The Soggy Middle Troubleshooting Guide

Soggy Middle Troubleshooting | Jeni ChappelleLast weekend at the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival, I spoke with several writers who have gotten stuck in the middle of their books. They’ve got their plot points and character sheets. They start strong–love their hook, establish their characters and story, and then…nothing. Something feels off, but they can’t really tell what it is—so how can they fix it?

Never fear. Your friendly neighborhood editor is here–with a Soggy Middle Troubleshooting Guide

Process

First, look at your process.

1.      Take a step back

Get away for a few minutes. Think about something else. Meditate. Take a shower. Go for a walk.

2.      Use prompts

Try using prompts to get your creative juices flowing again. Here’s a great list to get you started.

3.      Read the parts you like

Reread your favorite parts that you’ve already written. This can help you shift your mindset from “all I write is crap” to falling back in love with your story.

4.      Skip it and move on

There’s no law that says you have to write your story in order. An author on the panel at the festival said she gets unstuck by writing the next scene she’s excited about and then figures out later how she’s going to get them there.

 

Writing

1.      Characters

Are your characters doing enough? Specifically, is your main character being proactive?

One common reason writers get stuck in the middle is because their characters are kind of wandering around waiting for something to happen or while something happens to them. One of the authors on the panel at the festival said when this happens to her, she puts the character into a situation they would never normally be in and watches to see what happens.

2.      Plot

Is your main plot big enough to fill out a whole 80,000 words?

Your book may need more conflict. A story arc isn’t just a straight line from beginning to end. If the main character has a problem, investigates it, and then resolves it, the plot may be too small. Try adding some little battles, plot twists, reversals, wrong turns, impossible choices, and unintended consequences. It’s the unexpected that makes a story sing.

3.      Emotion and reaction

Are your characters reacting enough to what’s happening around them?

Often when a writer feels blah about the middle of their book, it’s because the characters aren’t reacting emotionally to the events of the plot. They take physical action, but they don’t have a strong enough emotional response. Find ways to add more reaction. The best ways to show emotion are through dialogue and body language.

4.      Still feeling stuck? Get feedback

Don’t waste all your writing time trying to figure it out. Ask a critique partner or writing buddy what feels off. More often than not, they can pinpoint it quickly, and you can get back to writing.

 

So, how do you get unstuck when you get bogged down in the middle of your book? Leave a comment or tweet me @jenichappelle.

Posted in Writer's Life

A Perfectionist’s Guide to Crappy First Drafts

A Perfectionist's Guide to Crappy First Drafts | Jeni ChappelleHi NaNo-ers and non-NaNo-ers. I was all set to write a post this week about how it’s okay to write a crappy first draft because you can always revise it…yada yada yada. I started writing it several times before I realized the problem: even I don’t believe that.

See, this advice about writing crappy first drafts came about because it keeps many writers’ perfectionism at bay. And that’s really important when you hold yourself to high standards.

And there is something to be said for letting go of those standards while you’re writing your first draft. Part of it is just recognizing that any first draft isn’t going to be perfect. Or maybe that a perfect first draft is still imperfect. That’s what editing and revising is for. All that is true.

But what if you’re so much of a perfectionist (or even a quibbling, sometimes-pedantic fussbudget—as I once described myself!) that you can’t get past the idea of writing something beneath your standards? Boy, can I relate! I can’t just write without thinking about the finished product. It’s really hard to turn off my internal editor when I spend all day editing, um…externally.

Does that mean you’re just doomed to a crappy first draft?

It doesn’t have to.

Escape Crappy First Draft Purgatory

Writing a better first draft is a balancing act—on the one side you have the desire for the perfect first draft and on the other, the desire to actually finish your book. You want to keep moving forward, but you’re afraid that no amount of revising will be able to fix it.

So, How Do You Find That Balance?

Think realisticallyEscape Crappy First Draft Purgatory | Jeni Chappelle

The scenario: X author churns out a first draft in two weeks and then never touches it again but still manages to turn it into Everyone’s Favorite Book. Nope. That just doesn’t happen. Don’t believe it for one second. It isn’t possible to write a first draft that doesn’t require any revision.

