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Art Holcomb on Rewriting Your Novel or Screenplay

The 6 Most Common Problems
in a Rewrite

By Art Holcomb

Okay, so . . .

You’ve just finished your first draft – or maybe your 10th draft – of your work-in-progress and you suddenly realize that there’s a problem you haven’t considered. You’ve become so intimate with the characters and their actions that you can no longer see where the potential problems are. You’re wondering now what errors you can no longer see but will be evident to the first editor or agent you send this to. You’re afraid you no longer have the perspective you need to see the story clearly.

Take a breath and relax.

You’ve read Larry’s books and posts. You know that the rewrite is where all your knowledge of story and craft must come into play. You’re ready to make the next pass at the work – the one that brings it all home.

So, let’s start with the basics that professional writers use before the rewrite process begins:

DO NOT show this draft to anyone: You’re not ready for a critique by others until you give it this final review now. Make sure you save your very best efforts for your first reader.

Start by letting the story cool for a while: You need some real distance from the story, so plan to put it away for a while as you turn your attention to your next project. A month would be great but set it aside for at least a couple of weeks – just long enough for your conscious mind to see the story anew. You’ll be surprised at the difference it can make in the rewrite.

Print it out: I find that editing is always better when I can feel the paper, physically take my red pen to the manuscript and give myself permission to carve the thing up by hand. It’s all too easy to start moving words and paragraphs around on the screen before you see the story in its entirety.
Read it out loud: I know of nothing more important to the rewriting process than hearing the words I’ve written. By reading the whole story out loud, you can hear whether the dialogue and the descriptions are working. You’ll identify all those phrases that you thought were great but that now just sound silly in the light of day. The problems on the page become instantly clearer when your brain translates these thoughts to actual sounds.

Have at it! The time has come (if you haven’t done it before) for you to be ruthless about the changes you know in your heart need to be made. What isn’t working? What sounds bad when you read it aloud? Where do you stray from the story’s mission? The time has come to kill your darlings! Consider removing all those passages that you absolutely love but which lead your story astray. Strike out anything that simply isn’t working. What remains will be the framework you need to make the story so much better.

The question now is – what else should I be looking for?

What problems are there likely to be that I’m just not seeing?

I’ve been writing for more than thirty years and have seen a lot of problem-ridden stories: by my students, my peers and by my own hand. And while there are always difficulties that are unique to each piece of writing, problems and blind spots occur which are common to all writers.

Below are the six most common – and typically missed – problems in a rewrite:

1. The protagonist does not have a strong enough goal: Does your protagonist burn? Does he need so badly to achieve his story goal that it feels like a life-or-death moment for him? Of course, it doesn’t have to be actually life-and-death, but you need to have your hero feel so strongly about his goal that, should he fail, his life and/or the lives of those he cares about will never be the same. If your hero is wandering around your story, working toward a goal that he, quite frankly, could take or leave, why should the reader be emotionally involved enough to want to turn the page?

2. There’s no urgency to the protagonist’s goal: Urgency means tension and tension means suspense – which leads to the ever-important CONFLICT. The panic, resolve and determination that your hero feels as he faces ever-increasing trials and dangers is contagious for the reader. Your fans want to feel that emotion right alongside your hero. Is there a looming deadline or impending cataclysm on the horizon for your characters? Make it plain, sing it loud, rewrite it passionately to make sure that both reader and protagonist are on the same page.

3. The characters don’t have enough arc: You’re writing a novel – not a play or a script for TV. You have all the room in the world to complicate and develop the emotional change you’re planning for your hero. It isn’t enough to take him from his naïve self in the beginning (Point A) to the more evolved creature you’re planning for the end (Point C). That kind of simplistic arc is hard for the reader to buy into. Instead, make the sure you include at least Point B – the point when your hero is at his lowest, ready to just lay down and die because the journey so far has just about killed him. Take your hero to the absolute depths of despair before you show him a way out. Torture him! Torment him! Lead him through Point B – the darkest moment of his life. That’s the way you build a story people will want to read.

4. The stakes are too low/ the obstacles too easy to overcome: We’ve talked here before about Goals, Obstacles and Stakes – the Holy Trinity of Character Development – and you need to take a good, long look at these last two factors. Did the hero really have a good enough reason to enter this story in the first place? Did he easily overcome the problems you threw at him? As with the discussion of goals above, a weak set of obstacles and a mediocre motivation equals a frail and pointless hero, no matter how well you’ve written him. You have to amp it up! Let the challenges the hero faces grow in both intensity and consequence as the story goes on. Make the stakes involved as close to a do-or-die scenario as you can possibly manage. Your readers will thank you for it – by buying your next book!

