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Posts tagged ‘planning and writing a novel’

Planning And Writing A Novel, by Monika Schroder

It has been said that there are those writers who plan and those who ‘fly by the seats of their pants’. I am part of the second group and before I began working on my novel, My Brother’s Shadow, I only had a rough idea of who Moritz, the main character, was and what would happen in the story. But already in the first few pages I encountered a surprise. Moritz was telling his story in first person and used the present tense! Hadn’t I read in many books about writing that the first person, present tense point-of-view was a most difficult choice for a writer? My first two novels were told in the voice of third person omniscient narrators reflecting back on past events, and I had no intention of changing this ‘winning formula’ by writing in first person and in present tense.

I rewrote the beginning in past tense but couldn’t force Moritz to tell me his story in hindsight. He was adamant and stuck to the immediacy of present tense.

The story was set in 1918 Berlin. I needed to convey a lot of background information. It seemed such a daunting task to introduce the reader to starvation and despair in Berlin as well as the anticipation of military defeat without the omniscient perspective of third person POV. In the first chapter I needed to set the stage, let Moritz introduce himself and his family and find an intriguing ending to the chapter that would entice readers to go on. Moritz came to my rescue. As an apprentice in a print shop of a Berlin newspaper he could read the headlines of the paper he just helped print and thereby inform the readers of my novel of the state of affairs in Germany, October 1918.  The newspaper became a vehicle to disseminate information about the setting without interrupting the flow of the narrative. On the first page Moritz reads an official war report, knowing that the government is not allowing the truth to come out. He also meets Herr Goldman, a journalist who works for the paper and who takes a liking in Moritz and ultimately helps him to fulfil his dream to become a reporter like himself.  Through their conversations Moritz is able to tell the reader about the most pressing and newsworthy current events. Apparently there was a way for me to write in first person, present tense and still give the reader a sense of the setting.

About half way in, the story took an unexpected turn and once again I had trouble letting myself deviate from my original plan. Moritz had met a girl who had completely flummoxed him with her wit. Granted, it was not so unlikely that a 16-year old boy would take an interest in a girl, but I had not anticipated a romance! I had never expected to write about young love. Now here was Rebecca, the smart daughter of a Jewish bookseller who attended the same political meetings as Moritz’s mother and sister. After their first encounter on the train, it was clear that they had to meet again. Yet, the book takes place in 1918, so they wouldn’t go ‘all the way’. I was able to braid his discovery of love together with the story of Moritz’s relationship with his brother, who returns from the trenches a maimed and bitter veteran and it worked at the end. Rebecca’s appearance even gave me the opportunity for a hopeful conclusion leaving the reader satisfied after Moritz’s intense final confrontation with his brother.

Writing My Brother’s Shadow has taught me to trust the process along the way. A quote by E.L. Doctorow showed me that I am not alone with this approach: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

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Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com

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Endings And The Novel Writing Process, by Bernard Beckett

I recently read an interesting piece of research that suggests that the crucial thing when it comes to recalling and assessing an experience is the way it ends. So, for example, people asked to rate the nastiness of a painful experience (they used submerging the hand in unpleasantly cold water) leaned more heavily upon how it felt at the end (whether the water was slowly warmed again or not) than the duration of the pain.

This brought to mind a university job I once had helping to run a children’s holiday programme. The young chap I was working with (now a bishop, of all things) explained to me that the key thing was to end the day with your best activity. Just so long as, when the parents came to pick them up, their little darlings were buzzing with enthusiasm, the reports would be positive and they’d all be back the next day. The movie industry is well aware of this effect. The cliché-spouting executive is quick to tell you it’s the way the person feels as they leave the film that will determine whether or not they recommend it to a friend. Hence the constant reworking and second guessing of Hollywood endings and the almost pathological aversion to stories that don’t ultimately affirm.

As a reader, few things infuriate me more than a novel that misses its ending. No matter how much I’ve enjoyed the preceding pages, if the ending is mishandled I feel like I’ve just been subjected to a long joke without a punch line. I find myself asking: why exactly did you want to tell me this? (I once heard that there is a special word in German for the person who tells long and pointless stories – we need such a word).

Yet, as a writer, I’ve messed up a fair few endings of my own. Endings should complete the story. They should make sense of all that has gone before. Not necessarily in the tidy, tied up, artificially resolved way of Hollywood. I’ve nothing against ambiguities and uncertainties. What I strive to avoid though, with varying degrees of success, is the ending that fails to fulfil the novel’s implicit contract. If a novel presents me with a murder on page one, I expect to find out the who and why by the end. If it introduces the love struck hero, facing impossible odds, then by the end I’d like to know if he’s succeeded, or failed, or simply fallen out of love. What I don’t want, is to have that left unresolved. If that’s the method you’ve used to maintain reader interest throughout the story, then I think you’re obliged to give them the payoff.

If I think about the times I’ve failed with endings, they are consistently stories where I was confident I would find the ending when I got there. I was enjoying the characters, building the situations, turning and twisting the plot, and somehow I believed, so long as I put my faith in the world I was creating and followed the characters where they took me, an ending would emerge. I’ve read of writers who operate this way and produce remarkable endings. So it’s not impossible. But looking back on my ten published novels, that’s never worked for me. Never once did I embark upon a story not knowing the ending and then find it. I found an ending, sure, but not the ending, the one that lets you close the back cover and feel that the story has finished.

So, for me, I’ve worked out rather belatedly that I need to know how the story ends before I can begin it. That doesn’t just mean I know the how of the ending, that character x discovers the letter he threw into the sea was from his father, but also the why, by which I mean the emotional context. What does the revelation of the ending tell us about the main character? How does it make us feel? How does it allow us to reinterpret or package all that has gone before? So endings have both a narrative and emotional dimension, and to know the ending is to know both of these. (Recently I worked on a novel where I knew what would happen at the end but not how I wanted the reader to feel about it. After two years, the book was discarded).

