Category Archives: Novel

Between Panster and Plotter: Finding a Middle Ground

look downstairs into stairwell whirlWhen it comes to writing, I’m a “pantster,” as they say; I spit out drafts of a story in one forward motion, without looking back.

That’s the kind of writer I started out as, anyway.

The first essay I wrote (and submitted…poor editors) was a cathartic experience, in which I hardly glanced back even to edit. And, the novel I’m working on right now poured onto my computer screen during a frenzied dash to win a NaNoWriMo banner in 2009. Or, was it 2008? It’s a little murky now, sort of like that first draft.

But lately, I’ve been reading James Scott Bell’s book on plot and structure, and I’m discovering a middle ground between writing a first draft with one eye open and pre-planning a story scene by scene. Bell’s book gives writers a look at the basics of plot and story structure, using a set of principles he calls “the LOCK system.: Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout.

“That novel,” as I affectionately call it, still needs a lot of work, so I picked up this book with the aim of applying it to my draft — to see what I was missing, figure out what might be holding me back. What I’m discovering is that, even though I haven’t finished Bell’s book, understanding the LOCK system is changing the way I see this WIP (in a good way) and giving me new insight on how I approach all of my fiction.

Seeing how my novel incorporates the four LOCK principles, I’m more confident that the plot can work. More interesting, though, is the new perspective I have on an upcoming short story deadline. I was invited to join a group of writers and contribute a 10,000 word story to an anthology, and now there’s more than a self-imposed deadline looming on my calendar. This short story will stretch my skills as a writer, I’m sure, and I love a challenge (she says, knees shaking). If this were pre-Bell days, I would sit down with a main character and a first line and go with them, face my fears and see what happens. This time, though, I’m brainstorming more before I write, thinking through the lead and his objective, considering confrontations and a possible Knockout ending.

Whether or not pre-planning will change the outcome of the story, I don’t know. And, I’m not giving up on writing by the seat of my pants completely. There’s something about this simple planning, though, that gives me a teeny bit of confidence as I approach this story. And, maybe…just maybe…all the “thinking time” (as Roz Morris calls it in her excellent book, Nail Your Novel) will mean less time at my computer.

Since finding time to sit and write at my laptop seems almost impossible these days, I’ll take the “writing” however it comes.

Has your approach to crafting your stories changed lately?

Book Review: Here, Home, Hope

“I believe the saying that people come into your life for a reason. And things happen, like cancer scares, to keep us moving forward. Trying new things.” ~from Here, Home, Hope
~

There comes a point in our lives, sometimes more than once, when we reach a crossroads or a dead end, complacency or crisis, and we realize that change is inevitable, even necessary. Some of us pack up and move, others get married or have a baby, a brave few branch out into new careers or hobbies.

In Kaira Rouda’s debut novel, Here, Home, Hope, we are introduced to Kelly Johnson — a mother of two, a domestic engineer, and a woman in flux. Coming off of a recent breast cancer scare, and beginning to understand (and accept) that her sons no longer need every minute of her attention, Kelly Johnson sets out to find a new purpose for herself.

As it says in “About the Book” on Kaira Rouda’s website, “Kelly takes charge of her life, devising a midlife makeover plan.”

In her quest, Kelly discovers a passion and a hidden talent for a new career, as well as an appreciation for old friends, young teenagers, her life and her home.

Here’s a sneak peek at the book:

Kaira Rouda, herself, is a woman redefined, moving from Author of women’s business books to Novelist. She aims to translate her real life goals, of enlightening and empowering women, into the fictional tale of Kelly Johnson. There’s much to appreciate in Here, Home, Hope (and some to envy), like the value of risk-taking, the importance of genuine friendships, and of the support of a loving husband — who’s devotion goes unnoticed by Kelly at first. However, as a reader, I would have liked to see the story spend a little more time on some of the bigger issues broached in this novel, like eating disorders and depression.

On the other hand, many readers prefer books that don’t perseverate on the darker side of life, and, as Jenna Blum says in her book blurb, Kaira Rouda’s novel is definitely “upbeat” and “hopeful,” a light read. So, if you’re looking for a story with a taste of real life and a feel-good ending, you’ll enjoy Here, Home, Hope.

And, tomorrow just might be your lucky day. I’ll be hosting Kaira Rouda here for an interview, where she’ll talk about the move from writing nonfiction to novels and the one thing that so many of us strive for in life: balance. Stop by tomorrow’s post as well, get to know a little more about Kaira and her novel from her perspective, and enter the giveaway: one free copy of Here, Home, Hope.

