Stagnation is Always the Enemy

As writers, stagnation is always our enemy.

This is true in several ways. Consider:

  1. We always seek to improve our craft—we are never fully satisfied.
  2. Our stories and characters must constantly grow, adapt, and change.

Although it may not seem like it, we grow every time we write. We think of new phrases, try new sentence structures, attempt new rhetorical styles, etc. The more you write, the better your writing will become. Of course, you can push yourself by setting yourself goals, attempting new styles, etc. Even if such exercises never see the light of day, they are valuable methods of improving your craft. We know this. You will keep the stagnation enemy at bay so long as you are writing and trying your best. If you are writing, you are evolving.

But it is equally true that our stories and characters can’t stagnate. They must evolve as well. In the past, I’ve written that a protagonist MUST change in the story (my two posts about “Transformation” in the Hero’s Journey). Change is inherently interesting. So if your character is stagnate and doesn’t change, you’ve written a boring story that violates perhaps the most fundamental principle of storytelling—that your characters will learn or be changed by what they experience.

In fact, every scene must involve change. If things are the same at the end of a scene or chapter as they were at the beginning, then that chapter should be cut or at least fixed. If nothing changes, there is no need for the scene.

When editing, go through each scene and identify what changes. If you can’t find something, ask “do I really need this in the story?” If you don’t absolutely need it, then you might just delete the whole thing (which might help your pacing). If the scene is necessary, at least re-work it so that something changes (arguing characters agree by the end, agreeing characters disagree by the end, have learned something that changes how they think or feel, something unexpected happens, etc.).

Keep it up! Keep working! Keep the enemy at bay!

Best of luck!

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WriteOnCon – Great advice on queries, voice, the market, and more.

Writeoncon 2013 has ended, but you can still read all the articles, watch the videos, and get loads of great advice on everything from how to write a great query letter (check out my revised one here), obtaining the right voice for your story/narrater, trends in the market, editing tips, and tons more. Everything is absolutely free, so nothing is stopping you from learning and getting involved.

Check out the writeoncon.com posts and bookmark it. The site may provide future forums for authors to share their own work, critique others, and make valuable contacts in the writing community.

Speaking of which, THANK YOU to all those who critiqued my query and writing sample during the online convention. I made some new friends and received excellent feedback. Before I brave the slush pile, I will revise a bit, concentrating on my voice so that the narration sounds less adult and more in keeping with the Young Adult genre–a bit more intimate and closer to a teenager’s style. Fortunately, as those of you who know me well can attest, I’m ridiculously immature. So I think I can handle the teen voice better than what currently exists in the manuscript. Wish me luck!

Taking Writing Criticism from Teenagers

Hearing a group of teenagers critique my unpublished YA novel was fantastic, but it was also an exercise in self-censorship (something I am historically inept at doing).

Don’t get me wrong: I am grateful to all twenty-five of the high school freshmen who elected to read my manuscript and thrilled by the degree to which they have helped me. Many of their insights have been rewarding and their questions have helped guide my future revision. While I was nervous about this “experiment,” I am very pleased with the results.  It is clear that my book has some strong elements going for it though it still needs work (some scenes were unclear, some questions left unanswered, and several of my students’ suggestions were good ones!). My students have given me the insight I need to improve the novel in a variety of ways. As a result, I feel rejuvenated and am excited to work on the new draft!

Of course, not every nugget of criticism was golden. Smiling and keeping quiet when students missed details that I know where there was a challenge. As an English teacher, I’m used to students overlooking or not remembering details from their reading. However, it is a bit different when they are overlooking or perhaps speed-reading your own work and then criticizing your writing for being confusing. I wanted to say, “Look right here! It’s right there! And look! It is mentioned again over here!” but I am happy to say that I refrained at all times. Instead, I just smiled and said, “Oh. Huh. Thanks for telling me.” More often than not, when they were confused or had questions, the fault was indeed mine because I didn’t explain something well enough, but when the answer to the question was right there in the text I had to bite my tongue. When they had major questions about the story, a scene, or character, I would stop and explain those things and turn the conversation into a lesson on storytelling and the kinds of decisions authors have to make, but if the question or comment was unimportant to understanding the overall story, I just let it go.

