writing process

Expectations

There is something to be said about the enthusiasm of others for things you are working on. For many years, I think I thrived on this enthusiasm. I think I lived and breathed it and let it fuel pretty much everything I was doing. For instance, if I started a new book, I simply couldn’t hold it inside. I had to tell someone about the idea because if I didn’t, there would be no fuel to keep that project going until the end. So, eventually, by the time I finished any novel, I had leaked the idea pretty much everywhere. People knew I was writing a book about a tone-deaf wannabe country music star, for instance. But I think all that enthusiasm can actually be a killer in the end. Because, while people may show excitement and interest and enthusiasm for a project, that only means their expectations and ideas of how it will turn out have time to grow and blossom and turn into something that will never, ever live up to what they imagined. So you lose in the end, I think, if you build something up too much.

To me, the perfect reading experience has always been one in which I pick up a book with little or no particular expectations beyond a general desire to read something engaging, and then find myself blown away by the story or the writing or both. I’m pretty sure that any book I have ever picked up (outside of classics, which have withstood the test of time) with high expectations has always proven a disappointment in one way or another. So, while I read a lot of books these days, I try not to talk too much about them with other people, especially ones on my to-read list. And, while I’m not writing at the moment, I have a feeling that when I do start writing again, it’s going to be a more private affair than it has ever been in the past. I’m not sure why this change has come about, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that I’ve published enough writing to finally realize — deep down into my bones — that my writing will never 100% please anyone but myself. And that really is okay.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in About Me, All Things Publishing, Writing Process

Never Underestimate A 10-Year Idea …

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I’ve known Janci for several years. When I first met her, I had no idea she was a writer, and then when I was informed of the fact by other people around me, I was quite pleased. Not many people top the cool charts the way she does! Like me, Janci writes in several different genres, and what I’ve read of hers so far, I love. She and her husband both do what they love for careers — at home. They are an example to me of following your heart and dreams. Today, I’ve invited Janci here to my blog to talk about her new book, EVERYTHING’S FINE, and how it has stuck around for over 10 years. I know this feeling well, since THE BREAKAWAY was one such similar book for me. Read on! Janci has some great things to say here!

Janci Patterson writes fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary young adult novels. Her first book, CHASING THE SKIP, will be published by Henry Holt in 2012. Janci lives in Orem, Utah, with her husband, Drew Olds. When she’s not writing, she manages Drew’s painting business, and plays geek games of all kinds.

I wrote the first draft of Everything’s Fine in 2004, so this book was ten years in the making. The idea started with this line: “So I stole Haylee’s journal.  We might as well get that out in the open right now.”  As soon as I had that line, I knew it was the beginning of a book. I experimented with it. Why does Kira take Haylee’s journal? What is it that she’s trying to hide?

Across years worth of drafts, a few things stayed the same, but more changed. It got sent out on rounds of submission several times, and always I discovered afterward that the book still wasn’t quite working. Many times I thought about giving up on this book — about just declaring it a trunk novel and leaving it alone. But inevitably as soon as I decided that, I’d have an idea for how to make the book better, and I’d rewrite it again.

Because of its long road to publication, Everything’s Fine is my most re-written novel to date, and anyone who knows me knows I’m not shy about rewriting novels. I started over from scratch at least three times, and heavily revised it dozens of times over. To give you an idea, here are a few of the more recent changes:

  • If you’ve read the book, you know that every other chapter is an in-scene flashback from a different point in Kira and Haylee’s friendship. Those chapters didn’t even make it into the book until January, when I pulled the book out and rewrote it yet again, this time with the intent of sending it to my editor. I was having a hard time getting the reader to connect to Haylee, since she’s already dead when the book begins.  Alaya Dawn Johnson suggested that I take all the flashbacks out of the book and put them in scene, and it turned out to be just what the book needed. So grateful for that critique. Without it, I think the book might have hung out in limbo forever.
  • Kira is now an only child, but from the first draft in 2004 to the first draft that my editor read back in February, she had an older sister who came for Christmas with her college boyfriend. I loved Lainie and Derek. They had a lot of awesome scenes. But in the end, Lainie’s scenes were taking away from the space I had to develop Kira’s relationship with her mother, which was much more important to the arc. So out of the book they went.
  • For a long time, Kira’s secret was that she had an eating disorder. Then I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, and realized I wasn’t doing any kind of justice to that concept. Then I had to give Kira a new secret … and I did, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.

