Plotting a Novel

Something I was not aware of until after I wrote my first draft is that there are ways of plotting a novel before you begin writing that makes the entire process of writing/revising a novel SO MUCH EASIER afterwards. One of the easiest ways of plotting a novel is credited to Michael Crichton. It’s super simple, and it uses 3×5 index cards. Every time you think of an idea for your novel, whether it’s lines of dialogue, a plot point, an interesting fact about a character, you simply write it on an index card and throw it in a shoe box. After you have several cards in the box, you can then go through and arrange them until they’re in the order you want.

Once you have the basic outline, it’s easy to go in and make new cards to fill in spaces, or add depth to the story. When you can’t think of anything else to add, it’s time to start writing. What makes this easy is that every time you sit down to write, you can grab a card and know exactly what you need to accomplish that day. Simple and easy. I wish someone had told me about this years ago! It almost makes me want to go back and start all over from the beginning. Almost.

Has anyone tried this? How does it work?

Overcoming Writer’s Block

Writer’s block. Every writer has encountered this obstruction of creativity at some point, and everyone has their own way of overcoming it. Some are proactive and try to find a way around it, while some step back and wait for inspiration to strike. As someone who’s tried it both ways, I have to be honest – people who wait around for inspiration to strike will often end up waiting a very long time.

Here are some things I’ve tried that have helped immensely:

1.) Tell yourself you only have to write a tiny bit. Limiting your assignment to one page, one paragraph or even just a few sentences can really take away the pressure, which is often what is causing your block in the first place. Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, also recommends giving yourself short assignments. In her case, she only has to write as much as she can see through a one-inch picture frame, and no more. If you feel inspired to continue – great! If not, that’s okay, too. At least you’ve done something.

2.) Rituals. Many writers have rituals that help to get them in the mood for writing. Some put on music, or sip their favorite beverage, or have a special room for writing, or even go for a walk and think about what they’re going to write about. Whatever it is, it has to work for you. The first few times you try it, it may not have the desired effect, but after it becomes a habit, it often has the ability to gently coax you into the writing spirit. If not, try something else!

3.) Try rewriting a paragraph or two from your favorite book in your own words and using your characters instead of the author’s. The reason this works is that it gets you writing in your own voice and often inspires ideas for your own story.

4.) Write about something else. Take a day off from your story and work on something you’ve set aside. Sometimes taking a day to focus on something else will be just what you need to get back to your project.

5.) Write a description of one of your characters. Or all of them. This works great, because often you discover something about them that you’ve never thought of before, and this can add great plotlines to your story.

6.) Try a writing exercise. Most writing exercises are designed to draw out your creativity with the process of improvisational writing. I have found this to be very effective, and often, it can lead to ideas for future stories. One of my old college professors used to challenge us to a 15 minute “Quickwrite”. He would write a topic on the board, and then tell us to start. This forced us to write off the tops of our heads without thinking about how it sounded. We were not allowed to go back and read it or fix anything until the end. Some of the best writing was achieved in this way, because it forces you to drop your inhibitions. Try it!

7.) Change your scenery. If you’re used to writing in your dining room or your home office, perhaps a change of scenery is all it will take to raise your inspiration levels. Try writing while sitting at a café or on a bench at the park, or on a lawn chair in your backyard. If you don’t have a laptop and don’t like writing by hand, try the library. Most libraries have computers that you can use for free if you have a library card.

8.) Change things up a little. If you already have a writing ritual, and it doesn’t seem to be doing the trick anymore, maybe it’s time to change things a little. Change stimulates your brain, which results in an increase in creativity and a decrease in writer’s block. If you usually write in the morning, try writing in the afternoon or evening. If you usually listen to classical music, try listening to rock. Do something different, and see how your brain, and writing, responds.

9.) Never finish your sentences. Another little trick I’ve heard is to never end your writing for the day with a complete sentence. This will allow you to jump back into the same flow of writing as when you left off. This can prevent writer’s block because you’ll immediately know what to write and you’ll avoid staring at your computer screen for 20 minutes while you figure out what happens next.

