For me, space matters.

Over the last week I was out of town visiting family in another state. I stayed in a converted guest room, but it wasn’t set up with a desk or table space. Plus, it was in a different building than the house where my family members were staying, which meant I only slept in the guest room and spent most of my awake time in the living space with perpetual TV and random chatting, and dogs barking, and cooking. Because I wanted to stick with my writing schedule, I pulled out my laptop and attempted to do some writing during all the TV watching and people meandering.

I was unsuccessful. By that I mean that I was not able to concentrate in any fashion in a creative way. By that I mean I didn’t write a single word. I could barely read what I had written on previous days. There was just too much going on.

I had brought the laptop with me on this trip with the goal of getting much writing done. I expected to have much downtime, which I did. It just wasn’t distraction-free downtime. I work most days of the week on creative things of one sort or another, but I didn’t anticipate my need for functional writing space. I have a studio in my house where I do all the writing, editing, painting, etc. It’s small, but functional, and it is a space specifically for creative work. I need this space to get things done. I know this. The muse knows this. When I go in this room, the brain clicks over automatically into creative work mode, though it did take some time before that happened.

But, I assumed I could continue with my writing schedule regardless of travel because…I don’t know. I should know better. But that’s want normal writers do, right? When they go someplace out of the ordinary, they still write. They still meet their word counts. But not me, apparently.

Why?

Because my brain is like a busy magpie distracted by shiny things. My brain is busy like catching bunnies on a wild rabbit farm. Picture this: you have one acre of land and you surround it with a bunny-proof wire fence. Inside the fence are 10,000 rabbits. Some are happy rabbits. Some are lazy rabbits. Some rabbits are doing their best to outsmart coyotes. But all are rabbits hopping down the bunny trail or following a random thought down a rabbit hole. There is always movement. THEN, you grab five toddlers and you put them in with the rabbits and you tell all the toddlers to get a bunny. Get a bunny! Rabbits are hopping everywhere. Toddlers are running and tripping and squealing. It’s happy madness.

I know this about myself and this is why I have made concerted effort to create a space to write that works for me. The distractions are difficult to overcome otherwise and nothing gets done. I must corral the rabbits, and to do that I need to be consistent and have a regular place and time.

Here’s the thing. Each writer is unique, and each has different requirements to get the job done. I need a dedicated space. Period. In the future, I will take that need into consideration when traveling. Hopefully.

What about you? Do  you know if this is an issue for you? Do you have rabbits? Do you need a dedicated space to get your writing done? Do you need a dedicated writing time to get your writing done? Every day? Are you doing everything that you can possibly do to help yourself be successful at this chosen profession? Are you? Or are you waiting for the muse to show up with random gusts of creativity in between herds of pesky rabbits?

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Subplot

In my current work in progress, I realized that I wanted a B story, or subplot. I felt I needed a way to tie in the book’s theme with the character’s arc that was outside the main action of the plot. I had set up the basic outline of the main story, but it was lacking the emotional punch I wanted it to have, hence the subplot idea. Now that I have the subplot in mind, I feel the story will be stronger over all, and I am more confident that I will have a better opportunity to entertain my readers.

A subplot is the secondary plot that supports the main thread of action by adding dimension and depth. Ideally the subplot will raise the stakes for the main character. Subplots should add complexity and should also help the story’s pacing, as well as improve on characterization because you can show different aspects of the character’s personality that you may not otherwise be able to do (well).

Note that the subplot should begin and end with the main story line. All the loose ends should be wrapped up before the climax of the main story. Subplots should:

  • Advance the story incrementally (no big chunks of subplot)
  • Show the transformative forces on your main character
  • Reveal information about your main character to the reader
  • Provide plot twists
  • Adjust the story’s pacing as necessary
  • Create mood
  • Solve any story problems that exist in the main plot line
  • Can help establish backstory for your character

The subplot also needs a beginning, middle, and ending, just like the main plot line

  • Give the main character goals and motivations in the subplot
  • Make it difficult for the main character to achieve the goal in the subplot
  • Bring the subplot to a satisfying ending

Let’s look at a subplot that is visible in a movie.

