Tag Archive | Writing

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 10: Writer’s Block

I don’t generally suffer from writer’s block. I suffer from writer-not-having-enough-time-to-get-it-all-down. Which, I suppose, is a kind of writer’s block in itself because I’m not writing what I want to write at the moment. But that’s another story…

Why don’t I suffer from traditional Writer’s Block? Maybe it’s because I’ve always been one of those writers who carries a notebook.

My notebook isn’t just for those Eureka moments when I dream up an original “what if” idea for a new novel. It’s for all sorts of bits and pieces that land in my brain from out of the blue somewhere. These can be prompted by everyday things I see around me, spurred on by my wild and crazy imagination, or they can be notes-to-self about something that might be fun to research on Google later, or just interesting quotes or book titles I hear.

Not all of my ideas lead to the germination of a new novel. They could just as easily be unrelated dead-ends, or seeds that might later find their way into a novel. They might suggest something else that will land in a current work-in-progress, or in a completely different work. When I’m in the middle of writing a novel, many of the snippets I scribble in my notebook are ideas or thoughts about my current draft. These come to me when I’m nowhere near my laptop.

For the more technologically minded, there is probably a notes app on your phone that most people would use to make a shopping list. I use mine as a second notebook if my handbag is out of reach and my phone is in my pocket, but I’m old-fashioned enough to prefer the action of actually writing in longhand with a pen.

Novels happen when interesting characters go beyond their comfort zones, on strange journeys, and collide with bizarre obstacles, forcing them to act on their natural instincts.

Writers follow the same path. We too must go beyond our comfort zones, on new journeys where we will collide with obstacles we haven’t yet researched, and we will have to use our creative instincts to solve the puzzles. Writers have the advantage over characters because a notebook can help us to decipher and work around the obstacles.

What if you find yourself blocked in spite of a notebook (or phone) full of ideas?

Try changing your time of writing each day. If you habitually write in the morning, try writing late afternoon or at lunchtime instead. Buy a rhyming dictionary and make up some silly poetry, just to stretch your writing brain in a new direction. Enter short story competitions that are worlds away from the type of stuff you usually write. I have penned some truly dire attempts at science fiction, but they helped me to find a path through to other works.

Diversion is a good thing. If nothing else works for you, then take a break from writing and let other interests stimulate your imagination. Do some cooking, gardening, painting or woodwork. Hike up a nearby mountain to smell some flowers and look at the view. Anything that requires physical labour can put your subconscious mind on the back-burner and let it stew out some ideas. Keep that notebook handy just in case…

The thing to remember about writer’s block is that it’s never permanent. It can be worrying, but only if you let it get bigger than it is. Don’t let it do that. Remember that you are bigger than the block in front of you. Of course you will write again, and probably in floods of words, to the point where you will find it hard to believe that you were once so blocked.

If you are thinking of joining NaNoWriMo in November this year, October is the month to get your ideas flowing, draft an outline and give those characters some motivation. Good luck!

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Anatomy of A Novel: Part 9: Scene & Summary

Writing a novel can be a long process, and sometimes we writers can’t tell how the pace is going because we are too close to it. As much as I love having an outline from which to work, the important thing to remember is that it is – at best – a flat, two dimensional map of where the novel is going, and what the most important points in the plot are.

What happens when the writing of that plot doesn’t work as well in practice as it does in theory? Sometimes a particular section of my current draft which may have worked well in the outline, doesn’t ring true in the actual writing. If I can’t solve it immediately, I highlight that section on my outline, leave it and move on to the next plot point, which often shows me the way back to solving the previous problem.

If it doesn’t, then maybe the sequence of events is in the wrong order. Some writers do their outline on a series of cards – one scene per card – so the cards can be re-arranged if the order isn’t working. Personally, I don’t like using cards. I find it easier to cut and paste on my outline instead, but if cards work for you, then by all means use them.

Here’s a thought: if something is difficult or boring to write, then maybe it shouldn’t be in the book because it may be boring or difficult to read. It’s that simple: if there’s a boring bit I can’t write, then maybe it’s not meant to be written. Maybe the idea behind that scene or sequence needs to be reworked in another way.

