Friday, September 3, 2010

Novel Writing

Aspiring Novelists: How Do You Kick Start Your Next Novel?
Author James Scott Bell openly shared his thoughts, challenges, and concerns last Sunday on The KillZone blog as he neared the end of the first draft of his latest novel. This is a finish line Jim has crossed many times before. This conversation spawned more dialogue on Brandilyn Collins' blog site as other authors added their own comments. Many of these writers have authored dozens of published novels. They still experience an emotional roller coaster as the creative process persistently taxes every author.

But what about those just starting a new novel?  Particularly, those authors who have yet to find a publishing home or an agent but still plug away at the craft, churning out one novel after another. How do you do it?  How do you stay charged up?

If you have completed at least one novel, you know what the future holds as you start a new manuscript: Months of writing, editing, re-writing, and blurry-eyed proof reading, finally ending up with another novel you hope someone will accept. Only to start the process over again. And again. And again.

These brave souls are called aspiring novelists. By the way, have you ever think thought about how many novels one must write before that troubling intransitive verb aspiring can be dropped from your job title? Or is this word dropped the moment you are published? Regardless, aspiring novelists are a hard-working class of writers.

Do you belong in this category?

I want to find out a little more about those plucky souls who bravely and tenaciously continue to bang away at those keys every day, still putting dreams and stories together, still waiting for a chance to land on the bookshelves some day. And, I'd like to share a few suggestons I've collected from other authors and editors on this writing journey.

Do you find getting started the hardest part?

For those who have written at least one novel, you know the cost to complete that next manuscript. The creative process is exhilarating and depressing, boosting your energy to new heights and crashing your system at times when writing refuses to go the way you planned. Over the coming year, a novelist can expect to eat, breathe, and sleep with this new creation. To live and re-live the story until the final draft is finished. Like you, I don’t want to waste time going down a path that becomes untenable, unmanageable, and, frankly, unsalable.

Getting started on the right foot is very important. So how does one do it?

I’ve been privileged to attend some great writing classes over the last five years. Each novelist, agent, editor, or publisher has a little different way to start a novel. How do you know what works for you?

Here are a couple of ideas I learned that made sense to me.  Maybe these tools might help you, too.

First, where do you come up with a tenable story idea, a plot that will intrigue others. One reservoir of possibilities is the newspaper—clipping  stories and photos that catch your eye. Imagine the what if in each story or photo. Allow you mind to start planting a seed of an idea or concept to match that news item. File these stories and notes away until you have time to pull them out and sift through them once more for ideas that might work.

From wherever you pull these ideas, one concept must finally emerge that really stands out ahead of all of the others. One brilliant idea—at least in your own opinion, which is the only one that counts for the moment—must rises to the surface, lighting your imagination on fire. A concept that offers tension, twists, and  complications at every turn.  Whatever you come up with must stay alive and kicking until the novel ends. Like a boxer in the ring, make sure your idea can go the distance.

In Donald Maas’ novel Writing the Breakout Novel, he shares how this initial gem of an idea must be put to the test. “…Not just an idea, though, but one with soil rich enough to grow a hugely memorable novel; one that will both feed the author’s imagination and, finally, nourish millions of readers. What I’m talking about is a breakout premise.” He goes on to suggest ways to testing your idea.

You can’t procrastinate forever. At some point, you and I must take that plunge. Bestselling author John Grisham—appearing before a PBS audience about his writing life a few years ago—told the crowd he likes to start his next novel around the month of April and finish in November. He starts with a number of story ideas which have been percolating in his mind for months. However, come April, Grisham said it is “time to pull the trigger.”

Once you have this idea, you also must be ready “to pull the trigger.” Time to take that idea and run with it.

Writers must populate that idea with characters, plot, setting, character arc, and all the other nuances of writing that come together to create story. Time will not allow us to do justice to everything authors, editors and publishers suggest on this subject. So, let’s just grab onto two of the big ones— Plot and Character—and digest just enough to get started.

Novelists seem to fall into three major categories:  plotters, partial plotters, or those who write by the seat of their pants. The last category—my terminology— seems the scariest approach to me. (As you might guess, I am a heavy plotter). A writer needs some kind of road map, no matter how brief, to chart safe passage through the novel. The story needs to hang together from beginning to end regardless of whether you are a careful plotter or enjoy hanging by your fingernails. In my opinion, if you don’t have a road map (plot), a writer might easily fall right off that literary cliff. Again, writers approach this from as many angles as a geometry class.

So how do you hang the story together. One idea I found interesting came from novelist Angela Hunt, a novelist whose published works number in the triple digits. Angela introduced our writing class to a skeletal diagram, breaking this guy down from head to foot, linking each bony part to a writing concept. For example, she pointed to the head—representing the protagonist—to remind writers to show the main character’s obvious and hidden needs.  She travels to the neck where the protagonist is pushed into the inciting incident, an unusual situation; to the spine, representing the protagonist’s goal; the ribs, swinging from positive to negative stages until reaching the bleakest moment. She carries the writers down the rest of the skeletal path: the thighbone, in which the protagonist needs help; the heel, where the protagonist  learns, changes, and/or grows; and finally the foot, upon which  the resolution of your story rests.

Skeletal Man just might be the tool for you. Here is another concept.

Novelist James Scott Bell came up with an acronym to help break the plot  structure down to its simplest form.. He calls it the LOCK system—Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout. Simply, Lead stands for the compelling lead characters needed for a good plot. Objective: Lead character needs an objective, a want, a desire. Confrontation: Opposition from other unique characters and outside forces that make the story alive with action, tensions, and conflict. And finally, Knockout: Readers want to see a knockout ending. He expounds on this teaching tool in his book.

Other writers find their own technique for creating these plots. Each of us must learn what works for our particular style. The point is to develop a viable and compelling plot that lures readers deeper and deeper into you story.

Characterization is one of my weak points, so I try to pay attention to those who seem to know something about this subject. And when I talk about character, I mean that creation that populates our novel, not the one staring back at us in the mirror each morning.

Ever hold a conversation with your characters? This may appear strange, but these characters will begin to talk back to their creator if the writer allows each one to become its own unique self. Now, before you suggest I become a candidate for One Who Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, let me assure you that there are many writers just like me. Honest. After all, you're going to live with these characters until the story is done—maybe longer. You’ll know every intimate, dirty secret these characters have hidden. At least let them tell their side of the story.

It is important to spend time developing your characters. Readers will only become connected to your story if these characters become living-breathing entities that come alive on the page.

In novelist Brandilyn Collin’s book, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors, she writes about the importance of bring your character to life:

“The techniques of personalizing each character is just as important in writing fiction as in acting. Without personalizing, we face the pitfalls of clich├ęd characters such as the old man or the young woman. Our adaptation of personalizing focuses not on hair color and body type, but on the discovery of a character’s inner values, which give rise to unique traits and mannerisms that will become an integral part of the story."

Writer/editor Sol Stein describes this in a different way. In his book, Stein On Writing, under the chapter heading, “Competing With God: Making Fascinating People,” he writes:

“We know what love is, we think of the other person at odd moments, we wonder where they are, what they are doing, we seem a bit crazy to the rest of the world. That’s exactly the feeling I have about characters I fall in love with in books … From these experiences I am convinced that we need to know the people in the car before we see the car crash. The events of a story do not affect our emotions in an important way unless we know the characters.”

We must take these characters and breathe uniqueness into their inner core, each subject coming alive to the reader, each literary creation revealing their humanness—warts and all—in order for the reader to connect.

Ideas for plot and characterization are coming to the forefront as I get ready to launch a new novel. A part of me wants to hold back.  I want to make sure these intricate parts—plotting, characterization, dialogue, conflict, voice, all components of this complicated, novel-driving engine—will hold together like super glue. Not unravel like flimsy baling wire a few months down the road.

But there comes a time to stop procrastinating. Time to jump in and get started. As John Grisham aptly phrased it, time “to pull the trigger.”

Q4U: How do you kick-start your next novel?

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