Friday, December 29, 2017

Push Your Characters Hard—Please!

This post was first published here on April 16, 2010.

Photo by Reba Bear, via Flickr
Whether intuitively or formally, creative writers learn early on that conflict drives story.

Ignore this at your peril.

I once edited a political thriller whose central character was homosexual and autistic (I’ve changed a few details here). While our country has made strides as concerns tolerance, even today the notion of living openly gay is rife with conflict.

But the author chose not to explore it; to him the topic felt clichéd.

And I’m thinking, huh.

But he still has that autism angle, right? Again, societal acceptance has grown as we learn more about this condition, but still—to actively participate in the plot, this character will be fighting an uphill battle that most would consider heroic. The stuff of great story!

But this author swung wide—he decided he wants the autism to be completely accepted in the world of his story.

And I’m thinking, huh.

And I'm concluding: Where’s the story?

Authors love their characters, I know. “Going too easy” on them is a problem developmental editors comment upon all the time. But I don’t usually have to apply that comment until the middle of the book, where instead of rising action, I find the protagonist meeting the same type of challenge over and over to similar results. Or until the climax, where the author stops just short of exerting the kind of pressure on his character that might create believable, permanent change in her life.

But this author refused to allow enough conflict to get his story underway. His reasoning: he wanted to write a happy story.

Well, he had “happy. He just didn’t have “story.”

James N. Frey, author of How to Write Damn Good Novel, says that the best plots force our characters to act at “maximum capacity.” We get to know these characters by how they act when pushed into a corner. In a recent two-day workshop, Frey plotted an entire book-length thriller by entertaining suggestions from the group of fifty workshop participants. In many cases he rejected one plot point after the other (role modeling perfectly what we as authors must do), admonishing participants not to lay down too many clues.

“You want to make it too easy on the hero,” Frey kept saying. His implication was two-fold: How can the hero be heroic if his task is too simple? And if the obstacle surmounted is like hopping over a toothpick, how can the author expect readers to care?

Instead, Frey urged us to think of how this character would solve the puzzle at hand if he could not find an obvious clue. This step often forced the hero into relationship with others in the story—not all of whom he desired relationship with—and to dig into his past to unearth long forgotten or undervalued skills. Pushing the character to the wall renewed creative effort on the part of the plotters by provoking our “inner reader”: “No clues? Oh no! What will our character do?

I’m all for writing happy stories. Life offers up enough chaotic tragedy. But we’ll only remember your book as a “happy story” if your protagonist faces an extreme challenge--and then surmounts it. Even children delight in conflict—as soon as that Cat in the Hat appears in Dr. Seuss, they know he’s going to be trouble!

To earn their keep, all of your main characters should act at maximum capacity. If the villain in the political thriller I mentioned worked at maximum capacity, he would embrace his knowledge of the character’s vulnerabilities—including homosexuality and autism—to thwart him. You know he would. Otherwise, what kind of lame antagonist would he be?

I give this author high marks for giving his character conflict-laden traits, but there's no point in doing so if he won't make use of them. He worries too much about cliché. If you have created in your character a fully dimensional individual whose goals are pitted against the goals of an antagonist—whether that be a person, society, inner demons, or Mother Nature herself—your story will not be clichéd.

It will be interesting.

Once that conflict is set up, apply enough pressure to your protagonist so that she acts at maximum capacity—please! Your readers will love it. And should she triumph over the obstacles set before her, I guarantee your readers remember your book as the happy story you set out to write.


Former BRP contributor Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her series of posts here at BRP "Countdown to a Book," details the traditional publication of her debut novel, The Art of Falling, by Sourcebooks, available from Amazon.com. Her series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Style Maven: Pucker Up Your Ellipses!

This post was first published here on July 10, 2012


Good morning, duckies! Lace up your tan shoes with pink shoelaces, because polka-dot vests are in style today. They’re the perfect attire to compliment today’s subject, the ill-used and underestimated ellipsis.

As defined by The Chicago Manual of Style, “An ellipsis is the omission of a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage.”  Such an omission is indicated by those familiar little spaced dots called ellipsis points.  When used to illustrate suspended thought, they go by the imaginative title of suspension points.

I suppose simpler can be better, but still . . .

So, how do we use these points?  I could go on and on (just ask my husband), but I’ll try to finish before your coffee gets cold.  There are enough rules regarding these things that we can come back on another day for more details.

Let’s start with omission and the not-so-noble art of taking things out of context.  Suppose you’re a fashion designer, eagerly awaiting a review of your latest collection.  The paper arrives, bringing a scathing article by a critic.  “Herkimer K. Birdhurdler pushes the boundaries of good taste with this collection that works hard to offend on so many levels.”

Ouch.

Don’t worry, Herk.  Here comes the ellipsis to save your ego.  In your next round of promotions, if you are a touch on the unethical side, you can clip the article to say something like, “this collection . . . works . . . on so many levels”.

Don’t try this at home, however.  The Manual is very clear on this.  “A deletion must not result in a statement alien to the original material.”

Got that, Herk?  Take your lumps, dump the ellipses, and use fewer feathers next time.

Let’s cover a couple of quick rules about ellipses before I run off for the day.  Keep your dots all on the same line, together with any punctuation that follows.  Preceding punctuation can stay on the line above if a break gets in the way.  Avoid using ellipsis points before the first word in a quotation or after the last, unless, as the Manual states, “the sentence as quoted is deliberately incomplete”.

That’s enough for now.  We’ll revisit ellipses another day. Enjoy your day, go easy on the omissions, and remember: a well-turned phrase is always in style! 

