Tag Archives: NaNoPrep

#NaNoWriMo prep part 6: How the Story Begins #amwriting

Today we’re continuing to prep for NaNoWriMo by thinking about the plot and the story our characters inhabit. In post one, we thought about what kind of project we intend to write—novels, short stories, poems, memoirs, personal essays, etc.

Post two of this series introduced the protagonist(s), giving us an idea of who they are and what they do. Post three explored the setting, so we know where they are and their circumstances. Post four detailed creating the skeleton of a plot. Post five jumped to the end, giving us a finite event to write to.

beginnings are endingsToday, we will pinpoint the moment in our protagonist(s) life where the story starts. We’re locating the point where this particular memoir, poem, novel, or short story begins.

The day that changed everything should open the story.

We see the protagonists in their familiar environment. By evening, a chain of events has begun. A tiny, insignificant stone rolls downhill, the first incident that will soon precipitate an avalanche of problems our protagonist must solve.

When we are new in this craft, we have a burning desire to front-load the history of our characters into the story, so the reader will know who they are and what the story is about.

I am the queen of front-loading. Fortunately, my writer’s group is made up of industry professionals and one in particular, Lee French, has an unerring eye for where the story a reader wants to know begins.

I have to remind myself that the first draft is the thinking draft. It’s where we build worlds and flesh out characters and relationships. It’s also where the story grows as we add to it.

We need a finite starting point, a place of interest. Have faith—the backstory will emerge as the story progresses. If we have our world solidly in our heads as we write, the reader will visualize a version of it that works for them, without our info dumping the history.

Let’s plot the beginning of a medieval fantasy:

Act 1: the beginning:

lute-clip-artSetting: Venice in the year 1430.The weather is unseasonably cold. A bard is concealed amongst the filth and shadows in a dark, narrow alley. Sebastian hides from the soldiers of a prince he has unwisely humiliated in a comic song.

Opening plot point–the hook: the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian, and he is hauled before the angry prince. The trial is brief and painful. Beaten and bloody, Sebastian is thrown into prison and sentenced to be beheaded at dawn.

That moment of despair is the end of chapter one.

You have done some prep work for character creation, so Sebastian is your friend. You know his backstory, who he is attracted to (men, women, none, or both), how handsome he is, and his personal history.

You know who he will meet in prison, someone who will help him escape. Depending on Sebastian’s romantic preference, Chance (an assassin’s professional name) will be male or female and dislikes the bard on sight. Still, Chance needs Sebastian’s help to escape as he/she/they will also die at dawn.

You have decided that the prince is a dark-path warlock. His brother is a highly placed cardinal who intends to become pope, protects him.

You have designed Sebastian and Chance’s escape, which is the first pinch point— the place where what they learn from each other fuels a quest: that of killing the Warlock Prince. Each has different reasons for this, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and all that.

But now they are on the run and have no idea how to accomplish that task. Circumstances force them to work together despite their clash of personalities.

And we all know how friction heats things up. Romance or no romance, this tension is crucial.

We (the author) know the Warlock Prince must die if they are to save Venice, but who will be willing to help them, and what roadblocks stand in their way? These people will emerge as you write the first draft.

You’ve written down some ideas for the ending, so you have a goal to write to. At this point, the middle of the story is murky, but it will come to you as you write toward the ending. Every event and roadblock that happens to Sebastian between his arrest and the final moments of his victory will emerge from your imagination as you write your way through this first draft.

Mardi_Gras_mask_cateyes_iconBut the opening moment, the scene showing a lowly bard hiding behind a rubbish heap, is the moment in Sebastian’s life where the story the reader wants to hear starts. That scene is where this story begins regardless of how interesting Sebastian’s story, Venice’s story, or the Warlock Prince’s story was before that day. It is the beginning because this is the point where all the essential characters are in one place and are introduced:

  • The reader meets the villain and sees him in all his power
  • Sebastian knows one thing—the Warlock Prince must be stopped. He can sink no lower—he has hit bottom, and from there he can only go up.
  • Chance is in the same low emotional place, but he/she/they have an escape plan.

The story kicks into gear at this pinch point because the assassin is at risk on two fronts, which means Sebastian is too. Chance’s original task of killing the prince has failed, so now they must avoid both the prince’s soldiers and the mysterious employer‘s goons. For Chance, it’s a matter of pride that the original commission must be fulfilled despite the fact there will be no payment. Sebastian agrees to help ensure it happens because he has a conscience and wants to protect the people of Venice from the prince and his brother.

Attraction often grows in the most unlikely of places. Will it blossom into romance? It’s Venice, a city filled with romance and intrigue. But you’re the author, so only you know how their relationship grows as you write their adventure.

What else will emerge over the following 40,000 or more words (lots more in my case)?

  • Who is the assassin’s mysterious employer and what is their agenda?
  • Who is Chance really, what is their true name, and how did he/she/they become an assassin?

Sebastian will find this information out as the story progresses and only when he needs to know it. With that knowledge, he will realize his fate is sealed—he’s doomed no matter what. But it fires him with the determination that if he goes down, he will take the Warlock Prince and his corrupt brother with him.

If you dump the history at the beginning, the reader has no reason to go any further. You have wasted words on something that doesn’t advance the plot, doesn’t intrigue the reader.

Finding the beginning of the story

The people who will help our hapless protagonist will enter the story as he needs them. Each person will add information the reader wants, but only when Sebastian requires it. Some characters, people who can offer the most help will be held back until the final half of the story.

By the end of the novel, the reader will have acquired the important history of Sebastian, Chance, the mysterious employer, and the Warlock Prince. With the last bits of information, the final pieces of the puzzle will fall into place.

Gaining all that knowledge is the carrot that keeps the reader involved in the book.

Next up, in post 7, we will talk about resources for beleaguered writers. Memoirs, poems, essays, novels–every author needs handy resources to bookmark.

The final post in this 8-part series will be on how to carve out time for writing whether you are participating in NaNoWriMo or just writing for fun.


Posts in this series:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 3: Designing Worlds #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 4: Plot Arc #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 5: How the Story Ends #amwriting

3 Comments

Filed under writing

#NaNoWriMo prep part 5: How the Story Ends #amwriting

Today we’re continuing to prep our novel by thinking about the plot and the story our characters inhabit. In post one, we thought about what kind of project we intend to write—novel, short stories, poems, memoir, personal essays, etc.

nano prep end this messPost two of this series introduced the protagonist(s), so we have an idea of who they are and what they do.

Post three explored the setting, so we already know where they are and their circumstances.

Post four detailed creating the skeleton of a plot.

Now we’re going to jump to the end. I know it’s rude to read the end of a book before you even begin it, but I am the kind of writer who needs to know how it ends before I can write the beginning.

