How do you edit the first chapter of your story is a question every fiction writer asks, and it is a question I’ve done my share of struggling with. However I think I’ve found the most important bit of advice when dealing with the beginnings of any story, and even any non-fiction piece. Whether you’re doing chapter one or the opening paragraph of an essay, you are doing a fine balancing act. You have to give as much information as possible to the reader without overwhelming them, but also ensuring they’re following along with everything you say. The opening of your story, regardless of genre, will sink or swim your novel. While I don’t claim to have perfected the opener, I do claim to have worked at working around and through common mistakes authors are prone to make. And so I’m going to offer the best advice I’ve ever heard for editing chapter one of a novel, advice I was reminded of by the lovely Stephanie London via her youtube channel.
When you’re writing you feel the pressure to get everything just so because you want to be clear about who, what, where, and why. However, the dangers of exposition are many. Since I’ve been an active member of scribophile I can tell you that I’ve seen my share of wonderful tales bogged down by the exposition fairy. That little butthole flew through the window and just refused to leave from the moment the story began. The exposition fairy encourages telling not showing and harkens back to the way we most naturally tell stories, orally. But away from the oral tradition you have to put people in the story. You have to give them a front row seat, and if the exposition fairy is guiding your hand at every other paragraph, or god forbid every other sentence, the reader will be stuck in the back of the theater.
So how do we deal with this?
Well, truthfully it will always be tempting to have it happen unless you are a minimalist story teller. Fans of grand epics and sprawling worlds fall prey to the exposition fairy most of all, but everyone can be a target. To that end, you have to write smart. BE vigilante of your own bad writing behaviors, and then keep writing. MAke notes, and even make minor changes but don’t edit constantly while your writing unless you truly benefit from it or it has to happen. Then once your opening is written you have to do this one super important thing. This is the thing that will make all the difference in the world….
Go back through your opening and highlight every ounce of exposition.
Reread and highlight. Whether you print it out or do it digitally, go through and highlight everything that is only there for exposition. What lines only serve to explain what isn’t shown? You may wish to use different colors for exposition related to different characters or events in order to keep track. Sometimes I mark exposition important to the plot with stars or sidebar comments so I know why they’re their and that they matter. If your opening is mostly color coded and coated then chances are you need to tighten that sucker up. You will most likely need to rewrite the whole thing. It isn’t enough to disguise exposition in unnatural dialogue. It isn’t enough to excuse why its there because it is there for a reason. It isn’t enough for it to be there to help your readers understand. If it isn’t furthering your theme, your plot, your characters, and bringing people into your text then it isn’t working. I say to do this because you need to see how much explaining to the reader you’re doing. Seeing it visually becomes a lot harder to justify or overlook. Does this mean all exposition is evil? Not at all, but there are ways to pace exposition and present it that are vastly superior to walls of text that may not enrich the story.
By doing something as simple as highlighting expository text you are increasing your ability to keep the story in action and moving forward, which will keep your audience engaged.
Cliches aren’t an inherent problem. Shocker. I know. You’d never expect Rosie to say something like that, but it is true. Cliches are not an inherent problem in writing or life. The problem with cliches is twofold sincerity and whether or not they’re boring. A cliche fails when it feels insincere. Let’s put it another way your partner can say “You look great”, but you’ll usually be able to tell when they are really serious or just spouting platitudes. Why? Because there is a difference in tone. Whether your reading a book or a blog you can tell the difference between someone writing passionately and with more than a passing interest to get a concept out.
I say this because I think there are a lot of writers who like the idea of writing and the concept of telling a story, but who don’t want to dig into what they’re writing enough to make it feel authentic. You pick up a book or read someone’s story page and your met with an obvious love of the concept of a character or a relationship, but the writer hasn’t made the story worth your while. They love the idea of this handsome young lad sweeping this girl off her feet…but there is actually no relationship between them except for the writer telling you so. They never have serious conversations or bond beyond steamy scenes, and even if your’re left with a bit of enjoyment you can’t quite believe in their relationship.
