Words for Writers

WORDS FOR WRITERS: The DO-ING Trap

WORDS FOR WRITERS: The DO-ING Trap

A young writer reached out to me on Instagram last month looking for some guidance when it comes to Character Development. She said that she was afraid that she spent a lot of time describing what her characters were doing at any given moment, but was failing to reveal why they were doing the thing, and what they were feeling when they did it.

This can be a problem for a lot of writers, especially those who aren’t thinking critically about the underlying layers and motivations of emotion in the scene they’re writing. Books, after all, serve only one real purpose – to tell a story that makes you feel something. The peril of simply reciting a character’s actions instead of revealing to the audience how they feel while they do them is real.

And because humans sympathize with others so strongly, the overarching way to make a reader feel something about a book is to share with your readership what the characters themselves are feeling in the moment. You need to provide readers with the opportunities to experience the emotion in tandem, and to watch those characters learn, evolve emotionally, and grow as people as the adventure happens.

Now, that’s not to say you have to drown the prose in blunt, obvious phrases like “I’m sad,” or “I’m so angry at you right now!” Novels are still, overwhelmingly, more successful when they can show and not tell.

I mean, I liked Lord of the RIngs okay when I read it, but ultimately I found it very boring as a story as it was a recitation of actions and histories and descriptions, with little to no glimpses into Frodo’s thoughts and feelings on the Quest. I couldn’t feel the weight of the ring digging the chain into his neck, I didn’t thirst with Frodo when he was parched, didn’t understand how bone-tired he was as he snuck through Mordor. I didn’t glory in the sun of the Shire on his face or the grass of the meadow below Weathertop on his feet.

But then Peter Jackson gave us this:

And this:

And yes, I am aware that this is a film, and a picture is worth a thousand words. But there’s feeling in these screencaptures, even as they’re static. In both of them you’ll note that Frodo is sitting down, resting, mind far away and leaning back on something.

But he’s not at all feeling the same thing, and his posture, body language, where he’s looking, what he’s holding, and how he’s reacting to the environment around him all gives the viewers a clue to what is happening to him internally.

And writers – lucky us! – have to do the same, but, you know, with letters instead of pictures.

When writing a scene, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • What is the Character FEELING in that moment?
    • What is their overriding emotion in this scene?
    • And what does that emotion motivate them to do, or not do?
  • What is the Character HIDING from those around them?
    • What secrets do they want to keep. Is it something dire?
    • How does holding that secret make them feel?
    • Is this secret distracting them from what’s happening? Are they paying attention?
  • What is the Character REVEALING Accidentally to those around them
    • If they’re hiding something, are they giving it away? Are they a good liar? How does that affect their body language? Can others tell?
    • What happens when the others around your character understand what they’re trying to hide?
    • If they’re not intentionally hiding something, they may still be giving clues away to something else – what do they looking, what are they wearing, how are they moving? What’s on their clothes? Think Sherlock here – and keep in mind, who in the rest of the group can read those clues, and how accuratly?
  • What is the Character REVEALING On Purpose to those around them
    • If they have a secret, are they hoping others will figure it out? Are they helping other figure it out?
    • Are they sharing information some other way, besides talking?
    • Are they actively sharing the info, or passively?
  • How does that affect the ACTIONS of the Character in that moment
    • Taking all the above into the account, what does the character do, where do they move, what actions do they make as a result?
    • (For example – if they are lying to their mother, would they go sit at the table directly beside her? Or stand further away? Why make that choice? To what advantage to them?)
  • How does that affect the BODY LANGUAGE of the Character in that moment
    • Are they excited? Bouncing on toes? Throwing hands in the air?
    • Are they exhausted, slouched against a wall or another person, struggling to stay upright?
    • Do they look guilty? Or are they cool as a cucumber about a secret they’re keeping?
  • How does that affect the PHYSICAL FORM Of the Character in that moment
    • What does guilt feel like? Squirming on the inside, heavy with shame, a headache?
    • What does happiness feel like? Lighter than air, the urge to dance?
    • What does hunger feel like? Curled in on stomach, weak, cold from lack of calories to burn, sleepy.
    • etc.
  • And lastly, why is the Character doing that particular ACTION at that particular time
    • If you’re adding actions just to add actions, sit back and think of how natural they are. Would that character actually do that thing, at that time, with everything else around them happening the way it is?
    • Stillness is also a choice, and it can be a powerful character-revealer, depending on how you use it.

