Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Threading the Character Loom

Starting a piece of crocheting or knitting is easy: crochet a chain or cast on a certain number of stitches and we’re off and running. Setting up a piece of weaving takes more time, energy, and concentration. A weaver has to know the pattern both up and down and side to side. How many threads make a pattern? How are thread colors arranged within the pattern? Are patterns next to each other or is there plain cloth separating them? She also has to know the length to cut each warp thread.

Writing is a lot less precise than weaving. Most writers can’t say for certain that an event will happen on page 257. The only hard and fast rule is the gold standard that at least one character has to want something on every page. That in itself is not easy.

By convention and general usage, there are guidelines for some things. The object here is not rigidity, but these are things that are going to happen anyway, and we know that bringing them in at certain points works well. Why wear ourselves out swimming upstream?

  • Page 1: the protagonist is on-stage. This is the person the reader has come to see. Let them see her. One of the mistakes that mystery writers make is to start with the villain, often in a prologue, and then introduce the protagonist in Chapter 1. Readers are like baby ducks: they want to bond with the first person they read about. It’s not fair to them to introduce the villain, and then pull him or her out of the book for an extended period of time.
  • Page 1 (science fiction or fantasy): the reader needs to know right off that this is an alternative universe.
  • Page 3 to 5 (romance): the cute meet. The reader comes to the book to see the interactions between two people. Why make them wait?
  • Page 30 (mystery): there is a body. I’ve heard a range of numbers, from page 5 to page 100 for this, but 30 is a nice middle number. The reader wants a crime; give it to him.
  • No more than first 1/4 of the book: initial roadblocks get in the protagonist’s way: some are irritating, some may be funny, some may be confusing, but none of them advance the plot in great leaps and bounds. Their purpose is small developments in plot and larger developments in characters. For a 300 page book, this takes us to about page 75.
  • Page 100: the earliest that back story story should enter the book. For the difference between context (which should be there from page 1) and back story, see my earlier blog on the Dreaded Back Story.
  • At about 1/3 of the book: a second incident turns the protagonist’s onto a deeper path: it’s not a game any more. For a mystery, this is often a second body. For a romance, this is where the relationship stops going well for the couple. At this point their differences aren’t enough to drive them apart, but they are enough to make them uncomfortable and cautious with one another.
  • About 30 pages from the end of the book: the crisis: everything in the book has built to this moment
  • The last 3 to 5 pages: denouement: tying up loose ends

There are also embellishments, small details or turning points that can make a book deeper and richer. Having a rough plan of where to put them in the book is like planning a trip. We start out with a best guess of when we’re going to need more gas or where we’re likely to stop for supper.


  • Why does our protagonist’s life matter? Where do we want to put the moment when the protagonist recognizes this?
  • What can our main character(s) do that no one else can do? How do we want to space this 3 – 4 times through the book, including one time that it fails or costs the character something important?
  • Find a tic or habit counter to everything the character believes. How do we want to space this 3 – 4 times through the book. Know the explanation of why she does it, but hold that explanation well into the book. Make the explanation worth waiting for.
  • What’s the hardest thing to understand about our character? As with the tics or habits, know the explanation, make the explanation worthwhile, and hold the explanation in reserve until at least chapter 20.
  • Whom does the protagonist love the best? What characteristic does the love object have that’s not nice? When do we want to bring in that trait? How many times do we want to bring it in? How does the protagonist rationalize overlooking that trait? At what point does he/she stop overlooking that trait?
  • When do we want to have a secondary character suffer a small hurt or injustice that reflects a larger injustice in the world. The protagonist recognizes the larger perspective by witnessing the smaller incident.
  • When do we want the moment when the protagonist gets angry and instead of taking action, calmly walks away? Serenity in the face of provocation matters.

Computer tables are great for creating a threading list. Make a chart with two columns, the first date, the second notes. Plug in approximate page numbers or divisions of the book like 1/3 or 1/4 in the first column and what you want to happen around that point in the second column. You may already know details of an incident, or you might use very general terms, such as “Stacey and Gordon have a big fight.” In either case, a threading chart is a very useful thing to have as we begin our novel.

I hope to see you back on Thursday, May 1, for thoughts on writing under our own names.

Next Tuesday, May 6, we’re going to talk about Blurbs.

My point of view, Writing

Level Thinking: Mysteries Run on a Closed Track

The question came up again recently at a party.

