Avoiding Info Dumps

Nancy J. Cohen

An info dump is when you drop a significant amount of information on the hapless reader. This can take various forms. As my editor’s recent comments indicate, even I am not immune to this fault. So what different formats might this problem take? Check these out:

Overzealous Research

You love your research, and you can’t help sharing it with readers. Here are two examples from my current WIP. The first paragraph is the original. The second one is the revised version.

Example One:

“The company built houses and rented them to the miners and their families. Single men would have shared a place together, eight to twelve of them in one dwelling. The homes were shotgun style. You could see in through the front door straight back to the rear. Since the miners worked twelve hour shifts, they weren’t all home at the same time. The rent was taken out of their paychecks.”


“The company built houses and rented them to the miners and their families. Single men often shared a place together. Since they worked twelve hour shifts, they weren’t all home at the same time.”

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Example Two:

“The Colorado River Compact of 1922 divided the waters of the Colorado River between seven states and Mexico. Getting it to the farther regions of our state proved difficult. Thus was born the Central Arizona Project Canal, or CAP as we call it. This required pipelines and tunnels to move the water. That can be costly, which is why our cities obtain most of their water supply from underground aquifers. Groundwater is our cheapest and most available resource.”


“The Colorado River Compact of 1922 divided the resource between several states. The Central Arizona Project Canal, or CAP as we call it, uses pipelines to move the water to the far reaches of our state. That can be costly, which is why many of our cities obtain their water supply from underground aquifers. Groundwater is our cheapest and most available resource.”

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Laundry List

Any kind of list runs the risk of being tedious. Here’s a litany of symptoms you might get after being bitten by a rattlesnake:


“You’d have intense burning pain at the site followed by swelling, discoloration of the skin, and hemorrhage. Your blood pressure would drop, accompanied by an increased heart rate as well as nausea and vomiting.”

As this passage wasn’t necessary to my plot, I took it out. Be wary of any list that goes on too long. Here’s another example:

He counted on his fingers all the things he’d have to do: get a haircut, buy a new dress shirt, make a reservation, call for the limo and be sure to stop by a flower shop on the way to Angie’s house.

Do we really need to know all this, or could we say, He ran down his mental to-do list and glanced at his watch with a wince. Could he accomplish everything in one hour flat?

Dialogue

Here’s a snatch of conversation between my sleuth, Marla the hairdresser, and her husband, Detective Dalton Vail:

“I’m going to talk to our next-door neighbor, who happens to be the Homeowners’ Association president,” Dalton told her. “Wait here with Brianna. Since my daughter is a teenager, she won’t understand the argument you and I had yesterday with the guy.”

“Yes, isn’t it something how he made a racist remark?” Marla replied.

“I thought it was kind of Cherry, the association treasurer, to defend you.”

This dialogue could have come from Hanging by a Hair, my latest Bad Hair Day mystery. But why would I have Marla and Dalton talking about something they both already know? This is a fault of new writers who want to get information across. It’s not the way to go, folks. Show, don’t tell. In other words, show us the scene and let it unfold in front of us. Don’t have two characters hack it to death later when they both know what happened. Now if one of these participants were to tell a friend what went down, that would be acceptable.

HangingbyaHair

No doubt you’ve run across info dumps in your readings. Can you think of any examples or other forms this problem might take?

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Writing in Two Genres

Nancy J. Cohen

It’s not an easy path to follow to write in two separate genres. You have a different readership to satisfy. You have different reviewers to court. You have to promote to two entirely different audiences. And you have your own branding to consider. So why diversify from the original path you’ve chosen?

In my case, it was more a matter of career survival than choice. We didn’t have the publishing options present today when I made the switch from romance to mystery and back again to romance. If I wanted to keep my career alive, I had to write what would sell. Besides, I found that writing too many books in one genre makes me restless. I get the urge to do something totally different, and this switchover helps to keep my writing fresh. If I write so many mysteries in a row that I can’t come up with another single motive, then it’s time for a change.

