Tag Archives: Stephen King

Elements of the story: making effective revisions

puppy happy dance via pinterestThere is no feeling of accomplishment like that of having completed a novel, or a shorter piece. Once that final sentence is written, there is that happy-dance moment, where we are shouting and the world is singing.

Following that, we have the urge to immediately look the finished manuscript over and see where some revisions could be made.

I know it’s tempting, but don’t do it. We need to gain some distance from our work in order to see it more clearly, so put it aside. If you work on something else for a couple of weeks, or even a month or two, you will gain a better perspective on what you just finished, and your revisions will bring out the best in your work.

But when we do get back to it, where do we start?

Stephen King said it so eloquently in his book, On Writing: “I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this note: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’ — Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

This means we must cut the fluff.  If your 1st draft is 100,000 words, try to cut 10,000 words out of it, making it 90,000. The following is a list of things to consider:

  1. Dialogue pitfalls: Search for clichés. Speaking as a reader, do a global search for the word alabaster. If you have used it to describe a woman’s skin, get rid of it, and find a different way to describe her. It’s an overused word that has become cliché. Find different ways to say what you want, unless you have a character who uses clichés–if so, he’d better have a good reason. Even then, don’t go overboard. Click here for a looooong list of common clichés: ProWriting Aid.
  2. Try to make your sentences do without these words: very, that, just, so, and literally. There will be places where they are the only words that will work, and you will use them in that instance. Usually just cutting them out of the sentence and adding nothing makes the sentence stronger. Fluffy, over-blown prose weakens the narrative.
  3. Flowery prose, even in a medieval setting, is off-putting to a reader. Do a global search (Cntrl F) for two letters: ly. This will bring up all the adjectives  (oops adverbs, thank you David Cantrell) because they end in ly. Look at each instance and if it is possible, get rid of them. Often the sentence is stronger without that extraneous word. Find a way to show the idea without flowery prose. This is where you grow as a writer–you give visual clues that enhance the story.
  4. Alfred Hitchcock quote re dialogueExamine the ms for conversations that are opportunities for info dumps. Info is good, but don’t dump it–dole it out as needed, and only when needed.
  5. Are people long-winded, and ranting on and on, with nary a pause for breath?  Decide what is really important in what they are saying and cut everything else.  Conversation in literature must have a purpose, or it is as boring as hell. Cut those marathon speeches down to where they sound like normal people talking, not like orators.
  6. Conversation must pertain to and advance the story. Small talk and verbal tics are obnoxious, and should be avoided at all cost. DO NOT have your characters preface sentences with “Hmmm…” and DO NOT have them use the name of the person they are speaking to, unless there are more than two characters in the scene. You can avoid things like “Well, Bill, it was like this…” just by having the speaker turn to Bill, and say it.

And now for my pet peeve: People do not smile, snort, or smirk dialogue. I mean really: “That’s a lovely dress,” snorted Clara. (eeew. )  Stick to simple dialogue tags, such as said and replied. In fact, it is often best to do away with speech tags (attributions) altogether for a few exchanges every now and then, if:  A. you have only 2 speakers, and B. you have clearly established who is speaking. You can also show who is speaking in other ways:

  1. Miss a few beats. Beats are little bits of physical action inserted into dialogue: John fell quiet and stared out the window. Halee turned and walked out the door. Used sparingly, these pauses serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description. They’re best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, because they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters.
  2. Don’t over do the action within the conversation. If your characters are rattling pans, slicing apples or staring out the window between every line of dialogue, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact of the conversation can be lost entirely.

leonard elmore quoteIn our first draft we are trying to make our point, and we inadvertently repeat ourselves. A good way to find where you are repeating yourself is to read a chapter from the bottom up, one paragraph at a time. My editors frequently  tell me, “You said it once, that’s enough.”

In my own work, I hear repetitions and other things I need to cut, if I read it aloud to someone else. I think that’s because when another person is listening, we are more aware of how a given passage sounds.

Also, consider not including a prologue. About half of the readers see the word “prologue” and assume it will be a boring info dump, so they skip it.

This begs the question, “Why go to the trouble of writing it if they aren’t going to read it?” If you must have a prologue, consider calling it Chapter 1– and make it clear that is occurring twenty years before the present day (or whatever). Make it immediately exciting, make it a true first chapter. And don’t do an excerpt from a Holy Book as your prologue. I did that once, and it flew like an iron kite. So I moved my Holy Book to the appendices, and if a reader is interested, they can read it there.

These are just a few things to look for when you begin revisions. And just so you know, revisions are not editing, they are rewriting. If you are “editing” your own manuscript, you have a fool for a client. There is no such thing as self-editing–the best you can do is make revisions and admire your work. You may do very well at that–some people do.

