Designing the Novel

by Elizabeth Engstrom

I’ve read many a bad book in my day. One day, while moaning about a good writer gone bad in my opinion, my friend Susan Palmer admonished me that “It’s just as difficult to write a bad book as it is to write a good one.” She’s right. Believe me, I know.

In the past couple of months, however, I’ve been asked to read three bad novels. These were not written by anyone I know (y’all can relax). I was asked on behalf of the author either by a friend, or the author’s publisher to review, comment, edit (!) or provide whatever rewrite information I could to help the author along.

Normally, I don’t do this. Not anymore. But for some odd reason, those requests came when I had perfectly-sized time slots to devote to them.

Design fail

One of the three was passable. Two were unreadable. Each of these books suffered from the author’s failure to plan. Failure to take the time to design the book.

Here are some of the notes I made:

  1. There is no conflict in this book. When she comes home from work, there are six pages of lovey-dovey “I love you so much,” with her husband. Boring. One sentence of this will get the message across, and then get into the conflict of the scene, although, ultimately, there was no conflict in that scene. Or any other scene, really.
  2. What conflict eventually arises in the book is clearly petty and contrived so that there would be some conflict. One woman says a thoughtless thing to another, and then is forgiven. Hmmm… My life in a nutshell.
  3. The big conflict at the end comes out of nowhere, affecting each character in different ways. This is good, but it’s all in the last chapter. Couldn’t some of that Big Conflict show up earlier to provide a little ongoing tension?
  4. Way too much internal dialogue put in quotation marks.
  5. Crazy point of view shifts without rhyme or reason. Point of view is part of the book’s design.
  6. Writing the way to the story. The story starts when the conflict starts. And when the conflict is over, the story is over. Don’t start three months before the conflict, and don’t end three years afterward. There are ways to insert essential back story information into an ongoing work.
  7. All the characters sound the same. There are situational differences, but no personality or speech differences.

A novel must be designed. You can get a good idea and a wild hair and sit down to write, but if you don’t have at least a blueprint to follow, there will come a time when that novel goes into the drawer.

There is value in taking a flyer at a story idea, for certain. But at some point the author has to sit back and re-evaluate certain aspects.

  • Whose story is this? In other words, who is the protagonist (just one, please), who changes over the course of the story? Introduce this character first.
  • Who is the antagonist? A story is only as strong as its antagonist.
  • Who is telling this story (POV)? How are they telling it?
  • What is the time frame for this story? One week, one year, multi-generational? Tighten it up if you can.
  • What is the point where the protagonist accepts the quest? (Research 3-act structure)
  • What is the darkest moment?
  • Will the protagonist triumph over his/her fatal flaw at the end, or succumb to it?

These are the very basics. When the answers to these questions have jelled, the author will have a framework within which to play.

 

The Book that Wouldn’t Die

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Years ago I wrote a book called Guys Named Bob. I loved this book. My agent hated the ending, but at my insistence, he sent it out anyway. It got attention from two major publishers, but they all wanted me to change the ending. I, in my ridiculous “artiste” attitude, politely declined. So the book sat on the shelf for a decade.

This is the book that made me research how to write erotica. This is the book that spawned my (infamous) weekend workshops and conference talks on how to write sizzling sex scenes. I had two unconventional people falling for each other in an unconventional setting amidst much turmoil and emotional upheaval. I discovered that I like my sex scenes with a light, significant touch. And so they are, in this book.

GNB Cover image

Recently, I took a fresh look at Guys Named Bob again. I saw what the agent/editors objections were to the ending, and decided that I could “alter” the ending, and in fact, I needed to.  I saw what they saw, given the time that had passed and the accompanying difference in perspective. Not to mention the difference in my attitudes about my career.

The ending didn’t exactly change, but in its alteration, I see better results for every character. I am very happy with the new ending. I brought it up to date, edited it, and my publisher just released the paperback and Kindle versions of Guys Named Bob.

You can read the first chapter here. You can buy a copy here.

I hope you do, and if you like it, please leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads.

Why is Writing Fiction so Difficult?

by Matthew Lowes

Years ago I taught a creative writing course, and I began the first class by writing a mathematical equation on the board. I suggested that the great difficulties of writing fiction could be understood through this equation. It was partly just a way to shock students into thinking about and seeing something in a new way. But the equation itself was a result of my own inquiry into the question: why is writing fiction so difficult?

