The Writer is a Time Lord: Compressing Time through Summary

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The writer who deftly uses SCENE and SUMMARY becomes the Time Lord of her fictional worlds. Summary allows the writer to compress and expand time, while scene occurs in a fixed time frame.

Midnight sunsets in Iceland--even in nature, the time of sunrise/sunset is flexible

Nature is also a Time Lord:                                           Midnight sunsets in Iceland.                                       Photos by Sarah Blake Johnson

While a scene occurs in “real” time, summary can cover a long period of time in a few words.

Typically a scene will “show,” while summary will “tell” as it races through time.  As writers we’re often told to show, not tell, but telling (summary) is also an important skill.

Why use summary?

Sometimes the reader needs to understand more about a character, her background, motive, or emotional state or even the history of the setting. Sometimes an overview is needed.

Some stories demand leaps of time: this can be from one season to another season or skipping over several decades.

Summary can alter the pacing of the novel. Summary can also be used to delay or even stop time, making it motionless.

Though counterintuitive, summary can intensify emotion. An insertion of summary, which uses backstory or another event, provides the reader with another view of the character.

A summary is not in the moment, and sometimes it combines many moments. In film, a similar technique is montage.

Geese in Frankfurt, Germany

Montage of geese during different seasons in Germany.        Photo by Sarah Blake Johnson

Many films use montage, little snippets or selections of related images or action to show passage of time or change of character. Juxtaposed together, these images become something greater. We can also create a written montage by use of summary.

We use summary when the reader needs information, but doesn’t need to experience the event play by play like in a scene. Summary explains efficiently.

How do we use summary?

It is critical to use vivid, concrete, sensory details. Summary does not mean bland. (A general, “boring” summary is better left out.)

Summary can be as short as a sentence. It also can be quite long, several pages even, though with children’s books a long summary may lose the readers’ attention.

The great Italian writer, Italo Calvino, said his personal motto was “hurry slowly.” Though he wasn’t necessarily applying “hurry slowly” to the technique of summary, that concept will strengthen our writing.

When to use summary?

We use summary when there are many important events and not all the events are needed in full to tell the story.

This means we need to know which scenes are most important. Basically, if nothing happens, but the info is necessary, don’t use a scene. Use summary instead.

When not to use:

We don’t use summary for key scenes or for actions and choices that significantly alter the character’s life or the plot. Don’t use it for any critical turning point, any moment of significance, or crisis scenes. All these moments need to be fully realized.

Summary often creates emotional distance—so don’t use it when the reader needs to be close and emotionally involved, and don’t use it when conflict or confrontation are in the scene. As with any writing advice, this isn’t always true. An example of an emotional summary is below.

And please don’t use summary when the story demands a live action scene. For example, in a romance novel readers expect to see/experience the kiss. The reader does not want to be told, “They kissed last night.”  That’s a way to get the book thrown across the room.

Where do we use summary?

One typical pattern in many books is a summary, followed by a scene. Also, summary can follow scene. Summary is useful for pacing. Scene after scene without summary does not give the reader time to rest or digest what has happened. Summary allows for a gentle pause.

Summary can be inserted in the middle of a scene, but if so should probably be short.

What can you do if you have too many scenes and you’ve decided that some aren’t needed in scene format?  Write a summary of the scene in as few (or as many words) as it takes and attach that summary before or after the associated scene.

We can also use summary to delay action and create suspense. In this regard, it is a powerful pacing tool.

Examples

1 – Summary of Past Events/Action: This is a common type of summary and a way to condense a needed flashback.

This example summary occurs right after Death holds out his hand to Keturah. “And then into my mind came a memory of Hatti Pennyworth’s son, who was dragged by a horse and should have died, but lived. And Jershun South, who went to sleep for two weeks and awoke one day as if he’d slept but a night. And what about my own cousin, who once ate a mushroom that killed big men? Though he was young, he survived. Death often sadly surprised us, but sometimes he gladly surprised us, too.” Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt

2 – Less is More Summary: It is easy to overwrite and give too much information. This example of a summary shows how a few words can summarize a situation and how summary can pace the narrative.

This summary appears at the Beginning of Part 2: “The ship sank. It made a sound like a monstrous metallic burp. Things bubbled at the surface and then vanished. Everything was screaming: the sea, the wind, my heart. From the lifeboat I saw something in the water.” Following this summary the story moves into a scene of Pi’s interactions with Richard Parker, the tiger. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

3 – Summary of Repetitive Action: This summary shows repeated action over time, a useful technique for skipping over weeks or months.

“Mostly, I missed Mal. I’d written to him every week, care of our regiment, but I hadn’t heard anything back. I knew the post could be unreliable and that his unit might have moved on from the Fold or might even be in West Ravka, but I still hoped that I would hear from him soon. . . . Every night, as I climbed the stairs to my room after another pointless, painful day, I would imagine the letter that might be waiting for me on my dressing table, and my steps would quicken. But the days passed, and no letter came.” Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

4 – Summary for Emotional Impact: This example is of a summary that has greater emotional impact than if written as a scene.

“We drove and ate, music booming and the road going straight, straight, straight, no signs, no stops, just fields and hills forever. Sometimes he looked away from the road just to smile at me. Maybe he was feeling like I was–that the day was enough under the candy-blue sky, the wind swooping into the car and taking parts of us away with it, swirling me and Wilder into the whole big moving world.” Dangerous by Shannon Hale

5 – Summary of Details and Non-Critical Events: This example takes a day of normal, uninteresting events and makes them interesting by summary. This is a transition summary that incorporates the character’s emotions and is an example of a summary that provides pacing.