“Why do you write mysteries?”

The usual answers flitted through my head:

  1. I don’t know.
  2. Because I read a lot of mysteries.
  3. Why not?

I think I mumbled something that was an amalgamation of those three answers. I was distracted by cheese dip at the time. In the car on the way home, I asked myself the question. Why do I write mysteries, especially since it there is a price attached?

If I’m going to write them, I have to read them. For the past 13 years, I’ve averaged reading a hundred mysteries each year. I’ve watched a lot of crime television: cop shows, detective shows, forensic shows, and every British cop/mystery series I can get my hands on.

I’m more partial to the lighter side of the spectrum, with a lot of mayhem and gore off-stage, but in the interest of at least having touched on the full-spectrum, I’ve read more of the darker, bloodier, forensically accurate books that I probably should have. At least enough to give me nightmares. Not often, but when I have them, they are doozies. I can usually peg them to a particular series, or even to particular images.

Why do this? Maybe for the same reason that highly adventurous people cram themselves into tiny, low-slung cars and race around the closed streets of Monaco, in one of the world’s most expensive sports, Formula One racing. Only I get to get the same kind of thrill without using petrochemical products and contributing to global warming.

Formula One competitors depend on on-board electronics, their car’s aerodynamics, precision suspension systems that allow sliding sideways through narrow curves, and tires built to take the strain of speed, friction, and city pavement. Formula One is the only sport—as far as I know—that awards two grand champion trophies each year, one to the best driver and one for the best car construction. If it were up to me, I’d award a third trophy each year, to the person who designed the best closed-circuit course.

Of course, I have this very strong prejudice. I’d award the course trophy every year to Monaco. I mean, how could anything compete with coming into that impossibly tight hairpin curve in front of the Grand Hotel, whose balconies are filled with suave men and gorgeous women? Of course, there is Singapore’s night course: Formula One meets street racing. That has possibilities.

Face it, we mystery writers run on a closed track. When mystery equals murder, as it does most of the time, we all know the genre conventions. A body, a detective (professional or amateur) committing to finding the murderer, some clues, some suspects, life gets sticky, usually a second body, the detective vows to see justice done—which is quite different from wanting to solving the crime, more clues, life gets stickier, the joy ride down the funnel, life gets stickiest, the moment of revelation/danger, the end.

So the real answer to Why do I write mysteries? Maybe you aren’t old enough to remember or never had a chance to see Richard Kiley belting out The Impossible Dream from The Man of LaMancha. You can find it on YouTube, but the films hold a pale candle to hearing that moment of intense personal commitment when he belts out,  “To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.”

That desire to right the world, to have justice triumph is the Grand Hotel hairpin curve of the mystery story, made all the more wonderful because it’s played out, not before balconies of beautiful people, but in the heart. Evil won’t win, not if the protagonist has anything to say about it. But there will be a cost to facing evil. By this point in the story, the protagonist knows that. And goes ahead anyway.

So the next time I’m at a party, and someone asks me why I write mysteries, I’ll probably mumble the same inane reasons that I did last night. Or maybe I’ll say something about Formula One racing and the hairpin curve at Monaco. Somehow, I don’t think I could pull off discussing courage, sacrifice, and intense personal commitment over the cheese dip. That’s much better left for the cold clarity of the morning after.

I hope to see on Tuesday, April 29th, for Write the Novel: Threading the Character Loom. We know all this great stuff about our characters, but how do we start weaving it into a story?

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Character Introduction, Part 3 – Introducing the Genuine Hero

Today we’re finishing up with the third kind of character introduction, introducing the genuine hero.

The convention is that a genuine hero has a dangerous job such as police officer, soldier, firefighter, first responder, or spy. He or she is capable, brave, well-trained, and exactly the person we want next to us when things go horribly wrong. The genuine hero category isn’t restricted to humans. It includes paranormal and superheroes with special powers.

The myth is that the introduction for this kind of hero should start with an action opening in order to build rapport. The reader needs to see how hard the character’s job is and how brave they are. This fails to work because, at the beginning of a story, characters are ciphers and readers have no way to connect to them.

The reality is that readers bond to humanity, even in superhuman characters. They want to see the real person behind the badge, the medals, or the powers.

