Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Novel Pacing: Three Crucial Elements

Of all the skills involved in writing a novel, satisfactory pacing must happen or else it's highly unlikely that  readers will stick around. You, as writer, are a manager. You control the rate that your story is unfolded. Make sure you manage the readers' time wisely.

Writing Tip for Today: Identifying three important levels where pacing is crucial can help you make your novel much more readable.

Main Plot Forward Movement

In each chapter you write, no matter how many scenes it contains, must advance your main story (what the Main Character wants more than anything, the identified goal or how the journey proceeds) or it will feel repetitive or worse, stagnant. Take a look at every new chapter and analyze it by identifying exactly how the main plot line is acted out therein. Compare this movement (or lack thereof) to both the previous and the following chapters. Think of your novel as a giant board game. Every chapter is a roll of the die to see how many spaces your character moves, if he gets sent back to "Go" or if she's collecting rent on Boardwalk Ave. Every chapter must advance the story, even if the progress seems backward. Toward the beginning, these "reversals" and "complications" occur more often and after the halfway mark, the character doesn't encounter many new problems but works to solve the ones which already exist.

Chapter Pacing

At the chapter level, you as writer decide how many scenes to include. A general rule is that you break a chapter at the end of a scene, and not usually in the middle of one. Cliff hangers are best revealed by leaving an important question unanswered until the reader turns the page and a new chapter begins. The pacing of a chapter will vary by genre, but in general, a more literary work might have lengthy chapters, whereas murder mystery chapters are often shorter. Some believe that chapters should all be about the same length. I don't mind a short chapter unless it's short for no apparent reason. A brief chapter should signify high tension or drama. My chapters tend to run between 2500 and 4000 words, which is a typical length. Pacing at the chapter level also deals with patterns. Readers look for patterns. If all the chapters except a few are the same length, readers wonder why.

Scene Pacing

The most important pacing occurs at the scene level. Pacing here involves length of sentences, ratio of action to narrative and range of emotions, to name a few. Be sure you act out the really important and tense moments where there's something important on the line. This is the reason writers are advised to skip over travel from one place to another, introductions and chit-chat. If you act out tedious or mundane stuff (getting out of bed in the morning, sipping coffee) readers will flee. By skipping or using brief narrative summary (He drove to McDonald's.), you control the pacing.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Scene Writing: Avoid the Situation Room

A writer I once taught was working on a novel about war in the Middle East. The characters were well-drawn and the writer was skilled in writing dialogue. The problem was, instead of actual battles, the scenes were about what the military guys were planning to do. The officers stood around in the "situation room," moving the little toy tanks and ships on a map. But really, they weren't doing much except for talking.

Writing Tip for Today: Here's why it often makes no sense to write (or keep) "situation room" scenes:

Where's the Tension?

Writing a scene where your character makes plans to do something is difficult to keep taut. Often, it's a lot of hot air. And if the next scene plays out those plans, what purpose does the previous scene play? The only way to justify a "planning" scene is if you keep your characters at odds. If one character is opposed, you might be able to reveal character and move the story forward with a short scene acting out the objections. But if your "planning" scene is similar to the actual doing scene, my feeling is that it's better to dramatize the ACTION and save the planning for a brief narrative summary. (EX: I asked him for a date next Saturday. He said yes.)

Don't Make Readers Suffer.

Sometimes we write scenes where the character suffers from boredom or annoyance or other unpleasantness such as waiting on a long line. If we give a blow by blow account of hearing a baby cry or of standing in line, our readers may be tempted to flee.Don't be tempted to act out the scene in a way that forces the reader to suffer in the same way. Instead, give the FEELING of these things without actually making readers go through every minute of some awful or repetitive event. The Rule of Three may be handy. After the third mention that the film was long and boring, the reader gets it.

Mine the Action Gold.

