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Paragraphs on the Chopping Block

512px-Stipula_fountain_pen

By Power of Words by Antonio Litterio CC BY-SA 3.0

As early as elementary school, young writers learn how to construct sentences and put them into paragraphs. Throughout their education, teachers prod them to add more detail and deeper sentences. Before long, the more accomplished students can write a good academic paragraph, which often looks like this one: A good-sized block of text with very little white space. In fact, I’ve known of teachers who could predict the grade of a student assignment by just checking to see if the paper had several paragraphs structured like this one.

In fiction, the paragraph does not serve the same function. Breaks are much more necessary to keep readers engaged and to help them understand things like tone, attitude, urgency, and even which character is doing an action or speaking.

Here’s a checklist of good places to break paragraphs in a fiction scene.

1. When the acting character switches.

Example: Lainey brought Megan a piece of cake and handed her a fork. Smiling, Megan dipped the fork in the icing and licked it clean. “This icing is incredible. What kind is it?”

See the problem? Who says the dialogue? Lainey or Megan?

Now, if I move Megan’s action to the next line, it’s clearer.

Lainey brought Megan a piece of cake and handed her a fork.

Smiling, Megan dipped the fork in the icing and licked it clean. “This icing is incredible. What kind is it?”

It’s also a good idea to avoid sentences like this as often as possible:

Lainey handed Megan a piece of cake, and Megan began eating it.

One, it’s wordy. Repetition of Megan’s name kills the flow of the sentence. But also, you’ve tied two acting characters into the same acting sentence. A good story reads like a back and forth banter between characters with dialogue and action. A pattern something like this:

“Character 1 speaks.” Character 1 acts.

Character 2 acts. Maybe they don’t speak, but there’s some kind of reaction to character 1’s words.

Character 1 acts. “Character 1 speaks.”

“Character 2 speaks.” Character 2 acts.

2. When the speaking character switches.

Megan frowned. “Lainey, do you think Mark is coming?” Lainey nodded. “He should be here by eight.”

Just like the last example, this is confusing to tell which character gets the dialogue. But a simple line break makes all the difference. When I edit, I find that writers make this simple mistake all the time, and a lot of times they can see great improvement in their writing just by me going through and readjusting the line breaks.

Megan frowned. “Lainey, do you think Mark is coming?”

Lainey nodded. “He should be here by eight.”

3. When a pause in the text would increase urgency or emphasis.

Here’s an excerpt from my Christian fiction novel, Cavernous. It’s from a high-impact scene where Callie, the main character, learns that her world is about to turn upside down.

The anchorman dissolves into a photo of the US President and Vice President, which then cuts to a huge street riot. The remote slips from my fingers, and I clutch the edge of the couch. According to the caption, both men are dead.

Now, notice how breaking just before that last line increases the suspense.

The anchorman dissolves into a photo of the US President and Vice President, which then cuts to a huge street riot. The remote slips from my fingers, and I clutch the edge of the couch.

According to the caption, both men are dead.

What it does is forces the brain to pause a brief instant before reading the line, and then when you reach the new line, it places extra emphasis on the words. There you have it. Your chilling sense of urgency.

4. When there’s a transition in the type of action.

A red brick half-wall ran along the edge of the driveway, past the swimming pool, and several yards into the backyard. On the grassy side, three lawn chairs surrounded a glass patio table, which sat crooked on the uneven ground. Rain pelted the concrete drive and spotted the light oak deck.

Paragraphs like these show up often when the writer is wanting to convey a setting, and even with action verbs, they can feel a little like an info dump. Clever paragraphing can help.

A red brick half-wall ran along the edge of the driveway, past the swimming pool, and several yards into the backyard. On the grassy side, three lawn chairs surrounded a glass patio table, which sat crooked on the uneven ground.

Rain pelted the concrete drive and spotted the light oak deck.

Notice that we’re first looking at descriptive detail about a house. Then, the action transitions to the weather. Great place for a cut, and it gives a slightly shorter paragraph.

Note that you don’t want to get carried away with this. It’s great to cut back a little, but you don’t want to do this because writing in single sentences the whole manuscript would be cumbersome to read.

A red brick half-wall ran along the edge of the driveway, past the swimming pool, and several yards into the backyard.

On the grassy side, three lawn chairs surrounded a glass patio table, which sat crooked on the uneven ground.