Avoid cutesy or trite: the decorated soldier who faints when he gets a flu shot, or the police negotiator who talks potential suicides off bridges, but makes a cock-up of talking to her kid’s second-grade class isn’t going to cut it. Go for real bravery, something no one else sees.

The situation should be a life-changing event, something that takes time and effort to resolve, something that causes the character to change who they are or how they view themselves. Bonus points if that change puts their hero status in jeopardy.

  • He’s estranged from his father, who is dying. He makes one last attempt at reconciliation, only to have his father reject him again.
  • Her gambling addiction is out of control and the bank is about to foreclose on her house, putting her and her kids on the street.
  • He’s just learned that someone close to him has a terminal diagnosis, or that his wife’s ultrasound is abnormal and they have to decide whether to carry the pregnancy to term.
  • Her fifteen year old daughter has just been arrested on a prostitution charge.

The difference between us and the hero is that the hero has to balance handling both things at once. We might think our job can’t do without us, but for genuine heroes that assessment is real. Imagine Batman not responding to the bat-signal because of a family crisis.

The nice thing about using a life-changing situation to introduce a character is that it becomes a thread that can run through the entire book. The outer threat (saving the world, or their corner of it) and the inner threat (that life-changing event) can be brought together at the end so that the hero emerges as a stronger, more flexible person.

Next Tuesday, April 29th, on Write the Novel: Threading the Character Loom – we know a lot of stuff about our characters. How do we translate that into starting a book?

I also hope you’ll also come back Thursday, April 24 for Level Thinking: Why Mysteries Run on a Closed Track or how to answer that inevitable question, “Why do you write mysteries?”

My point of view, Writing

Level Thinking: Easing the Uphill Struggle

At times, I run out of energy before I run out of day. When those days happen, it’s terrific to be able to ask my husband to do things for me that I normally do for myself, even simple tasks such as untie my shoes, or hang up my dress, or bring me a glass of water.

A few years ago, a group of researchers, led by Simone Schnalla of the University of Plymouth in England, has demonstrated that approaching a daunting task with a good friend has a measurable positive effect on judging how hard that task will be. Their study, called “Social Support and the Perception of Geographical Slant” was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Schnalla and his co-investigators did two studies.

In the first, a person was asked to estimate how steep a hill was. Test subjects who had a good friend with them during the test estimated the hill to be less steep than people who were unaccompanied.

In the second study, subjects were asked to estimate the steepness of an imaginary hill, this time while thinking of a supportive friend. In this study as well, people who thought about a good friend, saw the hill as less steep than did the people thinking about a neutral or disliked person. The longer and more positive the friendships, the flatter the hill seemed to be.

Supportive friendships existed among writers long before the Internet made keeping in touch easier. In the nineteenth century, the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and the biographer and social reformer Annie Fields not only shared a house, but kept up friendships—and correspondences that didn’t depend on e-mail, cellphones, or Facebook—with a list of people that reads like a high school required reading list. Among their long-time friends were Alfred Lord Tennyson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Lydia Maria Child, Mark Twain, Mary Ellen Chase, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Rudyard Kipling, Sarah Wyman Whitman, Willa Cather, and William Dean Howells.

I talked recently to a friend who is a writer, though not of mysteries. Her particular literary neighborhood is going through a dicy patch right now, one of those, “He said,” “She said,” “I never said” fracases, with side orders of name-calling and back-stabbing. She said to me, “Every time we talk, you have another story about mystery writers doing something nice for each other. How do you guys do it?”

The flippant answer is that we mystery writers get all of our hostilities on paper by polishing off people we don’t like, thus leaving us free to enjoy one another’s company as writers and human beings.

However we do it, I’m darn glad we do. So my advice this week is to raise our collective glasses to one another and give a little cheer for making all the hills seem smaller. Let’s keep hiking on together.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

~Anais Nin, diarist and writer (1903 – 1977)

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Character Introduction, Part 2 – The Wounded Hero

Last week I blogged about introducing the ordinary Joe or Jane who is about to begin an extraordinary adventure. What about the other end of the process, introducing a character who has already had the extraordinary adventure, and is the worse for it?

Think Bilbo Baggings at the beginning of Lord of The Rings. He’s turning eleventy-one and 111 years is old, even for a Hobbit. He’s tired. He describes himself as, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” In the sixty years since his great adventure, he’s never left the shire, never married, and spent decades working on his memoirs. No one, including Frodo, knows that he intends to disappear from his birthday party, and never be seen again in Hobbiton.

