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Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

A Few Things To Know Before You Submit


You work for months, maybe even years, and finally get to type those two, beautiful little words: The End.

Now what?

Look for an agent? Self-publish? Submit to Independent Presses? There are lots of roads an author can go down, but are you ready for that step?

June's Spotlight will highlight some areas you might just want to investigate before you start sending your material around.

Week One: Formatting/Content
Week Two: Character development
Week Three: Dialogue
Week Four: The Devil is in the Details

Check back each week for the latest post ... then get busy rewriting!

The Devil is in the Details

Once you feel your manuscript is "done," one of the best things you can do is set it aside and ignore it for a few days, weeks, or months. Work on something else, take a vacation, do some laundry. Fill your mind with other things. Then-

After your work has sat - go back and read it again. With fresh eyes you will probably catch errors you didn't see the first twenty times you read it. Make those fixes. If you work with a writers group or have a favorite beta reader, get their feedback and incorporate that information as well. But, if you truly believe you have done all you can do, read it one more time and look for all those little details that can raise writing to its highest level.

Did you incorporate the five senses throughout your work?

Find places to put in sensory information in your descriptions. Do you include what a location sounds like? What the fabric on her dress feels like? What the crime scene smells like? When your character takes a swig from the whiskey bottle, do we get a sense of the taste? When your heroine walks away from the man she loves for the last time, does she hear the wind? Traffic? Waves on the beach? Mysteries can be solved because a dog barks, or doesn't bark, so make sure you include the little details that make your words come alive on the page.

You can think about details in a number of ways, including time, place, and action.

Time

What time you set your scenes has an impact on what your characters experience. There's a huge difference between walking a city street in daylight and in the dark. Our energy is usually at its lowest early in the morning - if your hero has been on a stakeout for seven hours, and it's now 3:00am, how does that change things? Is he fatigued? Wired? Excited? Dulled by boredom? Does he make a mistake because he's falling asleep? Or jump the gun because he's had too much coffee? 

Cities quiet down after 2:00am, but forests can take on new sounds. What kind of animals are out after dark we don't see in the daylight? Make your readers say to themselves... oh, yeah, I know exactly what that looks/feels/smells/sounds like - I remember being the only one on the freeway, how hard it is to navigate Times Square mid-afternoon on a sunny, midsummer afternoon, or the sound of coyotes across the desert at night. Be specific about your times of day, then follow those choices up with appropriate details.

Place

Details about locations can make your settings an integral part of the story, almost like another character. Row houses in San Francisco look nothing like the projects in the Bronx, you've chosen your location, now it's time for you to make the most of it. 

Assume your readers have never been where you're writing about - how can you make them feel the salt spray in a Nor'easter blowing across the coast of Maine or feel the wind blowing across the Wyoming landscape, and how are those different? (They are!) Most importantly, how can you do it in a way that incorporates smoothly with your story, uses the fewest words to give the greatest impact, and adds to your narrative. 

Are these details seen through the eyes of your character? Does it make her feel happy? Does it make him feel uncertain? Does it add tension, or lull them into complacency. Or, are they details your character no longer sees, and because of this, misses a vital piece of information that your reader will be waiting, turning pages, to find out if she realizes what's missing? 

You an also use details about your place to echo the emotional state of your characters. If your character is lonely, how can the location make her feel worse? If your character is angry, what colors in the environment can reflect that? If there's a dead body, how can the environment demonstrate either the peacefulness of the scene or the violence of it? Use these details to compare or contrast. Both can be effective. Try one way and then the other to see which works best for you.

Action

How a character does something can speak volumes. Does your character stomp into a room? Or slip in quietly? Does your protagonist always speak first in a situation? Or sit back to see what others will do first? Does your antagonist blend in? Or stand out? 

Using actions can show your readers character development and story arc. If your private investigator didn't look in the closet the first two times he visited the crime scene, what happens the third time to make him open the door? What tiny detail gets noticed? If your heroine refused to have a drink with the handsome stranger, then stays up all night thinking about him, then tracks him down the next morning, that's very different than saying "yes" the first time he asks her out. How do these two scenarios impact the details of the experience, does the second create a sense of worry? Does the first make it spur-of-the-moment, and therefore freeing? 

