Behind the Story: Deciding Between Standalone or Multiple Books

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!

This week’s topic:
Standalone to Multiple Books: Making the Decision

When I set out on my current Work-In-Progress (WIP), I was resolved to write a standalone novel.  I am doing an adaptation of a classic piece of literature.  That classic is one, admittedly long, book.  Therefore, I would write one book.  I thought a standalone novel was a good place to begin for a new writer, and I didn’t want to jump on the series bandwagon.  One book.  I could handle one book.

But as I started writing, I began to worry.  My word count was high.  And climbing.  I am not a verbose wordsmith either.  My scenes are quick.  Rarely do I write more than three sentences of description.  I like action.  In fact, while I’m praised for my fast pacing, my advisors and critique partners often want more description.  So the fact that my word count was so high made me nervous.  Because I knew I would need to eventually go back and flesh out descriptions and close plot holes that I sped past.

I was less than two-thirds through the first draft when I hit the max word count for a typical Young Adult standalone novel.  (YA typically falls between 55k and 90k.)  And so I knew I had to do some serious thinking.

Why had I tethered myself to this one book idea?  Mostly, it was because I wanted to be identical to the classic novel I was adapting.  Was that a wise decision?  Can I consider another option?

And when I thought about it, multiple books actually made more sense.

  • My one book is very much divided into three distinct parts.
  • There are three completely different settings.
  • Each part ends with a devastating event.
  • Each part ends with both a resolution as well as a cliffhanger.
  • Each part begins with my character grappling with change and new conflict.

I had three books.  Easily.  In fact, three books made so much more sense.  So I gave in.  And the good side is: I have almost an entire trilogy drafted.  Not just outlined.  Drafted.  And that rocks.

The tough part: it’s all a little more overwhelming.  Because a part of every writer wonders why anyone would want to read their book.  And now I have to persuade a reader to not just invest their time and money in one book, but three.  And that’s more pressure.

But I love my story.  I love my characters.  I love my setting.  And I know this story isn’t like anything else that’s out there right now.

So I’ll ignore the pressure and doubts.  And keep writing.  Because deep down: I just love this story.  And I have to write it.  Even if it takes me three books.

Have you ever had a story evolve beyond your expectations?
Let me know if there is a “Behind the Story” topic you would like to see… Happy Writing!

Behind the Story: Getting Organized

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!

This week’s topic:
Getting Organized

I love using planners.  In college, the first thing I’d do after the first full week of classes is fill out a planner/calendar with all the due dates for the semester.  Often things would be color coded.  I liked to see everything all laid out in one document.  I’ve gone through similar phases with blogging and planning out my posts for the month.

But here is my frustration: planners don’t often have what I’m looking for.  Occasionally I’ve found one.  I really liked a line of planners Vera Bradley made for awhile.  But when I went shopping for my 2015 planner, I could not find what I was looking for.  I like to have both a monthly spread and the weekly spread.  For example, I want to be able to see the whole month of January and then immediately following a full calendar for there to be a smaller weekly breakdown.  Apparently, I am alone in this desire because finding a planner laid out that way is a challenge.

So I resolved this dilemma by making my own darn planner.  Right now it’s in a file folder, but I might move it to a three-ring binder.  I wanted to share the pages I created in case this is a design that others may find helpful.  Below are links to the PDF files.

Month Planner

This page features a write-in calendar, a place to list books I read that month, and a place to record my writing word count for the entire month.

Weekly Planner

This page features two weekly spreads where I can record:

  • Daily word count
  • Blog post published that day
  • What book I am reading

There is also a spot at the end of each week to record what my biggest accomplishment of the week was.  Sometimes we all need to recognize our efforts and give ourselves a pat on the back!

I love that I’ve been able to customize a planner for my own uses.  And this was way cheaper than buying one!

Feel free to save or download the pdfs to use yourself!

How do you stay organized?  Do you use a planner or calendar system?
Let me know if there is a “Behind the Story” topic you would like to see… Happy Writing!

Behind the Story: Journaling Your Writing

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!

