Dec 9, 2015

An Unbending Honesty

In my previous post about finding what’s wrong in your work, I said that I think writers need to understand the structure of a scene to identify what’s wrong with a scene.

Another thing I strongly believe a writer needs is an unbending honesty with himself. This means you have to tell yourself the truth, not what you want to hear. This is tough to do, especially if we’re in the habit of smoothing our own ruffled feathers in other aspects of our lives. If we’ve learned how to pat ourselves on the head and make ourselves feel better over real-life issues, we should at least suspect that we’re capable of doing the same thing when it comes to our writing.

If you want to strive for excellence, you need to be honest—both about what’s wrong with your work and what’s right. No running yourself down relentlessly, indulging in false modesty and refusing to acknowledge your strengths. No glossing over your weaknesses.

One thing I clearly remember from my early days as a writer was making the decision to read the work in hard copy rather than on the screen when I’m revising. I think doing that is one of my subconscious triggers. As long as it’s on the screen, it’s “mine.” Once it’s printed on the page, I find it easier to distance myself from it. To read it as if someone else wrote it. Unless I do that, I can’t honestly determine whether I’ve hit the bar I’ve set for myself.

The first time I sat down to read a manuscript I wrote from beginning to end, I talked to myself long and hard about forgetting that I’d written it so I could approach it with some detachment. I believe this is another key element in being able to identify what’s wrong. As long as we remember that it’s our work, we retain a deep personal attachment to every word, to every scene, to every idea on the page.

When you sit down to read something you’ve written—whether it’s a page, a scene, a chapter, or an entire manuscript—remind yourself that nothing is sacred. Absolutely nothing.

It doesn’t matter how long or hard you’ve worked on a scene, how much you like a particular description or phrase—if it doesn’t fit, if it doesn’t feel right, it needs to go.

If a character or a location isn’t working, he goes, she goes, or it goes. Absolutely nothing is sacred. Absolutely nothing is safe.

If you’re approaching your work feeling protective in some way, determined to preserve, to fix, to keep what you’ve written, you are automatically shutting down some of the internal voices that will help you identify problem areas before you even begin.

To find the flaws in what you’ve written, you have to remain logical. Logic and sentiment don’t work well together. Sentiment will allow you to keep contrived and unbelievable situations because you like them or you don’t want to work as hard as you need to in order to fix them.

If you’re a discriminating reader, logic will pinpoint those problem areas immediately. You’ll know what works and what doesn’t. And that’s when you need to remember that ideas are just ideas. Words are only words.

Much as we like to talk about pouring our blood and our souls into our work, ideas are still just ideas. No matter how often we wax eloquent about the “book of my heart,” words are still just words.

When you’re looking at a scene, a chapter, or an entire manuscript and trying to figure out what’s wrong with it, remember that you’re looking at the whole picture, not just a single element. If you’re focused on a beautifully written sentence, for example, you might not be able to sense that it’s actually making your character seem weak or ineffective, or that it’s making a character behave out of character. You might not recognize that the character’s motivation is weak, or that the emotion you’ve written for her is contrived.

Remember also that an idea doesn’t make a plot. Ideas are everywhere. Some ideas can be spun into plots, but ideas and situations are not plots all by themselves.

Plots have—here comes that word again—structure.

If you don’t fully understand what your plot should be doing, it will be very difficult to identify when your plot isn’t doing it.

Does your plot have an inciting incident that’s big enough to drive the plot forward? Are your characters sufficiently motivated to keep them moving when things get tough? Does your scene contain actual conflict, or is it full of anticipated or remembered conflict?

Is your character spending too much time thinking about what just happened or what’s going to happen? It’s possible that too much time in his own head will make him feel self-centered and selfish, and that you’re losing sympathy for him without even realizing it?

Is he falling in love with a weak character or one who is TSTL (Too Stupid to Live?) Is the antagonist he’s facing too weak to present a challenge that will keep readers engaged? Are you relying on an unrealistic coincidence to either move your plot forward or bring it to a conclusion?

Do you have actual turning points, or is your plot plodding along on a predictable path? How many times has your protagonist thought about his or her goal, motivation and conflicts? Are you presenting new information to the reader, or are you rehashing stuff they already know?

Be honest with yourself. Don’t ignore those flickers of doubt. Don’t automatically assume the doubt is justified, either. But at least give it some honest consideration before you duck and run.

If you feel that something’s wrong with your story, but you don’t know what it is, ask yourself when you last felt that the story was absolutely right. Go back to that point and read what you’ve written to see if you’ve taken a wrong turn.

Have you forced a character to follow a pre-determined path just because you once decided that’s what needed to happen? Should you have listened to the character when he said that’s not how he felt and wanted to go in another direction?

Another big question I would have for anyone who has trouble identifying what’s wrong in their own work is: How much do you read?

I’ve said this before, and I’m certainly not alone. Reading is not optional if you want to be a writer.

Are you reading at least one book a week?

When you read, what are you reading? Are you reading the work of authors who are where you want to be? Are you reading outside your chosen genre? Are you opening yourself to ideas beyond what other authors in your genre have used? Even if you're writing sweet contemporary romance, you can learn a lot from someone who writes fantasy or action/adventure or mystery, or even (gasp!) literary fiction.

If all you ever read are books from one genre, how will you identify if you're relying on genre cliches to carry your work?

Are you constantly and consistently studying the medium in which you’re trying to work, or do you put off reading, (the necessary study of your craft) because there are other things to do?

Do you write consistently and regularly? When you sit down to write is there any discipline involved in what you’re doing?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, then I have one more question for you—how do you expect to understand what’s wrong with your work?

