Editing Challenge Day 11: Turning Up the Heat

The Blairzone - 36

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Last time I talked about building a character that is multi-layered, existing in multiple spheres of existence. But that’s not enough for a compelling story; we also need to turn up the heat. If we think about great characters from stories that we loved, we are almost never seeing those characters at a time when everything is fine and dandy. In fact, we are dipping into the character’s life at exactly the point of greatest strain.

Think about when you’ve chosen to show us a slice of your character’s life. Is it a time when things are more or less all right? For a story to be memorable and compelling, we need to put a character under threat. That character’s very hold on life must be in question in one way or another. This threat can be physical or emotional or financial; but it must be real, and it must be targeted.

What I mean by that is that if you’ve established a character who deeply desires a stronger relationship with his father, then it’s not the right threat to have a bear going through his garbage. We need to find a threat that is tailor-made for this character’s particular insecurities. If we think back to the example of the Larry Brown story I mentioned, about a guy whose wife is flashed by a stranger, this is the right threat because the character has a great deal of insecurity about his own masculinity. The harassment from a strange man is a direct threat to his own sense of manly pride and ability to protect his wife.

So today, take a moment to examine the threat that you’ve selected for your character. Is it pushing the bruise? Accessing the weak points? We need to understand who the character is by seeing what makes him nearly buckle under the strain. If your character has a fear of spiders, then a spider has to walk in the door.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 10: Character Questionnaire

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This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

It’s character week, editors! If you’ve completed a first draft of a story, it means you have a god inkling of what makes your character tick. You’ve showed a bit of his fears and desires, and had him take action in his life. But how well do you really know that character? And are you setting him to action in as dramatic a way as possible? Are you telling the right story for your character?

The only way to be sure is to dig deeper and examine what really pushes your character. That means looking into other elements of his life and seeing if you’ve really discovered the secrets and the choices that defined him. In the past I tried character questionnaires that made me come up with answers about a character’s favorite music and foods, but I’ve realized all those persnickety questions of taste aren’t all that relevant. Instead, I’ve designed a questionnaire that will help you shape your character’s purpose in the story. Today in your editing journal, try jotting down some noteform answers to the following questions, or finish the following sentences in the voice of your character.

First: rewriting clichés.

Many people see themselves as actors in familiar storylines. Which clichéd storyline does your character consider him or herself to be a part of? Here are a few examples:

1. Forbidden love

2. Dangerous love

3. Love triangles

4. Greed and ambition — stepping on people to get to the top

5. The exotic, mysterious foreigner comes to town

6. The rich jerk vs. the poor nice guy

7. Adultery

Second: Top Five “Firsts”

Make a list of your character’s top five “firsts” in his or her life.

e.g.: the first time he/she shoplifted

the first time he/she got his/her heart broken

the first time he/she knew parents were mortal

the first time he/she lied with real consequences

the first time he/she disappointed someone

Make a list of your character’s top five “lasts”.

The last time he/she saw another important character in the story

The last time he/she did an important activity

The last day of school

Third: Use memoir

This time, use your own experiences and alter them a bit to give your character a meaningful life experience.

Recount a significant event from your life, but change one significant aspect of it — if things went the other way, if it had happened in a different time period, etc.

Fourth: Finish the sentences for your character.

Now practice thinking from your character’s perspective. Finish the following sentences for him or her:

I never told anyone…

I did tell one person. God help me. He/she…

I never told anyone, but I’ll tell you…

Have fun filling out these questionnaires today, editors. You may discover things you never knew before about your character. But more important than just static knowledge, you’ll discover things that should change the story and how it unfolds.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting at editorial.blairhurley.com.

Editing Challenge Day 9: Paint a Character Portrait

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This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

We’ve done good work so far on plot. We’ve raised important questions about story arc, suspense, and maintaining a sense of conflict. Now it’s time to delve into the second point of the big triumvirate of great stories: character.