Plenty of blogs and stories that I started have not been finished for that very reason. They’re concepts with no depth, and that’s how you fall into the cliche. You don’t sound sincere even if you sincerely want to tell your story. D.D Griggs and I talked about this the other day. Whether you are writing non-fiction or fiction there are cliches and themes. She writes self-help books, and 70% of them are similar or have similar themes that are cliches we can all spout to a certain degree. Writers like her put those cliches into a context and a way of living that is incredibly important, but we’re all familiar with self-help stereotypes of conferences, yogis, and hippies. Most people can tell you one common philosophy in self-help, but neither of those things are inherently bad. What makes a self-help book succeed or fail is a matter of someone liking the author’s style, but more so it is a matter of whether that author is speaking from a place of sincerity and belief. That’s what keeps those cliches from being a problem.
When cliches become a problem is when they’re boring and don’t feel genuine. A blogger talking about “the power of positivism” and working out won’t grab your interest if they are just issuing copy-pasted ideas to their audience. If they don’t let you in to who they are you don’t feel like you can trust them because all you see is surface cliches. The same thing happens in fiction. If you have a book about a werewolf romance that is just paint by numbers it may make money…but it won’t make you an audience for the next book. It won’t get you the sort of repeat readers you want because the readers can tell you aren’t in it and you’re not giving them anything interesting. By that same token, someone else can write the exact same plot (and people do this and do it well) but they make the characters more sincere and write with more passion. They try to keep the story interesting and their readers see that. In blogging and ebook writing I see a lot of people just regurgitating what they think will get them blog follows or downloads, and then I go to forums of people upset and complaining about not getting sales. Well, you aren’t giving a unique product. You give something that is pain by numbers…and so have hundreds of thousands of others, which has hurt the market in many ways all on its own. These writers just don’t see how the cliches aren’t what hurts or helps a story or blog or what have you. It is a matter of how something is written and the tone that allows readers to connect.
Cliches can be powerful tools not only when you subvert them, but when you embrace them with the intention of making them interesting and bringing somethign new to the table with all the sincerity you can muster. This not only applies to the page or screen, but to how you talk to people as well. I hope you keep that in mind when writing holiday cards this season or are getting ready for New Years.
Writing can be a very good distraction from life. That can also be a bit of a problem, but right now I find it to be rather enjoyable. When you write it allows you to step away from yourself even if you’re right about you. Your just surrendering to the moment and the act of creating something wonderful. There is nothing more awesome than the exchange of ideas and we’re lucky to live in an age where we can do it from virtually anytime or anywhere. Since about 2pm I’ve been reading different articles on writing and marketing on different blogs. It’s been very enlightening and I’ve realized that writing is a source of power when used correctly. Regardless of what you write you begin to step away and just go for your thoughts and getting them down on paper or screen. You manage to keep yourself going. Lately I’ve been struggling with my life. I’m not unique. I won’t claim I anything is special about me. I’m smart. I’m talented. And unfortunately that isn’t enough. It doesn’t matter how hard I work or for how long. Sometimes life just doesn’t go in your favor or how you plan. That’s not sad. It is just life, and our goal is to take a step towards what we want with every single day. I got rejected from two literature magizines and the Bitch Media internship I applied for, but does that mean I am bad at what I do? Not at all. What it means is those things didn’t come through. Nothing’s changed and I just have to keep trying. I write. I spend hours on reading marketing, reading in general, and then I spend at least three hours a day writing.
It is a great distraction.
I create worlds and build characters. I make epic action scenes and intensely romantic works that make me smile, and I hope you smile one day. I’ve accomplished a lot in the last two months. Suffer too Good and Dirty Honey were written and published. I have a few older stories I’m slowly working through. I’ve edited stuff for another author. I’ve been trying to engage more with the world around me and that makes a difference. Depression doesn’t always care, but all of that means something in holding back the tide. I just wish I had a few more bucks in my pocket, but don’t we all.
A lot of times I hesitate in posting these reflections because so often people look at millennials and call us complainers because we should just swallow everything and pretend things are fine. But truthfully I guess I don’t care. If I’m being wholly honest I only care to preserve my image. Yet I will say here I do feel like I’m standing in a realm of possibilities without any chance of getting to move towards any of them. College debt, lack of job prospects, my current job not actually letting me work, and my floundering sales do a lot to damage my sense of self both as a person and a writer. Worse they make me feel unstable. Sometimes I wonder if I should just call it quits. Not because this is hard, but because I don’t know how long I can live with the state of things because I don’t know if anything I’m doing is worth a damn. No one really does know until someone else tells them, and they say the definition of sanity is doing the same thing repeatedly, which sucks because writing is a repeatable practice. The best writers can do is try and recognize that we could be the next Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, or Arthur Miller but never get our break. BUT we could. Any day now someone can swoop in and pick up your book, click your blog, or hear about your journey….and turn you into the next big thing. Someone could find value in all that you do, and that can revolutionize your entire life.
