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Posts tagged ‘process of writing a novel’

The Benefits Of Taking A Break When Writing, by Kashmira Sheth

Writing is more than a task, a job or a chore to finish. As writers we are constantly thinking about our characters, how to get them into trouble and how to get them out of that very same trouble. We don’t simply think about writing when we sit down to write. The thinking goes on while we drive the kids to their classes, have dinner with friends, fold laundry, and plant spring flowers. One part of our brain always seems to be thinking about our stories.

Do we need to calm down these constantly churning ideas in our writerly minds?  For me, the answer is yes, and I suspect it is for others too. Our minds need that break.  Just like a good vacation gets you ready for the upcoming challenges at work, a break from writing prepares you for another creative spurt.

We don’t have to take a long break from writing. We certainly don’t have to go on a long vacation. Every day we can give a few minutes of our time to calm our minds. This can be done with activities such as meditation or long walks. When you are walking, immerse yourself in your surroundings to avoid thinking about your characters and stories. I don’t count watching TV or a movie as a break because they engage and stimulate our minds rather than calm them. The important thing is to rest your brain. Gardening is an activity that works well for me. While I am digging my mind settles down, the cycle of the seasons and the rhythms of the natural world sooth me, and the fresh air calms me. Some may find other exercise such as jogging, skiing, or biking similarly helpful.

If you do take a vacation, you can use that time to step away from your story. When I take a vacation with my family I give myself the chance to be in a new place and enjoy my experience, without worrying about my current story. But I don’t necessarily take a break from my writing. I keep a journal about my trip, including the things we do and see. That way my commitment to write every single day is fulfilled.

How do these breaks help my writing? What I find is that when my mind is still, something new and exciting floats up. It may be a plot solution that I had been trying to find for the past month. The answer suddenly becomes clear when I am not actively trying to figure it out. Sometimes, a new idea about a picture book or a story pops up.

Stepping away from the story I am currently working on gives me a fresh perspective on it. When I return to the story I see it more in its entirety than before. So not only can I solve small problems, but I also feel I can see the entire story in a new light. For all of these reasons, it is important to put away your writing, give your brain a break, and then go back to the story.

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Kashmira Sheth’s author website: www.kashmirasheth.com

Kashmira Sheth’s bio page

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Mistakes I’ve Made As A Novelist, by Bernard Beckett

The spark for a particular novel can come from many places and arrive in many forms. For me, sometimes it’s an idea that’s puzzling me and the writing of the novel is a working through of my own confusion. Other times there’s a plot element, a particular ending perhaps or an opening that intrigues me. Other times it’s a character. The trick is taking this starting point and weaving it into a successful and satisfying story. The trouble is that the path from starting point to finished product is not at all clear. There are any number of paths to take and the great majority of them will end in failure. This, by way of illumination, is a story or one of those failures – my novel Home Boys.

The starting point was unusual for me, it began with my father telling me the story of a man who lived in the same small town as him. The man in question had been sent out to New Zealand post World War Two, as part of the scheme meant to offer new starts to children whose lives had been ripped apart by the war. Like so many of the children, this man’s story was not a happy one. He was signed up to the scheme by an older brother and didn’t know he was on anything other than a day trip until the boat was out to sea. He ended up on a farm where he was essentially used as slave labour. I went and interviewed the chap and was captivated by his story, and by his resilience. In the way of his generation, he seemed to have simply shrugged and got on with it, and looking back, held no bitterness or regret.

My plan was to use the first half of his story (being put on the boat, ending up on the farm, then running away) and then fictionalise the rest. The trouble was, I didn’t exactly know what that rest was. And because I had such a solid start, there was an opportunity to start writing without really thinking about it. The first bits came easily, the character developed, along with the sense of place, and I figured I could probably just follow my nose from there and something would work out.

As I approached the point of departure into pure fiction, I began playing around with new ideas. Another runaway down the road becomes a mate and suddenly we’re into Huckleberry Finn territory. Feeling confident, I threw in some disturbing dreams (always a mistake) that hinted at the possibility of the supernatural. I brought back an Italian prisoner of war, who by strange coincidence (no worries, I’ll solve it later) reappeared and then, following my nose, ended up at a small fishing village and a love triangle at its apex. I think there was even mention of a mysterious cave in the bush from whence no man had returned. I was, it was fair to say, having fun. And the writing, for me, wasn’t half bad. I was enjoying getting the sense of time and place. It was the geography of my own childhood, I knew it well, and loved the challenge of getting that landscape into the paper.