We tend to think of wounded heros as soldiers, police, first responders; in short, people who have been in situations where they were shot at or where things go boom. Over the past few years, we’ve enlarged that definition to people who suffered abuse, particularly when they were children. In fact, any character who has been in a situation that taxed their resources to the maximum can be wounded from the experience.

Ten things writers can use to build ambiguity and tension around wounded heroes

These are dark characters. They were wounded accepting a burden for society. What they want most is to change, be a peace, stop their own suffering, or have hope.

Angst is a poor glue. Blood and suffering does not bond characters and readers. What does bond is hope and the desire for change for the better.

Flashbacks and dream sequences are weak beginnings. It is a myth that readers need or want to see the actual event, so they can appreciate the rest of the book. At the beginning of a book, all readers are disoriented and uncommitted. Like rock climbers they are desperate for finger and toe holds. Toe hold: we’re in rural Ohio in the nineteen eighties. Lois is a fourteen year old girl, whose brother is pinned under a tractor, and she has to cross a flood-swollen river on a rickety wooden bridge to get help. Next chapter: No wait, it’s 2013. We’re in Cleveland. Lois is a middle-aged corporate lawyer who has a phobia about bridges. Which one is it? Am I supposed to bond with the fourteen year old or the middle-aged woman? Start with Lois hoping she’ll have the courage to cross a bridge. Have her fail. Have that failure cost her something, perhaps not arriving for an important meeting. The reader will be right there with Lois.

Not all people who go through really tough times develop post traumatic stress disorder. The most protective measures are having developed good coping skills before the event, no family history of mental illness, no personal history of mental illness, no history of prior substance abuse; and having insight and the ability to express and work through feelings. This doesn’t mean that they won’t be wounded, but it does mean they may be able to put up a more valiant fight. The braver the fighter, the more the reader is with them.

An area of ambiguity is, is it essential and a deterrent to later problems to provide extensive debriefing in the first twenty-four hours after an event? This idea was so pervasive that it spawned a raft of professional debriefers. Some are highly trained. Some do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Some get caught up in the cachet of being allowed past the police lines and having first access to traumatized people. Some do more harm than good. Want to conflict your wounded character? Give him or her a professional debriefer. I’ll leave it up to you if this will be a character who does harm or good. Incidentally, further research has suggested that a large part of the average population, particularly those with the protective measures listed in the last paragraph, does well without any counselling, and that immediate counselling may cause a problem to develop.

Triggers for re-experiencing traumatic events include noises, images, words, and smells. Smells are particularly pervasive and they don’t have to be nasty, icky things. Someone who saw a person eating a strawberry ice cream cone run over may have their memory triggered by strawberry ice cream cones.

Memories of traumatic events are intrusive. That means they interfere with the ability to carry on normal life activities. This is great burden with which to laden characters, especially if they try to conceal their shortcomings from others.

Memories of the event are accompanied by intense physical reactions such nausea and vomiting, cardiovascular changes, tension, sweating, loss of ability to focus, loss of ability to make decisions or to make logical decisions. The more the character tries to conceal these, the more opportunity to build tension.

Bureaucracy and medical controversy are the writers’ friends. In a pluralistic society trying to embrace both traditional and alternative treatments, options for how to heal a wounded hero are many and confusing. They are not only often at odds with one another, but also expensive. It takes a strong character to wade through this treatment morass, and to deal with government and private agencies which, after all, have policies and procedures that must be followed.

The future for the wounded character often seems limited. He doesn’t expect normal life events, like getting married, having a career or owning a house to happen to him. For a character to go through life hoping one of these normal things happens to her, but doubting that it will sets up instant conflict. A person who hopes to own a house, but doesn’t think it’s going to happen will behave differently around people who own houses, are house-hunting, etc. Suppose that person is a detective, and the murder occurred at a Home and Garden Show? Her wound is going to show up in all sorts of non-traditional ways. That’s what we’re looking for as writers, different and interesting ways of showing both how badly damaged the character is, and how much that hope for a new beginning keeps them going.

I hope to see you back on Thursday, April 17th for Level Thinking: Easing the Writer’s Uphill Struggle.

Next Tuesday, April 22, I’ll be writing about Part 3 of Character Introduction — Introducing the true hero.

Happy Easter, everyone.

