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re: The Dreaded Flashback

in General fiction/Plot by

Dear Editor…

In my outline, my main character finds out my supporting character has been manipulating her from the beginning and wants answers. Initially, I was going to write a flashback chapter to explain how that came about, but I’ve read readers and writers hate flashbacks. The flashback was going to be his explanation. How else could I achieve this?

Sincerely,
J

Dear J…

Just as there are anti-prologuers, there are anti-flashbackers. Don’t let them dictate your storytelling choices. I hate the thought of writers avoiding devices that’re right for their stories because they fear knee-jerk rejection of the device itself. What bears consideration is what causes anti-flashbackism: Sometimes flashbacks slam the brakes on a story’s forward momentum because they throw us backward. Sometimes they feel too pat. Now consider that in real life, demanding answers from one’s nemesis requires a present-day showdown, with accusations, denials, miscommunications, and missed opportunities for clarity, recompense, and reconciliation. Juicy stuff! Why not experiment with such a scene? Even if it feels scary to write, stay with the experiment since those feelings could be a sign you’re avoiding “pat” and writing something rich, cathartic, and thoroughly satisfying.

Happy writing!
The Editor

Re: How to Not Annoy Readers?

in Characterization/Creative Process/General fiction/Plot/Point of View by

Dear Editor…

I have a story idea: Two strangers’ lives tragically collide in a hit & run accident, leaving the DRIVER with haunting visions of the VICTIM. Driver’s visions of Victim become more desperate and her guilt more debilitating, so she decides to return to save Victim—and herself. My question: What do you think of this non-traditional structure: Book 1: Victim’s POV pre-crash; Book 2: Driver’s POV post crash; Book 3: Victim’s POV & resolution of Driver’s story. I worry about leaving Victim’s story in limbo for all of BOOK 2. Readers won’t know if the protagonist they just spent 100 pages with is dead or alive. Is that enthralling, or just plain irritating? I know I could do alternating POV chapters, but I don’t care for that style. Ideas?

Thanks!
Plotting Author

Dear Plotting Author…

The unknown fate could be cool. Try it! Your awareness of potential irritation means you’ll strive for a story that nails “enthralling.” I have two recommendations for your proposed structure: 1) Keep Victim present in Book 2. Not physically, but through Driver’s story. Perhaps this is a small town and after the crash Driver encounters people that readers met in Book 1. These people are doing business that somehow relates to Victim, none knowing Victim was in an accident. Perhaps Driver discovers a link to Victim, or a hint as to Victim’s identity. The point is to make Book 2 as much about Victim as it is about Driver. Don’t abandon Victim yourself. Keep her with us and even advance her story, building readers’ desire for her rescue beyond basic justice. Then the unknown fate isn’t gimmick but an essential contribution to both characters’ arcs. 2) In Book 1 Victim must have her own story of struggle substantial enough to carry the book to its cliffhanger. Victim’s plot and character arcs in Book 1 should then stoke Driver’s arcs in Book 2, with all arcs merging in Book 3. Like those ideas?

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Writing a Romantic Scene for a Novel That’s Not Romance

in Characterization/Plot/Romance Novels/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I need your help! I’m writing a book, and I don’t know how to incorporate a romance scene without making the whole book a romance. It’s a YA Novel, and I don’t want to ruin the book.

Sincerely,
H.

Dear H.…

You’re trying to force a plot or character shift with an unearned moment of mushiness, and that won’t work. The fun of reading a romantic scene is feeling the emotional threads that author has been weaving between two characters finally tighten with satisfying resonance. The story hits an emotional peak, and it’s oh so lovely. Ahhhh. Without those emotional threads, no peak. Just dialogue lacking emotional underpinning and awkward touching. Ick. You don’t want to write that, and I don’t want to read it. What relationship shift is true to your characters? Their internal arcs and relationship arc haven’t been about attaining rewards found in romantic love. What’s their emotional need? Is their forced team-up finally shifting to true friendship? Are they revealing vulnerabilities to establish true trust? Identify why the characters you’ve written must connect emotionally at this moment, then write that peak. You’ll enjoy that scene, as will we.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Why Does My Action “Read Slow”?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/General fiction/Narrative Voice/Plot by

Dear Editor…

The feedback on my mystery manuscript was that it has lots of action but “reads slow.” The reader gave one bit of elaboration: “Some of the paragraphs ‘feel’ long even though they aren’t.” I’m not sure what to do with that. Suggestions?

