By Carrie Knowles | December 11, 2014 at 01:33 PM EST | No Comments
Let me make this perfectly clear: I have never been and will never be the main character in any of my stories. And let me suggest that you shouldn’t be either. If you want to write about yourself, get out of fiction and write a memoir, but make it a good one with lots of shameless gossip and shocking secrets.
Why don’t I want to be the main character, and more importantly, why shouldn’t you be your main character? It’s pretty simple. If I made myself the main character, I would want to make myself slightly taller, much thinner, a lot smarter and a bit saintly. Virtuous and lovable are words that come to mind when I think about fashioning a main character after myself.
This is why I’d make a terrible main character. Like all people, I wouldn’t be willing to tell the truth when it comes to discussing why I do and think the things I do. In short, I would sugar coat the shortcomings and embroider the truth. Maybe because I’m human and because I try my best to make good choices and live a good life, I’d be unable to do otherwise.
A good life and good fiction are two very different creatures. A good life is about trying to do your best under all circumstances. Good fiction is about digging deeply into the main character and discovering his or her flaws and mistakes, along with all the wobbly, messy emotional underpinnings. Really good fiction shines a light on the dark side of things before it takes you to the point of redemption. It’s hardly the stuff of a consistently good life, and certainly not the type of intimate details about yourself you might be willing to share with a wide audience.
Good main characters must have flaws because it is precisely those character flaws that drive the story. Those flaws get main characters into trouble and make them do things they might regret when they wake up. Quite simply put, if the main character has no problems, then you don’t have a story.
Those character flaws also drive the story arc. Your character has to make mistakes. If her or she manages in the first couple of pages to do everything right and solve the problem presented in the inciting incident, then your story is over. There’s nothing to tell…oops, I mean show.
The trick with building really good main characters is to set them in motion (your outside inciting incident) in such a way that they are presented with a problem that has to be solved. Then, as the main character attempts to solve the problem (and either fails to solve the problem or makes the problem worse by making a bad choice), you begin to unveil the character to the reader, one mistake or one bad choice at a time.
And, each of those choices along the story arc moves the original external inciting incident into the internal realm and the truth of your main character.
Sound easy? No.
And, it’s not easy for your characters either, so you’ve got to give them a little help along the way. Just as we all have our flaws, we also have our strengths.
As you begin to work with your main character, take a good look at both his or her strengths as well as his or her weaknesses. How might these strengths help your main character move through the story and solve the problem? How are you going to let the strengths develop in order to override the weaknesses inherent in your character?
We rarely get a chance to rid ourselves of our flaws, but, if we are lucky, we learn to lean on our strengths in order to minimize the effects of our flaws. Let your main character have the privilege and capacity to do the same.
Sometimes those strengths are not enough, so the main character needs a little help from his or her friends. These helpful friends in fiction are called supporting characters. They are there to support the shortcomings of the main character in such a way as to help the main character develop his or her best self. I like to think of these supporting characters as angels.
And, if we have an angel, there must be a devil lurking right around the corner of the narrative. This devil character is better known as the antagonist. Often, but not always, the antagonist starts the ball rolling by providing the outside inciting incident.
Angels and devils, now the story is getting interesting.
So, we are moving right along through the narrative. You’ve told me who the good guy is and have revealed his or her flaws and, therefore, what kinds of problems the main character is going to have in the story. And, more than likely, I have discovered the identity of the bad guy on my own. At this point, the story is feeling fairly straightforward and simple. Maybe a little too simple.
Rule #1: In order to keep your readers reading you’ve got to give them a reason to stay with your story. The best way to do this is to throw in a plot twist.
A plot twist is the sleight of hand that surprises or a revelation that the good people are really bad and the bad people may be not so bad. In fact, the bad people could turn out to be supporting characters. In short, the main character is in a tailspin. He or she doesn’t really know what is happening and whom to trust anymore than you do.
Quite simply, a plot twist is that moment when readers discover they don’t know what is happening, so they stay up reading even longer into the night.
And, of course, the plot twist provides the main character with more challenges, and sometimes, when these twists come along, supporting characters aren’t enough to carry the main character through the dilemma.
Rule #2: Sometimes a touch of magic might be needed, or some secret power, or better yet, some hidden knowledge that comes to light to lead the main character to the solution.
The Greeks used a bit of magic in order to help out the main character when they were hopelessly in trouble. The Romans called this deus ex machina, the hand of god. It was that moment in the Greek tragedies when the gods reached down and intervened in the world in order to make things right and help the good guys win.
When you send your main characters, flaws and all, out into the plots of your stories, you need to be sure they have not only supporting characters to help them solve their problems and make good choices, but also some hidden talents, some bits of magic, some brilliant insights that are going to help them win in the end.
Have fun. Surprise and amaze your readers. Most stories move to redemption in the end. So, if you are inclined to write stories ripe with redemption (which may or may not be happy ever after or some other Disney construct), give your main characters the tools they need in order to solve the problems, win the hand of the one they love, get over grief and loss, save the world, or just become happier, more successful people.
By Carrie Knowles | December 04, 2014 at 01:31 PM EST | No Comments
At the bottom of every good story there is a theme. Think of it as a river flowing silently beneath your story arc.
Not surprisingly, the basic theme of any work of fiction (and often the work of non-fiction) is the struggle between good and evil. Notice something here? Good and evil are opposites.
Opposites attract, but they also repel. The constant energy of attraction and repelling between the forces of good and evil flowing beneath your story line brings life to your character and your story.
Stories all start in stasis. Things are okay. They’re calm. Then something happens and your story begins. If nothing happened, there wouldn’t be a story. You’d have nothing to tell and I’d have no reason to read your story.
Reading is all about discovery. We read because we want to learn. We also read because we want to discover something new about ourselves and the world. And we read because we want to be challenged and engaged.
There is something very fundamental and engaging about the theme of the struggle between good and evil. We live in a world filled with what we often refer to as the forces of good and the forces of evil. We are well aware that if the forces of evil are stronger than the forces of good, we will all lose.
A good story will challenge us to think about the “what ifs” of life: what if evil wins, what happens if good wins. Think about the continuing Star Wars saga. It is all about the struggle/battle Luke Skywalker is engaged in with good and evil. As the story unfolds we find ourselves worrying that Luke, without the help of Yoda, might, in fact, go over to the Dark Side, particularly once we find out that Darth Vader is his father. This little cinematic revelation of Vader being Luke’s real father nicely drops that “what if” bomb right into our laps. What if we are tainted from birth to become evil? What if we don’t have a choice? What is our destiny? And just as troubling, what if we have the choice between good and evil, then choose evil.
Although a little heavy handed, this theme of good versus evil works in Star Wars. Witness the fact that we keep coming to the box office long after the actors are too old to be hopping around the universe battling evil, hoping to be reassured that good will triumph over evil in the end.
There are other pairs of opposites that help spin a story: life and death, love and hate, rich and poor, angels and devils. Are you beginning to see a pattern?
Write this down: if you introduce the theme of death in a story, you need to explore life; likewise, if you are plumbing the depths of the theme of love, you had better touch on the potential for hate. If you want to explore the idea of great wealth, you have to hold up the mirror of poverty. If you introduce an angel into your story, there better be a devil lurking around the corner.
Opposites attract. And opposites, or opposing views, almost always create conflict. The potential for the opposite and the conflict it will bring gives heft and color to your story. Conflict is not only the stuff of life; conflict is the foundation upon which all good themes and stories are built.
Opposites not only attract and repel, they come in pairs. As your story reveals itself, your reader should always be waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.
These opposites come straight out of the themes of our own lives. Life is full of problems and conflict. As you create your characters and spin your story, you shouldn’t be any more afraid of peeking over the edge into the abyss of darkness than you should be of shining a light on what is good. Stephen King is a master at shining a light on darkness in the world, but even he takes a peek at the good before it’s all over.
What do your readers want? They want the good, the bad…and the ugly. Truth be told, they particularly like the ugly. Sure, they want things to cheer about and cry over. But they also want to see the main character struggle. Why? Because we are, in one way or another, engaged in a struggle of some kind everyday.
We like a good story that is more than a bit messy because our lives are messy, and we are well aware that the struggle between good and evil is rarely black and white. The conflict between good and evil is more often than not grey. Readers like the truth, and grey is a whole lot more truthful than the pristine absolutes of black and white. We read because we want to explore the edges of life.
Good stories come from things going a bit unexpectedly sideways. People we thought were evil turn out to be good and vice versa. Situations we thought were safe become dangerous.
These twists of plot surrounding good and evil or other opposites are the stuff that keeps us reading far into the night and sitting on the edge of our seats. It’s where the “I couldn’t put it down” comes from.
But the trick to that silently moving thematic river of good and evil beneath your story is that, in order to be truly compelling, I have to strain to hear it. Don’t tell me who is the good guy and who is the bad one. Spin your story. Make it rich. Surprise me a little. But, bottom line: let me discover for myself who is good and who is evil. And if you do this, I promise you that I’ll stay up all night reading and won’t put your book down until I know for sure how things end.
By Carrie Knowles | November 24, 2014 at 11:13 AM EST | No Comments
The hardest concept for most writers to understand is exactly what the first page/first paragraph of a story should have in it and why it’s so important to get it right.
Rationally, most people think of those first few lines, first few pages, as the beginning of the story. And, because they see that first line, first paragraph, first page as the place where they begin to tell their story, they want to be sure the reader understands where the story comes from. So, instead of getting INTO the story in those first few paragraphs/pages, they start with telling the reader how/why the story happened. In other words, instead of starting IN the story, they start with the backstory.
