The Story Sandwich

Figuring out what makes up a story and how to make those elements speak to each other can be one of the more elusive aspects of craft. While elements can be developed and adjusted in revision, it’s important to understand how those ingredients work together. In one analogy, you might think of writing a story as making a sandwich. You know that at the end of the process you’re going to have a sandwich and, before you start, you have to lay out your ingredients. The same is needed for writing a story.

Every sandwich starts and ends with bread. Like a sandwich, frequently the beginning and ending of a story show the same image so the reader can see how the protagonist has changed from the beginning to the end. This “image” might be the protagonist’s home or it could be a theme on which the protagonist now reflects (for example, in Back to the Future, Marty finally stops being baited when his bravery is called into question, or in a series like Harry Potter, it starts with Harry unable to do magic and without a family, and ends with Harry as a powerful wizard with lots of friends and support). Bookending the narrative with similar scenes can show the character growth or how the world has changed as a result of the story events.

Condiments go on the sandwich next. Personally, I like mustard on most of my sandwiches, but I prefer mayo for turkey. You may prefer honey mustard to yellow; I like deli mustard or a nice spicy brown. All this talk of condiments and preferences is really a lot of talk about flavor. Just like the condiments, the voice and atmosphere provide the flavor for any story. A narrator who is sarcastic is going to speak very differently from one who is literal or innocent. The atmosphere that voice helps evoke is going to steer the course of the story sandwich—is it spicy? Mild? Tangy? Sweet? Bold? Understated? The voice and tone of the story can influence and direct the reader’s experience.

The meat is your plot, and in making this sandwich we need to lay it on thick to put meat on our reader’s bones. Here’s the important thing to note about plot: plot is derived from characters. The protagonist’s decisions make up the plot. So while the meat is the plot, the meat is also the characters. When Katniss volunteers to go to the Hunger Games instead of her sister, she propels the plot forward. When Harry, Ron, and Hermione decide to go after the Sorcerer’s Stone instead of getting an adult, they propel the plot forward. When Luke Skywalker leaves Tatooine with Obi-Wan, he propels the plot forward. The meat—the characters and the plot—are what make the story and the sandwich.

When I make a sandwich I’m going to put cheese on it, so this story sandwich gets cheese. Cheese is known for being a little fatty and a little caloric, so it makes sense that in the story sandwich, the cheese represents the subplots. Subplots are the delicious bits of a story that further character development and often complicate the main plot. Ideally the cheese and meat work together. Both contain protein—exactly what puts muscle on the story—but they’ve got different tastes and textures and nuance. One thing I will warn, if you like a stinky cheese that distracts too much from the meat, your sandwich may be a little lopsided, so use a strong cheese sparingly to keep the story sandwich balanced.

A good sandwich—I’m talking a really good sandwich—is going to come with lettuce, tomato, or other veggies. Veggies are good for you, and in a story sandwich that still holds true because veggies represent the conflict and tension. Conflict and tension are good for stories. Stories without conflict or tension are bland and often unfulfilling. Conflict gives a story crunch. Tension makes things juicy. Both are good for helping a reader digest the story and get something satisfying out of it. A hero overcoming, a romance defying all odds, the underdog winning—all of those satisfying and cathartic beats come from the conflict.

This may sound like a simplistic way to describe a story (honestly, it is), but thinking about the necessity of these story elements when creating a delicious story sandwich will hopefully help you think about how these elements work together and consider what each brings to the finished story.

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The Secret to Receiving Constructive Criticism

Receiving constructive criticism can be as difficult as giving it. It can be challenging to divorce personal feelings—and all the hard work put into the previous draft—from someone else’s opinion. But when I put my story out there to receive constructive criticism, I need to be open to it. I have to put aside my feelings and understand that these comments aren’t about my quality as a writer; they’re about the execution in this one specific piece of writing. Even if I think it’s my very best work, it’s only my very best work so far. Think of all the ways it can be improved! So, starting with a deep breath, constructive criticism can be the best thing for my work, especially if I’m open to change. I have a three step-method for taking in constructive criticism that includes listening to what is said, evaluating how that critique fits with my plan for the story, and then getting excited to revise!