HangingbyaHair

My mysteries are grounded, logical, easily researchable in my surroundings. In contrast, my romances might proceed in a logical manner but they include wild adventures, scenes of passion, and imaginative forays into scifi and fantasy realms. I can let loose in these novels in a manner that’s not possible in a modern day mystery.

WarriorLord_w8513_750

So how do you brand yourself when you write in different genres? By sticking to your core story. My readers know to expect fast-paced action, suspense, and mystery. There won’t be anything truly horrifying happening in my books or any favorite characters killed off. Humor is always a part of my books and so is romance. And I like to write a meaty story, not mere fluff. Even my romances have complex plots.

Is there hope for cross-readership? Of course there is, but I know my most vocal readers want me to write more mysteries. This feedback matters a great deal to me. So perhaps I’ll offer a second mystery series once I have time. The best part of publishing today is having options.

Even though some seasoned authors might advise you to stick to your brand and continue writing the same types of stories to build your readership, I say that once you have a few books under your belt, write the book of your heart. It’ll refresh you, lift your spirits, and diversify your repertoire. However, don’t lose sight of your loyal readers and continue to produce the stories they request. Be responsive and grateful for feedback. But above all, love what you write.

Do you feel it’s best to stick to one genre to build your brand or to diversify?

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Writing in Two Genres

Nancy J. Cohen

It’s not an easy path to follow to write in two separate genres. You have a different readership to satisfy. You have different reviewers to court. You have to promote to two entirely different audiences. And you have your own branding to consider. So why diversify from the original path you’ve chosen?

In my case, it was more a matter of career survival than choice. We didn’t have the publishing options present today when I made the switch from romance to mystery and back again to romance. If I wanted to keep my career alive, I had to write what would sell. Besides, I found that writing too many books in one genre makes me restless. I get the urge to do something totally different, and this switchover helps to keep my writing fresh. If I write so many mysteries in a row that I can’t come up with another single motive, then it’s time for a change.

HangingbyaHair

My mysteries are grounded, logical, easily researchable in my surroundings. In contrast, my romances might proceed in a logical manner but they include wild adventures, scenes of passion, and imaginative forays into scifi and fantasy realms. I can let loose in these novels in a manner that’s not possible in a modern day mystery.

WarriorLord_w8513_750

So how do you brand yourself when you write in different genres? By sticking to your core story. My readers know to expect fast-paced action, suspense, and mystery. There won’t be anything truly horrifying happening in my books or any favorite characters killed off. Humor is always a part of my books and so is romance. And I like to write a meaty story, not mere fluff. Even my romances have complex plots.

Is there hope for cross-readership? Of course there is, but I know my most vocal readers want me to write more mysteries. This feedback matters a great deal to me. So perhaps I’ll offer a second mystery series once I have time. The best part of publishing today is having options.

Even though some seasoned authors might advise you to stick to your brand and continue writing the same types of stories to build your readership, I say that once you have a few books under your belt, write the book of your heart. It’ll refresh you, lift your spirits, and diversify your repertoire. However, don’t lose sight of your loyal readers and continue to produce the stories they request. Be responsive and grateful for feedback. But above all, love what you write.

Do you feel it’s best to stick to one genre to build your brand or to diversify?

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Discovering Story

Nancy J. Cohen

Part of the creative process is Discovery. I’m in this phase now, which is when the beginning of a plot swirls in my head. I have a title for my next mystery, so I have to work the murder around it. Thus I’ve made an appointment for a facial. I know, research can be tough but someone’s got to do it. And my Bad Hair Day series is centered around a beauty salon.

Often I’ll start the plotting process with the victim. As shown in my book, Writing the Cozy Mystery, I draw a circle in the center of a paper and put the victim’s name inside. Around that go spokes like on a wheel for each of the suspects. Then I connect the spokes together so it becomes more like a spider’s web, where the suspects relate to each other in some manner.

For now, I know my victim’s basic identity. Her job is what gets her into trouble, and so the suspects develop from among her business associates. Who might want her dead and why leads me to motives. At this point, preliminary research is in order. I need to look up the world surrounding her business and learn more about it.

beauty pageant

But that’s not all. I am driven to acquire new knowledge about a subject for each book. What will it be for this one? What issue interests me, or what news article have I filed among my clippings that I might want to pursue? This factor is what propels me forward and underlies the plot. It hasn’t come to me yet for this story.