Rain pelted the concrete drive and spotted the light oak deck.

5. When there’s a transition in the train of thought.

Lainey grimaced. She’d never make it on time. The last flight left in ten minutes, and it was a fifteen-minute drive. She could drive… It would take longer, but she’d at least make it to the wedding before it started.

See how Lainey’s mood changes in the midst of that sequence of thoughts? From defeated to hopeful. But a lot of readers will not pick up on the hopeful shift in that paragraph.

Why? Science has shown that people generally remember the first part of an interaction, and sometimes the first and last.

The popular show, Brain Games had a segment once where it showed two twins giving the same responses two an interview. One twin started with her redeeming qualities, and the other started with her flaws, ending on a high note.

It was amazing. Even knowing what was going to happen, my brain convinced me the first girl had the better personality.

The same thing will happen in your paragraphs. If you change the mood in the middle, readers will have a hard time transitioning. Better to split the paragraph at the mood.

Lainey grimaced. She’d never make it on time. The last flight left in ten minutes, and it was a fifteen-minute drive.

She could drive… It would take longer, but she’d at least make it to the wedding before it started.

6. When the location of action changes.

Yawning, Lainey climbed out of bed and slipped into her fuzzy slippers. She opened the curtains, blinking as the bright morning sun flooded her sight. As she shuffled down the hall, squeaks from the shower intensified.

Notice how Lainey starts off in her bedroom then moves to the hallway. Breaking the paragraph will help readers visualize a different place.

Yawning, Lainey climbed out of bed and slipped into her fuzzy slippers. She opened the curtains, blinking as the bright morning sun flooded her sight.

As she shuffled down the hall, squeaks from the shower intensified.

Last point–you need breaks in your paragraphs to make your writing more interesting. Perhaps this concept goes against every college or high school paper you ever wrote, but blocky paragraphs scream boring story. They just do. That’s true for blog posts, as well.

Making use of extra paragraphs in fiction is important because of something called White Space. Query agents and editors have told me that readers will often glance at a book with little or no white space and put it down. Here’s a great article from C.S. Lakin illustrating this and why it makes for better fiction. As Lakin points out, most often when you write with big, blocky paragraphs, you’re telling the story rather than showing it.

Or, better yet 🙂 :

Making use of extra paragraphs in fiction is important because of something called White Space. Query agents and editors have told me that readers will often glance at a book with little or no white space and put it down.

Here’s a great article from C.S. Lakin illustrating this and why it makes for better fiction. As Lakin points out, most often when you write with big, blocky paragraphs, you’re telling the story rather than showing it.

 

 

Christian Fiction Friday Cavernous #5

Time again for Christian Fiction Friday, hosted by Hallee Bridgeman and Alana Terry. This is a chance for Christian authors to post short snippets from their works in progress! Easy and fun!

More from the first chapter of Cavernous, my inspirational YA dystopian.

When the church ladies are gone, I put plastic containers in the refrigerator and tuck baked goods in our breadbox. Knowing Mrs. Whitman, they’ll taste terrible. Still, my stomach rumbles, so I help myself to four slices of banana bread. The dry crumbs catch in my throat and I chase them with two full glasses of milk.

After breaking down the box and taking it to the recycle bin, I return to the armchair and concentrate on wiggling my feet. My cell rings, a number I don’t recognize. “Hello?”

“Oh, good, Callie. Michael Harding, from church. I’ve been trying to reach your dad.”

I draw in a deep breath and release it. “He’s at work. Do you have news?”

“Sorry, no. I wanted to be sure everything is okay. I heard them dispatch an emergency crew to your house on my scanner. An unresponsive woman. Do you know anything about that?”

“What?” Sagging into the cushion, I lean my head over the arm of the chair. “Everything is fine. At least I think it is. Except Mom.” My breath catches. “Could she be outside?”

“When will your dad be home?”

Shaking my head, I pace the kitchen. “A couple of hours. What do I do?”

“We’ll check the yard. I’m on the way.”

I peek out the windows and stick my head out the back door. “I don’t see anything.”

He blows a burst of air into the phone speaker. “Is Amber home?”

“She’s still asleep.”

“Well, you might want to wake her. Be there soon.” He disconnects before I can reply.