Although I know the ending of a novel before I start writing, I won’t necessarily have much idea of the in-between. I don’t plot incident by incident, or even chapter by chapter. Part of the thrill of writing, for me, is watching the thing wriggle into life on screen, and the more thrilling that feels the more likely it is that I’m on to something. I make sure I’m aware of the destination in a meaningful way because the ending is, in so many ways, the reason you’re telling the story in the first place. It’s the thing that compels you to take a stranger by the arm and say, ‘Hey, listen to this.’ If you do that when you don’t have much to say, well there’s a word for that in German.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

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Plotting A Novel Versus Winging It, by Diane Lee Wilson

I began my first novel not really knowing what I was doing. In a burst of inspiration, I scribbled a few opening sentences on a piece of paper and gradually turned that into a short first chapter. Then I started a second chapter. And it went on from there. Whenever I finished a chapter I would ask myself: What has to happen next? I was never quite sure. I wanted to move the story along and I had a vague idea where I wanted the story to end up, but the middle was unknown territory.

Did that work? Yes, I’m happy to say that it did. With the help of my agent I sold that novel to a respected publishing house. Soon after, about the time I was doing my rewriting based on my newly assigned editor’s comments, I came across a book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler. In this book, Vogler mapped each stage of a well-constructed novel or film. Oh, no. What if I’d done it all wrong?

I read the book cover to cover and loved it, happy to find that I’d intuitively followed the basic structure for good storytelling. And I recommend this book to aspiring novelists. It shed new understanding on the roles played by archetypal characters and explained the different “acts” inherent in most stories. I also adopted a few tips for making future stories stronger.

But here’s where I slipped: When I began my second novel I didn’t follow my intuition. I used Vogler’s outline to create a “perfect” story arc. I sat on my living room floor and, with an idea in my head, filled out 3”x5” cards with sequential segments of the story. I then slavishly followed those cards to write my story. And when this novel was completed I felt it was somewhat lifeless. In my opinion, it lacked the spark that arises from seat-of-your-pants inspiration.

Each of my subsequent novels has been conceived and written like my first one. I’m aware of classic story structure and the archetypes that appear in most stories, but I rely more on my intuition to keep my reader turning the pages. At times, if I’m stuck in my progress, I might pick up The Writer’s Journey for a little inspiration. I’ll be reminded of the tension created when a hero fails a few times, or the suspense lent by a “shapeshifter” character. Then I’ll set the book down and return to my writing.

I’ve spoken to authors who have found success writing from a detailed outline but that doesn’t work for me. I simply begin each novel introducing a teen character with a problem. I know where he or she needs to end up; I just don’t know how that will happen. I also don’t know how much the character will change or develop over the course of the story – and that’s part of the fun of writing without a map: I wake up in the morning wondering what will happen in the story today!

So my words of advice would be: familiarize yourself with good storytelling, whether that’s through studying manuals or just reading the works of accomplished authors, but then sit down and tell your story YOUR way, the way you see it in your head. That’s when the magic happens.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

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Faster and With More Intensity: Pacing in YA, by Nansi Kunze

There is a story (how true it is I can’t say – sadly, I’ve never met any of the people involved) that George Lucas, while directing the original Star Wars movie, used to watch the actors do a scene and then ask them to do it again, but ‘faster, and with more intensity!’. Now, while our buddy George may have made a few mistakes in his time (don’t get me started on what happened to Padme), this particular command is sheer genius. I find it incredibly helpful, not only with redrafts and action scenes, but also with that most daunting of tasks: working out the pacing of a novel.

The concept of ‘pacing’ can be terrifying. As if plot arcs and character development aren’t enough to worry about, as a novelist you have to know when to set each of those in motion and how much time to devote to them. And, unfortunately, there’s no perfect, one-size-fits-all method you can apply to your manuscript (if there was, whoever invented it would probably be richer than Mr Lucas by now). One of the wonderful things about the Young Adult genre, however, is that fast-paced writing is usually seen as a positive attribute … and that makes our task as YA writers all the more fun.

When I’m working on a novel, I initially plan the general plot, character development and back-story, and then stop to plan out each section in greater detail just before I get to it. One of the advantages to being a planner is that I have a fairly precise idea of where I’m going at any given time. But that doesn’t mean I don’t change where I’m going. If you’re looking at your plan and thinking: ‘Oh man – I have to do that whole school scene before I get to do the chapter where she makes out with the rock god!’, it’s time to take George Lucas’s advice. Make your story faster and more intense: go straight to the rock-god-snogging scene, and explain what happened at school in brief flashbacks or as part of a conversation. Frankly, if it’s boring to write, it’ll be boring to read. When in doubt, allow yourself to skip anything that isn’t appealing to you, because the chances are that’s what your readers would do with what you’re writing anyway.

So are there any times when it’s not good to go faster? Well, yeah: when your readers can’t follow you. Don’t be afraid to spend time where it’s needed to make your plot development clear. A slower pace can be great for building suspense, too, but that doesn’t mean abandoning Lucas’s approach. A suspenseful scene should be an exciting part of your story; you can make the most of it without stretching your readers’ patience by writing scenes around it that are – you guessed it – fast and intense. There’s nothing like contrast to make a scene stand out.

And finally, if you’re not sure how to pace your next bit of writing, put yourself in the readers’ place – if you were reading this story instead of writing it, what would you hope was going to happen next? Chances are, your answer will be something exciting. After all, how often do you hear people say, ‘I really wish the author had told that story slower, and with more lethargy!’?

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