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Monday, December 12, 2011

Thinking about Hiring a Copyeditor?

What does a good editor do?

A good editor will not just point out errors; she explains them, providing you with an education to enable you to perform a stronger rewrite. For instance, if your manuscript includes point-of-view violations—a major reason for fiction rejection—she will offer a thorough explanation of the concept and provide easy-to-understand examples. A good editor will encourage you and compliment you on your strengths, but she will not hold back in showing you where you need improvement or are making repeated mistakes. She does not expect you to know all the book publishing rules for copyediting—that’s her job. But she does try to help you understand some basic underlying principles that you might need to learn in order to be a better writer. A good editor knows your book is your “baby” and that you have poured many hours into writing it, but her goal is to help you make that book the best it can be, and sometimes that requires you, the author, to make drastic changes. In other words, a good editor is “on your side” and wants to help, but she is mostly concerned with getting your book in the best shape possible.

Why do I need a book editor?

If you plan to submit your manuscript to traditional publishers, you should eliminate all possible errors in advance. Manuscript submissions may be rejected for the simplest of reasons. Likewise, you could be unknowingly committing major errors. You have only one opportunity to make a first impression with a publisher; a professional edit will maximize the impression you make.
If you plan to self-publish, you’ll want your printed book to compare favorably with traditionally published books, all of which are subjected to thorough edits; that’s what assures consistent quality from one book to the next. To maximize your self-publication experience, have your manuscript professionally edited and avoid potential embarrassment by correcting all errors prior to printing. Some self-publishing or POD companies include a full edit in their publishing package, but if you can show your book has already been professionally edited, they will usually waive that fee.

What can I expect from a book edit?

Most edits (excluding proofreads) include marking up your manuscript and giving suggestions on how to fix a sentence when needed. You’ll need to address all the marked items on each manuscript page, then address the major concerns in a comprehensive rewrite. This could involve considerable rewriting, depending upon the degree of the problem(s).
An edit alone will not impact your chances of publication. The quality of your rewrite incorporating the editorial advice will determine your level of success. An edit doesn’t excuse you from further work on your manuscript; in fact, the opposite is true. You’ll need to perform a thorough rewrite following an edit to vastly improve your manuscript. Still, there is no guarantee that if you follow your editor’s suggestions and have your book free of errors that it will sell. But you will have a better chance than if you did not have your book professionally edited.
Consider an edit a learning experience. If you’re unwilling to learn, save your money, but don’t expect to be published easily.What is the most important consideration in selecting a book editor?If you plan to submit your manuscript to traditional publishers and hope to avoid rejection, you need someone who has a publishing record and who has clients who have gone on, after using her editing services, to get contracts with agents and publishers. The Internet abounds with editors eager to attract your business, but the overwhelming majority have never actually worked in an editorial capacity for publishers or have written and sold books of their own. Punctuation and grammar are only two of many reasons for rejection. Without actual professional experience, an editor cannot know what those other reasons are. If you are writing a novel, it helps tremendously to have an editor who is a published, experienced novelist. Many editors can fix punctuation, but few editors can really help a novelist with her plot, voice, pacing, tension, and all the other important facets inherent in a novel. If you are just needing a proofread, this isn’t crucial, but if you need a substantive edit or even a content edit, it helps to have an editor who is also an author.
Don’t confuse editing with proofreading. Any decent English professor can proofread your manuscript to correct/identify poor grammar, punctuation errors, incomplete sentences, etc. A professional edit includes all of these, plus a thorough assessment of your manuscript that involves “reading between the lines” to evaluate your focus, cohesiveness, structure, characterization, etc. English professors are not qualified to address a manuscript through the eyes of the publishing industry. Few English professors, if any, have had commercial editing experience.

Why is manuscript format so important?

