Saturday, January 28, 2012

Writing Novels: 7 Unusual Ways to Develop Your Setting

Welcome, friends. I hope all is fab this week. This is my last post about novel writing. In February, I will continue my Golden Advice series. But before we move on, let's think about setting. I always see setting as another character in the book. Like all characters, especially such an important one, I must work hard to slant the details in an original and proactive way. Here are some uncommon things that I do to help me bring "Reality" to the page.

1. Scrap. Scrap is cut-out or cut-and-pasted photos, paintings, any visual images --collections of everything that you know about a setting -- this includes clothing, your characters (they are part of the setting too!), stuff in their pockets, the knife, the oatmeal, the bubble path, the blood....put all together to help you create a sense of place. Not sure about your setting, make a collage of your scrap. Stare at the collage especially before bedtime or nap-time. It is VERY helpful to fall asleep staring at your scrap. Wake up and begin writing about your setting. See what happens.

2. Write a letter to your main character about your setting problem and then write another letter from your character to you, answering your questions. If your main character doesn't have a clue, ask some of your other characters.

3. Make a list of the top 5 places that your character absolutely would not like to go. Be sure your character is going to at least one of those places in your novel.

4. Draw a map and make a line indicating your character's path through your story. Is there any place she is not going?

5. Stop thinking about it and start writing. The process of writing can jar your brain and make you put begin to block out your scene. Make a commitment of 30 minutes a day for a week and write without stops for the whole time. Does anything emerge?

6. Think about your experiences. I have climbed in space shuttles, walked over lava beds, crawled into giant pipes, braved dank dark caves, jumped off of building, rolled under the bed, put on waders and headed into mountain streams. Characters often go where you have been. Daydream about that and see if anything pops up in your memory. Let that inform your story setting.

7. Sometimes you have try stuff out to get it right. Jump the fence, climb on the roof, hid under the bed, go to the park and swing. Take your notepad and write down everything -- smells, tastes, visuals, textures, sounds. Don't forget this stuff: pressure, vibrations, and proprioception (sense of how your own limbs are oriented in space). Really digging deep into perception can help you develop your novel's setting.

So there are 7 things that might bring some jazz to your story setting. I hope you pay attention to the details. See ya next week.

This is a guest doodle from my son. "Still Life" by Jesse Blaisdell. Check out his website:

"Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else..."
Eudora Welty

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Writing Novels: 5 Things that Don't Work

I am spending the month sharing this and that about my novel writing journey. Today I'm going to chat about 5 things that have absolutely not worked on my journey. Perhaps my missteps will help you.

1. Changing POV because someone suggested it -- I have changed the POV from first person to third person and back again a number of times because either a critique group partner, a teacher, an agent or an editor suggested the move. My experience with this advice is that the first couple of times it was a good exercise but ultimately I learned that POV is a decision that a writer must chose from her internal sense of how her story should be told. You need to dig into yourself and find your POV. Never change POV unless it is an internal decision. If someone suggested it, you better go into it with your reasons and no one else's.

2. Hurrying -- I have found you must let your novels grow at their own pace. Revisions must be performed at their own pace. Get to know your rhythms and don't rush. I know that the whole NANOWRIMO thing helps some folks move past procrastination but this advice is different. Every author finds a natural rhythm to create books. You may find you are not as fast as other writers. My best advice if you are slow, embrace it and don't hurry. Find agents and editors who can relate to your natural rhythms.

3. No Project Management -- Novels are big projects and they need project management. If you do not have a document aside from your book filled with character sketches, setting notes, outlines or summaries, spread sheets with scene pacing, etc., I doubt your novel is going to fly. I know my won't. Get a three ring binder, a beautiful blank book and some note cards or try ONENOTE or SCRIVNER or DRAMATICA and move into the world of successful novel creation with decent project management.

4. Focusing on the first chapter -- Oh, I have done this and I have seen so many others do this. A novel is a journey through multiple chapters. You must balance your attention on each chapter. If you have rewritten that first chapter 40 times and you have not rewritten your fortieth chapter 40 times, you are messing up. Every chapter must receive balanced attention to create a master work.

5. Staring at the computer screen -- I found that my novels were not getting polished enough because I was not searching out the reader experience. I find that I must print out my novel to get a good sense of where I'm at. Write a book that is shelf ready. I put my books on my Kindle. I change the fonts. I read the book aloud and then listen to the recording while reading the pages at the same time. Search out the experience of a reader reading your book. This will help you create a viable novel.

I hope my thoughts here help you write your own work. Come back next week. Seize the day.

This week's doodle is "From My Sketchbook":

Something true but I don't understand it.
Great, big, serious novels always get awards. If it's a battle between a great, big, serious novel and a funny novel, the funny novel is doomed. Neil Gaiman

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Writing Novels: Memory

Hi, peeps. I'm taking January to talk about writing novels (not selling them.) Novels change me. On each journey, I find a piece of myself and leave it on the page. My second novel was a very different experience than my first. I knew in a moment. This novel came to me in a flash. It was born of a memory, you know that memory, the one from childhood, the emotional rich memory that somehow dwells in the now, not in the long ago.

For me it was when a tornado ripped through my parents property when I was 13-year-old. I was alone, my family had gone into town. The sun was shining, but part of the sky just slapped down and hit the Earth. I watched as the dozen or so outbuildings were ripped apart behind the house. Trees were torn out of the ground. The house shook like it made out of pixie sticks. That memory still haunts my dreams.

