Tag Archives: novel writing

Begin in the Middle

I managed to avoid taking Latin in high school. It was eliminated as a required course at my high school the year before I started as a freshman, but I came across a Latin phrase in my writing career that has stuck with me: in media res. It translates as “in the middle of things.”

Craft of fiction books mention this phrase to instruct writers to begin a story or a scene in the middle of the action or at a crucial juncture. There are several ways to do this. One way is to cut down on logistics. UPS may love logistics, but writers should avoid them unless integral to the story.

Let me share an example from my current National Novel Writing Month entry. My NaNo novel was based on a short story I wrote several years ago. I have adapted and expanded it into a full-blown novel. In reviewing the original beginning to the story, the main character’s closest friend is visiting him. I describe the friend, Tom, climbing the stairs, ringing the bell, and entering the house. A woman serves him coffee in the parlor while she gets his friend, Frank. All of these movements were completely unnecessary. The action began when Frank revealed to Tom that he was dying of cancer and his final wish was to see his estranged daughter. Getting Tom into the house and seated at the parlor did not heighten the drama or anticipation, but detracted from it. In short, my original short story started in the wrong place.

The new and improved version starts with some brief context and cuts to the chase quickly. In other words, it begins in the middle of the action.

Here are some ways writers can avoid the boring details:

  • Skip logistics. Start the scene in the location where the action takes place. If there’s an argument at the kitchen table, put the characters there.
  • Imply earlier events. The reader doesn’t need to know how Tom got to Frank’s parlor. He’s already there. A reference to the time of day could be made as a casual aside. I wrote that Tom saw a street light come on, telling the reader it is early evening.
  • Fill in back story later. The reader doesn’t need to know why Frank and his daughter don’t get along. Frank hints at it through dialogue, but the full story unfolds gradually. It could have been handled by an information dump but that would have sucked the suspense right out of the story.
  • Some context is needed, but don’t go overboard. I was tempted to start the scene with Frank telling Tom, “I’m dying of cancer and I need to see my daughter.” That would have been melodramatic and devoid of any meaning. Who is Frank? Why does he need to see his daughter? The reader would have no idea their relationship was strained.

In some cases, the writer needs to set up a dramatic scene over the course of a page or two, but these passages must be handled carefully. Each detail must build on the last until the “big reveal” takes place.

Starting a story in the wrong place is a common mistake, especially in first drafts. I’ve done it many times. The important thing is to think through the entire scene and ask, where is the most dramatic action or event? Start as close to that point as possible.

Have you ever started a scene in the wrong place? How did you fix it?

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Are You NaNo’ing This Year?

A colleague at work approached me several years ago about “doing NaNo.” I looked at her as if she was out of her mind. “What’s NaNo?” I said. She explained it was the National Novel Writing Month and the goal was to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. A look of terror came across my face. I thought, “Now that’s really crazy.” At the time, I had two awful starter novels in the drawer and was struggling with a 120,000-word opus that would become my first published novel. I knew what it took to write a novel. I couldn’t wrap my mind around producing 50,000 words of fiction in just 30 days. Thirty months maybe, but 30 days? No way. Undaunted, she said, “You should try it sometime.”

Though it seemed an impossible feat, the idea of cranking out a 50,000-word novel in 30 days intrigued me. It was the ultimate challenge. The idea of a confirmed “pantser” like me attempting a feat that required writerly attributes like planning, outlining, character development and the like, was farfetched, but if I could pull it off, it would prove I possessed the discipline to meet a daily word count.

I didn’t “do NaNo” that year, or for the next three years, but last year I decided to give it a try. The deciding factor was a full-blown idea for a novel that had been rattling around in my head for 10 years. I never could sit and write it. My trepidation was that the story was in a different genre (murder/mystery) than I usually write. It was a huge leap for me, but the story was terrific. It had all the elements of great fiction: suspense, conflict, romance, murder, and, baseball—one of my passions in life. So I climbed the steps to that high diving board and leaped headfirst.

I learned a number of things. The most important lesson was that coming up with 1,667 words a day, even armed with a fully fleshed out story, is really hard. Another big lesson was to expect the unexpected. On October 28, 2011, the northeastern United States was hit with a freak snow storm and the region lost power for nine days. That’s right. No electricity. No laptop. So I adapted. I used pen and paper to write the initial chapters by candlelight. I hunkered in coffee shops with my laptop. We traveled to Vermont to stay with relatives for a weekend and I increased my word count from 3,000 to 11,000. The biggest lesson, though, was the value of discipline and determination.

On November 29, 2012—one day ahead of the deadline—I finished my 53,000-word first draft of Bonus Baby. What was then a first draft is now my work-in-progress.

