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How to Start Over

I get up on a soapbox about many writing realities, among them the following:

1.)  Make sure that stepping back to assess is part of your writing process – that you’re not just writing forward blindly. If you can use a professional to help you with this step (a coach, an editor, a writing class, a writing group with a solid critique process in place) all the better.

2.)  Don’t be afraid to throw out work that isn’t working. Holding onto pages just because you wrote them doesn’t serve your story or your reader. It just makes it harder later to let go.

3.)  Make sure that you are inviting the reader into the work by showing, not telling, and by letting the story unfold on the page. We want to BE there, not just hear about what it was like. (**For my take on how this applies to non-fiction, see below.)

I thought I would take a moment to show you what it looks like to put those Big Ideas into practice.

Over the last two weeks, I have been assessing the pages of the novel that I began working on in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius book. I used the feedback I got from my agent about what was working and what wasn’t working (which was not specific to the start of the story – it was about the way the protagonist was coming across to the reader in general), and I made the decision that I was not starting in the right place.

I was coming into the story a little too late. In my zeal to start at the very moment the wolf was at the door for my protagonist, I left a lot of the story off the page – including the chance to have my protagonist’s beloved actually make an appearance in the story (rather than be dead through the whole thing.) Too much of the opening was told in backstory – and I saw that if I backed up a little bit and actually told it in real time, I could go a long way towards showing more of my character’s relationship to the man she is about to lose.

Not too long ago, I used those opening pages to teach a lesson in the Story Genius workshop on weaving in flashbacks. I think it was a good lesson and I think I did a very lesson. If you studied those pages for that purpose, fear not! Everything still holds. In fact, everything about those original opening pages is still good. It just wasn’t good enough. It was a draft that has now been supplanted…

So here’s what I did to move forward:

·      I opened a blank document. I wanted to give myself the experience of starting at zero and not worrying about “saving” anything I had already done.

·      I closed my eyes and pictured a scene – an actual moment in a singular time and place when something was happening that was directly related to my protagonists’ struggle so the reader could FEEL her struggle.

·      I assessed my idea and decided it was viable according to some key criteria: it would still be a moment with a lot at stake, a lot of forward momentum, and a lot to show the reader. It would still be tied directly to the spine of my story.

·      I brought the characters onstage – onto the page – introduced the conflict (both large and small) and wrote until that conflict (the small one, the scene-specific one) was resolved, which is the end of the scene.

·      I wrote the opening lines of the next scene that would happen as a result of what had happened in the first. If there’s not a cause-and-effect trajectory driving from the start to the end, your story will fall flat. My goal here was to make sure that what I was writing would drive towards the scenes I had already written. I had taken these scenes out of play but they were still THERE in my mind, lurking, waiting, hoping…. And I believe PARTS of them will still work. Not all of them – not by a long shot. But a chunk of them. I will have to do some massive rewriting (taking out the flashbacks that now happen in story present, for one thing) but that’s okay.

·      I used “TKs” (to come) to stand in for information I didn’t yet know.

·      I assessed what I had written again, and decided I liked it better than where I had started before.

·      I went back in and made sure the character’s reactions and motivations were on the page.


Some of you may recall seeing the original opening pages I shared here before. If you have not seen those and would like to look at them for comparison, you can check out the back-to-back posts HERE.

And HERE are the new opening pages – rough as can be – but alive in the world. For the moment anyway, they have risen above the original opening and are now the presumptive opening of my novel.

** Everything I say here applies to non-fiction just as strongly. I was working with a client recently on a book that is a prescriptive how-to for business executives. He showed me pages from a chapter where he had written a long recitation about his own life – from back in the day all the way through to the present. It was meant to show the reader that he understood their reality but it was flat and somewhat indulgent. We discussed a better way to begin, and he came up with a fabulous story that takes into account the cultural zeitgeist of this moment, and his readers’ reality, and his own place in it all. It was dazzling – 1000x better than the other opening. And he only got there because he was willing to do what I just did with my own work, which is to put it on the chopping block.

So what about you? Where do you need to start over? Maybe it's not the beginning of your book. Maybe it’s just the beginning of a chapter. No matter where it is, follow these steps and just do it.



How to Tell the Difference Between a Scene and a Chapter

Last week I wrote a post about how to end a chapter and I got several writers asking me this follow-up question: How do you know the difference between a scene and a chapter?

This question confuses a lot of writers, so I thought I would try to explain it, and to show you how it works, using an example from a client who very kindly allowed me to carve up her work-in-progress and share it with you. (Thanks, Shelley!!) I am talking about fiction and memoir here, but will also reference non-fiction where appropriate.

So first, some definitions.

What is a scene?

  • A scene is the smallest unit of story.  Characters come onto the “stage” in one time and place, and one action occurs. As soon as you switch location, time,  or point of view, you are switching the scene.
  •  For non-fiction where there are no characters per-se, a scene can be thought of more like a chunk of material, where one concept is described or illustrated.
  • A scene may not offer a concrete conclusion to the action or idea presented – but it will most definitely be connected to the next action or idea. It will lead to it or point to it.
  • Scenes are often delineated by an extra linespace, but not always. Sometimes there is no break. It on the scene and the story. 

What is a chapter?

