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,

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,

Choosing the Right Point of View

How many writers actively think about point of view and how they’re going to tell their story?

If you as a writer, want to be successful, you’ll give some thought to it before sitting down at your computer. It can make or break your story.

This became clear recently when I was critiquing stories by two of my fellow-members of the Port Yonder Press mentoring group I’m in this year.

I am most comfortable writing in 1st Person–i.e., I said, I did. And while I don’t exclusively read first person stories, I am drawn to them more than their third person counterparts (i.e. he said, she did.)

This came across to at least one of my crit partners in a pretty obvious way–both of them got suggestions from me to switch from third to first person.

Why would I suggest this?

Because the story they were telling needed a more intimate experience, at least in my opinion.

There are a lot of reasons to take into account when you’re choosing your point of view. Most authors and writing coaches indicate that scene-to-scene, you should write from the POV of the character who has the most to lose in any given scene. This works better when you’re in 3rd Person, when it’s more acceptable to switch from John’s head to Mary’s head, then pop into Peter’s across three scenes.

But that’s not always possible, especially if you’re writing from a singular point of view, whether it be first person or a very tight third.

I ran into this problem when I was writing the first few drafts of Homebody. My problem? I’m a bit of a romantic at heart, and while Homebody is told in first person point of view, there were several scenes I needed to tell that would work best from a second person’s perspective.

My solution?

A very unorthodox approach. I switched to 3rd person for several scenes so I could show things from MC Amanda’s boyfriend’s POV. Being able to work from Rick’s (the boyfriend) perspective opened things up. I was able to show things that Amanda wouldn’t know, including several scenes where Amanda wasn’t even present. While he (Rick) doesn’t show anything critical to the mystery in the story, it does open things up to the romantic side, one where Amanda has been cold far too long.

This is an approach I have seen infrequently in novels: the most notable example I can think of is a particular Alex Cross novel by James Patterson (although it’s been several years since I’ve read any of James Patterson’s work, so I can’t recall which one.) But, it *is* out there, it’s just used infrequently. The important thing to remember is you have to be a good storyteller before you start breaking the rules of storytelling. While I’m not sure I’m a great storyteller yet, this was what worked for me in how I tell this set of stories.

I’m hopeful an agent and an editor will agree.

Until next time,

Write What You DON’T Know

My writing friend K.M. Weiland recently asked on Twitter what the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received is.

I had a prompt response:

Write what you know.

While this piece of advice is common in writer’s circles, I’d have to say my stories would be pretty boring if I wrote about what I know. Who really wants to read about a stay-at-home mom nursing her infant son or trying to figure out how to get hand lotion out of her two-year-old’s curly locks? Sounds pretty boring to me–and I’ve done both of these in the last 24 hours.

I write mystery and science fiction. Have I ever stumbled over a dead body? As long as you don’t count the funerals I’ve gone to, no. Have I ever solved a crime? No. Have I ever flown in space? Okay, that one could get a varied response based on who you ask–some may say I’m a space cadet. Technically, the answer is no. (Not that I wouldn’t if offered!)

I’ve done all these things while writing, yet I have no personal knowledge of any of them.

Research is the answer. Even a romance book requires some research. Unless a writer was raised in an Amish or closed community, how else are they going to know how to write so-called “bonnet romances”? Research. If I need to know the difference between a Glock G26 and a Saturday Night Special, what do I do? Research.

My point is that instead of “writing what we know,” the creative use of research allows us as writers to fill in the blanks that we don’t know, sometimes with mundane, but most of the time with interesting facts we’ve discovered. It gives us a chance to get it right: talking to a homicide detective about how they solve a crime, for instance.

My local writing buddy, Juliet Kincaid, taught a lesson at a Sisters in Crime meeting a few years ago. I wish she had that lesson online so I could share it with you, but it basically shared some creative places to do your research. She writes primarily historical mysteries, so she makes good use of librarians–I would never have thought of asking a librarian before her talk!

For more on research, I highly recommend this post by K.M. Weiland.

So, going back to K.M.’s question, what’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Until next time,

P.S. K.M. Weiland covered this topic as well yesterday her blog. Check it out here.