Remedial Novel Writing – Lesson 3

Or How to Write a Novel When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

The time has come.

READY, SET, READ

Yes, print out your novel on cheap inexpensive recycled printer paper, put it in a pretty binder and crack it open. You have two options here. Read it like any other novel. OR… take notes as you read. Since this is a remedial course, you most likely do not already have an editor. We’re going to self-edit. I am loosely following the guidelines from well-storied.com for Editing your First Draft.

The goal here with your first read is to discover whether you have produced a diamond (check for typos and write your query letter, you don’t need me), a diamond in the rough or a fossilized dog turd that has escaped the pooper scooper too many times. If it’s the dog turd, go back and start over. (Lesson 1, Lesson 2)

For interest’s sake, I’m going to assume that we have a diamond in the rough here, though you truly won’t know until you reach the page that says “The End”.

On Taking Notes

I was incapable of “just” reading my fabulous work of art, but if that’s what you did with your first reading and you have that precious diamond in the rough, grab a spiral notebook and a bunch of different colored pins and take some notes.

Start with your brilliant first sentence. Did you angst over it like I did imagining that if you nailed the first sentence the rest would be gravy? Hell yeah! Or not. My first worried over sentence seemed to be a disconnect from the rest of the book. Actually my entire first chapter seemed to be a disconnect and that’s where the notes come in handy.

textifier_20170210155133Specifically, I was looking for:

  • the timeline. When did the action in this chapter take place and for how long? Was it less than a day, or did it cover several months? (noted with blue ink)
  • a general synopsis. The action. (orange ink)
  • characters in the chapter. (purple ink, along the right-hand side of the notes. If it was their first mention, they got a * by their name.)
  • location(s) of the action (green ink)
  • any BIG events (pink-ish ink)

And finally…

  • Problems (red ink).

Problems?

Yes. I found at least one problem in almost every single chapter and I’m not talking typos here. In fact, if you aren’t too OCD, ignore those typos as those are the least of your problems. The problems that need to be dealt with first:

PLOT HOLES. Like pot holes, these can throw your entire novel out of alignment. You should concentrate on finding all these “holes” in your story because any further editing and revising will be pointless if these aren’t repaired. Some are easier to fix than others.

The big plot holes are those that swallow your novel whole. These are the kinds of things that turn your diamond in the rough into the fossilized dog turd with the turn of the page.

Does your story make sense?

Oh, yeah, this may be the biggest. In the case of Grace Gallery, my WIP novel, I ended up with two main plotlines (A & B) and at least one subplot (C) that I meant to be a main plot. A & B competed for top spot and if they both stayed in the book you would be left scratching your head at the end wondering what genre you were reading. Was it a quirky love story or a murder mystery? I’m not saying that you won’t find those two genres co-existing in a novel, but it wasn’t working in mine. It left me, the author, saying, “Wait. What just happened?” too many times. Must be fixed.

Know your characters

Like a plot run amok, if you do not know your characters intimately they’ll surprise you during your first read and you, as author, should not be surprised that Tom has been the bad guy all along. Characters should change and grow, but they have to be doing things that make sense from chapter to chapter. Must be fixed.

Predictability

In a general sense as well as a plot sense, events should have some element of predictability. Even in science fiction or fantasy, events in the world you made up should be predictable. For example, if your world does not have gravity then the characters can’t simply be walking around like it does. Ask yourself, could this event really happen in my world.

The smaller plot holes are easier to fix, but they still must be fixed. Did you change the sheriff’s last name as you wrote? What about the names of some of the locations? Did the local bar go from being called “Sam’s” to the “Watering Hole”? If you said there would be food trucks in one scene and then they never materialize, you have to do something about that.

Are your timelines off or does the action occur in one place and the characters are unexpectedly beamed across town? This may turn out to be a big problem if it isn’t fixed.

Is your bad guy suddenly an accomplished ballroom dancer? What?!

Summary

If you can’t figure out what is happening, if you say “wait, what?!” every other page, if you have to flip back through the chapters to find out if Sheriff Jones is the same as Sheriff Smith or they are two different people…. you have some work to do.

