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The Functions of the Scene #amwriting

A great story consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, and is made of scenes. We have action, emotion, ups and downs, a plot all sewn together by the thread that is the theme. But the entire structure of the novel is built scene by scene, connected by transitions.

Scenes may consist of conversations, or they may be action sequences, but put them together in the right order, link them with a plot featuring a good protagonist and a worthy antagonist, they combine to form a story.

I perceive the scene as a small area of focus within a larger story with an arc of its own, small arcs holding up a larger arc: the chapter. So, scenes are the building blocks of the story. Strong scenes make for a memorable novel and we all strive to make each scene as important as we can. Therefore, no scene can be wasted. Each scene must have a function, or the story fails to hold the reader’s interest.

Some things a scene can show:

  • Information
  • Confrontation
  • Revelation
  • Negotiation
  • Decision
  • Capitulation
  • Catalyst
  • Contemplation/Reflection
  • Turning Point
  • Resolution
  • Myriad deep emotions

Make one or more of these functions the core of the scene, and you will have a compelling story.

Let’s examine a watershed scene that occurs in the Fellowship of the Ring, book one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series: The Council of Elrond. The scene is set in Rivendell, Elrond’s remote mountain citadel.

Each of those characters attending the Council has arrived there on separate errands, and each has different hopes for what will ultimately come from the meeting. Despite their different agendas, each is ultimately concerned with the Ring and protecting the people of Middle-earth from the depredations of Sauron, if he were to regain possession of it. This scene serves several functions:

Information/Revelation: The Council of Elrond serves the purpose of conveying information to both the protagonists and the reader. It is a conversation scene, driven by the fact that each person in the meeting has knowledge the others need. Conversations are an excellent way to deploy needed information. Remember, plot points are driven by the characters who have the critical knowledge.

The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension. At the Council of Elrond, many things are discussed, and the full story of the One Ring is explained, with each character offering a new piece of the puzzle. The reader and the characters receive the information at the same time at this point in the novel.

Confrontation: Action/confrontation, conversation, reaction. A scene that is all action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed confrontational conversation (an argument/dispute) gives the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

At the Council of Elrond, long simmering racial tensions between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf surface. Each is possessed of a confrontational nature, and it isn’t clear whether they will be able to work together or not.

Other conflicts are explored, and heated exchanges occur between Aragorn and Boromir.

Negotiation: What concessions will have to be made to achieve the final goal? These concessions must be negotiated. Tom Bombadil is at first mentioned as one who could safely take the ring to Mordor as it has no power over him. Gandalf feels he would simply lose the ring, or give it away because Tom lives in a reality of his own and doesn’t see the conflict with Sauron as a problem. Bilbo volunteers, but he is too old and frail. Others offer, but none are accepted as good candidates for the job of ring-bearer for one reason or another. Each reason offered for why these characters are found to be less than satisfactory by Gandalf and Elrond deploys a small bit of information the reader needs.

Turning Point: After much discussion, many revelations, and bitter arguments, Frodo declares that he will go to Mordor and dispose of the ring, giving up his chance to live his remaining life in the comfort and safety of Rivendell. Sam emerges from his hiding place and demands to be allowed to accompany Frodo. This is the turning point of the story.

(The movie portrays this scene differently, with Pip and Merry hiding in the shadows. Also, in the book, the decision as to who will accompany Frodo, other than Sam, is not made for several days, while the movie shortens it to the one day.)

So, within the arc of the story are smaller arcs, arcs of conflict and reflection, each created by scenes. The arc of the scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending on a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it began, leading to the brief transition scene.

Transitions can be as simple as a change of setting, one character leaving the room for a breath of air. They can be hard transitions, the scene ends and with it, so does that chapter. Within a chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene, offering a chance to absorb what just happened. If using a conversation as a transition, it’s important you don’t have your characters engage in idle chit-chat. In literary terms, a good conversation is about something we didn’t know and builds toward something we are only beginning to understand.

That is true of every aspect of a scene—it must reveal something and push the story forward toward something.

With each scene we are also pushing the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does, and then to reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.

All the arcs together  form a cathedral-like structure: the novel. By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, the life-breath of the novel.

