Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Writing Workshop - Part 1 - Unity

“I can’t write five words but that I change seven.” Dorothy Parker


A Writing Workshop on a Topic Everyone Hates--Revision

First a question:
Why a workshop on revision????

I had just gone through the revision process with my book, LORD OF SWORDS (out in October), and I had started working on a new book.  I submitted a few chapters to my critique group...

One of my writing partners said, “I think your problems will clear up if you think about U, C, H, E.”  She was referring to a workshop I’ve given for various romance writing groups.  I wanted to bang my head on the table.  I was violating important writing “rules” I know and teach!

I figured I would share this stuff with you while I review it myself.  If I can spare you some unnecessary revisions, that’s great.

Please read through this short introduction.  No Skimming!

I invite you to think about parenting a sick child.

It's barf and clean up.

Barf and clean up.

Writing is also . . . barf and clean up!

A quote:

“You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is . . . to write, not to think!”  From the movie, Finding Forester

I always write with my heart.  But I never show that first effort to my critique group.  My first effort is what I call brain barf.  Teachers call it rough draft.  You don’t want an editor to call it rejected book.

Side note:

I’m often asked to judge writing contests.  I hate to say it, but I see a lot of brain barf that isn’t going to win the contest.  That doesn’t mean the concept and characters aren’t winning combinations.  It means the writer didn’t revise and edit sufficiently for publication.

Back to barfing...

The cliché idea that rules are made to be broken (and I’ve broken a few; ask my mother) doesn’t apply to revision.  There are rules you shouldn’t break.  Breaking them doesn’t demonstrate your rebel side.  Instead, breaking these rules demonstrates your lack of understanding of what makes a story work.

So, what are these rules you need to apply to your brain barf before it hits the public?  They are called, UNITY, CLARITY, HARMONY, and EMPHASIS.

Examining your writing for U, C, H, and E are the “head” part of writing.  It’s cleaning up the barf.

Each Wednesday in September, I’m going to chat about one of them.

9/4:  Unity
9/11: Clarity

9/18:  Emphasis
9/25: Harmony

Between Wednesdays, I hope I’ll get thoughts and comments on what I’ve said.  Maybe even a few brave souls will share a few examples of barf they’ve cleaned up.
But don’t post something really long...readers will skim it!
Skimming leads to problems in comprehension.

Another quote:

"Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia." E.L. Doctorow

Writing the first draft is so much fun!  Revising is torture!  As a mom and teacher, I hate cleaning up kid barf.  I hate cleaning up my writing barf as well.

A writer friend of mine once said, “Oh, I don’t worry about that stuff, an editor will catch it.”  Editors don’t want to catch it.  They want your best work the first time.  The book might need some revision, as nothing is perfect, but it should still be your best work at that given moment.

If you’ve been skimming . . . refocus . . . here’s the important stuff!

Today’s rule is UNITY.

Simply defined, UNITY is the idea that everything in your book must relate to the whole.This goes back to those elementary school writing lessons.  Every paragraph should have only one idea.

By extension, your book should have one unifying theme or idea.  Every chapter and scene should be about that idea and carry the reader from page one to page done.

So, ask yourself: What is that one idea?  If you’re having trouble with this question, your story lacks focus.

I’m a romance writer.  My story is about two people falling in love.  But my romances may have different themes.  The contemporary I’m writing has the theme “Home is where the heart is.”

Simple.  Now every chapter and scene of my romance must be about two people who fall in love by discovering they are each other’s metaphorical “home.”

Examine your book for how unified it is...

Does each chapter move the story forward?

Does each scene move the story forward?

If the answer is yes, you should not be able take to a chapter or scene out of your book without the story falling apart.

Painfully, I took an entire subplot out of my upcoming book, LORD OF SWORDS.  I really liked the subplot, but in all honesty, it was a walk in the park.

“A walk in the park” is when you, the writer, are strolling down your story path and get distracted by a side lane and take that lane instead of the story path.  The lane might loop you back to your story path, but unless that lane has vital information to impart to your story, cut it out.  Get back on the path--and stay on it!

Taking out a secondary plot means extreme vigilance as you edit.  Subtle references to that subplot can pop up to plague you later.  In a final read through of LORD OF SWORDS I found three sentences of dialogue that referred to the discarded subplot.  A reader might read right through those sentences and accept them without a problem.  The reader may even think they missed something while reading.

Unfortunately, what also happens is that a subtle sense of dissatisfaction settles over the reader.  That dissatisfaction will lurk around.  The reader may not be able to put their finger on what dissatisfied them about your story, but they will store away that discomfort.