My victim is co-sponsor of a beauty pageant. I search online and fine headlines like “Top 10 Beauty Pageant Scandals.” Bingo! Before looking these over, I realize I have a problem. Most pageants likely take place over a weekend. How can I get this group of people to stay in the Fort Lauderdale area for a week or two so my hairdresser sleuth, hired to do the contestants’ hairstyles, can ferret out clues?

I’ll deal with that problem later. Meanwhile, I look at the scandals online regarding beauty shows, and nothing strikes me in terms of issues I’d want to pursue. The problems encountered don’t seem worthy of murder. And do I really want to write a whodunit variation of Miss Congeniality?


Miss Congeniality

Hey, what if I do a fashion show instead of a beauty pageant? My last Bad Hair Day mystery, Peril by Ponytail, takes place in October. I could set the new story in December. I’ve done Thanksgiving in Dead Roots but never Hanukah or Christmas. So how about a charity holiday ball with a fashion show? Using a local designer would keep the action in town, and I’ve already done the preliminary research by going backstage at a designer showcase. This will give me the personal angle of Marla and Dalton dealing with the holidays while also picking a charity whose cause I can support. If Marla has a connection to the charitable organization through her friends or relatives, this would give her an added incentive to get involved in solving the murder.

I like this idea. It’s starting to get me excited, whether or not it pans out. At least, it’s a start in the right direction.

So what advice do I have for you based on this experience? When you begin to think about the next story, let ideas flow through your brain. Pick the one that excites you and do your preliminary research. If you find some meaty material, go with it. If not, let the idea float away but keep the story in your mind. Your subconscious will present the next idea. Or thumb through your files and see if one of your clippings or news pieces stimulates a train of thought.

Do you start story development with an issue, a character, or a setting?

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End of Chapter Hooks

Nancy J. Cohen

Creating a hook at the end of a chapter encourages readers to turn the page to find out what happens next in your story. What works well are unexpected revelations, wherein an important plot point is offered or a secret exposed; cliffhanger situations in which your character is in physical danger; or a decision your character makes that affects story momentum. Also useful are promises of a sexual tryst, arrival of an important secondary character, or a puzzling observation that leaves your reader wondering what it means.

womantied

It’s important to stay in viewpoint because otherwise you’ll lose immediacy, and this will throw your reader out of the story. For example, your heroine is shown placing a perfume atomizer into her purse while thinking to herself: “Before the day was done, I’d wish it had been a can of pepper spray instead.”

This character is looking back from future events rather than experiencing the present. As a reader, you’ve lost the sense of timing that holds you to her viewpoint. You’re supposed to see what she sees and hear what she hears, so how can you see what hasn’t yet come to pass?

Foreshadowing is desirable because it heightens tension, but it can be done using more subtle techniques while staying within the character’s point of view. Here’s another out of body experience: “If I knew what was going to happen, I’d never have walked through that door.” Who is telling us this? The Author, that’s who. Certainly not your character, or she’d heed her own advice. Who else but the author is hovering up in the air observing your heroine and pulling her strings? Same goes for these examples:

“I never dreamed that just around the corner, death waited in the wings.” [okay, who can see around that corner if not your viewpoint character? YOU, the author!]

“Watching our favorite TV program instead of the news, we missed the story about a vandalized restaurant.” [if the characters missed the story, who saw it?]

“I felt badly about the unknown victim, but it had nothing to do with me. Or so I thought.” [speaking again from the future looking back]

“I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong.” [ditto]

“I was so intent on watching the doorway, I didn’t see the tall figure slink around the corner.” [then who did spot the tall figure? You got it–the author]

Although these examples are given in first person, the same principles apply to third person limited viewpoint. Your reader is inside that character’s skin. She shouldn’t be able to see/hear/feel beyond your heroine’s sensory perceptions. By dropping hints about future events, you’re losing the reader’s rapt attention. Stick to the present, and end your chapter with a hook that stays in character.