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Day 8, #NaNoWriMo2017: The Detour

When I was planning my manuscript for NaNoWriMo and the month of November, I had intended to write nothing but short stories.

Unfortunately, the inspiration I had lacked for the rough draft of my current novel-in-progress (set in the Tower of Bones world of Neveyah) struck me at 2:30 a.m. on November 1st, taking us to the mid-point crisis in that story.

As a result, I have written the entire second quarter of that epic fantasy proto-novel, nearly 22,000 words in total over the last six days. But that is how NaNoWriMo sometimes goes for me. I plan to be a rebel, and end up following the rules.

On December 1st, I will copy those new chapters from my NaNo Manuscript and paste them into my original rough draft. Once that is done, the new words will bring the total up to around 60,000 words.

If all goes as planned, I will spend the rest of this month writing short stories, and won’t get back to that story until December 1st.

But as you may have noticed, things don’t always go as planned. When inspiration strikes, you must write, as some stories simply burn to be written. Write when you feel the passion, and you will have done your best work.

The creative process is different, from person to person. I use daydreaming and visual art to fire up the creative muse. With these prompts, I have little trouble getting submerged in my work.

As every writer knows, sometimes finding inspiration for what I am supposed to be working on can be elusive. But some random image or phrase will trigger my imagination. At that point I switch gears and write whatever that story is.

During most of the year, I usually have three manuscripts in various stages: one unfinished first draft, one in the second draft stage, and one near the finish line.  Every day I write new words on my rough draft first thing in the morning, unless I have an editing contract. By ten a.m. I move on to work on the others. Focusing on my rough draft first allows me to come to the more finished stories with a different, less biased eye.

At the end of the day, when my creative mind is tired, I find myself alternating between playing my game and adding a few words here and there to my rough draft.

But during November, my writing time is wholly devoted to writing new words. By the end of the day, my brain is fried, and my creative genius has died an untidy death.

As a result, some of my NaNoWriMo ramblings are brilliant—just ask me and I will tell you so. However, the majority of them not so much.

But every word I write can and will be recycled into something better, something useable, and something worth reading. In writing this stream-of-consciousness prose, I’m getting the ideas down before I forget them.

In 2015 and 2016, the manuscript I patched together for NaNoWriMo was like a quilt made up of short stories. This year’s manuscript will be a patchwork too. It will be made up of scenes and vignettes, parts of stories mingled with complete stories.

This jumble is like a bank, but instead of a place to keep money, it’s a depository of ideas and concepts for short stories, flash fictions, and essays. I will come back to this convoluted mish-mash of genres and prose again and again, whenever I need the core of a new story.

The first 22,000 words of this year have been different from the previous two years, in that my work has been a continuation of an established work-in-progress. However, I have now come to a stopping place.

Now I am experimenting with point of view through short stories. I thought of the perfect plot in which to use the little flâneur that lurks in all of us. Yes, I am leaving the fantasy genre for a brief stint in literary fiction. Besides the flâneur, I have an idea for the story of a woman, navigating the shoals of social ostracization because of her husband’s conviction for embezzlement.

Once those are done,  I will return to fantasy with an installment of Bleakbourne on Heath, and a short story set in Neveyah, the world where Tower of Bones is set.

As my homage to paranormal fantasy, I have the idea for another Dan Dragonsworthy story, set in the Drunken Sasquatch, the neighborhood tavern favored by Seattle’s ‘alternate’ population.

If I have time, Astorica, my gender-bent alternate universe, may see another flash fiction.

I have so many ideas and this month of madness is the time for me to get them all down. In fact, I’ve been talking to you long enough—I have to get back to writing!

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#NaNoWriMo Getting word count when you’ve fallen behind #amwriting

For some NaNoWriMo novelists, falling slightly behind becomes a death knell to their project. They feel there is no way they can make it up, that they are doomed, and therefore they quit.

In my experience, falling behind on your word count is the easiest problem to fix.

First, don’t let self-doubt creep in. This is human nature, but don’t let it defeat you.

Second, you must buckle down and write more than the minimum for a while. That is also hard, but if you catch it early, you can do it.