Take perspective

You are way more judgmental of your writing than anyone else’s. When you find yourself being overly critical of your first draft, try to see it from another angle. Ask yourself how someone else might see your writing or what you might say to another writer to cheer them on.

Make notes

When you feel something is wrong or missing, instead of taking up all your writing time obsessing over it, write it down. I always keep a spiral notebook on my desk for just this reason. When I’m done writing (or editing), I look over my notes so the ideas can roll around in my head while I do other things. The answer almost always comes to me while I’m driving, showering, or cooking. Thank goodness for dictation apps!

Look at the big picture

Have you ever done this: You’ve been going along just fine—really in the flow—and then you come to a part that’s just hard to write. Instead of agonizing over every little detail of these hard parts, just write what you can and then move on to the parts that allow you to get back in the flow.

Compromise

I know you know that you can’t write a perfect book the first time around. And you know I know you know it! Ask yourself what level of imperfection you are willing to accept at this stage. What are the most important aspects of your book? Keep your focus there and let go of the rest…for now.

Just remember that, when all is said and done (in your book, that is)…no matter how much you fuss over it the first time around…your first draft is still just that—a draft.  So don’t waste precious time and energy stressing over every little detail, when a lot of that is just going to change later anyway.

Now get back to writing!

How do you handle perfectionism when you are writing your first draft? Leave a comment below or tweet me @jenichappelle.

 

Don’t Forget!

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How to Write Compelling and Balanced Backstory

How to Write Compelling and Balanced Backstory | Jeni Chappelle
How to Write Compelling and Balanced Backstory | Jeni Chappelle

Image: MorgueFile: Jessica Gale

It’s not an overstatement to say that backstory can make or break your book. Too much, and your readers may be bored to tears—too little, and they won’t know what’s going on.

So this week, I’m over at Elizabeth Spann Craig’s blog, giving out tips on the best ways to find that balance in your character’s backstory.

So come on over to read more

How to Write Compelling and Balanced Backstory at elizabethspanncraig.com

 

See you there!

 

 

 

Posted in Writer's Life

What Makes an Amazing First Chapter?

What Makes an Amazing First Chapter? | Jeni ChappelleThis month, I’ve critiqued tons of ten-page samples, and most of them were the first pages of a novel. It’s reminded me how important the first chapter of your novel is. I know, I know—you’ve heard this a million times. But the first chapter represents the whole book. And if your first chapter isn’t fantastic, you may not get the chance to prove to a reader that the rest of the book is.

So, what does make an amazing first chapter?

The first sentence is oh-so-important, but here I’m going to focus on the whole chapter because that first chapter is like a miniature model of the whole book. It tells readers what to expect from the rest of the book and gets them interested enough to find out for themselves.

When I read those ever-important first ten pages, here’s what I look for.

Voice, mood, and tone

Writing that doesn’t show personality isn’t going to get far, even with the most compelling characters and plot ever. Make sure your voice is coming through your writing, and that you’re setting the mood and tone for the rest of the book. Is your narrator funny, sarcastic, or serious? Is this a light-hearted romp or a gritty emotional drama?

Plot

Your first chapter needs to be about the event that kicks off the rest of the story and gives your protag purpose. So start conflict. Upset your protagonist. That’s what spurs action and change. But make sure the events of the first chapter are relevant to the rest of the plot. I’m always impressed when something seems random in the beginning but ties into the story in ways I never imagined. And finally, keep the action balanced. There’s a happy medium between too much action and not enough, and you want your first chapter to fall into that sweet spot.

Emotional connection

Make readers care about the main character and her story. Show, Don’t Tell is essential in the first chapter. Focus on creating a felt sense of the character’s situation through body language, actions, emotions and thoughts, and strong dialogue. Don’t overwhelm your readers with huge groups of characters or lengthy descriptions. Just focus on laying down the breadcrumbs that will lead them to the answers that will come later.

Mystery

Don’t be afraid to throw your reader off balance a little—getting your readers asking questions actually helps them feel engaged with the story. Starting with dialogue or in the middle of a scene gets readers thinking about what in the world is going on, how the characters got to this place, and what’s going to happen next. Stay focused on what’s happening in that moment, though, and keep any foreshadowing or hindsight subtle.