So back I go to my original one-page synopsis and examine where that problem scene fits in the greater story. What happens before it? What happens after it? Is there a better way to get from one point to the next? Remember that every character has a desire, and has to overcome obstacles to get what he or she wants. If the obstacle isn’t big enough then the writer must either raise the stakes and make it big enough to count, or wipe it off the slate and get on with the story.

The writer must choose between scene and summary. Not every step of the story needs to be written as a scene; some can be summarized to move the reader forward to the next interesting bit. Ask yourself: What am I trying to say in this ill-fitting scene? Where is it supposed to lead to? If there is a better way to reveal what’s in it, then why is this scene even in the book?

If a lacklustre scene serves a definite purpose, then that purpose might be better presented in the form of a summary. Perhaps the characters need to go on a journey for a reason, but unless there’s something significant that the reader needs to witness along the way, or if the tension is heightened by the fact that they are being followed, then we don’t need to see every step of the journey, especially if it’s going to hold up the action and bore the reader. Rather end the chapter as the characters leave one place, and start the next chapter as they check into the hotel or arrive in the city where the next bit of action will happen.

While writing Benicio’s Bequest, I had a complicated sequence of events in which my two main characters travelled back and forth across the same section of Italy several times. By highlighting the problem areas in my outline, I was able to rework the sequence with one less travel hop, and turn one of them into a car chase, thus tightening the action and putting them in the right place in time for the final push to the finale.

Most plots need moments of quiet time to let the characters (and the readers) take a breath. In a romance this is often when the characters get to know each other better, but don’t linger there too long. Keep them on their feet and dancing through the plot, because that’s how it stays interesting. Plenty of time for them to get to know each other properly once they’ve saved the world!

It all comes down to a balance between pace and progression. Those writers who advise you to “leave out the boring bits” usually have a good grasp on how to keep an audience engaged. Keep the pace moving, while constantly advancing the plot.

What do you do with those lovingly-crafted scenes that don’t advance the plot, but that you’ve written so well and can’t bear to lose? Here’s my solution: I cut and paste them into a folder called the Dumping File. I tell myself that they are not wasted, and sometimes I even get to use bits of them in another part of the novel. I haven’t killed them, because they’re still there on my computer.

These deleted scenes form part of each novel’s backstory, and my own writing journey. Even though the reader doesn’t need them, I’ve still got them, kept all safe and cosy and protected. The dumping file for each of my novels is quite large – between 15 and 30% of the size of the finished novel – yet every bit of them turned out to be completely unnecessary.

Don’t waste the reader’s time with this unwanted waffle. They won’t thank you for it, and they might decide not to buy your next novel…

Life as a Shopgirl and Pen-for-Hire

My circumstances have finally changed. In the last month I have gone from being unemployed and fairly desperate, to being partially employed in two places. Ah, the relief!

Since October last year I have been volunteering for an organisation which helps the needy. I work in their shop three afternoons a week, sorting, pricing and selling donated goods. I enjoy it and I have made some good friends while getting some much needed retail experience. Some of the volunteers have also worked in a nearby fresh food shop, and one of them told me to apply there, because the owners always seemed to need people. I did, and I was taken on for three days a week. I have now been gainfully employed there for two weeks, and yesterday I received my first payment. Yay!

So what’s it like being employed again after all this time? It feels fantastic. Rude jokes about Shopgirls and Checkout Chicks don’t touch me – it’s great to have a job!

In my last blog-post I wrote a little about my new internet writing experience. Having completed the first month’s contract, I can honestly say that it’s been fun too. Here’s how that all happened:

I applied to an internet writing site about six months ago. This is a site which supplies daily content to its various clients around the world. They have writers on their books from America, Canada, the UK and Australia. At the time, they didn’t have any vacancies for writers in Australia, but in January that changed. They asked me for a sample piece, which I wrote and sent to them. They liked it enough to put me on their waiting list until they had a contract. I was told that this typically takes three to four months.

I forgot about it in the Greater Job Search, but in April they offered me a contract for 10 short articles, to be delivered at intervals until the end of that month. Payment is always at the end of the following month, so I would only be paid for these at the end of May. I agreed.

