Showing posts with label writing craft. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing craft. Show all posts

23 September 2017

The Bad Girl Method to Writing a Novel (a crooked path, of course)

by Melodie Campbell

Okay, I tricked you. You thought this was going to be a humour column. Not so fast. Yes, it’s about writing humorous books, because that’s what I write. But I’m sure this could apply to most books.

Writing a novel, or even a novella, means hours and hours of work at a keyboard. Hundreds of hours. Maybe even a thousand hours for a full-length novel.

Some of those hours are great fun. Others, not so much. Why is it that some scenes are a kick to write, and others just drudgery?

Here’s what Agatha Christie said in the Foreword to Crooked House, one of her “special favourites.”

“I should say that of one’s output, five books are work to one that is real pleasure… Again and again someone says to me: ‘How you must have enjoyed writing so and so!’ This about a book that obstinately refused to come out the way you wished, whose characters are sticky, the plot needlessly involved, and the dialogue stilted – or so you think yourself. “

Christie was referring to books, but I think the same can be said for scenes. Some, you can’t wait to write. Others are purgatory. Here’s my own method for plodding through the fire.

The Bad Girl Method to Writing a Novel

I always start with what I call a “light outline.” Yes, I outline. But I don’t outline every scene, or even list every scene. Instead, I start with ‘Three Acts and a Finale.’ Here’s the minimum I know before I start a book:

Inciting moment, Crisis 1 (in a murder mystery, the first murder,) Crisis 2 (the second murder,) Crisis 3 (includes the black moment, usually danger for the protagonist,) Finale (solving of crime.)

Yes, I write it down. I use Excel for this. When I have more thought out, I add it in. When I get new ideas, I make notes on my schematic so I don’t forget them. (I understand Scrivener is terrific for this. Some people use post it notes on a white board. Different strokes, but the same idea.)

So here’s the question I often get asked by my Crafting a Novel students: Do I write in order, from A to Z?

No, I don’t.

I always write the beginning chapters first. I do that, because I want to see if the characters are compelling enough to carry an entire book. Meaning, do I like the protagonist, do I care about her, and am I really excited to write her story. It may take a whole year to do so. I better freaking well want to live her life for a while.

If that works (meaning, if I like the first few chapters) then I’ll usually skip to the end, and write Crisis 3 and the finale. I’ve just said something big there: Yes, I always know the ending before I start the book.

I like to write the ending before I’m too invested in the project, because I want to know that it rocks. If it doesn’t rock, then I’m probably not going to want to invest another 500 hours writing the middle of the book.

So once I’ve written the beginning and the end, THEN do I write in order?

Not always.

Here’s my trick: I continue to move forward. But sometimes I skip scenes I’m not in a mood to write. I’ll put a note in brackets on the manuscript to fill in later.

I can’t explain it, but some scenes are just hard to write. I put off writing them. This is where many of my students go wrong. When they hit a scene like that, they just stop.

The trick is not to walk away from the keyboard. Instead, go on to another scene that you do want to write.

When your manuscript is 90% finished, you will have the incentive to go back and complete those hard scenes. It will still be work. But the lure of the finish line makes it easier.

Why don’t I write a complete outline, scene by scene? I’m one of those authors who gets bored if I know *exactly* what is coming next. If I have to write a fully scripted story for an entire year, it feels like drudgery. So this is what works for me: know where I am going in each act, but not exactly how I will get there. Be willing to make changes along the way, if I stumble across a brilliant new route to the end. Heck, even change the ending, if a better destination presents itself along the journey.

And that’s what makes it all fun.

Here's a book that was pure pleasure to write: WORST DATE EVER

Now available at bookstores, and online at all the usual suspects.

18 April 2013

Journaling for Your Work in Progress

by Brian Thornton

Riffing on Rob's terrific post from yesterday on how writing about his novel actually helps him stay creative in the writing of his novel. I think anything you can do during the drafting process that will help you keep your characters/settings/situations/plot fresh and mobile in your mind is going to be of assistance in getting to the finish line with your novel.

This is true of other pieces of work as well, short stories, nonfiction, what have you. And for my money the single most effective way to do all of the above is to journal about your work-in-progress.

Plot diagrams are nice. Character sketches are really important. But for me, I need the internal monologue (and yes, sometimes dialogue) that comes from writing about my writing.

Everyone ought to have a writing journal. If you don't, whatever the format, either Word doc or notebook, you're missing out on something that can help keep your chops sharp and your story in your head. I have notebooks full of entries about the books and short stories I've written. They've been fruitful contributors in a multitude of ways, especially when I hit a dry spell and can't seem to keep my plot moving forward, or once it's stalled, get it rolling again.

That's when I go back to the well. And sometimes re-reading what I've written about my various works-in-progress, even if it bears no fruit at the time, comes back to life when I delve into my oeuvre seeking some sort of fresh idea, some spark to get things rolling again.

Take short stories for example.

I've been known to start one, write myself into a corner, and leave it to work on something else for a while. Then there are the ones I've written that went nowhere when I tried to place them for publication.

Those I set aside too; resolving to re-work them later. One of them ("Suicide Blonde") was written specifically for AHMM, so when Linda Landrigan (rightly) passed on it, I set it aside for a while. And when I journaled about my next work-in-progress, I threw in asides about what ideas I had about re-working "Suicide Blonde" to make it a more successful piece. I also solicited feedback from my critique partners and journaled about their input.

Devoting this sort of headspace to the story (and we're only talking about the amount of time it took to write a few lines per night about it) paid off in the long run. I re-worked the story, submitted it for the MWA themed-anthology contest for that year, don't make that cut, then turned around and re-submitted it to AHMM. This time Linda bought it.

As I've mentioned in previous blog entries I am currently hard at work on an historical mystery novel set in mid-1840s Washington DC. I've done two previous drafts (One full and the other a partial re-write) while trying to work out the plot to my satisfaction. After a couple of false starts I really feel like I'm on the road to completing this novel.

So when a friend recently started up a quarterly e-zine (published electronically and available on Kindle, etc., and a paying venue, to boot) and expressly requested a short story from me, I viewed the notion of writing a short story from scratch, research, etc. (remember, I write historicals. They require a ton  of research!), as a potential distraction, and demurred. He asked again, and he's a good guy and one hell of a writer, so it's an honor to be asked.

Plus, I'd reached a slow-down patch in my novel, so I shifted gears and went back to the notebooks, and dug up an idea I'd initially had for a short story featuring Renaissance Italian adventurers attempting to break the ultimate political prisoner out of the Turkish sultan's toughest prison in 1580s Constantinople.

And I began to journal.

I had a couple of false starts to fall back on (I keep all of my "didn't make the cut" drafts, so I can "cannibalize" anything useful in later work. After all, no need to re-thread the needle if you've already done it before!), plus a fair bit of notes from my research (my story idea was based on actual events).

I finished the final draft of that short story last night, putting the final touches to it after receiving feedback on the rough draft I pounded out based on my previous notes/drafts and the  pages I devoted to the journaling process and writing about my writing.

And while it's true that sometimes setting aside a good story until you can get all of its parts working right in your head (and that usually takes time, in this case, years!), I couldn't have pulled together all the complex threads for this story and developed them in 8,000 words had I not written about what I was writing: my process, my ideas for fleshing out the story. What worked, what didn't, and so on.

So there you have it. Want to finish a writing project? Well then get to journaling!

Brian