Saturday, May 27, 2017

When Your Story is Too Short: Tips for Expansion

Do you remember when I first started writing The Brightest Thread back in 2015? The first draft was a somewhat flabby novella that I ended up shortening from almost 30,000 words to 20,000 words in order to follow the Five Magic Spindles contest guidelines.

Fast forward to 2017, and I'm taking that story I worked so hard to condense and expanding it into a full novel! Back when I was cutting words and soaking my keyboard in tears (slight exaggeration), I ached with the knowing that there was so much more story to explore, but no room to do it. I felt I could easily make it three times as long.

Well, now that I am actually trying to triple its size, it's a lot harder than it looks! See, my stories have always had the bad habit of exploding on me. Subplots crop up, character arcs get deeper or more complicated, and connections start springing up like dandelions in May. (Seriously, I look out my window and there's a sea of yellow.)

So things get . . . long. Short stories become novellas, novellas try to become novels, and standalones turn into series.  That's just how I roll, I guess.

But I know lots of young writers have the exact opposite problem. Their stories are too short. By the time they type "The End" their supposed "epic YA fantasy novel" is only 50k, more like middle grade than YA. If that's you, I can sympathize with you for the first time!

photo via Pinterest // graphic mine

So today we're going to be looking at ways you can lengthen your stories--and not just padding them with fluff, but adding meaningful length.

And we'll do it by re-examining the condensing tips I shared in Unraveling a Mess of Threads to see if any of them can be reverse-engineered. Perhaps the opposite principles will be helpful.

(And there will be random gifs, because why not?)

1. Streamline.

Nope, you don't want to reverse this one! Every scene still needs to carry its weight. Don't wander for the sake of extra words. That's when the reader starts yawning--or worse, decides to put the book down.

2. Cut dialogue.

Brevity is still the soul of wit, even if you're looking to expand a story, but you don't have to be quite so ruthless with your dialogue now. A lot can be revealed in a conversation: personality, motives, conflicts, plot, etc. Characters are crucial to any story, and quite often, so are their interactions. So when they start talking to each other, don't be afraid to dig a little deeper, and look for ways to add tension or conflict.

It doesn't always have to be conflict between the characters, either. A tense conversation can be about the imminent war or the urgent need for supplies . . . or it can just as easily be about smaller conflicts, like the fact their local diner stopped selling chocolate milkshakes and they're both upset about it.

The point is, add dialogue that does something. Treat conversations like mini stories: figure out what each person wants and what stands in their way.

3. Cut descriptions.

Now you'll want to add description! But no purple prose, please--your reader proooobably doesn't want to spend three pages watching a sunset unfold. Nor do they need to spend an agonizing amount of time listening to your protagonist navel-gazing.

However, if your story is running too short, there are probably lots of places you can beef up your descriptions. Use them to ground each scene. Intersperse them with action and movement. Engage all five senses. Strive to immerse your reader wholly within the world you've created! That world may never come out on the page 100% the way you imagine it in your mind, but get as close as possible.

If you're struggling to find a place to add description in a scene, stop and consider what's out of the ordinary about where that scene takes place. Yes, it might be in your protagonist's average little kitchen and not in some wildly exotic fantasy locale, but try to find something relevant and interesting about your setting. Maybe the dishes have piled higher than normal because the character's mom has been sick, and the plates are crusted in yesterday's lasagna. Maybe the little brother left a note on the fridge saying he left to search for his missing puppy, but the brother is only six years old and your protagonist starts freaking out about him wandering the streets alone.

But do take note: we don't need to know about the plates or the note if they don't a) further the plot, or b) develop the characters. Yes, you want to add words, but you want to add words that matter!

4. Make a list of scenes.

In the original post, I suggested doing this for the purpose of getting a birds-eye view of your story. That way, it's easier to spot which scenes aren't pulling their weight and need to be cut out. But this is also a great strategy for finding places to expand! Did the story jump from the hero departing home to his arrival at a tavern on the way to his goal? Well, perhaps the journey in between can offer some conflict. Take that boring walk you skipped over and throw some obstacles at him. Ogres attack! The bridge is broken! Bandits steal his food! He stops to help a wounded peasant who will later betray him to the villain! He injures himself climbing a precipitous road! The sky's the limit, folks. It may take extra work later on when editing to make sure your new scenes fit into the story's flow, but it can be done.