I almost gave up on this book dozens of times, but now that it’s finished, I’m so glad I didn’t. I was ready to abandon it, Kira’s voice was never ready to abandon me. I think this is a book that wanted to be written. Who was I to stand in its way? It makes me giddy to see it finally done, and in a form that other people are getting to read. Kira’s character took a long journey with me, and getting to share her story is the best of all possible endings.

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Kira thought she knew everything about her best friend, Haylee. But when Haylee commits suicide immediately after her first date with her longtime crush, Bradley Johansen, Kira is left with nothing but questions, and a gaping hole in her life where Haylee used to be. 

Kira is sure that the answers to her questions must be written in Haylee’s journal, but she’s not the only one searching for it. The more Kira learns about Haylee’s past, the more certain she is that other people grieving for Haylee are keeping secrets—especially Bradley, and Haylee’s attractive older cousin Nick. Kira is desperate to get to Haylee’s journal before anyone else finds it—to discover the truth about what happened to Haylee— 

And to hide the things that Haylee wrote down about her. 

From the author of CHASING THE SKIP comes EVERYTHING’S FINE, a new contemporary YA novel about secrets and loss, and the winner of the 2007 Utah Arts Council award for Best Young Adult Novel.

Add Everything’s Fine to your Goodreads shelf.

Purchase Everything’s Fine on Amazon

Find Janci on jancipatterson.comFacebook, and Twitter.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in All Things Publishing, Guest Posts, Writing Process

Accepting Yourself as a Blind Author

I’m deep into revisions on my novel, Out of Tune, which I submitted to my publisher a few weeks ago. I waited and waited for an answer and received a lovely editorial letter thick with the message, “Your book is great! But you need to change all this stuff before it’s ready for publication.” And it’s some big stuff. Ouch, because I thought all the big revisions I did before sending it in were enough. Wrong. So, that’s what I’ve been busy doing lately because #1, I want a publishing contract for this book so bad, and #2, I want to get this book out of my way so I can continue working on my new novel, the forgetting book.

As some of you may know, I tried to query Out of Tune awhile ago. I wrote the thing in nine weeks back in January and February, and can you believe I thought it was a great novel at that point? These were my thoughts:

This book is so good! I ADORED writing it, so it MUST be great. It won’t need that much work at all. Remember Pieces? I wrote that one fast too and it all went so smoothly, even with revisions. This one will be the same! I’m growing so much as an author. I SO ROCK! I’m going to query this and get an agent and go super-big super-fast and my life will be all sorts of happy-unicorns-and-cupcakes-sugar-induced awesomeness.

Yeah, kind of forgot that Pieces is a sequel/companion to an existing book. Characters already solidified. Backstory already completed. World already created. Out of Tune is a whole new story, a whole new world, a whole new set of problems.

I was so blind.

I was stupid and queried it way, way, way, way too early. I had beta readers for it before that, and I did some big revisions, but nothing painfully extensive. Obviously, I didn’t get an agent. I think I screwed up some good opportunities I probably won’t ever get back, so yay for me. You know what I was thinking? Really? I thought:

The more I write, the faster I should get, the less work I’ll have to do on each novel.

To an extent, that might be true, but I was blinded by that thought. I let it give me an excuse to be lazy and arrogant. So, I realized if I want a book out in any decent amount of time, I’d better submit Out of Tune to the publisher of my other books instead of chasing after different publishing opportunities for the next year or longer. And I love my publisher, so it’s not like this is a bad thing, far from it. But now that I’m slogging my way through some heavy revisions, embarrassed out of my mind that I queried this book in such a horrible state, I’m learning my lesson that every first draft I finish is going to suck. This is what I said to a friend last night:

It’s just … you know, after doing revisions like this (and it’s not like I don’t go through this with EVERY book), I go to work on a new book, and I’m terrified. I keep thinking, I’m going to do everything wrong and there’s no way to stop it. The only thing to do is just write it and then fix it later, no matter how long it takes or how hard it is.

