Tag Archives: crafting a novel

#amwriting: action and introspection

All works of fiction, no matter what their genre have several commonalities. Protagonists and side characters begin in a comfortable place. An incident/event occurs, throwing them out of what they know and into disarray. This is the inciting incident.

Once they recover from the first stumbling block, our protagonist realizes they want or need something: an object or person that will resolve the situation they are in. This is a moment of truth, a point where the protagonist realizes they could lose everything.

To resolve their situation and acquire what they need,  the protagonist and their companions must enter unfamiliar circumstances. They will flounder and make mistakes until they become accustomed to their new situation.

In my own work there have been times where I was so busy setting traps and roadblocks for the protagonist and their nemesis that the story line wandered off and got lost.

For a particular event to have a place in the narrative, it must fulfil several requirements:

  • It must entertain the reader.
  • It must enable new circumstances.
  • It must force growth on the character, for good or for ill.

We do not insert random incidents simply for the sake of action. The events the protagonist experiences must be there to facilitate change. The action must force personal growth or otherwise affect the characters involved in it.

When we are deep in the creative process, it’s easy to forget that characters must evolve. Morality, love, coming of age—these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle.

Perhaps you are experiencing writer’s block. Inspiration has abandoned you, and you become desperate to get your narrative moving again.

It may be that you have lost track of what you originally imagined your story was about, and your characters no longer know what they are fighting for. Was it love? Was it destiny? Was it hope?

When you first imagined you had a story to write, you had an idea of what the characters would be like. Did you picture them fully formed? At the beginning, we must leave room for growth and change, for us to show the character evolving, growing to that finished state. This is how we involve the reader in the hero’s journey.

When an author becomes desperate and inserts outlandish events or conversations “just to show they are human” it disrupts the story arc. At that point, the author frequently loses interest in the story and believes they are suffering writer’s block.

Think about novels you may have read where the author became too focused on the action and neglected to devote a few sentences detailing the character’s introspection. Their protagonist went from one death defying incident to another, without a pause or a moment to catch their breath. The protagonist may as well have been a crash test dummy, ricocheting from one event to the next with no thought or feeling.

The constant onslaught of random action became a loud noise that didn’t make any sense because there was no chance to link the events together and put them in perspective. Events inserted for shock value  and with no pause for reflection don’t show personal growth. This can make an otherwise good character two-dimensional.

This need for pauses between the action has been referred to (by better educated people than me) as: writing the way a skater skates: “push  – glide – push – glide.” Action – reflection – action – reflection. These small pauses give the reader a chance to breathe and process what just happened.

What will the protagonist gain from the experience? Action, deeds, and accomplishments are necessary to force change and growth on the characters. When you write a scene, ask yourself, “How will their fundamental ethics and ideals be challenged by this event?” If there is no personal cost, the scene is a side trip to nowhere and should be removed.

Writing these blind alleys is not a waste of time. You never know when you will need those ideas, so don’t throw them away—always keep the things you cut in a separate file. Remember, just because that idea doesn’t work for this book, doesn’t mean it won’t work in another book.

I label that file “outtakes,” and believe me, it has come in handy when I need an idea to jump-start a new story.

In the greatest, most memorable novels, the reader experiences the characters’ lives as they react to the events and setbacks.

This is what we want to achieve in our own work. The genre and the setting in which these characters react to the wider concepts are just a backdrop. The world they are set in is the picture-frame, a stage upon which the themes of the story play out, and characters are shaped by a force beyond their control—the author.

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#amwriting: when writing becomes work

The Rainy Day, Gustave Caillebotte

Winter is approaching, here in the great Northwest.  It’s still warm now, but soon we will enjoy endless days of rainy grey darkness interspersed with brief moments of frozen hysteria. Yes, we who live in the rural parts of the Northwest dread those clear, cold nights when, just before dawn, the temperature hovers at 28 degrees Fahrenheit, and a fine glaze of ice encases the county roads, keeping things interesting.

In my part of the Northwest, the months of November through March are famous for the phenomenon known as Black Ice. The drive to the freeway is a white-knuckle experience: tightly controlled panic interspersed with moments of sheer terror. But I rarely have to drive in it, so it’s mostly my husband who gets the adrenaline rush of having survived yet another commute.

The dark days are sometimes depressing. I force myself to write, because to go a day without writing is to let the demons win. And even though I am not as inspired as I wish I was at this moment, I am getting the nuts and bolts out of the way, doing work that needs to be done, but isn’t that fun.

  • Plotting
  • Developing the theme.
  • Getting to know the characters.
  • Building the world.
  • Designing the magic system.

My boots sit damply near the door, and the umbrella rests near them. Soon the retention-pond in the front yard will be full, and puddles will dot the landscape.  I will walk the neighborhood, swathed in fleece and Gortex, dry and warm in the midst of side-ways rain storms, but not because I want to.  I will do it because its “good for me.”

