BACK TO BASICS: WRITERS’ BOOT CAMP PART II

by Miko Johnston

In any story, the beginning sets up the problem that must be solved and the ending solves it. How that happens comprises the plot, which plays out in the middle chapters. A good plot is like a good EKG, with lines that zigzag up and down. When tension and stakes increase, the line climbs upward. You never want a flat line; in matters of the heart and story, it indicates death.

In my last post we reviewed the three basic ways to begin a story as well as some techniques to get those opening pages written. What if you’ve gotten that far but haven’t moved forward?

Many writers get stuck after writing the opening chapter. A common problem is trying to perfect that opening. As a bone fide Brooklynite, I can say fuhgeddaboudit.

Nothing will hang you up more than trying to go over and over that first chapter, endlessly fine-tuning it before moving on. You can’t. You shouldn’t. Put it aside and keep going. Finish your first draft. Once you know how the story unfolds, go back and figure out how to fix the beginning.

Do you have a beginning and an end in mind? Then build your story like a bridge – set down firm spans on both ends and connect them in the middle. I wrote my first novel that way, working the plot backward from the final chapters and forward from the earlier chapters. Mysteries often fall into this category; you know the crime (beginning) and whodunnit (the reveal at the end). Work your clues in both directions until they meet in the middle.

What if you don’t know where the story is going? Many writers prefer to wait for the muse to whisper in their ear rather than draft an outline. In that case, why not choose a path and follow it to its logical conclusion? Think of it like those maze puzzles – a path may lead to a dead end, but then you’ll know it’s a dead end and try another path, eventually finding the one that leads you in the right direction. Everything you write will help guide you to The End. Two caveats, though:

-If you have a beginning and only a vague idea of the end, you’ll want to have enough to get you well into the middle before you tackle a novel, otherwise you may never reach your destination. My second book took over four years to write; I meandered through two plots I ultimately discarded, then conceived a third one worth pursuing.

Some writers feel as soon as it’s on the page, it’s permanent. Not so. In my second novel I found a way to solve a plot problem with a birthday surprise for my heroine, but I’d already given her a different birth date in my first novel. How could I get away with that? It took a week to realize an easy solution: neither book had been published yet, so I could change the date in book one to fit my new development.

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Are you stuck in the middle?  Writing your middle chapters, but unsatisfied with them? Fortunately, sit-ups and planks aren’t required.

Ways to improve a weak middle:

1 – Always keep your genre and theme in mind.

Your genre can shape how your story unfolds. A humorous cozy should be light and fun. Noir should be steeped in atmosphere. Use your theme or log line as the foundation on which you build your plot, and a guide to move it along.

2 – Take advantage of the multiple uses of dialogue

It can move the story forward, briefly slow the pace, draw our focus to a plot point or clue like a camera close-up, inform us of character, or foreshadow a later development.  Dialogue tags like Jon said identify the speaker, but by using a bit of action – Jon tossed his keys on the table – you also add movement. Finally, consider how your characters speak and what they don’t say.

3 – Keep the plot, and your character, active.

Not enough action will bog down the pace, but action means more than shooting and fighting, or running after suspects. Action can be physical or mental. Action is your character DOING whatever it takes to reach her goal.

4 – Have at least one mid-point crisis.

A good story always launches with a crisis and climaxes with a bigger one. Crises generate tension, which keep the middle from sagging. Introduce sources of conflict, whether leads in the investigation that fall through, the death of a material witness or ally, or a setback in the hero’s goal. Just make sure the crisis fits the story’s momentum and doesn’t exceed your climax scene.

5 – Avoid dumping in too much backstory.

Whether you’re trying to bring your character to life or writing a sequel, you need some backstory, just not too much. What are you trying to accomplish with the information? Insight into the character’s past that would explain why she does what she does? A reminder in a sequel of an event in a previous book? Ask yourself three questions:

            Is this information necessary for this story?

            Does it help to define the character or support the plot?

            Does it move the story forward?

If no, leave it out. If yes, then keep it brief. I read a few series and find the best of them will remind readers of characters and events with a line rather than a paragraph.

