Tag Archives: non-fiction

Make It Better Than Your Best

How many times have I finished a revision, settled back, and said, “There! That’s as good as I can make it.” But surprise, surprise, after a critique session with my writing group or a go over by one of my writing partners, suddenly I see new things that can make the story better.

The truth is, I think too many of us writers are too easily satisfied. We are content with our “first best.” In fact, our articles, stories, and novels will improve if we refuse to be satisfied with what we initially believe to be our best effort.

First we need to set our work aside so we can gain some distance and perspective. After two weeks, four, or even six, we aren’t as in love with that scene or character or line or word choice. We can see things a bit more realistically.

Too many contracted writers working on deadline don’t allow themselves this vital step. Too many pre-published writers don’t believe it’s necessary.

The first group must learn to plan for this needed distance. The actual manuscript deadline, the date the editor sets, should be six weeks ahead of the deadline a writer gives herself. That allows her to walk away from that particular project for a month, then come back to it with fresh eyes and work on changes for another two weeks. Of course times may vary, depending on each person, but there’s value in coming back to our work after time away.

The pre-published writer may actually need a self-imposed deadline or a particular goal just to finish the work, but sending it off to an agent the next day is not be the best approach. Perhaps time researching agents or learning about writing query letters, then hammering out a good one can be on the agenda. Maybe it’s time to pick a new concept or research a new location. What about developing a new character?

Then after weeks have gone by, it’s time. I tend to think if a writer without a contract can get used to working in this way, it will be easier to do so when operating on deadline.

But what is a writer looking for in this revision, now that he’s gained some distance and objectivity? I’d suggest two things that apply to both fiction and non-fiction: clarity and structure.

The first has to do with word by word clarity, but also clarity of thought. For the non-fiction writer, this means a basic logic and progression throughout. For the fiction writer, clarity means proper motivation of each character and each action, proper set up of each scene, a fully realized story world.

Structure for the non-fiction writer means overall structure with a proper introduction, key points, supporting detail, and a “bring it home” conclusion.

Fiction requires a character desire, inciting incident, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution. Along the way the character should experience development leading to a change, for the better or worse.

After the writer examines these big issues, it’s time to do another revision on the sentence level, fine tuning word choice and variety in structure.

Next is the paragraph level followed by the the section or scene level, then the chapter level. These need to be scrutinized for redundancy, consistency, and variety. All “dead weight” needs to be cut out. This may mean words, but it also might mean scenes or characters. If it isn’t contributing to the forward motion of the story or to the overall point of the article, then it needs to go.

Please note, these revisions should come after all the other edits and revisions the author makes on that earlier version of the manuscript — the one he read through and said, This is the best I can do.

Time and distance give us writers the ability to tackle our manuscripts with an unbiased eye. If we do the work, we’ll discover that revising will turn our best writing into something better.

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Help For The Stalled

From time to time it seems writers of fiction or non-fiction get stuck or stalled. Some people might even say blocked. There are pressures that may contribute to a mental attitude that screams, “I can’t,” but I’m not addressing those factors today.

Rather, I want to look at specific things a writer can do when the next scene or non-fiction article point doesn’t take shape in his head, when “what comes next” doesn’t have an answer.

Consider first that you might not know enough. You love to garden, perhaps, and have been to the nursery more times than you can count, so certainly you know enough about plants to make your protagonist a landscaper, right? Maybe you do, but maybe not.

Aine Greaney, in her Writer’s Digest article “How to Resurrect a Stalled Manuscript” says

if your main character is a landscaper, it may be time to consult your Yellow Pages to set up some informational interviews or job-shadowing. Writing a family memoir? Check out the hours at the local museum or the archives at your public library to deepen the historical context of your family story. Ask family members you have already interviewed who else you should talk to: Is there someone in the extended family who can enrich the story?

Ramping up the research can unearth some fascinating details, or it can help you to understand your characters — fictional or real — in a whole new way.

“Research” might simply mean, taking time to think through who your character is on a deeper level. Do you know what she fears? and why? Is she socially inept or particularly kind or fascinated with philosophy, and if so, what contributed to her becoming who she is? Was there a traumatic event she experienced as a child, an ongoing situation she lived with, a person who modeled a lifestyle or pointed her in a direction?

Knowing our characters well, especially knowing what he or she wants, can open up many possibilities for our stories to move forward.

A second step to take to get unstuck is to ramp up the conflict, even in non-fiction. Again from Ms. Greaney:

Fact or fiction, short story or novel, every story is about conflict. The conflict is the fulcrum on which the story tips, rises and finds its balance. Some conflicts are big and loud and bloody (Braveheart). Others are quiet and small and introspective (Mrs. Dalloway).

Large or small, true or made up, your story’s narrative tension derives from the fact that two people, two sets of sensibilities or two life situations are at odds with each other.

A good question to ask is, “What does my character want in this scene?” A corollary might be, “What is making it difficult for him to be successful?” And finally, “Why does it matter?”

Conflict, of course, can be inner conflict and not just a clash with another person or with external circumstances. One place to look to create more conflict, then, is inside your character.

