Writing Advice from Lemony Snicket

I recently reviewed a book by Lemony Snicket called Poison for Breakfast. It’s a delightful little book that has much to do with writing and stories, and as such, Snicket manages to sneak in a little helpful writing advice for authors.

Here are Lemony Snicket’s three rules for writing a book:

It is said that there are three rules for writing a book. The first rule is to regularly add the element of surprise, and I have never found this to be a difficult rule to follow, because life has so many surprises that the only real surprise in life is when nothing surprising happens.

The second rule is to leave out certain things in the story. This rule is trickier to learn than the first, because while life is full of surprises, you can’t leave any part of life out. Everything that happens to you happens to you. Often boring, sometimes exhausting, and occasionally thrilling, every moment of life is unskippable. In a book, however, you can skip past any part you do not like, which is why all decent authors try not to have any of these parts in the books they write. But few authors manage it. Nearly every book has at least one part that sits on the page like a wet sock on the ground, with the reader stopping to look at it thinking What is this doing here?

Nobody knows what the third rule is.

And as a bonus, advice for writing a good sentence:

Almost always, shortening a sentence improves it. A nice short sentence feels like something has been left out, which helps give it the element of surprise.

Genuinely helpful writing advice, or confusing nonsense from a silly book about bewilderment? I’ll leave it for you to decide.

Reblog: How to Study the Craft of Writing — Priscilla Bettis

As I’ve mentioned before, I read a lot of books about writing and the craft of storytelling. Along with regular reading and writing, I think this is one of the keys to improving as an author.

I find I can usually take at least a few good things from any of these “how-to” guides, and I synthesize all of it into my own mish-mash of writing process. However, I’ve always done this very informally, mostly just reading, absorbing, and seeing what sticks.

Bettis suggests a much more rigorous form of study, and encourages us to take notes. Notes let us come back later and get the executive summary of what we read, but perhaps more importantly, they allow us to better retain all those juicy tidbits of advice.

As I’m reading a book or article or even listening to a YT lecture, I jot down key ideas in the left hand column, and then (this is the important part) in the bigger area I immediately apply each concept to a work in progress. If you zoom in on my notes, you might see items about a character named Wang and how I could develop an emotional core for Wang’s story.

I also make little boxes with published examples. In these notes, the published examples are from Moby Dick.

When I’ve filled up the note-taking area down to the bottom section, I stop and get out my yellow pen to highlight the main points of what I just studied. Then (this is another important part), without looking back at the notes so I’m not just copying, I summarize what I’ve learned in my own words at the bottom of the page.

She even includes an example page from her own notes, links to the note-taking method that she adapted, and an article explaining why note-taking can provoke deeper learning.

Check out the full article over at Priscilla Bettis, Author…

The Try/Fail Cycle

Many authors feel that the most challenging part of writing a novel is the middle. It makes sense. It’s easy to bring lots of enthusiasm to the beginning — all the ideas are exciting and new. The end is usually exciting because you’ve fought your way through and you’re finishing the damn thing. But the middle…well, that’s the place where that early, irrational exuberance is fading and you start to discover all of the challenges that the book will require you to overcome.

The middle is often the least-well-defined part of the book. In terms of typical 3-act structure, it’s also the longest. It can be a dangerous mire where the story slows to a crawl, and neither you nor your characters are quite sure what they’re doing.

Luckily, there are some great tools for navigating the squishy center of a novel. I happened to learn about these ideas from the Writing Excuses podcast. One of these principles is the M.I.C.E. quotient, which we talked about previously. The principle I want to talk about today is the try/fail cycle.

Characters Need Goals

Conflict or tension in a story typically comes from characters with goals, and obstacles that prevent them from achieving those goals. It’s a wonderfully simple idea that can be executed in myriad ways.

These don’t have to be explicit goals. The character might know exactly what they’re looking for (e.g. a fantasy quest for the magic sword) or they may have vague needs or wants (the abused orphan who just wants a feeling of belonging and family). However, it’s extremely hard for a character to stay interesting unless they have some goal, some desire, that they’re striving to fulfill.

Try, Try Again

From this first idea (characters with goals are interesting) we can derive more simple yet powerful principles.

