Looking Ahead

I’m curious to see how awful the editing process will be after I get the rough draft of my NaNoWriMo novel finished.  Writing an entire draft in a single month sounded crazy to me at first, but (at least with a pre-plotted concept) it’s going surprisingly well for me.  If the second draft rewrites are Hell on Earth, maybe this won’t become a regular practise for me, but if I find that the rewriting is no worse than usual, this is going to become my novel-writing method from now on!

Granted, all I do other than write and work right now is sleep and eat (not at the same time, thankfully (yet)) but one month out of the year is well worth it if I come out of that month with a novel to show for it.

I’m not sure what the point of all of this is, since normally my posts center around some kind of observation on the process itself, a method that has worked for me, or a brainstorming method.  Troubleshooting, as it were, for the writing and editing processes.  I’ll try to keep that up, but most of my mental energy right now is going straight to the pages of my book, so the blog may suffer in November.

So, I’m sorry for the brain-dead post, but that’s all I’ve got right now.  I’m zapped!

NaNoWriMo, Day 1

So today is the first day of my first year participating in National Novel Writing Month.  This means that (a) I will likely have a lot to say about the process of speed-writing this month and following, and (b) by the time I do my word count for NaNo, my brain is like a small mound of jelly in the middle of a dance floor on a July afternoon, which is to say mooshy and helpless and likely to be abruptly and unexpectedly squidged.  Although apparently creative, still.

Given the state of my brain right now, I will give you a quick recap of what the first day of NaNoWriMo was like for me:

Go to grocery in hopes of stocking up enough food not to have to do another big shop for the rest of November.  Buy ridiculous amounts of food and realize while putting it away that you really ought to have taken care of the laundry and dishes over the weekend, but you didn’t, because you knew it was your last weekend before diving into being a feral writer for a month.

Say to hell with the dishes and laundry, write 700 words.  Agonize.  Second-guess.  Remember you aren’t supposed to do that in November.  Sit back down.  Realize you are stuck.  Write 300 words anyway.  Realize you’re really tired and you feel like you’ve used all your ideas for today.  Sit there for twenty minutes before remembering that coffee exists.  Drink coffee, eat something (don’t remember what), and decide to play guitar for a while instead.

Sit down and try to write.  Still not feeling it.  Go for a walk and drop the rent off on the way home.  Inadvertently start writing a song while walking, and have to write it down right away when you get home.  Take a shower.  Realize you need to figure out the chords to the song you made up on your walk, before you forget the tune.  Realize you’re avoiding your novel.  Find the chords anyway, and write them down.

Sit back down.  Whinge via text messages.  Drink the rest of the pot of coffee you made earlier.  Buckle down again and write the rest of your word count and beyond, ending up with a daily count of 2348 words.

Realize you’re starving and haven’t eaten in five hours (for me, that’s eternity in food terms).  Heat up potato from dinner three days ago.  Avoid looking at dishes in sink.  Update blog.

It felt good to push past where I thought I needed to stop for the day and find a second wind.  I really got on a roll again, which I didn’t expect.  I’m both excited and dubious about doing this every day for a month, but so far my usual tricks (taking breaks to get out and walk, or exercising some other form of creative process (guitar, in today’s case), etc.) are working well for me.

Big Cast Novels

When you have a big cast of characters for a novel, you have a big set of challenges ahead of you.  The first of these is deciding who your main characters are.  This sounds like it should be obvious and easy to answer, but I know from first-hand experience that you, the writer, can be very, very wrong about which people your story needs, and which storyline actually works for the characters.

Sometimes you have to write a chunk of the book (or at least a few scenes) before you get a real feel for what/who works and what/who doesn’t.  My personal rule of thumb is, if a character just flows out effortlessly, that’s your main character, or at least one of your primaries.  If a character you plan on being a primary figure in the storyline is difficult, frustrating, or no fun to write, CUT THAT CHARACTER!

Let me tell you a fun little anecdote about my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel.  I came up with the initial concept about thirteen years ago.  Yes.  Thirteen years ago.  I started the book five times, got about ten chapters in, and realized it wasn’t coming together each time.  So I’d stop, work on other projects, and do some world-building for this novel on the side.  Whenever I’ve finished a short story or a draft of my other novel, I’d come back to this one.  I talked to some of my writer friends about it.  “Cut your main character,” was their advice.  Cut my main character???  But she’s the main character, right???!

This summer, between drafts of my Erica Flynn novel, I sat down and looked over my notes about my thirteen-year project.  And holy heck if I hadn’t modified the storyline to the point that my main character had become entirely unnecessary to the plot!  I’d been writing her out of the book for years, subconsciously.  I didn’t enjoy writing the scenes that focused on her, I didn’t like her much (although I admired some of her personal qualities), and I wasn’t inspired by her.  The characters I’d written the best material for were either secondary to her, or pitted against her.  These are now my main characters.  My original protagonist is gone, not even a bit part.

Go with your instincts.  Who do you enjoy writing about?  Either you enjoy writing those parts because they’re really good parts, or you’ll write them really well because you like writing them.  No matter which direction that cause and effect goes, you’re going to end up with better material.

