I’m currently plotting a new novel. I write suspense so of course I’m looking to incorporate lots of tension, twists and turns, dangerous scenarios, and heart-pounding action. But that’s not enough. There’s another ingredient, equally as, if not more important, that has to be there before I feel compelled to start writing.
For me desperation is what makes a great story. My characters can’t simply want something, they must want it desperately. And there has to be some major obstacles stopping them getting it. The more desperate my character’s need and the bigger the obstacle standing in their way, the greater the drama. It’s not enough to simply put them in danger.
The most compelling needs of all are emotional. Our desire for love. Our need to protect those we care about. The wish to be forgiven our mistakes. A person fighting to achieve such goals is hard to look away from, especially when the odds are against them.
In Run To Me, my first book, Zack desperately wants a mother’s love; Shyler desperately wants her son to return. Those desires mean as much, if not more, to those characters than their very lives. These are elements over and above the dangerous situation they find themselves in. Without those desires, the danger these characters face means little. Their desperate needs are what make us care.
Characters in desperate situations is what draws writers to tell their stories and readers to read them. So right now that’s what I’m searching for. So far my plot has pace, conflict and a few surprises. But it doesn’t have heart.
The search continues…
I have pin-up boards all over my work room where I post what I call ‘Notes To Self’. Some are quotes from other writers or books I’ve read, but most are things I’ve discovered the hard way through trial and error. I change these notes from time to time as my needs vary and over the years have built up quite a collection. Here are a few from the file I’ve kept:
Write every day. Don’t wait to be inspired. Inspiration most often comes when you’re already writing, when the door to your creative mind is already open.
The conditions will never be perfect to write. Stop waiting till you have more time, or the kids leave home, or you quit your job, or the weather’s cooler, or whatever. Set yourself a writing schedule and stick to it.
Give yourself a place to write, someplace where you won’t be interrupted – a room, even just the end of a table where you can leave your papers and notes laid out in a way that will lure you back again. Make this place yours, your personal sanctuary. Fill it with things that inspire you. Go there the same time everyday and write.
If others in your life won’t allow you time to write, remind them that you’ll be a better partner, parent, relation, or friend if you have an outlet for your creativity. The first person who has to take your writing seriously is you.
Passion is contagious. So is apathy. If your goal is to write well, surround yourself with like-minded people. Hang out with people with low standards and before you know it those standards are yours. But being with others who are enthusiastic, willing to take risks and dedicated to improving their work, will inspire you to do the same.
Just a few thoughts to start the new year.
Before continuing on from last week's post, I'll just revamp the main reasons I prefer to outline my novels before writing them:
Like a spinner working with carded wool, having an outline means my story is far more likely to flow freely once I start writing it. Maintaining that flow is the number one reason I choose to outline. I know from experience what happens when I lose my momentum when writing a story. Having to stop and work out some element of the plot yanks me totally out of my creative zone. And once I’m stalled, the doubts creep in: Is this story really that great? Can I do it justice? Will my editor like it?
Another reason outlining works better for me is because my stories often have several plot threads going on at once involving separate groups of characters and I simply can’t remember what everyone’s doing! Outlining first allows me to plot each group’s journey through the story separately and then weave them together in a workable sequence of alternating scenes.
A third reason I prefer to outline is the simple fact I don’t get that many truly original ideas for my stories. More often than not I need to spend some extra time shaping my idea into something different. If I just sat down and wrote a story based on my first germ of an idea, I’d probably end up writing a story that’s already been told.
How I outline
I like to think that my stories have equally powerful plot and characters. But at the outlining stage I focus on plot and develop my characters as I go. I basically adhere to Hitchcock’s advice: ‘First decide what your characters must do, then provide them with enough characteristics to make it seem plausible that they would do it.’
There are two questions I continually ask myself as I’m outlining my story:
1. What character would be most challenged by the situation I’ve created?
2. What situation would most challenge the character I have in mind?
Answering the question about character gives me ideas for the plot, and exploring the question about situation gives me ideas about my characters. In this way my plot and characters are like two seedlings planted side by side that continually intertwine as they grow.
Outlining RUN TO ME
When I was creating the plot for RUN TO ME, initially I knew only that my heroine was going to save the life of a runaway boy. That was the idea I started with.
Considering the danger the boy was in, (being chased by killers) that would have been a difficult enough task for my heroine. But by repeatedly asking myself, ‘What would make that situation even more challenging?’ I found new dimensions not only to my character but the plot as well.
In my heroine’s case I gave her a similar experience in her past – she’d once had to protect her own son and failed, leaving her crippled with guilt over her only child’s death. To then be faced with that situation again, even involving a total stranger, it would have a far greater impact on her.
Adding this element made the story more compelling to me. But by pushing even further and asking the question again – how can this situation be even worse for my character? – I came up with another plot element: not only does the heroine carry this dark secret from her past, she is still adversely affected by it in that she suffers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – to the point she can barely function in the world.
So by repeatedly asking these questions in the plotting stage, I moved from ‘a woman helping a boy in danger’, to ‘a damaged recluse, in hiding from the world, forced to relive the very experience that drove her to that state – the greatest challenge she could possibly face that will push her to the very brink of insanity.’