You must make revisions before you hire an editor. Then, ask other authors who they might recommend as an editor and see if you can work well with that person. Your editor will likely point some things out that you didn’t see, but that a reader will. At that point, you will make revisions again. But the results will be so worth it!

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Jonesing for affirmation

Der Arme Poet

Carl Spitzweg, The poor poet,1839 PD|100 yrs via Wikimedia Commons

Writing is an addiction. Oh, we don’t start out as garret-dwelling addicts. No, we start out as young people with bright futures, occasionally toying with that gateway drug–short-fiction.

At first it’s just thrill-seeking–writing a few short-stories and flash-fiction, just to see if we can. However, once we’ve felt the rush of  hearing the incredulous words, “You wrote this? This is good!” we are hooked.

The next step is often NaNoWriMo. Once you’ve done that first NaNoWriMo, you’ll never be the same.

Some fortunate people manage to walk away from it–they just do one NaNoWriMo, and quit, forever.

But for the rest of us, we are now on an eternal cycle of getting our word count and stream-of-consciousness-writing, and it will take us to the gates of perdition. Or to a local writing group–same thing, I am told.

No sane person thinks we can actually write for a living, but we can’t fight the urge.  We know we can do it, if we just keep at it. We crave that affirmation again, that incredible rush of “Oh yeah–I knew that story was all that, and I wrote it!”

At first, we still have some basic common sense. We know it isn’t cool to just quit our jobs and expect our family to live in a garret, starving, so we hang on to our day jobs and begin sneaking around, writing in secret, hiding it from our closest loved ones until we accidentally blow it–we are so high on the adrenaline rush from the incredible scene we just finished writing that we just have to tell someone.

After all, that scene is the turning point for the entire novel, and it’s golden!

So, not wanting to see the glazed look in your spouse’s eyes again, you tell the dog. Of course, the dog just has to tattle on you. Dogs can’t keep secrets, you should know that.

tumblr_ndi15fZRpu1syd000o1_500That is when it finally comes out that your every waking moment is spent on some aspect of the writing craft. Our family knew something was going on,and they were worried about our behavior.

But we’re so far gone by now that we don’t care.

If we’re lucky, the family is comprised of consummate enablers. Desperate to have some normalcy in their lives, they will try to keep us from becoming unkempt, shabby, pajama-clad writing-seminar junkies, bankrupting them with our endless, rather costly, efforts to “improve our work.”

They tell themselves that we’ll out grow the habit if they help us control our addiction. They encourage us to join free online writing and critique groups. They toss us a bone by giving us the occasional second-hand book on the craft of writing, usually by a famous author.

on writingThey have no idea just how potent an injection of inspiration that garage-sale edition of “On Writing” by Stephen King is to a hopeful author, and unknowingly they just make our condition worse.

At parties we have a sixth sense, always knowing who the other writers are just by the way they can’t focus on the conversation, and can’t wait to get  back to their work in progress, surreptitiously keying notes into their cell-phone and pretending they are texting.

We’ve never met them before, but we find ourselves exchanging knowing glances and sneaking out to the patio with our new best friend, bingeing on Leonard Elmore quotes about writing, and sharing a few morsels of Orson Scott Card’s writerly wisdom.

leonard elmore quoteA new brother-in-arms and Leonard Elmore–we’re high as a kite and having fun now. What a great party!

Shocked faces stare out the window–it’s apparent we’re having too much fun, and our families suspect we’re “ranting about our novel again.” They drag us back into the light, despairing of ever having a “normal” life again.

An intervention and rehab looms in our future.

It won’t work. It’s not an addiction you can just walk away from. When they’ve taken your laptop away and hidden the pencils, and still they catch you forming little sentences out of the ‘o’s in your cereal bowl, they will know there is no such thing as recovery for the writing addict.

Don’t worry. Soon, they will be begging you to just go to that bloody writers’ convention and get it out of your system.

Heh heh. Like that’s ever going to happen. Soon, you will be hanging out at the local coffee-shops, looking for people with their laptops open, trying to make unsuspecting new converts to your dirty little habit.

“Are you a writer too? Ever do any NaNoWriMo?”

“Wanna share a little “Writer’s Digest? C’mon, what’s the worst that can happen? It’s not like it’s illegal, or anything.”

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Baiting the hook

450px-Flyfishing wikipedia dot com

Flyfishing on river Sava Bohinjka, Slovenia photo by Ziga (PD)

You wrote the book. Your friends read it–you hope. At least they said they did, and they still like you. They tell you it’s a good book. They think it’s publishable, so you decide to go indie and self pub it. You spend the next year getting it edited and having a flashy cover designed. You even have a launch date picked out and feel reasonably sure you can get the book through the pipeline at CreateSpace by that date.