Here are some examples from Permed to Death, my first mystery novel. These hooks are meant to be page turners:

“This was her chance to finally bury the mistake she’d made years ago. Gritting her teeth, she pulled onto the main road and headed east.” (Important Decision)

“There’s something you should know. He had every reason to want my mother dead.” (Revelation)

“Her heart pounding against her ribs, she grabbed her purse and dashed out of her town house. Time was of the essence. If she was right, Bertha was destined to have company in her grave.” (Character in Jeopardy)

“She allowed oblivion to sweep her into its comforting depths.” (Physical Danger)

dead woman

Personal decisions that have risky consequences can also be effective. For example, your heroine decides to visit her boyfriend’s aunt against his wishes. She risks losing his affection but believes what she’s doing is right. Suspense heightens as the reader turns the page to see if the hero misinterprets her actions. Or have the hero in a thriller make a dangerous choice, wherein he puts someone he cares about in jeopardy no matter what he decides. Or his decision is an ethical one with no good coming from either choice. What are the consequences? End of chapter. Readers must keep on track to find out what happens next.

To summarize, here’s a quick list of chapter endings that will spur your reader to keep the night light burning:
1. Decision
2. Danger
3. Revelation
4. Another character’s unexpected arrival
5. Emotional turning point
6. Puzzle
7. Sex
In a romance, end chapter with one viewpoint, and switch to partner’s viewpoint in next chapter. Or end a scene of heightened sexual tension with the promise of further intimacy on the next page.

lovers

Sprinkle the lucky seven judiciously into your story and hopefully one day you’ll be the happy recipient of a fan letter that says: “I stayed up all night to finish your book. I couldn’t put it down.”

What other techniques do you use?

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Write crap and grieveWrite? Crap! And grieve…

By P.J. Parrish

The other day I caught an interview with Tony-winning playwright Terrance McNally. His new play Mothers and Sons is now on Broadway and he and its star, Tyne Daly, were talking about it:

Daly: Terrance is great at punctuation.
McNally: Punctuation is very important.
Daly: If you follow what he does, it’s like a musical score.
McNally: That would be in my notes, that it’s a comma not a semi-colon. I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.

To which I said: “Yes!”

Did you notice that I used an exclamation mark there? That is because when I heard McNally talk about punctuation, I got really, really excited. Because I am one of those old-fashioned writers who believe that all those little marks we pepper in our fiction:

. ; : ? ! ( ) , “” 

all those little marks make a big difference. So forgive me if I go in the weeds today (yeah, I know, I do this often) but I want to talk about getting the little stuff right.

But first, I’m thinking we need a definition of “right.” Because even though all of us savvy folks here at TKZ know we need to be up on our grammar so our editors will accept our manuscripts and our readers won’t flame us with Amazon one-star reviews, we also know that when it comes to fiction, rules can be bent.

In fact, sometimes they need to be bent. Sometimes, you the writer are going for a particular mood or effect or style, and if you do that with confidence, then grammar police be damned!

Take a look at this opening line of a famous book:

Marley was dead: to begin with.

That’s the opening line of A Christmas Carol. I’m not sure what Dickens was trying to do with it, and technically it’s a misuse of the colon. It probably should be “Marley was dead, to begin with.” But that’s flat and prissy. That oddly placed colon is like slamming up against a brick wall in the fog. I think it works in a weird sort of way. (Hat tip to blogger Kathryn Schulz for this example).

Here’s another strange one that I’m sure you’ll recognize:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Again, misplaced commas, an inflamed colon, fragments and a plethora of periods. But it is music, no?

One more and then we’ll move on:

Grogan’s is not the oldest pub in Galway. It’s the oldest unchanged pub in Galway.
While as the rest go
     Uni-sex
     Low-fat
     Karaoke
     Over-the-top
it remains true to the format fifty or more years ago. Beyond basic. Spit and sawdust floor, hard seat, no-frills stock. The taste for
    Hooches
    Mixers
    Breathers
hasn’t yet been acknowledged.