“Dini spends lots of time riffling through Maddie’s bookshelves and watching Dolly videos, and then some time just sort of staring into the middle distance. As it turns out, the slow pace of the day is almost a relief after the frantic excitement of the day before.” The Problem of Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami

Be a Time Lord

Sands of Time Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, calls summary the “mortar of the story.” A story without summary would become too long and an epic of a thousand pages or more. Writing is an art, and so the writer chooses where to use summary through intuition and common sense.

As a writer, you are the Time Lord of your world. You can choose when to either play for hours in the sandbox of scene and when to compress time through the use of summary.

Exercises

1. Take a scene and summarize it in 3-4 sentences.

2. Choose a book or print up a chapter of one of your stories. Highlight all the sections of summary. What types of summary did you highlight? Are they connective summaries appearing between scenes? Or are they in the middle of scenes? Should any of these summaries be scenes? Are these effective, vivid summaries?

Sarah Blake Johnson

We can be heroes…just for one day!

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Two weeks ago, my husband and I went to the David Bowie Is retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Seeing this exhibit was a lot like hearing Paul McCartney in concert or reading Judy Blume books–it was like seeing my life.   … Continue reading

NOT IN YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION or THE ANTI-MICK JAGGER RULE OF CRITIQUE

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Critique groups are great. Writing can be lonely and kindred souls reading your work can boost your spirit while building a stronger manuscript. Yet for every writer in a critique group there seems to be a critique horror story. The group leader who dismissively comments he doesn’t “understand”  (or even “hates”) your genre. The broad thinker who advises you to rewrite the entire 300 page novel in free verse present tense– and while you’re at it set it in the stone age rather than contemporary. The picky wicky who can’t get past that typo on the 23rd page and the fact that the protagonist has a dachshund rather than a shelter dog (rescue is so much more relevant to today’s kids!)

WHY WHY WHY do they do that? And have you ever been guilty yourself? (I bet you have. I know I’m not always absolutely on the mark in my critiques.) So how can you avoid being the critique partner from hell?

I think most critique problems stem from one simple source.

I call this the NOT IN MY JOB DESCRIPTION or THE ANTI-MICK JAGGER RULE.

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You’ve heard his song. You can’t always get what you want…. but if you try sometime you might find… you get what you need.

Critiquers take this refrain as gospel. Writing isn’t for wimps. You’ve got to be tough in a critique. It’s a critquers job to be HONEST and point out the FLAWS of a manuscript, whether the writer agrees or not. Meanwhile the writer has to zip her lip and absorb the criticism. They may not get what they want from your critique but they sure as heck will get what they need!!!

NO

I don’t think it’s a critiquers job to lay bare an author’s bones along with those of the manuscript. Beaming the writer with a dozen well intentioned hardballs won’t necessarily help the writer move forward on his personal creative journey or improve a manuscript.

Excellent critiquers tailor a critique to what a writer WANTS, and in that way they also give some of what they believe a writer NEEDS.

But how do you accomplish this sort of a WANT+NEED critique? What exactly is your critiquer job description?

Good editors know the secret. They ask questions. What do you want me to focus on in my comments? Why did you choose present tense? What is this secondary character trying to achieve in this scene? How do you see this ending tying into the story promise you made in chapter one? This sort of discourse can be tough when the author must remain silent through the critique, but by raising questions and elaborating on them you can open an authors eyes not just to your vision of a story’s problems but to their own solutions and a deeper understanding of how to get there.

Giving a writing what they want is empowering.

Let’s say someone has spent three months on a brand new baby manuscript and she wants general impressions. Don’t hash over language. Don’t grind through logistical details. Do ask what the protagonist wants and what he’s doing in this section of the story to achieve that goal.

Or what about the “ready” to be submitted manuscript that’s been polished for years to a fine sheen. Does it really help anyone to insist that paranormal YA is dead and the whole novel should be recast as a realistic contemporary story?

Stop right there.

If the writer is concerned about tone focus on the sensations and emotion the manuscript generates. Not logic problems in the plot. Not chapter length. Not those annoying to you chapter by chapter changes of point of view.

If the writer is concerned about the title brainstorm on that. And leave it at that. Unless she asks for more.

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A good critique is like an excellent gift, just what the recipient always wanted. Don’t give your writer friends the critique equivalent of a waste paper basket made from an elephant’s foot. Unless that’s what they asked for.

Listen to what the author wants. Listen with your ears (how often do we forget to simply ask what a writers goals are with the critique?) And listen with your heart. Writers are supposed to be empathetic. Turn on all your senses 1through 6 and put yourself inside the other author’s skin. Try to give them not just what you think they need. Give them a dose of what they want. The result will be pure harmony.

~tlb

Beckoning Your Reader

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_Beckoning hand

 

How do you invite a reader in and tell a story without telling too much? If you’re too cryptic, you risk angering your reader, who will toss your book across the room because he can’t make sense of the story without that key information you’re too cleverly holding back. But your reader will be equally annoyed if you give her too much help, feeding her information through dialogue, stage directions or narrative.

There’s no formula for how to do this, since every story is different. You might withhold information in one type of novel when you would reveal it another. For instance, Carolyn Wheat, author of How to Write Killer Fiction, discusses the differences between the timing of information revealed in mystery and suspense fiction.

