Past, Present and Future

Sometimes a writer forgets that their characters have pasts and futures, just like all of us do. There’s not an hour goes by that I don’t, personally, think about something in either the past or the future. It can be something mundane or something huge that I’ve either lived through or am dreaming about.

A lot of the time, especially when I’m writing a first draft or an early revision, I forget that my characters must be like this, too.

Every character must feel the weight of the past, present and future at every moment.

Not in an overbearing or obvious way, of course. Please don’t take this as free license to write something like:

Just sitting in chem lab, Judy felt ready to explode: not only was her embarrassment at the audition yesterday still fresh in mind but the callbacks would be tomorrow! To top it all off, her stomach rumbled so loudly that people all the way across campus could probably hear it.

But there is something compelling about keeping all three of these balls in the air at the same time. A lot of manuscripts suffer from a lack of tension. There’s not a very clear feeling of what is at stake in the moment. Sometimes, adding a past and mixing it with over the future just might be the ticket to increasing tension.

Changing Your Manuscript’s Tense and Point of View

A writer makes many decisions when it comes to approaching a manuscript. We have to decide on our characters, our plot, our setting, our descriptions… all that content jazz. We also have to decide several storytelling issues. Is this story going to be told in past tense or present tense? Will it be told in first or in third person? If it’s going to be in third person, will it be third person limited or third person omniscient*? Which character’s POV** will tell the story? Will I have one POV or multiple POV’s?

And on and on. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t take up brain surgery instead.

Believe it or not, though, almost every choice I’ve ever made about a manuscript has been wrong at some point. That’s totally okay. It’s a huge pain in the butt and you wonder if you are just the densest person on the planet when you realize your error, but there’s only one thing you can do: change it. (There’s also Secret Option B: eat a sheet pan of tiramisu.)

In terms of difficulty, here are the above changes, ordered by degree of difficulty from easiest to hardest:

  1. Tense
  2. First to third or third to first
  3. Third person limited to third person omniscient or vice versa
  4. One POV to multiple POV’s or vice versa

There are tons of changes a writer makes to a manuscript, of course, but the above four are the big “universal” changes that are likely to affect the entire thing. I’ve repeatedly, REPEATEDLY, made the first two changes to several manuscripts. In fact, with one manuscript, I went from first to third and then back again to first, like a total dunderhead.

If ever you’re faced with one of these huge changes, take heart. The only way to do it is to put your head down and power through. Besides, every single time you read through your work, it gets stronger. You’ll notice a sentence that sounds off, you’ll see that some new thread could easily be woven into the story here, here and here.

Also, there’s a great psychological effect to making these huge, whole-MS changes… you’ll get comfortable with ripping it apart and making it messy for a little while. After that, you’ll be more willing to do bigger revisions, if it comes to that, which it most likely will, and you’ll handle them with more aplomb! And doesn’t everyone want more aplombfulness in their lives? =)

* In case you’re wondering. Third person limited is narrated in the third person (he ran down the hallway, etc.) but it follows one character (most likely the main character) the closest. It can also see into that character’s thoughts and feelings but not anybody else’s. Third person omniscient, which is more difficult to pull off successfully, follows many people, can access all of their thoughts and feelings, and gives them equal weight.

** POV stands for “point of view.” Every time you follow someone’s thoughts or feelings, as in, say, the third person limited example above, you are in their POV. A book can primarily follow one person or have multiple POV’s (usually broken up into sections or new chapters, as in THE LUXE series by Anna Godbersen), and this term applies to books written in both first and third person.

Does A Character Have to Change From Beginning to End?

I just read a MS where the author’s answer seemed to be an emphatic: NO!

My answer? An emphatic: YES!

This question is much bigger than I have time for right now. I’ll do a longer post later. In short, though, I’ll leave you with a quote. My MFA professor, Lewis Buzbee, is probably not the first man to say this. But he said it again last night in class and it couldn’t be more applicable to what I read today:

“A story is a character’s journey from innocence to experience.”

Dunk that in your morning coffee. And no, I don’t think we’re just talking about Adam-and-Eve-style innocence here. More to come later!

What Happens Here?

Every once in a while, I stumble upon a dead scene. One where, technically, nothing happens. It usually involves either an author who is brimming with information or really loves writing witty banter.

In two manuscripts I’ve read recently, I’ve encountered dead scenes. These dead scenes occurred for two completely different reasons. For one, the author felt compelled to outline the bulk of a fantasy world in the form of a more-experienced person filling a newbie in. The second MS, the author had established some good tension and a compelling plot with potential danger, then spent about 40 or 50 pages writing: witty banter at a family dinner, a witty scene at the best friend’s house, witty banter at another family dinner, witty banter at the coffee house, witty banter by the lockers at school.

