Refining Plot

Blog 78 imageTwo weeks ago I posted that I had received comments on the current draft of my third book and that I was working on developing some characters further. However, I need to make some plot changes, too, and that has me asking what the best process to refine plot is.

Some writers create an outline for a book that is so detailed, they don’t make material changes to plot when they write the book. Other writers find an interesting premise for a book, start writing and let the story take them where it might.

I’m somewhere in between. For the first draft of a book, I have a premise that leads to an outline. Then, following the outline, I start writing. However, as I work through chapters, I usually think of plot changes that will make the book more interesting. Then I amend the outline, write some more, and so on, until the first draft appears. I repeat this process over many drafts to get the final book.

But refining the plot in later drafts can be tricky. I write mystery/thrillers and the plots become more intricate as I create new drafts. Changing a plot in a later draft of a book, such as the third one I’m working on now, can be nerve-wracking. A tinker in one chapter can have a domino effect across several other chapters. Occasionally the plot looks ready to unravel.

Here are three things that help me to refine plot in later drafts.

First, I only make changes that I’m very certain will create a better book.

Second, I amend the outline from beginning to end, but more with instructions than specifics. For example, I might write “X needs to reveal motive by this point, not in chapter 20.”

And third, ultimately I let the creative writing process do its work. I might worry about how to implement a plot change. How exactly will X reveal her motive? Why, when, where? Yet, when I reach the chapter that needs a change, if I let my imagination work with the scene, nine times out of ten, the change emerges and fits well.

Every writer must find his best way to refine plot. Maybe some of what I do will help.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Choosing a Story’s Specifics

Blog 65 ImageAnother breezy blog post this week as I push to the end of my first edit of book three.

Almost every fiction writer knows the golden rule that a story must show, not tell. A lot of nonfiction tells, usually with generalizations. Fiction shows, by using specifics and often setting the story in real time. This allows readers to see and feel the action and conflicts. Then they’re entertained, while having the chance to infer the generalizations.

As I edit book three, I’m constantly vigilant for showing and not telling. I know that a bit of telling is allowed. It often starts chapters, is needed for a brief bit of background and gets readers from A to B. However, for building drama and conflict, I’d better be showing.

If showing is about offering specifics, the real challenge, I find, is choosing which specifics to include. Here are the guideposts I’m currently using.

I write thrillers. My genre is thrillers/mysteries. I’m not aspiring to literary fiction. My readers want the action to flow and that keeps me spare in my use of specifics. For example, increasingly, I avoid describing the colour of clothes that characters wear unless it’s essential to the plot.

Dialogue is powerful. Dialogue of course develops plot and characters. It’s powerful because a lot can be communicated with nuanced choices or absences of words. I rely on dialogue to round out characters economically and even offer specifics I might otherwise exclude. I don’t need to tell readers that a character is a man of few words if I ensure he speaks that way. And when that man is spurred to make a small speech, readers have a clear picture of something that’s important to him.

Is the detail significant? For descriptive passages, I ask myself whether readers really need to know the specifics I give. Some commentators use the term significant detail for specifics. So the question becomes whether the detail is significant enough to include.

Judging this can be trickier than it sounds and takes practice. I try to strip down to their basics the passages that transition between key scenes. However, key scenes must have enough detail for readers to see and feel the action. A good editor will tell me if I’ve gotten it right.

Other considerations may influence a writer’s judgment of what detail is significant. The writer may be more or less detailed in order to create the style he thinks best suits his story. Or he might be influenced by what will make his book more marketable.

Let readers imagine. I need to set scenes for readers but I want their imagination working alongside mine. By adding their details, readers not only immerse themselves in my story, they’re participants in the storytelling. This draws people to fiction and explains why movie renditions of stories can be disappointing. And it’s another reason for me to be sparing with specifics.

Characters’ thoughts are valuable but in small doses. I’m interested in how the psychology of characters drives consequences. So, in addition to describing what characters say and do, I write about what they’re thinking. However, I limit the specifics to quick, single thoughts and brief ruminations about a conflict, which works well for thrillers. I figure anything more will bore readers, probably because it’ll feel like I’m telling instead of showing.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

Buy False Guilt.