The Style Maven is the result of an experiment in sleep deprivation and over-consumption of sugar. She lives in a downtown loft furnished with an industrial-sized coffeepot, a modest collection of shoes, and seventy-two thousand books.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Signs of a Bad Writing Day

This post was first published here on January 12, 2011.

You know you're having a bad writing day when...

•You're convinced that blanking, blinking cursor is mocking you. You can almost hear it saying "Not...writing...not...writing..."

•Your pet has crawled up into your lap, looked at your work, and yawned.

•You've pulled out a calculator and (for fun) figured out how many hours you've spent on this particular manuscript. WARNING: This knowledge will have you (no matter the hour) reaching for a bottle.

• You decide to take a short break from writing. Days pass.

• You realize your decision to write on the computer was an error as you have no physical paper to rip from the typewriter, crumble up into a ball and hurl across the room.

• You have worn a pathway across the carpet with your pacing.

• Cleaning the oven with a toothbrush seems like a more efficient use of your time.

• You decide to close your eyes and just type - who knows something marvelous may appear. You type. You open your eyes to discover your unconscious mind types in a language you don't understand.

• You make the decision you should have more words with 'x' in your manuscript.

• You consider a subtitle for your book: The Book That Will Never Be Finished.


Sometimes you just have to laugh. It helps.


Elspeth Futcher is a bestselling author of murder mystery games and playwright. She has been the top selling author at host-party.com since 2011. Her British games are published by Red Herring Games in the UK. Her latest game is "Which Guide Lied?" Elspeth's 'writing sheep' are a continuing feature in the European writers' magazine Elias and also appear on this blog from time to time. Connect with her on Twitter at @elspethwrites or on Facebook at Elspeth Futcher, Author.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Author Blog: Easy Blogging for Busy Authors - #FridayReads #GiftsForWriters


Anne R. Allen is the author of the Camilla Randall Mysteries and a number of humorous novels. She blogs with New York Times Bestselling Author Ruth Harris. Their blog is listed as one of the top 100 websites for writers by both Writer’s Digest and The Write Life, and is visited by tens of thousands of readers each week.

Anne has learned how to blog the hard way by trial and error (she even had to deal with a hacker locking her out of her own blog!) and now she is sharing all this knowledge so other authors can take a short cut. I found myself nodding wryly several times, and I wish I’d had a book like Anne’s to help me along when I started out on the wild Web. It might be satisfying and character-building to work something technical out for yourself, but writers really should be doing more fictional character-building and less fiddling with WordPress plug-ins.

Anne makes the important distinction between authors who blog to raise their profile and promote their books, and capital-B Bloggers who are in the game to make money from their blog. There is a lot of information about how to do the latter, and if you follow this advice you could find yourself lost down a rabbit hole chasing clicks for affiliate pennies. And it is tempting for writers to seek an alternative source of income – after all, many of us have worked as freelancers or even staff journalists. Blogging is so similar to the old weekly opinion column that the idea of not getting paid per word can be hard to swallow. Anne reminds us to stay focused on producing the next book, a far more important use of our valuable time.

Authors don’t need fancy websites; your readers judge you on your latest book, not whether your home page greets them with Java animation. What you do need is a professional online presence (and a decent author bio – and Anne includes a handy guide on how to write this) so that the search engines pick up your name and list useful sites when someone googles you: your blog; your Amazon profile; Goodreads; Facebook; Twitter. It’s worth remembering that social media platforms can collapse or unexpectedly terminate your profile, but your own website is yours; if you use your blog as your home base you can easily redirect readers to new sites or accounts if you need to, and they always know where to find you.

The Author Blog is aimed at beginner bloggers, new/pre-published authors, and technophobes, but even this jaded veteran blogger picked up some good tips, and gained fresh perspective and motivation. I’m already looking forward to simplifying my routine next year. The Author Blog ebook is a perfect virtual stocking filler for an author friend.


Reviewed by Elle Carter Neal
HearWriteNow.com
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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Little Fixes

This post was first published here on October 17, 2012.

I am a firm believer in the benefits of going back through a manuscript several times. The first rewrite is to deal with story issues, but a second or third draft should focus on ways to improve our use of language. Sometimes we write in such a hurry that we overlook the fact that the word placement and usage may not be quite right.

"Sirens screamed, bouncing off the buildings and deafening me. "

Wait a minute. Were the sirens bouncing off the building or the sound?  "Sirens screamed, the noise bouncing off the buildings and deafening me."

"As I pulled into the warehouse parking lot, the smell of smoke lingered in the air."

For some reason that just didn't read smoothly to me. Perhaps it is better this way? "Stepping out of my car in the warehouse parking lot, I caught the lingering odor of smoke."

"She tapped my forehead with the revolver then slipped it into the pocket of her blazer."

Oops, she didn't slip the forehead into the pocket. "She tapped my forehead with the revolver, then slipped the weapon into the pocket of her blazer."


There are times we may tack a phrase on the end of a sentence that is not needed.

 "I heard that Royce is having some problems with his health."

That way is correct, but could it be better this way? "I heard that Royce is having some health problems."

The use of pronouns can be tricky if we don't pay close attention, and we have to be careful not to write ourselves into a pronoun maze. "Leslie was a bit surprised that Mandy had not told her, but then she had been a bit distracted the past couple of weeks." Maybe you can fix the pronoun problem?

Something that I always have to be mindful of is not sticking with the first thing I wrote.

"She filled the sink with water and washed the dishes."

That is so bland. Sentences like that are so much better when specific details are added. "She filled the sink with water and slipped the egg-crusted plates into the suds."

In a book I recently read for review, I was a bit put off by the frequent use of adverbs, but there are times when a well-placed adverb works. The following example came from Kristen Lamb's blog. She commented that generally one should avoid using adverbs to show how someone is speaking. For example,  "She whispered quietly."

