"Roundheads and Ramblings"
Along with the technical publishing stuff, you'll find sections of this book that are designed to improve your writing. Here are just a few of them.
1. Before you fall in love with an idea for your next book, be sure you know where it's headed. You may have to kill off your favorite parts for the sake of the book as a whole. As we discussed last week, it often becomes necessary to "kill your darlings" by removing them from the story line to clear the way for topics that are more important. The danger of that is greater for pantsers--those who just sit down and write by the seat of their pants, not knowing where the story is going until it gets there. Planners--those who work out all the stages of a plot -- are more successful in ending up with a story that works. So keep asking yourself who the hero is -- what his goal is -- what or who is keeping him from reaching the goal -- and how he will resolve the problem. And there you have it--a basic plot.
2. Don't forget to do your homework. Besides, research is fun. You never know what you are going to find. If you want to create realistic characters, try exploring genealogy. Nothing is too bizarre to appear somewhere in a family history. I've come up with some great story lines by poking around in old cemeteries. I still don't know, for example, why two of my husband's ancestors were buried in the same plot, one obove the other. But what a story that would make!
3.Know the difference between fact and fiction. You may have a lot of facts at your disposal, but if you include all of them in your novel, the reader may end up with a stomach ache. Writers of historical fiction are especially prone to overdoing the factual, even when it gets in the way of the story. You have to know what happened, of course, and you need to check dates carefully so that you don't have a character driving a Model T before the invention of the automobile. But resist the temptation to show off everything you know. Bigger isn't always better, and word counts don't matter. Tell your story without padding. Quality is more important than quantity.
4. One final consideration. Once you've written a book, you have to sell it, so never think you are finished just because the book is in print. A book is still a book, but an author also needs an online profile. Don't ignore the power of imagery, movie trailers, and music to enhance your words. That's where Pinterest can become really useful. If the characters eat something interesting, provide the recipe--not in the book itself, but on a Pinterest board or a blog post. If you know someone who can create a short video, uses it as a trailer, a "Coming Attractions" announcement. If you can find an audio clip (not pirated but something out of copyright), use it on your website.
Friday is the last day to get your free copy of "The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese." Don't miss out.
Over on the Camp NaNoWriMo bulletin board, I suggested that
those of you having trouble coming up with a story line should spend a little
time watching hour-long TV dramas. If you don’t have time for that, think about
a favorite children’s book or nursery rhyme. “The Three Little Pigs” serves the
Here’s a diagram of a story arc to guide you.:
Three little pigs are the heroes, and their goal is finding a
home that will assure their survival. The villain is the big bad wolf living in
the neighborhood because, unfortunately, he likes pork. (Crisis #1)
Pig #1 builds a house
(his solution), although his choice of grass as building material is pretty
weak. BBW comes along and blows it away. (Crisis #2)
Pig #2 builds a better house, using sticks this time
(recovery from crisis) but BBW crushes it easily. (Crisis #3) Tension is now high.
Pig #3 steps up and builds his house of bricks (an even
better solution to their problem). BBW can’t destroy it from the outside, so he
crawls onto the roof to stomp it in. If this house doesn’t survive, our pigs
are doomed. (Crisis #4)
But BBW falls down the chimney and lands in a pot of water
boiling on the fire. (Climax. It’s something of a miracle, but, hey, this is a
Pigs throw a few veggies into the pot and they all feast on
wolf stew for dinner before living happily ever after. (denouement)
Alright, my faithful readers, it’s spring, or so the
weatherman, if not the calendar, says. And spring is a time for new beginnings.
I’ve changed the picture on my computer background (flowers, now, instead iof
snow}. Next Sunday we switch to Daylight Savings Time. Out in the yard, my
herbs are flourishing, and –unfortunately – so are the moles, who seem to have invited a whole new troop of tunnelers to explore my open areas. Trees are budding out,
Bradford pear trees are turning the landscape white, and there are sprigs of
green grass everywhere. I’m caught up on housework, and the kitchen is stocked
with prepared meals and Girl Scout cookies. (What’s not to love?)
What hasn’t changed? My writer’s block. My proclivity to
research just one more little area before actually putting any words on paper. That
same outline for a new book, which seems to be expanding its scope without yet
providing a a clear map of how I should go about writing it. I’ve been fiddling with it since last fall,
and if you took a peek at my Scrivener files, you’d find a complete outline
just ready to go. Except that it isn’t.
Recently, a couple of friends have asked whether I’m deep into writing
yet, and I’ve struggled to answer that. It simply hasn't sprouted yet.
The story bouncing around in my head is awfully complicated.
It covers a span of more than twenty years and contains multiple conflicts.
There’s a background of the Civil War, of course, but also a family drama, a
spy story based on historical fact, an international incident, a rape, fratricide,
a kidnapping, a hidden identity, and a backstory concealed in a diary written
in code. Its characters include a businessman turned pirate, two paralyzed
people (one by stroke, one by accident), an opium-addicted prostitute, an expatriate English woman born into the lesser nobility, a French family of slave-owners,
and a couple of visitors from my “Yankee” series. Just putting that list
together makes me tired. Sounds fascinating,
you say? Maybe so. But also a web so hopelessly tangled that I haven’t
been able to find a loose end to start with.