  • A chapter is comprised of related scenes that are all working together to make a similar point, or set up a critical moment. Think of chapters as a sequence of scenes. Of course a chapter can be just one scene. Mega-selling writer James Patterson sometimes writes chapters that are just one scene, and sometimes even just one page long.
  • Think about making a new chapter when the character’s goal in the scene changes, or the direction of the story changes.
  • in fiction, the scenes in a chapter all lead to a crossroads or a decision or a moment of truth: they move us forward through a change (that sets up the next change in the next chapter.) Chapters should be connected in what Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, calls a “cause and effect trajectory.” One happens because of the other. They are not a random collection of things that happen. They cause the next thing to happen.
  • In non-fiction, the end of the chapter almost always offers the end of a thought or concept, and those thoughts and concepts build to a new understanding of something.

How you move through scenes and chapters is part of the art of writing. It dictates the flow, or pace, of your work. A novel with short scenes and short chapters is going to have a much different feel to it than one with long ones. Sometimes writers vary the length of scenes and chapters to emphasize an action – a short scene after a long one, for example, can pack a strong punch.

There is no right or wrong, but to give you get a feel for how this works, I went through one client’s submission that was just one giant chunk or writing. Shelley is writing a young adult novel about a girl who is learning about her family’s troubling past from her grandfather. In the attached sample, she presents a series of important scenes. Some of the writing, as you will see, is very good, but it all was sort of glommed together, which made it very hard to follow.

Download the 30 pages below. In order to see my comments in the margin, you can’t view it on an ipad or a phone. You need to full spread of the computer.

I took out all the line edits I did on these pages because they made it pretty messy. I just left in the comments, because I thought you might like to see what those look like.

The comments highlighted in YELLOW are the ones pertaining to scenes and chapter. I explain why I suggested a scene or a chapter.

Please remember that this is a work in progress, and this is the first crack at this task of dividing up this chunk of text. It will no doubt change and grow – but this is what it looks like to do this work.

TK, which you will see me use throughout, means “to come.” It’s proofreader-speak for anything that needs to be added.





A Scene is the Smallest Unit of Story


I was working on a scene in my novel-in-progress this week that wasn’t going anywhere. It was flat, dull, lifeless. Everything was happening in the scene that I wanted to happen, but it was just sort of sat there.
I dove in to try to fix it, and realized that the way I approached the fix is a tool many of you could put in your author’s toolkit, too.  It starts with the awareness that a scene is the smallest unit of story.
What does that mean?
First you have to know that a story is about change. At the very heart of it, when you strip everything else away, that’s all it is – a way of tracing a change in someone. They started out as one thing and ended up another.

  • They were a person who didn’t believe in love and ended up in love.
  • They were a person who took their mother for granted and ended up taking everyone else for granted, too.
  • They were a person who never felt heard and thought the way to being heard was to become an actress and realized that they were wrong.

The change can be big and dramatic or small and nuanced, but if you don’t have change, you don’t have story. (Note that this definition of story applies to memoir, too. And actually it applies to non-fiction of every kind but the change is taking place in the reader themselves, not the characters on the page. They go from not knowing how to lose weight to having a plan for healthy eating. They go from not understanding how to do well as a manager to being a good manager.)


Every scene of your story is a tiny slice of that arc of change. Therefore in every scene, something has to change.


In the scene I was working on, I brought one character on stage to make the other doubt her ability to write the story she has to write. She is a TV writer named Ruby and she is my protagonist. She is up against a pressing and very emotionally resonant deadline because her writing partner, who is her lover and her best friend, has been in a terrible accident. They were days away from doing an 11th hour rewrite on the finale of their hit TV show, and she doubts her ability to write without him. The guy I brought on stage to provoke her is a big movie producer named Jason, and he was the guy who hired her partner but did not hire her.
I thought I had the ingredients for a great scene because here is an antagonist, a truth-teller, someone who can rattle Ruby.
But the scene was flat because although it provided an external bit of “drama” it didn’t allow Ruby to move, to grow, to react. There was no consequence to her action – no dominos falling against each other. Nothing, in other words, was changing. So I knew I had to make something happen.
I dove back into the scene and here's what I asked myself:
What’s the worst thing that can happen here? What can I do to cause Ruby to struggle even harder than she is struggling?
The answer was that Ruby would learn something about Henry from Jason that she didn’t know – something worse than what she imagined had happened, something that would give her no choice but to take some kind of action. (And action, remember, can be a decision, a shift in mindset, a commitment… it doesn’t just have to be a sword-fight or meteors falling on Kansas.)
No sooner has I asked the question, then the answer came to me:  Ruby would go into the scene believing that Jason was the bad guy – he had hired Henry without Ruby. In the midst of the scene, Jason would tell her that, in fact, Henry had applied for the job. He had wanted to write without Ruby. It had been his idea. Ruby would exit the scene knowing that Henry had taken action to write without her – which would make her angry enough to want to prove to him and to herself and to the whole world that she could write without him. So instead of hemming and hawing and doubting, now she’s on fire.
Boom! Story deepened by a mile, scene made resonant, story moved forward.
Ask yourself the same questions of every scene you write -- What’s the worst thing that can happen here? What can I do to cause my protagonist to struggle even harder than she is struggling?
Odds are good this will shake out an answer that will move your story forward.  

To read the revised scene CLICK HERE