Orientation

I put this last on the list, even though it’s really the main function of a first chapter, because writers have a tendency to get carried away with the orientation. Yes, nothing is worse than
starting a new book and feeling confused, but don’t overdo it. In the first pages of a novel, just help your readers get their bearings. Introduce your protagonist and a few other important characters. Give only enough description that the reader can tell when and where the story takes place, who is there, what is happening, and why it’s important.

Where to start and who to start with

It can be tricky to figure out exactly the right event to start with and who exactly should be included in those first pages. Here’s how I tell my clients to start thinking about it.

Where in the story’s timeline does the main plot actually start?

Now take one step back. Start there. That gives readers a chance to get oriented and care about what’s happening before all hell breaks loose. But it’s not so far back that they can get bored waiting for something to happen.

Who is involved in the main plot?

Whenever possible, bring in—or at least mention—one or two major characters besides the protagonist who will be important to the story later. Just keep it to a few characters, so it doesn’t get too cluttered and confusing.

No-nos

Some things are off limits for the first chapter and for good reason. These bore readers if they’re addressed to quickly in a story.

  • Too much exposition or description
  • Backstory
  • Flashbacks
  • Personal introductions, as in, “Hi, my name is Jeni, and I’m an editor. One day something crazy happened to me.”
  • Clichés. Examples:
    • Dreams/false starts
    • Weather
    • Mornings
    • Funerals
    • First days

A Word About Prologues

The most common advice for prologues is to avoid them. But like all writing advice, it can’t be applied across the board. Sometimes you just need a prologue. To make sure you actually need the prologue, ask yourself (and your critique partner, beta readers, and editor) two questions:

  1. Could this prologue be the first chapter?
  2. Could the information from the prologue be split up and sprinkled throughout the story in bite-size pieces?

If the answer to both questions is no, you may actually need the prologue. Just don’t let it take away from your first chapter, and make sure the prologue has enough of a hook that your readers feel invested.

Remember, this isn’t written in stone

Of course there are books that break all these rules, and some of them are bestsellers and great books written by wonderful authors. You don’t have to follow any of them yourself. But if you’re feeling stuck or wondering where to begin, it’s a great framework to get you started.

What do you look for in a first chapter? Leave a comment below or tweet me @jenichappelle.

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Read Better to Write Better

Read Better to Write Better | Jeni Chappelle

In every writers group, in every forum, in every book or blog about writing—you’ll find this advice: if you want to write (or write better), read. See, it’s easy for writers to get caught up in the writing process and forget what their readers experience. So for a writer, reading helps you get into the minds of readers—because then you are one. And just that will make your writing stronger.

But there’s a secret to reading that can help you cultivate even better writing.

Ready for it?

You can’t just read more—you have to read better. Consider reading as a pursuit just as important as writing, rather than simply a distraction or hobby.

But what exactly reading better look like?

First, it doesn’t mean giving up reading just for pleasure. If you take the joy out of reading, it won’t be long before writing isn’t much fun anymore either. But there are some ways to make your reading fun and educational, in a grown up way.

How to Read Better

Approach reading for pleasure as a learning experience

Be curious. Don’t be afraid to take the writing apart into its elements and put it back together. Knowing how and why something works doesn’t have to diminish your enjoyment of it—instead it can give you a deeper appreciation.

Use your reactions as a guide

Be aware of your reactions as you read. Does a certain character strike you the wrong way? A particular scene make you feel a certain way? Why? What specifically makes you feel that way? Be as detailed as you can.

Study how it’s written

Pay attention to how the author crafts the story. Plot, character, theme, mood, tone, point of view, emotional connection, plot devices…these are the tools you know so well as a writer. Watch for them in the book, and note how you respond to them and why.

Observe the words themselves

This means word choice and sentence structure. These two components can make or break readability, clarity, emotion, and tone. See a phrase you like? Write it down. Examine the words and play with them until you know why you like them. Same for a phrase you don’t like.