Lamb wrote, "Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly? Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? Or whisper sensually? The adverbs conspiratorially or sensually tells us of a very specific types of whispers, and are not qualities automatically denoted in the verb. Therefore, the adverb use works in those instances."   

I have been known to rail against having people bark, especially when barked is used as a dialogue attributive, but there are some rare instances when bark works. "Olivier gave a bark of a laugh." From Still Life by Louise Penny.

Now it's your turn. What are some of the improvements you have made by carefully crafting your words? Have anything to share from a book you are reading?

Maryann Miller is a novelist, editor, and sometimes an actress. She has written a number of mysteries, including the critically-acclaimed Season Mystery Series that debuted with Open Season. Information about her books and her editing rates is available on her website. When not writing, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

How a Good TV Show Can Help You Write (and Edit) Your Novel - Part One

This post was first published here on May 12, 2014

Two things I almost always comment on when editing a client's manuscript are a story's beginning and chapter/scene endings. When I comment on these two story components, I tend to discuss TV shows and make the suggestion that we borrow what successful shows do and apply it to our novel writing.

Today, I'll offer insight on how TV shows can help you develop your story's beginning.

In the beginning...
We all know how important a story's beginning is. Because a story has a beginning, middle, and an ending, some writers start their story at the very beginning, meaning, they use their first chapter to set us up with who the main characters are, where they live, and what they do. Toward the end of that first chapter, we might get a hint of conflict. Many times, especially in early drafts, we don't. When you consider the reader of said first chapter, that would be a problem.

William Rabkin, in his book, Writing the Pilot, states that "what you're doing in the pilot is establishing the characters, situations and, most important, conflicts that are going to drive your next hundred stories. You've got to introduce all these elements to your audience and do it in a way that feels natural" (p. 67). He mentions two types of pilots: the premise pilot that "directly sets up the franchise by showing the series of events that puts the characters and conflicts in motion" (p. 66) and the regular episode pilot that is an episode that "could conceivably be aired at any point in the season" (p. 66).

Rabkin uses the show Lost as an example of a premise pilot as he states that this episode MUST go first in that it sets up characters and the major conflict - the plane crash. "Nothing that happens in the series could conceivably come before that episode" (p. 66). He uses the hit show Mad Men as an example of a regular episode pilot in that it "picks up with Don Draper in the middle of what will obviously be a typical kind of crisis for him - in this case, the need to come up with a new ad campaign for Lucky Strikes cigarettes now that Reader's Digest has declared tobacco to be a carcinogen" (p. 66).

How can these ideas of premise pilot and regular episode pilot help you in developing a stronger beginning for your novel?

From the two types of pilots, we get two good points:
  1. We need to put the characters and conflicts in motion. We need to set up our world, the important people in that world, and the conflict(s) that will drive the story forward [premise pilot].
  2. We need to not be bound by starting our story at the beginning [regular episode pilot]. As Rabkin states on the regular episode pilot, this particularly pilot could technically be shown at any point in the season. This is good in a way because it allows you to break away from the notion that you must always start at the beginning. What if in examining the trajectory of your story, you realize that in starting at story-zero (the very start to which your story can begin), you will take your reader to nearly the middle of your book before any type of conflict arises? This realization would call for a major edit because most readers will not trudge through half a book for pretty visuals and dialogue and action that contain no bite or substance.

In revising/editing your story, it's a great idea to print out your first chapter, go find a quiet place to read, and plow through the chapter, checking to make sure that you've done some developing of time, place, characters, and a conflict or two. While doing that, also make sure that you examine whether your story's starting point is an effective one, conducive to getting readers to the conflict early so that they want to know what happens next, and next, and... well, you get the picture.

In part two, I'll talk about how we can use TV shows to help us develop strong endings to our scenes and chapters.



Do you think about TV shows/writing when you're developing your novels? Do other forms of media help you to write your books?


Reference

Rabkin, W. (2011). Writing the pilot. Pasadena, CA: Moon & Sun & Whiskey, Inc.



Creative Passionista Shon Bacon is an author, a crafter, an editor, and an educator whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. You can learn more about Shon at her website, ChickLitGurrl.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Once upon a Revision

This post was first published here on July 30th, 2014.

This isn’t a typical manuscript revision—that was done some five years ago. This is a book revision, a published book revision. Why revise it now? Why not just move on? I asked myself these questions when pondering this task that didn’t appear in my original writing schedule for the next two years. I had planned to correct a few typos I discovered after publication and submit a new file, but feedback from readers had been good. Overall, it had garnered very positive reviews.

Originally, the story was intended to end with one book. As it drew to a close, however, the probability of a sequel emerged. Tying up loose ends would have evolved into a longer novel than I wanted, so the sequel idea took shape in a shadowy sort of way.

A few months ago, I pulled Book 1 out of print and began to write that second story. Yes, it was too long to wait after publishing its predecessor, but I had never made any effort to market the first book and therefore hadn’t sold many copies. Besides, my editing work always took precedence over my own writing. By the end of the sequel’s second chapter, I discovered the first book didn’t go far enough in setting up Book 2. Required details didn’t exist—important details that needed to be added. Still, I thought those additions would be few and far between; that hasn’t proven to be the case. While the changes are not long—often just a sentence or two—they have already multiplied well beyond what I originally imagined—and I’m not finished yet. Page layouts are changing due to the increased word count, and reformatting will be necessary. What started out as a minor fix is now a major redo.


