Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Re-establishing my process

I'm very close to resuming writing my novel. About six months ago I stopped writing. This was a good thing. I was in the process of getting ready to move from Texas back to California, and with packing, making the move, finding a new residence, and getting settled in, I needed to take a break. It was at this time that I discovered Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Perfect timing. I had been struggling with my story, and was getting frustrated and discouraged. I read Larry's book before leaving Texas, and the insights and information gave me a lot to think about as I traveled West. What I found were the solutions to my story problems. After getting settled, I set my book aside, and focused on structuring my novel. To be honest, it was HARD work. I'm still not sure I got it all right, but fortunately, Larry offers an amazing deal for a full story-arc evaluation that I am currently in the queue for. I don't know how long this offer will be available, but it is a great opportunity for any one that wants professional story coaching. You don't even need to have a manuscript, in fact it is specifically not for full manuscripts. You just need to know your story, write up a synopsis of your story, and answer a series of questions Larry provides. Trust me, the questions will make you THINK. They will challenge you in understanding your story, and the result will be a clarity that you didn't have previously. Larry will respond to your answers, giving you guidance and high-lighting problem areas. 

My process has evolved as I have learned more about writing. I've had a few false starts, taken a few steps forward, a few steps back, and modified my work flow. Story Engineering has had the greatest impact on my process, simply because it has given me a process that ensures my story, assuming it is compelling and well written, will meet the expectations of agents, publishers, and readers. That doesn't mean I will get published. There are too many other factors to assure that. But, it does mean I will have adhered to the principles of story telling that readers expect. 

My process used to be to do an outline and beat sheet, with my scenes identified. I did a lot of thinking about the story and characters. I outlined the book from start to finish, understanding it would change and evolve as I wrote, discovering scenes that didn't work, creating new scenes, maybe even introducing new characters. It was a pantser approach based on a skeleton outline and beat sheet. Larry showed me how to put meat on that skeleton. I have already started working on a follow up to my first book, and it is a joy to have the tools and knowledge to identify the plot points, pinch points, and establish a cohesive structure that holds it all together, and gives me a framework for writing the story.

Here's a couple of things I would encourage you to do:

If you are open to an insightful, comprehensive process for creating your story that meets the expectation of readers, agents, and publishers, it will change your writing life.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

In the thick of things

It's been a while since my last post, due to moving, and a struggle to make sense of what I'm writing. I thought the issue was structure, and mistakenly thought it was just a matter of fixing it. But, I discovered I wasn't equipped with the tools and knowledge to structure my novel. Enter Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. I read a lot of books on plot and structure, but it was Larry's book that finally gave me a clear view of the elements required to create a cohesive structure that covered the essential elements needed for a novel. I have spent a lot of time working on this, and I am now close to getting back to writing. I know, there are many that prefer to just write, let their muse and the characters dictate the direction the story goes. There's enough debate on the writing forums that I don't need, or want, to go down that path. I am a firm believer in story architecture, but also believe that structuring a novel has NO impact on your ability to be creative in your writing. In fact, I find that it enhances creativity. I think there is a misconception that outlining, plotting, beat sheets, and establishing structure is a hinderance to being creative. Where my outline is my road map, my beat sheet is my travel guide, and as such, stimulates my thinking as scenes are created, in context of the over-all plot and structure. Does the blueprints an architect creates hinder his creative design? I would pose that it's the blueprints that save him from mistakes that will be costly and time-consuming to fix later.  As Frank Lloyd Wright said (paraphrased): "You can fix it on the drawing board with an eraser, or in the field with a sledge hammer".  Story architecture gives you more than just a road map. It assures, assuming your story is engaging and well written, that your novel meets the expectations of the publisher and reader.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Reading as a reader

Once I've structured my novel by creating an outline and beat sheet, I tend to write very fast, and raw, using my outline and beat sheet as my road map. The resulting manuscript is not what I would consider a first draft. It's really not much more than an expanded beat sheet, missing a lot of detail description. I just want to get the story down, with all the scenes intact, albeit in an abbreviated form.