Buy The Case for Killing.

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The Writer’s First Edit

Blog 64 ImageI’m deep into the first edit of my third book. A shorter blog this week, then, as I’m pushing hard to the finish.

My approach to writing a book’s initial draft is to follow a flexible outline and to use a construct, which gives details about the characters and puts them in a chronology so I know what they’re doing at any time. I’m not a writer who knows from my outline whether I have a good story. I do the initial draft for that. Indeed, as I write the draft, I update the outline.

The initial draft might feel pretty good once I’m done, but when I re-read it, I quickly see a lot of work to do. In fact, I think the first edit is the hardest work in writing a book of fiction. That’s because I’m revising to:

  • Reflect new research
  • Identify and fix many plot problems
  • Deepen the characters, which often leads to new plot problems
  • Make structural changes
  • Improve and shorten the writing
  • Catch the many grammar problems and typos
  • Add some more creativity.

What makes the first edit especially challenging is that those areas of revision seem to involve different types of thinking. I can’t explain this beyond saying it’s like different parts of my brain are used. And It’s tiring to switch between those parts. The initial draft, at least, is largely a long exercise in creativity.

Anyway, right now, the first edit of my third book is going well. I’m an optimist in editing. I actually think that the book will be just about perfect once the first edit, or at worst the second, is done.

Then I’ll hear back from my editor and beta readers, shake my head a few times and edit a whole lot more. Mind you, while I’m working on the third, fourth and tenth drafts of the book, I’ll think each of those will be perfect, too. Quite a good strategy, really.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

Buy False Guilt.

Buy The Case for Killing.

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Improving the First Draft

Blog41 ImageIn early January, I read through the first draft of my as-yet-untitled third book. I wrote it last summer, so I got a fresh take on it. After finishing the book, I considered what questions to answer in order to create the best next draft. Here’s what I came up with.

Is the book a satisfying reading experience? If I didn’t like reading my book, it’s unlikely others will. I did though.

Does the structure work? I enjoy experimenting with structure. However, it can’t be at the expense of plot unfolding properly and good pace. I thought that, for the most part, the third book’s structure worked.

Are there plot problems? I plotted the third book quite carefully. However, I’ve seen at least one major plot problem. I’m sure I’ll also find many more minor inconsistencies; it’s amazing how those can hang around for many drafts.

What research is required? For better or for worse, I tend to write the first draft of a book with only the most essential research done. As I read the draft, I note down where more research is needed. For the third book, there’s a lot to do.

Do the characters resonate? In the first draft of a book, I only make the acquaintance of the characters. Going forward, they’ll develop much more. Lots of pleasurable work to be done there.

Do the characters have consistent voices? Characters’ voices can take time to develop. Many of my third book’s characters have only hinted at how they like to communicate.

Do the characters’ interactions make sense? Ah, no, not in all cases. For example, in the first half of the book, one character is quite friendly to another when she has reason to be angry or at least ambivalent. Overall I need to get to know the characters better; their reactions to one another will then clarify.

How is the writing? The quality of writing in my first drafts is always suspect and inconsistent. No surprise there; my first drafts are largely about seeing if there’s a story. I know it takes many drafts for the writing to become succinct and fluid. However, reading the third book front-to-back allowed me to identify redundant passages, poor transitions and, yes, even writing I liked.

On to the next draft!

Copyright ©2015 Peter Fritze

Where to buy The Case for Killing.

Follow me on Twitter @PFritze.

Beta Reader Feedback

Blog35 ImageLast week, I blogged about using, finding and preparing beta readers. In this post, following my experience with The Case for Killing and False Guilt, I’m sharing my thoughts on what to do with their feedback.

As I mentioned last blog, I give beta readers a decent draft of my manuscript and a list of questions to address. I ask if they were entertained by the book; what they found worked and didn’t work about the plot, characters and settings; and where they encountered weak writing. I also ask them to circle typos and grammatical problems.

