Category Archives: Tips

“Honey, I Deleted Your Novel!”: An Author’s Guide to Avoiding Disaster (Part 1)

Several years ago, in trying to transfer some files, I accidentally deleted my wife’s novel.  The fact that I’m still alive says more about the lack of loaded weapons in our house than about my wife’s forgiving nature. (She did forgive me, eventually.  I think.  Maybe.)

Once I got past that horrible, “Oh god, I am so totally cut off from the marital bed!” feeling, the first order of business was to make sure nothing like this ever happened again. I came up with a handful of habits and strategies that have so far protected me (and, more importantly, my wife) from any more data disasters.

So for all you authors worried about having your life’s work destroyed by a careless partner, overeager toddler, or keyboard-strolling pet, here’s a simple guide to making sure everything you write stays written.


Step 1:  Copy, Copy, Copy

The simplest way to make sure you never lose your manuscript, or any version of it, is to make copies.  Every time you go to edit your work—whether it’s an entire novel, a chapter, short-story or poem—save a copy first.  To distinguish one copy from another, put the date in the filename (e.g. GreatAmericanNovel_01_01_2009), or number it (e.g. MyLifeStory_backup1, MyLifeStory_backup2, etc.)  or add your own special code (e.g. MyBestseller_DanBrown, MyBestseller_JohnIrving, MyBestSeller_ToniMorrisson, etc.)  This prevents you from overwriting one copy with another, and makes it easier to find a previous version, if you need to.


Step 2: It’s On!

Most word-processing programs have auto-backup features that you can turn on or off in the Options or Preferences panel.  One option makes a backup of your file every time you open it.  If you discover your creative instincts are complete crap that day, you can go back to the original un-mangled version.

Another option saves your file at regular intervals.  If your computer crashes while you’re riding a creative tsunami, you won’t lose much.

Turn both of these on.  Now.


Step 3:  Drive, Baby, Drive

Backup drives are cheap, easy to use, and come in a variety of formats and sizes—from huge, networkable disk arrays to tiny thumb drives that fit on your keychain.  My suggestion?  Get one thumb drive, and one external hard-drive.

Thumb Drives

Also known as “flash drives,” they come in everything from black rectangles to colorful animal shapes.  There’s even a SpongeBob Squarepants version, if that’s what you’re into it.  The smaller sizes (e.g. 2 gigabytes) are fairly cheap, but big enough to hold everything you’ve ever written.  The larger sizes (e.g. 16 gigabytes or more) will hold everything you’ve ever written, plus your book trailers, author photos, and favorite time-wasting games.

Since thumb drives are small and easy to lose, they’re best suited for temporary storage. When you finish that climactic scene in your murder mystery, stick a thumb drive in your computer’s USB port, copy the files and voila!  Your laptop can crash, a coffee-shop bandit can make off with it, you can spill RedBull into your keyboard—it doesn’t matter.  You’re backed up.

External Hard Drives

Storage sizes range from about 250 gigabytes (big) to a terabyte (gianormous!), and physical footprints can range from little bricks to cubes the size of your bread machine.  Most of them connect via USB or FireWire, but some are networkable.

Choose an external drive that is reliable, easy to setup, and has enough room to hold whatever you’re going to backup.  A 100 gigabyte drive can easily hold all your scrivenings.  To backup an entire computer, you’ll probably need an external drive the same size, if not bigger, than your internal hard-drive.

Once you’ve got the new drive connected, look for software to perform regularly scheduled backups for you.  The Mac (OsX 10.5 and above) comes with Time Machine already installed.  Not only does this program work beautifully, it’s incredibly easy to setup.  For PCs, there are a world of options: Microsoft’s own backup program, software that may be included with the external hard-drive, and third-party software.


Step 4:  Fortress of Certitude

If you want the ultimate in safety, consider using an on-line backup service.  For a fee, these companies will let you backup whatever you want, whenever you want to their servers.  If your computer crashes, you’re covered.  If your house burns down, you’re covered.  If there’s a nuclear attack—well, some of these places might even survive that.

Look for a service that works with your operating system (Windows services, Mac services), has a good reputation, and an easy to use interface.  Incremental backups (i.e. where the service tracks changes between one backup and another) should also be a priority.  That way, if you decide to ditch your third-person narrative and go back to the first-person version you had three months ago, you can get the exact versions of the files you need.

So there you go:  the secret to creative (and possibly marital) survival.  Stay tuned for Part 2:  What to do (or not do) when disaster strikes.