At first consideration, it doesn’t seem like it should be. A friend of mine once remarked when I complained about some writing difficulty: “What’s the problem? Just make something up.” And indeed, in some sense this is good advice. He was only joking, but his comment actually helped solve my problem. When all is said and done, we are just making up stories. But like any good lie, you would like it to be believable … and like any good truth, you would like it have an impact. And to do this, you have to keep your story straight.

A piece of fiction may start with a character, a setting, an event, an image, or any number of things or aspects of these things. The story then builds with another thing and another thing and all the interactions and connections of these various elements. For the sake of argument, let’s call each one of these things, be it big or small, a story point.

The first one is easy. Take anything — the queen of a small island that is sinking into the sea … a young artist sent to the front lines of long and futile war … an ancient city on the edge of the desert … a fleeting glimpse into a stranger’s eyes — or just make something up. Like flashes from half-remembered dreams, these points bubble up from the subconscious, and a thousand stories begin to form.

One point, however, does not a story make. You have to add another point and another and another. And not only do the accumulation of points have to build tension and conflict, but they also all have to somehow exist harmoniously with each other. Each point that you add forms another connection, not only with the previous point, but with all previous points. And it turns out you can express this with an equation.

What this shows (I think … I worked this out with some help many years ago) is that for each new point added, the number of connections increases by a number equal to all the previous points. So with two points you have one connection; with three you have three; with four you have six; with seven you have twenty-one; and so on. By the time you reach fifteen points there are over a hundred individual connections. It doesn’t take a math whiz to see that the number of connections increases exponentially as you add more points.

Furthermore, this equation is only accounting for single direct connections to all other story points. If you want to count all possible connections through other story points, the numbers get truly astronomical — mind boggling! But you get the idea. There’s a lot to keep straight as you move forward. Luckily, it seems our minds are somewhat tuned to do this narrative processing work. Nevertheless, in any given story, and especially a novel, there’s a lot to keep track of.

And that’s just the telling a good lie part. If you want to include the good truth part, we’re going to have to add another dimension — a dimension composed of layers, consisting of all these same points on the level of theme, voice, writing, metaphor, character change, plot structure, mythic underpinnings, and so on and so forth, up to and including the ineffable.

That’s why writing fiction is so difficult.

Musings on Breathing Life into a Heartless Villain, by Pamela Jean Herber

 

What makes for a memorable antagonist?

I’ve been having trouble with the antagonist in my current novel-in-progress. She’s boring. I have a decent handle on how she operates in her world, and the role she plays in the story, but she feels more like a mathematical formula than a human being. What to do?… Go out in search of a villain I’m excited about who has similar traits to my antagonist.

An intriguing historical villain

In my travels through books, the Internet, and my own memory, I found a deliciously evil woman from the early 1800s who grew up in Bauzelles, France. Her name was Thérèse Humbert.

As a girl, Thérèse was betrayed by her own father. He had raised her to believe she and her family were wealthy aristocrats. When the truth came out upon her father’s death that she was not of nobility, and wouldn’t be inheriting great wealth, Thérèse was robbed of a station in society she believed she was entitled to. Without legitimate means to claim her place, she resorted to her father’s game. Fraud.

She continued to tell the tale of her family’s aristocratic standing. She was able to obtain credit based on soon-to-be received wealth, piling up huge debt buying a lifestyle that gave the appearance of wealth. Along the way, Thérèse’s husband, and her father-in-law covered her debts as best they could, perhaps to protect their own reputations. She convinced bankers to allow debts to go unpaid for long after they were due by weaving story after story of an impending inheritance and a favorable marriage by her sister.

Eventually, Thérèse was arrested, tried, and imprisoned, but not until after she had wreaked havoc on the hopes, reputations, and livelihoods of numerous family members, friends, and business associates. These unsustainable ways lead Thérèse to betray her younger sister in the very way her father had betrayed her.

With only a brief sketch of Thérèse’s life, I’m hooked.

What makes Thérèse Humbert such an interesting character?