Generals love to strategize (blab) in the "situation room," but readers want ACTION. That is, the reader feels more satisfied with actual events than with lip service to events that may or may not occur. By resisting the urge to write "Situation Room" scenes, you are also Resisting the Urge to Explain (RUE). Write these scenes if you must to tell yourself how the story goes, but upon revisions, omit them and go with scenes where something actually happens and the tension rises.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How to Write a Good Villain

We spent last post discussing what qualities make a character unforgettable--the main character. But what about the story's "baddie" or villain?

Writing Tip for Today: Every hero needs an anti-hero. Here are three ways you can make your story villain more fully formed.

Look for the Good.

Behind every good villain there are hurts, disappointments, fears and biases. Imagine not only the harm your villain wants to visit upon your heroine but also the villain's hopes, dreams and vulnerabilities. Most villains aren't pure evil--nor should they be written as such. In life, evil acts are usually committed by someone who is very hurt, angry or mentally ill. Yes, there are sociopaths and psychopaths, but most villains are better if they are made more human. Hannibal Lecter is often invoked as the baddest of them all, but he had a fondness for Clarice and a sense of humor, two attributes not seen in "completely" rotten people. Even Hitler had a mom.

Careful with the Self as Villain.

Many first novelists try to get by with the main character as his own worst enemy. It's a good thing to give your character inner conflict, but if the major conflict isn't balanced between inner and outer (tangible real in-the-world stuff, not feelings or resentments) the story will feel lopsided. Too much introspection will force your reader to go in search of action. So when you consider that inner conflict (she loathes her shyness), be sure to place that character in situations where she'll have to deal with her fears.

Avoid Stereotypes.

You might think writers wouldn't fall for black hats and mustache twirling, but I've seen these and other cliches used. One villain I wrote chewed on a toothpick. I ended up taking away that tag because it seemed too worn a device. Instead of the usual "baddie" things we associate from watching old oaters or mob movies, try giving your bad guy something unexpected and opposite: maybe your antagonist has a penchant for working with the poor; or chews gum because he's trying to quit smoking. It's our own blind spots where we often are inconsiderate or self-centered, and we often don't even realize how we hurt or harm others. These are the types of qualities which will make your story seem very real and will engage readers. Just don't forget: murderers can't get away with their crimes!

A good resource is Rayne Hall's Writing About Villains.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Writing Unforgettable Characters

If you want your reader to follow your lead character, you'll need to describe that character so that he in effect "comes alive" for the reader. But don't stop at a physical description. Here's why.

Writing Tip for Today: One way to sketch a character is to describe her physical appearance, including clothing. But an unforgettable character goes far beyond appearances. Here are three tips on creating a solid character:

The Once Over. 

When you write a character's appearance, use the same method we use in real life. If you see someone for the first time, you won't want to stare at their outfit from heads to toe. Instead, your eyes usually focus on one or two details that differentiate this person from others or that make this person stand out. Things such as red suspenders, five-inch stilettos or an abundance (or lack) of jewelry could set apart your character. It's OK to let your readers imagine some details on their own--in fact it's probably a good thing. If readers put in some of their imagined characteristics, they create an emotional bond with the character.


If your character was walking in a dark alley, would she know who was following her? If you endow a character with mannerisms that might give away their identity even in the absence of physical descriptions, the reader will feel a closer bond with the story. Does the character shuffle when he walks? How's his posture? Is there a character tag you can give her (blinking, running hands through her hair or other repeated motions) which will ID her instantly? Use them--but sparingly. If you overload a character with mannerisms, the result will be confusion or apathy.

Psychological Attributes.

Remember the anonymous bigwig in "The X-Files" TV show? All the viewer ever saw was the cigarette. The result? Unforgettable, and not in a good way. Character tags add a three-dimensional feel to any character. But go beyond tics or other tags. Create a mindset for your character. Maybe he's still wounded by something that happened as a child. Maybe she loathes anyone unlike herself. Explore the psychological underpinnings of your character to add depth and create sufficient emotional baggage for inner conflict. You as the writer need to be able to say, "My character would or would not do that." Remember that character IS story. We are all made up of a complex web of attributes, physical and internal. Use them to paint a "real" and unforgettable character for your reader.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Pyramid Proposals: Part III

The Pyramid Proposal method outlined so far helps you prioritize and understand the necessary components of good book proposals. It's all a sales tool--and you must present the "hook, line and sinker" in a certain order if you want to reel in the reader.