Personally, I think I may read for character more than anything else. There’s nothing more satisfying than sinking into a deeply-realized character’s life, learning all the ups and downs and the spiky, crinkly bits of a person’s true self. It’s one of the principle pleasures of reading great writers such as Alice Munro. But remember that even writers such as Alice Munro isn’t getting all that wonderful character depth right from the get-go. It’s a process of layering and layering and layering some more, building in depth through many passes over the story. In that way, building a character is a lot like painting a portrait, passing over the same image with charcoal and pencil and oil until it feels deep enough to pop off the page.

So how do we build that layer cake for own characters? Let’s study a paragraph from a Munro story:

Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went
to university. It was a big, bay-windowed house that seemed to Grant both luxurious and disorderly, with rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish. Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics. The father was an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home, where he would listen to his wife’s strange tirades with an absentminded smile. Fiona had her own little car and a pile of cashmere sweaters, but she wasn’t in a sorority, and her mother’s political activity was probably the reason. Not that she cared. Sororities were a joke to her, and so was politics—though she liked to play “The Four Insurgent Generals” on the phonograph, and sometimes also the “Internationale,” very loud, if there was a guest she thought she could make nervous. A curly-haired gloomy-looking foreigner was courting her—she said he was a Visigoth—and so were two or three quite respectable and uneasy young interns. She made fun of them all and of Grant as well. She would drolly repeat some of his small-town phrases. He thought maybe she was joking when she proposed to him, on a cold bright day on the beach at Port Stanley. Sand was stinging their faces and the waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet.
“Do you think it would be fun—” Fiona shouted. “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?”
He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.

This is the opening paragraph of Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” Notice here that this opening is it not tremendously full of problem; Munro is able to get away with this more leisurely opening because she is patiently presenting a character to us, giving us a person bit by bit. And with strong writing, that can sometimes be just as compelling as plot. Do you feel like you know Fiona by the end of this paragraph? It’s an astonishing feat: giving us just the right few well-chosen details to make us feel connected to Fiona’s world, her context, her time, her family, and her spirit. It’s truly a multi-dimensional picture.

Today, look at the very first introduction of your principle character. Are you giving us a chance to understand him or her in a multi-dimensional way? Do you indicate his socioeconomic status as well as his voice? We don’t have to everything in an introduction, but we do want a process of triangulation, giving us a character from more than one angle. There are so many ways to understand human beings — through their race, their religion, their gender, their families, their quirks, their fears. Give us more than one in your character’s first scene. Then track that character throughout the story — do we get a chance to see other elements of this character’s world?

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Day 8: Weed Back Your Metaphors

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This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

When we’re writing the first draft of a story, the ideas that are blooming in our heads can feel like a branching tree. We might begin with one basic metaphorical thread, or one emotional storyline; but pretty soon that idea is branching off into other sub-categories and ideas. And before you know it, that idea is branching into more, and more, and more. Soon the simple, straightforward idea you had about a girl having a day out with her grandfather has become an unwieldy beast of ideas and plots. We could think about metaphor’s of the grandfather’s aging and mortality; or we could have scenes that illustrate the girl’s naivete and his worldly-wise experience; or maybe he’s a parent surrogate for her because she has lost her own parents. Maybe all of these things are true. But for an effective short story, I think we need to be focused, lean, and mean when it comes not only to plotting, but to our ideas as well.

The exercise today is to do some metaphorical weed-whacking. Take a good look through the story and ask yourself a few key questions:

What is the kernel of the story?
What scenes are not serving the kernel of the story?
What scene brings the kernel of the story to the forefront?

I often ask my students what they think the kernel of a story is; by that I mean I’m looking for the knot or problem that is deep down at the center of the story. Stories can be about many things, but there should always be one thing that feels like the story’s beating heart. Is this story really about the mother, or the father? Is it about their relationship, or is it about the child torn between them? Is it about drugs, or money, or power? Is it about belief and faith, or is it about the afterlife and the supernatural? We as readers need to feel that there’s something at the center, some problem that trumps all the others.

Once you think you’ve found what the kernel of the story is, do some weeding. Think about scenes that aren’t serving that kernel: are they really, truly, necessary? Put them on notice. They are officially guilty until proven innocent.