Listen

When I get feedback from a critique, I start by reading each comment as though I’m another evaluator on the manuscript. I’m not the author when I first read a critique. I’m another objective party, taking in someone else’s comments to get the big picture of the feedback. I start by reading the summary comments and then all of the in-line comments before making any decisions about how to act on those comments.

Evaluate

Now that I’ve listened objectively, I get to be the author again! It’s important to keep some objectivity, after all the purpose of constructive criticism is to identify ways to strengthen the writing. Now, though, I start deciding how to address each comment. Should I keep the exact suggestion a reviewer made? Should I accept that something’s hinky but enact my own solution? Should I ignore the comment? Ignoring a comment is a perfectly legitimate way to respond to a critique. Someone might not “get” what I’m doing, and it’s okay for me, the author, to decide that I know what’s best for my work.

One method I use for evaluating comments is to have the comments and my story side by side in separate documents. If I disagree with a comment outright, I don’t move it to my story document. If it’s an easy fix (a grammatical error or improving word choice), I immediately do it. If it’s a trickier one or one that I’m not sure I want to make, I summarize the feedback as in-line comments on my story document and add my thoughts. At the end of the evaluation, I have all the comments I will or possibly want to respond to on my story document.

Get Excited

After every critique I walk away feeling excited to work on my story. I’ve thought about the feedback and, through evaluation, have come up with at least a few solutions to strengthen some of the weaknesses of the manuscript. Yes, I might have a lot of work ahead. Yes, someone might not have seen all of my brilliance. But I now have ideas for making the story better, and that’s a pretty exciting thing.

Talking It Out

I had dinner with a writer friend last week and after gushing about the novel I’m currently developing, I asked what he’s working on. After a long awkward pause, he finally confessed that he didn’t want to talk about it until he had a first draft.

I subscribed to this methodology once upon a time, holding my ideas close to my chest and trying not to “spend” them too soon. I once talked myself out of writing a novel because after outlining it and explaining it to a friend, I grew bored with the idea and eventually shelved it. I have completely forgotten what the idea was, which is further evidence that the reason I shelved the idea wasn’t because I’d talked about it too much, but because I wasn’t actually all that interested in writing it—or, rather, that the idea wasn’t strong enough to be a novel.

I believe that’s the case for most writers who lose their ideas in talking. I worked on the novel I’m querying for roughly three years. That is a long time to spend with the same characters, in the same world, going over their problems and relationships with a fine-tooth comb. If I had been able to “talk out” this idea, to talk about it enough to essentially “ruin” it, I assure you I would have. A year and a half of that development time included monthly meetings with my thesis supervisor where we did nothing but talk about the novel for hours. I couldn’t talk out this story because I was invested in it. Because the idea had legs and it needed to be a novel. Yes, there were days when I was sick of those characters because I had been living with them for so long, and there were days when I tossed out chapters or followed the wrong path, but I never wanted to shelve this story. In all this talking, I never lost the idea.

One of the best ways for me to work through an idea is to talk about it with trusted friends. Aside from figuring out if I actually want to write the story, articulating my ideas to someone else helps me discover plot holes, character weaknesses, and other areas that need development. Even better, once I describe a story to someone, I have a cheerleader who has insight into the idea. After that conversation they don’t just ask how the novel is going, they’ll say things like, “How’s my girl Eve?” or “Did you figure out what happens on the train?” Honestly, there’s no better motivation than having people who are invested in your story.

All of this is probably the same reason I’m part of a writing group, discuss writing with my friends regularly, and wanted to be part of an MFA program. Talking about writing (and about my writing) is motivating. But that’s not the case for everyone. Are you a talker or do you keep your ideas quiet like my friend? Every method has a benefit, what do you see as the benefit for your method?

Why on Earth Would You Write Every Day?