In hindsight, I can see that I was absolutely seduced by the process of putting more and more balls in the air. The idea was that somehow I’d nail the catching as well, that they’d land in my hand one by one in a satisfying succession of plops, and I would bow to the standing ovation. I was caught up in the feeling the reader would also have, that somehow this mad mix of myth, dream, history, lust and coincidence was going to weave itself into an astonishing ending.

The trouble, clearly, was that I had no ending. I didn’t even have a feel for the what the ending should do, what the satisfactory completion of Colin’s character arc would look like. The book was coming to an end, the options were closing in, but there was no place to jump to that would tie it all up. At that point, what I should have done is taken a deep breath, gone back to the beginning and tried to work out what it was I was really trying to achieve. Instead I cheated and threw in a non-ending with the two boys sitting on the back of a truck, having hitched a ride, heading into the city. It was supposed to be symbolic, I suppose, but it was no such thing. It was just a case of not knowing how else to end the story, because this particular story didn’t have an ending, making it not a story at all, but rather a collection of ideas and events and people and places that I really loved writing about. Less a novel, more an extended creative writing exercise.

Looking back on it now, I still love reading from Home Boys, for exactly the same reason I enjoyed writing it. In my head, it’s hugely alive, maybe more than any other piece of my writing. As such it must be filed under ‘ones that got away’, a book where I got caught up in the telling and lost sight of the story.

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

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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Dealing With Anxieties During The Novel Writing Process, by Monika Schroder

I just finished my last manuscript and sent it out to my editor. Now, during the long time of waiting for her response I try to relax and refresh my creative energy. But in the back of my head lurks fear, the fear that the editor might reject it, that the book is not good enough. While I wait for her phone call I keep myself busy with garden chores, long neglected errands and, after some procrastination, by writing these articles.

As I choose topics, I reflect on the process of writing and realize that this fear of being rejected is just one of the many anxieties a writer encounters along her journey. There appears to be another kind of anxiety every step of the way.

When I write the first draft I always worry if I will be able to finish it. While re-reading what I have written I often find it flat and bland and, by way of self-sabotaging, tell myself that it is no good and not even worth finishing. Then I have to remind myself that the first draft is supposed to be just that and a first draft will get better over the process of revision. Yet, I keep wondering, “Will this be good enough? Will publishers want to buy it? Will readers care?”

The only way to escape these worries without giving the project up is to push forward and to finish the draft.

But then there is the chaos of holding it all together. At times it feels as if I’ve lost control over the story. The manuscript becomes a ‘wild thing’ but the only way forward is to face the fear and to work on making the manuscript better. Annie Dillard describes this stage like this:

“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight… it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!’”

When, finally, the miracle happens and the manuscript is finished and an editor buys it, I feel elated and happy. For a while at least. Together with the editor and copy editors we perfect the manuscript and more than a year later they send me the ‘advance readers copies’. These handsome paperbacks look almost like the real book. I am glad to see them but another terror takes hold of me as I realize that the publisher is about to print the actual book and this is my last chance to make changes. Soon the text will be FINAL.

I call it ‘Galley Fright’ and, as with all the other fears, I am not alone but can find solace in the fact that other writers experience this as well. Eudora Welty, in a 1972 interview with Paris Review, said this about her feelings toward galley proofs:

“Proofs don’t shock me any longer, yet there’s still a strange moment with every book when I move from the position of writer to the position of reader, and I suddenly see my words with the eyes of the cold public. It gives me a terrible sense of exposure, as if I’d gotten sunburned.”

Yes, I also feel exposed when looking at the galleys, but I know I have to let it go and trust that, together with the wonderful people at the publishing house, I produced a good book.

Next, Launch Day comes – my book’s official birthday. This occasion is also filled with that bittersweet mixture of happiness and fear. Now my baby goes out into the world. How will the world welcome it? Will reviewers slight it? Will readers be disappointed? Will the world see right through me to the fraud I fear I am?

It helps me to tell myself that the reception of my book is out of my control. Whatever happens to it will happen. Instead of worrying about it, I try to turn my attention to writing my next book.

I soon worry if I will ever be able to pull it off, finish the story and make a good book out of it… and see above: the vicious cycle of fear begins anew.

