Structuring Your Novel: A Review

As a “pantser” writer, me and structure/outlining don’t necessarily go together naturally. Oil and water, we are.

However, every writer should continue to learn about her craft, and that’s where K.M. Weiland‘s new book, Structuring Your Novel, comes into play. I was absolutely delighted, I must say, when K.M. asked me to be an early reader, as I was for her last nonfiction book, Outlining Your Novel. Even so, being in a bit of a hectic time of life, I’m getting to the actual reviewing a bit late. But, that old adage is true: better late than never.

Being a pantser means I don’t usually pay attention to structure, whether it’s outlining or otherwise. I’ve only actually ever used an outline with success once, and that was for NaNoWriMo back in 2009. Yet, K.M.’s previous non-fiction book left me thinking, and while I’m still not an outliner, I can honestly say I recognize the merits of outlining, and when I’m stuck, will sit down and outline the next few chapters to get me going again.

I approached Structuring in much the same way. I’m a pantser: what can this book do for me?

Well, a lot, I’ll say that. Not so much a “how to” book, more a “these are the qualities of a strong book” book, Structuring Your Novel uses examples from familiar books and movies to describe fundamentally how all successful stories are arranged, what readers and viewers expect. Surprisingly enough, if you’ve read enough quality books or watched solid movies, you probably intuitively know a lot about story structure. But, K.M. lays it out perfunctorily so you can understand why you need to do XYZ by a set point in the story, for instance, having all your major characters introduced by the first plot point, around the 25% mark in your story.

What I learned most: I don’t have to outline my novels, but I should sit down and at least figure out if my drafts are in line with what typically happens in a book. Is my first plot point too early? Too late? What can I do to adjust its timing?

Additionally, I really enjoyed the second and third parts: Part Two is on Scene Structure, and Part Three is a short piece on Sentence Structure. Some of “Scene Structure” will be familiar if you’ve been following K.M.’s blog, Helping Writers Become Authors, but it’s nice to have the refresher in an easy-to-snag spot on my Kindle. Sentence Structure really is a crash course in many do’s and don’t’s common in early novels: repetitiveness, ambiguity, pompous words, etc.

Who needs this book: Every fiction writer who wants to get a better handle on the elements of storytelling, outliner and pantser alike. While newbies especially would benefit, those of us who are old-hands at story (whether published or not) can use the refresher, and gain new insights into how to tell a superb story. Maybe we will realize we need to move some bodies around in our stories because of Structuring. (That’s a little murder mystery writer humor!)

Structuring Your Novel is available through Amazon.com (and other booksellers) for $2.99 for Kindle presently, however, the list price is $12.75. Paperbacks cost $10.42, also at the same list price. Whichever version you pick up, it is well worth the cost. Getting a solid grasp on structure–even if you’re a pantser like me–will help make you a better writer, and in the end, isn’t that what all of us writers want?

Until next time,

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Growing On Up: 5 Lessons on Writing Learned in the Garden

I started a garden this year.

It was sort of a last minute thing, and I really didn’t prepare like I should have, but despite it all, it’s been fun to see my plants grow… a few taller than TMOTH and myself (and TMOTH is 6’4″/1.93 meters tall!!)

My garden at the beginning of  the year

My previous gardening experiences have left much to be desired. I grew up with a large garden in our backyard, where my mom would (sometimes) plant a ton of tomatoes, and occasionally other things like corn, peppers, and melons. But, since I married TMOTH, I’ve mostly had a black thumb. I can’t start seeds to save me, and many plants I’ve bought at the store die.

This year, I was actually successful (at least up to now!) Eight tomato plants, five sweet pepper plants, and one lonely chili pepper plant. Oh, and an ever-expanding patch of oregano.

Of course, my water bill has been going up thanks to the huge drought Kansas is in… *sigh*

TMOTH was adamant–he wasn’t going to tend to my garden for me. I have a tendency to not go outside at ALL when it gets hot. So, having a small garden seemed reasonable.

And, I’m kind of glad I started small.

So far as I write this, my city has had 20 days in excess of 100° Fahrenheit. We’ve had less than 4″ of rain since June 1, 2012. Normally, we’d have had about three times that by now. I’ve had to be out pretty much every day to water, occasionally twice, or my plants start wilting.

Homegrown, home-canned tomato sauce

Because of the extreme heat, I’ve forgone any trips of any lengths of time. My plants would be dead or close to it, I fear, if left for four days (and yes, I know I should get a water timer, but that hasn’t happened yet.)