  • If a character has a goal, they will try to achieve that goal.
  • When the character unequivocally succeeds (or outright fails) at all of their goals, they stop being interesting.
  • If the character tries and partly succeeds, or partly fails, they will try again.

These are the basic principles of the try/fail cycle. In general, if the character gets what they want, or it becomes impossible for them to get what they want, their story is over. Characters can have multiple goals, and resolving goals or introducing new ones can make for interesting inflection points. In most cases though, the character shouldn’t outright succeed or fail in their biggest goal until the climax of the story.

Luckily, for most interesting character goals there are many possible outcomes. Success and failure are two ends of a large spectrum. Many good plots are full of characters trying to achieve their goals over and over again, each time facing setbacks or only partly succeeding.

The idea of partial success or partial failure are often described as “yes, but…” or “no, and…”. Partial success (“yes, but…”) means that the character gets something they want, or moves closer to success in a goal without outright achieving it. Perhaps the fantasy hero finds an old map that will lead them to the sword, or the orphan makes a friend who seems to have some ulterior motives. Partial failure (“no, but…”) is a setback that can still be overcome or that introduces a new opportunity. Maybe the hero finds the secret tomb, but the evil henchmen already took the magic sword, or the orphan’s friend betrays them, but only to save their kidnapped family.

Consequences and Complications

One of the important things about the try/fail cycle is that each outcome (each “yes, but…” or “no, and…”) should change the status quo. While the character is trying, they are on a path. After their partial success or partial failure, they have to change course before trying again.

These outcomes can be split into two different categories: consequences and complications. A consequence means that the situation has changed, but the character’s goal remains the same. The hero still wants the magic sword, but they need to get it from the henchmen instead of from the secret tomb. A complication introduces a new goal or desire for the character. The orphan still wants a friend, but now they need to help save the kidnapped family as well.

It’s important to be careful when adding complications. In terms of M.I.C.E. threads, adding a complication introduces a new nested plot thread. That thread now needs to be pushed forward and resolved appropriately, while still managing the character’s original goal. Complications literally complicate the story — they add more complexity! A story where every try/fail cycle ends with a complication can quickly spiral out of control, as the many different goals and conflicts collapse under their own weight.

Tightening that Middle

If we break down a story by the M.I.C.E. quotient idea of nested threads, then any long-running thread can naturally be composed of multiple try/fail cycles. Each cycle will have consequences (changing the status quo and advancing the plot in some way) or complications (introducing new goals).

The natural shape of many stories is to introduce one or more major goals (and main M.I.C.E. threads) at the beginning, ramp up the complexity and introduce new goals (via complications) in the middle, and then resolve those complications one by one approaching the end, saving the resolution of the most important goals for the climax.

For a story that’s dragging in the middle, this is a great framework. Do the characters have goals that they’re trying to achieve? Are their try/fail cycles changing the status quo? Are there too many or too few complications to make the story interesting?

This kind of writing craft naturally appeals to me as a planner, but even if you’re more of an exploratory writer, it can be nice to have these sorts of frameworks to use when inspiration is in short supply. That novel’s difficult middle isn’t so intimidating when you’ve got the tools to work through it.

Reblog: Crutch Words – the Word Police — D. Wallace Peach

Today’s reblog is a helpful reminder of some words that can feel good when you’re in the process of writing, but don’t pull their weight. I know I have my own list of personal “favorites” that I search down and excise from early drafts.

Crutch words are words that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence. They’re hollow words that we automatically insert and frequently don’t notice. We want our writing to be tight and sharp. Too many crutch words will slow down the pace and dull the impact.

An interesting thing about crutch words is that we often have favorites. You may never use some words from the list below and use others more than you want to admit!

Read the rest over at Myths of the Mirror…

Restarting A Writing Project

This past week, I started working on Razor Mountain again after taking about a week and a half off. It wasn’t too tough to get back in the swing of things, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take me longer than usual to finish that chapter. And it was really a struggle getting that first sentence out. This particular break was a much-needed rest, and it helped me to recharge and get excited about writing again. It also got me thinking about coming back to old projects.

I have to admit, consistency has never been my biggest strength. I’ve tried to develop a daily writing habit many times, but I doubt it has ever lasted more than a month. I’m the kind of writer that vacillates between periods of productivity and…well, not productivity.