  • The fact that Thérèse’s father betrayed her makes her need for money and status believable and heartbreaking. Her actions were still unconscionable, but I sympathize with how she became capable of them.
  • She betrayed her sister in the same way she was betrayed. Wow. Just wow. This makes me worry for not just the family, but for all the descendants, and especially the sister. Will it be possible for her to break the cycle?
  • The younger sister could not have been deceived without the support of family members who knew the truth. Thérèse could not have successfully defrauded so many people without the support of her very victims: family, friends, and business associates.

In light of what I’ve found, what can I try out on my antagonist?

  • Provide a single and traumatic event that drives her need for money and status.
  • Show that her daughter is at risk of falling into the same patterns of behavior.
  • Populate the story with a network of people that support the antagonist.

The villain in the story doesn’t breathe on their own. The person the villain was before the damage, and the people in the villains’s life who have retained their compassion, they are the ones who bring the villain to life.

It was a Dark and Stormy Sunday Afternoon

by Christina Lay

writers-block-peanuts

I’ve written about how I tend to be a fast writer, a “panster” who plunges ahead at a furious pace and sorts it all out in an excruciating second draft. On writing retreats, I often irritate the hell out of fellow writers with my ability to completely ignore craft and grammar in order to get the words down (little do they know half those words are adjectives). My first draft motto might be “Damn the plot, full speed ahead!” Fingers flying, I am in the zone and happy as a hack-writing clam, if clams had fingers.

However, in the grey of long Sundays spent with ass glued to chair, I too experience the inevitable quagmire of a story gone wrong. Then every word is like passing a gallstone and every scene is as flat and grey as Iowa in January.

I’m fighting with a story now. Or actually, I’ve just finished fighting with a story, which is why I can glibly write this post and tell you all of my profound writerly epiphany, hard won in the trenches of poorly planned story crafting.

Like any writer, I fight with my craft and doubt my abilities. I slog, I wail, I gnash my teeth. But I keep writing. It’s a compulsion I’ve learned to live with and it works out in the end. Recently, I made the decision to stop working on a novel in progress in order to finish a novella with a rapidly approaching deadline. I would take a break, I told myself, whip out 40K words in two months, and then return to the novel and wrap it up in my usual take no prisoners fashion. No problem, right?

Wrong. Upon returning to the neglected story, I found myself sitting and staring at the page as precious minutes, hours and weekends ticked away with very little activity in the finger area. The characters had stopped speaking to me. The plot was a mysterious shambles. What had I been thinking? I couldn’t remember. My notes gave me no clear direction. It was agonizing. Life piled up, the house fell into disarray, but I had to spend every “free” moment slogging through this mess of a book.

It got so bad at one point I briefly told myself I could just walk away. Finish it later. Maybe it’s too broken. Maybe I should cut my losses and run.

calvin-writers-block

I haven’t had this pernicious thought in years. I have come to recognize it as the voice of doom. I shrugged it off, but it got me to thinking. Like any writer, I have a veritable library of unfinished first drafts. I even have unfinished third and fourth drafts. Some deserved to be abandoned, others not so much. The one thing they all have in common is that when the going got rough, I set them aside to work on something new and shiny.

I have quite a few decent starts, and I’ve gone back to try to finish them, and it just doesn’t work. The juice, the fire, the whatever-made-it-exciting-in-the-first-place, has fled. And that is why getting restarted on this current project was so damn hard. I shut off the flow (for good reason, purely innocent and all) and nearly killed the story. This was at three-fourths of the way through, over 50,000 words. In olden times, I might have quit. But now I’m what you might call a professional writer and I know my editor is waiting for this book. So I pushed on. Toiled. Had nightmares. Sank into a depression. Wondered if the ability to write had finally petered out. All of it. But I didn’t quit and today I am looking at the downhill slide toward the end. One more chapter and I will get to begin the hellacious rewrite. What joy. What rapture.

So my epiphany is “don’t quit”. Hmmph, you might say. Not terribly profound. But think back on all the unfinished projects. Are there good reasons they remain unfinished, or is it because the going got too damn hard? Be honest. Be tough. If you really do have to take a break, because you’re say, giving birth or have been accepted into NASA’s space program, make sure you leave yourself good notes, and try to stop in the midst of some thrilling action, to make it easier to jump start the flow when you get back.