I’m blind. In every first draft I write, it seems like I’m totally 100% blind, traveling through an unknown world, charting things I have no knowledge of, and most of it will need major reworking.

I’ll admit, I feel completely foolish putting up this post, because most of this seems like it should be obvious to any author. I just thought that since I’m writing my tenth novel, I would have figured it all out by now. Apparently not. So learn from my mistakes, I suppose, and accept your blindness and keep writing anyway. Unless you’re so brilliant that you churn out perfect first drafts. In that case, can we switch brains?

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Books, Out of Tune, Pieces, Writing Process

The String – How Story Structure Works

It’s not the pearls but the string that makes the necklace. ~ unknown

Alex Moore did a post over at Adventures In Writing at the beginning of June, titled Got Armature? That’s where I stole the quote above. Alex’s post talks about armature, which in sculpture, is a framework providing a core for modeling materials such as wax, clay, and plaster. It is such a fascinating concept, the premise being, in Alex’s words:

An armature provides structure and it is invisible to the naked eye. It is an essential piece of the overall product, but the viewer should never see so much as a wire poking through.

As a writer, a novelist, why do you care? Well, Brian McDonald, screenwriter extraordinaire, explained it all like this: Your masterpiece must have a point that you’re trying to prove. Every decision you make is based on that point. So, the armature is the message that your story proves. [Note: the message must go somewhere. You can’t have a message like “love” — but you can have one that states “love sucks.”]

So, in essence, I like to think of all this in layers, once again. A pearl necklace is the simplest structure I can use as an example. The meat of your story can’t float in a beautiful line without structure. Those pearls need a string, and according to the premise above, that string – the message of your book – must be invisible. AND it must support your entire book, and tie together at the end. Otherwise – no necklace. Examples work the best for me. Let’s see how good I am at this!

Wizard Of Oz – family is your home

Pride and Prejudice – love transcends selfishness

Lord of the Rings – limitless power always corrupts

Those are my best guesses. If you’ve got anything different, let me know. I hope that gives you a small idea of where I’m going with this. It makes me think of theme. I know that’s a scary word for a lot of you. In most cases, nobody should pre-plan their theme, in my opinion. It should just happen. This is why I think that the string must be invisible. If it’s “showing” it’s probably because the writer was trying too hard to push something on the reader, or too excited to show their clever theme, or some other reason. But when you set to work on those second draft revisions (where I believe the real writing happens), you should be aware of this string/armature/theme, and you should strengthen it, not necessarily make it visible. Alex also states:

. . . every scene must prove this point- anything else just dilutes the message. Sub-themes may emerge, but they will always complement your point. Don’t muddy the work.

I might have hit on sub-themes up there in my examples. Perhaps I’m not seeing the bigger structure, but it’s a start. Sometimes it’s hard to see the structure that’s invisible all the way through!

I think knowing what the structure is in our work is absolutely essential. It provides focus, continuity, and builds to a dynamic, satisfactory end. Without it, your story might be a pretty pile of pearls, and quite possibly a mess. I know I’ve felt this way about my work. I wanted a divorce from my novel at one point because of it. Now that I’ve figured out what this invisible structure should be in the novel, I can’t tell you how much of a difference it’s made. Everything has direction, support, a goal! And it’s all sliding onto the string, one pearl at a time.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Writing Process

Working In Layers On Your Novel

Cakes have layers. So does Photoshop. That’s how I did the picture above – with layers. The top layer is the black and white layer, the second layer lying underneath is the color layer. Use the eraser tool to reveal the color underneath, and look what you get! (although there is more to it than that to get my end result here, that’s the basic idea)

I write the same way. Thanks to an inspiring post from Liana Brooks, I have been thinking about layers a lot these days. What is the best way to write? I ask myself. And more importantly, what is the best way to edit? Liana’s post is really helpful. I highly recommend it if you’re looking at good ways to edit. For this post I am going to focus on layering your writing.

