James Scott Bell on 7 Things That Will Doom Your Novel

JSBJoe’s Post #147 (though it shouldn’t count as a Joe’s Post) — Every so often, I take a few moments to read some of my most favourite inspirational writers. My mentors, if you like. Yesterday, I re-read something that really struck me by James Scott Bell (via Writer’s Digest.) Please check out his entire article as he tends not to be all blah-blah-blah preachy, but does what all good writers do. He entertains us. Plus, you can pick up a free download on how to write a novel). So, without further boring-Joe commentary, here’s James Scott Bell’s 7 things not to do, and my thoughts. Enjoy.

7 Things That Will Doom Your Novel (and How to Avoid Them)

By: | June 5, 2012 – Writer’s Digest

inspirationOh, my goodness, this is a hard one for me not to do. I honestly think it’s the difference between pro writers and wannabes. Pros get it done, day in and day out. Like taking fish oil every day. Or eating kale.

Simply put, they make inspiration happen by sheer force of will. Or they will find a way to get inspired. For me, that way is often by reading, but I need to readjust my thinking on the whole ‘waiting for inspiration’ thing.

2. Look over your shoulder.

Bell writes about the inner critic here and that inner critic is born from fear. Of all the things I have to overcome, this one is the most difficult. I love writing, but hate rejection. It’s like a hockey goalie loving to be a goalie but hating to get pucks in the face.

To be a writer these days, we need to be like the old school goalies, like Gump Worsley one_worsley03who never wore a mask and took a lot of pucks in the face for something he loved to do.

Insane? Maybe. But aren’t writers, by definition, insane?

So you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put up his picture and look at it every time I get all ‘fraidy cat about sending out a query. I mean, he took pucks in the face and his mom had named him Gump.

3. Ignore the craft.

I don’t do this. It’s not one of my issues. I read about it, have a critique group and constantly look at other writers to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

4. Keep a chip on your shoulder.

voodooEver have one of those friends who call you on your bullsh*t? You kinda hate it at the time. You may even get mad at them and threaten to pee on their petunias or make a voodoo doll of them and stick that doll with a million needles, then light it on fire, then toss it in a tub of acid while screaming at it, “I hate you, I hate you.”

Everyone does that, right?

But Bell’s right. I have to let go of the chip on my shoulder. So what if agents don’t get back to me? Why should that stop me from getting another query out? (Hint – the answer is this is really masking fear, again.)

5. Write for the market only

I’ve only done this once. And I did it this year. For an open call from TOR. Otherwise, I’m like an anti-market writer. I don’t write to the latest trend. I’m not even sure what that would be, to be honest. I write what I write.

But Bell also talks about voice and that’s something I’ve worked hard on. But here’s the odd thing. I think I have several voices.

Ok, stop looking at me like that. We all hear different voices in our heads, right? Right?

I love my noir voice that I used for my Lou Rains novel and my WW2 mystery set in the Netherlands. I love my goofy-Joe voice that I use for blogs. I even love my YA voice, but I seem to be the only one who does.

See, for me, voice comes a lot from character and genre. Part of the fun is playing around with voices, seeing what I can do. Like trying on a different style of underwear to see what fits. Bikini briefs, not so much. Boxy boxers, nah. But a nice pair of boxer-briefs, yah, I don’t put those back after trying them on.

But of all of all my voices, the goofy-Joe blog voice may very well be my most authentic.

6. Take as many shortcuts as possible.

This really applies to self-publishing, a route we 5/5/5 may be taking soon. Read up on what Bell says. It’s gold.

7. Quit

never quitAlthough some days, the days I look at my stack of rejections and think, hey, maybe I just don’t have the skill to be a writer, I admit, I do think about quitting.

But I don’t. I’m really not sure why. Overwhelming evidence seems to suggest that I’ll never be able to make a career at this. So why continue?

I write because I need to write. It’s a part of me. Like Gump needed to be a goalie and probably would have been happy to play even if he was never picked up by the NHL. So, if I continue to write, continue to persevere, continue to improve and combat all the how-not-to-succeed things inside my head, maybe one day I’ll make it.

*****

megan foxAnyway, that’s it from me, today. Going to take down that picture of Megan Fox fixing her car and put up Gumpers. Going to finish off my 30 pages for submission to my writing group. Going to get in the headspace of a successful writer and write me some writing.

For anyone interested, here are a few awesome links to writing guru’s you should check out. Other than Mr. Bell.

Donald Maass (on character)

Hallie Ephron (supporting characters)

Nancy Kress (writing flashbacks)

These are all short, fun articles. Easy to digest. But you can also follow-up on those writers a bit more and see what other bits of advice they have to offer.

Also, if anyone would like to post their comments on what JSB had to say, let me know.

Hugs.

 

 

 

Write with emotion

dive-in

Silk’s Post #133 — It has been an emotional year, and not half over yet.

The world has had its punishing cataclysms, some delivered by nature, others by the hand of man. It has had some surprising social victories to celebrate, including progressive decisions by the US Supreme Court, and a demonstration of the awesome power of forgiveness in a Charleston church. Personally, I’ve had some unforgettable, joyful travel adventures and shared some soul-nourishing times with people I’m glad to have in my life. I’ve also lost some dear friends. Three women who I love have lost their longtime partners to cancer.

So, yeah, my feelings have been working overtime.

And that’s the natural response to the highs and lows life throws at you. In fact, despite the pain of sorrow, I think we long to experience emotions. It’s in our DNA. It means we’re alive. Maybe it even keeps us alive. My thesis is that emotions give our journey on earth meaning and significance, perhaps even more than the worldly successes we strive so hard to achieve.

People need to feel. And that’s why I think people read to feel.

While storytelling may be about connecting through narrative with ourselves, with others, with our past and future, with our common humanity, and with the rules of the road in life – as well as being the purest form of entertainment – it has a cardinal rule. And that rule has to do with emotion.

Filmmaker Andrew Stanton (Toy Story), in his fantastic TED Talk, The Clues to a Great Story, in 2012, said storytelling must do one thing above all else:

Make Me Care.

In his excellent book Writing 21st Century Fictionwriting guru Donald Maass puts it another way:

What is it that moves readers’ hearts? What conjures in readers’ imaginations a reality that, for a while, feels more real than their own lives? What glues readers to characters and makes those characters objects of identification: people with whom readers feel intimately involved, about whom they care, and whose outcomes matter greatly? Emotions. When readers feel little or nothing, then a story is just a collection of words. It’s empty.

You’ve heard this all before, haven’t you? As an abstract piece of wisdom, it seems so obvious it scarcely needs to be said. Of course storytelling must evoke emotions. It’s right here in my How To Be A Great Writer 101 notes. Got it. Let’s move on.

Actually, let’s not. Let’s stay right here in the complicated, shape-shifting, constricted, psychedelic, colourless, loud, passionate, confusing, silent, elating, scary, inspiring, tragic, heartwarming, tense, quicksand-filled world of emotional landscapes. Okay, let’s get out the roadmap and see where we are. Oh, right. I forgot. There is no road map.

We know a lot about emotions. Life is full of them. Psychology books dissect and explain them. We all feel them, personally. We can call upon all that knowledge to tell how something feels. Oops … did I say “tell”? Yes, that’s the trap, isn’t it?

So, following the fiction prescription of Show Don’t Tell, we can probably describe the visible clues that convey our character’s feelings. The glistening eyes that speak of sorrow held in check. The muscular tension of anger. The white-knuckled grip of fear. The glowing face of love. That’s better, right? Well, maybe.

But here’s the challenge. Getting across to a reader that a character is experiencing an emotion is not the same as getting the reader to experience an emotion. Far from it.

As Maass says, “Familiar emotions, especially when in neon lights, have little effect on readers.” He cautions against the extremes of “warm” emotional landscapes bestrewn with flowery purple prose, and “cool” emotional landscapes so devoid of overt feelings they’re like deserts of the heart.

So, let’s go back to Stanton’s cardinal rule: Make Me Care. It’s not just about intensity, or even authenticity. It’s about connection.

And that, naturally, leads us to character. If a reader doesn’t care about the character, can’t relate to him and what he’s experiencing, isn’t emotionally engaged in the outcome, all your attempts to write with emotion fail. The words just lie there on the page, dead on arrival.

Of course, you’ve heard all this too. Make your character relatable! Lure the reader into caring about him! Let’s say you’ve zoomed ahead of many writers (hopefully going beyond the simplistic advice of giving your character a flaw, because people are reported to love flaws, so any character with a flaw must be automatically relatable), and you’ve managed to achieve this wonderful state of character grace. Congratulations!

Now when you convey your character’s emotions, the reader should definitely feel something, right? Well, maybe.

What? There’s more to this emotional landscape navigation? Sorry, but the answer is Yes. Hey, if it were easy, everybody could be a bestselling novelist!

For example, there’s cliché avoidance, which applies to emotional stimuli and responses just as it applies to character, language and other elements of fiction. Two-dimensional (aka cardboard) emotions, predictable responses, melodrama – these don’t move readers at a deep level. Maass talks about the power of more nuanced emotions that surprise, that conflict, that intrigue and provoke.

The character’s dog is hit by a car and dies? Yes, that’s horribly sad, and it’s natural for the character be broken-hearted. But what else does he feel that adds dimension? Anger at the driver who hit his dog, or at himself for letting the dog run out on the road? Remorse and regret if he ran over it himself, in a mindless hurry to get somewhere? Secret relief that his life is simpler without a dog, that he’s now free to take that trip to Kathmandu? Self hatred at feeling this relief? Delayed mourning for his dead mother who gave him the dog when he was a teen? Fresh resentment for his girlfriend, who never liked his dog? What if there’s something about the circumstance that he actually finds funny, and is stricken with intolerable guilt about this taboo response?

It could be a simple case of boy-loses-dog. Or a much more nuanced case of boy’s-karma-runs-over-his-dogma. Sorry, I couldn’t resist a bit of black humour, so to all you dog lovers out there, please don’t send me hate mail.

Although, if you did, it would suggest something important: I Made You Care.

I believe some of the most powerful emotional effects you can achieve in fiction arise from those things that are the hardest to talk about in real life. Things that are threatening, taboo, disturbing, dangerous, fraught with dilemma. Things that are close to the soul, risky to examine. Things that reveal more about our secret selves than we want to share. Not just things we’re afraid of, but things we’re afraid to admit about ourselves. Things never talked about by what another writing guru, James Scott Bell, calls “Happy People in Happy Land.”

And that’s why, as writers, we open our own veins and bleed all over the paper. Everything we reveal about our characters also reveals something about ourselves. Writing with emotion in a way that really touches and engages readers to feel something means writing from the heart.

Or, as some of the greats would put it …

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. — Robert Frost

It’s all about passion. Heart is what drives us and determines our fate. — Isabel Allende

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. — William Wordsworth

You get your readers emotionally involved in your characters by being emotionally involved yourself. Your characters must come alive for you. When you are writing about them, you have to feel all the emotions they are going through – hunger, pain, joy, despair. If you suffer along with them, so will the reader. — Sidney Sheldon

What comes from the heart goes to the heart. — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions. — James A. Michener

I want to make you laugh or cry when you read a story … or do both at the same time. I want your heart, in other words. If you want to learn something, go to school. — Stephen King

 

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!

Backstage at a bestseller

backstage

Silk’s Post #105 — When Paula wondered in her last post whether the 5/5/5 exercise of deconstructing a novel was a waste of time – didn’t it make more sense to stop with the procrastinating and diversions and just dive in to writing our own novels? – I admit I was conflicted too.

My enthusiasm for getting started on a new project was boosted by our 5/5/5 mini-retreat in Vancouver, and I couldn’t wait to shake off the demons of sloth and get back to writing again. Did I really need this deconstruction side trip? I have what I think is a strong story premise and promising characters. It felt like this was the time to step on the gas, not the brakes.

At the same time, I know that building a plot and structure that really works for this story will be an architectural challenge. And I know I haven’t mastered this fundamental skill. Do I really want to spend the next year of my life creating a novel that can’t pass book-building inspection, and is destined to fill yet another bottom drawer for eternity?

So I decided to at least try it. The possible up side (finding the magic plotting bullet) outweighed the possible down side (getting derailed from my writing). I figured the likeliest outcome would be that I’d re-read a great book and at least get inspired, at the expense of a quick start on my own story.

Well, it looks like I was wrong – in a good way. Let me explain.

The thing about learning a delicate craft – like writing – from books, or workshops, or courses, or writers conferences, is that these are a lot like elementary or high school studies. Learning from books and lectures has some major limitations. You can memorize and grasp concepts and follow step-by-step instructions all you like, and at the end you’ll probably have a book. But will it be a good book? A well-constructed book? A book that a smart agent will take a chance on? A book that compels readers to turn the page? A book they’ll actually remember a month after they read it?

I’ve read that most new writers essentially learn their craft through trial and error. That’s certainly been my path. But how much of this learning-from-your-mistakes can you do and still remain inspired? Frustratingly, finding out exactly what mistakes you’ve made is a whole challenge in itself. A critique group certainly can help here, but many unpublished writers learn that they’ve (probably) made mistakes through rejection letters – without getting the feedback needed to actually learn from those mistakes.

Another of the oft-repeated pieces of advice to writers is to read read read. Read widely, but especially read great writers and learn from them. The theory seems sound: learn by example. Somehow, by osmosis, you will absorb the literary genius of a bestseller and replicate it, with practice. Kind of a monkey-see-monkey-do thing.

While reading is an absolute essential for writers, and it’s easy (almost too easy) to mimic another writer’s style and voice, there’s one little hitch in learning to plot through exposure to good writing.

As a front-of-stage reader, the backstage mechanics of plot and structure are invisible to you, hidden behind the curtain. That’s the magic. The more skilled the writer, the more opaque are the pulleys and levers and ropes and set and lighting elements that make the whole show work seamlessly. The girl who appeared to be sawn in half emerges whole. The doves fly out of the hat. The magician disappears in a puff of smoke. You, the reader, are simply transported, disbelief suspended.

Every time I read a great book I find myself fooled once more. Even though I’ve learned much about writing, I get swept away in a good story and at the end I find myself again wondering: how did the author do that magic? (Formulaic books are another thing altogether, their plots often transparent and predictable.)

glass-rainbowBut within the first 10 page of deconstructing my chosen book, The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke – using the methodology suggested by James Scott Bell in his book Plot and Structure (see “How to Improve Your Plotting Exponentially”), I realized I had just stepped backstage.

This is where the magic gets done. Immediately, secrets began to be revealed. The pulleys and levers became exposed as I watched the master writer at work, behind the curtain, and documented what I saw.

The bizarre thing about novel deconstruction is: all you’re doing is reading, but with one difference. You don’t sit in front of the curtain in the audience and let the plot sweep you forward. You simply go backstage and stop the action at the end of every scene to examine what the writer has actually done.

Every page, every paragraph, every word in the opening of The Glass Rainbow had a job to do. By page 1, the reader had been sucked into the humid, decaying world of a marginalized and lawless society, set at the slow-simmering pace of the deep South. By page 2, the reader had seen inside the sleuth/protagonist’s heart-of-hearts and come to understand what he values, what he fears, what drives him. By page 6 the troubling circumstances of the crime that triggers the whole plot, and the challenges of achieving justice in this case, had been introduced.

All this was accomplished in 2 scenes and maybe 2,000 words. The magic? Even though the pace was as unhurried as a road gang prisoner sweating over his labour under the noonday Mississippi sun (the setting of Scene 2), the reader on the audience side of the curtain had quickly been swept deep into the plot and hooked on the story, the characters, the setting … the mystery of it all.

And now that I’ve been backstage, I have a good idea how James Lee Burke did it.

Wow.

For me, this exercise is not a diversion from writing. It’s an internship with a master.

 


Box Score

Books deconstructed: < 1% of one book

Pages of my book written: 0

Blog posts written: 1

Travel planned and booked: 1 trip (New Zealand)

What I’m reading this week: The Glass Rainbow, James Lee Burke; The Ascent of Women, Sally Armstrong; New Zealand, Lonely Planet

Health status: Miserable cold

Pies eaten: 1/3, variety: pizza

Best thing this week: Discovering deconstruction

Worst thing this week: Relentless Ebola news everywhere

The disturbing truth about openings

disruption

Silk’s Post #104 — Change is good. Life teaches us early that the only sure thing in this world (besides death and taxes, of course) is change. So we might as well embrace it.

But how easily, and eagerly, we slide into our comfort zones. And once we’ve settled in to our comfy routines and they become the status quo, we tend to cling to them. Change can feel like a bucket of cold water in the face, or a push out the door into an unfamiliar landscape. We tend to defend ourselves against disruption, and sometimes – like sleepers who punch the snooze button and pull the covers over their heads – we even try to ignore or deny the intrusion of change.

Yet the opposite is also true. Every so often we get the urge for change and novelty (perfectly illustrated by the major lifestyle changes over the past couple of years for three-fifths of our tiny 5writers sample group). This can be a bracing, rejuvenating experience, one that can even become addictive or morph into a thrill-seeking lifestyle.

But whether change is voluntary or involuntary, it’s undeniably the impetus and lifeblood of every good story in every genre. Disruption starts plots rolling, creates character arcs, invites readers to come along for the ride … just to find out what happens next. If nothing is changing, there’s no possibility of jeopardy or challenge. In fact there’s simply nothing to write about.

End of story. Literally.

Writing guru James Scott Bell calls the static comfort zone “Happy People in Happy Land.” This is where stories go to die, often in the first few pages. This excerpt of his post on the excellent Kill Zone website (“Insider perspectives from today’s hottest thriller and mystery writers”), delivers some of the best advice I’ve seen on using creative disruption to hook readers with your opening:

You must grab [agents, editors and readers] on page one. How can you do that?

By beginning your novel with a disturbance to the lead’s ordinary world.

Why disturbance? Because readers read to worry. They want to be lost in the intense emotional anticipation over the plight of a character in trouble. Only when that connection is made does reader interest truly kick in.

But in their opening pages many writers fall into what I call the “Happy People in Happy Land” trap. They think that by showing the lead character in her normal life, being happy with her family or dog or whatever, we’ll be all riled up when something bad happens to this nice person, perhaps at the end of chapter one, or beginning of chapter two …

But that’s too long to wait. You need to stir up the waters immediately.

A disturbance is something that causes ripples in the placid lagoon of Happy Land. It can be anything, so long as it presents a change or challenge to the lead. (It’s important to note that this disturbance need not be “big” as in, say, a thriller prologue. The opening disturbance can be a jolt, however slight, that indicates to the lead that she is not having an ordinary moment here.)

And you need to have that jolt on page one, preferable paragraph one.

When you read this advice, it all seems so obvious. When you’re facing the blank white page of your opening, though, the awesome weight of getting those first few critical words perfectly right can trigger a bout of acute amnesia.

I can’t recommend James Scott Bell’s writing books highly enough, especially for their advice on critical points where writers often get stuck or take a wrong turn in the plot that takes them miles away from a good storyline. The 5Writers are looking to assemble a shortlist of great writing resources that we use and recommend, with links from this blog. In the meantime, here are two of his books I find indispensable:

plot and structurePlot & Structure – Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish (Writer’s Digest Books)

 

 

 

 

art of warThe Art of War for Writers – Fiction writing strategies, tactics and exercises (Writer’s Digest Books)

 

Writing progress

Karalee’s Post #76

 

I’m in the East Kootenays for the next couple of weeks helping a friend on her hobby farm. I’m busy feeding horses and walking dogs and taking care of the house while she is away.

 

 

I’ve time to write and have been making headway on my new story. For the first time I have an overall feel of how a book needs to come together as I’m writing it. It’s like a breath of fresh air and I see it as a breakthrough for me. All the hard work learning this craft called writing is starting to become general knowledge that I can pull from instead of trying to learn it all as I go.

It feels similar to when I was learning to be a physical therapist in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia. Learning every peripheral nerve, muscle and bone took months, but at some point became part of my general knowledge. This was the foundation though, upon which I could then start problem-solving orthopedic injuries, etc. and apply treatments and recommendations to clients.

I feel I am at this point in learning the writing craft and that I finally have a good foundation to build upon.

My foundation also includes an outline so I have an idea of where my story is going and I know where to aim for at the end. Some parts of my outline are in great detail as I visualize the scenes, but others are sketchy and open to my creative juices as I get there.

It is wonderful to have a feel for how the structure works, how the plot can unfold, and how my characters have to be realistic and have the reader care about or relate to them on an emotional level as I’m writing. Now I am more cognizant of not having the amateur information dumps and fillers like I have had before. Note Silk’s last post on this topic. Thanks Silk!

I’ve been concentrating on dialogue lately and this week Brian Klems, the Online Editor of Writers Digest, wrote a column The 7 Tools of Dialogue that is well worth the time to read. I am very glad to say that I am using some of these techniques automatically and that is also good for my confidence.

As I write I’m also keeping in mind what James Scott Bell put so succinctly in his book Plot and Structure. He says that the questions below are what all agents, publishers and readers think about when they open a book:

  • What’s this story about?
  • Is anything happening?
  • Why should I keep reading?
  • Why should I care?

Happy writing!


Confessions of a NOP

reluctant-cat

Silk’s Post #63 — I’m looking forward to outlining my next book the way a cat looks forward to a visit with the vet.

Can someone remind me why I thought it would be a wonderful idea to start outlining, and even worse to make outlining the focus of our next 5writers challenge?

That’s right, in the first week of February next year – the 5th to the 8th, to be precise, if all goes according to plan – the 5writers will be hunkered down somewhere ripping apart each other’s outlines for our next books. Hopefully someplace warm. With a well-stocked wine bar. And another one of those giant bowls with half a candy counter dumped into it like the one Paula brought to Whistler. I estimated the bowl contents totalled about 15,000 calories.

See? I’m already wandering off the subject of outlining. That’s because – I admit it! – I’m a confirmed NOP. No Outline Person. Uncouth people call us “pantsers” – as in “flying by the seat of your pants.” And the closer our new deadline gets, the twitchier I’m becoming. By January, I’ll be hiding under the bed with the cat.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Suck it up, Silk. If anybody needs the discipline of an outline, it’s you – the 5writer who still hasn’t finished her book from last year.

I know you have a point. And I’ve listened to all the arguments about why outlining is the way to go.

Paula became a convert last year, whipping out her first action-packed YA novel in, like, two weeks thanks to her well-planned outline. Okay, maybe not two weeks, but fast. And no one has more story concepts than Paula, so the faster she can write, the better.

And Joe is keen because he’s tired of rewriting rewriting rewriting all his books. But then, Joe – our resident overachiever – has actually written many books (note the plural), so no wonder he’s tired of rewriting. I’m still stuck at one-and-a-half books, myself.

Karalee is enthusiastic too. But Karalee is congenitally enthusiastic – don’t I wish I had her energy! And she has the determination of Superwoman. She runs, she rows, she climbs mountains, for Pete’s sake! She’ll take to outlining like a duck to water.

And Helga … well, no one loves a cunning plot more. She aims high, emulating her idol, John le Carré, whose plots are famously complex, dense and intellectually challenging. Outlining is the perfect methodology to combine Helga’s favourite story ingredients in a meticulous recipe for intrigue. 

Yes, I get the logic, I really do. The case for outlining as a writer’s discipline that will help us get the plot job done – hopefully the first time. My angst about it isn’t coming from my cortex. It’s radiating up from my limbic brain. Feral fear of captivity. And, if I’m honest, a streak of cat laziness.

We all started as NOPs. Following the scent of our stories with our noses from the opening lines to sharply – or hazily –  imagined endings. But at some point in all our books, we’ve occasionally lost the trail and become mired in the Swamp of Saggy Middles. That’s why we’re trying to become OPs instead of NOPs. At least this once.

In his indispensable book Plot & Structure, writing guru James Scott Bell looks at the “longstanding feud between the NOPs and the OPs.” Here’s what he says about NOPs:

“The NOPs are the … happy folk [who] love to frolic in the daisies of their imaginations as they write. With nary a care, they let the characters and images that sprout in their minds do all the leading. They follow along, happily recording the adventures.

Ray Bradbury was a NOP. In Zen in the Art of Writing he says:

footprints‘Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. That is all Plot should ever be. It is human desire let run, running and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic.’

The joy of being a NOP is that you get to fall in love every day. But as in love and life, there is heartache along the way.

The heartache comes when you look back and see nothing resembling a plot.”

Okay, so the OPs must be doing it right then … right James Scott Bell? He says:

“The OPS … seek security above all. They lay out a plot with as much specificity as possible. They may use 3″ x 5” cards, spread out on the floor or pinned to cork board, and rework the pattern many times before writing.

Or they’ll write a plot treatment, 40 or 50 pages written in the present tense. Then they’ll edit that like they would a full manuscript. And only then will they begin the actual novel. 

Albert Zuckerman, an OP, says in Writing the Blockbuster Novel

house-plan‘No sane person would think of setting out to construct a skyscraper or even a one-family home without a detailed set of plans. A big novel must have the literary equivalent of beams and joists strong enough to sustain it excitingly from beginning to end, and it also must contain myriad interlocking parts fully as complex as those in any building type.’

The value of the OP approach is that, with experience, one can virtually guarantee a solidly structured plot …

The danger, however, is the lack of that freshness and spontaneity the NOPs are known for. An OP may get to a place where one of the characters is screaming to do something other than what’s written down on a scene card. The OP fights the character, whipping him back into submission. But in doing so, he may have missed the exact angle that would make his plot original.”

All to say that there are multiple ways to fail with your plot – all of them easy to see in retrospect and easy to describe. But how to build a successful plot is much more elusive and difficult to prescribe.

What I know is that I’ve signed up for the outlining tour-of-duty and I’m going to march forward with determination towards that goal. Just the idea of 3″ x 5″ cards literally gives me hives, though, so it looks like I’ll be writing the 50-page plot treatment.

Hopefully I won’t have to have someone put me into an overlarge cat carrier, stick me on the back seat, and drive me – yowling – to the Great 5writers Outline Retreat in February.

That candy bowl better be there, though.

Someone smarter than me

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Joe’s Post #49 — As much as I love my CHEWASS system, I wanted to pass along something I read in Writer’s Digest. It’s from one of my fav writer guru’s, James Scott Bell. He has a much bigger brain than me.

The whole article is here. The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes (& How to Fix Them). It’s awesome. But let me look at his 5 points for a moment.

1) Happy People in Happy Land – One of my earliest realizations. Was Harry Potter happy in Potterland? Nope. Was Katniss? Nuh-uh. Even Frodo, living in an idyllic little hobbit town wanted more, wanted adventure. So, all my stories – all my characters- always begin with something bad happening. Something that will change their world.

2) A World Without Fear – Another great suggestion. He talks about the fear of death, but I think fears drive us as much as hope sometimes. I love confronting my characters with their fears, smashing their hopes, threatening their lives or those that they hold dear.

3) Marshmallow Dialogue – So easy to spot in other people’s writing. So hard to spot in your own. Best advice, read it aloud. It’s embarrassing sometimes, but very useful.

4) Predictability – Ah ha. Another Bell gem. I started using this one on my rewrite right away. It’s such great advice. How can you make a scene just a little bit unpredictable? How can you challenge the reader to really, really read your story (without, you know, being all confusing and stuff?)

thCA7NKPBW5) Lost Love – Oh this is a good one. He talks about yearning. “We yearn because we feel a lack, a need, a hole in our souls. So yearning is about connection.” Brilliant. So, thought I as I drank my forth glass of wine, what do my characters yearn for? Not their ‘want’, their goal, their driving force. What, deep down, do they need in life? That made me think a lot more about my characters and the more I thought on it, the better my characters became. Try it out on your characters and see what happens.

I guess the point of this blog was that even during the rewrite stage, even after writing one or two novels, I can still learn something. I can still do better. I can still add something more to my writing to make it sing.

It Don’t Mean a Thing

Helga’s Post #44:

…If It Ain’t Got That Swing

Sound familiar? Duke Ellington could have written those lyrics just as easily for writers. Maybe especially for writers.

So how to get that swing on those pages, every time we sit down to write?  Mostly, we are familiar if the question is put differently: How to get ‘in the Zone’.

I think the ‘Swing’ and the ‘Zone’ largely mean the same. It often has to do with mood. Have you ever been told when you talk on the phone, ‘hey, what’s wrong? Are you sick?’ Your friends can tell when you’re not the same, when you’re off balance, or bored, depressed heavens forbid, or just having a ‘blah’ kind of day. On days like that, it’s pretty tough to be creative, or even motivated to open your manuscript, let alone get that swing into your writing. What shows up on those new pages is often uninspired, strained and simply boring, surely headed for the cutting floor before too long.

What’s a writer to do?

Much has been taught at workshops, and printed in countless ‘how to’ books and blogs, mostly under the topic of conquering Writers’ Block. But is getting in the zone different from the dreaded WB, and to spin that yarn further, does one cause the other? Which one comes first?

From my own experience, I can tell when I wasn’t in the zone. It shows up clearly on certain pages, scenes or chapters. When my writing is flat and my characters speak like the biggest bores you’ve ever met in your life. When I had to fight writers’ block, and went ahead regardless, producing scenes devoid of ‘swing’.

Luckily, we don’t have to be victims on those days when we’re our own worst enemies. There are ways to avoid these counter-productive dismal occurrences. Let’s look at some of the ingredient for getting the swing back in our manuscripts. Some suggestions that may help, nowhere a complete list:

Writing dialogue is fun, it’s spontaneous, and starts the ball rolling when it’s in danger of slowing down or coming to a stop. Just keep on writing dialogue without analyzing or stop to go back over it again and again. Let it flow, edit later. It’s amazing how it starts to feed on itself and gets you in the zone for more writing.

At the slightest hint of the story starting to drag, create a surprise, or a shock. Bring a character on the scene with a gun or something like that (that’s the old Raymond Chandler trick).

Create a positive workspace that’s strictly your own. “Privacy – like eating and breathing – is one of life’s basic requirements,” according to author Katherine Neville. And Virginia Woolf realized it a lot earlier: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” (fortunately, money may not be quite the deal-breaker today as it was during Ginny’s time; though there is truth in it).

Add some visual motivators to your very own workspace. James Scott Bell for example has posters on the wall that get him out of his funk (yes, even Bell gets those!) when he needs inspiration. They are of authors he admires. One is a casually dressed Stephen King in his home office, dog beneath his feet. Another is of thriller author John D. MacDonald smoking his pipe and typing.

On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Book Cover: On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

“Write hard, write fast, and the fire of creation will be yours.” (from: The Art of War for Writers, by J.S.Bell). Some of the best novels of the past century were written at a rapid clip by authors who wrote each and every day. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, author/editor of more than seven hundred books, was once asked what he would do if he had only six months to live. “Type faster,” he said.

Next trick on tap: Take risks. It’s amazing how it unlocks your creativity and improves your storytelling if you write what’s burning in your heart. Donald Maass believes this strongly. Hold on to your self-confidence. Believe in yourself. You can do it. Lesser writers did.

There’s always your writers’ group too if you’re lucky enough to belong to one. Lean on them. Don’t hesitate to call them and say, hey, how can I make that scene, that chapter, swing? Remember, it’s tit for tat. They will ask you in return at some point. So don’t be shy.

And put on the CD ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’. It’ll get you in the zone real quick. Especially when Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong belt it out in their incomparable voices and beat.

May their swing spill over to all of our writing.

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Image Courtesy: Louis Armstrong House Museum

Back home to the Surrey briar patch

5 writers members at SIWC 2010 with James Scott Bell and Carolyn Swayze

This weekend, the 5 writers join the hundreds of other aspiring writers – and the generous agents, editors, publishers and bestselling authors who support us – at our favourite annual literary get-together: the Surrey International Writers’ Conference.

Why do we love Surrey? Well, like B’rer Rabbit and the briar patch, we were born and bred here, so our brave critique group members know no fear at SIWC. Not at our blue pencils. Not at our pitches. Not even at SIWC Idol. It’s all part of the learning curve – and besides there’s a very nice bar where we can always drown our sorrows when necessary.

Three of us at SIWC 2009 with writing buddy Jo Cooper

Here at the event that’s been called “the best writers’ conference in North America” by presenters and participants alike, we get to take master classes with the best of the best, like authors Jack Whyte, Hallie Ephron, Michael Slade and Robert Sawyer. We get to pitch top agents like Don Maass, Nephele Tempest, Jill Marr and Dean Cooke. We get to learn from great editors, film industry professionals, social media experts and writers in all genres (far too many to mention here, but it’s a weekend full of awesome talent).

So how did our writing group start? A few years ago, our group’s founder (and now famous bestselling author!), Sean Slater, decided to cherry-pick some likely co-conspirators from among the local writers he met at SIWC to form a critique group. Since that time, there have been a few changes in membership, including Sean’s “graduation” to the big leagues, but the spirit of mutual support is still alive and well.

Sean’s first published crime novel in his Jacob Striker series was The Survivor (2011, Simon & Schuster), which was nominated for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. It was translated into multiple languages and has sold like hotcakes in Canada, Great Britain and Europe. His first success was quickly followed by a second Jacob Striker outing, Snakes & Ladders, and Sean now awaits the publication of book number three. Oh, and did we mention that Sean is also a police officer who managed to establish himself front-and-centre on the bookshelves of several countries while holding down one of the world’s toughest jobs?

Sean, you’re our hero.

And fortunately for our group of 5 writers (the ones who have not yet been published), Sean still acts as our informal advisor, provides inspiration, and came up with the kick-ass idea of having us all write brand new novels to a deadline – triggering this 5 Writers 5 Novels 5 Months madness.

Gee, thanks, Sean. We think.

Seriously, though, Sean was right. After a couple of years critiquing each others’ works-in-progress in 30-page monthly increments (and producing several completed first draft novels along the way), the 5 writers needed a shake-up. We all love to write, but we’ll love getting published even better. This game is not for the passive. We needed to kick it up a notch … demand more of ourselves … re-kindle that fire in the belly that makes you uncomfortable, keeps you up at night, pushes you to do more than you ever thought you could. Yessirree. The 5 writers challenge is all that and more.

Paula and Joe with our muse at SIWC 2010

The question is: will we survive it?

(Note that Sean is a very generous guy, and readily shares his experiences with aspiring writers. Visit his website, www.seanslaterbooks.com, not only for the latest on his novels and his soaring career, but also for advice on getting published and other writing challenges.)

But back to SIWC. For those of you who might be reading this blog while attending the conference, we’d love to hear from you. Tap us on the shoulder if you see one of us. Leave a comment on our blog and tell us what you think. And by all means follow us as we slog and blog our way forward to “The End” by our self-imposed deadline of February 5, 2013.

Karalee, Helga, Silk and Paula at SIWC 2010 Idol

And even though the 5 writers are, at this moment, still unpublished wannabes – like many other SIWC attendees – we offer our own advice from our writing group experience. Look around you. Are you seeing some of the same faces at all the workshops you attend? Introduce yourself. You may be talking to a fellow writer who can become a friend, an inspiration, maybe even a member of your future critique group. Having the support of a like-minded, and demanding, group really does help spark the courage needed to take on both creative risks and crazy commitments.

We hope all who attend SIWC 2012 really do take away the courage, inspiration and commitment needed to be a better writer. A published writer. We want to sincerely thank all the organizers, the volunteers, and the mentors who share their knowledge and time with us at this wonderful conference.

Write on!