Maybe If I Had Those Boots: A List, Linda Carter, and Letting Go

I am a listmaker, a planner, and a victim of my own high expectations. I began the summer by designing a hefty writing goal: finish the current draft of my novel by the end of June. Even now, as I type those words, the task seems like it should have plausible. Easy. But, after only two weeks into my summer vacation, I realized I wouldn’t reach that goal.

Couldn’t reach it.

Headaches ensued, followed by a case of the “poor me’s,” and soon those clouds in the sky that lingered well past their welcome meant more than just rain.

“It’s summer, for crying out loud,” I complained to a friend. “Life is good. Why do I feel so bad?”

My friend suggested I write another list, a different one, a list of every expectation I set for myself. Later, when I read it back to her, she pointed out an interesting theme, so that I understood the skewed vision I had, of me:

Linda Carter could kick a novel into submission in no time, and have dinner on the table by six o’clock. She could swim the deep ocean to rescue a sinking sub and then surface, lipstick and mascara (and sanity) in tact. But I’m not Linda Carter. My hair gives way two minutes into a workout, and those bullet-deflecting bracelets are useless against the snide remarks of that committee in my head.

Making that list of expectations was quite a revelation, from a personal point of view and a writer’s perspective. I can’t do everything I set out to do, and that’s okay. So now, I have two new goals: relax and just be —

Present.

Amanda Hoving talks about similar revelations in a recent post on her blog. Yes, time is ticking away, but that I don’t need to drive myself crazy or beat myself up.

Wise words came from a few other folks, too, words that help keep me grounded, lately:

1) Comments on a recent post of my own, which reiterate I am not alone in my struggle to complete a novel, and that perhaps I could consider that story as a shorter work (there’s that perspective bit again).

2) Passages from Roz Morris’ Nail Your Novel, a great book for writers with just an idea or with an unfinished draft in hand. Early on in her book, she says something that speaks directly to me, in how I work my draft and (apparently) in how I plan my days:

Don’t make lists…lists tie you down to having events happen in a certain order, and this is not the time for you to be deciding that.

Lists do help me get organized. But, like every asset, making lists quickly swings to a defect when that particular action takes me down into a feeling of failure. Morris knows this, and she offers several tasks for writers that help move a novel forward, without obsessing over the mantra, “I should be doing this, or that, by now.”

3) Jan O’Hara’s recent post on Writer Unboxed, a poignant essay on letting go, relaxing, and embracing the kind of writing that feeds your spirit. She says:

I’ve noticed a tendency for writers to devalue their natural talents, perhaps because the writing can feel easier. (Not “easy”, because writing is seldom that.)  Sometimes I think we are so used to telling stories about struggle, we believe that’s the only way to exist. If it isn’t hard, it doesn’t count. If we aren’t wrung out by the process, it can’t contain much worth.

Go read Jan’s essay. Then, set out – or head back – to do what you love.

Speaking of, just for today, this is what I’m doing:

  • Using Morris’ book to push my story draft towards the finish (whether that be 80,000 words or 40,000), but not panicking if that happens at a much slower rate.
  • Writing and revising flash fiction (maybe even putting them into a collection), because that’s a genre I enjoy, and one in which I feel I can succeed.

Linda Carter can keep her boots.

What high expectations can you let go of today?

Navigating Space in Writing

Trapped in a tiny box

via sundaykofax on flickr.com/creativecommons

I have space issues. I’m a confessed claustrophobic, yet I sometimes dream of living in a tiny home, having everything within reach. I like the minimalist philosophy and the idea of using space efficiently. I’m a sucker for pockets upon pockets in a bag, secret drawers in a closet, or hidden compartments in jewelry boxes. There’s so much one can fit into small quarters with the right organization and planning.

That would explain my affinity for flash fiction. I love stories in a compact space, short shorts that insist I take my word limit seriously. There isn’t room for unnecessary details or dialogue. And, in a good flash fiction, more is revealed if you read beyond character gestures and listen to pauses in speech.

Thoughts on my preference for small spaces also helps me understand why writing a novel continues to baffle me. Moving from flash fiction to a novel parallels my experience when we upgraded from a one bedroom apartment to our first home, an overwhelming three bedroom house.

Rooms sat empty for a while.
The sound of footsteps bounced off plastered ceilings and wood floors.
Everything echoed, until we filled the rooms.
With furniture.
A rug.
Curtains.

Filling out a novel with 80,000 words is killing me. And, I’m not alone. Jenna Blum, in her post on Grub Street Daily (“Can’t I Just Write 15 Stories About the Same People: Turning Short Stories Into a Novel”), responds to another writer’s same question: how the heck do you move from short form to long?