10.) Realize that you don’t have to write the story in chronological order from beginning to end. Instead, think of yourself as a movie director. They shoot scenes in random order and then piece them all together to create the final product. Some scenes get cut, some get moved around and some get changed or reshot. You can do this with your story, as well. If the scene you’re working on isn’t working for you, jump to a different scene. You may change your mind and decide not to go in that direction after all, but the good news is – at least you got yourself writing again.

Writing the Truth

Even if you’re writing a fiction novel, you’ll want to make sure that there is truth to what you’re writing. Are your characters believable? Are you consistent with their dialogue and personality traits? Like we’ve talked about before, you wouldn’t have a girl that’s afraid of the dark running outside in the middle of the night to check out a strange noise she heard. It’s important to avoid discrepancies like this in your novel.

At the beginning stages of your writing, you might still be changing and making adjustments to your story or your characters. Remember if you change something now, you should also be changing it in the rest of your novel. If a character starts out with blonde hair, but ends up having dark brown hair, unless you have a scene in which she goes to the hair salon, you need to make the hair color the same throughout. Your readers will pick up on this if you don’t. Likewise, if you change a character’s name, it’s very easy to hit Control R on your keyboard and replace the name in every instance in which it occurs.

It’s very important to stay in the writing mode while working on your rough draft, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make changes as you go. After all, that’s what writing is all about! And if you find that what you’re writing doesn’t sound real, or believable, by all means, change it! The most important thing about writing is to create the best experience you can for your readers. If it doesn’t sound right to you, it’s definitely not going to sound right to them.

Also, try to be as specific as you can with your details. Specific details are of utmost importance to the truth of your novel. If you’re talking about a bus, include a few describing details. What color is it? Is it a school bus, a greyhound bus, a city bus? If you go from “he got on the bus” to “he got on the blue school bus,” you create a scene your reader can picture, which will make all the difference in your novel.

Another tip I’ve learned that will help you always write the truth is to consider your five senses. Every scene you write, try to put yourself into it. Pretend you’re there. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? What do you smell? What do you taste? Obviously, not all five will apply to every scenario, but chose the relevant ones, and use them. The more the readers know about your story, the more they will allow themselves to get lost in it.

Happy Writing!

First Drafts

The first draft is probably the hardest and most nerve-wracking part of writing a novel. I know in my experience, especially when beginning a novel, I start to have various self-sabotaging thoughts about my work. Is it any good? Who’s going to want to read it, anyway? What if my writing sucks? What if everyone hates it? Is it believable?

If you’re a perfectionist – and even if you’re not, these kind of thoughts can completely put a stop to your efforts. You may be tempted to go back and read what you’ve written and make changes. This is not the time for that. This is the rough draft stage, which means that you need to write and write and not think about what you’re writing. When you’ve completed your novel, then you’re allowed to go back and make your changes.

The reason it’s important to keep going is that if you allow yourself to stop and read what you’ve written, you take yourself out of the action. You put yourself in the mindset of an editor instead of the mindset of a writer. There’s time to be an editor later. Right now, you need to be a writer. You need to be thinking about what happens next, rather than wondering how you can make it better.

The first draft is going to be terrible and full of flaws. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time. But the important part is to finish the first draft. Keep plugging away. Keep focusing on the end result. Remember that nobody is going to read the first draft but you.

A professor once told me that first drafts are meant to be written as quickly and as mindlessly as possible. Don’t think about it. Just write. Worry about spelling later. Worry about how you’re going to word things later. You can always go back and add descriptions and take out adverbs and make things sound better. That’s where your perfectionism will come in handy.

Right now, focus on the magic of the story. Let your imagination run wild. Ignore the words, ignore the flaws, and definitely ignore that annoying little voice in the back of your head that’s telling you it’s no good or that other people might think it’s stupid. This is your chance to be creative. Give the world something they’ve never had before – a story by you. You can do it!

Happy writing!

