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VIEW FROM THE TREEHOUSE
Celebrating the creative life and all that feeds it.
Displaying items by tag: novel writing
Experienced novelists tend to lean toward one of two methods for creating their stories and sometimes these methods are viewed as opposites.
At one end of the development scale you have the Pantser, the author who gets an idea for a story and sits down and writes with no inkling of where it will take them. At the other end you have the Plotter who can’t set a word of their story on paper without a detailed outline to work from.
What’s in between these two extremes is a wide range of tools and techniques for moving any story forward. My strongest advice for anyone just starting out writing fiction: Don’t lock yourself into any one type. Experiment and be open to all.
The Day Dreamer – unconscious brainstorming
The first step moving away from the Pantser end of the spectrum, is what I think of as the Day Dreamer.
Even if you don’t consciously think about your story between writing sessions, it’s still kicking around in your subconscious with the high possibility of generating other related ideas, things that can happen within the story. These can be events, encounters between characters, snippets of dialogue, or whole scenes.
These light bulb moments may come to you in dreams or when you’re awake, the latter often when you’re doing something totally unrelated to writing like driving or taking a shower. (The second happens so often, some writers reportedly keep a waterproof notepad and marker in their shower for writing them down!)
The Dreamer is happy to let these off-shoot ideas simply float around in their mind, moving in and out of conscious awareness, and allowing them to impact the story however they will.
The List Maker – records their ideas
The danger in letting your off-shoot ideas simply float around in your head is that over time you can forget them. As you start to write and your story evolves, you may find yourself veering away from your initial idea. If you get stuck, it sometimes helps to go back and review your original inspiration.
List Makers guard against losing their ideas by writing them down. If you use this technique you don’t have to write the entire scene, just create a heading that will remind you of the idea you had.
From there you can simply go on pantsing and refer to your list whenever you get stuck. Often just reading over your list is enough to get you going again and can even generate new ideas so your story continues to grow organically.
Freewriting – kneading the dough
Another technique to use when you’re stuck – one that moves you a little closer to the Plotter end of the scale – is freewriting on your off-shoot ideas. If you get stuck, simply choose a topic from your list and explore it. If the idea is vivid enough go ahead write the scene. This will often generate new ideas for things that have to come before that scene and what might come after it.
You can also freewrite about your characters, exploring their backstories, motivations, strengths and weaknesses, and defining moments.
The Timeliner – putting things in order
Not surprisingly, the off-shoot ideas that come to an author as they begin to write are often their story’s highlight moments. Without any knowledge of or focus on structure, your subconscious will frequently give you the first act climax, the mid-point crisis, the act 2 climax and the story’s ultimate resolution.
The Timeliner takes whatever scenes are on the list, arranges them in a logical order and then simply writes from one to the next.
The Quilter - filling in the blanks
Taking this process a step further, you have the Quilter who looks at the timeline and fills in the blanks. Like piecing together a patchwork spread, the Quilter stitches scenes together by asking themselves, what has to happen to get me from point A to point B? What does my character need to know? What experience must they undergo? What information must my reader have?
The Outliner – adding the details
And so we arrive at true Plotter status. Yet even within the Outliner type there’s a huge range for how much detail an outline contains. An author might simply flesh out more of the Quilter’s work. Or every scene can be detailed in full, including whole conversations and lengthy description. (At which point the question in my mind becomes: is there really any difference between the detailed outline and a pantser’s first draft?)
Authors with multiple novels under their belt have a clearer understanding of their process and often identify strongly as one end of this spectrum or the other. However persuasive they might sound in extolling the virtues of their choice, don’t let anyone convince you that one of these methods is better than the other. Try them and find out what works for you.
No two authors write the same. In fact no two novels are written the same even by the same author! Though I call myself a Plotter, I utilize every technique on this spectrum, and each of my novels was written with a different proportion of methods.