I then export an ePub file and and read my manuscript on my iPad. This gives me the experience of an ebook, and it's a different feeling than reading my manuscript.

I noticed recently that when I read my work in manuscript form, I read as a writer, or more specifically, as an author. The ebook format allows me to try a new approach, and that is to read my work as a reader, one that didn't write what I'm reading. The ebook environment helps facilitate that. I try to step away from the authorship, and envision what's missing (a lot considering the raw form I'm reading). But, by reading from the viewpoint of a reader, I can focus on the areas that need to be fleshed out, expanded, and detailed. It takes a little discipline to get in the mindset of a reader, and ignore the fact that I wrote what I'm reading, but the ebook has helped me to read from that perspective. The end result has been a better view of the holes I need to fill, and the work required to bring the manuscript to a first draft.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Establishing a Process

I'm creating my process as I go along. I need a structure to keep me organized, and to help sort out all the areas I need to address in writing my book, but I don't want it to be inflexible as my needs change. These are the elements of my process for now:

1. Outline - I'm a big believer in outlining. It's my road map for the sequence of scenes, and how the narrative flows. I only put enough information in my outline to guide me. It is really just a high level list of sequencial scenes that I frequently update as I move scenes around, or add new ones. Here's a sample of my outline for the first two chapters:

Chapter 1 - 1935 - Alabama
- Jean visits Alabama
- Arriving in Greenville
- Jean and Dorabelle
- Jean and Sally Mae
- Saying goodbye

Chapter 2 - 1935 - Hobbs
- Jean returns to Hobbs with Sally Mae
- Jean returns to work at Bank Bar
- Jean catches Sally Mae with neighbor boy
- Jean takes Sally Mae to work

2. Character list - This is just a list of each character, with physical descriptions, attributes, and personality characteristics. I include notes of how they are related to other characters, their role in the story, and any major event (i.e., are they going to die).

3. Location list - This is similar to the Character list. I include descriptions and the role of the location.

4. Questions - After I write a scene, I try to read it as my audience will, and I try to anticipate questions the reader may ask. This also helps to give me ideas and additional scenes or dialogue. I will also come up with my own questions that I can use to enhance or fine-tune the story. Here's an example of my notes after reading what I wrote about a character losing her newborn:

Was Sally pregnant with Tommy when she married Tom?
What did Sally think about after losing Tommy?
Did she blame God?
Did she think she was being punished?

5. Timeline - I establish a timeline to get a perspective on events. It's not a detaled list of scenes, just major events. Here's a partial sample:

1935 - Jean goes to Alabama
1935 - Sally returns with Jean to Hobbs (age 14)
1936 - Sally meets Tom
1937 - Sally marries Tom
1938 - Tommy Lloyd born/dies
1939 - Don Edward born
1941 - Jonnie moves to Hobbs
1941 - Sally Jean born
1942 - Jonnie works at Bank Bar

6. Continuity List - I keep a list of elements that are subject to change. I don't want to mention something in dialogue that hasn't happened yet, or refer to something that conflicts with a previous statement. Usually this is not a problem, but if there is something that could be confusing over the course of the novel, I make a note and keep it in mind.

7. Research - I do a lot of research. It is tedious and time consumming, but it has to be done. My character Sally marries Tom in 1937 at the age of 16, he's 23. What were the age of consent laws then? Sally's son receives Lincoln Logs for Christmas, did they even exist back then? Actually, they were first marketed in 1918, thank you Wikipedia! (They were also invented by the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, in case you're interested.) Because I'm writing a novel that takes place during the depression and 1940s, a lot of questions come up, which means research. I don't want a character paying $5 for a gallon of gas!

8. Scene List - This is different from my outline. It's really just scene ideas, that I may or may not write. It's just a place to jot down ideas that can be incorporated into the story later, if they fit and add to the narrative.