Here’s why this is a bad idea. Readers aren’t interested in the backstory; they’re interested in the story. Plus, the backstory is going to give readers too much information; it is going to tell them how to think about the story before they even get a chance to meet the main character. Readers don’t like to have everything explained for them. They also don’t like being told what to think. In fact, readers read because they enjoy discovering for themselves what the story is going to be about.
So, how can you get beyond the backstory?
Sit down and start writing. Write as fast as you can. Go ahead and talk to yourself while you’re doing it. Put down every bit of information you can. Write fast. Write long.
When you get tired, stop. Leave the room. Fix a cup of tea. Go back to your office and close the door. Read what you’re written out loud. Be honest. Where does you story start to be a story, not just a bunch of background information? When does it feel like it is lifting off the page, full of promise?
That’s where your story begins. Throw everything else away. You won’t need it.
One of the most important things to do as a writer is to trust yourself when you get the feeling that your story is coming to life. The second most important thing is learning how to trust your writing enough to throw out what isn’t working, what doesn’t feel alive.
Once you feel your story come alive, you know you’ve got a beginning. Go with it. Write to the end, then come back around and see how you can rewrite, tweak a bit here and there to really define your story. Think of this rewriting as not only a way to make your opening sentence really come alive, but also give your story direction.
So, now that you’ve found the beginning, let’s dig a little deeper. What if you reframed those first few lines, first few paragraphs and pages as a promise you are about to make to your reader, a promise of what the story is going to be about rather than the beginning of your story. Better yet, what if you began your story by using those first few words/lines to make a promise to your readers of what kind of story they’re going to read as well as a little bit about the story, i.e. what the reader should expect to learn. Think of it as a sacred promise, one you had better keep, or you will, for sure, lose your reader.
Let’s say your story starts with a dead body on the floor on page one. What’s the promise here? More likely than not, you’re promising the reader they have just started a murder mystery rather than a comedy, unless there’s something funny on that first page.
And, here’s the problem with writing that opening scene and those first few good lines: they not only need to give the readers a timeframe and setting for the story and introduce the main character; the start should also foreshadow where the story is going.
First lines are hard. In fact, they are, and should be, the hardest lines you will ever write in a story or a novel…or even a press release. They have to work. Therefore, you will write and rewrite those first few lines more than a dozen times before you get them right. The hard truth is, until you get to the end of your story, you won’t know precisely what needs to go into those first words.
Good stories are a lot like a beautiful graduated pearl necklace. That first small pearl leads to the next, then the next, until you get to that one big pearl, then the pearls get gradually smaller again until that last pearl at the clasp that is the same as the first pearl at the other side of the clasp.
In a sense, the story starts, grows, comes to a moment when/where the main character gets or doesn’t get what he or she wants or the problem is solved or the character dramatically changes. This is that big pearl. But, all the other pearls, the little ones that get bigger and bigger as they move toward that big pearl, are all related and grow the story, just as they grow. That growth is part of the story.
Once we come to that big pearl, we are at that point of change in the story, and everything that follows that big pearl tells what happens to the character AFTER that big moment in the story.
But, the most important element in this beautiful necklace is that the first and the last pearl match and come together to close the necklace. All the pieces have to fit and work together. The order of the pearls matters, because, if they are strung out of order, the necklace won’t hang right.
Think of that necklace as the structure of your story: all the pieces have to fit; each revelation has to build your story; and the beginning has to be reflected in what happens at the end.
Ah, that tricky beginning again. Take time to polish the beginning and make it shine. Think of that first page as a door for readers to enter your story. Make it the best door possible and be sure, by what you reveal in that first page, that you’ve invited your readers to stay with your story all the way to the end.
By Carrie Knowles | November 10, 2014 at 10:42 AM EST | No Comments
A) Boy meets girl. B) Boy is intrigued by the girl. C) Girl is not interested. D) Boy leaves, girl gets interested. E) They get back together, fall in love. F) They get married. End of the story.
There you go, a basic plot line.
The story arc, however, is both the how and why of getting from point A to point F. The story arc is sometimes called the story line. It could just as easily be called the story leapfrog because it is neither an arc like a rainbow or a flat line. Rather, it is a little bit of a prodded leaping from one point to the next: the prodding coming from connected external events and bad decisions.
Stories, like life, are a series of causes and effects. Stories, whether short stories or novels, all begin with an inciting incident that sets the story in motion, i.e. something happens. The something that happens is external, but it has an impact on the main character. I use the word external to indicate that the event comes from outside of the character.
This initial external event sets off a chain of other external events, or obstacles, each of which requires the main character to react or act. How the main character chooses to act, and the decisions he/she makes along the way, reveal the main character’s true character bit by bit, each event taking us deeper into the internal motivations of the main character.
It is important to note that nothing is or should ever be easy for the main character. Each decision should take the main character farther down a difficult path. That path is strewn with problems and quite a bit of internal as well as external conflict. Think of Romeo. His strong (internal) belief that you should be able to choose to love anyone, set off a feud (external event) and a series of other events and bad decisions that eventually led to both his and Juliet’s deaths.
Like Romeo, the main character is always hoping that each consecutive decision he or she makes will solve the initial problem, but instead, it only intensifies the problem, and because there are more problems to solve, your story goes on.
Students often ask how you know when a story is done. Easy. The story is finished when the underlying motivation of your main character gets revealed and the problem gets solved. Obviously, if you want to write a compelling story, you don’t want the main character to neatly solve all the problems in the first try. There would be no story if Romeo fell in love with Juliet and Juliet’s family warmly welcomed him as a son-in-law. In order to have a story, your main character needs to stumble along making bad decisions, as long as the decisions that character makes bring you, the reader, closer to the real underlying problem in the story while digging deeper into the underlying motivation, and in the end, reveal the true character and motivation of the main character.
The problem of Romeo and Juliet wanting to spend eternity together, as well as their desire to resolve the senseless feud between their families, gets solved in a most unfortunate way. It’s a story that will never grow old because it digs deeply into the underlying problem of love and hate and unfortunately rings so true.
The real problem, what motivates the main character and why, is sometimes called the story-worthy problem. This problem may or may not be resolved in the way the main character (or the reader) wishes, but that “may or may not” question is what keeps the reader reading.
You should never forget that your readers are smart. Really smart…they bought your book, didn’t they? And, because they’re smart, they understand that sometimes you win and sometimes lose, but what matters in the end is how you accept either winning or losing. Why do we buy books and read? Because we want to know how the main character is going to react to winning or losing. Reading is the mirror by which we can measure our own response to the “what if” of your story. As in, what if this happened to me, what would I do?
If you get your reader to step into your story and ask this question, your story has succeeded. You’ve also made a new reader friend for life.
Want to have fun watching how this kind of external problem, bad decisions, more problems, deeper character development happens? Rent Tom Cruise’s movie, The Edge of Tomorrow. I’m not here to tell you this is the greatest movie of all times, just that it’s a great example of how story arc works.
In it, Tom Cruise plays a totally non-committed, non-combat public relations soldier, Major William Cage (go ahead and hit me in the head with a hammer…the character is literally trapped, as if in a cage, by the story) who, by an external event gets thrust into combat. During his first engagement, he gets killed by a special super alien, thereby inheriting the alien’s ability to reset the day.
Think Groundhog Day with Aliens. Each reset brings Major Cage back into the same battle, but each time, Cage knows a little more and makes what he thinks is a better decision. Alas, each decision he makes just takes him deeper into the battle. And, of course, the battle is not only the war between the world and the aliens, but the battle is internal as well. By having to live the battle over and over, making one bad decision after another, Cage becomes his better self not only as a soldier, but as a person, as well.
And, that’s the bottom line of the story arc: win or lose, the main character discovers something and changes. Which is why we read stories; because we want to know that if we had the chance to reset the day, we would, and we’d be better for it.
By Carrie Knowles | October 23, 2014 at 02:38 PM EDT | No Comments
How to use the concept of “what if” to block out a storyline.
Now that I’ve trashed the concept of creating a tight/concise outline for your story/novel before you begin working, let me introduce you to a different type of “outlining” technique. I believe this system will give you a little more creative elbowroom and help you create successful and compelling stories.
All stories/narratives start with an idea, a character or two, and a problem.
Begin to map out the “what if” of the story. Take some notes on a piece of scrap paper. If you don’t keep a pile of scrap paper on your desk for story doodling, rummage through your trash bin and find something worthy of your first ideas.
After you make some notes, begin writing. Grab a character and throw him or her into the “what if” of the story. See if the character feels right for the situation. Revisit the “what if.” Maybe choose another character if the first one didn’t feel right. If you hit it right the first time, give that character some friends and a few enemies. Throw a curve ball or two into the story line.
Grab another bit of scrap paper and scratch out a potential story arc based on what you’ve started writing. The key word here is potential.
Do not make a detailed outline. Limit your work on the scrap paper to ideas. Give your characters some room to breathe, to rebel or to come out shooting.
Every time you sit down to write, the first thing you should ask yourself is: “What are my characters doing now? What’s their motivation? What if…”
Stop after ten pages and see what you have. Revisit that last piece of scrap paper. How’s your story arc now? What are your characters thinking? Who is beginning to feel like the main character? What does the main character want? Why? What is he or she going to do about it?
Take some time with these questions and your characters. How is your story arc changing? Get some more scrap paper and make some more notes.
Move forward. Stop to assess what you’ve written every ten pages or so, making notes on bits and scraps of paper about your characters as your story develops.
You should not be finalizing the story line at this point, so much as you should be discovering the relationships the characters have to one another and how these relationships shape what might happen in the next ten pages.