In 2016 I stumbled into my current habit of being an every day writer. It was a goal for a number of years, but one that I could never make stick until I discovered I had written every day for a week and then through sheer stubbornness continued to write every day. (I’m currently on day 585.) I’ve recently seen a number of posts suggesting that you don’t need to write every day, and I’ve given people the same advice when they’re fighting against intense schedules or suffering from chronic or mental illnesses (depression devours your ability to write, I get it), but I’ve benefitted from writing every day, so I want to offer a few reasons you should reconsider if writing every day is right for you.

(1) Build a Writing Habit

The greatest benefit I’ve gotten from writing every day is that I write every day! I never question when my next writing session will be because I know it will be tomorrow. There are days when my schedule is cruel and I don’t find time to write until just before bed, but writing every day is such a habit now that I can’t fall asleep until I’ve written. (True story: I was gone 12 hours, worked an event, got home after 11, got in bed, and even though I was exhausted, I got up when I realized I hadn’t written.)

(2) Build Writing Confidence

Because writing every day is a habit, it’s now easier for me to get words on the page. Just yesterday my writing group watched me struggle to write a blog post. I had brainstormed a few different topics and wrote on each one until the idea petered out. I didn’t finish any of those posts yesterday, but now I have starts for three more posts. I wasn’t afraid to travel down the “wrong” path or to just put words on the page and see what I like later because I was confident that at the end of my writing session I would have something.

(3) Build a Defense Against Writer’s Block

I still come up against blocks, but it’s easier for me to break through the blocks because writing is a habit. The first fifty words of the day are usually the hardest, so I decided that even on a bad day—on the busiest day, the day when I’m feeling super sick and uncreative—I have to write one hundred words. It’s harder to stay blocked when every word I write contributes to achieving a goal. And within one hundred words I’ll usually find an angle (or identify two angles that aren’t working) and suddenly I’ve hit two hundred words, then three hundred, etc. It’s also harder for me to throw in the towel since I’m not only trying to check a box that says I’ve written today, but I’m also trying to check a box for a word count goal.

 

Those are the three ways I’ve benefitted the most from writing every day, but truthfully there are times when you just cannot write every day. My previous job was demanding to the point of being overwhelming and was a contributing factor to why I wasn’t an every day writer until 2016. But it didn’t stop me from having goals and from benefitting from those goals.

If you’re in a situation wherein you absolutely cannot write every day, try to set a weekly goal for yourself, like to write three days a week. You could decide that any day counts, or you might set aside specific days (like a day you go to a writing group). I used to write for 15 minutes on my lunch break—I didn’t do it every day, but on the days I did, I returned to my desk feeling better about life because I had taken the time to be creative before going back to the grind.

Any writing goal you make and stick with gets you closer to building a habit, building your confidence, and building your defenses against writer’s block, so even if you aren’t writing every day, making a commitment to writing any days is a good foundation.

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The Changeable Plan

Almost every week I meet my friend for dinner and we go to either Barnes & Noble or the library. We spend an hour walking through the books, reading titles, touching covers, and expanding our to-read lists. In addition to an ever-increasing to-read list, I also have an ever-increasing library. And of those books there are a good many that I haven’t read. This year I decided my reading theme would be Read Your Damn Books. I made a whole plan for how many books I wanted to read, how many of them should be books I already own, how many audio books, how many graphic novels, etc. And then I proceeded to the library website and I ordered a bunch of books for home delivery because I apparently like usurping my own plans.

But aren’t all plans really just guidelines? I mean, when I made the original book list, I knew I would swap out books if I wasn’t particularly feeling a title, and that I would make new discoveries over the year. My primary goals were to read thirty books and to spend about half of my 2017 reading time consuming books from my home library. I also wanted to read at least five books borrowed from my local library and to listen to at least two audio books.

I had no idea that I’d get so invested in audio books. I’ve been listening to them while I take walks and so I’ve so far been through seven audio books. (Can I count one as “reading my damn book” since I already owned it?) My guideline of a plan obviously involves some spontaneous revision since I now have to decide how upping my audio book intake affects the number of physical books I read. Do I still need for half of my 2017 books to come from my bookshelf? Can I revise that number to just twelve? (Or ten seeing as how we’re over halfway through the year and I’ve read a whooping total of six books I own.)

