The Inner Dialogue: A Method for Figuring Out Your Stories

So if you didn’t hear, a novel I’ve been working on since college is getting published, and I’ve been working with a professional editor to make sure that the story is the best it can be before publication. During the revision process, we agreed that the number of flashbacks in the story were actually getting in the way of the story, so I should nix them. Unfortunately, that meant a third of the book went out the window, and another third that relied on that first third had to go as well.

Yeah, that got me depressed for a little while, and it took a lot for me to climb out of that funk. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m actually here to talk about what happened with my story. Because you see, now that essentially the majority of the novel had been chucked out, I had to figure out where to go with the story. I couldn’t go the original direction of the story, because the flashbacks I’d tossed out were so essential to that direction.

Luckily, I was able to come up with a new direction for the story using a method that I’d never used before, which I call the inner dialogue. I can’t remember where I picked this method up,* but it’s stayed in the back of my mind for years, and I figured this was as good a situation as any to use it.

The inner dialogue is where you simulate a conversation with your inner writer (we all have one) when you’re struggling with what to do with a story. This could be trying to overcome writer’s block, figuring out why what a character is doing in the story feels wrong to you, having to rewrite a majority of the story, or any other issue you may be having during the writing/editing process of a story.

Here’s what you have to do:

Get a notebook and pen, or a typewriter and paper, or open up your preferred writing program on your computer. Imagine that you’re sitting down with your inner writer at a cafe, in your favorite writing spot, in a dark basement underneath a seedy dive bar, wherever you feel most comfortable talking to your inner writer. And have an honest conversation with them, writing down what you say and writing down what your inner writer says back. Think of it like texting, only you’re texting with a part of your mind you use for storytelling.

Bounce ideas off them, talk about the criticisms people have with the story, discuss what about the story is bugging you. Something about this method, writing out the problems and some possible situations to remedy this, allows your mind to open up and see new possibilities and solutions.

It might also make people wonder if you’re channeling spirits and doing automatic writing and/or if you’re having some sort of psychological crisis. But I think that’s a risk worth taking for finding what you need to make a story as good as it possibly can be.

Here’s an example conversation of me and my inner writer (who I’ve found to be very sassy during our conversations) discussing a hypothetical book idea I’ve been working on. My dialogue is written normally, while my inner writer uses bold letters:

So we’re doing this again, are we?

Yes, we are. Alright, let’s talk about my idea for a novel I’ve been working on. It centers on a group of cheerleaders.

I’m sure it does, you naughty dog.

Ha ha, very funny. Anyway, we’ve gone over what would happen to them once they arrive at the main setting of the story. But why does it happen? There’s always a catalyst that sets things up. Even if we don’t see it until the end of the story, there’s always something that starts the horror off.

Not always, baby boy. Remember The Haunting of Hill House? That really didn’t have a–no wait, that’s not right. The catalyst was that they entered the house for the investigation, and one of the subjects is mentally still very much a child, which puts her the most at risk to the house’s charms.

Yeah, catalysts in stories can be debatable or hard to pin down sometimes. But what could be a catalyst for this story. Why does this happen to these characters?

You were playing around with the idea of the setting being an illusion, weren’t you? Something created by the characters and the dark secrets in their minds. Can we do anything with that still? Maybe a variation?

You see where this is going, right? But it is very effective. I got ideas for this hypothetical novel just from doing an inner dialogue here in this blog post. And if doing it as a demonstration in this blog post can give me ideas for a novel, imagine what it can do for your work at home.

With that in mind, I just want to leave you with a couple of tips for doing this. You don’t have to use them, but I find them useful:

  • Be honest and write down everything. It may be a lot of work, but you’ll find it helpful to write down everything in these dialogues. Especially if you want to go back and see what you’ve come up with. Any thought, any idea, could prove useful, so write them down, even if your thoughts are kind of weird (mine certainly are).
  • Give your inner writer a voice. Like in your stories, the inner writer is also a character, even if they only exist inside you. That being said, you’ll want to give them a voice, motivations, everything you’d give a normal character. That way, they can speak to you just like any other character, and make the dialogue that much more effective.
    It also helps to give the inner writer’s dialogue some distinguishing characteristic, so it doesn’t get jumbled up with your own. A different font, italics, as long as it helps you differentiate, it’s all good.
  • Mark the dates and times of the dialogues. Often these dialogues can last a while. Mine lasted two weeks while I was trying to find a new direction. So mark the date and times you had these dialogues in the document you’re using. You’ll find it very helpful for later.

Nobody wants to find out a story is flawed or that they can’t figure out how to fix its problems. But there are a variety of methods to overcome these issues. Perhaps the inner dialogue is a good one for you, and will help you write, edit and publish your best work. You just have to sit down, and commit to talking to yourself for a little while. You never know what you’ll unlock.

*For some reason I think it might have something to do with Stephen King, but I think I’d remember if I came across this method in a King novel. If you have any idea where it came from, let me know in the comments. I’d like to give a proper acknowledgement to whoever or wherever I got the inner dialogue.

Slaying Giants

This blog post will contain some Christian references, but it also focuses on writing.