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View to A Kill: Finding the Best Point-of-View

Sometimes you start a novel and the voice is so clear you don’t have to think about the point-of-view. And sometimes it’s a struggle to figure out how the story should be told, by whom. From the detective’s point-of-view? From the killer’s? Over the victim’s shoulder?

I’ve changed the point-of-view (POV) no less than five times in my current manuscript: first I wrote it in 1st person, then 3rd person, then 1st person, 3rd person, 1st person.  So much switching back and forth, it begs the question of whether the novel works at all. But in the process, I’ve learned a lot about what the different points-of-view can and can’t do.

No, I’m not offering a how-to on choosing the right point-of-view for your work. There are too many factors, most of them dependent on what you want—for the story, for your readers, for yourself.

Instead, I want to share what I’ve learned about point-of-view—what each type gives and what it takes away—in the hope that it will help you if you ever get stuck the way I was.

1st PERSON

 

Authors often divide up between those who prefer writing in 1st person, and those who do best with 3rd person.  Personally, I like 1st person, not just because it’s closer to how people think and talk, but also because it gives me a chance to exercise the frustrated actor inside me. (The one that keeps wanting to do long monologues.)

Use 1st person POV if:

 

  • You need a more dynamic voice. If you’re a good actor, or just have a great ear for the way people speak, narrating your story from the point-of-view of a character can lead you to a richer, more convincing voice.
  • You want sharper descriptions and impressions. In 1st person POV the narrator is a character (maybe unseen, but still a character). That means everything is seen through her/his perspective, and this provides a ready framework for relating scenes, characters, thoughts, emotions. After all, a ball-turret gunner’s description of the ground will be very different from a ballet dancer’s.
  • You need more play or tension. Who or what the narrator is matters in 1st person POV.  He/she can be reliable or unreliable, alive or dead, part of the story or outside the story. It could be a dog or a dragon, a word, even a singularity before the Big Bang. These choices often can turn a familiar story into something original and powerful.

Avoid 1st person POV if:

 

  • You have trouble with a limited perspective. The reader can only see and hear what the narrator sees and hears. If the narrator wasn’t part of an important scene, then you have to find a way to get that information to him/her. Some authors enjoy the challenge. Some hate it.
  • Your main character is too limited. In 1st person POV, if your main character is narrating and he/she is not particularly eloquent, smart or insightful, then your story is going to suffer. Choose your narrator wisely, find ways to make the narrator’s limitations add to the story, or just use a different POV.
  • Your character tends toward suffering and self-examination. Even the worst suffering can sound whiny and annoying when recounted by the sufferer him/herself (as most therapists would tell you, if they could). The challenge is to find ways for the narrator to tell his/her story without sounding too self-absorbed. It’s a tight line, and if you’re having a lot of trouble already, 1st person is not going to make it better.

2nd PERSON

 

WARNING: If you choose this POV, expect agents to reply with “Hey guess what? The 80s called. Jay McInerney wants his novel back.”  Yes, Mr. McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is the most famous example of a novel written in 2nd person—so famous that it’s almost impossible to use this POV anymore. That being said, there are some distinct advantages to the 2nd person POV.

Use 2nd person if:

  • You need a sense of alienation or detachment. Nothing says emotional distance like a character talking about himself as if he’s another person. It could be a serious mental health issue or just someone who’s overly introspective. Either way, 2nd person delivers.
  • You want a wry, witty tone. If the narrator is talking about himself, the 2nd person POV encourages a lot of self-deprecating humor. If the narrator is talking to/about someone else, the POV gives an immediate sense of familiarity—“I know you…”—and all the humor and contempt that comes with that familiarity.
  • You want your character under the microscope. It’s almost a given that beginning a sentence with you means critical observations are about to follow. A good author can use the 2nd person POV to delve deeper into a character’s problems than is possible with a 1st person POV.

Avoid 2nd person if:

  • Your narrator is already unsympathetic. If the narrator sounds too distant and critical, the reader may get turned off. Writing in 2nd person will only make this worse, not better.
  • Your narrator’s humor is off-putting. Wry tone and self-deprecating humor can quickly devolve into annoying sarcasm. Try a different POV if you find yourself falling into this trap.
  • Your narrator is too self-absorbed. A narrator who keeps himself/herself under the microscope will seem self-absorbed. A narrator who keeps someone else under the microscope will sound cruel or obsessed. Either way, you’ve lost your reader. 3rd person is the best remedy for this situation.