What Is Layering?

Think of it like the photo above. You have one picture on top of the other. When you combine the two and add a little creativity, you can get something wonderful and beautiful – and more importantly, interesting and unique.

It’s kind of like your body, too. Underneath everything is the skeleton. Add muscle tissue, skin, and then all the fine details that make the person interesting and unique on the outside.

Why Should You Layer?

If you’re anything like me, it’s kind of hard to keep everything straight in your story. First there’s the basic plot. Then other plots going here and there that tie into that basic plot. Then characters and setting and internal conflict and research and grammar and symbolism and word length and sentence structure and tone and voice and on and on!

Take a deep breath.

Wouldn’t it be easier to start simple? That’s how I do it. Start with the first picture – the skeleton. Build on that. Layer by layer. Worry about one thing at a time. Focus on what matters at the moment with the knowledge that the other important things are coming up later. Planned and waiting.

Now doesn’t that sound easier?

How Should You Layer?

I think there are many ways to layer your writing. Here’s what works for me:

(1) Summarize your book in one sentence. If you can’t do this, you don’t know what your story is about. Trust me. I’ve learned this the hard way. I learned this from the Snowflake Outline method, which is very helpful, even if you only use bits and pieces of it.

(2) Write a basic outline. People do this differently, as well. I start by doing a very brief outline, then moving on to a summary of each chapter. Flesh out your characters as well as you can by thinking about them, giving them flaws and strengths, writing about them outside of the story, etc.

(3) Write your story. Just do it! Finish it. Write it the best you can. Add whatever you can. But don’t stress about the little things like small plot holes, character inconsistencies, even grammar and polishing. These are for later layers.

(4) Start Layering. This is different for everybody. My first layers are polishing up the plot holes and character inconsistencies. Things that bugged me the whole way through the first draft that I kept telling myself I’d go back and fix later. My later layers are the fine tuning and beautifying. I like to write with a literary slant. This is where I start adding more symbolism, tweaking word choices, altering dialogue and details, etc.

(5) I’m making this sound simple for a reason. Because it should be. I used to write by going back through every chapter as I wrote it. I would edit as I went, concerned that if what I had written wasn’t perfect, I couldn’t continue. I never got anywhere. So glad I’ve moved on from there! I think that’s why I am writing this post – for any of you that might be stuck in the same rut.

(6) Don’t Work Alone! Liana has a great point about layered writing/editing:


The worst thing to do here is think that layered editing will make it possible for you to edit in a vacuum. I’m sorry, but it won’t. Everything you write will make sense to you (or it should). That doesn’t mean it will make sense to your readers.


I agree. I can’t stress enough the importance of getting your work out there for others to read. Join a writing group if you can. Although I have slowly learned that I cannot cater to my readers, I also cannot write without their opinions and advice. It’s a fine balance, that’s for sure.

Wrapping Up

If you stop to notice things around you, so many things have layers. Music. Food. Plants. Buildings. Scents. And apparently (thanks PJ for mentioning this in the comments, because I was thinking it, too, ogres have layers!) It’s a natural way to form things. It works for writing, too. At least for me!

See The Reading & Critiquing In Layers post for more info.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Writing Process

Keep Showing Up

A good friend of mine spoke with me this evening and suggested that I watch the video I’ve posted below. This woman’s speech certainly hit the spot for me. I found it interesting how different every writer’s Muse is, and even more interesting that some of you don’t even have a Muse!

Honestly, I don’t understand how you can create anything without one. How do you internalize all of that creativity and stay sane? In the video clip below, Elizabeth Gilbert expresses these thoughts and gives her solution to the “problem” of placing all the responsibility of creative genius on yourself. She sees it as a dangerous problem. Do you?