South Australia is the driest state on the driest continent on earth. It hardly rains here at all from November through to May. And where we live – ten kilometers from the nearest town – we’re not on mains water. We have several huge rainwater tanks behind the house in which we store all the rain that comes off the roof during winter, our wet season.
Because water is at such a premium through the summer months we have to make use of every drop, which includes tipping our cleaning water over plants and fruit trees in the garden.
One particular hot summer day, I stepped out our back door in shorts and bare feet to water the potted plants on our patio. Because I tipped my entire bucket into one large pot I wasn’t surprised to hear some of the water overflowing onto the ground behind it.
As I turned away however it struck me that the sound I was hearing wasn’t so much the trickle of water as the ‘shhh’ of reptilian scales over concrete.
Sure enough as I took my next step a five-foot brown snake whipped out from behind the pot and shot directly between my feet. I was already mid-stride - if I shifted my weight I’d fall on the thing. I had no choice but to plant my foot.
I will remember to the day I die the feel of that powerful cord of muscle pinned beneath the arch of my foot. Incredibly the snake never so much as looked back. By the time I came down to earth – having shot an impressive distance into the air – it was disappearing under the groundcover that edged the garden.
As stated in a previous post, my theory is this particular snake was one of the more placid western browns as opposed to the highly aggressive eastern variety that are – thankfully! – less common in our area. It’s the only factor I can think of that would account for its being so forgiving!
Interesting fact: Snakes smell by tasting the air.
By waving its tongue, the snake picks up scent particles and transfers them to a specialized organ on the roof of its mouth. A snake’s tongue is forked so it can determine which direction the scent is coming from, the same way our ears tell us the direction of the sounds we hear.
With just over a month to the release of my romantic thriller, Lying In Wait, I thought I’d write a few blogs about Australia's venomous snakes, as they feature prominently in the story.
In each of my next four posts I’ll either be sharing interesting facts I learned about snakes in researching the book, or personal encounters I’ve had with snakes since living in South Australia - one of which (described below) became the inspiration for the story itself.
All writers draw on personal experience when creating their stories whether they do it consciously or not. Sometimes it's a setting that inspires us, other times a person we meet. Sometimes it's a question we ponder - the classic 'what-if?' In the case of Lying In Wait it was a feeling – one I’d never experienced before.
Our family had recently purchased a 50 acre farm outside of Port Lincoln, South Australia (our home to this day) fulfilling a dream I'd always had of living in the country.
Not long after we moved in I discovered a highly venomous brown snake had taken up residence in our chook run ('chicken coop' for US readers). I'd kept snakes as a hobby back in the States so seeing him there every day when I gathered the eggs never bothered me. It was my husband who pointed out that, while the snake might not be a problem for me, it could be for our five-year-old son who often ran around the lawn with no shoes on.
One morning as I was gathering eggs I saw the snake sunning itself in the yard. I recalled my husband's fears and decided he was right, the snake had to go. But I couldn't bring myself to kill it. Having handled countless snakes growing up, I simply pinned its head, grabbed it firmly behind the neck and picked it up, my intention being to relocate it a safe distance away from our house.
As I stood debating where I might take it, I heard a small voice behind me say, 'Is Mummy going to die now?' I turned to find my husband and son standing at the gate watching me fearfully. My son, who'd been told never to touch a snake, simply assumed, that because I had, my death would follow.
Standing there holding that four-foot brown, hearing my son speak those words, I had a profound experience. I'd known of course this wasn't one of the harmless garter snakes I’d kept in my youth but in that moment the reality hit me with fresh force.
To my astonishment, rather than fear, I felt a sense of exhilaration. I won’t go into too much detail here, as part of this is explained in the story and I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, the feeling wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
In the days that followed, I found myself recalling the experience often and wondering what sort of person might become addicted to such a sensation. As I pondered the question, a character began to form in my mind, along with incidents from her past that helped to shape her personality.