This week’s topic:

Journaling Your Writing

I wanted to share something I started doing as part of my writing routine that’s been helpful for me.  Perhaps it will be helpful to other fellow writers as well!  I’m calling it journaling because that’s pretty close to what it is. Here is what I include in my journaling:
  • Today’s Date
  • Brief Description of Where I Left Off in My Novel
  • What Scenes I Know Are Coming Up Next
  • Surprises While I Was Writing
  • My Final Word Count For the Day
I don’t write a ton for each entry.  A typical day looks like this:
Write Tip Pic
I want to explain what each part does for me, and why this has been a useful tool:
  • Today’s Date: Helps to hold me accountable for writing each day.  And it’s useful in tracking my own productivity.  I also give myself gold star stickers on a calendar for each 1k I write, and if I forget to “star myself” then I can go back here to check.
  • Where I Left Off: I always begin my writing day by re-reading the last scene that I wrote.  I usually try not to do any editing.  Rereading gets me back in the zone and refreshes my memory.  And then writing a brief blurb of that scene in my journaling helps me focus on what about that scene was important.
  • What’s Next: Listing the scenes that are coming up next can serve as an outline, menu, or brainstorm session.  Sometimes it’s a reminder of what’s on my agenda.  Sometimes I can kind of pick from the menu based on what I think comes next organically.  And sometimes I have no idea what comes next and I brainstorm some possibilities.
  • Surprises: This is probably the part of my journaling I love most.  Whenever I sit down to write, something will usually come out that I was not expecting.  An unplanned plot point or an emotional burst from a character or a new quirky secondary character makes himself known.  My favorite part of my writing day has become writing down the surprises, and often I want to explore that surprise more the next day.  I also think it might be fun to share with readers someday… “This character came out of nowhere!” or “I was never planning to do that!”
  • Word Count: This holds me accountable for my writing most of all.  I try to write a 1,000 words a day… no matter what.  It’s a high goal, but honestly, the hardest part is making the time to write and getting your butt in the chair.  Once I’m started, I usually make it.
Not only has this journaling been helpful, but I also think that somewhere down the road, this is going to be a sentimental keepsake.  Being able to look back and see how my story unfolded… I wish I’d done this from the very beginning.
Now I have a beautiful use for all those awesome journals/notebooks that people give me as gifts  🙂
Any other writers do some form of journaling?  Anyone plan to give this a try?
Let me know if there is a “Behind the Story” topic you would like to see… Happy Writing!

Behind the Story: Writer’s Block

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Writer’s Block

I’m going to surprise a few people with my opinion, but…

I don’t believe writer’s block exists.

I don’t believe there’s any mystical force that takes hold of your brain and prevents you from churning out words.

I don’t believe in muses or creative juices running dry.

Instead, I believe there can be things you’re not doing as a writer that inhibit your ability to create.  But I think this inability to create is self-inflicted and can also be self-cured.  Below are reasons I’ve identified for why writers find themselves unable to write:

1. Exhaustion or Poor Health

Even if you’re just sitting at a desk, writing takes energy.  Your brain has to be rested and fully-charged in order to take part in the creative process.  If you’re not taking care of yourself, then your ability to create can be affected.

Are you getting enough sleep?  Are you drinking enough water?  (Your brain is 80% water and dehydration can cause headaches and sluggishness.)  Are you exercising and getting fresh air?

I understand that sometimes taking care of yourself can fall to the back-burner when you have a full-time job or deadlines to meet, but taking care of your health is important.  I’m not perfect in this area either.  I definitely stay up too late, much too often.  But I’ve also noticed that I do my best writing when I’m rested and healthy.

2. Lack of Brainstorming, Planning, Outlining

I don’t know why writers think they can always sit down at a computer and words will magically flow out of them.  That the story and the characters will mystically take control.

Of course, I’ve been writing and had a scene surprise me, or a character behave differently from what I’ve planned.  But you can’t rely on your subconscious brain to tell the whole story.  The story is coming out of your brain.  Therefore, if your brain has neglected to think about where the story is going to go next, then of course you’re going to get stuck.

Sometimes you have to sit down and think about what’s coming next in your novel.  When I get stuck, I make lists.  I make lists of conflicts or bad things that could happen.  I make lists of things my character still needs to learn before the end of the book.  I make lists of what I know still needs to happen before the climax.  Always, before I’m even done with my list, I get unstuck and know what I want to write next.

Brainstorming, people.  It’s awesome.  I make my middle schoolers do it.  You should, too.

3. Lack of Research/Too Much Research

I kept research separate from brainstorming because I think it’s an entirely different beast.  I’ve seen writers get burned on both ends by this one.

Research can help get your creative juices flowing, whether it can inspire a setting or give you ideas of conflicts your protagonist might encounter.  If you aren’t doing any sort of research, then you’re limiting yourself.  You’re limiting your writing to your own experiences.  There are countless times where a little research has gotten me unstuck creatively.