6 – Watch out for repetition.

We all know best-selling authors of series who, after a dozen or more books, begin padding their sequels with repetition. Just like unnecessary detail will bog down your story, so will repeating events or dialogue over and over and over and….. If you’ve just written a scene where an action occurs, your character doesn’t have to repeat this information to another character in the following scene. She told him what happened or words to that effect will suffice. If we need a reminder of what transpired later in the story, keep it brief.

7 – Reward and surprise us.

What’s worse, a story that’s totally depressing or totally predictable? Trick question; it’s a tie. Even the most dystopic stories must have moments of lightness. Whatever your character’s goal is – trying to solve the murder, find true love, succeed in business or win the battle – mete out some successes along with the setbacks. Lace in enough twists and surprises to hint how the story might end without giving the ending away.

This is particularly true in mysteries. Setting up a good red herring can be tricky since readers expect them. They’re delicious when they surprise us, but like all fish, if they’re mishandled they stink. As much as I enjoyed Girl On A Train, it was obvious who the murderer was a hundred pages before the book’s conclusion. Nothing’s more disappointing than knowing without a doubt exactly how the book will end. You presume the detective will solve the murder, but still want the pleasure of discovering HOW it happens, especially if the manner is unexpected. Just make sure that the reward or surprise is rooted in the story. Don’t plop something in for convenience. Weave a subtle thread back to earlier chapters to set up the surprise properly, or base the reward on something she wants or needs, even if she doesn’t know it.

8 – Keep the dialogue and prose in proportion.

Do you have enough dialogue? Too much? What about sensory detail, setting, character descriptions? There’s no magic formula but we don’t always consider the balancing act. Rereading your story, looking for something you don’t always consider, gets you looking at your pages in a different way. You may catch something that’s not working, even trigger an idea or solution. 

9 – Keep the middle in proportion.

I am not partial to using formulas for writing books (and have the luxury of not having to rely on them). However, if you’ve written several chapters and are unsure how the story is progressing, consider the percentage of pages dedicated to the middle versus the beginning and end. Although not a precise measurement, the opening, from Once upon a time to the inciting incident that launches your story, should comprise about a quarter of the total number of pages. So should the final act, from the climax scene to The End. That means the middle should be roughly half of the story. If your opening chapters comprise sixty pages and you’re up to page 300 but nowhere near the climax, your middle is probably bloated. If your middle is proportionally light, flesh it out or shorten the rest.

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Still stuck? If you’re a visual person, try charting out your story, or as much of it as you know, on some kind of diagram. I’ve used line graphs, with peaks for crisis points and valleys for slower parts. I’ve used box charts, where I divide a sheet of paper into sixteen boxes – four for the beginning, eight for the middle and four for the end. In each box I briefly describe what’s happening at that point of the story. This shows me how the plot is developing as well as the balance between the acts. Since I write historical fiction, I also parallel historical events with my characters’ lives. If you write mysteries or thrillers, especially the cat and mouse variety, you can chart your hero’s progress against your villain’s actions.

If you’ve conceived some scenes but not an entire chapter, write it in chunks and assemble it later. If you prefer working with a hard copy, write the individual scenes, conversations or actions, leaving ample white space between them. Print them, cut them into sections and assemble them as you think works best. Move everything around until you have the order you want, and insert blank paper between the sections that need connecting. Pencil in notes about what you need to connect the passages. Use this to guide you through completing the chapter, or flesh out other chapters. It moves you forward. If you don’t like the direction, at least you’ll know another dead end to avoid. This can be done on the computer if you prefer working that way.   

Another technique that has proven helpful is to change ‘jobs’; instead of writing prose, think of yourself as a movie director. Can you visualize the scene you’re trying to create? How would you direct your characters? If there’s something missing in the scene, get input from the set dresser or wardrobe coordinator. As authors we tend to see our work from on high. Peering at it from a different angle gives us another perspective. Even closing your eyes and envisioning the words you’ve written (or listening to them being read) will make them pop and come alive, or hint at why they don’t.

