Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Coming Up For Air


Anyone still out there???

No, I haven't floated off deep into the Blog-o-Sphere. I've been buried deep in research, brainstorming scenes, and well, building a skeleton for my new novel. I'm almost ready to begin writing my pages but before I do, I thought I'd come up for air, take a look around, and share what I've learned under here...

First, let me say that everyone's process is unique. This is mine. If it helps you, by all means, make it your own...

Novels Need Outlines. This is not to squelch the creative process. And yes, I've shared this view in previous postings but I've reached an all new love of outlines. I see them as quite the opposite of rigidity--which just might be how some of you view them.

An outline should free you. Writing a novel is like driving in the dark with no headlights on, so you really better know where you're going. We've all heard the analogy, an outline is your road map. That might be trite and cliché but it's true. If you have no idea where you're going in the dark, you're bound to experience a bumpy ride and you might even land in a ditch! Think of all the energy you'll need to expend digging yourself out! An outline preserves your energy and frees your mind so you can explore side streets and other avenues--as long as you know where you're headed, you won't get lost!

My outlines are colorful. They live and breathe. They change as the need arises. I like to think of them as the skeleton of my story that I will build up later with tendons, muscles, and flesh. But remember, without the bones, muscles and flesh can't stand. And without an outline--a skeleton--your story might fall as well or at the very least, you might get lost and never finish it.

Not a Four-Letter Word. Now, I am going to say a dirty word. Ready... It's an F word... Prepare yourself!


There, I said it. Yes, formula. You know, the infamous Three-Act Structure and all the plot points in-between--the inciting incident, rising stakes, ticking clocks, separation of MC from his/her side-kick, Battle Scene, etc.

Writers want to believe they are better than a formula. I say embrace it! Story formula has been around since before Shakespeare. So, don't hide it behind your pills in the medicine cabinet. No! Take it out, dust it off, and let it shine!

Formula is another part of your road map, it's like knowing there are jug handles and exit ramps and one-way streets. Or if you prefer the skeleton analogy, it's the tendons--what holds the bones together and helps them move. It's what makes your story JUMP and BEND and SWAY. It's the forward motion of your story.

Another Scary Word... I'll whisper this one, as not to frighten you away, Page Length.
I first studied screenplays before writing my first novel (6 times). Everyone who writes screenplays knows most scripts are 120 pages. They know Act 1 is about 30 pages, Act 2, 60 pages, and Act 3, 30 pages or less. Knowing the length of pages you are striving for helps with your pacing, helps you decide where to put those pesky little plot points. But how does that translate to novels???

Depending upon the age of your reader, Act 1 is about 75 - 100 pages, Act 2 is about 150 - 200 pages (divide this in half for Act 2A/2B), and act 3 is about 75-50 pages, for the grand total of 275 - 375 pages, again, depending upon the age of your reader. If you write for younger independent readers, just be sure Act 1 is half as long as Act 2 and Act 3 is a bit shorter than Act 1. Of course there are no hard fast rules to this--it's just part of the skeleton.

All This Talk of Outline... How Does One Even Get Started??? Here is how I write my outline... For months, I might do nothing but ponder scenes, meditate on scenes, dream about scenes... I write every scene I can possibly imagine in a kind of short-hand way. I write whatever comes to me about that scene, sometimes dialogue, sometimes narrative, sometimes just a sentence--- this is where she gets kissed. Sooooo nervous! I don't judge what comes to me or try to "fix it". It's fast and messy and is only the crux of the scene. It is not a thing of labor nor design but just a flash.

I repeat this process until one day it stops. Then that's it, I know I have most of the scenes I will need to build my skeletal outline. I will then take all those scenes and print them on color-coded index cards. Some people use the colors to represent plot points or characters. I use them to represent drafts. Yellow is a first draft, orange a second, and so on. For example, sometimes as I am writing pages, I realize I need to include something I had forgotten about in an earlier chapter--usually a prop of some sort--I will take an orange index card and write in what I need to include in this chapter for the next draft. This way I won't worry the whole time that I will forget that loop hole.

Once all the index cards are written, I spread them out on the floor and put them in a semblance of order. I look and see what might still be missing, check for "screen" time for all my characters, look for arcs, motivation, rising stakes, ticking clocks, emotional rises and falls, and all the Formula or plot points of the skeleton. Once that is settled and only then, I will begin writing pages.

As you write pages, new things will pop up and that's good, go with it, adjust the index cards (your skeleton) as you need to and move on.

But Wait! Did You Do Your Research? Before pages, before brainstorming scenes, and certainly before my outline, I research. I research and research and research. Any concept can be researched. I don't care what you are writing. Even if it is something you personally experienced, the research behind a book is quite necessary.

You might only use 10% of what you've learned but that 10% will be the veins of your story. If your outline is the skeleton, and the formula the tendons, then the research is the blood that flows through the story to breathe movement into the muscles. The muscles and flesh would die without blood flow, therefore your story would feel flat w/o research.

Research should inspire you to write your story; it should IGNITE YOU! Set you on fire! If your research bores you, move on to another piece of research. It is often through my research that I will have a light bulb moment. While researching I keep a notebook with me at all times. I write the date and what book I am reading or what documentary or movie I am watching. Anything that flows through my mind as I am reading or watching, I scribble in the notebook. Later, when brainstorming scenes, I look through this notebook. 90% of my scenes--or what will later become the chapters of my book--begin with light bulbs that twinkle during research.

Research Your Genre, Too. Research extends into reading fiction in your genre as well. So, read, read, read books in your genre. Either take notes while you are reading or after you've finished a book. Think back to what worked, what failed, why it worked, why it didn't work. What this writer did really well, not so well... you get the idea. Then, after you've read 3 - 5 books in your genre, do an analysis of the ones you admired. How did that author do it? How is your story alike? How is it different? What parts are you missing in your story? What paradigm was used? Was it an Accidental Hero, A Fish Out of Water Paradigm...

Make Sure You Have a Theme. Before going to pages, be sure you know what you are trying to say--this will be the color to your flesh. A lot of people freeze when asked, what is the theme of your story? They think they suddenly have to don a smoking jacket, with pipe in hand, sitting in a upholstered chair by a roaring fire. But it's not as cerebral as you might fear.

A theme should be a simple sentence: Desperate people do desperate things. That's a theme. From there, just make sure EVERYTHING speaks to your theme. If it doesn't, cut it. And if it does, your story will have that je ne sais quoi, that special something that most people can't explain.

A word to the wise: A theme can't be one word, like my story is about love. That's too vague. My story is about picking yourself up after a broken heart. That's better. My story is about the lengths people will go to find love... That's good, too, as long as it's a simple, clear sentence.

Books to Read on Writing a Novel:
“Personal limitation exists only in our ideas of who we are. Give up all notions of who you are and your limitations will vanish.”

- Anonymous