How to Write a Good Chapter

Since this is primarily a writing blog, I am excited to share an AMAZING writing website by the successful author, Vickie Britton.  She has all sorts of wonderful tips about writing a novel for publication.  I think so often, we all get so caught up in the writing itself that we forget to write for our audience, which is first and foremost, the agents and publishers.  If they are not captivated by our work, it will be rather difficult to share the story with the actual audience.  I hadn’t thought much about this before, but Ms. Britton shares great advice about the layout of the book – how many chapters, how many pages per chapter, etc.

Here is a summary of the post from here:

A chapter is like an episode from a continuing TV show. Each chapter should begin with some kind of action and end with a question to propel the reader onward.

-An average genre book has approximately 16-17 pages per chapter.

-A chapter should be just long enough to fully develop a scene.

-Each chapter should begin with a distinct scene…The scene’s job in a novel, much like a scene in a play, is to provide a setting and backdrop for the action that is unfolding right before the reader’s eyes.

-Each scene should ask a question to propel the reader forward in the story.

-Each chapter should center around one element or main event.

-The chapter should not answer its own question.  Instead, it should be answered in a following chapter to create suspense.

Tips for Developing a Strong Chapter

  • develop a strong scene by showing, not telling
  • add only the necessary characters to develop a scene
  • stick to the goal of the chapter
  • don’t get sidetracked by adding random scenes
  • end with a cliffhanger question

Write What Matters

If you don’t care about what you’re writing, neither will your readers.  This doesn’t mean you should take on only big subjects – war, peace, love, hunger, oppression.  It means that if what matters to you is the way the light falls on the bougainvillea in the morning, that’s what you should write about.  If what matters to you is the relationship between sisters and brothers, then that’s what you write about.

Write about what interests you, what you don’t understand, what you want to learn more about.  Novelist Amy Tan said, “I write about it [mothers and daughters] because I don’t understand it, because it is such a mystery to me.  If it ceases to be a mystery, and if I were an expert on it, I wouldn’t write about it.  I like to write about things that bother me in some way, that I have a lot of conflict with.”

Reread your writing to discover recurring themes and images.  Look for hints and innuendos within spontaneous or stream of consciousness writings.  If you’re bored with what you’re writing or lackadaisical about your commitment, return to the idea that birthed it.  More than one writer has been drawn off track by comments from her writing group or misdirection from a friend.  “Let nobody, your mother, your grandmother, your agent, your publisher, your producer, let nobody tell you the creator what you should do,” said Roots author Alex Haley, who invested twelve years in writing his life-changing book.

Be a passionate writer. – Judy Reeves

Original Detail

I’ve been reading  a lot of books on the craft of writing lately, perhaps as a way to inspire myself to become a better writer.  Throughout this journey, I have discovered a few authors who amaze me.  Natalie Goldberg is one of them.  Her book, Writing Down the Bones has such good advice and encouragement for all writers, not just beginners.  Here is a snippet about original detail.  It was too good to summarize, so I thought I’d share it with you:

Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else.  Even if you transplant the beveled windows, slow-rotating Rheingold sign, Wise potato chip rack, and tall red stools from the Aero Tavern that you drank in in New York into a bar in a story in another state and time, the story will have authenticity and groundedness.  “Oh, no, that bar was on Long Island, I can’t put it in New Jersey” – yes, you can.  You don’t have to be rigid about original detail.  The imagination is capable of detail transplants, but using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness.  It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build…  Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious.  “Okay, I’m at a wedding.  The bride has on blue.  The groom is wearing a red carnation.  They are serving chopped liver on doilies.”  Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart.  You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redhead mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled, and smelling her perfume mixed with perspiration.

First Sentences – Exercise

Here’s a writing exercise for you.  Write five great first sentences, beginning right in the middle of the action.  They can be all for your current novel, or they can be ideas for future novels.  If anything, it’ll get you thinking.

Here are mine:

  1. The school had never closed for any reason, other than weather, but today was different.
  2. The old rocking chair that had been sitting in Old Jim’s yard for thirty years was missing.
  3. The smell was enough to stop him in his tracks.
  4. For days on end, there had been nothing to eat but soup.
  5. Kaitlyn’s heart was racing as she walked up to the little blue house and rang the doorbell.