“The tension in a mystery,” Wheat notes, “depends on information withheld from the reader,” including clues that must be interpreted and woven expertly together by the novel’s hero detective. In contrast, the suspense novel, “relies on information given to the reader; we know that when our hero’s back is turned, the old friend she’s asked for help will telephone the Nazis and give away her location.” Thus a detective in a mystery novel is always two steps ahead of the reader, while in suspense, the reader is two steps ahead of the character.

But notice that in both instances, the reader is participating in the story. And that’s the key. Letting readers question and struggle and analyze and figure things out for themselves. To do this we need to ask what experience we want readers to have, and deliver this experience through our characters’ eyes.

It’s tricky. Often we reveal too much at a certain stage in our work, because we’re still in effect, telling the story to ourselves. If you find you’re feeding the reader information too fast, or writing backstory (what happens before action begins), you may be at this stage. That’s okay, just remind yourself that in revision, you’re going to cut this information, or move it into scene.

One way to move from feeding the reader information to letting the story tell itself is to truly get under a character’s skin. This is not always easy to do because we love our characters and like parents, try to protect them from the realities of life (or maybe we as writers try to protect that part of ourselves we’re uncovering, since it’s always our story in some way). But you can’t protect your characters by explaining their feelings; you have to let them take the punches from these painful experiences so they earn getting back up and into the ring. We need to feel how our characters feel, blow by blow. Otherwise their battles are too easily won.

One exercise that may help create this immediacy is to write a few scenes with your character in the present tense. This offers little time for character reflection or backstory and gives you an opportunity to focus on your scene moment by moment, and express those moments through the senses. It’s surprising how much you can reveal this way without telling the reader anything. I used this technique in my novel The Lucky Place when I wanted to see the world through a child’s eyes. The story begins with the line “There are always secrets,” but I found it wasn’t readers I was keeping secrets from, but the character. Cassie is three when The Lucky Place opens, too young to understand the adult world around her, yet through her eyes and ears she reveals more than she knows. She might not be able to interpret it yet, but I wanted the reader to.

Readers only participate when we let them in to figure things out for themselves. When they experience the same tensions the characters experience, unravel their dilemmas and contemplate their choices as if they too were stuck smack dab in the thick of things.

–zu vincent

Ask an Opinionated Writer: Chapters

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Do you have burning questions about the craft of writing? Do you want someone to give you thoroughly subjective and opinionated advice about your authorial trials and tribulations? Maybe you don’t, but I am going to give it to you anyway in this new, very occasional blog series, Ask an Opinionated Writer.

Here’s how this thing works: You, the writers of the world, ask my opinion about a craft-related topic. I, after very little research or sleep, dispense my advice. Ideally, someone will learn something along the way. Does that sound like fun to you? Too bad.

Today’s unsolicited and possibly unsubstantiated craft advice is all about that humble building block of story structure: the chapter.

Dear Opinionated Writer, does my book even need to have chapters?

Of course not. Not all stories benefit from being broken into discrete segments. If you’re writing anything longer than a picture book or a piece of flash fiction, however, you’ll probably want to give your readers a few places to rest their eyes between scenes. They’ll need to get up to grab some more cookies from the kitchen, and you’ll need a chance to change your focus to another character, skip ahead in time, or pause for emphasis. Those pauses don’t have to be chapter breaks, of course; they can be lines of white space, or even those little asterisks that look like someone’s squashed a bug between the pages of your book.

The useful thing about chapter breaks, though, is that they are large and emphatic, like a really big squashed bug. Think about the effect you get from a single line of white space, and then think about how much stronger that effect would be if you used half a page of the stuff! The difference between a scene break and a chapter break is sort of like the difference between a comma and a period—they’re both pauses, but one is subtle while the other is decidedly less so. If you want to give a section of your book a decisive ending, switch to a new setting or point of view, or knock your readers out of the story for a moment (not always a bad thing), a chapter break could be just the solution for you.

How long should my chapters be, anyway?

I would say that’s up to you, but then I wouldn’t be very opinionated, would I? I personally like longer chapters. My chapters usually consist of at least two scenes, which works out to about 10 to 15 double-spaced typed pages. Chapters this length give readers a chance to snuggle comfortably into the world of the story without any jarring interruptions, and this effect is exactly what I want in the books I write, which are mostly medium-paced and sort of old-fashioned. If I were writing a thriller, though, I’d probably want to use shorter chapters to keep my readers a little less comfortable and a little more unsettled.

However long your chapters may be, dear authors, please do me a favor: Unless you are writing an early reader with very strict structural rules, don’t keep your chapters short only because you don’t think young readers will be able to handle longer chapters. If your story is the sort that requires lengthy chapters and kids aren’t up to reading more than a few pages at a time, they’ll find a natural stopping place within each chapter. Besides, you are such a good writer that you’ll draw them into the story, and they’ll be on to the next chapter before they know it.

How do I know when my chapter is finished?

Your chapter has achieved its purpose in life when it has advanced the story’s external plot, its internal character arc, or (ideally) both.

I am stealing this idea from author and VCFA faculty member Leda Schubert, who says in her lecture Exit, Pursued by a Bear that “advancing story and revealing character are the central purpose of scenes. … Your protagonist should be in a different place by the end of the scene; something will have changed.” You’ll notice that Leda is talking specifically about scenes here, but since a chapter usually contains at least one scene, I’d argue that these guidelines hold true for chapters, too. I try to make sure that each of my chapters contains at least one major plot development—a twist, a setback, or a triumphant resolution to a previous complication. I also like to flip my characters’ emotions on their heads: If my heroes are happy at the beginning of a chapter, they should probably be miserable by the end of it.