I often find that getting the motivation to write is as big of a challenge as the actual writing. As many authors have said, I don’t always like to write, but I like having written. That motivation can be even harder to find when I’ve let a project falter in the middle. Whether it has been a day, a week, a month or longer, it can be a struggle to pick up where I left off.

Tips for Starting Again

In some ways, the challenge of coming back to a half-finished project is just a very specific form of writer’s block. You may have forgotten where you left off, you may be uncertain where you want to go, you may have forgotten the names of all the minor characters, or you may simply have a hard time getting excited about the thing again. Each of these blocks can be overcome.

Read/Edit the Story So Far

This may seem obvious, but one of the easiest ways to get back into a story is to read what you already have. This can be daunting if you’re halfway through a novel, so you might start with the most recent chapter and see how you feel.

When I reread my work, especially an early draft, I have an immediate desire to edit. That often isn’t the most effective use of time when the work is still unfinished, but in this case it may be a desire worth indulging. Editing is still writing, and it can be a gentle way to ease back into the process. Once I’ve read through the most recent chapter and edited out all the ugly phrasings and typos that popped out to me, I find myself at the end of that chapter, all warmed up and ready to start filling the next empty page.

Read Your Notes

If you’re working on a large enough project that you were taking notes on the side, these can be a much better way of getting back into that “author headspace” than simply reading the story itself. I like to think that my important themes and ideas are going to be obvious on the page, and I’d immediately pick them up on re-reading, but the truth is that most of my first drafts lack that sort of detail.

A few notes on a character’s obsessions or their back-story might be more helpful than the most recent chapter or two. You’ve already written where the characters have been. To move forward, you have to focus on where they’re going.

Start Somewhere Exciting

Sometimes, the place you left off just doesn’t excite you. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to skip ahead or back-track. Ask yourself if the story seems to have gone off-track, or if you’re just more interested in something you know is coming up. It’s okay to jump to the exciting part to get back into writing mode.

This may feel weird if you’re not used to writing out-of-order, but it can actually be good practice. Just think of it as a non-linear story. Jumping ahead doesn’t mean you can’t go back and fill in the blanks later. You may even find that something from the “future” of the story makes going back to write the “past” more interesting.

Ask if It’s Good—or Why You Stopped

On that same note, being bored with a story can be a warning sign. If you stopped because the story wasn’t holding your interest, and you come back to find that you still don’t want to write that part, it may just not be good. That faint sound you hear is Maud Newton in the distance, trying to tell you “Don’t Write the Tedious Thing!”

Try to remember what drew you to these ideas in the first place. Instead of struggling to finish the story you don’t actually want to write, take the time to find the story you’re excited about, and get back to writing that.

Don’t Be Afraid of Breaks

When I took my (relatively short) vacation from Razor Mountain, I was worried about pausing, about losing momentum. The truth is that it was a much needed break, and I felt remarkably refreshed afterward. It took a bit of effort to get started again, but once I had, I found that the words flowed just as well as they always had: sometimes easily, sometimes haltingly, but they were still there to be found, somewhere just above and behind my eyeballs.

If you’re worried about “falling off the wagon,” it helps to have practiced. I happen to be an expert starter-and-stopper, so I know that it can be painful to start again, but I also know that I can. I’ve done it many times before.

You might be able to make it easier on yourself. You can plan it out like a writing vacation, with beginning and end dates. You can leave yourself an exciting spot to start back up, in a scene you love, perhaps even mid-sentence, instead of waiting for some painful sticking spot to take a hiatus. You can leave some notes for your future self to remind you of all the wonderful threads you’re in the process of spinning.

In the end, it’s important to remember that writing is a physical task as well as a mental one. You put down one word after another. Finish a sentence and start the next. If you can do that, you’re writing again.

From the Blogroll: Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy

Aeryn Rudel is a sometimes-editor, sometimes-RPG-designer, and writer of stories. In fact, he is an unstoppable story writing machine.

On his Rejectomancy blog, he talks about various writing topics, but what I find most interesting is his thorough documentation of the sheer quantity of short stories and flash fiction he writes, along with his submission, acceptance, and rejection numbers.

There’s plenty of advice out there about writing and submitting short stories to publications, but I haven’t found another person who is so thorough in documenting their own personal experience. He really embodies the idea that writers should embrace rejection as a natural part of the publishing process and build up a thick skin.