However, at the same time, some people end up doing a whole lot of research and very little writing.  You have to limit yourself in your research.  I like to come up with a set list of questions that I need to answer, and if I catch myself straying too far in my research, I can easily get myself back on track as well as know when I’m done looking stuff up.  I also try to not research when I’m in the middle of a writing session because it will interrupt my groove.  I’ve taken to leaving comments/notes to myself in my story of things I need to look up when I’m done, rather than pause to search the internet.

4. Laziness and Lack of Self-Motivation

“I don’t feel like writing today.  I’m not in a creative mood.”  Sound like a writer you know?

I love writing.  If I could do it full-time, I’d be the happiest girl in the world.  However, are there days that I don’t feel like writing?  Of course.  Are there days where I’d rather watch a Downton Abbey marathon or curl up with a book I’ve been dying to read?  Yes.  Writing is still hard work, and sometimes I just want to relax.

However, I make my butt get in the chair, even when I don’t want to, and I write.  Usually the first twenty minutes are rough.  But after I’ve gotten down a couple hundred words, I will usually make it to a full hour and maybe even a thousand words.  If you want to be a writer, you have to write more often than just “when the mood strikes you.”  And there’s seriously no better feeling as a writer than to sit down thinking “you’re not in the mood” and then to crank out a scene that you LOVE.

If you struggle with motivation, there are several things you can do.  You can set up a reward system for yourself.  I love buying myself a bouquet of flowers for my desk when I’ve met my word count goal for the week.  You can set up a calendar and give yourself a sticker for every day that you sit down to write.  You can allow yourself a favorite warm beverage or piece of candy… but only if you’re writing.

Some people work better by limiting something until they are done or rewarding themselves with activities.  For example, I’m not allowed to go to this website until I have this many words.  Or I can’t watch this TV episode until I finish this scene.

I also find that setting up a schedule to write at the same time each day, and then recording in my planner how much I accomplished is helpful.  I like routine and I like keeping track of my progress.  I’ll record my word counts for the day as well as time spent brainstorming or researching.  I’ve also recently started recording time spent blogging, in part to make sure I’m balanced in how much time I’m spending on writing vs. blogging.

I hope this post helped you in offering strategies for being successful as a writer, especially if you find yourself struggling in any of the above “blockages.”

What are your opinions on writer’s block?  Do you disagree with me?  Did you find any of my tips or self-cures helpful?

Let me know what other writing topics you would like to see on Behind the Story!

Behind the Story: Emotion Part 3

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Emotion
The past two weeks I’ve been discussing emotional plots and emotional journeys from a writer’s perspective.  For previous posts:
What the Experts Have to Say
Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies
By Deborah Halverson
Pages 98-99 examine the differences between plot driven stories and character driven stories.  
Plot driven stories “put the action first” and “have an episodic feel to them as the characters move from event to event” and are often described as “page turners.”  Plot driven stories tend to appeal to boys and are often the following genres: adventure, fantasy, mystery, crime, thriller, and sometimes historical fiction.  One warning about plot driven stories is that characters can sometimes become stereotypical because the author wants to move the pace along instead of spending time on characterization.
Character driven stories “spotlight your main character’s emotions and psychological development” and “what happens isn’t as important as how the character reacts emotionally to what happens.”  The following genres are often character driven: contemporary-issue books, chick lit, multicultural stories, and coming-of-age themed books.  Some warnings for character driven stories are to beware of telling instead of showing, not to be afraid of action because it can reveal more about your character, and  to beware slow pacing from too much emotional wallowing and self-analysis.
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression
By Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
This is a very cool book.  Emotions are arranged alphabetically into entries similar to a dictionary or encyclopedia.  You can look up an emotion and it will give you:
  • definition
  • physical signals
  • internal sensations
  • mental responses
  • cues of acute or long-term feelings
  • what this emotion could escalate to
  • cues of suppressed feelings

