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Structuring Your Novel: Using A Chapter Summary, by Karen Wood

This article follows on from my previous article Structuring Your Novel: Chapters and Their Endings.

When I first ventured into writing fiction, it seemed everyone wanted a chapter summary – manuscript appraisers, agents, editors, publishers, marketing teams – they all wanted chapter summaries!

I thought it was because they didn’t have time to read the entire story. They wanted a quick summary of what it was about. I found the task tedious and surprisingly unsettling. Did I really have to list every single chapter? Could I not just write a synopsis?

My first publishing contract was for the first three books in what turned out to be my Diamond Spirit series for teens. These stories were very character driven, i.e. I relied heavily on the strength of the characters to carry the narrative forward. In all three books I got to the 70% stage and then thought, How on earth am I going to end this story? What is this story even about?

I think this is a point where many aspiring writers come to an abrupt halt. Some call it writer’s block. I say there’s no such thing.

As I set about resolving the predicaments my characters had got themselves into in Diamond Spirit, threads began to unravel in the earlier chapters of the manuscript. I had to go back and weave them back in. I began to have continuity problems. I lost count of how many times I had to go back and rewrite Diamond Spirit. To be honest, I don’t know how my editors stuck with me.

If I had revisited those chapter summaries everyone had asked me to write, I would have saved my self an awful lot of rewriting.

First, what is a chapter summary?

It is simply 2–3 sentences summarising each chapter, using bullet points or chapter numbers.

A chapter summary is your story laid bare – no padding, no witty dialogue, no flowery verbose. It is an incredibly useful tool to critique the bones of your story.

Is the premise a good one?

If you are having trouble writing a concise chapter summary, chances are, the premise is flimsy. There is no central story/action line. No mission.

While writing a chapter summary you will soon see where you need to trim the fat and where you could flesh out various themes, i.e. what is relevant to the central mission and what is superfluous waffle. If you don’t delete the superfluous, you can be sure your editor will, no matter how pretty your words are.

Is there a satisfying story arc?

A chapter summary can show you the rise and fall of tension in your novel; the pacing of your story. You can analyse how well your characters have developed, changed and survived their ordeals.

Have I resolved all the burning questions/plot threads?

As you begin to write the end of your novel, a chapter summary of what you have written so far will provide a list of all the issues that need to be resolved. You can cross check that all the threads have been neatly tied off, or not so neatly if you prefer. It will also help you to avoid continuity problems.

My second rural romance novel Rain Dance was told from alternating view points. The story begins with pious vegetarian, Holly Harvey, being forced to move to the country. Her viewpoint alternates, chapter for chapter with Kaydon Armstrong, the son of a beef farmer who is battling a severe drought in regional New South Wales.

I wanted to tell two stories simultaneously, bringing the hero and heroine together in a way that was full of presumptions and discord. I wanted the novel to be about finding empathy between city and country.

Writing a chapter summary for each and tabling them side by side helped me bring Holly and Kaydon’s worlds together in a way that considered tension, pacing and plausibility. I could manage the development and change of each character as they came to understand and appreciate each other.

I am now a lean mean plotting machine. I can write a chapter summary for an entire book, and in fact an entire series, before beginning to write the novel. I also find a chapter summary useful to refer to when writing a blurb, synopsis or pitch to potential publishers. When you rely on writing to make a living, this is a fine thing. It is efficient and time-saving. It is a valuable skill.

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Karen Wood’s author website: www.diamondspirit.net

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Studying Creative Writing And Learning To Write Novels, by Steven Lochran

More than once I’ve been approached by an aspiring writer asking my opinion about studying Creative Writing at a tertiary level. Given the time and money it takes to attain a qualification, is it worth it?

I should say right off the bat that I majored in Creative Writing. Based on my experience I’d happily recommend it (no, I don’t get a kickback from my university for saying so – though if someone would like to get in touch with me, I have no qualms whatsoever about bribery).

Just because it worked for me it doesn’t mean that I see it as the only way to become a professional writer. There are plenty of authors out there who bypassed tertiary education altogether, dove straight into the business of being a writer and found tremendous success at it. It’s by no means a necessity to make it as a writer.