Are you getting my drift? What do the two above mss. have in common? What’s that? Did you say “lot’s o’ blabbing”? Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!

When you find large places in your MS with nothing but dialogue, you’re most likely in trouble. *cue wails of distress, cries of “but my MS is different!”* That very well might be, but editors and agents are looking for story, they’re looking for plot. In most cases, even a literary, character-driven masterpiece will only be half the package.

I’ve never met a publishing professional who wouldn’t also want to know: “What happens next?”

Authors usually either write long conversation scenes to serve as a) an info-dump (about a world, a situation, a threat, a character, etc.), or b) to bask in their own wit/wordplay/writing.

Both of these pose huge revision problems. Huge. Make-you-want-to-eat-a-sheet-of-tiramisu-from-Costco huge (I know from experience… I can still taste the powdered chocolate dusting my tear-stained cheeks). The first author wails: “But how else do I introduce all that information??? It’s the crux of my story!!!”

The answer is: you layer it. Introduce one thing. Then add another layer to it. Add some backstory in another conversation. Better yet, make your explanation triggered by something. Your characters find something and it starts a story. Or something happens and a character explains something. Instead of having a conversation triggered by your urge to world-build and spill the framework of your concept, have it be triggered by action. And don’t give it to us all at once. Put the pieces together as they arise naturally through plot.

The second writer will balk at this advice: “But this is hilarious. It’s so fun to read!” Sure, you wrote some funny stuff. And I’ll probably enjoy reading it. But most writers can’t keep a book in suspended plot animation for long before a reader gets antsy. If you want to showcase your wit, punctuate it with action. Have a witty moment discussing something that happened. De-stress after a long day of ACTION by hanging out with your BFF and bantering. Don’t let the witty banter be the entire book, though. That’s the grave mistake.

As you can see, the answer to both situations is action. Something happening. Plot. Every scene and every chapter must not only develop character and story and world, they must also move the plot forward. Another reason to avoid long dialogue scenes without plot is that dialogue leads toward telling, not showing.

Are you worried about this? Good. If you’re the fantasy writer in my examples, start with the chapters you loathe re-reading the most. The ones dense with info you already know, the ones you tend to skim in revisions. That’s where your problem lies. If you’re the second writer, start with the chapters you love the most. The ones that make you feel the most satisfied. The ones where you’re showing off. My guess is that they’re the witty banter ones.

Neither is easy. But when you’re revising, ask yourself about every scene, every chapter: “What happens here?”

Honesty is important. If your honest answer is: “Two characters walk into a room, sit down at the table and talk,” that’s trouble.

Obvious Telling in Dialogue

I was reading a manuscript the other week in which the characters relied on each other’s names too much in dialogue. That is, believe it or not, a common problem, as is this other, slightly related one: characters who know each other well giving us background information in dialogue… producing language that real, breathing humans would never say!

Here’s an example:

“My darling husband Danny, can you please pass the mashed potatoes?” the wife asked.
“Why, of course, my dear Laurie. How was your day as board member of the Greensboro Museum Society?”
“Just lovely. After I shuttled the kids, Jake and Emily, off to preschool and first grade, I went right over there.”
“Just what I like to hear, Laurie, darling.”
“Now, Danny, just what are you going to do about your problems down in the engineering department of the power company? Your boss has been making you livid for weeks!”

Okay. So, obviously an exaggeration. But here’s are two quick tips:

  1. Never use dialogue to introduce large swaths of character details that don’t belong in a scene between two people.
  2. Don’t over-rely on names, especially in a scene with only two characters. Real people don’t talk like that. Try and remember the last time you said your best friend’s or your significant others’ name to them in casual conversation.

I’ll be writing up some thoughts on dialogue tagging very soon. For me, endless name-dropping is a sign that the writer doesn’t trust their reader to follow the dialogue. That fear may be founded — if the author is doing crazy things like putting two indented lines of dialogue from the same character one right after the other — but in 95% of cases, your reader is following you. They know who’s talking.

I’ve said it once, twice, and I’m sure I’ll say it a zillion more times: trust your reader.

The only times I use more names than usual is when there are multiple characters in a scene and I get tired of dialogue tags. You can’t rely on dialogue tags alone. My current WIP has a section where five characters go on an adventure. To tell you the truth, orchestrating this many people in one scene makes me want to crawl back into bed. It’s the only time I’ll let the occasional name slip into dialogue.