Do a little math. Figure out how many words per day you will need to write to make up what you missed. Add that number to your daily word goals. You might want to add a hundred or so words to that number, so you have a little wiggle-room.

Remember, what you are writing is a rough draft, so your story arc is going to be bumpy and uneven. It doesn’t have to be perfect so don’t fuss over making so. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get that rough 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 time period. 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, and perhaps make up the difference there.

We all must eat, so during NaNoWriMo, I am the queen of the crockpot and anything that can be baked in the oven. Think about it—once the food is in the oven, you will have at least half an hour of downtime. Set your laptop on the counter and write while things are baking/nuking. That is how I cook Thanksgiving dinner for my extended family—I start prepping food on Tuesday, and by writing every time I have a ten or fifteen minute pause in the preparations, I don’t fall behind. This also allows me to enjoy my family on Thanksgiving day, because most of the work is already done.

Yes, the vegan does roast 2 turkeys for the numerous carnivores, but everything else is plant based and homemade. Despite the extra work that Thanksgiving week adds to my life, I get my word count every day and still get my house ready for guests by using this method.

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, but though 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.

What I did in those old days was this—I always took my lunch to work and wrote during my lunch half-hour. You don’t have to announce you are writing a book if you don’t wish to—I certainly didn’t feel comfortable doing so. If you want to spend your lunch time writing, politely let people know you’re handling personal business and won’t have time to chat.

Some offices will allow you to use your workstation computer for personal business, but most of my places of employment frowned on that. I brought a notebook and pen as I didn’t own a good laptop. By writing down all my thoughts and ideas, I had a great start when I finally did get a chance to write. If your work allows, bring your laptop or your iPad/Android. So you don’t get into trouble with the boss, sit in the lunchroom (if you have one).

I always 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 is better than none! You can also set aside a block of time on the weekend to make up some words, though that can be difficult, as setting aside an un-infringeable time on a weekend can become a hardship, especially if you have a young family.

But 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.

One way to cultivate your emotional and poetic mind, and to improve your writing skills in general, is to write in the stream-of-consciousness style. This is unstructured, unedited writing. It reflects your (or your character’s) observations. 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 a certain amount of abandon. Just go for it.

Remember what I said above? Don’t worry about perfection. The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get that rough draft written in thirty days. In January or March, or whenever you go to rewrite your rough 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 importantly than simply getting word count, the goal is to finish your novel.

And remember: you can do it.

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Pantsing vs. Plotting or Somewhere in the Middle #NaNoWriMo2017 #amwriting

A friend of mine recently said, “I did what some gurus suggested for NaNoWriMo and planned out my book. All the joy is off the idea now, and I want to do something different.” This is not an uncommon occurrence. For some people, planning the outline makes them feel they have already written the story and they lose their enthusiasm.

I am a plotter, but I am also a pantser. A great article on this subject can be found at The Write Practice.

Quote: Simply put, a plotter is someone who plans out their novel before they write it. A pantser is someone who, “flies by the seat of their pants,” meaning they don’t plan out anything or plan very little.

Planning what events your protagonist will face is called plotting, and I make an outline for that.

“Pantsing it,” or writing using stream-of consciousness can produce some amazing work. That works well when we’re inspired, as ideas seem to flow from us. But for me, that sort of creativity is short-lived, unless I have a brief outline to follow, a road map of some sort.

Participating in NaNoWriMo has really helped me grow in the ability to write on a stream-of-consciousness level, but that only works for so long before I need a reminder of what my story was about in the beginning. My storyboard gets me back on track without making me feel like the creativity is already done.

One NaNoWriMo joke-solution often bandied about at write-ins is, “When you’re stuck, it’s time for someone to die.” Sadly, assassinating beloved characters whenever we run out of ideas is not a feasible option because we will soon run out of characters.

As devotees of Game of Thrones will agree, readers (or TV viewers) get to know characters and bond with them. When cherished characters are too regularly killed off, the story loses good people, and we must introduce new characters to fill the void. The reader may decide not to waste his time getting invested in a new character, feeling that you will only break their heart again.

The death of a character should be reserved to create a pivotal event that alters the lives of every member of the cast and is best reserved for either the inciting incident at the first plot point or as the terrible event of the third quarter of the book. So instead of assassination, we should resort to creativity.