If you’re not sure whether a chapter is pulling its weight, imagine cutting it out of the rest of the story. Would the remaining manuscript still make perfect sense? If it would, then your chapter should be doing more to move the story forward. Maybe you’re ending the chapter too soon, before the real meat of the scene actually starts. Or maybe you’re including information that doesn’t need to be in the story after all.

My chapter won’t end! How do I get it to stop?

Once your chapter has done its work of sufficiently advancing the story, you’ll probably want to end it… but how? Knowing where and how to end a chapter can be tricky because there’s not always one obvious solution. There are, however, a couple of common strategies you can try. One is to end the chapter on a cliffhanger, at the height of the scene’s tension. The other is to end the chapter right after the scene’s resolution, when the tension has been released. I like both of these strategies and use them both all the time in my own writing. It’s important to not rely too heavily on one strategy or the other, though; ending every chapter on a cliffhanger can quickly become exhausting for both readers and writers, and ending every chapter on a note of resolution can drain all the momentum from your story.

Cliffhanger chapter breaks are great because they’ll keep your readers turning the pages. If you’ve ever been unable to stop reading a book after “just one more chapter” because you’re dying to know what happens next, you’re well aware of the power of the cliffhanger. On the other hand, this type of break can feel gimmicky and manipulative if it’s not used judiciously, so try to use it only at a few major crisis points in your story—not when the shadowy figure who enters the room turns out to be the main character’s mother bringing her kids a bowl of popcorn.

Ending a chapter on a note of resolution is great, too, because it gives your readers a chance to put the book down and go to the bathroom. It’s also a very satisfying sort of ending. Maybe you’ve resolved the main problem presented at the beginning of the chapter, or maybe you’ve made the problem even worse, but either way, you’ve given your chapter a complete miniature story arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s very considerate of you. This type of chapter break can be challenging, though, because it needs to happen as quickly as possible after that resolution has been achieved. Your characters will probably want to linger on for pages, making sandwiches and telling jokes. Don’t indulge them! End the chapter as soon as your characters’ actions and words become unessential to the story. I know it’s hard, but if you won’t do it for me, do it for John Gardner. He would have wanted you to, and he was even more opinionated than I am.

If you have a question for an opinionated writer, please ask it in the comments below, and I’ll try my best to answer it in a future post.

Go Ahead: Fall Down The Stairs

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exit-downstairs-left-eec92-58-photoluminescent_1024x1024This past week, I finished writing a book.

Which is to say that I finished the first draft of a book that I will undoubtedly write four more times before it is a book. Really, this week I finished a manuscript, but calling it a book feels a little bit better. This might be akin to referring to one’s puppy as his or her baby, but alas, I wrote a book.

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As you can see from my word count record, I wrote the first 11k words back in December, and then I wrote the remaining 40k in twelve days.

Now hang on, and please don’t kill me. Rest assured that this is a Shitty First Draft. A skeleton draft. A NaNoWriMo deal. Or what I affectionately refer to as my “Falling Down the Stairs Draft.”

There are many amazing reasons for getting a first draft down, and I’m sure you’ve heard them. The chief of these being that looking beyond the perfectionism of sentence level is key to reaching the end.  I certainly can’t say it any better than Anne Lamott does in Bird By Bird:

bird-by-bird-cover“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. […] Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.”

For me, I wrote my new story in under two weeks because I didn’t know what it was about. I had the characters, the plot points, and the end in my brain, but I didn’t know what any of that would feel like until I gave the whole shebang some words.

Let’s picture it like this: I had a lofty cloud of ideas and possibilities. It was a beautiful cloud, but to make the story real, I had to get it down to earth. Now I could have carefully, cautiously, painstakingly walked it down one step at a time, but instead, I threw both of us off the landing, unaware of what might happen at the bottom. Keep in mind that this is a violent metaphor because it knocks me around in the process. But in the end, I had done it. I WROTE A BOOK!

Now, I’m not silly enough to believe that the Falling Down The Stairs Draft is right for every writer or for every book. But I’d like to reach a hand out to all those writers who are doing the “one step forward, three steps back” dance with their story. I implore you to give the fast draft a try. And instead of telling you all the reasons in which this method will help you, I will talk about the snags, so that when you hit them you can KEEP WRITING.

1. Your writing will suck.

Yep. That’s going to happen. You won’t be writing prophetic poetry. You’ll be writing terrible things. Repetitive things. My favorite is a goofed dialogue tag I once wrote that read, “she said as a reply.” Niiice.

2. You’ll change your mind about something important.

20578939I once heard Coe Booth talking about a draft that she was writing in which her character had a little sister when he went to bed in the middle of the story and woke up the next day with a little brother. And Coe kept writing.*

The reason that you must run with the changes that occur in your manuscript is that they’re most likely coming from a flow state…and the only way you can stay with the flow is to keep writing.

3. You realize what the book is really about. 

EUREKA! You’ve done it! You can feel it! You can see it! Why keep going forward when you can turnaround and write it perfectly now?!  DON’T GIVE IN TO THIS! Keep writing. Keep going. What feels amazingly perfect one day is likely to fall apart the next day unless you’re looking at the whole darn thing. Promise.

4. You realize that this won’t be a draft you can send off to your beta readers or agent along with a shower of confetti glitter.

This draft is for you. No one else. It’s for your drawer or locked file for at least a month after writing it, regardless of whom you’re feeling daring enough to show it to you. After that well-deserved break, reread it yourself, and if you’re determined to share it with someone, pick the one reader who can overlook sixteen sentences in a row that start with “I was.”

falling_down_stairs5. You realize that you’re going to have to rewrite it.