If your manuscript doesn’t look the way publishers expect it to, they are likely to reject it without reading a single word. Publishers have specific format requirements that will be revealed to you through an edit. An editor will require basic manuscript formatting reflective of industry standards. This gets you, the author, accustomed to formatting your manuscript properly and makes the editing process easier.
My manuscript has already been professionally edited, but there still seems to be a problem. Should I invest in a second edit?
Numerous manuscripts that have already been professionally edited often still have almost as many problems as in manuscripts that had never been edited. What is your manuscript worth to you? If you feel it is still not right and you want to make it the best it can be, then by all means invest in a second edit.

How can an experienced editor detect problems that other editors miss?

If an editor evaluates your manuscript from a purely academic perspective, she will miss issues that are extremely important to commercial publishers. College English professors don’t work for commercial publishers. They evaluate manuscripts from an entirely different perspective than commercial publishers. That’s why many hugely successful novels are not necessarily well written. They are highly criticized by the academic community, but still hit the best-seller lists. Of course, some of what an editor suggests is purely subjective. A critique, overall, is a subjective assessment, and often one critique will vary greatly from another. Some editors feel critiques are worthless for this reason. But readers, agents, and publishers also have subjective tastes–and as with an experienced editor (experienced in the current book publishing “world”), these subjective responses to your manuscript are based on years of expertise, knowing what truly “works” and doesn’t “work” in a book. A good critique does not just reveal the critiquer’s “personal tastes,” but brings attention to the time-tested “rules” or principles that make a book strong and well constructed.

Why is payment in advance a good policy?

To get the best, most accurate evaluation of your work, an editor must be totally honest and candid in her remarks. If paid half up front and the remainder on completion, editors may have a tendency to sugar-coat their comments to assure receipt of the final payment. Remember, you’re paying for honest criticism. You may not agree with everything your editor says about your work. Sometimes the truth hurts, but only total honesty from your book editor will prove helpful.
Are book editors usually qualified across the board or do they specialize in specific areas?
As is the case with most other professions, book editors are typically experienced within only a few specific categories. No one is qualified to professionally edit everything. For instance, a children’s book editor would be of little help in editing a science fiction novel. A good editor will often turn business away when she doesn’t feel that she’s the best editor for someone’s manuscript.

Should I copyright my manuscript before sending it to a book editor?

Current law states that your copyright on your written work is implied and protected without registering with the US Copyright Office. It’s highly unlikely that your manuscript will be plagiarized by anyone.
Could an unscrupulous book editor steal your idea? It’s possible, but highly unlikely. Serious writers rarely wish to write someone else’s idea; in fact, most writers have more ideas of their own than they’ll ever have time to write about. The theft of an idea is essentially a needless fear.

I hope these points will give you the needed foreknowledge to help you decide how to choose a good copyeditor for your manuscript! And if you are not sure your book is really ready for the editing stage, consider getting a critique. Check out this article on the need for a professional critique: http://critiquemymanuscript.com/

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What's Your Motif?

Using motifs in writing fiction is one of the most powerful and evocative ways of getting across your themes in your novel. Few authors use them, and few use them well. My favorite novels of all time are ones that use motifs beautifully throughout their novel, and these elements weaving through their stories tend to stay with me for months and years after I've read the book. Why is that, and just what are motifs and how can they be utilized effectively in fiction?

Two definitions of motif in Merriam-Webster's give a good feel for what a motif is: "a dominant idea or central theme; a single or repeated design or color." Think about a motif as a splash of color that you are adding to your story palette--a very noticeable, specific color that appears from time to time and that "blends in" beautifully with the overall picture you are painting. As an example, you could say that I just introduced a motif in this discussion by using the concept of color to emphasize my theme.

Motifs can be an object, an idea, a word or phrase, a bit of speech--and you can combine these in your novel to create richness. I like to have at least two or three motifs woven in my novel, and I'll give you an example by referring to my contemporary drama/mystery Conundrum.