Sincerely,
Confused

Dear Confused…

You might be overstuffing sentences to get it all in quickly. The action. The info. The setting. The revelations. This can lead to long, complex sentences with multiple actions, heavily modified nouns, interruptions, and copious commas, em-dashes, and parentheses. Example: “Digging my hand into my pocket, I ran to the huge, double-bolted, metal doors—just installed last week by my ultra-paranoid, hippie parents—hoping desperately that I could dig out the ancient bronze key in time.”  That might be fine amongst a variety of sentence lengths and styles (such as a direct statements or fragments). But sentence after sentence, page after page…. It’s a lot of work for a reader. Slow work. And it’s hard to pick out the most important action; everything has the same weight. Thus, dense text can feel flat. Increase sentence variety to create rhythmic ups/downs. Make some things stand out while others float in the background, creating depth. If a detail isn’t vital, ditch it. When using opening clauses, avoid repeatedly piling action upon action. Lastly, go easy on the adjectives. Inform, don’t bury.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: How Come If I Stay’s Opening Works?

in General fiction/Openings/Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Readers…

Last week a writer—Diane—asked me why some current bestsellers that start with backstory or as the day is dawning can make those slower beginnings work so well? She specifically asked about The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay. I posted my answer about The Fault in Our Stars last week. I think this is such a useful exploration of story beginnings that I’m taking up that same question today, this time parsing out If I Stay‘s opening.

The Editor

Dear Diane…

Gayle Forman’s If I Stay opens with what looks like a no-no: the protagonist joins her family for breakfast and they discuss plans for the day. Too often such “dawning day” openings just introduce the protagonist and show her “home base” as a reference point before she leaves for adventure. A strong opening doesn’t just introduce and ground—it intrigues readers in ways that prompt further reading. Forman intrigues by triggering and stoking anticipation. Her chapter header is “7:09 a.m.”, setting up the expectation that a big thing will happen any minute. Then the first two sentences tell us some big “it” is pending. Next, the family debates whether to stay off the icy roads. By then, readers—who know they’ve chosen a book about a girl deciding to live or die after she’s the only survivor of her family’s car crash—have their metaphoric hands over their eyes, thinking, “No! Stay home!” Forman stokes anticipation even as she shows the loving family her protagonist will lose, setting up the heroine’s emotional anguish. Dawning day, yes, but that dawn is loaded.

Happy writing!
The Editor

WRITING NEW ADULT FICTION Launch Week, Day 2: Manipulating New Adult Characters

in Characterization/New Adult Fiction/Plot/WNAF Virtual Book Launch by

Dear Readers…

It’s Day 2 of Writing New Adult Fiction Launch Week! Today, a “Free Chapter Critique” giveaway and tips for manipulating new adults with their own universal traits.

Thanks for joining me!
The Editor

*Scroll down to enter today’s “Free First Chapter Critique” giveaway. Congratulations to yesterday’s winner, Kari Palm.

Yesterday I pointed out some social, emotional, and circumstantial traits of new adulthood. There are many great ways to manipulate your NA characters using those insights. Here are five:

  1. Force your new adult characters to reject or accept their childhoods. They’re no longer defined by their family’s circumstances or the fallout from parents’ decisions. They’ve got a clean slate—or so they think. Inside, they’re still lugging baggage, and that baggage needs to be handled. A variation of this has characters working through the scars of a tough teen experience, such as a physical attack.
  2. Make your protagonists question their self-reliance. They craved independence, but now that they have it, can they handle it? Perhaps threaten parental input—or yank it away if your young people use their parents as a crutch.
  3. Embrace the complications of forging a new social circle. In a way, your new adults are picking a new “family.” Don’t give them a cast of ideal choices.
  4. Make money an issue. Financial stress can be harsh, especially when you’re new to financial independence. “In YA the characters may be working at Starbucks for extra pocket money, whereas NA characters have to make money to survive, so the stresses on the characters are much greater. They can’t just blow it off.”—Agent Stacey Donaghy (quoted from Writing New Adult Fiction)
  5. Explore mental issues. Sadly, this is an age range in which many mental issues are triggered or come to fruition amid the stress. Mental and social issues are a part of our collective literary landscape, as themes and contributing to conflict and impacting both the internal and external journeys of characters. It’s an option, if not for your protagonist then for the people in her life who she may have to support with her newfound strengths and wisdoms.

