QueryTracker Blog

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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Things I’ve Learned Along the Way: Conflict, conflict, conflict

When Mary assigned this topic for the QueryTracker June Blog, I asked myself the single biggest difference between my current work in progress and my first (long buried, never queried, and (to be completely honest) unbelievably crappy first attempt at a novel. The differences are many and massive -- from tone to genre to depth and beyond. You wouldn’t even find them in the same half of a bookstore if they were ever to occupy one. Of the innumerable “learning moments” (i.e., mistakes, errors, screwups) treated myself to, one sticks out sharply in my mind. It has little to do with craft, even if it’s what craft is entirely about. It can exist in almost any form, but its existence is critical. The more I read and the more I write, the more I realize the entire activity boils down to one thing. All we ever do is describe conflict.

Any book or story with an arc will contain conflict. Without it, there’s no arc. What I found revising my second manuscript, though, was that one central conflict -- or even a few interlocking conflicts -- was not enough. I received a lot of different advice from my critique partners, agents  with “revise and resubmit” directives, and even my writing partner, all pointing at specific issues -- all but one of them stopping short of saying (but still effectively saying) the main flaw in my manuscript was a lack of conflict.

Ultimately, though, every comment really said what my writing partner was saying directly. Even with a solid conflict on the macro level -- adequate stakes for all involved -- I needed more on the immediate level. That advice in hand, I looked at other comments from CPs and agents and realized they were all describing the same problem in more specific terms, but the problem was the same.

The result was an epiphany of sorts. I started thinking of conflict on three levels, conveniently organized the way we organize books.

  • The one I was handling just fine was the Novel-Level conflict. Within the arc of the story itself, I had plenty of conflict on several different levels. This is conflict at the STORY level, beyond even PLOT level -- the conflict that would show up in a one-page outline.
  • Chapter-Level conflict is when the STORY is broken down to PLOT, the actual occurrences that drive the bus, and problems that occur in the course of getting there that inflame Nove- Level problems. I am beginning to think of each chapter in terms of defining a new conflict more than anything else.
  • Finally, Page-Level conflict, which is the only one I don’t mean literally (but it’s pretty close, and catchy, so what the hell). This is challenging as hell, but is also what I increasingly realize separates successful authors from the rest of the pack.

The importance of Page-Level conflict is something I’ve learned more about reading other writers from a writing perspective than anywhere else. It’s the common thread that unites Dan Brown’s wild success (despite his  sometimes atrocious writing) with Dona Tartt’s cult like following (despite her sometimes challengingly good writing).

It can go by different names -- disciplined writing, tight writing, fast-paced writing, dense writing -- but ultimately the thing I’ve learned as a reader and writer that trumps them all is that Page-Level Conflict (and the skill required to execute on it) is key.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Things I've Learned Along the Way: Moments of Magic

As a rule, I don't have any of the stereotypical characteristics associated with being a writer. My characters don't appear fully formed in my head, talking to me constantly. I am not overflowing with story ideas, and I don't operate under the assumption that my characters tell the story and my fingers simply channel it.

Not that there's anything wrong with that attitude. In fact, not feeling that way makes me self-conscious as a bit of a misfit in the writers' world. I craft my stories extremely carefully, being sure to give characters flaws that will most hinder them, and I build a conflict around various story frames rather than letting characters "hash it out."

From what I've seen, when writers with voices in their heads get to the end of a first draft, they find holes that need filled, subplots that need expanded or axed, and characters that need combined or added in order to make this channeled story make sense. When I get to the end of a first draft, it doesn't matter how much planning I've done: I have exactly the same issues.

This is the point where what I call "normal writers" and I switch vantage points. I watch my friends who write fluid first drafts struggle with pouring craft into them. And me? I find the magic. Because here's the thing: storytelling is always magic. While first drafts are hard for me and require me to use crafts, almost invariably I fill holes in "aha! moments" that present themselves out of nowhere.

I sat in church one Sunday, half paying attention, but unsure how my nearly complete story could end. I skimmed through the Bible in front of me, read a verse, and felt a light bulb switch on in my head. The room around me seemed to dim and fade, I stopped hearing the pastor, and I opened the notes app on my phone and typed as fast as I could manage. The verse was hardly related to the solution, but it came. Another plot hole filled while I was coloring a picture. (On a barely related note, I highly recommend coloring. It's cheaper than therapy and good for plot-hole-filling.)

Filling in plot holes while filling in the marigold in my coloring book.
So what have I learned? That my logical brain is a dragon that in itself needs defeated sometimes in order to make a story truly come to life. I've had solutions come to me that I couldn't explain, or solutions that adhered the entire manuscript in a way that I'd never imagined when I wrote the thing. Whether the magic comes in the beginning or during revision, I've definitely learned that there is no story without it.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Things I've Learned Along The Way: Finishing

It's a thrill to reach the final words of your first draft. It's also a catharsis, and sometimes I'll just sit a little numb afterward, riveted by that sense of completion.