Of course, all this has led to some fruitful results. I’ve picked a few peppers so far, but even more tomatoes. And, I’m flexing my canning muscles. So far, I’ve canned my own tomato sauce, and am hoping to soon have enough tomatoes again I can do my own salsa, too.

In the midst of it all, I’ve learned quite a few lessons, some that I can translate into writing lessons.

  1. Plan Ahead — My decision to do a garden was made hastily. If I’d started working on it earlier, I could have had much more space cleared, and hence, more plants/more produce. As a writing lesson, this is translated to outlining. I’m not a firm believer in outlining, but it’s growing on me. Especially given this experience.
  2. Give Me Space — You can probably see that my first picture, I had things planted kind of close. I was ill prepared for how well my plants would grow, since my previous attempts at growing tomatoes and the like had produced straggly-looking plants. Writing lesson: don’t jump right into editing. Let your writing sit for a while.
  3. A Mariana’s Peace Tomato from my garden — not a Roma!
  4. Do Your Research… or Not — I bought 8 tomato plants from a local grower. I’d been adamant–I wanted Roma Tomatoes, the kind best suited for canning sauce. The grower told me she’d give me some Roma’s, but she also had a different kind of Roma called a Mariana’s Peace. So, I bought four of each. Well, the Roma’s grew like I knew they should, but when the Mariana’s Peace started to get big, I knew I’d been sold a bill of goods. These weren’t Roma’s, but beefsteaks! After I’d harvested quite a few of the tomatoes, I researched them–something I should have done right off the bat. However, I was pleased to learn they’re an heirloom variety, have a lot of meat to them, great flavor, and seem to have mixed well with the Roma’s. Writing lesson: I’m not huge on research, never really have been. Being a pantser, I rely on intuitive or stored knowledge, occasionally a blog by Lee Lofland, Wikipedia searches, or my small writer’s reference library in my bedroom/office. Really have to stop doing that. I’ve had to rewrite more scenes because I later learn of major inaccuracies. Which is why I’m contemplating asking a couple of my legislator friends to allowing me to shadow them come January–despite the fact I’ve been a legislative intern twice–since I’ve got two new ideas for novels that would involve a legislative setting. I need to be a bit more disciplined about research.
  5. Deal With Your Circumstances — I had no idea I was going to deal with a drought like we’d had. Even though I follow Gary Lezak who came up with the LRC (Lezak’s Recurring Cycle) which is a weather theory I believe has a great deal of scientific merit, I didn’t see us having a drought as extreme as we’ve had. I figured it’d be hot–we had a mild winter, more rain than snow, and I think I was wearing shorts as early as February. So I was prepared for the heat. But, I’ve had to be out every day, usually in temps nearing 100°, and that’s not something I’m used to. I actually hate the heat. But because I saw my little tomatoes growing, and had visions of maybe supplementing our food sources in a significant manner, I was out there, watering, tending, trimming, and harvesting, even if I was tired, hot, sweaty, or sick. Writing Lesson: Your circumstances are your circumstances. Deal with them as best as you can. If your schedule is unpredictable, fit in 10 minutes of writing between appointments.
  6. My tomatoes quickly became overgrown.
  7. Learn From Your Mistakes —  I desperately needed to have about twice as much space for my tomatoes as I ended up having. I can access them only from the perimeter, otherwise, I have to crane my neck and sometimes reach in blind to find my ripe red fruit. Next year will be different. Come fall, probably in October, I plan to Round-Up a significant part of the yard (probably much to our landlord’s chagrin!) and add compost to all our areas that I’m clearing after a couple of weeks of killing off the weeds and crabgrass. I hope to have twice as many tomato plants next year, maybe even three times as many, spread over at least four times the amount of space. Writing Lesson: As I detailed in last week’s post, I made the hard choice to give up on my project “Homebody”. It was a tough decision, but one that needed to happen. While I’d hesitate to call “Homebody” a mistake, I definitely learned from it. Maybe I’ll detail some of the lessons learned in a future blog post.

Question for you: What lessons have you learned about writing from your outside activities?

Until next time,

Tough Decisions, or, I’m Not a Quitter–Honest!

Being a writer means making lots of choices. Why did Uncle Melvin kill off Cousin Carl? How will Detective Haskins discover the killer? Why did Sarah run off with Luigi? And on and on…

One of the toughest things about being a writer is knowing when to quit. Not necessarily for the day, but when is the story done. Or when it’s not done, and there’s nothing you can do at this point in your life to make it done.

by Astroboy_71

I’m facing one of those times right now.

For the last 6 1/2 years, I’ve been working on a novel project. It’s had a lot of names, but right now, it’s “Homebody”. This novel predates my children being born, and the two main characters actually predate my marriage.

