Archive | December, 2007

Susan Wraps Up With A Pact

We’re wrapping up a series of guest blogs posts by novelist Susan Meissner today. Susan’s been talking about “Writing 300 Pages in 30 Days” which is a creditable goal. I think most people would be happy to do 300 pages in 60 days. Today, Susan talks about making a pact with yourself to get it done.

Susan writes:

First a question from Tami:

“Can I use an inanimate object as my protag? It’s a wonderful old house built in 1863 . . .”

My feeling is you can do whatever you want if it works. The thing about a protag is that he or she or it has to drive the plot with a quest of some kind and we have to emotionally connect with that quest; we have to understand what they want and care about whether or not they get it. In the movie The Fellowship of the Ring, the ring of power is definitely a thinking member of the Antagonist’s team. When Gandalf tells Frodo that the ring wants to be found, we believe it. What you suggest can be done, but it won’t be easy. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try and see how it goes, though. Now then, on to making a pact. Anytime you take on a goal that will tax you on every front, it’s a good idea to know what you will be up against. What inhibits me as a writer is my love affair with procrastination and my tolerance of outside distractions. I don’t know why writers are such good procrastinators, but I’m thinking it’s because once we begin to bleed our words onto paper, it is hard to go back to the place where there was nothing. It’s easier to look at a blank canvas than to try clean up misplaced paint strokes.

But if you really want to make the most of your writing time, if you want to accomplish a lot of writing in an abbreviated time span, you have to slay the Procrastination Monster. You need to make a pact. You need to decide how many quality pages or words you will produce each day and then you need to make a contract that is binding.  I like to produce 7-8 pages, or about 2,000 words a day when I am in write mode. And I do allow myself seasons when I am not writing. Like right now. I am not writing this month. But I will be in January.

It is not easy to write 2,000 words a day when you lead a busy life and you’ve got other responsibilities like a part-time or full-time job. I work on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Writing 2,000 words when I’ve already put in an 8 or 9-hour day is a tall order. I hardly ever do it, but I’ve made no pact with myself for those days. But by golly, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I put in the time. And if I can crank out 3,000 words on those days, I do. If you really want to write 300 pages in 30 days, and I am not suggesting you do, you will need to come up with about 2,200 words a day, every day. I am perfectly happy writing 8-10,000 words a week these days, that’s what I aim for.

When I’m in write mode, I simplify my life as much as possible. For those six to 10- weeks that I am pounding out a manuscript, I make almost every meal in the crock pot. I highly recommend “Fix it and Forget It,” a fabulous slow-cooker cookbook that contains dozens upon dozens of main dishes. No pictures, but you don’t need those. You need ease. If you want to know which recipes are the best (since you can’t see them) you just ask and I will happily write down all the favorites that have served me well over the ten books I have written.

I also eliminate distractions by turning off my email program while I am writing and save blog-reading for after I’ve met my quota. If I’ve got a good start going, I reward myself every 500 words with checking my email (no answering, just checking) and reading one blog. Email and blogs are tremendous time stealers. Use them as rewards, don’t tolerate them as distractions.

Making a pact usually requires two parties. You can make a pact with just yourself but sometimes it’s hard to enforce the agreement. I recommend you ask someone to hold you accountable. Ideally, this would be your spouse, best friend, and/or your kids. My feeling here is that you need these people on your side, maybe even on your back. Their lives will be a little different while you are creating your masterpiece and if you make them an integral part of your plan they become accomplices to your feat and not interruptions to avoid. If they are endowed with the power to hold you to your page or count quota, they won’t feel left out.  Let them enforce it.  Come up with consequences to any infractions. Make the consequences fun for them, painful for you.  And by all means, plan to reward your family for standing with you during your adventure. Save some money and time after the job is done for a day that’s all about them.

There is no perfect formula to writing a book just like there’s no formula for painting joy. There are only tools at your disposal: many colors on the palette, many kinds of brushes, many kinds of canvas. You need to decide which way fits the artist within you.

I hope what I have shown you is a formula for writing a good book, not a formula for writing fast. My way of writing a book happens to be fast, but that has always been incidental. It’s the pre-writing that enables me to pull it together faster than the average. It’s my way. But it may not be your way.

You’ve got to enjoy the journey or it’s just not worth it. Make sure you enjoy the process and the story that emerges.  Worldwide renown and accompanying mega-bucks only come to a handful of authors. You gotta love it for the journey it takes you on. The journey you choose.

It’s been my pleasure to chat with all of you. Randy, thanks for letting me lounge around on your front porch for awhile.