All five of these manipulation strategies are, at their cores, about rocking your new adults’ stability. Remember, new adulthood is a time of change, with just about every element of their lives in some sort of transition. Good or bad, change is stressful, and stress leads to high emotions and conflict and bad decisions. Regardless of the genre you’re writing, if you wrap all that stress in your NA characters’ heightened emotions and then tie that up in a puffy bow of high expectations for an “ideal new adult experience,” you’re looking at a fiction gold mine. Mine it to the hilt!

Use the Rafflecopter form below to enter today’s “Free 1st 20 Pages Critique” giveaway. NA, YA, Adult… any fiction WIP is okay. (And you’re still eligible for the Friday Full MS edit giveaway, too.) Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

re: How to Balance High Action with Deep Characterization

in Characterization/General fiction/Plot by

Dear Editor…

I’m writing a teen thriller, filled with lots of action. Beta readers say I’ve got the action but that the characters aren’t interacting enough. I don’t really know what they mean, since the protagonist and her protector are in every scene together. They talk all the time! Ideas? Can you recommend some books that do it right?

Thanks,
T. E. S.

Dear T. E. S….

It may be that all their chatter is plot-related fact delivery, backstory delivery, or action-steeped stuff like, “Run! … Is he gone? … We’re safe.” That doesn’t do much to deepen characterizations. Give characters something to talk about and bond/conflict over that isn’t directly related to the plot. Then, to make sure that Something doesn’t feel random and unconnected, work it into the resolution of the story. Kenneth Oppel’s Michael L. Printz Honor Book Airborn balances high action and character interaction. His characters both bond and clash over social class and gender inequality, constantly stumbling over their internalized prejudices even as they both sincerely reject those prejudices. These issues have nothing to do with the pirate raids that make up the major action, yet they create characterization opportunities and eventually factor into how the characters work together to escape the pirates. What say you, Readers? What are your favorite books that balance high action and character interaction?

The Editor

re: Timing the Time Travel in Your Novel

in Plot by

Dear Editor…

If I am writing a novel about time travel, do the time travellers have to enter the alternate time zone or the new world very early in the novel?

Thanks,
Joy

Dear Joy…

Let your story needs and reader expectation drive your timing. Since your book is about time travel, readers will crave it. They won’t bat an eye if you take a chapter or two to build your story, but after that they’ll probably start wondering, “Hey, where’s the time travel stuff I bought this book for?” If your pre-time travel portion exists mostly to establish the current world so we can understand the psychological impact of leaving it, be quick about that task. However, if you’ve got substantial action or story in the pre-time travel part, readers will be jazzed enough about the here and now to wait as many as four or five chapters before wondering where their time travel is. In the 382-page bestseller Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the protagonist doesn’t go through the time/world gateway until page 124, mid-Chapter 5. Many readers don’t know another world is behind the mystery of monsters in the first 123 pages, so that timing works for that story and its audience.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Resources for Richer Characters, Plots, Voice, Dialogue

in Characterization/Dialogue/Narrative Voice/Plot by

Dear Readers…

Two things floated to the top of the Internet this week that you might find useful for beefing up characters, plot, voice, and dialogue, so The Editor is featuring them today: “Deborah Halverson on Why Perfectly Nice People Make Perfect Bad Guys” and The Editor’s FREE webinar “Four Fixes for a ‘Flat’ Story”. Read on for descriptions and links…

“Deborah Halverson on Why Perfectly Nice People Make Perfect Bad Guys”The Editor’s guest post on the great Cynsations blog, which is featuring and tweeting “best of” guest posts while host Cynthia Leitich Smith is on summer hiatus.  Excerpt: “Some antagonists seem perfectly nice when you first meet them. They can have very obvious moral centers. They might even be friends with the protagonist—or would be, under different circumstances. But in the circumstances you devise to get and keep your story rocking, that character provokes your protagonist, challenges him or throws roadblocks in his path or pushes him into situations of actual physical peril. The antagonist causes wonderful, juicy conflict even if he still seems inherently nice otherwise…. How can you make your antagonist believably sympathetic? Here are five ways…”

“Four Fixes for a ‘Flat’ Story” webinar w/ The Editor & Katie Davis – This 1.5-hr webinar covers four ways to fix your story when an editor tells you, “I couldn’t get into the story…. The story feels flat…. The voice isn’t distinct…. The dialogue doesn’t sound natural.” It was created as the grand finale for The Editor’s Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies Blog Tour but you can still view the full webinar (free) on Youtube.

re: Multiple Character Quests

in Characterization/Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I’m new to writing and currently working on a YA book.  I have three main characters in my book that will be going on different quests.  How should I handle each quest in one book or should they each have a book of there own – meeting up at the end?  Thanks for you help!