This type of work has been a new experience for me. It’s a challenge that I’ve enjoyed, and it’s helped me to flex my long-dormant writing brain, which is always a good feeling. Basically, I have to find news from certain suburbs where their client has branches, write a set number of words about it, including at least one of their specified keywords. I spend a lot of time scouring the internet looking for what sometimes seems impossible, and then construct a short piece about it. Each one takes me about two days to find the news, and half a day to write the piece. When it’s done I start on the next.

After I had sent off the first few, they offered me an extra four because another of their Australian writers had a temporary problem. I took it on, probably against my better judgement because (as we all know) I am not a fast writer.

It was a bit nerve-wracking, but the good news is that I managed to deliver my full fourteen articles on time, and now I have another fourteen articles to deliver in May. And money at the end of it.

My poor novel is still a work-in-progress, but now that the Job Search is out of my head, I am open to ideas again. My notebook goes everywhere with me, because researching life is also researching for my writing.

At this stage I’m not sure what the future holds for me in Australia, but it’s certainly looking a whole lot better than it did just a month ago. I’m writing, I’m earning, and I’m happy!

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 7: When Life Gets in the Way

One of the greatest joys in my life is to be able to sit down and work on my current novel. I like nothing more than to have an empty day stretching ahead of me, plenty of tea and a few tasty snacks to nibble. I love to huddle over my computer with two cats nudging each other out of the way for lap space, and my head in another world for hours on end as I take my characters ever closer to the final page’s sail into the sunset. Sheer bliss!

Unfortunately, reality intrudes. Life gets in the way for all of us, and while that’s not a bad thing, it can be frustrating when you’re trying to keep track of a tenuous work-in-progress.

This is one of the reasons why I like to have my novel’s working outline constantly close at hand. Even if I haven’t written anything in weeks, all I need at the start of a long-overdue writing session is a few minutes to glance over the outline and read my notes about which piece of it I worked on last time, then I’m back in the hot seat, fired up and ready to go.

Sadly, that hasn’t happened for a while now.

Before April started, I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo, in a determined attempt to add to the word count of my as-yet-unfinished first draft. All I had to do was find time to write about 1000 words a day. Halfway through the month, I had to reduce my target to 700 words a day, but I have still failed. We all have our excuses, and here are mine:

First, the job I supposedly got back in March was snatched from me at the eleventh hour. I still don’t know what happened, but it seems to have been a combination of bureaucracy and a faulty message system. Suffice it to say that I had to start all over again from scratch, looking for a new job. Disheartening to say the least!

Second, a writing contract that I applied for back in January came up at last. Ten small articles online, but it’s quite fun and a good chance to stretch my writing muscles in new ways. (Plus there’s a little bit of money to be made, which is very welcome.) So instead of writing anything else, I have spent the last two weeks searching for material for the client’s business, and each article I write takes me about a day longer than it should. I will get faster, so they keep telling me…

Third, in answer to my ever-lengthening quest for a job, I have been given the chance to prove myself in a busy fresh food store, with a few casual shifts per week to bring in some much-needed money. I trained today and will start officially tomorrow.

Suddenly life has got in the way of writing. I’m very grateful that at last I can start to get my life back on track and move forward. But where does this leave me, writing-wise?

No need to panic. I’ve got this sorted. I’m going to carry on as before. I’m adaptable. I’m a writer, after all. It will just take me a little longer.

While I can’t always stay glued to the computer, that doesn’t mean I have to stop thinking about my story, its characters and their situation. I will always remain open to new bits of research that serendipitously drop into my lap from time to time. I believe in synchronicity with writing. Whether we attract things to us, or they find us by chance is not important here. What is important is that odd ideas pop into the heads of writers all the time, particularly when injected with the stimulation from a new work environment.

My blog-writing and my newsletter-writing have been halted as well as my novel-writing, but I’ll get back on track just as soon as I can sort out and adapt to my new schedule. And I’m sure my writing will be the richer for it in the long run.