Consider writing free-form dialogue, which I’ve described in this earlier post. This gives your characters an opportunity to speak for themselves. Sort of like the director asking the actors to ad lib their lines. If that doesn’t work, you may not know your characters well enough to ‘speak’ for them. In that case:

-Play the “who would I cast as…?” game – think of people, either famous or those you’ve known, and match them with your characters. Consider why you chose that person to help you flesh the character out.

-Try to describe your key characters in a word or brief phrase, then look for signs of commonality and discord between them.

-Define them with an image. For example, think of type fonts as a logo. If you were to assign a different font for each of your characters, which would represent them best?  

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Once you’ve written an attention-grabbing beginning and a turn-the-page middle, you need to reward the reader with a satisfying ending. In the final installment, we’ll explore what that means and how to achieve it.

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of three novels in the historical saga A Petal In The Wind, as well as several short stories. She is currently completing the fourth book in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Brainstorming Plot

WinR MK Johnston talks about brainstorming plots.

Two-thirds of Writers in Residence met last Wednesday to try something new – a brainstorming session to help one of us clarify plot points in a new novel. The one was me. I’d been struggling with the outline for the sequel to my first novel, A Petal In The Wind. I knew where to start and end the book, but I had too many ideas and not enough clarity to get me there.

Since it was the first time we tried to brainstorm, we free-formed the meeting. I’d been to brainstorming groups that had limited effectiveness, but the Wednesday session was extremely helpful to me. When I returned home, I thought about how it progressed, what worked and what didn’t, and why this was more successful than past efforts. I’ll share my thoughts with you.

I don’t believe brainstorming is the most effective way to stretch a germ of an idea into a full blown story. It can work, but when you ask people to take aim at a problem, it’s much easier to hit a specific target than scatter shots at the sky and hope something falls to earth. If a writer has the basic story fleshed out but is having trouble with some aspect of it – weak ending, sagging middle, critical scene – the chances of success are more likely than if the writer is vague about the premise or the problem.

If you’re in a critique group and would like to hold a brainstorming session, begin by having the writer clarify what she hopes to achieve. If she doesn’t understand where and why her story needs help, no one else will.

Open the discussion with a free exchange of ideas. Anything goes. Sometimes you have to get past the obvious, trite and just plain bad to get the creative juices running. The writer should listen and take notes; but shouldn’t interrupt the flow if she hears something she doesn’t like unless that thread is picked up by the others. Then she can simply say, “I don’t want to take my story in that direction”. That will alert the others to drop the idea and move on.

Allow around 20 but no more than 30 minutes for this part to avoid straying too far off-topic. The writer should have enough to work with by now, so take a brief break and let her digest what’s been said. She must settle on which ideas worked best for her vision of the story.

Once she’s decided, focus the brainstorming along that narrow path. Let her direct the conversation so she can get what she needs. If anyone has ideas outside the box, no matter how brilliant, hold them until the end or email them to her later.

If the writer can’t determine a direction by now, the session wasn’t successful. It could be that she wasn’t clear about what she wanted or needed, either in her own mind or in expressing it to the group. You might be able to salvage the session by having her explain why she rejected all of the suggestions, or if there were any ideas that might hold promise with further exploration.

Ultimately the key to successful brainstorming lies in the writer. She has to have some idea of a direction. Otherwise the best suggestions won’t help. It’s one thing to ask someone to dig up a potato from your garden. It’s another to plant a seed and expect others to grow it for you.

Learning the Basics "Chapter One" at a Time – Part 5

WinR MK Johnston brings you Part 5 of her tutorial, “Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time. MK is a former print and television journalist and served on the board of the Alameda Writers Group. She is a current member of that group as well as Sisters in Crime and WIWA.

PART 5 – DIALOGUE

You can’t judge a book by its cover. You judge it by its words. The same is true for dialogue. You learn a lot about characters by what they say. And while sometimes a character will say one thing and do another, that discrepancy, and the reasons behind it, tells us a lot about that character as well.

