Thursday, June 25, 2015

Scenes: Are They Making Your Story…Or Breaking It?

Karlie with you today, and I want to talk about scenes - those little stepping stones, the individual parts that work together to make a whole story. If, that is, you're using them correctly.

Here are some things to ask yourself as you move through your book, scene by scene:

1. Is this scene helping move the story along through action and conflict…or is it just pointless fluff?

  • Even if it's the best writing you've ever done, even if you're sure it's going to singlehandedly win you a Pulitzer Prize one day, if it doesn't contribute to the story - you guessed it. Cut! Don't let your ego blind you. If the story could do just as well without it, leave it out. No exceptions.
2. Is there a beginning, middle, and an end?
  • Scenes are really just miniature stories at heart. No matter how long or short they are, every scene has a plot. See it through to the finish.
3. Does something change?
  • Large, small, or somewhere in between - it doesn't matter. But change of some sort must take place at some point. If it doesn't, something's wrong.
If you're like me - a free-faller - you'll probably end up with a lot of work when it comes time to revise your book. Outliners tend to have a map of what scenes are needed, and can fill in the gaps as they go. I choose to be constantly surprised along with the characters (I'll let you know when I figure out whether that's a good thing or a bad thing), and I usually end up killing more of my darlings than is emotionally healthy. But whether you're a plotter or a pantser, logical scenes are crucial. They need to crackle with tension, desire and conflict, move the story along, and keep the reader surprised as they change the course of the character's life.

Writers, what are your "scene secrets?" Do you have anything to add?

Caitlin: You know, I was just rethinking my "scene audit" checklist, so, Karlie, you and I are on the same wavelength today!  I ditto the part about how each scene needs tension. A good way to figure out if it does is to ask yourself 1. Does your character wants something? 2. Is there something in the way of them getting it? 3. Will something bad happen if the character doesn't get it (i.e., stakes). If the answer isn't "yes" to each of these, strongly consider revising or cutting it.

Lisa: I don't have a scene secret...but I have a chapter secret that could pertain to scenes as well. Your story/character has an over-arching goal, or plot, if you will. Each chapter also needs to establish a smaller goal (of course, it can pertain to the overarching goal) for each character. Yes, even the "co-actors" need a chapter/scene goal. Establish that goal and by the end of the chapter/scene, that character must either obtain said goal or clearly fail at that goal. It's not left hanging. Of course, there are exceptions, but as a whole, this works.

I have another chapter secret that could pertain to scenes. When I'm CPing, I ask my partner to rate my chapters on a scale of 1-10, one being the worst, and so on. Little notes are welcome about why the score was so low such as: no forward motion, or why it is so high such as: really sweet and unique scenes, but those little notes aren't necessary. If you've done this for ages like I have, you've already wondered about that chapter/scene and your CP just confirmed your fears with a low number. No explanation needed. So, that's my other secret. Have your CPs rate your scenes as they go.

Dan: I think these are excellent points, particularly that the scenes should move the plot forward and that something should change during a scene. As for the structure of scenes, I'm inclined to agree with Lisa that the beginning-middle-end is more of a guidepost for long scenes or chapters. In our modern, ADD-driven world, many readers prefer shorter segments of text with lots of white space. Often it's possible to hit one or two of the guidelines above, but not all three.

Another good bit of advice: make sure that the emotion conveyed by your scenes has some variety. You check for this by assigning a single emotion/feeling to each scene, and then looking at a high-level outline to find spots where you have too many of the same emotions in a row. It's much like varying the length of sentences and words throughout the manuscript: it adds complexity and cadence to the prose.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

What the POV?!?

I'm not talking about 3rd person or past/present tense. I'm talking about who's telling us the story. Male, female, or cat - we all have our favorite perspectives. Who would you rather tell the story? Say you like seeing the story through a female's eyes - do you turn away from the story when it's coming from the brain of a male? Or do you keep reading with a suspicious feeling that something just isn't write...ahem...right?

Writers, which one are you most comfortable writing?

Everyone, what are your thoughts on dual POV? Alternating chapters? The first half of the book in one POV and the next half in a different one?

Tell the world (or our few subscribers) your opinions on POV. Inquiring minds want to know.

Dan: First of all, I can't get into a book with an animal protagonist unless it's something I'm reading to my kids. As a reader, I don't have a preference for male or female protagonists. As a writer, however, I've not yet been brave enough to write a book from an entirely female POV. That's largely because I put a lot of myself into my protagonists, and I'm a guy. But I think it's important to have well-rounded female characters to balance that out, and I certainly try to do so.

Lisa: About a year ago, I picked up a book from a campground "free" bookshelf and took it back to my camper thinking I had a nice vacation book. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was told through the eyes of a cat - a suspense novel. I think they're called cozy mysteries. My lack of reading options forced me to read the book anyway. Now, I'm not ready to shout from the rooftops how great books from an animal's POV are. But it was a whole lot better than I thought it would be. Seeing the story from a four-legged creature also allowed me to see a glimpse of the world through a very different perspective. I saw how silly humans might appear to animals. Since then, I don't seek out novels told from the perspective of an animal, but I don't turn away from an interesting plotline because of how many legs the storyteller has anymore.

