Tag Archives: editing

Friday Links 01.25.13

Welcome to Friday Links for the 4th week of January. It was a memorable week for national reflections and looking forward, as we began with celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and watching the second inauguration of Barack Obama.

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

The work-week since then has been a blur. Great conversations with so many of you, trading notes about your projects for the January Challenge, blogging about mine… and of course, getting it started.

It has, therefore, been a slower week for fiction. But those hours in the morning still found some great reading moments.

Here are some of the links I’ve found worth sharing. A few regular visitors — especially those who worried they were not “on time” in starting the January Challenge — will find the first link intriguing. Don’t put off reading that one!

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Positive Procrastination 

You may have noticed from my January Challenge strategy lists, I am all for tricks that harness (not fight) the energy of our natural tendencies. Wittily written and extremely insightful, this New York Times article by John Tierney presents research demonstrating how the energy of procrastination can be effective fuel (yes!) for getting things done. Quoting Robert Benchley, “The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” I highly recommend this one!

Sierra Godfrey: How to Write a Great Climactic Scene 

Once you’re over procrastinating, here’s one for getting the end written.  Many workshops focus on opening pages. Last summer I focused on character. Lots of folks talk about analyzing plot points. Sooner or later, those of us tying up a final draft need to get around to writing an ending that lives up to the rest of the book. In this post, Sierra Godfrey offers a valid checklist of what this scene must accomplish.

The Finishing Touches by Jael McHenry

Are you done — or nearly done with that novel draft? Here’s a great article from Writer Unboxed, by Jael McHenry, who focuses the challenging process of polishing a novel draft to address a handful of key threads. Offers some interesting insights.


With the end written and draft polished, it’s time to sweat whether an agent will bite on your query.  As I became a fan of Twitter, one of the best series I followed was agent Sara Megibow’s weekly #10queriesin10tweets. Each week, she’d pull 10 queries from her in-box, summarize the pitch with her verdict (pass, request partial or occasionally (9 out of 32,000 queries in 2012) signed).  Fabulous glimpse into an agent’s thinking — but, gasp!, Sara announced recently, “I feel like I’ve said all I need to say about queries, so it’s time to move on.” No need for disappointment — on January 10th she premiered her new series using the hashtag #5pagesin5tweets. Rather than the query, she is addressing partial submissions she has received. As with the prior series, she summarizes the author’s approach with a verdict (request full or pass) and why.  To access, click the link, or enter the hashtag in a Twitter search or feed browser.

[Note: if you would like to find more discussions like this on Twitter, let me know in the comments, as I have more hashtags to share. You can find me on Twitter at elissafield.]

Should You Be a Writer or an Editor? 

It’s not a question I’ve asked (I do a bit of both) — yet, this 2-part article from The Open Notebook blog addressing the question posed during a Johns Hopkins University masters in science writing forum is a fascinating look at how to know if you are natively an editor or natively a writer.

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These are in my "active reading" stacks, bridging my reading lists from summer into fall, 2012. (The porcelain boxer has run through three generations in our family - as has the breed.) c Elissa Field

These are in my “active reading” stacks, bridging my reading lists from summer into fall, 2012. (The porcelain boxer has run through three generations in our family – as has the breed.) c Elissa Field

What are you reading this month?

That’s a question I’m wondering this week, as it seems time to compile another seasonal reading list. I have some great purchases still waiting to be read, that will roll over from last summer or fall — but I am curious, too, for new recommendations.

What are you reading, what new releases are you curious about, or what would you recommend?

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Going on this month:


Filed under Books, Friday Links, Novel Writing

Writing Character: Challenge of Revising the Character Most Like Yourself – Part 2

c.Elissa Field

This is the second of two articles addressing the challenge some writers have identified of writing the character most like themselves.

Read the original post for an explanation of who this character is, and how the idea for the post originally arose  from a small tangent during the fabulous workshop I had with Ann Hood in Miami last May:

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5 Approaches for Revising:

Again, not all authorial characters are broken — but this post addresses the situation where characters drawn closely from the author come across as flat. Each of the following presents a possible source of the problem and how to address it.

