Greetings, blog followers! Yes, it’s me. And, yes, I’m still alive.
As you’ve may (or may not) have noticed, I’ve been absent from the blog world the past few months (er, maybe longer). I made a New Year’s resolution to put all of my attention and free time into finishing my novel, which I almost have! By the end of summer/early fall, I should have my manuscript and query letter ready to go for literary agents (eeks!).
This past weekend, I decided to reward my good, focused behavior by participating in my 5th NYC Midnight (NYCM) Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC). To be honest, I signed up for this writing contest a couple of months ago hoping my novel would be in my betas’ hands when the challenge kicked off…Wrong! My betas returned their notes a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been revising ever since. So, it was really hard to shift gears on Friday night.
But, I did. And I had so much fun!
As a quick reminder, the NYCM FFC is a writing contest where writers from all over the world are given three prompts (genre, location, and object), and then 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story. It never fails to stress me out, but it’s always worth it.
Round one kicked off last Friday night at 10 p.m. (MST). I prayed and prayed the prompt gods would give me comedy. Why? Because 1) it’s the complete opposite of what I usually write, and 2) it’s one of the few NYCM genres I’ve never been assigned.
Well, guess what? The prompt gods finally answered my prayers! I was put in group 40, which had to write a comedy that took place in a bartending school and incorporated sandpaper.
I literally squealed when I saw comedy as my assigned genre. It’s taken five years and 17 rounds of NYC Midnight contests for me to get this genre (I don’t count rom-com or political satire, because those are very specific comedies that push you into a smaller realm of the comedy world). As for my other prompts…ugh. The location threw me. I’ve never been a bar-kinda girl, and I don’t drink much, so finding inspiration was tough. The sandpaper prompt didn’t faze me. I’ve had much, MUCH weirder objects to incorporate, so I pushed it to the back of my mind.
My process with these contests has become fairly streamlined: Friday night, brainstorm/plan general gist of story. Saturday, write. Sunday, edit/beta read.
So, as usual, I brainstormed on Friday night and went to bed with a solid idea. I planned to sleep in on Saturday because I had a really rough week at work and needed the rest, but my body refused to listen. It’s been hardwired for pre-dawn workouts in preparation for a half marathon I’m running in August, so I ended up waking up, bright and early, at 4 a.m. Which meant I only got about four hours of sleep. Which meant I was exhausted all. Day. Long.
Somehow I managed to find my groove and dig into my story by noon. As I wrote, my original concept changed quite a bit. I discovered comedy is different from other genres because you have to let the humor evolve organically. If you find something funny, then you have to keep going with it and play up the joke. My joke ended up revolving around millennials.
*cue millennial eye rolls across the world*
Sorry not sorry, millennials. But, hey, I’m partly millennial too, so I was the butt of my own jokes.
By 3 p.m., I had a rough first draft that was 500 words OVER the limit. Blerg! I decided to let it rest while I attended my brother’s 30th birthday bash (yes, I was a fantastic social butterfly at that event.) When I got home later that evening, I rolled up my sleeves and began revising–er, chopping. I successfully hacked about 200 words before crashing for the night.
The next morning, I had to get up early for my pre-dawn workout. Thankfully, I felt pretty calm about my story. Still, I was eager to get home and back to writing. I only had until 4 p.m. that day to finish and submit my story before I had to leave for yet another event. (Yeah, it wasn’t the best weekend to participate in a writing competition.)
As always, my wonderful, patient mother came over to my house and helped me edit. I was more nervous than usual to get her opinion on the story because it was so far out of my comfort zone. And because I had NO idea if it was actually funny. But, thank the Lord, she laughed a lot. So did the six other beta readers who helped me chop my comedy down from 1,200 to 996 words. Phew! I whipped together a synopsis and submitted my story eight hours ahead of the official deadline.
Yeah, despite the lack of tears and heart palpitations this round, I was exhausted. But, I genuinely like what I came up with, and I’m really proud of myself for tackling a genre so completely out of my comfort zone.