Let’s do an exercise:

Go back to the moments where you character is DOING and not FEELING. Put a pin in them – flag it, highlight it, print it out and put an actual pin in it, whatever works for you. Then, when you’ve found several moments that need fleshing out… step away from the keyboard.

And act it out.

Say what your character is saying. Do what they are doing. And above all, trying to feel what they are feeling.

The first time through, do it exactly as your character is doing it; copy what they say and each action precisely. Mark the places where what they’re doing or saying feels stiff, awkward, or forced. It likely is.

The second time through, pay attention to those awkward moments, and try doing them a new way. Get into your character’s head and improvise; ball your fists, kiss the back of your hand if there’s a smooch, punch a pillow, pace, jump, use your body the way you really would if you really were this person in this actual situation. Make that cup of tea or take down that bowl from the cabinet.

Try to access the emotions of the character – and then pay attention to how those emotions affect your body.

When you want to cry, what happens? The back of your eyes burn, there a lump in your throat, your chest feels tight, your chin starts to shake, your nose runs.

When you’re elated, what happens?  Your blood feels fizzy, your heart beats fast, you bounce and hop on your feet, your head feels light, you’re giddy and giggle, your hands flutter. You can’t focus on just one thing.

When you’re furious, what happens? You slam doors, to grunt and huff, you punch the air, you stab your finger in someone’s face, your face flushes, your hands shake.

These physical reactions to emotion are a human  universal, and moreover they show the emotion the character is feeling rather than tell it. It’s like a cheat-code to getting your reader to understand what the people they’re reading about are feeling, are going through, without having to outright say that they’re sad, or elated, or furious.

When you reach the end of the scene, make notes on what you changed. Then run through it as many times as you need to find the right balance.

And then sit down to the keyboard and make those changes. I’m certain you’ll find the scene much stronger. The more you do this exercise, the easier it will get. Soon you won’t have to stand up to do it at all, you’ll remember that this is stuff you have to add into the prose and will do it as you write – practice, after all, makes perfect.

If this exercise doesn’t work for you personally as a writer, then try to find another way to access this emotional reality of your character as you’re working on the scene. Remember, emotion is the driving force of all action. What you feel dictates – or drives – what you do, and how and why you do it. This is no less true for made-up people.

And as always, I advocate that each writer try to get out of their PJs and away from a keyboard and take an acting class or two. In highschool? SIgn up for drama classes or join the club. Outside of school? Audition at a community theatre, or do evening improv classes. If you’re not up for public acting, read books on acting techniques, character motivation, and performance. Something, anything that helps you access the understanding that physical gesture is born of motivation, which is driven by feeling, which can reveal character. And then practice it.

Or watch movies, see what the actors do – how do they make you understand so clearly what they’re feeling, and why? And then practice describing that.

I promise, it will help you become a better writer.


There are also some great resource out there to help you understand how character drives motivation, which drives feeling, which drives action:


Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Or read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

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WORDS FOR WRITERS – When Is The Story Done?

WORDS FOR WRITERS – When Is The Story Done?

This is a question that came in from social media, and I’ve been pondering the answer for a few months. I could say something glib like “When I’ve hit my publisher’s word count!” but of course, this question is, I think, more about when you know that you’ve finished telling the story you wanted to tell – beginning to end and with all the adjustments and edits added during the drafts.

I think, if I may projet, what you’re really asking is, when are you satisfied enough with the manuscript to call it “done” (or at least, done enough to start pitching around or to give to your editor/agent.)

And that’s a hard, hard, hard question for any author, but a doubly hard one for me – see I nearly always write the ending first.