Randy sez: Thanks, Susan, for being with us! I’ve learned a few tricks from you, and you’ve reminded me once again of many tricks that I need reminding about. So thank you!

Wesley asked:

Thanks Susan for the excellent info. I don’t know if this question is more for Randy, but how would one “plot” a historical novel? Since we know what happend, at least “plot wise”. Randy how did you “plot” the CoG Series? Was there any difference in “plotting” CoG vs Double vision? If so what were they?

Randy have you ever heard of, or tried yWriter4? It’s a cool program, so cool in fact the it has replaced your speadsheet. Sorry Randy. And it’s totally free! Man I sound like a used car salesman. You can get it at: www.spacejock.com

Randy sez: Plotting a historical novel is just like plotting any other kind, except that you are given some of the events already when you are writing a historical novel, and you have to incorporate those into the story. In the CITY OF GOD series (set in the years A.D. 57-66 in Jerusalem), I had a number of events that I knew had happened. The challenges were:
1) To figure out what actually happened (the sources are often vague)
2) To show those events that are relevant to the storyline
3) Blend them smoothly into the storyline
4) Ignore those events not relevant to the storyline

Every story is about SOMEBODY, and your challenge as a novelist is to figure out what that SOMEBODY wants and why they can’t have it (or must delay getting it for about 300 pages). It’s a little trickier when some of your characters are historical persons, because then you have to figure out their motivations instead of make them up. But the basic problems are the same.

Thanks for the link to the SpaceJock site. I have not tried the yWriter4 software. Didn’t know it existed until now. I checked it out just now and it is a Windows-only program. I can run Windows on my Mac, but I prefer not to.

A little housekeeping note: The Christmas holidays are approaching, and for me that means taking a few days off. This blog will go quiet from now until roughly the New Year. Then I’ll be back for another year of blogging on organizing, creating, and marketing your fiction! See ya then!

Susan Tackles Plot

We’re continuing with a series of guest blogs by novelist Susan Meissner on the subject of “Writing 300 Pages in 30 Days.” Today, Susan talks about Plot:

Susan writes:

Once I have a firm grip on my cast of characters and I feel very comfortable with my settings, I produce for myself a map of how I am going to get my characters from page 1 to page 300. Getting my characters from page 1 to page 300 is my plot. And the map enables me to get there. You can call it an outline if you want, but a lot of people don’t like that word. I don’t even like it. If people ask me if I outline, I have to answer that I do. But that doesn’t make me the antithesis of a seat-of-the-pants writer. When I wrote “Blue Heart Blessed” (coming out in Feb ’08), I tried for days to come up with a scene-by-scene game plan. The thing refused to be outlined more than a couple chapters a time. So I went with the muse. I had to. My “map” was recreated every five days and I call that outlining by the seat of your pants. Outlining or mapping is simply visualizing where you will go, if not for the entire journey, then at least every few days. I need to have a map to keep me focused and writing. The map keeps me from sitting at the wheel of my writing vehicle staring at the road ahead, engine idling, and not going anywhere

I begin my map with creating one stupendous sentence that encapsulates my story in a nutshell. In Hollywood they call this the high concept. The 15-second elevator pitch. It’s the gist of the tale in one powerfully worded sentence that reveals my destination. It also suggests what felt need I will expose within the story. Creating the HC can take several days. Honestly this nut graf can be the hardest thing you will ever write.  But you will use this lovely sentence, not only to keep your bearings as you write but also to pitch this story to acquiring editors. They love it when you can tell them with one powerful hook what your story is about.

When I have this treasure, my high concept, I begin to make the map. You can use a story board, or note cards or a spreadsheet. I don’t like any of those devices to tell you the truth. I like a yellow legal pad, a mechanical pencil and a Diet Coke with lime. I number a page 1 to 40 because most of my books are told in 40 scenes or chapters, about 7-8 pages each. Then I begin to plot the 40-scene journey with the pencil while sipping the Coke.

When you begin mapping out your story’s journey, you will want to be thinking about the major turns your story must take to get you where you want to go. Most novels have several key twists and turns. These are events that change the course of the story. Readers expect them. That’s what keeps them turning pages. If we take the epic novel Gone With The Wind, we can see the major turns Margaret Mitchell mapped out for her characters. You can think of them like this: 1. War is declared and Scarlett marries a man she doesn’t love. 2. The South is defeated and Rhett kisses Scarlett while Atlanta burns. 3. Scarlett cannot pay the taxes on Tara and again marries a man she doesn’t love. 4. Rhett finally marries the widowed Scarlett, they have a child. 5. The marriage hits a terrible snag and then, the worst thing happens, their beloved child dies. 6. Scarlett realizes (Finally!) she loves Rhett, not Ashley. There are probably other key turning events in a novel of this size, but most of us will be writing 85,000-word manuscripts or less. If you can dream up four to five key turning points, (and spread them out) you’ll be in excellent shape.