This is where the outline can provide some structure, and keep you moving forward.  I will know what should happen in the first quarter, the middle, and the third quarter of the story. Also, because I know how it should end, I can more easily write to those plot points by filling in the blanks between, and the story will have cohesion.

Think about what launches a great story:

The protagonist has a problem.

You have placed them in a setting at a given moment, and shown the environment in which they live.

You have unveiled the inciting incident.

You know what they want, but you aren’t sure how far they will go to achieve it.

Now you need to decide what hinders the protagonist and prevents them from resolving the problem. While you are laying the groundwork for this keep in mind that we want to evoke three things:

  • Empathy/identification with the protagonist
  • Believability
  • Tension

We want the protagonist to be a sympathetic character whom the reader can identify with; one who the reader can immerse themselves in, living the story through his/her adventures.

But for NaNoWriMo, speed is everything. I need to get my 1,667 words every day, and I can’t take the time to sit back and ponder what to write next.

I find that this is where a loose outline helps me write quickly. Readers want the hindrances and barriers the protagonist faces to feel real. A loose guide helps me develop setups for the central events. This enables me to quickly lay down the narrative that shows the payoffs (either negative or positive) to advance the story: action and reaction.

Some authors resort to “idle conversation writing” when they are temporarily out of ideas.  If you can resist the temptation, please do so—it’s fatal to an otherwise good story. Save all your random think-writing off-stage in a background file, if giving your characters a few haphazard, pointless exchanges helps jar an idea loose. (However, for purposes of wordcount, if you wrote it, you can count it!)

One failing of NaNo Novels in their rough draft form is their unevenness. Try not to introduce random things into a scene unless they are important. Remember, to show the reader something is to foreshadow it, and the reader will wonder why a casual person or thing was so important they had to be foreshadowed.

Both over planning and under planning can lead to a book that is stalled and a writer who believes they have ‘writers’ block.’ For me a happy medium lies in a general outline, done as a brief storyboard:

What has prevented you from writing in the past? Did you get busy? Did you sleep in? Did you feel uncreative? These are mental roadblocks we all experience. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to develop the ability to work through these hindrances.

Remember, you are a superhero with a keyboard, slaying the monsters of indolence and lack of creativity.

My dear friend, author Stephen Swartz, had this to say on the subject of over planning: “The story is your ship, the NaNo your ocean. Let the keyboard be your wind! May metaphors drive you to new lands!”

I completely agree. Do a little planning, but write like the wind, and let the story take you where it will.


Credits and Attributions

The Pros and Cons of Plotters and Pantsers by The Magic Violinist, The Write Practice, http://thewritepractice.com/plotters-pantsers/ © 2017

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Developing Discipline #NaNoPrep #NaNoWriMo2017

Every author knows that writing is about so much more than merely laying words down on a page.  Most people with a minimal education can do that, and can even whack out a creditable paragraph or two. However, sustaining the momentum and carrying that vision through an entire novel is quite another thing.

Over the years, I’ve seen disparaging articles where people have expressed their scorn and disdain of authors who participate in Nation Novel Writing Month, mocking the notion of a “competition,” deriding both the authors and work that emerges from this month of madness and frozen pot pies.

They’re missing one important point: to write a novel one must begin a novel and make the time to complete it. It takes discipline to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Most people don’t have what it takes to commit to that kind of regimen. Participating in NaNoWriMo forces the author to sit and write a minimum of 1,667 new words every day. If the participant does only that, they will have completed a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I generally manage between 2,000 and 4,000 words a day during NaNoWriMo.

So, to the naysayers, I say, “Fine. If it takes a special month of writing and a group frenzy to get some people fired up about an idea they’ve had rolling around in their heads, who am I to complain?” I am a reader as much as I am an author. The more books that are written, the merrier I will be.

Here’s a short list of well-known novels to emerge from NaNoWriMo particpants:

  1. Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. On the best-seller lists for over a year, turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, started as a NaNo novel.
  2. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. What eventually became The Night Circus began life in 2004, seven years before it was finally published, started as a NaNo novel.
  3. Wool, by Hugh Howey. Howey’s dystopian sci-fi novel is one of those credited with putting self-publishing on the map, started as a NaNo novel.