The next few lessons will cover revising and a writing software review.

 

The Storm

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It was a dark and stormy night.

Dan thought that would be the perfect opening line for the memoir he would never write. Lying on the roof of his ex-wife’s house in the middle of the night he contemplated the next line as the wind began to whip and fat raindrops splashed on his face.

“Dan! What the fuck are you doing up there? A big storm is coming! Dammit, Maple! Hurry up.”

Peering over the edge, Dan saw his former neighbor running back home with his old dog dragging behind. Dan waved and resumed his position, noticing flashes of lightning off in the distance as the rain began to fall faster.

He thought he’d be the first. Suicide by lightning. Wouldn’t Janey be surprised when she found his charred body on her roof! Damaged. That’s why she wanted the divorce. She told Dan he was just too damaged and she had had enough. He’d show her damaged. He scanned the sky once more, on the lookout for a tornado. A tornado would defeat the purpose. He would die, but be blown away like the rest his things Janey threw out when the divorce was final.

On cue, the tornado siren began to wail. Between thunder claps closer and closer together and lightning flashes everywhere, Dan heard a different kind of siren getting louder. “Damn!” That goody-goody neighbor must have called 911. Resigned, he slid down to the gutter and lowered himself into the tree, then to the ground in the backyard, making his getaway.

He had to rush. The bus was here.

Remedial Novel Writing, Lesson 2

Or How to Write a Novel When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

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Lesson 2 covers what you should be doing while you are not reading the novel you just finished writing, also known as “the marinating stage.” If you need to go back to the beginning, you’ll find Lesson 1 here.

Step 3: Read

This lesson is not hard either. Just do not read your own novel. There are two parts to this step.

Part 1: Read about writing.

Forget that you aced every grammar test back in 6th grade. That was a long time ago. Brush up on your grammar. You know what gave you headaches when you were writing. Was it punctuating dialogue? Lay vs. lie? When to use a semi-colon?

For grammar help, the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) and Grammar Girl are two of my favorites, but there is lots of help out there. This is the internet.

For other writing help, this list of the top 99 creative writing blogs can get you going. Don’t have time to sift through that many blogs to find the one that you can relate to, hop over to pinterest.

My “write” board is a great example of things you might find when you search for writing help. I haven’t looked at all of these pinned links yet, but I know where to find them when I’m ready and I often add new “pins” to be read later. In Lesson 3, I’ll share some of the sites that I’m using.

Much of this information you may just want to squirrel away in whatever folder, pinterest board, writing software thing you use for future reference.

If you find you still need more information, or prefer it in book form, Amazon offers 12,820 books that pop up in a search for writing skills, and that’s just in the kindle store. Prices range from 99 cents on up.

You can practically get a Master’s in Creative Writing* just by using the shared information on the internet, most of it free or practically free. Just remember that sometimes you get what you pay for.

Part 2: Read books like the one you wrote.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but just like those 6th grade grammar lessons you’ve forgotten, all things literary may also be a little rusty. Remember, before you wrote your best seller, you probably read a lot for fun, but didn’t pay any attention to character development, point of view, world building, etc.

I discovered after writing my novel, that reading other writers brought all of those elements into sharper focus, and I paid attention to little character quirks, foreshadowing, inciting events and moving the story forward like I never did in any literature class.

If there was a particular element that you struggled with, finding a book that has something similar can be very useful, a template of sorts.

Point of view was my bugbear (definition 2b), and I’m still not 100% settled on the one that I chose. I know that I don’t want to write in 1st person, and unfortunately for me, everything I chose to read in December was written that way. I’m onto the next phase of novel writing, let’s call it revising, but there is still plenty of time for more reading research.

That’s it for Lesson 2. Let me know if you have a favorite grammar/writing skill tool, and follow me for more lessons.