If you’re unsure how to find what is at the kernel, don’t be tempted just to pick what originally gave you the idea to write. Sometimes we write ourselves into whole new realms just by following our pens, and the original impetus for the story is now irrelevant. Instead, ask yourself what would fundamentally alter the story if you removed it. If we didn’t know the mother was going through a divorce, would it still be the same story? That’s not the kernel.

Editing Challenge Day 7: Make a Choice

The Blairzone - 31This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

 

Life can be seen, to paraphrase Borges, as a garden of forking paths. Your story can be seen that way too: so much of the stories we write are about roads not taken, or looking back at alternate paths with regret or nostalgia or simple curiosity. Life is a series of choices: this way and that way and this one and that one. So why don’t our stories reflect this tangled web of choice?

Today we’re examining the role that choice plays in stories. Ultimately, for a story to feel like a story and not just an anecdote, a sketch, a vignette, a scene, or an observation, it must contain some element of choice. There must be a crux, a point after which the world will never be the same again for your character.

In your editing journal, try to summarize what choice your character must make in the story. It’s got to be something that the story hinges on. It must act as a fulcrum, or pivot point for the story. And certainly, the choice your character makes might be to do nothing; that, too, is a choice.

If you’re having trouble articulating what that choice is, that’s already a helpful thing to notice. It might be time to clarify a choice, or make a bigger choice as part of the story. If you can articulate it, then start looking back into the scenes leading up to that choice. It shouldn’t suddenly appear as a fork in the road at the climax; all along we should see a steady build toward that choice. Does your story do that?

If the choice is a little weak, brainstorm in your journal a few different ways to make your character forced into a choice. Instead of discovering his friend’s affair at the same time as everyone else, have him learn about it early and have to decide whether to spill the beans.  Instead of assuming that your character will do the right thing in a situation — return the lost money, tell the authorities about the crime, refuse the bribe — make this a more difficult decision. Flirt with the disaster the wrong choice could bring.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 6: Find Your Entry Point

The Blairzone - 23This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

 

Think of your story as a river. Just like life, just like time, it’s continually flowing by us; the lives of your characters, unless you’re going for some epic David Copperfield-type deal, began some point before your story. You can choose to step into the river at any point; as a writer, you have that freedom. And just because you stepped in somewhere in your first draft doesn’t mean that’s the best place to have stepped in.

Writers often talk about the entry point of their stories. Where do we choose to begin? With puberty? With that morning in the character’s mid-forties when the long-lost son knocks on the door? With any old regular day? The important thing to remember is that entry point, like the myriad other elements of a story, is a deliberate choice, and will set the story’s framing and timeline.

Too many student stories that I read seem to begin arbitrarily, not choosing their entry point deliberately. The stories begin with a character waking up and having a typical day. It’s only sometime in the afternoon, or maybe a week later, that we see the story again. In workshop, I try to raise the question of entry point. Why does the story have to begin now? I ask. Because the story’s beginning must feel imperative. It must feel like no other point will do. It must feel like the story had such a need to be told that at this very point, the water of the river overflowed its banks.

The assignment:

In your editing journal today, summarize the point at which your story begins. Then write down the question I always ask my students, riffing on the question asked at Passover tables: Why is this night not like any other night? What is so world-changing about this day that makes it the right day, the right time, to begin the story?

Look for symptoms of wrong-timeitis:

Perhaps you begin at a certain point, but then you have to spend the next page and a half quickly getting us up to speed with the traumatic event that happened to your character last year. You’ll either have to do this in flashback or backstory. But if that’s the case, why not begin with that point? Why have the most dramatic elements of your story told in a hurried aside?

Try an experiment:

Take down a few notes, imagining if the story began at a different point. What if you began forty years ago, or forty years in the future? What if you began the day before the murder instead of the day after? What would happen if you dipped into a character’s life just as she was meeting her future husband, instead of beginning with the unhappy divorce?