Yes. You are. Possibly in a brand new .doc, but you know what? It’ll never be from scratch again because you’ve already scratched a complete story in your brain. Trust yourself. You will remember all the important pieces, and when you’re sitting down to write all the pretty words, you’ll find yourself no longer in the clouds but at ground level–the foundation already laid out. Ready to be built upon.

So what are you waiting for? Jump!

 

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Cori McCarthy is the author of The Color of Rain and Breaking Sky (forthcoming March ’15). She holds a BA in Creative Writing, a professional degree in screenwriting, and an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults. She is also a writing coach and editor through Yellow Bird Editors and loves working with writers of all genres and walks of life.

Find out more about her antics at www.CoriMcCarthy.com or follow her on Twitter @CoriMcCarthy

 

*I believe Coe was referring to her amazing debut Tyrell, which you should totally read. Also check out her brand new book Kinda Like Brothers, pictured above.

Four Tips for Writing Sequels That Work

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For the last seven years, I’ve run a Teen Advisory Board at the bookstore which is a lot like watching a focus group of teen readers. Every month, I hear teens complain about how a sequel isn’t nearly as good as the first book. So when I started working on A GIRL UNDONE, the sequel to A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, I was concerned with how to write a  sequel that would satisfy the fans.

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Writing a sequel is a totally different from writing a first book. The characters and conflict are established, the world has been laid out, and the fans want to know what happened to the characters. But how do you keep the story fresh and exciting without going astray?

Here are four tips for writing sequels from writers who’ve done it well.

1. Write the same book, but completely new

My teen board members said over and over again that they want the same experience they had reading the first book, but they want to be surprised, too.

Recreating the experience of book one means, according to Rachel Searles, author of THE LOST PLANET, that writers must “remember the rules of your world, make sure your funny characters have funny lines and that their quirks are still there. And…if your first book is fast-paced and full of action, it’s probably not a good idea to fill the second book with chapters of introspective moping and lengthy dialogue scenes.”

The characters must remain themselves ,the world must continue in the way the writer left it at the end of book one, and the writing style has to mirror the first book. But that doesn’t mean that everything should stay the same.

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“It’s a balancing act to make the new book feel fresh and different while staying true to the tone and reader expectations established in the first volume,” says Jenn Reese author of ABOVE WORLD.  Reese looks at “the shape of the story: how it starts, how it builds, and what sort of internal and external factors lead to the climax. If this shape mirrors the first book too much, it will feel like the same thing all over again.”

The main character can’t spend two or three books doing the same thing over and over in the same way, because that becomes repetitious and boring. Instead, the writer must look for a way to give the main character new challenges, such as changing the external threat or antagonist, or increasing the threat posed by a character’s internal conflict.

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Rachel Searles and Kristen Kittscher

 

 2. Grow your characters. 

A great sequel isn’t merely the next episode in the protagonist’s adventure. For a sequel to satisfy, the character must continue to evolve, because their emotional growth and success is as important and satisfying to the reader as surviving external threats.

 

One of the most scathing book reviews I heard from a teen reader on my board involved a female protagonist who turned from kickass in book one to lovestruck and wimpy in book two. It’s okay for a character to suffer a temporary setback, to falter when up against an overwhelming obstacle, but the character must retain the characteristics that made the reader love them in the first place.

The character growth doesn’t have to be revolutionary to be effective.  When Kristen Kittscher was writing the sequel to THE WIG IN THE WINDOW, she thought hard about “what habits and ways of thinking my characters had outgrown from the first book–what could they leave behind without it feeling inconsistent? What new challenges are they struggling with?”

As characters grow, they abandon what they might have done or thought. They are more aware and less innocent, but this often leaves openings for new challenges.

Jenn Reese says that the main characters’ “initial needs and wants may be met by the end of book one, so it’s important (and fun!) to ask yourself what the adventure cost them–do they have new emotional or physical scars? Have their feelings for each other changed, either during the events of book one or during the enigmatic white space between books?”

Change can cost our characters, leaving them with scars as well as triumphs.  A character can become less trusting or joyful, abandoning a pastime, place or friend they once loved.

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But emotional growth can’t leave behind who that character is at the core. Caroline Carlson of THE VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES series explains,

“I don’t want my protagonist to struggle with the same emotional challenge over and over from one book to the next, because she needs to show real growth over the course of the series. On the other hand, giving her an entirely new emotional arc in each book would feel jarring. So I think about my protagonist’s core emotional desire–like a need for acceptance, love, or respect–and try to show that core desire through a slightly different lens in each book.”

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3. Use those secondary characters.

By bringing back minor characters, the writer can create continuity while also spurring the main character to grow. Kristen Kittscher spends time “thinking about which minor characters should reappear and why–how can they illuminate my main character’s changes? What consistent, necessary roles do they play?”

Caroline Carlson uses returning characters strategically, saying,  “When I need a new character, object, or plot twist to appear in a sequel, rather than creating something entirely new, I look back through earlier books for “throwaway” references or very minor characters who can be brought back into the sequel in a more purposeful way. My hope is that this strategy will give the whole series a sense of consistency and connectedness, plus it creates the illusion that I’m a much better planner than I really am!”

And a series allows a character time to interact with several secondary characters and to grow.  Jenn Reese explains that “One of the greatest joys of writing a story that spans several books is that you can give some characters the chance to change more slowly–and sometimes more profoundly–than if you’re trying to do it all in one book.”

 4. Plan ahead, but mess around.

Writing a sequel means not forgetting what’s come before, especially when it has to do with character details that readers are likely to remember.