If you write great dialogue, consider yourself lucky. Many writers cite it as the most difficult part of a novel to get right. However, there are ways to improve it.
Tips for writing dialogue:

First let’s understand the function of dialogue in a novel. It’s a way to break up exposition, convey information, hear the characters’ voices, and communicate more directly with non-POV characters. Speech patterns, mannerisms, and vocabulary can inform us of a character’s heritage, education, values, and personality, or they can be used to mislead us.

Good dialogue sounds natural; authentic, but not realistic. Actual speech patterns can be too wordy, too vague, or just boring. For inspiration, listen to people talking in airports, restaurants, shopping malls, and parties for speech patterns, key words and phrases that are different, or go beyond what you’re used to hearing.

When writing dialogue, it’s important to hear it spoken out loud. You can do this yourself, but if you can get someone (even a computer) to read it to you, that’s even better. If the reader stumbles over your dialogue, it usually indicates the writing is awkward or doesn’t mean what you intended. Listen not only for how it sounds, but also the meaning behind the words.

What can dialogue do?

• Slow down a scene without slowing the pace, like a zoom lens that brings you right into the moment.

• Give readers a close-up of moments of passion, conflict, or danger

• Show purpose or define a scene; focus the story

• Inform us of the connection between characters – using shorthand or brevity shows intimacy or awareness in a relationship. (Use M dashes when a speaker is interrupted and ellipses when a speaker’s thoughts fade out.)

Recognizing bad dialogue is easier than figuring out why it’s bad or how it can be reworked. If you’re not happy with your dialogue, try this exercise:

FREE-FORM WRITING

Writing free-form dialogue releases you from linear thinking by using the right brain instead of the left. (The left brain is the logical, organized half, perfect for plotting or editing.) Select a scene from your first chapter that includes conversation. You can start the dialogue from scratch, or continue the existing one. Then write as quickly as you can; don’t bother with punctuation, tags, or details. Keep writing until you’ve relinquished your control over your characters and let them take over – continue until they’ve had their say. Then review and add tags; identify speakers, place, etc. Add your sensory details.

When you’re done, revise, revise, and revise! It’s like peeling an onion. You have to get past what’s always been said (the surface) to reach deeper levels of understanding.

I have found that this writing exercise is very helpful if you’re stuck in other ways. We tend to fall back on left-brain logic to solve problems in our writing when what we need is the emotional punch that comes from right-brain thinking. If any part of your story isn’t working despite outlines, index cards, or editing, try free-form writing a conversation between your characters, whether they appear in the scene or not. Chances are you’ll garner at least a nugget, if not more.

If the exercise doesn’t work for you the first time, try again. Use a different mix of characters, or put them in a different setting if necessary. For example, lets say your scene involves two characters arguing in a restaurant and free-form writing their dialogue isn’t helping. Try using two background characters, like a couple sitting at an adjacent table, or the waiter and busboy, and let them chat about your characters’ behavior or conversation. Or, take your arguing characters out of the restaurant and put them on an airplane, in line at a taxi stand on a stormy night, or at a party.

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The purpose of this series is to help polish your first chapter. Once that has been done, don’t stop. Work on each subsequent chapter until it shines. Good luck.

Learning the Basics "Chapter One" at a Time – Part 4

WinR MK Johnston brings you Part 4 of her tutorial, “Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time. MK is a former print and television journalist and served on the board of the Alameda Writers Group. She is a current member of that group as well as Sisters in Crime and WIWA.

PART 4 – SHOW, DON’T TELL

This aspect of writing is difficult to explain because it’s so subjective. We know it must be done; but where, when, and especially how to do it is the challenge.

Sol Stein, author of “How To Grow A Novel”, points out that from the time we’re very young, we become accustomed to hearing stories, whether it’s our parents reading to us, schoolmates repeating tales, or gossips in the workplace. The ones we enjoy the most are the ones we can best envision.

Our desire to “see” stories also comes from watching visual media such as television and films. We all know how engaging they can be even if the content is hollow. As our culture becomes more accustomed to watching stories, writers must follow suit, making our novels even more visual. That’s why so many contemporary books are written in a “filmic” style, where the plot and action are laid out like scenes in a movie. It’s also why the descriptive style of novels from earlier centuries is no longer in favor.

The “show, don’t tell” complaint is often attributed to writing that is:

o Too passive – is, was, were; he said/she said

o Too vague – it lacks sufficient or crucial detail

o Too secretive – it’s important but the writer holds back

o Too detailed – it’s unimportant but the writer goes on at length

o Too repetitive – often stated many times, or in different ways.

o Too informational – a fact dump that reads like a manual

o Too one-dimensional – we hear it but we don’t see it (dialogue)

When we begin to write, we tend to focus on laying out the plot and introducing our characters. However, people want to read stories, not reports or a catalog of events. Once you’ve completed your first draft, go over it, starting with your first chapter, and look for places to illustrate your story with words.

HOW TO FIX THE PROBLEM

• Close your eyes and imagine the situation you’re describing. Then write what you “see”.

• Think of yourself as the director or actor in the scene. What would you tell the character to do, or what would you do, feel, or experience in that scene? Think body language, emotions, external factors (cold, bright, musty?).

• Imagine you’re a set dresser, lighting person, or costume designer. What would the setting look like? How would the character be dressed, and what statement would it make about him? Pick two details that would symbolize the look or atmosphere you want to create in the scene.

• Examine how you’ve introduced your protagonist and any other characters that appear in your first chapter. How should your readers feel about them at this point and will those feelings change in the course of the story? Do your words generate that impression?

• Don’t flesh out minor characters. Describe them in a sentence or phrase, or if their “title” is enough for us to visualize them, one word. What characteristic would be most telling about them, relating to their role in the story?

• Look for those passive dialogue tags – he said, she uttered, Jane asked, Bob queried – and think about how you could substitute a small bit of action instead. This can help us visualize the character at that moment, move the story forward, or do both.

Here’s a chance to use that passive description. Sum up your main character in one declarative sentence:

o Barry wants respect, not pity

o Lisa has low self-esteem

o Jack’s tough exterior hides an emotional Achilles heel

o Edmund’s weak social skills prevent acknowledgment of his scientific genius

Next, create a scenario that would illustrate this trait:

o Barry would rather search through dumpsters than beg

o Lisa accomplishes 98 percent of her project and berates herself for not doing better

o Jack snaps at everyone but shows extraordinary sensitivity when interviewing a child abuse victim

o Edmund tries to explain his breakthrough to top management, but they ignore him and direct questions to his lab partner

Now expand that scenario. “Show, don’t tell” involves more than just seeing the action. Go beyond the visuals to include other senses – smells, sounds, tastes, and tactile feelings. Demonstrate emotional responses with physical actions, especially when they relate to the characters’ external and internal goals. Whatever keeps them from the one thing they want most should elicit the most powerful descriptions, for this conflict is the core of your story.

Compare the results of this exercise to what you currently have written in your first chapter.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE

There are times when passive descriptions are appropriate in fiction:

• A simple statement of fact: It was June 12; my teacher’s name is Mrs. Lopez, George Washington was our first President

• Situations where list-like descriptions are called for, like a police interrogation (“He was short, stocky, about 150 pounds, with red hair….”).

• Dialogue that suits the character (a character who speaks passively will come off as a boring, colorless individual, which is great if the character is boring and colorless – just don’t make him a primary character!)

• When a report is preferable to poetry. There will be times when you’ll want to describe the blazing sun beating down on his already reddened face, sending rivulets of sweat streaming from his brow. Then there will be times when you’ll want to say it was hot.

• When it’s preferable to using substitute words – uttered instead of said, or queried instead of asked. ‘He said’ may be passive, but many writers consider it less obtrusive than other alternatives.

In our final installment, we’ll give our left brain a rest when we channel our creative side to write DIALOGUE

Learning the Basics "Chapter One" at a Time Part 1

Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time is a tutorial brought to you by Miriam Johnston

Part 1

Sure, you can write. You’ve created a logical plot and interesting characters. You’ve even been praised for some of your passages. However, your work lacks the professional polish of a best seller or critically acclaimed novel.