Look for patterns in your genre

When you read the same genre enough, you begin to see patterns emerge. The protagonists may have similar qualities, pacing may be the same, or maybe the same crises happen in several books. These patterns can be good or bad, lending either a feeling of familiarity or of imitation, but being aware of them will make you a better writer.

Read things you wouldn’t normally read

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”  ― Haruki MurakamiI love this quote because it’s true. Curious authors read everything—genres, authors, and even formats you wouldn’t normally read. You may not always like it, and that’s fine. But you’ll likely pick up a technique or idea you hadn’t thought of before, and that’s what active reading is all about.

Note what your favorite authors do wrong

You can probably go on at length about all the awesomeness your favorite authors put into their books. I know I can—and do. Frequently! But have you ever thought about what they do wrong? Bestselling authors (you know the ones) in particular seem to be able to get away with doing things in their books that we mere mortals may not be able to. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying, which brings me to my next point.

Use new (or old) ideas for inspiration and experimentation

See something you like in another book? Put it in yours. Obviously I’m not talking plagiarism here or even writing something derivative. But if there’s a plot device or characterization or anything else you want to experiment with, come up with a way to make it yours. You may end up cutting it or changing it in editing, but it’s good to infuse your work with new (or new-to-you) ideas.

Skip the boring parts or even stop reading

I know this is controversial, but if you’re not enjoying part of a book, skip it. If you have to skip too many parts, stop reading altogether. But then think about why you wanted to stop reading. Did it make you feel something unpleasant? Was it just boring? Was the hero a jerk? Was the POV distracting?

Discuss what you read

The best way to make yourself really think about what you read is to have to defend your feelings or ideas about it. There are great discussions about books going on all over the place—you just have to find a place that works for you. Check for reading groups and book clubs in your area. And the internet is full of opportunities. Goodreads is a good place to start, and Google Plus has some wonderful groups. If all else fails, start your own!

Keep a reading journal

Finally, I’m a big advocate of keeping a reading journal. This is just what it sounds like—a place to track what you read and what your thoughts about it are. You can buy fancy ones like this one, or one with prompts in it like this one, or you could just use a Word doc. Or even a spiral-bound notebook, like I do. I know, I know…why not just use a stone tablet?

The takeaway

Reading reminds us of what we like and don’t like, how storytelling works, the thrill of falling in love with imaginary characters and lands, and the magic of a well-told story. It shows us what good writing looks like (or doesn’t look like) and how it makes a reader feel. The most important thing is that you think carefully about what you read and then apply what you’ve learned to your own writing. Your writing—and your readers—will thank you.

 

What tips would you add to read to improve your writing? Leave a comment below or tweet me @jenichappelle.

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9 Simple and Powerful Ways to Write Body Language

9 Simple and Powerful Ways to Write Body Language | Jeni ChappelleDialogue is a great tool to establish relationships between your characters and deepen emotional connection to your readers. But if you rely on dialogue alone to show how your characters interact, you’re missing a big opportunity. In real life, nonverbal cues—body language—account for more than 90% of our communication. Including body language in your writing gives your characters more depth and provides a relatable, interactive experience for your readers.

That’s easy enough to see in real-world interactions or on the stage or screen, but how can you write it into your story?

How to use body language effectively in your writing

There are so many components to body language, and many writers only ever use a few. To create believable and engaging characters, it’s important to look at all the ways to communicate body language in your writing.

1. Gestures

Most of my clients don’t know this because we primarily work over email and telephone, but I talk with my hands. Big time. Some of your characters probably do too. Sure, not everyone uses finger guns (even though they should). But virtually everyone shakes hands, points, or waves.

One word of caution: be aware that your book will likely be read around the world, and some gestures have different cultural connotations. One common example is the two-fingered V. Other than being super popular now in selfies, it has also meant victory, peace, or an insult. If you use it, make it clear how it’s being used.

2. Facial expression

Again, some of us have very expressive faces, and others are harder to read. But facial expressions are an important part of body language because they are pretty much universal. Even people who curb their reactions still have tiny involuntary changes called microexpressions. Our brains pick up on these and decipher them, even when we aren’t aware that they’re happening. How cool is that?!