Here are some lessons for writers thinking about doing NaNo:

  • Plan out your story ahead of time. If you have a premise and major characters, write an outline a month or so ahead of time. Don’t wait until October 31 to work out your story arc. Having a complete story outline was the difference for me. Even then, I found myself wondering if I could meet the word count and I ended up making a major plot change mid-course, which brings me to my next point.
  • Be open to unplanned changes to your story. For many writers (myself included) the first draft is a period of discovery. The major story elements are there, but those moments of intense creative brainstorming often produce magical surprises that enhance the story.
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to come up with the perfect sentence, paragraph or scene. Just write and keep moving forward.
  • Carve out time every day to write. Tell your loved ones and friends you may not see them for a month and ask for their support. If you are married tell (beg) your spouse to take on more of the household chores during the month.
  • Take time off. I took some time off from work around Thanksgiving just in case I fell behind and needed to catch up. It made a difference for me as those days produced strong word counts.
  • Become part of the support group in your region. When you register on the NaNo website (www.nanowrimo.com) you will see a link for the regional online forum in your region. Each region as a leader called the Municipal Liaison (ML), who organizes in-person meetings, writing sessions, and orientations for newbies. We are blessed in my region with an energetic and committed ML who organizes meetings, including the legendary “Night of Writing Dangerously,” an all-night writing marathon.
  • Take advantage of the resources on the NaNo website, which include inspirational essays and online forums where you can get answers to just about any question you pose (including how to poison someone, which was the question I posted last year).

If you have done NaNo, what tips do you have to offer to newbies? If you have not done NaNo, what is holding you back?

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Book Review: “The Beginner’s Goodbye,” by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler’s 19th novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is about holding on and letting go. Aaron Woolcott and his wife, Dorothy, have a typical marriage, with ups and downs, love and pain, and unspoken grudges. One day, after a minor spat, a tree topples over on the sun room of their home, killing Dorothy.

Set in Baltimore, where many of her novels take place, the story centers on the months following Dorothy’s death. After 11 years of marriage, Aaron cannot let go. He doggedly goes about his business, rejecting the sympathies and kindness extended by friends, until one day Dorothy’s ghost appears. In the hands of a lesser writer, this device might seem like a cheap ploy. Tyler uses the ghost of Dorothy to delve into the unresolved issues that haunt Aaron. Through his unexpected meetings with Dorothy, Aaron probes the small hurts that festered during their marriage as he yearns for resolution.

Aaron is a sympathetic main character. He is an unremarkable every-man, who has a crippled arm and leg and speaks with an occasional stutter. He was initially attracted to Dorothy, a doctor, because she took no notice of his handicap.

Although this is one of Tyler’s shortest books, at roughly 200 pages, it has a lot to say about love, marriage, and the fragility of intimate relationships. When his marriage is cut short, Aaron struggles to find normalcy in his life. He drags his feet on repairing his home until his take-charge sister, Nandina (a sharply drawn character) nudges him into action. His friends try to cheer him up. There is one hilarious scene where two of his male friends invite him to a restaurant for dinner and spend the entire evening not talking about their wives because they don’t want to bring up the memory of Aaron’s loss.

Tyler finds the most interesting occupations for her main characters. In this case, Aaron works in the family business, a boutique publishing company in which the authors pay to have their work published. This is perhaps a wry observation and commentary by Tyler of the current state of the publishing industry. The publishing house’s speciality are “how to” books called “The Beginners” series, which explains the title of the novel. In one scene, Aaron struggles as he slogs through a deadly memoir of an old man’s experiences in World War II in which the writer described every boring detail of his life as a soldier, and none of the terror of war.

This story ultimately is about love, loss, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Like all of Tyler’s work, The Beginner’s Goodbye is a masterfully prepared and satisfying entre, spiced with quirky, loveable characters.

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It’s Never Too Late to Revise

I was ready to push the button on my first novel, Small Change. The manuscript was set to go. Seven rounds of line edits and outside critiques were done. And yet, there was a nagging doubt. Two scenes bothered me. I rationalized that they were “good enough.” They weren’t great by any means, but they got the job done.

I received my cover art from my graphic designer, but I couldn’t move forward. I had to revise those two scenes. I read them again (for the umpteenth time) and I couldn’t stand it. I knew if I didn’t fix these two scenes, the book would suffer.

Let me share some background. The two scenes in question were crucial to the story. It was a turning point from the end of the main character’s adolescence to the rest of the story, which centered on the children of the two families in the book as adults. The two glaring problems with the scenes were simple: the scenes consisted of all telling and no showing, and they had a “wrapping up” quality to them, with no emotional depth or tension.