Kathi

Dear Kathi…

Not one to take the easy path, eh? Try some tactics authors use when they have two protagonists with separate storylines for much of the book: 1) Give the characters equal screen time, with their chapters appearing in a regular sequence. 2) Keep the chapters short so readers won’t think you’ve abandoned a character for too long. 3) Transition out of one character’s chapter and into another with a common element. For example, end a chapter with Character A climbing onto a bus with resolve, and start the next chapter with Character B climbing down from her treehouse with resolve. This will create a sense of continuity. You don’t want readers feeling like you’re jumping from character to character.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Are Subplots Off-Limits in 1st Person POV?

in Plot/Point of View by

Dear Editor…

I was reading that subplots are told in the secondary character’s point of view. How do you manage this in a 1st person point of view novel? Can you still have subplots even though you have to see all the action through the main character’s eyes?

Thanks,
Linda

Dear Linda…

Sure you can! Choosing to tell your story in first person doesn’t mean forgoing subplots that don’t include your narrator. Just be sure that your narrator can know and thus mention enough of the subplot’s events for readers to follow that storyline through the book. Or, if you want your narrator to be oblivious to the subplot for most of the book, have him observe or be involved with behavior and dialogue of other characters that somehow reveals subplot clues to readers. This’ll prime readers for the subplot’s eventual full revelation.

Happy writing!
The Editor

Guest Editor Barrie Summy re: Red Herrings in MG Mysteries?

in Guest Editors/Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

Do you think red herrings and foreshadowing are important in middle grade novels? I’m working on a spooky mystery and am wondering if I need to pay more attention to adding red herrings. It seems like a tough element to learn. Thanks for any input you can give me.

Sincerely,
Lynn

Dear Lynn…

Yes and yes. I say go for both red herrings and foreshadowing in middle-grade novels.

A few red herrings tossed into the mix add to the fun and complexity and give your mystery those delightful twists and turns. You definitely don’t want a straight road leading directly from the problem to the solution. Sure, by the end of the mystery, you want your readers to feel that even if they didn’t crack the case, they could’ve. And, of course, some readers will actually solve it. Red herrings ensure that not every reader solves it. 🙂

I’m a huge fan of foreshadowing because it enriches the book and makes it hang together better. Will your average middle-grade reader notice foreshadowing? Perhaps not. But it will still make your story that much better.

Hope this helps. Good luck with your writing, Lynn. Middle-grade mysteries are great! (Not that I’m biased…)

-Guest Editor Barrie Summy

Barrie Summy is the author of the popular young adult mystery series I So Don’t Do: I So Don’t Do Mysteries, I So Don’t Do Spooky, and I So Don’t Do Makeup. The fourth mystery in the series, I So Don’t Do Famous, pubs May 10, 2011. In it, Sherry goes to Hollywood and figures out who’s breaking into celebrities’ homes. For more about Barrie and Sherry, go to www.barriesummy.com.

re: 3rd Draft . . . Last draft?

in Creative Process/Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

Now I’m ready to work on the third draft of my YA novel. I’ve never been here before. How do I do this? Should I start over for the 3rd time or just edit parts of it that need work? Is this still the cutting down on characters/bettering the plot time? How do you know when you’re done?

Sincerely,

Melody

Dear Melody…

Alas, “done” isn’t an empirical pronouncement. It’s “best guess” city. Here are five questions to help you decide if big character or plot changes are still needed: If you take the protagonist as he is in the final scene and drop him back into the first scene of the book, will he behave so differently that you wouldn’t even have a story? Did you force your protagonist out of his comfort zone at crucial moments? Has each obstacle pushed the plot and characters forward? Are the consequences of failure dire enough at each stage of the plot? Does each scene in each chapter contribute to its chapter’s overall goal, and does every chapter contribute to the character’s achievement of his story goal?

If you’re confident answering yes to all, you may indeed be at word-tweaking stage and perhaps last draft. Don’t force it. Louis Sachar wrote five drafts of Holes before he sent it to his editor—and that book went on to win the National Book Award and the Newbery Medal.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Scenes, Chapters . . . What’s the Difference?

in Plot by

Dear Editor…

I give up. My writing group keeps telling me that my chapters are really just scenes. I don’t get it. What’s the difference?

