Tag Archives: On Writing

Changing My Work Space

The place where a writer chooses to write is crucial to success. An ideal work space for writing must have four things. It must be free of distraction, quiet, comfortable, and isolated.

I recently changed my work space. My previous work space was located in our finished basement on the other side of the family room. It was fairly isolated, but there was no wall between the family room and the place where I wrote. This never posed a huge problem. I usually selected a time to write when nobody was in the family room.

That has become more difficult, so I recently moved to a separate room in the house and set up my laptop there. It affords more seclusion and I can write whenever I want.

Where you write is a matter of personal taste and preference. JK Rowling famously wrote much of the early Harry Potter series in a crowded café because the only way she managed to get her young daughter to sleep was by going outside of her flat. She claimed the story that made the rounds that she wrote there because she lived in an unheated flat was bogus.

Stephen King, in his craft book, On Writing, discussed the writing room. “Your writing room doesn’t have to sport a Playboy Philosophy décor, and you don’t need an Early American rolltop in which to house your writing implements,” King wrote.

“The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business, you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”

King maintained there should be no telephone, TV, videogames, or other distractions in your writing room, though he does admit he works to loud music—hard rock like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses and Metallica, to name a few of his favorites.

Since the writer is creating her own world, King likens it to creative sleep. “Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream…In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.”

I like to think of it as an intense concentration. When I sit down to write, I block out everything else. It takes a few minutes for me to get into the story. My mind has to be totally immersed in it. I always read over the last few pages of what I wrote in my previous session. That helps me to get into the right frame of mind. It’s difficult for people who don’t write fiction to understand the energy that goes into shifting into that mood of complete focus on your work. It’s not just a switch one can turn on and off. I realize I’ve digressed here but a writing space that is quiet and free of distraction is vital to the process of getting into the mood that King calls “creative sleep.”

What does your work space look like? Can you work with outside noise around you?

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You’ve Finished Your First Draft. Now What?

I finally finished the first draft of my novella, Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music and Social Media. This one took only seven months, but it was a novella.

A writer who finishes a first draft may experience a giddy desire to dive right in and begin revising the manuscript. After all, the writer should keep the momentum going, right? No. Writers must resist this urge. Take a break from your first draft. Walk away. Really. Don’t believe me? Here’s what Stephen King advised in his classic craft book, On Writing:

“How long you let your book rest—sort of like bread dough between kneading—is entirely up to you,” King wrote, “but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks.” The layoff gives the writer distance and perspective.

“With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development…It’s amazing how some of these things can elude the writer while he or she is occupied with the daily work of composition.” For King, the most glaring errors have to do with character motivation. For every writer it will be different.

Here’s what James Scott Bell wrote about first drafts in his classic craft book, Plot & Structure: “Your first draft needs a cooling-off period. So forget all about your novel and do something else…All the while, your first draft is cooling in the recesses of your brain, where a lot of good stuff happens, unnoticed.”

When a writer finishes a first draft, it’s a cause for celebration. It’s a milestone. The writer should give himself a round of applause. Have some chocolate or a glass of your favorite beverage. There’s no empirical data to support this, but I would assert that most novice writers never get through the first draft. It’s an achievement.

Here’s what I do after finishing a first draft:

  • Do something nice. Give yourself a reward. Buy a new book or a CD.
  • Work on something completely different for the next four to six weeks. Try a short story. Try something in a different genre. Consult your ideas folder.
  • Read that bestseller you’ve been meaning to check out. Read it again with an attention to how the author told the story.

When the writer comes back to the first draft after an extended break, she will see the work in a new light. The writer will instantly spot all the flaws and the brilliant passages. The writer will see elements of the story that don’t work, scenes that don’t sing, or perhaps characters that don’t come alive. The writer may well discover the story starts in the wrong place. That dramatic scene on page 75 is the real beginning. The stuff that came before is just back story. The writer may see a character she loved when she created her, but after review, this character just gets in the way of the core story.