Sunday’s church sermon was on how David killed the giant, Goliath. The visiting pastor talked about how big and tall Goliath was, and how he wore heavy battle armor. This Philistine was intimidating to the Israel people. Who could defeat this menacing giant?

To urge someone to come forward to fight Goliath, King Saul offered one of his daughters to marry and for the family to be exempt from paying taxes. Still no one answered the call until a shepherd boy expressed his interest in 1 Samuel 32-33:

“‘Don’t worry about a thing,’ David told him [Saul]. ‘I’ll take care of this Philistine.’”

“Saul replied. … ‘You’re only a boy and he [Goliath] has been in the army since he was a boy!’”

However, David was not deterred even when he threw off the weighty armor Saul gave him to fight the giant. David would slay Goliath on his own terms.

The odds were against David. But with one swift swirl of his slingshot, the rock hit Goliath on his forehead, and the giant fell dead to the ground.

This reminds me of our own writing battles. We work hard to make our work the best we can do. We edit and edit, research and research for historical accuracy, we promote and promote to secure readers and yet at times we feel just like the Israel people – intimidated and hopeless.

This year I made an oath that I would depend upon God and not worry. There are a few days that hopeless feeling returns once more within me, such as this weekend at a writers’ conference.

It took a couple of hours for me to set up my booth, so I could sell my books during Saturday’s lunch and conference breaks. I had practiced reading from my recent historical, clean and Christian romance, When Hearts Rekindle, wanting to entice those hearing my Friday night reading to visit my book booth on Saturday.

For all my efforts, I sold one book, my first book, Seasons of the Soul, which includes a spattering of personal accounts of my two different autistic sons. It took me time to get over my sinking feeling of all my efforts to result in one sale; however, grateful I am for that sale. But to be honest, I had hoped for more, not a lot, but perhaps three to four sales. At least with that, the $10 booth would have paid for itself.

The next day I shook myself awake from my despair and renewed my commitment to God. As a Christian, I must believe the word of the Lord, “all things are possible to him that believeth.” (Mark 9:23) That does not mean there are not troubling times.

However, overall, each year gets better and so, I say to you, keep trudging along. Do not let your fret overtake you and continue to write, tweak your manuscripts and move forward. You are doing better than when you started. Why? Because you have learned from your past mistakes and so you are more prepared today than you were yesterday. Grab your pencil and paper – or should I say your word program and computer? – and  type and write! God bless.

 

Lengthening Your Story

I know it’s about three months too late to say this, but Happy New Year, everyone!

Now, to the main topic: has anyone ever told you your story, one which you might have worked months on and is already tens of thousands of words long, is good, but needs to be longer? I have: back in my senior year of college, I had written a novel called Rose for my senior thesis. Near the end of my last semester, I met with my thesis advisor to discuss the novel one more time (at that point in its second draft). We talked about a number of qualities with the novel, its strengths and weaknesses, and where I could go with  the next draft. One of the most memorable suggestions? Make it twice as long as it was already.*

At that time, the novel was about forty-thousand words long, so doubling it seemed like an impossible task. However, two years later I did somehow manage to add about that many words, and it actually did help the story. How did I accomplish this feat? Well, here are some of the steps I took to lengthen my story, which might be of some help to you if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

1. Figure out if the story really does need lengthening. Every story, like every person, is unique. And some are meant to be shorter. If your story works at about seven-thousand words, don’t expand it to twenty-five thousand because you feel it won’t do well that short or to fit an anthology’s needs. Instead, think long and hard about whether the story itself would be better if longer. And if you’re not sure, ask for a second or third opinion. It wasn’t just my thesis advisor, but two other early readers from Ohio State who told me to make it longer, so that’s what I did. See if anyone in your writing circle can give you an objective opinion on the story and if it needs to be longer.

If you get a positive on that question, then here are some strategies you can try.

2. Try expanding a scene.  In two instances in Rose, there were parts where the protagonists remembers episodes in her life that had a lasting impact on her. In between the second and third draft, I felt that those scenes should have more happening in them in order to maximize their effectiveness. Sure enough, those scenes were made more powerful by going deeper into them and expanding the action.

And speaking of expanding:

3. Add a new chapter. This one, I’d treat as a sort of last resort. In Rose, it was necessary: I needed to reveal a ton of information to the reader, and couldn’t put that info into a previously-established chapter. A new chapter was necessary. So only write a new chapter if it is absolutely necessary, and if adding the new scenes or information can’t be done in any previous chapter.

4. Go deeper into a character’s character. Some characters might benefit from going deeper into their personalities or histories. Perhaps you can expand on what a character is thinking in a certain situation, showing us what thoughts lead to their actions. Or maybe you’ll want to go into why another character is very passionate about something, and relate it to something in their past. In Needful Things by Stephen King, one character is passionately against gambling. This is partly due to religious reasons, but later it’s revealed his father was an alcoholic gambler who abandoned the character’s family several times due to drinking and gambling debts. It’s an interesting reveal, and added depth to an otherwise stock character as well as a few more words.

