Welcome back for the third and final installment of the Writer Unboxed UnConference recap– a compilation of notes from UnCon attendees. (If you missed part 1 and/or part 2 of the recap, click HERE and HERE to fix that.) We hope you enjoy the final wrap-up. Our thanks again to Jeannine Walls Thibodeau for her time in gathering and editing notes, and distilling them for us!
Cathy uses a 3-pass system:
FIRST: Story and structure: make sure your story makes sense; that there’s a dramatic arc.
Make a scene chart:
- What POV is the scene in?
- Story goal for the scene for the POV character?
- Motivation for the story goal?
- What conflict is in this scene? (There should be conflict in every scene until the end when things are resolved.)
Looking at this high level highlights holes and dead spots.
Make a list for every protagonist:
- External goal: a positive, active goal that has to be accomplished (not just avoided). The protagonist needs to be in jeopardy of not achieving the goal.
- External motivation: has to be well motivated. What is the consequence? Make it so the reader is really rooting for her.
- External conflict: balanced by the motivation. The external conflict should be physical embodiment of what the internal goal is.
- Internal goal: What do they care about? This helps you know why the character does what he does: The external is the tangible manifestation of this internal goal.
- Make sure your characters are well rounded; they should contain weaknesses. They need their want bad, so they are propelled forward all the time.
If you have the following, you have a book:
- Inciting incident: This is the kickoff point. This should be related to the goal or cause them to have this goal.
- Plot Point 1: At the ¼ mark, the definition of the story goal. You clearly state what the protagonist wants (external goal) and why and what the consequences are: “I want this, but I don’t know how to get there.”
- Pinch Point 1: The antagonist shows up as a problem.
- Midpoint: New information has been processed; the character goes from reactive to proactive: “I know what I’m up against, and it’s going to be hard.”
- Pinch Point 2: Antagonist doesn’t like how the protagonist is moving forward. Protagonist feels threatened, works against the threat. The antagonist strikes back.
- Plot Point 3: ¾ mark, the calm before the storm, and the setup for third act. No new information should be introduced after this point; anything that needs to be resolved should be introduced by now.
- Hopeless Moment: The worst thing (in terms of what the protagonist wants) happens. This moment isn’t randomly dramatic, but relates to their story goal.
- Resolution: They’ve learned what they need to learn, become who they needed to be: The protagonist has changed. Can accomplish the internal goal without the external goal being reached. This question needs to be answered,; the protagonist needs to change.
Make a list of the plot points for every main character.
SECOND: The scene-level pass. This is a check for reader experience.
- Every scene has a goal, and that goal has a motivation, but every scene also needs a disaster: This doesn’t have to be epic, but the protagonist doesn’t get what they want. The protagonist asks for something, and the answer is either: NO; or YES, BUT; or NO, FURTHERMORE. Every scene needs this, and also needs to end on this unsatisfying moment.
- Select the right POV, as this POV is the vehicle the character is driving and lets the reader be in the story, and the scene goal needs to be tied to the character who’s dominating the scene, especially when it’s third person and there are several characters. This is for POV characters, not for every member of the “cast.”
- Every scene has to have a plot point that links to the goal of the plot or the external goal of the character.
- Scenes are anchored: where in space, what room, what time period, what time of day. Make sure reader knows what’s happening and who the point of view character is, especially when starting with dialogue.
- Look at your level of exposition. Highlight all the dialogue; if you have huge blocks and pages without highlighting, you may have a problem with exposition and telling. If you have all highlighting, you may find you don’t have enough exposition. Beta readers will be your best judges of this.
- Pacing: Does intensity escalate in every scene? Scenes should have escalating conflict; it shouldn’t be abrupt, it needs to make sense. Look at the previous scene: Has it escalated?
- Ending: Is it satisfactory to your reader? Know your genre so you know the expectations of readers for what makes an ending satisfying. Give your readers time to process the climax, ease them out of the story, make the conclusion satisfying.
THIRD: Polish. This is for word-smithing on the sentence level. Don’t do this until the third pass or you’ll be polishing things you have to cut.
A twist on reading it aloud: Record yourself reading your manuscript and listen to it in the car/on the bus. Have your word processing program read it in computer voice—this helps you pick up typos and other stuff, just because it’s so weird.
Level Up: Making the Good Great with Revision:
Noting that revision carries emotional issues and that burnout is real, Heather described her multi-step revision process, emphasizing how important it is to be organized. Successful revision takes effective nurturing (of yourself) and effective editing (mechanical and technical). You might start obsessing and reworking your pages and not sharing them, or going the opposite way and getting overwhelmed with feedback. You can see so many glaring flaws and sink into despair. You become so absorbed that you get lost in the pages and lose track of what you’re fixing, so the story becomes uneven.