I know so many good writers, really good writers, who never seem to finish anything. There is always the bright and shiny, the exciting, the better, the not-so-damn-hard, calling to us. There is even the dreaded siren call of maybe I’m not cut out to be a writer. But if you truly want to finish a book, or story, or poem, you’ve got to do the slog and wrestle the demons of doubt to the ground.

And then you write. Slow, fast. Doesn’t matter. Just don’t quit.

Five Ways National Novel Writing Month is Improving my Writing, by Pamela Jean Herber

For those of you who are not familiar with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it is an annual event scheduled for the month of November, which is hosted by nanowrimo.org. Hundreds of thousands of people across the globe accept the personal challenge to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in 30 days. This year I succeeded for the eighth time in ten attempts. Along the way I’ve learned a few things about how to work toward quantity and quality simultaneously. These are the first five that come to mind.

1. Maintain Mad Typing Skills

It’s only obvious that typing speed and accuracy will help in pounding out those 50,000 words. However, my ultimate goal is to write a story of value to myself and others. So, I maintain a skill level that renders typing to the instinctual level, where I’m not thrown out of the land of story to search for a key or fix a typo.

2. Exile the Censor

Even with mad typing skills, the words can come haltingly. This is where I tell myself that no one ever has to see anything I write. Even then, sometimes it’s uncomfortable to come face to face with my own raw thoughts and feelings. Allowing my imagination to flow freely through my fingers has taken practice. Writing as fast as possible has proved to be the most effective way for me to get over myself. The benefits are great here, not only in word count but in connecting more fully to my inner storyteller.

3. Set the Timer

Timed writings serve multiple purposes. First, by starting out with short sprints and increasing them, you can build stamina, get your brain into writing shape. Then by setting the timer to the same length for multiple sessions and then switching to another, you will develop a sense of the relationship between word count and speed. Also, by maintaining a habit of timed writings your words will gradually take on shapes that fit the time lengths.

4. Write to Constraints

This is where the fun part begins. By now you are able to write with such velocity that you can dial it back to focus on story. Start by giving yourself random prompts to write to, either to a specific time length, or simply allow the words to determine the length. This is not easy for me. I’m still strengthening my ability to take multiple elements such as character and setting and place, and insert them into the story place in my mind. But it’s getting easier. Once you’ve achieved competence at impromptu story writing, you will be on your way to writing to an outline.

5. Transition from Time Chunks to Story Chunks

Here we are at number five, where the previous four come together. I like to think of this as the place where I inhabit the time-word count-story continuum. Now, instead of focusing on timed writings, write to story chunks. These can be scenes, chapters, whatever. The chunks might be loosely defined or highly specified. They might come directly from the outline to your novel. The timer isn’t off limits here, but may not be necessary.

Use these five practices to remove obstacles to putting words on the page, and to tune your imagination to your inner storyteller. Then go out, or stay in, and write the best shitty first draft of a novel you can.

Is a Sentence a Story?

Is a Sentence a Story?
By Cynthia Ray

writing-quote

It is said that Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) and called it his best work.

There are contests and websites dedicated to the one sentence “story”. Is one sentence a story? A haiku perhaps, an engaging thought or intriguing question, but is it a bona-fide story?

There are anthologies of 55 word stories, and books of 500-word fiction. They are interesting, artistic and sometimes haunting and beautiful, but when I  settle in on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a good book, I turn to longer, in depth, even rambling books, trilogies and Russian novels.

Is the one sentence story a sign that our attention span as readers has shortened, or have we simply added and expanded to the craft, playing with words in new and fun ways?

In my writing group, I got feedback on the length of my stories, and it reminded me of the fable of the three bears. Some were toooo long, some were tooooo short, and a few were just right, and it made me ask, “Is there a perfect length for a story?”

Some short stories were perfect in their 500-word essence. Others required 10,000 words just to get started. It made me think of the creative process; when I start a story, I don’t know how long it will be. I’ve started out to write a novel and ended up with a 3000-word short story, and I’ve started with a short story that turned into a much longer project.

In the end, word count is just another aspect of story telling, to be considered along with tone, theme, conflict, plot, characters and everything else. It is not that important to focus on, except when we don’t get it right. A story that is too long or short can leave your reader feeling bored, or unsatisfied, without knowing why.

As Neil Gaman said:

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