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5 Foundational Areas to Focus On For Intentional Growth

I do a lot of posts about the importance of growing in writing skills. Intentional growth has been a critical factor in the success of my writing career.

But what areas should writers focus on for intense growth? With all the advice floating around out there, we can get overwhelmed, even confused.

Of course all of us are at different spots on the writing path. And what one writer needs to work on will likely be different for another.

But . . . if I had to break down the top 5 areas I think writers should focus on, especially early in their writing careers, this would be my list:

1. Strengthening the story:

Believability: Fiction cannot imitate real life; it must transcend it. But in taking stories to the “entertainment” level, motivations must also still be grounded on a logical, progressive, “this-could-really-happen” foundation, even if it’s in a galaxy far-far away.

Complexity: No matter if we write for children or adults, readers long for a story with the kinds of twists and turns that keep them turning the pages. Take the story off the first floor and move it into the labyrinth.

Uniqueness: Reject the predictable and stretch deeper and farther for fresh ideas. While various genres will have taboos (stories/topics that are harder to sell), we can look for ways to push the boundaries, add our unique perspective, and move beyond the familiar.

2. Plotting with greater structure:

Conflict & tension: Adding conflict to every page will increase the tension, pulling the readers' emotions tighter, making it harder for them to put down our books. Physical and emotional conflict are cyclical, like a tornado, constantly spinning faster and wider, until reaching a climax.

Three strand plot lines: Weave the strands like braid. Physical plot—overcoming major outward barriers or defeating an antagonist. Emotional plot—working through inward issues for character growth. Relational plot—conflict between 2 major characters, particularly critical in romances.

Three Act Structure: Act I: An inciting incident pushes MC (main character) into a new situation. Act II: MC makes progress toward goal, but complications and higher stakes escalate and threaten to defeat him. Act III: MC experiences setback, climax, then aftermath.

3. Writing by scenes and sequels:

Goals: A scene should play out for a reader like they’re watching a movie. A good rule of thumb: make a scene have more than one reason for being included in the book, preferably multiple reasons. With each scene ask: what are the goals? What’s at stake for the characters?

Transitions: Keep transitions between scenes short—if any is needed at all. Jump-cutting between scenes is a technique that moves us from one scene to the next without any exposition.

Hook: If possible, open the scene with a hook, the critical moment of the scene. Most scenes need very little set-up and whatever is needed can often be woven in. End the scene in such a way that the stakes are high for the MC. Don’t tie it up nice and neat. Make the reader need to keep going.

4. Developing deeper characters:

Physically: Avoid clich├ęd descriptions. We can’t describe everything. Sprinkle in the things that make the character unique. And then show who the character is through their actions, reactions, and dialog.

Emotionally: Dig deep into a character’s past to find the motivation for their goals and dreams. The more complex and deeper we go, the more realistic our characters will become.

Likeability: In giving our characters problems and adding conflict between characters, it’s easy to tip the scales so that our MC ends up being hard to like. We have to find something redeemable, qualities that readers appreciate, traits that make them heroic—even if in a small way.

5. Tightening excess and unnecessary prose:

Backstory: In the first chapter, only sprinkle in enough to ground the reader in the setting. Then throughout the book, add in pre-story information only as needed and only in small bites.

Exposition: Over-explaining kills the story-flow and treats our readers like ignorant children. Instead we should weave in any necessary exposition and assume our readers are brilliant adults who will catch on without us having to go into detail about everything.

Extra wordage: We can tighten our stories by eliminating unnecessary words. For more ideas, read these posts by my critique partner Keli Gwyn: 12 Weak Words We Can Turn Into Strong Ones, Weasal Words in Our Writing.

My suggestion for growth? Pick ONE area (from the above list) where you are weakest. Read more about that particular skill. Intentionally practice it in your current WIP. At first adding in the new skill may slow you down and feel awkward. But with a little practice, eventually it will become second nature.

In which of the areas listed above are you weakest? Do you make a habit of intentionally practicing new skills? And if so, how?