Earlier this month, he compiled some interesting information and advice to commemorate his 500th rejection, a feat that took him almost ten years of submissions.

Check it out over at Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy.

Mapping Dialogue

Dialogue is a cornerstone of fiction. It’s also one of the hardest things to write well. Dialogue isn’t like real life conversation. Let’s face it—real conversation is often not that interesting to someone not directly involved, and doesn’t always serve a purpose. Dialogue in fiction can’t afford to be dull and meandering. It has to be pulling its weight.

Mapping dialogue is a way to plan, analyze, or fix dialogue by looking at what it contributes to the story. It’s all about deciding what the dialogue should accomplish, and then figuring out how it can accomplish it. It won’t turn dull dialogue into snappy conversation—but it will ensure that the dialogue is at least moving the story forward.

Dialogue mapping can be used when outlining or planning, to make sure the dialogue achieves a narrative goal. It can also be used in revision to tighten up dialogue that isn’t getting the job done.

Finding Purpose

Dialogue, like anything included in a story, should have a purpose. If it has no purpose, it can be safely left out, the way you’d leave out a character’s irrelevant breakfast, or that bathroom break they took between scenes.

To understand the purpose of a given conversation, you need to look at the state of the story before and after. What does the conversation change? In what way does it move the story forward? You can think of this in terms of how the dialogue contributes to the MICE quotient thread that contains it. The conversation itself may also be a small thread of its own. Either way, it needs to contribute to the bigger picture in some way, or the story is just treading water.

Since a conversation consists of two or more characters, this before-and-after effect can be broken down for each person. Each character has their own goals, and each character may change, or change their goals as a result of the conversation.

  1. What is the state of each character at the start of the conversation?
  2. What does each character want at the start of the conversation (in the story, and in this particular interaction)?
  3. What is the state of each character after the conversation?
  4. How has each character’s goals changed after the conversation?

These individual character differences add up to form the total change in the story from a given piece of dialogue.

Dialogue is Conflict

Dialogue has two main story purposes: information sharing, and conflict. However, information sharing isn’t terribly interesting without some sort of associated conflict. It can become interesting if the information is incomplete, incorrect, or not given freely.

As an example, consider a detective trying to solve a murder. If they ask the witness, and the witness explains exactly who the killer was, how they did it, and why, then the story isn’t interesting. However, if the witness only saw a fraction of what happened, the detective has to make inferences and combine information from other sources to solve the crime. If the witness doesn’t want to help, the detective needs to find a way to change their mind or trick them. If they lie, the detective needs to discover the lie. These “twists” on basic information sharing are all forms of conflict between the characters.

This conflict is caused by interactions between the characters’ goals:

  • Characters with similar or identical goals may try to work together toward a common cause. In this case, the conflict is something external that they team up to fight.
  • Characters with opposing goals will try to succeed at the expense of each other. One or the other may end up “winning” the conversation, or it may end in more of a tie, with the tension remaining or ramping up. They may get something useful from the conversation, or it may just increase their animosity for one another.
  • Characters with different, but not opposing goals may make a trade where both try to gain something from the conversation.

Action in Dialogue

Sometimes characters just talk, and sometimes they act without speaking, but often the two go hand-in-hand. When mapping out dialogue, it’s important to consider the actions that the characters will be taking while they talk. Are they just sitting in a room, or are they in the middle of a heist, trading quips between the safe-cracking and zipping down elevator cables?

Scenes can really start to pop when the characters’ actions in a scene drive one thread of the plot, while the characters’ dialogue in that same scene drives a different thread. The two characters may be stealing the diamond so they can pay off their debts to the deadly villain, but they can also be flirting in a way that ramps up the sexual tension, or trying to work out which of their fellow criminals ratted them both out.

Of course, sometimes the action and the dialogue go hand-in-hand, both advancing the same story thread. But beware scenes where only the action or dialogue is doing work. Meaningless dialogue during important action, or vice-versa, is a missed opportunity.

Charting a Course

Here’s a simple example with some of our heist dialogue in a table with a column for each character, and actions (in parentheses).