I like working in ten page chunks. I’m pretty sure I can push just about any story forward for ten pages. At the end of the ten, I gather my nerve and read through what I’ve done with the intention of getting rid of anything weak, clichéd, or unrevealing of the characters’ motivations. Most of the time, I edit out about half of what I’ve put down.
Think of editing those ten pages as like unraveling a couple rows of knitting in order to pick up a dropped stitch to make it right before you move forward again. If you knit too far, i.e., 20 or 50 pages, and you realize you need to unravel a couple of days, or weeks, worth of work, you might try to convince yourself that you can live with the dropped stitch. Stories, however, are a lot like sweaters. More often than not, that dropped stitch is going to be right in front where everyone will see it. It will drive you crazy. Better to edit 10 pages than 50.
As you write and edit, keep making notes on scraps of paper and asking yourself not only what your characters will do today, but also what they might do if something unexpected happens.
At about page 100, you should have quite a squirrel’s nest of paper scraps and ideas. It’s now time to clean off your desk and get rid of some of those earlier ideas. Reread what you’ve written and grab another piece of scrap paper to flesh out your story arc based not only on what has happened, but what might happen “if.”
If things are going well by page 100, and the story is coming alive, I stop and make a time line, grabbing a fresh piece of paper…one I intend to keep. This is not the type of time line that details the story, but rather a time line that helps me keep the various characters and their relationships clear in my head.
Using the timeline, I give all of the characters birthdays; by doing so, I know how old the characters are in relation to each other as they move through the story. If I feel like I need to develop the characters more fully in order to keep writing, I figure out where and when they went to school and how well they did. Along the side of the time line I make a list of what I know about my characters and what I don’t know, and also what I need know about them, particularly what motivates them.
Sometimes I get a second sheet of clean paper and begin to make one of those bubble diagrams showing how various characters are connected and why.
Once I finish writing a story, I set it aside for a few days then come back to read it from start to finish, making notes on scraps of paper along the way about what works, what doesn’t, what’s unnecessary and what’s missing. When I start the rewrite, I try to do so with an open mind, looking for places that could surprise, always hoping to find pieces I’ve missed that will make the story come alive.
If I want to, I can make that outline when it’s all done (but I never have).
By Carrie Knowles | October 13, 2014 at 09:12 AM EDT | No Comments
I once had a student in a fiction workshop that outlined with a vengeance. Her outlines were detailed and thorough. She also had a well-organized notebook filled with character descriptions, charts, plot lines, story arcs, and minute-by-minute timelines.
She came to class every week with a freshly updated outline. The other students were dazzled.
I was a constant thorn in her side. I wasn’t interested in her outline. I didn’t want to look at her story arc. I refused to comment on either her notebook or her neatly drafted ideas.
Instead, I questioned her about her characters. I asked why such and such a person was the main character and whether or not he would really do, think or say the things she had him doing, thinking and saying.
I once asked her what would happen if her main character refused to do what she had outlined for him to do. She looked at me like I was crazy.
She believed she had control over her story and her outlines proved it. I believe great stories come from creating strong characters and letting them take control. I call it my bad parent/good parent theory.
This is how it goes. The Bad Parent wants to control the child, saying, “My grandfather was a doctor, my father was a doctor, I’m a doctor, therefore you will be a doctor.”
In contrast, the Good Parent looks at their child and says: You are my child and I love you and who you are and can’t wait to see who you will become and what you will do when you grow up. I am there for you and support you no matter what.
Likewise, the bad writer creates a story line and forces the characters to do what they want them to do and what needs to be done to get to the end of that story the writer has so carefully outlined. Caught in the web of the writer’s outline, these characters are not allowed to grow and become three-dimensional. They are not allowed to stray off the path of the outline. They are not allowed to have emotions or ideas of their own. They are doomed to a life of pre-prescribed flat lines and lackluster interactions.
Like the good parent, the good writer on starting to work each day, asks, “I wonder what my characters are going to do today?” The good writer lets the characters define the story, and does not allow the story to define the characters.
In case you’re getting nervous, or are beginning to hear the voice of your old high school English teacher in your dreams demanding that you turn in your outline before you turn in your story or you’ll get a zero on the assignment, I want to be clear about something: I’m not against outlining. Not totally, that is.
What I’m against is creating rigid constraints on the development of your characters and your story. I am leery of the false sense the outline gives a writer that they are in total control of what is happening in their story.
First and foremost, writing should have a sense of adventure and discovery to it. If you, as the writer, don’t feel excited and surprised by how your story is developing, I can pretty much guarantee that your reader won’t find your writing exciting and engaging.
If you outline something down to the very last detail BEFORE you begin to write, i.e., you already know how the story ends before you put the first word on paper, then your chances of writing a fresh and exciting story are just about zero. Plus, you’ve just ruined your own chances of having fun discovering what happens next in your own story.
Speaking of that zero. I always turned in my outline in high school before I turned in my story. (That’s what the teacher required.) However, I wrote and polished the story first, then create the outline. I needed to know where the story was going before I could tell you how it got there.
When I asked fellow writer, Peggy Payne (author of three novels and two books of non-fiction) if she outlined her books before she wrote them, she said: “You must be joking.”
Then she backed up and said that when she wrote her first non-fiction book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, she figured out how the book would flow and roughed out the flow of the chapters on a piece of scrap paper. Not exactly an outline worthy of an A, but a workable guide to getting through the book.
I did the same with my non-fiction book, The Last Childhood: A Family Story of Alzheimer’s. Non-fiction makes a somewhat different set of demands on a writer than fiction. In non-fiction, which presents an argument, it’s important to have a plan for the argument that tells you how to put that argument together, how to order it. Some kind of outline helps. However, you should keep the door open to discovery and surprises when you’re researching and writing non-fiction.
In non-fiction, as in fiction, be open to what you might not know. Be ready to wrestle with questions you hadn’t considered. Be prepared to dig more deeply than your pre-prescribed chapter headings might have suggested.
It’s never any fun if you know all the answers before you start writing.
By Carrie Knowles | September 25, 2014 at 10:47 AM EDT | No Comments
Let me dispel any mistaken belief you might have that editing is using spell check. You SHOULD absolutely run a spell check. But, that’s not editing. That’s just good sense. Ditto for the quick tools check for grammar and spacing.
Editing is digging into the text: eliminating what shouldn’t be there, finding out what’s missing, adding transitions where needed, getting rid of wordiness, focusing the argument – getting the text to sing rather than drone along.
Welcome to Carrie’s Editing Boot Camp. If you follow the steps, you’ll learn how to edit. It will be hard. You will whine. Fortunately, I won’t be there to listen. Don’t try to do this all in one day. Take a week. Work one day at a time. If you do, you’ll learn more in that one week about writing than you learned in tenth grade. I promise.
Your new best friend: Word Count.
DAY ONE: Pick a subject, any subject. Sit down and write 2,000 words on that subject. Do it fast and messy. It’s a first draft. Make it ugly. Let yourself go with this one. You’re going to tear it up by the end of the week, so it doesn’t matter how bad it is when you get to 2,000.
Do that spell check and grammar thing. Feel better? Take the rest of the day off.
DAY TWO: Get rid of what doesn’t belong.
Read through what you’ve written. You will discover, while putting down those first, fast 2,000 words, that you occasionally (or often) got off topic.
What were you trying to say when you started writing? What’s the idea behind your 2,000 words? Read through the text a second time, and begin eliminating anything in the text that doesn’t address the point you’re trying to make. Be strong. Be critical. Be relentless. If it doesn’t move your argument or your story forward, get rid of it.
Your goal is to take out 250 words. Every time you eliminate a phrase or a sentence, check your word count. Watch the words go down. The first couple phrases and sentences will be fairly easy to find and delete. Push toward the goal of taking out 250 words. Be ruthless.
Feel free to stop when you reach a word count of 1,750 words.
DAY THREE: Take one step backward.
Now that you’ve gotten rid of what doesn’t belong in your story, find what’s missing. Where is there a gap in the logic? Can you do a better job of tying things together with a good transitional sentence or phrase? Where does an abstraction need a clarifying concrete example?
Fill in the gaps, but keep an eye on the word count. You want to keep it under 2,000 words.
As you fill in the missing pieces, your writing will feel more focused. Now, take another look at what doesn’t belong. Do a little more cutting. When you finish, you should once again be right at 1,750 words. Your piece should also start to feel like it is beginning to flow a little. We’re not at singing yet. We’re just hoping for a smoother ride from start to finish. Imagine a slender arrow trying to hit the center of a target.
DAY FOUR: Caffeine and courage.
Today is a tough one. We’re gunning for wordiness, fuzzy images, and obstacles to the heart of the story.
We’re also looking for awkward expressions.
Close your office door. Shut off your phone. Boot up your computer and start reading what you’ve written… OUT LOUD. If it feels or sounds awkward, cut or revise.
Look for repetitions. Find those two redundant sentences that could be reduced to one. Dig through phrases that could be thrown out or trimmed. Find anything and everything that could be deleted. Trim the fat. Clear the debris.
Our goal: eliminating 500 words. Stop when you reach 1,250. Take a walk around the block.
DAY FIVE: Cut to the chase.
Okay, you’ve had some fun. You’re beginning to feel like you’ve got this knocked. Now is the time to grab your readers from the first sentence and keep them by your side all the way to the end.
Get to the heart of things. Remember DAY TWO when we got rid of what doesn’t belong? We’re going to do that again, but this time, we are going to get rid of weak ideas and phrases. We’re going for the gold. Only leave the best of the best standing. We’re cherry picking now: a word here, a word there. Hardcore boot camp stuff.
When you finish this bit of editing you should be at a neat 1,000 words.
