Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives


Let me preface this post by saying that I'm a little bit intimidated by addressing this particular topic, only because my brilliant friend (and former Pitch Wars mentor!) Rosalyn Eves has done it so well and thoroughly in her own wonderful post on objective correlatives. Check it out here! Rosalyn explains and breaks down the objective correlative in a terrific and easy-to-follow way, and you'll understand my take much better if you've read hers first.

That said, I couldn't in good conscience do a blog series on the things that are crucial to me in descriptive writing without addressing objective correlatives—a tricky, cerebral concept that can be hard to grasp but adds so much power into a narrative when used well. The use of objective correlatives is a way to communicate emotion (and induce emotion in the reader) without ever actually naming that emotion, or describing it in more traditional ways like physical reactions. As such, objective correlatives may at first glance seem to have not that much to do with descriptive writing—but as far as I'm concerned, they've got everything to do with each other. The goal of immersive descriptive writing, in my opinion, is to emotionally invest your reader in your narrative to such a point that they feel like they are there, living it, breathing your POV character's breath; objective correlatives can be a great way to do this. And, depending on what sort of objective correlative you use, it can also reinforce your setting, strengthening it until it's a character in its own right.

I was first introduced to the topic of objective correlatives at the 2015 LDStorymakers conference, in a presentation by author Martine Leavitt (the same presentation Rosalyn mentions in her post). An objective correlative is, essentially, kind of a grand-scale metaphor: rather than being a sentence-level structure where you implicitly inform the reader that one thing is standing in for another (for example, "he was a rock, the kind of man who would move for nothing"), an objective correlative is something that is usually woven into the text in such a way that the relationship is implied rather than stated—though, as with any rule, there are exceptions, as (confusingly enough) regular metaphors can be a type of objective correlative in certain situations. (Rosalyn goes into more detail about this in her post above!)

Often, though not always, an objective correlative is carried throughout all or part of a story, like a sort of extended metaphor. In the Harry Potter series, for instance, Harry's phoenix-feather wand functions as an objective correlative, symbolizing his sense of belonging to the wizarding world, the first place he's ever felt at home. In the final book, when his wand breaks during a confrontation with one of Voldemort's creatures, we feel Harry's shock and grief—not only because the wand itself was so beloved to him, but because it carried a deeper meaning in the narrative, and its shattering represents the breakdown both of Harry's innocence and of his beloved and safe wizarding world. And at the end, when Harry has vanquished Voldemort and gained the most powerful wand in the world—a wand that could earn him glory for the rest of his life—instead of choosing to keep it, he uses the Elder Wand only to repair his old phoenix-feather wand before breaking the Elder Wand and tossing it off a cliff, showing that the sense of belonging he's found in wizarding culture is far more important to him than fame or glory.

Think of all the things that little objective correlative, which is a relatively tiny plot in the overarching Harry Potter series, has described to us: We've learned about wizarding culture and its quirks ("the wand chooses the wizard!"); we've learned about Harry's deepest motivations and desires (belonging, acceptance, a safe place to call home), we've viscerally felt Harry's emotion at the peak of his distress in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. Without ever telling us "Harry was sad because of what the breakage of his wand represented to him," Rowling has pulled us deeper into her story, her character, and her setting through this objective correlative.

Last year at the Storymakers conference, I was really intrigued by Martine's brief explanation of objective correlatives, and since I was at that very moment outlining a new WIP, I decided that I was going to pick an objective correlative to use throughout my novel as a way to show my protagonist's sense of overwhelm with the situation that she was in. That book takes place on a farm, and an important subplot revolves around the fact that the area is in an unprecedented drought that's placing great stress on its rural inhabitants. As such, the weather—the heat and crush of an unusually rainless North Carolina summer—seemed like the perfect thing to use as an extended metaphor. As I drafted the book, whenever I found myself wanting to describe my main character's emotions, I would describe the weather instead, specifically choosing descriptors that evoked the sense of heavy oppression that fit not only the actual temperature but also Della's sense of hopelessness at trying to care for her mentally ill mother. Here's one of the more obvious examples:

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I said over and over again, but Mama didn’t act like she’d heard me at all. She just kept on crying, not making any noise, her eyes puffing up and turning as red as her hands. I clumsily unscrewed the spray bottle and dumped everything inside it down the sink, my own eyes watering—it smelled like straight-up bleach, not thinned out with anything at all. 
“You gotta wash your hands, Mama,” I said, remembering what Mrs. Gregory had said last year in science lab about touching bleach, but Mama didn’t answer. I reached into the sink and grabbed a washcloth off the faucet, running it under water till it was as cold as the sink could get it, and then crouched down and wiped Mama’s hands off one at a time. It might not be enough to stop her hurting, but it was all I could do while still holding crying Mylie on my hip. 
The heat of the kitchen pressed down hard on me, warming up that washcloth till holding it felt just like being wrapped up in the humid air. Mylie rubbed her face into my shoulder, her arms holding tight onto my neck like she was afraid of what might happen if she let go, and whimpered. 
“Stowy?” she whispered. 
“Not now, Mylie.” I wasn’t sure I’d ever be ready to tell another Bee Story again. Instead I just held Mylie and looked out the window over the sink and wished, more than ever, that the sky would just open up and cry all the tears I couldn’t.
That book—called WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW—ended up being the book that earned ten agent offers, and without fail, to this day every single person who has read it has commented on how vivid the heat was, how they felt hot reading it, and how the extended metaphor of the drought helped to pull them deeply into the story and really feel what Della felt as they read. My hope (which, based on that reaction, seems to have succeeded!) was to ground a reader both in Della's emotional overwhelm and immerse them in the setting in such a way that they seemed to be right there, experiencing all that heat and frustration along with Della.

An objective correlative can also be used on a smaller scale, though, in just one (or just a few) scenes, to illustrate a certain concept or emotion. In my last WIP, one of my favorite objective correlatives was one that was mostly confined to a single scene:

“You know, Annie Lee,” said Mama, and I jumped a little. Her voice was strange and floaty. “I knew a girl once, back when I was in high school, who got herself stung by a Portuguese Man’o’war while she was swimming out in Wilmington.”
A Man’o’war was a jellyfish, a horrible kind with lacy tentacles that could be thirty feet or longer, and if it caught you it would wrap those tentacles around your arms and legs, tangling you up in it and stinging over and over again. I stuck my hand into my pocket, the warm familiar smoothness of George Washington’s faces calm and comforting.
“They had to cut it off her, there on the sand,” Mama went on, “and she spent the next five years getting plastic surgery over and over again to get rid of all those hard red scars. But you know the thing that’s never made sense to me?” 
I waited, but she didn’t go on. “What?”
“She kept swimming after that day.” Mama shook her head. “Her family went to the beach a few weeks every summer, and she said she still kept swimming.” She paused. “I don’t think I could’ve done that.” 
I turned the quarter over in my fingers. Daddy had been able to make it pass over and under every finger of his hand before disappearing it, poof, into the air.
“Losing your daddy,” Mama said, her face tired and grey-blue in the light of the computer screen, “it was like being wrapped up in those tentacles, Annie Lee.” She looked back at the screen, at whatever she’d seen there.
“Sometimes, it still is.” 
If you're feeling a) confused and or b) overwhelmed by this whole concept at this point, don't despair. It's a tricky idea, and one that can seem hard to wrap your brain around! If you'd like a practice exercise today, I'm totally stealing from Rosalyn's (fantastic) class on objective correlatives at LDStorymakers 2016. The assignment is simple: Pick an emotion and then pick an object or image (anything will do!). Write a paragraph, or more, using that image or object to try to make your reader feel that emotion. The above jellyfish excerpt was actually based on what came out of that class exercise for me—if I remember right, my image was a picture of a jellyfish and my emotion was sadness. Now it's one of my favorite passages in that book!

Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Building Strong Metaphors


Any lover of lush prose will tell you: There is no more valuable tool in a descriptive writer's box than a well-placed metaphor. Good metaphors are like a book's salt—they can draw out all of the other flavors of the narrative, adding punch and depth in just the right places, turning fairly run-of-the-mill descriptions into things worth pausing over and savoring. (Want proof? I'm still, weeks after reading it, in awe over Julie Berry's fabulous grape-crushing metaphor from the excerpt I quoted in yesterday's post!)

Few things can bring a description to life the way a metaphor can... at least, that is, as long as it's a good one. Weak metaphors, like weak adjectives, serve at best as merely-adequate sentences, the kind of prose a reader skims but doesn't become immersed in. At worst, weak metaphors (also like weak adjectives!) can pull a reader right out of the story. Metaphors that are too out of left field, or that attempt to combine too many different ideas, or that are simply over-used, definitely don't earn you any extra reader investment.

