Monthly Archives: July 2015

A Post for the New, Unsure, Intimidated First-time Novelist

If you’re considering writing a novel, if you’re serious about it but not certain where or how to start, or you’re simply intimidated by the sheer mystery of the process… I have some good news to share with you:

That’s a good thing. You should be intimidated.

But you shouldn’t be confused about where and how to start.

First time novelists who are not intimidated by the mountain of principles and criteria that inform this craft, who come to the process of writing a novel armed only with their experience as a reader (which translates to this: you’ve read a novel, or decades worth of novels, and you believe you can do as well, that it’s not that hard – beginning, middle and end, that’s all there is to it, right?), who think they’ve intuitively assimilated the necessary arc and flow of story and character…

… if that’s you…

… then you already stand apart from those other folks who are sheepishly standing outside the writing room, into which you’ve charged confidently.

Which group would you choose?

Again, if you’re looking at the prospect of writing a novel and you’re not sure how to start, you’re one of the lucky ones.  Because you are about to get that answer.

By enrolling in a process of learning the principles before you write your novel, rather than using the process of writing as the means of that learning, you’ll be years ahead and medically on safer ground than the confident, naive writer who thinks this is something you just sit down and do.

Because the weight of writing in ignorance will most certainly crush you, sooner or later.

A quick story.

Back in the day I wrote corporate media for a living, and had a few young writers working for me. One of them was from a small town in Washington, where his father was the town’s go-to physician. A man to whom everyone looked for help, for wisdom, and for information. The First Citizen of everything within a hundred miles.

Easy for such a social context to go to your head, I would think. That’s certainly what happened here.

My co-worker’s father had always wanted to write a novel. He was a big Tom Clancy fan, so that was the genre he chose – technically complex military intelligence novels dripping with testosterone. He’s read hundreds of ‘em. Knows that game inside and out.

So upon retiring, he announced that writing his novel would be his first order of business. He had a title, and was already sending letters to agents and telling his friends what a great movie will result from the novel he’s working on. Harrison Ford would star.

And he was dead serious.

I asked my friend if his father had taken in any learning, via writing conferences or how-to books. He said no, his expression dropping. He added that when he’d posed this question to his father, the response had something to do with having spent years healing disease and taking out rotting organs from sick patients, saving lives and healing disease, so how damn hard can writing a novel actually be?

Nobody within that hundred miles dared challenge that belief system.

Three weeks passed.

One day I asked my friend how his father was doing with the novel, if he had started yet. The answer made me choke back laughter. Because his father had finished his final draft, a week earlier.

All 112 pages of it.

That was 22 years ago. Since then I’ve occasionally looked for Dr. X’s name on Amazon.com, but it never pops up. Maybe he changed his mind. Maybe he wrote a dozen or so more 100-page spy novels without having a clue what he was doing wrong, no doubt complaining that the game is rigged, or at least unfair.

Life has a way of teaching us that which we refuse to acknowledge. And when it does, it’s usually not pretty.

Who knows. But I know one thing… he was in that writing room too soon, that’s for sure.

A Few Initial Goals for the New Novelist

1. You need to figure out what kind of novelist you want to be, process-wise.

Not in terms of what genre you’ll write within, but rather, how you’ll go about writing your novels.

There are two polar opposite means of writing a novel, with infinite gradations of middle ground that most writers end up engaging with to some degree. But to begin, you should attempt to understand if you are a…

– A Story planner (also known as a plotter)… one who seeks to discover as much as possible about the story before starting in on a draft, including the developed premise, the character and his/her backstory, the core dramatic question leading to a core dramatic arc, the opening hook… the first plot point… the midpoint… the exposition across the four contextual quartiles of the story… and most important of all, the ENDING.

That’s right, you need to know your ending before you can ever write a draft that works at a professional level.  Professionals know that.  New writers need to know that.

But there’s another way to cover all these bases, which is by adopting the approach of…

– A Pantser… or, someone who writes a draft by the seat of their pants. This is just as viable an approach as is story planning… but only if you understand that your early drafts are the means of discovering your story, and that a draft absolutely cannot and will not ever work until you fully discover the story, including how it ends.

And, it won’t work until you are in possession of the requisite knowledge that will empower your pantsed drafts toward effectiveness.

People who tell you to pants, that this is the best and only way to do it… they know. You don’t. So pick your process carefully.

Some writers are pantsers by default.

Because they have no idea how to plan a novel.

Others write that way because it brings the best out in them.  They’ve learned the ropes to the extent required to make this approach work.

Write this down: the criteria, benchmarks and content of story are not process-dependent.