Specificity of words can help strengthen actions to clearly show the reader what you want them to see in your character. Does he pull the punch just before he hits his little brother? or let fly with all his power? Does she let tears roll down her cheek when her mother leaves? Or hide them? Then, at the end of the book, does he choose not to hit his brother at all? Or let her mother see the tears, showing she's no longer afraid to say she misses her mother when she's not around? What details do you include to show us your characters emotional state instead of telling us their emotional state?

Sometimes, finding ways to show them doing the same thing over and over until something causes them to make a small change, is more satisfying to the reader than having you tell the reader that a character has undergone a shift. SHOW us that shift through a change in action, which can only be done with clear details.

Some say the Devil is in the details, others say God is in the details. Either way, good writing is in the details, how you use them, and what they SHOW your readers. If it keeps your readers turning pages, your details have done their job and agents will notice the extra work you put in.







Dialogue

What is dialogue and how does it impact your fiction writing?

Dialogue is everything your characters actually say to each other. An internal conversation is a monologue. This can also be a part of your work and follows similar rules. You can think of a monologue as dialogue between your character and your reader.

So, it's just like everyday conversation, right? That's easy, we hear it all the time.

Good Dialogue is  hard to write - and can have the most impact in making fiction stand out.

Why is dialogue hard? First, we have to battle the rules of grammar beat into us as writers. Keep in mind, people do not always speak with perfect grammar. People also start sentences but don't finish them, change subjects midway through or finish the thoughts of others.

It's also hard because we might want to write what the character is thinking or spell out exactly what they want. Again, people lie about what they are thinking all the time and we rarely say exactly what we want, it makes us too vulnerable.

Human beings hedge, omit, reconstruct, remember incorrectly, forget, mimic, and tell others what they think they want to hear, all the time. Characters, to sound "real" need to do the same thing. 

But how do you do that without being boring, repetitive, unbelievable, cliche....

That's the hard part!

Dialogue also serves a purpose and works on multiple levels.

One purpose dialogue serves, is to give your individual characters distinct voices. If you want your characters to feel unique, they must use words differently. Think about the people you know, chances are, your teenage son doesn't use the same language as your 75-year-old grandmother. A woman who moved to the United States three years ago from Japan, doesn't use the same language as a man who has lived in a small town in New Hampshire his entire life.

People's dialogue, what they say and how they say it, is impacted by: education, travel experience, socio-economic status, work experience, religious beliefs, parenthood, regionalisms.... you get the picture.

Basically, everything that impacts our lives, impacts how we speak. The same is true for your characters.

Have you ever been at a party and walked up to a group of people who work together and you can't follow anything they say? The words are all in your language, but the way they go together makes no sense at all? Every social sphere, whether it's engineers, boat builders, acrobats, mathematicians, clinical psychologists or fiction writers, have their own vernacular.

Prose allows writers to demonstrate their voice. Dialogue allows writers to demonstrate individual character voices.

Dialogue also furthers the story.

There's nothing worse than reading a scene and learning something new, then having that followed by another scene where character A recounts the entire last scene to character B.

Dialogue should provide new information to the reader!

It's true, you might want to repeat information the reader already knows to illustrate a character lying to another, omitting information, or hiding something. We learn something if a character chooses NOT to tell another everything or make changes to what we know really happened. But that is still moving the story forward.

Dialogue can be used to give a character new information or to give the reader new information or both. If a line of dialogue isn't adding to the story, consider cutting it or rewriting it.

Keep in mind you DON'T have to start a scene at the very beginning. If you are starting all your conversations with "Hi, how are you?" I'm fine, how are you?" Consider starting later in the scene. Or use an introductory sentence like: After exchanging pleasantries, Jane said... or The two men shook hands and greeted each other before Joe said....

One way to think about dialogue is that the words cost you money every time you write a line. They are VALUABLE. Don't waste your money on Dialogue you don't need.

Having said that, make sure you are incorporating good dialogue into every chapter or short story. The fiction world is seeing a trend towards a higher percent of dialogue to prose in novels. Because writing dialogue is hard, if you can do it well, your work will rise to the top of the slush pile.

Dialogue works on multiple levels.

Dialogue provides information. Dialogue also SHOWS us character relationships, character flaws (lying etc), character idiosyncrasies, and character development. Does the shy girl begin to talk to people? Does the man, unable to speak about love, finally manage to say the words? Does the teenage boy learn the lingo of the surf community and finally get to put his board in the water? Instead of saying "Ricky learned all the slang the surfers used, so the next time he went to the beach, he fit in." You can SHOW us this progression by a scene where he can't communicate, then a scene where he learns how the surfers speak, then a scene where he uses the slang of that community and they let him participate.