So how do you make sure that you're writing the good kind of metaphors, and not the bad? Here are my own personal rules for writing metaphors (of which I'm quite fond—as you've probably noticed from the fact that I've used several in this post already!):

Rule #1: The first idea is almost never the best one.

This applies to a lot of things in writing, and metaphors are no exception! For me, at least, I've found that when I'm trying to describe something, the first metaphor that I reach for is usually one that's clich├ęd and common. You know what I'm talking about—her eyes were like stars, his jaw was set like stone, it was as soft as a pillow, etc. etc. etc. While these metaphors are a step up from just using a weak adjective like "bright," "hard," or "soft," they're so embedded in our cultural consciousness that they become invisible, entirely lacking the power to make a reader see things with that pop and fizzle you'd like to evoke.

Both while drafting and in revision, I try to keep an eye open for these overused metaphors when they pop up. I've been paying attention to them for long enough now that I often catch them as I'm drafting, but inevitably a few sneak through to be caught later—and that's okay. This kind of thinking takes practice, and it's 100% all right if your descriptions begin fairly simple and unevocative and build over time during revisions.

When I do find that I'm about to use, or have already used, a weak metaphor, I pause for a bit of brainstorming. This is actually a game I love to play while I'm falling asleep at night: I pick an image from my WIP that I know I'll be describing the next day, and then I try to think of as many metaphors as I can to describe it until I hit on one that feels right! I do something similar when I'm mid-writing-session.

In my just-completed WIP, for instance, I knew that I'd need to describe early on one of the characters, an elderly homeless man. Initially, in thinking about the sorts of metaphors I'd use to show what he looked like, I hit on two: his skin like paper, and his bones thin and birdlike. Both of those were unsatisfying, though, because both of them are metaphors that are used relatively often to describe people who are old with weathered skin. So instead, I spent one of those before-sleep brainstorming sessions trying to come up with other things that worked well. What I ended up with was this:

He was old, with a mostly-grey beard and skin like the bark on the birch tree by my apartment, as thin and saggy as if it had seen a hundred years of sun and wind. 
It's still a first draft, and it's entirely possible that in the future I may punch that metaphor up further or take it out entirely. But for right now, it's a much better option than paper-thin skin or birdlike bones!

Rule #2: The best metaphors fit well with the overall story and its setting.

In high school, I spent a semester building my own creative writing course (the perks of being a homeschooler!) that was comprised largely of reading and underlining my favorite books to try to figure out what made them tick, and writing lots of short stories to use the tools I'd learned. This is an approach I both recommend and don't recommend—had I been a little less clueless I would've thrown some good craft books in there, too, but at the time I was kind of snobby about craft books—but that's beside the point. One of the big epiphanies from that class was the day that I was reading Shannon Hales' THE GOOSE GIRL and realized, with a minor thunderclap, how much power Hale's metaphors had because they were tied in so well to her story and its setting. For a character who could speak the language of birds, Hale used bird metaphors. For scenes that took place in a stable, she used stable metaphors.

Often, the most powerful metaphors are ones that evoke and strengthen an aspect of the story itself—the setting, a specific relationship, a character's feelings. Early in THE GOOSE GIRL, for instance, Hale describes her main character, Ani, coming into her horse's stable like this:

Ani entered the first stable. The familiar smells of warm bodies and clean hay greeted her like a friendly touch.
At this point in the book, Ani is a princess, the daughter of a permanently-disapproving mother; Ani feels caged and awkward in her life, unable to ever do anything that makes others proud of her. Her one refuge, which she mostly isn't allowed, is her connection to animals, and the metaphor that Hale chooses to describe the smells of the stable—like a friendly touch—immediately brings home to us just how much of a relief it is for Ani to be away from the perpetual stress of the palace and into the one place she feels peace and friendliness.

This rule isn't hard and fast, of course; there will definitely be times when the metaphor best-suited to a specific description doesn't have much, or anything at all, to do with your overall story. (Birch trees, for instance, aren't ever mentioned by name again in my WIP that I know of, though there are scenes in a forest.) But it's often worth pondering, as you're sitting down to describe something, whether or not your choice of metaphor can tie in to a larger theme.