A story doesn’t care how you wrote it, but it does care about the infrastructure and resonance within the narrative itself. All of which are principle-driven and not something you get to make up on your own, any more than you can hit a golf ball any direction you want and still be playing the game of golf.

The criteria for success are exactly the same for both of these approaches. Ignorance is an equal-opportunity dream killer, whether you plan or pants your stories.

You have to know what and how to plan or pants before either will work. 

Most new writers adopt the pantsing mode at first, sometimes on the advice of experienced and even famous writers. But consider this: how can you possibly know what those experienced and famous writers know, which is essential to their success as a novelist who uses drafts to find and develop your story?

You can’t. Neither can a story planner who doesn’t have all that in their head.

Which leads us to recommendation #2:

2. Discover the principles of craft…

… which are out there hiding in plain site, everywhere you look, but for the most part are foreign to readers who haven’t anointed themselves as authors. It’s like flying in an airplane in this regard – you’ve been sitting back there in coach for years, observing how a plane backs up from the gate, taxis to the runway, hits the gas, pulls up, retracts the gear, and then finds a heading toward the given destination.

Soft drinks and crackers ensue.

But I ask you… does that experience qualify you to sit up front in the cockpit and actually fly the damn thing? To do so safely?

Of course it doesn’t.

Become a student of craft.

Seek it out, immerse yourself in it. I have two writing books out (Story Engineering and Story Physics) that will help you, with a third coming out in October, and there are dozens of other good books on the topic. Read James Scott Bell and Randy Ingermanson for starters. The 101 is absolutely essential.

Know that there are surprises awaiting you. Common structural and narrative paradigms that show themselves in every publishable story, almost without exception. New writers don’t know them, any more than you’d know how to bring a patient out of anesthesia if you found yourself alone in an operating room.

Feel free to write as you go. Just know that the worst advice in the history of writing is “just write,” if that means you do so without also seeking and discovering the principles that every single published and publishable novelist relies on.

You may think you know them because you are an avid reader, but I promise you, you don’t. Not until they are shown to you in the context of story development. And then…

3. Study the principles in the real world of fiction, both books and films.

Once initiated, there are things about every single story you’ll read or watch that you didn’t notice before, things that are as essential to the story working as landing gear is to getting that airplane down safely.

Once introduced to this stuff, you can’t unsee it. You will suddenly see behind the curtain of what makes a story effective… when perhaps you didn’t even realize there is a curtain.

Go hunting for knowledge. At first the principles might just hang there in front of you, seemingly context free, and you might view them as formulaic. Fair enough, but you’ll soon learn that formulaic is the wrong word, any more than the presence of a beating heart in your chest being essential to your life is formulaic.

4. Play the long game.

Here’s a formula for you, one that never fails: knowledge plus affirmation plus application plus perseverance equals… not necessarily success as a certainty, but it ensures your membership to the club. It gets you into the writing room in a way that is authentic, surrounded by folks who know what you know.

In closing…

… since I’ve used this analogy twice now, let me share something a reader of this website said to me a few years ago. He, too, was a doctor… a brain surgeon, in fact.

He said that, like my friend’s father, he believed there was nothing he could not learn and do intuitively, because by necessity he was intuitive for a living, cracking into the skulls of patients not sure what he’d find, terrible black smears of death, using his intuitive base of knowledge to do what must be done to save that life.

He’d taken all the basic principles that got him to that place for granted, because he could.  They had become second nature.

And now, as he also sought to become a novelist, he realized something to be true, something that he’d never imagined or considered, or would have rejected had someone told him. And that is… the amount of core baseline knowledge that a successful writer of novels must have, must internalize to the point they become the stuff of intuition, the number of variables in play, is every bit as complex and voluminous as his work as a brain surgeon, because both are issues of nuance, variance, perception and irrefutable science, rendered with high art.

And both have lines on the playing field you cannot cross, because death is the outcome if you do.

Or you can hang out in that writing room, huddled in a corner with my friend’s father, looking for comfort as you realize, beginning with your first attempt, that this notion of writing a novel is two things:

It is bigger than you are, if you haven’t honored the level of craft required. It’s like so many professions and avocations in that regard, it looks easy from that seat in coach, but you’ll be dead or humbled within seconds if you don’t have the requisite knowledge backing your intentions.

And then, this being the good news, the great and astounding news, is that the journey can be blissful. Because it demands that you become one with the requisite craft.

Once joined, it will never fail you.

It’s all out there. Point your journey toward it, and write your novels in humble context to all you learn and all you observe.
Once you know, rather than find yourself guessing, write your story any way you choose.
All of us, published or not, are engaged in that dance.

