This past weekend was mega busy, and oh so fun. I volunteered at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, and worked my butt off for them. In exchange, I got to pseudo-attend the conference.
I went to a masterclass, panels, and talks, and met some amazing people. I’m going to do several posts on SiWC, because trying to fit it all in to a single post would be madness. Just like trying to fit a whole year’s worth of writerly-networking and craft-discussion into a single weekend.
So! Before I give out my notes from the Power Editing Masterclass, do go check out Robert Dugoni. He was an excellent speaker, and in addition to giving me some things to think about, he managed to sell me on checking out his books. (You can also have your chance to check out his books, courtesy of me! Check out my note at the end of this post about winning his book!)
Please note that this is a mix of Robert Dugoni’s talk and my own opinions. I made bare-bones notes, enough to trigger thought processes in my own mind, so what you’re about to read is a mishmash of his teachings and my experiences. It ended up being more about story structure than editing, but it’s all relevant.
Also note that these are notes from a masterclass– this is not day 1 writing. I’m not going to explain some of these terms. You can look them up! 🙂 It’s still pretty approachable.
My brain had a little trouble right off the get go. He mentioned that he’d done 14 drafts of one of his novels. FOURTEEN DRAFTS. This was one of those wonderful (read: terrifying) moments when I wondered “Am I doing it wrong?”
I knew some writers (myself not among them) wrote many drafts. But FOURTEEN! I tend to write one novel, re-write certain sections of it, and edit the crap out of it. But I also outline beforehand… People that write a lot of drafts tend to be pantsers (they write by the seat of their pants, without much outlining). If you plan it out, you know where it’s going, and thus don’t need to rewrite the darn thing so many times.
Once I got over that little factoid, I got right into:
Where the author intrudes on the story.
Inserting your opinion into the work will bring the reader out of it. Your opinion can come in the form of narrative judgement or even in the opinions of your characters. This is difficult, because characters need to have opinions; convincing the reader that it makes sense in the context of the character is imperative if they’re to believe that it’s not yours.
2) Info Dumps
Insert information into conversations, naturally, so it’s not just unrelated information. Sure it’s great to do your research, but you’ve got to get it into the story in a way that doesn’t jar the reader out and scream “LOOK AT ALL THE RESEARCH I DID”.
No one introduces themselves and gives their life story. Give characters information over time, naturally. And don’t give information on characters that don’t matter or that we’ll never see again.
Flashbacks are tricky. Chronology works well to help story structure, and when you mess with it, things are bound to get ugly.
Basically, get your info across through your dialogue.
Appeal to core motivations: fear, love, wrath, envy, lust, greed- if it’s a deadly sin, you can use it. People will identify with your character motivation if it’s universal.
High stakes: make the story personal to your character.
At the climax (the failure of the quest, followed by the triumph), remind the reader: what is at stake?
What is the physical journey?
What is their motivation?
What is the public stake?
What happens in the world, for other people, as a result of the quest?
What is the personal stake?
What happens to our character, personally, as a result of the quest?
But I’m way ahead of myself. Let’s talk about
Do 5 things in the beginning.
1) Set the tone.
The reader should get a good feel for how the rest of the book is going to go. What kind of story are you telling? Is it funny? Grave? Who is telling it? Let them know what they’re in for within the first few pages.
2) Introduce the protagonist.
Who’s quest is this? Who are we rooting for? We need to know this right off the bat.
3) Create empathy for your characters.
We want to identify with characters. As writers, we need to give our audience reasons to like our protagonist, to want to go on a journey with them.
4) Hook the reader.
Get ’em invested. You need to communicate that this story is worth their time, and you do that by hooking them with the most exciting, most pertinent part of the story. Why are you telling this particular one? Why should the reader care? Get them interested.
5) The first sentence poses a question, and early on, a story worthy quest is set up.
The following five questions can be used to describe any story.
What stands in the way of their goal?
Let’s try it out.
Alan Grant is a palaeontologist who is invited to Isla Neblar to vet a new dinosaur theme park. But when the attractions break free from their enclosures, he must help the others on the island traverse the facility and escape from the once extinct predators.