Heather likes to use a character map as part of prewriting that includes strengths, hopes, dreams, motivations and goals, events, flaws. She writes the pitch. Then she works on character maps: their proud moments, their dreams, their emotional motivations and goals, needs. Choose the character who will have the most trouble with your premise.
Heather’s process—and that’s a key takeaway, that revision is a process rather than a one-shot deal—involves editing with specifics in mind, and using different rounds of readers who offer feedback at different stages.
Draft 1 – Exploration. What’s the story about? Understand that you’re always developing the premise. Character map, scene outline (not all of them, but the big picture).
Draft 2 – Connecting scenes and checking for plot. Fact-checking what’s necessary. Filling in the blanks you left on previous rounds of writing. Check for plot holes.
Draft 3 – Print out in full. Edit for voice and dialogue. Do characters sound the same? Do you need to expand the description? After these changes are made, she sends her manuscript to her first two beta readers, who are writer friends/hard-core literary readers. She asks for feedback on whether the story works for them: Does the plot have emotional truth? Is it resonant? Does it make sense? Do the characters work?
Draft 4 – Take that feedback and weigh whether the suggestions and comments are what she agrees with. Transfer feedback notes you agree with into the document. Think about these points, analyze them, and decide where these could happen in the story. Write these notes in highlighted text in the relevant chapters. Attack the bigger things first and save nitpicky things. Caution: Don’t do the minutia of editing now. You don’t want to spend a lot of time editing material you may end up cutting out later.
Draft 5 – Look at character arcs for your main characters. How do the characters change over time? What triggers these changes? She’ll send it to two new beta readers and ask for specific feedback. The questions you ask readers are different than the questions you ask other writers, but both are equally valuable. The writer will go after what’s on the page, while readers will bring their imagination. You can enlist readers with specific expertise. Be good to the writers and readers who help you! Put them in the acknowledgments; send small gifts.
Draft 6 – Is there tension and urgency? Is there an internal burning question, a yearning? Is there also an external urgency as well? Incorporate changes suggested by beta readers as needed.
Draft 7 – Read chapters out of order to look with fresh eyes. Now it’s time to do the deepening. Look at parallels, symbolism, metaphor, reversals, foreshadowing (your first chapter should have it). If you are leaving clues to the mystery in the book, thread things through and connect them.
Draft 8 – Read your manuscript out loud from start to finish. Fine-tune the dialogue and pacing. Awkward dialogue will jump out at you.
The nitty-gritty: Target your weaknesses. Deepen what’s there. What does everyone tell you they like about your writing? Your voice, style? Make it bigger; use your strengths. In the final draft, you want to give your characters quirks and tics that make them interesting, but that also have meaning. These are ways you can convey something about your characters.
Be sure to make use of mindful reading. Examine books that are comparable in subject or style. Work on more than one thing. This forces you to make good use of your time. The more effectively you schedule your time in chunks, the more you get done.
Pushing Through Resistance:
Keith Cronin and Sarah Callendar
This session was mostly a discussion, beginning with times when the group has experienced resistance, and the emotional associations with that.
Fear of beginning : The start of the work versus the start of the piece, and remembering: “I can do it again.”
Someone mentioned skipping the first chapter until the rest of the story was drafted, and how that made it much easier.
Another mentioned getting past the perfectionism of the beautiful idea, by writing a sentence or two about the idea before doing the actual drafting; essentially, telling before trying to show.
Lean into resistance, into not wanting to write the key things.
If fear of starting is the form your resistance takes, here are a couple of ways through:
- Don’t write your first chapter until the very end of the process.
- Do a lot of writing that are placeholders; purposeful throat clearing.
- Write every day so you’re starting every day—it will eventually lose power.
- Think of your writing as doing scales, that is, practicing basics.
Another mentioned dealing with a literary nemesis, as if there’s only so much pie, and that person is taking more of it.
If your sense of competition is the form your resistance takes, here are a couple of ways through:
- Make a feeling of competition seem silly: Sarah says she has a literary nemesis and she’ll shake her fist and say the woman’s name out loud. It feels silly, and it takes the power away from it.
- Focus on your UnCon (or other writing) friends who don’t operate out of that sense of competition.
Another mentioned the fear of letting go, and how it connects to perfectionism.
“Know your place poisoning,” was Therese’s term; you need to know you’re in charge of it.
A Reader’s Manifesto: 16 Hardwired Expectations
Every Reader Brings to Every Story They Read:
Story is one problem all over—must be cause-and-effect all the way through. Is there a story that changed your life? Lisa’s became the basis of who she is. That’s the power you have: You become a part of who that person is, and in turn, change their lives.
