It’s an age-old question. What came first: the chicken or the egg? The plot or the protagonist?
What if the shaping of the story and your main character happens at the same time?
It’s an age-old question. What came first: the chicken or the egg? The plot or the protagonist?
What if the shaping of the story and your main character happens at the same time?
You’ve reached the point in the writing process where it’s time to make some serious changes. Congratulations!
Now it’s time to pick up that red pen and make some small and big alterations to your writing. This is called the editing process and the revision process.
Here’s where it gets confusing. The terms editing and revising are often used interchangeably. Even I’m guilty of doing that.
But there are key differences between editing and revising. I like to refer to this chart:
But I can also spell it out.
Editing is about making the surface of the words nice and shiny. It’s like washing your car after driving across the country.
Revision takes editing beyond the surface level. Revising requires you to focus on the meaning of the words. To put it in another way, revising is like popping the hood on your car to see why it makes that funny noise.
Unlike the editing process, there are two levels to the revision process. That’s because, like a car, fixing that funny noise can lead to another leak you can’t see.
The first level of revising means:
The second level of the revising process focuses on the big picture of your writing. It’s about making sure that all the parts are in the right places and that it all flows coherently.
The second level of revising (for an essay or college paper) means:
The second level of revising (for a narrative) means:
There’s a lot of debate on this subject. And the right answer hasn’t been established yet.
Here’s what I recommend: Start in reverse. Revise your writing by looking at the big picture. Then revise for sentence flow and order. Wrap it up with editing every letter and punctuation mark.
I find this way saves a lot of time. Why spend hours capitalizing words if you end up cutting out that entire paragraph tomorrow?
Sometimes, the editing and revising process overlaps. I often fix the spelling of a word or shift passive into active voice while I’m heightening the action of a scene.
Finding what works for you takes time as well as some trial and error. Even our processes can use some revising and editing.
What do you think the real difference is between revising and editing? Share your thoughts below.
As I write this, a beautiful golden retriever lays at my feet with her duck toy.
Yes, her name is Marnie. And no, she is not my dog.
I am currently hanging out with her while her family volunteers at Leader Dogs for the Blind this afternoon. After a stroll down the block and a dog bowl feast, she is pooped.
Literally and figuratively.
“I’ll get a few things done before you’re ready to play again,” I said to Marnie.
She exhales through her nose.
But I made one tragic mistake before her family walked out the door: I forgot to ask for the WIFI password.
When it comes to crossing things off my to-do list, it’s amazing how depended I am on the Internet.
That only leaves one thing for me to do: Write this week’s blog post.
I had a great idea for a blog post, but I wanted to get a grasp on the subject matter before diving in—and that meant relying on the Internet.
(I understand that there are other ways of obtaining information, but I refuse to go to the library if it means leaving my new dog friend alone.)
So that means starting from scratch. How can I come up with an original idea without double-checking the search engines? How do I know that I’m right without fact-checking against other sources?
Once again, I am overthinking my writing. And that stops now.
The simple answer: Of course.
We all do this. We spend too much time worrying about if we conducted enough research to write, if we understand our characters enough to write, if we have imagined the scene or concept far enough to write.
But what’s enough? And what’s just too darn much?
When I was in high school, I always had big ideas for stories. I spent hours diagramming a character’s likes, dislikes, life history, insecurities, proud points, physical features…
…that I never picked up the pen and wrote the story.
But if it’s keeping you from writing the story, then you’re overthinking your writing.
It’s usually because we don’t trust ourselves to get it right the first time. You doubt your writing talent to take hold of your vision and execute it.
And your intuition is correct: You will not get it right the first time.
I’m not insulting your writing skills. All writers—even the greatest ones—don’t get their story right the first time.
Because we’re not supposed to write flawlessly. Just because you don’t get all your ideas on paper today doesn’t mean that it will never make it into the story.
When you make time to write, it should be solely dedicated to writing, not editing as you go.
Write down how you see the character right now, how you envision the environment right now, how you observe the dialogue and action right now. Write down how you see it in this moment.
It may change tomorrow or next week. You may need to do some serious editing and rewriting.
