Here’s a trick for eliminating unnecessary exposition in your novel

dark willow buffy bored blah

As I revise my novel, one of the problems I’m working on is too much exposition, especially in the beginning chapters.

I’ve devised a little trick to help as it’s not always apparent to me when I have too much.

What is exposition, anyway?

Author Beth Amos defines exposition as “information that is offered to readers to help them understand the plot, characters, or setting in a story. Exposition is telling, not showing, and passive rather than active.”

What is too much exposition?

Amos has a nice way of explaining when you’re hitting the danger zone with exposition:

The key is to use it piecemeal, doling it out in small chunks and only when absolutely necessary. To involve readers in your story, you need to maintain their interest and pique their curiosity. You do that by revealing just enough details to make a character or situation intriguing without insulting the reader’s intelligence by spelling it out for them. And if you can offer those same revelations through dialogue and action, so much the better.

Think of real life. When we meet a person for the first time, we know nothing about their past, their personalities, or even much of their present day life. Over time, if we continue to be exposed to this person, we will glean these details through the person’s actions, interactions, and conversations. The more puzzling and complex a person seems, the more our interest is piqued. In contrast, when you meet someone who is so fascinated by his own life that he proceeds to tell you every aspect of it in excruciating detail, the impulse is to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

Here’s my trick to reducing exposition:

I’ve been rereading each scene and chapter looking only for tell-ish exposition — anywhere I’m stepping out of the “present” to explain something so the reader better understands the deeper context — and I highlight it in yellow. I especially look for exposition that feels like it could be taken out without affecting the action or flow of the scene. In other words, it’s just not that relevant or necessary.

If the highlighted portion is more than two lines, I trim it down to two (or less). But instead of simply deleting the offending text, I cut and paste it into a text document in my Scrivener project that I titled “Scraps.” This way, I’m not losing the extra information — and I don’t forget what it is, either. I’m taking it and moving it to the side, out of the way, so I can recycle it later, or so I can remember why it was so important in the first place.

What this has taught me:

First, it’s made this exercise has made it much easier to spot heavy exposition in my novel. It really is true that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to look for everything (character, exposition, description, etc.) at the same time — you need to take a pass for one thing, then a pass for another.

Second, I’ve learned to take out the bits I don’t need and find more creative ways to incorporate them. For example, in my novel, I realized I had told the reader what my character’s unusual routine was each morning when I could have shown her going through it at the start of the story.

What techniques do you use to eliminate unnecessary exposition in your stories?

‘Authors Anonymous’ and real-life critique groups

Authors Anonymous movie

After watching the movie Authors Anonymous on Netflix, I realized something important about participating in a local critique group: A little manuscript help isn’t worth suffering other writers’ neuroses.

Most writers are neurotic, one way or another. Put five to ten of us in a room together, and shit happens. Usually, that means some lively (at times heated) story discussion, and sometimes outright arguments. There are always pros and cons. The critique group is a crawl — you can get a full manuscript critique from an online writing partner in the time it would take a local critique group to do one or two chapters — but the trade-off is the atmosphere and community. It’s about being united with your fellow writers and motivating each other to improve.

One tense scene in Authors Anonymous shows what happens when that little community implodes: Jealous of another member’s success and annoyed by everyone else, one character bitches out each writer in turn (mostly saying their work is crap) before quitting. It isn’t long afterward that the whole group falls apart. Each character has too much emotional baggage to support anyone; they only end up sabotaging or demoralizing them instead.

Real life can be similar. When writers start picking fights, gossiping, or taking criticism too personally, it’s time to say sayonara. If you’re not getting emotional support from the group, it’s not worth going.

Have you ever been in a writing / critique group with personality problems? What happened?

How to decide if you need an editor for your book

nope gif

I’ve been hearing a lot of advice about book editing lately, and I wanted to clear something up:

You do not need to hire an editor for your book.

Well, not necessarily. Let me explain:

A lot of writers are self-publishing these days, and that’s fine. And if you’re self-publishing, it is in your best interest to hire a professional editor for your book. But writers sometimes state that this is a requirement no matter what.

I wholeheartedly disagree.

If you plan on traditionally publishing your book — which means you want to query agents and secure a publisher, all that — then you do NOT need an editor prior to querying. You do not need to pay anything involving your novel (and editors do not come cheap).

Here’s why:

Sure, you can increase your chances of publication if your novel is more polished from a good round of editing. But while an editor will make a lot of developmental suggestions, they’re not going to do the work for you — you are.

You can get the same result from working with critique partners or beta readers, who will do it for free or in exchange for a critique of their own writing.