In Conundrum, my protagonist, Lisa, is searching to uncover the truth regrading her father's bizarre death twenty-five years earlier. Her interest and effort is prompted by her brother's suicidal bipolar condition, which she believes is exacerbated by the myths and burdens surrounding their father's death. So as Lisa embarks on this journey, I brought into play a number of motifs. the first is obvious--the word conundrum, which is the overall theme and serves as the title. The best use of a motif is in your title, and a great title will tie in to your book's theme, often as both a motif and a double meaning. for example--Jodi Picoult's book titles often do this, as seen in Saving Faith ("faith" being both the girl character's name and hinting at her need of being saved) and Plain Truth (where "plain" refers to the Amish people by that name as well as the book's plot wherein the plain truth needs to be revealed in the case of a mysterious murder among the Amish). So, in Conundrum, I open the novel with an actual word conundrum, one that has great symbolism to Lisa's quest. She tells of how she and her brother told conundrums through their teen years, and then I introduce a specific conundrum that serves as another motif in the book.

Lisa's father's speciality was in boolean algebra. Lisa discovers a conundrum based on that algebraic formula of "and, or, or not." What I did, then was take two motifs--the conundrum and the father's profession, and found a way to tie them together--which is a great thing to do. Throughout the novel, Lisa comes across clues that make her think "and, or, or not." Her quest is one big conundrum. and the next motif comes from the actual conundrum she found--where two guards each stand in front of a door, each claiming they guard the door to enlightenment, but one is lying and one is telling the truth. The conundrum requires the puzzle-solver to figure out which door really does lead to enlightenment. You can imagine why I was so thrilled to run across this conundrum, as it represented Lisa's search for truth (enlightenment) but with the confusion of not just many doors but many guards claiming they were telling the truth.

I hope you can see here the motifs at work and how, throughout a novel, these can surface to bring cohesion to a story. You can use an object, like a balloon for example, to symbolize important qualities. A balloon could represent freedom, the need for release. A slow-growing tree could represent faithfulness, steadfastness through all seasons, something a character can be viewing out her window at different times in her life. One of my favorite books, The Art of Racing in the Rain, uses the motif of race-car driving throughout the book as metaphor and symbolism.

So as you plot out your novel, or tackle your rewrite, think of two or three motifs you can weave in, then go back through your book and place them strategically. if you can somehow use the motif in your title, even better. And if you can think of motifs that parallel and/or enhance your overall theme, you will have a book that will be unforgettable. pay attention as you read great novels to see if you can spot the motifs the author has used. you will be surprised how you will start seeing them if you pay attention and look for them. May these thoughts spark some ideas in your head and get you running to your pages!

BTW, you can now get Conundrum as an ebook! Order from Kindle, B&N, or Smashwords! Here are the links:



Monday, July 4, 2011

Life in the "Fast" Lane

When I started my fast last week, I really hadn't spent any time researching fasting from a biblical standpoint. Years ago I used to fast for six days every few months as a healthy way to clean out my "system" and it always felt great.

But this fast was begun out of desperation. I needed to hear God in my situation, and needed serious intervention. All I could think of was I needed to show God I was downright serious about getting his help now and urgently. I didn't know if what I was doing was right or wrong; I felt a bit like I was giving God an ultimatum--that if he didn't help me, I would continue to fast and either he would step in and show he cared or I would eventually waste away and die.

Okay, I know that sounds immature and ridiculous, but when you are faced with an unbearable need and feel your prayers are hitting the ceiling of your house and falling splat on the ground like dead birds, it can affect your faith. My faith felt shattered and puny. I'm just being honest here.

It wasn't until last evening that I sat down and did some research about fasting as to what the Bible says about it. I found some amazing articles and looked up a lot of Scriptures and it was only then, five days into my fast, that I saw how God's spirit had led me into this intense period of devotion.

Without going into pages of information, I will just make a list of the amazing things I learned about fasting. I will not cite the Scriptures, but these things are with biblical precedent. But I was amazed to see the power of fasting and its uses.