3rd PERSON-OMNISCIENT

 

The Victorians loved 3rd person-omniscient! Were they addicted to playing God or just frustrated by the slow progress of voyeuristic technologies like spy-cams and Skype? Who knows. The POV is not as popular now, but it still opens up huge avenues for creativity when it’s done right.

Use 3rd person-omniscient if:

 

  • You need an unlimited perspective. This POV allows you to go inside your characters’ heads, peek into their bedrooms and bathhouses, hover over their dungeons and deathbeds, even lie down in their coffins. And no one will ask how you got there.
  • You want your own voice. This POV allows you to use whatever voice you want. You can sound like someone’s kindly grandmother knitting out a story, you can sound like Henry James dissecting all of society, or you can sound like yourself doing whatever you do.
  • You have a complex chronology. 3rd person-omniscient lets you treat time like a pack of cards. Flip forward, backward, shuffle, spread, deal. You’re not bound by a character’s perspective, and you have the freedom to go back into the past or far ahead into the future—without a souped-up Delorean.

Avoid 3rd person-omniscient if:

 

  • You need more structure and direction. All that freedom in tone, perspective, time, etc. can make it difficult to tell a story. Where do you start? Where do you stop? What kind of voice should you use?  Like the Bound Man, you may find that  too much freedom makes you flop like a fish.
  • You’re easily side-tracked. If you can’t resist a good line or plot twist, this POV could turn your 400 page opus into 20% digression, 30% back-story, 15% sub-sub-plots, and 10% shameless riffing. You can’t just kill all your darlings when writing in 3rd person omniscient. You have to kill their extended families, too.

3rd PERSON-LIMITED

 

The hybrid of the POV world, offering a combination of 1st person structure and 3rd person-omniscient freedom. Hard-core 1st person and 3rd person-omniscient writers will often find the solution to their problems in this POV—maybe because it’s not that big a stretch but different enough that it can transform a story.

Use 3rd person-limited if:

 

  • Your main character feels unsympathetic in 1st or 2nd person. Having someone else relate a character’s troubles to us makes those troubles sound less self-pitying, more genuine. That, in turn, makes the character seem more sympathetic. 3rd person-omniscient will also fix this problem.
  • You want some freedom but not too much. This POV gives you the narrative freedom of 3rd person-omniscient with the guiding limitations of a 1st person perspective. For many writers, it’s a comfortable combination of structure and exploration.
  • You’re a lousy actor but you need a limited POV. A true 1st person narrative requires a good ear for voices. If you don’t have that, but still want a 1st person type perspective, use 3rd person-limited. It’s what it was invented for.

Avoid 3rd person-limited if:

 

  • One of the other POVs works better for you. Sounds obvious, right? But there aren’t any strong reasons to avoid 3rd person-limited. The main question is, Does your novel shine best in this POV, or would 1st, 2nd or 3rd person-omniscient give you the push you need to get beyond adequate?

That’s all I’ve got for now. How about the rest of you?  Got any secrets to share about point-of-view? Which one do you prefer? Which one do you hate?

Originally posted by the author on BeyondTheMargins.com.

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Pumping Up the Plot (Part 2): Plot Sprints & Other Exercises

Yeah, we’ve all done plot exercises, either at workshops or by ourselves.  But what makes these exercises a little different is they’re meant to be done in your head, not on paper.  That’s where your ideas come from, after all, and the more you can work out a story in your head, the stronger your instincts will be when you sit down to write.

Do these exercises with at least one other person (or two, or three, or four, if you got ’em), and don’t spend a lot of time on the details.  Just try to come up with the essential elements.  If you tend towards a particular kind of plot, try to vary your ideas: realistic plots instead of sci-fi; a survival story or quest instead of a love triangle.

1)  PLOT SPRINTS

Start w/ 3 elements:  a character, an object, and a setting.  Come up with the best plot you can using all those elements.

Examples:

Elements: Nun, toaster, airport security.

No plot: Nun going on a trip w/ her favorite toaster.

Okay plot: TSA agent, seeing nun clutching toaster, suspects she is going to blow up plane.

Better plot: Nun bringing toaster for sister’s wedding. In security line, she obsesses to off-duty cop about how awful groom is, how he hits sister, etc. Cop starts to suspect she’s going to kill the groom—with the toaster. But how?

2)  MY BORING DAY

Take the most boring moment of the day. Try to make it exciting or intriguing by adding 1 or 2 sentences.

Examples:

Boring:    I got up, took a shower, clipped my toenails.