So, ruthlessly strike out scenes, dialogue and yes, even subplots, if they do not move your story forward.  Root out their lingering shadows as well.

To paraphrase Anton Chekhov, if you have a gun in your story, it better go off before the end of your book.

Some history of me as a writer . . . no skimming!  It’s short . . .

When I first wrote, I just sat and wrote.  I was good at the heart part.  Unfortunately, once my editor got my first two books, I had hours of revision.  Did I say I hate revision?

Now, when inspiration strikes, I sit and capture the story right away.  I make sure I write enough that I really know who my characters are.  I usually write the h/h first encounter, a hot or emotional scene between them, and always the ending.  Then, I stop and plot.

That cold-blooded plotting doesn’t stop my creative juices from flowing.  It does stop me from spending ugly hours removing a subplot.  Now in the case of LORD OF SWORDS, my subplot didn’t get the chop because I didn’t plot.  It fell because my book was too long.  I had to take a few thousand words out of it.

This is where examining my story for UNITY came in.  I evaluated every scene and chapter and asked myself if it moved the story forward.  I felt this particular subplot was a little walk in the park.  It tied to the main plot, but very loosely.  And I guarantee you, none of you will notice it’s missing.

A blog walk in the park:

I remember angsting over two wedding gowns, unable to make up my mind.  My mom said, “No one sees the one you didn’t choose.”  How true!  (And I can cut this little anecdote and my blog still holds together.)

Back on the workshop path . . . No one sees what you cut.  The danger comes when the reader sees what you should cut. 

Extraneous stuff in a story slows pacing.  Pacing makes the reader turn the page.  Pacing sells books.

Imagine your book is a tree with a strong central trunk.  The branches are your subplots, the twigs your chapters, the leaves your scenes.  Make sure every branch, twig, and leaf is necessary to your story and leads directly back to that strong trunk.

But what about that pretty blue bird?  Does he belong?

If the bird isn’t integral to the story, a plot device that moves the story forward, shoo it away.

Your story tree can be filled with stuff: birds, nests, bugs, slugs, cobwebs, spiders, snakes, tree houses, whatever, as long as they are integral to the story.

If the bird flies away and, as a result, the bugs multiply ten-fold, eat all the leaves (which inhibits photosynthesis), and thus the tree dies, then the bird was necessary.  But if the story bird flies off and the story tree flourishes without it, you don’t need it.

Another way I could tell my subplot should go was I never mentioned any part of it when I wrote my synopsis.  It just wasn’t part of the essence of LORD OF SWORDS.

Was the subplot painful to cut?  Yes.  Am I glad I did it?  Absolutely!

In addition to looking at chapters, scenes and subplots, look at your characters.  Do they each serve a purpose?  In cutting my subplot, I also eliminated a minor character.

We’ll call her Mindy.  Mindy added some great spice to my story stew (mixing metaphors here), but Mindy’s story “jobs” could be done by another character I’ll call Buffy.  So I “spiced” up Buffy, gave her more weight in the book, and cut poor Mindy.  You won’t miss her.  Buffy can handle the extra work.

Last, but not least, remember what your elementary school writing teachers told you.  One idea per paragraph.

Here’s a UNITY example from the contemporary romance I’m writing right now.  This takes place during the first encounter scene of the main characters.  It takes place at the gates of Kara Sinclair’s family home.

A slim figure in jeans and a white down vest was shoveling slush where the gates met.
Kara Sinclair.
Reed hadn’t seen Kara in at least eight years.  He stood in the shadows on the opposite side of the road and admired the view as she tried to free the electric gates.  They were only part way open, likely jammed by the ice.  Kara had been a cute and mouthy high school senior when he’d last seen her.  She wore a white knitted hat, scarf, and mittens.  She was swearing like a stevedore.  He grinned.

Okay, raise your hand if you found any UNITY errors.  Your hand should be flapping in the breeze.  

This was definitely brain barf...

First, I packed too much stuff in the blue paragraph.

UNITY = ONE idea per paragraph

Is this paragraph about seeing Kara for the first time?  Or is the purpose of the paragraph scene setting and character description?

It’s all three and that’s bad.

Blog walk in the park:

I love the comment bubbles in my word processing program.  I can slap a bubble up and write a note to myself without really slowing the HEART part of my writing.  In other words, I can BARF without feeling I have to clean it up right away.