If you can write a short story, you can write a novel–because both of them have beginning, middle and end…The short story contains its own arc.  The novel imposes its arc on a series of chapters–or stories.

Blum says, sure, you can write a series of stories on the same person, but there’s more to the novel that comes out in the narrative arc and plot. She says, ” If a short story is…a kiss from a stranger, a novel is a long love affair.”

So, I don’t want to sell my story short (there must be a pun in there somewhere), but I still cringe at the 80,000 word mark. What I want is to merge the idea of a novel being a long series of flash fiction pieces, while keeping in mind Blum’s caution not to lose the novel’s theme throughout.

What about you? How do you move from short form to long, or vice versa? Or, maybe you want to talk about itty bitty living quarters?….

Said the phlebotomist to the writer, “Too much fear stops the flow.”

This weekend, I gave blood. This wasn’t my first time, but let me say that (in my case anyway) it never gets easier.

Photo credit: rvoegtli on http://www.flicker.com

I know the routine: the check-in, the donor questionnaire, the finger stick. I know exactly what to expect, which is the whole reason I break out into a sweat and forget how to breathe the second the phlebotomist cracks the cover on the needle. And, that cheesy sitcom playing on the television across the room does nothing to distract me from the snaking tube sticking out of my arm for a solid ten minutes — or more, depending on whether or not my vein cooperates.

I am mess from the minute I walk into the Blood Center to the second I hear the beep from the machine that announces my pint-size bag is full up.

It’s the anticipation of discomfort that gets to me, and the worry that I might not make my quota. What if I didn’t drink enough water? What if something goes wrong and she has to re-insert the needle? What if I pass out and never make it to the sugary treats at the end of Donor’s Row?

Oddly enough (or maybe not so much), a recent sit down with my work in progress felt a lot like this blood-letting. The same anxiety crept up on me seconds before I opened the file. I started to sweat as I scrolled down to my page mark. And, the initial string of words I typed out cut across the page and sounded choppy and slow. Then, all of the “what if’s” flooded my mind.

What if this scene doesn’t come together?
What if the story falls apart, right here, right now?
What if…I.Never. Finish.

I can’t avoid that anxiety, really. It’s genetic, and it’s part of my writing process. In many ways, dealing with it helps move me forward. I could give in to those fears, but that would mean I quit, and I’ve come too far to quit.

So, just like I squeezed that little stress ball and survived my stint at the Blood Center (once again), I’ll write through my fears as best I can on a given day. I’ll hold on to what phlebotomist told me this weekend, in between her constant chatter that she hoped would settle my nerves: the more you relax, the better your blood flows, and – before you know it – you’re at the end!

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. ~Ernest Hemingway

How a Middle School Track Meet Informed My Writing

In the seventh grade, I signed up for athletics. I lasted for one season (skinny, asthmatic kids are better suited for things like Drama), but I stayed long enough to experience a powerful moment.

After one look, and a few practices into the school year, the coaches figured out that I was C-team material. I was too short to spike a volleyball and couldn’t complete an overhand serve if my popularity depended on it (which it did). I was easily run over in basketball and was given an alternate uniform that screamed “sub.” During games, I took my seat at the bench. But during each practice, I did the drills and ran the laps. When track season rolled around, Coach Lewis looked at me and said “long distance runner.” He signed me up for the 400 meter race.

We didn’t practice with Coach Lewis often during track season, which made him all the more intimidating when he did show up on the field. He barked orders, shouted praise, laughed once in a while. On a particularly chilly Saturday morning at a track meet, he said the one sentence that has stuck with me ever since.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

Cold weather aggravates asthma, and during the middle of the 400 meter event, I started wheezing, sputtering, slowing down. I jogged in the outside lane. Coach Lewis didn’t like that. He walked up to the chain link fence that surrounded the track, stuck his head out like a snapping turtle, and hollered.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

I was shocked. Had he forgotten I had asthma? Where was the sympathy? Too scared to stop and ask him, I picked up the pace. I took the deepest breaths I could manage and the longest strides my chicken legs would take. I merged into the inside lane, rounded the last turn, and passed that tall girl with the mean eyes. I focused on the white lines that marked my lane and tuned into the sound of my shoes hitting the asphalt of the track. I pushed myself, into fourth place, earning a ribbon and a big boost of confidence.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

Coach Lewis’ words flashed through my mind last week as I experienced the same shortness of breath and sluggish feeling. This time, it wasn’t my asthma slowing me down, though, it was fear. I had reached a familiar point in my novel draft, the place in the story where ideas  scatter and plot weakens, the moment where I stare at the blank screen and worry if what I write next will kill the energy in the work.