Sincerely,

Randalf

Dear Randalf…

I chose your letter today for two reasons: 1) I have an answer, and 2) Darcy Pattison’s  “Fiction Notes” just finished an entire month of blogging about nothing but scenes and can drive home what I’m about to tell you. I know because I contributed to that blog series with a post about the important stuff hiding in the white space between scenes. My shameless plug accomplished, here’s how you wrap your brain around scenes and chapters: Scenes are the stepping stones and the chapter is the river, with the opposing shores being two different phases of your plot.

Breaking that down: Each chapter has a plot goal that moves your protagonist one step closer to the resolution of the story’s overall conflict. That means when you string your chapters together, you’ve got your full plot, start to finish. A scene is a single event with its own conflict that, when combined with other scenes, contributes to the overall goal of its chapter. Something will happen to your character in the scene that worsens the situation but doesn’t quite push the character over the edge. Example: The male lead in your story decides today is the day to finally leave his wife. That’s your chapter goal. To attain that goal, the man has three small but escalating conflicts with his wife, across three scenes, that finally push him to his Big Decision. Voila! The river, the stepping stones, and the successful crossing from one shore to the other.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Should Flashbacks Be Feared?

in Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

In my critique group my fellow authors warned me about the dangers of flashbacks in fiction. They suggested a prologue, but I have heard that prologues can also be deadly to a manuscript. Can you give me some advice on this matter?

Many thanks,
J

Dear J…

I have this niggling feeling you’re looking for ways to set up your story before it happens. As in, Psst! Hey, Reader, let me tell you something about the character before you start. Don’t do that. You have plenty of time to slip them background info once they care about your protagonist and the problems ahead of her. If they don’t care about her, they won’t give a fig about the things that happened in her past to make her who she is today. Instead, open with your character doing something that reveals her personality and hints at her problems. Then sprinkle in the background essentials, teasing them out with little references and then doing a Grand Reveal in a clever, unexpected way. Flashbacks are often big backstory dumps, so use them sparingly and with caution. Prologues are okay as long as you’re not just looking for a dumping method that doesn’t being with the letter “f”. The prologue must be entertaining in its own right. It’s not a free Psst! Hey Reader! moment. That’s when prologues become “deadly.” Readers want action in the first words, not explanation.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Must a Murdering Dad Make Good by “The End”?

in Characterization/Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

My protagonist’s father is convicted of murder. He also has a history of abuse. He’s found innocent of the murder, and promises a better life for his family. My critique group wants him rehabilitated. How can I resolve this and stay true to the time period when spousal abuse was sadly hidden or ignored?

Sincerely,

Maria

Dear Maria…

In teen fiction, your primary responsibility is to your teen protagonist. It’s her story, above all else, and your readers care about her struggle to overcome a situation, be it one at school, one at home, or one that involves a murderous, abusive parent. Your story must end with your protagonist finding a new maturity or understanding of herself and how she can live her life in full knowledge of her father’s crime(s). It’s not about a tidy ending, with Dad making good. Sometimes dads don’t make good. If being true to the story, the era, and the culture means that Dad shouldn’t get rehabilitated, then don’t force it for the sake of a pat ending. You want a satisfying ending, and that satisfaction will come from your protagonist’s emotional empowerment.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: How Many Characters Are Too Many in Chapter 1?

in Characterization/Openings/Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

Is there a maximum number of characters to introduce in the first chapter of a MG grade or YA novel? I don’t want to introduce too many, but I have 8 characters PLUS a generic Mom, Dad, and two sisters. Does it make a diff if some of these 8 are name intros only?

Sincerely,

Carol

Dear Carol…

Twelve characters isn’t an opening chapter—it’s a party! And it’s overwhelming. No reader can keep that many new characters straight, especially when two thirds of them are just names. That’s a clear sign you’ve fallen victim to backstory, where you explain your protagonist’s life or describe her predicament in full. Don’t do that. Chapter One should focus on the protagonist, revealing her main concern and hinting at the journey or challenges ahead of her. You may do this with the help of a secondary character or two, but keep the number small, and have them acting upon or reacting to the protagonist, keeping the spotlight on her. There’s no official number of characters for the first chapter, but ‘fewer is better’ is a good rule of thumb. Next time, instead of writing a big ol’ party, imagine your readers at a big ol’ party. They wouldn’t get some voice-over delivering the history of every party-goer as they walk in the door. They’d meet a few of them, one or two at a time, one question-and-response at a time. At the end of the night, they’d go home with a solid feeling for two or maybe three people. Perfect. There’ll be plenty of parties for the folks they didn’t meet tonight—just as there are plenty of chapters in your book for the characters in the wings.

Happy writing!
The Editor

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