Rule #3: Good metaphors are unique without being strange.

Every now and then if I'm having a hard time finding a unique way to describe something, I'll say something about it to my husband (my best brainstorming buddy). Inevitably, he comes up with something super whacky, like "The food was so bad I felt like a dinosaur choking on a planet", which is the real true example he just spouted off when I told him to give me a weird metaphor. And, while that sort of over-the-top silly description can be perfect for a madcap adventure or a zany, voicey satire (which goes right back to rule #2!), usually this isn't the kind of metaphor that's going to work best for most books.

The strongest metaphors manage to strike a balance: They're unique, but they don't cross the line into strange. You want something that is fresh and new enough to make your reader pause, but not so far out of left field that she's left scratching her head about it. In general, you want to make sure that your metaphors match your story's tone—you wouldn't, for example, have a bunch of violence-centric metaphors in a quiet MG, unless violence was important to and consistent with your story's plot and tone. Metaphors should build and enrich your writer's voice throughout the book, not detract or distract from it.

Unofficial Rule #4: It's okay if it takes time.

For me, at least, learning to write with metaphors this way has been a long work-in-progress, a process of years of teaching my brain to recognize when my description is weak and figure out how to brainstorm my way into a solution. If you're feeling overwhelmed at this point in our Descriptive Writing 101 series, that's okay. Good descriptive writing takes time—time to absorb and practice techniques from book-to-book, and time to add layers and depth to your description from draft to draft.

On that note, who's up for a challenge? If you'd like to practice the techniques I talked about in this post, here's your assignment: do a little metaphor brainstorming of your own! Think of a character, setting, or object that you'd like to describe, and then make a list of as many potential metaphors for that thing as you can. Look at your list to see if any of them have particular resonance with any of the characters, plotlines, themes, or settings in your story—or if any of them just seem to fit with the thing you're trying to describe, whether or not they echo your overall story. Give yourself permission to take some time and let your brain marinate over the assignment a little bit. There's no rush!


Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Relationship-Based Description

One of the fundamental building blocks in good descriptive writing is what I think of as "relationship-based" description (or, sometimes, "reaction-based" description). This piece from our descriptive writer's toolbox packs a double punch, because not only does it allow us to show our world to the reader in a more vivid way, but it also allows us to take our characterizations much deeper—and, ultimately, characters who feel deep and with whom readers connect on a deep level are the heart of any impactful book.

So what, you ask, is relationship-based description?

Pull up a chair, friends, and let's explore this concept.

In every scene, you'll have a point-of-view character, whether that's your book's protagonist or somebody else. You'll have a point-of-view character even if you're writing in third person—and in general, the more dialed-in to that POV character you are, the more invested your reader will be in the scene, too. (This is true for everything except 3rd-person omniscient narratives, but I'll make a sweeping generalization and say that in most genres, close 3rd-person is much, much more effective.)

In the best descriptive writing, all of the observation and description in the scene is filtered through the POV character's worldview. This means that what they notice at any given moment will be influenced by everything from their background, lifestyle, and childhood experiences, to their current occupation, current mood, and current goal.

Everyone in a scene will react to stimuli differently, just as we do in real life; for example, as a musician, I notice very different things when I'm sitting through an amateur musical performance than one of my friends, who doesn't have musical training, does. Likewise, as a mom, when I'm out with my daughter I notice things differently than I did before she came along—I'm much more attuned to how situations could become dangerous (don't run out into the road! Don't touch the hot stove!) and also tend to notice things that are at waist-level and below much more than I used to. And I could go on; for all the different aspects of who I am (writer, disabled person, etc.), there are ways that that identity affects the way I process things around me.

Keeping these character-specific filters in mind boosts both the punch of your descriptions and the depth of your characterizations, making it doubly awesome.

Recently I read Julie Berry's THE PASSION OF DOLSSA (which I highly recommend), and couldn't help but mark this beautiful passage, which is an excellent example of what I'm talking about:

Harvest frolics were known for this. All those tozets with their lusty eyes upon her, her buoyant chest bouncing practically into her eyeballs, and her skirts tucked up and pinned over her bottom... Of course she would feel herself in a mood to pick one of these young men, like a grape off the vine, and crush him against the roof of her mouth.