I hope for being seen, read, and loved. Any writer who tells you they don’t want that is a damned liar and you can tell them I said that. We write to connect if not with others than ourselves. The irony of that is that is what makes writing such a great distraction. Regardless of whether I get my big break or make some cash to pay for my studies I will always hold a pen in my hand. So I work on building my character, my life, and my world into a better place and me into a better self. Writing allows me to think both in and outside myself. It allows me a distraction from the crippling doubt and the depression that makes me wish I wasn’t going to wake up tomorrow. When I can’t sleep from the thoughts in my head I distract myself with stories and writing. The worst nights and days are the ones where that doesn’t work, but luckily those are few and far between. In today’s world every person has to be there best advocate, their best friend, their kindest listener, and in world of creatives their strongest mentor. More than all of that we have to be willing to distract ourselves with our writing because that keeps us going. It pushes us to evaluate, to debate, to think critically, and hopefully come to understand our best assets.
As time goes on I hope to find my place in the world. I don’t want to be rich. I just don’t want to stay poor. I don’t want to be happy. I just want to be content. Until I am able to get to a place where those things I want come true all I can do is write and pray for the best. We all must push forward….the problem is knowing where forward is and how to get there. That’s what no one ever tells you.
You Don’t Have to be Perfect to Kick Anxiety’s Ass.
We all wish we were invulnerable. That is just how it goes. We all wish we could take on the world even if all we need to take on is taking out the garbage. It’s easy to just lose yourself to your anxieties especially as a creative. Whether you are blogging, writing novellas, painting, dancing, directing, or whatever there is an added dimension to dealing with feelings of anxiety, depression, helplessness, and failure. Our works are ours, and that makes it harder. Even if we’re on a team of people the things we bring to the table are wholly ours in a way other things are not. We create something and it comes from the ether of our minds and our hearts. For that same reason entrepreneurial and small enterprise failures hit extra hard. This makes it so easy to blame ourselves when something goes wrong or just when something doesn’t go 100% like planned. For many of us unless something turns out far better than we imagined it may as well be a complete wash.
Your blog only have 10 followers during week one? Fuck it. Not worth it. You not getting sales day one on your book. Chuck the manuscript out a window! Your yoga website getting subpar views in the third month of its existence? Shut it down.
None of that is about giving up in and of itself. It is about the notion of wasting our time being imperfect and unsuccessful because when things don’t go as planned, especially in business the biggest indicator of societal success, the instinct is to just toss it aside as failed. Humans spend out time bemoaning all the things we could have done. Lord knows I do. So why would you waste our limited time on things that don’t put money in your pocket and keep you fed? But you can’t live life this way. You could have great ideas that need polishing. but they get put aside due to self-doubt. And if you’re like me and have anxiety triggered by a deep fear of falling into or never escaping poverty, of feeling like nothing is falling into place, of feeling your plans just aren’t coming together fast enough than it is more than a little hard to ignore that instinct and all the nagging voices in your head.
There are times when I descend into my obsessive thought spiral of existential and personal depression. That’s when the only thing I can think about is my fear of continuing to live as lower class, of my dreams never coming true, of my never leading the life I want to lead, and the distinct feeling of being a failure creeps in. In short I’m not perfect, nd I’m not the sort of perfect I thought I’d be when I became an adult. It hurts like a mother fucker. Not to be vulgar, but it is not a fun place to be. In fact I’d say it is one of the worst places to be in. That is why I work so hard to kick my way out.
Now before I continue I’m going to offer this disclaimer both for Rosie’s sake and mine. Anything I say in my book and here is in no way meant to replace actual therapy or medication. If you are like me and you feel you can cope without those things. I wish you luck because you need it. But don’t think you can just ignore crippling emotional problems with behavioral changes and reading this post. The purpose of this is demonstrate behaviors that can help explain and alleviate anxiety related to feelings of failure. The sort of mental work I’m about to talk about is actually designed to support any changes that occur while on medication. Why? Because a lot of times once you are medicated even when you do feel better your depression and anxiety have taught you how to see the world. Much like a parent or a teacher your struggles with anxiety and depression are with you constantly showing you that life is shit, you are shit, and even once you’re medicated that can’t just be undone. Like a muscle your brain has learned to fire certain neurons down certain pathways, and like a bad habit of biting your nails, you don’t have to consciously think of it.