NatashaFrank
(slides down elevator shaft first)(slides down elevator shaft second)
Comments about the view from below. 
 Asks about Boris’s suspicious behavior recently. Is he the traitor?
She trusts Boris—he saved her in Amsterdam. 
(Works on the vault lock until it opens)(keeps watch)
Asks about Rocky—he knew things about her dad that he shouldn’t. 
 Agrees that Rocky is suspicious. He seemed to be snooping when they were planning the job.

The important thing is to list out the segments in order. Dialogue is give and take. In a typical conversation, each segment will lead logically into the next. When mapping dialogue, it typically looks like a series of actions and reactions.

Sometimes the characters will exhaust a topic and move on to something else, but even that requires planning. If one of the characters has more to say, they may not want to shift topics. If there is a break, one of the characters will usually start a new topic that pertains to their goals at that point in the conversation.

Mapping in Revision

Dialogue maps can be useful for editing, by providing a tool to analyze dialogue that’s already written. If a piece of dialogue doesn’t feel right, a dialogue map can reveal structural problems. Does the conversation flow naturally from the characters’ starting points and goals? Is there conflict? Does the flow of the segments back and forth make sense? Do the characters leave the conversation with new goals or knowledge? What changed?

Because dialogue maps are a structural tool, they won’t help with voice. A piece of dialogue can be perfectly functional in pushing the story forward, but still come across as stilted and artificial. Dialogue maps describe the content of the conversation, but not the exact wording.

The other important function of dialogue maps in revision is in making sure that changes to dialogue don’t break the structure. I often find that I want to change something that a character says in the middle of a conversation. Maybe I come up with a single line that I really want to include. Because of the nature of dialogue as back-and-forth, one change can result in another character’s response no longer making sense. Sometimes a change to one segment requires that the next segment change, and the next segment, and so on.

With a dialogue map in hand, it’s much easier to embark on this kind of reworking with an understanding of what that conversation has to accomplish. Even completely replacing the entire conversation is possible, so long as it starts and ends with the same character states and goals, and the appropriate action still happens.

To Map or Not to Map?

Depending on how you write, you may want to do some dialogue mapping before writing, as a guide through the conversation. It can be especially useful when more than two characters are involved or there’s a lot going on in a given scene.

If you’re less inclined to plan, you can always write first and ask questions later. Mapping dialogue after the fact is a great troubleshooting tool for a scene that feels “off,” or even as a way to decide exactly what a meandering conversation should be about.

Mapping every single conversation may be overkill. It can be a lot of work. But it’s a useful tool in the writer’s toolbox for addressing one of the biggest challenges of writing great stories.

The MICE Quotient

The MICE Quotient is an idea that originated with Orson Scott Card, in his books on writing: How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Character and Viewpoint. It has been updated and expanded by Mary Robinette Kowal, one-time student of Card, and award-winning author in her own right, who is one of the main hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast.

In its latest incarnation, MICE stands for Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event. It’s a framework for understanding where the overlapping threads of a story start and end, and how they’re affected by obstacles and complications along the way. It can be useful for architecting stories, or figuring out what’s wrong with a story when it seems to have gone off the rails.

Milieu

Milieu threads are all about setting and place. The thread begins with the character entering or exiting a place. It ends with exiting the place, returning home, or entering yet another place.

Obstacles in a milieu thread typically prevent the character from freely coming and going — physical barriers or something more subtle like emotional ties.

Sci-fi and fantasy often have a milieu component in the form of new worlds or fantastic places. The hero’s journey often includes a milieu thread that starts with “crossing the threshold” and ends with the “road back.” Prison dramas and heists, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland are clear examples of milieu threads as a main driver of the story.

Inquiry

Inquiry threads are all about asking and answering a question. The thread begins when the question is posed and ends when it’s answered and understood.

Obstacles in an inquiry thread typically prevent the character from gathering the info needed to answer the question, or things that broaden the scope of the question.

Murder mysteries (any mysteries, really) are the classic example of inquiry-driven stories.

Character

Character threads are all about a character’s self-discovery or change. The thread begins when the character questions who they are, and ends when the character decides the answer to that question — either accepting who they are, or changing in some fundamental way.

Obstacles in a character thread are things that prevent the character’s self-discovery. That may mean the character tries to be something they’re not, and fails. It may mean the character tries to stay the same in the face of changing circumstances, and has to bear the negative results of that.

“Coming of Age” stories and romances are typically character stories.