When I start a novel, I usually start by writing the scene that is, for me, the most powerful, the most attractive, the most fun and filled with the most flavor of the book.  Usually it’s either the first act, second act, or third act/novel climax, simply because of the way my brain works. By that point I more or less know where in the timeline of these character’s lives the story needs to stop, and where it needs to start. But of course those things can slide depending on edits and the need for background info, epilogues, a better tie-up, etc.

For other writers, they plot the whole book before they sit down, so they know before they start where the ending is. And for others, they just write until it seems done, and solidify that endpoint during the editing phase.

But as for knowing when the story is finished?

Yowza.

That’s a hard question to answer.

Don’t laugh, but for me it’s when the story stops squirming. There’s this feeling I get in my stomach, under my skin, that’s like a wiggly itch – it’s the physical manifestation of knowing that something is off, I just don’t know what yet. When I read the book and there’s no squirm? It’s done.  You could also be really morbid and compare it to a pinned live butterfly as well – flipping and flopping all over the place, shedding wing-dust and scales all over the velvet. I have one pin in it – at the tip of a wing – but I have to get another pin into the other wing, and then another in the bottom wings, and another in the thorax and … yeah, okay, I know I sound like a serial killer.

But the idea is the same. When the story is pinned in place from all corners, and the full picture is spread out, beautiful, and legible, then the story is done.

A good way to check is to write the meaning and beats of each scene down on note cards as you re-read the book over, like this:


The Untold Tale

Chapter One:
Scene 1:

Beats: Forsyth sees Mother Mouth approaching with Pip through study window –  goes down to meet them in the foyer – they check for/neutralize spells on the body Mouth has brought – body is alive, it’s a woman – Forsyth brings her into the house and they set up a room for her – Forsyth stays by her bedside, ostensibly as a host but really to keep an eye on her in case this is a ploy

Needed Because: Sets up Forsyth as caring and overly servile; intros world, Turn Hall, Mother Mouth; sets up Forsyth as spy (readers don’t know yet); introduces Pip’s scars.


When you have all your cards for all your scenes, pin them to the wall and connect them with color-coded string – for example, anything scene/card that builds Forsyth as the Shadow Hand will be connected by, say, Purple, while anything about Pip and her scars is connected in green. You can also do this with color-coded highlighter marks, sticky notes, stickers, etc.

(I do it digitally via Scrivener, which has a pin-board and color coding built in.)

When you’ve done this all, step back and look at it – does every card have a string attached to it, or a color coded dot in the corner? Do all the things you’ve set up pay off? Do you have a scene that is a repeat of another, does it re-establish something that was already established once, or drags, or is superfluous? Did you describe the same place three times or did the character growth arc flipflop?

And if it doesn’t serve the overall story? Cut it. Or fix it. Or rewrite it.

I call those moments “decks” – we build a lot of decks for our characters to hang out on in fiction, but we should really be building staircases. Your staircase can have some landings, some places to rest up and catch your breath, but ultimately they should be going up up up. If your characters / plot / forward momentum is chilling on a deck with a frosty bevvie, then the deck needs to be rebuilt, tilted upward, and forcing your story back into motion.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to book has to plow ahead, no-holds-barred. Your story can meander, and linger, and be slow, can treasure quiet moments and have multiple episodes that feed into the main narrative – that’s fine. So long as everything needs to be there. So long as it goes.

But a book should be waterproof and air tight, no matter how many words long it is.  Looking over it shouldn’t give you squirmies. Everything should connect, no scene or moment or even sentence should be meaningless.

If you can say that you have ruthlessly reviewed every plot point, every scene, every sentence – going from macro to micro – and can confidently and honestly say that everything that is there is something that needs to be there for the sake of the story, or the plot, or the character arc, or the world and/or word-crafting… then I think that’s when the book is done.

When all of the story that needs telling to make it a story is told, then then the story is complete.

I know it sounds complicated and rigorous, but with any luck, you’ll have your own intuitive version of the squirmies that will let you know when there’s still one more draft to do.

