My point of view, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – The Second Draft

Here we are, standing at the beginning of the second draft. What I call the draft zero — the unfinished manuscript — magically turned into the first draft the moment we wrote The End.

That first draft is a skeleton, a clanky bunch of bones, which at least has the merit of hanging together, and gives us a structure on which to drape the second draft. The key to writing a great second draft is to add both physical and emotional muscles to the story.

The difference between a completed first draft and a completed second draft is the difference between a newborn baby and a two-year-old. At least with a newborn, she stayed where we lay her. So, for the most part, do first drafts.

Two year olds are highly mobile, learning to coordinate their actions, speaking for themselves, developing new interests, and learning impulse control.

For them, experimenting with art materials is far more important than the end result. Coloring outside of the lines may result in interesting results on tables, walls, and themselves.

They have difficulty with choices. They imitate life through dramatic play, relying on facial expression, gestures, and body movement to aid communication. They dawdle on a walk and pick up little things. They have a great command of the words “No!” and “Mine!”

Here are five things two year olds can teach us about writing second drafts

  1. Learn to speak for ourselves — the second draft is where we strengthen and enhance our writer’s voice. “You can always fix plot—you can’t fix voice.” ~ Barbara Peters, editor, Poisoned Pen Press
  2. Experiment, experiment, experiment — the second draft is where I always write some scenes I know will never make it into the finished book. The first draft freed me from being bound by “what happens next.” I know what happens next, at least one version of it. That means that I can explore more character dimensions. If real estate is location, location, location writing is emotion, emotion, emotion. Yes, this happened, but what does it mean to the character?
  3. Coordinate, coordinate, coordinate — If you’ve never done it before, bake a loaf of bread. Seriously. As writers we need to literally feel the difference that kneading makes. “Beginning with a lump of dough not entirely of a piece, somewhat raged and limply-lying, commence kneading.” ~ Edward Espe Brown, The Tassajara Bread Book. That line has stayed with me for forty-four years. It is a perfect, succinct description of writing.
  4. Make hard choices — resist no and mine. Sorry, ducks, but Philamenia may be our favorite character, but she’s not working in this story. No way, no how. We’ve got to put her aside. Yes, it’s going to be tons harder to write Walter’s confrontation his boss instead of having Walter describe it to Cecily in the coffee shop, but it’s also going to be tons more interesting. Trust me, the reader has gotten the bit about Cecily and the lottery ticket by the end of the second chapter. Take out the other five times she retells the story.
  5. Dawdle. Pick up things along the way — If we’re writing a series, begin to lay down seeds that will sprout in subsequent books.

In the next few weeks, we’re going to explore voice, building a story’s emotional muscle, kneading the story into shape, hard choices, and dawdling.

One, final thing. It takes a village to raise a two-year-old. It takes a village to raise a writer, too. If we’re committed enough to this story to be into the second draft, it’s time to find other trusted people with whom we share. If we don’t have them already, the second draft is a perfect time to find a critique group or individuals who will read what we’re writing and give us honest feedback.

Next week, October 7th, we’re looking at Second Draft — Strengthening Our Voice.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Clean the Slate

I can’t promise this week’s blog is going to be fun. In the writing process, there is occasional scut work that is just plain boring, but still needs to be done.

But first, congratulations. We’ve finished our first complete draft. That makes us 1 in a 1,000. Out of every 100 people who say they want to write a novel, only one starts. Out of every 100 who start, only 1 finished a complete draft. So what we have to do first of all is rest, recover, and reacquaint ourselves with our family and friends, sometimes with ourselves. Take time for that and have a great time celebrating.

Do not, absolutely do not, immediately jump into the rewrite, also known as the second draft. This thing, whatever it is becoming, needs time to sit for a while without our attention. The words need a break as much as we do. About three weeks should do it.

I hate to mention this, but there is a lot of housecleaning to be done, and I don’t mean those dishes and laundry that accumulated while we were in the final push to finish the first draft. By this time, we have a much clearer idea of what this story is all about than we did when we started. Some things we thought were going to be important turned out to be either minor, or a bad idea after all. Some things we had no idea would work now make up a major part of the story.

