"Roundheads and Ramblings"
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."
What does that word mean? Think of it as a combination of "scrap" -- "scalpel" (cutting edge) --"scaffold" -- "scramble" -- "scrabble" -- in short a new word to describe that piece of paper on which you doodle until ideas start to flow and make sense. You know the one -- the piece of paper that fills up before you have all your plot elements down? The one you spilled coffee on, just when you knew what you were going to write about? The one that made perfect sense in the middle of the night but is unreadable in the morning?
Well, you can put those so-called idea-scraps in the nearest trash bin. Now, if you have a MAC running Snow Leopard or above and Intel, you can use Scapple, a never-ending, infinitely-expandable piece of paper for your computer. And your random thoughts can end up looking like this:
Scapple is not-really mind-mapping software; it's more like freeform virtual paper. It's proof that your random thoughts really do have a pattern or organization behind them. You can start anywhere on the sheet and branch out in any direction. You can include totally unrelated notes, connect ideas in any direction, group items together, move any one note (or any number) from one place to another. You can apply colors, borders, and shapes if you want them. And when you are all though, you can print out your diagram, or save it in PDF, or drag and drop it into Scrivener. How cool is that!
I've been using it to map out my main story line and its sub-plots for my next novel. I've been using clusters of notes for each chapter, and then moving them over to Scrivener for reference. And when I've completed a draft of a whole chapter, I can drag the new Scrivener note card from the corkboard view back into Scapple, so that it shows up as a completed chapter. Here's a small clip that shows some completed chapters in pink, the next chapters as topics in green, and related plain notes for each chapter.
I was a beta tester for this new application, so I'm probably biased. However, I'm loving it for the way it keeps me on track. Apologies to those of you using Windows. I suspect a form you can use will appear in due course, since you now can get Scrivener (they're made by the same company), but this is so new that it likely will not appear for a while.
Yesterday's post on Kurt Vonnegut's list of the eight essential plot diagrams did not get as much play as I hoped. Readership was only around 500 instead of the usual 800, but maybe that was because it was Friday. Anyway, if you didn't work through those diagrams, please go back and do it now, because I need to talk about them some more.
I spent the month of January doing research for my next novel -- building character sketches, finding photos, drawing timelines -- all acting to conceal the harsh fact that I wasn't sure where my story was going. The book will be straight historical fiction -- a few real people popping up here and there, since it occurs during the Civil War and it's hard to talk about that period without including a few politicians and army generals. But my main characters this time are all fictional, although their lives contain echoes of some real people.
My main problem has been this: I have a good idea of the challenges they will face, and I know what happens to them along the way (thanks to my civil War timeline). But I don't know how they will react to those events, and I haven't a clue as to the ending of the story. In a nutshell that means I don't yet have a plot. And that's where Vonnegut's diagrams become important to me.
Look at the eight possible plot lines. Five of the eight have happy endings (Man in Hole, Boy Meets Girl, Creation Story, New Testament, and Cinderella). That's not surprising. Readers like happy endings, don't they? I suppose so, but they sometimes feel a little sappy and contrived to me.
Of the remaining three, two are crushingly sad (From Bad to Worse and Old Testament). One has a "fall of enormous proportions" and the other presents a scenario in which there is "No hope for improvement.." Sigh! Do readers want unrelenting gloom? Maybe some do, but I don't.
So what's left? "Which Way is Up" suggests a plot with a "lifelike ambiguity." I like that phrase! Now that I've had time to think about it, it feels very true to the genre of historical fiction. Could I write a Civil War novel in which everyone lives happily ever after? Not very realistic. That period had repercussions that echo through people's lives for generations. Few happy endings, there, other than a fleeting moment when Johnny comes marching home with all limbs attached. After than, he'll face all sorts of political turmoil, economic disaster, and lingering nightmares.
Could I write a Civil War novel that offers no hope for improvement, only a disastrous and never-ending fall? No, that's not historically accurate, either. So "Lifelike Ambiguity" it is. Now comes the hard part -- how to write a novel with a flat plot line? Ugh! How dull. No, I think that diagram needs to be redone to show not a flat line, as it is now, but a wavy one. One that contains hopeful moments and realistic failures coming one after another, but moving inexorably forward.