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 5: Establishing the Problem

editingchallengeThis is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

When I look at published short stories in my favorite literary magazines, I can’t help noticing something that student work, even very good student work, is often lacking. Let’s look at a few examples of first sentences of stories I love:

“My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs anymore.” – Grace Paley, A Conversation with My Father

“Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up.” – Seth Fried, Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre

“I don’t know what to do about my husband’s new wife.” – Molly Giles, Pie Dance

“My wife came home crying from the Dumpsters, said there was some pervert over there jerked down his pants and showed her his schlong.” – Larry Brown, Waiting for the Ladies

What do you notice? These sentences are all winning in their own ways; they’re different in style and perspective and voice. But what they all have in common is that they are inherently problem statements. In the very first or second sentences of these stories, writers are identifying central problems in their tales. They are establishing the problem that characters will be worrying over like bad teeth for the rest of the story. In Grace Paley’s story, we see an aging father with a bad heart; in Seth Fried, we have a mysterious but vivid problem of violence; in Molly Giles, we see an odd little turn of phrase that makes us curious about the marital conflict; and in Larry Brown, we see an inherently conflict-ridden situation, with a flasher threatening the character’s wife.

It seems so simple and easy to do now that I’m pointing it out, right? But if we look back at our own first drafts, I bet we’ll be missing that immediate sense of problem. We might have a vivid opening line, but does it leap right into the problem that is going to be worked on for the rest of the story?

Today’s editing challenge is about more than just tweaking that first line. It’s about the big picture of framing your story in the context of problems. What is the fundamental problem your character is wrestling with? Is it quickly evident, and does it drive the momentum of the story? Does that problem drop away for a few pages? In your editing journal, make a note of every page that doesn’t make explicit mention of the problem that first set the story in motion. You might notice that your story’s true problem doesn’t really emerge until page three or four. There are stories that can make this work, but in that case we need another problem to hold our attention, a kind of bait and switch that occurs. This is somewhat true in the Larry Brown example above; we think the story is a more-or-less straightforward problem about the flasher, but after a few pages we realize it is about the narrator’s own insecurities and struggles with his masculinity. Think about ways to introduce that problem back into a conversation or scene. Keep the flame on under the pot so that the water is constantly burbling.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 4: Imagining the Story Arc

risingactiongraphThis is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

All right, we’re ready to actually enter the world of editing, now that we have the right attitude. (What is the attitude? It’s the calm confidence that others need to edit too, and that editing is part of the process). So where do we begin? What’s the first step?

If you’ve got a short story whose first draft is tentatively completed, it can feel like you’re holding a piece of Swiss cheese. There’s a structure there, but it’s full of holes. When I complete a first draft, I’m often already aware of some missing pieces, whether it’s scenes or much-needed character development, but I think it’s important to push through to the end and follow the story’s momentum. So just look away from those Swiss cheese bits; for now, we’re going to tackle the overall story arc.

Remember, you are not bound irrevocably to the story arc as you originally envisioned it. Maybe you knew the story had to end with a character getting on a train and choosing to end her marriage. That was what you needed to know to finish your first draft — but now that you’ve gotten there, is it really the right choice for the story?

Have you printed out a copy of your story? Some of my fellow writers print the story two-up to a page so they can visualize the entire thing even more easily; today, we really are thinking about the big picture, and you need to be able to hold the whole story’s trajectory in your head. Take a moment and jot down the big three or four plot points on the top of the first page in colored marker or pen. Keep it as simple as you can: if you find yourself needing more than four or five points, or needing to explain why one plot point follows from another, than the story is already too complex. That’s a good thing to notice.

Ask yourself if the first plot point is really a plot point. I see this as a common mistake in a lot of story drafts; we save the actions and choices for the second half of the story, and the first half is more or less buildup or background. We need the story to have a balanced plot, moving and changing and growing throughout. Think of your story’s plot as a seesaw. Is the seesaw heavily tilted in one direction or another? If so, jot down some notes about events that could or should happen in the beginning, or earlier on.

Ask yourself if there is a climax. Does the character make a choice that changes the trajectory of the story? Great! If not, think about why that might be. Does your character only have things happening to him or her? Is the character only passively observing someone else’s life?

In a notebook or text file that you are keeping specifically for this editing project, jot down some notes about actions that could be added to the story. Instead of having the character just at work for a while, have the action move up earlier in the story. Instead of just letting the bad thing happen, have your character make an effort to stop it.