Perhaps there is no remedy and these fears will always be part of the process. The only way to overcome these anxieties is to accept them, or even embrace them. I will carry on in despite them and I am able to convert the fear into excitement on most days, and find pleasure in the magical process of putting words on paper.

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

Monika Schroder’s bio page

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My Novel Writing Process, by Carolyn Meyer

When I begin the first page of a new novel, I’ve already invested months in research, made notes on yellow pads, obsessed about it on my morning walks. I have a mental picture of my characters and I know in a general sort of way what they’re likely to be doing. I’m telling myself the story I hope will become a novel that teens will read fervently, talk about enthusiastically and love forever. At this point nothing is set in stone.

At first I’m talking to myself, describing the story: first she does this, then she does that, then he says and she says, then they do something else. But that’s not a novel, it’s a treatment – a story about the story.

Then comes the real work: turning the story-about-a-story into a sequence of scenes, each building on the last. In that first chapter I must also provide the teen reader with enough information to understand what’s happening. I approach the writing as though I’m making a movie, fully visualizing each scene. If I can picture it, I can write it and the reader will “get” it.

I decided to begin Cleopatra Confesses with Cleopatra’s long-absent father’s return to Egypt. I used a series of scenes and flashbacks to introduce principal characters and establish family relationships, as well as to create tension. The chapters are brief and the scenes move the story along quickly. Here’s how I structured the first chapter:

Scene 1: Cleopatra hears a commotion and goes out to investigate; a messenger brings news that Ptolemy XII is on his way from Rome.

Scene 2: Cleopatra visits her younger sister, plays her with sister’s pet monkey and her sister’s bodyguard is introduced.

Transition: description of Cleopatra’s older sisters, brothers and father.

Scene 3:  Cleopatra, in borrowed servants’ clothes, leaves the palace for the marketplace.

Scene 4 (flashback): Cleopatra with her father before he leaves for Rome.

Scene 5 (flashback): Cleopatra with her jealous sisters.

Then on to the second chapter, with scenes in the marketplace with Cleopatra waiting for father’s ship; then in the palace, dressing for her father’s welcome.

Total pages for first two chapters: thirteen.

Contemporary teen novels usually take place over a relatively short time – days or weeks, rarely covering more than a year. A teen historical novel may span years, even decades, and that requires tracking the passage of time in a way that keeps teen readers oriented. One strategy is to use the day or date in chapter titles, but the calendar in Cleopatra’s era was so confusing that I indicated the time in other ways: “It is the season of the Inundation, the time of year when the Nile overflows its banks….”, “In the evening of the first day as the royal boat drifts….” or “It is winter now…”

The structure of Cleopatra Confesses evolved as I added and deleted scenes; lengthened, shortened and divided chapters; and changed chapter titles. This process continued through successive drafts and revisions, as it has through all of my teen novels. It may be worth noting that I never get it right the first time but only through trial and error.

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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

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My Fiction Writing Process, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

I’m going to talk a little bit about what works for me when it comes to the process of writing. Everyone’s different, and no doubt you will be too, but here’s a little insight on how I work and how I came to use this process, and with any luck it can help you find your way as well.

I taught myself to write in gradual steps, by need, generally. My first ‘writing’ was my short comic strips. It doesn’t sound like much but writing comic strips is a great boot camp – every strip has a beginning, middle and end, or set up, development and punch line. You’re essentially telling a small story every day. By the time I was working on my Emo Boy comic book, I figured I’d read enough comics and watched enough TV. I knew the basic gist of how a story should look and feel. Some issues had one issue-long story and some issues had story several smaller stories. I’d generally set up the storyline, come up with some events and jokes, then wrap it all up, and if Emo Boy could learn a lesson by the end, all the better.

In 2008, I was working on two projects at once. One was Happyface, a full novel I was writing for Little Brown Books For Young Readers and the other was a screenplay for an Emo Boy movie for Vanguard Films. In 2008, I learned I knew absolutely nothing about storytelling.

The main complaint I kept hearing was: “Where’s the structure?” This was coming from both companies. Having worked on short comic strips and comic books, my stories tended to feel too episodic. Emo Boy, the movie was having multiple adventures stemming from the comic book storylines. Happyface was jumping from month to month and place to place with little arc.