From this I could see a possible scenario that would prove particularlly challenging to such a person, and gradually she drew to her others with the potential for creating further conflict.
In the end that character became Andrea Vaughn, heroine of Lying In Wait. In reading the story you may likely glimpse shadows of the real life experience that created her.
I recently watched a documentary about the comedian Chris Rock. Something he said had a far greater impact on me than I expected and I think it’ll stay with me a long time. Truth be told, I’m hoping it does.
Rock’s a pretty down-to-earth guy, at least that’s how he came across. At one point he was being questioned by reporters about a special he’d done on TV. The interviewers kept asking him things like, ‘What are your hopes for this project? Do you see it taking out any awards? Are you hoping to be nominated for an Emmy?’
Rock seemed a little confused by the questions. As the barrage continued ultimately he shrugged and said, ‘I just want to do good work.’
A calm came over me when I heard those words. Yes, of course! No overthinking it. No lofty, pretentious ambitions. No wanting to grind the opposition to dust. Just the simple desire to do your best.
Implied in the statement (at least to me) is also the understanding you might not always hit the target. That you have no control over how your efforts are received by others. Not everything you do will be equally popular. You just have to give each project your all and hope people like what you do.
Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, has a similar quote he’s famous for: ‘Ignore the noise.’ His way of getting his players to block out all the hype and turmoil that often surrounds them and focus on what really matters – doing their best out on the field.
These two leaders from very different fields are, to me, saying the same thing: It’s not about external validation, but about turning inward; not about competition with others but competition with yourself. The striving to continually improve and be better today at what you do than you were the day before.
‘I just want to do good work.’
I think I just found my new mantra.
In his book, Awaken The Giant Within, Anthony Robbins writes, ‘It’s not the events of our lives, not our environment that determines who we are, but what we believe about our experience.’
That got me thinking…What do I believe about writing and creativity in general? What have I taken from my years of working as both a musician and a writer? The good and the bad, the realities and the misconceptions.
1. Perhaps my number one belief when it comes to any creative endeavor is that talent is greatly over-rated.
I learned long ago from studying violin that consistent practice is far more important. If you say it all comes down to talent and you either have it or you don’t, you’ve surrendered all control of the situation.
Even when it’s there, talent alone is never enough. I’ve seen dozens of gifted people give up when the going got tough because they never had to work for anything before.
2. I believe I haven’t wasted my efforts if I write a book that doesn’t sell. I put it aside and start a new one knowing I can return and revise it later after I’ve honed my skills a bit more. But even if I never revisit the work, I know that writing it moved me closer to my ultimate goal of being the best writer I can be.
3. I believe books sometimes – perhaps even often – get rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. The publisher might already have several authors writing books in a similar style. The topic or theme of the book might not be particularly trendy at the moment. Or just the opposite could be true and the market is saturated with books in that genre.
4. Following on from the above scenario I believe it’s possible to submit the same book to the same publisher a year or so later and get a completely different result. (Which – without going into details – has actually happened to me.) A topic that wasn’t marketable last year is hot today. A slot opens up in the editor’s stable when one of their authors moves on or changes genre.
5. I believe luck plays a factor in the success of an author/book but not enough to significantly alter my approach to writing. Yes, there are things you can’t control once your book is ‘out there’. But the same factors determining my book’s success are effecting other books that are successful. So if my book isn’t selling that well I just need to write a better one next time.
6. Having said that however, I believe a good book can be overlooked for a time. What’s more, I believe it’s possible to ‘resurrect’ such a book at a later date so it does find a measure of its deserved success. Some world event suddenly makes the book’s topic more relevant or interesting. (How many more books about viruses were sold during the Covid pandemic I wonder?) World views and market trends change. Themes become relevant that weren’t at the time that book was published.
7. One of my strongest beliefs about writing and the creative life is that passion is contagious – and so is apathy. I love being around passionate people dedicated to their craft. It fills me with hope, makes me consider options I hadn’t thought of, and encourages me to take appropriate risks I might otherwise be hesitant to take.
