A Novel in 3 Months (week 9) – *this* is why I love writing

What I’m watching: Good News Week
on the iPod: Crazy by Brittany Spears

The ‘ah HA!’ moment.  The moment when an idea or words or scene falls into place just so.  The moment where you write something down and just know you’re on a winner.  Where you instinctively know you can move on to the next difficult area, confident that this bit will need little to no rewriting.  The moment where, as Farmer Hoggett in Babe would say, “That’ll do, Pig.  That’ll do.” 😀

It seems to happen every time I write a book, so it should hardly surprise me anymore.  Yet it always does and I’m always grateful, relieved and/or excited.   I’ll be deep in my story, eating, sleeping and breathing it, stewing on a particular problem, when a solution bubbles forth from my inner story brain, the bit of brain that seems to eventually sort out the chatter and confusion from the real gems.

So here’s what happened the other day.

Original version: My hero (Zac) is estranged from his father.  His mother died when he was seven, his father remarried and the hero now has an older step brother.   Zac spends his teenage years with serious sibling envy, especially when his father seems to prefer his step brother, grooming him as the heir-apparent.  Zac’s father is the autocratic, controlling, overbearing type and expects him to enter the family company, even though Zac has neither the talent nor the desire to.  But for a few years he does, and at 26, after Zac finds out his father bribed his fiancee to break up with him, he and Victor argue and Zac walks out.

The problem I had: Zac’s motivation on a few different levels.  If he hated the family business, why join it?   And I thought his walk out wasn’t strong enough – it made him sound…well… childish and petulant.  I also thought it may be a bit over-the-top, that after one little incident, he did something so drastic as turning his back on his family.  There was something missing, something I just wasn’t getting.

I stewed on this for ages while I wrote other scenes, trying to get a feel for Zac and what he truly wanted.  And finally he began to speak to me 😀

Improved version: Zac’s mother leaves when he is seven years old and his father divorces her immediately.  Abandonment issues straight away.  Then his father goes and remarries and suddenly Zac has an older step brother, one who seems to bond effortlessly with his father.  For everything his brother is, Zac is the opposite – a shy solitary boy, bookish and artistic.  He goes to uni, does a degree of his father’s choosing because he can’t fund it himself but while he’s there, he swaps his courses, instead studying architecture and small business practices.  Father finds out, is furious.  Eventually Zac goes looking for his mother, finds her and they reconnect before she eventually dies.  More emphasis on the abandonment issues.  Returns home ready to deal with his father, but finds out his father has offered his fiancee money to go away (she’s not good enough in the eyes of his father).  Everything blows up, with Zac finally blaming his father for his parents’ divorce.   Then he walks out.

Why this works for me: It’s about layering.  Remember Michael Douglas’ character in Falling Down?  How a bunch of little things happen to him that in isolation, wouldn’t amount to much.  But all those little things snowball and snowball until that wonderful scene in McDonalds where, two minutes after 10.30, he orders breakfast but they won’t serve him breakfast because it’s “after 10.30”.  Everyone can relate to that, which is why it worked so well and made the audience empathize with his character.

In real life, people explode after a build up of stress… you wake up late, your child won’t get dressed quick enough, you spill the cereal, you end up writing a lunch order because you don’t have time to make him lunch, then he wants a particular book but won’t (or can’t) remember where it is, then you forget the permission slip for the swimming carnival and hubby reminds you the car’s going in for service so you can’t get to the gym..  and so you end up screaming at him (or the cat) or the slow driver who won’t bloody-well-move-his-stupid-slow-ASS, God dammit!!

Whew.  If there’s going to be a major explosion where your character does something extreme, escalate the tension until something’s got to give.  I see it all the time in crime TV – Criminal Minds and the various CSI franchises call it the ‘stressor’ – an incident that disturbs or stresses a person so much that they go over the edge.  Depressing, sorry, but this can also be a technique you can use to maximum impact.  Where you scribble it down with a grin and think, “That’ll do, writer.  That’ll do.”

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Cover love

Watching: A-Team movie trailer (jeez, I feel so old!)
On the iPod: Halo by Beyonce

So I finally got my new cover for my outback Billionaires and Babies book.  Ain’t it gorgeous?  For those of you interested in behind-the-scenes inner workings of Harlequin, Harlequin/Silhouette authors have access to an online program that’s used to make the covers.  In that data we supply info on physical descriptions of our main characters (eye color, hair, style, ethnicity etc), setting and tone/mood (bad boy hero?  pregnant heroine?  MOC?).  We also offer three scene suggestions for the cover art and any links or pictures that would best describe that, a short 1p synopsis and story themes.   It’s about eight screens to click through, so it’s pretty comprehensive.