*Due to the Easter holiday weekend, I will not be posting on Friday this week.

43 comments:

  1. Holy cow - this is like, everything a writer needs to know in fast-forward. Seriously amazing. I think I just realized why I continue to struggle with my WIP - it's the three strands you talked about. I have emotional and relational, but I'm not sure I have anything physical standing in the way of their goals.

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  2. One blog post makes it all sound so easy. ;)

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  3. One of the biggest issues I'm working on right now is making my MC likeable earlier in the story. I tend to make my MC so strong and full of conflict that I forget to make her slightly vulnerable. This is a wonderful post, full of things to think about. Thank, Jody.

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  4. This really is an AWESOME post...wow, you've just really given me a sort of to do list with stuff to work on. Thank you!

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  5. Wow! I'll be coming back to this one! (Better bookmark it for when I'm feeling better. My head is in the game enough to know this blog post is a winner!)

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  6. Wow, that is Detailed. LOL Um, I know sometimes my characterization needs strengthening. I'm sure I could work on believability and the three strand thing...never heard of it before but it makes sense. :-)
    Thanks for the tips!

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  7. Yup, everything you need to know to improve your writing, all in one place. Excellent!

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  8. Nice run down. Bookmarking it.
    ~ Wendy

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  9. Great reminders for writers at any stage of career.

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  10. Great post!! Definitely we all have room to improve in one or all of theses areas.

    Reading your posts always jumpstarts me for the days writing.

    -Amanda

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  11. Wow, Jody, this is one of your best posts. It covers everything--for beginner or advanced writers.

    I work hard on two things--tightening the actual writing (my crit partners help me so much with this) and keeping everything very believable.

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  12. I agree with Katie, every writer should read this post. There is always going to be at least one of these areas that we can grow in... there's definitely more than one area that I could grow in!

    This is exactly why writers should - when they're not writing - be learning more about the industry, researching, reading how-to books, etc. There will always be room to grow.

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  13. BEST-POST-EVER!!!! Thank You Jody!

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  14. Good ideas. I am currently plotting out with a bit more structure in the current/upcoming WIP. I KNOW that's something that is requiring a ton of cleanup in some previous novels to get them polished, and trying to start this one right.

    Thanks

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  15. Your posts are filled with great info, but this one is a veritable feast. I'm sending the link to my real-life, romance-writing sister whom I'm mentoring. She'll get a writing course in one post. Great job, Jody!

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  16. Wonderful post, and, like many of yours, I've bookmarked it.

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  17. Wow, girl! This post totally rocks! Must. Read. Again.

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  18. Most of this is great info. I just wish that the modern fad of writing scenic fiction would hurry up and fade. I don't want to read books that resemble movies. If I want to watch movies I'll do so, and I'll read books for a different aesthetic. That's one of my biggest gripes of current fiction.

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  19. Very comprehensive post! And working on one thing at a time so you don't get overwhelmed--I like that. I think it's easier to internalize skills that way.

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  20. Excellent list! Very helpful. I'm working on the plotting structure of a new book. Your points help me to see clearly on some issues. Thanks.

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  21. Hi Jody. Great post. Growing your writing skills is a critical part of your journey as a writer. Great tips, will tweet to everyone, sure they'll find it useful.

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  22. Wow! Great post. Loved the detailed information and your challenge. Will definitely work on that. Thanks for sharing.
    C.K. Volnek

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  23. Hi Everyone!
    Glad you're finding the break-down helpful! We certainly can't work on everything all at once or we'll find ourselves stifled and perhaps even stunted. I really think growth comes in slow steps. And, we never stop needing to grow (at least I don't!)

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  24. This post is fantastic, Jody. You have a wonderful talent for sharing what you know. What an inspiration and motivator for us all!

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  25. Great advice! I'm working on a rewrite of my MIP right now. I ahve to look at these things as I go through it.

