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Monthly Archives: May 2013

How to Troubleshoot and Rewrite a Scene …

… With as Little Downstory Impact as Possible

When I say I am a business analyst, people think is the most boring job ever. Probably the antithesis to being a writer, they imagine, is the unimaginative, dull position of business analyst. Not true. It requires a great deal of out-of the-box thinking, and problem and solution analysis.

I caught myself doing this type of analysis when I was rewriting some major scenes in Magic by Starlight over the last few weeks. I took notes on my process so I could share them with you. I used this technique on at least three major scenes in Magic by Starlight, and I have one more to go.

Step 1 – Write a Problem Statement.

A problem statement is one brief sentence that, in software development, is worth millions of dollars.

It is just as crucial for your story.

You have to find the moment that the scene goes wrong before you can think of your solution. You have to find your problem. This is known as problem analysis. Discovering the problem is often a challenge. Sometimes you think you know what the problem is, but you really don’t. In software development, it is crucial to develop the right solution to the right problem. Otherwise you waste a shocking amount of money.

Here’s my problem statement:

Problem: Tory being left alone so she can be kidnapped by Ozelle is a TSTL moment that exists only for author convenience.

The dreaded Too Stupid to Live moment. It had to be eradicated.

FiveWhysTo find the root problem, keep asking why?! until the answer produces no more whys. This technique is called the Five Whys, although there does not have to be five. The result can be brutal, as mine is, so prepare yourself. I’ll try to recreate my line of thinking.

  • Hmm. I don’t like the way Julian and Tory look, leaving Tory alone like that. They both knew Ozelle was in the area.
  • Question: Why does Julian leave Tory alone?
  • Response: Because he has to take the mysterious missive to the Silver Corps to be decrypted.
  • Question: Does he really have to leave her alone in order to do that?
  • Response: Yes.
  • Why?Ā  Because I needed him to do so in order for Ozelle to kidnap Tory.
  • But why did Julian have to leave?
  • Because it was convenient to the author. (Ouch!)

And the answers to your five whys many lead you to a problem you didn’t expect.

Step Two – Identify the outcomes you need to keep.

This was a major scene upon which a great many subsequent scenes depended. Therefore, I had to find all the outcomes that I needed to preserve in order to not have to rewrite the entire book from this point forward.

Therefore I reread the scene previous to this one, then this scene, and then the followup scenes. Next, I did a little analysis in order to strip the scene down to only the outcomes I needed. These were my desired outcomes:

  • Intercept and retrieve missive, preferably delivered by Miss Henry so subsequent scenes with her make sense
  • Ozelle trying to steal missive from Miss Henry; Julian and Tory stopping him
  • List of people coming and going from The Foxhunter’s Rest, compiled by Crowley
  • Tory grabbed by Ozelle

Step Three – Identify the outcomes you’d like to add.

  • Strengthen or replace weak scene remnant
  • Grow Tory and Crowley’s relationship (a goal for every scene in which they appear together)
  • Opportunity to make Ozelle more menacing

Step Four – Identify the outcomes you like to get rid of.

I really only had one.

  • Tory kidnapped because TSTL

Step Five – Brainstorm a replacement scene.

You now need to write a scene that has all of your desired outcomes and none of your negatives. When I brainstormed this scene, I used a simple outline. I used the KISS principle and I thought a lot about the scene during several commutes until I knew how I wanted the scene to go. Then I wrote it. It went quite well.

Were there mistakes made by the characters? Yes. But they are small mistakes that add up to one big one. Not one big groaner that will leave the reader slapping their forehead and possibly casting my book aside in disgust.

Step Six – Adjust subsequent scenes.

You cannot remove and replace an entire scene without some kind of adjustment to the subsequent scenes. While the new scene is fresh in your mind, read the scenes that are most impacted by the replaced scene, and make any necessary adjustments.

When I wrote my Six Paragraph Synopsis Method, someone left a comment saying that they recognized it as basic business analysis, so this job has come in handy to my writer self more than once!

Step Seven – Final Polish

Do yourself a favor. Do all of the above for each troublesome scene before you start your final polish. You do not want to be rewriting major scenes without a final polish to capture any inconsistencies. So plan any scene rewrites before you get to this step in your manuscript clean-up process.

Leveraging My Military Background for Magic by Starlight

Tia in Uniform. With her jet.

You may or may not know that I was in the Air Force, way back in the day. As evidence, here is a picture of me and my jet. I was a Crew Chief, which meant I took care of all the maintenance for this particular jet. Click to enlarge.

Crew Chiefs were also known as grease-monkeys and tire-kickers. And yes, I could use a grease gun. But kicking tires was not of much use. Kicking chocks out of the way of tires–well, I did that all the time. Maybe that action is where that nickname came from.