Writing Tip for Today: The last part of the Pyramid is of course the most important of all. This "base" is where the meat is--your synopsis and three sample chapters.

That One-two Page Synopsis.

My system for writing synopses runs counter to a lot of writing advice. I think it's so important that you can state the book's description in one or two SENTENCES. This and the short 150 word paragraph should be your starting point for a longer synopsis. Many writers draft a long, unwieldy synopsis and then try to edit it down. If you start with that central core sentence or two, my feeling is that it's easier to add than to subtract. So, since you've already written your "log line," (See Part I) you will now be able to add to this until you have described the main action for the ENTIRE STORY. Including the ending (how everything turns out) is what makes a synopsis different from a book jacket blurb or a query letter. The reader (usually an agent) must be confident that you know your story's resolution and that it is satisfactory. This means no deus ex machina cavalry saves the day or other contrived plot devices. Adding in the resolution demonstrates not only your mastery of your story but also gives the agent a feel for the story as a whole. This synopsis should be about 500 words or so. Use your story's FIVE MAIN PLOT POINTS to tell the story. Don't mention too many characters and ALWAYS use present tense in a synopsis. A good way to practice is to analyze the plot points in a well-known story such as a fairy tale or fable. Write your own synopsis by imagining each plot point as movement toward the stated goal. Include the story's Genre, Word Count and Title at the top.

The Three Sample Chapters.

A good novel proposal includes your first three chapters. If you feel strongly about including any other chapters besides the first consecutive three, ask yourself why. Could it be that your novel "gets going" later than Chapter 3? Consider lopping off the first chapter or two--in many first novels, the original drafts of these chapters are chock full of back story and "telling." Writers naturally start out by telling themselves the story, so this isn't unusual. But readers want to be shown the story not told. In order to make your sample chapters the most complete experience possible for any reader, it needs to be cinematic, like a good movie that unfolds before a reader's eyes. If your opening chapters don't offer this experience, chances are the chapters will fail to ignite the LOVE an agent needs to take on your project.


The Pyramid Proposal Method consists of three parts: PART I: The Tip (a great title, a log line or theme and 150 word synopsis, PART II, The Middle ( Author Platform or Bio, Author Marketing Plan and Complementary Books) and PART III The Base: A 500 word synopsis and three sample chapters. There are some variations but these are the important and vital components of a good book proposal. Good Luck!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Pyramid Book Proposals: Part II

Last post we talked about the part of the book proposal which agents.editors see first. Your book needs a great title, a log line or hook that entices and a brief summary of 150 or so words to further tempt your reader.

Writing Tip for Today: In this section we'll look at the middle of the pyramid: Author Platform, Author Marketing Plan and Complementary Books.This section in your proposal is meant to hold up the tip of the pyramid and lead readers to see exactly how valuable you and your book will be.

Author Platform.

The dreaded "P" word. You started yesterday, right? You are on social media, tweeting and FB posting away. You joined Goodreads and write a blog. You're working on a nice website. Isn't that enough? Only if two things are true: 1) you actually DO these things regularly and 2) you understand that you're building relationships, not just talking about yourself/your writing. What else can you do? Cultivate more relationships by volunteering at your writer's organization (you'll get to know the movers & shakers faster this way), offering to give a short presentation at your library, church or other organization (more networking), being brave enough to say you're a writer in the checkout lane or other public places. Join organizations/discussion boards/online support groups that are concerned with the kinds of topics in your book. There are many more ways to start building that platform, including simple things such as getting professional head shot done, ordering business cards or working on branding yourself, complete with a catchy description. And don't forget to read widely.

Author Marketing.