5. Add a new character/expand a minor character’s role.  In the first and second drafts of Rose, I mentioned two characters who had a big impact on the antagonist. However, they’re only mentioned by other characters and never actually seen. In the third draft, I not only added scenes featuring these two characters, but created a third character who also had a big impact on the antagonist. Doing so added a new level of depth to the antagonist, which my beta readers loved.

6. Add a new element or two to the story. I did not do this with Rose, but it’s still a legitimate strategy. For example, in 2007 an anime adaptation of Romeo and Juliet aired in Japan and later was released internationally.  It was twenty-four episodes, and part of the reason an anime based on a two-hour play was able to be that long is because they set the anime in a fantasy universe complete with flying horses, a rebel army, and magic trees (I haven’t seen it yet, so I have no idea if that works, but apparently a lot of people like it, so I guess it worked for some people).

You can do something similar with your own stories, though it doesn’t have to be so dramatic as changing the entire setting and genre of the story. What would happen if you added drag racing to your story about lovers from different social classes? Or what if your protagonist is given a disability that they must overcome along with whatever obstacle faces them in the story? The only limits are your imagination, and you can create some interesting new scenarios when you add new elements to the story.

 

Not all stories need to be longer than they already are. But in the event that they need to be, there are several ways to go about doing that. As long as you do it well and it’s not shoehorned in awkwardly, anything you add can only add to the story. Both in word count and in story quality.

What tips do you have for expanding a story? Have you ever had to make a story longer? How did it work out?

*At least, I think that’s what he said. It may have actually been add another ten or twenty thousand words, but I’m pretty sure he said double it. Not that it really matters, in the end.

Editing and re-drafting – a checklist, part one

Check out this great checklist for editing and redrafting at twincreatives.com! If you are like me, you’ll learn a lot from this list that will help you create a better story. Heather covers a lot of problems I find when reading a manuscript — my own and others.


Hi Guys,

Heather here. This week I thought I’d write a blog post detailing some of the things to look out for when re-drafting and editing your novel. I’m currently at this stage in my own novel writing journey and it’s arguably the hardest stage so far – perhaps even worse than the dreaded first draft. I will be referring to this list continuously myself  as I draft, re-draft and hone my novel and I hope it will be just as useful to you. I have split this post into two parts as it would have been a little bit too long to be one! Don’t fret though, part two will be posted soon.

  1. Dialogue tags

    When writing dialogue, keep fancy dialogue tags to a minimum. There is nothing wrong with plain old ‘said’. Changing it up every now and then to add variation and drama is fine, but if your novel reads…

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Dragon Speech-to-Text Software: A Review

Back in December 2016, my boss recommended that I try Dragon, or some other speech-to-text software. I don’t remember how the subject came up (I do remember it was during the office Christmas party, so it probably had something to do with vacation plans and plans for life), but he said that as a writer (something that becomes common knowledge for anyone who gets to know me) it could be helpful with how quickly I write.

Now, I admit at the time I was a little skeptical. I’d heard of programs like that, but I didn’t know much about them, and I can be a little wary when it comes to new technologies. But over the next month or so, I heard from several writer friends who had used Dragon, either because they wanted to try it and see if it works, or because various medical conditions or health issues prevented them from actually typing their stories and blog posts. So, with a lot of gift card money, I ordered Dragon from Amazon and decided to see if it could help.

After a few hiccups in getting set up (turns out my laptop needed to upgrade its audio equipment, and I kind of forgot to register my copy of the software on Dragon’s website before starting out), I started testing it out. And it actually works very well.

The way Dragon works is that once you download the program onto whatever computer you use to write, you boot up the program and turn the microphone settings on, signaling to Dragon that you want to record what you’re saying. Dragon picks up what you’re saying either through the computer’s built in microphone or through a microphone headset that comes with the software (I prefer using my computer’s microphone, but that’s just me). Dragon will then record what you are saying to it into a Dictation Box (usually pops up when I’m using Dragon to write a blog post, like this one), into a tool known as the DragonPad, which functions similar to Notepad programs, or onto Microsoft Word, whichever you prefer.

Dragon also takes commands. For example, if you usually use italics to emphasize a character’s thoughts, you merely have to say, “Italicize this word through that word,” and those words will be italicized. Dragon comes with tutorial programs to teach you the basic commands and how to use them when writing, and there are plenty of videos online showing you how to use the program if you need more help.

I spent the first couple of sessions with Dragon just learning how to use it. It takes a few sessions for the program to get used to your voice, which is why I highly recommend you use it in a space where the only noise will be from you. Background music from a stereo, noisy kids, or any other distractions may confuse Dragon, especially during the first couple of sessions. But Dragon does get used to your voice eventually, and with more practice, it has an easier time transcribing your words as you want them to be transcribed.

Not only that, but you can actually teach the program new words. Usually when you boot up the program, it will ask if there are documents or emails they can use to learn your speech patterns or any particular words you use a lot that aren’t in a standard dictionary. This is very handy if you tend to write fantasy or science fiction. I was able to take the outline for the final book of my science fiction trilogy, and use this option to teach the program certain words in the story, including a few character names that probably won’t make the list of popular baby names in the United States. It’s a very handy feature.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems with Dragon. It will still mishear words and commands you’re telling it. I often find myself having to go back and make some corrections, like when Dragon hears the word “them” as “him” and vice versa. It also sometimes lists numbers as numbers instead of words, and unless you configure it so that it always does numbers as words, it can get a little annoying.