Authors all begin knowing very little about how to write something another person would want to read. But if you maintain the dedication you develop in November, you can learn how to express what your heart feels. Work at learning the craft as hard as you worked to get your wordcount, and you will develop that talent for storytelling.

I think of the many authors to come who will gain both discipline and love of the craft through participating in NaNoWriMo. Many truly talented people are now embarking on learning a craft, committing their time and resources to educating themselves about how to write a novel that others will want to read. Several years down the road, who knows what wonderful works of fiction will have emerged from this year’s madness?

I only know that I am always looking for a good book, and so I will be first in line, hoping to be impressed by a fresh, new work of art. Therefore, I volunteer as a Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo. Every year we have new, young writers, with fresh, amazing ideas. But we also have many new older people who are writing their first novel, embarking on a dream they always had but never thought they could do.

The fact is, most people who begin a novel in November do not reach their goal of 50,000 words and never finish those novels. They do not have the discipline to sit down every day and dedicate a portion of their time to this project.

A great number of NaNo authors discover that doing NaNoWriMo is just like doing karaoke. They love to read, and they want to write the next Gone with the Wind, but their work reads as pleasantly as a tone-deaf drunk singing Wind Beneath my Wings. They are not talented writers, and their work isn’t stellar. Just because the rough draft was finished in thirty days and the author got the winner’s certificate of completion, it doesn’t mean that what they wrote was good. It just means they had the discipline to write it.

But despite the high number of would-be authors who fail to finish their novel, a few writers in each age group will continue writing after the month of madness is over. They will embark on the process of educating themselves in the craft.

These authors see the goal and are filled with the desire to finish what they started, knowing they will have to rewrite, edit, revise, and edit again to truly finish their book. When I talk to them and hear how fired up and passionate they are, I am proud to have been a part of their writing life.

Whatever gets a writer fired up and writing is fine by me, and we are all the better for the experience.

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Writing to a Theme #NaNoWriMo2017 #amwriting

November 1st begins the merry month of madness known as NaNoWriMo. Once again, as I have for the last seven years, I will spend the thirty days of November on an intensive writing binge.

Every day I will sit and write at least 1,667 NEW words on my current work in progress. If I do only that, I will have 50,000 words by Nov. 30th, which will bring the rough draft of that book nearly to completion.

But I generally manage between 2,000 and 4,000 words a day, and I work on several different projects. This year, while I WILL work on the rough draft of my current work-in-progress, my official project is another collection of short stories, poems, and flash fictions, all of which will be written to a variety of different themes.

The reason I need to build the backlog with a wide variety of themes is that most anthologies and many publications will call for submissions based around a central idea–such as  redemption, bridges, asylum–a large concept that  unifies the disparate stories.

So, my plan is to write to as many different themes as I can think of. Hopefully, if an opportunity presents itself later, I will have the perfect story ready, one that will only need some revising and editing.

One question I hear often is “how do I identify the theme of my story?” I have discussed this before, but it bears mentioning again. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and often it’s a moral. Love, honor, family, redemption, and revenge are all common, underlying themes.

Sometimes it’s difficult to write a short story unless you start out with a theme in mind. The same can be said for novels, although the theme can emerge more slowly than in short stories. For me, writing to a theme makes the process easier because half the work is done—I know what I’m writing about.

Several of the stories I will be working on are for themed anthologies with open calls for submission, but whose closing dates are rapidly approaching. When I made my list of proposed stories, I searched Submittable for open calls, so I know the desirable themes in advance. Some publications have submission dates that are quite a ways out, some have short deadlines.

Knowing the trending themes publishers are asking for is crucial to building your backlog with salable stories, so if you don’t have a Submittable account, you should get one.

What I hope to do in each story is to layer character studies, allegory, and imagery to emphasize the central theme and support the story arc. Sometimes I am successful, other times, not so much, but I still keep trying.

Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey, and how the events my protagonists experience shape their reactions and personal growth. The hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.

What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

Political thrillers: Set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.

