Monday, March 27, 2017

The Jigsaw Process

A few months ago, in the closing weeks of December, I was questioning whether or not I had it in me to ever finish another manuscript. Most writers have to confront their self-doubt at some point; I’m pretty sure if the insecure writers of the world formed a club based around that particular quality and started electing officers, I’d at least make it as high as treasurer.

My issue back then had to do with external factors becoming internal: A longtime friend of mine had passed away, and the dark manuscript idea I had been developing and outlining and was just beginning to work on in earnest suddenly held absolutely no appeal for me. I figured if wasn’t enjoying writing it, why would anyone want to read it? So, for the first time in a long time, I decided to stop writing.

I had no intention of stopping permanently, but even pausing the work and depriving myself of a creative outlet was uncomfortable. I hoped divergent thoughts would continue to work in the background and eventually resolve themselves, but I needed something else to keep my mind busy in the meantime. 

One day while doing some holiday shopping, I wandered into a game store and decided to buy a jigsaw puzzle. It was a panorama shot of London at night. I just finished it this past week.

I unboxed it as soon as I got home. It had been a good decade or two since I’d last tried to assemble a serious jigsaw puzzle, so the sight of all 1,500 of those tiny cardboard pieces spread out on my kitchen table was a little daunting. I began sorting by color and pattern (orange lighting; distant buildings on the skyline; the pink streak of the remaining sunset; street lamps reflecting on the river) and worked it in sections. I knew all the blue pieces made up the sky, so I focused on getting just that part done and not thinking of the puzzle as one whole project. When that was finished, I switched to the bridge with all the bright streaks of light from passing traffic. Then I searched for pieces that made up the London Eye, as well as the colorfully lit buildings surrounding it. 

I was anything but obsessive about working on it and only made progress in spurts. Several weeks later, so many sections had been completed that, without even realizing it, I was nearly halfway done. That’s when the writer brain switched back on. I saw that one of the biggest reasons I had actually put aside my manuscript idea was because I had planned it into a corner. I knew all the characters, their motivations, the settings, the chapter titles — nothing had been left to chance. I realized I had prepped this way because it was the first new material I had started, for real, in a long time. It wasn’t just “Hey, I have a cool idea for a story! This would be fun!” and then sitting down to play with it, but more like “Okay, Mr. Serious Writer: You’re going to start with this, then go to this part, then this, and then maybe, if you're lucky, you will have earned the right to begin a first draft.”

I have never in my life written that way. My manuscripts have always come together outside the chronological order, with different sections finding ways to connect, like assembling jigsaw puzzles.

The basic idea arrives, and the earliest parameters of what the story should do are set, just like putting together the puzzle frame. There are always ideas or scenes that stand out as the strongest beats in the story, and those are the first to be drafted and explored and developed — just like sorting the puzzle pieces by color or pattern can suggest the easiest places to start. Once the most obvious parts of the story are done, I understand the rest of it well enough to know how to bring those big sections together. Before long, there are only a few holes remaining. And yeah, finding the right piece to put in those empty spaces can sometimes be a living nightmare, but eventually everything ends up where it needs to be.

I went looking for an alternative creative outlet, and was lucky enough to accidentally find one that reminded me what I needed to do to write again. When I started the puzzle, I had one manuscript idea that I had no interest in tackling. By the time my London panorama was complete, I had four solid ideas competing to be the next major work in progress, including the one I put on hold in December that had found some new life.

I’m having a lot of fun exploring each of these ideas now, and I’m excited to discover which will get the nod as the next project. When it happens this time though, I know enough to start with the big parts, and let the gaps fill themselves in along the way.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Twenty Revision Tips and Tricks

Ready to take your writing to the next level? The following are some of my favorite revision tips and tricks. If you add your revision ideas in the comments box, everyone will benefit. Thanks so much, and happy revising!


1. Print your manuscript in a different font and/or send it to your Kindle. Many agents and editors read on e-readers, so it's a good idea to take this step.

2. Read through your manuscript. Flag pages that require attention. (Gather plenty of sticky notes first!)

3. Make a list of what needs to be done to make the story stronger. Later, when you complete each item, check it off your list. It's amazing how satisfying this feels!

4. Quicken the pace. Add occasional one or two-word sentences. More dialogue, more action, clear goals, high stakes.

5. Look at every scene and chapter ending. Are they full of suspense?

6. Use a highlighter to mark distinctive character traits. Are they consistent throughout?

7. Read your first sentence aloud. Is there a hook that draws the reader into the story? If time allows, read your entire manuscript aloud. Record yourself reading.