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_Panza

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Gustave Dore PD|100

Julian Lackland was my first nano novel. In its proto form, it was my 2010 NaNoWriMo project. That novel emerged from my mind because I had written a short story of about 2500 words featuring an elderly knight-at-large. Julian was a Don Quixote kind of knight, returning to the town where he had spent his happiest days in a mercenary crew.

He enters the town and finds it completely changed. The town has grown so large that he becomes lost. Julian talks to his horse, telling him how wonderful the place they are going is, and all about the people he knew and loved. When he does find the inn he’s looking for, nothing is what he expects. The innkeeper he was so fond of has died of old age, and stranger still, the old innkeeper’s middle-aged youngest son, is the man behind the bar. Most of the friends he’d ridden with are dead. The story ends with Lady Mags, the third leg of his love triangle, entering the tap room and their reunion.

On October 28, 2010, I was scrambling, trying to find something I could write, but my thoughts kept returning to the old man’s story. The innkeeper had referred to him as the Great Knight, stupidly brave but harmlessly insane. Had he always been that way? Who had he been when he was young and strong? Who did he love? How did Julian end up alone if Julian, Beau, and Mags were madly in love with each other?

What was their story?

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

On November 1, I still had nothing for a new novel, but I had committed to writing 50,000 words. The short story nagged at me. I found myself keying the hokiest opening lines ever, and from those lines emerged the story of an innkeeper, a bard, three mercenary knights, and the love triangle that covered fifty years of Julian’s life.

That book spawned Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers. While Julian Lackland was the last book in the Billy’s Revenge trilogy to be published, it was the first to be written.

The trials and tribulations of that first novel’s publishing path, the title change, and the numerous reasons it took so long for Julian to make it to the finish line is another story, but he did eventually make it.

If I know how the story will end, I can build a plot to that point. So, let’s look at my current project. I have one book that has been languishing for 5 years now because I don’t know how it ends. Unfortunately, the ending I’m detailing here is not for that book.

For my new novel, I have my characters in place. We’ll call them Marco and Dinah for this post. In reality, they have other names, but I am using their situation to show how I brainstorm my plots. I have my setting, and I know their place in that society.

This story is a murder mystery with no title as of yet. The exact details of solving the murders are still a bit murky. However, I know who is dead, how they died, and who the murderer is.

Right now, the end of the outline just says, “Marco and Dinah prevail, Klaus dead. Sarie and Jon safe.” That isn’t a lot to hang a story on, and when I begin writing the novel, I will need to know a little more, or I will lose the plot.

What I do is write an outline that will become the final chapters. This is what I came up with:

Klaus ties his barge up at the pier and goes to the inn while his crew offloads the cargo. He overhears that the mages have repaired the Temple. He decides there is only one way to end it: to take out the healers who had failed to save his daughter.

Dinah spots Klaus entering the Temple and is surprised because he didn’t pass through the gate. She recognizes him from down at the docks and wonders why he’s there when he’s been so anti-Temple. Something about him bothers her, so she follows him.

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADMarco arrives at the inn. The innkeeper mentions Klaus was there, but now he’s gone. Marco sees his barge is still there, and the deckhands don’t know where he is. He goes to the gatehouse where Dinah is supposed to be on duty and immediately knows something is wrong. He fears Klaus has gotten to her, and instinct tells him to go to the Temple.

Dinah tracks Klaus toward the infirmary, where Sarie and Jon are working, treating an elderly man. They’re in a healing trance, unaware of anything other than their patient.

Loren is working in his study, unaware his wife and her journeyman are in danger. He glimpses Dinah sneaking through the shadows and knows something is wrong. He follows her, meeting up with Marco as he leaves his study. The two confer and move on to the infirmary.

Klaus senses he’s being followed. He steps behind a pillar, ambushing Dinah. He attempts to strangle her, but she grabs him by the hair. Her feet slip out from under her, and she falls, pulling him down to the floor. Twisting around, she pushes him away with her feet and manages to grab her staff as she stands. Klaus has also regained his footing and is coming for her, but as she swings her staff, she slips again, cracking his skull, just as Marco arrives and fires off a lightning bolt, killing Klaus.

Or something like that. I’ll choreograph the fight when I get to that spot, but I guarantee it will be quick. I dislike reading drawn-out fight scenes and usually skip over them.

Anyway, Sarie and Jon have no idea what has just gone on, and the patient is healed. Loren agrees the new floor is too slick after all, but at least it won’t burn. Dinah finally tells Marco she’s expecting, and they all live happily, at least for a while.

30 days 50000 wordsIn real life, people live happily, but no one really lives deliriously happy ever after. But that’s another story and a different genre.

So now I know how the novel ends, and I thank you all for listening to my mental ramblings—I hope they help you. All I need are a few paragraphs, a skeleton to hang the story on, dots to connect, and I can write the first draft.

Next up, we will decide where and how the story begins.

Posts in this series:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 3: Designing Worlds #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 4: Plot Arc #amwriting

5 Comments

Filed under writing

#NaNoWriMo prep part 3: Designing Worlds #amwriting

Today we’re continuing our NaNo Prep by imagining a world. These exercises will only take a few minutes unless you want to spend more time on them. They’re just a warmup, getting you thinking about your writing project. In our previous post, we asked ourselves who we think our characters might be. Now we ask, “Where do my characters live? How do they see their world?”

WritingCraftWorldbuildingEvery world in which every story is set is imaginary. This is true whether it is a memoir, a cookbook, a math book, a sci-fi novel, a contemporary novel set in London, or an encyclopedia.

All written worlds exist only in our minds, even those non-fiction books detailing recent events.

The world you paint with words will be inhabited by the characters you create. I write fantasy, and I have three created worlds, peopled with characters I cherish and places where I feel at home.

But my created worlds didn’t begin that way. They emerged as the first draft of the first novel evolved. Each world started as an idea and grew in detail as the narrative unfolded in my imagination.

But what if you aren’t writing fantasy? Creating a fantasy or sci-fi world is exactly the same as detailing a historical time or a current event.

The difference is in documentation. While you can use Google Earth to visit a distant city, read documentation concerning a historical event, or view maps drawn by contemporaries, you must create the history and landscape of your fantasy world. With fiction, your preparatory world-building is the documentation.

800px-Mount_Rainier_sunset_and_cloudsWhen writing our narrative, we want to avoid contradicting ourselves about our protagonist’s world. Keeping it all in your head is not a good idea, especially if you’re like me—too much data means I regularly have the eternal loading screen when trying to recall something. (I’ll never forget what’s-his-name.)