Romance Novel: Two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative, creating introspective. These are in-depth character studies featuring interesting, complex and developed characters. Action and setting are not the primary drivers of the story arc here. Instead, action and setting are carefully developed in such a way they frame the character, and provide a visual perspective. Allegory is a featured motif in many literary fiction novels.

Science Fiction: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. Science and technology are a dominant theme but based on current reality. Characters are still subject to sub-themes such as morality and love, but setting and science are the main themes.

Fantasy: Often set in alternate Earths, medieval times, or ancient worlds, the common themes are good vs. evil, hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Can also be set in urban settings with paranormal tropes.

On the surface, these types of books look widely different but all have one thing in common–they have protagonists and side-characters. These imaginary people will all have to deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.

Morality, love, coming of age–these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle. These are the themes that were most powerfully depicted in the books that rocked my early reading world and are the sort I still seek out.

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The Stranded Novel #amwriting

Good first lines are critical. They have a singular duty, to involve the reader and kidnap them for the length of the book. For that reason, first lines and the opening chapters frequently become all that is ever written of a would-be author’s novel. Yet the authors of those few chapters have the entire book locked in their head.

Participating in NaNoWriMo teaches authors to write the entire book before they begin editing.

In your first draft, DON’T OBSESS over the small things and the finer details as these will derail your work. You will never get past the first chapter if all you can focus on is writing a brilliant opener. Write the entire story as quickly as you can, let it sit for a month or two while you do something completely different, THEN come back to it and focus on shaping the prose. Once you have the entire structure of the novel laid down on paper, you won’t be left wondering where to go next, writing and rewriting the same first chapter.

So, let’s assume the rough draft has been completed, and you are pleased with the way it ends. But you are looking at your early chapters, and they feel lackluster. Now is the time to shape the words, to write them so they are the words you would want to read if you were looking for a book to purchase.  The second draft is when you should obsess about your first lines.

One of the best first lines ever: George Eliot’s Middlemarch starts, “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” That line makes one want to know Miss Brooke and the reader wonders who the observer is who chronicles this. It is a novel, but if it had been a short story, it would still have hooked the reader.

Good first lines make the reader beg to know what will happen next.  How about this first line from Ulysses, by the king of great one-liners, James Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

Or, take the first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 

Should your first lines be required to introduce your main character? I think not.

Dickens introduced an era in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, etc…” 

In his Wheel of Time series, Robert Jordan frequently opened with a glimpse into the side of evil, illuminating the foes whom Rand Al Thor must somehow prevail against, and that always hooked me.

All of the above books were begun as great ideas and the manuscripts were finished, which is why they were published. Admittedly, Robert Jordan did pass away before the final books were completed, but he wrote 12 of the 15 books and left a complete story arc with enough notes that Brandon Sanderson could finish the job. Jordan left behind a complete story, not just a first chapter.

If you are serious about writing, it’s necessary to read, to see how other authors have completed their work. Of course, you must read works published in your chosen genre, but to become an educated reader/author, you should look outside your favorite genre. You don’t have to spend your precious book purchasing funds on books you believe you won’t enjoy. Do a little advance research via the internet and then borrow the books from the library.

Most importantly–published authors, whether Indie or traditionally published, have finished their work. Maybe they didn’t do as great a job as some people think they could have done, but they did finish the job.

Grand ideas about what you intend to write mean nothing if you don’t finish the job. If you want to lay claim to being an author, write the ENTIRE novel! Get that story arc down on paper before you begin rewriting the first chapter! If all you have ever written is the first chapter, over and over, and over… perhaps you need to set that idea aside and begin one that interests you enough to inspire you to write a complete novel.

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Jumpstart #NaNoWriMo2017 The Storyboard #amwriting

It’s mid-October and time for many writers to think about National Novel Writing Month—thirty days of dedicated writing where you take an idea for a novel, sit down and daily write at least 1,667 words of a rough draft. The goal of this month of concentrated writing time is to get the entire story down while the inspiration and ideas are flowing. At the end of the thirty days, you should have a novel-length story, hopefully with a complete story arc (beginning, middle, end).

Once that is done, the work really begins.