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WORDS FOR WRITERS – Fiction and Nonfiction

WORDS FOR WRITERS – Fiction and Nonfiction

My writing has been featured in the Bedside Press books “The Secret Loves of Geek Girls” and “The Secret Loves of Geek Girls: Redux

I caught up with publisher Bedside Press to discuss storytelling and the difference between fiction and non-fiction writing. You can read the blog post here.

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WORDS FOR WRITERS – The Value of National Novel Writing Month

WORDS FOR WRITERS – The Value of National Novel Writing Month

 

#NationalAuthorsDay falls on the start of National Novel Writing Month. This is my 16th NaNoWriMo and I want to talk a bit about what this ‘competition’ has meant to me.

I have ‘won’ a total of 12 times – that is, I have hit the 50k word mark 12 of those 16 years.  The years I did not, I failed for a few different reasons. In 2011 I ended up in the hospital just hours after the kickoff party due to Sudden Organ Death (weee). Luckily, I still managed to scrape a short story out of the idea, which was published in an anthology. That story actually helped me win a grant last month to write the full version next year (so I guess I know what I’m doing for my 17th NaNoWriMo already!)

The rest of the failure years, I had signed up and plopped down a few thousand words. But things like a thesis or deadlines for other books due to publishers got in the way (ironically, all of them past NaNo projects themselves). I did sign up with the intention of at least trying to win those years, but I just couldn’t make it happen.

And I’m going to be really honest – how I do NaNo now is not at all how I did it at the start.  In the beginning, I followed “the rules” pretty stridently: new project on November 1st, started nothing before that date, outlined or pantsed (tried both). And that was fine. It worked. I wrote two novellas and the lion’s share of two or three books like that.

But the more I NaNo now, the more I find myself Rebelling. One year I wrote some shorts that I had promised folks and never finished. A few times, I wrote scripts (one now signed with a prodco). One year I wrote pitch documents and starting chapters for a few different projects, as this is what was due. Some years I’ve finished novels I’d already started (pausing when I hit about 20-40k in August/September to finish the last 50k in November). This year I am revising an existing novel, rewriting huge swaths of it, and in some case just out and out deleting and utterly redoing full chapters. This will likely be at least 50k New Words anyway, so I’m comfortable with Rebelling in this way.

And you know what? That’s okay. It’s not cheating.

Because while the aim of NaNoWriMo is to write 50k on a brand new novel, the real true value of NaNo is not in walking away with a stack of papers. It is in learning about what you need to write.

 

Committing to 1667 words per day means that you need to carve out time, space, and mental energy to devote to the story you want to tell. Over time you develop habits, and figure out how to correct or accommodate them. You learn what kind of planning you need to do in advance (if any), what sort of environment you need to write (I can’t attend write-ins because I find them too loud and busy), what time of day you write best (I like quiet, at night), what sort of writing you prefer to do (I jump all over the manuscript instead of writing the story completely in order – thank god for Scrivener).

But these things that I know about myself as a writer, these things that I do and I need? I would never have discovered them if I hadn’t done NaNoWriMo. If I hadn’t tried it at least once. In fact, if I hadn’t tried a few times. Practice makes perfect, they say, but practice also reveals process. Like granite revealed as softer soapstone is worn away by the elements, the core things that you need as a writer – writing environment and time, kinds of pressures, outlines or pantsing, types of edits and beta reads – will remain.

NaNoWriMo can also introduce you to other writers, who can mentor you, or become your beta readers, or teach you new methods, or processes, or just plain help you (just as you’d help them in return) along your storytelling journey. Publication may not be your ultimate goal, but having friends who understand and support you as you create is still valuable. Community and support networks are so important as a creator.

Why bother at all if you’re just Rebel Writing every November, you may ask? Well, part of it is just straight up nostalgia, I’ll admit that. But part of it is that I do actually like the deadline. I say it every year: 50k words does not a novel make. But it’s a lot more words on the page than 0 words. There’s value to at least having that much, even if it isn’t a full complete novel. (Novellas, on the other hand, are 50k so that might be a complete story when you’re done it!) In that same vein, you can’t edit what doesn’t exist, so it forces you to at least get the darn thing on the page even if it sucks. That’s what editing is for.