DAY SIX: Don’t think about it.
Push the work aside. Think about something else today. Don’t even look at what you’ve written. Clear your mind. You’re going to need a fresh perspective tomorrow. We’re going for gold.
DAY SEVEN: The New York Times has just called…
They love the piece. If you can get it down to 750 words, they’ll take it. No questions asked. The check is in the mail…
Look for the sentence that drags the story in a different direction. Tighten the dialogue. Sharpen the images.
Embrace the rule of “hook and nail.” The first sentence of your piece should hook the reader: the last should nail the argument. Look at the first and last sentence. These two sentences are the anchor for all your work. The words and ideas should not only fit, but should feel like they snap into place perfectly.
While you’re at it, spend some quality time with the first and last sentence of every paragraph. Are these sentences working together to drive your story home? Clean up your copy, paragraph by paragraph. Your ideas should not only connect and click as they move from paragraph to paragraph – they should also build your story/argument.
Run spell check again. Check for spacing errors. You’re there. You’re home. You’ve written something tight and beautiful. It’s a 750-word gem.
By Carrie Knowles | September 10, 2014 at 01:00 PM EDT | 2 comments
Ian Finley, the 2012 Piedmont Laureate in Playwriting, is a wonderful teacher. I know, because I’ve taken a couple of his classes. And what he does best (he actually does many things REALLY well) is to cajole, encourage and give his full support for his students to write really bad first drafts.
He doesn’t want to see a polished first draft. He wants his students to write something that is truly squirming and ugly. A truly bad first draft, in his opinion (and he’s right), if it is flawed and ugly enough, is the beginning of something beautiful. For when we just let go and allow anything to happen on the paper, there is more promise in the mess than there could ever be in the careful, constricted polish of our usual first attempts.
First drafts should be full of energy, ideas, ideals, mistakes, bad dialogue, bad characters, dialogue that drags rather than sparkles, and a big lump of something that might, if you poke at it a little, but not too much, start to grow.
First drafts are painful. They are not, nor should they ever be, finished drafts. They are something to get through. You should never show them to anyone, especially not your best friend, your partner, or even your mother.
A good, really bad, first draft should give you a couple of good characters, some real problems, a few possible solutions, and sense of where you might be going.
First drafts, unlike the “draft” mode on your printer, are not fast. The words come out in awkward fits and starts. Don’t worry, and don’t fuss over the mess you’re making. Keep going. Two or three pages of first draft a day are honorable work and will get you there, not quickly, but surely. It’s a slow process, but don’t look back. Keep putting the words down, one in front of the other. Once you get to the end, turn around and begin again, this time cleaning the house of unwanted ideas, characters that don’t gel, plot lines that get blurred, and all those awkward, awful phrases that sneak in along the way.
That’s the rub. A first draft is not a finished product. It is merely a kind of road map for your story. Think of that first draft as directions you might have gotten off of Google Maps that will take you to a restaurant two miles from your house by way of Amsterdam.
Peggy Payne (author of Cobalt Blue and several other wonderful books) and I were recently on a book tour together. We were in an unfamiliar city and were trying to find a restaurant the bookstore owner had recommended. He said it was a popular place and often closed if it sold out of food…but, fortunately for us, it was early and the restaurant was only a mile or two away down the road. The owner had gone on to wax eloquent about the restaurant’s fine pies, succulent fried okra and great biscuits. A good biscuit can be a thing of beauty, so we headed out hoping to eat before we had to speak. I was driving and Peggy was using her phone and Google Maps to navigate. There was no restaurant in sight, so Peggy punched her phone again to alert it to the fact that things weren’t looking like dinner. The cheerful programmed voice came on to announce we had 542 miles to go and should expect an 11-minute delay due to traffic.
That’s what a first draft looks like. You think you’re almost there when you discover you’ve got 542 miles left to go and might expect a delay or two along the way.
By the way, when we finally got to the restaurant, it was closed. Presumably, they had run out of biscuits.
By Carrie Knowles | August 27, 2014 at 12:19 PM EDT | 2 comments
In Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, Gregory Berns suggests that:
“Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganize perception. The surest way to provoke the imagination, then, is to seek out environments you have no experience with.”
In other words, engaging in discovery is the very essence of creativity.
This type of new place challenge and engaged discovery is the WOW factor of thinking. Unfortunately, in our media- and technology-soaked world where we are constantly drowning in insights, information and disruptions, getting to WOW is harder than it has ever been.
Getting unplugged from that barrage is a start. Once unplugged, we need to get engaged in the wonder of the world around us. This is relatively easy if you are three years old and your parents have just taken you to the ocean for the first time. It’s not so easy if you’re grown up and your phone is ringing and you’re checking your emails or your watch because you’ve been to the ocean before and even crossed it once or twice and you’re really more engaged in getting something done rather than just wandering around. Who has time for wandering and wondering?
What does wonder have to do with writing?
The best advice Julia Cameron offers in her book, The Artist’s Way, is that you should schedule time once a week to take yourself on an artist date. Artist dates are one of the key components to her program of tapping into your inner artist, or, as she describes it, your inner child.
An artist date is something you do alone. You don’t take anyone along. This is time for just you. You don’t need anyone distracting you or making demands on your time or attention. Your inner child needs attention.
Alone, by the way, is a really good thing. Solitude is essential for self-nurturing. Julia Cameron suggests you program a two-hour artist date every week. I think it’s a great idea, but I know two hours sounds nearly impossible given the demands of work/family/life. If two hours a week feels overwhelming, imagine a life where you would take a half an hour every day just to sit quietly by yourself and think! Wow. Alone gives you time to recharge and to nurture your spirit and your creativity.
An artist’s/writer’s date could be a walk around a different block, a trip to the library to look at books about motorcycles (but only if you don’t know anything about motorcycles – the point is to think new thoughts and do new things!), a visit to a junk store, a walk in an unfamiliar park, a two-hour trip to a museum, or, even, going grocery shopping in a different store outside of your comfort zone. Imagine doing your grocery shopping at an Asian market (only if you’re not Asian) or a Latino grocery (only if you’re not Latino). Do something, anything, that takes you out of your routine and stretches your imagination.
When you go on your artist’s/writer’s date, try to imagine what your characters would do, think, say if they were along on the date. Take some notes about the setting. How does it feel? Smell? Look? How do you feel in this new place?
What about this new experience is intriguing? Challenging? Stimulating? Sit down when you get home, or better yet, when you are on your date, and write an opening paragraph to a story that comes from this experience.
Notice the people around you. Are they just like you? Are they different? How? Does time fly? Does it drag? Write down a list of adjectives that describe both the place and your experience. Play a little with this experience in your mind and see what stories come bubbling up.
My book, Ashoan’s Rug, grew out of an artist’s date. I decided to take two hours one evening and do something I had never done before: I went to a bankruptcy auction. The owners of an odd, high-end decorator- type shop down the street from our house had failed to pay their taxes for a number of years. The Feds decided to auction the contents of the shop as past payment.
I had never been into the shop, although I had looked into the windows nearly every day for ten years when I walked our kids to school. It wasn’t the kind of shop you could just walk into unless you were a decorator or had an appointment.
It was a very hot summer evening and there was no AC in the building. In fact, all the electricity had already been turned off, and they had rigged up a small generator to supply enough power to run a couple of large fans and a few bright lights.
The place was crawling with decorators and old customers looking for bargains. It was fascinating. I got a number and went along with the crowd. Before I knew it, I was swept away with the moment and decided to bid on a ratty square of rug kicked off in a corner. When I left, I had an old prayer rug in hand and a book to write about how objects change our lives.
By Carrie Knowles | August 14, 2014 at 11:45 AM EDT | No Comments
One of the most frequent responses/questions I get when I present a writing workshop is: Why should I write if I don’t want to be published?
Why make art if you don’t plan to exhibit and sell your work? Why play the piano if you don’t plan to perform?
A friend recently asked me to send her a copy of a piece I had written several years ago. It was a lecture I gave at Raleigh’s Pullen Arts Center in 2005.
It took me a while to find it. I reread it before I sent it, and was surprised to discover it has not only traveled well over the last nine years, but it still rings true for me.
I hope it helps you understand the value of writing a story, painting a picture, cooking dinner, singing a song, or doing something creative that engages your mind, keeps you alive, and connects you to the world.
Art as an Act of Memory
Memory fascinates me. In 2000, Random House published my second book about Alzheimer’s. Like the first, it was written in order to make sense of the loss of my mother’s memory and the shocking loss our family experienced when each of our own childhood memories disappeared from her life.
Memory is a human gift we have of preserving what we see and feel. It allows us to share what we experience and make connections with the world and the people around us. Memory is the thread that binds us to one another. Through memory we learn to love, to trust, to share. If soul is what makes us human, then perhaps memory is the thing that helps make us humane.
One of the things I learned from living with Alzheimer’s is that memory is a fundamental part of the everyday of our lives. We need to remember.
If we don’t remember the answers to the questions, we fail the test. If we don’t remember the way home, we can get lost. If we don’t remember to take the cake out of the oven, it will get burnt. If we don’t remember the faces of the ones we love and who love us, we become disconnected from our lives and the world around us. If we don’t or can’t remember, we have no past, no present, and no future. We are disconnected and all alone.
Twelve years ago when I first began doing research about Alzheimer’s, there were numerous wild theories flying about regarding the cause of the disease, from aluminum in pots and pans to deodorant use and fatty foods. One of the more far-flung theories was that our parents and grandparents were experiencing Alzheimer’s because they had lived through and fought in World War II and had seen so many horrible things, including the dropping of the atomic bomb, that they developed the disease in order to forget.