Reductive Revision

There’s almost nothing harder than “killing your babies” and axing chunks of your writing. Everybody loves their writing. It’s always hard to lose a word here, a line there, sometimes an entire paragraph. But cutting makes for a leaner, meaner, more amazing manuscript.

I’ll be posting some craft articles on revision in the next few weeks. Maybe because I’m revising stuff myself right now, it’s on my mind.

At my MFA program, my teacher, Lewis Buzbee of Steinbeck’s Ghost fame, makes the class do reductive revisions. We turn in a manuscript of 20-30 pages, then everyone in the class takes two to three pages of that week’s submission and cuts, cuts, cuts until only one page remains.

It’s a lot easier to cut through the fat and be merciless when it’s someone else’s work. However, to be a successful revision expert, you’ve got to develop that sort of keen ruthlessness toward your own precious manuscript. Especially after your First Draft Goggles wear off and you have to streamline.

One of the biggest problems some writers have is redundancy. They’re not sure the reader gets what they’re trying to do so they explain it. Then they explain it a different way. And then, just in case, they introduce another way of saying the same thing.

This is all fine and good. Maybe your subconscious is spinning all these repetitive statements so that you, the writer, understand the scene better. But the reader doesn’t need them. When I’m looking at a manuscript, redundancy is the number one thing I axe for the reductive revision exercise.

Exercise:

Let’s do a reductive revision together. The objective is to halve the length. Let’s give it a try. I’ll do my revisions and then you can do yours in comments, if you want, to see how ours match or don’t match.

Edna looked Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs. Her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
“I know, me too.”
“If we don’t find this book soon, the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the shelves. “But where could the book be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open.

Okay, so this scene is serviceable as is. But notice some redundancy issues. The characters are sneaking around and they’re nervous. We get it. We can convey it in a much simpler way. Our word count is 93. Let’s see if we can’t come in under 50.

Edna looked at Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs, H her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
I know, me Me too.”
“If we don’t find this book it soon… the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the forbidden shelves. “But w Where could the book it be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open with an ear-splitting creak.

And this is how it reads without the delete lines:

Edna looked at Chris, her back to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around. “I’m scared,” she said.
“Me too.”
“If we don’t find it soon…”
They scanned the forbidden shelves. Just then, the door flew open with a ear-splitting creak.

All I did was delete things the reader already knew, with the exception of rearranging the last sentence. Now, I was pretty ruthless. Notice, I took out all mention of the book and the library. That’s because they’re worried about the librarian and they’re scanning the shelves, so “book” and “library” are implied. I also got rid of all the emotional but cliched heart/eye/blood stuff that writers tend to lean on too heavily.

You might not want to go so sparse, but notice how much quicker the scene moves. We still get they’re scared and we still get a sense of danger. But guess what? Word count 49!

Have your own version of this revision? Post it below. More memos from the office of repetitive redundancy office coming soon.

The Importance of Reading for Writers

I cringe when I think back on a conversation I had a few summers ago with an executive editor from a very large publishing house. I was at this conference as a writer, before I entered the industry from the business end, and blathering about a manuscript I was working on, a YA about a girl whose sister died.

As one of the only children’s writers at the conference, I definitely had a lot of this editor’s time. On this particular occasion, I used my limelight to open my big mouth and blab something along the lines of the following:

There are so many books out there like THE CLIQUE, ya know? All fluff and no substance! What I really wanna do is, like, write a book that’s deeper than that. One about real emotions and stuff. There’s nothing like that out these days.

Ha! Haha! Hahahahahahaha! Excuse me while I choke on my coffee. Boy howdy was I ever young and ignorant.

I think the word I was groping for is: “literary.” And, if you’ve been in a bookstore lately, you know that it’s impossible to turn around without bumping into a highly literary, emotionally charged YA book or two thousand. Death, drugs, divorce, heartbreak, YA has it all.

Now that I’ve been on the other side of the table and reading slush, I’ve seen ignorant statements like mine repeated by many authors. “There are like, totally no books about (insert totally common and well-represented theme or topic here).”

That’s called not reading enough. There are so many books out there that it’s impossible to read even a thousandth of one percent of your way through the shelves at a bookstore. More of them come out every day. While the average adult has abysmal reading habits, a writer has no excuse.