Over the last year or so, I’ve struggled with the book. I’m on like the 7th draft or some crazy thing, and I keep feeling like I’m circling around when it could be considered done, but just not quite there. Those who have read it say the same thing. But I can’t figure out what’s wrong with it, not now at least. For a while, I thought it was done: I submitted it to agents, and have received a few nice, even encouraging replies, but nothing that would have me thinking I’m almost there.

In a last-ditch effort, I asked Texas Momma (aka Linda Yezak) to take a look at it this spring. Between all her battles, she read a few chapters, but life happened and she had to return it, mostly unread, but with a few very helpful suggestions.

Then, last week, I got that niggling feeling again, like it was time to let it go.

I’ve had that feeling off and on for a while. I’m not sure why, but after it came back stronger than ever, I decided I’d e-mail Texas Momma about it. Even though I asked, I wasn’t quite prepared for the blunt reply:

“Give up on Homebody. Save the personalities for another book, if you’d like, but I’d quit on it.”

My stomach clenched reading those words. This book has become so much a part of my identity the last several years. How can I just give it up? It’s almost like abandoning one of my children at the grocery store.

One thing you should learn early on as a writer is to kill your darlings. In other words, that turn of phrase you think is so clever, or that scene that you love but doesn’t necessarily fit with the rest of the book. Perhaps it’s the same way with this book–it’s become my darling in many ways.

When I first started it, I was a completely different person than I am today. I had different goals, different aspirations, different worries. And, writing… and rewriting Homebody was cathartic in many ways. In the past six years, I’ve started work on several other projects, most of which I’ve finished, one or two I haven’t for whatever reason–my creative juices ran out, I lost interest, etc.

Homebody wasn’t the first novel I wrote. No, that disgraceful thing happened back in my teens. I pray it never again sees the light of day. A couple more came in between, both before and after a hiatus in my last semester of college into the first year of married life. Perhaps Homebody is that transition for me–the one I needed to get out, but isn’t yet worthy of being published. Perhaps the next one or two books I’ve got on my plate will be it. I hope so.

For now, I must say goodbye to this story. Thank you for helping me grow as a writer. I’m sorry I had to use you to do it, that you never reached your full potential, that I wasn’t the writer you needed me to be. Just know that even though you will remain on my flash drive, and I may never open you again, you’ve been valuable. I will always have fond memories of writing you.

As for my characters, Amanda O’Flannigan and Richard “Rick” Pierce, I think they’ll be around again. Almost as soon as I made the decision that it was time to cut it loose, I got a new idea which would be perfectly suited (I think) for them. And, Homebody definitely allowed me to come up with a great deal of back-story for these two. I hope it comes to fruition, mostly because I love both of these characters dearly. I’m not quite ready to quit on them, even if I have to quit on one of their stories.

For the time being, I’m going to get back to work on “Reprisal”. I’m mid-way through the 3rd draft, and it’s lingered far too long as I’ve had two children, done NaNo, and tried to get that OTHER book done. I’ll try to post monthly reports, even if they’re brief, on how that’s going. Once I’ve completed the 3rd draft, I’m going to go back to my 2009 NaNo project, “Beyond Dead”. It’s very short–just barely over the 50K minimum to win NaNo, and ideally I’d prefer it around 80K. That’s a lot of words to add! But, one thing at a time.

If you’re a writer, how do you gauge when it’s time to cut a story loose permanently and stop working on it? Have you ever had to do it? Did you mourn for the story and/or characters as I feel I’m doing a bit of now?

Happy trails,

How to Devour Books Without Really Trying

Anyone who knows me knows I go through phases where I do things. I’ve been this way as long as I can remember.

By Bob AuBuchon

In the last 10 years or so, my activities usually have a revolution over the course of a year or so which include intensive times of writing/editing, reading, and some sort of craft (primarily crochet, but sewing and candle making have taken that spot as well.)

I’m in a weird spot right now where I’m actively pursuing all three activities with almost equal vigor.

And, I have my friend Juliet to thank for that.

A couple months ago, probably the last time I was physically at my local critique group, Juliet as well as one of the other ladies asked if I’d read a certain author. I’m like, “Who?” I’d never heard of Craig Johnson. They were going on and on about the books, then the fact the books were being made into a TV show on cable and how well it was done.

Well, Juliet insisted I read the first book, The Cold Dish. I’d hoped to have it from my library before going out of town a couple weeks later. (Didn’t happen–apparently, they’re very popular right now, probably because of the TV show!) It took me about 4 – 6 weeks to get it…

… and I couldn’t put it, or its sequels down.

Really.

