novel writing

Logic and Logistics: Writing a Plausible Plot

The Work In Progress is approaching The Crisis. This is where all the plot points are drawn together to produce the climax and conclusion — the whole point of writing (and reading) the novel.

Having written five pages of #12 — I’m not going to worry about chapters until a later draft, so each of the fifteen 5-to-7-thousand-word sections is called #1, #2, etc. Back to #12 — having written five pages, I wasn’t happy with where it was going. The characters were sitting down to yet another meal! Forget that, guys — it’s time we had some action here!

clock mechanism plus numbersAfter a productive thinking session in the shower, I wrote a Revised Sequence of Events list for #12. My mind cleared as the sky after a rainstorm, and I now have a much better outlook on the WIP. (We’ll see how long that lasts).

I’m beginning to understand the Rushed Ending which plagues many a novel, if reviews I’ve read are any indication. The author has been juggling a bunch of balls for 70 thousand words, and now must speed up the rate of ball movement while dancing on a tightrope. All the details, hints, foreshadowing, red herrings, symbols and themes must fit together in a way that makes sense and produces thrills, excitement and satisfaction for the reader. No wonder there’s a certain urgency to get it all done before the balls go bouncing all over, or the whole thing collapses.

rubiks cubeI think I’ll be all right if I keep asking myself these questions: Why would she/he do that? And: Does this make sense? If the honest answer to the first question is “Just ‘cuz,” and to the second is “No,” I’ll have another look at what leads up to that point and make the necessary changes. (Of course, fiddling with one part of a plot can mess up another, sort of like Rubik’s Cube).

Plot logic is especially important when supernatural elements come into play. Up to this point in my WIP, they have lurked in the background, occasionally peeking out to generate interest and hint at future developments. I have to resist the urge to invoke the supernatural as a quick fix for plot problems that should be dealt with in realistic ways. “Oh, hey — I guess I can fly now!” On the other hand, I don’t want to spin things out to the point where the magic, diluted with too much realism, becomes irrelevant.

Well, having made these observations, it’s back to writing the WIP. Now, where’s that list?

cosmos

Images from Pixabay.

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table, teapot, plates, candle

Savouring the Plot: Food In Fiction

People in movies hardly ever eat. Drink, yes, eat, no. Even in a movie that’s all about food, like Babette’s Feast. Consider — it’s pretty hard to look gorgeous, sexy, or heroic while chomping on something, or with crumbs clinging to your perfectly plumped lips. Never mind the horror of a smile revealing a chewed up glob stuck to a tooth.

But in books, this doesn’t matter. Readers edit their own mind-movies, and most enjoy a meal or snack now and then.

Remember The Hobbit? Bilbo Baggins is always thinking about food, even when dealing with trolls and giant spiders. Readers relate to that, for who hasn’t suffered from hunger pangs? And when those pangs are relieved (in Beorn’s house, for example) the reader shares vicariously in the feast. Come to think of it, Tolkien created many such occasions. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are full of food-related scenes, from Bilbo’s birthday party at the beginning to Sam’s rabbit stew near the end.

My fictitious characters eat a lot. Or rather, many plot-propelling conversations in my novels take place at meals — dinners, lunches, impromptu snacks or afternoon teas.

But is the writer obligated to supply their characters with three squares a day, plus snacks, from page one to “The End?” In my current WIP, mealtimes are interfering with the meat of the plot. I’m getting tired of figuring out what to cook up for these folks in Luxor, Egypt, in 1962 — in a cafe, in a hotel restaurant, in the “dig house” of an archaeological team. What about a bag lunch for the trip to the mysterious wadi? Give me a break! I’ll furnish enough food for plausibility, but don’t intend to get bogged down in irrelevant culinary details.

Now I’m (finally) at the stage where dire discoveries and amazing revelations are more important than the next meal. Physiology being what it is, though, my young, healthy protagonist will get hungry even while trying to escape the clutches of the villain, and figuring out the Secret.