I recommend you create a file containing all your ideas regarding your fictional world, including the personnel files you are making. I learned to do that the hard way, so take my advice: write down your ideas, and update them with later changes.

I list all my background information in a separate Excel workbook for each book or series. You don’t have to go that far; you can use any kind of document, handwritten or digital. Many people make notes on their phones. You just need to document your ideas. If you want to get fancy, see my post, Ensuring Consistency: the Stylesheet.

Find images on the internet that are either historical or represent your ideas. Paintings and great photography inspire me and fire my imagination. Go to the internet and find maps.

If you are writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel, sketch a map. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but I recommend you use a pencil in case you need to rearrange it.

Clementines_Astoria_Dahlia_Garden2019Just like we do when creating our characters, we want to begin with a paragraph that might be the encyclopedia explanation of where the action takes place. I write fantasy, so here is the one paragraph I might start with:

The Citadel of Kyrano, a port city along the River Fleet. Its population is around five thousand, and its primary industry is wool production. Every industry in Kyrano supports the cloth trade in one way or another. The merchants’ council rules the citadel and a small armed militia keeps the peace and patrols the walls, repelling the occasional band of highwaymen.

I will ask myself several questions about Kyrano.

  • What objects do the characters see in their immediate environment?
  • When they step outside, what ambient sounds do they hear?
  • What odors and scents do they encounter indoors and out?
  • What objects do the characters interact with?
  • What weapons does this society use for protection? (swords, guns, phasers, etc.)
  • How important is religion?
  • What are the layers of society, and where do my characters fit?
  • Is the use of magic a part of my story? If so, who can use it, and what is the science of that magic? What are its limits?
  • Are science and technology a part of my story? If so, who can use it, and what are its limits?

Keep your world-building document handy, or a notepad and pen. As you go about your life, observe the world around you and make notes of smells and sounds you can incorporate into your work. I spend a lot of time walking in my neighborhood, but my own backyard is a haven for birds and insects. If you plan to set your work in a fantasy or sci-fi world, what can you incorporate into it that is familiar, something the reader can identify with?

Write a paragraph or two about what you think your characters might see and hear in their environment. What do they smell? It’s been exceptionally warm and dry so far this autumn here in the Northwest. When I go outside, I smell smoke from distant wildfires. I see browning vegetation, falling leaves, and a militant spider colony attempting to annex my back porch.

An author takes an idea, translates it into words, and dares the reader to believe it. Successful fantasy and sci-fi authors take the world they see and reshape it just a little, just enough so it seems alien yet familiar.

Every novel requires world-building.

Make notes about possible places where events will occur, writing them down as they come to you. Remember, the setting for a contemporary novel requires the same thinking and the same imagining of place as a fantasy novel does.

Seattle from the w space needle 2011If I were to write a thriller set in the current Seattle of 2023, I’d want the reader to see the landscape as if they lived there. I would use the eternal gray of certain times of the year to underscore my dark themes.

In fact, world-building is nothing more than taking what we know and reshaping it into what might be and then dropping casual hints about it into the narrative. It is only the backdrop against which our characters live out their lives. But without that backdrop, the story unfolds on a barren stage.

Pike_Place_Market_SeattleThe internet has information about every kind of environment that exists on Earth. All we have to do is use it.

Google Earth is a good tool for contemporary world-building if you can’t travel to the place in person.

The websites of NASA and other international space agencies are bottomless wells of information about the environment of space and what we know about other worlds.

Over the next few months, it’s up to you who write fantasy and science fiction to take what we know and make that intuitive leap to what might be.

Those of you who write romance, or thrillers, or action adventures, cozy mysteries or any other kind of novel—you must also take what we know of this world and turn it into what might be.


Posts in this series:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting


Credits and Attributions:

Pike Place Market, by Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. (Accessed October 10, 2022)

Mount Rainier Sunset and Clouds, US National Park Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (accessed October 10, 2022).

Downtown skyline in Seattle viewed from the w:Space Needle, by M.O. Stevens. Wikimedia Commons contributors, Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, File:Downtown Seattle skyline from Space Needle May 2011.JPG – Wikimedia Commons (accessed October 10, 2022)

15 Comments

Filed under writing

Outlining is Pantsing it in Advance so you can Wing It Later #amwriting

Over the years, I have learned many tricks to help people get a jump on their NaNoWriMo project.

Most writers will start an entirely new story. Some have an outline, but others are flying blind, or in author speak, “pantsing it.” Other writers will continue writing the first draft of an unfinished work-in-progress.

plotting as a family picnicI am a planner, but I’m also a pantser. I’m just writing to a loose outline. All I need is a little free time in advance of November to let my mind wander.

When I first began writing, I found Excel useful, but any document or spreadsheet program will work. The outline becomes my permanent stylesheet for that novel. I think of outlining as pantsing it in advance—a visual aid for winging it later.

Once I’m done winging it through the story and am in revisions, some scenes will make more sense when placed in a different order than originally planned. An outline allows me to view the arc of the story from a distance, so I can see where it might be flatlining. Perhaps an event should be cut completely as it no longer works. (I always save my outtakes in a separate file for later use.)

Over the years of editing and reviewing books, I’ve assembled a list of questions that help me nudge a novel from an idea into an outline. If I make notes as I think of things, I’ll never lose those characters or their story. Even if I can’t get to it right away, I’ll have all the essential stuff in a document and saved.

The first two questions I ask are what genre do I think I’m writing in, and what is the underlying theme? I prefer to write character-driven fantasy. A world will emerge with the characters, and I will make notes as bits and pieces of that environment occur to me. I have a deep streak of gallows humor in my personality, so humor in the face of disaster will be a theme. This theme comes out in most of my work.

Who are youNext, I ask the creative universe who the protagonist is. I create a brief personnel file, less than 100 words. It’s a paragraph with all the essential background information. Sometimes it takes a while to know what a character’s void is (a deep emotional wound), but it will emerge. I note the verbs, adjectives, and nouns the character embodies, as those give me all the necessary information.

Let’s create a protagonist. He doesn’t have a story yet, but that will come along once I have a few other people figured out.

Brand (MC) (Fire-mage, armsmaster, 36, divorced. Brown hair, brown eyes, suntanned.) Parents were mages, now deceased. VOID: Deep sense of failure. A convergence of personal tragedies led to a failed suicide attempt. VERBS: Act. Fight. Build. Repair. Protect. Create. ADJECTIVES: wary, sarcastic, hopeful, dedicated, considerate. NOUNS: sorrow, guilt, purpose, compassion, wit.

Does Brand have close friends? If not, will he gather companions? This question is important. If he doesn’t have friends at first, I will leave space on that page to add them when they emerge from my imagination. As I contemplate Brand’s story, perhaps a love interest will show up later, or maybe not.