With 9/11, Columbine, Terry Schiavo, the Tsunami, two Gulf Wars, Apartheid, AIDS, Biafra, Beslan, Somalia, and every other tragedy we’ve witnessed in recent years, what chance do we have of not developing Alzheimer’s? How will we have the courage to remember?
Artists and writers have always served as scribes for humanity. They put down in lines and colors, words and songs, what they see and feel. When we write a story, draw a picture, play music, sing a song, dance, or throw a pot, we are engaging in an act of memory. It can be the memory of a face we once saw, or how we felt when we saw the bright noonday sun cut through a grove of trees in a park, or the horrors we feel regarding the terrorism and war we have witnessed and never want to see repeated.
Basically, we want to remember. We need to remember. Memories make us happy. They can also make us sad. But whether happy or sad, memories connect us. That is why we tell stories when we sit at our kitchen tables, why we take pictures when we travel, why we send emails to our friends when we read something that moves us. We want to connect. We want our memories to mean something. We don’t want them to be lost. Because, in some very fundamental way we understand that if our memories are lost, we are lost.
One of the most curious things about Alzheimer’s is that when Alzheimer’s victims have lost most of their memories and nearly all their language, if they hear a song that has some strong memory attached to it, whether it is the singing of the hymn Amazing Grace or The Old Rugged Cross, or even a song they once danced to with someone they loved, they can recall every word of the lyrics and can sing. When they sing, their faces are no longer blank and flat, but filled with memory in a way that can break your heart, for when the music is gone, the words and the memories are gone, as well, and you know they have flown away like so many other memories and are forgotten once again.
Some researchers have suggested we can stem the tide of Alzheimer’s by doing crossword puzzles and reading books…keeping active mentally.
Instead, I believe we should make art. I think we should take some time every day to pinch a pot, take a picture, write a poem, arrange a vase of flowers, bake a beautiful cake, sing a song, dance, or do anything to make a little art that says:
This is what I see. This is what I feel. This is what I want to remember about this day.
By Carrie Knowles | August 04, 2014 at 10:28 AM EDT | No Comments
Here’s a handy-dandy cheat sheet about how to use quotation marks:
1) Quotation marks are used to enclose anything directly quoted, whether from a written or a spoken source. Indirect quotations are not punctuated with quotation marks.
“I’m hungry,” he said. DIRECT
He told us he was hungry. INDIRECT
2) All punctuation involved in the quotation belongs within the quotation marks:
“What’s for lunch?” CORRECT
“What’s for lunch”? INCORRECT
3) There is one exception to this rule: when you are giving a short quotation inside the context of a sentence and the quote comes at the end of the sentence. When both of these happen, the punctuation indicating the end of the sentence comes after the quotation mark.
Did he say, “What’s for lunch”? CORRECT
Did he say, “What’s for lunch?” INCORRECT
Did he say, “What’s for lunch.”? INCORRECT
He asked, “What’s for lunch?” CORRECT
He asked, “What’s for lunch”? INCORRECT
“What’s for lunch?” he asked. CORRECT
“What’s for lunch,” he asked? INCORRECT
NOTE: THE QUESTION MARK AND EXCLAMATION MARK ARE PLACED WITHIN THE QUOTATION MARKS WHEN THEY APPLY TO THE QUOTATION ONLY, AND OUTSIDE THE QUOTATION MARKS WHEN THEY APPLY TO THE WHOLE STATEMENT.
4) The attribution to the person being quoted following a quotation is part of the sentence, so the first word in the attribution is not capitalized, even when the quotation ends in a question mark (?) or an exclamation mark (!).
“What’s for lunch?” he asked. CORRECT
“What’s for lunch?” He asked. INCORRECT
5) When the quotation has an attribution at the end of a complete thought, and the speaker starts a new thought after the attribution, the next quote begins with a capital letter.
“Tomato soup and grilled cheese,” his mother said. “Sit down and eat.” CORRECT
“Tomato soup and grilled cheese,” his mother said, “sit down and eat.” INCORRECT
6) When the attribution is placed in the middle of a quoted sentence, the rest of the quote, following the attribution, begins in the lower case.
“Tomato soup,” his mother said, “and grilled cheese. Sit down and eat.” CORRECT
“Tomato soup,” his mother said, “And grilled cheese. Sit down and eat.” INCORRECT
7) When the attribution comes at the beginning of the statement, the quote begins with a capital letter.
His mother said, “Tomato soup and grilled cheese.” CORRECT
His mother said, “tomato soup and grilled cheese.” INCORRECT
8) If the attribution is long, the quote is introduced with a colon (:). Anything longer than a simple introduction (he said, she said) should get the colon treatment.
When he came into the kitchen to ask what was for lunch, his mother said: “Tomato soup and grilled cheese.” CORRECT
When he came into the kitchen to ask what was for lunch, his mother said, “Tomato soup and grilled cheese.” INCORRECT
9) A quotation within a quotation is indicated by the use of single quotation marks.
“Who said, ‘Let them eat cake’?” she asked. CORRECT
“Who said, “Let them eat cake”?” she asked. INCORRECT
10) Quotations longer than two or three lines have to be separated from the main text rather than being indicated by quotation marks within the text.These longer quotations are generally indented and presented as single space text. There is no need to use quotation marks, except in the case when you have a quote within a quote of a long quote, and, in this instance, once again, you indicate a quote within the quote with single quotation marks. Long quotations, like short quotations, must be presented accurately, word for word.
11) As a general rule, when you move from speaker to speaker, as in a dialogue, each time a new person begins to speak, you indent:
“What’s for lunch?” he asked. “I’m starving and won’t be able to eat anything else until much later because we have a double header this afternoon.”
“Tomato soup and grilled cheese,” she answered. “Sit down and eat.”
“Great!” he said, pulling out his chair at the table.
“Wash your hands first,” she said, “before you sit down. And please, eat slowly, even if you’re in a hurry to get to the ball field.”
This should answer most questions. If you have others, please let me know!
By Carrie Knowles | July 17, 2014 at 10:13 AM EDT | No Comments
Dialogue is one of the great tools of writing fiction. So, let’s learn something about how it works and what how people talk to each other tells us about both the characters and the story.
Here’s the challenge: Go to a coffee shop or some other busy place where people are talking, and listen. Don’t pay attention to the words but to the rhythm of what is being said. Take some notes.
Remember, I told you not to listen to the words? As you listen, draw lines. Set it up like a dialogue. When the first person speaks, write A, then start making a line. Try to mimic the speed of each person talking as you move across the page. The faster someone talks, the faster your line grows. When the next person speaks, go down a space and write B then start a second line. Go back and forth between the two speakers. Your page should look something like this:
Go ahead and use a question mark (?) to indicate someone has asked a question and an exclamation point (!) when someone has shouted or raised his or her voice or given an emphatic response.
Do this for a whole page. Look at the lines: Are some longer, others shorter? What do you now know about this interaction? Is one person dominating the conversation? Are the two people taking turns talking? Are the sentences they are using long or short?
What does all this mean?
Some things are obvious. If one person is talking more than the other, you can safely assume that the big talker is the one who is dominating the conversation and that there is something in the relationship that is not equal.
There are, however, situations where the one dominating the conversation has the least power and they’re trying to talk their way through the brick wall of power in front of them to get what they want. Think of teenagers fast and furiously trying to talk their parent into giving them the keys to the car for an upcoming football game. The parent has the upper hand because they own the car and the keys, but the teenager is the one doing most of the talking because they are trying to either get over on their parents (grades are in and they’re not good…or the plan is not to go to the football game but to pick up the girlfriend and a six pack and make a night of it in the backseat). In this scenario, the one in power doesn’t have to do anything but listen and say no.
As I said before, not all conversations are about equal relationships. Sometimes, the big talker is the one in total control and the one who answers in short sentences is forced to listen because of a power differential. Could be a boss dressing down an employee or a teacher correcting a student. This conversation pattern could also indicate an unequal sexual relationship. The one doing most of the talking in this instance is the one who is controlling the situation, and who is most likely in control of the relationship. There’s a bit of tension in this dialogue.
How do you show this tension in dialogue? Short yes and no answers go a long way in an unequal fight.
If long versus short indicates unequal relationships, then what would intimacy look like?
The more intimate and compatible two people are, the shorter their lines of dialogue. It’s like the intimacy allows for a kind of shorthand speech between two people.
What a great way to show that one character is intimately involved with another: short, broken sentences…because the two characters who are intimate and share some history could easily finish each other’s sentences. They don’t really need to say too much.
What about two people fighting? If the fight were really heated, they’d be cutting each other off, not allowing the other person to finish what they were saying. So, the short/short dialogue pattern often indicates a form of intimacy. But, when people cut each other off, not allowing the other person to finish what they are saying, you are probably looking at a fight rather than an intimate conversation between lovers.
Long/long dialogue patterns indicate that people are on equal footing and are just getting to know each other.
Think of meeting someone for the first time. You want to get to know that person, so you not only listen to what they have to say, but you also choose your words wisely and in nearly complete sentences when you respond to their questions because you want to be sure to be understood. You want to look smart.
Whether your characters are sleeping together, fighting, trying to get the car keys or getting ready to fire an employee, you can use dialogue length to show rather than tell what is going on.
Okay, now listen to what people are saying. As a general rule – unlike narrative that demands grammatically constructed full sentences – conversations, even between two highly educated characters, rarely rely on full sentences. Grammar be damned.
Also, when characters are talking, they should be talking in their voices, not yours. Listen to speech patterns of friends and strangers. There’s a rhythm to how each of us speaks. Be aware of that rhythm and find a rhythm that fits your character.