8. Re-read the first chapter. Does it present an intriguing problem and a vibrant, unusual character? Does it establish character, setting, and problem?

9. Cut weak words. Some examples: Beautiful, smile, a lot, really, something, always, sort of, look, kind of, that, slowly, very, realize, suddenly, it occurred, nod, feel, stare, glance, look, laugh, suddenly, sigh.

10. Cut “ly” adverbs.

11. Cut dialogue tags. (“He said/she said” after every single line of dialogue can slow the pace.)

12. Double-check dialogue. Does each character’s dialogue fit their personality? Do they sound different from each other? Highlight each character's dialogue using a different color for each character.

13. Map the story ARC.  Do the problems get bigger and bigger until you reach the worst day/scenario ever for the main character?

14. Write down the theme of your story. What has the main character learned through his/her trials and problems? How has he/she changed?

15. Read SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS, by Renni Brown and Dave King

16. Examine each scene. Does each scene have an inciting event, conflict, and climax?

17. Identify your main character's goal. Can you easily identify what your main character wants/needs? His/her outer goal and innermost need? A lie the character believes to be true? A wound from the past?

18. Check character mannerisms. Are they consistent?

19. Vary sentence lengths. Change the rhythm of your words, if necessary. Revise like a poet!

20. Read your story ending. Does it have unexpected inevitability?

Guest Post by Stacy Barnett Mozer - Pulling from Real Life While Creating Something New

Some of the most vivid memories I have from childhood are about the camping trip I took with my family from Long Island to Wyoming when I was eight. More than twenty years later I still can remember the trip in detail so when I started writing books, it seemed natural to try to share that experience with others. After all, everyone always says, “Write what you know.” I know that trip. 

So I wrote a story about a girl who goes camping with her sister. I called the book, The Camping Adventures of a Carsick Mosquitophob, because that was my experience. Even though I loved the trip, I couldn’t be in the car for more than a half an hour without getting nauseous and I was so allergic to mosquitoes my legs swelled like balloons the first night. I wrote everything down then revised it, edited it, and sent it off to my beta readers. Their response, “It’s a nice, sweet, quiet story.” One even went as far as to say that she would pick it up, read a few pages, fall asleep, and then read some more. Not what I was going for. But now, about ten years after writing that manuscript, the book, The Perfect Trip, will release on Friday. Here is what I learned over the past ten years that helped me take a story from real life and turn it into something new that someone besides a member of my family will want to read.

Know Your Character
As much as we think we know ourselves, how often do we do a complete character analysis? Yet in order to write a good novel, a writer needs to know their character inside and out. Even if you are going to use yourself as your main character, take the time to do some character work. For my story, I decided I needed a completely fresh perspective, so I created a girl who plays baseball who was a lot more determined and strong willed than I ever was at that age. This character became so real that she needed a whole book about playing baseball before I could get to the camping trip story.

Discover Your Character’s Wants and Needs
As a kid on a camping trip, the only thing I really wanted was to have fun, not get carsick, and not get bitten by mosquitoes. That wasn’t enough. A book character needs a purpose, a drive. Something that will push her forward and guide her decisions. My main character wants to play baseball and that is part of her motivation, but she also comes from a broken home where her mother is rarely in the picture. Her father has remarried and she has only started to appreciate her stepmother. She has to figure out those relationships and more as she is moving though her trip.

Create Obstacles
An obstacle needs to interfere with the character’s wants and needs. Being allergic to mosquitoes and carsick did ruin the fun, but not in a significant way. Something more needs to be standing in the character’s path so that she can work to overcome the problem and decide its level of importance in reaching the overall goal. I will not give away my character’s obstacles, but I will say that they have the potential to ruin everything she thought she had accomplished in life and in baseball.

Character Growth
By the time the characters reach the end of the story they have to grow and change. This was probably what my first story lacked the most – growth. By the end the characters had a fun experience, but they were the same people they were when they started. In the new story, each important character has an emotional arc and develops some new understanding.

In the end
When the current book reached my betas (some who were the same readers from ten years ago) they no longer thought of the book as a nice, quiet, story. Instead they were looking forward to each page turn. It’s almost as if my character and her family knew about the trip I took as a kid and decided to go to the same locations. Like any trip taken a second time, even if there are similarities, the trip is a whole new experience.

Stacy Barnett Mozer is the author of The Sweet Spot and The Perfect Trip, which releases this Friday, March 24, from Spellbound River Press. She is a third grade teacher, a mom, and an assistant regional advisor for the New England chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.