What happens to take Brand out of his comfort zone? Sometimes I don’t have the answer to this for quite a while. Other times, it’s the spark that starts the story.

The entire arc of the story rests on how I answer the following question. What is Brand’s goal, his deepest desire? Currently, it looks like he’s hoping to regain his self-respect. That will become a secondary quest when a more immediate problem presents itself.

What stands in his way? Who or what is the Enemy?

Let’s name the enemy Silas. What is his deepest desire? How does Silas control the situation at the outset? Once I know who the antagonist is and what they want, I give them the same personnel file I give all the other characters—I identify a void, verbs, adjectives, and nouns for him.

Once I have Silas described in a paragraph, I can determine the quest. Silas is the key to what Brand must achieve. A believable villain is why Brand’s story will be fun to write.

Now we come to creating the plot. I decide where the story begins, then list a few possible scenes, using keywords to show mood and intention.

Mood words for meditationMeditating on mood words often precipitates a flash of brilliance that has nothing to do with anything. What if …

Newly arrived in the border town of Axeton, Brand discovers an ancient gate sealed with a magic lock. Beyond it, a faint path leads into the Deadlands, but where does it go? No towns exist in the moors, and no country wants to claim the Deadlands. The elemental creatures are too dangerous. Could it be a beastmaster searching for rare elemental creatures to use as weapons? If so, who has that skill, and what could they intend to do with them?

This plot twist forces me to rearrange the outline, and now I have to change Silas’s paragraph to make him a beast master. He can’t be two-dimensional, a cartoon villain, so why does he do evil with this talent? Why does he think he is the hero? The answers to those questions should give Silas a personality. We should feel some empathy for him.

How does Brand react to the pressure Silas exerts? Side characters may emerge as Brand works his way through the problems, people who will influence the plot’s direction. As the outline evolves, I will see many places where the struggle can deepen the relationships between the protagonist and their cohorts/romantic interests.

Later, after I have the characters figured out, I will work on the plot outline and try to shape the story’s arc. This is where roadblocks and obstacles do the heavy lifting, and my outline will contain ideas I can riff on. Brand will have to work hard to achieve his goal, but so will Silas.

Information and the lack of it drive the plot. Brand can’t have all the information. Silas must have more answers than Brand and be ruthless in using that knowledge to achieve his goal. My outline will tell me when it’s time to dole out information. What complications arise from Brand’s lack of information? My outline will offer hints for what he can do to rescue the situation.

With each chapter, Brand and his companions acquire the necessary information, but each answer leads to more questions. Conflicts occur when Silas sets traps, and by surviving those encounters, Brand gains more information about Silas’s capabilities. He must persevere and use that knowledge to win the final battle.

I could actually use this example as the genesis of a story, but I have a different outline in progress. Having my characters in place and an outline on hand helps keep me on track when I am pantsing it through NaNoWriMo. New flashes of brilliance will occur as I am writing, and hopefully they will make the struggle real. But two fundamental things will remain constant:

Brand’s determination to block Silas and wreck the enemy’s plans is the plot.

Brand’s growth as a character as he works his way through the plot is the story.

17 Comments

Filed under writing

#NaNoPrep: What to Expect #amwriting

I am a supporter of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) as a way to get people writing. Some people can’t resist a challenge, and NaNoWriMo is definitely that.

NaNoWriMoMemeNaNoWriMo is a personal challenge, a month that is solely dedicated to the act of writing a novel. It is a speed-run with daily goals to meet.

Day 1 – write 1,667 words or more.

Days 2 through 30 – rinse and repeat.

If you write 50,000 words and have your word count validated through the national website, you ‘win.’ Reporting your word count has been an honor system for the last two years, so you never have to upload your manuscript.

If you do cross the 50,000-word line, there are no huge prizes or great amounts of acclaim waiting for you. You will, however, get a PDF winner’s certificate that you can fill out and print to hang on your wall or keep in your digital files as I do.

Starting on day one, you will collect badges, little visible rewards, for your daily achievements. One badge that is difficult to get is the “update your progress every day” badge. I usually have my “winners’ certificate” by the day they become available, but I continue writing every day through the 30th and update my word count daily.

We all know that a novel of only 50,000 words is a good length for YA or romance, but for epic fantasy or literary fiction it’s only half a novel. Still, a dedicated author can get the basic structure and story-line of a novel down in those thirty days simply by sitting down for an hour or two each day and writing a minimum of 1667 words per day.

With a simple outline and a few notes to keep you on track, that isn’t too hard. Most authors who grew up with computers (unlike me) can double or triple that.

NaNoWriMo-WriterBadge-555-2x-1As always, there is a downside to this intense month of stream-of-consciousness writing. Just because you can sit in front of a computer and spew words does not mean you can write a novel that others want to read.

And unfortunately, for the first time author, the desire to publish that book without making revisions, and without professional editing is almost impossible to quell. Every year in February and March, many cheap or free eBooks will emerge testifying to that fundamental truth.

So why do I participate every year? I love working with the writers in our area, and hope to see the rare, committed novelist, the one who stays writing all year long. That person will join our region’s Discord channel and be a part of the posse.

More people write during November than you would think. In some years, about half the NaNo Writers in my regional area are journaling, writing family histories, or even writing their thesis.

Every year, my co-Municipal Liaison and I see a wave of new people who fill the vacancy left behind by the people who either lost interest in the first week or couldn’t find the time to get more than ten or twenty thousand words during previous years.

Those people sometimes feel like failures, but they aren’t.

Ten thousand words is two or three short stories. Twenty thousand is a novella. Writing a story of any length is an accomplishment, and those authors should be proud. They will write more as time goes on.

However, for a very few people, participating in NaNoWriMo will give them the confidence to admit that an author lives inside their heart, demanding to get out. In their case, NaNoWriMo is about writing and completing a novel they had wanted to write for years, something that had been in the back of their minds for all their lives.

These authors will take the time and make an effort to learn writing conventions. Grammarly’s website says writing conventions consist of four elements:

  • spelling
  • grammar
  • punctuation
  • capitalization

emotion-thesaurus-et-alSome new authors seek out books about writing craft and attend seminars. They will join writing groups and develop the skills needed to take a story and make it a novel with a proper beginning, a great middle, and an incredible end.

They will properly polish their work and run it past critique groups before they publish it. They will have it professionally edited.

These are books I will want to read.

And one skill we must develop early on is a thick skin. Nothing hurts worse than to see your work through their unbiased eyes and discover it wasn’t perfect after all. Yes, some people will love and admire what we have created, but other times what we hear back from our readers and editors is not what we wanted to hear.

For most authors success can only be measured in the satisfaction we get out of writing and seeing it published.