Still, I find Dragon very helpful. I still type some parts, especially with words that Dragon doesn’t know or when I make corrections. But for the most part, I’m now speaking my stories, and my stories are being written faster. What used to take a couple of hours to write can now take as little as half an hour to an hour. A chapter that took two to three weeks to write now takes three to four days. I speak my story, making corrections as I go, and it unfolds before me. All in all, I would recommend at least trying it out.

Now I know that this isn’t for everybody. Some of us just love to type or write in spiral-bound notebooks. But for those of you who are interested, here are some tips I’ve gleaned from using Dragon. Please be aware that I’m still new to all this is well, so if you have a tip and you don’t see it here, please leave it in a comment below.

  1. Think about what you’re going to say before you say it. You don’t have to have the entire story in your head before sitting down to write (or speak), have a general idea. The more you plan, the less you find yourself stumbling over your words or taking long pauses to figure out what you should say.
  2. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t sound like an audiobook narrator. Audiobook narrators are generally paid actors who are provided a script ahead of time. They’ve read over and review the material and practice plenty of times before they go into the recording booth, and even then, they make mistakes which are corrected in future takes. When using Dragon, you’re basically putting down the first draft. So if you make a mistake, or you don’t sound like William Defoe narrating Stephen King, don’t be discouraged. It’s a first draft, so mistakes are okay.
  3. Find a quiet place to write. Like I said, noisy spaces interfere with Dragon picking up your words. I heard from one woman who said that when she played music on her radio while writing, Dragon sometimes picked up what the radio was saying instead of what she was saying.
    If you would still like to listen to something while you write, you can put in your headphones and narrate while iTunes or YouTube or whatever program you use place your favorite tunes. Dragon will actually quiet the music you’re listening to while you write so that it seems more like it’s in the background rather than blasting into your ears.
  4. Don’t expect to master Dragon all in a single session. Like I said, I’m still learning how to use it, and I’ve had it for about a month or two. Like any craft or any tool, it takes a lot of practice to get very good at it. Don’t sweat the mistakes.
  5. Have a glass of water nearby. This may just be my thing, but narrating my stories makes me thirsty. If it’s also your thing, then definitely have something to drink nearby.
  6. Use those learning tools. Even if you don’t write science fiction or fantasy, those tools are quite handy for any writer. Perhaps you write a story with a lot of Polish characters with those long Polish last names. Or the French language shows up a lot in a short stories set in Paris. Or use an expression or slang term particular to a certain area and it’s not well-known outside of that area. It’s times like these when the word-learning tools are helpful.
  7. When using Dragon for a blog post, go over it before publishing. Like I said, the program does make mistakes on occasion, so if you’re used to writing a blog post and then publishing it straight away, DON’T!!! Check over it first to make sure Dragon didn’t mishear “won’t make” as “don’t take” and then you can publish. Trust me, it’ll avoid all sorts of problems

If you are interested in trying Dragon, you can get it direct from the manufacturer, Nuance Communications, or from Amazon like I did. And it might also be available at Best Buy or other electronic retailers, though I don’t know that for sure. If you’re getting it for home, make sure you’re buying the home version when you check out. And please, make sure your audio software is up-to-date, and that you register your software on Dragon’s website before downloading the program.

If you have Dragon, what is been your experience with it?

What tips do you have for using Dragon?

Reestablishing a Writing Routine

We go through great changes in our lives. It’s frankly inevitable. In fact, I remember someone telling me once in high school that in a twenty-five year period, it was likely that we would change our city/town, home, job, education status, socioeconomic status, political party, religion, and/or a whole bunch of other stuff. And when that happens, writing routines established over time and perhaps uninterrupted for years, are suddenly thrown out the window. And then where are you?

A couple of months ago, I moved into a new apartment so I could start a new job after a job search that lasted several months. Now, prior to this move, I would’ve said to anyone who asked that I didn’t really have a writing routine, that I just wrote wherever I could. Well, that is kind of true, because I do tend to write whenever I can if it’s convenient for me. But after the move, I did realize I had a routine of sorts established, and that routine no longer existed.

You see, while I was job-hunting, I lived with my dad, and in the evenings, I would settle down on the couch downstairs in the living room and write or edit while I watched whatever show I liked was playing that evening (you can get a lot written during commercial breaks). This routine lasted from late October 2015 to the end of May 2016. And my God, did it work! I edited the same novel twice and wrote more than a few short stories and blog posts that way during the job search, and it kept me sane while I looked for employment.

However, after I got employed and I moved for work, a lot changed for me. Yeah, I had increased independence, a nice location near work with a grocery store, a Target, and a library very close to where I live, and the chance to be as eccentric as I wanted within the confines of my own home without anyone judging me. But I also did not have a cable package, a TV, or a couch (though that’ll change soon with one of those). So suddenly the routine I had, which I’d been using for months and which I’d been comfortable with, was about as useful as an alchemy textbook at football practice.