Now you are at the point where you must come up with some sort of a blurb.

This is where it gets fun.

Not.

There are many wonderful blurb-writing gurus out there on the internet, offering advice to those intrepid indies who would write that catchy morsel of blurbiness:

www.blurb.com

Marilyn Byerly 

Digital Book World

The Creative Penn

Yes, there are many websites offering us insight, and they all have great advice for us.  But putting that plethora of knowledge to practice is a bit daunting. 

They each approach it differently but when you distill it into a simple, linear form, it all boils down to variations on these concepts (in no particular order) for you to have in your head before you begin:

  • Use words that clearly evoke the genre
  • Keep it short– 100 to 300 words
  • Get the protagonist’s name out there early
  • Introduce the core conflict
  • Make it intriguing, mysterious–can this conflict be resolved?
  • Use a little hyperbole–stunning, denouement, and so on

The Internet Gurus also offer us this advice:

  • Don’t say what a great book it is
  • Don’t give spoilers
  • Don’t summarize the book (or even the first chapter)
  • Don’t be long-winded or wordy
  • Don’t say what a great writer you are
Back Cover of Mage-Guard of Hamor

Example of what NOT to put on back of book in lieu of proper blurb.

I would also offer this advice: keep it to less than 150 words and don’t skip writing the blurb. It has become popular for the Big 5 publishers to skip writing a blurb and just go with praises for the author’s other works, expecting that their name and fame will sell the book. This tells me that blurb writing is hard and even the the big guys don’t like it. Most big publishers, like Penguin, will have a marketing department.  Penguin puts blurbs on their books, so why the others can’t come up with a proper blurb is a mystery to me.

That might work for Stephen King or L.E. Modesitt Jr., but it won’t work for an unknown indie who is trying to build a reputation and a fan base.

Readers want to know what they are buying, and if they have no idea who you are, they don’t care what your friends think about your work. They aren’t going to touch it.

The blurb is a teaser.  It’s one part of a three-part lure, the only purpose of which is to entice a customer to buy your book.

Remember, you are fishing for readers and that blurb is part of the triangular bait:

  1. Part one is the flashy cover–even for ebooks that cover gets them to stop and look a bit closer, and
  2. the blurb is part two–the part that hooks them and gets them to crack it open.
  3. Part three of this lure is the words they read once they open the bookthat is when you land your fish, whether by ebook or by paperbook.

But until they have read your blurb, they won’t open the book, so they won’t know what wonder awaits them.

I am currently working on a blurb for a stand-alone book based in the world of Neveyah, the world the Tower of Bones Series is set in.  Where the Tower of Bones series can be rather dark, Mountains of the Moon has many comic elements.

Right now, this is my blurb. My head is numb, so I’m letting it sit for another week or so then I will revisit it and have my homies at Myrddin Publishing go over it one more time:

MOTM MAPHidden away in the Mountains of the Moon, the ruins of an immense castle harbor a dark secret: entire families have vanished from the valleys in the shadow of the mountains, leaving no trace. The elderly Baron Hemsteck hasn’t been seen for two seasons.

Four mages are sent to investigate. Wynn Farmer and his companions embark on a trek to learn the truth. Along their route, they must battle against the strange beasts controlled by a rogue mage and ultimately face an evil they never thought possible.

Danger, dark magic, and mystery await those who seek the truth in the Mountains of the Moon. The Gods are at war, and Neveyah is the battlefield.

We kept it down to 114 words, and managed to get the World of Neveyah series tag-line in on the end of it.

Sigh. I admit I am not good at writing blurbs for my own books, but I do have a large posse of author-friends who are more than willing to help me hone that blurb. When the back cover is finished, I will have a concise blurb that will hopefully entice readers to read my book.

Finally, at the end of June,  I will reveal the cover.  I am pretty excited about this new book. I can hardly wait!

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Elements of the Story: Allegory

allegory

Proper use of the allegory is an integral tool in the author’s toolbox. An allegory is a metaphor, but it is not merely symbolism, although it is definitely symbolic. Authors, painters, and musicians can convey hidden meanings and discuss complex moral issues through the device of allegory.

Literary Devices.net describes  Edmund Spenser’s “Faerie Queen,” a moral and religious allegory, in this way:

RAK9388 Faun and the Fairies, c.1834 by Maclise, Daniel

Faun and the Fairies, c.1834 by Daniel Maclise

“The good characters of book stand for the various virtues, while the bad characters represent vices. “The Red-Cross Knight” represents holiness while “Lady Una” represents truth, wisdom and goodness. Her parents symbolize the human race. The “Dragon” which has imprisoned them stands for evil. The mission of holiness is to help the truth, fight evil, and thus regain its rightful place in the hearts of human beings. “The Red-Cross Knight” in this poem also represents the reformed church of England fighting against the “Dragon” which stands for the Papacy or the Catholic Church.”