The video is 19 minutes long and well worth every minute of your time, in my opinion.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Think Positive

Tension on Every Page (and all that crap…)

As you probably already know, I dislike rules. I don’t like people telling me what to do, and I especially don’t like people building a box around my creativity. It’s stifling. I can’t work that way. I’ve also read one too many posts lately about rules and how the new trend is barreling toward everyone ignoring them.

Yet, I don’t think we really are ignoring them. I think we like to pretend we are, but secretly, we’re looking over our shoulder at the rule makers (hmmm, agents, publishers, the marketplace, our fellow bloggers…) who keep yelling “If you do that your story is going to suck!”

And we quickly turn back around and pretend we’re ignoring them, but we delete that adverb anyway or cut the flashback or prologue or extra 10,000 words.

After judging all the entries for my short story contest, I realize there is always a need for discipline. Rules, maybe not so much, but discipline, yes. Stories can get sloppy around the edges and especially the middles. They can feel like jello, and I don’t like that feeling. I think one of the biggest problems I found with stories that didn’t make it into my final cut of “I think this is a winner” pile, was lack of discipline – attention to details, cutting unnecessary story, etc.

The difference, to me, between rules and discipline is this:

(RULE) – Hmm, it’s like a plug-this-here-and-it-will-fix-the-problem product. In fact, it IS a product. How many WRITING BOOKS have you read? Yeah, I thought so.

(DISCIPLINE) – It’s more like FIGURING IT OUT ON YOUR OWN and sticking with it, isn’t it?

See, I happen to believe that every story needs tension. It falls flat without it. I’ll read along in a story and about the time I realize I’m bored out of my mind I see that the story lacks one main element – tension. That’s a big RULE for me. But that’s for me. Your idea of tension is different than my idea of tension. We all like different things.

So I think you need tension, whatever that is. (And by the way, I don’t think tension means suspense. Suspense means you don’t know something. Tension is more like stretching. It’s uncomfortable. It means conflict and worry and your reader’s heart beating faster because they see that the character is going to lose something or never gain what they lost in the first place. The fact that your reader cares about your character and will keep turning the pages to get past that uncomfortable “stretching” probably means there’s some good tension going on. And that’s my lame attempt at 11:00 at night to explain tension).

So you think you’ve put tension in your story, but I’m still bored. Your other readers are bored, too, or at least you suspect they are. No one is publishing your story. There’s obviously a problem. Maybe not for you because you like what you’ve written, but for everyone else there’s a problem, and if you want to sell your story and have more than 5 people read it and enjoy it, you should probably change some things.

Please don’t go out and buy a writing book and think it’s going to solve everything for you. Sure, read it. Absorb it. Consider what it says. But understand that every word in there is what worked for THAT writer and what they think is good writing. The book isn’t going to make you a good writer. Your discipline is.

If your story lacks tension, go read a story packed with tension. Then read another one and another one and another one. Then go back to your story and you might see what it’s missing. Reading a book about tension and how to put it into your story will help you learn the rules, but on many levels it won’t get you far – unless you want to sound like a machine spitting out a mechanical story. Studying what works will get you somewhere. It will give you intuition where rules never could.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Writing Process

When Does Drama Become Melodrama?

First of all, I don’t believe there is any fine line between dramatic and melodramatic (although straight melodrama plays are clear). Many different elements in a story, depending on the amount and how they are presented, can determine whether or not a work is more melodramatic than dramatic.

These days melodrama on the stage is rare, but more common in film and novels, that I have seen.

What is Melodrama? Melodrama means “song drama” or “music drama”. It usually refers to a theatrical form made popular by the French at the end of the eighteenth century. Melodrama focuses on serious dramatic elements, storylines, and characters. It is similar to drama, but these dramatic elements are pushed over the edge – often becoming comic, and may even seem facetious in intent.

Is melodrama bad? No, it does not have to be. But it often is when an author doesn’t realize that their work has been nudged from the dramatic realm to the melodramatic. I have noticed that when this happens, readers will laugh at scenes that are meant to be serious. They might wonder if this was the author’s intention.