For a while, I tried just writing or editing as much as I could when I sat down in front of the computer. Sadly, that worked horribly. I was moving at a snail’s pace, getting through only a couple of pages a week. A chapter could take up a whole month! With work getting busier and busier for me, I was starting to worry if I’d ever get back to the level of productivity I enjoyed prior to the move and in college.

But then a friend of mine gave me a recommendation that I found very useful. She had recently joined a group on Facebook where members sign up each month to try and write 250 words a day, and it had helped her get back into a routine of writing fiction after a pretty lengthy hiatus. That got me thinking: I can’t write every day, some days there just isn’t enough time. But what if I just tried to write 250 words every time I sat down in front of the computer? It couldn’t hurt to try.

To my utter delight, it worked like a charm. The first time, I ended up writing a little over the minimum 250. The next time, I ended up writing over 700 words! And the third, I managed to get out over thirteen-hundred words! It was amazing. Somewhere between words 150 and 250, a switch would flip and the story would just start flowing out of me like a river. In this way, I managed to get out the outline for my NaNoWriMo project in about a week or so.

Once that experiment had proven successful, I wondered if I could do the something similar with editing. It would have to be slightly different though, because editing is editing. Sometimes all you have to do work on is changing a word or a punctuation mark, and word count doesn’t change that much, but sometimes you rewrite whole sections and the word count changes dramatically. I ended up going with editing at least three pages per session, and that worked as well. After I rewrote the beginning of a short story I’d been working on and off with for over a year, I managed to finish editing the rest within a week (it helped that on the last night I worked on it, I was doing everything I could to avoid the presidential debates and I only had twelve pages to go!). Clearly this new routine I’d been working with was doing its job.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to adopt this routine if your old routine becomes impossible to do, but I am saying you shouldn’t just throw yourself into work and expect magic to happen. That didn’t work for me, and I’m not so sure it’ll work for you. Instead, take baby steps. Try writing a little a day until you find something that works for you and you’re at a level of productivity that works for you. If you do that, then I think that whatever life throws your way, you’ll be able to get back into the swing of storytelling with little to no trouble.

Have you ever had to change your writing routine? What did you do and how did it work out?

So You Want to Publish a Book (Post 1): Is Your Book Ready to be Published?

Over the last two months, a couple people have asked me the same thing:  “I wrote a book.  Now what do I do?”  To answer each person separately would take a lot of time, and given that I was in the process of moving, I didn’t have time to sit down and write a series of blog posts to address this question.

Today, I’ll start the series.  That way when I get this question again, I can provide people with a series of links to help address the issue.  This is intended for people who have never published a book.

ID 37475863 © Iqoncept | Dreamstime.com
ID 37475863 © Iqoncept | Dreamstime.com

The first thing you need to consider is this: is your book ready to be published?

Self-publishing and even traditional publishing isn’t what it once was.  Regardless of the way you choose to  publish, you need to have a product that is worth publishing.  The bar has been raised on what you can publish.  With writers fine tuning their skills and taking editing seriously, you need to make sure your book is on par with theirs.

If you want to land a book deal with a publishing house, you will need a polished version to hand in to the acquisitions editor.  If you want to publish it yourself, the savvy self-published authors are seeking to have their books compete with the publishers, meaning they want their books to look like it came from a publishing house.  This is about putting a professional step forward.

So before you decide to publish, you need to consider two main things: editing and the storytelling craft.

So don’t skimp on the edits.

This doesn’t mean you spend years editing.  That’s too long.  But I would say a month or two of working through edits is minimum.  You don’t want to make the process so long you never get anything published, but you also don’t want to rush through it.  The best technique is to pace yourself.  I edit 1-2 chapters a day.  That way my mind is fresh when I get to it, and I don’t have time to get exhausted.  I also use a system of checks and balances where I have two to three others go over my book.  After taking in all the edits and making all the changes, I recommend a final read through.

I know in this instant gratification world we live in where things are usually given to us as soon as we want it, it’s easy to get impatient and want the book up today.  But taking the extra time to edit will be worth it.

Do you have a compelling story?

This is a harder one to pin down and explain since the definition of what makes for a compelling read varies from person to person.  But let’s just put it this way: are you so engrossed in your own book you get lost in it?  Or do you find yourself skimming?  If you’re skimming, chances are those parts are slowing your book down.  A compelling story is one in which you want to read everything.  It doesn’t have fillers that get glossed over.

The average reader will forgive an occasional typo, but they won’t forgive a story that bores them.

***

Until you have the two things above settled, you can’t move forward.  But for the sake of this blog, we’ll say you have a compelling and properly edited story.   That would bring me to my next post which I’ll put up next week.  In it, I’ll discuss whether finding a publisher or self-publishing is the best fit for you because there is no one-size-fits-all approach in this business.

 

Avoiding the Info-Dump

I graduated from college back in May after a very busy senior year, during which I was fortunate enough to not only do a senior thesis, but to do a novel that I really wanted to write as a senior thesis and get excellent feedback from my advisor and a fellow senior. Around April my advisor, a creative writing professor with quite a few books published, my second reader, a favorite teacher of mine who was as much a nerd and an even bigger science-fiction enthusiast than I am, and I met for my thesis discussion, where we’d go over the progress of my novel and where I would go for the third draft once I got around to that.