The benefit to formally studying Creative Writing is that it takes years and years of development and condenses it into an intensive, highly-focused period that exposes the student to multiple forms of writing and reading. The skills you develop through ten years of practice can be distilled down into three, provided you study hard enough, or you invent a time machine, but I’d probably stick with the study option.

When I was at uni, I tried my hand at feature writing, copywriting and sub-editing. I read brilliant books that I otherwise may never have given a chance, and learnt how to deconstruct a text by examining its intentions, its meaning and its execution.

In short, I was guided through the world of being a writer by people who were writers themselves and I was provided a knowledge base that serves me to this day, directly informing the writer I’ve become. But it was a costly experience (which I’m still paying off) and isn’t exactly a luxury that everyone can afford, unless, once again, you’ve invented a time machine (in which case you’re loaded and a Time Lord who doesn’t need my advice).

If you’re uncertain about studying Creative Writing at a university level, you can always look at a short-term course, but even simpler than that would be a writer’s group. They’re easier to find than ever before thanks to the internet, and can provide direction in a way you’d never benefit from on your own. It’s not always easy to hear other people’s opinions on your work, but it’s always invaluable.

If even that level of commitment is a challenge, I’d recommend simply being a student of life. Read a lot. Write a lot. Examine the stories you engage with and analyse what makes them work. Pull apart stories that don’t work and ascertain why. Don’t mindlessly consume. Enquire. Be curious. It’s only through being engaged that you yourself can become an engaging writer.

It’s only a time-flux capacitor that makes time travel possible.

…I’m sorry. I’ll stop now.

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Steven Lochran’s author website: www.stevenlochran.com

Steven Lochran’s bio page

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On Being Nice As A Writer, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Writers suffer a strange duality. We work in private but the product of our work is very public. Must of us are shy people but we’re often asked to speak in front of large crowds.  We can be rather arrogant at times (what’s more arrogant than thinking your thoughts ought to be interesting to the throngs?). As creative types, we can be terribly insecure. This tension between the public and private in a writer’s life can lay traps for us that can lead to some embarrassing missteps.

For example, you might be giving a speech some day and you might be extremely tempted to call the work of another author overrated. I suggest that you refrain. Saying nasty tidbits about other writers can come back to haunt you in a big way. The hack you malign one year could come out with a major best seller the next and you’ll find yourself in the position of having slighted a powerful person who has the ear of the media. Even if said writer remains obscure, speaking ill of him casts an unfavorable light on you and can make you seem as though you were sucking on a bunch of sour grapes. When speaking in public, I have found it best not to suck at all.

Just as speaking ill of another writer is not advisable, writing reviews, even in respected journals or newspapers, can be fraught with peril. Plenty of aspiring novelists begin their career reviewing fiction in trade publications, but I humbly submit a caveat to this practice: a mean review can be a veritable boomerang, especially if the author finagles a way to review your next book. (This has happened. For real. I won’t name names.) Even worse, a nasty review can offend a potential editor, who might have poured her heart and soul into a book only to have it maligned by you. Editors have long memories and might not consider a piece of fiction by a writer who has offended them.

If reviewing fiction is something you feel called to do, or if it helps you pay your bills, keep your reviews honest but civil, and read any book very carefully if you plan on giving it a negative review. You especially don’t want to be in the position of excoriating a book while revealing through poor fact checking that you weren’t paying attention. Just know, I have never, ever heard of an editor or agent reading a review and thinking to herself, “This review is delightfully pithy… I wonder if this reviewer has a novel?”  If your true passion is writing fiction, it might be best for you to concentrate on your own writing and leave the criticism to the critics.

That said, once you’re published, you’re likely to have an online presence on sites like Goodreads where book reviews are the name of the game. I am not particularly active online, and I should be, but I have always made it a policy to only write a review of books that I think are truly excellent. About the books I don’t love, I am silent. I am a believer in the power of good vibes. I try to keep my public persona positive and sunny, because life, and careers, are too short to waste them spreading bad vibes.