This section seems like the Platform section but it isn't. This section is where you'll state your case, not for the things you're already doing or have done to get your name out there, but what you are planning or willing to do to help promote your book should it be published. If you are regularly publishing short articles in periodicals, mention it. If you are comfortable or have experience with media--whether it's radio, TV or you have a degree in marketing, absolutely mention it. DO NOT include in your proposal that you'll arrange for book signings. Although it sounds romantic, a book signing is becoming a thing of the past for all but famous authors. Agents/editors will assume you'll do a signing, anyway. Get creative. Think of an event you could get invited to, an established product or angle you might use to leverage your book. Plan a contest, giveaway or other way to involve your readers. Many author hold online launch parties where prizes are given away at certain times. 

Complementary Books.

This section often feels tedious, but it's very important. You must convince readers that 1) you know the genre and market where your book fits 2) you read extensively and 3) you are aware of how your book compares with others on the same shelf. When you do this section, it's important to do more than just list several books. Go deeper. Explain that your book is similar to book X in these ways or similar in these other ways. A line or two for each comparison is usually plenty. And don't forget to compare fairly RECENT books in most cases. Readers are different than they were in Dickens' time, although it does seem you can't keep the Jane Austen fans in their own time period. A list of 3-7 books is usually sufficient.

Next time: Part III of the Proposal Pyramid: the solid base.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Proposal Pyramid: Write a Great Book Proposal

You wrote the book. You revised (and revised) and edited and edited. You've heard you'll need something called a book proposal in order to approach agents and editors. Don't panic!

Writing Tip for Today: So how do you write a great book proposal?

 A book proposal assembles a wide range of information about you and your book idea, all located in one easy to access place. Nonfiction and fiction proposals are a little different, but for today we'll look at fiction proposals. I'm going to break up this topic into several posts, but here are the first three steps, which make up the tip of the pyramid:

Draw Upon Sources for a Title. 

Your first and best chance to sell your book is with a good title. A good title gives the reader either information, a mood or a hint as to the tone or theme of the book. Titles should reflect as much in particular as possible. Avoid abstract or worn out phrases unless you can turn them on their heads. Take a look at movie and song titles or read poetry and collections of sayings. If you are not adept at finding great titles, study other books in your genre, partner with a colleague who has a knack for titles or read through our own manuscript. With other books, films or songs you might be able to combine words to create your own, or at least gain ideas. Each time you think of a possible title, jot it down. Return to this list until you get a gut feeling or attraction to one. Then let it rest a while, so you can be sure. Try it out on peer writers and readers. When you are satisfied, the title and byline are normally centered in a large readable serif font such as Book Antigua, Garamond or Times New Roman.

Create a Log Line.

A log line is a one sentence summation of your story. Film and television scripts are known for log lines, but you'll need one for fiction too. Sometimes it will be called "theme," but the idea is the same. To find your story's log line, use a TV guide or other listing of programs. These usually contain a very brief description of episodes or a movie. You're not trying to be creative here--just succinct. You can also use fairy tales or well-known morality tales to glean the log line for your book. There's only one Romeo and Juliet, but thousands of stories with the same "ill-fated star-crossed lovers" log line. Start by boiling down what your story's about. See if you can distill your answer into a single sentence. Another approach is to use mash-ups. Take two well-known books, films, etc and if you crossed them, the result would be your book. Don't try to use books/movies nobody remembers though--it defeats that "instant association" purpose.

 Include a Brief Synopsis.

In about 150 words, go into more particulars of your story. Can you see a trend here? You catch the reader's eye with your title, expand that vision with your log line and progressively get more detailed as to the book's content. This brief synopsis can be constructed using a formula: When CHARACTER, a [insert 3 word description] living in SETTING does XX or wants YY (goal statement), ZZ tries to prevent Character (obstacles), forcing CHARACTER to fight (discover, learn, realize is CHANGE CATALYST) ABC (TRUTH). If you can fit your story into the formula you have a starting place and then you can build in as many details as possible within the brief synopsis. Do not include more than two viewpoint goals and exclude subplots. Only the MAIN STORY goes into your Brief Synopsis.