Sunday, October 16, 2011

4 Editing/Writing Mistakes You Might Be Making & Their Solutions

Tomorrow night I'm speaking about 10 Editing/Writing mistakes you're probably making and how to fix them. Seats are still available, if you're interested.

I originally had a list of twenty, but had to pare it down to ten for the sake of time. Here now are four that got lost in the shuffle but that are no less important or critical. I present them to you here in the same format I'll be discussing them.

Mistake #1 - You think the sentences have to be fancy in order to prove that you're smart or capable or good enough.
  • Fancy sentences, while they demonstrate that you've paid attention to instructors or grammar, don't necessarily prove that you're smart.
  • Side note: You're always capable
  • Side note #2: You're always way more than good enough.
The Solution: Ask yourself this question - What (type of) sentence serves the focus (of the sentence)? Every sentence talks about something, and I don't only mean the grammatically correct subject of the sentence. I'm talking about the 'point' of the string of words.

Is your sentence describing the chair a character sits in? Is your sentence expanding on what your character is saying? Finding out what the sentence is doing, and who/what it's doing it to can help you hone the sentence to make it more reflect the sound, feel, and style that you're looking for.

Likewise, sentences said by people have a unique sound. My spoken sentence structure is different than my written structure, and both of which are different than how you sound or how you write. Understanding this difference, and being able to express it within the manuscript, allows you to individuate your characters and breathe into them a vitality and distinct depth making them feel more real. Your hard-boiled detective in 1940s Los Angeles speaks in a completely different manner than your Victorian schoolteacher in Darbyshire and she's entirely different from the young girl from the future.

Exposition should sound and read (and feel) different and separate from your dialogue. And characters should sound distinct and different from each other. Fancy sentences have their place in a writer's toolbox, but you don't have to trot them out just to prove yourself -- if they help the story, use them.

Mistake #2 - Mid-Manuscript Sag
  • You had an intense opening, and you know you've got a ferocious close, but the middle of the story hangs worse than old lady boobs. 
  • You've tried your best to avoid this by shoe-horning in some action, but it's obvious that this is the section you've tacked on because it doesn't have any bearing on what happens later.
  • You've decided that mid-manuscript sag is unavoidable, and everyone gets it. 
  • Note: That's silly. It's a treatable condition, and you'll be happier when it's fixed.
The Solution: Remember that Act 2 is the middle steps of your staircase.  It's the middle of the night.  I'm on my first floor, and I want to go upstairs to the bedroom, here's what I do (you know, in case you want to hide in the bushes and watch):
  1. Open the door to upstairs
  2. Step onto the first step
  3. Curse the darkness
  4. Flick on the light switch
  5. Go up the stairs
  6. Pause a second to make sure that nothing creepy and evil is following me (seriously, it's a scary staircase)
  7. Reach the top of the stairs
  8. Go to bed.
If I was going to divide that into three acts (or sections), I'd do this:

Act 1 - Steps 1-4
Act 2 - Steps 5-6
Act 3 - Steps 7-8

The first four steps gave information as to what the problem was, and began the effort of solving the problem. The last two steps show the problem being solved and what happens after the solution.

But none of that would be possible without the middle steps. How can we get to Act 3 without Act 2?

We can't. But, you ask, how do I make those middle steps not suck?

Why do you assume they have to suck? Likewise, why do you assume you have to speed up the middle to get to the end?

True, Act 2 is different for every kind of manuscript. Non-fiction people have to use it to develop established points. Mystery writers use it for investigation and suspect growth. Scriptwriters use it to introduce villains, sub-plots and peril. Cookbook authors use it for developing main courses.

No matter how it gets used, Act 2 must build upon Act 1 and lead up to and into Act 3. I'm not going to reach the bedroom without climbing those stairs. With each step, up goes the protagonist (me), up goes the tension (will he climb the stairs?), up goes the expectation (he's almost to the top of the stairs!) and up goes the sense of success (look how far he's gone!).

Act 2 sag is defeated by knowing the goal, what's at stake, what gets lost or gained and by making sure you care about the guy going up the stairs. Or the girl who's a secret assassin. Or the teenage shape-shifting psychic.

Mistake #3 - Suffocating The Characters
  • Characters are not only the pawns on the chessboard of your story
  • You're not so much "controlling" them as "exploring" them
I have to deviate a little first to explain what I'm talking about. Hang on, this will all make sense shortly.
When we're sitting down at our desks, and either facing the blank page or screen, and maybe we've even got a stack of notes sprawled all around us, we are powerful. We create worlds and people and problems and we open the vaults of our imaginations and go wild.

And other times, we tell a story that is pretty straightforward, and we sit down only to express it, not embellish or evolve it.

Our characters are living creatures. They exist in three dimensions in our minds. They are not nebulous constructs that represent vague concepts - hopefully, you've done more to flesh them out and give them personality and potential. (I say hopefully because this needs to happen more often. For help doing this, we should talk.)

When we sit down to let these characters loose, yes we want to tell the story we had in mind (Yes, the cheerleader robot will destroy all of mankind), but is that all we want?

The Solution - Relax your stranglehold on the characters and the world, and see what else you can create. You are not limited, constrained or held back, unless You choose to be. The act of writing, the true art and craft of it comes in seeing where your imagination takes you AS you write, so that while you may intend to start building a scene where the girl tells the boy she loves him, it may, if you let it, also be the scene where the girl reveals she's never been kissed, and oh by the way, she's got a twin sister who sleeps in the closet.

I had a teacher (who I'm pretty sure is long gone, I mean he was in his nineties when I was a teenager) who used to tell me "You give your characters air, but you have to show them how to breathe, NOT 'let' them breathe."

And this quote absolutely bothered me for YEARS because I couldn't see his point. I have to show them, not let them. Of course I let them. I made them.

This is what he was talking about -- the act of creation does not automatically grant total authority. Your characters don't exist solely for the plot of this manuscript. Yes, they might exist for the duration of this manuscript, but while they're alive, they can live and breathe and live within the boundaries you create.

You create those boundaries with decisions, not limitations. (John's Writing Principle #1 - Writing is the act of making decisions.) If you build a strong enough world, and inhabit it with capable creations, and provide them a context in which to operate, you've done enough. You can stand back, let your imagination kick in, and see how the characters mingle and evolve across the manuscript.

Mistake #4 - Suffocating the Plot
  • The manuscript is MORE than your plot
  • The plot is NOT your reason to live, not should it entirely be that way for the characters
Plots are, by definition, the conflict and problem(s) faced by the character(s) in the story. Sometimes, it's argued that plots are the reason for the story. Sometimes it's argued that plots are the reason for characters. Sometimes I argue a lot.

Just like suffocating your characters, so too can you choke the plot like it owes you money. (And it very well may...)

But plots are more structured, and they shouldn't have room to evolve, right?

Plots evolve just the way characters do. Maybe not to the same degree, but at least by the same dynamic.

Think of this:
John's Lesson #3 About Plots -- Plots grow, ebb and flow, in response to the growth and evolution of the characters that face them.

The Solution - When making sure the plot is resolvable, and is a good test and crucible for the characters, make sure the plot is appropriate for them.

While Superman may sympathize with the crying orphan, do we really need to have the tale set around rescuing a puppy for the boy? While it's a nice element in the story, is that the bulk of the story?

Test your plot regularly and be willing to expand it. The clearer you know your characters, the clearer you'll know how they'll handle the plot.

I hope this helps you, and I hope you have an excellent time writing. I look forward to seeing some of you (tomorrow) Monday night. Write on.