If your first novel is picked up by a traditional publisher, they may not put a lot of effort into pushing it, because you are an unknown author. They will test the waters and see what sort of reaction your book gets before they really commit to backing you.

Also, whether you are traditionally published or indie, you must do all the social media footwork yourself. You must get an Instagram account, a twitter account, a website, and so on. You may even have to arrange your own book signing events, just as if you were an indie.

strange thoughts 2This is time-consuming, and you will feel as if you need a personal assistant to handle these things. I know several authors who rely on the services of hourly personal assistants to help navigate the rough waters of being their own publicist.

Every year, participating in NaNoWriMo will inspire many discussions about becoming an author. Going full-time or keeping the day job, going indie or aiming for a traditional contract—these are conundrums many new authors will be considering after they have finished the chaotic month of NaNoWriMo.

However, if you don’t sit down and write that novel, you won’t have to worry about it.

November is a good time to do just that.

#NANOPREP SERIES TO DATE:

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?  (the storyboard)

#NaNoPrep, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

#NaNoPrep, Building Characters

#NaNoPrep, More Character Building

#NaNoPrep, Creating Societies

#NaNoPrep, Designing Science, Magic, and the Paranormal

#NaNoPrep, Terrain and Geography

#NaNoPrep, Connections and Interconnections

#NaNoPrep, Construction and Deconstruction

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 1

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 2

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc part 3, the End

#NaNoPrep: Signing up and Getting Started

#NaNoPrep: Guernica, Inspiration, and Finding Writing Prompts

#NaNoPrep: Time Management

#NaNoPrep: Countdown to November, Subject and Theme

This post:  #NaNoPrep: What to Expect

7 Comments

Filed under writing

#NaNoPrep: Countdown to November, Subject and Theme

NaNoWriMo 2021 officially begins one week from today on November 1st. For those of us who love a challenge, that will be the day we set the pen to paper and begin the actual writing of our projects.

plot is the frame upon which the themes of a story are supportedSo, what do we need to have in place during the next seven days before the big event?

One: We need to have characters.

Two: Our characters need an environment to live in, a world to inhabit.

Three: Our characters need some sort of backstory, so we know who they are when we begin writing.

Four: We need a plot or at least an inciting incident. We should have some idea of that moment when our frogs leap from the frying pan into the fire.

Five: You should try to identify your subject and unifying theme. We’ll talk about those things further on in this post.

How does my storyboard look right now?

Characters: This will be Ivan’s second book, so I have his backstory and don’t need to worry too much about that. Ivan is a fire-mage, an armorsmith, and a shaman. He is a father, a husband to his life partner, Kai. Kai is an earth-mage and a mason. The two share four children with another lashei couple, Avis and Venna. The children live with Ivan and Kai, as Avis and Venna are traveling dye traders.

The Home in WeilandEnvironment: Ivan and Kai live in Weiland, Tribe Weila’s riverport and mining center. Ivan’s extended family has five rowhouses at the upper end of High Street. It’s a steep but easy walk to the market for his grandfather, who lives next door and watches the children while Ivan and Kai work. I drew a little map for my notes, so I know the layout of where everything is in regard to their home and businesses. It could change, but I have something to start with.

His brother, Aldric, and his wife, Marta, have three children. They live at the other end of the row of houses. Ivan’s father, Aengus, and mentor, Jan, have their homes there too. Behind the rowhouses are a walled shared garden and orchard and the family’s barn. Ivan and Jan’s armory is a short walk through the back garden, and beyond that is Kai’s quarry.

The backstory: is already established for this book, as book one is currently being edited.

The inciting incident: At this point, the inciting incident is the arrival of news that a neighboring town has been attacked by tribeless raiders. It’s suspected the raiders are led by a rogue mage. Ivan and Kai must go and deal with that, a simple-sounding thing that becomes complicated. Aldric and Marta join them, leaving the children in the care of the three grandfathers.

What I hope to achieve by the last paragraph of this book: Ivan will be forced to grow in his role as a shaman and mage. Kai will be challenged when an old acquaintance is discovered in the rogue mage’s entourage. Aldric’s and Marta’s skills with weapons will be critical, and the blade that Ivan made for Marta when they were young will be the key to resolving the final encounter. Each character will be tempered steel, able to do what must be done, and still remain compassionate.

Subject and Theme: So, what is a theme? It’s different from the subject of a work. An example that most people are familiar with is the Star Wars series and franchise. The subject is “the battle for control of the galaxy between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance.” The themes are “moral ambiguity” or “the conflict between technology and nature.”

The subject of this book is how the desire for dominance and power corrupts an abused young mage, and the destruction he creates in his attempt to control his life. This book will explore the theme of good vs. evil and the subthemes of comradeship and love of family. The books I am drawn to often feature these themes.

How do you identify your theme? Sometimes it’s difficult unless you start out with one in mind. Here is a short list of some themes for you to consider:

  • Abuse
  • Alienation/loneliness
  • Ambition
  • Coming of age
  • Conspiracy
  • Crime and Justice
  • Fall from Grace
  • General dehumanization of society
  • Good vs. Evil
  • Grief
  • Humanity in jeopardy
  • Love
  • Nostalgia for the good old days
  • Plagues
  • Rebellion and revolution
  • Redemption
  • Religious intolerance
  • Separation and reunion
  • The hero’s journey
  • War

theme_meme_lirf06302020A common theme in fantasy is the juxtaposition of chaos and stability (or order). This subtheme will feature strongly in my novel. Good vs. evil is a trope of the speculative fiction genre. Evil is usually portrayed by taking one or the other of these concepts to an extreme.

Epic fantasy is usually good vs. evil, based on the hero’s journey. The stories detail how events shape the characters.

That is what I am writing in November.

#NANOPREP SERIES TO DATE:

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?  (the storyboard)

#NaNoPrep, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

#NaNoPrep, Building Characters

#NaNoPrep, More Character Building

#NaNoPrep, Creating Societies

#NaNoPrep, Designing Science, Magic, and the Paranormal

#NaNoPrep, Terrain and Geography

#NaNoPrep, Connections and Interconnections

#NaNoPrep, Construction and Deconstruction

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 1

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 2

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc part 3, the End

#NaNoPrep: Signing up and Getting Started

#NaNoPrep: Guernica, Inspiration, and Finding Writing Prompts

#NaNoPrep: Time Management

This Post: #NaNoPrep: Countdown to November, Subject and Theme

10 Comments

Filed under writing

#NaNoPrep: Time Management #amwriting

If you plan to write a 50,000-word novel this coming November, you will need to develop some time management skills.

NaNoWriMoMemeWriting is easier once it becomes a daily behavioral habit. However, making the best use of your limited writing time requires a little planning, self-discipline, and encouragement from your family.