At first, the task seemed daunting, and I procrastinated. Then the creative juices began to flow. Small details with big impact fell into place. I spoke to my brother about the work, and the conversation sparked ideas that blew my mind. Reluctance segued into excitement. Book 1 is maturing into a better, more complete, more compelling story. As a “gentle” thriller (mystery, frightening situations, no sex, no gore), it needs to grip those who enjoy the adrenalin rush and guessing games of that genre. The light at the end of the revision tunnel brightened.

Then I looked at the new cover designed for the revision. It didn’t fit. Oh, the colors were still great, but the primary image had to go. I spoke to my designer, and we came up with a new plan. Colors remain. However, a minor element of the old cover will come front and center on the new one, and the tie to the unfolding tale has increased tenfold. The first cover related only to the short (one page) first chapter that sets up the story. It isn’t mentioned again until the last chapter. That minor element, however, plays a significant role in the updated version. I didn’t see this one coming.

Paying careful attention to details in others’ books is a mark of my editing work, but in this case it didn't extend to my own. As Book 2 marches toward completion, it will be “a better, more complete, more compelling story” than it might have been had I not revised Book 1 and seen its shortcomings. The phenomenal results of all this still have me reeling. For the first time in many years, I am thrilled to be writing!

Have you ever revised a book after publication? If someone else owned the rights to it and ultimately released them to you, did you (or would you) do a revision before reissuing it? Or have you put a finished manuscript aside and revisited it sometime later, only to find gaps or missing details in the story? If so, what did you do?

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. She also helps new and not-so-new writers improve their skills through posts on Blood Red Pencil and offers private mentoring as well. You can contact her through her writing website, LSLaneBooks.com. Also, you can visit her at DenverEditor.com.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Ten Tasks of the First Chapter

This post was first published here on January 1, 2015

The first chapter is both a blessing and a curse.

It is easy to come up with an idea, sit down, and begin to tell yourself the story. Many authors have file folders full of first chapters of books that will never be written. I have a few of my own.

A good first chapter does not happen quickly or easily. It has a terrrible burden to carry. It must:


1) Introduce the story world.

Orient the reader right away by defining the setting. Are we in the past, present, or future? Are we on earth, in space, or visiting a fantasyland?

2) Define the genre.

Is it a fantasy, a romance, or a historical mystery?

3) Set the tone.

Will this be a lighthearted tale, a tearjerker, or a creepfest thriller?

4) Introduce the main character and make him relatable.

I would say likable, but that has not always been the case. Your character does not have to be a white-hat hero, but he or she should be someone the reader can root for. Loathsome characters are hard to care about.

5) Describe the character's status quo that is about to change.

Introduce the character's normal life: the rut he is stuck in, the exciting future he is planning, or the cushy life that will be up-ended by the story problem. This way, the reader will be invested in the outcome. The outcome should be questionable along the way. Even in a genre such as romance, where you know the couple will eventually live happily ever after, you need to make the reader doubt they will.

6) Introduce the overall story goal.

You need to give the main character goals and aspirations that are understandable, not necessarily admirable. The reader needs to root for them to achieve their goal: get the girl, save the world, stop the killer, or gain revenge. Alternatively, you could have a hero aim for the wrong goal and the reader will root for him to realize it in time or fail and learn his lesson.

There can be several story goals. The character may have a personal goal in addition to the overall story goal. In fact, the story is richer if he does and if these two goals cause conflict. The first chapter can introduce the personal goal or the overall story goal. If the first chapter introduces the personal goal (as part of the character's normal world), it should end with the inciting incident and chapter two can illustrate the overall story goal created by this incident. You should do the same for the antagonist when you introduce him.

7) Define the stakes.

What happens if your character fails? What price will he pay? What will he lose? Are the stakes his alone or applicable to the entire world?

8) Introduce the inciting incident.

In order for the game to commence, something has to change - drastically - to start the hero on his journey toward the goal. What catalyzes the character to take the irrevocable action or make the tough decision?

9) Entice the reader with your "voice."

After perusing the cover, readers usually open a book and read the first few pages to see if they are intrigued by the way the writer writes. If the voice is bland and boring, there is a good chance they won't risk money on it. There are many solid, if pedestrian, authors who do quite well in the industry. Make sure your craftsmanship is at least above average. When a writer comes along that blows you away with their wordsmithery, it's like winning the literary lotto.

10) Make them buy the book.

If you do not successfully seduce them with your premise, story world, character, and voice, they can easily put the book down. There are so many books to choose from now, a reader can be picky. Give them a good reason to keep turning pages.

Writing a successful first chapter tests your craftsmanship, but it shouldn't paralyze you.

Put down whatever comes to you. Tell yourself the story. You may realize you started at the wrong place, or the story may change drastically as you go. The first chapter is the most rewritten chapter, but don't spin your wheels or overwrite it. Get the first draft out of the way.

When you are ready to revise, it is time to rip that first chapter apart and make certain all of the elements are present.

The first chapter is a reader's first impression. Make certain it is a good one.




Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable ConflictStory Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Book Birth Day (with the longest gestation period ever): Wishing Caswell Dead

Thanks so much to the Blood Red Pencil team for letting me announce my new book release here. I’m happily rejoining the Blood Red Pencil blog in 2018 as a monthly contributor after a long break to work on other projects. It’s great to be back working with this excellent team of writers and editors.

About the book: It took ten years, five rewrites, the refusal to give up on the novel of my heart, and the miracle of the right publisher creating the right fiction line at the right time. That’s the story in a nutshell of the conception and finally the birth of Wishing Caswell Dead, a historical novel from Five Star/Cengage Frontier Fiction (December 20, 2017).

In 2007, I had a short story about Jo Mae Proud trying to escape her horrid life in the fictitious Village of Sangamon in the early 1800s. As I read and reread that tale, I kept thinking how much more I could write if I developed each one of the flawed or evil characters in the story and told how they all came together on the day Caswell Proud was murdered . . . and revealed who the killer was.