Well, if she survives, she might get a cup of coffee and something sweet.

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SWCF manuscript and notes

Slogging Through the Mushy Middle

Nothing is as easy as not writing.

My current work in progress is at the 60% point, based on my scribbled outline. The word count is approaching 60,000, with a goal of 90,000 to 100,000, allowing for trimming off 10,000 words in rewrites. The crisis and climax are crystal clear in my mind, glowing like the Arkenstone in the dragon hoard of Smaug.

So what’s the problem? Or am I just gloating?

No gloating here. Sixty thousand words in eight months doesn’t warrant it. (“Gloat today, grieve tomorrow,” as someone said, or should have). The problem is I have only the fuzziest notion of how to get my character from ‘here’ (the village of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna near the Theban Necropolis) to ‘there’ (the… oh, wait — can’t reveal that. No self-spoilers!)

This is the manuscript that was abandoned on page 17 for a couple of years. Almost a year ago, I decided to go against advice and offer it to my critique group at the first draft stage, section by section.

So far, I’ve written ten of fifteen sections (five to seven thousand words each). I scribble each part in longhand first, just to splash something onto the page. Keying it into Word, I make it real, adding material as needed and changing details. After a bit of polishing, off it goes to the group, to be critiqued at our next monthly meeting. This creates a deadline, which has worked well to keep me slogging forward.

It’s a scary feeling, as each critique meeting winds up, to know I have to create at least five thousand more words of coherent narrative in less than a month. Somehow, during the summer, I managed to get ahead by one chunk, which lessens the panic a little. Of course, if I fail to deliver, it doesn’t really matter. The group won’t mind; it’s one less thing to read before the meeting, and allows more time to discuss the pieces put forward. But it’s still a public no-show — same idea as exercising with a buddy. You don’t want to look like a quitter, so you show up.

But the mushy middle part of a novel — that’s perilous territory. Self-doubt migrates to it and lurks there. Little imps pop up and whisper things like, “Boring!” “Slow!” “Too much ‘telling,’ not enough ‘showing’!” “Why bother writing this? You’ll just have to cut it.” And the biggest imp of all comes up with, “Just give up already. There are already too many books out there. No one’s going to read this, so just give up.”

This recent post from blogger K.M. Allan was really helpful.

Like a mudhole, the mushy middle isn’t the place to stop and brood. I tell myself to keep slogging and just get through it before I sink. I’ll bet many novels are abandoned at this stage. Never mind if it’s not my best writing, never mind if I get all the details right. Just get the plot line laid out. Once the climax is in sight, the magic will take over and I’ll run, leap, fly to the scintillating conclusion! (I hope).

 

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I’ve said it before, and think it every day — plotting is hard. This novel, like my others, contains elements of the supernatural, but it’s set in the real world, which means I can’t routinely invoke magic to get things done. I have to pay attention to details like distances between real places, modes of transportation, weather, and technology circa 1962.

I have no problem writing scenes I find compelling. They arrive fully formed in the cranial inbox. All I have to do is sit down and render the mental pictures into prose. Then I go crazy trying to stick them together in a coherent sequence without resorting to tedious glue-like (i.e., boring) prose.

The best way is to move directly from one high-interest scene to the next, adding the minimum of transition text, just what’s needed to avoid confusion. I’m going to do that! If more glue is needed, I’ll apply it in Draft #2.

Then there’s the plausibility issue. I don’t know if this happens to other writers, but it’s amazing how easy it is to lay aside logic and reason to get my characters into the situations I’ve planned for them. I have to keep asking myself, “Why?” Why would she decide to leave Situation A and seek out Situation B? Why would something of vital importance in Chapter 3 become totally irrelevant in Chapter 7? If the answer is something like, “Well, it just has to happen, because they have to be in the…” it’s back to the Plot Plan and Character Profiles scribbled in blunt pencil on the back of a piece of junk mail.