Plot 1: I got up, took a shower and was clipping my toenails when it finally hit me:  my daughter is never coming back.

Plot 2:      I got up, took a shower and clipped my toenails. I scooped up the last clumps of hair and my toenail clippings, and put them all in an envelope. “To: My Asshole Ex-Husband.  From: Your Dying Ex-Wife.”

3)  KILLER TOMATO

One person names an animal, person, or object. The other has to figure out what that thing/person wants. The goal is to come up with a desire that suggests tension or action of some kind.

Examples:

What: Tomato

Wants:     “I want to grow bite-sized human heads in a garden and put them in my salad.”

Who: Starbucks barista

Wants:     “I want the lady who orders the venti cappuccino every day to notice I always make a heart shape in the foam.”

4)  WHAT IF?

One of the oldest and best tools for finding a plot. Take an event from your own life or someone else’s (or the news), and ask “What if it had turned out differently?”

Examples:

Event 1: Violent father tries to talk daughter into letting him in the house. Mother calls police. Father arrested.

What If: Daughter lets father in the house. Father kills the mother, but the daughter escapes.

Event 2: Nurses mix up babies in maternity ward. Mistake is discovered, babies returned to their mothers.

What If: Mistake is not discovered for 10 years. One child is living with average suburban family. Other is in abusive religious cult.

5)  SEE THAT GUY?

Pick out a stranger, and construct a plot around him/her.

Examples:

On Ferry: Tall bearded man w/ glasses and bloodshot eyes, clutching heavy bag.

Plot: Has just murdered his landlady. Is going to drop bag w/ murder weapon overboard.

In Taxi: Talkative female cabbie driving like madwoman.

Plot: Escapee from local psychiatric hospital. Kidnaps passengers and drives them to abandoned school-building, where she relives her glory days as a high school teacher.

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Pumping Up the Plot (Part 1): 6 Vital Signs of A Healthy Plot

"Elementary, my dear Watson: We want to pump you up!"

So you’re good at coming up with interesting characters. Or maybe you can describe a freshly mowed lawn right down to the chopped up tennis balls and cut-grass-mixed-with-dog-poop smell. But if all your writing mojo turns to Jello as soon as someone mentions the word “plot,” here’s a little something that might help: the 6 most important vital signs for a healthy plot.

Use this list if you’re struggling to come up with a plot and don’t have a clue where to start. Or use it to double-check an idea for a plot, see if it’s likely to go the distance or leave you stranded.

6 Vital Signs of A Healthy Plot

1. WANT / DESIRE: This is the lifeblood of plot. If you can’t identify what your character wants, you have no plot. If you know intellectually what your character wants, but don’t necessarily feel it, then you might have a plot—but probably not the strongest one.

What you want is to feel in your gut the ache or hunger or desire your character has for a particular person, thing, or course of action. Then you’ve got the beginnings of a great plot.

2. OBSTACLES: Figure out who or what stands in the way of what your character wants. If she/he can get what they want easily, you have no plot. If he/she cannot get it easily, but you’re not quite sure what the obstacle is, then you have a plot, but it’s still too vague. Sharpen and refine until you know exactly what the “wall” is.

3. TENSION: Want + Obstacles = Tension. If you can’t feel the tension, then you haven’t fully identified what your characters want or what the obstacles are. Go back and work on Vital Signs 1 and 2.

4. OPPORTUNITY: Your characters have to believe they can get what they want (even if it’s impossible). Otherwise, they have no reason to act. Make sure you give them some chance (real or imagined) to succeed, even if you snatch it away from them in the end.

5. SURPRISES / CHANGES: Only two types of plots are allowed to unfold in a straight line: boring ones and new ones. Since there are no new plots, and you probably don’t want your story to be boring, you should always be looking for twists and turns, unexpected challenges and surprises as you write. These are the touches that differentiate a simple plot from a complex one, and turn an ordinary novel into a page-turner. (Plus, they can make a story or novel a lot more fun to write.)

6. RESOLUTION: You don’t have to know exactly how your story’s going to end before you write it. And you can have whatever resolution you think is best: positive, negative, neutral, ambiguous, etc. But if you don’t have some kind of feeling for where the character’s want is going to lead him/her, what kinds of futures are possible for that character given his/her desires and the obstacles presented, your plot is going to lose direction.  “Starts out strong, but loses steam”—that’s the epitaph for novels written with no resolution in mind.

NEXT WEEK:  Pumping Up the Plot (Part 2) — 5 Exercises to Boost Your Plot-Writing Mojo

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