After going through this process with the heroine, I moved to my second main character, ten-year-old Zack, and asked that same question – bad enough he’s a child being chased by killers, what could make that situation even worse for him?
Answer: Zack is an orphan who’s been shunted from one foster home to the next. For years he’s been desperate for a mother’s love and now suddenly he’s presented with a ‘mother’ who seems to adore him and is prepared to give her life to protect him. The only catch is, she thinks he’s her dead son, Jesse; which means she doesn’t love him at all. To be given this taste of his deepest desire yet denied the reality, ups the emotional stakes for Zack.
Lastly, I repeated the process with my hero, Chase. As he’s a doctor dedicated to helping people, I decided what would make things hardest for him would be to present him with an ethical dilemma – help the woman he’s falling in love with even though he can see she’s unstable, or do things ‘by the book’ and run the risk of her being killed.
To make this situation even worse for the hero, I gave him an experience in his past where he was faced with a similar choice – he’d once tried to help a victim of abuse through the ‘proper’ channels and in that instance the woman had died. This time, because it’s a woman he cares for on a personal level, his decision is all the more agonizing.
These were the questions I explored in creating my outline for RUN TO ME. I firmly believe this preliminary stage helped me get the most from my original idea. If I’d simply sat down and started writing, I doubt I would’ve come up with these extra dimensions to my plot and characters. Or, if I did, they would’ve occurred to me so far into my first draft, I’d have had to go back and rewrite a lot of earlier material.
So while it takes some extra time initially, for my money, outlining is well worth the effort. Spinning my yarns becomes so much easier with a bit of thoughtful preparation first.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried ‘pantsing’ - writing a novel 'by the seat of your pants' without plotting first. It sounds so wonderfully free and creative the concept sucked me in time after time. But after writing myself into countless dead ends, I’ve finally accepted that it isn’t my process. To get where I’m going when writing a novel, I need a map.
To me, the best comparison for outlining a novel before you write it is carding wool before you spin it. Anyone who has ever hand spun wool knows what a mess most raw fleeces are when you get them. Straight off the sheep’s back they’re full of dirt, seeds, knots, grease and all manner of foreign objects. Carding the wool first opens up the fibres and gets rid of most of that unwanted debris.
I’m not saying it isn’t frustrating sometimes. I’ve got this fabulous project in mind that I’m dying to get to and I have to hold off and do all this extra preparation first. But here’s the thing: if I do take the time to prepare the wool first, when I finally sit down to spin the yarn, the spinning just flows. There are no knots to untangle, no grit to pick out, nothing unwanted to jam up the works. It all just pours out in one steady stream.
Well, my story ideas are often just like a raw fleece – so tangled and full of needless material I have to do some preliminary work before I can even see what I’ve got. Sure it takes time. But, for me, the pay-offs are more than worth it. Because, just like carding that filthy fleece, outlining my story ‘opens things up’ and gets rid of all the rubbish that shouldn’t be there.
A difference in mind-set
For me, plotting a story and writing it are two very different functions. The first is a logical linear process, the second an immersion in creative flow. I seem to work best if I can keep these two actions totally separate.
When plotting, I’m constantly going back and forth, asking questions; creating, changing and deleting scenes; moving things around, determining where my turning points belong. But when all that’s done and I actually start to write the story, my goal is to remain fully absorbed in the world of my characters. I can’t do that if I’m constantly stopping to think about plot.
In the plotting stage, I explore and develop my initial idea. I determine who my characters are, what motivates them, the obstacles they face, and decide how this will play out in the story – the all-important sequence of events.
What I end up with is a detailed scene-by-scene outline, a road map I know will get me from A to B. I know my story now contains all the required elements of structure because I can see them in this mini overview. From this point on I don’t have to think about the plot any more. All I have to do is sit down and write it.
While this may sound as though I leave nothing to chance, that isn’t the case. I rarely get through my first outline without changing things. Once I actually start writing the story, new ideas always present themselves which requires me to redraft my outline.
That’s perfectly okay. The purpose of my outline isn’t to keep me rigidly bound to a pre-set plot but merely to give me a path to follow. The bottom line is, when I get up in the morning I have to be able to go to my desk knowing what I’ll be writing that day. If I don’t, I just end up wasting too much time.
Next week I'll continue the outlining theme with a post on How I Outline.
Every morning before I start work on my current project I freewrite 2-3 pages in my journal. I write about anything that pops into my head using the basic rule of freewriting: write without thought to spelling, punctuation, grammar, or content; don’t stop to correct, cross out or edit, just keep your hand moving.
This practice helps me in so many ways:
1. Like a musician playing scales, journaling is a way of warming up both physically and mentally before starting work.
2. Because I’m hyperactive and prone to stress, journaling is a way of gently calming myself. Writing my thoughts forces me to slow them down and the simple act of putting words on the page is very soothing. (I believe there’s a scientific basis for this. In our everyday lives we spend most of our time in the beta mind state – alert and focused on the outside world. Journaling acts like meditation, drawing us into an alpha brain state in which we’re more reflective and conducive to insights.)
