing about these characters in surprising ways.

Role-Play with Your Characters

Your characters aren’t necessarily going to spring magically to your mind or to the page fully realized. I’ve read plenty of interviews with authors in which they talk about a certain character walking into their life one day with every detail intact, but I’ve had much more experience with authors who gradually patch their characters together from bits and pieces of inspiration, learning more about them the more they write. Consider taking your main characters through some sample scenes to learn more about them. Simple scenarios such as receiving bad service at a restaurant, someone cutting in front of him in line at the bank, or being seated next to a three-year-old on a flight can help you discover a lot about your character’s personality/reactions. Is he impatient? A pushover? Soft-spoken? Sarcastic? Is she uncomfortable around children? Does he avoid confrontation or relish it? Again, you may not have much luck with the whole “put your character in a situation and wait to see what they do” approach, but you can try several different options for each scenario and see which one feels the most natural– which response was the most fun to write? Which version of your character are you most interested in? Which character choice do you see providing you with the most options or the most conflict in light of your story? Writing some sample scenes like this can prevent you from picking a character trait at random and then struggling to make it stick for the rest of the story.

As I mentioned last week, the goal for these exercises isn’t to provide you with ways to procrastinate on writing the actual story, but to help you avoid writing yourself into a dead end or stalling out when you run out of information. If you’ve had character-related trouble in the past, try one or two of these strategies and see if doing a little homework sets you up for more success in the long-term.

Before You Write: Part 1, Learn Your Process

January 6th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

brick green no smile b:wHappy New Year! Maybe 2015 will be the year I finally come up with a name for this Tuesday blog on craft (suggestions are welcome).

In the spirit of new beginnings, I’m going to be spending several weeks talking about some of the pre-writing processes you may find helpful as you get started on your 2015 writing projects. The more manuscripts that come across my desk, the more I’m reminded that being a competent writer does not necessarily make someone a competent storyteller: I’ve read plenty of projects in which decent writing and a good story idea or concept were undermined by significant plot and character problems. And while the surest teacher in these areas is time/experience, there are many exercises and strategies you can employ at the front end of the writing process that can improve your story structure and character development.

Because not every writer needs help in every area, and because each writer’s writing process is different, the first step in creating your pre-writing strategy is to evaluate what kind of writer you are and what pre-writing exercises will be the most helpful to you, personally. The goal of pre-writing is not to give you a dozen hoops  to jump through or a list of ways to help you procrastinate, but to help you make the most efficient use of your writing time by identifying your successes and preemptively shoring up your weaknesses. If your high school experience was anything like mine, you remember the frustration of being required to turn in junk like an outline, research notes, and a rough draft before you could turn in your final draft, just to prove that you went through the “correct” process for turning out a solid paper. (Well, Mrs. Jennings, I wrote my paper first and then created all that other stuff, so there!)

Pre-writing doesn’t have to be like that; you’re an adult, and one of the perks is that you can pick and choose whatever dang pieces of the process YOU actually find helpful. So, to prepare for the next few weeks’ worth of posts, spend some time considering the following questions and forming a picture in your head of the kind of writer you are/what your process looks like, so that you can create a personalized pre-writing plan from the exercises and strategies I’ll be talking about.

  • What are your strong points as a writer? What comes easily to you? Dialogue? Characters? Sub-plots? Settings?
  • What are your weaknesses? Where do you get the most criticism? Where do you find yourself stalling/frustrated?
  • How much content do you create at one time? I.e., do you write in scenes? Chapters? Do you set a word goal for yourself? A time limit?
  • How often do you write? Daily? Weekly?
  • Do you start your writing time by re-reading your latest content, or do you just jump right in?
  • Do you write sequentially, or do you jump around in a story?
  • Do you like to plan out your stories in advance, or just see where the characters take you?
  • Do you develop your characters before writing, or do you discover them as you’re writing?
  • Do you prefer to talk through story problems with another person, or figure them out on your own?

The better you know yourself and your processes, the more effective your pre-writing strategies will be and the more efficient your writing time.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

December 24th, 2014 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

From all of us at MacGregor Literary

–Chip MacGregor, Amanda Luedeke, Erin Buterbaugh, Marie Prys, Holly Lorincz, and Kate MacGregor

Chip, Amanda, Erin

Favorite Books, Christmas Edition: “A Christmas Carol”

December 17th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

brick green no smile b:wLast week, in between hurriedly throwing a few Christmas decorations at my walls and attending “The Nutcracker” for approximately the 1,247th time, I managed to keep my yearly date with A Christmas Carol. I always caution myself that it cannot possibly be as good as I remember, but every year it’s better. With each successive reading, the charm and earnestness and pure skill of the writing is more apparent, and if you doubt this book’s place in a blog on the writing craft, you probably haven’t read it in awhile. This book was a labor of love for Dickens rather than a serial written to pay the bills, and it shows. Free from the need to sustain a story for months/years on end in order to keep the paychecks coming, Dickens demonstrates a previously unsuspected ability to tell a story taking place over a time span of less than twenty years (I’m looking at you, David Copperfield), and he lets himself go on description and characterization in way he was unable to do in a serial installment expected to advance the plot each week. We see him revel in this independence in the gleeful abandon with which he describes the riches of London shop windows at Christmas time, the passionate cries of the narrator which interrupt the story from time to time, and the flights of whimsy he indulges in in a book not expressly written for children.