I can just hear the grammar gurus grinding their teeth over that one. This is from Ken Bruen’s Edgar-nominated The Guards. This is classic Ken, a style that ignores convention to create its spare lilt. Like George Saunders and Joyce Carol Oates, Ken plays with sentence structure, indention,  and makes up new uses for all the old punctuation symbols. Because when he hears his story in his head, he hears a singular rhythm that you or I would not if we tried to tell the same story set in that Irish pub.

But here’s the thing: (colon!) These writers all knew the rules before they broke them. Charles Ives was a church organist before he broke away to write The Unanswered Question.


Picasso painted this

Before he felt free enough to paint this

William Strunk, the éminence grise of grammar, says: “The best writers sometimes disregard the rules. Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.” Or, as I often tell folks in my workshops: Don’t start juggling machetes if all you can control is two tennis balls. So maybe we should take a moment — pause em dash — to look at some of those little marks and decide which ones we can play around with without slicing ourselves to bits.

The Period

This is my favorite punctuation mark. It is concise and emphatic without being overbearing. You always know where you stand with periods. Periods give you simple sentence structure and clear syntax. Periods can also create lovely sentence fragments, which can be a nifty stylistic tool. You can write a really great novel with just periods, quotes and maybe some question marks. Unless you’re James Joyce. Cormac McCarthy once said of Joyce: “[He’s] a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”  But hey, Joyce is juggling chainsaws in Ulysses. Don’t try this at home.

Commas

Wars have been waged over the poor comma. Some people are very strict about them, sticking them in every little compound sentence crevice. Others feel less is more, that fiction’s narrative voice allows you the freedom to “feel” your way around a phrase without the pause a comma injects. If you publish traditionally, your editor will have style manual and will inflict many commas on you. Some are bad:

Woman, without her man, is nothing

But some are good:

Woman! Without her, man is nothing.

The Colon
This is a pretty clear-cut fellow. It introduces text that amplfies something previously said or it tells you a list is coming up. I don’t think colons have much place in fiction, except maybe for that second use. A colon finds a better home in non-fiction. I think a better, less stodgy substitute for the colon is:

The Em Dash

I adore the em dash because to my eye and ear, it feels more like people really talk and think. Our thoughts tend to move forward and there is something pure and lively about seeing this     instead of this :  A colon bring your eye to a stop while a dash implies there is more movement ahead. Two examples:


“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds: the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.’

“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.”

I think the second is better because it is dialogue. You also can use the em dash to show an abrupt break in the dialogue, when one person is cutting off another:

“Define insubordination.”
Louis wet his lips. “I did something — ”
“I don’t care what you did. Define the word.”

Which leads us to the ellipses. It’s a cousin of the em dash in that you see it used in dialogue often. But there’s an important difference. Whereas a dash implies an abrupt break in the dialogue, the ellipses implies a trailing off. It can also imply a slowing of thoughts.

“Why didn’t you quit?” Jesse asked quietly.
Louis shook his head. “Can’t…”
“Why?”
“He’s still out there.”

The Exclamation Mark

This thing can be like a rabid ferret…hard to control. Yes, you need a rare one to convey extreme emotion. But like a dash or italics, it can lose its effectiveness if you overuse it. As Elmore Leonard said: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

And last but least:

The Semi-Colon

I saved this one for last because I hate the damn things. Semi-colons are like some professor-types. They’ve got an inflated sense of importance from living in the academic world. Or maybe they’re like literary novelists who like to go slumming in crime fiction. I think I’ve used maybe two semi-colons in sixteen books and both times I had to take a shower right after. I am not alone in my attitude. Let’s go back to what the playwright Terrance McNally said for a moment: “I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.”

Our own James Bell called semi-colons the eggplant of punctuation. (Click here to read it). Why are semi-colons bad? Because the beautiful business of fiction is replicating real life on the page and in real life people don’t think or talk in semi-colons. Unless they’re using emoticons. And c’mon, don’t you want to punch out those people anyway?