My book The Art of Teaching Imperfection: Everything No One Ever Taught You refers to a lot of positive thinking and learning to retrain those neurons to go down certain pathways in order to change your thought patterns. It isn’t about simply thinking positive. It is about replacing unhealthy behavior and thoughts to consciously positive ones, learning to minimize your negative behaviors(without developing arrogance), and learning to be compassionate enough to yourself to forgive your failings so you can accept them. The biggest mistake people make with this whole approach is pretending you can just…do it. You can change every thought all the time without any effort. As I often say to my friends “Fuck. That. Noise”. Changing how you think, how you act, and how you respond isn’t some mystical over night thing. It is about practicing a new way of being which is terribly difficult. It is totally worth it, but still difficult. This sort of change demands you reach a new level of being conscious of yourself, a dedication to developing discipline, and being ready for it to take some time.
No change comes over night. I’m doing Nanowrimo this year and I catch myself bad mouthing my writing, and being afraid to share it all the time. But if I focus on my anxiety and fear, if I don’t try to think thoughts that cancel out and minimize my anxiety I won’t do anything. If I don’t do what I love I won’t be happy. This morning I got up and started to write (at 12k words woo!) and I felt so overly critical. No real reason. Just having one of those days where “This is garbage. Why am I even trying? This is shit and people will say so” plays on a loop in my head. If you find a way to disrupt that loop you can better bulldoze through it. For me disrupting the loop involved reading a part of the story I am very proud of, reminding myself other people have liked my writing in the past, and most of all…allowing myself to not be perfect (because for Heras sake it is a draft). I also told myself “It’s ok to not be perfect. I’m not some horrid person and even the best writers have to improve”. There isn’t a single perfect person on this world and you have to begin accepting that.
You also have to begin doing the really hard part of looking inward and understanding where you anxieties come from whether it is trauma or something more mundane or just purely emotionally driven. Sit down with yourself, or a trusted friend, or a therapist and begin to unpack the sources of your anxieties. Why do you feel like a failure? Why do you feel mediocre? What are you doing that you’d like to change? What triggers your reactions to those feelings? Maybe it is making a mistake at work or being chastised. Maybe it is simply you’re plans never looking like you pictured in your head. It could even be you wish you pursued another life plan. When you sit down to write and you find yourself feeling anxious ask your self why? Ask yourself what you want to accomplish and what it means if you don’t.
Challenge your reactions, your thoughts, and your feelings because that allows you to think of nicer thoughts. As you do this minimize those mistakes, remind yourself it is ok to make mistakes because mistakes allow you to learn. Don’t say “I fucked up” say “I messed up, but I can do better. I can learn from this and grow”. Say “Just because I’m not buying a house at 30 doesn’t make me a failure. My road may just take a bit longer, but I’ll get there.” You can do many things in this life, and you need to embrace that. You need to stop looking at every flaw as an indictment on your character, but as an opportunity. It’s a lot easier than it sounds, but the more I put my words into practice the more I find myself actually enjoying what I’m doing whether I’m at work or I’m working on my books.
Kicking anxieties ass isn’t something you can do at once. For any fight you need to train and the more you train the better you get. It won’t happen over night, but by learning how you think, and teaching yourself to think better you can begin to tackle the hurdles of those negative and painful emotions. The biggest reason people quit therapy and that it doesn’t work is a refusal to change and a refusal to work at it. Not because people don’t want to get better, but because you have to look inward to be able to change your thinking and acting. That is painful and when people are insisting you just change when you wish you just could the whole notion of positive thinking and Cognitive Behavioral therapy seems childish…even ignorant. But you have to train your mind not because you or it is weak, but because the human mind is an incredibly powerful thing. Once you’ve learned to think a certain way and you act on it time after time your mind is used to it. It becomes natural, and feels like a part of you. sometimes I even wonder who I’d be without my depression, but once again…that’s not a way to live a life. Those negative thought patterns are part of you and changing them is incredibly difficult to do because they’ve set in. Like a wound that closes around shrapnel those things are there…but by beginning this process of altering your thought patterns, replacing them with new happier ones, and reminding yourself that your mistakes do not define you and are minimal parts of your life you begin to get used to new ways of being.
