Monday, April 29, 2013

What is a Scene?

You’ve heard the word thrown around a bit, but what is a scene, how long is it supposed to be, and why are scenes important to your story? Today I will go over this, and next week I’ll go over how to manipulate a scene to enhance your story.

What is a Scene?
In structural terms, a scene is a unit of drama, a subdivision of a story. Plays, movies, TV shows, and books all are broken down into scenes, but in books in particular, a scene is usually smaller than even a chapter, and your story will ultimately be filled with dozens of these.

A Beginning, a Middle, and an End

Sometimes a scene is considered a story within a story because it is structured with a beginning, a middle, and an end. So for instance, if your book is about an investigator who is solving a mystery, in one particular scene he might be chasing a key player involved in his investigation.

The scene might begin with the investigator running surveillance at an abandoned warehouse, the middle of the scene might consist of a chase, and the end of the scene might come to a close when the pursued individual hops a fence.

Almost all scenes have this particular cadence to them, and this is probably why scenes are such an effective way to narrate—because they are essentially a story within a story.

How Long is a Scene?
The length of a scene can vary, which partially explains why a scene is so difficult to define, but usually a single chapter contains several scenes. My suggestion is to not worry about the length of your scenes. Having a scene that is two paragraphs long is okay. So is having a ten-page scene. 

Some writers lean towards shorter scenes in general, others lean towards longer scenes. And in a single book an author can have both a scene that’s two paragraphs long and a scene that’s ten pages long. All are correct, so don’t worry about the length.

What Does a Scene Contain?
More important than the length of a scene, what really defines a scene is what the scene contains. Like I mentioned earlier, a scene usually contains a beginning, a middle, and an end, although the beginning of a scene can still occur in medias res (in the middle of things).

But more importantly, a scene pushes the plot forward either directly or indirectly. The above example, where the investigator chases an individual is an example of a scene that directly pushes the plot forward; your main character is actively pursuing answers that will solve the mystery.

However, you can also have scenes that indirectly push the plot forward. So if in the same story your main character happens to be cleaning out his attic and he finds some old letters from an ex, the scene may not, on the surface, have much to do with his investigation, but it might be important if the discovery sets off a chain of internalized events that ultimately affect the way your main character investigates or his personal thoughts lead him to a vital connection that could help solve the case.

Lastly, a scene is active, and your character should encounter opposition. In a scene, whoever is narrating that specific section of text should encounter external or internal stimuli. Essentially stimuli—whether it’s a person or something less tangible, such as a bad grade—creates conflict. This conflict should, when the scene ends, either lead to a new piece of information and/or leave your character worse off than when the scene began.

What Is Not a Scene
So far, there are really three main things that I would not consider a scene, summaries, filler, and sequels.

Summarizing, is exposition. It gives the reader the backstory, it reviews events, and bridges temporal gaps (spans of time between scenes). But summaries are not considered scenes because they do not narrate moment-by-moment, and this type of in-the-moment narration is key to writing a successful story.

Summaries have their place, but they are not scenes, and summarizing in place of a scene is almost always less desirable than simply taking the text out of its summarized form and writing it out as the events unfold.

Ah, there is almost nothing I enjoy nagging about as much as filler. These are those sections of text that do nothing other than fill space. They do not push the plot forward—they usually have nothing to do with the story at all—and they are usually boring. So for instance, if during part of the story we’ve been running with throughout this post—the investigation—your main character cooks dinner, and goes into great detail to discuss what he cooked, how he cooked it, and what it tastes like, your characters are going to be extremely confused (unless this is a culinary themed mystery) and not entertained. 

Let me be clear: the example I just gave you of filler is different from my example of the investigator cleaning out his attic. Why? Because what the investigator finds in the attic directly affects how the rest of the plot unfolds; the meal he cooks does not. 

Filler can be a confusing topic for some because you have to know what is important and entertaining for readers to read and what isn’t. So in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in the series, J.K. Rowling spends a good deal of time discussing the world she created, including the school grounds, the professors, the classes, the spells, and so on. This is not filler, because it’s world building, and it’s necessary for the reader to know how this world functions so that the actions of Harry Potter and everyone else in the world make sense.

This can get tricky, so the key to understanding what is filler in your book and what is not is asking yourself why the section of text is important. If you cannot come up with a good answer, chances are it’s filler.

Sequels follow scenes. These sections of text are a recovery period for the readers; this is where characters reflect on their situation. Unlike a scene, these are usually reflective periods of time that allow readers to catch their breaths and allow characters to analyze what’s happened to them and what they should do next. I will go over this in greater detail in a following post.

To conclude, a scene is a subdivision of a story, a single unit of drama. It has been defined as having a beginning, middle, and end, and within a scene, your character encounters conflict. A scene can vary in length; both long and short scenes are perfectly fine. In a scene, your character should encounter opposition, and the scene should either directly or indirectly push the plot forward. Lastly, summaries, filler, and sequels are not scenes.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Introducing Lavabrook Publishing Group, an Indie Publishing House

Happy Wednesday everyone! I have to apologize to the many of you who’ve diligently followed my blog. My posts have become more sparse lately, and not by my choosing! I’ve been busy. Actually, busy is an understatement. I’ve been living and breathing books for the last few months, which is why I have many upcoming authors to post about, and no time to post my editing tips.