I learned a great deal about the strengths and weakness of my writing from this experience and the positives certainly outweigh any possible negatives by about 100 to 1.  Several students seemed to legitimately enjoy the novel and many were able to identify the very themes I wanted to incorporate. No one thought the novel was terrible (though several had trouble with it and were drowning in questions). As an added bonus, I don’t think any of the students thought I was a bad sport about hearing their criticism. After all, I asked them to rip the book to shreds, so THANK YOU to “The Schmidty Committee” for all of your hard work. You guys are great! Should the novel ever get published, I’ll have to put you all on my “acknowledgements” page.

Now go and have a great summer!

25 Students Reading my Draft. Oh, boy.

Teenagers are brutal . . . and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I asked the 25 students reading the latest draft of my novel to “tear it to shreds” and thereby help me see its flaws so that I might improve it. They finished the first ¼ of the book last week.

While some students were “too nice” and merely gave the opening chapters compliments, many accepted my challenge. Of course, not every criticism was “golden,” but they pointed out areas where the manuscript needs work—identifying confusing elements and suggesting edits—and that’s really all I needed.

Yes: teenagers have helped me. It happens.

While I’m debating what changes to make (and I will make some), I was also pleased that my students are enjoying the book to various degrees. The basic reaction was, “It’s actually pretty good!” though several found it way too confusing. I’m sure a few don’t care for it but kept quiet either to spare my feelings or because they think I’d “get revenge” if they told me they hated it (I wouldn’t, by the way). Even so, for a teenage audience of mostly male readers, I am pleased with the overall reaction.

Thanks, guys! Keep tearing away! You’re doing great! Together, we might get published someday!

Rewriting — An experiment!

This may surprise other writers: Even though I’ve received praise from editors and beta-readers regarding the current draft of my novel, I’ve decided to simply start fresh and rewrite at least the first ½ of my story.

Do I need to do that? Nope. People have enjoyed my first half but agree it could be better. I don’t need to throw it out, just make some changes. A few editors from small presses have told me they would like me to do a rewrite and then resubmit. This would not require throwing away the first 150 pages.

So why am I? Because it’s an interesting challenge and once I started, I was having too much fun to stop.

What have I learned so far? Not only is this an exciting writing exercise/challenge, but I’m finding that the writing in this version is stronger. Maybe I’ve grown as a writer since I originally penned those pages or maybe I have internalized what I want to say so that it comes out with new grace. In any case, the words are flowing and, even when I read back over them a week later, these passages are often better than what I’ve written before!

Try this for yourself! You will be surprised and pleased!

My self-imposed rules:

  1. Though I am following a similar outline as my original, I cannot “copy and paste” from any of my previous drafts—everything has to be written as if for the first time.
  2. I must make at least one significant change to each chapter or scene.

The overall plot is not changing—it is still the same story with the same premise, character arcs, themes, etc. The individual scenes are significantly different, however, so the story will seem entirely new. Forcing myself to change things I loved in my previous draft is exciting! I’ve discovered what I’ve heard filmmakers claim for years: that restrictions and limitations only increase creativity. For example, ever since I first got the idea for my story, I’ve had a clear vision for the scene in which King Arthur pops up in modern day. Despite all my drafts, that one incident has remained fairly constant. Now I’ve reimagined how he might appear. I forced myself to do something different. And you know what? I think I like my alternate better!

So what can I do with the results? Simple. I’ll have two distinct versions of (at least) the first ½ of my novel. These versions will share many structural similarities (still writing many of the same scenes, with similar action and conversations), but the sentence to sentence similarities will be virtually non-existent. In the end, I’ll be able to “cherry pick” the best scenes, in some cases the best sentences or descriptive details, and then make a cohesive 3rd version that is the best of both and that still leads to a satisfying ending.

Is that possible? Yeah. I think so. And even if it doesn’t work out, I’m having a lot of fun re-imagining my scenes. Wish me luck and give it a try! Let me know what you think of your results!