To succeed at completing a project with such an ambitious goal, it helps if you spend some time planning your novel.  To that end, I like to storyboard all my ideas. By making this effort when the idea is first in my head, if I become lost or find myself floundering in the writing process, I can come back to my original files and remind myself of what the original concept of the story actually was.

Many people use Scrivener for this, but I found the learning curve for that program to be too annoying, so I simply use a spreadsheet program, because all the important information is on the same line.

Scrivener costs $40.00which is not bad, but Google Drive has the free program, Google Sheets. This program is similar to Excel (which I use), so the principals I will be discussing are the same.

From Wikipedia:

Google DocsGoogle Sheets, and Google Slides are a word processor, a spreadsheet and a presentation program respectively, all part of a free, web-based software office suite offered by Google within its Google Drive service. The three apps are available as web applications, and as mobile apps for Android and iOS. The apps are compatible with Microsoft Office file formats. The suite also consists of Google Forms (survey software), Google Drawings (diagramming software) and Google Fusion Tables (database manager; experimental[8]).

The suite allows users to create and edit files online while collaborating with other users in real-time. Edits are tracked by user with a revision history presenting changes. An editor’s position is highlighted with an editor-specific color and cursor.

Admittedly, this program doesn’t do what Excel does but it is perfect for this if you don’t have Microsoft Office.

But you can do this any old way that makes you happy, even by drawing columns on a sheet of paper by hand. The point is to have a list of names and places with five pieces of information pertaining to the story all on the same line. I have so many ideas that I created a blank template that I fill in, retitle, and save in a new folder for each prospective story. I may make as many as five storyboards in a week, out of which I may not write any of them, lol. But the ideas are there for me to access when I want them.

The following is a screenshot of my blank storyboard template. Originally this began as a way to do short stories, but my novels begin with ideas storyboarded out this way too.

The storyboard for my ideas works this way:

At the Top: Working Title

If it’s an idea for a short story, the intended publication and closing date for submissions (not needed it it is for a novel)

Column A: Character Names: list the important characters by name, and also list the important places where the story will be set.

Column B: About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.

Column C: The Problem: What is the core conflict?

Column D: What do they want? What does each character desire?

Column E: What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?

As I said, this plays directly to how a linear thinker like me works. It takes advantage of the ideas I have that might make a good story, makes a note of all the pertinent ideas I have at the outset, and offers me a jumping off point.

Feel free to take this idea and run with it. Design the storyboard that works for you!


Credits and Attributions

NaNoWriMo 2017 Municipal Liaison Badge, © 2017 www.nanowrimo.org, (limited use permitted for Municipal Liaisons on blogs and social media).

Wikipedia contributors, “Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Google_Docs,_Sheets,_and_Slides&oldid=805075002 (accessed October 15, 2017).

Screenshot of Blank Storyboard Template, © 2017 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.

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Details and Exposition #amwriting

For me, as a reader, the skill with which the delivery of background information was handled in a given work is what makes a great story. Yet as a writer, I must continually battle the foes of Bloated Dialogue and Too Much Information. Fortunately, I have a large contingent of writing friends who keep me on my toes in that regard and editors who show no mercy.

In my previous post, we spent a great deal of time on world building. We created a mountain of information, the details we, as the authors, needed so we would know what we are writing about.

Now I’m telling you to keep the details to yourself We’re weeding through that field of dreams and constructing the skeleton of the world for the reader to flesh out in their imagination.

The trick to walking the fine line between too much and not enough is to consider what the characters must know to advance the story. In some ways, writing in the first person makes controlling the dispensing of important details easier for me. When writing in this voice, the story unfolds for both the character and the reader as they go. For this reason, many of my short stories are written in the first person.

Background information should be delivered as the characters require it, no matter what voice we write in. Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those become info dumps laced with useless fluff, sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader. This is referred to, in the industry, as bloated exposition.

When the dialogue is trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of unnatural and awkward things.

 “Remember the first day at the academy? We showed up wearing identical uniforms. I was so humiliated. I hated you for that. I didn’t speak to you at all until Commander Janson forced us to be partners in the biology lab, but I managed to get us through that with all A’s. But look at you now, you lucky dog. Here you are, my second in command.”