As far as gender - I love writing from a male's perspective, but I'm beginning to realize a lot of young adults would rather have a female storyteller. Someone tell me I'm wrong, please.
I've also been told that young adults don't mind a male POV as long as it shifts between his and a girl's - dual POV. What do you think?

Karlie: Like Dan, I generally veer away from the books with animal protagonists, but if I found something that looked interesting enough, I'd definitely dive in! And I guess I'm an odd duck - for some reason, I can get into the male's head way better than I can the female's. Everyone tells me my male characters are their favorites! I don't know if I'm wired wrong or what. :) But I've been working on making my female characters more relatable and rounded - in fact, my novel Kismet is told entirely from a female perspective, with the exception of about five chapters.

As far as reading goes, I don't really care - either gender is fine with me. I do prefer dual POV, but in some cases, telling it in only one POV preserves some of the mystery. It all depends on the story, in the end. Great topic!

Caitlin: For me, this definitely brings to mind The Art of Racing in the Rain.  I had really mixed feelings on that book, but I was completely fine with the dog narrating it. I also like both male and female POVs, but, like Dan, I'm not quite brave enough yet to push myself to write a long work from a male perspective. The project I'm working on now has two POVs, two sisters. But I'm thinking of adding in the voices of two male characters. We'll see...

Friday, June 5, 2015

Where the Action Happens

As technology has advanced, writers have changed how they write. With the advent of the typewriter, writers could decide whether they preferred clicking away at first drafts or scrawling them out by hand. When the computer came along, some purists still preferred the typewriter. Indeed, some writers have strong, and strange, relationships with theirs. (For example, Hunter S. Thompson used to shoot his in the snow.)  But even for those who ventured into the new digital age, word processers, such as Word Perfect and Microsoft Word, still ruled.

But, these days, we have an abundance of tools to get those words on the “page”! From Scrivener, to yWriter, to Writer’s Cafe, to Get Yarney, to Gingko, to….well, I could go on and on.
However, even with all those options, I still work in Microsoft Word. I’m the equivalent of the writer who clanks away at the typewriter while everyone else has personal computers. But Word seems to work for me. I use the headings and the comments to organize my scenes, random thoughts, and research. I’ve written three novels this way.

And yet, I constantly think, there has to be a better way. I love task managers (like Toodledo and Trello) and I’d love a platform that combines a good writing interface, organization/outlining, and a task system. Ideally, I’d open it up, and there would be a little message for me saying here are the four things you need to get done today. (e.g., write a first draft of scene 5, jot down thoughts on this character, swipe/revise scene 2, etc.) And, it must work easily across computers. But, alas, I haven’t found something like that yet. 

Maybe I need to come around to the fact that there isn’t a dream tool for me. Maybe I’m just looking for a platform that will make writing “easier,” when I have to just suck it up and realize sometimes writing is hard, regardless of where it happens? 

What are your thoughts? Where does the action happen for you? Have you found your dream writing tool? (And, most importantly, do you know of a tool that’s “in the cloud” that combines writing, outlining, and tasks…if so, tell me about it! :))

Dan: There do seem to be a lot of writing tools out there, and more crop up every day. It would be completely feasible for me to do almost everything in Word, particularly because that's how most people in publishing exchange documents and the Track Changes features are unparalleled. However, I've found a few other tools to be useful:

  • Scrivener is my main writing/editing tool. I keep my projects in a Dropbox folder so that they're backed up and accessible on all my devices.
  • Google Drive is useful for keeping shared documents in the cloud. I use the spreadsheets more than any other feature, to track things like submissions and deadlines.
  • TextWrangler is a plain-text editor. I'm a huge note-taker, and I keep all my notes in Dropbox folders, too. It's also useful to strip the formatting from text before pasting elsewhere.
  • Google Tasks lets me maintain checklists and sync them across devices. I love a good to-do list!
  • Scapple is a mind-mapping tool from the makers of Scrivener for jotting down and connecting ideas. It's fun to use, but has yet to become critical for me.

I'dd add to the wishlist for a perfect writing tool that it should leverage the cloud, but also maintain functionality even if you don't have an internet connection.

Lisa: You've stumped me. I don't have a "tool" that helps me with writing as far as programs, etc. goes. I outline on MS Word and write on MS word as well. Different stories have different folders for the various needs - character interviews, research notes, outlines, etc. I write and outline in a notebook too. So, I may be behind the times, but it keeps me afloat.

Karlie: I use mainly Microsoft word as well. I tried Scrivener for awhile, but found it didn't work as well for me as I had hoped. Caitlin, when you find a tool like the one you described, please let me know! :) I've tried several things but always ended up coming back to Word. I tend to do all my outlining, story planning, and character interviews on paper (such cave-like behavior, I know), but that's the way my thought processes work.