Keep slogging! The ground seems to be rising a bit here. The crisis and climax will soon emerge over the horizon.

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The scene of the WIP: west bank of the Nile, near Luxor. (Image from Pixabay)

knitting, yarn, lavender purple

Unpicking and Re-Knitting

At a recent meeting of my critique group, it was brought to my attention that something should happen at an earlier point in the narrative. I sort of knew that already, so didn’t need to go through all five Stages of Receiving Critique (denial, argument, brooding, grudging acceptance, rewriting). I jumped right to rewriting. And swearing and hair-tearing.

Rewriting a completed scene, especially one that’s mostly dialogue, is HARD, even when you want to. It’s got that finished look, prettied up, polished and (you thought) perfect. And even when you have to admit it isn’t perfect, taking it apart and remaking it is a painful process.

In this scene, the characters do things and say things. There’s an internal logic to the sequence of actions. The last words spoken by one character cue the first words of the other. Yanking globs of text from one spot and moving them to another requires a rebuild of the receiving area to rejig that internal logic.

After a couple of minor fits, I decided a logical approach was needed.

First, I identified all the bits of text to be moved and highlighted them in different colours. Topic #1 (turquoise) had to be dealt with before getting into Topic #2 (green). Stuff I didn’t know what to do with was yellow. Directions to self were in upper case purple text.

Well, at least it was colourful. (And so was some of my language).

Once I identified the relevant pieces of text, I had to decide where to move them. Then I adjusted those areas so the incoming text would flow seamlessly into what was already there.

Then I started CTRL-Xing and CTRL-Ving. Some sentences changed colour several times and moved enough times to earn frequent flier points before settling into their final spots. My head started to spin and ache, and certain short words spiced up my internal dialogue.

“No, you can’t put that there! She doesn’t know that yet!”

“He can’t start talking about that until she’s asked him about it!”

“That doesn’t make any !@#$ sense!”

AAARGH!

A number of metaphors sprang to mind — taking apart a piece of woodwork held together with dovetail joints and moving the pieces around, or unravelling parts of a sweater, re-knitting them with a different pattern, and ending up with something that’s still a sweater.

In the end, of course, my efforts were worthwhile. The scene works better, and a reader won’t have any idea of the strain and pain that went into its creation.

rubiks cube

Which is how it should be.

Now back to reading about the geology of the Valley of the Kings, and whether the sediments include concretions.

They do! Another plot point nailed down! Progress!

Images courtesy of Pixabay.

clock mechanism

Fictional Details: Timing and Chronology

Approaching the halfway mark in the first draft of my work in progress, all I want to do is forge ahead, laying down the road — or trail, or path — to the climax and conclusion, in which the big, important themes that are the whole point of the thing will shine and resonate in the brain of the delighted reader. Clanging gongs and fireworks, that’s what I’m aiming for.

So why am I agonizing over whether something happened yesterday or the day before? Or how long it takes to get from point A to point B? Wouldn’t that dinner last a lot longer than the conversation that was its entire purpose? And aren’t those characters having way too many drinks in too a short time? At this rate, they’ll be incapable of the action scene that follows.

Why agonize over these details? Because it matters, damn it! If to only one reader, or only to me, the author.

Especially in genres such as mystery and thriller, but even in semi-literary, quasi-supernatural, adventure-type opuses such as the one I’m working on, it’s necessary to pay attention to matters of timing and chronology.

Consider, for example, the word “minute,” meaning sixty seconds. People use it all the time in conversation with no expectation of accuracy. “I’ll just be a minute,” you say, when you know darned well it will be ten. Or, “It was here a minute ago,” when it was actually five seconds. That’s okay. But when a narrator uses that word, as in, “He stood staring at me for a minute without speaking,” just visualize it, and count those seconds. A minute is actually a long time. If someone stood silent and staring for an actual minute, you would be asking them if they were okay, and maybe calling 911. “Moment,” “second,” or “instant” are much better words here.