3. The practice of jotting down any old rubbish that comes into my head with no attempt to produce ‘good’ writing, helps me silence my inner critic. Because there are no expectations with journaling I have no fear of getting it wrong. This freedom tends to carry over to my ‘serious’ writing and helps especially with creating a first draft.
4. If something is bothering me I can vent my feelings on the pages of my journal and explore possible solutions. This helps get the problem out of the way so it doesn’t distract me from working on my project. It also gives me insights into my actions, feelings and motivations.
5. When I’m blocked I tend to procrastinate. When it’s time to sit down and write I suddenly find all sorts of things I need to be doing instead. (When I start doing housework instead of writing I know there’s a problem!) The trouble is, the more I procrastinate, the more stressed I become that I’m not writing. And the more stressed I get, the harder it is to sit down and write. Journaling interrupts this negative cycle.
6. Journaling is a refreshing change from editing. It exercises a different part of the brain and gives me a chance to indulge in creative play.
7. I often use journaling as a way to review the goals I’ve set myself and give myself a mental pep talk.
8. As an added bonus, I believe free-writing in any form, whether journaling or as an exercise on a given topic, helps to solidify an author's voice.
For more insights on the uses of journaling and freewriting:
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg
Becoming A Writer, Dorothea Brand
The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron
Creative Journal Writing, Stephanie Dowrick
I remember years ago discovering knitting. I’d barely finished my first scarf before deciding I wanted to make a sweater with a sunset on the back. How cool, I thought, to have all those subtle gradations of color rising up the back of my cardigan.
Because I hadn’t a clue how to do it, I went into my local yarn shop and asked an expert. ‘You can’t,’ was her answer. ‘You’d need a different color yarn for every row and what would you do with all those odd-colored balls leftover? Plus you’d end up with a thousand lose threads at the back of the work which you’d either have to thread in or leave hanging loose.’ She scowled at the thought. ‘Very unprofessional looking.’
With my creative bubble well and truly burst, I went home with some boring monotone yarn and a pattern that would show me the ‘proper’ way to knit a sweater.
Years later a man named Kaffe Fasset discovered knitting. Because he was an artist he approached the process from a totally different angle – he used yarn to create his garments the way he used paints to create his paintings. He was as ignorant about the ‘right’ way to knit as I had been. The difference was he didn’t ask an expert for help.
Fasset did exactly what that woman in the yarn shop told my I couldn’t. (His patterns use upwards of 90 different colors for a single garment!) In the process he discovered a way to knit in all the lose ends as he worked so he didn’t have to thread them in afterwards. Yes, he ended up with drawers full of odd-colored yarn but they simply added to his source materials for future projects.
What does this story have to do with writing? Here’s what I took away from the experience:
Never let an expert tell you something can’t be done until you’ve tried it yourself. (Unless we’re talking skydiving or mountain climbing.)
Never let another writer tell you there’s only one right way to write.
Never let anyone turn you off an idea for a story until you’ve thoroughly explored it. (And even then, have one more go – that idea came to you for a reason!)
Never let a ‘proper’ education get in the way of true learning.
I make this my first post for a reason: most of what I’ll be discussing in this blog are approaches to writing that have worked for me. They might not necessarily work best for others; I offer them simply as options to consider. So no matter how excited I get about an idea, please don’t think I’m suggesting it’s the only way to do it.
I’ve been debating for a long time whether or not to start a blog. On the one hand I’m passionate about writing and excited at the prospect of sharing my thoughts with readers and other writers. The trouble is I know I’ll spend hours revising and polishing each of my posts which could cut into my novel-writing time.
The bottom line is I won’t know till I try, so I’ve decided to give it a go for a year writing one blog a week and at the end of that time re-evaluate and decide whether I want to continue.
What will I be blogging about: all aspects of writing and the writer’s life.
What qualifies me to write a blog?
I’ve been writing fiction for 15 years. In that time I’ve completed ten novels, one of which, RUN TO ME, was published by Random House with two others currently in the pipeline; 35 short stories, 8 of which were published in That’s Life magazine; and a three-part series on my adventures running a donkey sanctuary published in Donkey Digest US magazine.
I read obsessively on the craft of writing, creativity in general and on motivation and goal achievement. High achievers in any field fascinate me and I love analyzing the winning habits of top musicians, athletes, artists, scientists and even business people.
As a professional violinist (Bachelor of Music from The Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY) I continually draw parallels between music and writing that hopefully others may find interesting.
To date I’ve attended 5 major writers’ conferences both in Australia and the US, and countless workshops, large and small.
I’ve been a member of an active critiquing group for 14 years and organize week-long writing retreats three times a year on their behalf.
As workshop coordinator of my local writing club I plan and prepare exercises for one-day and weekend workshops that I’m told are both fun and creatively stimulating.
Lastly, and perhaps most valuable of all, in the years I’ve been writing I have screwed up just about everything you can get wrong in fiction and learned enormously from the experience!
I hope you’ll enjoy what I have to share.