It’s really an amazing little book.  Especially if you feel like you are overusing the same response for an emotion.  For example, your character keeps having stomach fluttering when she’s nervous.  If you look up nervousness, you get 33 physical signals and 11 internal sensations that indicate nervousness.  So awesome!
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
By John Gardner
Gardner presents an interesting exercise for using description of setting to convey the emotions of the character.  His exercise: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.  Do not mention the son, or war, or death.  Do not mention the man who does the seeing.”  Gardner says that a talented writer should be able to conjure a powerful image that evokes everything the man is feeling using the barn as a focus.
Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults
By Cheryl Klein
Klein has a short but wonderful chapter in her book titled, “Four Techniques to Get at the Emotional Heart of Your Story.”  My favorite part of the chapter was where she said, “Every scene has to have a point, and often it is an emotional point.”  When you’re revising a manuscript, and perhaps asked to cut scenes, you can ask yourself if this scene is a plot point or an emotional point.  She even goes so far to say that writers will often cut off after the action and right before the emotional point is reached.  This made me wonder if I had any scenes where emotions weren’t dealt with because I cut out too early.
How to Write a Damn Good Novel
By James N. Frey
Frey has a great section titled, “Inner Conflict and the Necessity Thereof.”  Basically, he writes that inner conflict is necessary for good fiction.  He gives several classic literary examples to illustrate his point.  He says that Godzilla doesn’t have the makings of dramatic fiction because there is no inner conflict.  Giant green monster tearing up your city, of course you kill him.  There is no internal battle of wills.  In Hamlet on the other hand, the prince wants to kill his father’s murderer but has an internal struggle against it.  This internal struggle is what grips the reader and makes great dramatic fiction.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts on emotion!  Let me know in the comments if you have another writing topic you’d like to see featured!

Links to Previous ‘Behind the Story’ Posts:

Behind the Story: Emotion Part 2

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Emotion
Last week’s post was all about how a story has an action plot and an emotional plot.  To see last week’s post, click here.  This week’s post is about how I revised a draft to improve the emotional plot as well as a discussion of emotional filters.
Emotional Journey
So what’s the next step after identifying the emotional journey of your protagonist?  Conveying that journey.  As I said last post, I’d left myself some breadcrumbs.  Some clues.  But I had to hunt for those breadcrumbs, so surely my reader isn’t going to be able to follow me down that path.  I needed to construct a clearer path, so that my reader could see the journey or change that my main character went through.
In the case of revising “Rebel Angel,” I had to go back into the story and look at how Vera behaved and reacted to situations.  In the beginning of the story, I needed her to show off her rebellious and cavalier attitude, but hint at her own internal struggle with being a failure as an angel.  As I moved to the middle of the story, I had to continue her rebellious attitude, reveal frustration with her mission, and show moments where Vera revealed she cared about her job.  In the ending, I needed Vera to make a desperate shift as she becomes determined to do her job and embracing her role as a guardian angel.
Vera was a bland character in the first draft, so I had to go back and add lots of snarky dialogue, eye-rolling, and a devil-may-care attitude.  I decided that I needed a mentor figure for her to butt heads with, but also to give her that boost of confidence she needed when she became desperate.  Vera also became a more real character to me, flawed and fascinating.  The first draft was around 20 pages, and the second draft was 40 pages.  But the story felt so much more whole after that revision.  It had the action, but it was also an emotional journey.  And even my favorite action-packed novels have characters who grow and change over the course of the book.
Exercise #2

Outline general behaviors, attitudes, fears of your main character at different points in you story that will reveal a progression or growth in their emotional journey.  (Like I did above for Vera the Angel)

Again, I’m a fan of charts, so you might find this format helpful:
Emotional Filter
Here’s another tricky bit in conquering the emotional plot of your story: the emotional filter.  At least, I find it tricky.  Because as much as my characters feel like real people, I am not them.  When I write, I don’t suddenly inhabit their body and mind and let it take over me.  I don’t suddenly see the world as they live it.  Maybe some writers write this way, but I don’t.  I’m very much conscious of the desk, my computer, my cup of tea, and the words coming out of my fingertips.  I’m conscious of the fact that I’m writing, and I’m thinking about where I want the story to go and what words will get me there.
If you aren’t familiar with the term, emotional filter is a writing term, especially important in first person but also close third, that is used in revising writing to remind a writer to see a scene from the character’s emotional perspective.  I tend to struggle with this because I’m not thinking as my main character as I write.
I usually have to go back after my initial drafting and insert emotions and inner monologue.  Sometimes I’ll have some breadcrumbs of emotions to work with, but usually it’s something I have to go back through and add.  As I’ve become aware of emotions being a weak point for me, I think I’ve gotten better at weaving them into my first drafts.  But I know that looking at my emotional plot is going to be one of the major points of my revision when I do finally have a complete first draft.
Three ways to convey what a character is feeling:
  1. Inner Monologue: Dive into what the character is thinking and give the reader direct thoughts.  This is also an excellent way to slow or freeze the narrative for dramatic effect if it is a particularly important or poignant moment.
  2. Dialogue: Convey the emotions through what that character says.  Could your character be confused?  Were they blindsided?  Have them stammer and ask questions.  Is your character angry?  Have them speak tersely or shout.
  3. Action: Little ticks and behaviors can convey emotions.  A clench of the fists, a gasp of breath, a twirl of the hair, a glance at the floor.  I would say that actions are best used in combination with dialogue or thoughts in order to give the reader a full picture of what the character is feeling.