But that’s part of the craft and beauty of writing. Think of it as watching the behind-the-scenes extra footage of your story. You get to watch your story unfold and grow in a way your readers never experience.
And that’s just one of the many perks of being a writer.
So, do you overthink your writing? Share your story below.
I had to get away.
See, after five weekends of cat-sitting, I was getting antsy. All my travel plans were shelved so that my friends could go off on exciting adventures across the country. The things I do to make a little extra dough.
Now it was my turn.
After feeding the cats an early breakfast and doting on their petting needs, I hit the road. These cats would want dinner, so I didn’t go too far. Just two hours away down windy roads and through hidden villages for my final destination: Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.
Not every adventure has to be thousands of miles away. But every writer needs an adventure.
Traveling may seem uncharacteristic for a writer to do. We writers are stereotyped as introvert homebodies who don’t travel farther than the local library or downtown café to sit hunched over our book or laptop screen.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
While writers need solitude to write their masterpiece, we also crave adventure to craft it. If you’re on the fence about taking a trip near or far, consider these reasons about taking the leap—or the drive—towards adventure.
Creativity is finding ways to make connections between ideas. And sometimes you need a new idea to make a better connection.
What makes traveling so exciting is because something is new. You discover something new or learn something new or find something new—or you enjoy the newness of diverting from your usual routine.
This newness prompts us to ask questions—and we writers love to ask questions. That’s because questions are the start of the creative process. We’re not afraid to ask, “What can this newness bring to my writing?”
At Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, my mission was to hike to the natural bridge.
My obstacles? Lots and lots of boulders.
Hiking to my destination meant jumping from one large rock to the next. And when I reached my destination, all my hard work was instantly justified.
If the trail was paved and the weather not a windy 40 degrees, then it wouldn’t have been an adventure. As the saying goes: It’s about the journey, not the destination.
Traveling shines light on these important character development questions:
Beneath the natural bridge is a flowing creek. This makes the boulders slippery and worn away.
And this is where my trouble began.
My challenge was to get from my wet, polished boulder onto the next. I patted every inch of its slick surface, investigating all my options. I found that the most difficult solution was my only solution.
So I clung to that slippery, smooth rock with all ten fingers—until my one hand slipped. Now it was up to the strength of my one hand to keep me from dropping into the cold, rocky waters below.
It was close—but I made it. Then I remembered my cell phone was in my pocket.
It wasn’t a life or death situation, but a lot was at risk. If I dropped, I could have seriously injured myself. My food supplies would have become soggy and nonedible. And my cell phone would have suffered serious water damage.
Traveling is a reminder that tough choices have to be made. Things don’t always go as planned. The right choice is usually the hardest one to make.
Traveling verifies why we ask the tough plot questions when crafting a story:
How does traveling impact your writing? Share your story below.
Getting into my Writing MFA program was one of the happiest moments in my life. I was accepted into my school of choice and I had the luxury of delaying the real world for another three years. I was finally going to become the writer I always wanted to be.
But did I?
Sure, now my writing style is refined. I know how to make sentences evoke strong actions as well as subtly convey foreshadowing. I can shape character development and recurring themes in my sleep.
However, there’s one thing that I didn’t learn. And it’s probably why I had to write my thesis three times in order to snag a diploma. It’s something so rare and yet so simple to teach.
There wasn’t an option to take a Plot and Conflict Development class. There wasn’t a lecture on how to create a story arc. There wasn’t even a homework assignment on it to see where my storyline was weak.
In fact, plot was never discussed at all. Instructors always asked, “What happens next?” but they never explained the necessity of asking that question.
It wasn’t just my program. Even the most prestigious Writing MFA programs don’t dedicate a course to crafting a strong plot. There are a plethora of workshop sessions and literature courses as if you’ll learn the plot process through osmosis.
Some of my Writing MFA program courses tried to explain it.
In my Young Adult Fiction class, I was assigned to outline my proposed young adult novel from start to finish. But outlining a story without plot structure is like trying to solve a math problem without the formula.