Here’s a revision to my wretched writing:
Reed stood in the shadows and admired a slim figure shoveling slush where the gates met.
Kara Sinclair.
Reed hadn’t seen Kara in at least eight years.  She’d been a cute and mouthy high school senior when last he’d seen her.  She was swearing like a stevedore as she tried to free the electric gates.  He was happy some things hadn’t changed in Savage Bay.

[Savage Bay . . . where all the men need taming and the women are up to the task!]

Notice how I slid in this shameless promotion for my book!

In the second version, I took out the description of Kara’s clothes.  I might put it back later, but there are better places in this opening scene for clothes that you can’t see.  We all know she’s not NAKED in a wintry landscape. When I describe her clothing--wherever I put it--I’m not going to separate the vest from the hats and mittens either.

We also learn Kara’s age and something about her personality in this short piece.  I’ve added a hint of Reed’s conflict (which is all about what he’s left behind during those eight years away).

Hmm.  But that’s still too much in the blue paragraph...

Reed stood in the shadows and admired a slim figure shoveling slush where the gates met.
Kara Sinclair.
Reed hadn’t seen Kara in at least eight years.  She’d been a cute and mouthy high school senior when last he’d seen her.  She was swearing like a stevedore as she tried to free the electric gates.
He was happy some things hadn’t changed in Savage Bay.

Once I understand that my messy paragraph should only be about character description, I can discard a few words, add a few, and hit that all important return key to separate ideas that shouldn’t be together.

What did I accomplish?  I hope I’ve removed the vague sense of unease the reader may have when reading the original.  Remember, that vague sense of unease is a bad thing!  Readers don’t care about UNITY, but they still feel its effects.

Notice the added sentence about Reed’s conflict is now out of the descriptive paragraph . . . after all, the blue paragraph is about Kara, not Reed.  I used the description of Kara to introduce Reed’s conflict.

Another try.  This time . . . I’m putting Reed’s observations first, then her name, then his memories, and last, his conflict.

Reed stood in the shadows and admired a slim figure shoveling slush where the automatic gates met.  She was swearing like a stevedore.
Kara Sinclair.
Reed hadn’t seen Kara in at least eight years.  He remembered her as a cute and mouthy high school senior.
He was happy some things hadn’t changed in Savage Bay.

Another thought...The purpose here is not scene setting, but we get it anyway.  This doesn’t violate UNITY because for us to “see” Kara, we need to give her something to do.

What are we learning without it being specifically stated?

In just a few sentences, we know:
Kara’s probably rich . . . house with electric gates
Kara’s not afraid to get her hands dirty . . . she didn’t delegate the gate problem

For this exercise, since you haven’t seen the rest of the scene, you might also wonder if Kara is hired help delegated to clear the rich folks’ electric gates.

Other things I could change:

--Why “at least” eight years?  Do I, the writer, know how long Reed’s been gone or not?  Yikes!  Decide Ann!  It’s your story!

--I could also delete the words in Savage Bay.  They were really only there for shameless promotion in this blog.

Next Wednesday I’m going to talk about CLARITY.Which is essentially KISS.  Keep it Simple Sweetie!

I’ll share more snippets from my work that are far from CLEAR!

Let’s end on a touch of culture...a quote from Picasso that applies to UNITY!

“When you start with a portrait and search for a pure form, a clear volume, through successive eliminations, you arrive inevitably at the egg. Likewise, starting with the egg and following the same process in reverse, one finishes with the portrait.”  Pablo Picasso

For UNITY, you must really see that egg.  Every chapter and scene of your book should be about that egg.  Weed out the ones that digress to bacon and toast . . . unless your book is really about BREAKFAST!

Lastly, remember my tree analogy.  Determine the central theme or “eggness” of your story and be sure all the branches, twigs, and leaves lead to the trunk, support your central theme, and carry through from page one to page done.
Check out my books at http://www.annlawrence.com


  1. Thanks! Very informative!

  2. I just have a hard time fining all the barf to clean up. It helps to have a second pair of eyes. I like the thought about a walk in the park.

  3. I know what you mean...that's why I love having a critique group...I realized after I wrote this blog that I had actually taken two characters out of the book. It was very painful

  4. OMG--of all the workshops I've attended, I don't think anyspeaker has approached "unified" writing so accessibly. Seeing your examples showing the progression of the writing from raw to polished ia so helpful. Thanks!

    1. You are so welcome...my English teacher would be so proud that I remembered my lessons!

  5. Love the tree metaphor. Really helpful. Now all I need to know is when Savage Bay comes out. Who can resist a place where all the women are up to taming their wild men?

  6. Love your bolg. Enjoyed reading it.