*(but not really)

Book Report: Pale Horse, Pale Rider

2017 Reading Challenge: Reading for Growth

A Book Published Before I was Born

palehorseI have so many books hanging around the house that were published before I was born, so the only hard part was choosing one I hadn’t read before. I chose Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter, a collection of 3 novellas published in 1939, 1937 and 1936 respectively. Well before I was born!

After reading her bio in my favorite resource, I was surprised that I had not ever heard of her. In college, I earned, by accident, an English minor, and I was drawn to the literature of 20th century American writers. She has written only one novel, Ship of Fools, and was far better known for her short stories and essays which might help explain the gap in my knowledge.

All three of the novellas were completely different, but focused on similar themes of life and death, morality, and what society expected as acceptable behavior. The first, Old Mortality, was my least favorite. This story was told through the point of view of two sisters, Miranda and Maria, but focused on the story of their late Aunt Amy and her widower, Uncle Gabriel and how the entire family seemed to compare all others’ behavior using Amy and Gabriel as the standard.

In the last novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider we again encounter Miranda, this time about 6 years after the end of Old Mortality. She is 24 years old, a society reporter who has just fallen in love with Adam, a soldier about to head off to Europe in World War I. During their whirlwind romance, Miranda feels she is becoming ill, but does not want to miss a minute of time with Adam. Funeral processions are a constant sight when they are out and about, as the story takes place during the 1918 flu pandemic. Surrounded by those dying of the flu at home, and the boys dying in the war abroad, death is constantly on Miranda’s mind, and she has indeed come down with the flu.

Porter’s descriptions of both Miranda’s dreams and her hallucinations when she is ill are vivid and dark, and compelling. In all 3 novellas, Porter writes with careful detail, letting the reader know exactly how the characters are dressed, their surroundings, etc. This did not detract from the stories. After reading the collection, I was drawn into the setting and stories and would call them page-turners.

My favorite, and also the darkest novella, was the middle story, Noon Wine, which surprisingly has very little to do with any alcohol until near the end. This is the story of the Thompson family, Royal Earle and Ellie and their two sons Arthur and Herbert and life on their small south Texas dairy farm. The story begins in 1896 when Olaf Helton, a Swede from North Dakota comes to the farm asking for a job. He is a quiet, strange fellow who never tells the Thompsons his story, and Mr. Thompson frankly doesn’t care because Helton is such a great worker, increasing profits and the quality of life for the family for 9 years until his past catches up with him which is, of course, when the pedal hits the metal and the story comes to a disturbing resolution.

Reading a book published before a reader was born (in my case 1960) gives a reader a glimpse into life decades before one’s own and reveals that those lives were not so different than our own when stripped down to basic themes of humanity. There is also opportunity, when reading older books, to stretch your reading and writing skills with the different styles of writing you might encounter.

 

 

Book Report: All the Light We Cannot See (no spoilers)

all_the_light_we_cannot_see_doerr_novelThe Modern Mrs. Darcy 2017 Reading Challenge has begun and my first book was not the one I originally said would be first, but one falling in the Reading for Fun Group: a book recommended by someone with great taste. All the Light We Cannot Seeby Anthony Doerr.

This book was recommended to me a while ago by my friend with great taste in books, Julie. I had it on hold at my library, so when it became available, I scooped it up, and put the other book aside for later. All the Light won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015 so it fits in that category, but at least right now, in the very beginning, I don’t want to have any books doing double category duty. We’ll see how I feel about that in December.

Read this book. It has scene after scene after scene of beautiful writing and a compelling story. The story takes place during World War II and alternates between the story of a blind French girl whose mother is dead and father that takes care of her, and a young German orphan boy who lives with his sister and other orphans under the care of Frau Elena. Orphanage would be too grand a word for the place they live.

There is almost no way to say any more about the story without spoiling it, as each little nugget of information has meaning and purpose. If you want to see what I mean, you will just have to read it.

 

Remedial Novel Writing — Lesson 1

Or How to Write a Novel When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

Remember last December when I crowed about having written a novel? I am officially an expert now, so pay attention, any of you who are not connected with the writing business in any way, shape or form. But everyone else follow along with the lessons, as I bring my novel into best-seller-dom (best-seller-hood?).