Does he have warring values that you can bring into play? Perhaps he loves his job as a professional baseball coach, but he loves his family who he must leave every time his team takes to the road. Two values, both good, but at war with one another.

Your character might also have fears that war with her desires. She wants to spend time with Mr. Perfect, but his hobby is to rock climb. In fact he’s invited her to go on the next trip, which she desperately wants to do — except she is deathly afraid of heights. What’s she going to do?

If you aren’t at the stalled stage yet, read over your manuscript and see if you’ve introduced your character’s fear early in your story. If so, it can serve as a tool to ratchet up the conflict when you need it most.

Stalled may not feel like blocked, but it is nonetheless a detriment to our writing. Thankfully there are practical steps to take which should soon have the ideas flowing and our fingers once again flying over the computer keys.

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Readers Are Not Tone Deaf

I don’t imagine that readers in general think about the tone of a piece of fiction or non-fiction, and yet clearly they are affected.

In one blog tour in which I participated, a number of reviewers said something similar: I didn’t like the book as much as I thought because the main character was so whiny. Translation in writing terms: I didn’t like the tone.

Simply put, readers are not tone deaf. Whether or not they can identify the tone of an article or story, they pick up on it and are enticed or repelled by it.

In the previous two articles in this series, “Tone It Down, Or Tone It Up?” and “Tone That Works Against You”, we’ve established that the writer should determine in advance what tone is appropriate for the piece he is writing, that he should be consistent in his tone from start to finish, that some tones need to be avoided because they are off-putting, and that an authentic approach to content will create a winsome tone.

There are several additional aspects of tone to keep in mind. First, don’t be afraid to let your voice come through, particularly when you’re writing a personal piece such as a blog post. Brian Klems in his Writer’s Digest article “7 Ways to Perfect Your Writing ‘Tone,’ “ said, “[In your blog posts] you must sound like somebody. This is true with other forms of personal writing, as well. Resist the urge to come off as uncomplicated, reasonable or polite. If you’re expressing opinions, express them!”

I would suggest that in today’s confrontational society, adopting a polite tone might actually be the best way to “sound like somebody” because it will set you apart from the vast majority of people communicating on blogs or social media. The same is true in magazine articles and memoirs. While an author needs to sound authoritative, that does not mean he needs to be arrogant or intransigent when someone takes an opposing view.

In fiction, unless the author is writing in an omniscient voice, readers should “hear” the characters. Consequently, writers create tone in a less obvious way, which leads to the next point, applicable for all forms of writing.

Details help establish tone. Does a character look at a street down which he’s walking and see dirty stains on the sidewalk and a discarded bottle in the gutter, or does he see the flowers blooming in the planter and the brilliant blue sky?

Most scenes have both pluses and minuses. The details a writer chooses to emphasize helps create the tone.

Here’s an illustration — a community reporter writing about the scene after a game-winning touchdown.

Paragraph one.

    As the boys in blue jumped into the air, then raced for their star wide receiver cradling the football in the end zone, their coaches thrust their arms high. One by one the players sprinted to the sideline where their head coach greeted each, shaking their hands or giving them high fives.

Paragraph two.

    As the referee signaled touchdown, the gray-clad boys lowered their heads and shuffled toward the sideline, their hands on their hips. Their coach flung his clipboard to the ground and stalked toward the locker room.

The writer reporting on this game does not need to specify which team won and which lost. The details create the appropriate tone and reveal which is which.

In conclusion, readers may not be tone deaf, but they can’t “hear” what isn’t there. Writers would do well to give their audience something to “listen to” in their articles, stories, novels, or blog posts. A little tone goes a long way.

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Tone That Works Against You

Tone may create a sense of foreboding or hope, intellectual intrigue or down-to-earth homeboy common sense

As we established in “Tone It Down, Or Tone It Up?” the tone of a piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction, refers to its quality — the sum of voice, mood, sentence structure, word choice, and more. These various components work together to create a sense of foreboding or hope, intellectual intrigue or down-to-earth homeboy common sense.

In many respects, tone is the answer to What did you think of the article (or chapter or story)? If a reader answers helpful or depressing or funny or scary, he has identified the tone of the piece.

We established in the previous article that determining tone is an appropriate first step for a writer wishing to make the best use of this device, but it comes with a necessary caution: some tones work against the author.

In his article “7 Ways to Perfect Your Writing ‘Tone’ “ Brian A. Klems illustrates this point with a hypothetical article about someone who has lost his job. Initially this subject might seem timely, considering the current state of the economy. However, the content can lose its appeal if the writer presents his material with an off-putting tone.

He might, for instance, use an oh-woe-is-me, why-don’t-things-ever-work-out-for-me tenor — the tone a victim of circumstances might use. Readers may care about an injustice, but they don’t often care for the I’m-a-victim tone.

Complaining, whining, self-righteousness, revenge, hubris, pushiness — these are some of the tones that readers tend to flee from, not gravitate to.

Is a writer, then, to present only the happy, hopeful side of every situation? Actually, no. A second important thing to remember about tone is that readers desire authenticity. Consequently, if circumstances have been unjust, pretending that they are not, kills interest in a story or article.