I stare at the blank cell screen. My teeth chatter so hard, my whole body shakes. Is Mom lying in the yard? I can’t imagine answering the door. What else could go wrong?

“Why?” I speak through clenched teeth. A sob jumps out, and I lift my gaze to the ceiling. “God, why did you let this happen?”

No answer. A grease spot I’ve never noticed stares back at me, and I feel icky, dirty.

I run to my room, grab clothes, and head into the bathroom to undress. Then I hesitate. What if I’m naked when the police get here?

After a few seconds of debate, I take the quickest shower in my entire life. I’m standing in the hallway with dripping hair when an ambulance screeches up the drive. The drugs. I try to wake Amber, but she rolls over and groans before closing her eyes again. Did she hide them? And if not, will they take her to jail? Will they take Dad to jail?

Footsteps pound the porch, shadows cross the window. I take a deep breath, and after staring a minute, go to the door.

When I open it, Mrs. Whitman drags a young, bald-headed paramedic up the porch stairs.

He narrows glassy eyes. “We have a report of an unresponsive woman at this residence.”

Mrs. Whitman beams at me. “I called them and told them you couldn’t rouse your sister.”

About the book:

In a divided America, several secessions lead to the formation of a new nation, the Alliance of American States. Fueled by extremists who solicit members via social media, the Alliance has one weak point: Callie Noland, daughter of extremist leader Adrian Lamb. Can she maintain her faith in God and stand up to the man who calls himself Lord and Master?

The mission of the Cavernous trilogy is to incite a revolution for teen girls to delve into Scripture. Many of today’s society grasp at a meme-driven belief system and draw doctrine from Facebook and Twitter statuses. They need strong characters that write the words of God on their heart and take stands against slight untruths and injustices, especially the youth.

Christian Fiction Friday is a weekly blog hop where authors post snippets from their current Works in Progress. It is hosted by Alana Terry and Hallee Bridgeman.

Don’t Let Your Characters Eat the Marshmallow

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE TED talks. I learn so much about life and people from them, and as a writer, I am continually drawing information about how to shape characters and the ways people truly interact.

One of my favorite TED talks is by Joachim de Posada, explaining a study where four-year-olds were given marshmallows and told not to eat them for fifteen minutes. If they succeeded, they’d be given another.

His point was that the students who delayed gratification were more likely to be successful.

This morning, I was working on a scene that has stumped me for months. I suddenly realized the problem–I was letting the characters eat the marshmallow too soon. Delaying gratification for characters is as important as delaying it for ourselves. Readers will continue to sympathize with a character who does not get what they want.

Off to reread my story to find other places I can keep the character from eating the marshmallow.

Hope you have a blessed day!

Can Scrivener Cure Writer’s Block?

Scrivener 2

I’ve been talking to a lot of people lately about Scrivener. Me personally? I love it, and I can’t imagine writing without it.

I guess the most important thing to consider is that it’s not Microsoft Word. If you’re looking for all the bells and whistles in a word processing program, that’s not what Scrivener does, and you might be happier sticking with Word. But if you’re looking for a good organizing system to help you keep character traits and locations straight, and pop between chapters with a click, Scrivener is great.

So, about that writer’s block… As a soccer mom and science teacher who is active in my church, involved with my kids, and (tries) to keep up with maintaining my house, if I’m going to add “successful writer” to that list, I can’t afford writer’s block. To complete a novel in any reasonable time, I need to sit down and write a couple thousand words every single day. My secret is that through Scrivener, I keep things organized that I don’t have to write on the same novel every single time, and even if I’m not progressing on one story, I’m still moving forward.

My favorite feature of Scrivener is how every chapter has its own folder, and each scene is its own page within that folder. Those folders, for me, serve as something of an idea receptacle. When I have a story in my head, I write the synopsis first, then create a file that contains a paragraph describing each chapter until the entire story is outlined. I create the folders, insert each chapter paragraph in its folder, and save it for when I have time to write.

Scrivener

What I have now are several Scivener files for different stories, and if I’m at a stuck point in my work-in-progress, I open one of those files, find a paragraph that seems interesting, and churn out a couple thousand words in that folder. By using this technique, I sometimes build up around 20,000 words in a story before I ever intend to sit down and write it. Also, since I tend to write in series, I can hop around between novels to write scenes that relate to each other, and have better overall flow.