TrustMeImLying

“I had to be much more meticulous in my planning to make sure all the usual story elements were there as well as to account for all the threads left hanging from the previous book. I couldn’t have gotten through it with my sanity intact without keeping a storyboard, a timeline, and a character bible updated at every turn,” confesses Mary Elizabeth Summer, author of TRUST ME I’M LYING

 

 

Skylar

While sequels are often written under insane deadlines that make writers want to write, write, write, Skylar Dorset, author of THE GIRL WHO NEVER WAS says, “Don’t be afraid to “waste a day *not* writing the sequel and instead just re-reading bits and pieces of the first book. Because you would think you would know what you wrote and it turned out that nope, my continuity on little issues was ALL over the place.”

Skyler Dorset

 

But at the same time, use a new story as an opportunity to have some fun. Throwing the main character a curve ball, can be thrilling for the writer. Kathryn Rose, author of CAMELOT BURNING says, “What really helped me write book two was thinking ahead to what options my characters would have down the road. Sometimes it was some extra planning, and sometimes it was as simple as looking at the characters’ strengths and weaknesses now that they’ve been introduced to the reader, and screwing with them.”

Thank you to all the authors here who shared their wisdom and insights.

 

Catherine Linka is the author of A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and its upcoming sequel A GIRL UNDONE, May, 2015. You can read the first three chapters of A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS at www. catherinelinka.com

Soon to Be Seen: Lindsey Lane’s Debut Novel

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I am delighted to bring my classmate from Vermont College of Fine Arts, the talented Lindsey Lane, MFA to the Tollbooth in anticipation of her gorgeous debut novel, Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) to be released on September 16th. The story tells of what happens in a small Texas town when 16-year-old Tommy Smythe goes missing.

DW: In the fabulous interview on your website, you say that this story woke you up from a dream in which you saw a boy standing in a roadway pull-out. This image got you out of bed and you started to write. Have dreams often been a part of your writing? Or were the dreamtime origins of this story a unique experience?

LL: Actually dreams are not usually a part of my writing process. What’s important about this dream event for me was taking the leap and trusting the process of writing into an image or idea. The dream became the first section I wrote in the novel. I saw this small Mexican child in the pull-out, his chubby legs dusty with caliche dirt. He looked lonely and forlorn. I wondered what he was doing there. Gradually, I saw Maricela trudging up the side of a road to meet the other migrant workers who were waiting for the van to take them to the next field. A comic book she’d found in the migrant housing the night before was stuffed in her back pack. All she wants to do is get on the van and read her comic book and then something else happens. That sectionComic Bookled to others, each of them occurring in the pull-out, that strange disconnected place by the side of the road. It wasn’t until later that I found Tommy Smythe and discovered that he had gone missing from the pull-out, and that his disappearance weaves in and out of every story. So to answer your question, dreams are not a part of my writing process but I will say that drafting a story is a very dreamy otherworldly process. I will often get up from a first draft writing session and be very disoriented. Does that happen to you?

DW: Yes! As though we’re inhabiting other worlds. You have said you took risks with the form of Evidence of Things Not Seen, using multiple points of view, chapters as unique episodes that come together to build a whole, bringing in journals, and shifting between first and third person. These risks let storytelling magic happen. What was the hardest risk for you? From our time at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I know that you have written wonderful short stories. Have you ever thought of this book as a secret short story cycle? Does that make it feel more or less risky?

LL: Originally the book was a linked short story cycle. I was interested in seeing how a place like the pull-out could be the setting for a series of epiphanies for characters who came there. Unfortunately, short story cycles are a tough sell and I needed to find a way to weave these stories together more tightly and make the book as a whole more compelling for the reader. I think the biggest risk I took was after I had sent the manuscript out to several agents and I realized I’d written an ending with a big fat bow. I pulled the manuscript from the agents, wrote myself a three page editorial letter and did a floor to ceiling kind of revision. That was the revision when I sharpened the first person sections and wove Tommy’s disappearance into all the stories. I worried a little bit about all these multiple perspectives but I feel that young adult readers are really sophisticated. They can hold multiple story lines in their head and are willing to accept ‘outside the norm’ storytelling.

DW: The gorgeous cover of Evidence of Things Not Seen picks up both the mysticism and physics that weave through your story. Can you tell us first about the journey for the cover creation—always exciting for a first novel—and also how you discovered that physics was such an integral part of Tommy’s character? Were there specific characters who brought in mysticism and faith, or do you see physics as naturally containing both those elements?

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LL: The cover was created by Elizabeth Clark, associate art director at MacMillan. She is remarkable. I happened to see a few of the covers that the design team ‘rejected’ when I went to New York last year and I have to say the folks at MacMillan completely understood the content of EVIDENCE. I love the boy standing on this big landscape, slightly ghosted to suggest his disappearance. I love the symbols around him which hint at the connections within the book as well as Tommy’s fascination with physics. And then, of course, the wide open space of the Texas landscape which holds the story is perfect. As for your question about mysticism, faith and physics, I think that physics is kind of a mind blow. Let’s just start with the big bang versus creationism. Physics calls into question our very existence. I think these ideas light kids’ brains on fire. It did for Tommy. And because Tommy was obsessed with these ideas, it touched everyone’s lives. I mean, if a brilliant kid, who thought time travel was possible, goes missing, would you consider the possibility? Or would you think he was dead in a ditch? Would you have faith that the unknown universe works in mysterious ways? All the characters touch upon faith in some way: from Tommy’s disappearance to the unknowability of what will happen tomorrow.