Event

Event threads are all about disruption of the status-quo. They start when the established order is disrupted, and end when the status quo is restored (or a new status quo is set up).

Obstacles in event threads are typically things that prevent the situation from settling.

Disaster movies and spy thrillers are often driven by event threads, as characters seek to overcome the disaster or stop the villain’s evil plot.

Multiple Threads and Nesting

MICE threads can describe sweeping arcs across a whole novel, but stories can also be analyzed as a series of MICE micro-threads. An inquiry thread might be a character having a question at the start of a chapter, and finding the answer by the end. A character thread might consist of a single conversation where one character changes another character’s mind. Ideally, the resolution of one small thread will lead naturally into other threads, keeping the momentum going.

A single thread by itself produces a very simple story. Most stories have multiple interrelated threads. Threads do not have to proceed serially, one after another — they can be nested several layers deep, although at some point you risk muddying the waters for the readers who has to keep track of it all.

Kowal suggests that nesting threads in a first-in, last-out (FILO) structure is easiest for readers to parse. For example, my novel Razor Mountain begins as a classic type of Milieu story—the survival story. Christopher is lost in the Alaskan wilderness and he wants to get back home. However, as the story continues, there will be a Character conflict as well. Christopher will end up facing challenges that make him question himself and what kind of person he wants to be. Near the end of the book, Christopher will face a final choice that determines his character, finishing the character thread. As a result of that choice, he will exit the milieu, one way or another.

Simple nesting looks like matryoshka dolls, one thread within another. Complex nesting looks more like IKEA furniture, with each box possibly containing multiple boxes of different sizes.

Applying MICE To Outlining

Using MICE in outlining is a proactive approach to building story structure. Stories usually contain bits of all of the MICE elements, so the strategy when outlining comes down to asking yourself as the author, “What matters to me in this story?” As Kowal illustrates with the Writing Excuses homework assignments, any given story can be told with any one of the MICE elements as its primary driver.

In the outline, you can choose which MICE thread is most important, and nest all the other threads within it. You can then construct obstacles for the characters that block the resolution of specific threads. You can tweak inner threads so their resolutions affect the threads containing them.

Applying MICE to Editing

Using MICE in editing is more of a reactive approach — looking for parts of the story that don’t feel right, and analyzing them in terms of their MICE threads.

When the story isn’t working, try to identify the different MICE threads. Which ones are introduced first? Are they all getting resolved? What order are they resolved in? Are the sub-threads creating obstacles that contribute to their parent thread, preventing the characters from resolving a larger issue? Or are they introducing side complications that only distract from bigger, more pressing issues?

For example, take my favorite dead horse to beat: the show LOST. It introduces dozens, probably hundreds of inquiry threads, and many character threads. The character threads are mostly resolved, but some are resurrected later on. Many of the inquiry threads are left hanging with no resolution. The nesting is impossible to follow because there are so many threads.

As a different example, Lord of the Rings creates an epic story with a sequence of endings that irritate some readers. Reordering those endings to follow a clear FILO nesting structure would probably make them feel less like the books keep ending over and over for five chapters in a row.

That’s MICE

Like any writing technique, the MICE quotient is not a magic bullet. It won’t fix every problem in every story, and sometimes you can break the formula and still come up with something that works. You can probably think of at least one classic story that stands up despite breaking the nesting rules or structuring story threads in unusual ways.

On the other hand, the MICE quotient is a great starting point or default. It can be a guardrail when a story starts going off the tracks, and a guide when navigating the mire of a difficult outline. It’s an easy way to analyze plot structure through beginnings, endings, obstacles and nested threads.

If this piqued your interest, the full series of Writing Excuses episodes provide a great deep dive in eight short parts.

Debugging Stories: How to Revise Like a Programmer

When hackers are shown in movies, they’re always frantically typing code. Unfortunately, this isn’t very much like real programming. Real programming does require writing code, but it’s usually not done very quickly. There’s often a lot of code reading involved, a lot of sitting and thinking, sometimes some discussion, and then a bit of typing. Even with a lot of forethought and careful testing, most programs don’t work perfectly. That’s when the programmer turns to debugging.

Debugging vs. Editing

Debugging is what programmers call the process of identifying and removing bugs from software — bugs being things that the software does that we really don’t want it to do. In some ways, it’s a lot like revising and editing fiction, although they obviously have their differences.