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s bio page

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Handling Feedback About My Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Over the past months I’ve written sequentially about character, plot, narrator, voice and dialogue – all the particular challenges of writing a historical novel for teens. In practice all of these happen more or less simultaneously. Eventually the day comes when you’re ready to send your novel out into the world. You ask for an opinion, but what you want is praise. Anything less is a disappointment – or even infuriating. They just didn’t get it!

Maybe your first reader is your spouse or child. They’ve watched your struggle, and they love you. So you probably won’t get an honest opinion. If it isn’t honest, it isn’t useful.

Friends are also unlikely to give you the feedback you need. Some writers rely heavily on writing groups. I tried one early in my career and found that none of us was skilled at giving constructive criticism. I didn’t know if I could trust what I heard, and eventually I quit.

Now with an established career I have a signed contract before I write the book, and I send what I believe is a finished manuscript directly to my editor. I’m relieved – but I’m also anxious. I want her to pronounce it perfect. But what if she hates it?

So far that hasn’t happened. I’ve never had a contracted novel rejected, but I’ve also never had one accepted without a lot of revising.

Months pass before I hear back. The response is usually a detailed letter that begins, “Dear Carolyn, I have finished reading (fill in the title), and I love most of what you have written.”

The key word here is “most”. What exactly does the editor not love? Sometimes there are structural problems, so chapters should be cut or moved. Sometimes characters need more development. Sometimes the beginning doesn’t pull the reader in quickly enough. The one I get the most often is: “But how does the character feel?”

Years ago my reaction was to feel wounded and my instinct was to argue. Eventually I learned how to work with the advice. Luckily I’ve always had editors I trust. I can accept most of the suggestions, if not all, and make the revisions. The process goes back and forth over a period of weeks. In Mozart’s Shadow required four revisions before the editor and I declared ourselves happy with it.

Once the book is published everyone waits expectantly, and a little worriedly, for word from the reviewers. The reviews aren’t always stellar. Reviews of Cleopatra Confesses were mixed. Some reviewers wrote admiringly, while others picked it apart. After the professional reviewers, many of them teachers and librarians, come the readers themselves. They’re not just teens: More than half the buyers of YA books are said to be over 18. People aged 30 to 44 account for 28% of the sales – and they post their comments online. Adults want more adult material and may be dismissive of YA books for younger readers. Young kids don’t always know how to write useful reviews, with their comments ranging from “best book ever” to “borrrring”.

You can learn a great deal from an editor’s criticisms, but once a book is published there is nothing you can do to change it. Reading reviews, especially when they’re snarky, can give you heartburn. It’s best to ignore the bad ones, enjoy the good ones and keep on writing.

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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

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Writing Sociopathic Characters, by April Henry

When you write mysteries and thrillers, chances are that you will someday write about a person who is a sociopath. In my upcoming book, The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die, one of the characters is a sociopath.

Even though I had written about them, it took me years to figure out that someone I knew was a sociopath. People will often hear sociopath or psychopath – the two terms are basically interchangeable – and think you must be talking about a serial killer. But no. Only a few are. Most are people you might work with, live next door to or be related to. For the most part, they are people who leave a trail of broken hearts, empty wallets and frustrated expectations in their wake.

In some ways, I’m like a sociopath. I was born with no real sense of direction. I can be facing the setting sun and still have no idea where west is. I routinely get lost. It can take years for me to grasp how one street relates to another.

Sociopaths are like that. Only instead of being born without a sense of direction, they seem to be born with an inability to value other people as real, vulnerable human beings.

Robert Hare, PhD, is a pioneer in criminal psychology, specifically the study of sociopaths. He’s come up with some traits common to most sociopaths.

Sociopathic traits

Sociopaths have superficial charm. They are smooth and engaging. That’s because they are not in the least shy or self-conscious. The woman I know comes across well – at first. She easily struck up conversations with strangers.

Sociopaths have a grandiose sense of self-worth. They’re opinionated and cocky. They are so sure of their self worth that at first you might be too. The woman I know was thinking she should become a TV broadcaster – despite lacking any training or experience in this highly competitive field.

