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.