“I know, sir. I despised you too, especially when you made me do all the dirty work, cutting up that alien amphibian. And you took all the credit for it. But now here we are, the best of friends and in command of the finest ship in the United Earth Space Fleet, the USS George Lucas. I really, really love being your flunky. It is just the most awesome gig ever.”

Probably not gonna happen. When two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking, it doesn’t seem remotely real. The only time exposition in dialogue works is when both the reader and the character being spoken to don’t know the information being dispensed, but need it to move on to the next event.

In the second draft, we seek out and remove

  • Repetitions
  • Nonessential dialogue that does not advance the story
  • Nonessential historical information

We check to make sure the story

  • is cohesive,
  • only has events that flow logically,
  • has dialogue that contains information the reader must know.

If I were to tell you my story and place myself in my setting, I would say

It’s three in the morning. A woman sits at a broken desk, surrounded by dusty boxes. Bowed shelves filled with books loom above her, worn volumes, some more abused than others. The flickering glow of the computer screen illuminates the woman, the boxes, and books.  A train rumbling in the distance and the clicking noise of her keyboard are the only sounds to be heard in the night-silent house.

I’m not going to go into details you don’t need because you don’t care what is in the boxes, who our mortgage lender is, or that the furnace filter was just changed. The boxes, the books, and the keyboard are important—I write in our storeroom, also known as the Room of Shame. Right away, you know I’m not much of a housekeeper, I write at odd hours of the night, and you may suspect that trains symbolize an important thread in my life.

In real life, you might want to talk at length about the small details, but most of the important information is dealt with right away, and the rest is just socializing. When I think of the novels I enjoy the most, the important information in their conversations is dealt with up front, and the minor details emerge later as they become important.

Including nonessential socializing “just to show who the characters are” is where many first-time writers lose the reader. Your characters must socialize, but their conversations must revolve around the matter at hand.

Consider a private phone conversation you receive while you’re at work. Perhaps a friend just had a car accident. Your friend has a story to tell, and you have questions, but you don’t have time to get into the details. “Are you hurt? Can you drive the car? Do you need anything?” While the boss is glaring at the back of your head, you won’t ask if the other driver had insurance or if your friend will sue.

If writing a concise, cohesive narrative that readers will enjoy is not enough of a reason to keep your background information to just what is needed, I have another thought for you to consider.

In the real world, Indies and self-publishers pay the costs to publish their works up front. The length of the book determines these costs. In the eBook format, costs are minimal, and length doesn’t matter, but a paper book by a new author priced at more than $12.99 may not sell well.

Remember, with a longer book, external circumstances can also increase your out-of-pocket costs. Until you’re established, you must purchase your own stock to sell on consignment in local book stores. You’ll also need to buy books for your table at trade shows, conventions, and book-signings. Traditionally published authors also pay these costs, although they may not have to pay upfront as these costs will be taken out of their royalties.

Whether you are traditionally published or Indie, you’ll want to keep your cost as low as possible and still turn out a good book.

To do that, choose your words so they express what you want to say. Use them creatively to show the story, and employ every trick you can think of to keep the word count down to your target length without gutting the narrative.

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#NaNoPrep Season: Learning Your Pre-writing Style #NaNoWriMo

Today I am featuring a post by my good friend, and fellow Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo, Lee French. Lee poses the question: Are you a ‘pantser’ or a ‘plotter?’ For me, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I plot, then I wing it, then I replot, and let it fly. Without further ado, here is Lee’s post.  I heartily suggest you read it all and click on through to finish the post on her page.

Lee French

There are many writers who claim to pants their stories. That is, fly by the seat of their pants, aka no plan, no outline, no nothing before starting to write. The other option is planning, which consists of drawing up a complete outline, character bios, detailed setting documents, and so on.

Pantser vs. Plotter

I wish to submit two controversial opinions:

  1. Pantsing and plotting are not two options, but rather two ends of a spectrum.
  2. As with many linear scales, most of us fit most comfortably somewhere between the two extremes.

The popularized term for folks who do “both” is Plantser. My argument is that we are all plantsers. Or, at least, the majority of us are.

Planster

The hitch: until you start writing, you have no real idea where you fit on that spectrum. You may think you’re on the Pantser end, then you get stuck on Day 4…

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