Also, write up a list of all your characters, and write out each one’s “through line” for the book.  What changes about them – whether it’s internal or external?  The characters who change internally and externally are your strongest, automatically.  Those are your main character nominees now.  Tweak their through lines.  Make them stronger, more dramatic, more interwoven with the overall plot.  Play around with it!  Have fun!  No, I’m not being sarcastic.  Really – have fun with your writing.  You can be miserable later, when you’re revising.  Hah!  😉

Plottin’ & Schemin’

Sorry, that just put the Beastie Boys song “Rhymin’ & Stealin'” in my head.  Anywayyyy, I had a mini writer’s retreat with Marian Allen last week to do some work on our respective upcoming NaNoWriMo projects this November.  I’m using NaNo to write the first book in a trilogy I’ve had in mind for ages now, so naturally our shop talk got around to plotting techniques.  I’m normally not much of an outliner, and if I do outline, it’s usually not in much detail, but (a) the plot of this trilogy is extremely complex, (b) there are a lot of characters, and their stories interweave and affect each other, even those who don’t know one another personally, and (c) it’s a trilogy, which means I want continuity between the three books, and I don’t want to get to book three and say, “Crap!  I wish I’d mentioned THIS THING I NEED FOR THE PLOT TO WORK back in book one!  Now I’m going to have to shoehorn it in and treat it like it’s been the case all along!”  Of course, that would only be a problem if books one and two were published by the time I was writing book three, but let’s give me some credit here and say that’s a possibility.

I know quite a lot of events that need to happen for the main plot and for the subplots (and there are times when my subplots directly affect the main plot, too), but the order of many of the events is up in the air.  At the suggestion of my writing buddy, I tried a more visual structuring technique:  Take a piece of paper and mark it off into rectangles – 9 columns and 3 rows.  In the fifth column of each row, write “Turning Point”, in the next-to-last rectangle write “Climax”.  Your first box is your setup, the last box is your conclusion.  Start filling stuff in.

Now, I modified this somewhat to accommodate a 3-book storyline.  For the trilogy, each book gets its own row, so there are 9 rectangles per book.  That means less nitty-gritty plot detail can go into it, but the general shape of all of it comes together in one place.  I have 18″ by 24″ paper (for painting, usually) and many colored pencils (for coloring books, usually), so I color-coded important characters and got busy.

While I don’t think this will be a solve-all for my plotting problems in this series, I think the combination of a list-form, all-just-text plot file  with this visual structure layout will be highly useful.  Already, there are times when my brain gets stuck with one format, and just switching to the other type of outline unsticks it.  The more tools you, as a writer, have, the better, because every single project is different, and a tool you never needed before may suddenly be really useful for your next story!

Pet Peeves – Amnesia Openings

All readers have pet peeves about storytelling.  There are some things that just irritate you when you see them in a story or a movie.  I think writers are even more prone to these kinds of tics than other readers, partly because we’re used to watching out for what does and doesn’t work in our own stories.

One of my own personal annoyances is with books that start out with a main character having amnesia.  Why does it bug me?  Well, partly because it strikes me as lazy writing, most of the time – like the character who always asks obvious questions for the sake of exposition via dialogue (*cough* Tasha Yar *cough* Next Generation Star Trek *cough*).  I don’t mind if the character develops amnesia later in the story, but to start out with it just seems like such a cheap way to get away with a long setup for your world and your characters, with an oh-so-obvious element of mystery.  The trouble is, it leaves me cold, and here’s the main reason:

99% of the amnesia beginnings I’ve read treat “amnesia” like it means “lack of personality”.  I’m sure that, without our memories, we’d all act somewhat different than usual, but we wouldn’t lose our personalities altogether.  You’d still think like yourself, you just wouldn’t know why you thought the way you did.  Aside from the fact that it makes no sense to equate loss of memory with loss of personality, there’s nothing duller, to me, than a book without good characters.  I latch onto characters quicker than any other story element, and so do many, many other readers.  Give me a lousy anchor, and I’m getting on a different boat, thanks all the same.

One thing I love, though, is finding stories that break my personal rules of reading and writing.  I’m delighted when a writer can do something I detest, and make me fall in love with his/her book anyway.  For one thing, it impresses me, and for another thing, I like to figure out why their book was different.  Why did this work, when dozens of other books didn’t (or at least, didn’t work for me)?

For my Amnesia Openings pet peeve, the book that shatters the rule is Nine Princes in Amber, the first book in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series.  Why does Zelazny get a free pass when the very first page of his series starts with the main character having no memory?  Because, also on the first page, he shows me his narrator has a great deal of personality.  Within half a page, the reader knows he’s suspicious, calculating, tricky, and funny.  The narrative voice, the questions and doubts that cross his mind, the decisions he makes, and the way he handles his lack of knowledge about himself or what happened to him, work together beautifully to establish what type of person he is and how he thinks, and to simultaneously set up the first inklings of conflict and danger.  There’s nothing lazy about writing that can do all that with half a page.

