Monday, November 3, 2014

Fiction Craft: Revising the Novel

By Robert Ferrier 

Completed first drafts unleash a torrent of emotions. Enjoy the moment. Few writers finish a novel, and you've passed those who dropped out along the way. Now you're eager to launch that book into the world. 

Beware the trap. First drafts don't sell. 

Euphoria masks sins: overwriting, plot holes, faulty character motivation, stilted dialogue, research errors, flawed scene structure and style mistakes. 

Editors look for reasons to reject. Craft your work into a salable manuscript -- one that stands out -- by taking the following steps: 

I. Delay 

Take a 4 - 6 week working vacation from the manuscript. Distance yourself from the book and let it "cool." The objectivity gained will prove crucial later. 

Use this time to seek evaluation of the manuscript by your critique group or a published author. Check your ego at the door; you don't need validation, you need red marks on pages. 

(By the way, this is a good time to copy the novel to a separate disk for safekeeping in a deposit box.) 

II. Take Notes during "First Read" 

After returning to the project (You didn't peek did you?), read the manuscript straight through with a notepad. Don't revise; make margin notes and jot down page numbers for repair jobs. 

Focus on key issues: 

A. Confirming significance of story goal and scene goals 

B. Strengthening characters: 

1. Are their actions motivated and logical? 
2. Do the characters grow? 
3. Does their "inner humanity" change? 

C. Checking key elements of: 

1. Beginning: Threatens protagonist with change? 
2. Middle: Moves toward confrontation with opposing force? 
3. End: Forces choice of sacrificial decision by protagonist, reversal and achievement of 
story goal. 

D. Ensuring ascending importance of scene goals 

E. Noting fluff and personal opinion 

F. Marking viewpoint mistakes 

G. Staying consistent on details 

H. Avoiding overuse of words or phrases. 

I. Varying chapter openings. (Use action, dialogue, narration or description.) 

III. Begin Revisions 

A. Cut overwriting 

Remember Stephen King's advice: Second draft = first draft minus 10%. Tighten the manuscript by cutting: 

1. Adjectives and adverbs 
2. Wordy passages and personal opinion 
3. Excessive research 

B. Correct errors listed in your notes and critiques 

C. Continue building characters: 

1. Add color and background to major characters 
2. Look for ways to use minor characters as major players 
3. Tag characters physically and psychologically 

D. Insert plot pointers 

Now that you know the story line, insert incidents that prepare readers for major events occurring later. 

E. Strengthen scene and sequel relationship 

Does each chapter-ending scene finish with a "hook" that pulls readers into the next chapter? Does each sequel (emotion, dilemma, analysis, decision, new scene goal) match the previous scene's intensity? 

F. Check story logic 

At crucial plot points, reinforce why the protagonist doesn't quit the quest. 

IV. Polish for Submission 

A. Correct grammar, punctuation and spelling 

Style errors warrant a rejection slip. Don't rely entirely on your word processor's spell check and grammar functions. 

B. Read aloud 

Whatever the length of the book, read every word aloud. If your voice trips over a word or phrase, delete the word(s) or revise the sentence. The final result will set you apart from amateurs. 

C. "Kill Your Darlings" 

Some of your "favorite" phrases, sentences or passages won't fit. Delete them. Find solace in your royalty checks. 

V. Submit the Manuscript 

When you've completed the above steps, submit the work. Two things will happen: 1) you'll suffer postpartum depression, and 2) you'll obsess about the status of the manuscript. The antidote: begin another story. Setting new characters in motion frees you from looking back.

Twitter: @Dante_Dreams 
Amazon Author Page: 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A discussion of the elements of viewpoint in fiction.

Fiction Craft: Viewpoint 


Robert Ferrier

Readers ask one question when they begin a story: Whose skin am I in?
Viewpoint enables readers to live the story through a character, rather than observing like patrons at a play. By establishing viewpoint--along with time, place and circumstance--the author prepares readers to begin an adventure. Readers feel every emotion; share every thought; see, feel, hear and taste everything, living moment-by-moment inside the viewpoint character.
In establishing viewpoint, authors use one of three narration methods: first person, second person or third person.

First Person Narration

All story narration filters through the thoughts, feelings and actions of an "I" character. This method provides the closest identification between character and reader. Authors of detective novels often use this technique.

Second Person Narration

In this rare, idiosyncratic technique, a "you" character tells the story.

Third Person Narration

He, she, it or they tell the story, using one of three variations. The objective narrator tells the story only through outward signs--action, description and dialogue. The omniscient narrator knows everything that a god might know, seeing into the minds of all her characters and inserting author comments. In the most commonly used technique, a limited omniscient narrator describes outward events through the mind and senses of a central character.

