Jan 29, 2014

Novel Writing Made Easy: Your Characters

OK, so I have my SOP outline and a rough idea of what my story is going to be about.

Before I start writing, I need to know WHO I'm writing about. Because a plot outline is all well and good, and a helpful roadmap, but I want to write a story that is character-driven rather than plot-driven.

This just means that I want the twists and turns of the plot to grow out of the kind of people my characters are, rather than making my characters do things that fit into my plot. You can probably think of a TV show or movie where you like the characters, and you think you know them, and then they do something that seems really forced, and you say, "Yeah, right," and shake your head and go off to make popcorn.

For example, everybody watches Downton Abbey, right? The romance between Anna and Bates is so sweet! And it's believable, because those characters really do seem compatible. And the things they do (their PLOT) feel natural because those actions fit with their characters: I believed it when Anna traveled to London to visit Bates' first wife, but stopped short of doing anything nefarious. Because Anna cares that much about Bates, but she's also upstanding and honest and kind.

And then there is Lord Grantham and his romance (such as it was) with a housemaid a couple of seasons back.

Popcorn time! That little sub-plot was hard to believe.

Why? First of all, we hardly knew the maid at all. We really didn't know WHAT her character was, so we couldn't judge her behavior as fitting with her character or not.

But mostly, it was hard to believe because we'd never seen that kind of behavior in Lord Grantham before. He'd displayed poor judgment from time to time, but mostly in financial matters. He'd always been a devoted and loving husband, though, and so the dalliance felt forced.

That's the difference between character-driven story and plot-driven story. The first is organic, and believable, and much more satisfying. The second is OK, and can be entertaining, but it feels kinda hollow, and doesn't hold our attention for long. (Notice how that Lord Grantham/housemaid subplot didn't last very long either.)

Plot-driven novels can be fun. They're the books that make good beach reads or airplane reads. Books you don't mind leaving behind in the hotel room or the seat-back pocket.

I'm hoping to write a character-driven story, though. And I can't know what kinds of things my characters will do, or how they'll react to things that happen, if I don't know WHO they are.

And so, my characters. Most importantly, my protagonist, or main character.

(I'm going to cheat here a little and use The Brixen Witch in my examples. That way, I won't be sharing spoilers for a new book.)

Rudi is a 12-year-old dairyman's son living in an Alpine mountain village a long time ago. He's an only child. He's smart, but quiet and contemplative. He's good with a slingshot. He could find his way around the slopes of the local mountain with his eyes closed. He's loyal. He's brave. He has a strong sense of responsibility. He's generous.

I have an image in my head of what he looks like, but his physical appearance doesn't matter to me too much, because it's not how he looks, but what he DOES and what he THINKS that will be important. It will drive his actions, and his decisions, and those things will drive the plot.

Next: Point of view and voice. Stay tuned!

Jan 16, 2014

Novel Writing Made Easy, Step One: Seat-of-the-Pants Outline

OK, here we go!

As I said in the last post, I'm not a huge planner, but I DO plan a bit at the beginning of novel-writing, for a few reasons:

1. It helps keep me focused once I do start writing. If I feel writer's block coming on, I can take a look at my S.O.P. outline and remind myself where I should be going next.

2. It breaks down the HUGE project of writing a novel into bite-sized (less intimidating) pieces.

3. I can feel accomplished when I fill in a few blanks on my outline.

I speak from experience: I wrote my first novel, Jump the Cracks, almost completely by the seat of my pants. If I'd had to write an outline, it would have looked like this:

Girl impulsively runs away with little boy she fears is abused.
Girl brings little boy home again.

That's it.

It was a painful experience. That novel took a REALLY long time to write, with lots and lots of rewriting and dead ends, and staring out the window wondering what comes next.

It all turned out OK. I learned a lot about writing from writing that book. Mostly, I learned that I never want to write a novel that way again.

Thus I give you the Seat of the Pants Outline.

I call it that because it's really very basic. Here's what it looks like, before I've started any actual writing:

This is an Excel spreadsheet. I could hand-write it, but Excel makes it easy to add new columns and rows as I go along. You could probably build a table in Word that does the same thing. But Excel will add up the word count column for you, which is nice.

I've made a few assumptions, namely:
A finished length of about 40,000 words, broken into approximately 27 chapters of approximately 1500 words each.

I know from having written my other novels that this is a comfortable length and format for me. And I really can't fully outline without knowing this number, or at least taking an educated stab, because I wouldn't know where the percentages would fall. If you've never written a novel before, it can be hard to predict how long your book will be. You might try choosing an average length, based on the age level and genre you want to write for. Nothing is etched in stone; you can expand or contract as you go along. But I think it helps to have someplace to start; to have some sort of roadmap, even if you end up taking detours.