The work published by others is our only textbook when we’re honing our craft. Ideally, writers in any genre should read as much as they can, inside their genre and outside. In kidlit, writers shouldn’t just stick to fantasy or historical or literary, or even their age group, for that matter, but experience all the wonderful offerings on the shelves.

There are those writers who think their work will be corrupted by reading while they write. That makes little sense to me. More often than not, it’s these kinds of writers who convince themselves that there’s never been a YA book about a main character grieving over her dead sister. I guess I can understand this attitude if you’re reaching for something experimental with your manuscript, but not if you have commercial aspirations, like a lot of writers do. I can say for certain that my writing has improved immeasurably since I started reading more.

Instead of feeling intimidated and viewing already published work in your genre as “competition,” view it as a learning exercise. Read, make note of what other authors are doing. If you spot things than could’ve worked better in a story, boy howdy, you’ve got material for your own manuscript! It will make you look even savvier if you can query an agent or editor and mention some “comp titles,” or works in the same vein as yours. Because all editors and agents know that a book like yours exists out there, somewhere. No idea or book is absolutely, completely unique. And that’s a good thing! Even better, if previous books like yours have has sold well, that’s great news for you and your project.

So read a lot, read widely and read well. You’ll pick up new ideas, realize things about your own writing and feel like you belong in a community. And unless your novel concept is way, way, way, way out there, like zombies in the world of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE*, for example, keep your mouth shut in front of executive editors until you know what the real market for work like yours looks like.

* Just kidding! Someone already did that. Introducing PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.

A Magic of Convenience

There are tons and tons of manuscripts out there whose main characters have magic powers, which is always fun and interesting. The more I read of them, though, the more a strange habit rears its little head. And it’s difficult work to make magic believable and compelling, since it is, by its very nature, fantastical. But sometimes, characters’ magic powers are a little too, er, convenient. Not only does this affect the integrity of your fantasy wold-building, but the plot, too.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Lizzie’s powers were absolutely ineffective against the charm-locked door. Not even her Open Sesame spell could break the lock. Conveniently, any wizard of the Caldecott Bloodline, which Lizzie just happened to be a descendant of, could breeze right through. Luckily I remembered that! Saved me a lot of trouble, Lizzie thought as she jumped through the enchanted doorway.

This is, obviously, an exaggeration. But note a few things here. First, we go from a situation with tension and potential danger (a door locked by magic) to a situation with no tension whatsoever. Instead of making it hard for the character, instead of making the character work, the author (in this case, me) has given the MC an easy way out. Also, every time you catch yourself using words like “conveniently” or “luckily” or “just happened to…” take another look at the structure of your scene. See if you can’t scare up some more danger or tension.

We don’t pick up fiction to read about characters in easy-breezy situations. We don’t read read to see a magical coincidence at work. Sure, there are coincidences and happy accidents in life. And sure, sometimes we’re getting chased by werewolves and realize that our blood is powerful lupine repellent, just as their jaws close around our throats, or whatever, but fiction isn’t life transcribed, it’s life enhanced and structured to bring out tension and high stakes.

Luck, accidents, coincidences and other “Whew! What a nice surprise!” moments feel…cheap to the reader. Like the writer ran out of ideas and needed to get out of a pinch. That makes the reader think two things: “Wow, all the tension fell out of this scene,” and, possibly, “Why should I bother getting invested in the next high stakes scene? The author might just whip out another magical coincidence.”

Some much wiser writer once said that the crux of good fiction is getting a character in trouble, getting them in deeper trouble, then getting them in the deepest trouble of their life. There are too many manuscripts where the character’s magic helps them out right when they should be getting into trouble instead.

Like I mentioned above, this is a rules and boundaries issue. Every time you have fantasy/magic/magical realism in a manuscript, you’ve got to set rules and boundaries for how the fantastical elements function. When can a power be used? When can’t it be used?

Sometimes an author will pull a character out of danger in a very contrived way. Other times, the author will land a character in the very lap of danger by convenient means instead of raising stakes realistically. Neither is a good strategy. An example of the latter:

Our valiant hero, Lizzie, squinted up at the cave opening. She was trapped so far down in this underground hole that she thought she’d never get out. Then she remembered her pole-vaulting superpower! She readied her pole and prepared to vault when her shoulder grazed part of the cave wall. Oh, no! Was this limestone? Her grandmother had repeatedly told her, when she was a child, that only limestone would make her pole-vaulting magic fizzle. Lizzie was stuck again and the leprechauns could be heard drawing ever closer!