Postscript: After I finished this, I was proofing one of my back list titles. It is filled with em dashes! The Em seems to be my default punctuation. That got to wondering why I hate the semi-colon so much and what this says about me as a person. So…

What Your Favorite Punctuation Says About You

Period: You are emphatic, decisive, fearless. In the life raft, everyone looks to you to figure a way out.  You bowl overhand.

The exclamation mark: You’re dramatic and get a lot of invitations to parties. You wear purple. You’re probably the person people glare at for talking on your cell phone too loud at the bagel store.

The Em Dash: You are creative and optimistic. Life is a cabaret, old chum. You keep fresh kale in your fridge, wait for a Kraftwerk comeback and you root for the Knicks.

Question mark: You are deeply spiritual and people in meetings always wait to hear what you think. You have read and understood everything George Saunders has written. Your favorite color is tweed.

Colon: You’re organized and make to-do lists. People always ask you to arrange the Christmas office party but no one grabs you under the mistletoe.  You do the Times crossword in ink.

Semi-colon: You are cautious and methodical but you change your mind easily. You have trouble ordering at a restaurant and often resort to eating off other people’s plates because you think you made a mistake in getting the sea bass. You think Rand Paul makes a lot of sense.

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Racing Toward the Finale

Nancy J. Cohen

As you near the finish line for your Work in Progress, the tendency is to speed things up. You can’t wait to be done and take a break. You’re tired of the story and want to end it already. Or you’re approaching your deadline and have to finish in a hurry.

And yet this is when you need to slow down and let the finale unfold in exquisite detail. Haven’t you watched a TV show that ties up all the loose ends in the final two minutes? How annoyed does that make you feel? As for a book series, fans of Harry Potter felt frustrated by the brief epilogue. They wanted more explanations of what would happen to the characters in life beyond the book. So slow down when you approach completion.

The heroine’s confrontation with the villain should reveal every heartbeat, every pulse-pounding moment of fear. This is when you want time to slow so you can catch every nuance. Yes, the pacing must be quick, but you shouldn’t cheat the reader out of emotional reactions, either during the scene or afterward. And the fight sequence, if there is one, shouldn’t be rushed.

The End

What about when the villain has been defeated? I always like to have a Wrap Scene where quiet reflections on lessons learned, a review of events, and/or a self-revelation occurs. This is where you tie up loose ends and perhaps frame the story with the same people or setting as the opening sequence. Make sure your readers go away with a sense of satisfaction.

Putting some distance between yourself and your work will help you gain perspective. Go back after two weeks, if you have that luxury, and read the ending again. Flesh out any spots that are sparse and be sure you’ve covered all the bases. Your finale will dictate what impression readers take away when they close the book.

Do you tend to race ahead when you’re approaching the finish line?

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Three Stages of Writing

Nancy J. Cohen

In my view, story writing has three essential stages: Discovery, Writing, and Revision.

idea

Discovery is the process by which you discover your story. Bits and pieces of character and plot swirl around in your subconscious before you put words to paper. Consider it creative energy at play rather than feeling guilty that you’re not being productive. This can be the break you need before starting the next novel. It’s time well spent to refill your creative pool and to gather ideas.

Doing a collage, watching movies, listening to music, working on a hobby, walking outdoors, or reading for pleasure are some of the ways you can stimulate your creativity. Cut out photos from magazines of celebrities who look like your characters and fill out your character development charts. Search for relevant articles to your storyline and sift through them. Thus begins your research. Often this prep time can take weeks or even a month or two. If you’re a seasoned writer, you’ll know how long you need. Be sure to factor this in when you determine your target goal of completion for your project.

When these ideas coalesce in your head and your characters begin to talk to you, you’re ready to start writing. This is when I sit down and write an entire synopsis. The synopsis acts as my writing guideline, so I always know where I’m going even if I don’t quite know how to get there. This still allows for the element of surprise. The plot may change as the story develops.

editing

At this stage, set yourself a minimum daily quota. I have to write at least 5 pages a day or 25 pages a week. Beginning a book is the hardest task. It might take until the first third of the book for you to get to know your characters. Give yourself permission to write crap during this heated storytelling phase. Once the book is written, you can fix it. Just get those words down on paper and move forward until the draft is done.