Language creates barriers and it also bonds people. You can demonstrate your character's place in the world, in part, by the ability to communicate.

Dialogue also has subtext. Entire conversations can take place UNDERNEATH the conversation as written. For example, if a character wants to know if another character is interested in a sexual relationship, much can be made of food as a replacement for sex. A conversation about whipped cream, hunger, fine wine, appetite, dark chocolate or satiety can all be code language for do you want to get naked in the hot tub later on tonight?And it's much more interesting than, do you want to get naked in the hot tub later on tonight? Readers enjoy untangling the unspoken conversation going on underneath  dialogue. Especially, because as fiction writers, you get to include what a character is thinking. For screen and stage plays, you don't get that luxury, but good actors and directors can make meaning clear.

A great way to "test" the dialogue in your work is to read it out loud. Even better, have other people read it out loud so you can hear it. Does is sound like something a real person would say? Ask your readers how they would say each sentence, they might help you find places that are awkward or unnatural. Do your research, make sure your word choices are appropriate for the character you have created. If your central character is a wine connoisseur and you don't know anything about wine, travel to a vineyard and spend time in the tasting room. Learn the appropriate language and have fun doing it.

Putting in the extra time to polish your dialogue is guaranteed to make your work stand out. Flat, unbelievable dialogue will make a good story fall flat. Exciting, active, interesting dialogue will make a good story, great.

Exercise

Write yourself a short scene or short story. Include dialogue in that scene. Then rewrite it, changing the demographics of your characters. If your original story has a twenty-year-old female bodybuilder talking to a twenty-year-old male bodybuilder, how does the dialogue change if the new characters are a sixty-year-old college professor of English Literature and a forty-year-old army sergeant. Keep the overall "story" the same - if it's a pick up, keep it a pick up. If it's a tense fight between family members, keep it a tense fight between family members, but change it from brothers who are ten and twelve, to brothers who are forty and forty-five. Concentrate on how their language in their dialogue changes, just because you've made them older, younger, more or less educated..... 






Character Development

Character Development

Last week I wrote about formatting. Regardless of whether I'm working on a stage script or a manuscript, I always try to write with correct format on the first draft. For me, it saves time later, and I find it easier to read. (For those of you writing stage or screenplays, there are some great programs that will format as you write, Movie Magic and Final Draft are the most common. I use Final Draft). For stage and screenplays, correct formatting can also help to more accurately estimate running time.

Once you've gotten your manuscript correctly formatted (scroll down to read the previous blog post for advice), it's time to read for rewrites. 

Sometimes it's easier to rewrite with specific aspects in mind. For example, I might do one rewrite focused on nothing but word count. If I want to add 10,000 words, I might not worry about grammar or even the logical nature of the material I'm adding. I just want to get the words down on the page and see what I discover as I go along, knowing I can go back later and tweak the manuscript and fix grammatical errors. Then, on the next rewrite, I might read only for grammar, and do the rewrite solely for that purpose.

There are several aspects I might choose from each time I rewrite. In addition to length and grammar, I might read for the tactile nature of the material. Have I included the sights, smells, taste, touch, and sounds of the world I've created? Do I have enough details about location? Does my dialogue move the story forward and does each character have a distinct voice? While I may read a draft aware of multiple aspects, it can be a great exercise to focus on just one at a time.

This week I'm going to focus on Character Development.

Characters typically change over the course of a story, regardless of the genre or style of writing. Readers enjoy going on a journey with a character, but this experience is most satisfying if something is learned along the way. Readers like characters to struggle, fail, struggle, fail, struggle, fail ... win. Through the course of these failures, the character must try new tactics to change the outcome, learning something each time they fail. Because this mimics life, we relate to the character. Because the character ultimately succeeds, the reader is able to vicariously experience that success as well.

The overall change a character exhibits is called "Character Arc." This arc can be defined as the shift from who a character is at the beginning to who the character is at the end.

It can be useful to read your manuscript solely to look for what changes your character exhibits during the course of your story. Does your independent character learn to accept help? Does your dependent character learn to stand on her own feet? Does your unemployed character find the ideal career? Or your lonely character find the love of his life?

The changes your character experiences may or may not be central to the plot of your work. For example, if you are writing a mystery, the plot may have nothing to do with the personal hurtles your character leaps over to get to the end, however, you will most likely find they are entwined, even in a plot driven story like a thriller.