Though it was late in the game (nearly five years after I started this book), I had to scrap both chapters and do a complete rewrite. The first scene centered on the moment the main character, John Sykowski, met his future wife, Madeline McInerney. Here is the original scene:

SC Chapter 26_original

It described what happened but it didn’t get the job done. I needed to take the reader on John’s first date with “Maddy.” I needed to show the reader why they were attracted to one another. John was a stoic, not prone to showing his feelings. Maddy was the opposite. She was smarty, mouthy and knew John’s strengths and weaknesses. And she saw his basic goodness. Okay, so I had a date scene, but it needed a focal point. It couldn’t be the dinner conversation during the date—too pedestrian. I came up with the concept of a jukebox. Maddy would take John to a dive bar with a juke box and they would each pick out a song. Their selections and their reactions said a lot about themselves. Here’s the revised scene:

SC Chapter 22_Revised

The next chapter was the last one in part one of the book. It would be the last time the two families gathered for their annual summer vacation at the lake before significant changes would take place. Here’s the original scene:

SC Chapter 27_original

Not bad, but it lacked tension and foreshadowing. I decided to eschew the birthday party at the beach. The scene instead focused on John driving his younger sister, Mary, to the airport for a trip to the West Coast after she had spent only a day at the beach with her family. This would foreshadow her withdrawal from the family. Here’s the revised scene:

SC Chapter 23_Revised

There is a major risk in making revisions that late in the process. When I make wholesale revisions, I like to let them marinate, like a good steak. I would put the scene aside for a few days or even a week, tweaking and massaging it. In this case, there wasn’t time. I was committed to uploading the manuscript to the Kindle. I read the revised scenes twice and then it was time to publish. I didn’t even have time to show the scenes to any outside critics.

I knew in my heart the two revised scenes improved that section of the book immeasurably, and the feedback I received from other readers validated that opinion.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend making wholesale revisions that late in the game, but you have to trust your instincts. If you’re not happy (or your editor is not happy), it’s never too late to revise.

Do you ever find yourself making late revisions as you are about to submit your work?

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Revisions: Are We Having Fun Yet?

While I continue to tweak the novel I thought I finished six months ago, the revision process is on my mind. Most writers would rather write than revise. I suspect many writers would rather visit the dentist than revise their work, but adhering to a well-defined revision process can be the difference between a mediocre and a great novel.

Let me share my process:

First draft: As a minimalist outliner, my first draft functions as a highly detailed outline. The first draft is where the writer gets the basic story onto the page. Don’t labor too long to come up with the perfect phrase or scene. Perfection is not the goal. That will come later.

Step back: Let your work sit for at least four weeks, longer if you have the patience. This time away will give you a better perspective and allow you to look at your work with fresh eyes.

First look: Read your first draft as a reader would. Focus on “big picture” stuff: story, structure, characters, theme. Ask yourself: does the story hold together. There should be a cause-and-effect to the events in your story. If there’s a major development that comes out of the blue, the writer needs to go back and lay the groundwork. Are the characters fully developed, interesting and complex? Take a hard look at the protagonist and the antagonist. Why should the reader care about them? While the main character should have some likeability, the antagonist must also have qualities that are attractive to the reader. Is there a central conflict? Is the main character’s goal clear to the reader? Have you created tension and conflict among the characters that grows organically without feeling forced? Have you identified and developed the theme of the story?

During this first look, make notes but resist the urge to make changes. This can wait until you’ve read the entire draft.

Second draft: This is where the greatest improvements to the story should take place. This is where the writer must address all of the problems identified during the first look. When you finish your second draft, the story should be airtight, the theme should be clear, and your character should be in sharp focus.

Line edit: This is just what it sounds like—a line-by-line editing of the manuscript. It’s the most tedious part of the process. At some point, a writer must read the manuscript carefully, line by line, looking for typos and grammatical errors. I did seven line edits of my first novel, in part, because I kept finding minor errors and in part because I made the decision to self-publish.

When these steps have been completed, a writer should then show the manuscript to others. I’m put off when someone shows me a manuscript riddled with typos and grammatical errors. This shows no respect for the reviewers.

Beta and Alpha Reviews: A beta reader is an astute critic who understands and recognizes quality fiction writing. An alpha reader is a super-astute critic. Why show your work to others? The writer is too close to the work. An outside critic can spot flaws and weaknesses the writer cannot see. Give your critics ample time to review your work and submit their critiques. Remember, they are doing you a huge service.

After these steps, the writer should consider hiring a professional book editor, if resources permit. Some writers hire an editor and a proofreader.

Final Draft: Now the writer is ready for the final draft. At this point the manuscript should be in great shape. The writer is looking for minor flaws that a sharp agent or publisher would spot.