  1. See-through narrator: beginner’s error?  In one of my early novel attempts, I had a central female protagonist who essentially represented my entrypoint into the story. She was roughly my age, my cultural background, etc. Her story arc was dynamic, but she was the least fully-written and least empathetic character. I realized I was intentionally keeping this character thinly written, nearly transparent, as if she were a window to see through to the story.  Have you ever read an editor’s list of “beginner errors”? While revising this story at Bread Loaf one summer, I was startled to find this approach on a list of errors committed by first-time novelists who are still trepidatious about claiming that right to just present the story. It’s possible a transparent-window-character really is an effective device for your story (they do exist in some successful published work), but my authorial character did not ring true.  Fix?  The simplest approach is to eliminate the character — no window is needed for you to ‘frame’ the story. If you resist deleting the character, this means you believe the character has a purpose in the story.  Take the time to understand why you chose this perspective and own it.  Don’t avoid the character; understand the tension and emotion they create, and write the character fully.
  2. Lay back on the couch & tell me about your childhood: another beginner’s error?  Editors also report a beginner’s error of feeling a need to explain the psychology behind our character’s choices. This can be common when writing about from real life. Much of our memory may come from psychological processing of an event.  But see if the flatness of your authorial character arises from too much explanation of their thoughts.  Reams of psychological explanation is less intriguing than actions and emotions that reveal the same information, and can seem inauthentic or defensive. Fix?  Psychological explanation is often written as a placeholder for motivation in early drafts. As the action and emotion of scenes become more full in revisions, see if you can simply delete the explanations. If these other scenes have not been written, make notes to yourself of what the psycho-babble is trying to accomplish, then envision the kind of interaction between characters that would reveal it. An entire scene might not be necessary; a single line revealing a memory might suffice. A reader will always find psychology more believable if they came to the conclusion on their own through experiencing the character, than if you explain it.  Also, see 3.
  3. I’m a good girl/boy.  I spent my whole life trying to convince my grandmother that my hair was the current style, my brother that I hadn’t packed too much on the family trip, and anyone else that I wasn’t difficult.  Best thing ever was the year I realized it was okay if my hair was not my grandmother’s style, my suitcase was overpacked and I was as difficult as anyone else around me.  Around the same time, I realized I was raising my characters to be as well-behaved as my family wanted me to be.  If a character did something inappropriate, I caught myself reeling them in or tried to explain it away.  If they had affairs or stole or were judgmental, writer-me immediately tried to take it back (or, see #2, gave psychological justification and excuses).  Around the time I gave myself permission to be sassy, I read a single perfect line of writing advice: the most memorable characters are not well-behaved.  Not that they’re rude, but they have opinions, they speak out and take action.  Not that they’re all adulterers and murderers, but they make high-stakes mistakes, and story arises from the consequences, not excuses.  Best characters would, in all hopes, make my grandmother’s eyes fly wide first in horror, then in secret glee for having done what she would not have allowed me to do.  Fix?  Don’t hold back.  In Hood’s advice below, note how important it is that we create distance and not expect our characters to behave as we do. If you gave your character a gun, don’t apologize when it goes off — and it should.  Characters should get in positions other people avoid, or say things they shouldn’t, or do the wrong thing and then another wrong thing after that.  Sitting primly on the couch and keeping thoughts to themselves would rarely have kept even my elders turning the pages.
  4. Hood’s advice #1: Continuing from part 1, in our workshop writer Ann Hood said the key is to create the resonance and fullness of story in characters based on reality. A common sign that a writer is too married to reality is when they defend a manuscipt by saying, “But that’s what really happened.”  To write effectively from real life, a writer is seeking to create resonance and meaning that were not apparent in the thin reality.  To do this, Hood said, “You have to establish authorial distance [between yourself and the character] to be able to see the character as a character.” Distance allows us to view others more clearly — from all sides, with interesting filters — than we do ourselves. The key is to create that ability to see yourself at that same distance.  Fix?  Hood said the key is to give the character one quality or trait that is absolutely not like yourself.  Give them a tick. A quirk, an idiosyncracy.  Give them an obsession.  A hobby, a talent.   Make them older than yourself, younger, or change their gender.  Give them a profession or talent or hobby that defines their lives.  It’s not a small shift — the goal is to create something in the character that is utterly unlike yourself so that you start seeing them as someone other than yourself.  In the gap, you can begin to have perspective and write more fully.
  5. Hood #2:  Saying the same thing differently, Hood referenced another author in saying that developing story arises by repeatedly asking the question, “What if…?” Each answer to the question spins details to character or setting or obstacles.  For example, Hood wrote one of her novels in response to the grief of losing her daughter to a sudden illness.  But what if she directed that grief into learning to knit?  For a current story I am writing, a main theme is my own, but what if the character were ten years older? What if she worked in a museum tending taxidermied exhibits? What if something were stolen, so the story seems to be about the theft, not her inner struggle?   Fix? Begin with a “What if” that is not true of yourself.  What if… the character was a man or an older woman or an artist or just witnessed a train derailing in the middle of the night behind her father’s barn…

More revision strategies?

For a 6th example, I’ll suggest this and you are welcome to offer a solution. 

  • I’m just not that into me.  In freelance work, I once interviewed a woman who had been an entymologist and lived in the jungle for 6 years before going back to school, studying urban planning and being appointed to public office. It was a fascinating article on how those unconnected roles represented her drive to serve. Yet she was shocked that anyone found her years in the jungle interesting. For me, that is parallel to a truth when I write a character like myself: it’s easy for me to be fascinated by a character I’m just getting to know, while falling flat to describe the character who feels like the same somebody I’m inside every day. One of the problems with writing authorial characters arises when we don’t gain Hood’s authorial distance to perceive ourselves as interesting characters. If the character most like yourself feels boring to you, perhaps this is the dilemma. Fix? The fix may mean not writing about yourself if it bores you, or perhaps Hood’s advice in 4 & 5, to gain the distance and interest to write more fully. Or, how would you suggest solving it?

How would you answer that — or what other dilemmas do you run into with characters drawn from your life? Share your answers, ideas or links in the comments!

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Filed under Novel Writing, Writing Character, Writing Life

Writing Character: Challenge of the Character Most Like Yourself – Part 1

Adapted fr a picture taken of me with my best friend (cropped, in adaptation) by his mother on the first day of 2nd grade. In many ways, characters are thinly disguised versions of the writer. Sometimes that grants vivid authenticity. Sometimes, not so much. (c. Elissa Field; repro w written permission)

Twice in previous articles, I mentioned the challenge of writing the character most like oneself, and it’s time I give the intended explanation.

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Where the idea for the post arose:

Along with posts on  internal and external conflict and character emotion, the impetus for this article arose from a small tangent during the fabulous workshop I had with Ann Hood in Miami last May.

Among stories I’ve worked on in the past, I knew who my trickiest, most elusive or least successful characters were, but hadn’t noticed a pattern until an offhand comment from Ann. In responding to another writer’s manuscript in workshop, she observed that the flattest characters we write are sometimes those most like ourselves.  A little bell went off inside as I realized it was these characters I wrote with the least interest.

In conversations with fellow writers shortly after, over and over they agreed, which provoked need to tie together Hood’s advice with other a-ha’s on how to bring these characters to life.

Today’s post, part 1, will define why this is a challenge. Part 2 of the series will offer revision strategies.

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First, what does that mean: “most like myself”? 

In discussing this with friends, many are writing fiction from an autobiographical story, so have a character who is literally modeled from themselves.  Others might write themselves as a character thrown into unfamiliar or fantastical settings as if the stories were vicarious lives.  Hood herself used the example of writing her novel, The Knitting Circle, which she wrote in response to grief overthe death of her daughter.  I don’t write autobiographically, but each story seems to have a character — not always the protagonist — who is most invested with my own history.  She is my gender, and may have a lifestyle, profession, interests, roots or age drawn from my own.

Each of these is an example of a character drawn from the author’s own identity.

But isn’t that what it means, to “write what you know”?

Obviously, the odd snippets drawn from our lives can set our work apart.  Such details give our work texture and voice and authenticity.  One of my favorites to write was the opening lines of a novel draft where the character has a memory of running from the shoreline carrying a minnow cupped in her hands as a girl.  I like the immediate connection to childhood and nature, and it was perfect metaphor to the mystery of the story.

Drawing on actual experience creates writing infused with and anchored in something vivid.  That’s why we do it.  That effective use of authorial experience is not the challenge this article addresses.

Yet writing from self — not just experience — develops its own challenge.

In the workshop with Hood and in conversation with writing friends, the challenge arose that characters written based on ourselves sometimes feel — at least in early drafts — flat.

In some cases the writer is aware of it.  In other cases, it was something reported back from beta readers or agents.  The character might be written accurately, but wasn’t engaging or dynamic.  They were lifeless or invisible or downright annoying or defensive or without motivation.

Hood is known for teaching nonfiction and memoir, and her fiction is often rooted in personal experience.  During our workshop, in responding to one writer’s manuscript, she gave example of the process she went through in revising one of her novels.

Making a connection to the weakness she addressed in her revisions and the manuscript at hand, she said: characters telling our own story “can suffer from attachment to reality.”  The problem, she said, is that reality often comes without the fullness and resonance of story.

In my experience, I was surprised to notice authorial blindness might have me writing vivid factual details of the character’s life, yet her emotions and motivation remain unrealized or unengaging, in the same way that you could have a vivid, accurate list of ingredients for the grocery store, yet that is not the same as visualizing a fully-prepared dinner laid out for Thanksgiving.

Like shaving or putting lipstick on without a mirror, you know where you are, but not quite how to see yourself — or therefore reveal yourself to a reader — without perspective.

Some examples:

My own weakness is that the character most like myself is often the one I am least curious about.  I am excited getting to know this shady, paramilitary character in my draft, Wake, or the Cuban-exile, artist mother in Breathing Water, or the fastidious doctor surrounded by monkeys in another draft.  The daughter or girlfriend character?  Not so much.  It’s not that I don’t like her, but, well, I sort of forget to write her. Raised to be a good, self-deprecating American, I might even tend to write her vaguely annoying.

Sometimes — especially if I was writing into unfamiliar territory — this character provided my own entry point into the story, the point at which I bridge my own knowledge or culture or personality, to the less familiar places and culture and experiences I might take the story and characters. The resulting character revealed my vulnerability and initial lack of insight, without yet contributing the meaning such a character was intended to offer.

Hood’s basic advice:

On a most basic level, Ann Hood said the key to writing characters based on the writer is for the writer to create authorial distance.

Begin with the value of your experience, but then create distance by changing key elements through the process of asking, “What if?”  Create differences between the character and self so that you start to feel that curiosity, start to imagine that character as someone fully fledged and outside yourself.

Having bashed my own characters to provide examples, I should offer one I’ve written where I saw Hood’s advice working.  I feel myself closely identified with the protagonist of my story Jar of Teeth.  Beginning with truths from my own life, this character had once marched on Washington for Roe v. Wade (as I once did) and made it through college and dating years never unwittingly pregnant and therefore breathed a sight of relief at never having had to use the rights of Roe v. Wade (also true).  But what if she were older than myself, living in a different city, and with a job cleaning the taxidermied exhibits in a museum? And what if her child were not my young sons but a college aged daughter, and what if that daughter was now asking her to pay to avert her own sudden emergency? Without giving away the whole story, I can say that I see this character as more three dimensional, being outside myself, than if I were imagining her from the inside-out.

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Can you share an example of a character that challenges you and may fit this pattern?  Does Hood’s advice ring true for you?  Or what other advice have you encountered?

Want more on this topic?

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Filed under Novel Writing, Writing Character, Writing workshop