I have not written many stories that leverage my military background, although I have started quite a few. Most of them are science-fictiony, including one that takes place on an orbital flightdeck. Like most of my early stories, it suffered from a lack of plot.

But Magic by Starlight ended up drawing from my military background more than I expected. The ways are subtle, but they are there. Here are a few teasers

The Chain of Command

Woe be unto the airman (or soldier, or marine, or seaman) who frivolously violates the chain of command. The same sort of structure is in place in civilian jobs as well, but it has a special authority all its own in the military. If you attempt to go outside your chain of command, have a damned good reason. If there is a legitimate problem, it should be taken care of quickly.

I did exercise my chain of command rights once while in the Air Force, when my reporting official asked me out in front of the entire flight. And I turned him down in front of the entire flight with a flat no. I was furious. As soon as he went out the door, undoubtedly humiliated, I went straight to the master sergeant’s office and told him what happened. I had a new reporting official the next day.

I have never exercised my chain of command rights as a civilian. Why? I do not feel as well-protected. So while the chain of command has a fearsome reputation in the military, in my case, it worked well and I trusted it.

Tory trusts her own chain of command, but her case is not as straightforward as mine was. She has to gather evidence before she is ready to Face the Man.

Chits

The military loves chits. A chit is a disk of brass stamped with some bit of information. We used chits to check out tools. You would have a set of chits that belonged to you, each inscribed with a number. When you checked out a tool from the tool crib, you left one of your chits. You got the chit back when you returned the tool. I had a little snap-ring with 20 chits dangling from my uniform at all times while on the flightline.

In Magic by Starlight, there are two kinds of chits, identity chits and requisition chits.

Identity chits are dog tags. Since this is a pre-photography era, I made them big enough to put in a slide projector, and there is the bearer’s silhouette punched out of the middle of it. All around the silhouette is the bearer’s name, government agency, height, weight, hair and eye color, and identifying marks. All government agents have one, including police, intelligence, and the military.

Requisition chits are given to trusted agents, who, in turn, give them to trusted contacts who have been helpful and are owed some recompense. It identifies the bearer as someone who is owed a favor. Needless to say, they are rarely given out, and highly prized when they are, until redeemed.

Location Board

The Job Board. Luv those punch lables!

Click to enlarge. This is the job board from my old military flight shack. You can’t see all the details, and most of them are irrelevant here. But in the messages area, we would scrawl where we were with a grease pencil, if we had to leave the flight shack.

In Magic by Starlight, there is a location board with everyone’s name (as the job board has here), with checkmarks for places like “home”, other agency headquarters, and a fill-in-the-blank area.

The Atmosphere

Although my spies wear civilian garb, they are in kind of a military culture. They address each other by their last name, which Regency men did anyway, but Regency women certainly did not. Social titles are rare. There is a casual intimacy between men and women that has nothing to do with sex — more like a band of brothers sort of thing that is hard to explain. There is competition between different agencies. And there are books or regulations with green cloth covers.

I would not classify this novel as military fantasy by any means, but I certainly had a lot of fun drawing little details out of my prior military life and weaving them into the story.

Heads Down in Revisions. And Other Stuff

Hi, everyone.

I have been heads-down in some very intense revisions on Magic by Starlight, and so I seem to be reverting to a once-a-week blog schedule. I love blogging, but demands on my time have been very intense lately, and the time I do have to myself is not entirely to myself, so during the time I have left, I work on my revisions.

Piece of advice: be very careful about brushing off a work you wrote long ago.

The quality of my writing has changed since then. I would rush through scenes, and it wasn’t always clear that I had a goal for such scenes. The discards file is of epic length. And now I am considering converting the entire thing to third person in order to give two male characters a point-of-view. And I know myself. When I am considering doing something like this, I usually end up doing it.

If it weren’t for the fact that I loved this story, and that it had rave reviews by my beta partners, I would be working on East of Yesterday. Heck, I probably should be working on East of Yesterday. But much as I love East of Yesterday, my heart is in fantasy and I would like to find success there first.
This is a fantasy with romantic elements that I am trying to keep light. Most fantasies have romantic subplots, and I think they are enhanced when they do. However, some romantic elements are barely there, and some are more romance than fantasy. It depends on whether you would characterize the romantic plot as on equal billing or greater as the main plot.

For Magic by Starlight, I would characterize it as the prominent subplot, but it is definitely not on equal billing as the main plot. I am reading a romance right now in order to figure out where my story stands, and I definitely do not have my characters practically buzz and thrum in each other’s presences, so I think I am safely in the romantic elements category. šŸ™‚

With that, I’d better get ready to go to work. I have two reviews I am working on, and when I get a good draft of my query together, I’ll post it for your feedback. So I have a few posts brewing, but they are on a low simmer.