However, most of my suggestions for this book were the traditional sexy couple-clinch (a la’ Boardrooms & A Billionaire Heir),  and the B&B series feature… yeah, babies 😀   So that’s what we have, along with a gorgeous view of the outback on the back (which you can’t see here).   And Alex looks suspiciously like Ben Affleck, which isn’t too shabby 😀

To celebrate the three outback B&B series, Maxine Sullivan, Robyn Grady and myself have launched a dedicated site/blog to them.  It’s always fun to get together with my fellow Aussie writers and celebrate all things Australian – drop by and check it out!

A Novel in 3 Months (week 8) – because I can’t wait to edit

Just watched: Brothers & Sisters
on the iPod: Paparazzi by Lady Gaga

The next day, when I return to my WIP, I have to read the last scene or chapter to centre myself, to get myself back into the characters and the story.  And because I can’t help it, I tend to edit as I read.  Some writers like to get the whole draft down, then do the editing.  Most of the time I just can’t NOT fiddle 😀  If I see something that needs to be fixed, I have to fix it… unless I can’t think of a solution, then I’ll bookmark that passage and come back to it later.   Of course, I always do another sweeping edit after the book’s written because I end up picking up other bits and pieces that need to be fixed.   So here’s a few things that I always look at when I approach the editing.

The Time Line

Because I tend to have a lot of in-depth backstory,  including birthdays, public holidays, first meetings, divorces, accidents and tragedies, pregnancies, deaths, marriages, changes of season etc etc., when I prepare events and important dates (both past and present) for a story, I need to plot them on a calendar – if I don’t, I end up confusing myself (and my editor!) and the story flow suffers.   Because I’m a visual learner, I use an A4 perpetual calendar, complete with days and little squares for typing details.  I made one up in Publisher but you can download printable calendar templates from here or here.

This calendar is either on my pinboard or in my wip folder for quick reference.   For example:  one of the major turning points in my June release, The Billionaire Baby Bombshell, was the death of the hero’s father.  I wanted it on a significant night – Christmas Eve.  I also wanted to set the present-day story around August, which is not too hot for the Outback.  So, all the rest of the events (the heroine’s pregnancy, the age of her daughter in the present day, the h/h past history, etc) had to flow logically around that one important day.    There was a lot of math going on in this story, for reasons you’ll discover when you read the book 😀

Repetitions

Each writer will be different and have their own list of overused words.  If you don’t I suggest you start one.  It’s a smart way of weeding out those words you tend to fall back on, plus it gets you thinking about alternatives that could do the job better.  Mine so far are:

  • flood
  • etch
  • thick
  • anger
  • narrow
  • aggravate
  • throat (when talking about breath)
  • breath
  • rush
  • swamp
  • swoosh
  • danger
  • pound
  • exasperate
  • groan/ed
  • whisper/ed
  • murmur/ed

I do a word search to find out where it occurs within the story and if I can use something different.  If I can’t, I read the sentence to see if I can reword that.  An excellent tool I’ve used is Wordle, which lists those words most commonly occurring within your story and puts them in a cool word cloud.  I tend to remove locations and characters’ names, plus ‘said’ and ‘the’ when fiddling with this tool.

Point of View

Another of my ‘problem areas’ which gets a heavy edit.   Because my books have dual POV, there will be some switching within a scene, so obviously I don’t advocate the one-scene-one-POV rule (in fact, you’ll find most writing ‘rules’ aren’t rules at all – some are house guidelines, some a reader expectations.  Most should be taken with a grain of salt).  It really does depend on what you’re trying to achieve in the scene and whether you have single, dual or switching POV.

I’ve heard it said that you should work out whichever character has the most to lose in that scene, and then to stick with their POV.  So, for example, if you have a scene where your hero is about to tell your heroine that her father’s just died, then stay in your heroine’s head.   However, a caveat.  In a high-stakes story with lots of sudden revelations, it can get tiring as a writer to effectively write how that character is feeling without repeating yourself.   And if you’re in the hero’s head, seeing your heroine through his eyes, taking note of how she handles (or doesn’t!) major life-changing news,  and how he reacts to HER reaction, can be a powerful scene indeed.

Throughout my years as a contest judge, I’ve seen the gamut of head hopping – a terrible affliction that takes the reader from one character’s thoughts to the other character then back again multiple times.  The worst I’ve encountered was literally every paragraph, where each para consisted of two sentences… and this went on for ten pages!