Your first turning point should happen sometime in the first quarter, (for me, scene 6) a second one at half-time (scene 18) another one or two in the third quarter (scenes 25 and 34) and a life-defining turn in the fourth quarter, (scene 39) which is your climax. In GWTW, this is when Bonnie dies. It’s not the end of the book, it’s the conflict at its zenith. The other turns should all pivot on the central conflict. They should drive home what’s at stake. They should bring out your protagonist’s best and worst qualities. The escalation of your conflict, with these key plot points, is your story arc: A half circle that starts at point A heads north to a rising battle against some kind of antagonistic threat and ends at point F or G with some kind of resolution.

Like crafting a high concept, mapping out your key plot points can be difficult, because we aren’t as familiar with the story and its characters now as we will be when we are actually writing. Remember you are only making a map. You’re not buying all the land between San Diego and Houston. As you travel you can change your mind about which roads you want to take and which stops you want to make along the way. You are still the one in charge.

With “Blue Heart Blessed,” I redid the 40-scene blotter a zillion times. Okay, maybe 10. But having it kept me writing every day. I still finished the thing in 10 weeks. Outlining your plot doesn’t imprison you. Not by a long shot. It frees you to write.

So how do you know what to plot for scenes 6, 18, 25, 34 and 39? Well, just think of all the things that could possibly go wrong for your character. Then make them happen.

Randy sez: Once again, Susan and I are on the same page. Fans of the Snowflake method will note that Susan’s “high concept” is my “one-sentence summary. And her 40-line sheet of paper is very similar to my spreadsheet. (By the way, I also shoot for about 40 chapters in my novels. It’s a nice number. This usually works out to 80 to 100 scenes.) The nice thing about a spreadsheet is that you can easily copy it when you’re ready to try a new version of it.

Unlike Susan, I would never admit to “outlining.” I don’t outline. I think one reason novelists hate “outlines” is that they conjure up images of Mean Mrs. Murphy from the sixth grade, who made us write outlines using Roman numerals, then capital letters, then Arabic numbers, then lower-case letters, etc. Half the battle was remembering which labels to use. The other half was figuring out what to do when you suddenly realized you needed to move a whole “tree” up a level.

I design my novels, but no Roman numerals are killed in order to create my stories. So if someone asked me. if I “outline,” I’d have to say no.

Here, I must take issue with Susan. Diet Coke? No way! I don’t drink “Diet” anything. I want the real-sugar deal. Maybe next time I’m working on my Snowflake, I’ll try a Classic Coke.

You will note that Susan likes about 5 major turning points whereas I like 3. Suit yourself, folks. The idea is to have a story structure that your reader can keep inside her head. The average person can keep about 7 things in their mind at once. After that, they have to start “chunking” things together. I like 3 because the Rule of Three is a major design pattern that is imprinted on our brains. Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a classic example. Any number of fairy tales have 3 brothers who must make their way in the world, or 3 suitors for the princess, etc. It’s a nice number.

By the way, Susan has said nothing about writing those pesky synopses. We talked quite a bit about those last summer. Most writers hate synopses, partly because they confuse them with outlines and partly because synopses are boring. They are boring because they are narrative summary, so we have a tendency to want to “show, not tell” and then the synopsis starts getting long and we wonder why we need the blasted thing. Since we covered all this long ago, I’ll say only that Susan’s 40 lines is a good start to writing a synopsis.

If I’m not mistaken, Susan has one more step in her process. If so, she’ll write a post on it tomorrow. In the meantime, feel free to ask her any questions you might have! I will be taking time off from blogging for a few days around Christmas, so we’ll be wrapping up this discussion shortly.

Susan on Setting

We’re continuing a discussion of “Writing 300 Pages in 30 Days” with novelist Susan Meissner. Yesterday, Susan talked about setting, and that prompted me to ask more about how setting is like a character, something I’ve touched on in my e-zine this past year.