One thing, though, that stuck out to me is something I was already aware of. That Jesus said, "When you fast ..." and proceeded to tell his disciples how they should behave. He didn't say "if." He also said before his death that after he was crucified his followers would fast. And there are numerous accounts in the NT of the apostles and disciples fasting for various reasons. Obviously Jesus felt fasting was an important part of worship. He wants us to do it. But it is important to know why and how you do it. I 'm not going to get into the logistics about how to fast and how to break a fast and all that. That's a whole other topic. But here's what stuck with me:

  • Many people believe that fasting is to move the hand of God, when in actuality it is to make Satan turn loose the things he is holding. I felt this keen sense that my family was under some sort of demonic hold, a spirit of lies that we could not break.

  • When we fast, we undo the heavy burden and break every yoke of the enemy. Fasting is an important key to getting the victory over a hard situation that does not seem to respond to normal prayer. This hit home, big-time for me. We had been praying years about certain issues and could not break free through all the hours of agonized prayer we had sent heavenward.

  • Fasting builds our faith. When Jesus said a particular demon couldn't be cast out except through prayer and fasting, he implied fasting has a particular power over demonic holding. And then he chastised those around them for their lack of faith. Fasting, then, builds that faith.

  • Fasting is a form of afflicting our souls. It suppresses the flesh and heightens our spiritual sensitivity.

  • Fasting stirs up zeal and renews dedication and commitment to God.

  • Fasting produces spiritual results, breakthroughs in the spirit or in personal life, like in relationships and finances. Somehow God imbues power in fasting, a power that can break through intense obstacles and barriers.

  • You fast when you want a breakthrough in understanding a situation, an answer to a problem, divine direction, discernment of God's will, power to overcome.

  • You fast when you feel you need to put yourself in a position to hear from God and experience the power of his presence, when you need to break away from a current situation and make a clean start.

  • You fast when the holy spirit prompts you to. I didn't realize that's what was happening with me. I spoke to a woman who does a deliverance ministry and she felt we were dealing with a demonic attack and bondage. I knew there was something about our situation that seemed beyond our ability to understand or handle. Our prayers were not working and things were getting worse. Our sight grew dark and faith weak, despite amping up our prayers and focusing on God.

  • Fasting of course is hugely for repentance and turning away from sin. That's what I thought its sole purpose was, since in the Bible there are so many examples of people fasting because of great remorse over their sin. But I didn't realize these other reasons.

I kept feeling mostly that I needed clarity. I needed to take my relationship with God to a higher place, to understand him more. I wasn't asking why all this was happening to us. I just desperately needed to know God cared, that he was in the midst of our situation.

While I've been fasting, many people have reached out to me and given me the words I've needed to hear. It's been like a huge seminar of advice, learning, hearing others' stories and what they've learned in their walk with God. I feel most of it has just slipped over my head, but the love, compassion, ministering that these friends and total strangers have given me this past week has been enormous. Most of those who have called, written, and spent time with me were complete strangers that heard of my need or saw me post for prayer on a loop. I found that touching--that God would move their hearts to stand in affirmation of my fast and continue praying with me and for me. Their love has humbled me and taught me a lot about how I can serve and be there for others. I now know I can fast for them in their time of need, and that God rewards that. Yes, Jesus said WHEN you fast in private, your heavenly Father will REWARD you. That shows me he values that we are sacrificing something precious and hard to do without--food.

One other side note I'll share, since I've done so many fasts years ago before I became a believer. From the moment I decided to fast and made my vow to God to stick with it until he tells me to stop, I have not been hungry. There are a few moments when the smell of food entices me, but as far as real hunger--it's just not there. I feel full all the time as if I've just eaten a meal. I can only say this is more evidence of God's spirit affirming my decision to fast.