In the past, I shared my story publicly. However, I’ve begun sending my work to publishers, so I’m no longer posting them here for any and all to read. Sorry! If you are interested in reading it, please send me a message and I’ll provide you with the password. For now, here’s my title and synopsis:
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A millennial needs a job to handle life’s necessities, like yoga, Netflix, and Starbucks. He decides to try bartending (#thestruggleisreal).
Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for NYCM’s Flash Fiction Challenge 2017!
Photo Credits: giphy
Around this time last year, I wrote a blog post regarding beta reader etiquette, all from the perspective of the writer. Today, I’d like to turn the tables and discuss beta reader etiquette from the perspective of the beta.
Yes, believe it or not, there are basic etiquette rules to follow when you volunteer to read another writer’s work. You don’t get a free pass to act however you please because you kindly offered to help out. Certain guidelines should be followed to not only ensure your feedback gets taken to heart, but also to maintain healthy, productive relationships.
Every beta reader is different. Some are brutally honest, others are overly sweet. Most try to land in the middle. Whichever direction you lean, you should be as tactful with your words as possible. No, this doesn’t mean those of you who like to cut straight to the chase have to sugarcoat everything. It simply means you need to choose your words wisely.
For example, do you hate a character? Well, don’t tell the writer, “I hate Character A.” Or, worse, call them a crass name (yes, I’ve had a beta call one of my protagonists the “C” word.) When you take this blunt, zero-filter approach, you risk losing the respect of the writer (no matter how thick their skin might be). They won’t care why you hate the protagonist. They’ll be too offended to take anything you say seriously.
Instead, consider voicing your dislike in a direct, but helpful way. For example, “I admit, I wasn’t a fan of Character A. They lacked emotional depth…” and so on. You can still be honest (to the point of giving the writer a little slap in the face), but you won’t knock the writer out. They’ll shake off the sting and read the rest of your feedback.
Of course, there are exceptions to this “rule.” Some writers beg their betas to be as blunt and cruel as possible. (I’ve had writers ask me to say exactly what was on my mind, however horrible it might be.) However, the majority of writers react better to negative news when it’s presented in a tactful manner.
When a writer asks you to beta for them, they might request a certain type of feedback: Big picture, character arcs, pacing, grammar, etc. If this happens, listen to them. Don’t nitpick grammatical mistakes when all they want is a general first impression; and don’t nitpick the plot when all they want is a proofread. Focus on what they ask for. Give them the answers they seek.
If a writer doesn’t give you specific instructions, then I suggest you ask them. Many will respond, “Any and all feedback would be appreciated.” But others might clarify. If they do, follow their directions. Listen!
Give REAL Feedback
Beta reading is a tough job, especially for those who are sensitive and don’t like to hurt other people’s feelings. But, when you volunteer to beta, you volunteer to point out the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are no rewards for being Miss/Mr. Congeniality. If you tell a writer you absolutely LOVED their AMAZING, INCREDIBLE, AWARD-WINNING MASTERPIECE, then you aren’t doing them any favors. You need to help them find their story’s flaws, however big or small, before the rest of the world does.
Does this mean you should only look for flaws? Absolutely not. Telling a writer what you enjoyed about the story is just as important as telling them what you disliked about it. It’s all about balance. You need to be honest, but constructive. Encouraging, but realistic. Explain to a writer why you loved their concept, but disliked their characters. Explain how the beginning and ending worked, but the middle grew murky and slow.
Remember, even the strongest stories have flaws that need to be addressed. Don’t be afraid to address them.
Think Before You Commit
Everyone is busy nowadays. We all have jobs, families, chores, writing projects, etc. Therefore, before you volunteer to beta for someone, find out what you’re committing to. How long is the story? 1K words? 10K? 100K? How quickly does the writer need your feedback? A couple hours? A couple weeks? A couple of months? How much feedback is the writer looking for? A few sentences? A handful of paragraphs? In-depth notes in the margins?