Susan writes today:

ML Eqatin (from yesterday’s post) makes a good point when she says that for her, setting is plot, not character. Plots are ideas in flux; they move, they change, they nearly breathe. I can get behind that. The important thing to keep in mind, and what these two concepts have in common, is that setting is more than simple geography. It should matter to your story. A rich setting is what makes a story memorable. Remember, too, that there is one over-arching setting but dozens of secondary settings within a book

I am including a few excerpts from a couple favorite reads and one from one of my own books to show you what I mean by making your setting a character; a driver of your plot. “How is it done?” was a popular response to yesterday’s post (and I appreciate your comments, by the way). So here we go.

Allowing your setting to speak or influence your characters’ actions is accomplished best when no one can tell that’s what you’re doing. It’s all about being subtle. Done right, it shouts its meaning, but so beautifully no one thinks to cover their ears. Here’s an example from “Ahab’s Wife,” a terrific book by Sena Jeter Naslund. In this scene, a number of people are in a lifeboat after their whaling ship has sunk. They are quickly running out of water and food and there is no land in sight and no other ships. The outlook is dire. And the sparkling sea on which they will soon perish is completely disinterested, not a care in the world:

“Our days were spent in glitter, dazzle. Sometime the cups of light were small as thimbles, sometimes big as bowls. They rocked, they danced, they could not stand still. Not when I thought so loudly as I could Be still! did they cease their clapping of hands, their kicking up of heels. Ceaselessly moving, endlessly spreading water. Colors: green, blue, slate, gold. Pink at sunset. Us: groaning. Feeble. Angry with a smoldering more malignant than try-pots.”

The sea is mocking this hopeless predicament, but Naslund never says that. She lets the descriptive words communicate the truth that the sea doesn’t care one iota what happens to these unlucky travelers

In Leif Enger’s “Peace Like a River,” Reuben’s gifted father, who is mourning the loss of innocence at home, arrives to his menial janitorial job to a sewer system that has gone on strike. Brace yourself. Reuben narrates:

“How much detail do you need? How much can you stand? I’ll spare you beyond saying that when Dad got to school Monday morning he encountered a basement shin deep in evil, a swamp of soft terrors afloat and submerged: a furnace choked and dead, a smell to poise your wits to fight.”

The setting here is as bad as it gets. This horrible little interlude has nothing to do with the obvious plot, but it subtly suggests things are about to get really bad for this family. Really bad.

This next one is from “A Map of the World” by Jane Hamilton. In this scene, Alice the protagonist is at the hospital waiting to hear if the neighbor girl, who was in her care and who fell into her pond while Alice was inside pondering lost dreams, is dead or alive.

“The morning Lizzy fell into the pond stretched through three calendar days. In the hospital, in the lounge that had no windows, there was no signal to distinguish day from night except the sound of the meal carts coming and going, the smell of eggs or broth or breaded veal cutlets. . .  Time and seasons were for others, for bankers and bus drivers, teachers and storekeepers. We would wait. We would wait, hour after hour, in the subzero maroon-and-blue enclosure with a rubber plant for oxygen.”

Can you already tell that the setting, this hospital waiting room, is telling us Lizzy is gone?

The last one is from my fall 2008 release, “The Shape of Mercy.” Lauren, my protagonist, is a sophomore literature major who has been hired to transcribe a 400-year-old diary (Mercy Hayworth’s if you’ve been reading these posts the last few days) for a reclusive octogenarian named Abigail.

“Abigail’s library was overly-furnished, exploding with paintings, tiered candles, vases of flowers, pillows and cushions, and bursting, bursting, bursting with books. While the sitting room appeared as if no one had sat there in years, the library looked as though Abigail spent every waking moment in it, surrounded on all sides by piles and stacks and cases of books. It was the first time in my life I was surrounded by books and felt uneasy. Only half of them were housed on shelves. The rest were loose, unfettered, poised as if to attack. Abigail pointed to an armchair that sat among towers of pages stacked around the chair like scaffolding. I walked to the chair, sat down, and minded my ankles as if the books closest to me might nip at my feet. Abigail sat across from me in a chair like mine, surrounded by Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer and Socrates.”

I wanted the library to convey what Abigail is like. I wanted her piles of books to appear like yapping dogs that are suspicious of everyone, fiercely loyal to their owner, and are not to be trusted blindly. I wanted the library to be the narrator, to illustrate with words what we can expect from Abigail.