So how do you spot change of POV?  Here’s an example:

“You’re gorgeous, Abby.”  Greg reached for his wine glass and took a sip, eying her over the rim as she flushed prettily before her gaze went to her plate.  His blue eyes widened and he shoved back his black hair with one tanned hand.  Surely she’d heard that before?

“Thanks,” she said, the blush still staining her cheeks.  Why was he flirting with her?  She wondered curiously. What could he possibly want that he hadn’t already taken from her family?

Here’s what I’d do.

a) Either stick with one or the other’s VP.  The more changes you have the more risk you run of confusing the reader and stopping the story’s natural flow.  You want them invested in the story, not thinking, “whose head are we in now?  Who’s speaking?”

b) edit it like this:

“You’re gorgeous, Abby.”  Greg reached for his wine glass and took a sip, eying her over the rim as she flushed prettily before her gaze went to her plate. He frowned. His blue eyes widened and he shoved back his black hair with one tanned hand.  Surely she’d heard that before?

“Thanks,” she Abigail said, the blush still staining her cheeks still warmWhy was is he flirting with me her? She wondered curiously.  What could he possibly want that he hadn’t already taken from her family?

In the first para, we’re in Greg’s VP, so he cannot see his ‘blue eyes’, ‘his black hair’ and would not think ‘tanned hand’.  When was the last time you scratched your head and thought “my fingers ran through my long blonde hair?” 😆  I also took creative license and made him frown, which added weight to the last sentence.

In the second para, let your readers know who’s POV you’re in by stating their name (I got that little tip from Stephanie Laurens!).  And because we’re in her POV, she cannot see the ‘blush staining her cheeks’.  She can, however, feel the warmth on her skin.  I made the next sentence deep POV, which makes  ‘She wondered curiously’ doubly redundant:  1) you’re already in her VP and 2)  by her deep POV question, the implication is she’s ‘wondering curiously’.  You could also make the last sentence deep POV too, so it would then read “What could he possibly want that he hadn’t already stolen from my family?”

Okay, so I did a bit of editing with that example too 😀  If you haven’t already, check out the Show v’s Tell article I wrote for RWA’s Hearts Talk magazine, here.

USB drive, I hate you

last show watched: The Good Wife
on the iPod: Midnight Blue by Lou Gramm

I bought you years ago, excited by your compactness and memory capacity.  You were black, with a little flip button, which was a glorious change to all my other clunky drives.  And yes, I admit you initially served me well, saving all those high res. photos and clearing space on my ornery hard drive.  You saw me through two PCs, giving me a little buzz when you saved with no problems, no Blue Screen of Death and no inexplicable power outs.  I began to put my faith in you, little did I know you’d commit the worst betrayal of all.

And now you’ve gone.  Where, I do not know.  You took my trust and ground it into the dirt without so much as a clue.  Sometimes I hope you’re in a far, far better place, where you get to defrag to your heart’s content and gambol with other like-minded USB drives.  But then I recall how you stole ALL my works-in-progress documents and photos, leaving me with a scummy three-month old backup on the detachable hard drive, with nothing but twin alternating fires of fury and helplessness burning in my belly.  So now I pray you fell into the garbage bin and were crushed into oblivion.

I cannot forgive you.

A Novel in 3 Months (week 7) – snippets of wisdom as you write

What I’m watching: Prehistoric Park
What’s on the iPod: Beautiful Thing by Sister Hazel

Short post as we continue on our writing path (some more than others… my printer died and I had to buy a new one today!)  The last few years I’ve collected some writing gems from authors that have helped me write and rewrite… so here they are, along with a couple of articles and books that really are worth their weight in gold.   I wish I could provide names to the snippets but unfortunately,  I only saved the wisdom!

Backstory

  • The past matters only in the moment it affects a person’s actions/reactions in the present. You don’t need to give a backstory until it impacts a character’s behavior.

Summarising your story ( I suspect this was from an article on pitching… possibly by Alicia Rasley or Laura Resnick)

When (heroine), a (role) who (empathy/setup) is (opportunity), she decides to (new situation/preliminary goal).  But when (change of plans) she now must (outer motivation/primary goal) by (hero’s plan/deadline) as well as (second goal if romance involved)  in spite of the fact that (outer conflict)

e.g When Trinity Jones, an animal communicator who wants people to take her seriously, is approached by an agent who needs her unique skills to stop a new kind of weapon – mutated brainwashed spiders, she decides to help them and at the same time get her abilities some much desired street cred.  But when Trinity discovers it’s her sister controlling the spiders, she now must put aside her family loyalty to stop her, in spite of the fact that her sister is the only family she has left.

Turning Points and The Black Moment (Anne Gracie or Bronwyn Jameson come to mind with this one..)

  • Look at what your hero or heroine want most in life, and position them on the brink of getting it.  Then snatch it off them by taking their deepest fears and insecurities and make the worst thing that could possibly happen to them happen.  The various crisis points in your story are all also points-of-change where the character(s) learns to see or do things differently from the way they have before – the ways that have stopped them finding love and happiness in the past.    So your black moment is the final, the ultimate, the big test/crisis – where they look as if they’re going to fail in the worst way again.

Writing Romance by Vanessa Grant

This is a great introduction to romance, including some extremely helpful examples of synopses.

Goal, Motivation, Conflict by Debra Dixon

A wonderful, comprehensive book that addresses the most vital part of writing – your characters.

Story by Robert McKee

Sometimes hard going, but this book also has diagrams and in-depth information for all fiction writers.  You can also check out bits from his seminars on YouTube.

Donald Maass

His Writing the Breakout Novel and the WTBN workbook are wonderful tools  for plotting and adding depth to your story.  You can also download his The Career Novelist for free from his website here.

The Writer’s Journey by Chris Vogler

I’ve talked about this before and I’ll say it again – a brilliant book that uses a logical flow to structure and advance your story and plot.  I’ve read it so many times, I instinctively write every story based on this framework.

A Novel in 3 months (week 6) – more writing

Last thing watched: American Pie (yeah, it’s juvenile, frequently gross and sexist but it also appeals to the teenage boy inside :grin:)
on the iPod: The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass (RWNational conference CD)

I hope we’re all furiously writing!  I heard an interesting thing about plotters the other day:  visualise a 1-10 plotting scale, with 1 being “no plotting ever, just writing” and 10 being “charts, sheets, colour coding, files and plans”.  Now apparently, Suzanne Brockmann is a 10 – it takes her a few months to do all this preparation work, but the upside is her first draft is pretty much perfect, with only a light edit to follow.  OTOH, Nora Roberts is a 1 – she just sits down and starts to write.

Now, most people are around a 3-5 on the scale.  I plot because it’s just efficient for me to do so.  Sometimes the story takes an unexpected turn, but generally, my revisions include deepening the original frame I’ve set up for the story.

Remember, as you’re writing, if your process works for you and you’re happy with it, please continue to do it your way!  But if you want a less stressful/more productive/different/less confusing/more organized way of writing, try other techniques.  That’s what these posts are all about: getting you to think about how you write and see if you can improve getting those words down on the page with less rewriting.  There are as many ways to write as there are individual writers – we all learn differently so it stands to reason we write differently.   I know I’m a visual learner:  give me a video, a slide show, a mind map or visual chart and I’m there.  I take copious notes and will daydream if a lecture doesn’t feature anything I can ‘connect’ to.  Most people are visual learners.  The next largest group is the aural learners (they prefer to hear what’s being taught – lectures rather than reading assignments – and get lost when the charts and graphs come out, )  and then tactile learners (they find it hard to sit still for long periods and need to have something to occupy their hands in order to process the information – that’s why you’ll see some people doodling in meetings and workshops).  If you’re interested in reading more about this fascinating subject, you can check out some info in a pdf  here.

Now it’s writing time – let’s get BICHOKing (butts-in-chair-hands-on-keyboard) and I’ll check in a little later.  Any speedbumps and just give a yell!

A Novel in 3 Months (week 5) – writing that scene

Last thing watched: Grey’s Anatomy
on the iPod: All or Nothing by Cher

Tom Clancy was once quoted as saying: “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” 😀  So let’s talk about the scene you’re writing right now.  Whatever it’s about, it should have both a purpose and make sense.   And the important questions to ask yourself are:

  • Does this scene advance the story forward?
  • Does it answer or  raise a question?
  • Does it reveal character or plot that the reader (and/or other characters) needs to know right now?
  • Does it create tension?
  • Can it be amalgamated with another scene and still achieve the same result?