Sociopaths have a need for stimulation. They get bored, they take chances, they like thrills. They have a hard time finishing what they start. They are impulsive. The woman I know sometimes hooked up with near strangers.

Sociopaths lie, con and manipulate. It ranges from being sly to being outright dishonest.

The woman I know is an excellent liar. Caught in a lie, she simply layers on two or three more.

Sociopaths don’t feel any guilt. The only feelings they have about their victims are disdain. They have a lack of feeling in general – cold and tactless. I once saw the woman I know laugh because she had made a stranger believe one of her lies to the point the stranger cried with pity for her imaginary fate.

Sociopaths have a parasitic lifestyle. They are good at getting others to pay. The woman I know hasn’t had a job for years.

Sociopaths have difficulties controlling their behavior. They are annoyed, impatient, aggressive, hasty, and often angry. The woman I know ended up in jail for attacking someone.

Sociopaths have no realistic long-term goals. Or their goals are unrealistic – like become a rock star or a famous actor. Or, like the woman I know, to become a TV reporter.

Sociopaths are irresponsible. They may not pay bills, show up late, or do a sloppy job.

They also won’t accept responsibility for their own actions. According to the woman I know, nothing was ever her fault.

Sociopaths you have known

Sociopaths cause so many problems, but, at least right now, we have no way of curing them. Put them in the general prison population or in a mental hospital, and they’ll find ways to manipulate the other inmates.

In order for a person to be change, they must want to be changed. Dr. Hare and others say that sociopaths seldom, if ever, want to be fixed.

Think about people you have come across at work, at school, in your neighborhood, even at church. Chances are that there might be someone who embodies a large number of these traits.

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April Henry’s author website: www.aprilhenrymysteries.com

April Henry’s bio page

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You Need To Love Your Characters, by Lish McBride

I’ve been having a problem recently with the book I’m working on. Let’s call it New Thing. In this New Thing, my main character has a boyfriend. We’ll call him C.J. My editor and agent have both lodged complaints about C.J. He’s flat an boring, and they can’t understand why my main character, Ava, would be with such a person. I agree with them but also point out that all of us at one time date someone like that. You know, that person you date that none of yours friends get why you are dating, and when you break up you also wonder what possessed you to spend time with someone like that? Yeah, it’s like that.

Usually, in those situations, you can argue back to your friends with something. Maybe you liked that he had impeccable table manners. Maybe she was a primo whistler or she tutored you in math. It could even be something embarrassing and shallow, like he was really good looking or she drove a nice car. Whatever. You had a reason for dating them, even if it was a terrible one.

There in lies my problem – my character doesn’t have much of a reason to date C.J. Sure, he’s attractive and he’s normal, which is something my character craves, but they think it’s not enough. Their argument is that she is too smart and even if he were crap, she’d have more justifications for dating him, even if they were flimsy. You know what? They’re right. As it stands, C.J. is pretty lame.

Usually I have no issue filling out my characters. I spend a lot of time on it and I love them and I want that to shine through. That’s the problem. I don’t love C.J. I don’t even like him very much. I kind of want to kick him in the shins, except I don’t care enough to be bothered. This is a problem. You have to love your characters. Even the awful ones: the bad guys, the thugs, the skeezy back-stabbers. There has to be something you enjoy about them, even if it’s how much you like seeing them get their comeuppance.

We all love a good bad guy. What’s Harry Potter without Voldemort? 101 Dalmatians without Cruella DeVille? Sure, Snow White is cool and all but, really, we’re more fascinated with the Evil Queen. We want to know what makes her tick. C.J. isn’t the bad guy. He’s just a normal guy… which is part of the problem. I find normal boring and confusing. I have almost no interest in it and can’t understand why anyone would find it desirable. Normal, to me, is the human equivalent of the color beige. It’s boring and bland, but, hey, it will go with anything.