Computer programs are very literal. Programming is a creative process because there are multiple ways to make a given thing happen, but the instructions are either correct or incorrect. They do what you want, or they don’t.

In fiction, there are many more ways to do a given thing, and fixes are often qualitative rather than quantitative — mostly coming down to taste. Because of this, it’s often harder to tell that there’s something wrong with a story, or identify exactly what it is. There might be hundreds of ways to fix those problems in fiction. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

The Debugging Process

Debugging can be broken down into a few common steps:

  1. Identify possible problems
  2. Identify possible solutions
  3. Make a change
  4. Test
  5. Repeat as necessary

These same steps are a great roadmap for editing.

1. Identify the Possible Problems

It may seem obvious, but it’s hard to fix something if you don’t know what’s broken. As writers, we often have vague feelings that something’s not quite right, or not as good as it ought to be. This first step asks that we really try to identify what the problem might be.

Consider a novel that feels like it’s dragging in the middle. That’s the sort of vague critique that writers often face, but it’s not specific enough to “debug.” The middle might drag because the protagonist doesn’t have a clear goal, or because they’re not pursuing that goal, or because there aren’t enough interesting obstacles standing in their way. Maybe too much time is spent on a side character.

Try to figure out a problem that’s specific enough to describe in a sentence or two. If you think there are multiple problems, focus on one at a time. You may not be sure that you’ve figured out the actual issue. That’s okay. This is a scientific hypothesis. It will be proven or disproven later on.

2. Identify the Possible Solutions

Once a possible problem is identified, the obvious next step is to think about the ways it could be fixed. Don’t just run with the first idea you think of. This is a great time to do a little brainstorming. It’s easy to come up with ideas, but it’s more work to actually implement them.

The next step will be to implement your plan, but don’t throw away your other ideas immediately. You may think of a few improvements that naturally work well together and want to implement them all. Or you may find that the first fix you try doesn’t work, at which point you’ll want to come back and try something else.

3. Make A Change

This is the hard work, but you go into it well-equipped with a problem that you want to fix and a plan for fixing it. Take something out that doesn’t belong, add something in that was missing, or tweak what’s already on the page.

Occasionally, it’s apparent straight away that the chosen path is not going to work. Don’t feel obligated to write out a “solution” that didn’t pan out. You can always go back to steps #1 and #2. However, it’s important to write enough that you (or trusted readers) can make an informed decision about the change. It’s also important to differentiate between a bad solution and a hard one. A great solution that’s tough to implement might just need a few revisions to really shine.

4. Test

In software, once you think you’ve fixed the bug, you run tests to prove it. In writing, the only test that can really be performed is reading the new version. Depending on where you are in the writing process, it might be enough to read it yourself and make a judgement, or you may want to have other readers go through it, or even compare different versions.

The important thing is to make a decision: is it better than it was before? Is it better enough? If so, then you’ve solved your problem. Congratulations! If not, then you’ve got more decisions to make.

5. Repeat As Necessary

A failed improvement isn’t the end of the world. Difficult bugs don’t always get fixed on the first try. You just need to move back to a previous step and try again. If you now think you’re fixing the wrong thing, go back to step #1 and re-evaluate the problem. If you’re still convinced that you’re addressing the right problem, but aren’t satisfied with the result of your solution, go back to step #2 and try another solution from the list, or come up with new solutions.

It’s All About Problem Solving

This debugging formula isn’t a magic formula for success. It’s just a tried-and-true method for problem solving that can be applied to a variety of situations. Writing is an intensely personal experience, and it can be frustrating and disheartening when a story you love just isn’t working. Sometimes writer’s block is just the writer’s brain flailing in the face of an annoying problem.

These steps can provide a dispassionate process for working through that frustration. Addressing the problem through small steps with clear goals makes the problem itself seem less overwhelming. The option to backtrack and try again makes failures seem more like setbacks than crushing defeats.

So next time you run into a big “bug” in your story, don’t just blindly revise in hopes of fixing it. Debug it!

Writing With a Zoom Lens

The biggest delight of writing fiction, at least for me, is the joy of creating places, characters and events from pure imagination. But this act of world-building is only the first step in telling a story.