These are important questions to ask. Why? Because you don’t know what the writer expects from you. You don’t know if they’re on a deadline, taking a long break between drafts, or staring at their computer every second of every day, anxiously awaiting your judgment.
Although you’re doing the writer a favor, you’re still working on their watch. This is a fact. Every project has a timeline. You must stick to theirs, not yours. So, before you volunteer, make sure you can deliver. If you can’t, that’s okay. Be honest with the writer. Tell them why you can’t help out (“I have too many projects on my plate at the moment.” Or “I could get my notes back to you in a month, not a week.” Etc.). They should be understanding. Or, if they really, really want your opinion, they’ll adjust their timeline to fit yours.
Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst
If you critique another writer’s story, then etiquette dictates that writer offers you one in return. Beta reading is and should be a two-way street. You give, you get. You get, you give. Easy-peasy.
However, not every writer follows this rule. In fact, I’d say at least a third of the writers I work with don’t return the favor. I’ll admit, it’s frustrating, but…what can I do about it? Beg? Bribe? Guilt-trip? That’s not how things work. When you offer to beta, you can’t expect to be rewarded for it. You just can’t. You have to enter the process with the intention to help someone else (not yourself).
With that said, I urge you to resist getting used, again and again. Apply a Three Strikes policy to every writer. If you do not receive a return critique from them after reading three of their stories, then stop offering to help. I know it can be hard to do that, but there are plenty of writers out there willing to give back. Don’t choose the ones who only worry about themselves. It isn’t right, it isn’t fair, and it most definitely isn’t proper.
Beta reading is a hefty, responsible task. But, if you do it right, and do it well, you should come away from the experience satisfied. Not only have you helped a fellow writer improve their story, but you’ve likely made connections that will help you improve your own work in the future!
How about you? What are some of your beta reader etiquette tips?
Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.
Photo credits: giphy
In the late winter of 2013, I came to a screeching halt with my writing. After failing to secure a publishing deal during a two-year option contract, I lost more than my confidence. I lost a piece of my heart.
After my dreams crumbled before my eyes, I spent the better part of six months drifting around, unsure what to do next. Write? Don’t write? Every time I thought about picking up a pen, I cringed and threw myself into a different activity or hobby. The gym became my favorite place in the world. I signed up for all sorts of fitness classes (even Zumba, which shows you just how desperate I was to keep myself occupied).
As time trickled by, I grew more and more certain I’d never write again. Then, out of the blue, a co-worker suggested I sign up for a writing contest. At first I balked at the idea (and probably ran off to the gym for another Zumba class). But, after I danced away my crippling doubts, I decided to give it a whirl. That whirl transformed into a whirlwind of revived passion. I started a blog, began working on a new novel, and participated in more writing contests.
Write, write, write! I couldn’t get enough.
Ever since, my writing whirlwind has continued. For the past three years, I’ve split my focus into multiple projects: Two novels, 20 short stories, 365 blog posts, seven writing contests, and dozens of editing jobs. Looking back, it’s been a lot of work, but I don’t regret any of it. I needed every single project to learn and grow, and to become a better writer.
But now it’s time to narrow my focus. Dramatically. I can’t keep up the pace I’ve set for myself and expect to achieve my dreams. That’s why I’ve decided to keep my goal for 2017 sweet and simple: Finish my novel and send it to agents. Period.
Sounds easy, I know. And, theoretically, it should be achievable. If I maintain my current pace, I should have a beta-worthy draft to send to my first readers by the end of January. Depending on their reactions, I should have my next draft (or two) done by late spring/early summer. From there I should be able to spend the summer revising and sending subsequent drafts to readers for feedback. And, by fall, I should have a polished manuscript and my first batch of query letters ready for agents (ahh!).
Yes, I should be able to get all of that done. But, I’ve had the same plan the past two years and failed miserably. Hence the reason I’m making my novel my main priority this year. Besides blogging and accepting the occasional editing job (because, hello, money!), I won’t work on any other projects. Enough’s enough!