Regional as well as social class speech patterns are most easily represented through the use of dialect. We often think that dialect is used to indicate low social status, but think about it. Haven’t you ever noticed really highly educated (okay, snobbishly educated) folks talking with a kind of high class holier-than-thou kind of dialect?
What happens with Gatsby when he is trying to impress? He tempers his speech. He picks up the dialect of his wealthy friends.
Pay attention to regional words like soda, pop and cola. Give your character words that we can believe he or she would use.
Make each character’s speech pattern distinct enough that we can tell, without you telling us, who is speaking when.
Writing good dialogue takes practice, but once you master it, you’ll discover a great tool for bringing your characters and your story to life.
NEXT: Where to put those quotation marks, and other questions of formatting dialogue.
By Carrie Knowles | July 01, 2014 at 09:19 AM EDT | No Comments
There’s a new program available that tells you how to write a novel in ninety days. What’s unique about this approach is not so much the ninety days (there have been other programs designed to show you how to slug it out in a month or so… not my style), but in the prescription that you spend the first thirty days NOT writing.
That’s right: thirty of the precious ninety NOT writing. Instead, you take the first thirty days to answer questions about your characters. Lots of questions.
In other words, you really get to know your characters: their likes, dislikes, their strengths, their weaknesses, their problems, and probably most importantly, their motivations. The idea is a simple one: once you understand who your characters are and why they act the way they do, turning them loose to create a story is easy.
I doubt, given my track record, that I could actually knock out a book in ninety days, or at least one that I’d be proud to put my name on, but the idea of spending thirty days not writing, but getting to know the characters instead, is intriguing.
As you already know (if you’ve been reading my other posts), I like and practice character-driven fiction. I like creating characters and watching them move through the world and their problems. To me, that’s something worth writing about.
It’s also something worth reading. It’s the old story of one hand clapping… books only make a sound if they have a reader. Readers are voyeurs, plain and simple. They like watching other people make mistakes, get into trouble, make even bigger mistakes, flail around, get it together and pull out of it.
Reading is gratifying and satisfying because reading a story gives you the luxury of watching something happen at arm’s length without having to get involved. Think of it as experience without the consequences.
Now, let’s go back to that first thirty days of creating characters before ever sitting down to write. If you want to be a successful author, you best not write without thinking about what your reader wants from a book.
The key to writing a good story is in telling not only the what, but also the why of your characters’ actions.
It isn’t enough to know what happens in your story. To tell/write a really good story you have to understand why something happened. This is the key to why and how you can write a book in ninety days. Once you understand what motivates your characters, the rest is easy, or at least easier, because you know what makes your characters click.
Grappling with the why of the story is the fun part. Why do your characters do the things they do? What’s in it for them? What has happened in their past that has made it possible for them to steal, kill, cheat, lie, drive the getaway car, fall in love or cook dinner? Are they motivated by money, righteousness, honor or desperation? What’s the one thing they want most? Asking and answering these types of questions will help you feel like you can turn your characters loose in your story and at least have a good guess as to what they might do in whatever situation you put them in.
Dig a little. Have fun with the motivation. Let the motivation become part of the arc of the story.
Real people are complex. This is something that Stephen King understands in spades. Like his work or hate it, once you start reading one of his books, you can’t stop reading until you find out just why his characters do all the terrible and wonderful things they do.
You say you’ve never been interested in reading Stephen King? If you think you won’t like Stephen King and all that crazy Carrie prom stuff, you should treat yourself to a really fine literary experience and read The Green Mile. And, if your favorite movie is the brilliant Shawshank Redemption, you need to know it’s Stephen King’s work. Surprised? Open your mind and take another look at King’s work. Pay attention to the way he reveals how his characters think and what makes them do what they do. Brilliant.
Bottom line: Characters should be believable. What that means is that their motivations should be plausible. Believable can be ordinary or extraordinary depending on the character’s ability and passion. Believable doesn’t mean your characters have to be ordinary, but their motivations need to ring true. Your characters need to react and act like real people. They should have dreams, problems, pasts, fine points and flaws. Drag all that out for your readers to think about.
Spend thirty days with your characters. Talk to them. Dream about them. Write them a note or two. Invite them into your imagination. Don’t worry about the plot or where your story is going. Get your characters down on paper and let them go.
Whether or not you charge through a book in ninety days, don’t worry. Once you’ve got your characters down, really down pat, the story is just waiting to happen.
However… if you’ve REALLY done your work, you should expect to be surprised by your characters’ actions. The best-created characters have minds and wills of their own… and like strong-willed children, they won’t always listen to what you want and will do what they want to do despite your good intentions of trying to get to the end of your book in ninety days!
Let go of all your great expectations of knocking out that book in a fortnight. Enjoy the fact that you’ve created some interesting characters. Let the characters have some fun while your book grows its own life.
If you trust the characters you’ve created and are willing to let them be who you’ve created them to be, your characters will keep the story moving. But, it might take them longer than ninety days to get where they want to go.
By Carrie Knowles | June 16, 2014 at 10:57 AM EDT | No Comments
At the heart of every good story there’s a problem that has to be solved. Or, there is something the main character wants that he or she either can’t have or has to pursue. No problem, no story.
Murder mysteries are great. The problem is right there: dead on the floor. Who did that? Why? And so the story unwinds…
One of these days I’m going to write a murder mystery. But, in the meantime, I’ll keep struggling with good characters that make bad decisions.
That’s right; the wonderful characters you have so carefully crafted have problems. They also make some pretty bad decisions. They fumble around. They screw up. They say and do some pretty stupid and sometimes awful things, and then, in the end, they find redemption.
That’s what it’s all about: mistakes that move to redemption…and doing the Hokey Pokey along the way.
The problem can be big, like Fargo, where the least of the problems for the main character is how to dispose of the body. Or small, like what do you do if a child you kidnap is so much trouble his parents say they will only take him back if you pay them: O. Henry’s Ransom of Red Chief.
The problem is central to the story. How your characters handle the problem is the story you’re telling.
So, what’s the problem?
Your main characters have to be flawed in some way. They cannot be perfect. If they are all knowing, kind, generous, good looking, trim, athletic, top of their class, honest, nice teeth, perfect life, perfect husband/wife, perfect children, beautiful house, a fine car with a tank full of gas, best mother-in-law ever… there wouldn’t be much to tell about them.
In fact, they’d be pretty boring to write about, and even more boring to read about. Sorry about that.
So, you take that “perfect” character and you give him or her a flaw. Dig back in his/her past to a secret: an affair, a shaken faith, a bad family, or some lie they told. Give your main character some doubts, some angst, something that he or she has to make right.
That’s part of the key: Main characters have to have a problem and also have to DO something in the story. They have to confront their past, correct a wrong, get out of their comfort zone and either leave or rise above a bad situation. Or, if you’re shooting for something warm and totally redeeming in your story: have the courage to fall in love.
One of the best examples of how character flaws and past problems generate an interesting story is the show Scandal. As the series unfolds, the story line digs deeper and deeper, one step at a time, into the past and the problems of each character. The show is unflinching and tough minded. It is more than compelling. It is fascinating because we know from the get-go that we are not in Camelot.
The other compelling thing about Scandal is the basic story line: Olivia Pope and her crew are the fixers. They are the ones who are Johnny on the Spot to fix whatever problems come up – the more complicated, the better. But, as we move through the series, we quickly begin to discover that the “fixers” have problems of their own.
I won’t spoil the story line for you if you are still rumbling around season one, but just say that from Olivia Pope and her motley crew to the president and his cabinet, the past and the problems of each character play out in unexpected ways.
And here is what you can learn from watching Scandal: From the opening scene and the opening few minutes of each episode, we learn something new and compelling about one of the characters and his or her past/problems. In the truest sense of the metaphor, we are hooked.
We are also teased a bit with something from the past that is put there to help us understand what that particular character may or may not be capable of doing. There’s some truly bad stuff, both past and present, and through it all, you never quit hoping that the characters will find a way to become their better selves. It’s addictive.
It’s also right there, from the very beginning, and we watch dutifully, waiting for both the problem and the solution to unfold.
The rule for the day: The more quickly we learn about the problem/the flaw, the more quickly we get involved in the story.
By Carrie Knowles | June 05, 2014 at 10:10 AM EDT | No Comments
Readers are surprised to hear I don’t know what my characters are going to do before they do it. For some strange reason, people think the writer is in total control of the story.
If you want to maintain control of your story, you usually write plot driven fiction (which I don’t). In plot driven fiction, you work out your story line (your plot), i.e. how the story starts, what happens in the story, and how the story ends, then create characters that are best suited to make all this happen.
Plot driven fiction is one way to do it. Character driven fiction is another.
Character driven fiction is less about control for the writer, and more about letting a story unfold through the development of the characters. Writers who write character driven rather than plot driven stories create some interesting characters, then get out of their way so the characters can do whatever it is they want to do. It’s a slow and messy process, but a fun one, and if you’re lucky, the plot develops one page at a time with twists and surprises you hadn’t even imagined when you first set those characters on the page.
This is harder than you think. Character driven fiction requires you to listen as much as it requires you to write. You have to listen to your characters. You have to be careful not to put words into their mouths. You have to turn your head and keep quiet when they decide to do something bad. More importantly, you have to let go of what is happening and allow your characters to muddle through their problems on their own.
Rule number one in character driven fiction: Your characters must ring true. Good or bad by nature, the characters you create have to be believable. They don’t have to be likeable (think Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs), but the reader has to believe, and sometimes fear (again…good old Hannibal) that the character is as real as the person living next door.