In these few lines, we're given insight into so many things: how the narrator feels about the girl she's describing, how the girl treats her suitors (isn't that line about crushing them on the roof of her mouth absolutely perfect?), what role the grape-harvest/winemaking plays in the culture of their village. Berry could have just written something like this:

Astruga was a good-looking but shameless hussy who moved from boy to boy and then left them, flaunting her attractive body to reel them in one after another.
We'd still have had all the pertinent information about the character in question. But the way it's presented now, we have so much more than that—we're pulled deeper into the world, deeper into the head of the POV character, and deeper into the author's lush and beautiful voice, all at once.

In my original draft of this post, I had two original examples written out to show how this sort of relationship-based description can be used to convey a character's mood and backstory. Unfortunately, my computer rudely ate it, and I was never able to remember what those examples said well enough to rewrite them (doggone it! I was really mad!). For more examples, though, I highly recommend checking out this post by the inimitable Maggie Stiefvater, in which she talks about using literary devices to tweak reader emotions and breaks down some great examples of relationship-based description from The Dream Thieves.

So, lovely readers, here's your challenge for today, if you choose to accept it! Choose a character, a setting, or an object that you'd like to describe, and also choose a relationship (between two characters, between a character and himself, between a character and an object or setting) that you'd like to highlight. If needed, make a brief list of ways that that relationship might affect the way your POV character sees the thing/person/place you're trying to describe. Then get out your pen and write a paragraph (or more!), choosing your descriptive words carefully, putting yourself as deeply as you can into the viewpoint of your POV character.

Alternatively, if you'd like to practice but you're having trouble coming up with something to use, here's a prompt: Pick one setting and one relationship from the following lists, put them together in some descriptive writing, and see what you can come up with!

Setting:
A moss-covered forest
A crowded suburban Super Target
A mountain trail
A high school hallway
A kitchen
An urban backyard patio
A farm

Relationship:
A character who's about to break up with his/her significant other
A character who's about to propose
A character who resents his/her mother
A character who's obsessed with a specific possession
A character who's got PTSD after a bad car accident
A character who feels inadequate at everything he/she tries

Friday, September 16, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: It's Way More Than Adjectives, Baby

This forest is lush and green, with trees that are towering and stately
as they preside over the sinuous stillness of the river!
#WhatNotToDo

This summer, while preparing feedback for authors who subbed to me for Pitch Wars but weren't chosen, I started noticing that I was saying the same things to many of them:

"Use fewer adjectives."

This, I admit, gave me pause. I'm a descriptive writer. Lyrical, immersive, setting-as-character writing is what I love, and do, best. I love to read and write prose that sings off the page, so vivid that I'm not just visualizing the scene, I'm there.

And aren't adjectives synonymous with "description"?

The answer, as you've probably guessed, is "Yes, but no." Adjectives can be great. Think about adjectives like sizzle or protruberant or hushed. Each of those words packs a punch in just a few syllables, conjuring up just the right image or feeling in your mind as you read them. Strong adjectives (and it's important that they're strong!) are, without a doubt, a vital tool in a descriptive writer's toolbox.

Still, when you're striving for immersively descriptive prose, adjectives are merely the tip of the iceberg. Much of the time, adjectives function only at the surface layer: they do an adequate job of telling the reader what to picture, but they don't grip him by the lapels and drag them right into your book. And often, having too many adjectives—especially if they're clustered all together in one sentence or paragraph—can actually pull the reader out of your story instead of taking her deeper.

Descriptive writing is made up of many things: adjectives and adverbs, of course, but also sensory awareness, metaphor and objective correlative (sort of an extended metaphor), and a character's reactions to and relationships with the world around her. Ideally, your descriptions should be a balance of all of these things. The best descriptive writing is also unique: It's putting words together on the sentence level so that instead of skimming over the page, your reader shivers and is pulled further in to the story. You want her to see the comet fall, to feel the frisson of tension across his skin, instead of just noting that those things happened and then moving on.

In talking about this recently on Twitter, I used this example:

"The mood in the room was tense."

This tells us, obviously, what the atmosphere of the room was, but it doesn't give us a lot more than that. We're already reading on to the next line.

Adding another adjective doesn't do much for it, either; if told "The mood in the room was tense and edgy," we still aren't necessarily feeling that tension curling into our own bones.

On the other hand, if we read: "The room held its breath, the walls themselves pulled as tight as strings"—which of those examples did you feel the most? Which resonated most deeply inside of you, and made your breath catch in your throat, just the way the protagonist's breath ought to be catching right about now?