When we read, we are seeing a polished result. We don’t see the early drafts. Calling ourselves wordsmiths or having a love of language is misleading. Language is tool, a conveyer of meaning. Language gets its meaning from the story we’re conveying.
The desire to write beautifully holds writers back, because when you focus on writing beautifully, you leave the story behind. You have to write ugly at first to get down to beautiful. What’s beautiful is the meaning. You want the words to get out of the way of the story. Lovely luscious words often come across as showing off; makes the reader concentrate on the writer, not the story.
Readers expect a glimpse of the big picture in the very first sentence (if possible). Don’t be afraid of “giving it all away.” Let the reader know what the journey is going to be. Note that you can’t “give it away” until YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS. If you know where you’re going, it gives both you and the reader confidence. The way your story makes its point is the character comes in with this misbelief and the plot forces the protagonist to go through that inner struggle. The protagonist is making a cost/benefit analysis of a course of action. The story makes its point at the “A-ha!” moment. Building from page 1, this point is what the story is saying about human nature.
Life is not neutral, and neither are stories. Your story needs a specific person who has an internal and an external journey. The reader expects one problem all the way through. It seems simple in the beginning. Then it grows, complicates, and escalates. Everything affects it. When the writer deviates from that problem, readers don’t know where we are. Readers expect the external problem to influence the inner problem.
Readers expect your protagonist to be flawed and vulnerable. Characters that are likeable, safe, and perfect are BORING. The only constant is change. The biggest mistake is to make protagonist likable so the reader will like them. This makes the character sanitized so they never break the rules. People like that are deeply boring. The truth is that we don’t like people who are perfect. We wonder what else is going on with them—because we aren’t perfect, so we’re suspicious.
Sometimes writers are afraid to go deep. This angers readers because you’ve dodged something. Think about yourself: What are you hiding? Things you’ve never admitted to anyone—that’s where the “me, too,” moments come from, what makes protagonist likeable.
Readers expect characters to have a past, which shapes and drives their future. They expect each character to step onto the page with an agenda fully formed from the past, and that they have a longstanding misbelief that has prevented them from achieving their agenda—their worldview, their misbelief of how the world works. Your protagonist is the misbelief personified. Start looking for secret references to origin story, the ways in which it drives their life, the mistakes they make come from that wrong worldview.
Readers expect to feel something from the first page to the last. If we’re not feeling, we’re not reading. All stories are emotion-based. We feel what the protagonist feels. Emotion is not created on page by something we see, because readers already know physical reactions to emotion, or by being told about it. It’s created by what it means to the character when they have this difficult decision to make. Readers need the backstory to understand.
Readers expect to see escalating forces of opposition with a sense of where it’s going. This creates tension. You have to give your protagonist something to fight against and struggle with—something crucial has to be at stake in every scene. Opposition needs to be reactive because this gives the protagonist something to fight against. Otherwise everything goes flaccid.
Your story needs a cause-and-effect trajectory. You can’t just have a random event thrown in from outside. Readers expect there will be something crucial at stake in every scene. Each difficult choice needs to relate back to the overall arc and the overall agenda. There’s always fallout, and then a new agenda. This is what drives your story forward. Readers expect everything the protagonist does will make it worse until they have no choice but to face that misbelief.
Include sensory detail as it matters to the story. Otherwise, readers will assign meaning where there isn’t any, and the story goes off the rails. Readers expect that everything in the story is there on a need-to-know basis. What’s happening in the moment is forcing the protagonist to make a decision.
When the protagonist changes, we change as readers. Readers expect at the end to have inside intel, to know something new about the world.
What does it really mean to be unboxed? How do we write and live as writers/authors unboxed? It means being free! Having faith. Feeling confident that we have something to say. Knowing our purpose in writing. We need to write for others. Look at your characters, and your role and heart and purpose as a writer.
What are “unboxed” characters? Think of your character as a real human being, look at her apart from the story and its events, not as a chess piece.
Why do you love this character? Why does she inspire you? What is good about her? In what way would you like to emulate or be more like this character?
What would most hurt this person? What would be greatest loss, most personal crisis, most devastating?
Who could this protagonist hurt, screw up, and how? What’s the worst personal failure or mistake your character could experience or make, something painful and humiliating?
Are these things in your story? If not, put them in and use them. Go to places that show us the very best and the very worst. Don’t play it safe. Go to the places you don’t want to go or tend not to go. If you’re having trouble doing this, remember: It’s a story, it’s fiction. These people aren’t real.
Who is the principal antagonist? Someone who works against or slows down your protagonist? When is this antagonist having a really good time? What’s their joy in life? How does this antagonist celebrate, have fun? What would she do that we wouldn’t recognize the evil intent of until later?
What does your protagonist struggle with in life? What is the moment of supreme struggle? You can expand this, or work backwards in the novel and show us other moments of struggle. These moments that the character struggles with are moments we identify with, whether we’ve been there or not, we can still recognize them.