Once you tell them that you have a goal of writing 1,667 words a day, they might be your biggest supporters. My family certainly has been.

My children are grown now, but most new writers have jobs and a family. When you have school-age children, time for personal projects can be limited. You are constantly going somewhere to some athletic or school function.

But I did it, and you can too. By writing in short bursts whenever you have the opportunity, you might get your first draft finished and get that certificate that says you completed 50,000 words in 30 days.

First, you must give yourself permission to write. For much of my working life, I was a single parent, sometimes with three part-time jobs. My main job was as a bookkeeper or working in data entry for corporate America. Throughout the 1990s, I worked weekends and holidays as a hotel maid. I’m retired now, but although I’d never heard of NaNoWriMo, I was a secret novelist, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was writing.

Digital Clock FaceWe have this perception that taking time for creativity is selfish, and that will be your biggest hurdle. Trust me, it is not asking too much of your family for you to have some time every day that is sacred and dedicated to writing.

I wrote in the evenings while my children did their homework, which sometimes meant a lot of stopping and starting, but I did get some writing done. Some words are better than none! You can also set aside a block of time on the weekend to make up some words, although that can be difficult. Setting aside time on a weekend can become a hardship, especially if you have a young family.

Having me there, typing away next to the gerbil cage seemed to keep them on track with their homework, and I did get a page or two written every night.

What I churned out was pretty awful, but although I didn’t know it at the time, I was developing discipline and a work ethic in myself as well as in my children.

Having an artistic life means you allow yourself time to create something meaningful to you.

The following is a list of ideas to help you carve the time to write and still be a full participant in your family’s life.

  • You must decide what is more important, your dream of writing or watching a television show that is someone else’s dream. Do you want to create, or do you want to be entertained?

Personally, I would say that if you didn’t like how Game of Thrones turned out, too bad. Write it the way you think it should have been done. Writing fan-fiction is a time-honored way to start your writing career.

  • You have the right to take an hour in the morning and the evening to use for your own creative outlet. Wake up an hour early and write until the time you would generally get up. That will be the quietest time you will have all day. Give up that 9:00 p.m. TV show and write for one more hour. There are your 2 precious hours.

Use those two separate hours for your stream-of-consciousness writing. You could easily get your 1,667 words written every day, possibly more. I am a slow keyboard jockey, and I can do about 1,100 wonky, misspelled words an hour during NaNoWriMo.

ALL words you write count toward the goal, misspelled or not.

Time_Management_Quayle_QuoteWrite for five minutes here and ten minutes there all day long if that is all you can do. Every word counts toward your finished manuscript. I took my lunch to work and wrote during my lunch half-hour whenever possible. I also wrote on the bus when I didn’t own a car.

You don’t have to announce to your co-workers or family that you are writing a book if you don’t wish to. I certainly didn’t feel comfortable saying anything about my secret life.

  • If you want to spend your lunchtime writing, politely let people know you’re handling personal business and won’t have time to chat.

Writing in the stream-of-consciousness style is an excellent way to cultivate your emotional and poetic mind. It will improve your writing skills in general.

During NaNoWriMo, you engage in unedited writing. Nothing is deleted and every word counts. Even with an outline, sections of your narrative will often be unstructured because it reflects your (or your character’s) observations at the moment you were thinking them.

Writing in this fashion mirrors the way internal thoughts in the human mind work. You are quickly processing thoughts and perhaps switching from one topic to another with abandon. Just go for it.

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021Remember, what you are writing is a rough draft, so your story arc will be bumpy and uneven. It doesn’t have to be perfect, so don’t worry about making it so. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get that first draft written in thirty days. So, every time you have fifteen minutes to spare, sit down and write as much as you can in that short length of time. Spew your story as fast as you can in those moments before you are pulled away. With six or seven short bursts of writing, you can really rack up the word count.

In January or March, or whenever you go to revise your first draft, you might be amazed to find that much of what you originally wrote has life and passion.

The point is to keep on writing even when you have fallen behind. Use whatever motivational tricks you need to encourage yourself, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Far more important than simply getting word count, the goal is to finish your novel.

Writers and other artists do have to make some sacrifices for their craft. It’s just how things are. But you don’t have to sacrifice family for it. Sacrifice one hour of sleeping in and give up something ephemeral and unimportant like one hour of TV.

You can achieve your goal of 50,000 words in 30 days if you give yourself permission to create and make the time to do so.


#NANOPREP SERIES TO DATE:

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?  (the storyboard)

#NaNoPrep, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

#NaNoPrep, Building Characters

#NaNoPrep, More Character Building

#NaNoPrep, Creating Societies

#NaNoPrep, Designing Science, Magic, and the Paranormal

#NaNoPrep, Terrain and Geography

#NaNoPrep, Connections and Interconnections

#NaNoPrep, Construction and Deconstruction

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 1

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 2

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc part 3, the End

#NaNoPrep: Signing up and Getting Started

#NaNoPrep: Guernica, Inspiration, and Finding Writing Prompts

10 Comments

Filed under writing

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc part 3, Plotting the End #amwriting

Some writers are “pantsers,” not “plotters.” Maybe you fall into that group and love NaNoWriMo because you can let the ideas flow freely. I have “pantsed it” on occasion, and it can be liberating.

WritingCraft_NaNoPrep_Novel_in_a_monthBut sometimes, when writing the first draft, we realize our manuscript has gone way off track and is no longer fun to write. That is where the storyboard and my loose outline become important.

My previous posts in this series talked about the story arc and how having a list of prompts can move the story forward and keep it flowing. We have made a list of prompts that will help us get started. We have a character, we have a world, and we have a situation. My sample outline looks like this:

Outline10092021LIRF

Now we must plot the finale, the event that will give Dave his greatest desire.

Hindrances matter. 

