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What I Learned About Writing from Reading SHIVER

As writers, every book has the potential to teach us something about writing. Last night I finished Shiver* by Maggie Stiefvater. From this experience, I was reminded of many things I knew but now experienced again, reinforcing the importance of each lesson.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read it, please know that I give examples that give significant story elements away!

Here’s some of my learning highlights:

  1. If you are going to tell a story from two points of view, each needs a distinctive voice. Shiver shifts back and forth between the point of view Grace (bitten human that didn’t turn into a wolf) and Sam (wolf). This is great. However, without their names printed at the top of the page, I’d never know who was speaking until they talked about the other person. Sure, some people are a lot alike–my husband and I think so alike sometimes it’s creepy–but after years together I know that the voice in his head doesn’t sound like mine. On paper, it wouldn’t either.
  2. Foreshadowing can be great, but only tell the story once. I think this is a stylistic thing, but Stiefvater often tells us what’s going to happen–the deer’s going to hit the truck–and then she tells us again in slow motion. The problem:
    • It takes away a lot of the shock value that you would get if you skipped the first telling.
    • It can cause confusion for readers. Every time this technique was used, I had to re-read the section to see if what I thought had happened really did and (because the punchline was thrown in my face instead of leading up to it), it if did, then did it happen once or twice? (e.g. was there one deer? or two?)
  3. Everything in a story has to lead to one purpose, and that purpose has to become clear enough to readers to propel them ahead in their reading. What do I mean? We need to be merciless in making cuts. If it doesn’t lead to our primary purpose for writing the story, and it doesn’t draw in readers to make them want to read more, it needs to go. Here’s the problem I had with Shiver: I never really knew where I was headed. I felt like I was ambling most of the way. Fairly early on you learn that Sam can’t stand the cold and he thinks this is his last change (which, since he didn’t really have much to back it up, I wasn’t really buying). You also know that some white wolf chick is in love with Sam and has it out for Grace. You know she’ll attack eventually, and you know she’s not dead after she does. Is she coming back? Is this the main thrust of the story? After a while, I kept reading just to see if that was supposed to be where the story was leading me or something else. The problem: there wasn’t enough to make me go crazy wanting to read the next part of the story. As a result, it took me a whopping 3 1/2 weeks to finish–during which, I traded off with other things.
  4. A love story needs a little tension to be believable. I realize some will hate me for saying this. Sam + Grace forever, I know. But here’s the problem: it was too easy. I’m not saying love has to be difficult (it never has been for my husband and me), but for the plot to move forward (again, see #3), there needs to be tension. For most of us, that tension is separation: we want to be with the significant other every moment–especially when we first meet–and we can’t. Why not replicate this in our stories? Imagine this: Sam appears on the doorstep naked and wounded. Grace takes him to the hospital, but then, he disappears. Where’d he go? Will she see him again? Now I’m dying to know out what happened. Now I want him to come back. I need him to. Suddenly, I have to put everything else in my life aside to find out what happens next, and I read through the book in a day, rather than weeks. Stiefvater’s version of the wolf is perfect for this: every time it gets cold, Sam disappears again. There’s mystery involved. There’s suspense. There’s fiery romance.

All this being said, I still love the premise of the book, and I’m left wondering how much wolf is in Grace. Could anything provoke her to change over? Will Sam ever change again? Will his father-figure Beck? While the book isn’t perfect (few are), it leaves me enough questions to want to linger on the story a bit longer.

*Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater is part of a trilogy including linger (book 2) and forever (book 3).

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The Problem with Editing

>The problem with editing is that you have to keep reading the same thing

over

and over

and over

and over again.

The writing just isn’t as much fun the 50 bizillionth time around.

Ah time…time is so grand. With time we can set one writing project aside, move on to the next one, and come back to the last one after some time has passed. Then we can see it again with fresh eyes, and be able to really look at it critically, cut out the rubbish, add in more flavor, and–with any luck–find that what we wrote was more brilliant than we remembered.

Editing Takes Patience…Unfortunately

>Over a month ago, I finished the complete, revised draft of my young adult novel, The Academie. Since then, I have been dying send it off to agents and move on to my next project. What’s standing in the way? Editing. Why? Editing takes patience. Lots of patience.

Unfortunately, no matter how you cut it, editing simply isn’t a quick process. Why not? Because while we might like to hope that our word processor catches everything with its grammar and spell checkers, this simply isn’t the case. It can’t catch if you used the wrong version of a word (hear/here) or if you left out a word, or if you simply haven’t described a particular character with the right kind of detail. Tend to be on the wordy side? The spell-checker can’t catch that either.

So I’ll continue on, page by page, checking to make sure that everything is as perfect as it can be because I know that good editing could mean the difference between getting an agent and publisher for my work or getting my writing tossed into the recycle bin.

Revising Happens After You’ve Finished Drafting

>

I hear groans from my students at all stages of the writing process. But where I often get the most questions is when we get to revising. I already did that as I wrote, many will tell me. Now what do I do?
I remember vaguely how difficult it was to revise as you wrote back before there were computers. Type, type, type, pause, grab the white out, blow, check for dryness, type, type, type, repeat. Finish, read, mark changes with a pen, begin typing and correcting with white out again. For me, the process was a nightmare.
So much has changed with the advent of word processing software. Most of us now revise and edit constantly as we type. (I’ve done it dozens of times already, just in writing this article!) While this continuous reworking can be considered both a form of revising and editing—depending on the types of changes being made—unfortunately, this doesn’t make your work ready for publication.
Why not? Because odds are that the little changes you made as you wrote didn’t cover the scope of what needs to be done during the revising stage, including a consideration of your:
1.       Introduction: is what you have the best possible way to interest readers?
2.       Organization: have you placed elements in a logical fashion, broken down paragraphs so that each one focuses on only one topic, broken down large paragraphs to make it easy on readers, and included transitional words and phrases to help readers follow your train of thought?
3.       Details and Examples: have you provided enough to illustrate your point? Have you summarized general information and detailed important parts? Does each detail and example you’ve provided fit with your intended purpose for writing?
4.       Conclusion: is this the best possible way to draw the writing to a close? Have you left readers with enough closure that they will feel satisfied?
5.       Writing Style: Is the voice and tone appropriate for the audience?
Once you’ve evaluated each of these areas, you should get an idea of what changes need to be made. Revising will then mean adding, re-wording, and cutting, and every once in a while, it may mean starting over. But thanks again to our wonderful word processor, tossed away ideas are now easy to hang on to. And you never know when a tossed away idea may become useful in the future!

Writing Basics: The Writing Process

One of the problems writers often run into is that they are impatient. I have to count myself in this category. I get an idea and I want it all to come together–right now. Unfortunately, most  of life doesn’t work like that. Writing certainly doesn’t.

We all have our moments of bliss where it all seems to flow so perfectly, but it often doesn’t happen that way, and even when it does, we often find later that what we originally thought was brilliant really is…not so much.

So how does good writing come about?

Writing is a craft, and like any craft, it requires time, practice, patience, and process.

What’s the process involved in creating good writing? Glad you asked. Here’s what it looks like:

  1. Prewriting
  2. Drafting
  3. Revising
  4. Peer review
  5. Editing
  6. Publication

Hopefully, this looks at least a little familiar–something you may have heard at some point in school, but weren’t really paying attention because you weren’t sure how it was going to affect your life yet. Now that you’re interested in writing, it’s a good process to review again.

I’ll write more on each of these topics over the next week. Check back to find out more.

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