A few words about the columns:

Chapter numbers

Pretty obvious, but you have to start somewhere. I feel so accomplished because ta-DA! I have officially started my book! As I start writing, it will show me at a glance how I’m progressing toward the story markers in the "Turning Points" column. (More on that below.)

Running Word Count

I keep track of the word count chapter by chapter, because:

a. I want to be somewhat consistent. I think consistent chapter lengths help the story’s rhythm.

b. It keeps me honest. My goal is an average of 1500 words per chapter, with a min/max of around 1000/2000 words. If a chapter is skewing short, I know I need to beef it up, or blend it into the next or previous chapter. If it’s skewing too long, I need to cut some fat, or break it into two chapters.

c. Another chance to feel accomplished, as the running total grows!

Chapter summaries

Here is where I’ll jot down the most crucial plot points of each chapter. Once they’re all filled in, it will be a sort of synopsis of the whole book. Right now, I don’t even know what to enter for Chapter 1. I have to actually, you know, start writing.

Turning Points/Story Markers

I use the percentages as pretty strict story markers: 1-15% means that the inciting incident (or story problem) had better be introduced quickly; somewhere in the first 6,000 words, or first 4 chapters. (15% of 40,000 = 6,000 and 6,000/1,500 = 4 chapters)  Ideally, it will happen in the first or second chapter. If it hasn't happened by chapter 4, I'll know I'm taking too long to set things up, OR my book might need to be longer after all. (Chances are it'll be the first thing, though.)

In the same way, the first turning point, where we move from Act 1 to Act 2, as the protagonist chooses to commit to a task or journey, needs to happen about 25-30% into the novel. (All these numbers can slide around a little, but ONLY a little.) That means I'd better have my protagonist launched on her adventure by around 12,000 words, or by chapter 8 or so.

(And when you think about it, 8 chapters is plenty of time to launch my protagonist on her adventure.)

By the way, these percentages are taken directly from Making a Good Script Great. I'm writing a novel and not a screenplay, but they are both vehicles for telling stories, and good story structure is good story structure. It works for me.


Anything else I want to remember that doesn’t fit in the other columns. For now, I’ve listed other terms for the turning points. They remind me what I’m aiming for in each section.

Additional columns

I might add another column for my timeline, or to list the characters and/or setting for each chapter, or whether each chapter ends on an emotional high or low note. Whatever helps me visualize what’s going on. Add and subtract as needed.

OK, enough procrastinating, I guess. Time to start writing. Wish me luck, and I’ll report back here with my progress, filling in the chapter chart as I go. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions or comments.

How To Write a Novel in 10 Easy Steps*

I’m starting a new novel, hooray!

I thought it might be fun, and instructive, to document the whole process, from the very beginning, and share it here over the coming months.

It's a process that I've developed over the course of writing 4 novels (3 published), and many many many false starts. It's somewhere between detailed plotting and unfettered "pantsing," and it works well for me.

Of course it’s only one of a zillion ways to write a novel, and it won’t work for everyone. But maybe it will at least help you think through your own process, and find something that works for you. Feel free to use, copy, share, write.

I’ll be sharing info I've cribbed from lots of other sources, most of which I don’t even remember anymore, but definitely from these books:

Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway

All 3 of these books deal with story structure. A strong, tight structure is absolutely essential if you want to write a decent novel. In my opinion.

OK, so here we go!

Oops, not really. Sorry. Because before the writing comes the pre-writing.

I'm starting this new book with pre-writing, but nothing crazy. I don't create a 20-page outline, or detailed character sketches, or anything like that. A bit of pre-planning is good, though. It helps me avoid too many dead-ends as I write, plus it makes me feel like I'm getting down to business even before I start the actual writing. (And I get to justify my bouts of daydreaming/staring out the window.)

For this new book, I already know a few things:

1. It will be a novel for kids (about age 8 and up).
2. It will top out at around 40,000 words.**
3. I already have a rough idea for the plot and a couple of characters.

You'll see later why all of these things are important to know, starting with the next post:

Step One: Seat-of-the-Pants Outline

*The steps are easy. The writing isn't. Sorry!

**How do I know this? This will be my 5th novel. Novels 1-4 were all about this length, and so I’m pretty sure this one will be, too. Having a rough idea of the finished length helps me to sketch out my rough outline, before I ever start actually writing. The structure would be the same for a longer novel, though; just stretched out.