Posts Tagged With: Editing

Scenes – to be or not to be? That is the question…

Revision. It’s something every writer must face at some point in their writing journey.

This month, Fiona, Gabbie and I will take turns delving into specific aspects of the revision process.

That is the question...

That is the question…

Scenes. The building blocks of a novel. A well-written scene captures the reader’s attention, holds it and then leaves the reader wanting more. But what makes a scene well-written?

From what I have gathered over the years, from participating in writing courses, researching on the net, and trial and error, is that it boils down to one thing: a scene must move the story forward. Of course, other things are important too – like good grammar, interesting dialogue, vivid world building and all that jazz.

But if a scene doesn’t move the story forward, it’s pointless. It’s weak. It’s failing to live up to its potential. Effectively, the writer is taking a huge risk that they will lose the reader’s attention, and the reader will put down the book, walk away and never return. They’re also squandering the opportunity to make their novel a page-turner.

Scenes are the building blocks of a novel...

Scenes are the building blocks of a novel…

So how does a writer who is revising their novel determine whether their scenes advance the story?

A scene that moves the story forward has three elements:

(i) Setting and Action – it informs the reader of where the character is and what they are doing.

(ii) GMC (goal, motivation and conflict):

  • Goal – what the character wants;
  • Motivation – why the character wants to achieve this goal;
  • Conflict – the obstacle preventing the character from achieving this goal. This can be another character (whose goal is at odds with the main character’s goal) or an external obstacle.

(iii) Twist – something that changes everything.

It can be something that surprises the reader or raises new questions. This is the element that drags the reader into the next scene and makes your novel a page-turner – by making the reader want to know more.

The twist is the key to page-turning scenes...

The twist is the key to page-turning scenes…

A good place to study scenes is – surprise, surprise – in movies and television series. Screenwriters are very adept at crafting effective scenes. It might have something to do with the fact that time restraints (and therefore screenplay length) are extremely limited, so every scene must count.

To illustrate, let’s analyse a scene from a TV series many people are familiar with – Buffy the Vampire Slayer – written by, none other than screenwriting legend, Joss Whedon.

Scene 1, Episode 1 – Welcome to the Hellmouth.

Setting and Action
A boy and a girl are breaking into a school at night.

GMC – this scene is stuffed full of GMC.
The boy wants to go up on top of the gym. He says it’s because the view up there is amazing. But really he wants to get the girl alone and make out.
The girl doesn’t want to go up there. She’s scared and doesn’t want to get into trouble. Or maybe she simply doesn’t want to make out with the boy – after all, if you can see the whole town from up there, the whole town can probably see you.
They hear a noise. She thinks it’s something to be concerned about. He doesn’t.
Conflict, conflict, conflict.

Then BOOM!

Twist
She is a vampire. So there was something to be concerned about – just not what the boy (or viewer) was expecting.

Joss Whedon: The Boring-Scene Slayer...

Joss Whedon: The Boring-Scene Slayer…

Some things to keep in mind:

  • A scene must end after the twist – if the scene continues, you lose the I-have-to-read-more effect on the reader.
  • The twist doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering event – it can be subtle (eg. a new character arriving on the scene, the main character becoming aware of something previously hidden to them). For example, in Scene 2, Episode 1 of Buffy, Buffy is trapped in a nightmare. She wakes up and then her mother calls out “you don’t want to be late for your first day”. This new piece of information is the twist and pulls the viewer into the next scene – Buffy’s first day at a new school.
  • A good way to determine whether your scene moves the story forward is by looking at your character. Does your character arc within the scene (ie. do they feel/act/think differently at the end of the scene than they did at the beginning)?
  • Action doesn’t have to be a car chase or a fight scene. It can be introspection or dialogue, BUT ONLY if it moves the story forward. This can be through character development or by revealing backstory – but this new information must be critical (ie. it affects the main plotline or a subplot). Simply revealing generic information about a character or their past is not enough. For example, if your entire scene comprises your character waking up, eating breakfast and engaging in small talk with her mum about how the toaster keeps burning the toast, you need to get rid of it (even if the banter is witty and clever*) – UNLESS the overzealous toaster is critical to the story line (ie. your character suspects her mum is having an affair with the pool boy who just so happens to prefer his toast burnt)

* in the event that the witty banter reveals something cool about a character or relationship and you REALLY don’t want to throw it away, take that banter from the pointless scene and merge that into a scene that moves the story forward, or salvage the scene by adding some conflict and a twist.

Often pointless scenes creep into our stories because they are transition scenes – boring scenes we think we need to write to fill a gap between two incredible, story-changing, can’t-put-the-book-down scenes. Just get rid of them. Go directly from one critical scene to the next, and only write those scenes you can’t wait to write – these are the scenes the reader can’t wait to read. You can always add a few sentences to explain what happened in between if you feel it’s necessary.