To be honest, the toughest part of this will be giving up writing contests. I absolutely adore the adrenaline, ideas, and friendships I get from them. Unfortunately, the contests I like to participate in eat up TONS of time. Not only do I write a story, but I also get sucked into a forum where I critique hundreds of other people’s stories. During the past three years, I’ve critiqued at least 1,500. That’s roughly 750-1,500 hours of work!
Or, rather, 750-1,500 hours I could’ve dedicated to my novel.
No. More! As much as I love competing, I need to put a hold on it until I finish my novel. I need to put a hold on a lot of things until it’s done.
Hopefully my narrowed focus will keep me on track this year. And, hopefully, by next January I’ll be able to hold up my manuscript and say, “There! It’s done!” Or, better yet, “I have an agent, and I’m on the road to publication!”
Let’s do this 2017!
How about you? What are some of your goals for the new year?
Photo credits: giphy
There are so many tips about how to write a novel. And there are even more tips on what to do with that novel once you’ve finished it. But, what about the things you should do before you start writing a novel?
Okay, I can already hear some of you out there saying, “Sometimes you can’t think about what you’re doing. You just need to jump in and go. Write, write, write!” Yes, I agree. However, if you’re serious about doing something with your novel after you finish it, then there are some important steps to take before you go full throttle.
5 Steps to Take Before Writing A Novel
1: Fall in love
It’s not always easy to know if you’re in love with a story until you begin developing it. However, you should be in love with the idea. Novels are no picnic. They take months (or, more often, years) to write, invite criticism, and get rejected–again and again. If you don’t love yours from the very beginning, then you’re probably not going to make it past the first obstacle (which could come as early as the first draft; heck, maybe even the first chapter).
So, before you begin writing a story, ask yourself, “Do I love this idea?” If the answer’s, “No, not really,” then you might want to consider another idea.
2: Sell it!
You came up with an idea that you love. Excellent! But, wait. Don’t start writing yet. Just because you love an idea doesn’t mean the rest of the world will. To others, it might sound dull, or confusing, or similar to a story they’ve read before. So, swallow your nerves (and pride) and go talk to your most trusted–and honest–friends/family/writing pals. See what they think of the idea. Note their facial expressions, read their body language, and listen to their words. It’s hard for many of us to accept criticism, but if someone finds a flaw with our work, even in its earliest stages, we need to consider it.
Now, if your idea gets a lackluster reaction, don’t automatically throw it in the trash (if you do, you probably didn’t love it as much as you thought you did). Talk to your critics first. Ask them why they don’t like it. Is it because it sounds like another story they’ve read? Is it because they’re not a fan of horror (or whatever genre your story is)? Is it because they started daydreaming in the middle of your pitch? Remember, your friends and family are human. Therefore, they’re subjective.
My best advice: pitch your idea to at least three people (preferably those who will, without a doubt, give you their most honest opinion). Then gauge their reaction before you fully commit yourself to a project that could consume years of your life.
3: Research the market
Say you have a dream about a world where love is outlawed. You wake up and think, “Hmm, that was weird, but it could be a cool book.” So, you mull it over and decide you love the idea. But, instead of outlawing love, you decide to make love a disease that needs to be cured, and your main character needs to prove to the world it isn’t. It’s a gift!
Ooh, that’s good. Really good.
So, you roll up your sleeves and begin writing your story. You mention the concept to a friend, but they’re not a big reader, so they think it’s great, too. Encouraged by their positive reaction, you write and write and write. Finally, you have a presentable draft to send to your beta readers. Three of the four tell you, “I’d be careful. This story is really similar to Lauren Oliver’s, ‘Delirium.'” You frown and Google “Delirium.” Your jaw drops. The plot is nearly identical to yours.
Don’t let this scenario happen to you! Before you dive into an idea you love, find out if it’s been done before. Ask Google, talk to your bookworm friends, get input from your trustworthy writing pals, chat with a librarian, etc. If your idea is popular enough, someone is bound to give you a head’s up. And then you can decide to either alter it, drop it, or continue to write it knowing it’s already been done before.