Exercise #3

Write what might seem as a small/insignificant moment, but then convey that this moment has emotional weight for your character.

Exercise #4

Find a scene that is lacking an emotional filter and revise by adding emotions and inner monologue.  Show a before and after of that scene.

Return next week for what I found the experts had to say about emotion and some great writing resources!

Behind the Story: Emotion Part 1

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Emotion

I have strong tastes when it comes to what types of books I enjoy reading.  Note the word “enjoy.”  Reading is my form of escape, and as much as I can, I try to keep reading as something that I do for pleasure.  Due to my personal tastes, one of the biggest categories/genres of books I don’t enjoy is the problem novel.  Characters dealing with emotional issues and internal conflict aren’t fun for me to read.  They stress me out.  Reading about people with serious, real life problems is not how I choose to spend my evening curled up on the couch.  Have I still read some of these books?  Yes.  I’ve read works by Ellen Hopkins (Impulse) and Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak and Wintergirls).  Can these books be important?  Yes.  Do I know students who have loved these kinds of books?  Yes.  But novels dealing with emotional issues and internal conflict are not my cup of tea.

What I do enjoy: conflict, action, suspense, plots with twists and turns.  Give me a quest.  Give me a battle between good and evil.  Give me dire stakes to save the one you love.  That’s my kind of story.  And therefore, that’s what I tend to write.  I’m a conflict and plot driven writer.  I plan out my books by the obstacles and challenges I intend for my characters to face.  And I love writing this way.  It’s great.

However, the wisdom of one of my professors pointed out that a novel can’t be just action.  A novel has an action plot and an emotional plot.  Typically, in my first draft, I have the action plot down.  It’s my emotional plot that needs some help.

At first, this whole realization of an emotional plot kind of blew my mind.  I didn’t really know what to do about it.  It makes sense when you look at my reading preferences.  Was I a total failure at this emotional stuff?  But then I looked at the first drafts of my stories, and I realized that I’d left myself clues as to the emotional plot.  Like breadcrumbs I didn’t know I’d trailed behind me as I was munching my way through the forest.

My first step to remedying my weak emotional plot, was to gather the clues I left myself and piece together the emotional journey my character goes on over the course of the story.

I find it helpful to identify both the action plot and the emotional journey.  Sometimes it’s helpful to see how they fit together.  And if you’re someone who is good at the emotional stuff, then it might help you to outline your action plot.

For example, here is the action plot and emotional plot of my novella “Rebel Angel”:

The action plot is composed of events or challenges in the physical world, whereas the emotional plot should be showing how the character grows and changes over the course of the story.

Exercise #1

Identify the action plot and emotional plot of your novel.  I find the chart helpful, but you may use any format that works for you.

Return next week for more about emotional plots and more writing exercises!

Links to Previous ‘Behind the Story’ Posts:
Pacing and Description Part 1
Pacing and Description Part 2
Pacing and Description Part 3
Choosing Character Names

Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 3

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Pacing and Description
The past two weeks I’ve been discussing pacing and description as a writer.  For previous posts:
This week I’ll be giving you two more writing tips as well as two more exercises!
Pacing Tip #2: White Space and Description Between Dialogue
In terms of teens, white space is your friend.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve handed my classes a book or story or article and heard them groan when they are overwhelmed by the number of words on a page.  But you can have the opposite reaction if you pay attention to white space.  White space is the negative space where there are no words.  It’s an easy way to keep an eye on your pacing.  You can assume that readers move slowly through a page with little white space because they have a lot of words to read, but a page with a lot of white space will move much quicker.  The easiest way of increasing the amount of white space on a page is to add dialogue.  I’ve noticed that many of the more popular/mass market authors tend to not only write a lot of dialogue, but are also good at writing witty dialogue.  Bravo if that’s your strength!  But even if it’s not, a wisely placed bit of dialogue can break up the pacing of a slow scene.
Author, James Patterson and his Maximum Ride series has a ridiculous amount of white space in his books.  His books run roughly 400 pages, but I’d say at least a third to a half of the book is white space.  He uses an abundance of dialogue.  But what’s really sneaky is his chapters.  There are 134 chapters in the first book, and there are chapter breaks every 2-4 pages.  Picture the amount of white space that comes at the beginning and end of a chapter, and you can imagine how much white space a kid sees when flipping through his books when there’s 134 chapters. (I’ve also noticed that my students love the feeling of triumph in saying they read a 134 chapter book.)  I am not a fan of the Maximum Ride series and don’t find them to be especially well written.  But they are the most fast paced books I’ve seen out there, and I think it’s in large part due to James Patterson’s use of white space.
Writing Exercise #2
Look through your work in progress and see if you can find a section that is text heavy with very little white space.  See if you can insert a brief scene of dialogue to break up the text.

