Sometimes the only thing that helps stuck project

. . .is walking around it.

Am I the only one who has to move to get my brain to work? I’m getting the big creative “guns” out today: Scissors, tape, markers in all colors.

What do you all do when a project Just. Won’t. Budge?

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Sketching, the “saggy middle” and The Winged Pen

Paris metro station under construction with spikes covered with orange balls imbedded in the crumbly wall.
A “sketchy” metro station in Paris looks more like St. Stephen pierced with arrows. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

Today, I’m over at The Winged Pen’s Master Your Craft blog post series.

What–you ask–is Master Your Craft? Each Wednesday, the Winged Pen discusses prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING.

(Handy list of Master Your Craft topics so far.)

My post is about that devious stretch of story landscape known as “the saggy middle.” This morning, I realized I left something out: sketching.

Sketching is what you do when you’re feeling your way into a piece. This isn’t about the whole outline versus drafting controversy. As we all know, there’s more than one way to figure out a story. I always have to use ALL the ways.

Drafting, in my mind, is letting the imagination lead you through an experience.

Outlining, in my mind, is hovering above a story to see which way you’re headed before dropping back down into it.

A sketch tests a tricky part of your outline on another scale. . .if my hero said this, what would happen? Sketch it and find out. Test your thinking with your imagination.

A sketch hints at a possible sequence in your “messy draft”. . .make a list of scenes you’ve already written. Do they make a chain? Test your imagination with your thinking.

I’m sure this seems obvious to all you industrious writers, so what’s my point?

Alternating between outlining and sketching can get you there when everything seems hopelessly stuck. Libbie Hawker writes about “beats” to fill out a story outline. Rachel Aaron writes about the power of getting excited about a scene you are going to write.

Do you do something similar? Or something very different? Please share in the comments.

 Read the Winged Pen post on “saggy middles” here.

Close-up of unusual spikes capped with orange balls.
Getting a fix on your story. Image: Close-up of unusual spikes capped with orange balls. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

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Tame Your Revision Step-By-Step: 4 Cycle Engine for Your Story

Infographic of 7 revision management tips battery iconsThis post is part of a TAME YOUR REVISION series that started over at The Winged Pen. You can read the overview, find the links to all the posts, and download the infographic here.

As always, feel free to share your best revision strategies in the comments! I’d love to know how you manage.

Public Service Announcement: Yesterday, my husband quoted a new study showing that cycling to work cuts your risk of death in half.

So, bike, writers, bike! 🙂

If you don’t have a commute (you lucky dogs!) you can also reduce your risk of chronic disease and death by walking two hours a week (six miles). The important thing is to keep moving daily. A half hour per day will get your creative juices going and may just save your life.

End of epidemiologist’s soapbox. 😉

“A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.*” What does that even mean? This whole concept sailed over my head for YEARS until I realized it means:

A story sets up the worst possible scenario for a character, makes it worse in every possible way until the whole situation explodes, and then ties most of the loose ends together to make it satisfyingly tidy.

*Those of you who don’t overcomplicate everything were perfectly happy with the first statement. Thanks for your patience!

CYCLING is a simple way to set traps for readers to incorporate story structure into your novel. Many brilliant people have written about story structure and how to use it elsewhere*.

*Need to read up on story structure? Try Blake Snyder’s classic and breezy SAVE THE CAT (start with chapter 4). Or watch Dan Wells’ inviting and efficient series of videos.

**Or go all in and join the whole Writing Excuses team on this amazing writers’ cruise.

Dan Wells gave an excellent revision workshop that began with a deceptively simple question to organize your whole revision: “Did you meet your goals?”

i.e. What did you want to do when you set out to write this book? Make your best friend laugh? Puzzle people with an intricate mystery? Dueling characters with dazzling reparteé?

If you know what you want to do, you can get help to do it better. I wasted a lot of time thinking that the experts were going to tell me what my manuscript was about. I think I thought agents had x-ray vision.
Don’t despair! Dan says: If you didn’t have a purpose before you started drafting, you need to find a purpose afterwards and impose it. This is when you get to cherry pick what makes a great story.

Cycling is the same idea on a smaller scale.