So I hope some of these points have enlightened you as well. I would love to hear your fasting story, if you'd like to share a comment. As I'm wrapping up this first week, I do wonder how long I'm going to go without eating. But I feel at peace and have energy and am seeing great insight into my situation and know God is working. However, I'm still praying for the big breakthrough, the big aha moment that I am waiting for, which is why I started this fast. I am waiting and praying for direction, for God to give a word of wisdom and clarity as to our course. I am not asking God to explain why things are happening. I long ago gave up asking "why" to anything God does. But I am asking for God to wholly deliver us from the stranglehold of demonic bondage--of the lies that have infiltrated our hearts and lives. I am living in expectation each moment for the spirit to guide and tell me my course.

People say the holy spirit will make it clear when to break the fast. I am looking forward to that moment. I certainly love food and miss it a lot. But I love God more, and my desire to see him move in a big way right now in my life is more important than food.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Father Along ...

No, that's not a typo. Since Father's Day is approaching, I thought it might be appropriate to discuss fathers. Two of my recently written novels center around the theme of fathers. I didn't really realize that until I started thinking about this post. Since I grew up without a father, it's interesting how God put this topic in my heart in a big way. Both Conundrum and Intended for Harm are hugely about the experience of having or not having a father in one's life. Yet, the truth is, growing up, I hardly ever thought about it. Not having a father around was very normal for me. When I went to my friends' houses, I rarely saw their fathers, who were either away at work or sequestered in a quiet room in the house far from the noisy kids. So fathers, to me, were fairly nebulous, absent figures.

In earlier posts, I talked about how God gave me the assignment to write Conundrum--which is nearly an autobiography about my father's mysterious death in 1961. To me, it's an unsolved mystery, and although I even researched into it and visited my uncle, whom I hadn't seen since I was ten, I learned nothing that could shed light on how he had died. (You'll have to read the book to see how strange the circumstances were.) But throughout the book, my protagonist, Lisa, explores feelings foreign to her--what having a dad must be like, and what she missed out on. By the end of the book, she comes to feel she finally knows much about this man, but in my life, I draw a big blank.

Which leads me to my latest book: Intended for Harm. I had thought all I was doing was telling a modern-day story of Joseph from the Bible. I had planned to explore the effects of merged marriages and favoritism and abandonment. But God kept pulling me to pay attention to something else. And that was the role of Jacob as a father, in light of his mistreatment by his own father, Isaac. And all this comes front and center in the book as Jacob (Jake) cannot fathom the concept of a father God who cares about him.

I spoke to many who had been raised by absent, abusive, or mean fathers. I began to learn that many people, men especially, have a very hard time accepting God as a father because their own father represents a negative figure. When I talked to a good friend about how she could always be so trusting and positive that God loved her so much and cared about her life, she told me she was raised by an amazing father--one who loved, accepted, and encouraged her throughout her childhood. Transferring that concept over to our heavenly Father was no problem for her. Her trust comes naturally. but it doesn't for many of us. All I had was a critical mother who betrayed and emotionally battered me and my children. She was not a father figure, but she was a parental figure, and so I found that much of my insecurity and sense of unworthiness in God's sight came from her mistreatment of me.

If you were raised by a loving father, give thanks. Tell him how much you love him, and realize he is precious. I wish I had a father I could say those things to. You, in essence, have a "father along" as you journey farther along life's path, which is a sweet gift. Now, at this time in my life, I feel the absence of a father more than I did as a child. I do believe I will see my real father in the next world, as I understand he accepted Jesus right before he died of leukemia, which in itself is an amazing story (for a very devout Jew in hospice in a Catholic hospital). I learned a lot through this exploration of fathers and God as Father. I hope that the deep, troubled feelings my characters process as they deal with their fathers or lack thereof will bring encouragement, enlightenment, and gratitude for the best father in the universe--our Creator and Father of the celestial lights.

Happy Father's Day!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Using a Cinematic Lens in Writing a Novel ~ Part 1

We just covered a few sessions on first scene structure, and there is so much more to that. However, since I'm gearing up to start teaching workshops at conferences this summer and fall on screenwriting-related topics, I thought I'd share some of the techniques I'll be teaching on. In particular, how to utilize camera direction in your novel to make it dynamic and physically "moving" as opposed to static, which is often the case in scene structure.