*****

Check out my latest post over at The Kill Zone Blog, this one entitled: “The Secret Compartment in the Writers Tool Box.

 

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Story Structure, Take One – A Guest Post by Robert Arrington

One writer’s dance with the principles of structure, and an honest self-analysis of the result.

 

Well, it’s been a wild 18 months of effort for me, but I have finally succeeded in putting my first novel, The Wonderland Effect, to bed, and it is out there attempting to make its way in the world. If you haven’t heard about it yet (probably most of you are in this camp) it’s a YA fantasy story that fits into the superhero subgenre.

In the process of realizing my vision, I’ve learned a lot about a lot of things: maintaining a writing schedule, navigating the paths and pitfalls on the road to self-publishing and marketing, and, thanks to Storyfix.com, how to structure my story properly. I may not have managed everything perfectly on my first attempt, but Larry’s book, Story Engineering, was my guide in setting up the major events in my book, and I’m certain it’s a better work because of his advice.

Since you’re reading this guest blog entry on Larry’s site, I’ll just assume you are already familiar with the benefits of giving your story a proper structure (and if you’re not, there are dozens of posts here to that effect). So rather than covering a lot of old ground, I thought I’d just look back on the experience and see how well I did in spacing my plot points and transitions between the four acts of the narrative.

I prefer the “Hero as…” designations for the acts, so that’s what I’ll use here. If you need a quick refresher, the four acts are

1. Hero as Orphan (the setup quartile)
2. Hero as Wanderer (the response quartile)
3. Hero as Warrior (the attache quartile)
4. Hero as Martyr (the resolution quartile)

Here is a short synopsis to help clarify this analysis.

The protagonist, Alice Littleton, has powers that draw on Lewis Carroll’s writings for their inspiration. In the story she is hunted by a powerful paranormal for reasons of his own. During the course of her journey, she encounters a lot of empowered characters close to her own age at Prometheus Academy. Ultimately, when the school is threatened, she must choose between running away and taking a stand with her new friends.

Spoiler Alert: If you have not yet read The Wonderland Effect, and you don’t like having things ruined for you, stop here. Come back once you’re done with the book. Really, you’ve been warned.

Hero as Orphan

At the start of the story, the reader gets to see the hero in her “normal” life, for whatever value of normal works in the setting. During this portion of the story, the writer’s job is to establish audience empathy with the protagonist and show what’s going on in her life before the antagonist comes into her view. What trials or opportunities is she facing? What does she want from life? More importantly, what does she need, and how conscious is she of her need? The antagonist may appear during this portion of the story, although his motives should remain unclear, as should the circumstances that will inevitably draw him into conflict with the protagonist.

At the end of this section comes the inciting incident, which some writers call Plot Point One. Something new arrives in the hero’s life that changes the course of her life in some way, giving her something she must respond to, opening a new path that becomes the spine of the ensuring narrative. As a result, her normal life will be left behind due to the urgency she feels for responding to it. This will give the reader their first clear understanding of the antagonist’s goals and methods, and present the hero with challenges and obstacles she must overcome.

In the Part 1, “Hero as orphan” stage of The Wonderland Effect, Alice’s normal life consists of school and her friendship with Miranda. She needs to establish bonds with others in her peer group, but she uses her powers as an excuse to push people away. She is also starting to cast off her father’s restrictions on the use of her powers, which brings about a disaster by bringing her to Oglethorpe’s attention. The inciting incident comes when Oglethorpe comes to her home and attacks her, and is resolved in their confrontation in Wonderland. This confrontation occurs right on schedule, 25% of the way through the book. So far, so good. This brings us to…

Hero as Wanderer

In this section of the story, the hero has a new found sense of purpose due to the inciting incident, but lacks information. She needs to figure out who the antagonist is, what he wants, and what methods he is likely to employ to achieve his goal. The hero needs time to analyze what she knows, observe and collect additional information, and recruit allies. Her goal is to come up with a plan that will allow her to attack the antagonist, or at least begin to turn the tables on him. But in the meantime, the hero must run and hide. The time for the counter attack has not yet arrived.

This section of the story drives toward the mid-point milestone. New information or awareness will allow the hero to shift gears and the story will move in a new direction because of it. we’ll look at this in slightly more detail in the next section.

Once she returns from Wonderland, Alice is firmly in the “Hero as wanderer” stage in my story. She is uncertain who Oglethorpe’s confederates are or the extent of their reach. In this case, she and her father are literally running away from the situation, and they have no awareness of who their foes really are. They do not even know that Oglethorpe somehow survived his “unmaking” by the Boojum. Potential allies soon appear in the form of Houston, LaRonda, and Scott, which leads to an increased understanding of their situation.