5. The characters’ dialogue sounds too similar: I see this all the time. Beginning novelists and screenwriters alike often end up with characters you couldn’t tell apart in the dark by their dialogue. They either all sound like the writer himself or they are subconsciously written like caricatures – and is so doesn’t need to be that way.

One secret from writer/director Joss Whedon of Buffy/Avenger fame is to perfect 5 or 6 different sounding characters – or archetypes – from different walks of life to inhabit ALL your stories in the beginning and then tweak them as needed for the individual situation. Start small: a working stiff, a southern gentleman, a rich and snoot aristocrat, a lost teen, a world-weary senior, and an “Everyman/woman” – whatever combination makes that most sense to you and your style. You don’t need many to start with and you can use these foundational archetypes to build new powerful and individual characters.

6. The dialogue lacks subtext: Nothing is more boring than a character who says exactly what they’re thinking and feeling every time they open their mouth. Don’t do that! You want to avoid that like the three week old Chinese take-out that’s still in your fridge.

One rule of thumb is “Dialogue is what they say. Subtext is what they really mean.” So imply, hint, infer, and deceive! That is how people really talk, and anything you can do to get that kind of dialogue out of your characters will build the bond between your hero and the audience, leaving them constantly hungry for more for your literary creamy goodness.

So get back in there and get to work – your story needs you!

Art

******

Frequent Storyfix contributor Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and comic book creator. His most recent comic book property is THE AMBASSADOR and his most recent project for TV is entitled THE STREWN.  His new writing book is tentatively entitled “SAVE YOUR STORY: How to Resurrect Your Abandoned Story and Get It Written NOW!” (Release TBA.)

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Wisdom, Wit and War Stories from An “A-List” NY Times Bestselling Novelist

An Interview with Robert Dugoni, author of “My Sister’s Grave.”

Product Details

If you’ve haven’t heard of My Sister’s Grave, you haven’t been paying attention to the fiction world in a while.  The book was a recent top-1o New York Times Bestseller, currently the #1 legal thriller on Amazon, has (as of this writing) 6,437 reviews on Amazon, and is basically all over the place – bookstore windows and shelves, Amazon mailers, in people’s laps at Starbucks..

This is as big as it gets, from an author who has been there before.  And it isn’t Robert Dugoni’s first visit to the NY Times bestseller list, either, though his enthusiasm and humble joy (as seen on his Facebook page) is as infectious as a first-timer.

I was fortunate to make his acquaintance last year, when a mutual friend suggested I reach out for a blurb for my new novel, “Deadly Faux.”   He read the book – like many at that level, he doesn’t blurb just anything, he has to really love it – and it turned out well for me.  He did love it, and his blurb is a shining endorsement that I treasure.

I invited Bob to do this interview, and he didn’t hesitate.  He’s a class act, in addition to being a wise and accomplished author with lots to share with us.

The Interview

LB: Let’s start with the explosive breakout success of your latest novel, “My Sister’s Grave.” All of your books have been well reviewed and have achieved commercial success… so how do you explain this particular book? What’s different about it, if anything, and was that a strategic decision on your part, or an escalation in craft? Or was it, as much as anything (because you were a stellar novelist before, and it’s hard to take “stellar” to an even higher qualitative level) market timing or some escalation of your publisher’s promotion or distribution effort?

RD: I think it was a combination of things. As a writer, you’re always trying to get better and I do believe I am a better writer than I was when I wrote The Jury Master. I also deliberately moved away from a straight legal thriller to a police procedural, which has a wider audience in the mystery/thriller genre.

Second, the subject matter of My Sister’s Grave seems to have touched an emotional place in many people. I receive at least one email a day from someone who is a relative of a victim of violent crime. The relationship between the two sisters, in particular, is powerful to many people who have read the book.

Third, my publisher, Thomas & Mercer, has done an outstanding job getting this book into as many readers’ hands as possible. Even three months out they continue to find ways to promote the book and get it into new stores. The more people who’ve read it, the more they’ve talked about it. The more they talk about it, the more others read it. This was truly a partnership and for that I am very grateful.

