Story Structure; Writing the Novel
It’s been a while since I’ve updated this site. Too long.
With spring approaching, I’ve renewed my commitment to writing, because it’s a commitment to ME. It’s okay to step back and it can recharge you-even when all hope is lost.
It’s not always that way.
Sometimes life changes, work and family pull us in so many directions that we never realize. We put writing off for a day, a week and then the guilt. We tell ourselves that we don’t have time, we’re tired. It’s too much effort. We drop CPers, stop taking classes, let the writer association lapse.
Stop thinking of ourselves as a writer.
That’s okay, fine.
It’s when we listen to those insidious voices-I’ll never make it-the competition is stiff-I took this as far as I could-its just too HARD.
That’s when the damage is done. The damage that we may never push through, the block.
And this is a block, make no mistake.
It may not be a block of ideas, a true “Writer’s Block”, but it’s a block and one that is terrifying. Unexpected. Writing is solitary but this can make us feel isolated.
Sometimes it is the WIP. Sometimes. Just stayed too long. Usually, the rx is to put that aside and start something fresh.
Because what I’m talking about, goes way beyond hating the WIP, characters etc. And it’s emotional, raw, in the gut-like being in a marriage you want out of. You just can’t do it anymore.
Sound familiar? So you crawl out of the hole, it’s scary. It’s not pretty, but you climb.
During hiatus stay in touch with CPers. Keep one toe in.
Write on Sundays-sometimes if you felt like it.
One day, when the world comes crashing down turn to the oldest friend you know; writing.
You won’t even have to apologize. No excuses to make, let it take you in, like it has so many times. Renew old connections, take classes, jump into a contest or two and it will be like you never left.
Writing is how I process the world, and my life. That’s just it.
Open up the WIP; write. And edit and believe.
And it’s HARD. Remember, yes the market is crowded, the slush is bursting but most people still don’t do this. Most people you know, won’t ever write a book, or finish a project. Yes, this is brass ring stuff. It’s HARD.
Even after the darkest winter, the cherry blossoms will always come out again, my writing will always welcome me back. Let it welcome you. I won’t stop being a writer. I’m old enough now to know I’ve been writing longer than not.
If you’re writing Historical Fiction you’re most likely in love with the past. While writers adore research and taking notes, diving into costume templates and other delights, it’s important to remember that unless you’re writing a text book there’s Story and there’s History. Don’t confuse the two.
Historical facts are like backstory. Their there to enhance, not overwhelm. A delicate hand is needed to spice up stories if we’re going to transport readers to the world we are recreating. It’s rich details, the little bit of this, and little bit of that we can use to enliven stories without dumping a lot of unnecessary, dry facts on top of readers who will turn away.
Because history to me is so enjoyable, when I approach a project in the early stages, I give myself a time limit to do research. It helps keep me centered on story, and prevents a trip far off field that will prevent me from actually writing the story and over-researching. In fact, I under-research. In the beginning. When I get into the draft, I leave blanks if I haven’t read deeply enough and go back after my first draft is done to read more on the topic so I can flesh out the scene first. Always remember, story first. I typically limit my initial research to two weeks to a month, depending on scope and familiarity with subject matter. I watch documentaries, read primary and secondary sources and research costumes. I do not research technical aspects yet, such as weaponry and language. Once I start writing the draft, I review notes and let the story guide me. If something needs more research, I’ll note and go back. The old Stephen King Cleveland trick. These things are usually things I want also to see in person. I’ll watch a YouTube video first, then schedule an appointment with a local expert. That’s it.
It’s crucial not to get overwhelmed with details. If you’ve loaded your draft with too much detail or find your characters speechifying-teaching history-you’ve gone too far. History like backstory is a spice. While I want readers who enjoy that time period to be charmed and delighted, I know I’ve done my job when I’ve transported a reader who knew nothing about the era. Those are the ones you should be aiming at. Don’t be afraid to use foreign words with elan, these are the things that bring your world to life.
If you don’t know how to do it, try something like, “I wrapped the rich uchikake around my shoulders for warmth. It was always welcome to have padded kimono on a night like this.” You’ve defined the item once, now be free to use the word again without having to define and the effect is seamless. The reader gets it.
How do you like to research? Do you dive in or do you do just enough to sprinkle the story?
I was chatting the other day during my errands. Writing came up, and they grew wide-eyed and interested as they asked, almost conspiratorially, “You’re a writer? How do you get published?” I realized then, that the novice who dreams of writing, is all too interested in putting cart before horse. It was only after I was slugging bundles in the back seat that I wished I could have said more.