At some point before pressing that “Publish” button, a read-through for timing and continuity issues is definitely in order, either by the author or an attentive beta reader.

When I’m reading someone else’s book, I don’t look for stuff like this. I’m fine unless things seem seriously out of whack, such as going from July to Christmas in the turn of a page, or a if a character without supernatural abilities whips up a five-course dinner in half an hour. Readers give writers a kind of license about chronological details if they can follow the plot. But they do matter to me, the writer, as a matter of principle. When I’m working out plot details, I need to know that when I begin a paragraph with, “The next morning … ” the one after it doesn’t make a sudden jump into the following week.

Which is why I’m wrestling with moon phases, distances in and near Luxor, Egypt, the steps involved in launching a hot air balloon, and the chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Trust me, it will all make sense when I’m done. With luck, that might even be in the present decade.

balloons luxor

Image courtesy of Pixabay

planning, yellow pencil, paper

The Ultimate Spoiler

When talking about books, or writing book reviews, the spoiler is a definite no-no. Revealing plot twists or a book’s ending to those who haven’t read it spoils the experience to the point they may decide not to bother.

Plot-driven fiction is way more susceptible to spoilers than so-called “literary” fiction, which depends less on revelations than on artful use of language. It’s the difference between rushing to a destination and stopping to view the scenery along the way.

As a book’s author, I have a special relationship with the book. In a way, for me, it’s already spoiled, unless I were totally “pantsing” it — writing by feel, without any outline or plan at all. And even that applies only to the first draft. Once I start revising or rewriting, I know how it all works out.

When you think about this, it’s amazing any book at all has a tension-filled plot or a surprise ending. Knowing how the story will end makes it hard to create an atmosphere of peril for the characters. It’s too easy to slip into a relaxed tone and pace, like going to a familiar place down a well-worn path.

How does the writer create tension and suspense for the reader? By calling on the brute force of imagination, dancing around the scenes being plotted, seeing them from all sides at once.  Then skewing the view, applying disguises, drawing scrims over crucial details.

Writers have to read their works like readers do, be aware of the expectations they are creating, and either fulfill them or jerk them away and deliver something totally unexpected. Even though they already know the ending.

No wonder writing — the initial act of creation — is so hard!

This is why I personally don’t favour strict outlining or detailed planning. I need to have a specific ending in mind, but I don’t really know how I’m going to get there. When I sit down to write another chapter, I have a list called Things That Must Happen, but quite often, some of them don’t, and unexpected ones do.

Having wiggle room in the plot gives my characters chances to do the opposite of what I thought they might, to try and fail before they arrive at the destinations I have in mind for them, and for me to experience a surprise or two, just like I hope my readers will.

Arrows 1

 

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

 

 

type

Counting Words

The novel I’m writing (my sixth) is proving to be a bit of a struggle. In my memory, writing the other five was a silky-smooth process, in which I effortlessly spun out an endless stream of words whenever I sat down at the desk.

Well, it probably wasn’t like that. When I concentrate, I remember plenty of occasions when I sat there, staring at the giant rubber plant (now in a better world), trying to shape another scene.

But this time around, “flow” simply isn’t the word. Scraping, beating, cobbling, hewing — those are the words that come to mind. I’m getting blisters on my imagination.

Part of the problem is that this time, I’m fixated on wordcount. I’ve decided I want to end up with a first draft of 90,000 to 100,000 words, of which I may delete 10,000 to 20,000. Having too many words feels better than too few. It’s as though writing is a weird kind of sculpture — first I hew out a block of stone, and then I reduce it to its final shape. I don’t want to limit myself with a block that’s too small to start with.

I wondered if this warped the process. Instead of letting the plot unfurl organically, I set myself a goal to crank out a minimum of 6,000 words to present at the monthly meetings of my longtime critique group. Before that, I wasn’t writing at all, letting days go by while I played the procrastination game of waiting for the perfect day or moment. Now, with this self-imposed deadline, I’ve been diligently beavering away for five months, and technically am one third of the way through the first draft.

