Thursday, December 15, 2011

Before You Start

Question: if you’re starting a trip to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, wouldn’t you consult a road map or put the directions into your GPS system? So as writers shouldn’t we have some kind of road map to follow as we travel through the writing process?
Plotters are aware of the benefits of laying out a path to follow. Panters like the unexpected, the surprises around along the way. As a former pantser I understand. But the reality of the publishing world is that when you sell your first novel the editors will expect more books more quickly. So how can a Panster speed up the process?
Over the next couple weeks I’ll be posting a list of things to know ahead of time that will help you write your next book a more efficiently.
The Black Moment  -

If you know this plot point from the beginning, you’ll have a destination to steer toward. The Black Moment is the turning point of your plot. It’s the lesson, the moral, the realization the hero or heroine must face to grow or change and find peace and happiness. I like knowing this early then I can choose the  characters that will tell the story best.
The Black Moment is that point in the plot when all is lost. There is no hope for hero and heroine to get together. The Plot obstacle cannot be overcome. This usually occurs at the very end of the book. Once this obstacle is addressed then the hero and heroine can face the future, put the past behind them, acknowledge their love, and step into their new life. If you’re writing a Christian novel, there must also be a spiritual lesson to be learned and a reconnecting with their faith.  

             Conflict – Without this you have no story. The conflict has to be logical and sustainable for the entire book. Some of the questions you much have answered before you start are:

Why are Hero/Heroine the worst for each other?  They must appear incompatible in the beginning. Totally wrong for each other.
Why is this the worst possible time? Their meeting should be inconvenient. This keeps the tension present in the story. They have bigger problems. Falling in love now is out of the question.
 What is the urgency?  This keep the plot moving and ensures the characters must make decisions quickly. before, they leave town, make a decision about a job, etc.
Why is he/she only one who can save Hero/Heroine?  The characters need to have qualities that help the other learn how to love/trust/believe again.

Next week we’ll talk about what you need to know about your characters beforehand.

Have fun writing!

Kinder Gentler Terms

The writing life is hard. Full of discouragement and negativity. In this age of Political Correctness we have to soften our words so we don’t offend anyone or hurt their feelings. It occurred to me the other day that maybe we should try that approach in the writing community. Have you ever thought about how harsh writing terminology is? We have to Submit our work to editors who Reject what they don’t like. Eek! How cruel. How Un-PC.
I propose new terms so none of us have to feel bad or have our feelings hurt. We are in an age of  promoting strong self-esteem right?
How about instead of  Submitting our manuscripts we Present them. That makes us feel more in control. We don’t want to submit them to be trampled underfoot. Even the term Proposal implies a yes or no response. We’re looking for something hopeful here. Present sounds kind, it’s root word is present – woo hoo. Think Christmas or birthdays. So we’ll present our books to an editor and the very act of giving this present will inspire them to cast a kind and positive eye to our writing efforts. Right?
Okay, let’s tackle that dreaded term Reject/Rejection. Argh!  There is no context on earth where that sounds  nice, kind or hopeful. The word makes you feel worthless, like a failure, unwanted and discarded. How can you persevere in an environment where you’re frequently shunned and humiliated? So, from now on our manuscripts will be Eliminated. Wouldn’t you rather hear that you’d been eliminated from a publishers list than rejected?  Sort of like a beauty pageant – you didn’t make the top ten. Much easier to handle than Rejected!  Or maybe the term - Declined. Not good but okay. It means there’s a little problem that has to be taken care of, like when your credit card is declined. Ooh. Ouch. Well, let’s go see what the problem is and try again.
 One last term that should be adjusted – Critique. It implies a nit-picky examination of every jot and tittle. Okay, it’s an important and necessary part of the writing process. None of us can be totally objective about our work. We need a second pair of eyes. But what if we formed Assessment Groups, or Evaluation Clubs. Others would evaluate our books, appraise their strong points and analysis areas that need work. Wouldn’t it be easier to continue working after we’d been evaluated than harshly critiqued? 
 Heavy sigh. Okay. I doubt if my idea will catch on but I can hope. I used to struggle with my first drafts. I felt like I had to have everything important in there from the get go. It was very stressful. Then someone suggested calling our first drafts the Discovery Draft. Wow. I liked that. I gave me permission to write and see what came about as I wrote. I didn’t have to know all the answers up front. I could ‘discover’ them as I went.

The right word can change everything!J

Hum. Like – Grace.

Tilt next time J

Somebody Wrote My Book!
Have you ever had a great idea for a book. A really fresh, unique plot unlike anything you’ve ever read before? An idea that could finally be your breakthrough manuscript into the published world. Then you pick up a book at the store, or read a blurb in a catalogue and see your very same plot idea has already been published by someone else?
            So much for your great idea. 
            Yep. They did, probably more than once and if you look closely, and look back far enough you’ll see that your one-of-a-kind plot has probably been written several times. But before you hide that book under your bed and label it a lost cause, there’s a few things you need to know.
First off, there are NO new ideas. So don’t lose heart when you discover Miss Famous Author has already told your story. Believe me I know how that feels. Many years ago I had what I believed was a totally unique twist on an amnesia story. I worked on it off and on and finally completed it. When I was polishing it for submission, I took the first chapter to my writers group for their appraisal. After we’d read through it one of the members pointed out that a well known author had already used my idea in her book. She admitted she’d struggled with whether to tell me or not because it could be discouraging.  It was. I was crushed. Obviously I was a failure at coming up with a new idea. I wished she hadn’t told me. Ignorance really is bliss.
The next week my friend brought me a copy of the book. It didn’t take more than a few chapters to see that the famous author’s plot and mine were nothing alike. Oh they started out the same – a woman wakes up in a wrecked car, doesn’t remember who she is and is shocked to find a baby in the back seat. That’s where the similarities ended. The plot of the published book turned quickly into a romantic suspense, the heroine’s memory began returning and she remembered she and her baby were on the run from her ex.
            My story was a romance with a mystery subplot, about a woman who has amnesia most of the story and the mystery is whether the child is hers or if she might have taken it from it’s real mother. What a relief.
            So here’s the good news. Even if you give the same plot line to five different writers, you’ll come up with five different stories. Each of us brings a unique slant to the story, and our own perspective. If you have a plot about a woman who returns home after a very public scandal, there are dozens of ways to tell that story. If it’s romance, she could come home and reunite with her first love. If it’s women’s fiction, she could come home to confront old family conflicts. In a suspense plot she might come home only to find the scandal has followed her and she needs the help of local cop for protection. In an historical, she can go out west, change her name and start over and put the scandal behind her.
            Keep in mind that all it takes is one small change in character motivation, one goal, one shift in conflict and you have a completely different story. Add to this your own special world view, your faith journey, your life experiences and you have a story only you could tell. If you’re like most writers, you’ve done your fair share of rewriting the ending of a movie or a book or a TV episode to make it more compatible with your vision for the plot.
            So next time you see a back cover blurb that sounds like your plot, remember - Only you can tell your story.