The midpoint milestone arrives when Alice receives (actually, demands) a slot at Prometheus Academy, though at the 45th percentile, this section of the book wraps up a bit early.

Hero as Warrior

The mid-point milestone allows the hero to change her actions. She will stop running, and display a greater tendency to think creatively to address challenges. She will also begin to address her inner demons, those things that are preventing her from attaining the things she needs. In short, she will begin to act courageously and take the fight to her opponent. However, the antagonist’s plans are moving forward as well. Therefore, the hero will not yet be able to win the day.

This section of the story culminates in the second plot point.

The final pieces of the puzzle will fall into place. New information or the act of attaining a crucial resource will make it possible for the hero to achieve victory, which will lead the reader into the final act.

As Alice settles into life at Prometheus Academy, things start to change for the better. She no longer needs to hide who she is, and she finds a good friend in Sarah Thompson, and a romantic interest in her brother, Scott. In addition to reaching out to other students, she discovers she has a real flair for understanding others’ abilities and to note important details. Her campaign against Oglethorpe is derailed by her belief that her foe has died, though the possibility that he has left behind an organization that may want revenge keeps her wary. The pressure goes back up when Oglethorpe reappears and kidnaps her mother and half-sister.

But where is the second plot point? I want to say that it is when she discovers that Elaine is actually behind everything that has happened, at about the 79th percentile. The realization who her true enemy is will allow her to redirect her efforts in a focused manner.

The only problem is that, contrary to Larry’s excellent advice, it isn’t until about 83% of the way through the story that Kirdja assures Alice that she, and she alone, can end Elaine’s threat. Is that crucial? Does this knowledge actually change anything Alice does from that point on? I tend to think not, as I intended this prophecy only to explain why Kirdja and Hector are involved in the events surrounding Alice and Prometheus Academy (maybe Larry will weigh in on this point…hint, hint). At any rate, I’m not considering this “new information” in the sense that Larry discusses, but your opinion may differ. Either way, the plot point comes a bit late in the story, though not, I think, late enough to throw off the story’s balance too severely.

Hero as Martyr

Let’s face it, in most stories the hero does not die. That would limit the writer’s options for putting out the sequel, after all. The point here is not that the hero will die, but that she is fully committed to seeing the conflict through to the end, regardless of the consequences. This is where the stage is set for the final confrontation and a resolution to the conflict imposed by the antagonist and his goals.

There are just a couple of hard and fast rules for this section of the story.

First, the writer cannot introduce additional information in this section of the story. No new characters should be introduced, and the hero should not gain new resources needed to defeat her opponent. If the antagonist’s childhood trauma is key to his defeat, she must have learned about it before this section of the story commences. Violating this rule will weaken the story and give the conclusion a sense of having been forced. Second, the hero must be the primary mover in resolving the conflict with the antagonist. If that duty falls to someone else, the story has the wrong protagonist.

So how does Alice stack up as a warrior?

Her stated goal in returning to Prometheus Academy after her near disaster is not to defeat Elaine, but simply to free her friends of her influence. Still, in the face of overwhelming odds and the likelihood of her death if she comes face to face with Elaine again, Alice is determined to complete the task she has set for herself. Plus, she does not rule out confronting Elaine at some point in the future, once she has identified a weakness she can exploit. So I have no problem seeing Alice’s role at this stage as that of a warrior.

Of course, in the course of her mission, Alice is forced into a confrontation in which she must utterly defeat Elaine or die herself. In the extremis of the struggle, she finally realizes where Elaine’s weakness lies. Her body will regenerate any wound, but her resiliency does not extend to her mind, the spiritual essence that directs the body. The revelation allows Alice to give Elaine her desire, and then use it to destroy the threat Elaine represents forever.

So, to recap, we have a four-act structure with an elongated third act, with the second and fourth somewhat shortened. Plus, depending on how one views the prophecy, a possible violation of the rule against introducing new information in the final act. I’ll give myself a B+ on following Larry’s advice, and try to learn from the experience. I’ll try to do better with the sequel.

What has been your experience with pouring your narrative into the given parameters of the four part structural model, and have you paid a price (via rejection, or online critique relative to pace, character arc, or dramatic tension) for taking those liberties.

Product Details

Robert Arrington is the author of The Wonderland Effect, available on Amazon.com and other digital venues.  This is his first novel.

Visit Robert’s blog at www.DispatchesFromWonderland.com to enter his Rafflecopter giveaway. You may win a $25Amazon GC or a paperback copy of The Wonderland Effect.

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