To compare fiction to film, this is like set dressing, costumes, and blocking. The final step, and in many cases the unsung hero, is the way the story is imparted to the audience. It’s the swivel and pan and zoom of the camera; the edit, or in the case of fiction, the words we use to describe those places, characters and events.

The Zoom Lens

A zoom lens lets the camera get intimately close for that first kiss, or pan way out to show the vast world that these lovers have somehow traversed to find each other. Good cinematographers understand how seeing a scene from different angles and distances can greatly affect how that scene is perceived.

The “zoom lens” of fiction is the level of detail you choose to employ for a given scene. The level of detail can change over the course of a single scene, or across scenes; the literary equivalent of zooming in and out.

Take a look at the opening of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to each other for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.

Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.

But the story of this terrible, stupid Thursday, the story of its extraordinary consequences, and the story of how these consequences are inextricably intertwined with this remarkable book begins very simply.

It begins with a house.

This opening zooms steadily inward. It starts at the edge of the galaxy, then zooms in to earth. It encompasses the entire breadth of human evolution and the problems of the entire human species before centering on a specific time and place, and a single, unnamed girl. After settling for only a moment, it pans away again, finally leaving us with the house.

The house belongs to the book’s protagonist, Arthur Dent, and the book zooms in on him and his house in the following chapter.

Adams, being who he is, uses this introduction to throw in some silliness. But he’s also zooming in on a particular time and place while simultaneously reminding the reader that this story will be about bigger things: the wider galaxy, the vast span of time, and the entirety of human civilization.

Show and Tell

One of the first rules of style that young writers learn is “show, don’t tell.” This oft-quoted and frequently misunderstood rule warns of the dangers of saying what happened (“He got on the subway.”) rather than describing the action in detail (“He took the litter-strewn stairs two at a time down to the subway platform, jumping the turnstiles and slipping through the doors just before they closed.”)

As new writers gain experience, “show-don’t-tell” starts to chafe. Sometimes it feels perfectly reasonable to tell. Maybe there’s an uninteresting span of time that needs to be elided. Perhaps the reader needs to know that something happened, but not the details of how.

The truth is that the overly vague “show” and “tell” of this rule are really just different adjustments of the zoom lens. When deciding how much to show or tell, it all depends on the amount and type of detail.

Time, Pacing, and Emotional Distance

When the story is zoomed-out (i.e. told with less detail), time contracts. It takes fewer words to describe a wider span of time, and the reader might cross years or centuries in the span of a sentence. Zooming in means describing that time span with more words. The reader spends more time getting through that portion of the story, literally making time feel like it is passing more slowly.

This has a fundamental effect on the pacing of the story. If an action scene needs to feel fast and frenetic, the details are necessarily going to be limited. Imagine a kung-fu battle where each punch and kick is described with an entire paragraph of prose. It begins to feel like slow-motion. The same fight, described with multiple attacks and blocks in each sentence will feel fast and fluid.

For similar reasons, the level of zoom also affects the emotional distance between the characters and the reader. In the opening of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for these humans who misunderstand their unhappiness and try to fill their empty lives with money and digital watches. At a slightly tighter zoom, it’s a bit easier to feel some interest in the unnamed girl whose epiphany would solve the world’s problems. But it’s the following chapter, where the view is fully zoomed-in, that we can really sympathize with Arthur Dent as he discovers that he has to unexpectedly stop a construction crew that wants to knock down his house.

We experience the world at a personal pace, fully zoomed-in on our own viewpoint. Fiction allows us to zoom out to the edge of the galaxy, or traverse centuries in a sentence, but the closer the story comes to a character’s personal view of time and space, the easier it is for a reader to sympathize with the character and take an interest in what happens to them.

Revising With the Zoom Lens

The zoom lens is a great editing tool. Sometimes, a story that isn’t quite working just needs an adjustment to the zoom. If readers think that a chapter is boring, consider “zooming out” a little and trimming less important details. If a character feels a little flat, “zoom in” on their thoughts, dialogue or actions to give a better sense of what drives them.

There are many ways the writer’s zoom lens can be applied, but common applications are adjusting the pacing (less detail reads faster) and the emotional distance (more detail tends to get closer to the characters).

While characters, plotting, and world-building are popular topics for writers and important building blocks of the story, all of those things only reach the reader through the lens of individual words. So be your own cinematographer and pay attention to those lenses, and how they affect your story.