This may sound hard, but I did it for a scene I wrote on Monday!  I saw that I had a long paragraph, and figured out how to convey a lot of the same information through a conversation between two characters instead!
Pacing Tip #3: Sensory Details and Characters Interacting With the Setting
The easiest way to slip in setting without your reader noticing that you’re doing any description at all is by having you characters interact with the setting.  I added sensory details to this tip because those are easy ways to tell if you characters are interacting with the setting.  Does you character feel raindrops rolling down their face?  You just sneakily introduced that it was raining!  Does your character taste salt in the air?  You just told us we’re by the ocean!  Does your character hear the click-clacking of high heels on linoleum?  We must be inside a building, perhaps an official one where women where heels!  See how you can reveal setting through sensory details?  Below are some examples of characters interacting with the setting, often through sensory details.

Pressing her cheek to the warm, gritty pavement, she was able to make out three sets of yellow boots across the square.  An emergency crew. She peeled the door open farther and watched the men–all wearing gas masks–as they doused the interior of the booth with liquid from a yellow can.  Even across the square, Cinder wrinkled her nose at the stench.
Cinder, page 17

Here, the author, Marissa Meyer uses sensory details to show her character interacting with the setting.  You get an idea that this is an urban, secretive, and possibly dystopian setting from the sights, smells, and touch of the place through Cinder’s interactions.  (I absolutely love this sci-fi take on Cinderella and highly recommend it!)

But she was still five hundred feet up when the first sheets of rain arrived.  The cold drops fell diagonally, hitting her dangling feet even under the cover of the airbeast.  Its tentacles coiled tighter, and she wondered how long the medusa would take this pounding before it spilled its hydrogen, hurling itself to the ground.
Leviathan, Page 57

Here, author, Scott Westerfeld informs you of several setting details while maintaining an action-packed narrative.  You learn the setting is up in the sky, during a powerful storm.  I think the pacing and action is heightened by his strong verbs in this section as well: hitting, dangling, coiled, pounding, spilled, and hurling.  There are also sensory details: cold drops and hitting her dangling feet.
Exercise #3

Choose a setting and write a paragraph introducing details about that setting through how your character interacts with the place.  Try to include two or three of the senses in your paragraph.

Repeat for two more different settings!  Bonus points if you include all five senses for a single setting!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts on pacing and description!  Stay tuned next week for a post on emotion!

Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 2

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Pacing and Description

Last week I discussed how I learned to pay attention to pacing and why I believe pacing is so important.  For last week’s post, click here.  This week I’ll get into tips and tricks writers can use to take control of their pacing.
Brushstrokes, You Don’t Have to Paint the Picture All at Once
Guess what?  Most of us are writing a whole entire book.  Some of us, that will be 80,000 words.  You don’t need to give your reader every single detail up front.  We are often tempted to, because as the author, we feel like everything in our story is important.  But that’s not the case.  We can reveal things over time.  Do we need to know that the main character has red frizzy hair, freckles, green eyes, small bones, knobby knees, tiny ears, pale skin, a birthmark on her elbow… all in the first chapter?  No.  We don’t.  You can paint her with brushstrokes a little bit at a time.  We have the whole book to get to know her.  Think of it as dating… We don’t need to know everything up front.  A first date where all is revealed doesn’t leave us with anything to wonder about, and that intrigue, that mystery is lost.  You’ll want to start with a basic picture, the essential details, but then let it grow, brushstroke by brushstroke, as the story continues.  Which brings us to Tip #1:
Pacing Tip #1: The Rule of Three
I honestly don’t remember where I heard this tip.  I looked on the internet for some hint as to who I learned it from, but all I could get was that it is general belief.  
Wikipedia states:

“The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader or audience of this form of text is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes.  Similarly, adjectives are often grouped in threes to emphasize an idea.  The Latin phrase, “omne trium perfectum” (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) conveys the same idea as the rule of three.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_three_(writing)

The way I’ve understood and employed the “rule of three” in terms of pacing and description: I don’t include more than three details about a person or place in my first description.  I think when I originally heard the “rule of three” I was told that a reader isn’t going to remember more than three details about a character.  Think of Harry Potter.  Three major physical details: Messy black hair, green eyes with glasses, lightning bolt scar.  Those are the three defining physical details everyone remembers.
Now, I’ll show you examples of the “Rule of Three” in action:
From my own WIP, a setting:

The first thing my aunt did upon returning from the funeral was take away my bedroom and force me into the small attic room above the boiler room.  The space could barely fit a bed, and there were crevices between the floorboards wide enough to stick your finger through.  The highlight of the room was a single grimy window.  