5. Cut minor characters.

When every single word is measured, you keep your cast to the bare minimum. But when you're expanding, adding a few more minor characters can provide more conflict, more dialogue, more revealing of main characters, and more subplots--in essence, more words. Who could you add to your story to further complicate events? This leads into the next tip . . .

6. Cut subplots.

This goes further than just adding scenes and characters. This means tying those extra things into your existing storyline, which can be easier said than done. Right now, with every new element I introduce to The Brightest Thread, I'm worried that it will draw the focus away from the main storyline, or that I'm making the story worse, not better. (But at this point I should be in creative mode, and save those sorts of judgments for editing.)

But a new subplot can enrich your story like nothing else. At some point, you'll want to consider whether the subplot revolves around your story's central plot and theme (it should), but for now, take some time to jot a list of all the crazy, difficult, dangerous, beautiful, or interesting things that could happen within your story.

This is where it becomes all about connections! This is when you get to decide that your villain is actually related to your hero, or that trade between two kingdoms is suffering, or that the regular old sword the sidekick wields is no longer an ordinary blade, but a magical object that somebody out there would do anything to obtain.

Rather than bog the story down, a well-written subplot will add depth and complexity.

7. Enter each scene late and leave it early.

KEEP DOING THIS. Basically, start each scene when the important stuff happens, and end it before the tension drops. Don't waste time in getting things going or wrapping them up. This will keep those pages turning fast!

8. Cut unnecessary words.

Admit it, you have a collection of pet words that somehow manage to pepper every other page, no matter how much pet-word-repellant you spray your keyboard with. When you edit, please don't leave those pesky things there just to keep your wordcount higher. Keep deleting whatever's unnecessary. Pacing can be an issue on the scene level and on the sentence level.

Keeping that in mind, you can continue adding dialogue, descriptions, scenes, characters, and subplots. Just make them necessary. Tie them to the stakes of the story. Therein lies the key to meaningful additions.

To sum up:

When expanding a story, look for opportunities to:

  • Add dialogue
  • Add description
  • Add scenes
  • Expand the cast of characters
  • Create subplots

But don't forget to:

  • Keep it streamlined
  • And make sure every addition either furthers the plot, develops a character, or both

And that's all I've got! I'm excited about a certain (ahem, creepy) subplot I'm in the process of writing into TBT . . . it's definitely going to change the flavor of the book somewhat, but I hope it will be in a good way.

Discussion time! Have you ever tried to lengthen a story? What worked for you? What didn't work? Or if you're planning to expand a story in the future, which of these tips do you think will help you the most?

Saturday, May 20, 2017

I Graduated!

"Isn't it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different?"

These wise words by C.S. Lewis have always struck a chord in me, but perhaps never as strongly as here at the end of college. Because looking back, it's been one crazy amazing adventure from start to finish. But in the day to day, I experienced hard moments, challenges, frustrations--long days when it felt like no matter how much time or energy I poured into it, nothing was changing. Yet now that it's over, I look back and I am astounded at the ways I and my classmates have transformed this year.

Of course, none of that would have been possible without some very key people!

My teachers. (I nicknamed them Bob and Larry for their opposite personalities.) Both are very wise, godly men who have become dear mentors to me. They taught me and my classmates, coached us, equipped us, and poured their hearts into us.

The ministry leads. They were all amazing, but this year I got the chance to work under the leadership of the fantastic people in the youth department and the creative department. In youth, my love for teens grew even deeper, and my courage strengthened as I took opportunities to form relationships with them, teach them, and serve them. In creative, I learned new skills with my hands, started thinking outside the box more and more, and realized how much work and forethought go into event planning.

My family and friends. Without a home base of people who loved me, understood my crazy schedule, and supplied me with food, hugs, and listening ears, this year would've been a lot harder! Their support, encouragement, and of course prayers made a big difference.

My classmates. They rocked! I learned something from each and every one of them, whether they were aware of it or not. The team we formed got some pretty darn remarkable things done during these past nine months of college, and some of the friendships I formed will last a long time.