Having been raised by a prominent screenwriter/TV producer, I was surrounded by piles of scripts in my house. Even though I read a lot of books as a kid, I probably read just as many screenplays. My mother was often story editor on TV shows (like Mod Squad) or the principal writer/producer/creator (The Rookies, Flamingo Road, The Doctors, Peyton Place, and the list could fill a page). My first job at age ten was collating my mother's Doctors' scripts, which required my pulling out the messy sheets of carbon papers from between the typewritten (yes, using a manual typewriter) pages of script. Each half-hour episode would be about thirty pages, and I had to put the four final copies together for five shows a week, month after month, for my mother to mail to NY from CA.

The first proposal I submitted was at about age twelve, with a story pitch for the show called The Woman from U.N.C.L.E. I still have the rejection letter from the producer--my first of many to come over the years. Although I worked on projects with my mother in developing ideas for TV Movies-of-the-Week MOW) and series "Bibles" (6-12 months' plotting for the show) for which I actually got paid, I never did write a script that sold. My brother went on to become one of Hollywood's top TV screenwriters and will go down in infamy as the man who "shot JR" the years he produced and wrote for Dallas. (Yes, he came up with the idea and wrote the script, never thinking it would become such hot stuff.)

I say all this as a preface to the following material. When you are raised on TV sets and reading scripts your whole life, your writing is greatly influenced by this visual medium. I once had my high school English teacher tell me, "If you can visualize what you are writing as a movie, you will write well." Sol Stein says in his book On Writing: “Twentieth-century readers, transformed by film and TV, are used to seeing stories. The reading experience for a twentieth-century reader is increasingly visual. The story is happening in front of his eyes."

So, writers today are being told "show, don't tell." Those long pages of narrative we used to see in best-selling novels are a thing of the past. You will still see some impressive narration in literary novels today, and a terrific writer can paint evocative and gripping images that tells rather than shows, but for most writers, their books are going to flop if they cannot create scenes that are visually stirring, visceral, emotive, and dynamic. One of the main ways to achieve this is by using camera techniques in your writing.

Since I've used up quite a bit of space just in the intro here, I won't go too deep in this first post about camera technique, but what I plan to do is explore some of the camera angles used in film and show how you can translate that into your novel in a visual way. We are going to look at stationary angles like close-up (CU) shots, establishing shots (ES), Insert, montage, series of shots, and long shots (LS). We are also going to look at moving camera directives such as zoom, pan, angle on, follow, find, and pull back. Once you learn to see your scenes as if you are the director and you specifically choose camera angles and techniques to play out your scene, you will have a whole new perspective on writing.

I often have people say to me, "I could just picture your book as a movie the whole time I was reading it." That doesn't necessarily mean it's a great book when someone says that. But for me, it validates the way I write and the deliberateness of how I write. Before I write every scene, I picture the different camera angles I might use in order to achieve the specific result I want--to make the reader notice what I want her to see, and at the pace I want her to see it.

Once you learn about these techniques, when you read a novel you will be stuck by how many writers write scenes that are flat, have no movement, and feel as if they are being shot from across a room without any dynamism.You will often see two people in conversation in a close up where the camera never moves. The reader often ends up bored without knowing why.

I'm hoping to shake up your world a little with this material, to get you to see how to see your scenes in a new way. I believe once you start practicing these techniques, you will find yourself getting excited and innovated by your burgeoning imagination as you start to see how you can make your scenes much more powerful and evocative. So we'll dig in next time. And if you have a hankering to come to the Kentucky Christian Writers' Conference June 24-25 in Elizabethtown, you can take the complete workshop on this topic. Hope to see you there!

Friday, March 25, 2011

First Scene Essentials ~ Part Two

To briefly review what I introduced last month, I'll mention the first important elements again (and if you want more elaboration, retrieve that blog entry and peruse it).