One of my biggest pet peeves are those people who are over helpful and/or dismissive of mental illness. You know the type “Just go for a walk” or “Just be around people”. It is annoying and insensitive because the fact is plenty of people would do that…if they weren’t too anxious at the thought of going out or too depressed to get out of bed. Usually these people are self-righteous and will list 20 new supplements by herbal companies who are as under handed as snake oil salesmen before listening to you. Now not all of those people are completely ignorant to what you’re going through. Further there is evidence(I’m too lazy to link, sorry ya’ll) that suggests a correlation between exercise and going out to improvements to mood. But that doesn’t automatically change what’s going on in your head.
You have to buckle down and be willing to work every day to try and treat yourself better than you did the day before. You have to tell yourself that:
Everyone makes mistakes
You aren’t horrible for making mistakes
Just because you get upset doesn’t mean you failed at changing your thinking
And it is healthy and ok to be upset and uneasy…
But that you also can do your best to take steps to be nicer to yourself…
Because you’re only human and begin imperfect doesn’t make you a failure…
And not getting to where you think you should be doesn’t mean you’re wasting or have wasted your time!
Every day. This is what you have to tell yourself and you know what? You’re still going to struggle. I know I make my advice sound terrible, but I’m not one of those fly by night self improvement gurus who is going to lie to you to sell a book or an idea or themselves. I am telling you the honest to god truth. Changing who you are and how you operate is a life long process…but every day it gets easier. With every moment you get anxious and you try to practice these tools you’re getting better at them. Every time you allow yourself to accept your imperfections, flaws, mistakes, and your need(like all of our needs) to improve you are doing important work. You are getting better and are better preparing yourself for addressing the internal and external struggles you face.
Transformation takes time, energy, and a dedication. There are far many other steps I didn’t cover here, but I wanted to give you a bit of where I’m coming from and share my approach to addressing my anxiety, depression, and feelings of inadequacy. You deserve to live a happier life and if my approach can help you than it is my obligation to share it. I hope I’ve helped you on your road of transformation. It isn’t easy, but you can do better by yourself and others by being kinder and more compassionate to imperfection both inside and out.
D.D Griggs is the author ofThe Art of Teaching Imperfection: Everything No One Ever Taught Youa novel aimed at encouraging people to no longer feel like they have to be perfect in a world that defines perfection as the ends and the means of success. She’s struggled with mild depression, anxiety, and being overly critical for much of her life even during her most confident periods these feelings haunted her. While she is still on her journey of making piece with those things she has a powerful approach to it all beginning with accepting our imperfections and then turning them into opportunities. Using a philosophy influenced by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and sociology she makes a compelling case for how we have all participated in pushing each other to accept nothing less than perfection and how that has crippled us. She then uses basic CBT approaches combined with positive thinking to construct easy to follow means for people to be kinder to themselves. Follow her on Facebook!
Maybe it is because I grew up on manga and comics, but I love having character’s dress style and outfits described. However, I usually suck at it! This is bugging me! I know the basic bounds of the way to do it is to not go too into the detail, but also giving just enough so that even uninterested readers enjoy visualizing. Still it is so hard for me. You might know how it is. You see an outfit so clearly in your head you describe it lovingly and then realize it is too much, or you barely describe anything and then you realize “Oh shit that is important for this scene”. It’s a constant balancing act when all I want to do is dress people in beautiful clothes.
And it is important to dress your characters well. From your protagonist’s perspective they take the whole visual of a person into figuring out how to interact with them whether they realize it or not. When you show your reader a character in a long night gown they not only picture it, but get a different feel for that character than if they were in a hoody and jean.
As far as problems go this one isn’t huge, but it drives me nuts. I feel like my descriptions are so uneven sometimes. Do you ever feel this way? Had to use a Sailor Moon reference, as Naoko Takeuchi used fashion from different shows, magazines, and such to craft the styles of the characters in her stories. What I find so cool about that is unlike a lot of anime or manga this gives her characters a distinct look that feels creative without being hokey or not feeling like someone just threw them on a character. Interesting as well, is how this seems to have rubbed off on her husband the creator of Yu Yu Hakusho! and Hunter x Hunter.