What have you been up to? Got anything exciting going on?

Tangling Up Plot Threads

I’ve been neglecting all my “social media properties” because (that’s an official term) I have been head-down in my novel, detangling plot threads and tying up new ones. I’ve discovered a way to keep it all straight, and it comes down to a very old piece of advice:

Keep it simple, stupid.

Yes, the old KISS Principle works when tangling up your novel in nice knots. You must remember that you are going to have to untie it all again, so each thread, in it’s untangled form, must be simple.

It just has the illusion of being complicated.

For example, you have a plot thread that goes like this: A, B, C, D, E.

Another plot thread goes like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

A third might be even more simple, !, @, #.

But altogether, it might look like this:

A, 1, B, !, 3, C, 4, @, D, 2, 5, #, E.

So when I am running through the manuscript, straightening up plot threads, I make sure they make sense when in sequence. Because during the story itself, I may have to take it out of sequence, as I did with the numbered thread, above.

A few years ago, I would leave reminders in the manuscript telling me to go back and fix things. However, there was a problem. Very often, I was unable to remember what it was that I needed to fix, or why. And it wouldn’t become clear until I reread the whole manuscript again.

So I fix things right away, nowadays. Using a Word style I created for the purpose, I would leave a bookmark, jump to the spot that I needed to fix, fix it, and then go back and remove my bookmark.

I can anticipate your next question–how do you use Word styles? They are needlessly complicated. I once wrote some instructions, but they are now obsolete unless you still use Word 2003.

I can sense the urge to write another infographic coming on …

Reconstruction Zone!

Well, now that I’ve test-driven wordpress.com for a few weeks, it is time for me to move my domain here. Right now, when you go to tianevitt.com, you are redirected to this WordPress blog. When I’m done, tianevitt.com will work again.

While I am unhappy at losing my plugins, the default WordPress behavior seems to give me everything I need. The only thing I don’t like is that this theme, which is otherwise wonderful with great sidebar features, puts the comments link at the top of the post when you are at the blog page. I have observed that this set-up decreases post comments. If you can’t immediately find the comment link, why bother to look? I’ve done it myself.

So I’ll reluctantly be looking for another theme as well. But only after I get this domain set up.

So bear with me please, while all this construction is going on.

Powerful Descriptions Without Describing

Llately I have been on the alert for great kiss scenes because I knew I needed my Austenpunk fantasy to have a kiss scene that left everything up to the imagination. No descriptions of lip softness, no tongueplay, no visceral descriptions of passionate feelings, as I did in The Sevenfold Spell. It totally does not belong in this Austen-inspired fantasy.

And I found my example in the unlikeliest of places–a country music song.

Toby-Keith-16549809-1-402Toby Keith usually writes songs that areĀ either in-your-face, irreverent, humorous, fiercely patriotic, or all of the above. He is probably the last singer you would expect to write and croon an incredibly romantic song.

But he did so with a love song that has these lines:

You shouldn’t kiss me like this
Unless you mean it like that
Cause I’ll just close my eyes
And I won’t know where I’m at
We’ll get lost on this dance floor
Spinnin’ around
And around
And around
And around

If you have never heard the song, here is the video. I didn’t like the video. The hero is cheesy and it does not at all tell the story in the song.

YouTube Video

Anyway, let’s analyze this and see why, for this listener, it worked so well.

You shouldn’t kiss me like this
Unless you mean it like that

There’s no description, here. Like this? Like that? It’s simplistic. However. If you’ve ever been kissed like that, you know exactly what he means. He leaves it up to the reader to remember how it is. And if you never have been kissed like that, you can’t help but to wonder what it means.

Cause I’ll just close my eyes
And I won’t know where I’m at

Again, simple. There is no description of what he is feeling. Instead, he shows you what is going on inside him. He’s totally lost track of the fact that he is on a dance floor. At this point, it has all gone away for him. And for the listener, it does as well.

We’ll get lost on this dance floor
Spinnin’ around
And around
And around
And around

He continues the above, but now he brings her into it. It’s impossible to get lost on a dance floor, but they are. They are a unit, feeling it together.

In subsequent verses, he becomes aware of the people around him, and wonders what they’re thinking while watching them fall in love. The bestĀ  descriptions start in like this–they start inward and work their way out. And when they start inward, they are actually in the skin of the point-of-view character, feeling what is to be felt with descriptions that use verbs that are as active as possible.

I find that songs often make excellent examples of writing skills. Songs only use a couple hundred words at most to pack as powerful a punch as possible. They rely on the melody and the skill of the performer as well, but there is still much to learn from the lyrics alone.

My kiss scene is coming along nicely, but help me out here with some more examples–what is your favorite kiss in fiction, movies or music?