Revising Your Manuscript: Solving Plot Problems

You know when you watch a movie and you find yourself asking “but why wouldn’t he just…” and you can’t enjoy the rest of the show because everything hinged on that one thing that doesn’t make a lick of sense?

Congratulations! You’ve identified a plot hole. Spend much time on IMDB.com and you will find thousands of threads about plot problems in popular movies. Some of them are little, and rabid fans quickly explain them to the not-so-observant watcher. They’re the potholes, something we Michiganders are intimately familiar with this time of year. They make the ride clunky, but they’re not going to ruin the trip altogether.

Others are, well, like this.

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For the pothole type, you probably just need a patch. You find a reasonable explanation for why this character did X or why Y caused Z and you work it into the story. For the sinkhole type, you may need to do some intensive structural repair and rerouting.

The sinkholes are the things we wish we could ignore because fixing them could alter everything else in our story. So we pretend they don’t exist, convince ourselves that we’re worrying about nothing, and in the meantime they swallow up the whole story because no one can get past them. Sometimes we need others to point them out to us, so we know–for sure, now–that yes, this is tripping up everyone else as well.

As painful and labor-intensive as they may be to fix, they must, must, must be fixed. And here are a couple ways we can approach them:

1. Go back to the beginning and prepare us.

Want to keep that plot device? Then you need to go back and lay out for the reader why it has to happen that way. Give the reader signposts and clues and reasons. If adequately done, then when we come back up to where that sinkhole was, you may find that it’s disappeared. Everything makes sense and falls into line and we go trucking right along to the next chapter.

2. Go a completely different direction.

Just can’t get your mind around how to salvage your plot and not fall into the sinkhole? Turn around and go another direction. Choose that direction according to the natural flow of the story. What would really happen next? And next? And next? Make that happen. Maybe you’ll get to the place you had wanted to be in the end anyway. Or maybe you’ll discover an even better ending in this new direction. I like it when the latter happens, because those are the endings that can both surprise us and still feel inevitable. They never feel tacked on.

What about you? How have you handled big plot holes in your own work? Do you find they tend to pop up in the same places, like the muddled middle or the ending that you just never quite thought through until you found yourself there and had to wrap this blessed tale up? I’d love to hear from you!

Lessons in Not Scrimping

There are some foods that you just can’t go low-fat on, aren’t there? I think we can all agree that fat-free ranch dressing and fat-free mayonnaise and those sick, white-fleshed turkey hot dogs are at best disappointing and at worst disgusting and not worth all the calories you’re saving. With some foods, you just can’t hold the good stuff back. They need the fat in order to taste how they’re supposed to taste.

I imagine that pound cake is one of these.

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Pound cake is lavish. It’s unapologetically decadent. It’s essentially just butter, sugar, eggs, and heavy cream with some very white flour thrown in for good measure, then topped with more butter, sugar, and heavy cream. If you tried to make pound cake with low-fat and low-sugar substitutes I think you’d end up with a sad, nasty mess. No, in the case of pound cake, you need to go all in.

When you’re creating, whether you’re writing, sewing, painting, gardening, or whatever, the same holds true. You want to go all in, with the best of your ideas, the best tools at your disposal, the best raw materials you can get, and the best effort so that when you’ve finished something you’ve put all of yourself into it. Why? For several reasons:

1. When you put your all into something, you are generally happier with the result. Even if something didn’t turn out quite perfect (and there’s always something) you still know for a fact that you have done your absolute best. And mentally, that’s worth something. Even if others don’t get it or don’t even see it, if I know I’ve done my best and put everything I had into something, I can be proud of it.

2. The product of your efforts, whether it’s an herb garden or a baby blanket or the Great American Novel, will be better than if you only put in partial effort or just some of your good ideas (holding back others for a later project because you were worried you’d exhaust them forever on this one). If you put your “full-fat” self into your work, the end result will always taste/look/read/feel better. This is obvious, but it bears repeating when so many of us have the tendency to get down on our own work before we’ve even given our full effort to it. The world doesn’t owe us success for our minimal efforts. We owe the world our best effort, and success may follow.

3. Once people see your best, you’ll always want to give them your best in the future. If you bring an amazing, delicious, completely homemade pound cake to a dinner, the next time you’re asked to bring food, you’re not going to want to bring Chips Ahoy! cookies. You’re going to want to wow people again–because it feels so good to wow people. Once you write something you’re truly proud of and you get great feedback from people, you’re going to want to do even better the next time. Giving our best in one thing spurs us onto improvement. When we set a personal record running a mile (because really, you need to work off that pound cake) it makes us want to beat our personal best, doesn’t it? Giving everything you’ve got to a task not only makes the current result better, it makes future results better.