My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: Remaining Human

Some years ago my husband and I went to Great Britain. Being museum buffs in a big way, we ended up in a lot of museums. In one of them, there was a then new exhibit of the Lindow Man. The Lindow Man, in case you’ve forgotten, was first unearthed in May, 1984 by two peat cutters working in the County of Cheshire.

As it happened, just before our trip I’d read Anne Ross’s and Don Robins’s, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, which discussed the Lindow find in detail, and postulated that the remains belonged to a man ritually sacrificed three times, in accordance with possible Celtic and Druid rituals.

What I found most upsetting in the book was the mention that the human remains were soon to go on exhibit in a museum. It never occurred to me that I would see those remains, but one morning I walked around a corner and there he was.

My stomach did a double-turn and I am not, by nature, a queasy person. I’ve worked in a trauma emergency room and did a surgical rotation in nursing school, so I’ve seen a great many components that make up the inside of human bodies. What I found disturbing was that what I was looking at had, 2,000 years ago, been a living human being. Even after two millennia, that person-who-had-been deserved more respect than being put on display.

I came away from the museum feeling dirty, a voyeur of something it would have been better not to see. Would it have been more dignified to simulate the Lindow Man’s remains? To have a Hollywood model-maker duplicate, using latex and other wonder materials, exactly duplicate his appearance and put that simulacrum on display instead?

Recently I was exposed to an over-the-top rerun of a TV forensic show, and two books, both police procedurals, both featuring graphic descriptions of bodies that had been, in the delicate language of British TV shows, “interfered with.” I realize I had my answer to those questions that bothered me a couple of decades ago. A simulation of human degradation, whether done with moulded latex and paint, or computer-generated imaged or graphic, detailed paragraphs is still human degradation.

As writers, I think we have a responsibility not to go for the cheap thrill. Yes, writers can titillate and arouse their readers with graphic descriptions of torture. Yes, it is harder to raise the stakes, arouse sympathy, and convey the horror of a crime when full-frontal graphic details are withheld, but I truly believe as writers that we have to attempt to do this. In a world where actors vie for playing the corpse on forensic shows, so that their bodies can appear to be dissected for the television screen, it is time to take another look at values such as common, human decency. A fascination with human remains is not a good way for all of us to remain human.


He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

~Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher


Hope to see you again on Tuesday, April 15 for Write the Novel – Character Introduction, Part 2 – Introducing the Wounded Hero.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Character Introduction, Part 1 – The Ordinary Joe

She’s a ordinary Jane; he’s an everyday Joe, but they are just about to be forced to deal with extraordinary circumstances. The problem is how to introduce being ordinary. Last week I blogged about why I think it’s a bad idea to introduce a character by showing them going through their mundane, ordinary existence. The myth is that readers identify with people like themselves. Actually, they don’t. Readers relate to strong characters, who display goodness, who act on hard choices because it’s the right thing to do.

We need to introduce a character acting far better than the reader is likely to act. Being like the reader wishes he or she would be on their best day. Screen writer and producer Blake Snyder calls this save the cat.

We all have situations that drive us crazy. Yahoos who sit on their horn the microsecond the light turns green. Plastic packaging that requires a thermonuclear explosion to open. People cutting in front of us in lines. Homeless people asking for spare change.

We’re standing in a long line at the bank. An obviously harried mother, pushing one of those super-sized baby coaches, comes in. We realize how tired she looks, and allow her to take our place in line.

Yet another person asks, “Got any spare change?” We dig in our pocket or purse for a few coins.

Those are kind and generous acts in real life, but completely inadequate for character introduction.

Four Suggestions for introducing ordinary characters

  • The character may be ordinary, but the situation is extraordinary; the stakes are high.
  • The hero is decisive, brave, and human, all at the same time.
  • The outcome doesn’t have to be positive, but it does have to be moving, both in terms of moving the plot forward, and being a moving human experience.
  • The event sets something in motion. It may be a thread running through the story, a minor plot, or even the major plot.

Our heroine goes to a bank. The line is huge, so she decides to go to the washroom before getting in line. Just outside the Ladies Room is a mother settling an infant into that super-sized baby coach. From the bank they hear, “Hands up. This is a robbery.” On the wall is a metal ladder leading to the next floor and safety. Instead of saving herself, our heroine pushes the woman toward the ladder. “Go! Now! Call 911. I’ll protect your baby.” The woman scampers up the ladder, the police arrive, and the robbers are captured.

