Archive for the ‘writing a novel’ Category

Personally, while I know that many enjoy the November writing marathon known as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I’m not personally a big fan.

I know that participants appreciate:

  • the thrilling challenge of the madcap rush to write a novel.
  • the reminder that you need to write consistently and frequently and stick with a project to finish it.
  • the camaraderie
  • the sheer pride in the plethora of pages produced

But others (and frankly, a lot of professionals in the field) caution against the “come hell or high water” plunge into the whirlpool of a novel.

It reminds me a bit of the marathon dance competition, as in the movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (“The lives of a disparate group of contestants intertwine in an inhumanely grueling dance marathon,” Substitute a few words and you have a description of writing any novel, let alone an entire novel in a month!)

Here’s a look at the issues from a perspective of a literary agent, Scott Eagen of Greyhaus Literary Agency (a small agency for romance writers), questioning the fundamental value of the popular annual literary event. A key line:

[M]y bigger issue [with NaNoWriMo] is the lack of true emphasis on the writing process that successful authors know and use religiously.

You can read the rest of Eagen’s blog post on NaNoWriMo here.

What’s your take on NaNoWriMo? Enjoyable? Productive? Useful to you as a writer? If so, how?

I’m honestly interested in what works for you. I don’t want to discourage anyone from anything that’s useful. I just want to encourage best practices . . . especially if you’re going to devote a lot of time and energy to becoming a successful writer.


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I’m not really a fan of his novels (seem a bit sappy for my taste), but I love some of the lines from this interview with Nicholas Sparks in The Daily Beast about Sparks starting a novel without much planning, and the dire problems that can ensue.

Such as: “I thought I had most of the story in my mind, and I got two thirds of the way through. It was only then that I realized I shouldn’t have started it at all.”

My favorite line from the interview:

I hit up strangers in the street for an ending.

Now after that “painful” experience, he swears by four personal rules:

  1. I have to know how the characters meet.
  2. I have to know what’s driving the story.
  3. I have to understand the conflict,
  4. [I have to know] how the story will end.

Here at the Plotting for Writers Blog, we tend to agree . . . that a little advance plotting goes a long way!

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Here’s a quote from Kurt Vonnegut. It’s from a writer’s blog post by Charles J. Shields, author of the forthcoming Vonnegut biography, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, described as “the culmination of five years of research and writing— the first-ever biography of one of the most important literary iconoclasts of his time.”

That blog, by the way, has this gem by Shields in a post about the biggest decision facing a biographer, titled “I Take Thee: Choosing Your Subject”:

To start with, the way I begin looking for a subject is this: half of my mind is creative, and half is financial. The creative side asks, “Is this a person so interesting that I could work for years on the book, even when the going gets rough, when interviews are disappointing, when research and travel sometimes turns up nothing?” If the answer is yes— even when I first wake up in the morning and I’m at my truest self (with my hair sticking up), that’s a good sign.

Then the financial side of my mind asks, “And when, after years of solitary work, you finish the biography, who will go into a bookstore and say, ‘Sure, I’ll pay $30 for that book”? In other words, the appeal of it has to be widespread. (. . .)

Over the past few years, I’ve suggested a number of ideas for biographies to my agent, Jeff Kleinman. And his response, practically every time is, “Not big enough,” meaning the readership for the biography would be too small. One time, frustrated, I e-mailed him, “How about a biography of God? Big enough?”

He answered back, “If you can get Him to sign a release.”

Priceless. But back to Vonnegut . . . in another post on writing style, Shields quotes Vonnegut:

“Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.”

So . . . are you writing a novel? Are you a swooper or a basher?

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50,000 words. In one month. Have fun!

That’s the premise of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a “fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing.”

You start writing like crazy on November 1. And try to keep going . . . and going and going . . . until the great & magical word-counting wizard behind the curtain says you’ve reached the goal: a 50,000-word novel by midnight, November 30.

So here’s the question:

Will you be a plotter or a plunger?

You’ve heard, I’m sure, the famous advice given by E.L. Doctorow:

Writing is like driving at night. You can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Perhaps you also saw a brief interview with Philip Roth (in AARP Magazine, July/August 2006), where he admitted, answering a question from interviewer John F Baker about how well Roth’s great books resulted in conveying what Roth had in mind when the work was started:

What I have in mind when I start to write could fit inside an acorn – an acorn, moreover, that rarely if ever grows into an oak. Write fiction and you relinquish reason. You start with an acorn and you end up with a mackerel.

Roth goes on to suggest: “Chance and staying power. That’s the hand the imagination is dealt.”

True, some do drive only by virtue of those headlights. But I’ve found that the more experienced the writer, the less they think (or can or wish to talk in detail about) their real methods. In contrast, emerging successful writers do tend to use outlines, and plan more thoroughly, and think more consciously about the architectural design of their works.