My playwriting courses brought me closer. My instructor explained that a play was based on what characters want, what they’ll do to get it and how conflicting wants between characters creates—you guessed it—conflict. But that’s like saying that if you want to solve that math problem, you’ll need a calculator, a pencil and paper.
There’s still no formula on the table.
Is it because plot structure is a scientific way of breaking down a story? Are Writing MFA programs afraid to introduce science in a fine arts program? Do graduate writing programs think that left brain strategy destroys right brain creativity?
Or do instructors simply not know how to teach plot?
Whatever the reason, not knowing how to structure a story left me feeling helpless in grad school. It’s like refining every tool in the toolbox and throwing out the largest wrench from the shed. It’s like graduating with all but one skill that is the driving force for writing success.
Don’t worry. There’s a happy ending to this story.
I discovered the science behind plot and conflict development when I attended the Rochester Writers’ Conference in 2012. The keynote speaker explained not only how to create the physical plot of the story but also how to parallel the emotional plot with the story’s adventure.
My mind was blown.
Then, in 2014, I got to choose a book from the free books stack simply by signing up for the library’s summer reading program. And there on the shelf was The Plot Whisperer Workbook, a step-by-step guide to creating the plot all my stories craved.
Summer reading programs do change lives.
So, for the cost of a local writing conference and a free book, learning plot structure ended up being cheaper than taking a three-credit Writing MFA program course.
And, finally, my writing is back on course.
In next week’s blog post, I explain how to create a story arc through character development.
Did you learn plot structure in your Writing MFA program? Share your story below.
As I creative writer, I hear this often: “I have a story for you to write.”
“I’m listening,” I’ll say.
“It’s about a blind man who regains his sight, but then loses his hearing.”
“Then what happens?” I will ask.
“You tell me. Write it!”
But that’s not a story. I definitely appreciate the lead-in, but let’s call it what it is. A story idea. A writing prompt. A character.
So, what’s the difference? Let’s define it.
A story, in simple terms, is a narrative telling of connected events with a setting, characters and plot.
A story idea is a fragment of a story. It’s an idea for a character, a backdrop, a start of a sticky situation.
But what happens next? What happens to the character? What happens at this place? What complicates the situation? How is the plot resolved?
There’s nothing wrong with story ideas. The best stories were born from a story idea. The difference here is that the writer recognized that the story idea was, in fact, a story idea and took the time to grow it into a story.
Even the best of creative writing students mistake a story idea for a story. I know I did.
During my grad school years, I wanted to write a young adult novel about a teenage skater girl who gets sent to an all-girl Catholic school. I was so certain that I had a story that I plunged in and wrote several chapters. But by Chapter 5 and she still wasn’t at the all-girl Catholic school, I knew something was up.
I didn’t write her to be at the all-girl Catholic school because I didn’t know what would happen next. I didn’t take the time to see the big picture because I was so excited about one detail of the potential story.
That’s when I knew I only had a story idea, not a story.
Don’t worry. I was able to shape the first chapter into a short story.
That’s why I’m a big supporter of outlining a story. I agree that freewriting helps in the creative process of crafting the plot of the story, but we creative writers often believe that we’ll be able to write a perfect draft from start to finish without any hiccups simply by having a story idea.
But a story idea isn’t enough. Knowing what happens from start to finish as well as how the characters change and grow is.
At least, enough to know that you’re on the right path towards a story.
Do you agree that there’s a difference between a story and a story idea? Share your thoughts below.
If you’re struggling with plot structure, take a playwriting class. One of the first things you learn, before stage directions and sharpening dialog, is developing a plot.
It boils down to this: Character One wants A, Character Two wants B. A and B oppose each other, so Characters One and Two compete until a character wins.
I’ll put it in story terms.
The protagonist wants to save his family. The antagonist wants his family locked up in prison for the rest of their lives. These wants oppose each other, so the protagonist and antagonist compete against each other until the family is saved or the family is locked up in prison for the rest of their lives without any threat of being released.
The character does not need to save his family. The character does not have to save his family. The character wants to save his family.
Despite dictionary definitions, want and need are not the same thing. Need is a requirement for survival. A club needs members in order to survive. Your character needs food, water, clothes, and shelter in order to survive.