In that instance, I was able to pull in metaphor to describe the mood of that room in a way that was just different enough to (hopefully) make you feel it much more deeply than you did when I simply said that the room was "tense" or "edgy." This sort of example becomes even more powerful when paired with other tools of descriptive writing—and, in my opinion, it's one of the crucial sentence-level things that takes a good story and makes it a transformative one. Many current award-winning novelists, like Maggie Stiefvater and Shannon Hale, are true masters of this, and reading their books and others can be a great way to pick apart techniques for use in your own writing.

Over the next couple of posts, I'm going to be breaking these ideas down into more digestible chunks and sharing blogs on metaphor, objective correlative, relationship-based description, and sensory awareness. I'll try to pull in lots of examples and writing exercises as well, since I know that's how I personally learn best. So pick up that pen (or keyboard) and join me for the ride!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors
Part 3: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives
Part 4: Adding Sensory Details

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

the holy midnight work

Canning peaches with Kate

It's hot here in the darkness; damp hair clings to the back of my neck, my clothes feel oppressive and close. The baby pressed against me is warm, a tiny sun who heats the room as we pace the floorboards, bouncing without pause. He arches his back and whimpers, miserable and restless, his nose stuffy and his hands twitchy.

He's not mine, of course. His mama sleeps a few rooms away, and I am only the fill-in, the relief effort. Still, the deep parts of my body remember this, the feel of a baby held just so, pulled tight against me to soothe the restive kicking, the way his arms keep jerking a few minutes after he's finally fallen asleep, his body fighting even after the battle is lost.

It's still in the house: only the two of us are up and moving, locked into our little dance. Iron & Wine plays quietly in the background. My thoughts are slow and centered. I am present in this midnight moment in a way I'm so often not in the sunlit busy ones.

Sometimes it sneaks up on me, this unexpected holiness. Sometimes, in the in and out sandwich-making shoe-finding swing-pushing minutiae of mothering, I forget what mothering really means: Holding another soul in my arms, being the buffer between her and the world as she learns to navigate everything from the proper use of a toilet to the complex and overwhelming universe of her own emotions.

Sometimes I'm so overwhelmed myself that I can't feel the holiness at all—but still, it's there, creeping up on quiet baby-bouncing nights to remind me that oh, this work is deep and wide and sanctifying.

There is much to mothering: to mother is to teach, to discipline, to do strings of endless physical laundrydishescleaning tasks that extend into eternity. But I think, in these quiet hallowed moments where morning is closer than midnight, that really mothering comes down to this: being there open-armed, ready to hold space for the sick baby who can't sleep, the panicked preschooler who can't stop sobbing. Holding them here in the darkness, the warmth of their skin on ours. Whispering over and over: It will be okay. It will be okay.

Finally, as Elizabeth Mitchell croons to the gentle hum and wail of a harmonica, the baby in my arms falls into sleep, his mouth soft and slack, his breathing loud and congested. I sink into the couch, let my own eyes close.

I don't often feel the holiness in this work that is motherhood, I think as the stillness enfolds me. I don't always see it.

Still, it's always there.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Your Beginning Is A Promise—So Don't Break It!



I have the privilege of being a middle grade mentor for Brenda Drake's incredible Pitch Wars contest this year. The revision period has only just begun (and I'm so excited for both of my mentees!), but already being on this end of the contest has been really illuminating—getting to read so many wonderful queries and first pages, as well as several partials and fulls, was something of a master class in identifying common issues that were very helpful to see both in terms of being able to guide other writers through making their books stronger, and to keep in mind as I revise my own books!

One thing that I noticed in several of the partials and fulls that I read was a disconnect between the beginning (in this case, usually the first 1/4-1/3) and the rest of the book. I saw a lot of books in which the first section of the book had a very different feel, and often a completely different setting or even a fairly unrelated plot, than the rest of the book. To an extent, this is normal and even necessary—the first quarter of your book helps to establish your character's "normal world," and is all about presenting your character before they've experienced the life-changing plot turn that happens about 25% into your book.