How long should these rounds of revision take? The short answer is, “until your manuscript is ready.” The real answer is it could take anywhere from six months to two years or more, depending on a number of variables.

What is your revision process? Do you enjoy revising your work? 

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How Do You Measure Success?

If you’re like me, you’re taking a look at your 2011 goals to see how you did over the past year. When I set goals, I use the SMART method, which is popular in project management and business. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. I also believe most goals cannot be measured without attaching numbers, but numbers often don’t tell the whole story. My goals are focused on two things: writing and professional development. Writers whose work is ready for publication also need to think about publishing and marketing goals as well. Here were my 2011 goals:

Goal One: Publish my first novel, Small Change. I made several rounds of line edits, hired a book editor to work on the beginning section, researched self-publishing options since I wasn’t making any progress going the traditional route, wrote a publicity plan and a news release, started my blog, and arranged for the cover art. As soon as I receive the final cover art, I plan to upload the book through the Kindle Direct Publishing program. So I didn’t achieve my first goal, but I made a lot of progress.

Goal Two: Produce a 100,000-word novel. I failed again. I produced a 53,083-word first draft of a novel as part of the National Novel Writing Month competition and I am 40,000 words into my current work-in-progress, a political novella called, Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music and Social Media.

Goal Three: Start a fiction writing blog. Check mark. My blog, A New Fiction Writer’s Forum, made its debut in September.  As of December 22, I was up to 47 blog posts in less than three months. At 500 words each, that’s another 23,500 words, but I don’t count those toward my annual 100,000-word goal.

Goal Four: Establish a social media presence. Check again. I started a Facebook author page and opened a Twitter account.

Goal Five: Attend a writer’s conference. Another check mark. In May I attended the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association’s annual CAPA-U meeting last May.

Goal Six: Read 25-30 books a year. I’m up to 32 books and still going. I will share my list next week.

Goal Seven: Engage online and in-person with other writers on a regular basis. Okay, this goal has no number attached to it, but I did read and comment on writers’ blogs daily and I attended most of my fiction writers’ group meetings.

What matters most about goals is that you have to decide which ones are most important and focus on achieving those goals. Publishing my novel was clearly a paramount goal and all others took a back seat. Looking back, I made as much progress on getting my novel published as was possible, given other demands on my time, while still meeting several other goals.

I also place a lot of emphasis on producing a 100,000-word novel each year. I didn’t foresee the political novella; it just grabbed hold of my imagination and off I went. One of my 2012 goals is to publish it during the upcoming presidential election year. I will share the rest of my 2012 goals next week.

What were your goals for 2011? How did you do in achieving them?

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Book Review: “In Zanesville,” by Jo Ann Beard

Jo Ann Beard’s debut novel, In Zanesville, takes an overworked concept–the coming-of-age story–and gives it a fresh perspective with a story that crackles with dry wit supplied by a precocious narrator.

Set in the 1970s in a gritty Illinois suburb, In Zanesville centers on an unnamed narrator about to enter her freshman year in high school and her best friend Felicia, called “Flea.” The narrator is at that awkward age, between childhood and adolescence. The story begins over the summer when the narrator, who is identified only twice as “Jo” and then “Joan,” and Flea land a babysitting job that ends disastrously when one of the six unruly children in their care sets fire to the upstairs bathroom.

The two friends are inseparable. They are self-described late bloomers, a phrase the narrator hates. “It sounds old fashioned and vaguely rank, like something a prairie woman would wear under her sweaty calico dress,” she writes. Their exploits include sleepovers in a camper in Flea’s backyard, hilarious efforts to save three stray cats, and trips downtown to buy clothes on lay away.

The main character’s home life is grim. Her father is a drunk and her mother is moody and prone to lashing out at the children. In spite of this dysfunctional household, the main character maintains a quirky, lovable spirit and outlook toward life.

As the two girls begin high school, a rift develops. Caught between the worlds of the cheerleaders and the band nerds, the two girls hastily hatch a plan to quit the band. “In retrospect we probably should have quit band after the parade and not during it,” she recalled. Later, they wrangle an invitation to a sleepover at a cheerleader’s house. Felicia pairs off with one of the boys who sneak into the backyard from the woods, leaving the narrator alone and hurt. As she struggles with her feelings, she eventually makes her peace with Flea and finds solace from an unlikely source.

The strength of this novel is the sharply drawn main character, whom the author infuses with a wry and wise perspective. The humor leavens the main character’s bleak home life.

The author of a memoir entitled, The Boys of My Youth, Beard graduated from the University of Iowa with a BA and an MFA and she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. She was a Guggenheim Fellow and her writing has been published in The New Yorker.

Beard is a talented writer and I hope to read much more from her.

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