I also had to scrap and revamp part of my plan. I had planned to start researching for a time travel story in the latter half of 2017, but in starting to draft my pirate novel, I realized I need to do more pirate research. So it’s back to the high seas, air, and steampunk for me. All the time travel books have been relegated to 2018—at least I already have the start of next year’s guidelines.

The main thing about plans is that they have to be flexible. Rigid plans often prevent productivity. If I said I had to stick to reading my physical books and ignored that I was enjoying listening to audio books on walks I might not have finished as many books as I have, or I might have stopped walking so I could add that time to my book reading time. Sticking to my original plan would have ignored my natural inclinations and that frustration would have easily made me stagnant.

Strangely this reminds me of writing my last novel. I had an outline laid out—an excellent guideline, indeed—but I got caught in the middle, trying to force the main character to read books when she just wanted to listen to audio books (at least in this analogy). Once I let her listen to audio books, things started coming much easier. I had to refigure my plan and change a few expectations, but finishing the first draft became much easier when I stopped fighting against my plan, just like how reading over thirty books in 2017 will be much easier if I let myself continue listening to audio books. Going with the flow isn’t so easy if you’re a planner, but learning to find my own rhythm and accept that as a new plan is key to staying productive.

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The Secret to Writing Great Critiques

Writers tend to focus on getting feedback—wanting to know how others received the work and what to do to make it better. But I’ve learned a lot about writing by critiquing others’ work. It’s made me more cognizant of rhythm and meaning (understanding the logistics of a sentence), and it’s helped me figure out how to step back from my own work to evaluate things like pacing, character development, and description.

The secret to writing great critiques is in having a plan for how to approach critiques. This is the big picture for how I critique manuscripts.

In-Line Comments

Critiquing someone else’s work can be scary—I don’t want to offend them, but honest feedback is the only way anyone will improve. In-line comments are useful, not only for line edits, but also for identifying exactly where clarification and revision is needed in a manuscript. Here’s how I’m honest but also kind when delivering in-line comments:

  • Always highlight the things that are working. 

    A few hearts around a description or line of dialogue lets the writer know what they’re doing right! Being able to check off strengths isn’t just stroking an author’s ego; it can let them know what elements are most effective and can help them identify areas that don’t have to be revisited in revision. Bonus: It also reminds the author that I, the reviewer, am a supporter of their work.

  • Give specific feedback. 

    If something is confusing or unclear, maybe the word isn’t quite right or the pacing is off, I need to tell the writer why. I once received a note on a manuscript that just said “eh.” I’m still not sure what that meant. But “eh, the dialogue here isn’t quite believable” provides a direction for revision.

  • Say it with a question. 

    Sometimes the best way to phrase feedback is in the form of a question. A question can be less confrontational and can still draw attention to what’s not working. For example, if I need timeline clarity, I ask it in a question, such as “How long is this after the divorce?” If something feels forced, I might ask, “Is there a way to make this more organic?” If more sense details would help flesh out the scene, I ask specific leading questions like, “What does the pie smell like? Is the room warm? Is the blanket soft on her skin?”

  • Read it twice. 

    Preferably, I read the manuscript twice. On my first read, I (1) note moments that are fantastic, (2) identify questions and confusions, and (3) limit corrections to typos or grammatical errors that cause confusion. The first read lets me get a feel for the story without focusing on critique comments. This provides a foundation for the critique since I know where the plot is going and have an idea of the strengths and problem areas.On my second read, I go hog wild with comments. I expand and clarify questions, explain if my confusion persisted or was later clarified, offer suggestions for foreshadowing and improving pacing, and of course, provide additional line edits. When appropriate I note whether a comment is from the 1st read or 2nd read. It can be helpful to know if a reaction is due to not yet knowing how the story ends.

  • Embrace the author’s vision. 