But what about grammar? And punctuation? And typos?

Fix. this. yourself.

If you want to get into the writing business but you don’t know when to use a comma and when not to, then you’ll only do yourself a favor by learning. Take a course on grammar, or buy a grammar book and teach yourself. Just learn the rules — or at least get a friend who’s good at that stuff to proofread your book.

Hiring an editor is a waste of money when there are no guarantees in traditional publishing. Save your money and instead spend your energy honing your skills and making sure you can beat the odds. Study your craft and learn how to revise, how to proofread, how to stick it out until you have a damn good novel and a fine query and synopsis on your hands. Be the most versatile writer you can be.

Future you will thank you.

5 answers to the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Every writer knows this question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Typically, writers respond with something along the lines of, “Um … I dunno! Ha ha ha!” And inwardly does this:

writer scream

Next time you’re asked this question, give people an answer they can understand … or at least one that’ll make them never want to talk to you again.

Answer: “I had this crazy dream …”

“One day I woke up from this crazy dream, where my underwear was on fire, and everyone was staring at me, and then I had to ride this crazy rollercoaster with a bunch of hamster people. And that’s how I got the idea to write a book about a dystopian future.”

Answer: “I browsed the internet.”

“People post the darndest things on the internet. They take pictures of their food. They rant about who died on television shows. They post a lot of GIFs. They’re basically characters who write themselves. I just copy down everything they say on Facebook.”

Answer: “Television.”

“I was basically so angry about my favorite show getting cancelled that I re-wrote the ending and changed all the names. … Yeah, that show. You know that one. I can’t believe the network, right?”

Answer: “I spend a lot of time with cats.”

“Well, I was sitting around, petting my ten cats, and I started to wonder … What if, like, they’re really people, reincarnated into cat bodies? And we let them watch us take baths and pick our noses and stuff? And we never let them go outside?! And we torture them by talking in baby speak all day! Really we’re just terrible enslavers of an entire once-human race!”

Answer: “I steal everyone else’s ideas.”

“Everyone who asks me this question usually follows it with, ‘You should write about this great idea I had,’ so I turn their ideas into novels and make lots of money, and I don’t have to share a penny. I am totally rolling in cash right now. I am up to my eyeballs in money.”

picard

Writing life: The moment you know it’s all gonna work out

Rowling gif

As you may know from this blog, I’m deep into revisions on a young adult fantasy book. It’s my second completed manuscript, and while that alone is an accomplishment worth being proud of, I feel like I’ve achieved an even greater milestone in my writing life:

I am more comfortable with revision than I ever used to be.

Revision is scary. Okay, that’s an understatement. After I wrote my first book, I found revision fucking daunting. I used to relentlessly Google things like, “How do you revise your book without getting overwhelmed?”

When I got to my second novel (this one), something changed. I joined a local writer’s group, and eventually I started setting quarterly goals so I would get my first round of revisions done. That quarterly schedule turned into weekly goals, which turned into a real revising habit — and now I sit down to revise nearly every day, without fail.

The secret, I learned, was that there is no secret. Revision is hard. It’s always going to be hard, and it’s a necessary evil if you want to get published. But there are ways you can make it easier.

Writer’s groups and critique partners make revision a hell of a lot more approachable. I suck at identifying critical issues with my novel — maybe less so now, but still, I’m way too close to the damn thing to know what I should even try to fix.

That’s the rub: When you try to revise without feedback, especially when you’re new to revision, you’ll probably identify “problems” to fix while missing the bigger issues that you should be focusing on. I remember I spent hours revising the first few chapters of my first manuscript — churning out draft upon draft — and guess what? It wasn’t a very efficient use of my time, and I zoned in on smaller, nit-picky issues like word choice when I should have been thinking about whether the story made sense and what needed more developing.

Revising in a vacuum is a useless exercise.

When you have other people read and critique your novel, you get a reader’s perspective, which is so crucial for identify the real problems with your novel. Readers pick out things you would have never thought of — things that matter. They don’t obsess like you do over your prose and making it “perfect.” They’re much more willing to accept your style.

Critiques can hurt, but they’re mighty powerful. And eventually, you get used to them, and you don’t take criticism personally anymore. Once you do — what’s there to be afraid of? Certainly not revision. No, sir.

Being comfortable with the revision process is one of the best feelings in the world as a writer. It means you’re not afraid to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in the name of making your novel better.

Do I ever still worry what readers will think? Of course. But I’m finding that I can survive whatever they throw at me. And that makes me so much more confident that I’m going to achieve my dream of being published one day.

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When reactions to your novel make you want to facepalm

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Sometimes you’re reading comments on your manuscript and you just feel like this.