Deadlines do genuinely help me as a writer. They give me motivation and a target to aim for. And who doesn’t like putting a gold star sticker on a chart, or a checkmark in a ticky box? There’s a sense of accomplishment that I treasure in watching the stats bar go up. That works for me.

But deadlines like this are horrifying for other writers, and I accept that.

The big truth about NaNoWriMo is that it’s not for everyone; but trying and failing at NaNo and learning that this form of writing is not for you is just as valuable as succeeding at NaNo. The stress, the deadlines, the community, the way it’s all set up – it doesn’t work for everyone and that’s okay. Now you know that about yourself, and you didn’t know that before. So in a way, you still won.

While getting those words on the page it important, the real thing you win at the end of National Novel Writing Month is not a novel, but a better understanding of yourself as a storyteller.

 

For more discussion on the value of NaNo, visit Chuck Wendig’s twitter threadAnd come be my buddy on NaNoWriMo’s website.

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Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Read other Words for Writers blog posts here, including past posts about NaNoWriMo.

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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get My Book Onto A Screen?

WORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get My Book Onto A Screen?

This is a question I see a lot from new writers – “Yeah, sure, I want to write a book, but everyone knows that the real money is in screen adaptations. How do I get that?”

The answer (take it from someone who has had a few close calls) is “not easily.” It can happen, but it is a very long process, with a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, and nothing that you can control until you are already a multi-billionaire who can afford to pay other people to adapt your work as a vanity project. (And even then, you still have to convince a team that your property is going to make them money for them to make it and distribute it.)

So, first things first –if you’re writing a book solely on the hope that someone will turn it into a movie/TV show, I would encourage you to consider that maybe you should be expending your energy on screenwriting instead of novel writing. If that’s where your heart lies, then follow that!

If your heart is still set on the idea of writing a novel, then I’m happy to outline the steps that a book takes from page to screen.

