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Q: I used italics in a scene with a flashback, but my critique partner said I should never use italics. Here’s the part I put in italics:
He sat in the cold hospital waiting room, feeling numb. This was just like when Mom died. We did all we could, the doctor had said.
I thought characters’ memories were supposed to be italicized. Now I’m confused. What’s the right way to do this?
A: Confusion is understandable, for a several reasons.
First, you’re not the only one who’s confused. Your critique partner is—I’ll be generous and say “overstating the case.” Whenever someone gives you a never in regards to writing, your inner warning klaxon should go off. Writing is an art, and cannot be governed by rules involving always or never. Continue reading
Novelists often get carried away with characters. Or maybe that should be, characters often carry away novelists. Either way, well-developed secondary characters can run away with a story if you let them. In one of my sample book maps, I showed how this can happen.
In my fictional fiction (sorry for going so meta on you here), the secondary character Cordelia suddenly gets a lot of attention in Chapters 5 through 8, with a big-city adventure that has nothing to do with the heroine, the hero, or the villain.
Click to open larger so you can actually read this.
If we can in fact tie Cordelia’s storyline together with Antonia’s in a plausible way, then Cordelia has a subplot. But if that’s the case, the subplot should amplify or contrast what is happening in the main plot. Also, we’d want to see more alternation between Antonia’s main plot and Cordelia’s subplot. If you stray from your primary story line for too long, the reader’s attachment to the protagonist can break. This leads readers to stop reading. Continue reading
Once you’ve made your book map, you may find that it reveals a gap or disconnect in the writing — a place where you’ve jumped from point A to Point D without explaining to the reader how you got there. Storybreaking can help you close that gap.
Narrative gaps can happen when you know how your characters accomplished something, but the readers don’t. In first drafts we may accidentally omit a scene that needs to be included. It’s also possible to write a scene so quickly that your characters accomplish their goal but you’ve failed to give enough detail for the reader to imagine it happening. Continue reading
Last time we looked at how book maps can help in nonfiction editing. Now let’s look at how this technique can help novelists.
As I worked on how to illustrate this, I found myself redacting so much information from so many client book maps, that you would get more out of this exercise if I just created a fictitious book map that illustrates multiple problems at once. All of these represent real problems I’ve seen in unpublished manuscripts, but this way I don’t run the risk of violating client confidentiality, and you get all the illustrations in one place.
Listing the chapter titles on the map illustrates a problem I see occasionally—an author giving chapter titles to most chapters but missing a couple. While reading the manuscript this could be easy to miss. Writing the chapter titles on your book map forces you to look twice at each one. Continue reading
If you’ve read the last few posts, you may have decided to make a book map of your current project, whether it’s in progress or in editing. Great! But once you’ve built a book map, what do you do with it?
You use it to examine the structure of your book and see whether it shows any anomalies or holes.
In an informational nonfiction book with multiple elements, the book map can be used to ensure everything is in place. Continue reading
Last time I wrote about how to use Excel to create a book map. My friend and editor Travis Perry once declared spreadsheets to be “antithetical to coherent communication,” and maybe you feel the same way, in which case a graphic representation may work better for you.
Especially for people who learn visually better than verbally, a diagram like Gustav Freytag’s pyramid structure can provide a framework. On the “Rising Action” part of the structure, you would list your major turning points from bottom to top, with the inciting incident at the bottom and the turning points above it. Continue reading
There are lots of ways to build a book map, and once I describe my method, you may think of better ones. Whatever works for you will be the method to use. You can write your book map on paper as J.K. Rowling did, or you can get a little more technical with it.
Remember that the first step in editing is to do a fast read-through. When working on client manuscripts, I often build the book map during the read-though, but sometimes I wait until I’m done. Some manuscripts don’t need a map because all the major pieces are in place, or there are only one or two that need fixing. Other times, I start building the book map at the first sign of trouble. If I come into a project knowing that it will require restructuring, I will build the book map right away.
When I made my first book map, I didn’t realize I was doing that. It was basically a scene list in Excel, with columns for each character and subplot. Continue reading
A book map is a visual representation of a book’s contents. This allows for easy analysis of elements and can reveal gaps in the content of a nonfiction book or the storyline of a novel. You may have used a book map without even realizing that’s what you were doing. It’s really just a visual way of rendering an outline. You may also have heard book maps called story grids or plot charts. Anything more complex than a simple outline could be called a book map.
There are many different ways to map a book, and I think often writers find them by accident, just out of the necessity of keeping track of a complex work. I know that was the case for me. Continue reading
One of the hardest things about editing your book is keeping all of the information straight and in the right order. That’s one reason I advocate for outlining. A plain outline doesn’t suit everyone during the drafting process, but once we reach the editing phase, having a visual depiction of the story will help us edit more efficiently.
One technique that’s not often taught to novel writers is storybreaking, which is a screenwriting technique. Screenwriter Vik Rubenfeld calls storybreaking “The Most Important Hollywood Writing Technique You’ve Never Heard Of.”
When Rubenfeld wrote his article, he expressed surprise that more writers don’t know this technique. He linked to this interview with Vince Gilligan, a screenwriter for The X-Files and one of the creators of Breaking Bad. Continue reading
Last time I mentioned that when working in Track Changes with an editor, you should accept most, if not all, of the editor’s changes. It should go without saying, but listen to what your editor has to say.
Yes, there are bad editors who will try to impose their voice and vision over your own. And some editors have a tin ear—a writer at a conference once told me her copyeditor had replaced every gonna and coulda with going to and could have. When faced with those kinds of changes, reject away, kiddo.
At a conference last year, I heard Orson Scott Card say he had once received a manuscript back from a copyeditor who was apparently unfamiliar with science fiction and had therefore made hundreds of changes that ruined his story. The damage was so severe that he sent a copy of his original back to the acquiring editor and demanded a new copyeditor, because the first had fouled up the manuscript so badly that the job had to be started over.
Bad editing does happen. If you don’t trust your editor to give you good advice, then you need a new editor. Continue reading