I have learned so much at college. Leadership principles, people skills, communication and public speaking, how to serve wholeheartedly, relationship building, and the list goes on. I've learned more about God, His Word, and His real purpose for my life.

But it's one thing to acquire more head knowledge--you can pick up a new book or take a class just about anywhere. It's a whole other thing to actually apply what you've learned, and that was one of the best things about this program.

Through designing chapels for elementary and high school, doing group projects, ministry afternoons, and volunteering at youth, inner city, and big events, we got many chances to really live out exactly what we were being taught.

Perhaps the biggest example of this was the day camp we planned from the ground up. Working on that project, we actually had to lead both each other and the kids. We had to work with each other's personalities. We saw each other's strengths shine out, and we came face to face with each other's flaws. Yet we still chose to build a team, a family.

As a recovering perfectionist, I learned to beat the shame storm. Excellence is just doing the best you can with what you have, and that is enough.

I grew in my public speaking. In September, presenting a speech brought on nervous butterflies and even dizziness. But just two days ago, I delivered a valedictorian speech at grad and--apart from shedding a few tears--felt pretty comfortable behind the mic. (This post, in fact, is a modified version of that grad speech.)

I stepped out of my comfort zone, especially in the area of leadership as I was put in charge of the aforementioned day camp.

Some of my D personality* classmates rubbed off on me, and I became more direct and honest with others, lessening my people pleasing side a bit.

*from the DISC system; D's are the direct people who cut to the chase and get stuff done.

I learned better strategies for managing my time.

I learned that life is all about relationships, and that tasks are secondary (and really are meant to serve relationships in the first place).

I learned to ask why, to stay curious, and to apply new knowledge to my life at this very moment.

I learned in a greater way that we are all reflections of God's nature, and so is everything that's right and true in the world.

It's been said, "In any given moment, we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety."

My classmates and I took many forward steps between September and now, and it would be easy to stop there, to think of this as the end. Truthfully, I've just begun this journey. Many new chapters lie ahead. But I'm well-armed with the tools God has helped me forge this year. I'm sad to see my year at college come to a close, because I've made so many good memories. But as my classmates and I move into new adventures, we'll be cheering each other on.

And faith tells me that no matter what lies ahead, God is already there.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

First Lines (Part 2)

Back in January, I posted a collection of opening lines from various stories (in various stages of completion), but didn't have room to include them all. So we're back for round two!*

*Sorry, no graphics today. I barely had time to get the post itself ready, and it was already mostly prepared. XD

Legend tells of a great treasure deep in the heart of the Fortress of Eternal Winter, a treasure so valuable that the one worthy enough to find it should experience ecstasy beyond belief. And not only that, but they should find themselves with a life longer than any other. It was this prize the noble knight sought, and already it had cost him dearly . . .

[The Fortress of Eternal Winter, short story (a parody), complete]


The little girl shuffled through the dew-spangled grass, blinking sleep from her eyes. Just ahead, a man sat on a rock at the edge of the overhang.

He swivelled and gave her a soft smile. "Good morning, little one."

She smiled back, though muzzily from morning drowsiness. "Morning." She reached his side.

The man picked her up and set her on his lap. The two sat quietly for a time. Nothing was said, for the dawn spoke eloquently enough for them both. A burning red sliver of sun had already appeared along the horizon, and birds were testing their singing voices, and far, far away, the ocean surf sighed.

[This is the Day, flash fiction, complete]


"Merry Christmas, Hannah." Lisa Kehler leaned down so the elderly, bedridden woman could hear her and gently squeezed the fragile hand.

[Tired of Doing Good, short story, complete]


Vannon paused, ice-encrusted shovel poised above a snowy drift. The air tingled with a barely perceptible whine, just at the edge of the ear's range. He cocked his head and concentrated on the sound. His breath-clouds came slower; the dull roar of rushing blood slowed. At a glance, one would think him a statue: furry mantle frozen in thick tufts, short beard spangled with chilled drops of moisture, and rabbit-hide gloves wrapped tightly around his shovel's wooden shaft.