I wrote, rewrote, edited, moved chapters around, submitted to my group for critique, rewrote some more, and collected lots of agent and editor rejections.

And then one day, Five Star/Cengage expanded their Western line to include Frontier Fiction novels, stories of almost any genre set in the U.S. up to about 1920.

This is the main reason I keep telling writers never to give up on a novel they believe in. The publishing world changes faster and faster, as do reader preferences and genre trends. What won’t find a publisher today might be in high demand next year.

The short synopsis:

In the early 1800s in a village on the Illinois frontier, young Jo Mae Proud wishes her cruel brother dead. Forced into prostitution by Caswell, Jo Mae discovers she is pregnant and vows to escape her unpleasant life. When Caswell is injured by a near lightning hit, he becomes more dangerous and more hated. The flawed residents of the Village of Sangamon harbor many secrets. Caswell knows them all. Will he tell? Jo Mae runs away and eventually finds shelter with Fish, the old Kickapoo Indian who camps by the river. Wishing Caswell Dead is a historical mystery about the evil that hides within a village, one girl who is determined to save herself and her child, and a violent murder no one wants to solve.

Publishers Weekly says this book is a “worthy historical” and describes the characters as “surprisingly complicated and wonderfully individual.”


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Read Your Manuscript Aloud

This post was first published on December 11, 2009.

Authors and editors will tell you that reading your manuscript aloud is one of the best ways to identify any remaining problems with awkward sentence structure, sentences that are too long, word repetitions, bad dialogue, and silly goofs.

Maryann Miller posted two excellent articles on line editing in April, 2009. Line Editing: One and Line Editing – Part Two will give you great results if you go over your manuscript visually. However, if you follow that effort with another read, this time out loud, you will improve your manuscript. Why is that?

When the writer reads to himself, his eye ignores and visually corrects the problems noted at the beginning of this post as well as typos, words or lines accidentally deleted during the revision process, and spacing and formatting errors.

Reading aloud, however, forces the reader to look at words individually instead of seeing phrases and whole sentences at once. We often hear what we don’t see.

Dialogue might look great on paper, but could sound unnatural or pointless when spoken.

Watch out for more of those silly things we do:

1. Repeating names over and over during dialogue.


“I went to the story this morning, Mary.”
“Get anything good, Doris?”
“Oh, just some apricots, Mary.”
“Mmmm. Sounds good, Doris.”


2. Flying body parts.


He threw his arms out from his body.
His leg flew up and his foot kicked Adam in the jaw.
She dropped her eyes to the floor.
Her eyes darted about the room.

You will often hear what you don’t see. A lot of authors know this to be true and list this step among their tips for writing and revision. Alex Sokoloff said it here in June in Top Ten Things I Know About Editing. “Read your book aloud,” she told us. “All of it. Cover to cover.”


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Fine-Tuning Sentence Structure

This post was first published on December 4, 2009.

During this part of the self-editing process you will look at the structure of your individual sentences and then compare that structure to the surrounding paragraphs and pages. The purpose of this exercise is to:

1. Look for sentences which are too long.

Bad: The day I walked down the hill from my apartment to the town center was the day I began my adventure in Tourettes-sur-Loup, a village in the South of France which is famous for its spring festival of violets and perches on the edge of a cliff as though hanging on for its very life.

Better: The day I walked down the hill from my apartment to the town center was the day I began my adventure in the South of France. I was in Tourettes-sur-Loup, a village famous for its spring festival of violets. It perches on the edge of a cliff as though hanging on for its very life.

2. Find awkward sentences that might require a second reading to be clear. This may require correctly punctuating the sentence, or the sentence may need to be rewritten.

Bad: I rounded the corner and bumped into the old woman on my bicycle.

What I meant to say: I rounded the corner on my bicycle and bumped into the old woman.

3. Spot series of sentences with the same or similar structure within a paragraph or on the same page.

Look at the subjects of the sentences in each paragraph. Then check out the subject/verb/object set. Vary sentence structure wherever appropriate.

One good sentence containing a series of three might be very effective. Seven or eight sentences containing a series of three, all on the same page, might be noticed by the reader and be a distraction that pulls him out of the story.

Example: I walked into the coffee shop, ordered a cappuccino, and carried it to my car. I sat for a moment, sipped my coffee, and watched a man cross the parking lot. I started the engine, rolled down my window, and turned on the radio.

4. Look at fragments and determine if complete sentences would be better.

Fragments are often used in dialogue or for emphasis in narrative (especially when writing in first person). Too many fragments in narrative, however, may signal to an agent or editor that a writer does not know a fragment from a complete sentence. Use fragments with care.

Example: Marilyn knew her boyfriend would call and beg her to forgive him. She wasn't going to do it. Not this time.

5. Make good use of short sentences in action or high tension scenes. Again, you'll want to vary the sentence structure, and even throw in a complex sentence for variety. But if you're aware that short sentences increase tension, you can use them to good advantage.

Example: Marilyn had just turned off the shower and pulled the towel off the rack when she thought she heard a noise. She froze and listened. Nothing. She quickly dried herself and slipped on her robe. Then another sound--a soft squeak. She reached toward the doorknob, but jerked her hand back. Someone was in her bedroom. She could hear him breathing.

6. Use the same form or format for each element in a series.

Bad: I was weeding the garden, pruning the roses, and mulched the tomatoes.

Better: I was weeding the garden, pruning the roses, and mulching the tomatoes.

Paying attention to sentence structure and how the sentences on a page relate to one another helps establish your professional attention to detail. It really is worth the time it takes to do a thorough job.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Analyzing Sentences for Redundancy and Wordiness

This post was first published on October 16, 2009.