4: Pinpoint your target audience
You have a cute idea for a romance that you really like, so you pitch it to your friends. They think it’s cute too (yay!). You sit down and begin writing. You don’t really think about what type of romance you’re creating (you don’t really know there are different types of romances out there, each for a specific audience). So, you write in happy bliss until you finish and send the novel off to a handful of beta readers. Their feedback trickles in. Most are positive and think it just needs some tweaking. One, however, is confused. They can’t figure out if your novel fits in rom-com, erotica, or women’s fiction. It has a little of everything. But, you decide to ignore them because they’re the only one who complained, and polish the manuscript up. You send it off to agents, nervous and excited, confident you’ll have a request for your full manuscript within weeks.
Crickets! Why? Because you had no defined audience. Instead of narrowing your focus, you tried to appeal to three different markets: Women who wanted a lighthearted, funny story. Women who wanted hot, steamy sex. And women who wanted an emotional, soul-searching journey. As tempting as it is to reach far and wide with your story, you have to zero in on a specific group. Not only will that help an agent sell it (or yourself if you’re self-publishing), but it’ll help you put together a stronger, more cohesive story.
Now, I understand figuring out your target audience might be difficult before you start writing a novel. However, you should have a decent idea of who you’re writing for before you type the first word. Children? Young adults? Women? Men? Both men and women? As you write subsequent drafts, narrow your focus to a specific group.
5: Set goals
“I guess I’ll write today.”
“I’m not really sure what I want to do with this book.”
“I’ll just go with the flow and see where things lead.”
If you enter a project feeling aimless, then chances are you’ll never finish it. Or you’ll stop and go, stop and go, and it’ll take you years to reach the final chapter. Trust me, I’d know. That’s why I strongly urge you to create goals. They become the backbone of our success. Personally, I like to set three before I begin a novel.
- An ultimate goal. AKA, what to do with a story once it’s finished. Get published by one of the Big Five? Self-publish? Or write purely to write? There is no wrong answer.
- A deadline goal to help you reach the finish line in a timely manner. Circle a date on your calendar and aim to finish your first draft by it. Or present a copy to your beta readers. Or send your first batch of query letters. Or hire an editor to evaluate the story. Whatever! The type of deadline is up to you. Just try and be as specific about it as possible.
- A daily goal to keep you on track to meet your deadline. This should be a quantifiable objective, like word count, timed hours, or completed chapters.
Sometimes when we sit down to write, all we want to do is write. No plan, no concept, no long-term commitment. Just write! And that’s great. However, once we make the decision to commit to a novel, and finish it, and do something with it, we need to consider each of these steps. You might not come up with an exact answer for each one, but you should at least consider each one before embarking on your writing journey.
Good luck with your project!
Photo credits: giphy
I have to admit, I’ve been a terrible reader the past year. In fact, I only managed to consume about 20 books (compared to my usual 60+). I’m not sure what happened. Maybe it was fatigue from working a new job, writing a new novel, and critiquing over 200 stories? Or maybe it was pure lack of interest? (I picked up and put down so many books!) I’m not sure where I can place the blame, but I’m definitely ashamed of how few books I read.
Even though my book pile was pitifully small in 2016, I still read some great novels. Each of them captured my attention, delivered great entertainment, and made an impact of some kind. So, if you’re looking for a good book to read, check out my top five favorites from this past year.
Jen’s Top 5 Favorite Books of 2016
“Edge of Eternity” by Ken Follett
“Edge of Eternity is the sweeping, passionate conclusion to Ken Follett’s extraordinary historical epic, The Century Trilogy.”
I’m only about a third of the way through this 1,000+ page novel, but I know it’s going to be my favorite book of 2016. “The Edge of Eternity” is the third and final novel in Ken Follett’s series, The Century Trilogy. What I love about it (and its predecessors) is how it brings history to life with sharp, believable characters, engaging plot lines, and a galloping pace. I can usually finish one of Follett’s behemoth novels in just a few weeks (and that’s taking my time). Whether you’re a fan of historical fiction or not, I highly recommend this series!