Okay, so maybe it’s not the reader’s fault. Correction: It’s definitely not the reader’s fault. They’re not stupid; their opinion is legit. You just didn’t communicate yourself clearly, and now they’re super confused, and you’ve derailed their understanding of everything, and …

facepalm gif picard

You need to fix it, but where do you even start?

This is a question I’m struggling with right now, and honestly, the only solution I can think of is to take a deep breath and … think … HARD. Where did you lead your reader astray?

Sometimes the answer is right in front of you, and it’s as simple as pronoun confusion or omitted dialogue tags. Who’s the “he” in this sentence? Who’s speaking here? Bam, presto, fixed — you’re done.

Other times, you’re going to have to play detective. If you can, ask them more questions. Ask them what they think is happening in the scene — have them recount the story to you — and as soon as their version and your version don’t align … BOOM.

radcliffe

But when all else fails, or you don’t have the person in front of you to interrogate them, you might either have to a) add a little more detail to clarify what something is or what’s going on, or b) add more introspection so a character’s motivation makes more sense. Every action has a reaction, as they say, but sometimes you don’t understand what the hell caused the action after that. So make sure you’re connecting the dots on paper, not just in your head.

I’m finding in my revisions that sometimes I need to write in a few extra sentences if a paragraph is confusing my reader. Or I might have to go chapters back to where I introduced an idea and flesh it out more, answering their questions early so they don’t carry their confusion throughout the whole book. Or I have to add an entirely new scene because PROBLEMS.

the office

Writing is never a perfect process. Revision can make you want to tear your hair out. And no matter how much you revise, somebody else can come along and point out another issue for you to resolve.

Have patience. Be easy on yourself. Do one revision pass at a time. Your novel will keep getting better, I promise.

A whole month of critiquing — DONE

frodo mordor

THE END

After critiquing over 100,000 words of another writer’s manuscript in a single month, those classic words took on new meaning.

Last month was the first time I had ever critiqued another writer’s entire manuscript, and it was a BIG JOB. I’m kind of exhausted right now. But I’m also excited, because this means that I get to dive into all the critiques she made on my manuscript and start a new, hopefully much more beneficial round of revisions.

I’m honored that I got to take part in shaping someone’s book. I mean, that’s downright cool. I feel like when I see it on shelves one day and sit down to read it in a glossy hardcover, I’m going to be teary-eyed and proud. Not because I was able to influence someone’s novel, but proud that I helped someone make their story better. Proud that she stuck through all the tough feedback and toiled through the edits to make it as good as it could be. Proud that I know someone who made her dream happen.

Because, hey — I BELIEVE in my critique partner. She’s gonna make it one day. I just know it.

Critiquing a full-length novel has also sharpened my eye as a writer. When you’re just reading a novel, there’s a bunch of little things you don’t notice or take for granted. And when you’re writing a novel, you’re too close to your work to see them. But when you’re critiquing someone else’s WIP and see issues come up time and again — well, you suddenly understand where all those writing rules came from. It clicks in a way that it didn’t before. I’m sure my critique partner could say the same thing from critiquing my story because every writer has their crutches.

Would I do a full manuscript swap again? Absolutely. It was definitely worth the investment to become a better critiquer, a more observant writer, and to receive a full critique in return. Would I do it again in the near future?

I think my brain needs a break first. :)

500 percent done

Your first novel isn’t any good

Author and YouTuber Travis McBee said in a recent video that no one should publish their first book. At times like these, I’m reminded of those old Animaniacs skits:

Doing nothing with your novel — good idea or bad idea?

Travis argued that “if it’s your first book, it’s not good. It’s not nearly as good as your third or fourth book will be. Do not publish it — you will regret it.”

He says instead to do a rewrite and then set it aside — then repeat for at least one more book after that. His point is that your skills will grow dramatically from your first book to your second, and your second to your third. Publishing that rough, early work will turn off readers who may otherwise become loyal fans if only you had waited until your skills advanced.

I … totally agree with him. Rarely are debut published novels actually a writer’s first novel. More often, it’s their second or third — or twentieth.

The first novel I completed was crap. At the time, I didn’t realize that, but I can pretty much look back on that manuscript now and shrug my shoulders and nod my head. Yep. Terrible.

Why was it terrible? Because your first novel is often your “practice novel.” You’re going to make a lot of mistakes in it. And it’s not that those mistakes can’t be fixed — if you really wanted to, you could spend years performing major reconstructive surgery on them. But there’s only so much you can do for a body that’s badly broken.