To write these scenes you would need to know how the ocean undulates in the summer months, how a backed-up sewer smells, what a hospital waiting room without windows is like and how an over-furnished room with too many books in it will make you feel. Knowing these fine details upfront and then using them to your advantage lets you create unforgettable scenes but without losing your writing momentum

Better stop for now. But to quickly answer Cathy’s question: “Can my places have fictional names? Can I make up a small town set in a specific part of a state?” Yes, if you must. I did with my first book, “Why the Sky is Blue.”  I made up a rural Minnesota town called Blue Prairie so that I could control everything about the setting, but I made it like all the other towns in southwest Minnesota, right down to the corn and soybean fields that lined the horizon.

Randy sez: Yes, I agree. You can make up fictional names for places, if you don’t feel like using real ones. I know lots of authors who do that, and it’s perfectly OK.

Tune in again tomorrow when Susan will move on to discuss Plot . . .

Making Your Setting Sing

We’re continuing a series on “Writing 300 Pages in 30 Days” with Susan Meissner, who has generously given us a LOT of insight into the process. Susan has written a new installment today on setting:

Susan writes:

Okay, so you’ve got this great family of characters swimming laps in your head. You know their greatest hopes and dreams, you know what inspires them, infuriates them, energizes them, and immobilizes them. You know whether they like jazz or country western, coffee or tea, paper or plastic. Now you’re ready to create for them a setting that will capitalize on their strengths and weaknesses.

Before I write a word, I envision the world my characters live in. I want to know the environment that will be the backdrop for everything that happens to my fictional people. I like to make my setting a character, to endow it with character-like qualities that give my tale dimension. The setting you choose for your story should matter. It should make a difference. It should communicate something.

There are two good reasons why nearly all my novels take place in either San Diego or the Twin Cities. I know these cities. I know the weather, the lingo, the hot spots, the scary streets, how the sky looks at sunset and how far you can see on a clear day. Knowing my setting ahead of time frees me to concentrate on plucking out of it plot-driving details. If I don’t already know the setting I’ve chosen, I spend pre-writing time Googling the heck out of it. I read that city’s newspaper online, I check out the real estate ads, the society pages, the obituaries, the restaurant guide. I look at satellite photos on Google Earth, noting its streets, its topography, its airport and shopping malls. This kind of research doesn’t take as long as you might think. Once you know the anatomy of a city, and the time in which you place your characters in it, well then you can put that knowledge to work for you in adding depth to your prose without spending week after week after week at it.

For my Rachael Flynn mystery series, I placed my lawyer-nursing mother in the Twin Cities. One, because I know the Twin Cities and two, because Rachael lives two lives. She is a dedicated prosecuting attorney working on child protection cases but she is also a wife and mother. I placed her at the Ramsey County Attorney’s office in St. Paul for her job, but she lives her wife-and-mother home life across the river in the reinvented warehouse district of Minneapolis. In A Seahorse in the Thames, which I set in San Diego, I used the ocean as a metaphor for God being both vast and unknowable as well as unchanging and reliable. When you know your setting, you can use it; you can shop from it like it’s a grocery store. And please remind yourself that there is much more to the physical setting than the weather. We love to use the weather (it was a dark and stormy night) to set our stages but there are so many other very vivid scene setters at your disposal. Make use of all your senses. Every scene should include a setting that is dimensional and purposeful. And it’s not hard to do when you know your settings upfront.

I make lots of note cards about setting when I’m in pre-write mode so that when I began to actually write and the creative engine is cruising along, I don’t have to stop (which always yanks me out of character) to study the place where my characters find themselves in. Sure, there will be times you can’t always foresee where the story will go. But it’s been my experience that you know more than you think you do.

I have read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible three times, simply because the prose is breathtaking and the setting, haunting. It’s a tough read. But I admire how Kingsolver makes the Congo seem like a living breathing thing; sometimes a friend, and sometimes an enemy. It’s very powerful. I imagine she knew quite a bit about the Congo before she wrote a word. And I think her prose shows it.

Getting a firm handle on your setting will help you craft a masterful novel. And it also just happens to help you do it in less time than if you just learn as you go. When you don’t have to stop to ask for directions, it really is a nicer ride and by golly, you get to where you’re going a heck of a lot faster.

Randy sez: Great stuff, Susan! I also set one of my novels (DOUBLE VISION) in San Diego, because I lived there for 18 years and knew the geography. I had a small high-tech company in the building right next door to the office I worked in for three years. It just saved research time to write a book in a place I knew well.

Now, I’ve got a question for Susan: Can you elaborate on this thing about making your setting a character? I’ve been thinking about doing that for my next novel, and even went so far as to write an entry from the personal journal of the city where my story will be set. What do you do exactly, Susan, to make your setting live as a character in your own mind?