Another reason I’ve been extremely busy is that I am the affiliate editor for Lavabrook Publishing Group, a publishing house for indie authors. If you are interested in self-publishing, or you know someone who is, I’d definitely suggest passing the link along—and no, not because I’m affiliated with it. :) The rates are much more affordable than the competitors, the product is extremely high quality, and Lavabrook works on some of the book’s product details to help increase its visibility and ranking. No other indie publishing house I know of does this. 

Below I’ve included Lavabrook’s first blog post to kick off their launch today. If you decide to peruse the site, you might catch a glimpse of my upcoming novel (under my pen name Laura Thalassa) and my upcoming book on editing tips!
Announcing the Launch of Lavabrook Publishing Group
Laura and Dan are proud to announce that Lavabrook Publishing Group, their indie publishing house, goes live today! What does this mean for you? If you've written a book and have absolutely no idea what to do next, we're now here to help. Lavabrook is for authors who've had to compromise one too many times for a tasteless agent or publisher, writers who don't want to pay thousands of dollars to self publish but still want some serious quality—and someone who knows them by their first name, not their customer ID number—and anyone who wishes the whole damn publishing business was just simpler. We definitely do.
We're indie authors ourselves (or soon to be, in Laura's case), and we wouldn't wish navigating those waters on anybody. But now that we've made it through (and learned a few things) we think we might be able to help other writers do the same.
So check out our site, see what we're about, and join the growing ranks of indie authors taking back control from the media conglomerates that dominated yesterday's publishing world.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Book Review: 12 Steps to Health, Wealth, and Joy

12 Steps to Health, Wealth, and Joy: A Guide to Living WellToday I have the pleasure of introducing my client Michelle Farias' book, 12 Steps to Health, Wealth, and Joy: A Guide to Living Well.

This self help book takes readers through steps on how to create a more fulfilling life for themselves. These twelve succinct lessons address ways to make our lives better, whether that's our mental state of mind, or discovering ways to improve our situation.

In addition to her discussions, Farias includes activities that complement each step, so that readers are not just passively reading, but actively working through each step.

One of the first things that struck me about 12 Steps to Health, Weath, and Joy: A Guide to Living Well was how positive and uplifting the messages were. So often we can get bogged down by money, poor relationships, a negative work environment, and so on, and it's easy to both internalize these situations and to feel stuck--that we cannot remove ourselves from these situations. Farias does a superb job of enabling and encouraging readers who are beginning this journey to living a more fulfilling life.

Another thing I absolutely loved about this book was that Farias' deftly showed readers not only how to constructively deal with their current situations, but also how to then progress to an even better lifestyle. What resonated with me was that an individual's state of mind is one of the most crucial aspects of creating the life he or she wants. The journey to living a more fufilling life is just as internal as it is external.

Overall, the book is a fantastic read. If you enjoy being uplifted, having a life coach there to encourage you on, and improving your life, this is a great book to pick up! 

Back Flap
How do you get what you really want in life? Do you have dreams that you feel are unrealistic? Living the life you want is not impossible. Simple changes in your thoughts and perspective can unlock your potential. All you want can come to you if you allow it. Trust in yourself and discover an amazing journey filled with joy and wonder.

12 Steps to Health, Wealth, and Joy: A Guide to Living Well shows you how to make these simple changes so you can realize your dreams. Each chapter provides a life lesson followed by an activity to help you create the life you imagine. Michelle Farias draws on her extensive counseling experience and research to provide a simple, easy guide for changing your life. Start your adventure today. You can really have all you desire.

About the Author
Michelle Farias, M.A., L.P.C., is a Licensed Professional Counselor. She has experience as a therapist, public speaker, consultant, and teacher. She is also the author of 25 Ways to Keep Your Child Safe, Healthy and Successful: Lessons from a School Counselor.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Necessary Ingredients to a Good Conflict

Making Sure There is Conflict to Begin with
I know, this subheading might appear ridiculous; however, I see this all the time. Writers manage to write stories without inserting a clear main conflict. So, before you read on, do you have a main conflict? A good way to spot this is to ask yourself if you have created a crucible for your story and goal-oriented characters.

The Crucible
A story’s crucible is that element of the story that makes conflict unavoidable. In Harry Potter it was Voldemort; in The Hunger Games it was the hunger games. Think about your story; what makes the main conflict inevitable? War? An impending wedding? A killer hunting your main character? All good conflicts are inescapable; there is nowhere to go but forward.

Goal-Oriented Characters
In addition to a crucible, you should have characters with plot-driven goals. It may be as simple as staying alive, solving a mystery, or exacting revenge. What’s important is that your characters stay goal-driven. Why? Goals reinforce the plot; they emphasize what your characters want and what stands between them and that goal.