So while a character arc may feel more obvious in a story about a young girl learning to live with bi-polar disease than a surly ex-cop, turned private investigator unraveling the murder of a socialite, both stories will stay with a reader longer if the character changes in a positive way.

The surly ex-cop, for example, might be just a tad less surly by the end of the manuscript.

One way to help demonstrate a character arc is to explore your character's flaws.

That's right. FLAWS. No one wants to read about characters who are perfect. It's annoying. We want characters that reflect us to some extent, otherwise they are just one more person we can't live up to and we get enough of that from the overachievers at work or in our family. Flaws make characters human and accessible. Having said that, be careful what kinds of flaws you pick. If you make your character kick dogs, a lot of us are going to stop reading right there, but if your character is afraid of dogs, then is forced to care for a sick relative's enormous pit bull and overcomes their fear, learning to love the enormous pit bull, that, we can cheer for.

We understand characters who are petty, self-centered, egotistical, passive aggressive, and fearful. We just don't want them to act that way all the time. Balance your character's positive and negative personality traits. Maybe they are passive aggressive, but they are also incredibly generous... If we don't like your central character, most of us will stop reading. If they aren't likable, they better be fascinating! (Dr. House!)

How much your character sees their own flaws can add depth to your story.

One way to exploit your character's flaws is to have them unaware of them in the beginning, discover them through a painful experience, then work to overcome them at the end. 

If your detective discovers he has personal similarities with the victim of the murder he's solving, this can augment your central plot and create a character arc simultaneously.

In your Romance novel, if your emotionally unavailable, female character has a fling with a handsome and incredibly flexible, but emotionally unavailable, male character, she may learn to open herself up to true love (with another handsome and incredibly flexible but emotionally available man).

Flaws in ourselves are often the things that drive us the most nuts in other people. This can be true for your character as well. What irritates your character? What makes them short-tempered? What scares them? What difficulty can you add to your character that you can then force them to overcome?

The more complicated and difficult the better.

Don't make it easy on your character or your reader. No one wants to read 300 pages only to discover the main character can take a pill and make it all better. We want the stakes to be high and the danger of relapsing to be significant. Leave us wondering if the girl can stay out of the mental institution and have a life in the real world. Make us root for the surly ex-cop to maintain the new friendship he's formed with the younger private investigator he's now mentoring. If you want us to keep thinking about your work and your story, give us something to think about at the end. We know how fleeting and precarious happiness and success can be in the real world, it's okay to reflect that in your fiction. We love the warm feeling of a happy ending, but we also love the little voice inside that says, "...yes, but will it last?"

EXERCISE

Make a list of your character's personality traits at the beginning of your story. (This can be for your minor characters too, not just your main character). How many are "negative" or at least make the character's life more complicated? Then, make a list of their traits at the end. First of all, do they change? Is there at least one major attribute (like selfishness) at the beginning that is different at the end (like demonstrating a selfless act). If not, analyze what kind of flaw you want your character to have and do a rewrite solely to include that arc in your work.

If you already have at least one change, can you locate in your story where that change takes place? Is it gradual? Or sudden. If it's sudden, does the change happen in a believable way? Does it happen near the end? If not, that's something to address. If you've got a character change happening early on, maybe you can then have them slip back into their old routine, which makes things even worse, which then has to be overcome again.

Make your characters suffer before you let them have a little time in the sun. The greater the challenge your character faces, the more engaged we'll be. The more we care, the harder it will be to put the book down. 

Lastly, keep in mind you can have a sad ending and still have a satisfying character arc.

Your main character might die at the end, but they can still have learned something, which allowed them to accept their impending demise. Or, perhaps the character dies suddenly in a hail of bullets, but in the moment before death, the character experienced a moment of freedom and happiness like no other in their life. (Thelma & Louise). Find the most satisfying ending possible, with the strongest character arc, regardless of the kind of story you are telling.


Formatting Manuscripts/Content/Genre

The Literary world is full of gatekeepers. 

Publishers have editors. Reaching an editor often requires an agent. Reaching an agent requires an introduction. An introduction usually requires either a good, solid query letter or a positive critique session at a conference. A good, solid query letter or a positive critique session requires ... an excellent manuscript.

It all comes down to the writing.

Ask most published authors what a novice writer should focus on, and the answer is never platform, clever query tactics, or having the best author website on the Net. The answer is, write the best manuscript you can.

How do you know when you've written the best manuscript you can?