Of course, nothing's complete at that point. If this isn't your first novel, you know you've got plenty of finishing work left to do.

I'm going to give you a visual, since a picture is worth a thousand words and no one wants to read me going on an extra thousand words. I made this lace shawl [free pattern here] about a month ago. I hope you'll agree it looks nice (even though I ran out of blocking boards. Sorry.)

It's a really pretty pattern and it's a good idea and the yarn is nice and all that. Let's call that a first draft.

Writers talk a lot about how hard it is to edit. Half my writing-related Twitter feed involves people moaning about editing, and one of the big surprises of my life is how much I love it. I love editing. Editing is about the hunt. It's the hunt for sentences that are pretty good so you can flush them out, isolate them, and turn them into great sentences. It's plucking a word out of a thicket and saying, "You're not doing your job" and replacing it with a word twice as powerful to do the heavy lifting.

Editing is finishing work, and no one tells you its transformative power at first because you wouldn't believe it. Flush with the thrill of finishing your first manuscript (you may even have naively typed "the end" to the amusement of all your critique partners) you're saying to yourself, "It's got a couple of problems, but I love it and it's just right."

When you crack it open again to start the editing, though, you're going to have to fall out of love and start relentlessly criticizing. You're going to find the hidden patterns and open them wide so they're out in the light. And you're also going to find your duplications to cull them out. You're going to find those parts where you hesitate and learn that momentary hesitation means you know it's wrong, and you have to do something about it.

Only writers who've done a full edit on their own manuscript know the insane delight that happens when you realize two characters can easily concatenate into one much-more-appropriate character. Or the dread followed by the relief of highlighting a thousand unnecessary words (that is to say, they were necessary when you wrote them but the reader needn't see them -- ever) and hitting the delete key. Or that breathless moment when suddenly you main character's hidden problem finally confides itself to you and you're in effect holding that character's beating heart in your ink-stained hands, and you know just how to leverage that inner pain to create the perfect transformation.

Agents and editors can tell if you've done this work or if you've skimped on it. They may not know exactly where you deleted five adverbs from a paragraph, but they'll recognize a strong paragraph when they read it. They'll appreciate the speed of reading a manuscript without unnecessary verbiage, and they're going to marvel at your finely-tuned characters.

Complain about editing? It's actually kind of a let-down when there's no more to do. It's a moment of despair: I guess it doesn't get any better than this.

But gosh, is it ever worth it. Because in the end, your finishing work turns your little crumpled story into this:

 Someone's going to stop you in a crowd to say, "You made that, didn't you?" and bedazzled, you're going to say, "Yeah. I made that."

Friday, June 12, 2015

Getting Unstuck: The Krafton Method

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about “getting unstuck”.

For a writer, getting stuck is an occupational hazard. Our ideas get sluggish and the writing gets stagnant before dragging to a gummed-up halt. Sometimes, being stuck seems like the natural state of things, with merciful moments of productivity and creative flow.

Truthfully, I haven’t had to struggle against writer’s block very much. I’ve found myself in an awkward spot a few times, but it wasn’t because I had no idea what to write—it was because I had too many choices.

I guess it’s just the way I’ve trained the writer part of my brain. It’s always switched on, always whirring, always thinking. (Over time, I've learned that 90 percent of writing is thinking.)

And when I do type up to a spot where my fingers hover over the keyboard and I read and re-read the last line over and over, I don’t wait until I start to wonder where the flow went. I don’t give myself a chance to grow stagnant, or frustrated, or blocked.

I’m a writer. I write through it.

Sometimes that means opening a new document and starting something new.

This has been a very successful practice for me. When I started to pursue a writing career, I had a three-book project in mind. I put most of my effort into writing and editing and shopping the Demimonde trilogy.

But, like everyone else, I didn’t sit down and type out three books without missing a beat. There were plenty of pauses, lots of moments when I needed to sit back, reflect on the projects, think about what would work best.

It’s what I did with those pauses that helped me to remain prolific and productive. I wrote.
I wrote poetry and short stories and I shopped those, too. I wrote down ideas that popped into my head while I was driving. I wrote out quick plot summaries for those new ideas. I wrote pages of scenes and conversations and scenarios. Sometimes, I just wrote character sketches and peered into their imaginary hearts while they weren’t looking.

I wrote anything I could get my brain on and filled flash drives with it all.