To read more about “Edge of Eternity,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.
“Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett
“Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.”
During my driest reading spell in early November I decided to check out Goodreads’s nominations for the Best Books of 2016. I skipped around each genre, reading synopses and adding those that piqued my interest to my TBR list. “Commonwealth” was one of those novels. Not only am I a big fan of Ann Patchett’s, but I’m also a sucker for family dramas. So, I had to believe this book would save me from the reading desert I’d stumbled into. And it did! “Commonwealth” was chock-full of intrigue, emotion, and drama. I couldn’t put it down!
To read more about “Commonwealth,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.
“Winter” by Marissa Meyer
“Can Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter defeat Levana and find their happily ever afters? Fans will not want to miss this thrilling conclusion to Marissa Meyer’s national bestselling Lunar Chronicles series.”
Finally! I got my hands on the last book in Marissa Meyer’s series, the Lunar Chronicles. And it was as good as I’d hoped it’d be. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this popular young adult series, it’s basically fairy tale meets sci-fi. The tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White are given new twists and threaded together into a fresh, amazing plot. My only suggestion to those who’ve taken a long break between book three (“Cress”) and “Winter”: Read the series again! Refresh your memory, or else “Winter” won’t be nearly as magical.
To read more about “Winter,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.
“The Nest” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
“A warm, funny and acutely perceptive debut novel about four adult siblings and the fate of the shared inheritance that has shaped their choices and their lives.”
There was a lot of hype about “The Nest” in 2016. I became aware of it over the summer when I kept seeing pictures of it all over Instagram. The cover kept grabbing my attention–over and over. Finally, I surrendered and reserved it at the library. When I went to pick it up, I was apprehensive and a dash cynical. If there’s too much chatter about a novel, I worry my high expectations won’t get met. However, I was pleasantly surprised by “The Nest.” If you like family dramas, then you’ll want to read this one. It’s addicting!
To read more about “The Nest,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.
“Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes
“A Love Story for this generation and perfect for fans of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Me Before You brings to life two people who couldn’t have less in common—a heartbreakingly romantic novel that asks, What do you do when making the person you love happy also means breaking your own heart?”
Okay, full disclosure, I did not LOVE “Me Before You.” However, it held my attention when so many others failed to do so. This novel is definitely not your typical romance. In fact, I felt it belonged more in the drama section of the bookstore than the romance. But, that’s neither here nor there. “Me Before You” delivers an excellent plot, engaging characters, and a great hook that pulls you through the pages–fast! If you like romances that are less fantasy and more reality, then check this one out.
To read more about “Me Before You,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.
So, there you have it! It wasn’t a fantastic year of reading for me, but I still read some fantastic books. I hope you get a chance to read one or all of them!
What are some of your favorite books from 2016? Let me know in the comments section! I’m planning to participate in the Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge, so I’ll need plenty of recommendations to help me reach my goal.
The past few months, I’ve critiqued around 90 stories. During that time, I’ve noticed a common issue that has left me scratching my head all too often. It’s an issue every writer deals with, but not every writer knows to address until someone (a beta, an editor, a reader, etc.) points out to them.
“What’s the point of this story?”
“Your plot feels aimless.”
“Why is this happening?”
“Why is that happening?”
“Why? Why? WHY?”
As obvious as it is, stories need a purpose. Whether it’s something as grand as saving the world, or something subtler like self-discovery, every story needs something that drives it forward. A key motive that is the backbone of everything else. I like to call this the “Big Why.”
“Why am I writing this story?”
“Why does my protagonist exist?”
“Why will readers care?”
You should be asking yourself these vital questions while you write. No, you shouldn’t let them consume you to the point you can’t write anything at all. In fact, I’d recommend during your first draft (or two) you simply write and not worry about the Big Why. Let it develop as you go along. However, by the time you’re approaching your final draft(s), you should have a solid answer. If you can’t verbalize the main purpose of your story to a stranger (yes, I know we all hate the dreaded, “What’s your story about?” question) then you need to step back and think about it.