The Faerie Queene is an allegorical romance, and contains several levels of allegory, including praise for Queen Elizabeth I, who was Spenser’s great patron.

Elizabeth-I-Allegorical- painting  c.1610  by Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Allegory of Queen Elizabeth (c. 1610), with Father Time at her right and Death looking over her left shoulder. Two cherubs are removing the weighty crown from her tired head. Artist unknown.

Allegory is not always something that works well if you desire commercial success with your novels. This is because allegory is the sort of thing that only becomes apparent on further contemplation by the reader–which many casual readers don’t usually want to do and modern action-based literature does not encourage. A great many of today’s readers are action-junkies, so if you choose to present a moral concept through the use of allegory, you must take a page from Stephen King‘s work and  wrap it up in such a way that the average reader will enjoy it for the entertainment value, while the discerning reader will look deeper and find more layers to enjoy within your work.

ClassroomSynonym.com says: “At the foundation of a well-constructed allegory are carefully crafted parallels between two separate issues. To properly analyze an allegory it’s important to identify these parallels and explain why the parallels are such strong indicators that an allegory exists. Even though “The Crucible” is literally about a witch hunt, the unfair tactics for deciding who is a witch and who isn’t parallel the claims made during the McCarthy Era with little justification other than rumor and hearsay that certain people were communists. The unfair method of designation is the parallel.”

Crafting an allegorical narrative requires planning and intention. Clarity of thought on your part is absolutely crucial if your deeper story is to become clear to the reader. I suggest you outline so that the beginning, middle and end are clear before you begin.

An effective allegory narrative will have a clear moral or lesson that will become apparent at the end of the essay. Even if it is not stated directly the message will be implicit in the final resolution. You want to be sure that the ending reflects your final thought on the subject.

  1. Use Symbolism

The allegory is the symbol of your idea. This means your narrative or poem conceals the true theme you’re symbolizing. In other words, you are writing a cover story that will contain the primary one.

  1. Planning Your Characters Is Essential

Each character in an allegory represents an underlying element to your theme. Because the reader is expected to interpret the whole story and find what it means, no character can be introduced that does not directly pertain to and represent part of the underlying story. The moment you introduce a random character into it, your allegory devolves into chaos and your deeper meaning is lost.

  1. Planning Your Action is Essential

The arc of the scene becomes tricky. Every action is crucial–action must show something that pertains to the underlying theme, not just push the overlying story forward.

  1. Insert Hints Regarding the Deeper Meaning Into The Overlying Story

What that means is, you’ll be expected to leave evidence in your story for the discerning reader to grasp. Some authors have used irony, and sarcasm.  Others use large metaphors. No matter what you choose, subtle clues will guide the reader to the deeper story, and you want them to catch that underlying meaning, or you wouldn’t have written it. You don’t have to explain it baldly—readers love figuring out puzzles. But you do have to make sure a trail of breadcrumbs is there for your reader to follow.

E-how gives us this perfect, concise example: “For instance, if you want to show the damage done to the environment by humans, then the character symbolizing “everyman” could end up harming or hurting the character symbolic of the environment.”

animal farm george orwellI love allegories, and I have written a great deal of poetry that is allegorical.

I have read The Faerie Queene and The Crucible, and was challenged by both, for different reasons. One reason for that challenge in The Faerie Queen is that Spenser used many words that were considered archaic even in Elizabethan times, so you have to interpret it as you go.

Some other famous allegorical novels I have read are:

Animal Farm by George Orwell

An allegorical and dystopian novella by George Orwell, first published in England on 17 August 1945. According to the author himself, the book reflects events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then on into the Stalin era in the Soviet Union.

The Trial by Franz Kafka  Kafka’s descriptions of law and legality are considered allegories for things other than law, but it does clearly show how law and legality sometimes operate paradoxically.

Thinner by Richard Bachman (Stephen King writing under a pen name) Horror: An allegory about what lies beyond the limits of prosperous American complacency and where the responsibilities of human actions ultimately lie.

I will just say that allegorical novels are not written to be comfortable, cozy reads. They can be quite disturbing and thought provoking, as both Animal Farm and Thinner were to me. They were extremely disturbing, if you want the truth, but that was what makes them great literature. I was in the mood for a meatier read, and they took me out of my comfort zone, showing me disturbing aspects of the world I live in. These were things I could not change on a global level, but which I could possibly change within in my own sphere, thus my horizons were widened by reading them.

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