In addition, make sure that both your protagonist and your antagonist each have opposing goals that they are working towards. Writers often forget about the bad guy. Make sure he or she isn’t just wreaking havoc for no reason. Antagonists have to have goals as well.

Evenly Matched Opponents
Great conflict requires an antagonist and protagonist who are evenly matched. Having an antagonist who is too powerful for the protagonist can make your story appear unbelievable if the protagonist then defeats such an impossible foe. And having a protagonist who is too powerful can make the conflict and conclusion feel underwhelming and predictable.

Now, the former—having an antagonist who is too powerful—is a nuanced area of storytelling because you can still have a human pitted against a larger-than-life antagonist and win. Odysseus is the perfect example of an individual who took down a seemingly all-powerful enemy. The nuance lies in the fact that while the protagonist and antagonist seem unevenly matched, they are evenly matched. But writer be warned—you need to be as crafty as Odysseus to pull this one off without seeming too far-fetched.

Complex Characters
Complex characters can indirectly lead to fantastic main conflicts. Why? Because believable, deep characters touch readers on a human level. The growth that complex characters go through, their inner demons, and their limitations make them more real to us. So we sweat through challenging scenes and the book’s climax because we’ve developed a close bond with these characters, and the prospect of losing them scares us.

Conversely, cliché characters—the good guy who is too moral, and the bad guy is too evil—can weaken your book’s conflicts. Not only is it harder to empathize with a character that is never petty or a character who is never kind, but it’s too predictable. Fairytales exploited that niche centuries ago.

Make sure you have all the necessary ingredients to a powerful conflict: a crucible, evenly matched opponents, and complex, goal-driven characters. Doing so will ratchet up the conflict and tighten your novel.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Avoid Clichés in Writing

Out of all the editing advice I give, avoiding and replacing clichés is one of the tiniest edits—but it can have major repercussions for your story. These little buggers are easy to remove, but they’re often difficult to spot and hard to fix.

What is a Cliché?
When I talk about clichés, many of you might think of those colloquialisms that we often use. Here’s a great site that has hundreds of these cliché phrases.

However, in writing, a cliché is not limited to these phrases. And clichés are not just those words and phrases that are hokey. A cliché can be any word or phrase that is overused. Below I’ve included some examples of overused words and phrases that are considered cliché in the writing world. These lists are far from exhaustive.

Here are some common words that are clichés in writing:

  • Gasped
  • Looked
  • Turned
  • Suddenly
  • Sighed

Here are some common cliché phrases in fiction writing:

  • Jumped out of bed
  • Tears streaming down [his/her] face
  • Good versus evil
  • A battle of life and death
  • [S/he] rolled [his/her] eyes

Why it’s Problematic to Use Clichés in Writing
What’s so crippling about clichés is not that they sound hokey—though you do want to avoid that—but that using them stunts your own creativity and the depth you can add to your world through original descriptions.

For instance, were tears really streaming down your character’s face, or did a few unbidden tears trickle down her skin? Better yet, would your character really be crying, or would she be fisting her hands until her knuckles were pale? Perhaps she’d bite the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood—but she wouldn’t cry. Or perhaps in that moment she’d be hyperaware of her surroundings.

By avoiding clichés, our language’s low-hanging fruit, you can really get to know your world, your characters’ personalities, and the lens through which they see the world.

Some of the best writers find original ways to describe an everyday event. However, a word of warning: many beginning writers will try this and get a bit overzealous in the process. The difference is always in the wording. Amateurs judge their descriptions by the words they use, while masters of the craft judge how accurately and realistically a scene is portrayed—words are merely the tools used to achieve this end.

Identifying and Deciding Whether to Fix a Cliché
I think the trouble writers run into when it comes to clichés is that clichés are some of the hardest aspects of our language to identify, and they are even harder to change. After all, how do you spot something that is so deeply ingrained into the way we culturally perceive and describe the world?

You can start by going to the most important scenes in your book. Read the scene and be highly critical of your characters’ thoughts, descriptions, and actions. If anything sounds too generic, too much like descriptions you’ve read in other books, try changing it. Make sure that you actually think about your character and try to understand him or her. That character might be an extension of yourself, but he or she has a distinct personality.

Once you feel you have a good idea of that character’s personality, apply that personality to the scene—you might find that you’re rewriting more than a single description.

You can apply this exercise as many times as you’d like. What you’ll find is that you know your characters better than you previously did, and you’ll have an improved writing style. Fixing clichés will also help tremendously in other aspects of your novel, such as clarifying character motivations—why characters are doing what they are doing—generating momentum, and creating a more realistic world.

Lastly, let me clarify that using these clichés is okay. The hokier ones I’d definitely suggest changing, but what is a book without a gasp, sigh, or an eye roll? And it’s impossible to remove words like looked, turned, and suddenly without making the text more awkward. So what I am suggesting is not completely eradicating these clichés, but parceling them down, so that you use these terms when you need to, and not as a crutch.

Happy editing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services