Elements of Viewpoint

Whether beginning a scene or sequel, establish a single character's viewpoint immediately, using one or more of the following elements:

1. Emotions
2. Thought
3. Intent.
4. Physical Senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell.

Once a character expresses emotions, thought or intent, readers know they are inside that character's skin. In limited omniscient viewpoint, only the viewpoint character can know what she is feeling or thinking. Immediately establish viewpoint using physical senses.
In the following scene the viewpoint character, Jimmy, crawls into an abandoned coke oven in a ghost town to escape a pursuer armed with a crossbow.
When he crawled through the opening, a wall of heat hit him. He felt his way along the bricks in total darkness. Afraid of making noise, he curled up and listened to his pounding heart while he waited and prayed.
Stinging sweat blurred his view of the entrance.
He wrinkled his nostrils at the musty smell. He tried not to think about what might have been here before, or what might be here now. No nukshopa, he thought, remembering his Choctaw father's advice. No panic. Just think of something else, something good. So he thought of how his mother had rubbed his back after football games. He thought of her hands, how good they felt, how much he loved her. How much he missed her since she died.
He waited, prayed and sweated, losing all sense of time.
Then he saw a small boot--the size of a boy's--at the entrance. The leg looked muscular, like a man's.
Jimmy remained still, watching the entrance.
Now he saw both boots. Then both knees. And small, strong hands.
A dwarf?
Now the man would crawl inside.
Jimmy knew he had to move deeper into the oven, yet something made him stop. Some fear. A presence.
But not to move meant exposure, and death.
He inched back deeper into the oven.
Then he heard a deadly buzz, so loud that he felt his skin crawl. That sound....
He was alone in the dark with a rattlesnake.

Common Mistakes in Viewpoint

Avoid common mistakes in viewpoint:

1. Don't allow the viewpoint character to use a physical sense in an impossible way.

Wrong: "Helen's face turned red." (Helen can't see her own face, unless she's close to a mirror.)

Right: "Helen felt her face turning red."

2. Don't allow the viewpoint character to experience thought or intent in a non-viewpoint character.

Wrong: "Helen watched her sister think about the idea." (Helen can't know what her sister is thinking.)

Right: "Helen watched her sister, imagining what must be going through her mind. Would she like the idea?"

3. Don't begin a scene without establishing viewpoint immediately. Physical senses alone may not establish viewpoint. One character can observe another character seeing, smelling or touching something. Thus, reader still doesn't know whose viewpoint they are in until one character expresses thought or emotion.

4. Don't change the viewpoint character within a scene. Readers prefer to remain inside one character during conflict. Use a chapter break or other interruption to shift viewpoint.

In summary, viewpoint ranks as one of the most powerful tools available to the fiction writer. Use this technique in both scene and sequel, enabling readers to live the story moment-by-moment.

Next month: Characterization

Suggested Reading:

Bickham, Jack M. Scene & Structure. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 1993.

Card, Orson Scott. Characters & Viewpoint. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 1988.

McClanahan, Rebecca. Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 1999.

Swain, Dwight V. Techniques of the Selling Writer. Norman, Ok.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Elements of writing effective dialogue in fiction.

Fiction Craft: Dialogue 


Robert L. Ferrier

Dialogue offers a powerful tool for developing characters, building conflict and foreshadowing events. Listen to conversation by people of all ages, ethnic groups, occupations and gender. Real conversation sounds brief. So does fiction dialogue, with conflict added. Read masters of the craft--Elmore Leonard and Ernest Hemingway.

Functions of Dialogue:

1. Developing Characters

Characters identify themselves in dialogue by words, attitude, tone and "speech tags." For example, the character Wednesday in Neil Gaiman's novel, AMERICAN GODS, addresses Shadow with the speech tag, "m'boy." Through Wednesday's attitude, we "hear" his sense of superiority and volatility.

2. Building Conflict through Stimulus-Response

Conflict hogs 95% of a scene. Thus, dialogue between characters resembles sparring.

Dialogue acts as a stimulus at the end of a paragraph. With few exceptions, the responding character's dialogue should link immediately in the next paragraph. On the other hand, if a paragraph ends in action rather than words, the responding paragraph should begin with action. This parallel linkage speeds readability.

The dialogue techniques of linking (repeating) words or using question and answers tighten stimulus-response between paragraphs. One exception: in a highly-charged transaction, it's acceptable to delay the response by inserting emotion.

3. Foreshadowing Future Action

After writing your first draft, you know all major events in the story. Take advantage of this knowledge by inserting new dialogue to foreshadow these events. Here's a segment from my novel, DEAR MR. KAPPS. In the original draft, Mr. Elconin was a minor character. Later events provided an opportunity to make him a major charactor, as evidenced by this inserted scene, which takes place in the lounge of a retirement home.:
I turned my back to the jigsaw puzzle ladies, but I felt their stares.