While they generally liked my story, which is titled Rose, they had a number of very good suggestions on ways to make it better. One of the suggestions, and something that I hadn’t even considered, was that a lot of the information received about my antagonist came in three big bursts over the course of the story. They suggested that maybe I should space out when such information was given, and maybe vary my sources. In fact, they pointed out that one character seemed to be there only just to dole out information about the antagonist. He didn’t really serve any purpose beyond that.

This stunned me. And you know what else? I realized they were right. I was doing a lot of info-dumping in this story, and that it was actually working against the story I was trying to tell. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to avoid info-dumping in this and future stories, and I thought I’d share some of those tips with you.

But first, what exactly is an info-dump? It’s when a huge amount of information is deposited in a single place. In fiction, it’s like exposition, only it’s too much exposition. Think of it like this: if any of you watch Once Upon a Time, you know that flashbacks are a big part of the show and that the writers take care to reveal new facts over time, peeling away layers so that there’s always a bit of mystery left in the characters you think you know very well. Now imagine in one episode they took all the backstory of a single character and reveal it all at once? That’s so much information, it’d make for a five-hundred page biography! And all in the course of forty-two minutes. You’d be overwhelmed. That there is an info-dump, and it’s something writers should take pains to avoid.

So how do you avoid the info-dump?

The key is to space out the information you reveal. Don’t reveal everything about a character, a place, or an object all at once. Instead make sure it happens gradually, over a long period of time, and between reveals make sure there’s time for the characters to do other stuff and for the reader to focus their attention on other aspects of the story. After all, between flashbacks on Once Upon a Time, there’s still evil witches or monsters or manipulative adolescents to deal with.

Another good tip is to make the information come from multiple sources. Look at Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. How do we find out about him, who he is, where he came from and what he did? Well, we find all that out over time, but we also find out about him from many different sources. We first learn his name and the night he disappeared from Hagrid in the first book. We later find out what happened to him after his defeat from the villain himself at the book’s climax. In the second book we find out about his life as Tom Riddle and a hint at his political views from the piece of his soul in the diary, in the fourth book we find out how he came back to power when he tells it to his followers, in the fifth book we find out about the prophecy from Dumbledore, and our information is completed when we find about him from the flashbacks Dumbledore provides us in the sixth book.

But how do you decide when information is to be revealed? Well, that’s for you as the author to decide, but info should come when it fits or works for the story. Back to Harry Potter for a second. There’s obviously a lot of information about the Wizarding World. So much, that not all of it was revealed in the books and JK Rowling is still giving out snippets of information to us through a variety of sources. Wisely, she only gave out information when it was relevant. Would it have really have helped us, the reader, to know about goblins’ attitudes towards wizards keeping their works in the first book? It would’ve been interesting to know, but it wouldn’t have mattered much to the story at that point. And while we wondered if Hogwarts was the only school for magic in the world, the existence of other schools was only revealed in Book 4 because other schools were a big part of the story. In a similar, you should only reveal information when it’s relevant to the story you’re telling.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially in terms of characters, is we should already feel we know and have an opinion about someone or something before the information is revealed. In one of my favorite anime, Code Geass, we get to know one of the main characters early on, not through the info given to us about his past, but by his personality and actions. We get to know that he is kind, selfless, and will gladly put his life on the line for others, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. It isn’t until halfway through the first season that we find out the incident in his childhood that made him this way, but by that time we already have a very positive and sympathetic view of this character and the info reveal does surprise us, but doesn’t color our opinion of the character as much as it would’ve if we’d learned that piece of information at the very beginning of the series.

Another great example is Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery. Early on we don’t know much about Annie besides what she chooses to reveal, and we can’t even rely on that. Why should we? She’s nuts! She’s violent, obsessive, and can switch from sweet to scary at the drop of a hat. By the time we find her scrapbook later in the book, we already know her and how we feel about her. The info in the scrapbook is certainly revealing, but it only adds to our dislike of the character. It isn’t what we base that dislike on.

There’s more I could say about avoiding info-dumps, but that’s a very long article to write. Let’s just finish it by saying that learning to avoid giving out way too much information is something we earn through time and practice. With experience, great tips, and a good bunch of people around you, we learn how to do it while still telling the excellent stories we want to tell.

All that and more will certainly help me when I get around to the next draft of Rose. I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out when all is said and done!

What tips do you have for avoiding info-dumps? How have they worked out for you?

Tips for Working with Beta Readers

Photo by Jo Naylor

I’ve been posting on promotion lately, but I want to switch gears for a moment to a post I’ve had rough drafted for a year concerning beta readers.

What’s a beta reader? Basically, it’s your guinea pig. A beta reader is someone who “beta’s” – tests – your book. They read through an early copy and tell you what things you should change, what things they like, and what things confused them. Depending on your arrangement they may also edit.

Ruth and Janet did a very good post/video on what to look for in a Beta Reader, but as an author who also does beta reading, there are things betas are looking for in authors.