DW: I love that Alexander Calder’s mobiles are part of your inspiration and indeed can see how his fractured spare shapes that move and float in space and yet create a unified whole, mirror the form of your book. What’s the story of how and when you discovered his work, and when you realized that these sculptures were connected to your writing?

LL: I have loved Alexander Calder’s work for forever. I love the way the elements (wind and light) interact with his sculptures. The moment he intersected my work as a writer was at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My advisor was the poet Julie Larios. I was attempting my first long work and I described my novel to her as lumps of clay, very unformed. She disagreed with me. She said that the way I wrote was like Alexander Calder’s mobiles. “I would say they are more like pieces of a mobile – light enough to catch a current of air, but well-balanced, forming a whole structure. That’s what your writing is like. Playful, artful, throwing a lovely shadow on the wall, moving together gracefully.” I hope that readers of EVIDENCE will be able to see the whole as well as the pieces and how they interact with each other. I hope they will be struck by the notion of how light and shadow live next to each other.

DW: Over on Emu’s Debuts, I loved reading about your childhood closet filled with books and a pillowy place to read them, and was touched to learn that Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty especially spoke to you because it “told the truth about love and cruelty—two impossible roommates in the human heart.” This is a book that I missed as a kid and only just read it about five or six years ago. When I read it, I was also struck by Black Beauty’s struggles to be good. The stereotypical bookish kid tends to be well behaved and not to be a rabble rouser. Because your work takes on tough topics and emotions with such insight I have the sense that for you, like Black, childhood was a time of struggling with complexity and struggling to be good. You have explained beautifully why you write edgy YA (link), but could you also speak more about the role of books in your life as a younger kid: Did books save you? Does your relationship with books when you were young play a role in how you write for young people today?

LL: Books held me. My world was pretty safe and middle class. Still, I think every kid in the world goes through moments, short or extended, where they feel at odds with their surroundings and pretty much at the effect of the adults in their lives. It’s part of growing up. During those times I folded myself into the pages of a book. I lost my awkwardness in those pages. I grew through the awkwardness.

You know, one of my characters in EVIDENCE says that treating other people like you like to be treated is ingrained in our collective cells (aka the golden rule). She believes Tommy will be found and nothing bad has happened. In other words, I think we all strive to goodness. Really. I think that’s the miracle and wonder of books. We can open the pages of a book and see characters struggle to hold on to their goodness. That’s why I opened books. I wanted to see the characters fall in love, get lost, get hurt, survive, overcome the odds. I wanted to experience how they wrestled with their problems. As a teen, I read way ahead of my age level, trying to grow up as fast as I could. I think it satisfied a curiosity but kept me safely on the sidelines. We may want our sixteen year olds to have sugarplums dancing in their heads forever but chances are pretty good they won’t. As I said in my blog, I think edgy YA addresses a need for kids who want to look over the edge but not jump.

I do want to be clear about something, though. I don’t write edgy just to write edgy. It has to come from the heart of the characters. It has to make sense in the context of the story. It can’t be gratuitous. It can’t distract from the plot. For example, in the section of EVIDENCE called The Proposal, Marshall takes Leann out to the pull-out to tell her he likes her and wants to be with her but Leann freezes up and asks to go home. The reader knows the disconnection comes from Leann’s history of incest. Her intimacy meter was broken years before but Marshall has no idea. I didn’t want to write about incest. I wanted to write about the unseen cost of incest in this one moment in time. Will readers get a flashback glimpse of incest? Yes. Will it be gratuitous? I sure hope not.

DW: In your terrific post “Debut Author To Do List”  writing the next book is one of your key items. Can you tell us anything about what you are working on next?

LL: I don’t want to say too much because it dilutes my energy of working on it. The working title is Inside the Notes. Here is the inciting incident: A young girl arrives in Boston. First time away from home. She is staying with a couple near the music conservatory where she is studying for four weeks. As she is unpacking, the clock radio in her room clicks on and she hears men’s voices reading poetry and letters. It is a prison radio show. The girl knows her father is in prison for killing her mother when she was two years old. It is the first time she has considered he might be real and have a voice.

DW: This sounds fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and process with us. I can’t wait to hold my copy of Evidence of Things Not Seen in my hands on September 16th!

Desperately Seeking Discipline

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My desk. With me not sitting at it.

My desk. With me NOT sitting at it.

It’s just after 8:00 am. The kids have left for school, and you finally have the house for yourself. You pour yourself a second cup of coffee and open your laptop. Just as you’re about to click on your work-in-progress, the phone rings. Or a text pings. Or an email alert flickers from the corner of your screen. Maybe a neighbor stops by to chat, or the dog looks up at you with big puppy eyes begging, “Walk now?” And suddenly you’re sliding down that slippery slope into full-blown procrastination mode. You’ll write later, you promise yourself…

 And then you don’t.

If you’re like me, this scenario is unfortunately all too common. I’m desperately in need of discipline. So when my friend, Ellen Sussman, an award-winning adult author (http://www.ellensussman.com/author.html), told me about a method she uses called the unit system, I was intrigued. While her technique (detailed below) didn’t turn out to be the panacea I’d hoped for, experimenting with the novelty of a new routine did motivate me to research the work habits of other authors I admire. Why reinvent the wheel every time I sit down to write, if I can benefit from the innovative ways others have solved the discipline dilemma? So I turned to some of the best minds I know in the business—my VCFA critique group—to interview them about their writerly habits. How do you trick your brain into concentrating, I asked? What kind of routines and rituals work for you? While I found no single winning formula, there was consensus in the collective wisdom on a few common themes—like the importance of routine.