I steer clear of ‘dabblers’ who only work when they’re in the mood and never stop telling you about the story they’re going to write one of these days. Or the professional who only badmouths their peers and complains about life’s unfairness.
8. In a similar vein I believe there’s something in group energy that affects creativity. I’ve been running writers retreats for twenty years and I’ve had this experience over and over. Eight people sitting in a room together, each hard at work on their own story somehow create a wave of energy that all of us ride. It’s a buzz I look forward to every year. (And our next one’s coming up in 8 weeks! I’m already packing!)
There’s really only one belief I’ve come to have second thoughts about over the years. For a long time I believed that if an author writes a great book, a story that truly touches the hearts of readers, everything else will fall into place – a publisher will want to publish it, readers everywhere will want to read it, it’ll get great reviews, go to multiple printings, etc. All the things writers often worry about take care of themselves.
Though I still believe this to a certain degree I realize that, with so many books on the market these days, it might take a bit in the way of marketing for even a great book to find its readers.
I’m still refining my view on this one. But, for now, that’s my list of writerly beliefs.
Following on from my last post, this question of what motivates writers and if any one reason is better than another…
I’ve been reading The Leading Edge by Holly Ransom. In her chapter titled Anchor to Purpose, Holly says, ‘The passion we derive from pursuing our purpose provides us the resolve and resilience to achieve major goals and impact…But in my experience, few people take the time to define their true motivation.’
A little bit further in the chapter she asks, ‘What is the change you want to see before you die? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What keeps you going when you’ve been shot down?’
She cautions readers to take time in answering these questions (A-ha! See, I knew it was important!) so I’ve been thinking a lot about it.
I thought I’d answered this question for myself but Ransom’s book got me wondering if what I believed was my true motivation really is.
I’ve told myself for some time now my main purpose is to move readers with my writing the same way I once moved listeners with my music.
But if I’m being totally honest, I have to admit there’s another side. Deep down there’s also the part of me that wants to take out awards, get rave reviews and be #1 on bestseller lists.
So which is it? If the second is my true motivation…well, it seems so egotistical. Will that selfishness come out in my writing? Should I admit my driving need is to prove myself? Or should I deny my ‘true nature’ and attempt to change my motivation to something a little more altruistic?
When I was ten I remember hearing the Tchaikovski Violin concerto for the first time and having a fire ignite inside me. I vowed I would play that music one day! I wanted those sounds to come out of me. I never asked myself why I wanted it, I just knew I did.
That desire kept me going through all the years and multiple set-backs until I was skilled enough to play the piece.
Winning competitions and auditions along the way helped as well. It gave me a sense I was moving closer to my goal and that others could hear my skills were improving.
Maybe it’s the same with writing. Maybe rave reviews, #1 ratings, and contest wins aren’t my primary motivation but simply proof I’m getting closer to my goal of moving others with my work.
Okay, yeah, I can live with that.
One thing I learned from my years of performing… If I focus on myself, I’m domed. But if I focus on the music I love, on what I want to give to the listener – in other words my true purpose – not only does it keep me going, but all my stage fright (page fright!) goes away.
Does an author’s motive for writing a story affect the quality of the end result?
Or, looked at from a writer’s perspective: Why do I write? Why does anyone write? Is any one reason better than another?
I’ve asked myself these things many times and never settled on an answer I like. A part of me thinks, what does it matter why you write? Yet somehow I sense the answer’s important and so I keep asking.