There--there it was again. A faint drone, like the blur of insect wings. Vannon's eyes slid to the southward mountains, a shattered spine of rock wracking the azure sky.

[untitled, unfinished]


I have one green eye and one brown eye. The green eye sees truth, but the brown eye sees much, much more. With it, I can perceive things no one else can. You make think this is a wonderful gift, but I assure you, it is a curse.

[untitled, writing exercise]


"Arctic, I already told you there was to be no snowfall practice in your room!" The voice, although muffled, demanded immediate attention.

Arctic winced and cracked her door open. A rivulet of water trickled past her foot and toward the stairs. "Sorry, mother."

[untitled, writing exercise]


Pheori's bare feet padded softly down the marble floor of the Emperor's treasure hall. He rolled his eyes toward the vaulted ceiling and tried to pay attention to Emperor Cho's happy prattling. But his legs ached to run somewhere and his lungs desired the hot desert oxygen.

[untitled, unfinished]


The glare of the August sun threw glints across the lake. Madison Paratore shielded her eyes with a hand. A sigh warmed her lips. "It's the last hoorah, you guys."

[untitled, unfinished]


"So Kendrick, are you going to fix it or what?"

"It doesn't need fixing, Trapper."

"Doesn't need . . .? Kendrick! Look at it! It's torn in the corners, covered in debris, and so bright a Flat-Raider could see it miles away."

[untitled, writing exercise]


I slouch on the barstool and loop my fingers through the lacy yarn. It's red and orange and burgundy, like the trees I see through the kitchen window.

"Are your parents coming back this evening?" Aunt Bailey asks. Her knitting needles click against each other and the half-made scarf drapes over her lap like a fluffy python.

[untitled, writing exercise]


Lyric reached the top of the stone steps built into the side of the hill. His tired legs were not nearly as heavy as his heart. Sharp wind slapped his face, tugged his long hair, pressed his cloak against his ribcage. "Talon," he said, but a gust of air snatched away the name. He tried again, louder this time. "Talon?"

[untitled, writing exercise]


All was silent at the train station. A crumpled piece of trash blew past three pairs of feet at a bench--a pair of thick-soled black boots, two mismatched loafers, and red sneakers. One of these sneakers jiggled up and down very fast.

The owner of the red sneakers, Owen, sighed and looked at his watch. 5:13. The train was late.

[untitled, writing exercise]


I sit up with a start, blinking in the light shining over my desk. Had I fallen asleep? I rub my eyes and look around my bedroom. Everything looks the same as it always has. The clock shows 1:47 p.m. in glaring red letters.

[Rewritten, flash fiction, complete]


"Let's go over this again." Dr. Teagan propped his elbows on the desk and leaned forward. "I know we've discussed your experiences several times, but it would help with my diagnosis if we took another look at things. Is that all right with you?"
Josiah took a deep breath to quell the familiar heat churning in his belly. You've practically diagnosed me already. Why rehash it? But aloud he muttered, "Fine."

[The Prophet's Key, novel, unfinished]


The little flame throbbed, illuminating Father’s hands as they worked. The glass rod he held with a metal tool drooped over like a strand of freshly made taffy. He began fashioning one end. His tweezers flashed in the firelight, slowly persuading the glass to take the form he desired.

I watched over his shoulder and held my breath. Magic required silence.

[The Glass Girl, novella, complete]


Tree branches scraped the sides of Emi's car and leaves tinged in early-autumn gold fluttered at her windows. One hand on the wheel and the other fumbling with a roadmap, she squinted at the dirt lane, then back at the squiggly map lines.

"Way to go, Emi." She blew air through her lips. "Lost." Abandoning the incomprehensible map, she focused on the tire tracks ahead. On either side, the trees pressed in close and cast a network of evening shadows over her '95 Dodge Spirit.

[Blood Rose, novella, complete]


Not in centuries had the mountains rung with such gladness.

Aleida tilted her face toward the sun and smiled. The road winding uphill was choked with people, nobles and countryfolk alike all traveling to the castle for the celebration. Their lively chatter echoed against the crags.
[The Brightest Thread, novella-turning-into-a-novel, my current WIP, unfinished]

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Retellings - Love 'Em or Hate 'Em?