3. Tone of voice and cadence

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.” For example, my kids know I’m close to losing my patience when I slow my speech and lower the pitch of my voice. That’s their cue to get in line or risk Mom’s wrath. Your characters’ speech will sound different to each other, depending on what emotion they are feeling. How does your protagonist sound when she’s excited? Guilty? Apathetic?

4. Touch

Some gestures relate to touch, but I included it as a separate category because it’s all about how the characters interact. Touch conveys so much in just a fleeting moment. Think about all the emotions expressed by physical contact—running a hand through a child’s hair, laying a head on a friend’s shoulder, punching someone in the face!

5. Posture

Posture is how we hold our bodies while we stand and sit, but it’s more than just being able to balance a book on your head. The way a character carries himself as he goes about his life says a lot about him. Does he stand tall or slouch? Does he sit back with his legs crossed or lean forward? How does your character hold his head, shoulders, arms, and legs—and what does that tell your readers about him?

6. Proxemics (personal space)

This aspect of body language makes me think of that old Seinfeld episode about the close talker, a man who doesn’t understand the idea of personal space. Most people respect that people want 18 inches or so between themselves and others. To be inside that space usually means either intimacy (if wanted) or threat (if unwanted). Again, there are cultural differences here, so be aware of that when you write.

7. Physical appearance

Our cleanliness, hairstyles, clothes, accessories, and other decisions about personal appearance tell others plenty about us. In fact, our first impressions of people often come from these choices. Show more about your characters by showing these aspects of them as well. Maybe she only likes to wear skirts or always wears a cross necklace. Maybe she has giant, unruly curly hair. Maybe she was just born that way, and it doesn’t mean anything about her, OK???

body language

You’ll be singing this song all day now.

8. Actions

Sometimes a character’s actions are a kind of body language. How and when he acts in certain ways can be meaningful (it isn’t always). Running instead of walking, slamming doors, taking a drink to fill a loaded silence, jumping in a car and driving away…these are all actions that carry emotion.

9. Physical sensations

Especially effective when writing in deep POV, these are the involuntary responses a character’s body will have to a certain stimulus. It might mean prickling skin, sweating, blushing, fast pulse, dry mouth…you get the idea. These are physiological responses we all share, so it engages readers’ senses and memories. It’s easy, though, to end up with a bunch of sweaty people with goosebumps who are practically having heart attacks. So be careful not to overdo it or go into clichés or purple prose.

A few other tips

Use it to strengthen dialogue

Body language reinforces the emotional connotation of the words, breaks up large amounts of dialogue, and provides a better alternative to dialogue tags.

Make the connection

Make sure you’re clearly connecting the chain of emotions, thoughts, motivations, actions, and reactions. Don’t hit your reader over the head with it, but don’t leave it ambiguous either.

Use multiple kinds of body language

Don’t rely on one nonverbal cue to communicate everything. Write them in little groupings and sprinkle them throughout the story.

Sometimes it’s about what they don’t do

Some characters are carefully blank, schooling their expressions and controlling their actions. What a person doesn’t do can say as much about them as what they do.

Intention

Make sure you include intentional actions as well as unconscious reactions to go even deeper.

Body language habits = personality quirks

Use your characters favorite body language as a personality quirk. Be careful not to repeat it too much, though, or you may bore your readers.

 

How do you use body language to create engaging characters? Leave a comment or tweet me @jenichappelle.

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DOs and DON’Ts of Deep POV

DOs and DON'Ts of Deep POV | Jeni ChappelleWhat deep POV is

Deep POV (Point of View) has been increasing in publishing for the last 20 years or so, and it’s getting more popular every year. Sometimes it’s also called tight or close POV. If you’ve ever gotten feedback from an editor or agent, chances are they said something about deep POV. But it’s a tricky concept for many writers. I’ll admit, it took me a while to wrap my head around it. So just what the heck even is deep POV, and why does it matter?