    Sometimes an idea is so good, I wish I’d written it myself. But I didn’t and reviewing someone else’s story isn’t the place to tell the story I would write; I need to help the author tell their story. That means I have to figure out what the author was trying to do if the execution isn’t working, and help direct them in a way that will let their vision shine.

  • Leave at least 3 comments per page. 

    This is by no means a rule, but I find that I typically write better feedback if I try to make at least three comments on every page. It helps the author navigate where things are/aren’t working, and it helps me write a more useful summary letter because I’ve made so many notes throughout the manuscript. (I also try to make at least one positive comment on every page.)

The Summary Letter

The summary letter (also called a critique letter, edit letter, or end note) is a way to summarize my feedback and experience reading the piece, as well as highlight the most important elements from my critique. It can also let me fully articulate something I only touched on with in-line comments, usually issues that affect the whole manuscript, like structure, plot, character arcs, or pacing.

I usually highlight two or three strengths and two or three weaknesses in a summary letter. As previously mentioned, I want the author to know what worked well and the things that need further development. My main method for writing an end note is the “Positivity Sandwich.” Basically, I begin and end with positive feedback, putting all the critique bits in the middle. For example,

  1. Hi so-and-so,The strongest element in your story is …

    Here’s some things that weren’t working as well, why they weren’t working, and a suggestion, if I have one …

    It was so cool that … OR Again, I really loved … OR Also, I wanted to mention this awesome thing you did …

It’s a bit of a Jedi mind trick (and lots of writers are savvy to it) but it still makes me feel better to send and read feedback that begins and ends with something the reviewer enjoyed about the work. Again, it lets the author know what readers are connecting with or responding to positively.

The Real Critique Secret

The real secret to writing a great critique comes in spending time with the manuscript. There’s no short cut to analysis and no “trick” to being more effective other than giving a manuscript my full focus. The good news is that the more time I spend looking at other people’s text critically, the easier it is for me to disconnect from my own manuscript and see it as a story to be analyzed rather than My Beautiful Creation. That skill alone keeps me eager to critique manuscripts because as much as I’m writing the critique for someone else, I’m writing it for me, too.

 

Works in Progress

Last week on Twitter a Works in Progress Meme circulated, and I couldn’t resist playing along.

Here’s what I shared according to the likes I received:

  1. Novel: Gay Airship Pirates, which now includes a feminist book binding sharpshooter and her paraplegic husband who is more awesome than you.
  2. Short Story: Space Mermaids, which are not mermaids because space, but still lure sailors to their doom… or do they??? Queer protag; snarky girlfriend.
  3. Short Story: New Orleans house has so much character it possesses a girl and has to come to grips with being mortal.
  4. Short Story: WWII Coffee Robots—everything changes post V-E Day; is there still a place in the world/economy for robots? Also, robots <3 cats.
  5. Novel: Time Traveling Archeologists steal artifacts from the past—that’s why some objects become “lost to time.” (inspiration: Daniel Jackson/Robin Hood)
  6. Novel/Series: THE STEAMPUNK—secret organization seeks to overthrow the monarchy, unwitting machinists & opera singers get involved. Co-authored with @momebie.
  7. Novel: Space pirate/book collector collab with @sopdet. Adventures! Romance! Books!
  8. Short Story/Novella: An amateur scientist “tests” a window that allows you to see 2 weeks into the future. One day he doesn’t see himself outside the window.
  9. Short Story: Arrogant scientist proclaims the end is here! His sentient robots keep up the sham that the world ended to protect his fragile ego.
  10. Short Story: An old creepy doll abandoned on a park bench gains sentience because people assume it has sentience.
  11. Novella/Novel?: Pair of spy sisters have telepathy, but only when drinking tea.
  12. Short Story/Novella?: Scientists create “metallic mermaids” to save ships, but then the mermaids start reconstructing shipwrecks and bringing them to the surface.

What works do you have in progress?