You know when redundancy is good, right? It falls under the third meaning of "redundant" in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “serving as a duplicate for preventing failure of an entire system (as a spacecraft) upon failure of a single component.” If you were an astronaut, you’d want as much redundancy as the shuttle designers could provide.

As a writer, however, you want to avoid redundancy unless there’s a solid reason to repeat yourself for emphasis, or to make certain an important story point is not overlooked by the reader. It’s rare this is needed. Readers are smart people.

Back to my trusty Merriam-Webster’s for the relevant definitions for writers: “exceeding what is necessary or normal” and “characterized by similarity or repetition.”

How do you find this stuff in your manuscript? I find mine sentence by sentence during revisions, and my critique group pals point them out when I submit chapters for their review. Here are the basic rules:

1. Don’t say the same thing two or more different ways (unless you have a conscious and valid reason for doing so).

2. Don’t tell us what a character is going to say before she says it.

3. Don’t tell us what a character said after he says it.

4. Don’t use ten words to tell us something you can effectively say in three words.

Yes, sentence by sentence. Paragraph by paragraph. If you meticulously carry out this process during the revision and self-editing phase of your current manuscript, your next manuscript will be cleaner, and the editing will be easier, because you will develop a greater awareness of what you’re putting down on paper as you write.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Cleaning Up Those Dialogue Tags

This post was first published on October 10, 2009.

This step may be combined with others during the sentence-by-sentence editing read as it addresses only these three mechanics of labeling dialogue.
When dialogue is carried on between two people, use the dialogue tag only as often as needed to let the reader know who is speaking.

“You know what I mean?” said Marjorie. She waited for her brother to answer.
“No.”
“Don’t be silly. Of course, you do.”

When the dialogue involves more than two people, add a dialogue tag each time the speaker changes, or use a leading sentence before the dialogue to identify the speaker.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” Marjorie said.

Or,

Marjorie raised her eyebrows and tilted her head. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

Use "said" in your dialogue tags, with perhaps an occasional "asked" or "repeated." Other words that describe speech such as hollered, yelled, whispered, mumbled, yelled, and shrieked might be used once in a great while, but it is best if the dialogue and narrative show the speaker’s behavior and tone, rather than the author telling us. Avoid verbs that introduce actions other than speech. Examples are coughed, spat, choked, and lied.

As in most other editing tasks, the aim is to avoid pulling the reader out the story with unusual phrasing or word choices. Using a dialogue tag to convey information the reader wouldn’t otherwise know (the speaker is lying, for example), or that the reader already knows (the speaker is lying, for example), is distracting.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Weeding Out Unnecessary Adjectives and Adverbs

This post was first published on September 11, 2009.

It might seem as though we mention overuse of adjectives and adverbs a lot. See Maryann Miller’s posts Adverbs Revisited back in June and Those Pesky Adverbs Again in July.

The truth is, we don't need to tell smart, intuitive readers every detail about a character’s appearance or clothing. They’ll fill in the blanks as long as the blanks are not critical to the story. You can describe a minor character (male) as 60ish with long black hair, bronze skin, and a leathery, weathered face, and the reader will know what your American Indian looks like. But if you say he's an Arapahoe elder, won't the reader form a similar mental picture without all the extra words?

Similarly, anything from a palace tower room to a battle scene may require description, but pay close attention to what is important to your story and what is not. Keep your eye out for unnecessary repetition—telling the reader the same thing in two or three different ways, using even more adjectives in the process.

Adverbs are even more likely candidates for elimination than adjectives. Many can be found by searching on the letters -ly. Examples of words you might find are silently, carefully, actually, and quietly. In the sentence, “He silently crept across the room in his stocking feet,” the word silently can be eliminated without changing the meaning, because the act of creeping implies secrecy and quiet.

Since not all adverbs and adjectives can found with a quick word search, this self-editing step may be combined with others in your sentence-by-sentence read. In addition to overuse and repetition, look for redundancies, such as emerald green eyes, or huge, cavernous room. And watch for quantifiers or indicators of size, which are often too general to be useful. Words such as large, small, big, tall, short, huge, some, many, and most are examples.

Not all adjectives and adverbs are bad, of course. In some cases, details are important to the story and may even be clues or red herrings in mysteries or thrillers. In other cases, a character's appearance might explain his odd behavior. Sometimes descriptive words are needed to create a mood. Even so, use adverbs and adjectives in moderation and be precise. Don't use two or three when one will do the job.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Searching for More Silly Stuff

This post was first published on December 16, 2009.

Sometimes we’re so focused on the big picture—our plot and characters—that we miss obvious clues that more editing is required. My July 16th, 2009 post, Look for the Silly Stuff: Exclamation Points, discussed the overuse of that popular punctuation mark. Here are a few other things you need to consider.

1. Bad grammar and lousy punctuation. If you don’t know the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, you need to take a class, buy a good book and study it, or choose one of many excellent online resources to hone your writing skills. I like Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips™ for Better Writing and her website by the same name. Guide to Grammar and Writing is a website sponsored by the Capital Community College Foundation. I’ve found it to be very useful.

2. When Microsoft Word underlines a word in red, it means the software thinks you have misspelled the word. The error might be a typo. The word might really be misspelled. Or you may have used a correct word or spelling that is not in Word’s dictionary.

If you right click on the underlined word, an option box will pop up giving you a few alternate word/spelling choices and the ability to add the word to the dictionary so future uses will not be underlined in red. This is helpful for names of characters or fictional places, creatures, and objects (as in fantasy novels). Always turn to a good dictionary to verify spelling.