Maybe you've written one or two drafts. Maybe you've even written twenty or thirty, but how do you know when you've written enough?

Let's start with two of the most fundamental issues for a writer to trying to get noticed in a highly competitive world. Format and content/genre.

Formatting your manuscript correctly, and submitting it as per the guidelines of each individual agent or publishing house, may seem like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many aspiring novelists skip this very important step.

Formatting: There are several excellent books out there that will detail how your manuscript (and query letter or non-fiction proposal) should be formatted. Personally, I recommend Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript by Chuck Sambuchino and the Editors of Writer's Digest Books.

Several editors, agents, and published authors have read and critiqued my work and everyone has approved of the format I use. My own agent made no changes to my formatting before submitting to publishing houses.

Once you know your formatting guidelines, make sure you follow them all throughout the entire manuscript. You've worked very hard to get to this point, don't let yourself look less than professional because you switch from CHAPTER ONE to Chapter 2 or because you don't indent the first paragraph of a new chapter for the first half of your book, then start indenting for the second half. These may seem like minor issues, so you might be asking, does it matter?  WHY TAKE THE CHANCE?

Agents receive hundreds of queries EACH WEEK. Why let yourself be stopped at this first gatekeeper because you couldn't be bothered to get the formatting correct?

If you want to write like a professional - find out how the professionals write.

Also, make sure your formatting guidelines are specific to the type of writing you do. For example, there are very specific expectations for each category of children't books (Chapter books, YA, Picture Books, etc.) Memoirs typically follow fiction guidelines, NOT non-fiction book proposals. Most genre fiction have word limits or ranges (Mysteries, for example, are usually in the 60-70,000 word range for unpublished, first time authors). Figure out what genre you write in and learn everything you can about the guidelines agents and editors want writers to follow in that genre.

This brings us to the second point of this week's Spotlight. 

Content and Genre.

I often hear aspiring writers ask the question, why does genre matter? Isn't it more important I write a great book than write in a specific genre?

Writing a great book does matter, but ask yourself this one basic question. What shelf does my book belong on in a brick and mortar bookstore?

If you can't answer that question, neither can the bookstore. So you may want to spend a little time figuring out why you can't.

YES, cross-genre work can be successful and wonderful, but you still have to figure out how to sell and market your work.

Publication is hard enough without making it even harder by not learning the basic rules.

Agents usually list what kind of genres they represent, even as specific as the following:

Mysteries, but not cozies. Sci-Fi, but not paranormal. Romance, but not historical. Non-Fiction, but not memoir.

Agents have preferences in genre just like readers. If you don't know your genre, how are you going to choose where to submit? How are you going to MAXIMIZE the possibility an agent is going to say yes?

And NO, you are not such a great writer that an agent is going to represent your material even though it doesn't fit their criteria just because your query letter is better than the 15,000 letters they read last year.

You wouldn't ask your Podiatrist to do brain surgery just because M.D. is after her name. Categories help us define the world we live in, the Literary world is no different. You might find a Podiatrist who  can do brain surgery, but is that really the route you want to go?

Content

I'm using the term content in two ways, first as it relates to genre. For example, can you use four letter words in Young Adult fiction? If there is sex in your Mystery, does that make it Romance? If your Historical Novel involves time travel, does that make it Sci-Fi? You may THINK you write in a specific genre, but first of all, are you sure? And second, are you following the rules for that genre? If you aren't following the rules, is that because you know them and chose to break them (good for you!) or are you too lazy to learn about them in the first place?

Content also relates to the focus of your material. Typically, a novel asks a question at the beginning of the story, which is then answered by the ending. Will Bilbo Baggins leave the Shire, go on an adventure, and return home alive? Will Kinsey Milhone discover who killed the victim in Chapter One?   What will happen to Mary and Anne Boleyn?

Take some time to figure out if what you ask at the beginning of your manuscript is also what you answer at the end. If the answer is no, you may need to either rewrite your opening or rewrite your ending. Keep in mind, most agents/editors will only look at the first 20 pages of your manuscript even if they do say yes to your query letter - so make sure your first 20 pages are the best they can be. If you aren't starting off right, it doesn't matter how good the end is. On the same note, agents/editors might LOVE your work, but not be thrilled about the ending, so if they do read all the way through, don't lose them in the last 20 pages. They are only going to say yes to a handful of writers each year. Give them as many reasons as you can to make yourself one of those lucky few.

Check Back Next Week for Part II
Character Development