Bear with me. I will return…

Anatomy of a Novel: Part 3: Synopsis

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In this series on the writing of a novel, I’ve already covered setting here and characters here. Now comes the fun part of putting it all together into an actual story – the synopsis. Despite dealing with setting, characters and synopsis one by one, it’s important to remember that the creation of a novel never moves evenly, one complete step at a time. Rather, it is a mix of various steps taken bit-by-bit, and usually simultaneously.

Due to the wonderfully invigorating interruption of NaNoWriMo last month, it’s been two months since I last wrote a blog-post about this novel-writing process. It’s probably just as well that I waited an extra month before writing this, because the synopsis for my current novel evolved so much during the month of November.

Previously, I explained about the process of creating characters, and how they are invented to enhance and complement the plot. With all of the characters and their setting whirling around in my head, I usually sit down and write a one-page synopsis of the proposed plot action. There will be details to fill in later, more secondary characters and possible changes in setting, but the gist of it will be there.

I can’t create fully-rounded characters until I know what they’re up against in the story. Likewise, I can’t invent the perfect synopsis until I have a good idea of how each character’s own desires, goals, habits, quirks and fears will add to that story. The half-formed synopsis I have in my head can only be finalised once the characters have been fleshed out.

And once I begin writing the novel, it all changes even more!

I write romantic mysteries, so in all my novels there is a mystery which initially draws two unconnected people toward each other, changes all their immediate individual plans and forces them to work together. The solving of this mystery causes them to fall in love, keeps them on the trot and eventually makes them fear for their lives.

Along the way I’ll throw in some deception, betrayal and a bad guy who may or may not be likeable at first, and then I’ll wind it all up in a glorious Big Climax from which no one looks set to escape alive, but hopefully the relevant romantic couple will survive with only a few scars, and live happily ever after.

When I have my one page synopsis, I put it aside and start to create the finer points of the main characters. While I might have had an initial idea or two about them, they each need to have some kind of attribute which will later come to the fore when it is most needed but least expected. A kind of temporary deception between me and the reader, because at the crucial moment I want the reader to think: “Oh, of course this character would do that – I’d forgotten that he/she knows all about this kind of stuff/grew up doing that/spent his/her childhood in that environment, etc.”

I should also mention here that the Big Climax always ends up taking place in a completely different way from how it was first envisaged. This is not for lack of planning, but because so much depends on the characters themselves. Their evolving goals and motivations inevitably change as I write and sometimes they steer the action in a different direction.

In my current novel Oxford Baggage the heroine is left a dubious legacy by her late ex-husband – the guardianship of his daughter from a previous marriage. It’s 1955 and Amy has felt bored and directionless since her secret government work ended at the close of the Second World War. She must now travel back to Oxford – the scene of her unhappy marriage to David – and live in his house as stepmother to his sixteen year old daughter for the next nine years until the girl reaches the age of twenty-five and gets her inheritance. That’s the set-up.

The mystery? Victoria – the stepdaughter – believes that her father was murdered. The love interest? There are two men: Simon, the lawyer dealing with David’s estate; and Richard, the younger brother of David and uncle to Victoria. Both men have secrets from the war, and Amy is attracted to both, but could one of them have caused the accident that killed David, as Victoria suspects? Or is Victoria just being difficult and trying to stir trouble?

When I wrote the original one-page synopsis for this novel, I had no idea about the character of one of these men. By the time I reached the 50,000 word mark at the end of November, I had a better idea of who he was, but I had also realized by then that the entire character of the other had changed along the way.

One of my major settings for the novel became largely redundant during the writing of the first draft, when I discovered a setting closer to the heart of the novel, which in itself opened up a channel of history that, when explored, became a far better choice for the plot I had in mind.

And if that sounds complicated, wait until we start expanding that one-page synopsis into the outline!

The outline is the most important document apart from the manuscript itself, because it will serve as the blueprint for the novel, from day one of writing, until I push the Publish button to turn the finished manuscript into an eBook months, or even years, later.

However, that outline cannot happen until there is a precise, concise, well worked out synopsis. And in the writing of a synopsis, nothing is sacred, nothing is set in stone and nothing continues as it was started…

Winning NaNoWriMo – the Pros and Cons

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Well, it’s over at last and it was an interesting experience. I clocked up 51,106 words in 28 days, with an average of 1703 words per day. Despite the progress made so far, my story is nowhere near finished.