Below is only a partial list of reasons authors choose to write:
- purely to entertain themselves
- to escape their own world
- to entertain others
- to help, educate, or enlighten others
- they feel they have something important to say
- to become rich and famous
- to understand themselves through the stories and characters they create
- to prove to themselves/others that they can do it
- for love of the creative process, the feeling of being ‘in flow’
- they love mastering new skills
- to expose wrongs/truths
- to record history
- to see their name on a book in a bookstore
- to share their feelings with others, to communicate what’s inside them
- to create experiences in their imagination that don’t exist in their own lives
- to live vicariously through their characters
- for the sense of power they feel as controllers of their own fictitious world
- to have a lasting impact on the world
I’m sure others could add to this list. The question I’m asking is… From a reader’s point of view, considering the quality of the finished product, is any one of these author motivations better than another?
Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic, whenever she hears an author say they wrote their book to help others, her reaction is, ‘Oh, please, don’t.’
Marketing gurus advise authors to write to the market. Creativity experts say if you aren’t passionate about your story it’ll show and anything less is being untrue to oneself as an artist.
James Scott Bell takes a middle-of-the-road approach, telling writers to find the sweet spot where their personal passion intersects with marketability.
But in the end does it makes any difference? Even the most egotistical creator who wants nothing but to see their name in lights can still create something of value, can’t they? Possibly even something extraordinary.
Most classical musicians I know simply love the music they’re playing and want to share it with others. At the same time there are those (and I have to admit they’re mostly violinists!) who thrive on standing center stage, being applauded by adoring audiences. Taken to extreme you get the egotistical rock star who cares little for the music itself and wants only to be worshipped by fans.
Whether an author writes for self-entertainment, to make millions, enlighten others, or change the world, does it matter to the reader?
Right now I’m leaning toward the answer: anyone who writes for any reason can produce a story others would want to read. But don’t hold me to that! I might change my mind.
I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this. Readers and writers alike!
Even after all the years I’ve been writing (I’ve been at now since 1991!) I’m still learning new things about the craft and about my own individual process.
In the middle of last year, halfway through writing another thriller, I came to the decision my characters were boring and no reader would ever want to hear their story. I set the manuscript aside and went on to work on something else.
It’s not the first time this has happened. Thankfully in every case, after taking a break, I’ve come back to the story with fresh eyes and found ways to make it more compelling, the characters more three dimensional.
Therefore I was hardly surprised when the same thing happened on this occasion. After working on a screenplay for several months, then having a break over Christmas, I went back and re-read the discarded manuscript and saw ways to bring its characters to life.
The difference this time was that I had an insight into why it happened.
When a reader picks up a book, they’re engaging with characters fully realized. In all but a few disappointing cases, the author has spent months, even years, fleshing out their heroes, heroines and villains into living, breathing individuals. Investing them with compelling motives, resonant pasts, strengths and weaknesses, and major challenges with which to contend.
For the author writing that very same book the experience can be vastly different. When I first begin to work on a story my characters are NOT fully formed. At the start they may be little more to me than simple arc- or stereotypes.
That’s what happened with my novel last year. In that first-draft stage my characters were nothing but cardboard cutouts. Is it any wonder they seemed boring to me? Now that I’ve got to know them better I really quite like them.
Perhaps authors differ in this regard. As in real life, some of us take longer to get to know others. The same could hold true with our characters. In a similar way, some characters could be more reticent than others, unwilling to reveal themselves at first. In any case I’d say it’s rare that a character ever leaps fully-formed into a writer’s mind. At least they’ve never leapt into mine!
Moving forward I’ll try to remember…for me the first draft of writing a novel is my ‘getting-to-know-you’ draft. My characters only seem dull at this stage because I don’t know them. I need to be patient and let them take as long as they need to show themselves.
I need to go easy on my boring characters. After all we’ve only just met.
One of the things I'm still struggling to get my head around as a writer is the strange phenomenon of writing a novel and then, maybe weeks, maybe years later, seeing that same plot written in another author's book.
I'm not talking plagiarism here. Though the plot lines might sound remarkably similar these stories get treated in very different ways by their various authors.
Years ago I wrote a novel I called The Violin, inspired by my experience playing a Stradivarius at college. The thought of all the emotion that had passed through that instrument throughout its 300-year lifespan stayed with me long after my experience and formed the basis of my novel about a violin haunted by the ghost of its original owner.
