Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Do the Twist: Plots, Subplots and Story

Keep your main story in focus
The next installment of the editor's checklist for revising short and long fiction comprises plot, subplot and story. Here are questions to ask yourself while revising your work:
  • Plot: Does your plot move forward at a good pace, and progress in a way that is satisfying, slowing for the important events, and picking up speed for the less important?
  • Subplot(s): Even short fiction can have a subplot, but does the secondary story overshadow or confuse the main story? It should enhance it, either by contrast or comparison.
  • Story: Is the story engaging, immediate, original?
This is definitely a distillation of how to approach plot, subplot and story, but the list gets at the heart of the issue. The key is to ask yourself these same questions throughout the revision process. Even if your plot or subplot yields some twists, following this principle will keep your focus on the straight and narrow and help you avoid the rabbit trails that dilute instead of enhance your story. For the full editor's checklist, see this month's Online Editing Workshop.

Tip: Make two columns: one for the main plot and one for the subplot (you can add a column for each subplot). In each column, list the main events, or plot points. Compare the columns to see whether the events in your subplot(s) garner more interest than those in your main plot. If they overshadow the main story, consider what your main story really is.

Happy writing!     

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What's in a Word: Editor's Checklist for Short Fiction, Metaphor and Motif

Motif: The echo of an interesting character
The next items on our editor's checklist for revising short, or longer, fiction are metaphor and motif. We'll start with brief definitions, and provide questions to ask yourself while revising your work.

Metaphor: A metaphor uses an image, a story or an object to represent a less tangible object, quality or idea. For example, "Her eyes were glistening jewels." When revising your work, ask yourself whether your metaphors are original, well-placed and appropriate for your story's theme. The example here, albeit clichéd, would work well for a gemstone dealer describing a woman he loves, particularly in historical fiction and romance. A story about an artist would be better served by this: "Her eyes in the fading light were Prussian blue."

Motif: A motif is a recurring subject, theme, idea, object or concept that represents a deeper concept. Motifs, like metaphors, should be original, well-placed and appropriate for the story's theme. If, for example, your story is about a musician, you'll not only look for instances in the text that echo the subject of music, but also for objects or concepts that will evoke that theme throughout your work. For example, the curve of a woman's body can echo the treble clef of pitch, and vice versa.

The key to using metaphor and motif well is to know your story and characters well. This usually is more the case in draft two. Also, with both metaphor and motif, less (as in understatement), especially in literary fiction, is more.

For the full editor's checklist, see this month's Online Editing Workshop,

Tip: For best revision results, finish your story, then set it aside and work on something else. Distance improves perspective, and you'll more easily spot places in the work where you can exchange one metaphor or motif for a better one.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Characters Welcome: Editor's Checklist for Revising Short Fiction

How will your characters change?
Before the month of love began, we had started reviewing the editor's checklist for revising short fiction. Today, we return to the list and address character development. Here are questions to ask yourself during the revision process.

Character Development and Arc:
  • Does the main character change noticeably, albeit subtly, organically and believably?
  • If the character doesn't change, is the reason for his stalled growth clear and understandable?
Characters (Primary):
  • Are the primary characters original, believable and if not likeable, comprehensible?
  • Are the primary characters' relationships with other characters clear and integral to the story?
Characters (Secondary):
  • Do secondary characters stand in their own right, without overshadowing the story's main squeeze?
  • Are secondary characters original, believable and if not likeable, comprehensible?
  • Are their relationships with the main characters clear?
For the full checklist, see this month's Online Writing Workshop on my website.

Tip: For the best results in editing any story, regardless of length, follow these steps:
  1. Set the work aside for at least a week.
  2. Work on another writing project in the meantime.
  3. Edit or critique someone else's work in the meantime.
Happy writing!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Challenges and Rewards of Writing Historical Fiction: Author C. M. Keller on Screwing Up Time

C. M. Keller is an award-winning novelist and author of Screwing Up Time. She loves old movies and poison rings. In her spare time, she searches for that elusive unicorn horn. She's currently hard at work on her next young adult novel, the second book in Mark and Miranda's story. Her blog is A Merry Heart.

C. M. Keller
When Adele approached me and asked me to share the biggest challenge and most rewarding aspect of writing Screwing Up Time, I wasn't sure what I'd say. Many aspects of writing are both difficult and exhilarating. Writing the initial draft is terrifying, but such a rush. Editing can be mind-numbing when you're trying to find the perfect words, but to see your story take final shape is like seeing your child for the first time. Then I remembered the part of the process that prompted me to haunt office supply stores and yielded dark circles under my eyes—editing for historical accuracy and consistency.

My book is a "time travel meets romantic comedy" novel, and writing about people and places from different time periods was a fantastic experience. The cultural and historical differences provided many opportunities for humor, misunderstanding and character growth. Though I did lots of research before and during my initial draft, getting the historical details right was the hardest thing about writing this particular novel. During revisions, I would discover that something I'd read about the castle, the location or the time period wasn't correct. (I invested a lot of time in checking and rechecking the facts.) Because the plot was complex, a small change in one spot often forced me to rewrite scenes throughout the novel. I ended up coding the entire manuscript with multicolored Post-it flags. For example, if I needed to verify a love token, I would check all the romance scenes, so I used red flags to mark romance scenes. When I discovered a recent photo that showed the grass floors of the modern Bodiam Castle had been replaced with fine pebbles, I checked all the scenes that took place in the modern castle and made sure the floors were pebbles—for those I used yellow flags. Blue flags marked the castle in the Middle Ages, purple was for historical artifacts, etc. I used an entire Crayola crayon box worth of Post-it flag colors. In the end, the process worked, but getting there was...colorful.
Screwing Up Time

The most satisfying thing to me as an author is the response from my readers. I assumed they would be teens, and while many are, I've discovered that my book has a much larger audience. Elementary school children have told me they love the book. Seventy-year-old men who never thought they'd read young adult said that although they only read it because someone recommended it, to their surprise, they loved the novel and can't wait to read the sequel. Sharing [the main characters of] Mark and Miranda with others has been an amazing gift, and I'm so thankful for the opportunity my readers have given me.

For more about the book, visit Screwing Up Time and the blog A Merry Heart.