Keep your promise to your reader

Helga’s Post # 106: During our recent downsizing from house to condo I was forced to part with a multitude of boxes containing heaps of notes and articles about writing. I lovingly and dutifully collected this treasure trove over years at writing workshops and conferences. I had even hoarded term papers from writing classes of my university years.

A painful process, judging what to keep and what to shred. Most of it went to the shredder. I did not want some dumpster diver getting his hands on my early manuscripts, basic though as they were.

I still recall some of my creative writing classes at Simon Fraser University, and the first year I attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Like a dry sponge I absorbed every word of dispensed advice! I made copious notes of everything my professors and workshop leaders offered. More importantly, I believed every word from my classes and conference workshops. Passionately.

Then came the second year of the Surrey International Writers’ conference, and the third, and more after that. They turned out to be still interesting, but much of the information was by now repetitive, and quite a lot of it contradictory. The most obvious that most of us are familiar with: Always outline. You can’t ever finish a novel without. Never outline. It will stifle your writing. Each camp has its devoted disciples.

Gradually, I sifted through all the learning from my early writing years and applied what sounded most practical for my style. Not only ‘applied’, but relied on it. But here’s the rub: I got increasingly stuck trying to squeeze the multitude of ‘rules’ into my writing. I tried to use them all. I spent more time trying to write to the ‘rules’ than letting my story flow. After a while I felt like getting buried in an avalanche.

Until I realized that it wouldn’t work for me. Time to change tactics. To find a better way.

I am not suggesting that new writers should disregard writing rules. Every writer needs some rules. But the key is to be selective. Just as some writers absolutely have to outline, it would stifle the writing process for others. We need to apply the rules that suit our individual style and preference. Cherry-picking, rather than one-size-fits-all.

Nonetheless, some cardinal rules apply that have stood the test of all writing styles. Take those related to starting your story. Mountains of books have been written about the pivotal ‘First Chapter’. If it doesn’t start right, nobody will read your novel. Those rules are ironclad. Ignore them at your peril.

Some of the cardinal rules that have been most useful for me are also the most basic. They continue to serve me well. Here they are, in a nutshell:

Start your story with an action scene. That applies to all genres from romance novels to thrillers. Start with the ‘real’ tension and conflict. Don’t start with the main characters reflecting on life, thinking about their current or past situation, or contemplating doing something.

First chapters are a bit like speed dating. A reader knows within a few minutes if they will be interested enough in your story to continue. They might hold a really good book in their hands, but your story has to grab them or they’ll drop it and never buy another book you wrote.

Avoid backstory on your first pages at the fear of torture. Don’t spoon feed your reader with detailed explanation. Let them guess – less is more. Use dialogue instead of narrative. And by all means, use conflict. Ideally the main conflict of your story should be clear at the end of the chapter.

In my early attempts at writing I made the mistake of introducing my protagonist in a way to ‘force’ my readers to like him/her. I did this either by ‘telling’ a heroic quality early on, or by giving her/him some kind of flaw, counting on the reader’s empathy. Reading through my first manuscripts I notice how hard I tried to have my readers ‘like’ my main character in the first few pages with all kinds of backstory, when instead, I should have focused on an action scene to keep my readers turning those crucial first pages.

Consider this: Your first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they can expect to get. Without going into details, or worse, backstory, the reader should know the main conflict of the book and have some sense of the main character’s personality.

headhunters

Headhunters: How did we get from this…

Keeping the promise to your reader is of utmost importance. We can all think of a book or movie that broke that promise, and we feel cheated at having wasted our time. For example, I watched ‘Headhunters’ on Netflix the other day, a movie based on Jo Nesbo’s book by the same name.

I was intrigued the way it started: Stylish Scandinavian setting and actors, beautiful house and art exhibits, great theme (high-end art thefts to support a lavish lifestyle), all the right things. Our protagonist gets in trouble, finds his wife cheating him, etc. But then the theme gets derailed and confused.

.... to this ?

…. to this ?

Suddenly I find myself watching a horror movie, with some disgusting scenes including when he has to hide inside the dump hole of an outhouse. All the way, deep down, and then we are forced to watch him emerge in glorious detail. And on it goes for most of the film. So where’s the theme? Suddenly the lavish lifestyle is gone, and all we get is blood and disgusting other stuff. To me, this is a good example of a broken promise. If the film had started differently, fine, I knew what to expect. But that way I felt kind of cheated. As an aside, book reviews praise this standalone work by Nesbo. I assume the filmmakers used his theme as a platform for the gory version.

After all the lectures and conferences I’ve attended over the years, the first and most useful rule then, is this: If you’re writing a murder mystery, don’t start your first chapter like chick-lit. Or vice versa. Set the tone and stick to it.

Once you got your first chapter down and you haven’t lost your reader, things will get easier. And more fun.

(Until you get to the sagging middle)

Another POV: What do you see in your scenes?

Karalee’s Post #106

Sometimes I feel that writers are like jugglers. Or weavers. We need to understand so many aspects of the physical world, human behavior, animal behavior (if we write about animals), history, character back-story and on an on EVEN BEFORE we create our plot line and weave an intricate and entertaining story!

No wonder there are so many stumbling block on the journey to write a novel. With so many balls in the air to keep track of it is easy to let a few fall and roll away and not pay attention to them.

For me, learning the craft of writing was becoming aware of all these aspects and then throwing them up and trying them out like a juggler, then picking them up again and again to study them some more until they became familiar. Familiarity is a key.

Once I reached this point though,  I realized it wasn’t quite enough.

Understanding is a deeper level still. It’s like I can be familiar with and memorize the timetables and still not know what multiplication really is. When I understand the concept, then the whole system makes more sense and can be used with ease rather than a struggle.

POV can be like this.

At first I thought that POV only was for character POV. First person, third person, etc. It took work and practice to become better at writing in a character POV consistently and with enough variability to not become boring or confusing.

As I kept writing and learning the craft, another POV became evident and that’s scene POV. I have been familiar with the concept and wrote about it in a blog a few months ago, Thoughts about POV. You may want to have a look as I won’t rewrite my thoughts here. Since writing this post I’ve come to understand it better, therefore I can use it to my advantage with more ease and expertise.

Understanding why I choose either a close up or farther away scene POV makes the juggling act of keeping yet another writing craft aspect in the air a bit easier. And the more aspects a writer understands, the easier the juggling becomes.

This I believe, is how writing emerges from beginner to intermediate to expert, and stories become fuller and richer.

And of course, the writer is happier with the results too. Keeping all the balls in the air is very satisfying!

You may also want to check out C.S. Lakin’s Shoot Your Novel available on Amazon. She writes the blog Live Write Thrive and has many post on scene POV.

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Writing Progress: Not as much as I intended. I’m away for 3 weeks and will set a word count goal when I get back.

Writing Distractions:  

  1. getting ready for holidays with house preparation, dog grooming, larder stocking for my university going young adults, etc.
  2. Ongoing photo project.

Treats eaten: homemade ice cream – a taste of chocolate .

Movies/TV watched: Agent Carter series.

Books reading: downloaded a few for holidays.

Perspective Photos taken this week:

birdbath

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meeka smell tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing

 

 

Un-learning from reading

Joe’s Post #131

way of shadows

Like most writers, I find it’s not always easy to read a book. We can get bogged down in critical mode (or learning mode), looking more at how a writer did something rather than losing ourselves in the story.

I’m bad at this these days. Really bad. Part of that stems from being in a critique group for so long, and part of it stems from me just being me. I love to see how things are done, good or bad. I do the same for movies, food and bar mitzvahs.

But here’s the funny thing. A good book will not let us get into critical or learning mode. It keeps us engaged.

So, after a good bit of reading, let me give you some thoughts on this book, think of it as counter-learning. Or unlearning. The book – The Way of Shadows, by Brent Weeks – is about an apprentice assassin.

  • It has no big stakes. It’s all small stuff, but stuff that’s important to the character. Protecting his friends. Finding his place in the world. Learning how to kill without remorse. Typical kid stuff.
  • It’s a story that’s been done before. Honestly, I don’t know how he pitched it, but I’ve read a ton of assassin apprentice books. Seems if you’re not an apprentice mage, you totally go the assassin route.
  • It has no central villain. Oh, there’s a big bad that gets what’s coming to him by the end of act 1, but there isn’t a dark lord, a dark king, a dark witch or anything all darkish.
  • There’s nothing really special about the world. It has taverns and whorehouses and streets clogged with poo, but nothing that would make you text a friend (god, I originally wrote ‘call a friend’, I mean, who does that any more?) and say, wow, you gotta check out this cool idea.
  • It isn’t particularly poetic, nuanced, or filled with beautiful descriptions that would make you weep.

So it could have been a book I put down and savaged in a very clever blog. But I’m still reading.

Those things, it turns out, don’t matter.

I kept reading because it has a character I like, the pacing is good and the poor bugger is constantly beset by all kinds of problems (that I want to see if he can overcome).

It’s writing at it’s most basic, really. He’s got a good voice, a good story and f*ck all the rest of it. Forget what you’ve read in books or heard in workshops. You don’t need it.

Maybe sometimes we unpublished writers get hung up on getting it ALL right. Maybe, despite a stack of rejection letters, my story isn’t that bad at all, it’s just not picked up because I can’t get the query right or the agent/editor/publisher has had a bad burrito.

Who knows?

All I know is I’m reading this book and enjoying it despite the fact it’s not likely to be taught at writer’s retreats as the perfect novel.

As someone once said to me, don’t let perfect get in the way of good.

Good can be enough to make a totally enjoyable book.

******

Best show last week – Not much TV watched due to being a chaperone for a grade 7 camp outing. I, of course, blogged about it.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Probably obvious from the blog. Brent Weeks. The Way of Shadows.

Pages written on new book  Nothing new added. Oh, I know that’s not good, but that’s what happened. No sense in lying about it or finding an excuse.

Social media update – Despite not a single post last week, I continue to grow my readership on my site, justjoe, (justjoebc.com) and we continue to add readers here. Maybe I need to post less?

Health  A piece of advice. Never go camping sick.

Best thing last week  I survived being with 70 preteens. I didn’t kill one of them (yeah, that’s my story), and the whole adventure did not become a Bill Murray comedy.

Worst thing  Hiking for 3 hours with a cold. Luckily, the weather was amazing, but not being able to breathe made a hard thing even harder.

So, if you have some free time, check out these site from fellow authors…

meghanJM McDowell (and her Meghan Bode short stories)

hilaryHilary Custance Green

sofferJerry Soffer, author of the shadow of xeno’s eye.

 

Clearing roadblocks to writing

roadblock

Silk’s Post #120 — As I promised in my last post, I’m on a mission to find useful tactics to help overcome my (and maybe your) self-imposed obstacles to progress on the writer’s journey.

Why? Because I’ve sworn off writing about why I haven’t made progress on my writing.

Last week, I explored the tactic of using milestones – points in the process where the writer reaches some new level that marks progress in the writer’s journey – in order to break up the daunting task of writing a novel into manageable “legs”.

Here’s another tactic I’ve been thinking about …

Writer’s Journey Tactic #2: Notes to Self

Did you ever start writing a scene – a scene you’ve already outlined, or at least imagined – and found yourself dead in the water before you even get started because you keep running into research roadblocks?

Your protagonist, a bounty hunter, is running down an alley in a dodgy part of, let’s say, Seattle, with a couple of enforcers from a biker gang in pursuit after he tried, unsuccessfully, to take the gang’s leader into custody for jumping bail. (How did he get himself into this mess? Don’t ask me, I’m making this up as I go along, so just roll with it).

Okay, so he hears the rumble of the bikes approaching, ducks behind a dumpster, and pulls his Glock out of his holster, and then …

Wait. Would he be carrying a Glock, or something else? What kind of holster would he have, or would he have one at all? What kind of weapons would the pursuers be carrying? And what neighbourhood is this, anyway? Where would you find dodgy alleys in Seattle? Would it be in a neighbourhood with steep hills? Near the waterfront, or maybe a highway, or an unlit park?

It sounded so simple in outline. Guy gets chased into an alley and makes a narrow escape.

But now you’re actually in the alley and, although you feel like you’ve already researched this story to death, you realize that you need to know a lot more details to make that escape work in a believable way. Details that need yet more research at a nitty gritty level. And your writing flow … comes … to … a … frustrating … halt.

You have three choices:

  1. Stop writing and research the weapons and specific location, or
  2. Make it generic enough that the details won’t really matter, or
  3. Make it up in as much vivid detail as you can milk out of your own writer’s imagination, and flag it with a NOTE TO SELF that reminds you to check the details later

I don’t know about you, but I’ve bogged myself down by choosing Door #1 too many times to count. And I’ve read too many lazy, mediocre scenes where the author obviously chose Door #2 and never revisited the results.

Door #3 seems like a logical way to go. You don’t interrupt your writing flow, but you don’t compromise the authenticity of the scene by filling in the unknown blanks with familiar, generic clichés.

Of course, you could just “sketch” the scene and deal with it in rewrite, rather than exercise your full imagination and creativity. Either way, you’ll have to come back to it later and do the work.

But I think generic, flabby writing is habit-forming and should be avoided. It’s one thing to write a great scene that has a few details wrong and needs to be fixed later. It’s a completely different thing to write a flat, dead scene and then try to come back later and breathe life into it.

The main thing is to keep the writing fire going – give it the oxygen of imagination. Don’t interrupt your flow with an hour of research when you’re hot … or douse it with cold, lifeless prose because you’re afraid you’re going to get a detail wrong.

Of course, you do have to do your research – we’ve all been told over and over. But you’ll never be able to research every life-like detail of every scene in advance. That would mean you’d have to anticipate every single thing you’ll put in your book before you sit down to write it. Maybe this would work for extremely conscientious – not to say obsessive – planners and outliners. But for pantsers? Forget it!

The NOTES TO SELF tactic also works for other writing roadblocks. I recently read a good, short post on flagging areas with style problems that someone sent me a link to (unfortunately I can’t find it now, wouldn’t you know). The basic premise was that when you get stuck on a description, or a grammatical issue, or you aren’t happy with the way a paragraph is working, just flag the roadblock with the word FIX, and keep on writing. The only thing I’d worry about is using style flags as a kind of crutch, because I think it’s hard to pump up a story with a lot of stylistic “flat tires” by applying patches later on.

This NOTES TO SELF tactic also raises a perennial research issue: how much advance research is enough research?

I wish there was a simple rule of thumb on research, but I suspect there is not. So much depends on your genre, topic, setting and other elements. Historical fiction necessarily demands more research, for instance, while fantasy gives authors permission to build their storyworlds mostly out of their own imaginations.

If there is a common sense principle to follow, it’s probably this: research the basic, critical elements that will support the foundation of a story in advance. This will help avoid major authenticity blunders that could kill the story premise or necessitate large chunks of rewriting. This kind of research is largely left-brain work.

When it comes to writing “colour”, though, I think the right brain does most of the heavy lifting. The kind of experiential detail that really puts the reader in the scene comes from the writer’s five senses and imagination. It doesn’t benefit from description that sounds like a Wikipedia dump.

Once you’re in the heat of writing, don’t let research roadblocks get in your way. Flag what needs checking and keep on going. Because nothing kills the joy of writing quicker than a stop-and-go traffic jam of needless interruptions.

On the road

jack-kerouac-quotes-sayings-road-motivational

Helga’s Post #105:  It’s been a wild ride since my last post, “How we write about Love”. A 2,200 km drive (or 1,400 miles to our friends across the border) straight south from Vancouver, crossing one international and two state lines. Our 4-seat sedan was loaded to capacity due to my dear husband insisting on taking his high-end Bose audio system to California. It was packed in a huge box, making it nearly impossible to get a rear view of the traffic behind us.

Regardless, we made it, and in good time. Two overnights, one in Eugene, Oregon, the second in Sacramento. I kept thinking about Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road and visualized ourselves as members of the Beat generation. (We are almost old enough for that). enhanced-buzz-1793-1381173988-1-630x350

The trip was not without inspiration to my writer’s spirit. I started to realize something that, though I had been kind of aware of it all along, confirmed it. So, here I was, with nothing to do but focus on the scenery flying by, that my writer’s mind was able to surface. As we whipped south on the I-5 my mind more and more uncluttered, I could let my imagination roam. It’s amazing what your mind is capable of in the absence of deadlines, commitments and the drudgery of everyday life.

So I started to spin some yarns. What if … Starting with the texts exchanged on the way with writer friend Paula. I received lots and lots of texts with good advice on which roads to take, where to stop, eat, take a pee, and some such. So I was thinking, wouldn’t that be a neat backdrop to a novel? A friend giving advice play-by-play from the distance, but what if … suddenly she doesn’t get any more replies from her friends on the road. None. Zero. What could have happened? The friends never showed. Last text from Stockton, or Lodi, and then nothing. The friend goes on a search that leads her to … Bangkok, or Jakarta, or the tawdry parts of Amsterdam.

Or take our second stopover in Sacramento. After checking in to a modest hotel we went out to an Italian restaurant, starved for food and some nice California red wine. Our server was a pleasant and attractive young woman. “Who doe she remind you of?” I asked my husband “Julia Roberts?”

Exactly. Kind of unique, but wait! As we looked across the dining room there she was, but how it could it be when she was just at our table a nano-second ago? She brought our drinks and I asked if her sister works here too. Yes, she does, my twin sister she said. The twins were immigrants from Romania.

Imagine the odds of meeting a woman who looks like a twin of Julia Roberts, and then seeing she does in fact have a twin who looks like her too.

So, a pleasant little interlude on our journey. Again, I started spinning my yarn. What if …

And so it went, the entire drive until we finally, after a horrific Friday night traffic jam through Pasadena, and losing tire pressure somewhere along the way, arrived in Palm Springs.

That night my writer’s mind left me alone. Too exhausted to think, let alone making connections to a possible plot for another novel.

But the next morning, waking up to the incomparable vistas of the Santa Rosa Mountains bathed in the early rays of the morning sun, I got inspired all over again. And that’s where my novel might play a major role. It will be an easy fix from the setting I had previously chosen. Maybe it’s a bit of Vancouver and a lot of Southern California. My plot can accommodate both venues. And then some.

But for now, I am soaking it all in, letting the magic of blue sky, balmy weather and endless palm tree lined roads do its work on my psyche, and commanding the muse to appear again.

It’s been too long.

ctdcy_phototour12

The dilemma of choosing POV

Karalee’s Post #105

I’m well on my way writing my next manuscript.

My main character is a displaced detective trying her hand in a new business venture. I’ve written many of my major scenes awhile back and over the last couple of months I’ve dedicated time to early preparation for my daughter’s wedding this summer. Alas, my story has sat mostly idle.

That means that I’m catching up with it again and glad to say that I’m loving the story! It amazes me when I leave my writing and come back to it and I get excited all over again. I feel like shouting, “Damn, I can write!” The feeling feeds my passion, and us writers need a boost once in awhile to keep going.

But now I find myself toying with character POV. I know you are probably saying, “Isn’t it a bit late? Why didn’t you decide before starting to put words to paper?”

Well, I thought I had. Rather, I started writing in third person because that’s what felt the most natural at the time. I didn’t really decide up front in my outlining. I guess I let my muse decide at the time.

While rereading my manuscript I’ve realized that, although I’ve written the story in third person, I have my main character in all the scenes and in her POV too. Not even my antagonist has a scene in his POV.

My story could easily be written in first person.

I didn’t consciously do this. I’ve written many stories and all in third person multiple POV’s. All that is, except one. The last novel I wrote I tried out first person. I enjoyed the close in-your-head perspective and maybe I continued in this manner without actually planning it.

Now I seem to be in-between the two! Should I make the switch to first person? The reader would be closer to the main character. But then I’m restricted to only her POV, although I could still write my antagonist in third person without a problem. That could be a good option.

I need to give my story more thought and decide if I want another POV character. Will I have a better story if I do? Should I give the antagonist his own scenes? One thing I can say for sure, writing is never an easy task!

My options are still open.

How do you decide what POV to choose when you write?

As it happens, Nathan Bransford has a post today about POV called 4 tips for handling multiple perspectives in a third person narrative. It’s worth checking out.

Next week I will address another perspective to be aware of in our writing.

************************************

Writing Progress: Good progress reviewing my very rough first draft. Considering my POV choice.

Writing Distractions:  

  1. One thing leads to another and I found myself with paint brush in hand and touching up the baseboards and door-frames in my old and now my new office and the hallway between! Not in my original plans for the week, but it looks great!
  2. Vancouver’s winter is so mild that the crocuses and daffodils are blooming. The garden called very loudly and I spent a day cleaning out old foliage to make way for new. Oh, I also went to a garden shop and got some primulas. Gardening is my other passion….
  3. Ongoing photo project. I’m digitizing old photos at home on a scanner and have sent video tapes off to be digitized through Costco.
  4. Got my tax stuff done. Awesome!

Treats eaten: homemade apple crumble after said tax stuff done!

Movies/TV watched: Happy Valley on Netflix, catching up on Downton Abbey.

Books reading: Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, books on writing. I’ve downloaded a few from James Scott Bell.

Perspective Photos taken this week:

puddles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

venza mirror

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!

Wayfinding on the writer’s journey

lost-lake-milestone

Silk’s Post #119 — We 5writers blog a lot about making progress on our writers’ journey. Or, more to the point, not making progress. We have seen the enemy, and he is us.

We have identified the many and varied hurdles we all face – things that hold us back, drag us down, keep us from forging ahead, or even prevent us from enjoying the journey. Our demons include writer’s block, procrastination, distractions, self-doubt, lack of discipline, competing priorities, inspiration deficit, disorganization, fear of failure, lack of focus, time constraints, ad nauseum … you name it, one of us has been stymied by it at one time or another.

Based on the fact that my post on procrastination last fall, Wasting Away in Mañanaville, has now attracted nearly 1,800 comments in the Linked In Books and Writers Group, it looks like we’re not alone.

But, frankly, I’m tired of hearing myself talk about why I’m not getting there.

I just want to get there.

The “writer’s journey” – a parallel with the fabled “hero’s journey” – is exactly that: a quest for a desired outcome (in the writer’s case, reaching “the end” of a compelling story) that requires wayfinding over unfamiliar and difficult terrain, and the determination to overcome all sorts of hurdles to see the mission through. Maybe all writers should wear a T-shirt that says “I AM FRODO” in solidarity.

So, for the next few posts, I’m going to try to offer some tactical ideas to overcome these self-imposed obstacles to progress on the writer’s journey.

You may object to the idea that most hurdles are self-imposed. You might argue that some obstacles are thrown at us by a world that isn’t really designed to support people who have creative callings which may or may not ever make any money. Okay, granted. But we can’t turn the world into an artists’ utopia, sorry. The one thing we do have the power to change is our own reaction to external obstacles. If the world gives us a wall, we can beat our heads against it. Or we can go around, over, or under it.

So, really, I’d argue that all the walls are our own walls.

What I’m looking for is tactics that will help me, personally. So I’m not talking about advice like “just do it”, which I consider to be the most unhelpful comment in history. “Just do it” is not something you say to encourage someone (at least not someone like me, and I admit I may be hypersensitive about performance). In the boosterish but unforgiving language of athletic coaching, it says “I’m tired of listening to you – just quit your whining and get on with it.”

In fact, whenever I hear the word “just” in preface to a piece of advice, my inner skeptic takes her battle stance and goes on full alert. “Just” belittles the problem and suggests that anyone who hasn’t figured out how to solve that problem isn’t trying very hard. Or perhaps is an idiot.

The worst thing is when you find you’re saying things like this to yourself. This is supremely inhibiting. Essentially, you’ve just dismissed your artist and thrown cold water on your spark. The inevitable next step is a chocolate binge, or your preferred equivalent.

So don’t go there. Instead, you might focus on wayfinding.

Writer’s Journey Tactic #1: Milestones

Every journey requires wayfinding in order to get from the starting point to the destination, without getting lost in the wilderness or stuck in some dead-end place with an empty gas tank. The writer’s journey can be a long, daunting trip.

Some of the most helpful advice cited in my recent post on How to overcome writing inertia was this common sense prescription from Mark Twain:

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.

Writing a novel is nothing if not a “complex overwhelming task”, but how do you break it into small manageable tasks? Often, this seems to be visualized in a mechanical way, like Henry Ford’s assembly line with its efficient division of labour.

On its face, this seems to make a lot of sense, and there’s no shortage of lists in the “how to” blogs and books that lay out the sequence of a novel’s construction, neatly broken down into discrete tasks. Of course, there’s no agreement among them, including the order, the tasks themselves, how big the chunks are, or how they all come together to form a novel that actually works. This is because different writers get there via different pathways. Also, these helpful lists are silent on what to do when you hit a wall.

Writing a novel in 16 steps (Novel Writing Help)

  1. Get motivated.
  2. Harness your natural creativity.
  3. Get organized.
  4. Discover your market.
  5. Discover yourself.
  6. Prepare to plan your novel.
  7. Sow the seeds of theme.
  8. Create the characters.
  9. Build the setting.
  10. Write the plot.
  11. Decide on the point of view.
  12. Add the magic ingredient of time.
  13. Write the first draft.
  14. Revise what you have said.
  15. Revise how you have said it.
  16. Publish your novel.

Writing a novel in 9 steps (by Kasia Mikoluk on the Udemy Blog)

  1. Pick a genre.
  2. Start from the end.
  3. Create your characters.
  4. Make an outline.
  5. Write the first draft.
  6. Get yourself a drink.
  7. Rewrite.
  8. Edit.
  9. Party.

Writing a novel in 5 steps (Mythic Scribe)

  1. Summarize your idea.
  2. Write a synopsis.
  3. Outline your story.
  4. Write with abandon.
  5. Revise your manuscript.

 Writing a novel in 4 steps (Writer’s Digest)

  1. Develop a kick-ass idea.
  2. Create 3-dimensional characters.
  3. Give yourself deadlines.
  4. Sit your butt down and write.

Any of that seem really helpful for “breaking complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks”? Hmm. No, not to me either.

I think there’s a different way to break down this long journey, and it’s through …

Milestones.

These don’t need to be based on completion of tasks, checklist-style. They can simply mark points in the journey that are meaningful to the writer. They can be practise or craft goals, like writing every single day for a month. They can be epiphanies, “aha!” moments that change everything. They can be waypoints that mark the completion of “legs” on the trip, like inns along the road.

Milestones are the moments when a writer reaches a significant point in the creative process that is meaningful to their progress. These need to be recognized and capitalized on – not ignored or rushed past. If you were literally hiking up a steep path, a milestone moment might be when you reach a viewpoint, where your natural inclination is to stop, catch your breath, take a swig of water and appreciate the panorama.

But not only would you take a break and enjoy the view – maybe give yourself a pat on the back for making it this far, and gather your energy to press on – you would also do two very important things:

  1. Figure out where you are. Milestones orient you in time and space. Wayfinding for a writer means taking stock of your work and yourself at those points where you have a real sense of where you are – a clear perspective – which may or may not arise from a task-related achievement.
  2. Start over. Each milestone generates a new beginning, where you’ve acquired some fresh insight that can help you on the next leg of your journey. In this way, the long and arduous path of writing a novel doesn’t have just one start and one end – instead it’s a series of fresh starts from milestone to milestone.

This is a different way to break down a daunting journey into a series of manageable legs. For each writer, the path and the milestones will be unique. The trick is to be mindful. You need to be aware of when you’ve reached a personal milestone, and then take advantage of it.

Of course, not every milestone will necessarily be a happy one. You could also find yourself lost in the woods, at which point it’s time to stop and do some orienteering so you can get back onto the path. Maybe your epiphany is that you’ve chosen the wrong protagonist, or that the first person point of view isn’t working. That’s all part of wayfinding.  Some fresh starts require retracing your steps.

I love this thought on writing process from Walter Mosley in his excellent how-to book This Year You Write Your Novel:

The process of writing a novel is like taking a journey by boat. You have to continually set yourself on course. If you get distracted or allow yourself to drift, you will never make it to the destination. It’s not like highly defined train tracks or a highway: this is a path that you are creating, discovering. The journey is your narrative. Keep to it and there will be a tale told.

One last thing. Celebrate all your milestones. You’ve earned it.

How we write about love

Helga’s Post #104:  Love is of course the theme du jour. Chocolates, flowers, kisses and all manners of other romantic gestures abound. But Valentine’s Day is also fraught with dangers: husbands and boyfriends, and girlfriends too, beware, you will be judged! Relationships are known to have blossomed if you do the right thing.

Or soured if you failed. Frequently worse. Much worse.

So how can I write about love today without repeating clichés and boring you out of your wits? I hope to do so by sharing with you an article about love that relates specifically to writers. It offers some surprising insights about this most basic and precious of all human emotions.

I am presently on the road to southern California all the way from Vancouver (with my own Valentine), so am deprived of time and technology to write my own post. That’s why I am taking the easy way out and quoting someone else’s words of wisdom. The article is by Daniel Jones of the New York Times. The picture is compliments of the talented Brian Rea.

Sweet Valentine’s Day to all of you and may the miracle of love last all year.

Brian Rea-Love

Credit: Brian Rea

Modern Love By DANIEL JONES

A few months ago, I read several articles touting the health benefits of writing in a deeply personal way. Studies had shown that writing introspectively on a regular basis can lead to lowered blood pressure, improved liver function and even the accelerated healing of postoperative wounds. The study’s subjects had been told to write for short periods each day about turbulent emotional experiences.

I bet a lot of them wrote about love. As the editor of this column, I have spent much of the last decade reading stories of people’s turbulent emotional experiences. They all involved love in one way or another.

Which isn’t so surprising. Who hasn’t been stirred up by love? But these writers had spun their experiences into stories and sent them here, where more than 99 percent must be turned away.

Although the would-be contributors may be happy to learn of the surprising health benefits of their writing, I think they hoped for a more glamorous reward than improved liver function.

Lately I have been thinking about those tens of thousands of passed-over stories and all the questions and lessons about love they represent. When taken together, what does all this writing reveal about us, or about love? Here’s what I have found.

First, and most basic: How we write about love depends on how old we are.

The young overwhelmingly write with a mixture of anxiety and hope. Their stories ask: What is it going to be for me?

Those in midlife are more often driven to their keyboards by feelings of malaise and disillusionment. Their stories ask: Is this really what it is for me?

And older people almost always write from a place of appreciation, regardless of how difficult things may be. Their message: All things considered, I feel pretty lucky.

In writing about love, the story of how we met looms large because a lot of us believe, validly or not, that a good meeting story bodes well for the relationship.

What do we consider to be a good meeting story? When it involves chance more than effort. You get bonus points if the chance encounter suggests compatibility, like mistakenly wheeling off with each other’s shopping carts at Whole Foods because your items had so much overlap, you got the carts mixed up.

“I get those beets all the time!” “You like Erewhon Supergrains, too?”

Pretty soon it’s time to get a room.

It seems the harder we work at finding love, the more prone we are to second-guessing the results. High-volume online daters worry about this, along with those who routinely attend singles events.

The fear is we may force things or compromise after pushing so hard for so long. We may admire hard work in most endeavors, but we admire laziness when it comes to finding love. (If you manage to stay together over the long haul, however, it will be because of effort, not chance.)

When some people write about love, they can’t find the right words to capture the intensity of their feelings, so they rely on stock terms that are best avoided. These include (but are not limited to): amazing, gorgeous, devastating, crushed, smitten, soul mate and electrifying.

Popular phrases include: “meet cute,” “heart pounded,” “heart melted,” “I’ll always remember,” “I’ll never forget” and “Reader, I married him.” Then there is everyone’s favorite stock word regardless of subject: literally. As in, “our date was literally electrifying.”

Women and men may feel love similarly, but they write about it differently.

A lot of men’s stories seem tinged by regret and nostalgia. They wish previous relationships hadn’t ended or romantic opportunities hadn’t slipped away. They lament not having been more emotionally open with lovers, wives, parents and children.

Women are more inclined to write with restlessness. They want to figure love out. Many keep mental lists of their expectations, detailing the characteristics of their hoped-for partner with alarming specificity and then evaluating how a new romantic interest does or doesn’t match that type.

They write something like, “I always pictured myself with someone taller, a guy with cropped brown hair and wire-rim glasses who wears khakis or jeans, the kind of person who would bring me tea in bed and read the Sunday paper with me on the couch.”

Men almost never describe the characteristics of their ideal partner in this way. Even if they have a specific picture in mind, few will put that vision to paper. I wonder if they’re embarrassed to.

Another list women frequently pull together is “The List of Flawed Men,” in which they dismiss each man they have gone out with over the last year with a single phrase. There was the slob with the sideburns, the med student who smoked too much pot, the gentle Texan who made felt hats but couldn’t commit, and the physically affectionate finance guy who always dropped her hand when he saw his friends.

This series of bad encounters has left them exasperated to the point of hopelessness, so they try to see the humor in it.

Men rarely compose that kind of list, either. In this case, I wonder if it’s because they’re afraid to, not wanting to be seen as belittling women. In general, men write more cautiously about women than the other way around.

Love stories are full of romantic delusion, idealizing love to an unhealthy degree. But in the accounts I see, men and women delude themselves in opposite directions.

A woman is more likely to believe her romantic ideal awaits somewhere in the future, where her long-held fantasy becomes a flesh-and-blood reality.

A man’s romantic ideal typically exists somewhere in the past in the form of an actual person he loved but let go of, or who got away. And he keeps going back to her in his mind, and probably also on Facebook and Instagram, thinking, “What if?”

I don’t know if men are worse than women when it comes to romantic rejection; they are clearly worse when it comes to literary rejection. Even though only 20 percent of submissions come from men, they send more than 90 percent of the angry emails I receive in response to being turned down. To these men, no does not mean no. No means the start of an inquiry as to how this possibly could have happened.

One man sneered at me: “You didn’t even read it, dude.”

To which I replied, sincerely: “Dude, I totally did.”

Writing about love can be similar to falling in love in that we must be as vulnerable on the page as we are in person when revealing ourselves to someone we hope will love us back. That means exposing our flaws and weaknesses and trusting we will be seen as more appealing, not less, for having done so.

Good writing about love features the same virtues that define a good relationship: honesty, generosity, open-mindedness, curiosity, humor and self-deprecation. Bad writing about love suffers from the same flaws that define a bad relationship: dishonesty, withholding, defensiveness, blame, pettiness and egotism.

It has been remarkable to watch the evolution in stories I have received from gay and lesbian writers. A decade ago, their stories focused on issues of marginalization, identity, coming out, and of strains with family members. Within a few years, their focus had turned overtly political in the fight for equality and marriage.

Today, gay writers have largely shed that baggage. They write about looking for love, marrying, starting a family, being a parent, even getting divorced. Sexual orientation that had once been central is now incidental. Which seems like a nice change.

With Valentine’s Day near and the right words about love always so hard to find, let me close by simply wishing you an amazing celebration of electrifying romance you never forget and always remember.

 

Does every story need love?

Karalee’s Post #104

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, love is a topic that many people are either hiding under the covers to avoid talking about it, or doing other stuff under there that gives love the freedom of expression.

It’s got me asking whether fiction stories need love?

 

My initial response is “Of course not. They don’t all need love.”

On the other hand, when I think about it, I can’t remember a story I’ve read that didn’t have some element of love in it. Very few had scenes with hot-and-steamy go-for-it-sex described in detail. And truth told, seldom is it necessary to tell all.

Love though, doesn’t have to mean romance.

Love can be between a child and her mother. Between siblings, or friends, or cousins, or any other family members. What about your pets? Dogs, cats, horses, etc? Remember Old Yeller? or Black Beauty?

So what is necessary for love? How does it get into every story?

Only two things are needed. 

  1. Characters
  2. Relationships

Simple, right?

Put two people together and there will be some kind of relationship. Good chance it won’t be a loving one, but every character has a history. Since attachment is a basic human need, a necessity for survival in our infancy, somewhere along the line your character will have experienced love with someone, and if not a human then with a pet that had provided nurturing along life’s journey.

Your character’s back-story is what has made him (or her) who he/she is. Love will always be in there somewhere, and how your character acts or reacts will reflect that relationship in some form.

What do you think? Does every fiction story have some thread of love included?

I read Jami Gold’s blog. I loved her post this week and you might want to check it out too. It’s about the romance genre in general and titled, Is “Love Conquers All” Realistic?

Did you know that after this year, the next time we can celebrate Valentine’s Day on a Saturday is in 2026? That must be the reason my husband can’t book a restaurant table that he wants in Vancouver this weekend! And it’s not only because he left it until 3 days beforehand…

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Writing Progress: Good progress reviewing my very rough first draft.

Writing Distractions:  

  1. I’m almost finished setting up my new office space. It’s got a great ambiance so progress is a must.
  2. Went wedding dress shopping last week with my daughter. Great fun!
  3. Organizing photos for said wedding. Memory lane is a huge distraction, but tons of fun!
  4. Feeling guilty about avoiding getting my tax stuff done….

Treats eaten: homemade chocolate pudding x 2 (small and delicious!) but only after a large salad. It all helps!

Movies/TV watched: getting into the series Selfridges. I’d like to watch what Joe is into as well, Better Call Saul.

Books reading: Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

Perspective Photos taken this week:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!

 

Making writing fun

Joe’s Post #130

writers tearsOr rather, making it fun, again.

When did I lose the fun of writing?

Being me, I want to quantify, analyze, decipher why. I want to get to a solution and a haul my sorry butt back into that magical place where I loved sitting in a chair and making sh*t up.

So I go back in time (in my head, not a hot tub). Back, long ago, when the earth was not yet formed and there were no cell phones, when the Canucks had those horrible yellow uniforms and when I would sit down and actually write for fun.

You know, to tell a story.

I had no delusions of being published. I didn’t have a critique group. I didn’t even have a fancy-schmancy laptop. I just had a story in my mind that I needed to write about. Needed to tell.

Looking back, I see myself sitting at my desk, listening to Every Rose Has A Thorn (or secretly bobbing around to Straight Up), and I realize I had one thing that I don’t have now. I had faith in myself.

I think that’s where it’s all gone wrong. I’ve not only lost the fun, but faith.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. I can see how I got there. The first rejections led to me wanting to know more about writing, to do better. That led to books and conferences and workshops and exercises and rewrites and critique groups and…

elements of fictionI worked on plot, pacing, voice, character, theme, structure, description, and setting. I learned how to writer better dialogue, to hook readers in and out of a chapter, to create tension and suspense. I tried my hardest to be the best writer I could possibly be.

And yet, I still failed to get published.

It’s bummed me out, man, and I lost faith.

Oh, hey, don’t get me wrong. All those things taught me to be a better writer. But the simple truth is, that’s not enough. Certainly not enough now.

One key ingredient was missing. A good story. Something that would grab other people’s imaginations. Something that they’d want to read about.

I remember pitching a book I loved, the book I wrote for the 5/5/5 challenge. No one was interested. Not even a little. No one cared if I could write a great paragraph or had all sorts of tension. The decision was made quickly based on how well I sold the story idea.

But that didn’t stop me. I went back to the drawing board and tried to learn how to write EVEN BETTER, to write a story everyone would love to read and one that would have all sorts of plot and themie-things and epic dialogue and steamy sex and wonderful descriptions and all of that.

And therein lies the problem. You can probably see it.

I got too much into my head. Too many voices. I was trying to do too many things. Trying to satisfy other people.

Back in the day, long ago, I wasn’t in my head thinking, gosh, I need to make sure my character arc is complimented by the theme. Or that I need to make sure I have a whammo opening line.

I just wrote.

For fun.

For myself and a few friends.

IMG_2145It’s why I love to blog so much. I just write. I make mistakes in grammar or spelling and I’m not even convinced anyone but my friends are reading the blog, but I do it because I love it. I love exploring my life in the justjoe blog. (Oh and please, please, please check it out!!!) I love writing about writing in the 5/5/5 blog.

So I haven’t really lost the love of writing, have I? What I’ve lost is the love of novel writing.

I’m still not sure how to get back there, but I do know one thing.

Writing, for me, is only fun when I’m not over-thinking it, when I have faith in myself.

Now, how do I get back to that place?

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saulBest show last week – OMG, so many great shows on this week. But the winner had to be Better Call Saul. It’s from the writers of Breaking Bad and it does not fail to impress. It’s horrific, funny, intelligent, and engaging. I wish I could write this well.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Just about to start a book. For fun. Not to learn from or study or pick out details. Brent Weeks. The Way of Shadows.

Pages written on new book  50? (I know I need to start adding these pages up. They’re all in chapter folders, but it’s progress, right?)

Social media update – I did not feed the beast at all this week. It is angry and feeling forgotten. I suspect it’ll try to get back at me somehow.

Health  Crappy. Ok, who has a cold for 3 weeks straight? Anyone? Anyone?

Best thing last week  Bought new hockey gear for the youngest boy in my new family. Being me, I blogged about it.

Worst thing  Can’t seem to write a good query letter for my last novel. (Can you say, ‘stuck in your head, again?’)

Until next week, please check out these websites…

Elizabeth Lyon – some great books on writing

Alison and Don’s Amazing Travels – Oh what an incredible nomadic life they lead.

bev's booksBev Cooke – A link to her books!