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  26. Just wow, Jody! I'm about to go over my WIP for the last time (hopefully), and I'll definitely be looking for these areas. If I had to pick one that I'm weakest in (I know I could use work in all areas), it would be working in scenes and sequels. That's the lovely thing about editing...I can write a bunch of scenes that really have no baring in the story and then chop 'em off!

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  27. When I read about using a 3-act structure for your novel, I thought I was reading from the novel course I'm taking. The advice was almost verbatim from what he said.

    Nathan

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  28. Excellent and very comprehensive post. tahnks. It's great to have all the main points in one place.

    In the early stages, I look at the ms as a whole using these kind off 'viewing frames', and later I'll make an 'editing pass' of the ms checking out that one aspect.

    Luckily I manage to get the main elements intuitively. Lately I've been concentrating on developing the skills for refining.

    Now I have to look at my new ms with the bigger elements in mind for a start, so I'll be working on strengthening them as I go through.

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  29. Hi Nathan (Technoprairie),

    Yes, the Three Act Structure is pretty much a solid writing technique that you'll find in most writing programs or craft books. And if you study well-written fiction carefully, you'll begin to see the framework.

    Those of us who are widely read may be able to pull off the three act structure more naturally because we're already familiar with it.

    However, learning and putting names to the parts of the three act structure (and going into more depth with it), can help us be more intentional about making sure our plot is on a solid course.

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  30. I'm going to try this. I was just lamenting a few weeks ago that my biggest problem is plot. I can never finish first drafts because the plot was incredibly messy. I decided to test run a story by writing some of my favorite scenes and plotting a action/reaction and obstacle sheet list. So far, it's been good, but I just revamped my whole plot so that it makes logical sense and I think my story is better for it. I'm definitely going to try to find some books about plot as well as reading some stories with outstanding plots and see what I can come up with. Thank you for this post. =)

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  31. Great post. I've been touching on some of this in my blog. I hope you don't mind if I post link on PubWrite group FB page and my own blog. Thanks for summarizing the key issues so well.

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  32. K. Victoria Smith,

    Thanks! And yes, absolutely feel free to link to the post! :-)

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  33. Jody, you're a girl after my heart with this post - the information is clear and concise and immensely useful. You've hit all the key areas here, and while we may be masters of certain areas, this is a great list to make sure we've covered all the bases. Definitely a post to bookmark and revisit again and again. Thank you!

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  34. What an excellent post Jody! I need to work on believability but the solution to the crazy problem is done with growth of characters and very down to earth problem-solving skills so hopefully that counterracts the fantasy element :)
    I am so bookmarking this. Thank you!

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  35. Jody, I can actually spot my weaknesses in each of these areas. I'm kind of tough on myself, and I do get overwhelmed with all the information out there. I love the way you highlighted each issue and make it simple to follow. Thanks!

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  36. Thanks for another great post, Jody. I'm a bit like Julie and can see my weaknesses everywhere. I'm experiencing real inner conflict about my writing just now. I know I'll return to your clearly outlined advice often.

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  37. Jody, this blog could be turned into a craft book. So good!

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  38. I've been working on my characters because it always comes back to problems with the characters in my content edits.

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  39. This is inspiring. I want to work on everything at once, but I shall focus and start with the plotting advice. I'll be coming back to this post and working through the numbers. Thank you for giving my scattered brain a nice structure to improve within.

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  40. I can't add much to what everyone else has said. This is the best summary of key writing strategies I've seen in a very long time. Concise and comprehendible. You are a gifted communicator, Jody.

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  41. "Intentional growth" - I like that a lot. So much of art is sheerly instinctual - and I believe it should be, since the organic ideas are often the purest and most powerful. However, if we're not also willing to consciously cultivate the craft (the left brain side of writing vs. the right brain side of creativity, if you will), we're dead in the water. Writing, like most art forms, has to be a partnership between organic inspiration and prosaic craftsmanship. 'Nother great post, Jody!

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  42. Very informative, thanks for sharing:)

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  43. Jody- Katie G. sent me the link to this post today, and I need to print it out and hang it above my desk. :) Thanks for this. Some GREAT reminders as I'm working through some changes.

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