Just like people you meet in real life, characters in character driven fiction are not perfect. They can be sweet, mean, unpredictable, unbelievably kind, rude, irritating, self-centered and magnanimous, all within a couple pages…but never boring.
Writing a character driven story makes for a lively writing experience. You never quite know where the characters are going to take you. If you don’t mind things getting messy and sometimes totally out of control, writing character driven fiction is, by my way of thinking, just about as fun as work gets.
In case I haven’t mentioned it before: writing is work, but it is also fun. It keeps your imagination alive. It provides hours of entertainment. It challenges you to think about the world in new and interesting ways. It pushes you to be honest about what you see and feel. It is creative and fulfilling. But it is hard work.
While doing a recent workshop I was struggling to figure out how to best explain what a well-developed character is and how they act. That’s when I remembered Katherine.
Katherine was our daughter’s imaginary friend. If you had an imaginary friend, or have a child who has an imaginary friend, you already know what I’m talking about.
Imaginary friends are very much like well developed characters. They have whole worlds spun out for them: present as well as future lives (and sometimes past lives depending on the imagination of the child). They have wants and desires. They say what they think. They can be a little uncensored. They can be impetuous. They can be demanding. They can also charm you into doing whatever it is they want you to do…try your best not to think about Hannibal Lecter here.
Our daughter loved cake, particularly birthday cake complete with pretty frosting and lots of candles. She also knew, in the plot driven world she lived in, that she only had one birthday a year…and therefore, only one chance for a birthday cake.
Katherine, on the other hand, was blessed with many birthdays. Morning after morning, our daughter would come into the kitchen for breakfast and pull me aside to announce, sotto voce, that today was Katherine’s birthday and that we should bake her a cake. Being both the good author and the good mom, I understood the situation and baked a cake.
After dinner, the cake would be brought out, candles lit, and to the delight of Katherine (who had taken on the physical manifestation of a large doll in order to participate fully in our daughter’s world) we’d sing Happy Birthday and eat cake.
Katherine had other wants and desires as well, all voiced for her through our daughter. It was an excellent arrangement for all involved: we always had cake for dessert.
Writing character driven fiction is about not being afraid to create something and let it go. When we do this well, quite often our characters surprise us.
In my novel, Ashoan’s Rug, I was surprised as anyone that Mary Frances burned down St. Mary’s library. She didn’t do it intentionally, but she did, in fact, burn it down. Sorry about that.
If you want to get philosophical about it: Fictional characters have free will. So, let them make mistakes, ask for forgiveness, fall in love, fall out of love, fail, succeed, get discouraged and dream. Give them space to be themselves and trust that your story will come along for the ride.
By Carrie Knowles | May 22, 2014 at 07:50 AM EDT | 2 comments
Now that you’ve started writing, I feel compelled to tell you the truth: Sometimes your work will be rejected. But don’t panic. Rejection is just the everyday whiplash of this business.
It is important to remember that rejection has nothing to do with whether your story is good or bad…okay, sometimes it does, but if you feel like you’ve written the best story you can write, and you feel the characters are solid and the story line is compelling, there’s still no guarantee that it will get published at the first place you send it to.
In fact, more than likely, it won’t.
Here’s the reason why: Editors are human.
This is one of those hard to accept facts of life, especially if you’ve been writing and sending out your work for a long time. In fact, the longer you put your work out there for editors to read, and the more you get rejected, the more likely it is that you will begin to think that editors are a very low form of life.
However, despite how bitter the rejection feels and how humbling and humiliating the review process feels, the only way to understand why you’ve been rejected is to come to grips with the fact that editors are, in fact, quite human.
This is the problem. Editors are just like you and me. They actually LOVE reading, but some days they wake up wanting to read a funny story while your story isn’t funny. So, you get rejected.
Other things can happen as well. For instance, imagine that before the editor (to whom you have sent your wonderful story) gets to his office, he has a fight with his teenage son over drugs, the new ding on the back fender of the car, failing marks in school, and the son’s new girlfriend who has both a pierced lip and a nose ring and wants to move into the son’s room because she’s been kicked out of A) her home, B) school, C) the National Honor Society.
Uh, oh…the first story the editor reads that morning is your story. Most unfortunately, your story is about THE perfect teenage son who saves the world. Halfway down the page, the editor starts to hate your story because he doesn’t have a wonderful teenage son. Rather than enjoying the good fortune of your well-crafted character, the editor feels cheated and resentful, so he rejects your story, but this time he does it with a twitch of a diabolical smile on his face.
In their defense, editors get so many submissions they can’t give them all a good reading. Instead, they make snap rejection judgments, like: Did you send a short story when they had asked for poetry? Did you follow the submission guidelines, including font size and word count? Did you miss the submission deadline by even one hour?
I once wrote a story I knew was good. At the time, I was having a crisis of confidence (please note: this happens from time to time to every writer) and was feeling unsure about my writing in general, even though I knew I had written a good story. Not feeling at the top of my game, I sent the story to what I would call a grade B type of literary magazine. They rejected it.
The rejection spooked me. Had I lost it? Had I been fooling myself that I had written a good story?
By this time, having lost all sense of confidence in both myself, and my good story, I said a prayer, set my sights lower, and sent the manuscript to a grade C journal.
So, the third time I sent it out, I sent it to something like Tiddlywink Press and THEY rejected it.
Instead of being upset by the third rejection, I became angry. I was better than Tiddlywink Press and I knew it. The story was better than all the other journals I had sent it to and I knew it.
So, I sent it to Glimmer Train. They were not only one of the best in the country, but they actually paid real money.
I submitted my story to their Very Short Fiction Competition, which paid even better if my story won rather than merely being accepted for publication.
It was an impulsive move. The odds were against me. Glimmer Train gets hundreds and hundreds of submissions every week. The whole thing was foolish. My story had already been rejected by three far lesser journals. Who was I kidding?
Much to my surprise a few weeks later, the editors called to congratulate me. Selling Fish had won first place in their Very Short Fiction Competition (Glimmer Train, Winter 1999, Issue 29, p. 62).
When you get rejected, you can’t give up. You have to keep trying.
By Carrie Knowles | May 08, 2014 at 08:34 AM EDT | 1 comment
At the 2014 North Carolina Literary Festival, Lee Smith announced that she believed first person was the easiest and most natural way to tell a story because it feels like you, the writer, are telling the story to the reader through the voice of your character in the same way that you might tell the story to a friend.
The danger of a first person point of view (POV) is that the reader gets only one side of the story, making the narrator prone to be unreliable. Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye is a good example. The narrator, however, can also be reliable, i.e. telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
First person also has the power to bring your reader into the story in a very immediate and intimate way. I love how Isak Dinesen pulls you into her book, Out of Africa from her very first line: “I had a farm in Africa.”
This is such a great first line that you just don’t care if she is a reliable or unreliable narrator; you are ready to believe whatever she has to say.
First person, however, limits the writer, as well as the reader, to the exclusive point of view of the narrator. With this POV, you can’t know what the other characters are thinking…just what the narrator thinks about those characters.
Second person POV is tricky and can become tedious. It’s the “you” narrator. I think it’s one of the least successful POVs and also the hardest to pull off without the narrative feeling distant and weird.
Here’s an example of the second person POV: From the very start you knew this day wasn’t going to turn out great.
There aren’t many successful books in second person. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is a good example of the “you” narrator. You might want to read his book before you attempt to write in second person.
The “you” narrator, on the other hand, can work to surprising advantage in flash fiction when the narration is short and snappy and needs a quirky twist.
Third person unlimited omniscience, the he, she, it, they, or them narrator is used more often in fiction than another other POV. With this POV you get to see what everyone is thinking. Charles Dickens was a master of this and kept his readers engaged by letting them into the heads of a whole village full of interwoven characters.
Third person unlimited allows you to enter the mind of any of your characters at any time in the narrative. Also, when using third person unlimited you aren’t burdened with needing to have the main character with you at all times in order to tell your story. The other characters can reflect on the main character and help the story along.
With third person unlimited omniscience, you have the benefit of different points of view, which gives your reader more chances to identify with other characters in your story and to understand the main character’s actions from a variety of viewpoints.
There are some disadvantages to having the option to see the story through more than one point of view: each of your characters has to have and maintain a unique voice as well as a unique take on the narrative in the story, so your reader doesn’t get confused. With so many people chiming in, the reader can lose the story line if you switch POV too often and are unable to make the voices of the various narrators distinct. Again, Dickens is the master at creating and sustaining unique characters. A reader would never confuse the words of Scrooge with those of Tiny Tim.
There is a second type of third person POV: third person limited omniscience. In this third person format, you limit the number of characters who can have a POV in your story. In Lillian’s Garden, I made a conscious decision to stay out of the Devil hunting preacher’s head because it was more important to me for the reader to understand how Joe Nathan’s actions impacted the lives of the other characters than to know what he was thinking.
This is my personal favorite because it has all the advantages of third person unlimited omniscience, plus it allows you to concentrate your story on the major characters’ and the strategic minor characters’ thoughts. With third person limited omniscience you don’t have to be accountable for what EVERYONE thinks…just those characters you like, and a few scallywags you don’t like but who really manage to move your story line along.
Choosing to use first person rather than second or third person doesn’t make or break a narrative. It just determines what kind of and how many points of view your narrative can have.
In short, don’t worry excessively about what point of view to take in a story. Just start writing and see what develops.
By Carrie Knowles | April 24, 2014 at 11:23 AM EDT | 2 comments
Short stories are about telling the truth. Not exactly the kind of truth we usually think about, that this happened, then that happened, but the emotional truth of what has happened to the main character and why.