This tactic helps me easily win NaNoWriMo every year, and to not lose track of details when I step away from a story. And I never find myself sitting at the computer with nothing to write.

So, try Scrivener! For $40, in my humble opinion, it’s a steal.

Slowing Time in Fiction

Love, love, love this TED talk from Aaron Sitze

NaNo Time!

A few years ago, I decided to attempt NaNoWriMo, and it was a total debacle. I posted the whole thing on a blog for the world to see (and cringe). It was a great experience. Even though it was rough, horrible writing, a lot of people followed the story and gave me tons of encouragement. And I won NaNo that year with a story that eventually ended up in the ACFW First Impression’s contest and led me to my wonderful editor, Deirdre Lockhart.

I’ve decided to participate again this year, although I will not be posting the story. I’m going to write the first draft of book two of the Cavernous series, Cocooned.

In Cavernous, Callie Noland’s mother disappears, and then she’s snatched from her father and forced to live in the newly formed Alliance of American States. Cocooned continues her journey, taking her from an Alliance prison into a food sweatshop, where she will experience the devastation of the flailing nation firsthand. She’ll have encounters with American military personnel and eventually become the face of the rebellion.

Good luck to all other NaNo 2015 participants! My goal is 75,000 words, so about 2,500 per day. Here goes nothing!

To Purge or Not to Purge–Are You a File Hoarder?

Too Many Files

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been in a panic a number of times over lost files. I’ve had a little extra time on my hands because my student teacher has all my classes right now, so I’ve tried to organize my computer and sort them out.

First, there are my teaching files. 19,572 to be exact. This includes full curricula in chemistry, physics, algebra II, algebra I, biology, integrated science, geometry, precalculus, and anatomy. Not to mention syllabi, parent logs, grade records, PD power points, etc.

Next, comes my writing folder. Almost 2,000 files there. I have saved every single draft, every single critique, every single revision–for whatever paranoid reason, I hold onto all these files in case there’s one little phrase I want to bring back. It’s insanity!

So, I’m considering a purge, now that Cavernous is fully edited. I have numerous digital copies of the whole manuscript in various safe locations. The Cavernous folder itself has over 200 files, and that’s not counting the Cavernous files in my contest folder. Twice, I’ve selected all these files, considered it, and chickened out before choosing to delete.

I must confess. I’m a file hoarder. And a terrible one. I’m not sure what to do about it. On the one hand, those critique files have a lot of value. The early draft files have some of the phrases that inspired the story that I’ve since cut. If I delete this old teaching file, I might need to retype it later. On the other hand, I can never find anything within 2-3 minutes anymore.

I’m considering a five file per day purge. The thought is already making me tremble. Does anyone else struggle with letting go? What do you do to keep your writing organized?

Are “If Only” Excuses Killing Your Novel?

If Only

When she was a toddler, my daughter used to hang at the front door, begging to go outside. You could see the longing in her eyes–if only I can get to that tree, if only I can play in that dirt, if only I can break out of this “cage” and explore…

Even today, as a kindergartener, she always needs convincing that the grass isn’t greener in other pastures.

And of course, she’s no different than any of the rest of us. How many adults miss important details in our lives because we’re too busy worrying about “if only?”

If only I made more money…

If only we lived in a bigger house…

If only we drove a better car…

If only I worked with different people…

The problem with the “if only” mindset is that we don’t spend enough of our focus on how to do our current tasks well. Instead, we complain about what we haven’t been able to accomplish because circumstances don’t suit our standards. And we forget that we have a heavenly Father who has given us everything we NEED.

Hebrews 13:5 says:

Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.

So, how does this translate into writing? Through participation in various forums and critique groups, I’ve heard a lot of “if only” excuses.

I could be a better writer if only I had more time.

I could finish this novel if only I didn’t have writer’s block.

I could edit this myself if only I knew the grammar rules.

I could sell this novel or get representation if only that publisher or agent would take a look at it.

It’s almost like “if only” becomes a crutch, like we don’t have to worry about writing better or completing our work because we have an excuse for failure. It’s like we’re saying the only reason we aren’t successful is circumstance out of our control. We can’t possibly learn how to do it better. We can’t possibly improve our craft. But that’s just not true!

The sad thing is there’s a point in time when if only becomes regret. If only I’d spent more time learning grammar rules. If only I’d listened when that critiquer told me how to fix my manuscript. If only I’d been more prepared when I sent that query or made that pitch.