Who’s the craziest, out-there, most lovably nuts person in your life? Who has a strange way of looking at the world? Good crazy, not bad crazy? Who in your story can be nutty in the same way? Maybe it can enliven a flat but necessary middle scene.
What does your protagonist do/believe that is unique? Push it a little further, turn it into a little quirk or habit that others in the story notice. What can your protagonist celebrate that nobody else enjoys? Can he or she go someplace that other people ignore?
If it’s making you uncomfortable, good! Use it! Break the rules, go out of bounds, go to extremes; it’s part of being unboxed. Successful novelists push things farther than others do. They don’t hold back, they don’t worry whether readers will not find it believable. Use it and don’t apologize. Being the people we can be sometimes means being the people we shouldn’t be. Great novelists make us feel things or be afraid of things by going too far, not worrying about credible. Embrace what is hard and extreme and unique and do not apologize for it.
What virtues could your protagonist have? For someone who embodies this virtue, what is the greatest test they could face? What could be the greatest possible failure to live up to this virtue? What is the greatest failure of courage, the greatest act of cowardice? What is the greatest courage that your protagonist could show? There is no box that says you can’t make this story big and courageous.
What would be the most moving and beautiful way of showing her living up to her virtues? And when in the novel does this happen? Great tests, great failures, demonstrations of high virtue are very powerful. Readers hope you will do this!
In unboxing our characters, we’re really unboxing ourselves. Don’s forthcoming book is about emotion in fiction—the emotional effect of fiction on us, and how infrequently it happens. He was watching Super Bowl ads and wondering how a 30-second advertisement can move him more than a 300-page manuscript.
Mostly we talk about character emotions when we talk about fiction. But there’s a lot more that makes emotion in fiction. Fiction can have an emotional effect on us without us knowing why. Beautiful language doesn’t do it alone. What is it that makes you care about the human being in a story?
Go to a dark moment, a setback, a moment of betrayal. Such moments often happen in the middle of a book, a bad turn of events for your character. Why does it feel good to feel bad? What is necessary at this moment?
What is one way in which a wounded character still has warmth in their heart and has not given up, and can show grace and good cheer? Who in the novel could forgive the unforgivable? How might someone see ahead into the future? Who might know the exact right thing to say, or to back off? Is there somebody in the novel who can change a life or alter destiny?
Who can see the irony in the situation? Who can grasp the greater meaning? Is there a moment in your story where your character faces death? When does this happen and why does your protagonist bargain for life, want to live?
It’s about capturing the human spirit on the page. Hope is what pulls us through. It’s the current under the surface, hope that there’s still goodness in the world even in the worst moments—something to lead us on. Community gives us hope as we continue to write. Get the hope onto the page, as it’s what will pull the reader through. What we’re writing about here is what really matters. It’s the human spirit that we have that we have to capture on the page.
Rules range from not using “it was all a dream,” getting the science right, ending it with happily-ever-after, or having the good guys win. Don’t kill the main character, don’t kill a child, punish adultery, explain the mystery. If there’s a gun in Act 1, it’s got to go off by Act 3. Evil can’t be evil for the sake of evil. The breadcrumbs have to lead somewhere. Magic has a cost/price. No deus ex machina.
Which “rules” would you like to break in your novel? How can you break one or more of these rules in your story? Some of the novels that have made the most impact come from breaking the rules. You can get away with an unlikeable protagonist if they’re really intriguing. What we’re writing is what really matters.
How can one of your characters break the rules? Shaking up readers can start with shaking up ourselves, challenging ourselves.
Think about what your protagonist must do in the story: What’s at stake? Why must she resolve the conflict? Someone in the story needs to state WHY this matters. Write that speech. (Note that preaching is generally not good on the page, but going through this exercise can help you figure out what’s at stake in the story.) This will help motivate your characters and clarify your story.
Once you’ve identified what’s at stake in the story, what could your hero do to defend this high principle, or show us the right way to handle it in our own world right now? Could this be the culmination of the story that builds up to this moment?
How do you want your novel to change the world? What is it going to change? How will the world look once changed? What will we see or know that we don’t want to acknowledge?
Make the highest principles come true in our world. Fiction matters.
Remember your purpose in writing. It’s not only to get published. The purpose is to change our culture, open hearts and minds, and pave the way for changes. What if every novel in this room changed the world in the ways we just wrote down? Novels stir people up and evaluate things, changing things. That could happen. Every one of us has a purpose and a story. Even a small genre story can change the world.
It's been an inspiring week at the Writer Unboxed UnConference, live updates at #WUUnCon— John Lechner (@johnlechner) November 11, 2016
See you on January 1st!