I’ve since become a strong outliner – I often spend as much time, if not more, outlining a book as I do actually writing it. I start in broad strokes and break it down piece by piece. It goes something like this:

  • Have an idea.
  • Give the idea a basic arc – a beginning, middle and end.
  • Flesh those pieces out into 3 acts – so the beginning, middle and end each have a beginning, middle and end.
  • Jot out ideas, scenes, character traits and lines of dialogue. Picture a video trailer for the book. Think up themes arising from big ideas. I ask myself: what is it about this story that excites me and makes me want to write about this in particular? How do I connect with the story? I take all those puzzle pieces and try to fit them together into some kind of loose outline.
  • From there, I start thinking in chapters.
  • For each chapter, I’ll write a beginning, middle and end. I’ll add more dialogue, locations and characters.

My editor says my first draft for a chapter is always very loose, like I’m racing to the end. It’s closer to a comic or a screenplay: this person says this, that person says that, they both do this, the end. I’ll go through it again to add more observation, detail and surroundings. I’ll go through it again and add more mannerisms and movement, what the characters are thinking, sensory details like how something looks, smells or sounds. In final drafts, I pay attention to word choices, how sentences flow and the general feel of the text.

Things change a lot as I write. The outline will bend and sway, characters will reveal themselves to be far more important than I’d anticipated. So, even though I have a blueprint, I’m still discovering along the way. Some people prefer to start blind – they have a germ of an idea in mind and they start writing. I’ve tried this but I just stare at a blank page trying to think of something clever to say. It doesn’t work for me – but we’re all different. This is just my process.

In a more general day-to-day look at my writing process, I like to write outside of my home. I find I’m easily distracted at home, I have all my books there, my TV, video games and, worst of all, house chores. I also find that other places have better lighting. It makes me feel more awake. It could be a library, a cafe, a Panera Bread or a Barnes & Noble. I listen to music while I write – nothing with lyrics or too distracting – or sometime movie scores, and there are some indie bands that do instrumental music. I like jazz, anime soundtracks and, lately, I’ve added hip hop instrumentals into the mix.

Writing is hard. This is an issue for me and I know it is for a lot of people. Sometimes you know you want to write but you think, “I don’t have any ideas. I don’t know what to write.” So you don’t. It takes me a few minutes to get started. My head is racing, full of to-do lists, distractions, it’s been a long day, my brain is fuzz and I just want to tune out, but once I sit and just stare at the blank screen or notebook paper my brain will, one by one, shut off all those distractions. I start to think, one thought leads to another and eventually I’ll be lost in my own little world. Time slips away and I can easily sit there for an hour or two and not even feel it. I imagine it’s what meditation is like.

Anyone can write: you need to find what works best for you. Find that process and put your trust in it, and you’ll be piling up pages before you know it.

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Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com

Stephen Emond’s bio page

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My Novel Writing Process, by April Henry

I used to write books just for me. No publisher was waiting for them (although I certainly had the fantasy that once publishers saw the finished book they would fall all over themselves buying it). And the books were done when they were done.

I’ve had 13 books published in 13 years. Most are written under contract, which means they have a fixed due date. (Although I still sneak off to work on a ‘spec’ book now and then.)

My current writing process is now more like this:

  • One year before the book is due: I have plenty of time. And I deserve to relax after how hard I worked to get the last book done. I might make some notes and brainstorm a little… after I clean out the basement.
  • Nine months before: This plot idea is intriguing. The characters are starting to seem like real people. Maybe I should create a thorough outline… after I finish alphabetizing the spices.
  • Six months before: The outline is finished. This is going to be so easy. I should outline all the time! I’ll just take it step by step, like paint by numbers. The book is practically going to write itself now that I have all the hard work done. I think I’ll call my friend and go out for ice-cream to celebrate.
  • Three months before: Holy crap! This outline doesn’t work at all. And why do my characters keep doing things I never planned on them doing? This one guy was meant to be a secondary character but for some reason he thinks he’s the real love interest. And my main character refuses to do this one dangerous thing the outline says she should do. She says it’s a bad idea.
  • Two months before: I will never be done in time. Never. The only way I can do it is to write two thousand words a day, every single day. Didn’t manage more than three hundred today? No problem, I’ll make it up tomorrow.
  • Two weeks before: There’s too much blood in my caffeine stream. I’m writing like a mad woman. But I can do it. If I just give up on this sleeping thing.
  • Due date: There. Finished. Is it any good? I’ve read it over but, to be honest, I have no idea. I hit the send key. I really should celebrate. Or work on that other book that’s due. But how long has it been since I swept behind the couch?

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April Henry’s author website: www.aprilhenrymysteries.com

April Henry’s bio page

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