And remember, scenes that are boring to write are boring to read.

Make your novel a page-turner by injecting conflict into your scenes...

Want to make your novel a page turner? Inject some good old-fashioned action and GMC into your scenes… with a twist!

So that’s it from me.

In the next two weeks, Gabbie will be sharing some of her secret revision wisdom, and Fiona will be delving more deeply into the concept of GMC and how it relates not only to scenes but to the story as a whole.

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Two Rules to Write By

When I first started writing I wrote with abandon. Armed only with an academic background and a love for books, I composed sentences on a whim, letting the rhythm of the words guide my fingertips across the keyboard.

Little girl running on meadow with sunset

This is what writing with abandon feels like…

Throughout my years as a writer I’ve been influenced by authors I’ve been reading. I think it’s something a lot of writers do when they’re learning to find their voice. You try out the style of writers you admire, discover what works for you and what doesn’t. Over time your own style emerges, incorporating little bits and pieces of techniques learned along the way.

In the early days, I read a lot of Diana Gabaldon, so back then my prose included a lot of adverbs and adjectives, and long sprawling scenes.

Then I discovered Maggie Stiefvater and filter words slipped into my writing, as well as unusual details and personification to bring the setting to life and make it a character rather than just a backdrop.

I also devoured lots of writing guides along the way, learning the “rules of good writing”. One of my faves (which I’m sure most writers are familiar with) is Stephen King’s On Writing. I usually re-read this masterpiece every year at Christmas when I visit my parents in Tasmania and have a little extra time up my sleeve. And, let me tell you, it’s not just the writing advice I enjoy, it’s the fascinating story of Mr King himself (yes, I admit it, I adore reading about other writers’ journeys to success. It gives me hope that one day I might find success too).

It wasn’t until I finished writing my first novel, though, and embarked on the long and seemingly endless journey of revising, querying and pitching my manuscript that I really began to discover my voice. Which, when you think about it, sounds kinda crazy because you’d assume the time you’d learn the most about writing would be when you are actually writing. But in all honestly, I think I’ve learned more about writing in the past 18 months than I ever did in my life previously as a student, reader and budding writer. The reason? Because it wasn’t until I put my work out there for others to critique that I got objective feedback. And feedback was the key.

One thing I learnt was that you can read all the how-to and rule books in the world, memorise the list of no-no’s and go over your manuscript with a fine tooth comb hunting for the sneaky little bastards (excuse my French), but no matter how hard you focus you’re not always going to be able to identify the problems in your own writing. Sometimes, when you are learning, you need somebody to point them out. Then, once you can see the “rules” in the context of your work and not some generic example in a manual, they become a hell of a lot easier to identify.

detective

Writing detective…

I swear on more than one occasion I was certain I’d weeded out a certain kind of faux pas only to have someone else point it out after a single read through. And I’m sure there are still many more lurking in my prose – I just haven’t learned to effectively identify them yet. But I will keep on soliciting feedback and learning from my mistakes – because I know in the end it will make my writing that much stronger.

So without further ado, I introduce to you my two favourite pieces of advice I have picked up along the way that have improved my writing significantly.

1. Strong Verbs

To me strong verbs are the holy grail of powerful writing, and when I discovered these little beauties I couldn’t get enough of them.

Strong verbs can take a simple ho-hum sentence and give it oomph. And since they also make the use of adverbs and adjectives superfluous, you effectively kill two birds with one stone.

For those of you unfamiliar with strong-versus-weak verbs I will give you a few examples from fiction I love – namely The Wolves of Mercy Falls novels by Maggie Stiefvater (in my opinion, Miss Stiefvater is the queen of writing with verbs that kick ass – particularly of the personification kind):

Instead of writing “I angrily closed the phone” she wrote: “I snapped the phone shut.” (Forever)

Instead of writing “I sat lazily on my stool” she wrote: “I slouched on my stool.” (Shiver)

Instead of writing “I quickly got out of bed” she wrote: “I tumbled out of bed.” (Forever)

Instead of writing “She closed her locker roughly” she wrote: “She shoved her locker shut.” (Shiver)

As you can see, in all examples you get rid of a pesky adverb because the verb itself describes the action so well on its own.

And here are some of my favourite examples of personification using strong verbs:

Night crouched in the trees. (Shiver)

His expression poured back into his face. (Sinner)

The heat crept in around the door. (Shiver)

The music slapped its hands against the car windows. (Forever)

Here are some useful links to articles about strong verbs:

Super Verbs

Super Verbs

2. Filter Words and Naming Emotions

This is really two things, but I lump them into one because I learned about them at the same time. Back in August 2014, I entered an online event called PitchPlus5 where I submitted the first five pages of my manuscript and competed against 49 other writers for the chance to win an agent critique and free query pass. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it past the first round, but I was offered some of the most valuable feedback I’ve ever received.