While this approach is getting me to produce, I’m wondering if I’m just churning out crap of which 98 per cent will have to be rewritten. In other words, if I’m just faking it. Okay, the critiquers seem to think the work has potential, but I haven’t reached a point where they can really see the shape of the finished novel. Which is a problem in itself. Or, maybe not — at least the plot isn’t predictable.

This leads to the question of whether it’s better to write too much and cut out a lot in rewrites, or too little and have to flesh out and add stuff. I’ve always taken the more is better approach, and now that the thing is finally coming to life, I intend to press on and test that idea later.

So, back to the quarry…

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Images courtesy of Pixabay

 

 

reading, characters, imagination

Being or Knowing: Characters and Readers

Reading an interesting post recently on the estimable Story Ape’s blog got me thinking about the relationship between fictitious characters and readers — main characters, known in some circles as “protagonists.”

Some characters are primarily vehicles by which a reader may experience the events of a story. The character is a type — an amateur sleuth, a woman seeking romance, a young person on a perilous quest. Their physical characteristics and personalities may be specified, but they’re actually elaborate costumes. Readers climb in and they’re there — solving the mystery, finding romance, or surviving the perils of the quest.

In other works of fiction, characters are equipped with complex personalities and backgrounds. Their needs and conflicts are not immediately evident. The reader must get to know them in order to discern their issues. It’s quite possible readers may not be able to identify with these characters; they may not even like them, but if the author has done the job right, the reader will find the character and his or her situation interesting enough to keep reading the book.

The “wearable” character is generally associated with plot-driven genre fiction; the “get to know” protagonist is more often typical of character-driven literary fiction. Readers have different expectations for these character types; getting acquainted with the character before you know what might happen to them requires some tolerance for uncertainty on the reader’s part. Writers of literary fiction must make their stories sufficiently alluring to keep readers hanging out with their characters.

I’m fairly sure authors don’t decide, as they begin writing a story or novel, which of these types of characters they will create for it. They usually do know whether they’re writing genre fiction or literary fiction. Characters evolve accordingly.

It doesn’t have to be an either/or. Really well-written works feature complex characters and compelling plots. Readers decide unconsciously whether to become a character and ride their rollercoaster, or to observe and ponder the character’s dilemmas.

The four novels of my Herbert West Series have five different narrators — six, actually, because Herbert West is quite a different person from Francis Dexter. Each of these people has his or her own style: Charles Milburn, diffident librarian; Andre Boudreau, amnesiac Acadian; Margaret Bellgarde, widow of the Great War; Herbert West, amoral scientist, who becomes Francis Dexter, wounded healer; Alma Halsey, disaffected journalist. And The Nexus, one of the short story supplements to the series, is narrated by eccentric professor and sometime occultist Professor Augustus Quarrington.

I’m thinking all these different narrators may be somewhat disconcerting for readers who expect more uniformity among books within a series. And I’m sure not all readers have found it easy to slip into these characters and share their lives. Over the course of the series, however, they have a good selection from which to choose.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

 

The books include elements of different genres and of literary fiction. Some readers may find the fit a little uncomfortable. I am biased, of course, but I can honestly say no one who spends time with my characters will be harmed by the experience, and some may be entertained.

Featured image created with Canva using free pictures from Unsplash and Pixabay.

 

garage roof, shingles, ladder, apple tree in bloom

Roofing

The title of the post just before this one is “Rooting,” so it’s a piece of luck that this one is appropriately titled “Roofing.” Sometimes things work out perfectly.

After twenty years, the shingles on our roof looked a bit eroded, so we arranged to have them removed and replaced. The job took about a week, and the company we hired did a fine job. So did the fellow who came afterward to install new eavestroughs and downspouts. No complaints there.