If you haven’t seen it before, watch “The Princess Bride.” If you have seen it before, think about the threads of the movie and how they intertwine. Those are subplots.

The movie revolves around the romance of Buttercup and Westley, but when Westley leaves to seek his fortune, his ship is attacked by the Dread Pirate Robert (the attack happens off screen). Meanwhile, thinking Westley dead for the last five years, Buttercup agrees to marry Florin’s Prince Humperdinck. On her way to the wedding, she is kidnapped by three bandits – this is the beginning of one of the subplots. Inigo Montoya (one of the bandits) is on a quest to avenge his father’s death. You probably know the dialogue: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

This subplot leads the audience into a deeper emotional connection with all the characters and they learn that indeed Westley is alive, has become the Dread Pirate Robert, and intends to win back Buttercup, meanwhile helping Inigo Montoya to avenge his father’s death. And all the character’s story arcs are resolved by the climax of the movie. We learn all that we know about the characters through the subplots of the movie. The film is a great visual example of the plot vs subplot concept.

Remember that whatever the subplot, it should serve the purpose of moving the story forward and it should tie in with the main story line. If your novel seems to be lacking emotional depth, have pacing issues, or need conflict, consider adding a subplot.

 

 

What Can Go Wrong?

I’ve been continuing to work on my outline of my new book each morning for half an hour and am slowly working through each aspect of my story. I have the story idea in my head clearly, but when it gets to the nuts and bolts out outlining there is some work involved to flesh out the characters, the voice and tone, all of the craft elements, and polishing the overall concept. It’s more difficult than you might think. I know how the story begins. I know the climax. I know the ending. I know what it is I want to say (premise). But what happens in between these chapters and how do these other chapters move the story forward in a way that is logical, full of conflict, and reveals important information to the reader? Hence the outline.

This process of outlining BEFORE I write a single word makes sure I have a viable story concept, that the story will meet genre requirements, ensure that my characters are not flat, and ensure that there is tension on every page without wasting valuable time writing without a plan and by the seat of my pants for days, weeks, or months on chapters and scenes that won’t work in the end and would just get edited out of the story.

Ideally, the plot and structure of the novel will be clearly in place before the creation process begins. Makes sense right? But I still have to know the basic details of every scene beforehand.

I’ve structured my document so I know where the major plot points are but I am still working through what happens in each chapter and how those events move the story forward. If not thought out in advance it is easy for me to lose tension on the pages (no tension equates to boring). If not thought out beforehand I might also make things too easy for my characters. Nothing should be too easy for my characters. Ever. Easy is boring.

To circumnavigate the issue of not enough tension I started adding a brainstorming process to each section/chapter/scene

I type out:

WHAT CAN GO WRONG?

What I mean by that is what can happen in the chapter that the character doesn’t expect, is contrary to their plans, or can become a surprise direction they (and hopefully the reader) didn’t expect. Then I brainstorm with bullet points on all the possible things that can go wrong whether they work for the story concept or not. The goal is just to get as many contrary ideas on the page as possible. Wackadoodle (a technical term) is okay. Logical is okay. I just brainstorm.

Below is an example of the process for a funeral scene for the main character’s family member.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG? (Funeral Scene)

  • Someone at the funeral commits public suicide out of guilt or grief
  • It is discovered that it’s the wrong body in the casket
  • The character breaks out in laughter while giving the eulogy
  • No one comes
  • The pastor gives the wrong eulogy (for the wrong person)
  • The video presentation is for somebody else
  • Someone drops the ashes and they scatter everywhere
  • The pallbearers drop the coffin
  • The characters follow the wrong hearse to the funeral site
  • The deceased’s cell phone goes off (in the casket)
  • Two secret girlfriends of the deceased discover each other and fight over the body
  • The church catches on fire
  • The body animates as a zombie and jumps out of the coffin
  • Etc…

Obviously whether the body is cremated or embalmed will direct some of these actions (which forces me to decide if the body will be creamed or embalmed for the funeral…which triggers the idea that the characters could fight over whether the body should be cremated or embalmed before the funeral…So now I have a note in the outline to sketch the scene about the fight over cremation and embalming, and more work for tomorrow morning.

Of course, not all of these ideas are appropriate for the story, nor will they work for the direction things need to go. Since I am not writing a zombie book, it’s not likely that the body would animate as a zombie. But, my character could visualize this happening. My character could also worry that the church catching on fire, and her dead family member runs out of the burning church at their own funeral, for example. Hmmm. Maybe. It would create tension.

The point of this exercise is that the brainstorming process helps me figure out interesting ideas and directions for my story while I am still in the outlining stage. Most likely I wouldn’t even think of these things if I just wrote without an outline. But then I would have to rewrite and revise and workshop ideas when I got stuck because I didn’t know where the story should go (writer’s block).

If you haven’t outlined before, I recommend you try it. Take your time and really think about the overall arc of the story, the plot points, the voice and tone, mood, all of those things. Think about your premise. Think about the potential conflict and trauma you can put your character through. Don’t make it too easy (for them or you). Think about all the possible things that can go wrong. It’ll be worth your time.

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Creating a Regular Writing Schedule and Other Stuff

It’s been a while since I’ve been on a regular blogging schedule and, quite honestly, I can’t even remember what my last topic was. Much has happened in the last few months I’ve been absent. My elderly folks got in a car accident (they are home now and doing much better) which derailed me for a few weeks, I got vertigo (which is so horrible it both sucks and blows and I am hoping it totally goes away any second now), my book came out (with minimal pomp and circumstance due to the vertigo etc.), and lots of work and time has been given for Colorado Gold (The annual writer’s conference for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers). And I still run the publishing house which is a never-ending round-robin of submissions even with a couple interns and a solid cohort of editors. I’ve needed a nap on most days! But alas, napping is not my forte.

I’ve finally got myself back on a basic writing schedule. Because, you know, I want to write books and stuff. It’s not much of a schedule, about 30 minutes at 6am, but it’s a start and given physical and emotional dealings of late I’ll take what I can get. I’ve blocked out the time on my calendar and for the last many days have been working on a story idea, because even though my inclination is to just write, I know that I will save time and frustration and end up with a better book by going through the outline process, and the character development process (Oh! That’s what the last blog topic was!), doing all the research, figuring out the ending, the theme, the premise, and all the other steps of planning and outlining before I write a word. I wasn’t so thorough with the pre-planning on the last book, and I definitely learned my lesson.

So how do you create a regular writing schedule?

Everyone is different and will have a different process but this is how I do it.