  • Write a novel.
    1. No, seriously.
    2. Write it. Finish it. Edit it. Polish it.
    3. People don’t license adaptation rights for unfinished works/ideas unless you are very, very famous and a proven cash cow. You wanna sell a thing? It generally has to be a FINISHED thing.
  • From the minute you write that novel, you own the copyright on the Intellectual Property (IP) of the world, characters, individual and particular details of the novel. In Canada, you don’t need to register it, but I believe you may in the USA.
  • Publish the book.
    1. You can self-publish it, or go the traditional route.
    2. The book has to be published, or filmmakers will never know it exists. Again, you need to prove that you can finish a thing, and they need the whole story to know what they’re agreeing to. Usually the whole SERIES, if there’s more than one.
  • When you publish a book with a publisher, they will not be buying your book, but paying you in royalties (and maybe advanced royalties if you’re lucky) for the right to license your IP and create a product called “a book” out of it.
    1. There will be subclauses for “a print book” and “an ebook”.
    2. There may also be subclauses for an “audiobook” if the publisher has an attached audio production house and/or is willing to shell out to get it made.
    3. Most indie publishers do not have the money to make an audiobook, and won’t take the rights for that.
      1. In this case you can either pitch it to a house or produce or pay to/make it yourself.
  • HOWEVER, publishers are not production studios and 99.99% of the time will NOT ask for further rights.
    1. Though they may include a clause saying they get to participate in negotiations for those dramatic adaptation rights for your IP.
    2. If they do ask for more rights, consult your i) agent, ii) lawyer, or iii) a friend in the biz to make sure it’s all on the up-and-up.
    3. Again, most indie/small press publishers won’t even bother including a clause regarding dramatic adaptation because they have no connections and no intention to pitch it around for you.
  • Once the book is out in the world either:
    1. An interested party will contact you/your agent (acquisitions folks read review mags and sites all the time), or
    2. The Entertainment Lawyer/Agent at your literary agency will pitch the IP to production houses, or
    3. You the author will start pitching it to production houses/creators, or
    4. You the author will decide to write the screenplay and produce the whole production out of pocket. (In which case, skip down to the celebration part of the list).
  • If A, B, or C: in the event that you get a bite, the interested party (it could be an agent, an actor, a director, a producer, a screenwriter, etc.) will enter into negotiations with you/your agent for the rights to license your IP for a screen adaptation.
  • Like the publisher, the company/individual petitioning for the right to adapt your IP for the screen will arrange to pay you for the right to do so. Generally this comes in three segments – an Option, a Greenlighting Fee, and a Back End Deal.
    1. An Option is a set amount of money that the interested party agrees to pay you annually for exclusive access to your IP and your promise that you won’t sell it out from under them while they work to amass funding/interest/cast and crew to create the adaptation. Basically, they’re paying you to have exclusive right to use your IP, when they get around to it
      1. An option is not a guarantee that the production will be made – people lose interest, funding falls through, studios change hands, screenwriters quit, etc.
      2. But it’s a way for interested parties to ensure that you don’t go wandering away with the IP while they work to contract a screenwriter, audition actors, ask for funding money, and build sets/costumes, and basically revv up to make the thing.
      3. Not every creator gets an Optioning Fee, and sometimes there’s a statute of limitations – i.e. after 10 years, if it still isn’t made and you’ve collected 10 option fees, then you get to take your toys and go elsewhere with them. This is actually good for you, because it makes the interested parties be serious and not just buy your IP to sit on it.
    2. A Greenlighting Fee is a percentage of the budget as it stands when the production is ‘greenlit’ that is gifted to you as a thank you when the production begins.
      1. Not every creator gets a Greenlighting fee, and the percentage changes.
    3. A Backend Deal is a percentage of the box office/merch profits you receive as a royalty after the production has been paid off, and the cast/crew paid out.
      1. Not every creator gets a Backend Deal, and the percentage changes.
  • Once that contract is negotiated between you and the interested party, you can make additions like asking to be the screenwriter (can be a good thing, can be a not good thing), asking to be on set, asking to be in the writing room for a series, asking for input on casting, or to be the story consultant.
    1. Be aware that the interested party can say no. If you don’t like that, then you have to decide if you want to license it to them anyway and remain hands-off, or if you’d like to cancel the deal.
    2. They may ask you to compromise – if you have no prior experience in screenwriting, which is a very different beast, they may pair you with a pro. Or if you don’t know how productions are made, what an on-set script supervisor is or a writing room is, etc. then they may pair you with a teacher-buddy. It’s not an insult. It’s just to make sure you have a support system when new stuff gets tossed at you.
    3. They may say yes. Make sure you really, really, really know what you’re agreeing to.
  • Assuming everything goes well, and you/your agent ink a deal you’re happy with, then an announcement will be made that the screen adaptation is in the works!
    1. Yay!
    2. Productions falter or get trapped in pre-production hell. This is STILL not a guarantee that it will actually happen.
    3. But you have a greater chance now!
  • The production company/ interested party will then get onto the business of sourcing funding, hiring actors, hiring a screenwritier, etc.
    1. You may or may not be consulted in this.
      1. They may really want you there, and really want your involvement.
      2. They may really have a vision of their own and don’t want your input. You need to be ready to just take your money and butt out, if it comes to that.
  • In the meantime? Write something else.
    1. Seriously.
    2. Distract yourself. Making films/TV shows takes YEARS.
    3. Other people might reach out to you interested in what else you may have to license when your first deal is announced. Make sure you have something when opportunity comes to knock!
  • Okay – so, contract signed, production in full swing, adaptation gets made! Yay! Celebration time! Enjoy the premiere!
    1. Oh god, wear comfortable heels. Red carpets are long, and you tip all over the place in stilettos cause the carpets can be squashy.
    2. There’s a photo of me falling on my face. It exists and I cannot make it unexist.
  • You still own the IP.
    1. Unless you signed it away.
    2. Read everything you sign very thoroughly.
  • Start over!

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Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

 

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get My Book Onto A Screen?
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