When you finish the first round of storytelling, it’s a good idea to put your book aside so as to gain some distance from it. You’ll be better prepared for revisions with a fresh viewpoint. Use the time to plan your promo campaign, to jot down blog topic ideas, or to write reader discussion questions. When you find yourself eager to tackle the story again, move on to the next phase.

editing

Now come the heavy revisions. This can get intense, because you need to keep a sense of the whole story in your head. You can’t stop, or you’ll lose your train of thought.  But you also shouldn’t rush this process if you want to produce what editors call a “clean” copy.

When you set deadlines, be sure to allow a month or so for revisions, because you’ll need to do several read-throughs. My first round of revisions focuses on line editing. Then I’ll read through for smoothness and consistency. The final reading is to catch any remaining errors, typos, or repetitions. You can run your material through one of the online editors like Smart-Edit software or Pro Writing Aid.

I guarantee you’ll always find things to correct, but at some point you’ll be too close to the material to see straight or too sick of the project to work on it any more. Then the book is ready to submit. But don’t worry, likely you’ll have a chance to fix things again when you hear from your editor.

Send it off, clean up your desk, file away your mounds of papers. By now you’re thinking about the next book and are getting ready to start the process anew. Force yourself away from the office and take some time off. You’ll return with fresh ideas and renewed energy.

Now I have to quit procrastinating and get back to the writing stage. After being away for a week, it’s hard to get back in the groove.

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First-Hand Research: Arizona

Nancy J. Cohen

Do you believe in ghosts? I would like to think they exist, especially after numerous orbs came out in the photos I took on our Arizona trip. However, sites online explain the phenomenon as artifacts like cameras reflecting dust motes or water vapor droplets. Nonetheless, we visited many haunted sites on our recent trip west. The most exciting one was the Grand Hotel in Jerome. Formerly a hospital, this structure was built on a mountainside to serve the local miners. We took the nightly ghost tour and were given our own instruments to investigate.

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How does this work into the book I’m planning to write? I needed first-hand research, and it’s a good thing I went on location. When I’d put a forest in my story synopsis, I imagined the northern kind with tall trees and thick undergrowth. Man, was I off mark! Arizona forests, as least where I went, consisted of low scrub brush, scattered trees, reddish-brown dirt, and cacti. Uh-oh. Nix the victim in my story dying when a heavy branch falls on him. Instead, he’ll tumble off a mountain ledge. As mountain vistas are all around, this should be more plausible.

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Copper mines play an important role in my story, too. Little did I realize you had to be at higher elevations for this factor. My protagonists explore a mine in the story. Now I know what they should wear, what they will see, how they will face the scariness of pitch darkness below ground. As for the orbs, it’s either very dusty down there or the shafts are haunted.

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And the dude ranch where we stayed one night is the background setting for the entire story. I couldn’t possibly have written a word without being there in person, smelling the horses, having a drink in the lounge called the Dog House, and sampling the food in the dining hall. Plus interviewing the staff changed another story element. A character’s horse won’t be spooked by a snake let loose in its path anymore. Instead, someone strings a trip wire across the trail.

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We had many more adventures, from gazing at the awesome red cliffs of Sedona to an off-trail jeep ride to a recreation of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. We stayed at the dude ranch, rode down into the copper mine, and went on our own ghost hunt. I also got to tour the Desert Botanical Gardens to note the varieties of plants, trees, and cacti. All of these experiences were essential for my novel. Sometimes you can’t get what you need online or in the library. You have to go to the place to sniff around for yourself.

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You can see more of my pix here: http://fw.to/SB2DmEH

So what trip have you made that was essential to your research?

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The Author’s Bucket List on Plot Structure


By Jordan Dane

I’ve never been a plotter. I’m too impatient. Once I get the general idea of a story with a compelling conflict and a notion of my cast of players, I can’t wait to “discover” the story as I write. It plays out in my head like a movie, but I’m constantly exploring new ways to get organized so my daily word count goals can be achieved without roadblocks.