Once you’ve nailed down your Big Why, it’s time to support it. For example, you can say, “My story is about a girl with special powers who saves the world from an evil madman.” But, why? Why does this particular girl have to be the one who saves the world? Can’t someone else do it? And why does this evil madman want to take over the world? And why is he evil? And a madman?
As storytellers, we need to dig deeper with our motives. Saying, “I don’t know” or “Just because” won’t satisfy readers. Everything needs to have a reason, and those reasons need to be unique. Don’t say the girl has to save the world because she’s gifted (or, worse, because she’s “the chosen one”). Give her depth, obstacles, tragedy, hope–something that triggers her desire to rescue mankind. And don’t say the madman wants to conquer the world because he’s power hungry. Why does he want power? Why is he so hellbent on world domination? Again, “I don’t know” and “Just because” won’t cut it. Give readers more. Help them understand so they’re able to connect to your story.
Digging into the Big Why means digging into every aspect of your story. If you don’t have a viable explanation for each component, then you need to consider the reason for its existence.
Do you ever notice when a book gets adapted into a film, the film version sometimes (ahem, all the time) chops out secondary characters (and subplots)? Yeah, it annoys me too. But let’s think about why Hollywood does this: They have to condense a 400-page book into a two-hour film. That means they have to be picky and only use what matters. And what matters are the things that support the Big Why.
Although I hate seeing my favorite books butchered, I have to admit I like Hollywood’s general strategy from an editor’s standpoint. It’s brutal, but necessary. All of us (myself included) have to be willing to whittle our stories down to the essentials. Which means we have to examine all aspects, including our characters. As much as we want all of our imaginary friends and foes to stick around, sometimes–er, many times–it’s not in our story’s best interest. We have to put on our “Hollywood Caps” and start asking, “Why?”
“Why does this character exist?”
“Why do I need three sidekicks? Isn’t two plenty?”
“Why do I have two women with different names, but similar roles?”
Why, why, WHY? Just like The Big Why, we have to evaluate each character and figure out what the point of their existence is. If they’re not driving the plot forward, then give them a hug and part ways. Or take what you love about them and combine it with another (more valuable) character.
Just like with characters, not every plot line needs to stay in a story. In fact, the more plots you have, the foggier the Big Why can become. This isn’t to say multiple plots lines are bad. Not at all! Just look at “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Fall of Giants,” and “The Lunar Chronicles.” Each has multiple plots, but each of those plots matter. And, one way or another, they all contribute to the Big Why.
Unfortunately, many writers fall into the deep, dark Plot Pit. They keep inessential story lines that take readers away from the main focus and into a maze of, “Huh?” These include random tangents, excessive info dumps, and sentimental scenes nobody but the author understands. So, once again, as you’re editing, sit back and ask yourself why:
“Why does this plot exist?”
“Why is this scene relevant?”
“Why will this plot matter in the long run?”
Words, Words, Words
I know we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty, but we must if we want our stories (and their Big Whys) to stand out. We can create the best plots and the best characters, but readers won’t be able to appreciate them if they get lost in translation. So, everyone grab their beloved red pen and start asking:
“Why do I need this paragraph? This sentence? This word?”
“Why did I use dialogue here?”
“Why not break up this paragraph and add more white space?”
Obviously this isn’t a step to take during your first couple of drafts (if you do, you won’t get anything done). But, when you begin to edit and polish your manuscript, go at it. Attack every page with your red pen. Slash the fat, rearrange words, and tighten things up until every aspect of your story reads loud and clear.
The more you ask, “Why?” about your story, the clearer its purpose will become. Just remember there’s a time and place for everything, and that includes asking this important question. Don’t let it bog you down every step of the way. Ask it when the time is right…Just make sure to ask it at some point.
Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.
For more tips, visit my Jen’s Editing Tips page!
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