With my mind on The Brightest Thread, I've been pondering retellings lately, retellings of all sorts and all formats. Books. Movies. Fairytale retellings. Superhero reboots. Book-to-screen adaptions. We've been seeing an influx of all of them--and perhaps a decline in original ideas, but that's another topic for another time.

What I want to talk about today is the vast spectrum of responses these retellings get from people. One retold fairytale or rebooted movie from the 90's might be adored, loathed, criticized, apathetically ignored, or anything and everything in between. Now, of course any work of art, original or retold, will elicit a variety of responses, but it seems that people become rather vocal when it comes to retellings.

Why is that?

I propose it's because of people's deep emotional attachment to the original story.

Take Beauty and the Beast, for instance. (And we'll remove the LeFou issue from the equation for the moment, so we can focus on the bare bones of a retelling without whatever social agendas a director might shoehorn into a story.) Some people loved it. Some people strongly disliked it. Others feel conflicted, because they liked some parts and not others.

Maybe the big deal is because a lot of the people who went to see the movie love the original tale of Beauty and the Beast--either the animated Disney movie or the Grimm fairytale or perhaps both.

Let's take a look at an imaginary person for a moment. We'll call her Jane. Jane grew up with a big fat book of fairytales, a book whose pages she wore ragged with use. She grew up watching B&B and sang "Tale as Old as Time" often enough to drive her brother mad. She's eighteen now, and when she saw the preview for the new movie, she was ecstatic. Getting to see her favorite story brought to new life with modern special effects and great actors? Of course she's thrilled!

On opening night, she settles into the theater folding chair, bucket of popcorn in hand, and her breath catches as the first scene starts.

Two hours and nineteen minutes later, Jane staggers out of the theater with her mind whirling.

Now, this could go many ways. She could be euphoric over the magical adaptation, the perfect songs, the many little nods to the original Disney film, the new twists.

Or she could feel angry and betrayed because of how, in her mind, the heart of the original was lost.

Or she could feel anything in between! But chances are good that she's going to feel something, and it's probably going to be a strong something. Because Beauty and the Beast is her favorite, and she wants the retelling to do it justice.

This goes for any adaption on the screen or on the page, and it's an interesting topic to explore whether you're the consumer or the creator.

I think of the plethora of superhero films. They reimagine the comic books. And some of them reimagine the first reimaginings of the comic books. I mean, we've had three different Spider-Mans in the last fifteen years. If you like superhero movies, you probably have a favorite rendition, right? Even if you never read the comics (I never have), you have a certain expectation of who Spider-Man should be, and you'll judge the movies accordingly. Nothing wrong with that; it's just how it is.

Or what about the Narnia movies? I adore them, even when they strayed from the books. And I adore the books too, just in a different way. That's another complexity in this world of retellings! Some people are weird enough to separate the art forms, and they love different takes on a story. I don't think of the Narnia movies the same way as I think about the books. I love them both for different reasons, and I'm on pins and needles waiting for more news on The Silver Chair. (Not to mention very sad that there's no chance Will Poulter will get to reprise his role as Eustace.)

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I'm writing a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, so I'm growing increasingly interested in what people generally expect of a fairytale retelling. How faithful do they want it to be? How many twists do they want? How fundamental can the twists be? Gender swaps? Role reversals? Genre bending? How many different ways can you interpret the heart of the original story? What is the heart? What do you highlight? What do you downplay? Is the original story a concrete framework, or is it a set of loose guidelines to play with as you please?

Stray too far, and you'll upset someone. Stick too close, and you'll still upset someone. Because Sleeping Beauty matters to this audience, otherwise they wouldn't pick up a book based on it.

I've already come to terms with the fact that I can't please everyone, so I'm not even going to try. But still, it's worth figuring out what expectations your audience might have when they crack open your book.

I don't know where I'm going with this post, really . . . I was just puzzling over why people react strongly to retellings, and I think I stumbled over one key reason. What do you guys think?

And when it comes to fairytales, what's your perfect mix of ingredients? Do you like them to stick close to the original one, or do you like a wild ride of twists and turns? Tell me your thoughts on retellings/reboots in general, too! Let's discuss them allll!