Still, as a reader and as a potential mentor, I found myself several times falling in love with a book's beginning—only to, a few chapters later, have the book change so much that many of the things that had attracted me to it in the first place were no longer present. What I realized as I read was this:

The beginning of your book is a promise to your reader. In it, you promise them specific things, and if you deviate too far away from those things, it will feel like a broken promise and result in an almost-always unsatisfying book. (Sometimes, writers do this intentionally, and that's a whole different kettle of fish—but know that if you choose to make promises and then break them, your reader will probably feel unsatisfied. Which is a fine emotion, as long as that's what your goal is.)

So what kinds of things, in my opinion, need to stay consistent throughout a book in order for your reader not to feel betrayed by the promises made in the beginning?

1. The type of book you're writing. This one's pretty obvious—and, again, sometimes this rule is broken—but it's a big one. If a book reads like a rom-com for the first half and then turns into a slasher horror halfway through, your reader probably isn't going to be super happy with the transition. That's an extreme example, but it's true on a small scale, too; if your book begins as a quirky exploration of humanity's foibles a la Gilmore Girls but later shifts to be a serious emotional story with nary a laugh in sight, your readers are going to close the book thinking "Now, how exactly did I end up here?"

2. What kind of character your reader's going to be identifying with. You don't have to give away the character's whole arc in the beginning, but you should make sure that we have hints. Give us glimpses that show us where your character is right now vs. where they're going to end up. In a typical growth-oriented character arc, this means that you need to start out by showing us your character's false beliefs about themselves and the world around them, and also give us hints about the kind of person your character could be if they were willing to let go of those false beliefs. These hints can come through comments from secondary characters, through secondary characters who act as foils, through media your POV character consumes, even through literary devices. However you do it, though, we need to feel grounded in both who the character is now and who they have the potential to become, so that as his or her character arc unfolds throughout the story, we're satisfied rather than unmoored by his or her transformation.

3. What kind of literary devices you'll be employing in your writing. This is a big one, but not necessarily something I'd have thought of before reading through my Pitch Wars slush. There were several partials and fulls I read whose beginnings were filled with beautiful sensory detail, vivid settings, and characters who jumped off the page—but then, at that 1/4-1/3 mark as the plot took off, much of that immersive and engaging writing dropped away. While it's very common to have a dramatic setting change around this point in the book (anything from a move to a literal quest), make sure that you're still employing the literary devices you used to make the first section of the book come alive, even once your setting has changed.

If your character loves to sing, and you used his passion for singing to help readers connect with him in the first quarter, make sure that that's carried through later on as well. If losing his voice (literally or figuratively) is part of the plot, make sure that you still give equal weight to that passion anyway—even if he can't sing, he can think about singing, wish to sing, see the world through a musical lens, cringe every time the radio comes on because it reminds him of the thing that was taken away from him. If your setting in the first quarter was filled with sensory detail and a strong sense of place, but then your character moves somewhere else very different, make sure that you're still employing a similar descriptive style to immerse us in the new setting.

4. What the basic goal of the plot is. As mentioned earlier, many plots actually require making some big changes to setting, characters, or goals after that 25% mark. However, it's important to make sure that you're still telling the same story. In several of the fulls I read for Pitch Wars, the character's actions and goals throughout the first quarter were really only very loosely related to the goals of the plot as a whole; instead of setting us up for the coming plot arc, the first quarter, instead, told a mostly-different story that centered on different things. In every case, this left me feeling a little bit let down after finishing the whole book. But wait, I'd find myself thinking. I really liked that beginning section—whatever happened to that story? Even as you're pulling your main character out of their "normal world" and starting them on their quest to become the best version of themselves, it's important to keep control of your overall plot arc and make sure that your first quarter is still setting things up for the story you're going to tell, not for a side story that won't have bearing on the final outcome of the book.

A related, and very important, piece of advice is to make sure that you're beginning your book in the right place. I often find it helpful, after I've finished drafting a book, to take a hard look at my first chapter and make sure it's really living up to its potential. Typically? It's not, and I have to revise it at least some of the way, if not scrap it altogether. With my last book, I had an opening paragraph that I absolutely adored, and all my critique partners did too... But in the course of revising, I had to face up to the cold hard truth that it wasn't pulling it's weight. That beloved opener got scrapped and replaced, and the first chapter was much stronger as a result. (Maybe in the future I'll do a blog post specifically tackling first chapters...)