The Unit System: Based on research done by Dorothy Duff Brown, who studied how to help graduate students structure their time while writing theses, this system helps writers break down long blocks of time into manageable segments.

time-297498_640“[You] divide your work time into units,” explains Sussman. “Each unit is one hour of time. For the first forty-five minutes of that hour, you write. Then no matter where you are at the forty-five minute mark, you get up from your desk and do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to do the work.” This might include tasks like watering the plants, throwing a ball for the dog, putting in a load of laundry, or chopping up vegetables for dinner—but no emails, texts or “thinking work.”

The theory is, people have an easier time of focusing if they know they have to do it for only 45 minutes. “Anyone can withstand a short bout of suffering—and there’s the reward of a fifteen-minute break on the other end,” says Sussman. “The break is truly a time to go deeper in a very different way. [During that time] I’m not conscious of thinking about the novel. But the minute I get back to my desk for unit two, I’m suddenly brimming with new ideas. Something happens when you let your mind breathe for a moment.”

Routine: The consensus is that routine is essential. “Novelists especially need to write daily,” Sussman stresses. “It takes a lot to hold a novel in one’s head. Novels don’t get written when inspiration strikes; they get written on days when you’re feeling lousy, on days when you’d rather be doing anything else in the world.”

“If I let myself off the hook,” agrees Ann Jacobus (http://www.annjacobus.com)  “it gets harder and harder to get back.”

“Many of us are our own worst enemies,” admits Linden McNeilly (http://www.lindenmcneilly.com).  “So, systems that are not negotiable are the best ones for me.”

Set working hours: It doesn’t matter when you write as long as you stick to a timetable.  “My most productive hours are in the morning,” Jacobus says,  “so I get to my computer by 7:30 but by 8:30 at the latest.”

“There are so many GOOD reasons not to get down to writing,” Christine Dowd concedes. “So, if I don’t start in the morning, the day tends to get away from me.”

Afternoons are best for Sharry Wright (http://sharrywright.com)  who says, “I sit down at my desk, quickly check email and then turn off the Internet connection. I read over what I wrote the day before, allow myself half an hour to “tweak” and then move on to what comes next. After an hour, I get up, stretch, have a cup of miso, throw in a load of laundry and check for any urgent emails, then sit back down at my desk. I work until 3:00, then stop for lunch and reading for a half an hour. Then I’m back working until 4:30.”

In contrast, Annemarie O’Brien (http://annemarieobrienauthor.com) binge writes. “I essentially schedule chunks of time, leave my house, and have marathon writing sessions,” she explains. “I have often started at six in the morning and have worked through the day until midnight. I realize this is crazy and most normal people wouldn’t work this way, but I need to get into my character’s world and stay there. It is very hard for me to jump in and out of my story and do it justice if I can’t immerse myself fully.”

Give yourself a daily minimum word count. Many swear by this method. But be realistic when it comes to the word count and then stick to it—on good days, you can always write more.

“It starts with a deadline for the whole work,” Linden McNeilly explains. “That is usually dependent on some outside [event] I am committed to, like attending a conference. I back map from there into weekly word count requirements, and then daily ones. Writing specific scenes works well to help me get to my daily word count. I always end my writing sessions [by journaling] about what’s coming next, and outline scenes at least a little into the future.”

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Prewriting rituals: Meditation, prayer, lighting candles, reading inspirational passages, and jogging were some of the most raved-about routines. Exercise happens to be my favorite prewriting routine with spin class winning out as the most effective epiphany-inducing technique. Somewhere between slightly breathless and heart-stopping hard, solutions to my plot problems and story questions start surfacing, glimmering like lightning bugs on a summer night. If I can’t get to the gym before I write, I’ll stand on my head instead. Bring on the blood flow!

Turn off the Internet: Everyone agrees this is essential. If you’ve got the willpower to ignore the siren song of cyberspace, great; otherwise, download and use an Internet blocking app like Freedom. “I manually turn off my access to the Internet,” says McNeilly. “I allow myself to turn it back on in specific intervals of 30 minutes, but only to check correspondence, then off it goes.”

Getting in the Mood: Notice those earbuds our kids never take off?  Mood music helps us rev up, relax, feel romantic, nostalgic, adventurous or afraid. It can also help us connect with our characters when searching for the emotional heart of a scene.   background-313389_640

“When I’m revising a manuscript, I like to listen to movie soundtracks while I work,” Frances Lee Hall (http://www.francesleehall.com) explains. “Soundtracks are meant to evoke a wide range of emotions and follow the movie’s plot. You could argue that the music alone can tell a story from beginning to end. While I was revising Fried Wonton, I listened to the soundtrack from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I love Yo Yo Ma’s cello combined with Tan Dun’s majestic score. When I was in an emotional part in my story, a song called Yearning of the Sword came on at that exact moment when I needed it most. It’s sad, longing cello sounds put me in the mood that I needed to be.”

Snacks: Be sure to feed your body and your brain.coffee-386878_640

Tea and coffee win out as favorite beverages with chocolate as the best-loved snack. I also liked Jacobus’s trick of keeping dried fruit and nuts at her desk to munch on if she’s on a roll and doesn’t want to stop.

“Don’t wait for the muse to whisper in your ear,” Sussman says. I agree. If we expect life to get in the way of our writing and have a strategy for dealing with hard times and temptations—instead of using them as an excuse—we’ll be more likely to find the discipline we need.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make a pot of tea and turn off the Internet.

Helen Pyne (www.helenpyne.com)