Thursday, October 30, 2014

Plotting that Novel

In two days National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo as it is affectionately called) will begin. The objective is to write 50,000 words of your novel's first draft in thirty days! Now that's what I call a challenge. I've attempted this before and chickened out at the last minute for a variety of reasons but this year I intend to stick to it and "win" by getting those 50,000 words written.

So how does that happen? Here's where a brief discussion of plot comes in.

There are two major categories of novelists--those who meticulously outline every scene and character (outliners) and those who begin with a vague idea and then just write by the seat of their pants (pantsers.) Of course there are a hundred variations and combinations of the two and each writer must decide for herself which system works best.

I have always been a pantser--just taking an idea from the universal ether and running with it. While this works for many writers, and has worked for me in the past, over the past year a lot of books have come out describing different ways to outline your novel. All of these books are great resources and quite helpful, but which method does one choose?

After reading several of these books and doing some online research I observed that all outlining methods boil down to the same thing:

  • a three act dramatic structure
  • an ordinary world that is disrupted by an inciting incident that launches the story goal
  • a main character who takes a journey and undergoes a transformation
  • a major turning point or crisis at the 1/4 mark, 1/2 mark and 3/4 mark
  • a climax just before the end that leads to a main character/protagonist battle that leads to a resolution where the MC either achieves her story goal, fails to achieve, or discovers a new goal that serves her better

Once that's in place you sketch out scenes that link together from the inciting incident, to each crisis, and to the climax and resolution.

Simple enough right?
Well maybe not so simple because when you begin to write, even though you may have figured out that your novel length requires 60 scenes, how do you know in chapter one what scenes you need to get to chapter 30? Until you start writing you may be in the dark, driving without headlights.

So a combination of sketching out the main events of the story and then writing scenes and seeing where the characters lead you can work. 

It's up to each writer to choose what works and one method may work well for this novel but another method may work for the next novel you write. It's trial and error. As I tell the teachers in my school, what works for Billy may not work for Betty and what works for Danny today may not work for Danny tomorrow.

So outline the best you can. Trust that all your novel reading (because I know writers are voracious readers) has cemented the dramatic arc and three act structure in your brain like a hard wired computer program. Now just let the pen skate across the pages, or your fingers dance across the keys and join me in a month long writing spree in November that will hopefully lead to a workable first draft.

Hop on board and write that novel.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Writing a Novel Means Hard Work

I do admit that writing and preparing poems and short stories for a collection was hard work. It involves writing enough of each to actually make up a whole book. Then it involves revising each until it's as perfect as I can get it, which doesn't necessarily mean perfect-perfect. Then I needed to submit poems and short stories to journals because having a few already published heightens the attractiveness of a collection for editors. I liked writing short pieces and I lowered my standards, constantly telling myself that with a full time job I didn't have time or energy to write a whole novel, let alone revise it enough times to make it palatable to editors or agents, or even to myself or members of my critique group. So I gave up the idea.

But now I have come back to it. My dream, ambition, goal is to be a published novelist and so the hard work begins. I cannot use time or lack of energy as an excuse anymore. I have to knuckle down and do the work.

Over the past month I have returned to a previous novel that has gone through a few changes but was never finished. Now that I have gone back to it I realize how much fun this is and how much I really want this. Developing characters, scratching out scenes, creating feasible but dramatic plots all amounts to a game I love to play. Why did I ever think I'd be satisfied with anything else?

I read a lot of books on writing and books that proclaim to help me reach my goals and they all make sense and provide good information. I've gotten into daily affirmations, visualization, meditation, goal charts, and every other possible strategy for making this happen. But you know what? None of that works until I buckle down and write. Despite all the valuable information, reading those books and practicing the suggested exercises don't get a novel written.

I've been fortunate to have had a five day weekend and a four day weekend recently and that helped me get a firm hold on writing and a good aim at where the story is going. It's given me some deeper insight to my characters. And I have stacked up 70 some odd pages of a first draft.

This week I go back to a five day work week and writing time will be limited, but I am so invested in this story now that I will make it happen. I will do the work and put in the time. Just like with exercise, diet, and budgeting finances the work must be done. All the meditation in the world, all the minutes spent caressing a chunk of pink quartz crystal that's supposed to imbue me with peace and prosperity, will not write a novel. I have to do the work. I have to write the pages. And that's what I'm doing.

I suggest to you would-be writers of novels that you get a notebook and pen, or boot up your computer and open a blank document and get to work. Just write! The story and characters will come to you. So keep writing till next time when I talk a little about plotting, because at some point you do have to plot that story line.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Writing and Reading Novels

So I haven't posted in several days but that's because I've head four and five day weekends and have been diving deep into my novel. Finally I have focus. I have stored away art books and supplies, cleaned up my writing desk and computer desk and put poetry aside for the time being.

Looking forward to National Novel Writing Month in November as well as my critique group's twice yearly retreat, I am pumped to get this first draft finished. I will do it this time, no matter what obstacles get in my way. Because they aren't true obstacles to writing a novel, just challenges to writing that test my commitment.

I have 43 pages so far and most of my important scenes sketched out. I have my characters down including images I found online that give me visuals. And not just character visuals but pictures of their homes too. I know my main character's goals and obstacles and the subplots of other characters. This is very exciting. Writing a novel is a journey I'm up for.

I just finished reading Dean Koontz's "The Husband." What a roller coaster ride of a read. Awesome story with surprising turns and suspense on every page. But most of all I read the book as a writer and I noticed the precision of his writing even before I read an interview that stated how Koontz rewrites every page up to a dozen times. No wonder the words sparkle like diamonds. And while one publisher once told him he wouldn't be a commercial success because his vocabulary was too large Koontz proved that prediction to be wrong. He has achieved far more success than any would be hopeful writer like myself could ever achieve.If you want an exciting joyride of a read go get one of his books. I promise you'll be hooked.

For me now it's back to the drawing board--or notebook as it were. I need to figure out the timeline of my story as well as some backstory timelines for my main characters. Otherwise I will continue to plug in question marks for dates, ages and the passage of time and that makes my manuscript a bit messy and confusing.

So back to writing my novel.

And hope you will go back to yours.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


I lie in bed as the dawn's silver light slips under the window blinds. I am between sleep and waking, that treasured cocoon that seems to give birth to myriad story ideas and character creations. Dragging myself out of bed I head to my writing desk and open my spiral notebook to a fresh page. That's when the voices begin to hum;

"you can't write a novel"
"you don't know what you're doing"
"you'll never get published, go back to sleep, don't waste your time"
"look at that subplot, it sucks"

Then new voices slip in between;

"come on you can do it"
"just keep your butt in the chair and the pen moving and you'll get it done"
"don't quit"
"four pages a day and you'll be done with a first draft in no time"


"who do you think you are calling yourself a writer"

I tell you it never ends. One minute on top of the world and the next in the bottom of the writing dumpster. How does anyone get a novel written, revised, submitted and published with all these voices in my head drowning out character goals, plot arcs, settings and dialogue?

It goes on and on, but my solution is to write as often as I can and write fast. So fast that the voices disappear in the fog of a new chapter, or the introduction of a new antagonist.

I write fast and just let the words flow. I can always toss them out later, rearrange scenes, change a character's voice or hair color. I can revise and hone until the collection of 20-25 chapters actually makes up a real novel. I can get that sucker in the mail before I give up and then get on with the business of writing book number two.

I have plenty of ideas for book number two--then three--then four and so on. And I have an idea for a sequel to the novel I'm writing now. But first--let's get this one done and out into the light of day before those voices get wind of this.