Some of the main points discussed involved picking just the right starting place to begin your book. This means the story starts in present action, in the middle of something happening, with your POV character right in the situation and revealing her (or his) fears, dreams, needs, or goals and the obstacle that is in the way and presenting a problem. The visible "goal" of your protagonist needs to be revealed in some measure in the first few pages, and what we'll explore today is the need to establish both the plot question and the spiritual question your book is raising.

You may not have a deeply themed book, but there must be some reason you are writing this story. What is it about? If you were asked, "Why did you write this book?" (and spend months, maybe years of your life doing so!), how would you answer? Hopefully, there is a specific thing you want to say to your readers. It doesn't have to be a "message" or sermon on life, but every story deals with themes on one level or another, and your views as a writer will come through the story, sometimes whether you intend it or not. Better to begin a book with intention--intending to say something and leave your readers with that "take-home" thought when they read the last line and close the book. This ties in with your MDQ or major dramatic query.
I've never seen in any book on writing a novel the importance of setting up your dramatic query or question regarding plot alongside the protagonist's spiritual question. This is something I gleaned from Davis Bunn's intensive workshop at Mount Hermon two years ago. Learning this was a revelation to me, and took my writing to a much higher level. Now, with every novel I write, I begin with this.

The MDQ or major dramatic query is a yes-or-no question you ask at the start of the book. It's a question that MUST be addressed in the first scene, as it sets the stage for the entire novel. It is also called (by Michael Hague) the "visible goal" or plot goal. Your question may be "Will Mary save her brother before he kills himself?" or "Will Frodo destroy the ring and save Middle Earth before Sauron gets his hands on it?" or "Will Dorothy make it back to Kansas or be stuck with those munchkins for the rest of her life?" You get the idea. The are only a few variations of this plot question and they involve the character either getting something or somewhere, saving someone, finding something, or escaping something. Now, the answer that you reveal at the end of the book can be either yes or no. Maybe Dorothy will, after all, end up living in munchkin land, but she might enjoy it, and find her true path to happiness there. You're the writer; it's your choice.

But now we turn to another MDQ, and that's the spiritual question. It's a little harder to pinpoint, but it reveals the heart of your character and the heart of your story. Without it, you might have an exciting plot but will anyone really care about the story, or even read it to the end? Without a spritual question for your protagonist, the answer may be no. When I say "spiritual" question, I am not talking about faith or faith-based stories. Every good story has one. A question that involves the character's spirit--her heart--is what we're concerned with.
Think about Frodo. His MDQ spiritual question might be: "Will Frodo be able to live with himself and his world by the end of the book if he makes the choice to undertake his journey?" or "Will Frodo find peace and inner joy through his journey to destroy the ring, even if it kills him?" Dorothy's spiritual question might be: "Will Dorothy find her place in the world, feel she fits in, feel at home somewhere?" Think about how these spiritual MDQs are raised at the start of the stories, alongside the plot MDQs. Now, what it crucial to realize is that BOTH questions get answered AT THE SAME TIME AND IN THE SAME SCENE at the end of the book! This is amazing, and when done well, makes your book a winner. Dorothy gets home (plot) but at the same time she realizes she's always been home; that here, with Aunty Em, is where her heart truly lives (spiritual).

So before you even start writing (or if you are partway through your novel, stop and consider), write down your two MDQs--the plot and spiritual questions you need to raise in the first scene that will be answered in one of the last scenes in your book. This is what should shape and give impetus to your entire novel--these questions. Your plot arc and character arcs will all begin and end based on these questions. They seem simple, but the reader needs to know what they are. This doesn't mean you state them blatantly (although in my novel Conundrum, I decided to actually have my main character, Lisa, in first person, ask the MDQ in her head--literally and exactly word for word. That worked for my book, and it sure left no confusion on the reader's part as to what the novel was about and what Lisa's plot and spiritual questions were).
So ponder awhile on this, and if you have any questions or need help on determining your MDQs, drop me a line and I'll help (cslakin@gmail.com). Once you get the hang of setting up your novel at the start with these important elements, it will make writing your book that much easier. The MDQs become a beacon of light that guides your protagonist on her long, dark journey to the end of the story.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