What is an example of melodrama? Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a modern example of something close to a full-fledged melodrama. Is the movie laughable? To some, yes it is. But does that mean it is bad? I don’t think so, because the melodrama works for the story. Many audiences may not think the movie is any good, but it grossed over $126 million in box office sales its opening weekend – a big success. Obviously the general American public, at least, likes melodrama.

Now that I’ve given you some introduction to melodrama, you may wonder what an author can do in order to either avoid or create melodrama in their work. Defining what gives a work melodramatic tendencies should answer this question.

Characters

The characters in a melodrama or a work with melodramatic tendencies will typically be stereotypes that embody the forces of good and evil according to their role. You won’t see them sitting down to ponder over their actions. Instead, they are good or bad through and through. Black and white is how I like to think of it, hence the picture above. These characters rarely change or grow, and their actions are predictable.

Oftentimes secondary characters in these stories and simple minded and flat, and provide comic relief.

Storyline

Predictable. Always predictable. Good wins. Evil loses. The hero saves the day. This is often the appeal of a melodramatic piece. It is basic and stable. These stories build and build, creating a sense of entertainment more than anything else. Drama tends to pull the reader in by reflection and identification with the characters. Melodrama merely gets the reader from point A to point B in an entertaining fashion.

The conflict of a melodramatic work often lies in the Hero vs. Villain, and is therefore predictable in nature. The hero always wins.

Intentions

In the end, what will make melodramatic elements work in a story is the intention of the author. Perhaps making a story more melodramatic can strengthen a weakened plot and flat characters if the author doesn’t want all the fuss of fleshing things out. Perhaps adding a melodramatic flair to a piece will add some needed comedic elements. Perhaps it would simply ruin the story. Who knows. What matters is the author’s intention. A friend of mine once commented that my novel was cheesy. I think that maybe she could have meant more melodramatic than cheesy. In any case, it isn’t working, and I’m scrubbing out those elements as fast as I can because “cheesy” and “melodramatic” was never my intention.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Writing Process

Create A Foil

What Is A Foil?

A foil is a character who contrasts another character, usually the protagonist. This allows the protagonist’s weaknesses and strengths to shine brighter or look darker than otherwise possible. Some examples are Gaston as a foil for the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Doctor Watson as a foil to Sherlock Holmes. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins serves as a foil to Mr. Darcy. And, the example that many say the term “foil” originated:

“I’ll be your foil, Laertes: in mine ignorance / Your skill shall, like a star i’ the darkest night, Stick fiery off indeed” (Hamlet, Act 5 Scene 2)

Laertes and Hamlet as foils to each other.

In each of these examples, you’ll find that one character serves to contrast the other. This, of course, allows a much greater opportunity for deeper character development. I think much more can be learned about Hamlet by contrasting and comparing his actions and character to Laertes. There are, of course, more foils than just this one in Hamlet, but I’ll let you have the fun of figuring those out.

More Than Just Characters

Foils can exist in other elements of a story besides the characters. For example, groups can act as foils to each other. A classic example is in Romeo and Juliet between the Capulets and the Montagues. One of my favorite examples, however, would be The Great Gatsby, with the West Egg and the East Egg serving as foils to each other.

Groups are usually pared down to individual character foils in the story, but if the groups are present enough, I believe they work on their own accord as well.

While researching foils, I also found that subplots can serve as foils to each other. Multiple plot lines can be layered against each other to bring out different elements of each. I have done this in my own writing. In my second novel I create a plotline between two secondary characters that is similiar to a previous event that occurred in the character’s past. This serves to sharpen both events in the character’s and the reader’s minds.

Use Them!

Foils can really strengthen a character and a story. I think Hamlet’s actions and character are strengthened by placing him next to Laertes. Would he have been as strong compared to just himself (as shown in the photo above)?

You probably already have foils in the stories you’ve written. I notice that mine happen naturally. But the trick is to realize these foils and make them work hard for you and your work. Highlight the differences more if you need to. Use symbolism, like a color or a seasonal change, to subtly draw attention to the contrast you want to create.

Contrast works well in art, too (photography and painting, for instance). Keeping this in mind, using foils is a great element you can use to paint more contrast into your written art.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Writing Process