Apart from chapter 1, scene 1, I like writing dialogue.  Loooove writing dialogue, in fact 😀  So in my wip, when my h/h sit down to dinner, you can bet there’s gonna be some dialogue happening.  I don’t actually map out the scene, but if I had to, here’s what it’d be like:

  • scene opens – dinner in hotel restaurant
  • VP – both, starting with hero, ending with heroine
  • scene reveals – part of heroine’s past and beliefs to hero; heroine is aware hero wants her
  • scene ends – kiss at heroine’s door
  • scene purpose – up emotional tension, reveal character

I ask myself with each and every scene: “What is this character’s agenda?”  What do they want to achieve from this?  Do they get it?  If not, why not?  And how does this change the course of the story?  With my scene above, the hero’s agenda was to convince the heroine to go on a date.  The heroine’s agenda was to remain professional and keep control of her growing attraction for hero.   And importantly, what occurs prior to this scene is setting the stage for what’s to happen in this one… and the next.  And the next.  It’s a build up, where characters can gain or lose some minor goals but with ultimately the major goal to be addressed towards the last scene/s of the book.  This way, your reader will still be invested in your story.   For e.g. Indiana Jones achieves many minor goals in Raiders of the Lost Ark :  he has the medallion translated, he finds the Map Room,  then the Well of Souls, discovers Marion’s alive.  These are all minor goals that  feed into his one big goal – to get the Ark of the Covenant.  Similarly, Luke Skywalker finds Ben Kenobi, they get transport out of Mos Eisley, he rescues Princess Leia.  All minor goals that feed into his one big goal – defeat the Empire.

Think cause and effect to help with the ending of your scene, to get you onto the next scene logically.  Ages ago I read a great article by the wonderful Keri Arthur on Plotting the Paranormal which applies to all genres, really.  Not only did it make a whole lot of sense but it also helped enormously with my story direction.   For example:  you’re writing a scene where your heroine comes home from work one day to discover someone’s broken into her apartment and stolen her great-grandmother’s necklace. What does she do?

  • get a dog
  • get the locks changed
  • hire a bodyguard
  • move in with her mother
  • ask the cute retired cop down the hall to watch the place
  • track the guy down herself
  • curse, file a police report then do nothing else

Whatever direction you take, it should take you closer to your ultimate goal of your story.  For a romantic suspense,  the bodyguard or cop scenario would work.  A chick lit or romantic comedy?  Definitely the dog and/or moving in with her mother.  Urban fantasy?  I can so see her tracking the guy down, definitely kicking his ass in the process 😀

And again I digress…  This post is supposed to be about scenes, not some cool setups for books-not-yet-written 😉

So now it’s over to you.  Anyone want to share your scene purpose and what will happen after as a result of that scene?

A Novel in 3 Months (week 5) – writing!

Last thing watched: The Good Wife and House
on the iPod: Turning Points by Jenny Crusie (RWANational CD)

Okay, so here’s where we start knuckling down and getting further into your story.  Notice I didn’t say “let’s start writing” because you have spent the last 4 weeks writing, whether it be plotting, characterising or on your synopsis.  And all of that is definitely not going to waste!

So with my story, here’s what I have down so far:

  • the genre/sub genre
  • a sense of my characters, their wants and conflicts
  • an overview of the plot, including turning points
  • where/when the story takes place
  • a sense of The End

One important thing to remember as you start writing your scenes – NOTHING IS SET IN STONE.  (Well, okay, apart from it being a romance and there has to be a HEA :grin:)  If you find your character doing something that doesn’t sound logical or plausible to them, you can change it.  If you find your story will work better in a small country town rather than the big city, you can change it.  And if you suddenly want to change everything from 3rd person to first person POV, then go right ahead.

Jenny Crusie calls this getting-it-all-down-on-the-page stage the  “don’t look down draft”.  I like to call it “the dirty draft,” because many parts may not be to my satisfaction (notice I didn’t say ‘perfect’!) and need dusting up to reach the level where I’m happy to leave it and move on.

It’s important when you’re writing your dirty draft to get the words down.  If a word eludes you, if you need some particular fact that will take you from the page or you’re simply stuck, add a footnote or bookmark to your document, make a note (mine say, originally, “add more here!”) then move on.   By bookmarking, it’s way easier to come back to on the second pass through.

Now, I’m not going to insist you all start writing at Chapter 1, scene 1 unless you really, really feel the urge to.  Instead, I want you to start on that scene you’re burning to write.  It may be a conflict scene,  a love scene, or where the hero/heroine confronts the villain with some fabulously witty dialogue or a punch in the nose.   Or even just a scene where the hero is staring at the heroine thinking, “Yes.  Her.”   (oooh, that’d be a great opening sentence!  :lol:)   It’s a scene that simply grabs you and refuses to let you go until you’ve got it all down on paper.  Doesn’t have to be perfect, doesn’t have to be reams and reams.  Just the actual scene.  Mine tend to be Chapter 1, scene 1 because I get so excited about a brand-spanking new story and my Asperger’s tendencies demand I start at the beginning and write as it unfolds 😀

I’ll give you a few days, and then we’ll talk about it – what the scene was, how it progresses the story and what would precede and/or follow that scene.