It was actually just a short email, but the advice contained therein really spoke to me and changed the way I’ve written and edited ever since.

Namely, cut out the filter words and don’t name emotions, show them.

Filter words are words such as looked/saw/felt/knew/watched/wondered/thought and they distance the reader from what is happening. Instead of saying “I felt a hand on my shoulder” you should say: “A hand touched my shoulder” – it is more immediate and, especially in the case of first person POV, helps the reader become the character.

As for naming emotions (ie. saying “I was shocked” or “he sighed with relief), this is a prime example of telling instead of showing and should be corrected immediately. You can do this by describing the body language a person would use when feeling that emotion, or making sure the dialogue between the characters conveys that emotion without having to spell it out.

For example, in my submission I had written:

Susan and Breanna exchanged glances before turning to see who’d spoken. I was shocked to see it was Lachlan MacLean, and shocked further still to realize it was me he was addressing.

After receiving this feedback, I changed it to read:

Susan and Breanna exchanged glances before turning to see who’d spoken. I just stood there, blinking up into a pair of ice-blue eyes. Lachlan MacLean was asking me to dance? This had to be a mistake.

See how more vivid the passage is now?

Here are some links to articles about filters and naming emotions and body language:

emotions cloud

Pesky emotion-naming words

On a final note, you might have noticed I mentioned some of these so called writing “no-no’s” when describing how the works of my two favourite authors influenced me. I think the thing to keep in mind is that the “rules of good writing” are not really rules per se but guidelines. Successful authors break them all the time (which can be a bit confusing for us newbie writers), but they get away with it because they do it well – it’s a part of their voice. But not all of us can pull it off.

I think knowing how and when to break the rules, and doing it in a way that is effective, is what ultimately defines a writer’s voice.

I mean seriously, if we all followed the rules strictly we’d probably all sound the same. And that would be sad.

Sad puppy :'(

Sad puppy 😥

And here is a little addendum I found waiting for me on my computer when I returned from putting my boys down to sleep, courtesy of my cheeky, wannabe hubby (he often sneaks onto my computer and hides messages for me in my writing):

But for me, when it came to discovering my voice, I found the two rules above really helpful. The other was a loving partner who gave me the encouragement I deserved. Wow he is amazing! Love you darling xxx

And he thought I wouldn’t notice…

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Are you a pantser or a plotter?

Hello y’all! This month’s blog topic is PROCESS. Each week, one of us will share with you a little about our individual writing processes. Today is my turn 😀

Plotting versus Pantsing

When I think of process, the first two words that come to mind are PLOTTER and PANTSER. The third, EDITING.

Plotting vs. Pantsing

For those of you unfamiliar with the terms, a plotter is someone who plots their story before they write and a pantser is someone who writes by the seat of their pants (ie. without a plan). Since I started writing seriously (six years ago last month) I’ve had the pleasure (or should I say torture?) of being both.

Never having composed anything longer than 4000 or 5000 words (and primarily academic at that), my first attempt at writing a novel was an exercise in futility discovery. I started with a rough idea of where the story was headed – I knew who my characters were, what they wanted, where they would end up – but as far as individual scenes went I had no clue. Then I plonked myself down in front of my computer and wrote and wrote and wrote, letting the story and characters guide me. In other words, I pantsed it.

I have to say writing this way was a very exciting and eye-opening experience. I edited as I went – not moving to the next scene until I’d written the first perfectly (or as perfectly as I felt it could be). Just to explain, writing for me is a little like crafting poetry – there’s a rhythm to the sentences, a music to the phrases, I strive for. Once I find that rhythm, I’m happy. But it can take a long time – and a lot of hair-pulling and nail-biting – to get to that point.

The process of writing without a plan felt a little bit like archaeology – as if my story already existed and all I was doing, with my handy pencil and paper (or rather cursor and empty screen), was uncovering it. When I wasn’t writing, I’d listen to music and daydream about where my characters were taking me. Then, when I’d write, I’d reimagine those scenarios in my mind and transcribe what I saw onto the computer screen. I suppose you could say it was an organic process. It also amazed me how just through the use of words, I could create an entire world from nothing.

Two years and 140k words later I was still plodding along – writing a few hundred words each day and editing them to perfection. But when I was just about to start writing the end of my epic masterpiece, I suddenly realised something was terribly wrong. And, let me assure you, I do not use the word “suddenly” in this context lightly. The realisation hit me like a bolt of lightning – painfully and out of the blue.

Even though each scene was (in my personal and novice opinion) beautifully written, my characters were well-rounded and driven by their own unique motivations, and my world was painted in crisp detail, my story dragged. Even though it pained me to admit it, my manuscript seemed like one big exercise in self-indulgence. I was flexing my writing muscles, as I think every new writer does – you know, trying different techniques and playing with words – but the stuff that was making it onto my page was not there because it served the story, it was there because it pleased me. And as any writer with an ounce of experience knows – this is a big no-no.