Welcome to LEARNING THE BASICS “CHAPTER ONE” AT A TIME, a self-help tutorial designed for writers who want to take their work to the next level.

Most writers aim to improve their skills by taking classes, attending writers’ conferences, reading books and subscribing to journals. All tend to emphasize the same points – and we’ll cover many of them in this tutorial. What’s unique is that we’ll focus on our own first chapters as a way to identify common mistakes and correct them with a two-fold approach:

• tips and advice gathered from the best instructors, editors, and writers
• DIY exercises to help identify weaknesses and correct problems

We’ll review basic methods for beginning a story – what they are, how they’re done, and what they should accomplish – and evaluate them in relation to our novels. In addition, we will discuss modifiers, telling instead of showing, and dialogue, using our first chapters to illustrate the strongest and the weakest elements of writing. Each tutorial will offer writing exercises to help slim down and tone up your chapters. Once you get your first chapter in shape it can serve as a guidepost for the rest of your novel.
Let’s begin by reviewing some fundamentals every agent wants you to know:

PART 1 – PRESENTATION

Nothing screams amateur more than a manuscript that is sloppy and substandard.

Can’t read that? Neither can an agent.

Submitting work in an unreadable font guarantees a rejection. How many deals collapse for something so petty and preventable?

It’s one thing to economize by using recycled paper or printing two-sided copies for an informal writer’s group or for your own use. However, it’s never acceptable to submit pages to an agent or other professional that don’t follow acceptable standards such as margins, font type and size, spacing, chapter headings, spelling, and grammar. It shows disregard for the work, as well as for whomever you’ve asked to read it, whether it’s a fellow writer, proofreader, or prospective agent. Get in the habit of using professional formatting whenever you write. That attitude should begin on page one and never waver.

FORMATTING AND TEXTUAL ERRORS IN MANUSCRIPTS

1. Using a non-traditional font or font size
2. Cheating margins or line spacing
3. Starting a new chapter on the same page as the previous chapter
4. Submitting streaky photocopies or poorly printed copies of your work
5. Flawed, stained, or mutilated pages
6. Typos

HOW TO FIX THE PROBLEM

1. Pick a classic, easy to read font such as Times New Roman or Courier in 12 point.

2. Double space your copy and allow for one inch margins all around. Never break that rule, even if the last word in the chapter falls on a new page. Try editing out a word or two instead.

3. Always begin a new chapter on a fresh page and halfway down (some blank page gives the illusion of a faster read).

4. Use a good printer, preferably laser, although a high quality inkjet may be acceptable. If you’re not using a fresh cartridge and there’s any grey in the text, switch it out and reprint as many pages as necessary. Use only white paper.
5. If you encounter any of these problems on a page – redo it. You don’t want your manuscript rejected because of a smudge or crease on page 7, but it happens.

6. Proofread your manuscript at least twice before sending it out. If possible, get fresh eyes to proof it as well.

Before you send out pages or a manuscript to an agent, always verify whether a hard copy or electronic copy is preferred. Then give them what they want.

I’m always shocked by writers who think they can flaunt the rules. Perhaps the most arrogant are those who say they don’t concern themselves with proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Writing, like any vocation, has its tools. Can you imagine a doctor, teacher, or auto mechanic boasting about their lack of the most basic of skills?

We all begin with the 26 letters of the alphabet, which are used to form words, then phrases. Then, with the help of grammar and punctuation, we create sentences, paragraphs, pages, scenes, chapters, and novels. Our tools should also include a dictionary, thesaurus or synonym finder, and various books on style and grammar.

Anyone can write, but to write well, you must spell your words correctly, so we can recognize them. You must understand what those words mean, so they’re used in the proper context. You must learn the correct use of punctuation and grammar, so we can understand what you’re writing. Finally, if you choose to break the rules, have a valid purpose for doing so – spell a word phonetically to highlight the speaker’s accent, or incorporate poor grammar into a character’s dialogue to show his lack of education, for example.

The next installment, OPENINGS, will cover that important first paragraph of your novel.

Photo: Gary Phillips, Marilyn Meredith, and Marci Baun at California Crime Writers Conference