Good work, editors. Next time, we’ll delve deeper into plot choices.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 3: Print and Highlight

The Blairzone - 39-1This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

 

Today’s task for the editing challenge might sound simple, but it’s stunning to me how many people have lost touch with editing their writing in this way. We’re going to go old-school today and treat our stories the way legendary writers and editors of the past, from Hemingway to Gordon Lish, would have treated them.

It starts with a simple instruction: print it out.

Yes, it’s so simple! But the ease and convenience of word processing software can actually be a hindrance when it comes to the editing process. It’s so easy to move a paragraph here and shuffle a sentence there — so easy to delete a sentence with a click — that we can lose sight of what the original story looked like, and what shape it ought to take. We can skim easily over lackluster sentences and allow them to continue existing.

So today, print out your story. You might want to use a two-up to a page printing system; this allows to take in even more of the story on a single page. But reading glasses for the nearsighted (like me) will be required for this technique.

Now that you’ve printed it out, it’s time to have fun with highlighters. We’re going to get a thorough understanding of the components of your story. So break out at least three or four colors of highlighter and spread the story’s pages on your desk.

In your first pass, highlight all the passages of exposition or backstory.

In your next pass, highlight all the passages of dialogue.

In your next pass, highlight all the passive description.

In your next pass, highlight all the action.

If all went well, you should now have a story that looks like a rainbow, with parts of backstory bumping up against dialogue and description and so on. This is a great way to get a visual sense of what your story is made up of. And very simply on this level, do you see patterns emerging? Do you see now how the first two pages are all backstory before we ever get the first action sequence, or perhaps in the middle is a three-page section of back-and-forth dialogue? Is one component entirely missing? Is the balance of the story heavily weighted toward one kind of writing and not others?

This isn’t an immediate prescription; some stories might be entirely dialogue or entirely exposition and they can make it work. But you’ll never know how to improve your story until you start noticing what is at work in it. Looking at your story in this zoomed-out way can help us see the forest that contains the trees. And being armed with this knowledge will be tremendously helpful as we embark on the real shaping in future days.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 2: Make an Editing Journal

The Blairzone - 22This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

It’s time to kick our editing journey into high gear, writers. And that means starting with some hard, concrete plans for editing your story this month. Let’s try to begin with organization and purpose. So today, the goal is to set up an editing journal.

This can be part of your existing note-jotting journal, or your daily thoughts journal; it just shouldn’t overlap with the place where you write your stories. This journal’s pages should be set up for a place of organization, creativity, and thoughtful dissection.

First, choose the story or two that you’d really like to focus on for the 30-day challenge. Then Start a fresh page in your editing journal. Date it and title it and then in note form, give a rough overview of the story you’re re-visiting. Don’t just start describing the setting or characters; instead, put a big giant problem statement at the top. Then, in note form, try filling out a few of these lines:

PROBLEM:

MAIN CHARACTER:

SIDE CHARACTERS:

SETTING/TIME:

INCITING INCIDENT:

OBSTACLES:

If you haven’t heard the term “inciting incident” before, it’s the thing that gets the story in motion. It’s not the big problem driving the whole story; it’s merely the action that starts the wheels turning. A stranger knocks on the door or a surprising letter arrives in the mail; a person forgets his umbrella on a rainy day or a wife asks for a divorce. What starts the story moving?

We’ll re-visit all of these elements of story in future days of the 30-day challenge, but it’s crucial for now to establish a place where you can think freely about your story with the mindset of an editor instead of that of a writer. We need a scratchpad for these thoughts. As you embark on the 30-day challenge, try taking notes on each new assignment on a new page of the journal. When you reach the end, you’ll have a deeply-realized portrait of the mechanisms at work in your story. And that will give you the freedom to play with it.

One of the principle challenges of editing a story, and even more so with a novel, is the challenge of holding the entire thing in your head simultaneously, understanding movements and shifts in one visual sphere. Taking notes in this way will help you contain your story in a framework. It’s a valuable tool for changing the way you visualize your writing.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.