So here’s the new thought bouncing around in my
spring-inspired brain this morning. What if I’m not thinking of one book, but
two? First would come the early story—all pre-Civil War, all written in first-person—in
short, the diary of the expatriate English woman who is seeing antebellum America and learning about South
Carolina’s “peculiar institution” for the first time. The reader would meet
most of the characters mentioned above, but in their early years, before their
own lives deteriorate. The book would concentrate on the gradual alteration of
the main character as her childhood innocence gives way to acceptance of the
unthinkable, just as the idealism of the young Republic yields to seemingly
unsurmountable differences between North and South.
The second book would be set during the early years of the
Civil War. The reader would meet the
same characters but in a period during which each of them faces a new
challenge. This will be the book that handles the international incident, the
piracy and blockade-running, the collapse of “King Cotton,” the mystery surrounding the identity of one of the characters, and the fall-out from earlier scandals that everyone thought were
What think you? I’d
love to pick the brains of future readers.
We're home after several hours of driving in blinding rainstorms, one good supper, a night in a so-so hotel, two so-so meetings, more driving rain, a great auction, a superb dinner, a night in a grand hotel (marshmallow beds), and an over-the-top buffet breakfast, featuring oat-nut french toast, sausage gravy and biscuits, bacon and eggs, and topped with fresh blackberries and blueberries. After all that, I feel surprisingly perky and ready to take on the world, particularly since my calendar is practically empty. (Don't expect the same report next Sunday, when I'll be looking ahead to a week of jury duty!)
I'm hoping to make a start this week on the next book, tentatively entitled "Yankee Reconstructed." As I started thinking about story arcs, I ran across this set of guidelines from a reviewer. Hope I can keep them firmly in mind for the next five days.
• Keep it simple.
• Give me one character with a strong point of view.
• Show me that character’s attitude about one thing.
• Don’t give me blah.
• Or ordinary.
• Give me edge; risk.
• Convince me that the story starts on this day.
• Rivet me with a colorful detail. Or two.
• Decide why I want to spend a few hundred pages with your main character and give me one reason to engage in the first few pages.
• Help me see, taste, smell, touch. Make it sensory.
• Avoid using dialogue that is only designed to fill readers in on the background lives of the characters. (Just don’t!) This is dialogue as “info dump.” It’s deadly.
• But, mostly, keep it simple.
• Really simple.
• No, really.
As usual, I want to start with an explanation of where my ideas came from. Back in the summer of 2011, I realized that I wasn't doing any novel
writing. I didn't have writer's block, as such, because I could whip out a blog
post without trouble. It was the new
book that was giving me trouble. I
knew there was something wrong with it, but I couldn't figure out what it was.
The story of the
Gideonites and the Port Royal Experiment had no lack of colorful characters.
It's full of fascinating people.
It had all kinds of exotic scenery—swamps, pluff mud, tropical
vegetation, glorious sunrises, sandy ocean beaches. It had drama—a background of America's Civil War, heroic
acts of bravery, enormous pain and suffering, and a life-changing struggle for
freedom. Why, then, couldn't I make any progress with the book? The story was simply
too big to handle.
But, oh, how hard it was to cut out all those great tidbits. I had what amounted to half a book
already written — some 50,000 words I had created during the past year's National
Novel Writing Month. The chapters
were just sitting there, waiting, but I couldn't tell where they were going
next. A couple of weeks later, I
started cutting hunks out of those chapters. The remaining 35,000 words were more coherent, but the direction was
Eventually, of course,
I recognized my own errors. I was
writing like a historian. Now,
there's nothing wrong with being a historian. It's what I am by training and experience. I want to know exactly what happened,
why it happened, who all was involved, when and where it happened (all the
usual journalist's questions), as well as what were the underlying causes and
results. All legitimate questions.
All important. All calling for more research. And nothing, NOTHING, that has to do with the nature of a
The light clicked on
first while I was discussing creating a press release. "Summarize your
plot in a single
sentence. Then expand it to two sentences. Make the reader want to know
what's going to happen." I couldn't do it—because I didn't
really have a plot. I was just
describing events, hoping that they would magically arrange themselves
acceptable story. So far, they weren't showing any signs of being able
that on their own. So I had 35,000
words, but they weren't the beginning of a novel.
For a novel, I had to
build a plot, one with a clear beginning, a middle, and an end. It needed a theme, a message, a reason
for its existence. It needed one
main character—someone with back story, a character with a likeable personality
but a few inner quirks, a character with whom the reader could identify. That character needed a goal that was
important not only to her but to the reader, and she needed an adversary that
stood in the way of reaching that goal. The story needed tension, a crisis (or
two or three), and a resolution that would be not necessarily happy but
reasonable in the light of all that went before.
The solution was
obvious but too drastic to contemplate.
Instead of just trashing the project, I stepped away from it for a while
and sought my own guru—someone who could tell me what to do to salvage the idea.
I've just finished reading a wonderful book: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.* He offers a step by step guide for building the underlying
structure of a novel. As I read, I
kept a notepad at hand, where I scratched out ideas of how I could take my
historical knowledge and mold it into a workable plot outline. And suddenly my story did arrange
itself. Once I had the main structural elements in place, the people, the
places, and the events made sense.
The concept of the book?
Rejuvenated! The 35,000 words? I removed over half of them from the manuscript, but they were not forgotten. I couldn't bear to throw them out. And eventually they became the basis for my book of short stories, "Left by the Side of the Road."