Basically, Dickens wrote the story he wanted to write in the way he wanted to write it, regardless of how well it fit the mold he’d found most of his success with, and 160 years later, it’s still his most popular work. The longevity of the book (it’s never been out of print) should serve as a lesson to those authors who are navigating the tricky issue of how to balance profitability and passion–  writing to pay the bills is all well and good, but the books that are going to resonate the most with readers are going to be the ones that you were most personally invested in, in which your skill set and your fervor for a story intersect and hone each other to a finer edge than either could achieve on its own.

William Makepeace Thackeray was right when he said that the Carol was, “to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.” Even if you’ve seen every movie version ever made and you think you’re sick of the story, you’re cheating yourself if you haven’t read the book. It thaws out the little places where your feelings about Christmas have become frosted over by the annoying Christmas music remixes playing in the mall and the sniping over the political correctness of the phrase “Merry Christmas.” It’s not preachy, it doesn’t have any kind of “presents and food and parties aren’t important” nonsense, but rather, it reminds us why our celebrations are important, that things like compassion and hospitality are graces that we should revel in being able to employ during our time on earth, that it is okay to occasionally warm ourselves from the winter. A few passages to begin the thaw~

  • Scrooge’s nephew Fred defending the profitability of Christmas: 
”But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
  • Jacob Marley, lamenting his wasted opportunities for compassion: 
”Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed…not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I!…Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed star which led the wise men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”
  • And on the changed Scrooge, post-spirit-visits: 
”Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

It’s quite as well that we should wrinkle up our eyes in grins, and gain weight from food eaten in good company, and go broke buying gifts to delight the people we love, as have these maladies in less attractive forms. Merry Christmas!

Choose Your Own Final Draft: Applying Reader Feedback

December 9th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wIf you caught the last couple of Tuesday posts, you’ll know I’ve been talking about the final stages of manuscript preparation– knowing when to stop polishing a manuscript, finding beta readers, etc. I pointed out that finding beta readers who are a good fit for your skill level and your genre is an important step in ensuring that the feedback you get from them is worthwhile and relevant so you don’t go crazy trying to apply conflicting or uninformed advice. Even when you’ve selected your beta readers wisely, however, it can still be overwhelming to revisit your manuscript with three or four different sets of feedback from three or four unique readers– even if all your readers are published sci-fi authors, each one is going to have a slightly different reaction to your book, and deciding which advice to apply and which to ignore can feel like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books, in which every decision you make will result in a different outcome. (The good news here is that the editing decisions you make are highly unlikely to result in being thrown into a volcano or trampled by elephants, unlike CYOA.)

So, how do you decide what feedback, and how much, to apply? Here are a few guidelines to help you as you CYOFD– Choose Your Own Final Draft!

  • Decide in advance how much rewriting you’re willing to do. If you don’t have the time and the fortitude to make major plot changes, or to rewrite the entire book from a different character’s perspective, you can cross off suggestions on this scale right away. Don’t waste time agonizing over whether or not a large-scale change would be a good idea if you know realistically that you’re not in a place to make a change like that. Turn your attention to smaller-scale suggestions and don’t drive yourself crazy with “but what it…?”.
  • Create a plan for whose feedback you’ll apply in which area. For example, if you gave your manuscript to three readers and you know one of them in particular has a gift for dialogue, look at what that reader had to say about your dialogue before you look at anyone else’s dialogue notes, . Obviously, you can get good advice from more than one source, but if you don’t want to spend your life in re-writes, starting with the “expert” advice in a specific category can be a good strategy for making the most of your editing time.
  • When readers give conflicting advice, go with your instincts (within reason). It’s one thing to have had twelve different readers tell you a scene isn’t working, or that your dialogue is unnatural, or that a plot point is unclear, but if one or two readers have an opinion that isn’t shared by another, you probably don’t have to agonize over who’s “right.” Which feedback makes the most sense to you? Which reader seems to know you better as a writer/really “gets” your book? Let your instincts drive editing decisions and be okay with having made the “right for you” decision instead of the “objectively, mathematically right” decision.
  • If a piece of feedback doesn’t make sense to you, and you’ve only gotten it from one source, throw it out. Like I’ve said before, actual problems with your manuscript will probably be caught by more than one quality reader, so feedback you get multiple times probably merits consideration, but even from an intelligent, articulate critique partner, you will occasionally hear a suggestion or a piece of criticism that just doesn’t make sense to you or that you strongly disagree with, and that’s okay. Don’t stress out over it; it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re blind to some major flaw in your work or that you’re an arrogant jerk (though you should probably double-check with someone, just to be sure), it just means that something that makes perfect sense to you doesn’t to one individual reader. Guess what? That’s going to happen as many times as the number of people who read your book. Either learn how to be okay with the fact that not everyone will perfectly understand every artistic choice you make, or prepare yourself for an exhausting career.

What strategies have you adopted for deciding when to apply reader feedback? Let me know in the comments!