1. “Do you have time to…”

If you’re lucky, you have those regular reliable betas who are always happy to read for you. But that doesn’t mean you should just drop it in their lap, or expect them to “know” that the beta is coming up because you mentioned it in a facebook status. Before you send a file, or even have a file ready to send, it’s a good idea to ask if they “will have time”.  I try to ask my beta readers a month or two in advance, and then again two weeks before I plan to send the file. This might annoy them (see #10) but it’s what I prefer from authors, so…

2. Deadlines

When you give a beta reader a deadline make sure this is REALLY your deadline. Don’t say, for instance, “I need this back by the end of the month” and then, two weeks until the end, start to panic because they haven’t got it finished early. When someone gives me a deadline I use the date to juggle my other projects around it – meaning I DO NOT do it early. Other betas may be the kind to finish in advance, but, to be safe, If you need it two weeks earlier,  give your beta reader that deadline.

3. “How far are you? Do you like it?” 

As an author I know the nail biting fear while waiting on your book to come back from the betas, but as a beta I have to say “Enough with the questions. Just stop.” When I send you back my notes, comments, and corrections I will answer all of those questions, and I’d bet so will your beta readers. Please, please, please don’t harass them. You’re likely to annoy them  and that can leave you beta-less.

4. Be specific with what you want.

Do you want your beta to edit or just make comments? As a beta I have discovered that nothing makes an author madder than unsolicited editing advice, which left me on the fence about whether to do any editing – or even suggest “maybe this needs edited” – for a long time. Your beta reader might be in the same place, so if you want/don’t want honest editing let them know. Something as simple as “All I really need is to know whether this flows/makes sense/is gripping. I have someone else editing”, then the beta knows not to do it. Conversely you can say “Do what you want: comments, editing, whatever makes you happy” for a no pressure “ok” on editorial suggestions.

5. Make sure your betas are a good fit for your book.

Just because your beta readers loved your last book, doesn’t mean they’ll like this one, especially if you switch genres or styles. Make sure you communicate to your betas what they’re going to be reading, even if you think you’re simpatico and they already *know*. Otherwise you’re likely to end up with tear stained emails from betas who hate, hate, hate your new book and everything about it. And no matter what we like to pretend, that’s a blow to the ego.

6. “How did you feel about ___?”

If there’s a part of the book you think needs attention, or that you’re not sure about, ask the beta readers in advance. Sometimes they didn’t pay especial attention to the scene you’re worried about (you could think of that as “it didn’t stick out to them, so nothing to worry about.”), and they may have to re-read it in order to answer your questions. As an author I have been guilty of this after the books come back from other betas, I run to the others and say “Did you think X was boring/too long/unbelievable/etc.” There’s nothing wrong with discussing things, but make sure your beta is open to it. Some do beta reading for a lot of authors and – especially if they’re doing yours free – may not have time for long discussions. In other words, consider whether they have the time to deal with your author quibbles before you dump them all out in an email.

7. “Wait – Here’s a new version!”

As an author I understand editing the book – even rewriting it – while it’s out to your beta readers. As it comes back from reader after reader, we tweak this, redo that, change this, and sometimes it’s barely the same manuscript we first handed out. The desire is to send this new, better – so, so much better – version to your betas who aren’t done yet and say “Hey, this is better. I’ve changed it. If you don’t read this one, all the comments you’re going to make may not pertain anymore.” But what you’re also saying is, “All the comments you already made don’t pertain anymore. Surprise!” That’s not to say you might not have betas who don’t mind this – or who *want* the newest version – but I’d suggest being cautious and at the very least offering, not demanding or just cold sending the newest version. And speaking of new versions…

8. “Don’t bother finishing it. I’ve changed my mind.”

As an author I understand this. Maybe it needs a new ending. Maybe it needs totally re-written. Maybe a beta pointed out a huge, huge timeline error that ruins the whole thing (heh-heh, Yeah, that’s happened to me) but when an author says “don’t bother to finish” some betas may feel like “Why did I bother to start?” I know you had good intentions at heart, no point in your beta wasting their time finishing up a story with notes you don’t need, or want, but at the same time it can come off as dismissive – “thanks for starting but I don’t really care anymore”. Your beta readers may be different.

9. “I’ve re-written it thanks to all your suggestions. Here’s the whole book back. Please read it again.”

As I’ve mentioned, many beta readers do beta for multiple authors, or are authors themselves. Though they may love your book, there’s a good chance they don’t have time to read the whole thing again. If you really think they do, you can always ask them, but don’t just cold mail them the newest file with a list of instructions and a new deadline, unless you already have an understanding. (Even with an understanding it’s still nice to ask, which brings me to my most important point.)

10. Do unto others.

Do any of these things irritate your beta readers? If they did, would they tell you? I’m pretty sure most of my beta readers are too polite to say I’m driving them nuts, and I know I am, so in the end the best thing you can do is treat your beta readers the way you’d want to be treated. Don’t set impossible deadlines. Ask them to pay special attention ahead of time. Make sure they know how much you value them, their time, and their contributions and make sure to thank them in either the acknowledgements or dedication of your book. Oh, and a free copy doesn’t hurt either. Which leads to my very last point.

A Bonus Tip:

Don’t demand reviews.