The good news is that in most cases, a writer will finish the first draft of her next book sooner than the first. Here’s how long it has taken me to finish my first drafts:

First novel: Small Change, 12 months, 126,000 words (final draft was 103,000 words)

Second novel: Color Him Father, 8 months, 117,000 words (still in draft)

Third novel: Bonus Baby (National Novel Writing Month novel), 30 days, 53,000 words (still in draft).

Fourth novel, Life of the Party, 7 months, 56,300 words.

How long does it take you to finish a first draft? Do you gain speed with each novel?

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Break the Rules at Your Own Risk

A couple of bloggers recently posted essays about the need for writers to be flexible in adhering to some of the rules of the craft of fiction. These posts raise a key question: when is it acceptable for writers to break the rules?

Anna Elliot, in a post on Writer Unboxed, put it this way: “When I’m wrestling with plot, I don’t consciously follow any of the ‘approved’ basic plot structures.

“I suppose I’d have to say that in my own writing I tend to rely on something closer to basic, gut-level instinct. I try to dig deep into what makes my characters unique, what exactly about them made me so intrigued with them, so determined to tell their story. And then…instinct takes over.”

Writers should read every good craft book they can. Some of the best are: Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, On Writing by Stephen King, Write Away by Elizabeth George, and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Before they can break the rules, writers must understand them. Writers must know the various types of structures, character development, theme, tone, setting, and plotting.

Which rules should writers consider breaking?

Structure. Writers can select from a number of tried-and-true structures: three-act story, hero’s quest, journey. They’re popular because they work, but these structures may not be appropriate for the story you are writing. Examples of award-winning novels with unusual structures include Jennifer Eagan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Eagan’s novel is a series of loosely related short stories with some common characters and a thematic thread that runs through the work. Niffenegger’s novel features a non-linear narrative and a main character who travels through time. It’s at first a little confusing, but the story quickly grabs the reader.

Characters. Does the narrator always have to be the main character? In William Stryon’s Sophie’s Choice, the narrator, Stingo, is not the character who undergoes the most dramatic change; he is the reliable lens through whom the story of Sophie and Nathan is told. This can work, but it’s a risky strategy.

Narrative point-of-view: Some stories have multiple point-of-view characters. This is usually done because the author needs to tell specific scenes from a specific character’s point-of-view, or when there is a complex plot involving multiple characters. Some stories alternate between first and third person. I’m not a fan of this technique, but it can work.

Genre-crossing. Some stories just don’t fit into one genre. Agents and publishers advise against mixing genres in the same story and for good reason. It’s difficult to market a book that doesn’t fall within a single, defined genre. But your story may not fit into one genre. That shouldn’t stop a writer from writing the story she needs to write.

Which rules should writers never break?

Grammar, sentence structure. Some people are fans of incomplete sentences. Use them sparingly, for dramatic effect. Bad grammar in dialogue is okay, but not in a narrative, unless it’s part of a character’s tone.

Character development. The main character must be complex, interesting and a person for whom the reader can make an emotional connection. Writers should never strive for flat, one-dimensional characters.

Tension and conflict: Boredom and tranquility are never a good substitute for tension and conflict, which are essential for propelling the story forward.

Clarity. As a reader, I don’t want to work to figure out where the story is in terms of time and place. Unclear, muddled writing and overly complicated plots will cause me to put down a book every time.

Anna Elliot’s advises writers to read all genres and “with a critical eye. Try to peel back the story to its bones and understand why the author made the choices they did. Identify what worked for you in the story and what didn’t.”

While writers can bend some rules, they should always be mindful of them. Writers can experiment during the drafting process, but when it comes to the editing process, get those craft books out.

What kind of rules should writers break? What are the rules that should never be broken?

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Developing a Written Outline-Part I

Most novelists fall within two categories on the topic of developing a written outline: plotter or pantser. Plotters prepare outlines that could range from a synopsis or overview of the book to a detailed scene-by-scene list. Some do both. Pantsers, as the term suggests, fly by the seat of their pants. They believe too much advance planning kills creativity and stymies the wonderful discoveries writers make during the writing process.

Regardless of where you fall on the plotter-pantser spectrum, there is some merit in preparing a written outline. Outlining is a complex topic. I will break this topic into two posts. This post will cover “why” to prepare an outline and the second post will discuss “how” to do it.