I will walk and consider my work in progress. Am I remaining faithful to my theme? How can I show the disintegration of a relationship without resorting to the same arguments and spats that are the cliché tropes of badly crafted romance novels? I decide that what I need to do is continue crafting the allegories, and build the layers of tension.

And once I have brainstormed my block into submission, I will stop in at the diner, order a coffee, and pull out my android tablet. I will write for an hour putting those thoughts together. It will be a productive hour, just because I have walked in the fresh air, and changed my writing environment.

Everyone suffers from stalled creativity. For me, the only solution is to force my way through it. Once I have a hole punched through the wall, new ideas crystallize and I am fired with the knowledge of what has to be done next.

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Don’t dump it-deploy it

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADMost of my work takes place in  a world I invented, right down to the religion. Because my world is very different, whenever I sit down to write, I have the most incredible urge to spew background information. I want my reader to understand the world I’ve created, so I want to give them information. Lot’s and lots of information. OMG, do I have information for you.

But is the information for you as the reader, or for me as the author? There you have it–writing it down cements the world in my head.  Now my info-dumps are cut and kept in a file that contains all my background information. I need that info to write the story, but the reader only needs enough bare bones to fire his imagination.

So how shall I do this? A prologue? Well, I’m leaning away from prologues nowadays, although it can be done–David Eddings did it really well in The Belgariad, and Anne McCaffrey also did in her Pern novels. In some cases a prologue sets the stage. But in online writing groups  I frequently  see that a large number of folks don’t bother to read prologues, preferring to get directly to the story. If folks aren’t going to bother reading it, why should I waste my time writing it?

The key to describing the fantasy setting and the social structure of that world is to let the story do it naturally. Deploy the info in small increments as the characters go through their daily life.

Let’s pretend we’re writing a detective novel:

Joe Stone stood, illuminated by the harsh light of the fridge, staring at the six-pack of beer that represented the sum total of his groceries. Grabbing one, he twisted the cap off, and took a long, desperately needed pull.

dump no infoA sour smell rose from his sink as he peered through the broken blinds, more concerned with the dead body in his rundown tool shed than the shabby state of his kitchen. He wondered who the stiff was, and how the dead man pertained to the divorce case he was investigating.

Most importantly, he wondered how he could avoid taking the rap for it.

That he was being deliberately set up was a given, but by who? Pulling his phone  from his pocket, Joe scrolled through his contacts. He had one last friendly ear at the police department, his old partner, Mike Copper. The question was, would Mike believe him or would he leap to the conclusion that Joe had snapped again? 

So, now you have a picture of Joe Stone. He’s probably single,  a private investigator, his home is in disrepair, his empty fridge tells us doesn’t eat at home very often, and he may drink more than is good for him.

Joe is an ex cop, possibly fired for use of excessive force, as he fears he has only one sympathetic ear there. He’s involved in a nasty private investigation, the corpse in the shed tells us that.

TRUST YOUR READERThere’s no need for an info dump to aid the reader in forming a picture of Joe. All that information was deployed by his actions, and while reading the events of the next 72 hours, more snippets will come out, and this complicated man and his world will become more clear to the reader.

Settings make no difference. Writing fantasy novels is the same thing as writing novels set in the real world. Assume your world is real and slip the info in the natural places.

Belnek knelt by the low fire in front of his hut, pulling the turnips out of the coals, brushing the burnt flakes away. His mouth watered, and he wished there had been meat to roast, but once again, when he checked his snares, they had been empty.

Realizing what he had just thought, he gasped,  fearing the god would interpret his thoughts as ingratitude and would make the harvest scant too. He raised his eyes to the east where the shining towers of the gods were said to be. Closing his eyes he, said a prayer to Osin, thanking him for the turnips, asking his blessing on the meal.

Book- onstruction-signNow you see a man who is not rich, but who has a hut and a fire, and has turnips to roast. Prayers come as naturally to him as breathing–he is a devout man, sure his god is all-knowing, and concerned that he is seen as a devoted, grateful man. His snares are apparently empty quite often, so game has become scarce, and it concerns him.

We have the basics of his world, low-tech, agrarian. In that small scene, intimate details of Belnek’s life is shown and in that way the reader has enough info to begin to picture the world outside Belnek’s hut. There is no need to dump a huge amount of information, because it will come out as his story unfolds.

For me the real trick is to rein it in, because I love every last little detail about my imaginary worlds. But that doesn’t mean my readers will love them. Most readers only need the skeleton of the world so that they can visualize it themselves. The hard part is finding that magic moment where you have given them exactly the right amount of details to involve the reader, but not so much they become bored.

Listen to your beta readers, and make adjustments accordingly. If they feel they can be honest with you, they will point out where you need to tighten the narrative, or expand a bit more on the details.

 

 

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