Next time you work with fantasy or magical powers, make sure you’re not doing anything for the sake of writerly laziness or convenience. Outline the rules and set boundaries for the magic throughout the manuscript. Give us, if not the powers in action, a taste of every power that your character will have throughout the story in the first 100 pages. That way, your character, and the reader, will know their strengths and limitations as they head into the rest of the story and, especially, the climax. Ideally, once the character gets in a certain situation, the reader will already know the rules of their magic. And I’m talking rules here. Like, the reader should be able to articulate and detail when magic can’t and can come into play in your story.

Introducing a new rule about magic right when the main character can either benefit or suffer from that rule is not usually a very provocative technique. It will be much easier to get your character out of trouble using convenient magic than it will to win your readers back after such a stroke of luck.

Revision Trick: Fooling Yourself

In moments of deep, dark, cookie-dough-scarfing despair, some writers wonder in their most secret of secret hearts whether they’re just fooling themselves. Unless you’ve got robot circuitry at your core or are an extreme narcissist (sometimes I envy egotistical robots), you’ve been there.

For me, the cookie-dough-scarfing depths of writerly depression usually come during the revision process. Writing the first draft was so free, so easy! Discovery at every turn! That process is what I like to call First Draft Goggles. Like beer goggles, that first draft euphoria can sure make everything look great.

Then comes the crushing hangover: revision. You’ve got to look at the thing you enjoyed so much during the first draft. You feel sick. There’s a bile taste creeping up your throat. “Did I really just write that?”

And here it comes, the big question: “Am I really just fooling myself with this writing thing?”

Well, here’s a nifty trick that I learned from David Morrell, a very seasoned writer. He took me under his wing at a conference one time and gave me a very simple, very effective tip. It truly was a “duh!” moment:

Every time you think you’re done with something, change the font, print it out and read it again.

This is a trick I like to use when I’m fairly far into my revision process, but I’ve found it helps with anything that’s getting you stuck. When you change the font, you’re more likely to slow down and read it more carefully, since your eyes aren’t as used to how the words look on the page or screen. Glaring errors and things that don’t sound right tend to stand out much more.

Some writers like to read a page bottom to top for much the same effect. That gives me a headache, so I just change the font. I like to go from Times New Roman to Courier New or, if I’m feeling extra frisky, Arial.

Try it and see what you think. This is literally a way to fool yourself into paying more careful attention and not getting complacent with your draft. Sometimes, fooling yourself is actually a good thing!

A Real Had Been

From my study of past tense manuscripts, it’s become clear to me that there’s a serious grammatical issue snaking into some otherwise very readable work. (Of course, you want more than just “readable” work, but, hey, fix the small stuff and then move on to the big stuff, right?)

It’s the “had” problem.

In my experience, this is an instance where your Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler is incorrect. Sure, it may make your sixth grade English textbook happy if you pepper your manuscript with the past perfect: “had been,” “had thought,” “had said.” But it’s not necessary. In fact, it grates on a reader.

When writing in the past tense, an author can choose to include a flashback or a memory or even a moment where they need to delve even further into the past. This is what the past perfect is for.

To a modern ear though, especially when you’re writing for children and young adults, the past perfect sounds stilted. And yes, I’m going to argue that too much past perfect — even when you’re writing historical — will clutter your manuscript.

Here’s an example:

She remembered him well. Eric had just gone to the pool, so his hair had gotten wet and even cuter. After toweling off, he had settled down under the oak tree with a sandwich…

I’m exaggerating, for sure. But some things I read really do sound like this. Here’s a word of advice in the “had” department: trust your reader to follow you.

When I see a writer relying too much on the past perfect, it seems like they’re shouting: “Hey! Hey reader! I’m using past tense but I’m even more in the past, so stay with me while I keep reminding you!”

The solution? Really ground your reader. Make sure they’re really clear that you’re disappearing into a different time. Then, use the past perfect once or twice, to satisfy Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler, and off you go. Stick with good old paste tense. You’ll be fine. I promise.

Take a look at a revision:

Amy thought back to last summer, to the lifeguard. Eric had just come out of the water and his hair was still wet. Fat, slick drops dribbled down his back as he toweled off. Before she could open her mouth and say one word to him, he slumped against the oak tree and tore into his sandwich. He never did find out how she felt.

She chased the memory away now…

Start in the narrative present, locate your reader, dip into the past, return us to where we left off and we’re good to go. There’s no need to keep using the past perfect if you frame the memory/flashback in a way that’s easy to follow.

Go back through your WIP and weed out some past perfect. I’m going to bet that, unless you’ve worked on this consciously before, there will be some stuff to revise.