If you’re not working at your craft—and I mean really working, not playing, not talking about it—if you’re not actively trying to improve your understanding of the craft and practicing what you’ve learned, and stretching yourself a little more every day.

If you’re not studying by immersing yourself in the work of other authors who are where you want to be, then how do you expect to know when you get there?

As I said before, you need to clearly understand where you’re heading before you’ll even have a clue whether or not you hit the mark.

You need to earn the understanding you’re looking for. No one can hand it to you. You can’t learn it from reading a book--or even this workshop. The best teacher in the world, the best critique partner in the world, the best how-to book in the world can’t do a thing to help you if you’re not willing to help yourself.

And willing doesn’t mean intentions. Willing means action.

Yes, we can learn from others. I wouldn’t write this blog or offer workshops if I didn’t believe that. But ultimately, we learn from doing. We learn by write by writing. By trying someone else’s technique or suggestions, seeing if it works for us, and either keeping it or discarding it.

We learn by trying new techniques and perfecting the old.

So go.

Write things!

Dec 3, 2015

Identifying What's Wrong in Your Work

We all know that creating is an art, but editing is absolutely a science. Unless you understand the tools of your craft, the scientific part of what we do as writers, I’m not sure a person can ever really identify what’s wrong with something they've written. 

A writer must know what should be happening in the work, in literary terms, in dramatic terms, in terms of structure, before he can identify what’s missing.

We can’t necessarily command the artistic part of what we do. Nobody can truly control art. But we can command the rest. Write like a wood sprite in a meadow if that's what works for you--but then pull out your tools and get to work making all those pretty words into something solid. 

No matter how exciting we may think a story idea sounds, it’s not going to rise to the level of excellence if we aren’t in command of the craft while we write it. We must know the tools of our trade. We must have a clear understanding of the structure of a scene and how all the components fit together before we can identify when one of those components is missing or weak.

Simply reading about scene- or plot-structure isn’t going to cut it. The only way I know to truly learn anything in this business is by doing it. Not just once. Not just 10 times. Not just 100 times. But over and over and over again.

If you’re having trouble identifying what’s wrong in your own work, stop and think about this honestly—how many scenes have you crafted, being true to the “science” of scene structure? How many times have you clearly identified your character’s goals and then made absolutely certain to keep your characters moving toward those goals as the scene progresses?

Like any other artistic endeavor, writing takes practice. Most adults can string words together to make a sentence, but being a writer is much more than that. So if you’re approaching your scenes haphazardly, writing whatever seems kind of right, “kind of” understanding goals, but not really. Kind of moving toward them—but usually not . . . 

Or moving toward them only by accident, then it’s going to take a whole lot of luck to figure out what’s wrong when they don’t work right.

Intending to use scene structure one of these days or to get structure into your scene by osmosis isn't the same as identifying where the support beams go and making sure the load-bearing walls of your scene are in place. Thinking is not the same as doing. 

Thinking about it or talking about it won't give you the same level of skill that you’d get if you actually worked at learning scene structure, worked at writing scenes using it, and worked at polishing and revising those scenes again and again until you knew, deep in your own gut, that you had it right.

If you’re trying, then abandoning it because it’s hard, or because you don’t get it, or because it takes too long—or for whatever reason you may be deciding not to use it, then I don’t know what to tell you about how to find what’s wrong in your work.

Because the structure that I follow—that I believe in absolutely—is how I find what’s wrong in my own work.

And it’s how I identify what to do to fix it.

If you’re approaching a scene that you feel is weak and rambling, then the only thing I can suggest is to look at the scene’s structure. Does your viewpoint character have a clear goal?

Do your non-viewpoint characters have clear goals that are in opposition to that of the point-of-view character? Does the viewpoint character move steadily and relentlessly toward achieving that goal? Do the non-viewpoint characters move steadily and relentlessly toward achieving their goals?

Is the conflict clear? Is it interesting? Does it move the story forward or is it repetitive action—just more of the same thing we’ve already seen? Is it real, active conflict, or is it anticipated conflict (a character thinking about what might go wrong) or remembered conflict (a character thinking about what did go wrong)?

Are you deep enough in the character’s head and heart to convey clear emotion? Is that emotion real, or is it merely convenient for you, the author, so you can move your characters to the next place you’ve decided they should be?

Do you understand the character’s motivation? Is it believable? I mean really believable, not conveniently believable, or I-don’t-have-time-to-rewrite-it believable, or genre-cliché believable. If you were in that character’s shoes in the same set of circumstances, would you do the same thing? Or are you trying to force characters to do things simply because they sound good for the plot you’ve made up?

How much do you understand about the “science” of characterization? How much do you understand about the science of conflict and motivation? How did you come by that understanding? From working relentlessly on your own work or from reading what somebody else says about it?

Do you know absolutely, on a gut level, what comprises a strong scene? The pacing you should be following in the book you’re writing? Do you have a clear, working understanding about the layers of conflict and how best to weave them together? Because if you don’t know what’s right, how can you expect to figure out what’s wrong?

A doctor can’t diagnose congested lungs unless she knows what clear lungs look and sound like. A mechanic can’t diagnose a dead battery unless he knows what’s supposed to happen when the battery is working right. A musician can’t diagnose music being played off-key or in the wrong rhythm unless she knows what the key is supposed to sound like or understands the rhythm as it’s supposed to be.

Bottom line: An author can’t identify what her scenes aren’t doing unless he knows what they’re supposed to do in the first place. Putting the magic in fiction takes a lot of hard, gritty, realistic work.