First Scene Essentials ~ Part One

Because I read hundreds of first chapters of novels a year as a writing coach and copyeditor, I've been compiling my list of essentials for a first scene. When you think of all you have to accomplish in the first few pages of a novel, you really understand how writing a great first scene requires numerous hours of study, practice, and concentration. It takes examining successful, long-lasting novels to see how that first scene was constructed. Have you ever read a first chapter that took your breath away? Made you cry? Shocked you? If you can accomplish an emotional reaction in your reader that quickly--hopefully by a quick attachment to your protagonist--half your battle is won.

Without sending you into cardiac arrest by listing nearly twenty important items you need in that first scene, I'm going to concentrate on some important ones--the ones that really need to be considered. Some of them are essential "do-nots." And the first one you may already know (but often feel so tempted to fall back on): No back-story.

Okay, we've heard that forever. But it's true. In order to start your story with a punch and draw your reader in, you need to construct a scene happening right here and now (or with something in the past, like a historical, right then and now). Regardless of the semantics here, you get the point. Some writing instructors say things like "no back-story in the first fifty pages." Some editors will be so bold as to say they would be happy if they saw NONE in the entire book. Maybe that won't quite work for your book, but it's safe to say that countless scenes start with a line or two in the present and then, whoosh! There you are reading about the character's early life or marriage or something she did right before the scene started. Which should make you ask...

Are you really starting your story in the right place? More often than not, the answer is no. That's what second and third drafts are for--throwing out your first scene or two. Most of the books I read don't "get going" until page twenty. All that up-front explaining, narrative, setting up the scene, etc., was all great back in Dickens's time (A Tale of Two Cities, for example). But we don't do that anymore. TV, movies, and video games have changed the modern reader's tastes and they want cinematic writing (so says Donald Maass in The Fire in the Fiction).

So how do you avoid the dreaded info dump and back-story? Think about the emotion, feeling, or sensation you want to evoke in your reader. You want to put them in a mood right away. You want to be specific to generate that mood, which means bringing in all the senses and showing your character in the middle of a situation, right off the bat.

And that's the next essential element: establishing immediately (did I say immediately?) the drives, desires, needs, fears, frustrations of your protagonist. Not only do you need to show her in conflict, in the midst of an inciting incident, but you need to reveal her heart, hint at her spiritual need, show her vulnerability, and what obstacles are standing in her way. In the first scene? Oh yes. Yes.

On top of all this, you must give the reader some idea of what the book is about--the theme or point--what they are getting into and why they should care. A tall order? You bet. But think--why are you writing this story anyway? What is the one thought, message, idea, conclusion, or feeling you want your readers to take home with them when they finish reading your book and set it down? Whatever that is should be set up in the first few pages, even if just a hint of a promise of what to expect. If your book is about forgiveness, then something about forgiveness or lack thereof must be an important element of your opening scene.

So, once you have all this in mind, think what scene would best set up your premise, plot arc, character arc, theme, and mood. You may have to write a bunch of different first chapters, as I sometimes do. Sometimes it's not until you near the end of writing your book do you get the right idea for the opening scene. You might be like John Irving, who starts every novel with the last line of his book and works backwards (yes, he does!). But he's onto something there--do you see? He knows exactly where he wants his readers to end up--plotwise and theme-wise. He already knows the end of the story and the take-home feeling he wants to evoke, so he sets about figuring how to lead that back to the start. Maybe that technique will work for you.

I'll go more into detail later this month about first chapters and all the structural elements that need to be set up. But for now, think about the heart of your story and the heart of your character. Once you find a way to put her heart right out there from line one, in a scene that throws her at odds with her world and shows how she reacts, you are on your way.