  1. It’s an ordinary suitcase, one you might find in any budget-friendly chain store. Dave is familiar with clients who try to hide money and realizes he has to think like a crook.
  2. He purchases a matching suitcase to use as a decoy.
  3. Dave’s new furniture arrives from the Large Swedish Furniture company.
  4. He can’t read Swedish directions, but his neighbor, Sophia, does, and she helps him.
  5. While assembling his furniture, he realizes he has the perfect place to hide the actual suitcase. After Sophia leaves, he puts it in the open space behind the drawers beneath his platform bed.
  6. With the original suitcase hidden, Dave visits a secondhand bookstore run by his neighbor, Sophia.
  7. He buys a large number of secondhand books for his apartment, some of which are in bad condition, claiming he loves to read but loves a good bargain more.
  8. At home, he fills the decoy suitcase with the worn books and hides it in a closet.
  9. He is barely settled in his new apartment when he is robbed.
  10. The decoy suitcase is stolen, but all it contains are beat-up copies of the entire Wheel of Time series in English and two out-of-date copies of Accounting for Dummies.
  11. Dave is kidnapped and threatened with bodily harm.
  12. He doesn’t crack. Why?
  13. His neighbor, Sophia, poses as a pizza delivery person and springs him. Surprise! She works for his employer and is his bodyguard.
  14. The agent Dave is holding the suitcase for turns up dead.
  15. Dave is handcuffed to the suitcase again, and he and Sophia must hurry to take it to Paris.
  16. There is a battle at the airport, but they make it onto the airplane.
  17. Enemy agents are waiting in Paris, but Sophia has mad martial arts skills.
  18. The suitcase is handed off to the proper authorities.
  19. Dave is free to go back to Seattle and his old life as an accountant.
  20. But he is offered a permanent job with his current employer.
  21. What does Dave choose, security and boredom, or adventure and a bodyguard like Sophia?

The entire outline takes about two pages. You haven’t written the story, but you have given yourself a skeleton upon which you can hang a novel.

storyArcLIRF10032021

Each prompt can (and will) be riffed on or changed from page one, but ultimately, the final battle in Paris and the chase to the embassy will be the goal we are writing to.

If six authors used this outline, you would end up with six completely different novels. Once you begin writing, the creative brain takes over, and what emerges will be unlike anything another author wrote.

By the time you arrive at the end, it might have evolved into an entirely different book than you envisioned at the beginning.

This is because you will be “pantsing it” between the prompts, and anything can happen when you sit down and write whatever enters your mind.

Just make notes of your changes and keep the overall story arc in mind.

Some people (and I am one of them) occasionally find it easier to begin writing a novel by writing the last chapter first. That is how I wrote my 2010 NaNoWriMo novel.

I wrote that final chapter, then asked myself who the characters were, how they had gotten there, and why they were in those circumstances. For that book, I wrote the outline in reverse.

There is no one-size-fits-all way to write a novel.

Neil_Gaiman_QuoteEvery novel is different, has a different genesis, and emerges from the author’s mind with its own personality.

The trick for NaNoWriMo is to get 1,667 new words written every day for 30 consecutive days. At the end of November, you should have 50,000 or more words written, and possibly your entire first draft.

To sign up for National Novel Writing Month, go to www.nanowrimo.org and get your profile started.


#NANOPREP SERIES TO DATE:

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?  (the storyboard)

#NaNoPrep, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

#NaNoPrep, Building Characters

#NaNoPrep, More Character Building

#NaNoPrep, Creating Societies

#NaNoPrep, Designing Science, Magic, and the Paranormal

#NaNoPrep, Terrain and Geography

#NaNoPrep, Connections and Interconnections

#NaNoPrep, Construction and Deconstruction

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 1

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 2

14 Comments

Filed under writing

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 2 #amwriting

I have developed mad skills at carving out time for writing because I participate in NaNoWriMo every November. As a municipal liaison for the Olympia area, I must get a minimum of 1,667 new words written each day.

WritingCraft_NaNoPrep_Novel_in_a_monthI usually do this with a little advance preparation. Then on November 1st, I sit in front of my computer, and using the ideas I have outlined as my prompts, I wing it for at least two hours.

So, where am I in this process? I’m now listing prompts for the middle of my novel, book 2 of a fantasy series.

However, for this series of posts I’m using an exercise from a past seminar on plotting to illustrate how my method works. This is a plot that can be set in any contemporary, paranormal fantasy, or sci-fi world. Change the vehicles from cars to horses and carriages, and it can be placed in a historical world.

Depending on your personal inclination, this could be written as a political thriller or a romance, or a combination of both.

In my last post, we met our protagonist, Dave, an unmarried accountant. We saw him in his usual surroundings, a café he regularly has lunch at. An event occurred, which is the inciting incident. What could possibly have enticed Dave out of his comfort zone? What did he do that was out of character for him? He “paid it forward” and bought a stranger lunch.

  • This act changes his life. It’s the first point of no return, leading to the first crisis.

Dave didn’t know it, but that was the moment he was thrown out of his comfort zone and into the situation, which is the core of the plot.

  • Dave walked toward his office, only a few blocks away, but as he waited for the light to change so he could cross the street, a limousine pulled up alongside him. Four large men in black suits hustled him into the backseat.
  • He was forced at gunpoint onto a plane bound for a foreign nation, handcuffed to a suitcase with no explanation.

Those are the circumstances in which Dave found himself in my last post. 

scienceHow will the next phase of Dave’s story start? That will begin the middle section of the story, and this is what we are going to give a brief outline of.

As I’ve mentioned before, everything that occurs from here until the final page happens because Dave has an objective: he wants to go home.

I suggest we give ourselves a few prompts, all of which center around Dave achieving his objective: to get rid of the suitcase and go back to his job. He wants that desperately. Desire drives the story. Objectives + Risk = Story

  1. A silent guard accompanies Dave.
  2. Dave has been left in possession of his cell phone, but mysteriously, it has no signal.
  3. They arrive at the embassy.
  4. Dave is taken to an interrogation room and questioned about his relationship with the woman he bought lunch for.
  5. Dave discovers that the only key that can remove the handcuffs is in the custody of the mysterious woman who is interrogating him.
  6. The woman leaves the room. While she is out, Dave’s phone lights up with a text message from his boss in Seattle. Because he hasn’t been to work for two days and didn’t call in, he has been fired.
  7. He can’t seem to call out or reply to the message, another mysterious thing.
  8. The interrogator returns, having verified that Dave is who he claims he is. She also seems to know he’s now unemployed.
  9. She offers him a job. All he has to do is babysit the suitcase for two months until a certain agent who is otherwise occupied can claim it.
  10. Dave wants to go home, but he can’t. He’s unemployed and homeless in a foreign country with no luggage, and no money other than his credit cards, which have limits. If he accepts the job, he will be given a work visa, a flat to live in, and a salary.
  11. He needs these things to achieve his deepest desire: to go back to Seattle and get another accounting job, which he can do after fulfilling his part of the bargain.
  12. The wage he is offered is good, significantly so, which makes him nervous. Still, he can see no choice but to accept the job. (The second point of no return, leading to the next crisis.) After all, he’s always wanted to visit (Stockholm? Insert foreign capital here).
  13.  Anyway, how hard can it be to babysit a locked suitcase?

That question must come back to haunt him for the next 40,000 words, and if you list a few prompts, you will take Dave to his ultimate meeting with fate.

Hindrances matter. Add to the list of obstacles as you think of them, as those difficulties are what will force change on the protagonist, keeping him and his story moving forward.