I vaguely recall that place. Where the drive is nascent but not yet crystalized enough to carry them through the long days night. They really have no idea what they are doing. It’s dangerous, and kinda exciting too. Pull up a chair, or a bed because it’s not easy and it’s not over night. It’s not even next week, maybe not even next year.
1.) Forget publication. For now.
So often when we start thinking the world is ready for our stuff. If you’re just starting out, the world is not ready. You’re not ready. Develop your craft. Take classes through Writers Digest or local extension schools. Write and write some more. If you’ve written a novel or have a Nano project that was never EDITED TO DEATH, forget about subbing. You’re barely out of the gate.
2.) Get in the habit.
Write every day. If you want to write a novel, make an outline first. I started out years ago as a panzter. It made the editing process extra-long and while the book got better with every draft, I knew there was a better way. There are great books on craft out there. Story structure will save your life. You can’t hope to plot out a novel correctly without some form of road map.
3.) Get an obsession.
If you find a higher reason to write all the better. Figure out why you want to do this, not money. Not fame. And when you do, don’t talk about your work. Keep your novel close while you’re in writing phase, don’t show it to friends and family. Trust me, your enthusiasm will wane. It always works for me. This will help you through the endurance phase, when your writing buddies quit, but you have the chops to stick it out.
4.) Speaking of writing buddies.
If you can’t post your work because you can’t take it, you’re not ready. You need good critique partners to swap with. They are your only line of defense in a tough industry. Getting editorial help is a good if you can afford it, but it WILL NOT GUARANTEE success. Why? You pay editors. They have a pecuniary interest in your work. They also take too many projects, if they are in demand. You need unbiased truth here, the kind you will only get from friends who want you to succeed and who play a valuable role helping you along the journey. You help them, they help you. They are the best help you will get, and you will learn hugely by critiquing their work.
5.) Read often.
Writers read. It’s that simple. You can’t learn the craft if you don’t read what others do. Read wide, in your genre and read outside your genre. If you’re trying to get published, read as many debuts as you can to crack the code.
6.) Believe in yourself.
Not everybody can write, despite the old saw that everyone has a story inside. If you can’t write, you’ll find out sooner or later. But if you learn the craft and stick to it, you may be able to get better. It takes grit and a thick skin, those who would give up at the first rejection letter will give up. They won’t believe in themselves or their story. They’ll be swayed by one agent’s opinion and won’t realize that while they can always improve, writing is subjective. Not everyone will love their story. But someone will.
Here’s a great link to K.M. Weiland’s site on Story Structure. I highly recommend the book.
If anyone is interested, e-mail me I have great Theme/Structure Chart you can use to help plot your novel. It’s copywrited by a well-known agent so I will not post. But it helped me immensely.
As a writer of Asian fiction, I am drawn to Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temple. I can’t get enough of it. It’s so mysterious and incredibly beautiful that I have multiple pictures in my home, writing space and office. It uplifts me. It makes me chillax and it reminds me how something great can be brought forth from ideas and stone.
But first, there was the jungle.
Angkor Wat is a Buddhist temple complex. The largest ever built in the word. It’s a 12th century Khmer king’s dream come to life. It’s still standing. The temple broke from Shavism tradition and instead celebrated Vishnu, and there is a legend that holds construction happned in a single night by divine help.
The temple’s gradual focus shifted from Hindu to Buddhism. This amazing place was abandoned over the years, as regimes came and went but never completely. And it had protection. The jungle prevented destructive encroachments. The vines and the snakes actually preserved the jewel inside.
Our drafts. Just like this magnificent temple, they are laid out scene by scene, page by page from nothing. They age. They take shape and they become overgrown. Time to prune.
The writing process can feel as if we are enveloping our beautiful words in a morass of vines. So we put the book away. The proverbial shut the drawer moment. Maybe we write something else because we grow bored. Can’t sell it. Can’t fix another scene. Can’t face it.
But it’s when the vines are at their worst tangle that we know some hidden jewel awaits us. Some books can’t be fixed, and some are meant to teach.
Here come the Ifs.
If you can’t get that story out of your head, if you followed a linear path, if each scene flows from outward progression, if you follow goal-motivation-conflict, it’s all there. You just need to edit. Cut back. Combine scenes that don’t work. Try cutting anything that’s boring. Odds are cutting will save that book.