LB: Some cynics say – and I’ve said this myself – that some bestsellers are ordained as much as they earn the tag. Which means, sometimes an author’s earlier work is every bit as good as the book that suddenly makes them a Very Big Deal. Do you agree, or am I (having achieved critical success but nothing close to this) simply a cynic after all?

RD: I agree that there are a lot of talented writers out there writing very good books who aren’t being promoted enough, or correctly, and so are not being read widely.  I say all the time that best seller doesn’t necessarily mean best written.  Sometimes a book just touches people and the word of mouth spreads.  Sometimes the publisher promotes the heck out of a good book and sales become great.  With the success of My Sister’s Grave, a whole new audience has found my earlier novels and readers are really enjoying them. They’re the same books I wrote years ago, but now they’re being more widely read.  A third factor is pricing.  In this day and age, a book price can be the difference between 500 people reading it and 500,000.  I’ve learned that there are many people on fixed incomes who love to read 10 books a week and can’t afford to pay even $7.99 for a paperback, so they’re selective.

LB: Dennis Lehane (an example of the above) attributes the ignition of Mystic River to a killer review in People Magazine, among other venues. What is the role of reviews in the bestseller phenomenon, and did reviews have a role in yours?

RD: I definitely think that reviews in a major publication can do wonders for a book. The Jury Master took off after a killer review in the Seattle Times and then Parade Magazine. But honestly, after 9 novels and a non-fiction book, I’m convinced it is word of mouth. When readers start talking about your book they sell it for you in a way that no advertisement or review could.

LB: Were you surprised by the breakout success of MSG, and when/how did you know it was in full swing?

RD: I honestly believed I’d written a strong novel. I knew the relationship between the sisters would be powerful, but no, I didn’t expect this type of runaway success. I don’t think anyone really can. I was amazed when we hit 1,000 reviews and I’m amazed we’ve hit 6,000. The moment I knew things were really happening was when I realized that 95% of the reviews on all the review sites were 4 and 5 stars. I knew that meant there were a lot of people who were going to turn to family and friends and say, “You should read this book.”

LB: You released a short story (The Academy) two months before the November ’14 release of My Sisters’s Grave, and then a non-fiction biography (The Cyanide Canary, with Joseph Hilldorfer) a month after, as well as a couple of other titles (which I assume were republished titles). Was the timing of these releases a strategy tactic relative to the latter?

RD: I have a terrific agent and she was able to secure the rights back to two novels, Murder One and The Conviction and the non-fiction book, The Cyanide Canary. We were aware of the significant promotional campaign T&M planned for My Sister’s Grave and made the business decision to re-release those books at the same time hoping people who liked My Sister’s Grave would want to read them. The Academy was originally going to be part of a novel, but my agent liked it so much she thought it might be strong as a short story. I didn’t want to charge readers for a short story. Readers have been very loyal to me and my intent was to give away The Academy for free. It was not intended as a gimmick to get people to buy My Sister’s Grave. You don’t have to read it to understand My Sister’s Grave. They are separate and complete stories.

LB: You aren’t new to the NY Times bestseller list… how is the experience this time around compared to the first?

RD: This time was a surprise to everyone. The NY Times has been reluctant, as I understand it, to include Amazon sales. So this meant the book was selling widely. The other anomaly was that the book came out in November but hit the list in February. That meant that it started to really take off, people were talking about it. For an author that was incredibly satisfying and pleasing. We popped the cork on a bottle of champagne at the house to celebrate that first Friday when we got the news and the next two weeks weren’t bad either.

LB: How does a “republishing” event even happen? For me, rights to my first four novels were returned to me (after eight years) by Penguin-Putnam, and my agent landed a deal at Turner Publishing to republish them as trade paperbacks. What was your experience and path toward your new/current publisher?

RD: When we got the rights back to my three books, Thomas & Mercer was terrific about guiding us on how best to get them out to the public. We decided to republish them myself through the Kindle Direct Program. My agent has an agent in her office who is a whiz at this stuff, and she worked quickly to get the books re-packaged and up on the kindle site with strong placement. The sales have been incredibly strong and that has really been special to me to know so many more readers are reading those novels.

LB: You are publishing with Thomas and Mercer, an Amazon company that also releases in traditional bookstores. T&M is widely held as a response to new digital markets, and they’re taking on name authors (like you) who were previously published by so-called “Big 5″ houses. How did you end up there, and what’s the experience like compared to the old days?