An outline is simply a written plan for your story. Think of it as your roadmap. You wouldn’t hop in the car and drive to a place you’ve never visited without obtaining a set of directions. Think of your outline as your directions to help you reach your destination—a finished novel.

A solid written outline:
ul
liForces the writer to think through the events of the story with a goal of creating a cohesive plot and structure./li
liKeeps the writer focused on the larger issues of theme and story progression/li
liPrevents the writer from going down blind alleys or off on tangents that don’t relate to the story./li
liIdentifies gaps and weaknesses in the story that the writer must address before sitting down to write./li
liTells the writer whether there is enough structure behind the story to sustain a novel./li
liReduces the amount of time the writer will later spend editing the story./li
liAllows the writer to identify the relationship among the characters, their development, how they will interact, and their strengths and weaknesses./li
/ul
The most important reason to outline, in my opinion, is that it provides the foundation on which your story is built. Without a solid foundation, your story will collapse.

Many experts don’t believe in written outlines. Stephen King, in his book, ema title=On Writing href=http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Stephen-King/dp/0743455967On Writing/a, /emwrote he does not believe in outlines, preferring to discover the story as he writes it. “I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story,” he wrote. “Some of the ideas which have produced these books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau.”

I am more of a “pantser,” but experience has taught me the value of a written outline. Before I start writing, I prepare a barebones outline with about a dozen milestone plot developments. These don’t always follow the classic story arc: describe protagonist in her world, make her goal clear, create an inciting incident, throw in a complication, increase the stakes through rising action, build to the climax and resolve the main character’s dilemma. My outlines tend to follow the major events of the story. I know writers who prepare detailed outlines that go on for many pages. I’ve seen outlining methods that go on for many pages. Next, I will describe some of the outlining techniques available.

strongDo you believe in written outlines? Are you a plotter or a pantser?/strong

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Thoughts on Theme

Developing a theme is one of the most crucial aspects of fiction writing. It’s not enough to write a story that grabs the reader, moves at a brisk pace, features rising action, and ends with a bang. Readers expect a story to do more. Readers remember stories that tackle larger issues: good and evil, love and hate, justice and injustice. Novels must be about something. That something is called the “theme.”

In his excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass puts it this way, “When [readers] run across a novel that has nothing to say, they snap it closed and slap it down—or perhaps hurl it across the room.”

Stephen King, in his book, On Writing, acknowledged that writing classes can become preoccupied by theme. “If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you’ve finished and ask yourself why you bothered—why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important. In other words, what’s it all about, Alfie?”

King went on to make an important point. “Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know) but it seems to me that every book—at least every one worth reading—is about something. Your job in the first draft is to decide
what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft—one of them, anyway—is to make that something even more clear.”

Larry Brooks of www.storyfix.com put it this way: “Theme is what your story means. What it’s about. It’s the story’s real-life relevance and its commentary on the human experience…Theme is love and hate, crime and punishment, good and evil, chaos versus order, natural versus synthetic, old versus new. Theme is the pursuit of something good, the consequences of something bad, and how the results come to pass in the lives of the characters in the story.”

I stumbled upon Holly Lisle’s blog post on theme and she wrote eloquently about it: “When you’re creating fiction, at heart you are searching for ways to create order in the universe…You are digging into your core beliefs on how the world works, and running imaginary people through
a trial universe built on these believes to see how the people and the beliefs stand under pressure.”

So how does a writer go about developing a theme?

  • Ask yourself: what are the larger issues your story is about? Some writers identify a theme before they begin writing a novel. Others figure it out as they go along.
  • When your theme becomes apparent, every element of the story—setting, characters, action—should work in support of your theme.
  • Themes are about moral issues or larger truths about the human condition.
  • The main character should buttress and embody your theme.
  • The action should re-enforce and advance the theme.
  • The resolution of the main character’s dilemma should validate your theme.
  • Your theme should emerge organically and grow out of the story. Writers should not have to get preachy to make the theme
    apparent to the reader.
  • Develop and hone your theme during the revision process.

How do you develop themes in your novel? Do you start with the theme or does it emerge as you write?

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