So, if you’re still haunted by the book in the drawer, there is hope. Think of the temple in the jungle, because it’s true. Greatness comes from drawing out the bits that excite and entertain us. Nothing great came from the easy path, if that were true we’d all be living in log cabins.
I’ll take the temple and the jungle, please.
So I actually committed and made it through the Blog A-Z Challenge. To pat myself on the back, I’ve written two books but this was different. Blogging is different.
I had a lot of fun. I loved the camaraderie, meeting new peeps taking the challenge and seeing how they came up with inspiring content. I hope they’ll still come around. I hope when the excitement wanes, they won’t too. I will visit my new friends, and often.
The numbers shot up too. Nice. There were moments. After a few in the restaurant, I had to really pull myself to the Surface to get it done. Tax night? Yah, reason why the Ikebana Post was not getting much love, I was literally doing turbotax and the post at the same time. It wasn’t my best, but I didn’t want to quit. And hey, it was “I”.
Some posts were surprisingly popular.
Cherry Blossom C. Kyoto K. Good eye candy. Everyone loves cherry blossoms.
Life of Oharu, okay that was X but it got good comments and it’s a fantastic film.
This one was close to my heart.
The Real Madame Butterfly M.
Zelda in the Shadow Z.
I can see the value of blogging often. I feel energized. Great challenge with like-minded people. Wouldn’t have missed it.
I’ve always thought a duel biography of Zelda and Nora would be interesting. Both married literary giants, Fitzgerald and Joyce. Both were incredibly unhappy. But since this is the last night of the A-Z Blog Challenge, Zelda gets the honors. After all she was the original flapper.
Zelda goes down in history for being the model of Daisy Buchanan, in Great Gatsby. But she was a frustrated writer, largely misunderstood who suffered in the shadow of her husband. It’s ironic that she was the quintessential It Girl, rebellious, hip and bohemian enough to break the rules of society yet she struggled with identity. It nearly destroyed her.
She seems not to have much confidence in her own abilities, but much of her witticisms made their way into her husband’s books. As a product of post-War America, she was the embodiment of woman who turned away from traditional roles of wife and mother. She was not domestic in the least. She contributed to a column of favorite recipes, this is what she wrote, and I quote:
“See if there is any bacon, and if there is, ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs, and if so try and persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast, as it burns very easily. Also, in the case of bacon, do not turn the fire too high, or you will have to get out of the house for a week. Serve preferably on china plates, though gold or wood will do if handy.”
They had a difficult marriage. Unconventional, he, raging alcoholic who expected her to bask in greatness, she who suffered bouts of depression, commitment and suicide attempts. Hemingway did not like her. It was mutual. He thought she was crazy. She detested his “faux machismo”. The marriage issues stemmed largely when Zelda was left at loose ends while Fitzgerald was deep in his manuscripts. She wanted what he had, but on her own terms.
One of the more bizarre attempts at carving her own way was her obsession to become a ballerina. At 27. She practiced all hours of the day. It’s a bit like deciding to become an Olympic skier at age 32. She had a minor talent, and was invited to study in an Italian school. But she never went. She dropped the whole idea, just as it seemed she had got what she wanted. Or did she?
Zelda wanted to write. Can you imagine being married Fitzgerald, yet he never encouraged her, one suspects he was jealous and fearful of sharing the limelight. She was hospitalized in 1932, yet in that time she was able to complete an entire novel, Save Me The Last Waltz She sent it to her husband’s editor, the great Maxwell Perkins. Fitzgerald exploded. He accused her of using intimate details of their marriage, yet he was more angry because she had beaten him to the punch; he was planning on using the same martial for Tender Is The Night, a novel that took him years while she banged Waltz out in six weeks. There was no pride, no encouragement. Her efforts, met with suspicion.
Fitzgerald forced her to edit out the scenes, though the novel was published by Scribner. Ah, connections. It wasn’t a success, though today her writing has been described as more sensual and verbally rich. It is best remembered, as one woman’s attempt to stop being a “backseat driver” in her husband’s life. Fitzgerald called her a Third-Rate writer. This broke her heart and she was never the same. She made about $120. And that’s why no pictures of him appear in this post.
This is about Zelda. Not F, or S. Those letters have been done. And I dedicate the blogs in this A-Z Challenge to her memory. Over and out. It’s been fantastic.
What gets you running for the hanky? I think of Lily Bart and I’m there. The House of Mirth is my favorite Wharton. Wharton is my favorite American writer. Win-win.