RD: When my agent was shopping My Sister’s Grave, Thomas & Mercer invited me to lunch. Frankly, they blew me away. The energy at the table was incredible. They had a game plan already in place on how to sell not only My Sister’s Grave, but also a game plan for sequels and thoughts on how to sell my backlist. I found them to be incredibly smart and pro-active.

I had good experiences with my other publishers. I’ve met some terrific people. If anything, I think Thomas & Mercer is more involved and always looking for a way to keep selling my book, even months after publication. The promotions are incredible. I just learned my book will be in 600 Sam’s Stores and 1500 Wall Mart’s starting in March. Another marketing campaign is going to start in April. The book will be released in Germany in April and in Italy later in the year. They work hard to make a book successful. The editing process is also intense. We work together back in forth over a month to get a completed manuscript. Finally, the author team never fails to make sure everything is going well, that I’m happy with how things are progressing. They seek my input on titles and covers and when we hit sales benchmarks they’re quick to congratulate me with a gift. Feels like a home, frankly.

LB: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard? And – I gotta ask – the worst?

RD: The best writing advice I’ve received is writer’s write. It’s a job and you have to take it seriously. There are a lot of reasons not to write. You have to find the reasons to sit in a chair on a beautiful day and go to work.

More and more I think the worst advice is “show don’t tell”. I know this will be controversial, but the problem is people don’t understand what that means. It is impossible not to tell in a 400 page novel. Of course you have to do some telling. The show relates to the essence of the character. I see so many writers stringing out long metaphors and similes because they don’t believe they can simply say, “He was six feet tall.” All that does is cause an excess of words and strained descriptions.

LB: You were kind enough to provide a blurb for my recent novel, Deadly Faux.  Bestselling authors don’t do this lightly, they have to really like a book before putting their name on it… which is why I was/am so excited to have your very enthusiastic endorsement. How many blurb requests do you get, and what gets your attention to spend the time, which is significant? What do you do in the sad event that you don’t really like the book?

RD: I loved Deadly Faux. That was an easy blurb for me because the protagonist was engaging and the plot was intricate and the writing was superb. It was my kind of novel.

I get asked to blurb quite a bit now. The problem is I just don’t have enough time to do them all. I won’t blurb a book unless I’ve read it all the way through. It’s important that I’m honest. I have had to say no a couple of times. I just explain to the writer that not every book is for every reader. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a good book, it just wasn’t right for me. I had one guy not take it very well. Even though I’d blurbed his prior book favorably, and he used it in marketing, he decided to go on Goodreads and “get even” by giving me two stars for My Sister’s Grave. I had a good laugh about it. No good deed goes unpunished, right?

LB: You have a new novel releasing in September, a sequel to My Sister’s Closet (thus, establishing The Tracy Crosswhite series), entitled, Her Last Breath. Based on that timing, it appears this was the plan all along, correct? Or was the new book rushed into the schedule based on the success of Sister’s?

RD: I knew I wanted to do at least three books in the Crosswhite series and Thomas & Mercer was open to that. Now that MSG has done so well, there might be more. I won’t rush a book. I write fast, but I am a really slow editor. I’m by no means a wordsmith and I’ll never win a Pulitzer for my writing. I have to really work hard at it and work hard at the editing so I don’t make embarrassing mistakes.

LB: Any parting shots for writers who want a piece of this kind of action (including the well over 6000 Amazon reviews you’ve scored for MSG as of this writing)?

RD: Write what you’re passionate about and write to your theme. If you’re book is about obsession then make sure you’re hitting it at the climax and at the resolution. When I wrote My Sister’s Grave I very much kept in mind what a homicide detective told me. “We can help a family find justice. We can’t help them find closure. People have to find that on their own. Some never do.” Powerful stuff. It was in my mind the entire time I wrote My Sister’s Grave.

*****

Many thanks to Robert Dugoni for joining us here.  Check out My Sister’s Grave, you’ll have a great read and you’ll learn a lot about what craft looks like in the hands of a real pro.

Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed and New York Times–bestselling author of the David Sloane series: The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One, and The Conviction. Murder One was a finalist for the Harper Lee Award for literary excellence.

Dugoni is also the author of the bestselling standalone novel Damage Control, and his nonfiction exposé, The Cyanide Canary, was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year selection. Dugoni’s books have been likened to Scott Turow and Nelson DeMille, and he has been hailed as “the undisputed king of the legal thriller” by The Providence Journal.

Visit his website at www.robertdugoni.com, and follow him on Twitter @robertdugoni and at www.facebook.com/AuthorRobertDugoni.

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