The memory boiled up during a writing exercise and when it did I knew I had a book. I was taking one of Peggy King Anderson's most brilliant classes. If you live in the Seattle area, really try to work one in your schedule. The exercise was write a emotion rich memory and rewrite that memory as fiction. She encouraged us to write the first memory that came to us. The pages poured out of me. I left class and couldn't stop writing.

Then I switched to a fiction voice, and immediately a character seemed to jump out of my head onto the page. This girl, I knew, I knew her as well as my own children. It was electrifying. Chapters grew. This was nothing like my first novel. I had no outline, nothing. I just wrote. And in maybe six months, I had written a middle grade novel. I rewrote the whole thing and in a year had a solid draft.

This one brought me close to the bone. It made me understand that wildness could be a real asset in writing a novel. I wrote everywhere. I took my laptop the ballet practice, gymnastics, band, and the school queue and I'd balance it on my steering wheel and write. I didn't waste a moment.

I hope you mine you memories, folks. Energy lurks there that will propel your work forward. See you next week.

This week's doodle is a personal fav. I call it, "Yoda was wrong. Try there is!"

My quote this week is another one to tuck in your soul. I really wish RWE and I had been friends.

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Writing Novels: Genesis

Hi folks, I thought I would take a few posts and discuss my novel writing process. First, the disclaimers, one, I've never had a published novel, and, two, my process is like chipping away at a marble with a firm belief that there is some great art in my mess of words. That said, I have written several novels and have learned a thing or two in the process.

It took me a while to write my first draft, about seven years all together. I did have four children in that time so that slowed me down some. The lack of a good idea slowed me down too. I started several novels, I'd get 30 or 40 pages in, and the whole thing would fizzle. I'd grow bored with the project; some other idea would come to me, and I'd find myself chasing the new idea. I found after a while that I kept circling around one idea -- human fragility, especially our minds. I finally got a draft together of a story that began as a picture book. The first idea of it came to me back in the late eighties.

I wrote character sketches of each of the main characters, and I also worked on creating a pile of unrelated what-if scenes about my novel idea. I created a complex timeline for the book. I drew maps. I also wrote a synopsis for each chapter. Then I began to work every day and over the course of about two years I created a solid draft. It was a such a feeling of power. I printed the whole thing in a paperback size and took it to the local printer and placed it in comb-binding. I can't tell you what euphoria I felt. I really had unrolled something that felt quite original up next to every other book I had ever seen. At least that what I felt.

I sent it out and immediately got some feedback that shocked me. The readers disliked my main character. They felt she was so negative, impossible to empathize with, I can tell you now that was a shattering blow, because I liked her, really, I loved her. Out came the box of tissues and a good messy cry ensued. Then I rolled my arm sleeves and worked some more.

Even though these professionals didn't care for her, I decided it must be my writing that was the problem. I loved her. I decided to try some different tactics to get others to see what I saw in this character. I also began to learn one of the most important "writing lessons." Novels dwell somewhere in our souls, and they must be teased and tricked out onto the page to truly come to life.

I went about that work. I wrote the whole novel in first person and then wrote it third person, trying to find a way to reveal my story so that everyone in the world could connect to it. After that, I sent it to a few publishers and was surprised this time when quite a number wrote back, expressing that I had many many good ideas but my story still lacked BIG TIME. There were paragraphs about my many problems, and I didn't have a clue how to fix the things that they were concerned about. So I just told them thank you for the advice, and, after curling up with a box of tissues and having another good cry fest, wrestled with the manuscript some more on my own, to see if I could shape my book into something viable.

How did I do this? I tore apart scenes and rewrote and rewrote them. I expanded side characters. I dug as far into imagery as I could. And I made that main character as honest as I knew how. My work paid off to a small degree. Folks began to like the main character, but they kept saying the book as a whole just failed to hold them, failed to make them love it. And finally, after showing at few more times and no one else really giving it a look, I shoved it to the back of the closet. Many call this trunking the manuscript.

My manuscript is still in the back of the closet, not forever though. This one, I believe deserves the light of day, but I need to be a more seasoned writer to take it on. Whenever I have a good idea about it -- I have had several, I pull it out and write some notes on it, I then I tuck it away. I put it away in hopes my novel skills will grow enough some day to do the book justice. I am still hopeful.

So what did I do then? I started another novel, the essense of novel genesis to me.

I hope that you keep wrestling with your art and don't give up.

Here is a pencil drawing I call "Piano in the Wilderness".

This week's quote is good advice.

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The First Day

Ah, another year, is here. I feel open to endless possibilities. I hope this new year I find so many more ways to find community. I long that dormant dreams spring to life, that new things come to all our doors. I dream of a shifting of the tides to better days. I believe above all things that if there is anything in us we don't like, we can change. I stretch open my arms and welcome this new year.

I have some simple goals. I want to be more sensitive to others. I hope to dive into the deepest thoughts. I welcome explosions of insight. I'm hungry for good company. I want to be a decent friend. I am always so humbled by the people I know. I'm blessed to know the best of the best.

Here's to a year of beautiful things springing from the dirt. May the creator of all things shine upon us. May we find peace. May we find good words. May we find the art of our soul. And as mother always said to me, may you find the desire of your own heart.

As you can tell, I am wanting spring. So here is my doodle: Louisiana Iris.

The first quote of the year, a foolish notion.

Oh wad some power the giftie gie us To see oursel's as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us, And foolish notion: what airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us, an' ev'n devotion!

In case you can't piece it out:

O would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!

Robert Burns