But before we touch anything, make a backup of the entire work. Every single thing related to this project. Make at least two copies on DVDs, what I call my away copies. One of them goes to a friend here in town. The other one goes to a friend in a different city. The in-town copy is for that frantic reboot when my entire system crashes. The out-of-town copy is for that natural disaster when I have to evacuate without my computer.

As a final safeguard, compile a complete copy of the first draft in .doc format, stick it on a thumb drive, and take it to a copy shop to have it commercially printed. I’m always a little dismayed at how small the file is. All that work and it fits on something I can hold in my hand, with lots of room left over.

After the backups, start with a good office cleaning. For those of us who write in coffee shops or other places, also need to clean out our purses, brief cases, laptop cases, etc. Wherever we store background material, whether electronically, or hard copy, or both, make sure we can find the important stuff that we’re going to need in the second draft. Put everything else in a folder or the back of a filing box, and let it go, for now.

Check for updates on all the writing-related programs we use. Update/upgrade the software, if needed. Run a maintenance program like TechTools or OnyX. Verify and repair permissions. Empty the temporary download folders. Maybe even clean the mouse and keyboard. In short, make neat.

If we didn’t start one for our first draft, now is the time to set up glossary and style sheet files. See my Glossary and Style Sheet blog for more details.

Finally, if people read and commented on any of the first draft, set up a single comment file so that all comments are in the same place. Word allows us to import multiple files, with comments, into one file, which is a great and handy thing to have.

That’s it. We’re rested. Our office is clean. Backups are safely tucked away, and the gerbils inside our computer have been dusted and polished. We’re ready for the next great adventure — the second draft.

Next Tuesday, September 30 Write the Novel — Let the Emotions take over. The second draft is all about buiding emotional complexity.

My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Level thinking – Habits for a Project’s End

“–30–. Slug it.”

I love old black-and-white movies about newspaper reporters, the guys with hats tipped back on their heads, and cigarettes dangling from their mouths, who grab candlestick phones and say, “Give me copy.”

–30– means the end of a story and a slug was a line of hot metal linotype. To slug a story was to send it to the linotyper to be set. If you ever have a chance to watch Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu, don’t miss it. Sorry, no link. It was on YouTube in the past, but it seems to have been removed. This documentary tells the story of the last day the New York Times printed on hot type and the first day it printed with computer-generated type.

In any case, we’re done. Deadline met. Story/article/book winging its way, probably electronically, to its destination. Now what? In this third blog about building habits, I’m writing about the down time a writer needs after finishing a huge project.

We are in shock. Not “shock” neatly enclosed in quotation marks as in, sort of like shock. We are in real shock. Run through this list: anxiety or agitation/restlessness; confusion; disorientation; dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness; pale, cool, clammy skin; sweating, moist skin; rapid pulse, and shallow breathing. Yep, that pretty much the way I feel on Deadline Day +1.

We’re not leaking blood. At least I hope we’re not. I assume we already poured all we could spare into those final pages. But other shock biochemical reactions such as not enough oxygen in our cells, lactic acid accumulation, changes in blood pH, electrolyte imbalance, catecholamine depletion, and disturbances in blood circulation actually exist after several days/weeks of intense periods of pressure, sitting, creating at a computer. If we’ve been consuming prodigious amounts of caffeinated drinks and less than the recommended quota of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, add caffein overload and constipation to the list.

Way back in nursing school [Florence Nightingale was in the class just ahead of me] the watchwords for treating shock were quiet and warm. Maintain a quiet environment and keep the patient, er writer, warm. Recent research coming out of Texas is now indicating that if someone is in shock in a hot environment, it’s more beneficial to cool them rather than warm them. See, nothing stays the same.

So, Deadline Day +1(the ideal): breathe, sip water, take a walk, stay quiet, and cool down if it’s hot; stay warm if it’s cold.

Deadline Day +1 (the actual): attend an all-morning meeting for our day job; bake 3 dozen cupcakes for the class Halloween party; wash seven loads of laundry; go grocery shopping, cook a real meal instead of ordering pizza again; clear the e-mail backlog (home and day-job); take the dog to the vet, and the kids to soccer practice.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Guilt. My boss has been so understanding about me needing to meet this deadline. Ditto my significant other. Ditto my kids. Ditto my friends. They have ALLOWED me to be a writer. I OWE them. I can’t BE PERMITTED to take one minute more than that needed to meet the deadline because if I do I will be A BAD PERSON. After all, it’s not like writing is a REAL THING, or a writer is a person with REAL NEEDS.