Today, this week, this month, and for the rest of the year, ask if you’re giving your current project the full-fat, gloriously delicious best you have to offer. Whether you’re cleaning out the garage or teaching your kid to ride a bike or detailing a car or crafting a poem or refinishing a table or whatever, remember that Splenda and Egg Beaters and skim milk and gluten-free flour do not a pound cake make.

How are you giving your best today?

My Easter Dress (Plus Two Dapper Dudes)

Here’s what I was sporting this Easter in the SEVENTY-TWO DEGREE weather! It’s Butterick 6582, a vintage reproduction pattern. The linen-look fabric was snapped up at Jo-Ann’s with a Christmas gift card back in January (many thanks to Zachary’s grandmother for that). The sash was just something I threw together in lieu of a self-fabric belt.

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It was a beautiful day in all ways: weather, music, message, baptisms, and friends old and new joining the church.

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My photographers didn’t get the bottom to show the length, but pretty close. This is my handsome husband/pastor.

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The boy looked especially handsome, I think. As we were walking out the door in the morning, he announced to us that “We’re an Easter egg family.”

A Good and Joyous Day

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb.Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

~John 20:1-18

A Good and Terrible Day

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.

~ John 11:45-53

 

And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

~Matthew 27:51-54

 

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”

~Acts 2:38-40

Revising Your Manuscript: Cutting the Fat

When it comes to revision, writers have a lot to say about what to leave in and what to leave out. Kill your darlings is a common way of describing the process of cutting out the parts that are pretty or clever but do not move the story along. But there are other things to cut out as well if we want our writing to sing–the boring stuff, the repetitive stuff, the needless stuff.

Long exchanges in dialogue that you might have in actual life, but that no one wants to read about.

Words we all use when we speak, like um, well, yeah, so, but, etc. that slow our dialogue down and require all sorts of commas (which also slow the reader down).

Words that happen too often. In my current work in progress, it was “ma’am.” I think I cut about a hundred of those out after a beta reader pointed them out to me!

Overexplanation of the setting. This may be hard to gauge, but consider that, in most cases, your reader doesn’t need to visualize a room or vista exactly as you do to understand what’s going on. None of us goes into a room and then catalogs in our heads everything in it. Pick one or two features that make a place unique or represent a place’s ethos that a character might notice. Need an example of overdoing the setting? Read the first chapter of A Separate Peace. Mr. Knowles, we get it! It’s a private school in the Northeast with old brick buildings. Now put away the map and move on.

Needless physical description of characters. Eye color, hair color, height, weight, body type, manner of dress. Does it matter? Sometimes. But sometimes it is plain overdone. What do readers have to know in order to understand your character? Can they see it in action as a character changes? I’m of the opinion that a reader can identify more with your protagonist if they are not over-described. Because the moment a protagonist is a willowy blonde with “eyes of violet that changed with her moods” I think, well, this person is certainly nothing like me. Or anyone. Because eye colors may look different depending on the color of someone’s shirt, but seriously, it’s not an optic mood ring.

How do you tell what needs to be cut? Usually, you need other readers who are not so close to the story to show you where you’re making them yawn or sigh or scream in exasperation.  Each sentence should serve to move the plot forward, help readers understand something about a character or the setting that is truly germane to the story (and in most cases it is more engaging when you can show it rather than tell it), or speak to the story’s theme. When you (or your reader) find something that can be removed with absolutely no harm to the story, it’s probably not needed.

Cutting the fat is how you get your story down to its true essence, which helps the reader better interpret and understand the point you are trying to make. None of us will ever do it perfectly. But try to keep it in mind as you read through your manuscript. You may be surprised by just how much you can lose without losing your story. And once all that dross is consumed by the fire, what’s left shines all the brighter.

Here are some links to other sites with great advice on cutting useless words in particular:

Common Redundancies

Five Tips on Cutting the Clutter

Five Words You Can Probably Cut Altogether (Mostly)

 

You didn’t know I sew? Don’t feel bad. I just remembered myself.

Ten days and no posts? Unheard of. So you know I’m busy. I’m busy with work, spring break, editing, writing. And I’m busy making a new dress for Easter. It’s going to be big.

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Big skirt. Big flowers. Big color.

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And it’s kind of a big deal to me since it’s been two years since I made a new Easter dress (last year I wore one I’d made previously for no particular occasion).

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And it’s been simply too long in general since I sewed anything. I think I needed a bit of a break after I sewed all of this in 2012:

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But break’s over. Time to get busy.