And sometimes, one of those files would get reopened, again and again, because there was a potential world to explore and I couldn’t keep away. Eventually it would get to the point where I couldn’t wait to finish one book because there was another I was chomping at the bit to get to.

I guess that’s how my bibliography grew, despite my having a full-time job outside the author’s office—a novella, a few short work and poetry anthologies, tons of individual clips from magazines and journals, and four published novels. Five, actually, because the latest one (a Victorian dark fantasy called THE HEARTBEAT THIEF) just came out today.

And do you know how THE HEARTBEAT THIEF came to be? The same way so much of my other work did: I took a break from writing one book and flipped to a new page.

The first lines I wrote were a conversation between a young woman and a mysterious entity in a funeral parlor on the topic of how to live forever. It was a little creepy, I admit, but it was nothing like what I had been writing at the time. It proved to be the mental palate cleanser I needed and soon I was back to work on my original project.

The biggest cause of writer’s block is mental congestion. Sometimes, a writer gets so wrapped up in a project that it gets hard to think straight. By flipping to a new page, I shift gears and look out a different window. I fluff up the pillow and change the station. The congestion clears right up, allowing the creativity to flow at its natural pace again. Writing through the block is therapeutic, see?

My family asks me when I’ll ever take a break from writing because I always seem to be doing it. They don’t seem to understand that I’ve trained a long time to be able to exercise my craft with this kind of endurance.

Yes, it takes practice. You become a writer twenty-four hours a day when you learn that 90% of writing is mental. You train your writer’s brain to be constantly vigilant, always observant, and you coach yourself to take advantage of down-time by making notes and writing small, unrelated pieces. Keeping your brain aerated and stimulated keeps the ideas from growing stagnant and settling to the bottom.

Ready to get unstuck and stay that way?

Here’s a few tips from the Krafton Method:
  • Keep a notebook or digital recorder handy. (Here’s a previous QT article on why you should always have a writer’s notebook handy.) I’ve emailed myself when I didn’t have access to anything else. Sometimes, it’s just a description or a single line. It’s a seed for something bigger to grow.
  • Be observant. Notice everything. Take pictures if the words don’t come right away. They’ll follow, trust me. “You see, but you do not observe,” Sherlock Holmes once said. Observing involves taking what you see, ingesting it, and using it to think about something else. Another favorite Holmes quote: "You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles." No better way to describe my own method. I observe the trifles, write them down, and revisit them when I feel the threat of writing sluggishness.
  • Opposites are attractive: when you feel your writing is getting sluggish, flip to a new page and write a paragraph about something that is the exact opposite of what you’re currently writing. Change the scenery by writing the antithesis to the emotion, the setting, the occupation of your character. Create something new and cleanse your mental palate.
  • Write a poem. It doesn’t have to be good. The majority of poetry is terrible stuff. But poetry is blessedly free of expectation and demand. It’s pure expression and creative simplicity, even when written in its most complex forms. I like traditional forms such as villanelle and sestinas, because these forms have a sort of mathematical equation that goes into the writing. Math, to me, is the exact opposite of novel writing, and really helps to reset the prose side of my brain, thereby relieving mental congestion.
  • Move your butt. Go someplace else to write. New surrounding are both stimulating and relaxing and give your words room to breathe.
You don’t have to suffer from writer’s block or mental congestion. You just have to learn how to keep the words flowing. Using these tips will help you train yourself to be a writer 100% of the time.
Have a tip of your own to share? Leave us a comment and help us all become a more productive writer.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Getting Unstuck: Tightening Your Story’s Saggy Middle

Oh, the horror of the second act! So many things go off kilter here. And when a story isn’t flowing it’s easy to get writer’s block, avoid editing, or give up on it all together. The solution can feel really confusing and just out of reach. I’ve done a lot of thinking on this section of a story and just recently changed my perspective on it. I now look at a saggy middle as no more than a simple structural issue that can be resolved with a couple of easy lists. I’ll explain…

Organization – A saggy middle is a plot problem. And it often means that you’re not tormenting your characters enough. In act one you put your main character (MC) on the edge of a cliff. In act two, you should be swinging at her with a sharp sword. It should get so bad that she falls and clings the crumbling dirt for dear life. That is until act three when she pulls herself up, picks up her own sword, and fights back. So the first question you want to ask yourself about act two is, are you swinging a sharp sword or a limp noodle? Is your character gripping the edge with white knuckles or is she sun-tanning with a mojito?

Know Thy Weapon – In order to be an effective sword-swinger, you need to first know what types of threats/conflict/abuse work on your MC. So here comes the first list; on it goes: 1) your MC, 2) what your MC wants more than anything in the world, 3) what your MC’s weaknesses are emotionally, physically, and situationally.

Sinister Plotting – Now comes the really evil bit where you use your MC’s weaknesses against her. Here comes the second list divided into three columns: emotional, physical, and situational. And in each column you list as many obstacles and conflicts that you can think of that accomplish two things: 1) keep your MC from getting what she desperately wants, 2) take advantage of her weaknesses (from your first list).

Brandishing Your Steel – Once you know all the ways you can make your MC suffer, taking full advantage of her vulnerabilities, you have to organize them. This is a personal choice and will vary by story. You can put them in escalating order or they may organize themselves organically based on your plot arc. But the point is to list them out and know exactly which ones you are gonna use (the most difficult ones). The more these lists make you cringe and feel bad for your MC, the better.

The point of doing this is to keep your stakes and suspense high. Ask yourself every step of the way if the conflicts are as bad as they can be or if you can make them worse. This makes the resolution of act three so much more gratifying and keeps readers up until 3AM desperate to know how your book ends. Of course, there are lots of other elements that need to connect in act two, but this plot structure will give you a backbone on which to accomplish them. And if you find yourself writing a scene that resolves your character’s tension… imagine me calling you a “limp noodle” in your head and then press the delete key.

Happy writing, everyone!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Getting Unstuck: Why Gumby never had writer’s block

“Stuck” can take many forms. I’ve been stuck because I was overwhelmed with ideas and stuck because it seemed like the well was dry and I had none. I’ve become obsessed with the structural elements of a story to the point I couldn’t figure out how to get the story out, and lost days to research on minutia no reader would spend more than a few seconds glancing past. Ultimately, for me, one cure (and only one cure) seems to cure “stuck,” regardless of the cause.

On May 19, I posted a question on Query Tracker because, although I hadn’t identified my problem as me being stuck, that’s precisely what had happened. I realized that’s what had happened when one of the board’s long-time members, who happens to be my writing partner, chimed in. She ignored my question about epistolary novels and went right to the heart of the problem. Her sage, if not delicate, advice was: “just start writing the f***er and see where it takes you.”

You may think “just write” is too obvious, maybe even too trite, to be much of a solution, but it’s definitely at least part of any solution to this problem. We know that, since “just writing” is also the goal we seek – any solution is going to be measured entirely based on whether we end up “just writing” or not. But if we were always able to “just write” there wouldn’t be a problem for us to solve by “just writing.”

And we DO get stuck. Sometimes, when the problem is a simple one like me over thinking how to deal with a specific structural issue, ignoring that issue and forging forward is an option -- the only option, really. When it comes to distractions, research rabbit trails, structural questions, and other things that mean we've basically chosen to be stuck, not making that choice – i.e., “just writing” is the key. So I narrowed my research down to cases where people were motivated and attempting to write but but still unable to do so. Instances where “just write” just didn’t work.

Excited to put off writing this post by researching it, I didn’t “just write,” and instead found a number of studies looking at the causes and implications of this phenomenon. One particularly interesting study was conducted by Mike Rose at UCLA’s Writing Research Project. His conclusion, mirrored in a number of other studies, comes down to rigidity.

For some people, the process of writing is a fluid process. They have rules and plans, but when something requires the rules to bend or plans to change, they respond flexibly. Rose found these writers did not commonly suffer from writer's block. “Stuck,” only happens when the thing that needs to be written is different from the thing that the writer planned to write.

Your writing process is not the problem. Your prewriting process is not the problem. The problem, and the solution, rests with how rigidly you (mostly subconsciously) adhere to that process when the inevitable happens and your chosen process not the right process for writing what needs to go on the page. Some people tend to adapt their strategies without even noticing. Others see their writing rules and planning strategies as "writing," not one particular set of rules they’ve adopted, and therefore don’t just use a different set of rules if that’s what it takes to get the job done.

Arrival at the destination drives the process for one group, and their process is a compass. If they need to go east to find a place to cross the river before resuming the trek west, the process keeps them from getting lost, but doesn’t block them from continuing on their way. For others, a specific trail on a specific map drives the process, and if a rockslide has buried the trail, they can’t go off trail long enough to keep moving toward the goal.

And all “just write” means to those people is stare harder at a map they know won’t get them where they need to go.

Flexibility needs to be added to writing for “just write” to work. Particularly for the people who are most likely to need that advice. The real solution may stem from learning what kind of subconscious rules they’ve imposed on themselves – tricky things that are hard to see. There are a million exercises to cure “writers block” all over the interwebs. Used by themselves, they may be a band-aid for one particular bout of writers block. BUT, if you approach those exercises as diagnostic tools and use them to identify the hidden, inflexible rule that caused the bout of block in the first place, you can take a huge step toward mastering even the unconscious and inflexible parts of your process.