The best writing makes the most of each and every scene – not just because it makes the book richer, although it does, but also because that’s the kind of writing that grabs people.  It’s exciting to open a book and be in another place, but more exciting to open a book and be in another place with interesting questions to be answered, mysterious events on the horizon, and a fascinating main character to anchor you in the world of the story.  A narrative hook, by itself, isn’t enough.  You need some bait, too – if I may mix my nautical metaphors here in my blog (I would avoid doing so at all costs in a story!)  😉

The Obligatory “Outline” Discussion

One of the topics that’s bandied about most often among writers is outlining.  Should you do it or not, how detailed do you get with it if you do, how far should you let things stray from your original outline (if at all), is outlining the death of a story from the outset…?  Many a debate is had about outlining at writer’s workshops.

So what’s my take on it?  Do it, if it helps.  If it impedes you, don’t.  Personally, I tend not to write an outline, but I do make copious notes for myself on things I want to include in the storyline.  Sometimes it ends up looking a lot like an outline, because I try to keep it in a rough chronological order.

Generally, how I decide whether to outline or not is based entirely on whether or not I can hold all the vital plot information in my head while I’m writing.  If I can’t, I’ll stop and make reminder notes to myself, or put the book itself aside for a few days to write an outline.

The down side to having an outline is, sometimes you feel obligated to follow it to the letter, and get yourself bogged down into writer’s block.  The down side to NOT having an outline is, sometimes you write yourself into a corner–and can’t untangle the story without completely dismantling it and starting over.  Either way, the trick is to balance flexibility with clear direction.  You’ve got to be going somewhere with your story, even if you don’t know quite where until you’re done writing it.  On the other hand, you can’t make something work if it just doesn’t fit with the actual, fleshed-out story.  It may look great in the outline, but when you’re working with your characters, you may realize that they aren’t responding quite the way you expected.  That means that either (a) you need to go with what your characters are telling you or (b) you need to tweak the circumstances or add another layer to the events that WILL get your characters to react the way you need them to.  How do you know which one of those is the right solution?  Easy.  Whichever makes the story and the characters stronger and more interesting.

Now, for someone who doesn’t usually outline, it’s kind of hard for me to do it when I need to.  My husband (also a writer) passed on a method of his own to me a couple of years ago (and he’ll be very pleased to know he’s made his first “appearance” on this blog), which I’ve found very helpful.  It’s easiest done on the computer, where you can rearrange things easily and without having to use an eraser.  I use Word for it, because I can use bullet-points to organize everything.

If you have a definite beginning, middle, and end in mind, write those down as three separate points.  Anything you know for sure you want to have happen, put in semi-chronologically between those points.  Then expand on each of those points or break them down into individual events or scenes.  I’ll use, for my example, the guy from my post about One Damn Thing After Another–the guy who saved his dog from being eaten by zombies.

So let’s say that’s part of a novel.  The overall story is that this guy and his dog have to survive an outbreak of zombie football player attacks in a small Midwestern town, and you’ve decided that the source of this particular set of zombies is a spurned cheerleader who’s an expert in black magic, which she’s used to bring all these football players back from the dead.  You have an overarching plot, there.  In the most general terms, then, you have:  Beginning – main character and dog living in small town.  Middle – angry cheerleader uses black magic to raise zombies from dead, main character and dog fight off zombies.  End – main character and dog survive.

Okay, so if you know anything about your characters, that’s the first way to expand things.  Is this the main guy’s hometown?  If not, why did he move there?  Why does he live alone with his dog?  Is he divorced, not married yet, reclusive, or just happy to be a bachelor with his best pal the dog as his only responsibility?  Does he know the football players or the cheerleader?  (It’s better if he does.  In fact, I might make him the coach of the football team or something.  Get him really involved!)  Why’s the cheerleader so pissed?  And how the $&#* does she know black magic???  This is stuff you’d answer in “plot points” in between your beginning and middle.  Once you answer that stuff, I’d bet anything that more ideas for things to have happen will occur to you.  Now the middle will be easier, because you’ve got things set up and the characters are probably clearer in your mind.  You can flesh out the middle of the outline, or start working on the beginning and see what direction your characters go with your setup.  Either way, your characters should be directing the action once you’ve set things up for them.  And the end?  Well, of course, we said the main guy and his dog survive.  Whether they survive and are traumatized for life, survive and live happily ever after (vowing never to trust cheerleaders again), survive and the man marries the cheerleader’s cute algebra teacher who worked out where the zombies were coming from and saved man and dog from certain death, etc., will all come down to how you fleshed out the middle of the story.  And if you knew from the start that you wanted, say, the ending with the algebra teacher, then you’d have planned the middle accordingly.  Sometimes working backward is an excellent plotting strategy.

I like using this style of outlining, because it’s as much brainstorming as organizing–and I love brainstorming.  You also don’t have to fill in every blank, which leaves a feeling of flexibility to the process of the actual writing.  There, Luchian, you have your debut on my blog, and you have my thanks for your plotting methods, O Plotting Wizard.