A quick reminder

There are three basic POVs:

  1. First person: uses “I” to refer to the main character and is limited, ie, the narrator can’t disclose anything the main character doesn’t know. So other characters’ thoughts and feelings and events that happen outside the POV character’s presence are out.
  2. Second person: uses “you,” as in “You head down the shadowy hallway and see a dim light at the other end.” This one is also limited, but it’s barely used, as it’s really hard to do well and even harder to read.
  3. Third person: uses the main character’s name or “he/she.” Can be limited or omniscient—omniscient means the narrator knows everything everyone is doing, thinking, and feeling at all times.

Since second person is so rarely used, I’m just going to talk about first and third person here.

Deep POV refers to that limited perspective, and it can be used in any limited POV. But it takes it a step further than traditional limited viewpoint. Deep POV seeks to mimic the way we perceive situations in real life. With a deep POV, the narrator only tells things that the POV character is consciously aware of. Here’s an example:

Traditional limited: Sharon heard the bell ring and wondered what caused it.

Deep POV: A bell rang. What was going on?

In the deep POV, the words heard and wondered have been removed. Why?

In real life, we don’t intentionally hear sounds and rarely recognize that we intentionally wonder about things. We are much more likely to simply acknowledge the sound for what it is (“Oh! A bell”) and make a judgment about it.

DOs and DON'Ts of Deep POV | Jeni ChappelleWhy Use Deep POV

Deep POV gives the reader a close connection to the protagonist. It adds emotional depth and makes the author pretty much completely disappear in the story. It provides a more interactive experience of the story for your readers, and that sells books.

How to try deep POV

As I’ve said here before, there’s no one right way to tell a story. Genre, personal preference, and how much needs to happen away from your main character are some of the considerations that have to go into the decision about which POV is best for your novel.

Whether you’re starting a brand new story or revising a completed manuscript, here are some things to keep in mind when deepening your POV.

DOs and DON’Ts of deep POV

DO:
  • Know your POV character very well and give her a strong voice—sass, a dialect, exclamations (ex: No way! Shut the front door! Holy plastic surgery!), figures of speech, swearing, and personal interests and hobbies that she relates things to.
  • Refer to the POV character for intentional actions (She ran across the hall to find him)
  • Use pointing words, like this/that, here/there, and soon/later.
  • Internalize everything. All details and descriptions come from the POV character’s observations.
  • Choose verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and comparisons that show judgment.
  • Use “a” to show something that has just been noticed and “the” to show stuff the POV character already knew about.
  • Limit dialogue tags.
DON’T:
  • Refer to the POV character directly when showing judgments, feelings, or observations.
  • Filter the POV character’s experience. Some examples of filtering words are: thought, felt, saw, heard, realize, watch.
  • Use passive voice. The POV character is in the subject of the sentence or clause whenever possible.

 

What do you think of deep POV? Leave a comment below or tweet me @jenichappelle.

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Plot-driven or Character-driven: Does it Really Matter?

Does it really matter if your story is plot-driven or character-driven? | Jeni ChappelleA lot of you have asked lately about the difference between plot-driven books and character-driven books. These terms are thrown around and often used pretty loosely. To many writers, the terms “character-driven” and “plot-driven” imply that one is less important than the other. Is a plot-driven story devoid of strong characters and motivations? In a character-driven story, is the plot stuffy, boring, and unimportant?

Many people draw the distinction based solely on genre, that is, that all literary fiction is character-driven and all genre fiction is plot-driven. But is that true?

What it means

The difference between plot-driven or character-driven really depends on the focus of the story.

Plot-driven stories focus on external conflict and action. The goals of the protagonist are external: get away from the zombies, keep the bad guy from killing innocents, or catch the murderer and solve the mystery.

Character-driven stories focus more on inner conflict, characterization, and relationships between characters. The main character’s goals are internal: overcoming grief and learning to live again, mending a broken marriage, or coping with personal shortcomings.

A good story will certainly have some of both, but there is almost always a heavier focus on one over the other.

What it doesn’t mean

character-driven or plot-driven | Jeni Chappelle

C’mon, you had to know I was going to use this.