For me, the clincher was that I no longer enjoyed my novel after writing it. I was bored by it, and I didn’t care about the characters. Not really. I didn’t believe in my story anymore.

It only took me a few years of procrastinating in revisions to figure that out for myself.

Travis’s advice is to move on — shelve that novel, at least for now, and write something new. There’s a big chance it’ll be much, much better. Your first novel isn’t the only novel you have in you — it’s not your “one and only” dream book. Trust me. Your imagination’s a lot bigger than that.

Virtual reality writing could be very different

This is a video of me trying Google Cardboard for the first time. I look kind of goofy, huh? :)

Last week, I visited the New York office of the education company I work for and got the chance to try one of these things on. If you’re not up on your virtual reality these days, Google Cardboard is a simplistic virtual reality viewer that uses your smartphone to run VR apps. You can get one for as little as $15.

Trying Google Cardboard, it occurred to me that writing for virtual reality could be very different than, well, writing for anything else.

We write for television. For movies. For games. For all sorts of platforms and experiences. And what each of those mediums require from writers is very unique. Even writing a short story is different from writing a novel, so writing for virtual reality would have to be different too, right?

The only people who are truly going to know what it’s like to write for virtual reality are, obviously, the people who are going to do it. But I can speculate about a few things:

  • Virtual reality could require a lot of “you” statements. The player is literally a part of the game, so VR requires a more intimate approach. Writing second-person well (beyond the level of a “choose-your-own-adventure” story) is a challenge.
  • More “show” than “tell.” With virtual reality, you have the opportunity to make every part of your storytelling immersive. The easiest way to do that is to load up on the show.
  • Description is less important. Again, this goes back to showing. When the player can see everything for themselves, they don’t need everything to be explained for them — they can explore the world firsthand.
  • Choice will matter more. When the player feels like they’re personally the ones making a decision, their choices will automatically have more weight. Or at least they should.
  • Dialogue could involve voice recognition, which would be … bonkers awesome. I can wish, can’t I?

Can you think of any other ways writing for virtual reality would be different than what we’re used to? Let me know in the comments!

 

12 tips for new writers working on their first manuscript (aka, a letter to my past self)

writing a book

Writing a book is dang hard. And even though experienced writers know that writing the thing is the easy part, that doesn’t diminish what an amazing accomplishment it is to finish a book. A lot of people don’t get that far, so it’s pretty incredible if you do. I mean, you are awesome.

You learn a lot going from your first completed manuscript to your second. In no special order, here are 12 things I wish I could go back and tell my former self — a newbie fiction writer with a lot ahead of her.

#1: No one gets it right on the first try

Dear past self: You just finished that manuscript, wrote “the end,” and your whole body is shaking. YOU WROTE A BOOK. You’re excited and proud, and you damn well should be.

But as amazing as you think your book is, it’s going to need a lot of work — a little thing called revision. There’s a reason most writers consider their very first finished MS their “practice novel.” You’re flexing a muscle you’ve never used before, at least not so rigorously — it’s gonna take awhile before you compose a masterpiece.

So don’t feel bad if this isn’t “the one.” First drafts are never, ever perfect. First novels rarely ever are.

#2: Listen to what your gut is telling you

Dear past self: When you were writing that book, you thought that this was the hard part. But now revision looms ahead of you, and you just can’t bring yourself to get past the first few chapters. You’ve polished them each about ten times, and you still have tens of thousands of words left to go. How can you even.

Truth is, you’re procrastinating for a reason: You don’t love your book. You don’t believe in it. You think it’s boring, and that’s hard to admit, and it’s going to take you a year or two to finally concede to it. But hey. That’s okay. You can put this one in a drawer somewhere and start working on something that’s going to excite you again. Because if you don’t love your story, chances are no reader will.

writing happened

#3: Publishing isn’t the point

Dear past self: The totally delusional write to make millions. (Not gonna happen.) The semi-delusional write to get published. The realistic write because they love writing, and if publishing follows at some point, hey, that’s pretty awesome.

Every writer wants to get published, but as soon as you accept that that’s not why you’re doing this — that you’re writing because you can’t not write — then things will fall into place. You’ll become more disciplined, more serious about getting the work done in a timely manner. And that’s what counts. That you treat it like a profession. That you hone your skills. That you keep writing. Publishing is not proof that you’re a writer. Your writing habits are.

#4: Study your craft

Dear past self: You’ve got a lot to learn, kiddo, so you better study up. Start researching story structure. POV. Character development. Info dumps. Show versus tell. Internalization and dialogue. And most importantly, REVISION.