CYCLE

  1. Go back a chapter. What did you promise the reader? Read through the chapter and make a list of every hint you dropped. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised how many you find. Cut the hints that don’t line up with your story purpose.
  2. Deliver it. Find a place in the manuscript to give the thing you promised. The disaster that was hidden in the sidekick’s throwaway comment.
  3. Go forward a chapter. What did you deliver that needs to be set-up? Check the big scenes where the hero overcomes the evil villain, the girl gets the boy, or the child saves the day. Make a list of the feelings you want to give the reader.
  4. Set it up. Find places in the manuscript to hint at what’s coming. Seed some doubt. Give another reason why it matters. Get the reader just where you want them.

Happy revising!

Did you find this helpful? I’m always collecting new ways to solve my story problems. What easy ways do you build more into your stories?

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Tame Your Revision Step-by-Step: 4 Steps to SORT-BY-SIZE

Infographic of 7 revision management tips battery icons

This post is part of a TAME YOUR REVISION series that started over at The Winged Pen. You can read the overview, find the links to all the posts, and download the infographic here.

As always, feel free to share your best revision strategies in the comments! I’d love to know how you manage.

SORT BY SIZE

  1. Read Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K: How to write faster, write better, and write more of what you love. It costs 99 cents and is one of the most useful things I’ve read about how to work smarter. Here’s her post on editing.

Note: Rachel’s a writer–not a marketer–and creativity researchers have followed up on her work because it’s smart. I have no connection to her. I just like her work.

Don’t have 99 cents this month? Read her excellent blog post about drafting more efficiently here. The graphic below is from Vicky Teinaki and is based on Rachel’s book.Triangle of Time, Knowledge, and Enthusiasm, the keys to getting more and better writing done.

2. Make a list ranked by size of mess. The list is your friend. You can cross things off and the illusion of progress will be yours. 😉 Set yourself free from endless revision cycles. Figure out what you want to do and check it off as you do it.

3. Do the big stuff first. You know: start with the story structure problems, like the thrilling final conflict that isn’t. Or the main character whose motivations need work. Then go on to the ticking clock correction, season adjusting, and setting consistency stuff. Save the lyrical language and typos for last.

Scrivener’s status menus can help you stay on track. The FEEDBACK FOLDER post has screenshots.

4. Please excuse the mess. Revision is much more efficient this way, but you may have to practice overlooking the fallen plaster until the heavy lifting is done. Tracking your progress helps your inner child see that you WILL arrive.

Happy Revising!

Got some tips to make revision go more smoothly? Feel free to share!

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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Tame Your Revision Step-by-Step: 4 Ways to INVENTORY

Infographic of 7 revision management tips battery icons

This post is part of a TAME YOUR REVISION series that started over at The Winged Pen. You can read the overview, find the links to all the posts, and download the infographic here.

Feel free to share your best revision strategies in the comments! I’d love to know how you manage.

  1. Scene List.
    Scrivener’s Freeform option lets you move “Index Cards” around without changing the order of your story.

    See what you’ve got already. Or what has to happen to get to the story’s next big scene. Scrivener has a Freeform option that lets you move virtual Index Cards around until you find the order you like.  If you choose the Or you can write it out long-hand to get away from the screen.

Infographic timeline by Act of story for Too Late for Parsnips divided into two columns red for "on-stage" and purple for "off-stage"
Overview of my middle grade fantasy, TOO LATE FOR PARSNIPS. Small forces me to keep it simple.

 

 

 

2. Timeline.

This timeline is for my work-in-progress. Note: Contains both spoilers and things that aren’t true any more. And no, I’m not telling you which is which. 😉

Canva is a free online graphics program.
Depending on your personality type, it can be either a defense against the overcomplication gene or a rabbit hole. Make wise choices. 😉

To make something like this, sign up for a free Canva account, click on the green “Create a design” button and choose “Blog Graphic.” Name it something meaningful (you can click on the name to change it later.) Scroll down through the layouts to see what works for your story. I picked a free layout titled “Fiction versus Non-Fiction.” (You’ll recognize the Tame Your Revision layout too.) Use the simple editing tools to modify the layout.

 

3. Map the Major Scenes. Sometimes you can’t write the scene because you can’t visualize the setting. Try this exercise from Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Check out these writing maps or make one of your own for first drafts. If you’re further into your story, you might be inspired by these beautiful fictional maps.

4. Colored Markers. The non-computer methods work when nothing else will. Print it out, cut it up, and label each chunk with a sticky. Try the color-coding thing for each character to keep track of who’s where or what the dialogue’s doing.

The goal: Keep your inner critic busy. Let the story escape.

Happy Revising!

Got any good revision tips? Share them in the comments–save a writer’s sanity.

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

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Contrast with Apple Blossoms, Bach, and Story

These apple blossoms and buds look like visual staccato and legato notes.

Sometimes learning something that you had given up on changes your whole view of the world. James Rhodes’ How to Play Piano teaches rank beginners how to play J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C Major. I never learned to read the bass clef and I’ve really been enjoying this attempt. It makes you wonder what else is still possible.

Rhodes suggests listening to the following musicians play the Prelude. They all interpret it differently:

All of those versions got me thinking about contrast in fiction. While down the YouTube rabbit hole about what that middle pedal on the piano is for, I discovered Robert Estrin’s virtual piano lesson about using short (staccato) and long (legato) notes to bring out the melody in Beethoven’s sonatas.

It’s got me wondering how I can bring out the main story arc using contrast in fiction. There are lots of things to try:

  • Rhythm: Short and long sentences
  • Pacing: Dialogue, action, exposition
  • Setting: Light/Dark, Loud/Soft, Hectic/Peaceful

It all ties into Friday’s post on The Winged Pen about a Setting Exercise from The Rural Setting Thesaurus. Rebecca Smith-Allen’s post on the The Urban Setting Thesaurus is up today.

I’d love to know what you think about this. Have you consciously built contrast into your stories? Or do you have favorite examples from your reading? Feel free to share.

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

 

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Tame your revision Step-by-Step: 5+ DESPERATE MEASURES

Infographic of 7 revision management tips battery icons

Revising a novel is a form of bookkeeping. How do you keep from losing your mind? At The Winged Pen, we’re talking Revision. You can read the overview, find links to all the posts, and download the infographic here.

To go along with the Winged Pen’s post, I’m attempting a “how-to” series. Let me know how you like it.

If you find yourself in a revision rut, may this jog your creative process back onto the smooth road.

This week’s topic is DESPERATE MEASURES.

I’ve written about how to get the juice back into your writing life before.

*cough* I never have trouble with revision. Why do you ask? 😉

I once interviewed author and scientist, Paul Kindstedt, about his creative process while writing his epic Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization.

It takes creative muscle to write 9,000 years of cheese history! When I asked him how he did it, he talked about hiking, cross-country skiing, and ways to “refresh your mind.”

Creativity doesn’t happen by force. Discipline to keep showing up is important. But so is playfulness. Maybe you need the discipline of play. . .

In that spirit, here are a few more ways to help a recalcitrant novel along:

  1. Tiny tasks. Years ago, the psychological heaviness of my dissertation slowed me to a crawl. Finally, I bought a tiny spiral notebook and made a list of the teeniest tasks possible for the day: “Print out graph.” “Buy tape.” One day, my husband came home and I was reading a novel on the couch. “Didn’t you have to work on your dissertation?” he asked. “I finished for today,” I said, secure in the virtue of checking off my tiny task for the day. But here’s the funny thing: Tiny tasks get the thing done.
  2. Help someone else. Offering critique for a fellow writer’s work can do wonders for the creative process. It can help your self-esteem, inspire you to greater heights, help you to understand problems in your own writing, and give you confidence to improve your own pages. And that’s even if they don’t offer to reciprocate.
  3. Project switch. You can trick your creative brain into believing that you’ve left the “hard” project behind. Try a blog post or a small task to build up your courage before sneaking up on the monster manuscript.
  4. Fly and be free! You’ve worked through your pages, gotten critique, studied writing books, and maybe even suffered through your editing letter. Give yourself a break. Writing is supposed to be fun, remember? Let it rip for a change. You might be surprised when you look at it later. (keyword=later.)
  5. Overcomplication disease. If you write intricate stories full of plot twists and setting details, you might need the question that moves my work forward.

Happy Revising! And don’t forget ways to refresh your mind!

Have you got desperate measures to share? What works for you?

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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