Now it's your turn! Tell me: What do YOU think a beginning needs to do in order to make promises you'll be able to keep?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Rewriting Is The Heart Of Writing


I've been writing for as long as I can remember, and I got serious about writing novels many years ago. For a long time, I figured I was ahead of the curve: I wrote my first novels as a teen, had studied what it took to be published, read voraciously and had learned to apply techniques from my favorite books to boost the quality of my own prose.

But there was a big, huge part of the puzzle that I was missing that whole time:

Rewriting.

Not just revising in the way I used to think of it—rearrange a scene here, fix some typos there, streamline my timeline and call it good. It wasn't until the last two years that I truly learned how to rewrite: How to dig deep, find the heart of my story, and then change anything that is necessary in order to reveal that heart to its fullest extent.

And, not at all coincidentally, it wasn't until I learned how to do that that my writing started getting noticed in ways that ultimately led to an agent.

Recently, we got a new piano after a year of being without one. (Hooray!) Music runs deep in my blood, so you can imagine how happy that's made me. In the first few weeks after getting it, I played every chance I got, combing both my sheet music and my memory for songs I enjoy. One of the things I found myself playing was from my teenaged music composition days—a flowing piano solo that I worked on for a long time before it ultimately went on to place in a national music composition competition. I remembered as I played it how much I especially love one section of it—a minor-key bridge whose stormy restlessness is meant to, and for me does, evoke the feeling of the ocean.

I've always found it interesting that, of the whole piece, that's the section I like the best, because for a very long time it wasn't part of the song at all. The rest of the song is gentler, in a major key, and fairly repetitive. As I was working on it, my piano teacher kept telling me that I needed a section that took the motifs I'd used throughout and made them new and different, instead of just repeating the same melody with a few small changes. (He was right, of course, and that inability to get myself too far from a single motif is why I never became a composer!) I went back to him and back to him, asking if a new idea I'd had was different enough, and he always said no. Until, one day, I was messing around and boom. The new section was born. It pulled the whole piece together and made it a hundred times better—and now, more than a decade later with my musical skills at least a little further along, I recognize that it's by far the most sophisticated part of that piece.

As I thought about the story of how that song came to be, it occurred to me what a perfect metaphor it is for any creative endeavor, writing included. Often, what we initially start out with as writers scratches only the very surface of an idea. Just as often, it takes us going back again and again to that idea in order to really dig deep and bring up all the emotion that we can from it.

And this is what true revision is: Going back to our story and asking more from it than we did originally. Being willing to look at the possibility of making big, dramatic, terrifying changes, if those changes will more fully reveal the heart of the story. Being willing to sacrifice anything—characters, plot points, favorite scenes—to get to that point.

I have a young adult novel that is, without question, the book of my heart. All of my books have pieces of my heart, but this one dials deeply into my soul more than anything I've ever written. The setting, the characters, and the themes all speak to really deep parts of myself. Last year, once on my own and once with a mentor as part of Pitch Wars, I revised that book on a large scale twice. The second was especially big—during Pitch Wars, I gave that manuscript a dramatic overhaul, so that it was hardly recognizable as the same book it had been to begin with.

And then it didn't get me an agent. These days, about eight months after shelving that book, I can see why not, and I can also see that it's not ready yet for the YA market. It's been on my mind again this summer, though, and within the next year I'm planning to overhaul it yet again—what will likely be the largest revision yet. This time, I'll be taking an axe to the actual plot, and when it emerges I suspect that once again, it will be an almost entirely new book (one which will hopefully have a chance at marketability!). It's a little daunting, thinking about revising this book so heavily another time, but it's also exciting—because I know that there's still more, thematically and emotionally, that I can pull from this book than I have in the past.

This is what I wish I'd known, years ago as an experienced-but-still-totally-green writer who thought she knew everything: I wish I would've known that truly, the heart of writing is rewriting. Drafting is fun, and streamlining is crucial. But most books will, at some point, need more than a quick-and-dirty revision to clean things up. Even if they don't need such a dramatic overhaul as my YA novel (most books don't, and mine since then haven't), it's quite likely that there are parts that will still need true rewriting. With the middle grade book that got me my agent, I cut several characters, changed the timeline of the book (and therefore the plot structure), and added in a whole magical realism element that wasn't there for most of the first draft. And, as hard as it was to do some of those things (my very favorite character went on the chopping block!), it was right.

So as you sit down to revise, never fear those big changes. They might just uncover the true hiding place of your story's heart.