Can we rethink that?

Remember last week when I suggested lying in our voice mail message about when our real deadline is. It’s really October 22, but we say it’s the 31st. We need to realize that Deadline Day isn’t the day we hit send or frantically rush to catch the last Purolator pick-up. Real Deadline Day is that day plus at least three days. If we can swing it, plus seven days.

If we’ve got a day job, don’t rush back to work. Use vacation time, or flex days, or mental health days. In the grand scheme of things it will not matter if we miss one important presentation, no matter what our boss says to the contrary. If we’re not fortunate enough to have any of those options, call in sick, because if we aren’t now, and we race back to work, we will be sick within a week. “Life isn’t fair. I finished this horrendous deadline last week, and now I have a terrible cold.” Duh!

Deadline Day +1: breathe, sip water, take a walk (maybe take two walks), and stay quiet. Cool down if it’s hot; stay warm if it’s cold.

Deadline Day +2: take another walk, pick one undone task we really like to do. Since I love playing in warm, soapy water, my thing is usually to do the dishes. Also, pick one thing that’s fun. This might be a good day to take the kids to something you all enjoy, or cook supper for the sig other.

Deadline Day +3: start easing back into a regular schedule. If three days are all we can manage, regretfully so be it, but at least we’ve had three days.

Deadline Day +4 to +7: if we’re fortunate to have this kind of time, go for it. Build ourself a recuperate and recover ramp back into real life. We’ve worked hard. We deserve it.

“A big piece of writing is a little like a big storm. It leaves you shaken and disoriented and things need time to settle down. You don’t want to talk with your friends and sound like  you just went through an alien abductions. … You don’t want to reenter the world until the world has more in it than you and your capital-A Art. I like [a few days transition] to let the dust settle.”

~Julia Cameron, Walking in This World

That’s my –30– for today.

I hope to see you on Tuesday, September 23 for another look at finishing a project — Congratulations, you’ve finished your first draft. Now what?

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Flash Symbols

We select ties, scarves, jewelry, shoes, and socks or stockings to bring clothes together into a look. We need to do the same thing with flash symbols, also called associative devices. These are micro-details that reinforce theme, plot, character, or other major story elements. They may appear as props, analogues, parallels, reversals, setting reuse, and sense of time.

Flash symbols should appear early in the story—bonus points if we get one into the first paragraph—and reappear frequently.

Don’t worry too much about flash symbols in our first, unfinished draft. The first complete rewrite is a good place to add them.


Physical objects to which the characters relate in a special way. Cliches: coffee machine used as comic relief; junker cars that break down at the crucial moment. Ditto: electrical devices that aren’t charged and unlovable animals taken home by the protagonist, with which they form a love-hate relationship.

For a list of props that can be used in new ways, see Donald Maass. The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great.


Analogues are stand-ins. In their most basic form they become cliches. Hot red sports cars stand in for sex. A chocolate malt stands in for innocence. When their meanings are woven deeper into the story, they become more effective.

In Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway uses geography. Mountain are pure, clean, affirming places; plains and valleys are the struggle of being human. Whenever Frederic and Catherine are in mountains, good things happen to them. When they descend into valleys, bad things.

Parallels and Reversals

Parallels are the symbol equivalent of sub-plots, running alongside the main plot. They often involve secondary characters, and contain reversals. One couple gets engaged; another couple breaks up.

Major events at the climax should be woven in, in microcosm throughout the novel. Parallels and reversals need to be used to preview the climax. There’s a fine line between previewing the climax and telegraphing the ending.

Slapstick comedy telegraphs. As soon as the huge, cream-covered birthday cake appears, the audience knows someone is either going to fall into it, or throw it at someone.

Setting Reuse

Avoid settings there for the writer’s convenience. The most over-used settings are people sitting at a table talking and/or eating and the protagonist alone in a car, in the shower, in bed, etc. Settings like these are boring, made doubly so by the character lapsing into internal musings.