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The Re-Learning Curve

May has been a pretty exciting month for me. I launched this website, started querying my novel and working on other writing projects, and the Cinescopers podcast returned after a three year hiatus. While some of these experiences are brand new, others are old hat—or they were when I was in practice. Reconnecting with old skills to work on these projects has been something of a challenge.

Podcasting again after three years has been part of that re-learning curve. We’ve recorded three episodes so far and while there are a lot of things I remember, some of those memories are vague, and some things that came naturally to me at the end of our first podcast run now feel foreign.

One of those foreign elements is our intro and outro. I was perfectly comfortable listening to my co-host run through the familiar spiel, but when he asked me to do it for the second episode, I froze. This was a script I knew cold at the end of our 2013 run, and even after Matthew provided a script, I was still struggling with pacing and naturalness and, basically, confidence. Podcasting isn’t part of my regular routine any more and while I’m not quite starting from scratch, I’m not coming from a place that feels like I have three years of experience.

I had a similar feeling when I went to grad school and had to write papers again. It had been eleven years since my undergraduate degree, and while I’d been working in academic publishing, it wasn’t a career in writing papers and following MLA style for citations. I had done this for years as a student! I had been confident writing papers! I had been good at it, judging by my grades! But those first few papers for grad school were like pulling teeth, and I felt awkward (the writing felt awkward) and I had to check and double check and triple check to make sure I was getting the MLA formatting right. The first semester was rough as I relearned the lingo, the thinking, and basically how to approach this very different kind of writing.

Writing short fiction has been a similar struggle. I’ve been focused on long-form fiction for a number of years, so trying to come back to smaller ideas, to constrain the story, to only hint at the larger world, has been a special kind of torture. I’ve read expertly written short fiction to help inspire myself and to analyze how other people do it, and yet when it comes to applying those techniques, I falter. I’ll think I have an angle on how to tackle my idea, and then, 7,000 words later I have people telling me I need another 3,000 words or more. How do you write short fiction? I feel like I’ve completely lost the thread on working that out. (This may be a conversation that is To Be Continued as I try to tackle more short fiction.)

I feel like I’m constantly judging myself against my previously perceived expertise. “I used to know how to do this” is a constant refrain. It’s difficult to know something used to be familiar and then struggle at it now. The set backs have a way of diminishing successes and enhancing flaws.

But here’s the thing I need to remember: It took me the first semester of grad school to get the hang of writing papers, but I did it. I even remembered how to make the process less painful (even if I was still a bit dodgy on citations). I have to assume the same will happen for podcasting and writing short fiction. It may take a few months for me to get comfortable behind a microphone and to relearn the rhythms of our podcast, but it will happen. For short stories? Oh man, if someone can tell me I’ll have it within a year, that would be swell. I suppose the key is patience. I need to be patient with myself while I’m on this re-learning curve and trust that with enough repeated practice, I’ll get the hang of it again.

Doing

Starting a “pro blog” is weird. I kept a personal blog on Livejournal when that was what all the kids were doing, and I moved to Tumblr, even though I never really figured out what to do with Tumblr other than find all of the writing blogs and then reblog pictures and gifs of Captain America and Nightwing. But a blog tied to my public persona as a writer and professional still feels a bit beyond me. What will I say? How will people react? Who will actually care?*

It’s scary to put yourself out there no matter if you’re writing, dating, or opening a potato-peeling business. There’s always the opportunity for failure—or, potentially worse, for silence. So why do it? Why throw myself out there with the possibility that no one is listening and that I’ll still struggle with what to write?

. . . Hmm. You are suspiciously quiet on this topic.

For me, the only real failure is in not trying. Potential is a beautiful thing that can be protected by not acting. I’ll always have the potential to be a writer, even if I never write. I mean, I have the potential to be a trapeze artist or an astrophysicist, even though both seem fairly unlikely at this point. There is a possibility—somewhere—that I could be those things if only I tried. Potential isn’t real; it’s hypothetical and untested. The only way to be anything is to do, to put myself out there and try. So here I am. Doing. How’s it going so far?

* Hopefully prospective clients, publishers, and other people who may actually want to work with me and read my work.