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_PacingIn any story, the crucial underpinnings of conflict, tension, and pacing are bound together. Go too heavily on one aspect of the triangle, and the story fails to engage the reader. By outlining a few important events now, we can add trouble and hitches during the writing process and increase the tension. Pacing will be something to worry about in the second draft—at this point, we just want to get the bones of his adventure down on paper.

Scenes involving conflict are controlled chaos—controlled on the part of the author. Stories that lack conflict are character studies. And perhaps, a character study is what you wish to write, and that is okay too. It’s just a different kind of story, more literary in its approach. Regardless, it will need an arc of some sort to bring change and growth to the protagonist.

The middle is often easiest to write because that is where the action happens. But it can easily be messed up, again with too much detail inserted in dumps. Several more events will follow, all of them leading toward one or more confrontations with the enemy. Without a loose outline, some of these events will be “desperation events.”

  • Killing off random characters
  • Random explosions
  • Yet another gratuitous sex scene

Next week we will plot the conclusion of Dave’s adventure. We’ll also examine the way writing the ending first can inspire beginnings. My 2010 NaNoWriMo novel grew out of what was really the final chapter.


#NANOPREP SERIES TO DATE:

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?  (the storyboard)

#NaNoPrep, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

#NaNoPrep, Building Characters

#NaNoPrep, More Character Building

#NaNoPrep, Creating Societies

#NaNoPrep, Designing Science, Magic, and the Paranormal

#NaNoPrep, Terrain and Geography

#NaNoPrep, Connections and Interconnections

#NaNoPrep, Construction and Deconstruction

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 1

This Post: #NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 2

7 Comments

Filed under writing

NaNoPrep, Construction, and Deconstruction

We are building up to NaNoWriMo 2021. For the last few weeks, I’ve been focusing on the creation of a storyboard. We’ve discussed characters and worldbuilding. Today, we’ll talk about book construction and what we can learn by reading work published by the big traditional publishers.

WritingCraft_NaNoPrep_Novel_in_a_monthWhether you hope to be published traditionally or plan to go indie, you must know what the reading public is buying. You will probably write a book that is squarely set in your favorite genre.

I read in many genres. Most of what I write is genre fantasy, but mystery and contemporary fiction also intrigue me.

Your assignment for today is to find a book you love, sit down with a notebook and pencil, and dissect that narrative to discover what that author did to draw you in and keep you involved.

Even the best books have flaws. Great characters, proper pacing, and attention to plotting keep those rough places from derailing a brilliant book. The flaws are just as important for me to identify as are the things I love.

So, let’s take a look at the construction of a recent entry into the classic mystery genre that impressed me, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz.

Publisher: ‎Harper; Unabridged edition (June 6, 2017)

Publication date: June 6, 2017

Print length: 501 pages

But first, THE BLURB:

41OtsmHYJLLWhen editor Susan Ryeland is given the manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has no reason to think it will be much different from any of his others. After working with the bestselling crime writer for years, she’s intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries disturbing sleepy English villages. An homage to queens of classic British crime such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Alan’s traditional formula has proved hugely successful. So successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job.

Conway’s latest tale has Atticus Pünd investigating a murder at Pye Hall, a local manor house. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.

Masterful, clever, and relentlessly suspenseful, Magpie Murders is a deviously dark take on vintage English crime fiction in which the reader becomes the detective.

My Dissection:

First, Magpie Murders was published by one of the Big Traditional Publishing houses, Harper. This means the publisher decided it would sell enough in hard copy to justify supporting the author with advertising.

What makes this book better than the competition? Many authors published by Harper don’t get the kind of support this book got. What made this book more marketable?

  1. It was an original way to twist the Agatha Christie formula for cozy mysteries.
  2. Readers are given a story within a story, and within that story is hidden another story. The novel opens with an editor reading the manuscript of an author whom she despises personally but whose work she loves.
  3. We read the manuscript that editor Susan Ryeland has been given, experiencing it simultaneously as she does.
  4. Within the novel that Ryeland must edit are many clues, not only to the mystery she is supposed to edit but also to solve the murder of the author.
  5. Those clues take an unusual form—word games, something people who love anagrams and word puzzles will enjoy. The dead author used this trick to write his acquaintances into his novels, rearranging the letters of their names and portraying them in an unflattering light.
  6. The murdered author was known for using the plots of his less talented students’ work and stealing plots and names wholesale from Agatha Christie.
  7. These name anagrams are intended to be noticed by his fellow authors and acquaintances, a deliberate attempt to make them uncomfortable or angry.
  8. Halfway into the novel, our editor discovers that the final chapters of the book are missing. She goes on a mission to find those chapters.
  9. In the process, she discovers just how hateful and rotten the murdered man was.

chicago guide to grammarNow, let’s talk MECHANICS. The author of the Magpie Murders has worked as a journalist. He has taken the time to become educated in grammar and understands common industry standards.

  1. If you want to write a book that other people can read, you must understand the fundamental rules of grammar.
  2. He didn’t get too artful, except when he was writing as the murder victim. That artfulness was there to point out the victim’s arrogance.

What I take home from dissecting books like this is that a plot can be complicated, but simplicity is sometimes best for prose.

A few things I didn’t like, some of which were deliberate. These things didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book:

  1. The pacing was a little uneven. In one place, it grinds to a complete halt. I could see why the author had made that choice as part of the overall plot, but I didn’t like it and wished he’d found a different way to make that point.
  2. The novel “written by the murdered man” was gripping, but I didn’t understand that fictional book’s ending until the editor confronted the author’s murderer. Again, that was deliberate on the dead author’s part, written that way as one more reason to hate him. But I would have liked to understand it before we got to that place.
  3. The relationship between Susan Ryeland and her boyfriend lacks tension. When their relationship was threatened with falling apart, I didn’t care.

Overall, this is an excellent, well-written book. If you write mysteries and want to know what the big publishers are looking for, you must read what they publish.

This is why I read what Tor Forge publishes in my genre of fantasy. If I hate it, I dissect it and find out why. An editor accepted that manuscript and promoted it, and I want to know why. If I love it, I dissect it for the same reason.

You must read if you want to know how a good book is plotted, how worlds are created, and how characters are built. Make notes and learn from the mistakes and successes of others.


#NaNoPrep series to date:

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?  (the storyboard)

#NaNoPrep, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

#NaNoPrep, Building Characters

#NaNoPrep, More Character Building

#NaNoPrep, Creating Societies

#NaNoPrep, Designing Science, Magic, and the Paranormal

#NaNoPrep, Terrain and Geography

#NaNoPrep, Connections and Interconnections

This Post: #NaNoPrep, Construction and Deconstruction

8 Comments

Filed under writing