3. When Microsoft Word underlines a fragment or sentence in green, it means the software thinks your grammar is incorrect. You need to check it out and revise the sentence if necessary. Right click on the underlined phrase or sentence and an option box will give you a brief description of what might be wrong. If you’ve intentionally used incorrect grammar for emphasis, or in dialogue, you may select “Ignore Once” in the option box to make the green line disappear.

4. Two words, one word, or hyphenated word? This is a trickier problem. Whenever you have a noun that is made up of two words, and you’re not 100% sure whether the noun should be two words, one word, or hyphenated, it’s best to look it up in an official dictionary. Two words that tripped me up were rearview (as in rearview mirror) and backseat. Also remember that your word might be hyphenated if used as an adjective, but not when used as a noun.

Here are a few other examples: ape-man, backstory, bookseller, chain-smoker, deathbed, fishwife, safe-conduct, woodshed, and trashman (Word thought trashman was wrong, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary assured me it was correct). For more on this spelling puzzle, see Dani Greer’s posts, This is a test, just a test on April 22, 2009 and Spelling Test Answers on April 23, 2009.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Identifying and Eliminating Your Habit Words

This post was first published September 10, 2009.

Habit words. That’s what I call them. Some editors lump them into the repetitive word category. Others include them in articles about adjectives and adverbs. I’ve dubbed them habit words because they flow into our writing in the same way they clutter up our speech. The little devils were probably hard-wired into our brains when we were born.

Knowing that, let’s accept the truth. Our early drafts will be littered with these throwaways. Our brains (and our keyboards) think the words belong. We might not see them, no matter how many times we go through our manuscripts. Knowing that, how do we identify them, and how do we eliminate them?

1. Enlist the help of your critique group members, your first reader, or, if necessary, an experienced editor or proofreader. Once you’ve identified your habit words, keep a running list. You might occasionally find you’ve adopted a new one.

2. After your big story revisions are complete, and you’re ready to fine-tune your manuscript, open your manuscript file(s). If you have Microsoft Word:

Click on "Edit"
Click on "Find"
In the "Find and Replace" box, type your habit word to the right of “Find what:”
Click on "Find Next"
Case by case, decide whether to leave the word in your manuscript or delete it.

Repeat the process for each word on your list.

3. Since many of us have the same habit words, here are those I find most often in my own work and in the manuscripts I critique:

just, really, pretty, some, actually, so, well, back, up, oh, off, somehow, like, very, many, that, finally, real, rather, anyway

All of these words are good words in the right places. When unconsciously sprinkled throughout our story, however, they might lead an agent or editor to think we didn’t do a good job of proofreading our manuscripts.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: How to Identify Dragging Narrative