9. Thinking - This is a major part of my process. I do a lot of thinking about my characters and story. I take the approach of "what if...", but I also try to put my self in their skin (and mind). Very little I write happens spontaneously, it's generally after giving a lot of thought to the story and characters.

10. Writing - Ha Ha, yeah, I thought I should make writing part of my process. I actually do a lot of writing, but my approach is to write pretty raw. I just try to get the story down, and create a cohesive narrative. Once that is done, I can work on adding detailed descriptions, enhance the dialogue, develop the characters, and hopefully create an engaging story.

Do you have special techniques or processes that you use?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Rethinking my thinking

I spent some time today working on my structure. I moved a few scenes, and added some more scenes to my outline. I've only been working on my book for a few weeks, and I'm currently at 15,000 words. Much of my time has been spent outlining the book, and doing research. I have the basic story established, with a narrative flow I'm comfortable with, but there are a lot of holes that need to be filled. I read about writer's discovering unexpected story development, letting the characters take them to places they hadn't considered. I had a good day yesterday in that regard. I was writing about the death of a character that I wasn't sure how to handle. The narrative just seemed to flow, without much pre-conceived idea on my part on how things would play out. I was very pleased with the result. I do tend to think a lot about the scenes and how to write them, but this was just a free flow of writing that turned out better than if I had tried to force it. 

Have you had experiences of the story taking on a life of its own? Have your characters taken you to unexpected places?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Writing Tools

I started writing my book on an iPad, using iA Writer. I have since switched to ByWord, but not because I was unhappy with iA Writer. It's a great app, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. ByWord gives me a few more features, and I have both the iPad and Mac versions.

One app I love is Index Card. It is only available for iPad. It has been incredibly helpful in structuring my book. I can create cards, move them around, and even group cards. It provides a nice visual layout, and creates an outline from the card layout.

After writing about 10,000 words on the iPad, and introducing new characters and scenes, I decided it was time to find a writing app for my laptop. The only writing program I had was Pages, and I didn't feel like it was the right program for writing a novel.

I had heard great things about Scrivener, but was a little intimated by the vast amount of features. After trying a few demos of other products, I decided to give Scrivener a try. It is great! I'm still a little overwhelmed by the features, but I will learn them as I go, or as I need them. One great feature is that it syncs with Index Card on the iPad.

I still write on the iPad, but not as often as on the laptop. Most of my writing on the iPad is when it's a little more convenient (like laying in bed), and I usually only write quick highlights of a scene and some dialog. I use Dropbox to access the files from my iPad, and then polish them up in Scrivener on the laptop.

What tools do you use?

Memoir as fiction

My book is mostly true, or at least partially true. I won't know how much is true until I finish it. My book started out as a memoir about my mother, but after numerous "I was told this story, but there's another version I heard...", "I don't remember what happened, but it was probably like this...", and "I'm not sure how she felt, but I assume...", I decided to use the truths I knew, and add fictional elements to support the core events of the story. For the record, my book is a work of fiction, although most of the major incidents are true.

My mother had an interesting life, especially from the ages of 14 to 30. I asked her many times to share stories of her life, but she would not talk about the past, not even stories of her childhood. About the only thing she ever told me about was growing up across the street from Hank Williams (she was two years older), playing at his house as a child, and a little about my grandmother.

When I first started writing my book, I used made up names. After some thought, I decided there was no need to change the names. With the exception of a few characters, the characters in my book were real people, and I've used their real names. This decision was made to honor those I write about, and to draw me closer to those I knew and loved. I am related to most of the major character, and they are all now deceased. The characters are presented as close as I remember them, but as a work of fiction, dialogue, character attributes and personalities have been modified to fit the tone and shape of the story.

Are you writing a novel? Are there elements of true stories? Have you used names for characters to honor or recognize someone?

Purpose of this Blog

My intention in writing this blog is to document the process of writing a novel. I hope to not only provide tips and share my experiences with readers, but to gain feedback and advice from those that are in the process of writing their own novel.