  • Positive outcome: the mother returns and collects her child. She praises our heroine to the media, and our heroine is suddenly in the public spotlight. As a result, the protagonist is beset by interviews and requests for media appearances through the book.
  • Negative outcome: not only doesn’t the woman call the police — they arrive because a bank employee tripped a silent alarm — but she never returns. Suddenly the protagonist has a child in her care she has no right to have. If we want to complicate matters further, it turns out that this child was kidnapped hours before. Now our heroine has to prove she’s not a kidnapper.

Our hero is fed up with homeless people asking, “Got any spare change?” The next time he gets that question, he grabs the person by the arm, marches him across the street to a high-class restaurant, and buys him for a  meal. “At least this way I know you’ll get fed instead of spending the money on booze or drugs.”

  • Positive outcome: He bonds with the homeless person over the meal, takes an interest in a shelter where the man sometimes sleeps, and falls in love with the woman who runs the shelter.
  • Negative outcome: The homeless person is embarrassed and begs to be allowed to leave. The hero insists he eat the meal. He chokes or has food allergies and ends up in Intensive Care. The lawyer is barred from his favorite restaurant, faces assault charges, and the person he manhandled sues him.

I  hope you’ll come back on Thursday, April 10 for Level Thinking: Remaining Human – are there levels of violence, grossness, and invasion of privacy that cross the line? Should writers respect that boundary?

Next Tuesday, April 15, Part 2 of character introductions — Introducing the Wounded Hero.

My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: A Writing Routine

For some reason, writers are fascinated with other writers’ routines. How do you do it, they ask? As if there were some magic, some ju-ju in following exact steps. I hate to break this to you, but if there is magic most mornings, I have trouble finding it.

For what’s it’s worth, here’s my writing routine

0815 hours/Pre-flight check

  • Stumble out of bed. Put on socks, house shoes, and oversized T-shirt. The one this morning says Brat.
  • Fix fruit, nuts, oatmeal, bran, and skim milk for breakfast.
  • Have breakfast with husband.
  • Write in journal.
  • Do a little drawing, watercoloring, or hand sewing.
  • Remember to water the plants.
  • Make pot of tea.

0940 hours/Instrument check

  • Eat toast. Decide if I have to make bread this morning. The answer is yes. Set hot water, honey, milk, and yeast mixture to rise for twenty minutes. Defrost the cooked whole grains.
  • Decide how much longer I can put off doing computer maintenance and backups.
  • Decide how much longer I can put off working on taxes, accounts, and filing.
What I wear to write (yellow glasses and headphones not on yet)

What I wear to write (yellow glasses and headphones not on yet)

1000 hours/Chocks away

  • Put bread ingredients in bread maker.
  • Tell husband I’m running away to mysteryland. Does he need anything before I leave?
  • Put on purple felt hat, which has a Police Line: Do Not Cross tape around headband.
  • Put yellow sunglasses on over regular glasses. Theoretically, this reduces chances of cataracts.
  • Put large headphones over ears. Select music playlist for this morning.
  • Ask myself if anyone would—or should—take a writer seriously who is wearing T-shirt that says Brat, a purple felt hat, large yellow sunglasses, and headphones. Decide I don’t care. It’s my routine and I’m going to make it work.
  • Turn the office sign beside my computer to Open: The Author is In.
  • Leave all programs closed except iTunes and Scrivener.
  • Read the chapter I worked on yesterday.
  • Write.

Noon/safe landing

  • Stop writing.
  • Make a backup copy of what I wrote today.
  • Remove hat, glasses, headphones.
  • Take bread out of bread maker.
  • Look in fridge and see if anything suggests itself for lunch.

Does that look like an idyllic schedule? It does to me. My writing schedule wasn’t always this way. Before I retired, my pre-flight check started at 6:30 AM. My husband and I ate breakfast together less often. Journaling, when I could work it in, was done before bed. There was no drawing or hand-sewing, and very little watercoloring.

On the days that I could work writing around my day job, which was actually a 3 to 11 job, I had to write a minimum of four hours in order to make reasonable progress. Writing four hours a day is tough. I had to make compromises.

You might have noticed some things missing from that schedule. There’s no mail, not e-mail, not voice, not text. One of the compromises I made was to leave those things completely alone until after lunch. Surprisingly enough, the world continued to turn on its axis.