This doesn’t mean that either the plot or the character development become unimportant. Every well-written novel must have a combination of engaging characters and a compelling plot. In successful plot-driven stories, for example, the characters and their motivations are still relatable and compelling to readers. What makes it plot-driven is only that the writing focuses more heavily on the external events than on characterization.

The test

Still not sure if your story is character-driven or plot-driven? There’s a quick test you can take to help you determine which is which.

Do the events cause the characters to respond, or do the characters’ responses cause the events?

Let’s look at some examples:

In The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss responds to the external events: the government is abusing its people. Does she have her own internal motivations that influence her decisions? Of course. But the focus is on the actions she takes.

Verdict: plot-driven

In Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic series, though, the events of the story would not occur if not for Becky’s idiosyncrasies. The plot is compelling, entertaining, and sometimes downright hilarious, but the focus is on Becky’s relationships and overcoming her own flaws.

Verdict: character-driven

Does it really matter which I write?

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is that, while certain genres trend toward one or the other, there are successful stories of all genres written in both manners.

For example, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian society, but it focuses on Offred’s loneliness and the contrast between who she is now and who she used to be. It technically qualifies as science fiction, but there’s no doubt that it’s character-driven.

The bottom line: Plot is not a dirty word

Many authors argue that their story is character-driven because they have strong characters with powerful motivation. That their character’s decisions are still what drive the plot. Yes, an evil wizard is going to kill everyone, but the protagonist still has to decide to fight him, right? And the deep POV means of course the reader has to focus on the inner world of the main character. While all that’s true, it doesn’t mean the story is character-driven.

The problem is that, because of that distinction I mentioned earlier (literary=character-driven, commercial/genre=plot-driven), plot-driven novels get a bad rap. The truth is that any well-written, captivating novel must have a balance of characterization and plot, action and exposition, internal and external conflict. If that balance is off, the story will fall flat, no matter what the genre.

Do you start with the characters or the plot when planning your writing? Leave a comment or tweet me @jenichappelle.

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Which is Better—First or Third Person Point of View?

Which is Better-First Person or Third Person Point of View?

POV (point of view, not power of veto, all you Big Brother viewers) is one of the most important decisions you’ll make when planning your book. Although traditionally third person is most popular, many writers find first person works better for some stories. Not sure which is better for your novel? I’m here to help you figure it out.

Find out what’s common for your genre

Almost all books used to be written in third person, but first person is getting more and more popular, especially in certain genres. For example, first person is increasingly common in young adult and new adult novels. But third person is the standard when it comes to fantasy and science fiction. Keep up with what’s trending in your genre.

Determine your preferred point of view

Some writers feel very strongly about one POV or the other. Once I read a comment on Facebook that was something like, “God save us from first person present tense!” Wow! Now, that writer has a strong opinion about POV. Successful stories have been written in both POVs (and tenses, for that matter). The important thing is to know the strengths and limitations of each. That leads me to my next point:

Know the strengths and limitations of each

First person

Strengths:

  • It’s more realistic, since we each experience real life through only one perspective.
  • It allows for a deeper emotional connection to the POV character because the readers gets to know all the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist.
  • The POV character’s voice comes through clearly, so there’s little room for the reader to misinterpret the character’s motivations and reactions.
  • Writing in first person feels more natural to some writers.

Limitations:

  • It is essential for the narrator to be relatable and interesting. Who wants to spend 300 pages in the mind of someone they don’t like?
  • The reader can only know what the narrator knows. This means location, back story, and other characters’ thoughts and feelings.
  • Working in personal details about the POV character—physical description, name, etc—can be tricky.
  • The larger amount of introspection and analysis can lead to too much telling (rather than showing).
  • You have to make sure all the sentences don’t start with I.
  • Switching characters’ point of view can be confusing for readers.
Third person
Point of view

Who wants to rewrite Lord of the Rings all from Frodo’s POV? Anyone?

Strengths:

  • Most readers are more comfortable with third person point of view, since this is how most stories are written.
  • More distance means more can happen outside protagonist’s presence, allowing a broader scope for the story.
  • It can be less confusing for readers, especially with POV switches
  • It’s easy to show multiple characters’ thoughts and feelings.
  • Easy to show more (and tell less) in general.