How ’bout you? Planning to plunge into the icy waters of November’s NaNoWriMo novel without a solid outline for your novel?
Planning to head down that foggy highway guided only by your headlights (and if your old car is like mine, one of the headlights is out and the other is a little dim)?

I like this advice from an SF writer, Ruth Nestvold, a finalist for Tiptree and Sturgeon awards, writing here in a 2005 article titled “True Facts About the Art and Craft of Writing”:

The wonderful thing about that [Doctorow] quote is that it can be understood nearly any way you want. . . . But for those who write like me, always a little ahead of yourself, the headlights are also a great metaphor, since they open up the path ahead of me as I proceed. And I see no problem with knowing what my destination is—even people who drive at night usually know where they’re going.

One of the big differences between us is that whether I can see the road or not, I have usually taken a long look at the map before I set off.

Now that’s good advice!

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Greetings, Plotters!

I see some of you are gearing up for the 33rd annual Labor Day 3-Day Novel Contest! (Shakes head in amazement.) Good luck to all!

It’s described on its website as:

It’s a thrill, a grind, and an awesome creative experience. How many crazed plotlines, coffee-stained pages, pangs of doubt and moments of genius will the next contest bring forth? And what might you think up under pressure?

I like the descriptions of novels by past winners of the contest. Like from 2000:

Small Apartments [by Chris Millis] is the offbeat tale of an obese, slovenly peeping tom, his odd brother, his pothead neighbour, and their quest to hide the body of an unfortunate landlord. The story is accented along the way by murder, strange fingernail collections and the occasional blast from a treasured alphorn.

Okay! For my part, the thought that comes to mind regarding writing a novel in three days:

Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.

Creative fools! And let’s face it, that’s most writers . . . including the successful ones.

By the way, that “fools” quote is from Alexander Pope, English writer, who published in 1709 his long-winded (but amusing or insightful in parts) poem, “An Essay on Criticism“:

True Ease in writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.
‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense.

So . . . let the 3-Day Novel dance begin!

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I’ll share this note I saw yesterday on Jane Yolen’s Facebook page.

I find stories (and poems and bits of nonfiction) happen when my fingers are (literally) on the keys. I have often said “stories leak out of my fingertips.” Oh sure, I think a lot about stories, too, but as is the way with my world, I much too often forget what I’d thought an hour or a day or a minute before. Once I sit down some amalgam of what cogitation had occurred gets transmogrified onto the page. It’s magic.  (. . .)

Maybe that’s why I sit down to write so often since one day the magic won’t be there. Carpe Diem.

By the way, I recommend signing up for Jane Yolen’s Facebook page. She shares good insights into the state of being an active, professional, successful, versatile, thoughtful writer. Also, she has a Journal page on her website with more outstanding bits of useful thoughts about the process of writing great fiction. Highly recommended. (I worked with Jane a few years ago as editor of the original version of her Take Joy book, a lovely collection of essays on the writing process.)

My question: is the writing process magic for you?

Are you often surprised? Wonder where that idea came from?

And if so . . . how magic is it for you? What’s the balance of intuition and advance planning in your fiction (published or in-progress)?

What’s your take on it? At this stage in your career, how helpful is it to have specific, structured advice (such as a step-by-step approach to plotting, as in Linda George’s Fill-in-the-Blank Plotting)?

And to what degree to you rely on the magic?

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Thanks to everyone who contributed to past posts!

I want to talk about what is involved in “filling in the blanks” when plotting a story.  Having been an elementary teacher for so many years, and knowing how much my students liked “filling in the blanks” instead of writing essay answers, I longed for a way to do that when plotting a story or a novel.  When I learned about the three-act structure, it helped tremendously, but I still had to rely on my mind to tell me, “What happens next?”

Then, I heard about the Hero’s Journey, but the question remained.  Then, Ridley Pearson talked about writing scene descriptions on index cards for his best-sellers, and I realized he was, in essence, filling in blanks in his plot.  By combining all three methods on plotting boards, I created blanks I could fill–first the 12 steps of the Journey.  Then, after moving those filled blanks to the three-act structure, I filled in the blanks around them in the structure.  Once all the blanks had been filled, the plot was done–along with the first draft of the synopsis!

Can a novel actually be planned by “filling in blanks?”  YES!!!  And the Hero’s Journey tells us what goes in the blanks.

Writers who have heard me talk about this combination of methods have said the new method was “revolutionary!”  A revolution is simply a new way of circling the same facts.  And that’s what FILL-IN-THE-BLANK PLOTTING is.  A new way of looking at an old challenge.

If you have another way of plotting that works for you, please share it here!  Perhaps, as happened in my experience, a new way of circling the task of planning a story may be born!

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