Putting the Reader to Sleep.
“I loved your book. It put me right to sleep.”
The first time I a reader said this to me I was horrified, angry, and frankly, insulted. What a terrible thing to tell an author. I want my books to keep people awake turning pages, not cause them to drift off from boredom.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard comments about how relaxing books could be, how easy they were to put down and pick up again later. I couldn’t wrap my brain around such a concept. When I read a book I drove through it, devouring every word until I hit The End.
Then one day I talked with a woman who phrased that same comment in way that helped me see things in a different light. She explained how books were her stress reliever, her comfort zone at the end of the day. The pages of my book had given her passage into a world where all that mattered was love, were risk always equals reward, where love always triumphs, problems are always solved, and obstacles overcome.
Things that in our real lives rarely are. No simple solution in real life. No easy answers. But inside pages of romance - love will triumph. This was a concept I could grasp and identify with because I do it myself. When I=m stressed or feeling overwhelmed I’ll watch a favorite MGM musical or an old detective show to unwind. For an hour or so I can step out of my life and into a world of heart stopping action or spend time with a hero who is too gorgeous to live.
Suddenly the words Aput me to sleep@ took on a whole new meaning. These readers were giving me and my publisher a compliment. Having a book waiting to ease their day is highlight a treasured moment.
For the first time I realized what our job as writers really is. To  entertain readers. Not to exorcize our own demons through writing a romantic story. Not to create the most angst ridden hero this side of Edward Rochester or to prove that we are more innovative, and creative  than  other romance writers.
Our job is to write a story that will in 200 to 400 pages, transport that reader to a world where love is the answer and never the problem.  A world where we take comfort from knowing how it will end. To spend time with can identify with and rout for. Exist in a situation similar to our own but see it with a new perspective through the heroine’s eyes.
            I still want to write books that compel the reader to turn just one more page. To read just one more chapter. I want my characters to linger in readers minds and hearts long after they’ve put the book down. But it’s equally important to provide a safe haven for readers,  a comfy mental “front porch” where they can relax and unwind.  In this hectic time in which we live maybe that=s the most important goal of all.

ACFW Conference Report

     Well, this years conference is over and I think I’ve recuperated. I know it’s clichéd but it really was the best one I’ve been too.  But I don’t think it had to do with the classes or the food or the venue – though those were all great as usual. I think this year it had more to do with my attitude and experience than anything else.
     This was my fourth ACFW conference. The first one I attended I was surrounded by my writers group and our fearless mentor Aaron McCarver. I’d been to several writers conferences before, but it had been a long while so I felt like a newbie. So I followed Aaron around and basically did whatever he told me. I wasn’t the only one. There were a couple of us who needed direction. Let’s face it. Conference can be overwhelming.
     I learned a lot that first year and I made a ton of mistakes and practically wore out the prayer room. Being an introvert, like most of the writers in the world, being ‘on’ for three days, trying to be friendly, confident, and professional wore me out. Nothing came of all my efforts. I know why now – looking back on it. I presented the wrong books to the wrong editors. Hum.
     Next year, off to Denver. Dreading it all the while. I’m a writer I just want to stay home and write. Again, my trusty writer’s group tackled the ACFW conference. Better experience this year. Making sure I followed all Aaron’s directions and suggestions. Things like – “Go sit at that table. Put your next book in St Augustine. She’ll love it.”  Reconnected with people I’d met the previous year. Hum. Okay. Things are looking up.
     Next year – well, lets just say it was pretty grim. I wrote about it in a previous blog post. The end result was an agent. Joyce Hart. Yippee. But the more important thing I got that year was new friends, - Hi Chris - more confidence with interviews and a better understanding of how this whole conference/publishing/interviewing thing worked.
     On to St Louis. This year I actually didn’t dread going to the conference, being ‘on’ the whole time. I also made a serious adjustment in my attitude and took a step I never thought I’d take. I volunteered. Wow. What a fun thing to do. Really. I loved it. I got to keep time outside the interview rooms.
     This year I didn’t need to follow my mentor around for advice and direction.  This year I knew who to speak with. This year I searched out old friends instead of just waiting for them to happen by. This year I had an agent – that really gave me a boost. This year, I felt like I belonged at ACFW.
     I realized later as I discussed this with another member – Hi Ginger – that attending conference is an evolutionary process. It takes getting a few under your belt to get comfortable. To find your footing. This year was stellar all around. Good interviews, requests for manuscripts, and lots of time with my agent. Add to that precious time with friends old and new, and prayer room experiences that I’ll cherish forever.
     So don’t get discouraged if your first conference didn’t quite turn out the way you’d hoped. Try again next year. And the year after that. Experience is key – like our writing, the more we write the better we get. The more you attend conferences, the better you’ll get. 
     And then you’ll start to have fun at conference. Enjoy!

Puzzles and Books

I love jigsaw puzzles. They can be fun and frustrating and always challenging. Sometimes entire sections will go together like magic. Other times I resort to hunting and pecking because the pieces don’t fit where I think they should. But when that last piece pops into place, it’s sheer satisfaction. What a great feeling of accomplishment. Much like the moment when I type The End on my manuscript.