Want means to desire, to value, to hunger. When a character wants, he aims to improve the quality of his life. He wants to save his family because his family’s survival increases his quality of life.
Shouldn’t a character save his family because it is the right thing to do?
A character is motivated to work harder and endure more hardship when he’s invested in the goal. A character’s motivation cannot come from outside himself. It must be a want from within.
Simply put, your character must be selfish. And selfish is not a bad word. Selfish means for oneself. It doesn’t mean only for oneself and it doesn’t mean harming others in order to gain for oneself. There’s another word for that: greed.
I’ll come back to this.
This may seem contradictory to what happens in many stories we read or watch. Characters proclaim it-is-the-right-thing-to-do this and it’s-not-for-myself-but-for-everyone-else that before charging into battle.
But pay close attention not to what the character says but on what he does. When he saves his family, does he really do it because is it the right thing to do? Is he really saving his family selflessly and only for them?
Look at his actions. How passionate is he about saving his family? How does he feel about saving his family? How invested is he in saving his family?
That’s a person who wants to save his family. That’s a person acting selfishly. That’s a person who acts from within.
So how do we choose sides? What makes a protagonist and what makes an antagonist?
It’s a battle between selfishness and greed. A protagonist’s actions are selfish, while the antagonist’s actions are greedy. An antagonist resorts to dishonest actions that harms and misleads others into cooperation. Because it is morally correct for our actions to not harm others, a greedy character becomes the enemy.
It’s okay to want to like and dislike a character in a story. It’s okay to selfishly cheer on a character. It’s okay to want a character to succeed from within yourself.
You and your character have something in common: you both want.
Here’s my confession: I love watching soap operas.
It’s not what you think.
It started last summer while I was still unemployed. My mom turned it on just to catch up on the whos and whats of her programs, and I happen to be in the room applying for jobs online.
To me, soap operas are a lot like curling. When I watched curling for the first time, I mocked the sport that called its players sweepers and used brooms to get the stones in the house. But twenty minutes into the game, I was shouting, “Sweep! Sweep!” at the TV.
So I mocked the soap operas for months: the repetitive dialogue, how there was always a reason for the actors to take off their shirts, how the actresses looked terrified before cutting to the next scene.
But by the fall, I was hooked.
I couldn’t put my finger on it at first. I wasn’t losing sleep at night wondering who will end up with who or if the company will survive the latest scandal. I didn’t even find myself living vicariously through their romance novel lives–I was actually more motivated after each episode to get out of the house.
So what makes these soap operas so appealing to me?
After scrutinizing the genre for several more weeks, I figured it out: soap operas have mastered the art of the complex plot.
There are numerous (we’ll say 3 to 5), interwoven complicated plots occurring like a symphony on screen. While one plot piece is blowing up for days with maximum climatic tensions, another plot seed is being planted quietly during a two-minute scene and not revisited for a week.
In other words, the next climatic problem is planned while the current one is taking place.
I give soap opera writers a lot of credit. That’s a lot of storyboarding and outlining to create a complex plot that never loses sight of the big picture.
This isn’t a very common practice in other genres. Short stories and novels focus on completing a full movement. Plays and movies sometimes have several mini-plots that solve themselves out in the end. Some TV dramas even take a shot at it, but usually all the characters are dealing with different complications of the same plot conflict. Serials and book series are the closest, but these genres aren’t quite there because their complicated plot usually continues only one storyline.
So what separates the soap opera from the other genres?
Nothing ever is fully solved. He may be professing his love to her today, but his eye will wander to another stiletto walker next month. The company may have cleared its name today, and profits may skyrocket tomorrow, but there’s another jealous employee plotting revenge in the corner of the screen.
How can we apply this to our writing, especially to genres that aren’t meant to continue on for eternity?
What complex plot points do you want to happen in your story? Where do you want your characters to go and how will you write them there? Freewriting is a useful practice to sort out ideas, but you must know the complicated plot arc in order to have a direction worth writing towards.
This is hard as parents of our characters, but the most intriguing stories are the ones where the characters have a lot to overcome. Make a list of all the ways that will make solving the problem difficult and put your characters out of their comfort zones.