  1. I create a comfortable writing space. I can’t work in clutter. It’s distracting and makes me tense. Consequently, my desk is clean. I have tasks to do (always) but for me, I can put those aside if they are organized. I know those tasks aren’t going anywhere and when I want or need to work on them I can. But for writing, I need a clean space to write. No little pieces of paper or sticky notes, or stacks of bills, or piles of editing. Just desk, mouse, keyboard, screen. And coffee or libation of choice. That’s a given for me. You probably are different. Do what you need to do to create a comfortable writing space. On the toilet? Sure. Whatever works for you. The main point is that I need to get my ass in a chair in order to write.
  2. I block out some time on the calendar. If I don’t block out writing time, it is the easiest thing in the world to push aside when something pressing barges its way into my schedule. Since I am much more creative in the morning than I am at other times of the day, I block out time before work. Right now, 30 minutes is what I can do if I want to get everything else done too without having to get up at 4am. I am getting up around 5:30am which is as early as I want to get up at the moment. But as it becomes more and more a habit again to write each morning, all the morning tasks will start to flow and the schedule may get adjusted. I’ve been in that place before where I am writing consistently and will get in that place again. It’s the creating the habit that is hard for me. I’d rather sleep in. Maybe you are a night owl and you are most creative at 2am. Fine. Have a glass of warm milk and write at 2am. The main point is to get your ass in a chair and write.
  3. I use Scrivener (and no I don’t get any kickbacks for referrals). It is inexpensive at $45 and is very good for outlining and organizing notes, and character bios, photos, research, and writing. It works similarly to Word. It’s sort of like a digital writing binder that is easy to organize and access information. It has some learning curve to it, but if you can stomach the Youtube videos it might help you out too with outlining and such. You can try it for free for a month or so if you want to. (https://www.literatureandlatte.com) If you prefer Word or Pages then use Word or Pages. Or OpenOffice. Or whatever. Just use whatever you use and write regularly.
  4. I work on whatever I feel like working on for that 30 minutes. If I need to develop a character I do that. If that triggers a plot idea, I sketch that in. As ideas come, I adjust the plot line. If I need to brainstorm an idea to see how that feels I do that. And I don’t stress about anything. I just work for 30 minutes on the story and all that goes with it, and then I am done for the day. My deadline is a 30-minute deadline. Maybe you are more comfortable with an hour. Or two (glutton). Or eight (censored). The point is to block out the time and use that time consistently for writing. Books don’t write themselves.
  5. By writing every day for 30 minutes I create a routine that becomes a habit. Over time I can extend my schedule, or word count or whatever I need to do, but right now I just need a routine that I can follow. Maybe this is the lazy writer’s way by writing in 30-minute blocks, but it works for me. When I get to actual writing I figure I can write at least 250 words in 30 minutes. 250 words is a page. If I do that every day for a year I will have a 365-page book. It’s wonky writer’s math but at the moment I’ll take what I can get. I write much faster than that if I know where I am going, hence the need for outlining.

Here’s the most important thing. The muse comes with consistency. When you are in the habit of writing on a regular schedule, your subconscious brain is always working on stuff because it has the expectation that it needs to work on stuff. The routine matters. If you just write when you feel like it you most likely won’t finish anything in a timely fashion. If you don’t feel like writing but you write anyway, you will write a book.

 

A Trick of the Light - Brooks, Susan

Character Development Part 4

Character Development Part 4

We’ve been talking about how to make sure your characters are three-dimensional people rather than Flat Stanley. We have been chatting about the four things that readers learn from novels.

Who

What

Why

Why Not

You know who your characters are now. You know more about them than you did before. You know their past and their idiosyncrasies. You know their biggest fears. You know their physical features and jobs. You know your characters better than you know yourself and all of that knowledge is necessary for you to write them well.

The characters are the who part of this concept. Now let’s look at the what part.

The what part is about what your character wants. It’s the goal part. It’s that elusive thing that your character wants to obtain or accomplish. If your character has no goal, well then, they are a weak and boring character.

What is a goal?

A goal, according to the dictionary, is the result or achievement toward which effort is directed. A goal is your character’s aim. And it is your character’s goal that helps your reader to feel your character’s conflict when they aim to achieve or obtain said goal.

What does your character want?

Think about this. Your character should want what they don’t have. This want should equate to having a determined need. They are desperate for this goal. They just gotta have it, gotta reach it. Failure is not an option. The goal has got to be an urgent thing.

When people need something, they tend to act against their own self-interest. Think addiction (apologies to any with this issue – it’s not my intention to make light). Deep down, people don’t want to be an addict. The issue is that they need the drug (or sex, or cigarettes, or gambling, or whatever). The need is beyond their ability to overcome (in this moment).

The goal has to be important enough that your character will move heaven and earth to obtain said goal. They will endure hardship. They are willing to risk their life. If they fail, life will be more than just disagreeable to them; life will be unbearable. The goal must also be urgent. Urgency is paramount to your character’s goal. Not only must they have this thing, they must have it NOW.

Really?

Yes.

Be thinking about your character’s goal. Next time we will consider what kinds of goals are good ones.