Who? Alan Grant. What is he? A palaeontologist. “But when”? Got it. And of course, the dinosaurs are in the way of his escape. Easy! You can boil down any movie or book into these five points and get the basics of the story across. It’s what makes or breaks elevator pitches as well.
We are at the end of the first page of my notes. Good job! Have a silly picture to give your noodle a break.
Ok, let’s get back to it.
1) Senses: appeal to them all to set the scene. Put your reader there.
2) Goal: ever present. Each scene is about realizing the goal, or about revealing character.
3) Obstacles: Escalating. Each one reveals a new character trait; don’t show your character overcoming the same kind of obstacle over and over, challenge them in different ways each time.
4) Conflict. Always conflict.
5) The final words of a chapter raise a question to keep the story moving, keep the pages turning.
On to The Middle.
The middle= the crossing of the threshold —> the climax.
Here is where we find out
1) Whose story is it?
2) What’s the through line of your characters?
3) How are they to achieve their goal?
4) Who helps them achieve it?
5) Who hinders them?
Which brings us to
You must fulfil the promise, the promise you made the reader at the beginning (a story worthy quest, a character they want to follow).
The end must be completely inevitable, but unexpected.
The end must be satisfying.
The end has one more big obstacle.
Let’s talk about twists:
A twist is either an escalation, or a revelation. A twist is inevitable, yet unexpected.
There can be a twist of:
Character (like in the Wizard of Oz, the twist with ‘the wizard’)
Awareness (like in Planet of the Apes, when he realizes where he is)
Complexity (like in The Game, how everything was much more complex than anyone in the story or the audience realized)
Cleverness (like basically all of Sherlock)
Danger- the peril isn’t what we/they thought it was, it’s much, much worse, or different.
In the end, no new forces may be introduced, and no new characters.
When you’ve got all that (you did get all that, right?), then:
Go through scene by scene. Ask yourself, do you need it? Does it a) move the story forward or b) reveal character?
Raise a question with the first sentence of every scene. We spend so much time on our first sentence, our first page; make every start of a scene that important.
If it can be presumed, it can be cut. You don’t need a whole ton of description for mundane things. He picked up the cup of water and took a sip. No! He took a sip of water. There’s tons of actions that just don’t matter- cut them.
Readers’ emotions mirror the characters’ emotions. If the protagonist cares, the reader will care.
Describing clothes: let details be revealed in motion. Movement/action= active.
Her hair was red, her eyes were green. No no no!
Her red curls bounced behind her as she ran into the room; her green eyes darted from the gun on the floor to the knife in Robert’s hand.
And now one of those points that gets made that blows your mind (at least, it blew my mind, particularly because it has effected me and I didn’t realize it):
Secondary characters can be more interesting because main characters are too much like us. My first novel’s protagonist IS too much like me. And who did I pick to follow for the second book in that series? A much more intriguing secondary character.
My notebook has a word that stretches the entire width of the page after that note…
Looking at character development: just one step up the ladder is enough.
1) The character cares only about themself.
2) The character cares about 1 other.
3) The character cares about a group.
4) The character cares about a community.
5) The character cares about all.
You can have character growth that doesn’t involve them becoming a saint. Just one step up in this little hierarchy is enough to show development.
You did it! You got to the end! That’s it for that class. It’s all over the place, I know… Hope you found it useful. I sure did.
Or if you were more like
then I thank you for stopping by nonetheless. Sorry for the technical post; I hope other writers find it helpful!
And now dear readers, I offer you a chance to win a book! The first book in Robert Dugoni’s David Sloane series, The Jury Master, could be yours! Just leave a comment below, or head to Reddit and comment in this thread in /r/books. If you do both, I will count you in for two entries! I will draw one person at random in one week (on Wednesday, November 6th), and I will contact you for your details. And then you will have the first book in this thrilling series!
I will congratulate the winner in next week’s post. And if you don’t win this time, I’m planning on doing more of these, so you’ll have more chances with other great books. 🙂
Next up: Surrey International Writers’ Conference Idol: Crushing Hopes and Dreams in front of Hundreds of People for Fun and Profit! (j/k it was actually really useful, interesting, and fun!).
Thanks for reading.