Thomas Edison has a history of failures, but we remember him for his great successes. He once said of his failed attempts at the light bulb that rather than failing, he’d found 10,000 ways that would not work. He further said,

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

That’s the if only that will leave us with the most regret. If only I’d tried one more time. If only I’d put forth a little more effort. If only I hadn’t given up.

I’ll leave you with this advice from bestselling author Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors):

As a writer, you can’t allow yourself the luxury of being discouraged and giving up when you are rejected, either by agents or publishers. You absolutely must plow forward.

Platitudes in Christian Fiction?

Sometimes when reading Scripture, I come across words that make me curious about their origin, and then, once I find their initial meaning, I try to understand how I can relate it to life and writing. Take “platitude,” for example. A platitude is some kind of statement that usually has a moral or religious intent, but it’s been used so often it’s become boring or trite.

I didn’t dig too deep this time (wrapping up soccer!), but Google’s dictionary told me it originated in France, from the word plat, meaning flat, and it’s usage peaked somewhere around the mid 1920’s. In today’s society where people get paid to babble about whatever they choose on blogs and national TV, maybe it should make a comeback.

I came across the word in Job 13, where Job is talking to his critics. After questioning them and asking them if it will be well for them when God searches them out, he says this:

Your proverbs are platitudes of ashes; your defenses are defenses of clay.

Trite, flat, boring, and overused. Hollow, empty words.

To the modern world, many Biblical themes might be considered platitudes. Though we, as Christians, all know that God’s message is timeless and those moral statements are treasures, those outside of the faith might consider them old-fashioned and trite.

Still, I believe wholeheartedly that God’s moral wisdom belongs in our stories, and his themes should be resounded over and over. At the same time, there are certain themes that become our pet issues and we often beat them into the ground to the point that they become rote. How can we continue relaying the same simple truths time and time again without making them seem like platitudes to the secular world?

I think the answer, both in writing and in life, lies within relationships and attitudes. All the time, I hear people complain that they try to talk to someone about their faith and “they just won’t listen.”  This just makes me wonder how the message is being given.

I’m not saying I think we need to sugar coat God’s truth, but I do think the delivery needs to come from compelling characters that people want to read or be around. In life, are we that person, serving others and forging friendships to open doors for conversations about faith? Or, are we that pushy, “my way or the highway” person, who forces the conversation whenever possible, as if it’s the only reason we have to talk to a particular person.  In writing, do we interject our message to the point that it feels contrived, rather than the natural flow of the story? Do we throw a Christian message into the plot just to call it inspirational fiction?

I’ve learned this from teaching–the same general fact can be delivered to a class of students. From one perspective/attitude, they dismiss it. From another, they embrace it. And the perspective they embrace ends up being the one that requires the most effort, the one that makes it the most meaningful to them.

So, there you have it. We’ve come back to grit, which seems to be my favorite theme these days. It takes a little more effort to be that person who cultivates relationships so Biblical truths will be more palatable, as they are coming from a friend. It takes more effort to write characters who show their faith rather than just dropping it into a dialogue.

And for an extra bang for your buck, especially if you are interested in melodic trances, meet “Platitude,” mixed by Onova (otherwise known as Christian Lejon), released back in 2007.

A “Delight”ful City for a Story

Am I the only writing nerd who sits around reading lists of city names only to have my imagination run off? I struggle with naming cities in my stories, but considering some of the ones that exist in real life, maybe I don’t need to worry so much 🙂

Here are a few interesting ones I came across while researching for my WIP.

  • Delight, Arkansas
  • Brilliant, Alabama
  • Paradox, Colorado
  • Needmore, Florida
  • Coffee, Georgia
  • Magic, Idaho
  • Oblong, Illinois
  • Dinwiddle, Indiana
  • Moosehead, Maine
  • Boring, Maryland
  • Whynot, Mississippi
  • Opportunity, Montana
  • Toast, North Carolina
  • Loco, Oklahoma
  • Defeated, Tennessee

And of course, some of my favorite Kentucky towns:

  • Normal
  • Fisty
  • Lovely
  • Ordinary
  • Possom Trot
  • Rabbit Hash
  • Monkey’s Eyebrow
  • Typo
  • And many others 🙂

What are some interesting town names near you?