Revisit the same places throughout the book and twist the setting each time so that it means something different. This is particularly important for the place where our climax takes place. The climax isn’t just the big thing. It’s also small things that will never be the same again.

In the final scene there should be a memorable object. Plant the same object or its analog at least twice elsewhere in the novel. If twice is good, how many more times could we plant it? Give its meaning a slightly different twist each time? Allow the protagonist to see something in that final setting that others miss. He or she alone — and the reader, of course — recognize the significance.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, doesn’t just draw the mountain, he sculpts it in mashed potatoes. At the movie’s climax, it’s essential that he knows the mountain in three dimensions.

Sense of time

Do characters in historical books have values and behave consistently with how people believed and acted in their particular time? It’s critical that they do. Time periods that a reader knows or is interested in attract them. They will know when we get it wrong and it will turn them off. Fortunately, many writers chose time settings that they lived through or know well. If that’s not the case, the solution is research, research, research.

When writing in another era, it’s far more important to know how people thought or acted than it is to know product brand names or television shows. Use primary sources whenever possible. A primary source is one written, filmed, or made by people living at a certain time. They include diaries, works published at the time, scrapbooks, postcards, photographs, films, and physical objects. Interviewing people who lived through the time is also good, but be sure to allow for memory distortion.

In the same way, once we’ve written a good character introduction, determined theme, or tuned into what props, analogs, and settings work for this book, we’ve set ourselves on a path. We know that it’s highly likely we’re going to stray from this path as the book unfolds, but at least we’ve taken the first step out of the door.

For further exploration

I’d love to write about black moments and managing micro-tension next. Learning about them moved my writing to a new level. However, all of my notes come straight from a Donald Maass workshop, and I’d rather you let him explain it to you. Once more, I recommend  The Fire in Fiction.

Hope to see you back on Thursday, September 18, for the third part of our habits’ discussion — Habits for Ending: we’ve finished a huge project. Celebrate, celebrate, dance to the music!

Strangely enough, next Tuesday, September 23, there is a companion blog We’ve Finished Draft Zero — Now what? How to tidy up and get ready for the next draft.

Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Habits for meeting deadlines

Last week I wrote about habits we need to build and use each time we start major projects. This week I’m looking at the other end, habits we need to use as a major project draws to a close. That’s a fancy way of saying, surviving deadlines.

“I am so grateful to my husband/wife/spouse/partner/kids for learning to survive on cold pizza/respecting my closed office door/being able to amuse themselves when I was on a deadline.”

In one form or another, I’ve seen this sentence in dozens of book acknowledgments.


That word has a wonderful way of concentrating the attention. We know it’s coming; in many cases we know the exact date it’s coming. Here’s what we need to do to get ready.

Once more, get enough sleep

Just like last week, the first thing we need is enough sleep. Those of us who have faced deadlines are now rolling on the floor laughing because we know that sleep is the first deadline casualty. Just let us survive on three hours of sleep a night for the next two week’s and then, I’ll go to bed and sleep for a week.

The body doesn’t work like that. Research has shown that we can’t recover lost sleep, but we can put deposits into a sleep bank by pre-sleeping. So if we know or even have an inkling that a deadline looms in a couple of weeks, we need to go to bed an hour early or get up an hour later, or take a nap during the day. Every extra hour of sleep that we rack up goes into the sleep bank for withdrawal at deadline time.


Deadline preparation includes pre-everything. Pre-shop for personal items we don’t want to run out of at ten o’clock at night. Pre-cook and freeze meals. Pre-make a list of no-cook/little cook meals and post it on the refrigerator door. Most of all, prepare our friends.

Good, healthy relationships are ones we can take to the bank

Good people, in healthy relationships, love to help. Good people in healthy relationships may have no clue how to really be helpful, so we might have to prime their pumps.

Who do we know who is a good person, with whom we have a healthy relationship? ” Be honest. If we love our sister dearly, but there are issues, deadline time is not the time to rely on her for support. If we have a friend who resembles a remora (a sharksucker fish with an appendage to take a firm hold against the skin of larger marine animals), a voicemail message a la Jim Rockford, may be in our best interests.