    My boss propositioned me, and when I turned him down, he fired me, but I’m sure we just had a simple misunderstanding. I’d be happy to work for him again and have no problem recommending my old company to all my friends.

That response to a wrong does not come across as genuine and therefore does not serve the story. Artificially cheerful or forgiving or hopeful creates an artificial tone that many readers won’t tolerate for long.

How, then, should a writer approach difficult subject matter? One way is with humor. Satire, irony, drollery, exaggeration — all can take the edge off criticism. Stand-up comedians have mastered the use of humor as a way to address difficult topics.

For those not inclined to use humor, Klems gives some helpful advice:

In these instances, to fix the tone, you have to fix the way you think about a given subject. You have to back off, calm down, see other points of view, maybe even take some responsibility for whatever happened. When writing about such delicate subjects, you must not let a negative tone take over by ascribing motives to people: You just tell what they did, and let the reader read motive into it.

Let’s look at these points a little closer. Back off. Sometimes an issue can be so important to a writer that he becomes pushy in his approach. Rather than voicing an opinion, he begins to lecture his readers.

    You have no right to destroy the environment, to strip the next generation of the elements of the world that you enjoyed. You have no right to put my children at risk by your selfish, wasteful ways.

Such an approach to an environmental issue might accomplish the opposite of what the writer desires because of his forceful, condemning tone. Better if he would back off and state facts rather than emotion-laced accusations.

Calm down. Someone might think it’s impossible to back off when you feel so passionate about a subject. Which is why a writer also needs to calm down. Passions run high in most controversial subjects, but passion rarely wins arguments because the other side is probably just as passionate.

See other points of view. Here’s the key to creating a winsome tone. When a writer presents more than one perspective — and this is true in fiction as well as non-fiction — the reader is then free to interact with the content rather than with the author’s forceful or emotional presentation of the content.

I’ve seen more than one online discussion, for example, turn away from the subject of the original article and to the way commenters are talking to one another. The negative tone becomes the new issue rather than the original content.

Take some responsibility for whatever happened. I have one friend who is a master at deflecting negative blog comments simply by starting her response with, You’re probably right to say that I’m … or I’m sorry that I offended you when I said …

The writer of the article about the unfair boss can also take responsibility without excusing inexcusable behavior. She might say, for example, something like, I overlooked the early warning signs and should have acted sooner.

In fiction the main character must take action rather than simply reacting to what happens to him or around him. He must be the agent, not the victim.

Finally, do not ascribe motives to people. In the paragraph above in which the writer is in lecture mode, the final shot implies motive: “You have no right to put my children at risk by your selfish, wasteful ways.” The key word is “selfish.” The author ascribed selfishness to everyone who approaches the environmental issue he’s addressing in a way that disagrees with his view. This statement leaves no room for intellectual or spiritual differences or even the lack of adequate education on the part of those who disagree. Instead, all those in opposition are simply selfish.

Novelists must avoid the same problem with their characters in a slightly different way. Characters must be motivated, but the novelist must create believable motives true to a particular character, not a general group. Otherwise the characters will be little more than stick figures masquerading as portraits of real people.

In summary, when a writer considers tone, he must avoid producing one that will turn readers off. At the same time, however, he must be authentic. An artificial tone is as damaging as a negative one. Both work against writers.

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Redundancy: The Path To Boredom

As an editor and a critique partner, I’ve been know to be a repetition hunter. For some reason, I have an ear for words that crop up more than once in a paragraph. Unless it’s intentional, used for emphasis, it grates.

However, until recently I didn’t realize I’m also affected by redundancy. Not in the same way, but affected, and negatively so. Imagine my horror when I discovered that I was guilty of using a good dose of redundancy in my own fiction.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let me build a case against redundancy from my own experience.

I began to think about the subject when I realized a couple blogs I follow were … well, not very interesting. I like the person behind the writing and appreciate their point of view, but after reading the first sentence of most paragraphs, I didn’t want to read the rest. Why?

I concluded it was because the author wasn’t offering anything new. What followed the topic sentence was an example, perhaps, piled on top of an example. Or a restatement of the central point. But I didn’t need those because that which went before was already clear. Consequently, to read the entire post was tedious, at best.

When this realization crystallized, I began to see redundancy in other works—not in ones I found to be compelling, intriguing, or good to the last word. Inevitably, I concluded redundancy is an interest killer, not something any writer wants.

Including novelists. But how does redundancy appear in fiction? One way is in the internal monologue of the point-of-view character. If those thoughts are nothing more than musings about what the reader already knows, they are redundant and therefore boring.

I was good at lots of rehash internal monologue. My character needed to understand what was going on. He needed to analyze and come up with a motive that would explain his next decision. The latter is true, except in many cases his thoughts stated the already stated.

But there was a second method of redundancy in my fiction, closer to repetition. In this instance I was writing dialogue in which I wanted to reflect surprise or disbelief, so I had character number two repeat some part of what character number one had just said.

Such interaction may be true to life, but restatements (“You can’t go.” ¶ “I can’t go? What do you mean, I can’t go?”) don’t tell the reader anything new, becoming … you guessed it, boring.

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