The form of the feedback varies a lot among readers. Two report verbally. A third enlarges on hand-written comments over coffee. From the last, I get a lengthy email. I don’t find the form matters much. All comments are useful and all readers make time for follow-up questions.

I consider comments from beta readers as carefully as those from my editor. However, the processes of handling the comments are different. The editor is a single voice speaking from a broad experience with manuscripts. Beta readers provide more diverse comments and have varying backgrounds. Their comments can differ and conflict. That can make for some tough decisions.

How do I approach this? Obviously I fix the typos and factual errors that readers find. I also assess grammatical problems, not only where the readers identify them but for similar instances across the manuscript. And I work hard on upgrading writing that readers say is weak, though it seems I re-write the manuscript I give beta readers at least three times anyway.

More challenging is feedback on whether the readers found the manuscript entertaining and on points about plot, characters and settings. The basic truth is that no writer pleases all readers. However, this can also be a dangerous rationalization for not improving a manuscript. So I try hard to refine my manuscript to handle all comments. If, however, beta reader comments conflict, I judge what to use according to my instinct and the consensus I see among the readers.

For example, pace in thrillers is very important. So, if one reader says a portion of my manuscript’s plot unfolds too slowly, I’ll try to improve it even though the other readers don’t complain. I’m pretty sure the book will be better as a result. However, I may end up keeping a plot point that one reader dislikes if the other three really like it.

Beta reader comments about characters’ makeups, motives and reactions can be especially challenging. Since my goal is that readers suspend their reality when reading my book, I can end up agonizing over these comments. Sometimes, though, after a lot of considering and tinkering, I’ll stop pounding the laptop keys and say to myself, “That’s who the character wants to be and not everyone will like or understand her.”

It’s true that no writer pleases all readers, but a writer who uses the feedback of beta readers wisely will definitely please more.

Copyright ©2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).

Using, Finding and Preparing Beta Readers

Blog 34I’m going to devote a few posts to the topic of beta readers. I’m including the posts under “Thoughts on Writing” because beta readers can help writers both traditionally and self-published.

This post is about using, finding and preparing beta readers. The next post will ask what do with their feedback. One can have different views on these topics; here’s a link to another blog.

What are beta readers? Software developers release beta versions of programs for users to test functionality before the final release. Similarly, before writers publish their manuscripts, they sometimes circulate advanced drafts to beta readers for responses to their stories.

Beta readers are usually unpaid.

What do beta readers comment on and is it useful? Beta readers comment on anything from whether they found a book interesting, to problems they encountered with plot, characters or setting, to language use, grammar or typos. They’re likely to raise issues that take a writer by surprise.

For both The Case for Killing and False Guilt, I found beta reader comments highly useful.

When does a writer give beta readers his manuscript? Beta readers are not substitutes for editors, except perhaps for self-published writers on a tight budget. Rather, beta readers contribute to a manuscript’s preparation before it goes to a publisher or freelance editor.

For my second book, I also asked a beta reader for comments between the structural edit and copy edit. I wanted to double-check pacing and character development.

Where does a writer find beta readers? I use four or five beta readers for each book. They’re family, good friends and acquaintances. As my readership grows, I may use new readers. I understand a writer can find beta readers online but I haven’t tested that. Book clubs and writers’ groups are other good sources.

Some commentators say a writer should only choose beta readers if they meet requirements like being a writer themselves or being an avid reader of the manuscript’s genre. I found beta reader comments so useful, I believe beginning writers should accept any potential reader’s interest and be thankful.

Using some of the same beta readers for different books can be a good idea. Those readers may comment on the writer’s overall development.

If beta readers are unpaid, why do they help? Usually it’s because they’re nice people and intrigued by contributing to a book’s development. They might also have enjoyed a writer’s earlier writing. If they’re writers themselves, they may look for a return favour.

How should a writer prepare beta readers? Quality in, quality out. Provide beta readers with a very good manuscript, even though it likely will change a lot once all comments are in. Also, give beta readers a list of questions to address. My list means beta readers will tell me if they found the book entertaining; what did and didn’t work about plot, characters and settings; and where they found weak writing. Also, I want them to read my manuscript like a book they’ve just bought. Therefore, I ask them to circle the grammar problems and typos they find without reading for that. That’s for my editor – and me!

Copyright ©2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).

Working with an Editor

Blog 20 1I’m continuing my posts on how to self-publish with some thoughts about how an author should work with an editor.

My last blog in this series discussed the categories of editing: structural, stylistic, copy editing and proofreading.

When I wrote The Case for Killing, I always knew I would hire an editor. However, I imagined the editor would have a few broad comments and, otherwise, fix grammatical and typographical errors. Because of my ignorance about the scope of an editor’s role and because the editor liked the structure and style of the book, that, in fact, is what occurred.

Learning as I try to, for False Guilt, I received detailed structural and style comments and then turned another draft (it’s in for copy editing now). The result has been tighter character psychology.

All this has gotten me thinking about how best to work with an editor. Here are my general thoughts, though I’m still a long way from implementing them perfectly.

Give your editor a quality manuscript. Work hard on the structure, style and language of your manuscript before asking for your editor’s input. Avoid saying, “I’ll let my editor fix that”. The manuscript won’t be close to perfect, but giving your editor a high quality draft will lead to a better final product and keep editorial costs down.

Ask for a report. For False Guilt, I received an eight-page reader’s report. This added cost, but it assured me my editor had really gotten to know my manuscript. Also, it was an excellent reference for the next draft.

Insist on a deadline. My experience is that some editors stick to deadlines and others don’t. If deadlines are important to you, make that known to the editor.

Expect changes. Handing over your manuscript to an editor is a little like asking a stranger how good-looking your baby is: it takes courage. But that doesn’t mean you should be defensive about changes. A good editor likely has worked with far more writing than you and most of her changes are bound to raise the book’s quality. Also, in the end, it’s your book and you don’t need to accept every change.

Communicate, collaborate and trust. Discuss your editor’s structural and stylistic edits with her. Hopefully it becomes a collaboration and not a contest about scoring points. A good editor expects to associate her name with your project, and for that reason, you should trust her.

There will be editorial relationships that fall apart under the strain of diverging visions. Generally, though, if you follow the thoughts above, I think you’ll get a much improved manuscript.

Copyright ©2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).

Do Publishers Help Create a Better Book?

Good BetterIn my last blog on a writer’s choice between traditional publishing and self-publishing, I wrote that I would address several non-financial considerations a writer might take into account.

This post considers if a writer can expect to improve her manuscript more if she works with a traditional publisher than if she purchases services as an indie author.

Since I haven’t worked with a traditional publisher, I corresponded on this topic with Melodie Campbell (published with two houses) and Michael J. McCann (a well-known self-pub). I also spoke with several freelance editors/cover designers.

Recognizing that people can have different views, here are my conclusions.

If you assess a book by the quality of its copy editing, proofreading and cover design, I’m sure a self-published writer who has hired a very good editor and designer can generate a book every bit as good as one created with a traditional publisher. The key for most indie writers, however, is to hire the right people (a topic I’ll blog about soon).

However, if you judge a book by the quality of its structure and style, I think it’s possible, but not guaranteed, that a writer published by a strong house or working with a senior editor will end up with a better product than if she self-publishes. I don’t think this will be the case, though, for very skilled writers or writers prepared to pay the fees for the best freelance structural/style editors.

Finally, if you assess a book according to whether it’s likely to gain a readership, then working with a traditional publisher is probably an advantage. Of course, a book more likely to be accepted by readers isn’t necessarily a “better” book. However, sales are important for a writer and publishing houses will have the best feel for how to adjust a manuscript to meet readers’ current interests.

It also bears mentioning that a writer working with a traditional publisher cedes control over her manuscript, at least to some degree. So there’s a risk that the writer will be disappointed by the publisher’s choices in creating the final book for market.

Copyright © 2014 Peter Fritze

Categories of Editing

Categories of Editing
Categories of Editing

The last post in my series on how to self-publish was called Self-Publishing Costs. The biggest upfront cost often is editing.

In my next two posts in the series, I’ll look at the editing of a fiction manuscript in more detail. This post focuses on the categories of editing.

When I blogged about upfront costs, I noted that there are categories of editing that roughly break between developmental editing and copy editing. The Professional Editorial Standards of the Editors’ Association of Canada use the categories of structural editing and stylistic editing, which together can be seen as developmental editing, and the categories of copy editing and proofreading. Here is a summary of those four categories.

Structural Editing: This type of editing involves assessing the manuscript to improve its organization and content.

In considering organization, the editor reviews if the manuscript has a coherent structure and progression of ideas. She may suggest repositioning chapters, or revising, cutting or expanding entire sections.

For content, the editor considers deletions of repetitive material as well as additions to fill gaps or improve transitions. She also considers if dialogue or description is overused and if any portions of the manuscript require permissions or contain questionable accuracy or inadequate research.

Stylistic Editing: This process looks at the clarity, flow and smoothness of a manuscript’s language. Another term is “line editing”.

In assessing clarity, the editor looks at sentence construction and word choice. She may rewrite sentences or whole paragraphs.

Reviewing flow involves considering the transitions between sentences and between paragraphs, and possibly reordering them or adjusting their length.

For smoothness of language, the editor considers whether the language and reading level are appropriate for the intended audience, and whether they are maintained. She also looks for consistent tone and style, and for wordiness.

Copy Editing: This is editing for correctness, consistency, accuracy and completeness. The editor ensures that the rules of grammar are followed, and that spelling and punctuation errors are corrected.

Proofreading: For a fiction manuscript, this is a last check for errors.

In my next blog in the series on how to self-publish, I’ll consider the critical decisions whether to hire an editor and who to hire. I’ll also review how to get the best result from the editing process.

Copyright ©2014 Peter Fritze

Self-Publishing Costs

This is another post in my series on how to self-publish. Today, I’m discussing the costs of self-publishing before you get to promoting your book.

You can look at self-publishing as a business with upfront capital costs or as a pricey hobby. Either way, get ready to shell out money before posting your book with an e-tailer.

Blog14 001What you’ll likely pay for is editing and cover design. You might also pay for formatting and file conversion, and an ISBN.

To stand up to the competition, indie authors need to be as professional as possible. Few have the abilities to escape an editor.

I’ll post more on this later, but there are categories of editing. The number and names of the categories vary, but, roughly, they break down between developmental editing and copy editing. A developmental editor critiques your manuscript for plot, pacing and characters. A copy editor comments on consistency and language, including grammar and typos.

Editing can cost from $1,000 to $5,000 and beyond. It will depend on the quality of your manuscript, whether you have separate editors for developmental and copy editing, and how well-known and experienced your editors are. Make sure your manuscript is as polished as possible before submitting it. Consider an editor who combines developmental and copy editing. Get an estimate from an editor ahead of time and keep tabs on hours spent. The old adage, “you get what you pay for”, applies.

Cover design is another area where indie authors need to meet, or better beat, the competition. While some indies dabble in this, most don’t. You can find premade and basic covers for under $100. For custom design work, budget a minimum of $300.

Many authors write in Word. However, a Word document must be converted into another file type before posting on a digital book site. Most sites convert for free if the Word document is formatted to specification. Some of us prefer to worry about other things or incorporate interior design work, and outsource this. For this, budget $250.

Finally, an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is often required. We Canadians are lucky, because these are supplied free by registering with Library and Archives Canada. Residents of other countries often have to pay.

Assuming $1,500 for editing, $400 for cover design and $100 for miscellaneous costs like printing, $2,000 to self-publish a single manuscript is reasonable. It’s easy to spend more, and I highlight this is before promotional costs. To minimize pain, know what you’re getting into and keep a budget.

As they say, money isn’t everything as long as you have enough, so it’s worth paying attention to the costs of self-publishing.

Copyright ©2014 Peter Fritze