This article first ran here on July 28, 2009.
~~~~~

In an earlier post about charting the novel story arc, I advised the writer to watch out for sections where the story's tension level drops and stays low across several pages or, even worse, several chapters. How do you identify passages that slow down the story and perhaps cause an agent or editor to toss your manuscript aside?

When viewing the novel as a whole, I use these visual clues to identify scenes or chapters that might need work:

1. Very little white space (not counting the margins) – This indicates that your paragraphs might be too long, or you have an opportunity to break up the narrative with dialogue, if appropriate for the scene.

2. Backstory or flashbacks that last more than one page – If you set these insertions apart from the rest of the book by putting text in italics, or using asterisks or hash marks as separators, they’re easy to spot. Without these clues, however, you’ll need to read carefully and mark the beginning and end of such passages. If too long, move part of the backstory to another chapter, or tighten the prose so the section doesn’t drag.

While doing a page-by-page read of your manuscript, can you find examples like these?

1. Detailed descriptions of the waitress Sally Mae, who appears only once in Billy Jim’s life story when she brings him his biscuits and gravy; a tree the cowboy rides past on his way to the ranch; or a room the hero passes through on his way to the deadly dragon’s lair. If the information is not relevant to the story, and it’s not needed to further the reader’s understanding of the plot or characters, it probably shouldn’t be in your manuscript.

2. Moment by moment reports of the three-day fish festival in Fon’dor; every detail of each attack by the Goobles on the humans (especially if the Goobles attack in exactly the same way every time); or librarian Millie’s reaction when Big Joe walks into the library, especially if he does that a lot, and poor Millie always emits the same sighs and has the same palpitations.

3. Information dumps. If you use historical facts, real natural disasters, scientific or technical knowledge, or current facts and figures in your novel, find ways to weave the essential information into the narrative or dialogue throughout the story without disrupting the story arc. Avoid putting large chunks of information in one place.

4. Memory dumps. This is similar to the information dump, but involves your memories of a place or event, especially if you’re describing a fictional town strangely identical to your town, or a family scene that reminds you of the way Aunt Sissie chugs her wine. We get caught up in the memories and tend to go on and on. This is a good spot to use that red pencil.

Using these identifiers can help you evaluate and fine-tune the pacing in your novel, regardless of genre.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Charting the Novel Story Arc

We are delighted to have our dear colleague Pat Stoltey returning to The Blood-Red Pencil in 2018. Pat has a new book coming out soon and we are helping her celebrate by re-running some of her excellent editing posts from past years.

This post was first published here on June 30, 2009 and it's become a tool I use regularly when editing manuscripts for authors. It's proven to be an enormously useful way to help determine if a story begins with enough of a bang, where the plot sags in the middle, and if the ending needs a bit more tension before the satisfying conclusion. Thanks to Pat for contributing one of our most popular posts! ~ Dani



Once I have a complete draft of a novel, and before I begin the detailed self-editing process, I want to evaluate the story arc to determine whether I need to add, delete, or revise sections of the manuscript. If this is done before the line-by-line edit, then I won’t waste time on sections that might be completely rewritten, or even eliminated.

The story arc is described by Shon Bacon as: “a set up, obstacles for the main character to overcome, and a resolution.” For additional information on what the story arc is and how to fix problems, read these posts from The Blood-Red Pencil: Prop Up Your Sagging Plot Middles by Heidi Thomas and Plumpers by Dani Greer. For an excellent description of the essential elements of the Three Act Structure, see Alex Sokoloff’s Top Ten Things I Know About Editing.

This is a painful part of the self-editing process for many writers, so I’d like to use the numerical ranking system to evaluate patient pain as a measure of tension and/or suspense in a novel. Zero will indicate no tension/excitement. Ten is the measure for “edge of your seat” suspense.

Mystery/thriller, fantasy/sci-fi, romance, or any other fictional form will have a story arc. There is no reader appeal unless the main characters want something, need to overcome obstacles to reach their goals, and eventually succeed or fail in their quests. The challenge is to maintain a pace in this obstacle/resolution process that keeps the reader engaged until the end of the story.

Ranking and charting can be done at a macro-level, where chapters or sections are evaluated. At a micro-level, the excitement of each page or scene may be measured. Whichever you choose, when you are finished, chart the results (you can even do a fancy bar graph, if you like). Does your story look something like this?

1-2-2-3-7-10-10-1-1-1-1-1-3-3-10-3-10-1-1-1-1

If so, better read that post on sagging middles and work on the over-long (and probably boring) resolution.

To complicate the process, if you have one or more sub-plots within the greater story, you might want to chart the sub-plots as a separate exercise. This is helpful, for instance, in novels of romantic suspense where you might have obstacles for the lovers that are separate from the intrigue in which one or both might be entangled.

Regardless of how general or how detailed you want to make this exercise, you’ll find it a useful tool in identifying problems with story and pacing. If you do this first, the rest of the self-editing tasks will be much easier.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Friday, December 1, 2017

When Outlines Make Revisions Easier

This post first published on September 20, 2016. We hope it helps you with your #NaNoWriMo2017 novel revisions! ~ Dani G.

Photo by Ron Bieber © 2006 (Flickr)

I used to find it difficult to move on to writing the next chapter of a book until I had the previous chapter down solid. I used to write a draft, read it, then revise. Then I’d read the revision, feel something was still missing, and revise again. Thus began an endless loop of revisions, pursuing the illusion of a perfect chapter but making little progress on the book.

What’s an obsessive writer to do?

I’ve always refused to start with an outline because it makes me feel inhibited. My characters are unruly, and after just a few pages we’re wildly off-track. So I started my current novel based on a synopsis and a list of “things that might happen,” which I believed was a smaller time investment. But when I began revising each chapter ad-nauseum, I knew I was not saving time at all.

Then I learned a simple notion: there’s more than one way to outline. On the advice of Lighthouse Writers Workshop instructor and author Doug Kurtz, I now outline each chapter after I write it. This method, which I feared might inhibit creativity has instead more than doubled my productivity while increasing my creative freedom. The best part: I no longer ride the revision merry-go-round.

Here’s the basic outline I briefly fill out after drafting each chapter:

Chapter Number/Name
Scene One: Simple phrase that captures the scene
Main Character: Name
Secondary Characters: Names
Want: What does the main character want at the start of the scene?
Obstacle: What is the obstacle that gets in the way?
Conflict: What is the resulting conflict?
Change: What changes as a result of the conflict?
New Want: What’s the new thing the main character wants now that things have changed?

As I describe the five above scene elements—1) Want, 2) Obstacle, 3) Conflict, 4) Change, 5) New Want—I inevitably have trouble answering one or more questions. That’s how I discover which elements need development. Then I note the missing elements in red—that meanie editor’s color, but, hey, it stands out.

For example, I might write something like this:

Chapter One: The Gold Coins
Scene One: The Safe Combination
Main Character: Jo
Secondary Character: Ky
Want:  Jo wants the gold coins that will secure the release of her kidnapped child.
Obstacle: Her friend, Ky, won’t give her the combination to the safe. (Wouldn’t it be a more dramatic obstacle if Ky insists Jo admit the kidnapping was her fault before she’ll reveal the combination?)
Conflict:  Jo and Ky argue about whether or not to give the coins to the kidnappers and they both blame each other for the kidnapping (The blame is not yet on the page. Should it be spoken or unspoken? If unspoken show interior monologue.)
Change: Ky agrees to open the safe, but only if Jo calls police. Jo is outraged. (Punch up Jo’s outrage.)
New Want: Jo wants to crack the safe without Ky’s help.

I write an outline for every scene. Once I’ve noted the needed revisions in red, I put off revising and draft the next chapter.

I’ve found many benefits to this sort of outline:

1) It gets me unstuck from repeatedly revising one chapter, because I’ve identified all the missing elements in one fell swoop.
2) It clarifies the purpose of the needed revisions in terms of plot development, so I know what to do.
3) It keeps me moving forward because, instead of feeling I have to fix everything now while it’s on my mind, I let the outline remember for me what to do later.
4) It prevents wasting time on revisions that might later be dropped if the book changes course.
5) When it’s revision-time, my course is laid out so I can finish most of it in one pass.

Sure, revisions can still take me months, but my old way would have taken me years, because I was feeling my way around for what my gut said rather than identifying clear plot requirements like: hey, you forgot the conflict!  

These days I’m editing my novel, which is different from revision. Only after I’ve included the want, obstacle, conflict, change, and new want in each scene am I ready for a content edit. That’s when I make another pass to condense, expand, punch-up, clarify, and polish.

From drafting to revising to editing is a long journey. But I’ve found that outlining decreases the distance between those points.

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles TimesDenver PostConnotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She was a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.