But…

A few things for gardeners to think about before workers arrive:

  1. Not everyone cares about plants the way you do. That includes spouses.
  2. In order to get the job done promptly, heavy equipment and men in size 12 steel-toed boots may be stomping on your green babies that have just pushed their tender shoots above the ground.
  3. Plants growing close to a work zone will be perceived as obstacles.

After the house was roofed and downspouted, the professionals departed, and work began on re-shingling the garage. My husband was keen on doing that job himself. I didn’t share his enthusiasm, but was dragooned to assist nevertheless. So I’ve spent a good portion of the past week lugging shingles up ladders and moving said ladders from one spot to another, and then back again. A certain amount of shouting and muttering has occurred, especially following the radical pruning of a winter-blooming honeysuckle (Lonicera X purpusii or possibly Lonicera fragrantissima) that was declared an obstacle. The plant has shown a fair bit of vigor after previous butcherings prunings, as well as last winter’s icy winds, so I hope it will recover.

January 27, 2014

Winter Honeysuckle

In the meantime, the garden carried on with spring.

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Tulipa batalinii and forget-me-nots

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Unidentified double tulip

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Primula and Chinese egg jar

Indoors, I continue to beat out the first draft of my work-in-progress, a novel to follow the Herbert West Series. Every month since January, I have committed to my critique group to send out another 6,000 words. That self-imposed deadline has worked so far; by mid-May I expect to hit — or at least get within hailing distance of — the 30,000 word mark. I’m finding this a tough job, tougher than writing my other novels, but so far I’ve managed to keep at it. Sort of like getting the roof done, shingle by shingle.

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The manuscript

 

hammer and anvil

Forging the Draft

In a recent post I moaned about how hard it is to undertake the enormous job of imagining a novel and turning it into readable prose. Since writing that post, I’ve also written several thousand words of my work in progress — new, freshly imagined stuff. At this stage, forward motion is crucial. This isn’t the time to worry about choosing the right words and avoiding the wrong ones, the niceties of grammar or whether elastic bandages were used in 1962. I have to keep that pen moving, writing down what I see my characters doing and saying, as though I’m transcribing the action in a movie, while maintaining the intended narrative voice. Anything I need to check or go back and work out later, I note as such and keep going. Quick, dirty and fast.

This first trip through my plot is like walking a tightrope across a chasm. Standing around admiring the view isn’t going to get me to the other side.

Once I have the bare bones laid down, I’ll go back and fill in, rearrange, add and delete stuff, and generally whip that scene or section into shape. But at this point I don’t intend to get mired in trying to achieve perfection. It’s more important to move on to the next scene or chapter, keeping the goal in mind: finish the first draft.

In On Writing, Stephen King says to write your first draft behind a closed door. Don’t show it to anyone. After it’s done, stash it away for a couple of months before you look at it again. I’ve seen similar advice from other writers and indeed, that’s pretty much how I wrote my first five novels.

For some reason, I haven’t managed to do that with the current work in progress. Maybe it’s because I’m no longer using my subterranean (i.e., basement) writing room. My current writing spot has way too many distractions that make it too easy to avoid the tough work of intense imagining with pen in hand.

Manuscript SWCF

Pen? Yes, I still write the first draft with a pen, on paper. My semi-legible scribble makes it hard to start fiddling with stuff I’ve just written, almost inevitable when the words are displayed in stark clarity on the screen. But I don’t consider a chapter or scene to be properly first-drafted until the completed handwritten pages are transcribed — with changes, of course — into electronic form.

Contrary to King’s excellent advice, I’ve resorted to sending freshly written chunks of my WIP for discussion at my critique group’s monthly meetings. Why? To create an external deadline and a sense of urgency. So far, it’s working. This work has been “in progress” for more than two years, with no progress at all until the past three months.

There are other ways to induce writer urgency — the Write or Die app, for example. I haven’t used it, but I understand you can set it to nuke whatever you’ve written if you don’t keep banging those keys until you achieve a specific word count. (So don’t indulge in too much liquid refreshment during a writing session).

Post header image courtesy of Pixabay