Another thing was appointments. If someone wanted to schedule me for a morning appointment, I learned to say, “I’m sorry, I work at that time. What do you have available in the afternoon?”

Familiar with the phrase TNSTAAFL (pronounced tan-as-fal)? There’s no such thing as a free lunch. There is only so much time available to each of us in which we can write.  If we want to seriously create, we have to give up something. In many cases, if we’re seriously looking for that magic that makes our writing work, we’ll find it in giving up something instead of trying to find the perfect routine.

I love the way that the poet, Mary Oliver, phrased that same sentiment.

To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes, to let it go… to let it go. ~ Mary Oliver, Pulitzer-Prize winning American poet

I hope to see you on Tuesday, April 8, for Write the Novel: the ordinary protagonist. She’s an ordinary Jane; he’s a plain Joe. But extraordinary things are going to happen to them in this book. Learn how to introduce an ordinary protagonist.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: The Inciting Incident

Why is today different?

A book starts on a particular day. Why? What changes about our characters’ lives on that day? Whatever it is, the story should start in the middle of what’s happening.

There is a myth that it’s essential, or even a good idea, for the reader to see the heroine going about her daily business before the change — having a fight with her boss, lunch with a friend, picking up her dry cleaning, then bam, she steps out of the dry cleaners and her life changes. The argument goes that if we don’t show ordinary activities the reader won’t 1) relate to the protagonist and 2) appreciate how much her life changes. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Here’s why.

Readers come to a new book with huge amounts of energy to invest, which may sound like an oxymoron because one major reason for reading is it’s an activity we can do when we’re dead tired. “I was so exhausted yesterday that all I did after supper was read.” Doesn’t sound like a lot of available energy there, does it?

What we readers aren’t energetic about is our own lives — having a fight with our bosses, lunch with friends, picking up our dry cleaning. The last thing we want is to invest in a fictional character doing the same things that made us tired in the first place. We want spaceships, cute guys and cute meets, unsolved crime, or any number of places and events that take us out of our everyday lives.

Maybe a paragraph of ordinary life helps set the context; maybe even half a page might be okay, but that’s it. By the time we’re on page two, new things should be happening. The protagonist’s life should be changing.

Beginnings are hard

Writers spend more time

  • on the first chapter than any other chapter in the book;
  • on the first page than any other page in the first chapter;
  • on the first paragraph than any other paragraph on the first page;
  • on the first sentence than any other sentence in the first paragraph.

The pressure to have the perfect opening chapter, page, paragraph, and sentence is a frightening thing. One way around the feasr is to write a filler first sentence, maybe even a filler first paragraph. Journalists are taught to write who, what, where, when, and why at the beginning of an article. Those same elements can be used to set fiction in motion.

On Labor Day Monday in 1977 (when), Meg Porter, a thirty-year old nurse (who), hoping to find adventure (why), gets off a plane (what) in remote Whiskeyjack, Alberta (where).

With that one sentence, I’m good to go. I can get on with the rest of the story, and then come back to tinker with that all-important opener after I have my writing legs under me.

Inciting incidents are about change

While the incident itself may be small (or appear small), initial consequences should be immediate. A woman runs into your office, grabs you, and says, “Help me! I found a dead body in my car.” Bam, your day just changed.

You answer the phone. The voice says, “I’m Sadie, your mother’s neighbor. I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you, but . . .” You have no idea how she’s going to finish that sentence. It may be “… your mother ran off to Tahiti this morning with a man she barely knows,” but even before she says the final words, bam, you know your life just changed.

Long-term consequences will play out through the rest of the book.

Whatever has changed must be irrevocably changed. There’s no going back to before. The protagonist’s role becomes to live with and through the consequences. The more ambiguous the consequences, especially at first, the better because mixing good and bad consequences gives the writer a more fertile field in which to play.

We don’t have to know our entire plot before beginning to write. All we have to know is our inciting incident and how to introduce our protagonists. The characters take it from there.

This is the start of another series of four related blogs on starting a novel. The inciting incident is this week. For the next three weeks, I’m writing about how to introduce different kinds of protagonists.

In two days, on Thursday, April 3, I hope you’ll join me for Level Thinking: Writer’s Rituals.

Next Tuesday, April 8th, I’m writing about how to introduce an ordinary Joe or Jane. There’s nothing special about his or her life now, but there will be by the end of the book.