Writing a book is a lot like putting together a puzzle. A puzzle has  hundreds of pieces each with a specific location. A book has hundreds of pieces too. There are colorful bits of dialogue, and the deep-hued sections of emotion and internal and external conflict. Don’t forget those odd shaped clues and fragments of back story, and they all have to be in the right place for the story to work. And, like a puzzle, they all have to match up precisely for the picture to be complete.

So let’s compare. You’ve decided to work a large 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Only this puzzle is  your book. The picture on the puzzle box is of a mountain landscape on a sunny afternoon. There’s a small cabin in one corner and a stream nearby where two lovers embrace. You may have a similar “picture” of your story puzzle, an overall idea of how this tale will look. You have a hero, a heroine and a story about rekindled love between two old friends who meet up again after years apart.

But before you can start the puzzle, you must turn over each of those 1000 pieces.  Think of this as gathering all the data necessary to write your book.  It’s not enough to have an idea for a story. You need appealing characters, a plot with a purpose, conflict that can be sustained over the length of the book, and they all have to work together. Each piece of the puzzle you turn over is a piece of your book. Does the hero have a family or is he a loner? Did he have a happy childhood or was he a foster child? Did his parents spoil him or push him relentlessly to excel? Which character piece best fits your story?

This discovery or “turning over” process is very time consuming and frequently frustrating, but you can’t put the puzzle together unless you examine each piece and understand where it fits in the overall puzzle story. Even when the pieces are all face-up they don’t yet resemble the picture on the box. Nothing looks like a mountain (plot) or a stream ( characters) or a sweet little cabin. (Happy ending). So now what?

The first step in puzzle solving begins with finding those corner pieces. What are the corner pieces of your story? What are the things you need to know before you can begin putting your puzzle together? There are four foundation or corner pieces necessary to write a book.  Plot, People, Pit and Point.  

Plot is what’s going to happen in your book.
People are your characters.
Pit is the black moment or the moment when all is lost and the characters must change or grow.
Point, the reason for telling the story in the first place. Greed is bad. Love conquers all.  etc.

Now you’re ready to complete frame of the puzzle or the format of the story - the parameters within which each story must live – it’s genre. While the puzzle frame gives you clear boundaries in which to place all the pieces, the format has the same function in our story puzzle. Some define this as the four acts of a story, or the W (rising and falling action). Each genre has its key pieces – romance, sci-fi, mystery, but a basic story format has certain important elements.

The first three chapters are set up, introducing characters, conflict and plot. The middle of the book contains all the obstacles and small triumphs. The next to last chapter is the usually the black moment. The last chapter is the emotional ending, and resolution of all the plot points. Just as the puzzle frame is a reference point for the puzzle picture, your format is a reference point for your story.

It’s helpful to sort similar pieces of your puzzle together before you start - all the blue sky, the dark mountains, and any that might be the cabin. Being able to see small sections of your  picture makes the overall task less daunting. With your story you want to keep your pieces sorted as well. Keep your research, character interviews and plot outline at your fingertips. Don’t forget a synopsis, and your notes, thoughts and insights to refer too as you go along.

Once your story frame is complete, you can start filling in the middle. Here’s where you find the little pieces that move the plot forward, increase tension between the characters, enrich it with sensual details. It’s sometimes the hardest part and takes the longest, but without it you can’t complete the picture.

Finally, you’ll be able to snap the last piece into place and your puzzle is complete. Your picture matches the one on the box. Your reunion romance has it’s happy ending.

So grab that story-puzzle, dump out all the pieces and get started. But remember, writing is hard work and you have to love the entire journey - even the frustrating parts.

1 comment:

  1. Good post, Lori. I love the idea of thinking of writing as a puzzle. I had never heard that analogy before but it is fitting. And isn't it interesting that people who don't know spend so much time putting together these huge puzzles yet expect you to be able to whip out a book in no time. Very frustrating--I mean,uhmm,challenging.