Even if you offer your betas a free copy, don’t expect – or ask for – reviews. Remember the version they read was in progress, and they may not have time to read your corrected version. Or they may not like to write reviews. Or they may not feel comfortable doing it. (I had a beta who refused to review anything she beta read because she felt it was wrong since she had “had a hand” in the book). If your betas do review, thank them, but don’t expect it.

Do you use beta readers? if so, what tips do you have to keep the relationship running smoothly?

Writing a Series

A lot of authors write series. Some make all their money writing long series rather than stand-alone novels. A few are even paid by their publishing companies to keep writing series even after the story has gotten old and there are no new ideas or places for the characters to go (*cough* *cough* James Patterson and the Alex Cross books *cough*). But writing a series is a lot tougher than it looks. Rather than keeping a reader’s interest for about 300 pages, you have to keep it for several times that amount and over several books too.

While there is no one way to write a series (is there ever “one way” to go about anything in this business?), there are some tips and strategies that can make writing a series a bit easier. Here are some of mine, gleaned from years of writing various different series in my teens and publishing one of them once I got into college.

Decide who your main characters are and what sort of story you’re going to write with them. I feel that it’s important to nail down who your main characters are pretty early on, because they often end up influencing where the story goes through their actions. You don’t have to go into each character’s entire history at this early stage, but you should have an idea of who they are, what they like and dislike, maybe what sort of environment they grew up in, and what they want and what you from them in this series. That information will come in handy when you’re planning out the series.

Make a roadmap. When you have your characters (and if you’re writing this story in a world different from the one you and most of your readership live in, a general idea of this world), then you should plan out the series and what is going to happen. You don’t need to go into every single detail on what happens in each book, you can save that for when you write each individual book. Just have a general idea of what will happen in each book, how that might fit into a greater arc if you have one in mind, which characters you might introduce or kill off or whatever, etc. It’s kind of similar to outlining a novel, in a way (for tips on outlining, click here), only for several books. Creating a roadmap can also be helpful in keeping a record of what and when you need to research a subject and can allow you to keep notes of what’s happened in previous books in case you need to refer back to something for the current book.

Immerse your reader slowly. This is something I’ve learned over a long time, but it’s useful to remind some writers of it every now and then. Let’s say your story takes place in a fantasy or science-fiction universe and you’re the only one who knows the entirety of the world, its various pieces and factions and groups and aspects. You’ll have an urge to make sure that your reader is immediately caught up with everything, so that they know all there is to know about these worlds. I’m telling you now, resist that urge! Updating them about everything in this world of yours too early would be overloading them with information. They wouldn’t know what to do with it and they’d put down that first book before getting very far in it.

Immersing a reader in your world is like teaching a kid to swim.

The best way to go about introducing readers to this world is to imagine it like teaching a young child to swim. Naturally you don’t start with the deep end. What if your pupil drowned? Instead you start with the shallowest end of the pool. It’s good to start without overwhelming the kid, and they can get a sense and a working knowledge of how swimming works. Later you move them into deeper waters, teaching them new techniques and watching them adjust to the greater depth of the pool. As time goes on, your pupil moves deeper and deeper into the waters, learning new knowledge along the way, until they’re swimming fine in the deep end and able to handle all you’ve given them.

In a similar way you should treat the reader. Slowly take them in, giving them the bare minimum to get along in this world and how to live and maneuver through it. As time goes on, you’ll add more information and they’ll be better prepared to handle it all, so by the end of the series they’ll be able to handle all that information really well.

Keep a guidebook. This can also be helpful, especially for series in fantastical worlds. A guidebook (or whatever you want to call it) contains information on the many aspects of your world, from characters to places to objects to story points and everything in between. If you need to organize a very complicated world, a guidebook can be helpful. Or if even the world is very simple, having a guidebook could help you keep track of things. I recommend using some sort of 3-ring binder for your guidebook, so you can add more information as time goes on. Dividers will also be helpful, so get those and categorize entries as you need. Using a guidebook can also prevent any ret-conning that could annoy and upset your fans.

Writing a book, and writing a book series, is often like this.

Remember the bigger picture. This is always important in writing, but it is especially important in a series. Writing a series is like working with several hundred or even several thousand puzzle pieces, but you have to focus on both the puzzle as a whole as well as the smaller pieces. It’s not easy, keeping track of the smaller stuff as well as keeping aware of the whole arc of the series, but it’s something you’ll have to do if you want to successfully pull off a series.

Each book has a purpose. If your series has an overall story arc, then not only should each book tell an interesting story (or a segment of the larger story), but it should maybe serve a purpose. For example, the first Harry Potter novel introduced us to the Wizarding world, and to the boy we root for the whole series; Book 2 hinted at the existence of Horcruxes, explained the concept of Wizarding blood purity, and introduced other important elements that would later appear in the HP books; Book 3 gave more information on the night Harry’s parents died and their relationship with Snape, as well as introducing how Voldemort would come back to power; Book 4 brought back Voldemort in an elaborate plot as well as hinted at the denial the Ministry would be famous for in Book 5; and so on and so forth. You don’t have to, but it might be helpful to think of assigning your books a purpose in the overall story arc of the series.

What tips do you have for writing a series?