Limitations:

  • It feels more emotionally distant and can keep readers from feeling as deep of an emotional connection to the main character.
  • It’s easy to info dump, ie, have too much exposition.
  • The main character’s emotions and thoughts are harder to convey.
  • Knowing everything can weaken the tension in the plot.

 

Ask yourself these three questions:

Does the reader need to know more than one person’s thoughts and feelings?

How much of the plot will take place away from the main character?

What do you want your reader to feel?

The bottom line is this: there is no universal answer to the POV debate. It all depends on the story. Some stories—some characters—come to life better through third person, and some will be better with first person. What’s most important is to pick one, stick with it throughout the novel, and have a plan for the pitfalls of the POV you choose.

 

What’s your POV preference (as a writer or a reader) and why? Leave a comment below or tweet me @jenichappelle.

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How to Escape the Show, Don’t Tell Trap

How to escape the Show, Don't Tell trap | Jeni ChappelleNothing is worse than getting the dreaded “show, don’t tell” note back from your editor. You read it again and again, repeating in your mind: I thought I was showing. This looks like showing to me! So, how do you get out of the show, don’t tell trap? Read on.

Why it’s important

The Show, Don’t Tell advice is all about your relationship to the reader. It’s intended to help a writer create a mental picture for readers instead of just explaining what happens in the story. Showing gets the reader involved, making them draw from their own experience to understand and relate to the characters and their story. You get the picture started, and the reader’s imagination takes over to bring your novel to life.

How it’s misunderstood

This is important advice, to be sure. The problem is (as with most other writing advice) it’s often taken too far. Showing requires more description—which means more words—and can wear your readers out. We’ve all read those books with the 3-page description of a single room. I guess I should say—we’ve all skimmed those books because we don’t need 3 pages to depict a room. This brings me to my next point.

Sometimes you have to tell

It’s that simple. You just can’t show all the time. You don’t need to show all the time. Your writing needs more variety than that. Sometimes, it’s more appropriate to explain things in simpler terms. A few of those situations are:

  • Getting your reader up to speed so you can move on. For example: there’s too much backstory to show in flashback or through dialogue. Or the reader doesn’t know something that all the characters do.
  • Easing the boring parts of life that are necessary to make your story feel real, like small talk, changing clothes, and commutes.
  • Transitioning from one scene to the next. A bit of telling means you don’t need a million asterisks in your book.
  • Enhancing the reader’s connection. Yep, sometimes narrative can be magical. There’s a reason why we call it storytelling. As I’ve said before (and I’m sure I’ll say again), context is everything.

How to show: some general advice and warnings.show, don't tell

All of showing can be summed up in one word: detail.

When I work with a coaching client who struggles with showing, I tell them to write in excruciating detail. We can always cut and condense later (and usually do!), but writing this way gets them into the spirit of Show, Don’t Tell. Want some tips to help you show better in your writing? Of course you do.

Be descriptive

Describe events thoroughly. Be specific. Like I said above, you can always edit out too much description, but not enough will leave your story feeling flat.

Warning! Don’t miss the forest for the trees—focus on the details that matter. Does your reader really need to know, in painstaking detail, the size, shape, color, scent, and texture of each item of clothing your protagonist is wearing? Probably not. If in doubt, ask how it enhances or detracts from the emotional connection to the story.

Sensory language

Showing how a character experiences something is often much more engaging than explaining it. Focus on the senses and on physical responses. These are universal and represent nonverbal communication, which is a huge part of how we communicate in real life.

Warning! When talking about someone’s sensory experiences, it’s easy to fall into clichés. Beware throbbing pulses, hammering hearts, twinkling eyes, and scents and sights assaulting people.

Dialogue

Dialogue is a great way to show a character’s feelings, motivations, backstory, relationships…pretty much everything—foster an emotional connection with your reader.

Warning!You can still dump information in dialogue. Especially be careful not to have characters telling each other things they should already know, simply to benefit the reader.

 

How do you make Show, Don’t Tell work for you? Leave a comment below or tweet me @jenichappelle.

 

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Jeni Chappelle

Email: jeni@jenichappelle.com

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