Would I do it again? Yes, if the time frame of starting a first draft ever coincides with the beginning of November again, I will probably join up and give it another go. It’s certainly a good way to get the writing juices flowing.

So what have I learned from this experience? Having now proved to myself that I can write over 50,000 words in a month, next time around I wouldn’t attempt to finish the actual draft, but would choose from the start to view those 50,000 words as only part of a draft.

First the good stuff:

  • I needed to do this, and I’ll always be glad that I joined in and did my best. I had been in a bit of a rut and had been procrastinating for a few months about starting my next novel so NaNoWriMo gave me the incentive to sit down in October, thrash out a storyline from my original synopsis, and flesh out some characters.
  • It gave me a deadline by which to get my initial research done, so that by the end of October I was as ready to roll as it was possible for me to be.
  • The build up to it was fun – signing up to the website and finding some writing buddies, getting emails of encouragement and so on, made it all very festive and encouraging.
  • During the month of November, NaNoWriMo literally gave me a reason to wake up early each morning and write at least 1,667 words before the day intruded with its problems. I had been busy with a soul-annihilating job-search for the previous four months which was – quite frankly – depressing, and I needed an injection of fun in my mornings, but was still free to job-search each afternoon.
  • NaNoWriMo also allowed me to plough through two thirds of a first draft faster than I’ve ever done before, and that’s quite an exhilarating feeling.

And now we come to the not-so-good news. First, some background:

When writing a novel, no matter how prepared I am (and I was for this one, I promise!), there will always be new ideas that I think of along the way. This happens to me every time, and it’s a good thing. It means I am thinking on my feet, leaving a certain amount of the story to chance, and definitely open to new ideas.

It also means that, while I’m writing, I need to adapt my outline constantly as I find new bits to put in. And I need to research those bits before I put them in, because there’s nothing more time-wasting than writing screeds of stuff that I imagine to be possible but haven’t had the time to research properly yet. It’s all very well to type in the words: “research this bit later” and carry on writing, but I don’t want to find out 20,000 words down the track that it’s just not going to work.

Ask anyone I’ve ever worked with and they’ll tell you that I really do hate doing a job twice because some idiot didn’t think things through properly the first time. When that thoughtless idiot turns out to be me because I was trying to keep to a pre-determined word count, I want to spit blood and rage at the universe for allowing me to screw myself around like that. And none of that contributes to making me a happy writer.

It’s worth taking a week (or even longer) to rethink, re-research and rewrite the bit that doesn’t work in order to progress towards a product that is ultimately better.

Let me give you a few examples:

  • In Benicio’s Bequest which is set in Italy, I swapped around a trip to Venice and a trip to Florence because the story flowed better when I re-thought that sequence. This involved a certain amount of re-plotting and re-writing of two whole sections, and it all had to be done before I could move on to the next sequence because any change like that has a knock-on effect. The new sequence also gave rise to a car chase that hadn’t been in the original storyline but turned out to be one of its highlights.
  • In The Trojan Legacy I planned the first part of the historic half of the novel to be set in the mountains of Peru, in the jungle near Machu Picchu, but 12,000 words into the first draft I knew it was never going to work because I didn’t have enough personal experience of that place. I decided to re-set that part in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa which I knew well (and which was one of the settings for later in the story anyway), but it took me a week to reshape the beginning of my story and rewrite that section before I could continue.

So what did NaNoWriMo do to me that prevented me from letting my first draft develop naturally? Here we come to the bad stuff:

  • After two weeks of writing according to my word count I hit a snag at the beginning of the third week. I realised that I needed to research some British history about Elizabeth the First’s persecution of the Catholics, and the construction of secret passages and priest holes in buildings of that time. This took me almost two days and set my word count back considerably. If this had been a normal first draft and not a NaNoWriMo first draft, I wouldn’t have let the lost days and lack of words worry me, but in running to catch up afterwards, my writing became sloppy and sub-standard.
  • One of the other problems I had with the fast pace of NaNoWriMo was that this re-structuring and rewriting is part of what makes writing enjoyable for me. I enjoy the craft of creating something that grows organically and plots its own path no matter what my outline says it should be doing. When this happens, the last thing I want to do is rush to catch up and lose the magic of those moments and the added value they bring to the story.
  • Another of the ultimate joys of writing is when my characters decide to race off on a different path and I have to follow them to find out what they’re up to because they refuse to listen to me or let me dictate their lives. (This is how I ended up with an unscheduled car chase between Florence and Verona in Benicio’s Bequest.) In my current novel, however, my poor strait-jacketed characters haven’t yet had a chance to break out of their constraints.
  • No matter what writers tell you, we all have imaginary conversations running through our heads. The characters converse and the writer has to lunge for pen and paper or phone to scribble it down as fast as those voices are spewing it. This is a sign that our characters really do have a life of their own outside of what we created for them. I remember chuckling at whole discussions between three of the characters in Benicio’s Bequest as members of the same family bickered and argued about past events and what to do next. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen very often in this draft.

So how was I able to make NaNoWriMo work for me during the third week? My mood of hopelessness only changed once I realised three things:

  • I don’t write short novels. My novels are always longer than 50,000 words. They end up between 80,000 and 98,000. The last novel was 92,000 when finally ready for publication after ten drafts, but its first draft had been 66,000 words.
  • Come the end of November, my draft wouldn’t be a complete draft, even if I reached 50,000. There would still be at least another 25,000 words to write just to get the basic draft down, and I could fix a lot of things then.
  • It was okay to write two thirds of a draft for NaNoWriMo, because it left me enough of the good stuff to play with after the end of November.

With two thirds of the first draft already done, I can now afford to relax a bit, go back and fix things and make some changes where they are needed. I can research at my leisure and take my time with the climax and finale.

I’ll keep you informed about my progress as time goes on, so watch this space…

NaNoWriMo Update

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As I write this, I’ve been slogging away at NaNoWriMo for almost ten days, and have kept to my required word count each day so far. Anyone who doesn’t know what NaNoWriMo is can take a look at my previous blog-post here.

I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to write over weekends, so I erred on the side of excess in the first few days of the first week, and it’s a pattern that’s paid off, because I reached my weekly word count for the first week, and I am doing the same thing for the second.

I have six writing buddies on the NaNoWriMo website: three in America and three in Australia. Bearing in mind that Australia is almost a day ahead of America, those of us who are putting our daily word count on the site all seem to be doing well. So far I’ve earned a few badges for doing such things as passing the first day’s 1667 word count, the 5000 word count, and the 10000 word count. This morning I reached 15000 words, and my next badge milestone will be 25000 words, which I’m expecting to hit early next week, if not sooner.

A few days ago I browsed the NaNoWriMo forums and found a thread for writers who are writing stories set in World War II, so I added my two cents’ worth. Doing that also helped me to formulate a brief blurb about my story. There’s space on my NaNoWriMo novel page to put a synopsis, but because a synopsis tells the whole story and has spoilers, I’ve put the blurb onto my page instead. I’ve also put a very short excerpt from the first chapter.

If any other NaNoWriMo writers are reading this, you can find me listed there as “Unique User” so you are welcome to take a look at my page while resting your fingers. Maybe we can become writing buddies too…

What have I learned from doing NaNoWriMo so far?  Most important, I’ve learned that I can do this. The pace is a little more intensive than the way I’ve worked before, but I’m happy to be churning it out at this rate. I find it invigorating and incredibly productive.

I’ve also learned that I could never just wing it with something like this. I am a plotter who always works to an outline, and if I hadn’t planned this whole novel during October and the months leading up to it, I wouldn’t be able to do this. My outline is my constant companion during the writing. It’s basically my whole plot, including story sparks, plot points, cliff-hangers and so on, broken down into sections that will become chapters. I use this to make sure I’m not going off at a tangent or writing too much about a small plot incident. This way it’s easier to keep a handle on how long each chapter is and where the characters are on their individual journeys.

The outline is also extremely adaptable and can be adjusted if a new direction suddenly takes my fancy. It’s never printed out and lives on my computer as a working, malleable thing from the first day of writing until that far off day when I finally upload the finished product to Amazon as an eBook.

I’m hoping that day won’t be too far off in the future…