It’s been a long time since she published. Yet with her unique perspective, humor and the emotion she poured into stories she inspired me in a big way to become a writer. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. She lived within the constraints of a stiff, manacled culture on her terms when few women had aspirations outside the cotillion room.
The House of Mirth tells the story of Lily Bart-a poor relation on the fringes of high society. What’s interesting here is that Wharton could have started the novel at a much earlier time. No. Instead, we get a sense of Lily’s past as the belle of the ball, but things haven’t turned out the way she hoped. She’s 29 and on the sunset of her beauty. The money her father left has dwindled and that makes the novel all the more taut, full of razor-sharp tension and projects impending doom for Lily as she tries one last grasp at the brass ring, to arrange a good marriage.
She drifts on good graces and invites from regattas to house parties, racking up debts from cards and clothes she can ill afford. The irony of her situation is all the more acute, since she needs these props to make that advantageous match before her beauty runs out. The promises of an inheritance held as a carrot become spoiled by her own behavior and her desperation to be accepted.
Lily’s conflict-the trappings of wealth pull against her attraction for Seldon who offers her a chance to be herself-as they come crashing down in scandal where she has the means to destroy happiness in one sacrifice. Perhaps the most heartbreaking is Lily’s utter inability to be anything other than what she is; a product of that culture she longs in-part to escape. Her attempts to hold down a job at a hat maker end with realization that she is “a useless sort of person.”
The novel is not a light-hearted beach read but I guarantee you’ll never forget it.
As a child, and later teen I dreamt of the following; girl writes book; girl mails off book; girl gets published and maybe gets a miniseries. I read a lot of Judith Krantz. Mistral’s Daughter is one of my favorite 80’s tomes.
Young and inexperienced, seems so easy doesn’t it? But in today’s uncertain publishing climate, one size fits all is gone.
What do you do to get your head on straight and make the best decision for yourself?
You read a lot. Educate yourself about this rapidly changing business. Know this; even if you push a boulder the size of a house uphill; even if you follow your heart; you will face lots of risk. It’s just not cut and dry anymore.
But there are opportunities. Pause, learn and consider what path you’re taking. Going shotgun on a 100 queries isn’t a plan. Trust that you’re talent will be the life raft you will need to navigate this thing called publishing. Indie authors are exploding. That’s no secret. A few years ago when I was busy writing with my head in the sand I ignored debates going on. One reason is that it bothered me. I wanted the traditional path and I didn’t want to hear all the poo-pooing about ebooks and publishing is a button and ya-ya-ya. Yawn. It kinda scared me. It threatened my dream.
When I bought my Nook three years ago I didn’t think about it. I still had paper books. All this talk must be just that. Then two years ago I walked into Barnes and Noble. There was always new-fangled book lights or pretty diaries for sale. What I saw I couldn’t ignore. 3/4 of the store was given over to candles. Expensive soaps. Godiva chocolates. The stacks of books seemed an after thought. Soap. Think about that. I knew I had to learn the business and quick.
Today, we have choice but it’s overwhelming. Getting an agent has never been harder. So what do you do? Go the small press route to crack in, get your cred and build your career? I don’t have any answers in 2014. Except, think carefully. Don’t be desperate. Read and investigate. If the idea of getting smaller royalties and giving away your rights is okay for a date at the prom, small presses may be for you. Read the contract. If you don’t know what you’re reading get help. If you don’t want to give your rights away, you’re being required to promote your book, heck you’re already doing it, and you want to keep 70% of the profits maybe you want to look into self-publishing.
When I hear so and so say, oh yeah I threw my book up on Amazon and didn’t make a dime, that tells me that they probably weren’t serious. They didn’t invest in a good editor, good cover artist (be willing to change that cover if need be) and weren’t prepared to promote the book and weren’t writing more books. If you want to self-publish you must do all three things. If you want to go the small press route be prepared also to do more. You won’t get an advance, but with small presses you’ll get passion and help.
If you go the traditional route, if you have the dream of getting an agent and trying to stalk the Big5 peak hunker down, it’s a long winter. Build you’re ice fort around your ego and your skin. Stake your heart to the ground to be safe. Stockpile food for the haul because you’re looking for someone who will love you’re book like a lover. It may be an extended wait. Resist the urge to tear apart you’re work every time you get a No. Believe in your story, keep writing and realize that it’s the numbers game. Keep coming back, it’s a matter of time.
So be thoughtful before you leap at any contract. Make a plan. Have a vision. Embrace risk. Get excited it’s uncertain times but writers are reaching readers like never before and that’s why we do this right?