Raise your hand if this has ever happened: you are at a party and for lack of any better conversational topics (or maybe it’s just insecurity-induced anxiety) you start to tell stories about your crazy family. At the end of a particularly unbelievable* story about your grandmother, her cats and the Cuban gardener she has imprisoned, your listener says, “You should write a book!”

“All the time,” you say!

“Well, what’s stopping you? Write the damn book already!”

“What’s stopping me,” you say, “is I have no idea how to write a book. I mean I can tell a funny anecdote under the influence of a glass of wine or three, but write a book?”

We all have stories to tell, and word on the street is that everyone has a book in them, but not everyone actually has the skillz, and of those that do, only a handful actually become best sellers.

But don’t let that stop you! I sure didn’t, so follow along with me and I’ll get you all ready to participate in the next NaNoWriMo way ahead of the game.

Step 1: Write a novel.

This is the easiest step, so no whining here. That’ll come later.

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I had a general idea of my story and named some of the characters — random name generator is awesome — before I started, but apparently even that is not necessary.

Open the document software of your choice (I like Google Docs), sit down at a typewriter (use Google images if you don’t know what that is) or grab a pencil and some paper.

If you need structure and a deadline, write your novel in November with millions of other people and win a fantastic certificate that you can print out at home if you manage to churn out at least 50,000 words in said month. Oh, and a cute little badge for your blog.>>>

Do not worry about coherency. In fact, according to author Anne Lamott, every first draft is a shitty first draft, so there you go. I used that reminder in a footer on every page of my (shitty) first draft. [She writes this somewhere in Bird by Bird.]

After typing (or handwriting) “The End”…

Step 2: Put your novel away

Yes. Backup your files, put your spiral notebooks in a safe deposit box, whatever, but DO NOT LOOK AT IT. For at least 4 weeks.

If you wrote it entirely in November, this is pretty easy because you have done nothing to prepare for any of the end of the year stuff that happens (i.e., buy Christmas presents, finish your end of the year work projects, clean your house, etc) and you will not have time to even contemplate reading it. But you can brag about being a novelist at holiday parties without lying.
That’s enough for this lesson. Come back in a few days for Lesson 2 so I can tell you what else you should be doing while your novel is marinating.

*95% true. Seriously.

Boxes

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I enter my basement and survey the job at hand. The air cool, the light dim and the concrete floor hard, the cast offs of life not yet cast away taunt me. Now in my late 50s, I have entered downsizing season with both excitement and trepidation.

Drawing from lessons learned from various decluttering TV shows, clean your house/free your mind blog posts and pinterest entries, and my own brief experience as a professional organizer, I will start with the easy. Grab a trash bag and dispose of any obvious trash. The garbage bags full of packing peanuts to donate to UPS? Take them to a UPS store. Same goes for the box already destined for Goodwill. Well, don’t take it to UPS, they don’t want it, but you know.

Find more things to donate. Maybe sell some things on eBay. Or not. Determine which cans of paint have been hanging out on the shelf in the back for longer than 5 years and take them to the place discovered two years ago that takes old paint.

But what about those boxes on the top shelf, covered in the dust from the kitchen renovation done 5 years ago? They’re so carefully labelled: Old Letters, Scrapbooks, Laura’s Artwork–4 years old. There are only two options for these. Keep. Or throw away.

I take them down and sit on the floor, surrounded by the musty smell of old cardboard. The power radiating from the contents takes my breath away.

I loved and have been loved. I have the tangible proof. Pictures lovingly drawn by the hands of my children saved proudly in boxes now gathering dust. Inviting insects? Ssh, don’t even suggest it. If I throw them away, will they think I don’t love them anymore? That I am not proud of their work?

Love letters written to me by boys and by men. Boyfriends, my husband, my father and grandfather. I was worthy of their love. See, it’s right here in black and white. If I read the letters again will I find my lost youth? Will my worth vanish if these scraps of paper are carted away to the landfill?

I know the answer to those questions and still I want to hold on.