It was at about this time I had the amazing honour of participating in a writing workshop hosted by Maggie Stiefvater – who just so happens to be my favourite post-1990s YA author (you can read more about my experience HERE). After listening to her advice and bombarding the poor woman with a barrage of questions (sorry, Maggie), I realised what my story was lacking.

me and maggie

Me and the super amazing talented Ms Stiefvater!

A KILLER PLOT.

Well, a killer plot AND a kick-butt main character who lived in the midst of the action rather than sitting on the sidelines watching – but that’s a whole other topic for a whole other blog post.

Don’t get me wrong, my story had direction – it was hurtling towards a clearly defined ending – but it was the road the story was travelling to get there that was the problem. It was boring. It was a long stretch of uneventful road with the occasional pothole dug out here and there. What my story needed was some twists and turns, some bumps, some bloody scaling-the-side-of-a-mountain excitement.

So I went back to my computer, saved what I had written in a file somewhere deep inside my C drive, and started all over again. That’s right folks – I discarded 140k of prose I’d spent hours painstakingly crafting and started from scratch.

But this time I was prepared.

I studied books I loved to see how they were plotted. I picked apart movies that kept me on the edge of my seat. I grilled other writers about their processes and scoured their blogs for tips and tricks. And then I planned out my novel scene-by-scene.

I became a PLOTTER!

Editing

I also gave up the practice of editing as I wrote – which, I have to admit, was the hardest and most daunting part of the whole process. I’d heard many writers say they wrote their first draft quickly and messily, solely for the purpose of getting the story down on paper. “You can’t edit a blank page,” they’d say. But for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to write like that myself. My first draft was like a final draft – every sentence neatly written, every paragraph slaved over for hours (and believe me, that’s not an exaggeration – there were times I’d spend a whole afternoon perfecting one or two paragraphs). Letting go of this perfectionism seemed an impossible task. How could I possibly move on to the next scene if I wasn’t completely satisfied with the one I was working on? But after throwing away 140k of carefully crafted prose, I knew I didn’t want to waste any more precious time on scenes that might ultimately be cut.

I saw this on Twitter today and it sums up my experiences exactly... :'(

I saw this on Twitter today and it sums up my experiences exactly… 😥

So I came up with a new writing plan: jot down the novel scene-by-scene, write the entire story quickly and roughly, and then read it with a critical eye. Does the plot entice the reader forward? Does the story lag? Are there places my eyes glaze over when I’m reading? Then and only then, once I’ve fixed any of these issues and am completely convinced my story is riveting and well-paced, will I fill in all the details and make the magic happen.

Sounds like a good plan, right? And in theory it was. There was just one problem – for the life of me I couldn’t get my mind around how writers wrote a rough first draft. I searched for examples all over the internet – but they always seemed to be as well written as a final draft. Then I stumbled across a writer who said they wrote their first draft like a script… and finally, I understood.

If I wrote the bare bones – you know, a basic setting description, dialogue, and some stage directions – then I knew could write fast and get a scene down and still feel okay enough to move forward.

I had found MY way.

Here’s an example of how I write my first draft now as opposed to my second draft:

First DraftSecond Draft

My Process

So there you have it.

After much trial and error (emphasis on error), my writing process now goes something like this:
1. Write an outline, scene-by-scene (Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat is my bible when it comes to plotting);
2. Write the first draft like a script – ie. basic description of setting, dialogue and a few stage directions;
3. Read over the first draft and make sure I’m happy with the plot and pacing. Make any changes needed;
4. Write the second draft (this is the pretty draft – the one that reads like a novel and is torture to write);
5. Read over the story again. Enlist the aid of beta readers. Get feedback.
6. Revise with feedback in mind.
7. Line edit.

I think the moral of my story is that we, as writers, are all different. While some writers can pants it and still come up with a story that has an amazing plot, I can’t. Plotting simply doesn’t came naturally to me – not yet anyway. Maybe over time I’ll learn to do it instinctively – after I’ve spent many years writing novels and training my mind to think in a plot-like structure. But for now, if I don’t want my stories to be long, boring, albeit well-written, suck-fests, I have to sit down and deliberately carve out that structure.

I recently finished writing my first draft for my WIP. It took me about four months of casual writing and stands at 31K words. By the time I finish the second draft, I expect it will bulge at 80-90K. It will also take me a hell of a lot longer than four months to write. But at least I know most of what I write will be there in the final version.

So, now it’s your turn… What, my dear readers who also happen to be writers, is your process?

Next week Gabbie will be taking over The Print Posse blog to tell us all about her writing method.

Be sure to check in 🙂

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