The idea of an emotional truth versus a series of events as the truth is a tough concept. So, let me take you back to last Thanksgiving.
Let’s talk about the dressing/stuffing.
But, before we talk about whatever it is your family likes stuffed inside the great Thanksgiving bird, let’s talk about what happens when two or more people gather together over anything.
First, it is important to know that when several people attend or share the same event, they have as many different experiences and/or memories of what happened at that event as the number of people involved. Why? Because everyone brings a different set of experiences and expectations with them wherever they go: they have their own emotional truths they carry with them. And, therefore, they interpret each event they encounter through that truth. It might be fair to say that emotional truth is a lot like emotional baggage. Like it or not, it’s there and it impacts how everyone both experiences and interprets the world.
Back to the Thanksgiving table and the dressing.
Everyone sitting at the table may be in the same family, but each person there has very different family memories from that very same family. This leads to quite a few family arguments, because we naturally expect that if we are all family, we are all of one heart and one mind. Not.
As you have doubtlessly figured out by now, it is not a good idea ever, especially at Thanksgiving, to talk about politics, sex or religion at the dinner table. Whew! Glad we got that settled.
But, even if you push those topics aside, there’s still the dressing.
It was your grandmother’s or your mother’s and they always started with day old bread, soaked the bread in broth and mixed in browned onions, parsley, celery and plenty of sage.
But, this Thanksgiving you are not at your mother’s house, but at your older sister’s house, and she has decided to make the dressing with cornbread the way her husband likes it. The switch of day old bread to cornbread would be bad enough, but last year, you had offered to have Thanksgiving at your house, which your sister flatly refused saying that Thanksgiving wasn’t Thanksgiving unless it was at their mother’s house.
Whatever your sister insisted on last year, now she is pleased to have at last established herself as the rightful owner of the next generation of Thanksgiving tables. You are angry and your spouse is rightfully wondering what the hell is going on. He would rather be home watching football.
I don’t have time to get into what is going on with your children because there was a fight in the car about whether or not the children would have to sit through the WHOLE dinner or whether they could leave after grace to go play video games with their cousins. Your oldest daughter, by the way, has declared she is a vegetarian and has already announced she isn’t going to be eating anything anyway.
Having Thanksgiving dinner at your sister’s house when she made a different kind of dressing than your mother always made is a correct representation or truth of what happened at Thanksgiving dinner. The emotional truth of what happened at that Thanksgiving table is not whose house you went to or what was in the dressing, but what happened before anyone ever got to the table. The emotional truth of the experience is the very foundation of short fiction.
Thanksgiving just got a lot more complicated. The dressing, by the way, was dry and lacked flavor. It could have used more sage and a whole lot more celery and onions. What’s with the roasted pecans and dried cherries? Mom always added walnuts.
If you took the time to explore the emotional truth for each character at the Thanksgiving table, you could write a novel about that one dinner and the cornbread dressing. But, right now we are talking about short fiction, so the best way to write about Thanksgiving or any other event, is to be aware of the history your main character carries with them to the narrative. Try to think through how that history impacts what they are doing or saying in your story.
Better yet, the next time you sit down to eat with either family or friends, think a minute about the emotional truth that each of you has brought to the table.
Oh yeah, and please pass the dressing.
NEXT: POINT OF VIEW AND HOW IT CHANGES THE STORY LINE
By Carrie Knowles | April 10, 2014 at 11:13 AM EDT | 2 comments
A short story has less to do with length than it does with form. Short stories can be as long as 30+ pages or as short as a few sentences. The shortest story I ever published was just 96 words (Long Story Short, UNC Press, 2009: My Family p. 88).
Short stories are human in scale. They are not grand and sweeping or epic. Short stories are not short novels. In some ways they are more about the ordinary than about the extraordinary. They are generally about how one decision changes not only the situation, but the main character, as well.
Short stories are character driven.
In this character-driven literary world, it’s important to remember that it is often not the decision so much as the character making the decision that shapes the story.
For example: The main character decides to wear a red dress to her sister’s wedding. Depending on the character, wearing a red dress to the wedding could be just a moment of flamboyance, a kind of coming out for the main character (the wearer of the dress). Or, it could be an act of defiance against a family’s code of conduct. It could also be a way to grab attention away from the bride.
A good short story makes the writer, as well as the reader, dig deeply into the main character. When you start to write a short story, it is more important to understand who your character is and what motivates him/her, rather than to know where the story is going.
I once met a carpenter who liked to put together 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles, working from start to finish with all of the pieces face down. He enjoyed the challenge of creating something without knowing what it should look like when it was finished.
Writing a short story is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what it is supposed to look like.
So, where do you start?
Some people start with an idea for a story and then create a character to play out that idea. Others start with a situation that is going to force a character into making a decision (Roald Dahl was a master of this method, as is Stephen King) and create a character that will be challenged by that situation. I often start with just a vague notion of where I’m going with a character I just met.
I call this my WWMCDT? (What Will My Character Do Today?) method. This is how it works for me. I like to collect characters: people I overhear in the grocery store talking on their cell phones, waiters at restaurants reciting the daily specials, politicians and preachers saying ludicrous things to the press, or the elderly woman at the swimming pool locker room today who was giving away radishes because she had to buy the whole bunch in order to have “just a taste of springtime in her salad,” knowing when she bought the bunch that her husband would refuse to eat the radishes. I collect them all.
Once I have a character clearly in my mind, I spend some time with them. I think about how they got to where they are and what they would do under various other circumstances. I puzzle over where they fit into the world and what they might want.
When I write about them, I let them take the lead. I try my best to listen to their voices and let them be. I try hard not to put words into their mouths…words they wouldn’t say. I follow them around. And, if I’m lucky, they take me down a story path where they will stop in the shadows of the narrative long enough to make a decision and change their lives.
I think about that bunch of radishes and the decision not only to buy them, but also to give them away because the woman’s husband wouldn’t eat them.
The impulse to buy the radishes knowing her husband won’t eat them is the decision that builds the story. The heart of the story lies not only in wanting something your husband doesn’t like, but also in having to give what you want away.
By Carrie Knowles | March 27, 2014 at 08:54 AM EDT | 4 comments
As part of my life as the 2014 Piedmont Laureate, I am writing a new blog post every other week. I am more of a writing coach/mentor than I am a blogger, so I decided I would use this blog space to present a series of mini-lessons on writing short stories.
Think of it as a free online writing course. Feel free to share it with your friends.
Let’s get started.
That’s the hard part.
Writing is usually not a team sport. Even if you are working with another writer on a project, you are still really working alone most of the time, with a little bit of sharing thrown in once you’ve got it figured out in your head.
That’s the key: IN YOUR HEAD. Writing is a head game and in order to succeed you need to keep your demons at bay and not lose your nerve or, worse, lose your way.
Writing is not only a creative act; it’s a courageous act. It takes courage to put your thoughts on paper. That empty white sheet of paper or that blank screen in front of you is intimidating. The joke used to be that a writer started out every day by sharpening twenty pencils, shuffling papers, making a cup of coffee, returning a few phone calls, eating lunch then sharpening another twenty pencils in order to get started by 3pm. Some, like Hemingway (one of my favorite short story writers), managed to smoke a few cigarettes during this getting started exercise while he sipped a few cups of whiskey-laced coffee before the first word dropped onto the page. I’m more of a tea drinker and a desk cleaner. From time to time I throw in a few ankle circles just to keep the blood flowing to my brain.
When they took the pencils and the paper away, it made starting to write a lot harder. For a brief moment in time there was just that terrifying blank computer screen waiting to be addressed: no pencils, no excuses, plus the computer had spell check so you didn’t even have to get distracted from the task at hand by leafing through a dictionary. Then along came Facebook to replace those twenty sharpened pencils and that list of phone calls needing to be returned. Posting on Facebook, alas, is not writing.
So, how do you get started? Get comfortable.
Yep, it’s as easy as that.
Find a place where you feel comfortable. I’m talking about a comfortable table and chair, as well as a comfortable environment. The table could be your kitchen table, or a table at your favorite coffee shop. What matters is that when you sit down with your computer or your notepad in your writing place, you’re ready to start writing.
Next, turn off your cell phone and do the best you can to keep from clicking on that Facebook icon. Do not punish yourself if your mind wanders. Wandering is good for writing, as long as you return from your wandering to write.
Start slowly. When you first begin, commit to writing for a half an hour each day you sit down to write. Stare at the page a little. Be happy with a false start or two. Get familiar with that magic delete button. Make it work for you. Let it give you courage to put down anything that comes to mind. Getting started means turning on the words and letting them out, no matter how messy or miserable they might be.
I often start a piece in longhand in a small notebook I carry around in my purse. I prefer mechanical pencils to ones that need to be sharpened. I also like starting on 5x7 note cards. A blank 5x7 card is not as intimidating or as big of a commitment as a blank screen or a full sheet of white paper.
I consider a good day of writing to be two pages. That is, two pages that are polished, that I like, and I think move the story along. Three pages is a personal best triumph.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that two pages, or even three, are paltry… not worth the effort. But, think again. If you wrote two good pages every day for a year, and you took off four weeks for vacations and holidays, another week for your birthday, and every weekend, that means you would have 235 days of writing, which would net you 470 pages. Once you got those 470 pages down, you’d want to edit (more on that in a later blog) and would more than likely lose 70 pages. After editing you still have a 400-page manuscript. That’s a big deal. That’s a big book.
But, let’s be realistic. Stories take time. Good writing is really rewriting. And, life happens all the time.
I’d be thrilled to end a year with 200 pages I loved.
Get started. Be kind to yourself if you don’t make those two pages every day or even only one day out of five. Life is like that: take notes.