See how many characters can get caught in the plot web without it getting too crowded. Know everyone’s role in the problem. See the problem from every character’s point of view and personal challenges. Never lose sight of one character or bend a character’s personality/challenges for plot convenience.
Create a timeline to keep track of what’s happening when. Draft out each problem for every character cluster side by side and see how the plots can snap together. Toss any unnecessary plot points and replace them with ones that give value to the story and your characters.
Want to try this out in your writing? Here’s your practice round:
Who: 6 characters minimum
What: 3 plot problems minimum involving all characters in any sequence and/or overlap
When: Writer’s choice
Where: A house party or dinner party
Why: To master the complex plot
How: Transition from problem to problem smoothly without messing with the chronology of time
In the meanwhile, I’ll be watching today’s soap opera episode…and searching for the next curling broadcast.
After sitting down at my favorite café table (by a window, of course) while setting up my supplies and sipping a mocha, I did what I hadn’t done in a long time–I continued writing my novel.
Actually, I was outlining my novel. But I’ll dig deeper into that in another blog post.
It’s been a month since I had carried on in my fictional journey. And after reading over my previous notes, I leapt right back in: plotting out my plot, digging deeper into character quirks and histories, sculpting out more details in the scenery.
So what kept me from this project for so long?
A lot of things. I’ve been submerged in job applications, holiday shopping, pet sitting, household chores, freelancing, and promoting my blog.
There’s never enough time for the writer to write.
Writers have lives beyond their world of writing, and it’s always difficult to jot down an idea when a baby’s crying or there’s a pressing deadline at work.
But these are excuses for not writing. Not reasons.
The reason for not writing is simple: we don’t value writing enough to make it a priority.
Sure, “write story” is scribbled down on our to-do lists, but it’s at the bottom after “exercise” and “pick up dry cleaning.” After everything else is crossed out on that list, it’s 9 at night and we’re too exhausted to pick up the pen.
I’ve been there…and currently am there.
Some days we won’t write because of Sally’s birthday or your nephew’s wedding or that big business presentation. Some days we choose dedicate our time to the people, job, and occasions that we value.
But that’s a reason for a handful of days.
During periods like this when your writing becomes a dissolving note on your desk, what needs to be done is a reevaluation.
First, ask yourself these questions:
You may find that you value writing as a hobby, or even a past flirtation. Or you may find that you are desperate to get back and don’t know how to break this writing-less pattern.
Here’s how to bring value back into your writing:
Put your writing at the top of your to-do list. Highlight it. Underline it. Surround it with exclamation points. Write it in bright, unavoidable colors. Your new mantra is “I will write today” and your new goal is making it fit into your schedule.
Schedule writing sessions. Pick a time and place that you can realistically uphold. Even once a week is more than never. Even ten minutes is more than never. Make a commitment and dedicate yourself to keeping it.
Have a writing plan. Take the intimidation out of writing and know what you need to work on. Make the task as specific as possible. When your writing session is done, define what needs to be done next time.
Don’t complete your sentence. One of my favorite writing tips: leave off your writing session in the middle of a sentence. If this is too painful for you to do, end your session in the middle of a scene. You are more willing to return to your writing when you are going to finish writing exciting action or complete that big revelation.
Join a writing group or online community. Writing groups keep regular meeting dates, regular assignments, and regular support and encouragement. You get to see your readers and hear what they have to say about your writing. Wanting to give your readers more to read will bring more value to your writing. This will also motivate you to keep a set writing schedule and to improve your writing.
Make use of down time. While you’re in the elevator, driving down the road, or waiting for your leftovers to heat in the microwave, brainstorm! Pick something small that needs work (a character’s motivation in a scene or the next plot turn) and shoot around ideas in your head. Small problems can be solved in spare intervals. And, if you think you’ll forget it, scribble down your solution.
Since my last writing session, I can’t stop thinking about my story. I fall asleep every night planning out the events of my story and exploring my characters’ histories. I am keeping the excitement of writing alive in my life even when I’m not writing. So when I finally get around to picking up the pen, I will be eager to do so.