Fiction University is going to help you a lot. You’re going to recommend it to every writer you meet who’s struggling with the basics. You’re a whiz at grammar and punctuation, and that will take you far. Now it’s time to master technique.

#5: Get over your fear of sharing

Dear past self: The best revision you’ll ever do will be the product of having other writers look at your writing. No writer should revise in a vacuum — you’re too close to your work to see what needs fixing, and you have no sense of what you should be focusing on.

Without the guidance of critique partners and beta readers, you’ll be changing things that don’t need changed and making edits that don’t have much impact. Having someone provide feedback on your work will be ten times more valuable than trying to figure out revision when you have no idea where you should even begin. Revision is hard enough; don’t do it alone. The only way to get over your shyness about sharing your writing is to share your writing.

write trashy

#6: Negative feedback isn’t a death sentence

Getting critiqued is hard. You’re going to cry the first few times. You’re going to feel nervous. You’re going to have to train yourself not to get angry when someone thinks your story needs work.

But guess what: The more you do it, the less sensitive you’ll be to negative feedback, and the more you’ll crave it. Because this is the good stuff. This is going to make your writing better. And with time, you’ll start to realize that the difference between a bad chapter someone hates and a good chapter they love can come down to a few key edits. It’s not as a hard as you think. It’s practically magic.

#7: Revision will get easier

Dear past self: Just like getting critiqued, revising will get easier, too. Right now, you hate it. It’s so much work. You spend so many hours on one chapter. You feel like this is going to take forever and that you’ll never get there.

But listen: You will get there. And you will get used to revision. In fact, you’ll actually start to love it more than writing a first draft, because revision is how your story transforms. How it becomes everything you envisioned it to be. As the changes you make pile up, you’ll actually start seeing the forest for the trees. And revision becomes … fun. Imagine that.

#8: Schedules are VERY important

Dear past self: In order to write a book, you have to stick to a schedule. That could be anything — 300 words every day of the week, or 500 words every other day. You decide.

And just like with writing, revision only gets done when you set a schedule. And as soon as you make that schedule a habit that you follow, it won’t be so hard to stick to anymore. And hey — you’ll learn that if you plan your schedule at the start of each week, you’ll get so much done. And getting shit done is a GOOD FEELING. You’ll want as much of that good feeling as you can get.

#9: Stop worrying about word count

Dear past self: Okay, so you’re an underwriter. While other writers can churn out 130,000 words and then have to spend their time trimming, you’re stuck adding to your novel more than you need to take away. You basically have to flesh out every scene — paint in the details.

But for the love of god, stop obsessing about word count. You’re not doing yourself any favors. Sure, publishers expect certain genres to be within a certain word count range. But you’re going to drive yourself crazy with this one, trust me. Focus on the story now — word count later. Story matters more, and oftentimes in filling out and also tightening your story, word count will take care of itself.

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#10: Stop comparing yourself to other writers

Dear past (and present) self: On your worst days, you’re going to hate every word you write. Don’t look at your novel on these days. Don’t go anywhere near it. And above all, do not compare your writing to someone else’s.

Your style is your style, and trying to be like That Author You Love isn’t going to change that. In fact, trying to emulate them won’t get you published. A fresh voice will. A unique voice. Your voice.

Every writer’s journey to success — and to publication (which are separate things) — is different. Some take longer than others. Some are harder than others. So a published author you admire is just a writer who’s been at it longer. Who’s practiced more. Don’t get down on yourself because they’re far along in their own story and you’re just starting yours.

#11: You will get better

Dear past self: When you see how much better your second manuscript is going to be than your first, you’re going to flip. It’ll be so obvious in the writing, structure, and characters how much you’ve grown. You’ve learned from some of your mistakes. You’ve gotten better. And of course, you still have more to learn.

But when you go for your third time around, you’re going to use that new knowledge and write an even better story. All stories involve work — involve rewriting. That’s how it’s done. And even if novel one through novel four don’t get you published, the experience of writing them — of revising them — will make you stronger. So much more than you think.

#12: Never give up

Dear past (and present) self: Never give up on your dream.

Writing is hard. It’s a thankless job. It takes years of your life. And sometimes you’re going to wonder if it’s even worth doing.

But in your heart, you know it is. Because you love this. Because this is who you are. And because you’ll never be truly happy until you see your first book on the shelves — and then your next book, and the next. Writing stories makes you happy. And when you don’t write, you’re anxious and grumpy and restless, and you know it.

So keep writing. Keep going. Whether it takes you two manuscripts or ten to get published. Write to write. Write because you want to. Because you can. Because you’re unstoppable. Because you’ve got a story to tell, dammit. And never let anyone else tell you otherwise — especially yourself.