"Mr. Elconin, I saw you reading Model Flyer. Can you teach me to fly a model airplane?"

A light sparkled in his eyes. "What model will you be flying?"

"I don't know. A trainer." I felt stupid.

He stared at me. "Ever work with gasoline models?"

"No, sir. I'm just starting." I felt him slipping away. "I've got to fly a trainer before I try The Lightning."

His eyes widened. "Lightning? You mean a P-38 Lightning?"

"Yes, sir. I need to fly that plane before it's too late."

He crossed his legs. "Too late for what?"

"For my friend to see it happen." I searched for the words. "We're building the plane together...or we were. Now he's dying, and I'm building it."

"Dying? How old is he?"

"Fourteen. We've got cancer. That's how we met, during chemotherapy." I felt bad, talking about BB. "He doesn't have much time. He's got to see that plane fly."

"Cancer." He stared at my bald head, then his eyes glazed over, and he drifted away."That's how I lost my the cancer." He came back from the past and raised both hands. "You don't have a prayer."

"Why? I'm willing to learn! I need a teacher!"

"Humph!" He pointed a bony finger at me. "That Lightning flies too fast for a rookie." He made a darting movement with his hands. "Before you learn, your friend will be dead."

I felt my face flush. "So I should quit? I never quit! I haven't quit on my cancer. I'll bet your wife didn't quit! She fought, and you helped her fight!"

I heard a gasp from the jigsaw ladies. The room fell silent. Even the fire seemed to stop crackling. Mr. Elconin's eyes flamed. He might have lapsed into some memory. Then he looked up again. "You finished that Lightning yet?"

"Well, no. We've...I've got to finish the tail, fit the engine, paint the plane...."

"Great googlie mooglie!" he muttered.

As an exercise, circle all linked (repeated) words and question/answer transactions in the above scene. Note how these techniques speed flow while building tension. 

Twitter: @Dante_Dreams 
Amazon Author Page:

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Writing Process

by Lisbeth L. McCarty

Each person uses a different process to write, just as each human being is different.

There is no right or wrong to any method; the bottom line is to keep writing. Here are three parts of the process that have helped me:

1. Read. This is redundant, as I have no doubt that every writer is a reader. On the other hand, we all only have so many hours in a day. Television is easy and Facebook is fun, but try to make a point to read a book or part of a book every day.

2. Inspiration. Inspiration is everywhere, even when you are simply walking down the street. All the authors I know have minds that are running full-time, so try to harness those ideas by taking note of something each day that inspires you for use in your writing.

3. Edit. We’ll all seen misspelled signs. If you are like I am, you are exhausted by the time you are finished writing and don’t want to re-read what you have just written. Take advantage of your talented friends or hire a copy editor.

Lisbeth L. McCarty
Available on   I Cooked; Therefore, They Ran;  Ours was the House;  Mustang Island; The Bitten Air; Scared Spell That Ends Well

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Fiction Craft: An Introduction

By Robert Ferrier

As a beginning novelist, I knew writers who worried about choosing a premise, writing to the market or obtaining an agent.

I, on the other hand, thirsted for knowledge of fiction craft.

Novelists build stories from blocks, just as workmen build houses from bricks. To build our story house, we must know the materials, tools and techniques of our craft. I gained knowledge the hard way: by attending classes, writers conferences and workshops. I learned from published authors. I joined writing groups. I read novels and instructional books. Most importantly, I completed eight novels and started several others. Every level in the New York publishing industry rejected me, from associate editor to executive publisher.

How did I avoid quitting? By feeding "the critter" inside me. The beast subsists on the words I write. Salvation arrived in electronic publishing. E-book editors ignore marketing niches and gobble fresh, well-crafted stories.

How do you separate your work from the slush that floods publishers' desks? By knowing and using fiction craft -- the building blocks of story.

In this article we explore the engine which drives all commercial novels: Scene.

Scene: A unit of conflict experienced moment-by-moment by the reader through the character's viewpoint. The elements of scene include goal, conflict and disaster. A scene goal represents something that a character wants or needs to achieve the story quest.

Examples include, but are not limited to:
* Possession (such as a clue, a piece of information, victory in a confrontation)
* Relief (from danger, fear, domination, loneliness, poverty or revenge) from loss, betrayal or injury.
Scene goals force the viewpoint character to take immediate, specific and concrete steps, requiring both decision and action. These goals loom large in the character's story quest. In other words, something vital must be at stake.

Suggested Reading:
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain
Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham
Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

Twitter: @Dante_Dreams
Amazon Author Page: