Saturday, December 6, 2014

Fun Ideas and Tips #9: Make Your Story Newsworthy

You've written the first draft of your novel and now it's time to go back and begin revisions. Whether your first draft is thick or thin, you're going to have to do some analysis on the whole thing and see if what you wrote makes sense, needs a complete overhaul, or perhaps needs better focus.

I have a fondness for reading news headlines. They're short and to the point, giving you enough information to whet your curiosity so that you will try out the actual article. Headlines also give readers the option of not reading, if the article isn't about something they care about. They streamline the reading process. I love that.

How do news headlines factor in to revising the first draft of your novel?

By giving you another outlining option.

The pantser argument doesn't hold weight right now; you've finished the rough draft of your novel. It's time to make sure the story is solid, to tie up loose ends, expose those plot holes, strengthen your characters, and put all your story ducks in a row. An outline can streamline the process.

I've highlighted many easy to construct outlines in the past and I'm not going to rehash them or other more complex versions. No, today I want you to think like a journalist coming up with news headlines. So here's what you do:

1) Break up your story into sections. It can be chapters, or POV switches, or even by page. And don't feel like you have to sit and spend a few hours dividing up your novel for this step. You can do this as you go along reading it.

2) Write a simple, one sentence headline for each section. The rule for this is: What is the most important event, twist, or discovery in this section?

This should be more thought-provoking than it first suggests. Remember, headlines have to garner attention. What is going on in this section that would capture your readers' attention? Is this section even worth keeping in the story? Is anything happening at all?

For example, say you decide to do a headline for each page and the page you are reading is basically describing a journey, or a building, or a scientific processyou're not going to come up with a very good headline for it. What the lack of a snazzy headline does is give you a red flag that you have too much description going on in that section. There's nothing happening. You're going to lose readers' interest here. Ah hah! You mark that section for demolition or a complete make-over.

Let's say you do have something going on. Are new questions being raised by this section? A new mystery unfolds? The characters have reached a pivotal choice? Creating headlines for the section will give you a chance to lock down the exact dilemma, point, or argument this section needs to be about. Ah hah! You may find you need to beef this part up, or even play it down. Perhaps you discover you're in danger of creating a bunch of unnecessary subplots due to tangents in your original material.

Or, maybe this section deals with an action sequence. "Creating a headline should be easy", you thinkor is it? "Good Guy is Attacked by Bad Guys but Comes Out on Top!" is rather bland. Ah hah! Are you putting in action for the sake of action, or does this section actually move the story forward? What is learned in this section? What is gained or lost? Have you made it too easy for the protagonist? Have you devoted too many paragraphs or pages to reporting each movement or play-by-play? Do you even need this kind of action here? How predictable is this section? It's a lot to think about. Sometimes the sections/scenes we think are done deals are the most predictable to readers and maybe need a lot more brainstorming to make them different or unpredictable.

*A further note: Don't stress about giving things away in your headlines, or about using too much hyperbole when creating them. This outline is for your eyes only. Have fun with it.

3) Make sure you are taking notes as you do step #2, whether in the document or in a separate notebook or file. Line up your headlines when you are done, in story order. Read through them. Does one flow well after the one before? Do you notice significant gaps?

This gives you a very basic outline, and a very valuable revision tool. Maybe you need to rearrange some of the events. Maybe you need to add new sections, or delete others. Really think about the overall theme and goals of the story. What exactly do these headlines say about your story, the characters, the plot, and the differences between Point A and Point Z?

If you're writing a more complex novel with multiple POVs, consider not only a master list of all the headlines, but also separate story-order lists for each POV used. Or come up with a color coding method in your master list to help you see how your POV characters are cycling. What's good about this, is you can still look to see if your POV switches are happening in the right places. Are the events or questions leading to the next section? Are you overusing POV switches for the sake of following a definite pattern? Do you need all of those POVs to begin with? Having a concise reference for the whole story can really show how well you are using multiple POVs.

4) If you want to take your headline analysis one helpful step further, as you go along making them, jot down the number of pages or the word count devoted to each section. It's a huge eye-opener. When tallied up at the end, you can see what aspects of the story you felt were the most important when you wrote that first draft. This can help you stay true to your original genesis for the story, and/or can show you your weaknesses by revealing what key story elements you put less effort into developing. This can also help you target areas for trimming or adding to your word count, all nice and neatly marked out next to your headline outline. Altogether, a handy, quick reference for your story as you go into the actual revision process.

I'm sure that anyone who tries out the headline outline will find even more good uses for it. Think of a simple outline as if it were a thumbnail revealing your entire story at a glance. It's always better to go into the revision process with access to the overall picture. Without it, a writer is like someone trying to figure out a maze for the second time; you have some idea of where it goes and how you got through it before, but you don't remember every twist and turn and you still can't see alternate routes.

I know some of you will shrug your shoulders and stubbornly refuse to even try outlining. That's okay. There are different kinds of writers, but take a second to consider what you might be missing out on by not trying a simple outline. And just because So-and-So Big-Name-Author doesn't outline, that really shouldn't be an argument, after all, you aren't them.

I've written many stories and used different methods for each one. I learn new things from each experience. However, I know now that having a simple outline can make a huge difference in the number of revision passes I have to make. I hope you'll at least try out the headline outline, or one of the others in the list below. See what works for you. Develop your own version of a simple outline. Be creative and have fun, but most of all, take the opportunity to study yourself as a writer.

Other outlining methods you can try: (Note: Some of these are for outlining before writing your first draft.)
National Novel Writing Month Preparation: The Easiest Outline Ever
How I Outline, Guest Post #4: NCB
How I Outline, Guest Post #3: Ian Isaro
How I Outline, Guest Post #2: Derrick Camardo
Fulfilling Your Promises to the Reader
How I Outline, Guest Post #1: Darke Conteur
When Outlining Breaks Down (A guest post I wrote on another blog.)
Outlining: The Simple Version
Because: One of the Most Important Words a Writer Can Use ...