I spent a year writing that book. I loved the story and couldn't wait to submit it to an editor. I was convinced it was totally original.
The week I finished the manuscript I walked into my local book shop and there on the shelf was Anne Rice's latest novel, The Violin - about a centuries-old haunted violin. What were the odds?
A couple of years ago a book came out that had the exact same climax scene as one of my earlier manuscripts.
Recently I came across a book that has nearly the exact same story line as my first published thriller, Run To Me. My version: A woman suffering PTSD after the death of her son saves a runaway boy from killers. His version: A woman suffering PTSD after losing her entire family, saves a runaway boy from killers.
How does this happen? Are writers clairvoyant? Is it evidence of Carl Jung's Collective Unconscious? Do ideas float around in the ether and get picked up by more than one of us at time?
Elizabeth Gilbert touched on this subject in her book, Big Magic:
"I believe our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses but also by ideas....Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest....but if you are not ready or available, inspiration may indeed choose to leave you and search for a different human collaborator.... This is how it comes to pass that one morning you open up the newspaper and discover that somebody else has written your book or...produced your movie...or patented your invention..."
Certainly an interesting way to look at it, but I'm not sure it fully explains the phenomenon.
They say no idea is truly original and that all stories have been written before. But every now and then the similarities in what authors produce lead me to wonder if some greater power is at work in our psyches.
Is it just me, or have other authors had this experience? Have you ever written a story and later stumbled on a similar plot line written by someone else? Do you have any theories on how this happened?
Readers: Have you ever come across a story notably similar to another you've read? Did the similarities put you off, or did you enjoy the different take on the subject?
Actually, to date, I’ve only set two of my novels in Maine – Run To Me and Hit and Run – but my most recent thriller, Die For Me, is set in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which is still in the northeast of America and holds many of the same resonances for me.
The setting of a book can be as important as any character. In fact in stories like Castaway, The Martian, and others it IS a character as it provides the necessary element of conflict the protagonist must battle.
So why Maine and the northeast U.S. for my thrillers? Well, apart from the area's extensive forests, foggy hollows, and long dark winters - all great for establishing mood in a story - there were other factors that drew me.
In my debut thriller, Run To Me, my heroine is suffering PTSD after failing to save her young son’s life during a mugging. In the two years following his death she gradually withdraws from those around her – her husband (who in fact blames her for what happened), her friends, the rest of her family, and even her job.
She eventually winds up living alone in the cabin she helped her father build as a teen. By placing that cabin in the woods of northern Maine I sought to make her as isolated physically as she felt emotionally. When danger finds her in her retreat from the world, she must face it entirely alone.
In my second novel, Hit and Run, I again returned to Maine as my setting. Only this time my aim was to make use of the natural dangers of this rugged environment.
My opening scene is my heroine standing at the top of a waterfall about to step off before something stops her. I actually visited such a location in Maine (the photo for this blog post) and can say with all certainly that moment standing at the top of those falls was the inspiration for my opening scene, as well as the one in the story’s climax.
In Die For Me I use the more ‘civilized’ setting of Cape Cod, an environment I still feel possesses hints of those same potentially dangerous elements. In placing my characters in this more familiar world I hoped to highlight one of the story’s messages: that we sometimes find danger in places – and people – where we don’t expect it.
This element of characters in isolation, forced to confront danger with no outside help, is one I’m drawn to again and again. Which probably explains why the story I’m currently writing, while set in Australia, takes place on an island in the middle of a hurricane where the residents are cut off from the outside world.
Interesting facts I learned about Maine in my research:
Northern Maine has been called the last remaining wilderness in the eastern US and is home to more bear and moose than people.
There are only 8 roads in the entire northern half of the state and they’re all owned by logging companies. To travel some of these roads you have to get a key to open the gates.