Today on TKZ, I submit my latest thoughts on the 3-Act Structure and the Storyboard method of plotting. These are purely my thoughts on combining these concepts as they might apply to my writing, but maybe you’ll see elements you like in this for you.


I used to think of the 3-Act Structure as beginning, middle, and end, but I’ve read it more accurately reflected as Establish, Build, & Resolve by Michael Hauge in his book “Writing Screenplays that Sell.” Thinking of these acts in this manner denotes movement. So imagine these three segments as buckets, but before I can toss wads of paper (or scenes) into these buckets, I must have a place to start. Set aside your buckets for now and grab a paper and pen—or Sticky Notes, colors optional.


Presuming I have a general notion of my book, I would create a list of 20-25 things I know about the action in my book in terms of what I call “big ticket” plot movements. No backstory. What will go on my list will be scenes that I envision as key elements to my story. They won’t be put into any order. I merely list them as they occur to me. I would brainstorm without censoring my thoughts. I heard an author talk about creating notes on 3-M sticky notes, rather than a random list, but you get the idea. I don’t expect to know every scene in my book at this stage. The storyboard I create will be an evolving beast that I will change as I write, edit, and final my book so I can see my plot at a glance.


Now let’s talk about the 3-Act Structure in terms of a BIG “W.”


ACT I – Establish – The start of Act I (or the top left of my “W”) is the Triggering Event. It’s the inciting incident that will start my story, the point at which my main character’s life changes forever. As I travel down the left side of my “W,” I head for the 1st Turning Point that usually sets up the problem or the first low point or perhaps a moment of hope. This is a reversal point that changes the direction of my plot as I head out of Act 1. I’ve “Established” my world up to this point and the general conflicts and players in the first 25% of my book, in theory.


ACT II – Build – As my plot heads toward the upward middle of my “W,” that is another key reversal. If I have a book with hope in my first turning point, this shift might dash those hopes to some degree. If I have a dark moment in that first turning point, things get worse, but the plot takes another key turn one way or the other as the action “Builds.” Act II ends with the next turning point (the 2nd low point of my “W”). This is the black moment where all seems lost. This part of the “W” represents the middle part of the turning point structure or 50% of my story, the “building” middle.


ACT III – Resolve – Now I would be in Act III, the last upward line of the “W” after the black moment. I’m headed toward resolution. In this section, my hero or heroine might discover something about the villain in the story that is his or her weakness. He or she implements a plan to take advantage of this Achilles Heel, but I might consider throwing in another epiphany or twist before the end. This could be a twist or complication—an “Oh my, God” moment the reader might not see coming before the world is restored or the ending happens. This last part of the structure is the final 25%.


I’ve oversimplified these blended theories for the sake of this post. The lines of the “W” don’t have to be linear, for example. I could have little ups and downs along the way that will take me through my book, but I wanted you to have a general idea of how this could work.



Now get ready with your buckets. Each of these acts is a bucket, for the purposes of this explanation. So the list I created at the beginning—the 20-25 brainstormed scenes—each has a place in an Act Bucket. I would add to these 25 things as I get more familiar with my book, but if I were to Storyboard this out, I would create 20 squares that represent chapters in my books. (You might write differently, so make this work for you with your average number of chapters in a single-title book.) I would write my 25 items down with each one going on a 3-M Sticky Note and place them on my storyboard where I think they will go in Act I (25%), II (50%), or III (25%). Since each of these scene ideas is moveable, I can change the order and chapter they might appear to get the pace and building intensity up. Once I see things on my storyboard in a visual manner, I will no doubt want to add more Sticky Note scenes to fill out the detail and transitions in my story as the plot develops.


I generally have 4-5 scenes in a chapter. So as my story plot movement gets established and building toward a resolution, I perhaps can add colored notes to signify POV switches or character story arcs or relationship arcs to deepen my story understanding. I thought this process might fit my “pantser” approach to structure with a simple method that I can see visually as I write and evolve the story. Writing software seemed too complicated to learn with my writing schedule, but I’d love to hear of a simple brainstorming plot method or storyboard concept if you have one.


What works for you?

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