I only describe three things in Anne’s new bedroom: the small size, the floor, and the window.  All of which convey the sheer depressing nature of the room.  That’s all you need to know.  I definitely could have described more, but three things was enough.
From my WIP, a character:

“Oy!  Girlie!  You new?”  Pushing one of the screeching metal carts was a girl smaller than me.  Her brown hair was unbelievably short, cropped to her chin, but she wore a long gray skirt, so I knew she was a girl.

Again, I only describe three things: the girl’s small size, her short hair, and her skirt.  It’s enough for you to identify this girl in the future (the small girl with the cropped hair), you’ll remember it, and there’s plenty of space for her to grow as a character.
Here’s some examples from novels you might know:

“Has anyone seen a toad? Neville’s lost one,” she said.  She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, page 105

J.K. Rowling describes three things about Hermione (voice, hair, and teeth) when we first meet her (though we later learn a great deal more).

The girl was gorgeous, the kind of girl Clary would have liked to draw–tall and ribbon-slim, with a long spill of black hair.  Even at this distance Clary could see the red pendant around her throat.  It pulsed under the lights of the dance floor like a separate, disembodied heart.
City of Bones, page 6

Cassandra Clare gives us three details about the girl: her body type, her hair, and her necklace.

Her name was Shay. She had long dark hair in pigtails, and her eyes were too wide apart. Her lips were full enough, but she was even skinnier than a new pretty. She’d come over to New Pretty Town on her own expedition, and had been hiding here by the river for an hour.
Uglies, page 27

This example does not stick to the rule of three, but I think Westerfeld still limited himself in terms of description.  A reason why I think he used four descriptors here is because he uses pairs effectively.  Shay is described in pairs of traits: one that is adequate (almost pretty) and one that is ugly.  This is important to the premise of his book, where the characters desire physical perfection more than anything else.  So the pairs were necessary for him, and he limited himself to two pairs and not more than that.  Six traits would have been too much at once, but four traits or two pairs was enough.
When is it okay to use longer description?
I think there are cases that warrant more description than the “Rule of Three” I present here.  I think particularly important characters often warrant more description.  For example, Dumbledore is described in much more than three traits in his first description on page 8 of Sorcerer’s Stone.  He was an incredibly important character across the entire series.  I’ve heard the rule that the length of a description should match the importance of a character or place (longer description = more important).  I generally agree with this rule, but often an author can be a little blind and think every detail is a little more important than it actually is.
I also think unusual settings warrant more description, and readers will be more patient with lengthier description of a strange setting because the strangeness intrigues them.  Readers aren’t bothered by descriptive paragraphs of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory because a secret candy factory is an intriguing and fabulous setting to read about.  I also think a setting that acts as a character, like Hogwarts, warrants a lengthier description.  Hogwarts isn’t just a place.  It has undiscovered secrets, presents challenges to the characters, and aids the characters in times of trouble.  Hogwarts, in order to become the living place that it is, required that kind of description.  A place that is ordinary, like a classroom or a schoolbus or a grocery store, probably shouldn’t be described in great detail, and I’d recommend the rule of three.  I’ve found the rule of three helps keep me in check and keeps the pace quick.  I can always go back and add more description if I need to.
Writing Exercise #1
Choose three characters and identify the three dominating physical traits of each character.  Then write a brief paragraph for each of them that introduces each character and their three physical traits.
And also, do three settings in your novel.  Choose three settings and identify three defining traits of that setting and write a brief paragraph introducing that setting and the three traits.
Stay tuned next week for my second quick pacing writing tip and another writing exercise!

Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 1

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Pacing and Description

One thing I am acutely aware of is pacing.  It is one of the first things I notice in any book that I read.  This wasn’t always how I read, and I pinpoint the moment I began to read this way on the day I began teaching middle school.
Whether we like it or not, technology has had an impact on the attention spans of our child readers.  Some children have shorter attention spans than others, but I do believe that technology has affected the majority of children in this way.  From thirty second TV commercials to the brevity of tweets to the under eight minute Youtube video, our society feeds on things that are quick.  Children are experiencing the world at a different pace than human beings of the past.  
This phenomena, this shorter attention span, has turned teaching into a unique challenge.  I discovered rather quickly that I had to be just as much an entertainer as an educator in order to hold my students’ attention.  I couldn’t rely on them to do a single activity for a full hour.  My class period had to be broken up into short chunks of different activities.  And when I had to decide on what reading material to use in my class, I had to pay attention to the text’s pacing.  I was teaching in a Title I school filled with hormonal, thirteen year-olds and for the sake of my classroom management, I could not afford for these kids to get bored.
So how does this connect to writing?  I believe we writers have to understand how to grab a kid’s attention, how to pace a book, and how to be sneaky with our description.
Back in the days before photographs and television and internet, as well as cars and trains and airplanes, lengthy description was something that audiences needed.  They wanted to be able to see people, places, and objects that they would never see or travel to.  Description was a way to offer the reader a photograph or to transport them to exotic locales.  And while I don’t mean to say that audiences today don’t need setting, they don’t need the same lengthy descriptions as those from the dusty volumes of yore.  Our current readers want things to be happening in the book at all times.  A whole page of description, to them, means nothing is happening.  And that’s why we writers have to be sneaky with our description.  It still needs to be there in order to ground the reader in a place or to provide a reader with an image, but we need to slip description in between action and dialogue so that we don’t lose our readers because “nothing is happening.”
Some of you may be thinking, “But I love writing beautiful descriptions!” or “Kids need to learn to pay attention and slow down!”  And yes, lots of writers do enjoy writing lyrical, lovely descriptions.  And yes, maybe kids do need to slow it down.  But this is the world we live in.  And I want kids to read my books, not put them down.  
Though, I’ve seen writing at both ends of the spectrum be successful.  Maggie Stiefvater (Shiver, Scorpio Races) is what I would consider a description heavy author, but she has become extremely successful.  I also enjoy her books despite the fact that I have a low tolerance for heavy description.  (I do have to get myself in the right mood to pick up her books, but I still love them.)  On the other end of the spectrum is James Patterson, particularly his Maximum Ride series.  If you haven’t read these books, they move at a ridiculously breakneck pace.  I actually feel as if I’m being jerked around.  He achieves this with extremely short chapters (literally 2-4 pages each) and high conflict.  I actually couldn’t read more than the first book in this series because the jerky pacing was too much for me.  I’m hoping the tips that I offer will help you find a happy medium between the extremes and will help you achieve a pacing that will satisfy both you as a writer as well as our child readers.
I wouldn’t say this is a writing trait I’ve struggled with because I did not start writing seriously until I was already teaching (and acutely aware of pacing).  When I began writing, I’d already begun studying author’s pacing methods and paying attention to what made a text move quickly.  This isn’t to say that, in a rough draft, I’ve never written a paragraph that comes off as setting info dump.  I think it’s one of the common mistakes of a first draft, to do a description info dump, because we, the authors, are figuring things out ourselves as we write.  But in critiques, I’ve pretty consistently gotten feedback that my writing is paced well, and I wanted to share some of the observations I’ve made on pacing that has helped me develop this writing trait.  And in my observations, lengthy description is one of the biggest culprits in slowing a text down. (The other culprit of slow pacing is a lack of conflict, for more on that topic, see my post: Author Sadism)
What Others Have Said on the Topic of Description
In the book Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies (which is a fantastic resource, even for non-dummies) they use a water metaphor, sprinkling versus splashing, when talking about description.  They say it better than I could, so here you go: 

“Stopping your story to splash setting onto the page can be hazardous in teen fiction. Splashes can stop young readers cold.  Sometimes, yes, you may need to pause your plot work for some setting details — a little descriptive moment — either because it fits the overall style of your narrative voice or because, simply, it’s time for a breather. But in general, splashing means stopping, and stopping is rarely what writers want.  Instead, sprinkle.
Work in the setting here and there, as if flicking wet fingers at your pages instead of pouring water on them straight from the spout.  Even teens who aren’t intimidated by a few lines of description are likely to skip over big splashes in search of the story thread.  Providing details about time and place as you go keeps setting accessible and interesting to teen readers.”
Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, page 146

I think they make some great points, and I love the metaphor.  When it’s raining, you avoid going out in a downpour, but you’re likely to handle a light sprinkle.  I think it’s the same with readers.  Readers might avoid or skip a whole page of just description (or even put down the book), but they may not even notice description if you are able to embed it in action or keep description light.
So how do we do this thing called light description?  Next week I’ll share three tips and exercises that should lead the way to you becoming a description expert with no pacing problems.