Barbara O’Neal calls that place “The Slough of Despond.” In her post on Writer Unboxed, O’Neal says:

This is the [place] on the old maps, the murky, muddy spot where quicksand sucks at the feet and demons overtake the heart.

I’ve been here before, with this same story. In the past, I’ve faltered and quit – full stop – and gone back to the beginning to rework chapter one. But, this time is different. I’ve got Coach Lewis breathing down my neck. And, I have a few other incentives to keep me moving forward.

1. The Radio. I recently read my story, “Red Velvet Sunday,” on WUWM’s Lake Effect program (click here to listen). Nothing makes you feel more like a writer than answering questions about the craft and having the honor of reading your work to a new audience. The experience was like a shot of adrenaline, and it was a reminder that good things do happen, usually at just the right time — like during a writing lull when you wonder if you’ve got it in you to succeed.

2. Jody Hedlund. In her post, “How to Beat the Fear of Being a One Book Wonder,” she talks about old self-doubts that resurfaced while writing her second novel. Her thoughts on how to move through those fears apply to writers at any phase.

3. Ira Glass. In his video on storytelling (part 1) (the link found via a post from Jane Friedman on Writer Unboxed), he talks about “the anecdote” as a sequence of actions that move a story forward one moment at a time. That’s how I can get through this next section so that, as Barbara O’Neal says, I’ll “eventually…have a finished draft. To rewrite. So goes the game.”

How about you? What memorable moments keep you from coughing and sputtering your way to “I quit?”

Coach Lewis

Me, bottom right corner, finisher.

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You Talk Too Much: Balancing Dialogue and Narrative

I pride myself on being a quiet observer: in a church pew, during a staff meeting, behind a muffin and a steaming cup of coffee in a cafe. Most days, it takes me a long time to warm up to any conversation. But, stick me in front of my laptop (and smack-dab in the middle of rewriting a story) and suddenly I’m all talk.

At least, that’s what I’ve noticed lately with my work-in-progress. The early drafts of my novel were heavy in exposition and light in conversation. Now, I have a clearer vision of the plot, and I know my characters better. And, dialogue comes easy for me. The problem is that once the characters start talking, I let them go on and on. In rewriting another section last week, I noticed a whole page of chit chat. All that character banter started to tug at my writer’s gut, which suggested I should to rethink my use of dialogue.

Nathan Bransford posted on the Seven Keys to Writing Good Dialogue, in which he pin points one area of concern. He says, “A good conversation is an escalationCharacters in a novel never just talk. There’s always more to it.” In all writing, each character, scene, and piece of dialogue must move the story forward. I practice that in my short stories and flash fiction. But, in this novel rewrite, much of the dialogue I’ve written just fills up space. Though realistic, it reads flat and doesn’t necessarily propel the story.

Janet Fitch (author of White Oleander) has her own post, entitled “A Few Thoughts About Dialogue,” where she carries this idea of flat conversation even further. She says, “Dialogue is only for conflict…You can’t heap all your expository business on it, the meet and greet, and all that yack…If someone’s just buying a donut, nobody needs to say anything.” Then, she throws in a quick example of unnecessary talk: in response to a character asking, Want a cup of coffee? she writes, “No. I don’t. Ever.”

I’m guilty of that kind of dialogue: in the span of one chapter, my characters have discussed getting  a cup of coffee or tea twice. That’s a lot of “coffee talk.”

Sam McGarver, in his article, “10 Fiction Pitfalls,” (which appears in the May 2010 issue of The Writer) talks about too much weight on the other end of the writing scale: narrative. He says:

Many writers think a story should be largely narrated, in the manner of classic literature. But here’s a good rule: fight the urge to narrate…A story should consist of one scene following another, connected by narration.

I don’t want to nix half of the conversations in my novel just because I want to avoid too much talking. So, how do I find a balance between dialogue and narrative? After reading Bransford, Fitch, and McCarver, I found three different techniques:

  • From McCarver’s article: Find a particularly long narrative section and see how it might be broken up into more of a scene with dialogue.
  • After reading Fitch’s post: Find a section in the story where the characters have a whole conversation, and then cross out the dialogue that is commonplace. Because, as Fitch says, “A line anybody could say is a line nobody should say.”
  • From Bransford’s post: If the dialogue does carry the story forward but still feels “thin,” look for places to add gestures, facial expressions, and/or any details from the scene that enhance that section. Bransford says, “gesture and action [are] not [used] to simply break up the dialogue for pacing purposes, but to actually make it meaningful….”

How do you balance your story with narrative and dialogue? Do you talk too much?

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