C.J. will continue to be boring and flat until I find something in him to like. He’s necessary to the story and very necessary to my main character, so I need to make him work. He’s not my dream; he’s hers. Until I can find something worthwhile in him, I’m going to have to keep writing drafts. One crap, flat character can tank a whole book. The whole situation reminds me of a line from a song that I find rather depressing, personally, “If you can’t love the one you want, love the one you’re with.” It’s terrible life advice but good for fiction.

Homework: Look at characters you love (or love to hate). What do you like that they do? Why do you like them? Then take a character you’re having a hard time fleshing out and write out a list of things that you like about them or things that you like that they bring to the story. Sometimes writing a scene just about them helps, even if it won’t make it into the book. Those writing exercises usually show me something surprising in a character and I’ll find myself connecting or sympathizing with them on this new point. I discovered a lot of these moments with my character Douglas in Necromancing the Stone. He’s a big jerk but I truly do feel sorry for him.

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Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com

Lish McBride’s bio page

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How Martial Arts Benefit Me And My Writing, by April Henry

I am a martial artist. I almost feel as phony saying that as I did for years when I told people I was a writer. My love for martial arts would surprise anyone I went to high school with, because PE was the only reason I graduated with a GPA less than 4.0. But it turns out that martial arts have helped me be a better writer (after all, mysteries and thrillers often contain an element of violence), as well as a stronger and more prepared person.

We often deal with threats, even physical ones, with social behaviors. We ignore the people who make them or try to appease them. We deprecate ourselves. We try to ally ourselves with the person who made the threat by telling them that we are really on their side.

But you know what? These skills won’t work on most predators. They won’t work on the person who sees your purse or phone as something they must have – and sees you as about as valuable as the packaging they originally came in. They especially won’t work on a predator who only wants to take you to someplace private so they can hurt, rape or kill you.

For me, a kickboxing class was the gateway drug to martial arts. As part of the class, we wore boxing gloves and hit bags. I had never hit anything, not even a bag, as hard as I could. It made me feel strong and it was a great workout.

Over the past three years, I have seriously trained in kajukenbo and kung fu, as well as taken a little bit of Muay Thai. I have an orange belt in kajukenbo (and was close to taking the test for purple belt when our sifu left). As for kung fu, I’ll soon have my orange belt.

Will I ever make it to black belt? Probably not. I’m not a natural, I’m not particularly coordinated, I’m older and I’m often afraid – but I still love it.

I particularly love sparring. At my school, I’m often the only woman sparring. I have spit blood afterward when I forgot to wear a mouthguard. I’ve told my doctor not to worry about the bruises on my arms from blocking blows.

Even though there are many times when I get to the door and have to resist the voice that tells me to turn around because there are new guys in class and they all seem to be about six foot four, or that there’s a new sifu filling in for our regular teacher, or simply that I’m really tired, I’m always glad at the end of the sparring class. Afterward, I walk to my car grinning like a fool.

First of all, sparring has taught me what it feels like to get hurt or simply experience the surprise of having someone attack you. Getting hit in the face or even having your hair pulled is shocking. In our culture, even close friends don’t touch our faces. Once you’re no longer a little child, no one even pats you on the head. Knowing a little something about surprise, pain and fighting back helps me write about them.

I can write authoritatively about fear, about how things blur, about the way people move and hold their bodies and eyes and mouths. I can tell when someone is about to hit me and where. The eyes focus, the breath catches and the shoulder drops or the hand goes back.

I know how to hurt people – and that means my characters might be able to do it too. Kajukenbo focused a lot on what are known as “grab arts” – how to get free if someone grabs your wrist, tries to strangle you or wraps you in a bear hug.

In my school’s kung fu, we also learn to grapple – ie, to wrestle on the floor. These scenarios make me uncomfortable. I don’t want to have someone on top of me, even if by day they are a mild-mannered computer programmer or corporate lawyer. Nevertheless, this type of situation is one I might face some day. Now I know what to do if it happens (and so do my characters).

Martial arts benefit me – and my writing.

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April Henry’s author website: www.aprilhenrymysteries.com

April Henry’s bio page

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The Night She DisappearedShock PointThe Girl Who Was Supposed to DieGirl, Stolen     Across the UniverseTracksDark Hunter (Villain.Net)

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