I’ve read the first 5 books of the series in the last 6 – 7 weeks, have yet to watch the TV show online (I don’t have a working TV for broadcast or cable, so only catch stuff on Hulu when it’s available). And, on top of that, I’ve started reading other books again. Like Robert B. Parker, Lisa Gardner, and I have a stack on my nightstand that includes Kathy Reichs and Diane Mott Davidson.

Going back to my opening statement, I get into grooves where I’m only pursuing one task. Writing and editing had really taken over my life for the first 5 – 6 months of the year. This usually means I won’t read any books whatsoever–not even writing help books–except review books for CCBR. The longest non-children’s item I may read is a news article or a lengthy blog.

But the last two months have been wonderful… I’ve been writing actively, and reading when I’m not writing, then about 2 weeks ago, added in a craft project–crocheting a cotton afghan for my son (it’s going to be a belated birthday present.)

All because of Craig Johnson.

And Juliet of course.

If you write, do you find you can do all of your other interests in close proximity with each other? Or, do you usually divide up your time whether intentionally or inadvertently so you write during the course of a few days/weeks/months and do other things in a different time frame?


Until next time,

P.S., are you on GoodReads? If so, feel free to connect with me! LS

Writing Lessons from the Movies: "The Band Wagon"

As writers, we all know the kind of story we want to write. As well we should! If we don’t know, then what are we doing with an open Word document in front of us, trying to string words together? Having a vision for our story is important.

In the 1950s musical classic The Band Wagon, we get a great lesson about not letting go of that vision, nor allowing someone to so skew your story that it’s barely recognizable when they’re through with it.

If you’re not familiar with the movie, here’s a brief run-down. Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is a washed-up movie actor in the twilight of his career, looking to go back to his Broadway roots and return to the stage. His friends, playwrights Lester and Lily Martin (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray), have what they feel is the perfect vehicle, and persuade him to return to New York City. Upon Tony’s arrival, they take him to meet the person who they want to direct their venture, Jeffrey Cordova (James Buchanan).

Fred Astaire & Cyd Charise “Dancing in the Dark”
Picture from Wikipedia

Cordova, however, has a very different plan for Les & Lily’s upbeat musical, turning it into a musical drama that doesn’t leave the audience with a smile on their face. The show is a flop.

As the cast is commiserating and saying their goodbyes, Tony takes things into his own hands, tells Cordova that they’re going to revamp and take things back to the original show the Martin’s had planned. When they do this, The Band Wagon becomes a hit.

You can probably tell where I’m headed with this (hey, you’re smart!) but the important lesson for us writers is this: don’t let others tinker with your story unless you’re sure about the changes they’re suggesting, if it really, truly improves things. Take everything your crit partners say and look at it thoroughly and with a cautious eye. Don’t just take their suggestions as gospel truth.

When you get notes back from critters, agents, or editors (though mostly, the critters), take things in, try to see what they’re saying, then let it steep in your brain for a while. I’ve gotten some of my best ideas when I let things sit rather than making the jump into editing immediately. I’ll start thinking about one point, mull over possible changes, then sometimes, particularly if it’s major, I’ll call up the critter or meet them for coffee and have a brainstorming session. I actually have one critter from my local writer’s group that we do this nearly every time I see him. He’ll walk me to my car and we’ll stand there and talk and brainstorm.

Some of my best ideas come while we’re talking. I make a mental note, or, lately, pull up the voice recorder on my phone and make some notes as I’m driving home.

Just remember: keep in mind the vision you’ve got for your book. Not everyone is going to be pulling for you–or even see what you can see in your book’s rough form.

My question for you: Have you ever received constructive criticism from someone where their vision for your book was polar opposite from yours? If so, how did you handle it? Did it end up being helpful?

Until next time,

P.S. My good friend and sometimes guest blogger Linda Yezak’s novel is out on Kindle! When I bought it on Thursday, it was $0.99! I don’t know if it’s still that low, but I’d urge you to go buy Give the Lady a Ride. It would make her happy. — LS

(Re)Readable

When you started writing your novel (short story, poem, how-to book), did you give any consideration whether what you were writing down would be rereadable?

Most of us think about making a book enticing enough to get a reader to read it once, to choose it over all the other offerings on the Barnes & Noble shelf or Amazon.com page view. But, shouldn’t we, as authors, want to make a book rereadable?

I have a confession:

I’ve reread J.D. Robb’s Conspiracy in Death upwards of 20 – 30 times. In my adult life, it’s
probably my most reread book, though a couple other books in the series, or possibly Eleven on Top by Janet Evanovich come in pretty close on its heels.

Why do I reread books? I know a lot of people who don’t. Surely it’s not because there’s nothing good out there to read. I have a list of books I want to read longer than my arm, so I know there’s new material out there.

I have several reasons why. First, there’s something about the character(s) I really love. This is why I typically read a lot of series in the first place. I sort of know what I can expect, and there’s not a steep learning curve where new characters are concerned. I already am familiar with them.

The story offers something that not just every other story does. For instance, in Conspiracy in Death, I almost always come to tears when, near the middle of the book, the main character, Eve Dallas, is ordered to turn in her badge by her superior. In another favorite reread, Portrait in Death, I get a huge kick out of a scene where Eve gives her husband, Roarke, a sedative (which is a bit that is done a lot in the early books in the series, just usually in reverse–Roarke gives it to Eve.)

With both of these things, I’m usually observing things a little more closely than I did on the first read or two, which means I am honing in on details and learning something I can use in my own writing. Sometimes, I just catch things I didn’t notice before. This happened on my most recent reread a couple weeks ago of Portrait in Death, when I spotted something I’d never noticed before (which I can’t recall at the moment.)

Then, there’s the lazy me. The part that is tired, weary, or maybe even sick. I need something to distract my brain, but reading something new doesn’t appeal to me. That’s when I go for an old favorite. I may even start reading a book a few chapters in. (I’ve skipped the first 50 or so pages in Conspiracy several times.)

I just hope right now that when Homebody, Cora’s Song, or Beyond Dead are on the shelves, some of my readers will want to reread them.

A brief aside…

I managed to find the stats section of my dashboard for Word Wanderings this week… I was a little stunned to see some of the countries where I’ve had visitors this from in the last week. So, to my readers in Iran, Slovenia, Russia, China, Brazil and the rest of the places I’ve spotted, I thank you wholeheartedly for stopping in. (And, of course, I thank those that stop in from the good ol’ U.S. of A., too.)

Question of the week:

My question for you is two-fold: Where are you reading Word Wanderings from? And, do you reread books? If so, what are your top rereads?

Until next time,

Hiking = Writing

Yesterday, Sunday, TMOTH and I took my daughter, son, and Labrador Retriever for a hike at a nearby lake.

A photo from a trail I frequent… yes, this *is* Kansas!

Upon reflection, I learned a lot on that hike… about writing.

The trail we chose started out flat, across grass in a wide-open field. As we approached the woods, it got muddy, then rocky, and had a steep slope down to the lake. Once on the shore, we trudged over driftwood, rocks, and, again, mud until we decided to turn around and head back the way we came.

The flat, open part of the hike reminded me of how I usually start out on a writing project: good initial progress, seeing a portion of where I’m going, but not clearly the whole trail (even when I’ve outlined.) I usually hit some point where I’ve got a good feel for where I’m headed, but the writing gets rocky, and I slow down, carefully finding my next step.

Then, I get to the middle. Fits and starts, I’ll progress in quick bursts, then find something I have to climb over, go under, or around. (In the actual hike yesterday, this was difficult since my son was in a carrier, pulling me off balance!) My daughter taught me a few things in this portion, as she forced us to take breaks (allowing for reflection, possible changes, or redirection in my writing analogy) and look at bobbers, shells, rocks, or throwing sticks and stones into the water.

Sometimes, in these sections of my writing, I get hurt, as I did on the hike (it wasn’t bad–a scrape on my shin when my foot slipped as I was climbing over a large, fallen tree.) I have to backtrack, rethink what I’m doing. Often, these instances happen when I’m editing. On my most recent edit of Homebody, I had several major changes, some of which I’m still tweaking. When I started writing this story, now going on five years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined some of these types of twists in my story.

On the way back up the hill, I’m starting to pick up steam. While I’m watching my footing carefully, I know I’m headed for the climax: I’m about to write “The End” soon. I may have to take a breather now and again–after all, it is a steep climb!–I’m moving steadily upward, and know how far I’ve got to go.

Then, I crest that hill.

I can see the end!

For me, this is often the fastest part of the hike–and the writing. Renewed energy hits. Frequently, I can write a 30 or 40 page section in first draft mode in a single evening, especially the closer to the climax I get.

Then I reach the car–or write my last lines. Relief! My characters are out of danger, my feet can rest (and I can get another cool bottle of water from the cooler and turn on the A/C!)

Do you have a favorite analogy on how you write? How has that taught you about your writing?

Also, I want to extend my hearty congratulations to Linda Yezak, who guest posted for me last summer, on the publication of her debut novel, Give the Lady a Ride. I can’t wait to get it (hopefully on my Kindle!) and read it!

Until next time,