Feel free to post your first sentence ideas in comments.  I’d love to read them!

First Sentences

I know we’re way past this, but today I started thinking about first sentences in novels.  They’re what pull you in to the story.  They set the tone for the entire book.  They’re like the entryway of a house.  They greet you, they give you a brief feeling of what the rest of the house is going to be like, and they let you know whether you should be taking your shoes off or not.

While the logical thing would  be to begin at the beginning, first sentences seem to have the most appeal when they begin in the middle of things.  While “once upon a time” works for fairytales, it doesn’t always have the draw that we look for in a novel.  Some of the best books I’ve read begin where the action starts, and makes it impossible for me to put it down.

Let’s take for example Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Her novel begins with: “I wish Giovanni would kiss me.”  The reader’s immediate response is to read on.  Who is Giovanni?  Is he going to kiss her?  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think her opening line would have been nearly as effective if it had begun with her living a normal suburban life with her husband, telling the story in chronological order.  Bringing Giovanni in right away gives it an edge of sexiness – a little bit of excitement.  It’s brilliant.  Fortunately for her, the rest of the story follows suit.

Another great example: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.  “When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why.”  Doesn’t this instantly make you wonder why she is wondering about babies?  If this story had begun from the beginning, it would have started before her birth, and wouldn’t have created such a sense of mystery.  This opening creates questions in our minds and urges us to read on.

Here are some other great openings.  Hopefully some of them will inspire you.

The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov

They were saying a new face had been seen on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog.

The Blue Men by Joyce Williams

Bomber Boyd, age thirteen, told his new acquaintances that summer that his father had been executed by the state of Florida for the murder of a Sheriff’s deputy and his drug-sniffing German shepherd.

Gesturing by John Updike

She told him with a little gesture he had never seen her use before.

Covering Home by Joseph Maiolo

Coach discovered Danny’s arm when Danny’s parents were splitting up at the beginning of the season.

Exchange Value by Charles Johnson

Me and my brother Loftis came in by the old lady’s window.

Judgment by Kate Wheeler

When Mayland Thompson dies he wants to be buried with the body of a twelve-year-old girl.

The Remission by Mavis Gallant

When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera.

Inventing the Abbots by Sue Miller

Lloyd Abbot wasn’t the richest man in our town, but he had, in his daughters, a vehicle for displaying his wealth that some of the richer men didn’t have.

The Lost Cottage by Davide Leavitt

The Dempson family had spent the last half of June in a little rented cottage called “Under the Weather,” near Hyannis, every summer for twenty-six years, and this year, Lydia Dempson told her son, Mark, was to be no exception.

Nickel a Throw by W.D. Wetherell

These are the things Gooden sees from his perch eight feet above the dunking tub at the Dixford Congregational Church’s Charity bazaar.

Medley by Toni Cade Bambara

I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying.

The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The first children who saw the dark and slinky bulge approaching through the sea let themselves think it was an enemy ship.

The Winter Father by Andre Dubus

The Jackman’s marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying.

Appaloosa by Sharon Sheehe Stark

My father’s girl friend’s name was Delores and my mother went by Dusie because she was one.

A School Story by William Trevor

Every night after lights out in the dormitory there was a ceremonial story-telling.

Forgiveness in Families by Alice Munro

I’ve often thought, suppose I had to go to a psychiatrist, and he would want to know about my family background, naturally, so I would have to start telling him about my brother, and he wouldn’t even wait until I was finished, would he, the psychiatrist, he’d commit me.

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.

Some of these examples are borrowed from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

Resistance

Here’s a quote from The War of Art by Steven Pressfield about resistance – one of the worst forms of procrastination:

If Resistance couldn’t be beaten, there would be no Fifth Symphony, no Romeo and Juliet, no Golden Gate Bridge.  Defeating Resistance is like giving birth.  It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years.

Take that, resistance.