“Hi, it’s Sharon. The Wicked Witch of the West and I are on a horrendous deadline until the end of October. Call the witch’s castle after Halloween and we’ll do coffee.” Tip: set our available date a week later than we think it will be. Maybe my deadline is really October 22, but I don’t have to tell anyone that. And I know I will want to use the extra time to decompress.

When we’ve whittled the list down our list to a three to five good, healthy people, ask each of them for one specific thing. “I’m heading for this horrendous deadline. Could you

  • bake me one of your wonderful apple pies?”
  • call me once a day for the next two weeks and leave an encouraging message on my voice mail?”
  • go to the library for me once a week and leave the trashiest romance novels you can find in my mailbox?”
  • come to my house Tuesday at 12:30 and force me to go with you for a quick lunch at Gobbles?”
  • go walking with me for a half-hour every afternoon at 5:00 o’clock?”

The big five for working under pressure

Excuse me for a minute, while I take off my writer’s hat and put on my nursing cap. Yes, I still have one. It makes me look like a sailor on shore leave. Here’s the straight gen on five healthy deadline habits

  • For every cup of coffee or tea we drink, drink one cup of water, too. At the very least, this forces us to take bathroom breaks more often. Also, even 2% dehydration, an amount too small to make us thirsty, decreases our ability to concentrate and be creative.
  • Every hour, work for 50 minutes, and then get up and move for 10. Set a timer if necessary as a reminder.
  • Nibble on raw vegetables, whole grain crackers, fruit, and nuts. If allergies are a concern, find healthy alternatives that provide fibre and, above all, complex carbohydrates, the kind that metabolize slowly. 30 minutes of brain activity lowers brain glucose level by 2 to 5 grams, which we need to replace every 30 minutes. And, no, we can’t save it up by working 6 hours without nourishment, and then eating a few cookies. Energy in has to balance energy out.
  • Some people write with music in the background, some people don’t. In any case, listen to music every day. This does not mean blaring rock. Go for something soothing, inspirational, maybe even mystic.
  • Turn off the television. Really off. Leave it off.

“Background TV is an ever-changing audiovisual distractor that disrupts a child’s ability to sustain various types of play. [It] is potentially a chronic environmental risk factor affecting most American children.” ~Marie Evans Schmidt, research associate, Center on Media and Child Health. Boston’s Children’s Hospital, July 2008. If television is bad for children, it’s gotta be bad for the creative child in all of us.

Above all, remember that deadlines are temporary phenomena, like tornadoes and strobe lighting. We will get by with a little help from our friends.

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” ~Douglas Adams, English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 – 2001)

I  hope you’ll be back next week, Tuesday, September 16, for Write the Novel — Flash Symbols, micro-details that, like tertiary plots, add zest and sparkle to a story.

Next Thursday, September 18, we’ll finish up the habits series with Habits for Ending. Far too many of us celebrate far too little when we finish a major project.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Secondary/Tertiary Plots – Part 2

Last week I wrote about how many primary, secondary, and tertiary plots are needed for a book. The short answer is start with one of each, and see how it goes.

In genre fiction, the primary plot is a given

  • Adventure — salvation quest
  • Mystery — solving a crime, usually murder
  • Romance — overcome obstacles to love
  • Science fiction/fantasy — ramifications of asking “What if…?”
  • Thriller — save the world, or some portion of it
  • Western — land, water, and a chance to start over

Primary plots are always about opposition

  • Adventure — think Samwise Gamgee taking one more step away from the Shire than he’s ever taken before
  • Mystery — good versus evil
  • Romance — love versus obstacles
  • Science fiction/fantasy — keeping the status quo versus, sometimes literally, reaching for the stars
  • Thriller — destruction versus salvation
  • Western — ranchers versus farmers, water versus drought, order versus chaos


Do we really need a secondary plot?

In most cases, yes. A primary plot sets up two dimensions, something versus something else. The next step is to turn that into three dimensions, by adding depth. That’s were secondary plots come in. These are some ways that secondary plots add depth to a story.

Explore the primary problem from a different angle, with a different outcome

Our story is about familiar abduction: relatives who haven’t been awarded custody or have been prevented by the court from seeing a child kidnap that child. Our secondary plot is that the protagonist’s best friend confesses she was kidnapped as a child. This might be used to give more depth to the search for the missing child. Or it might be used for humor, the best friend was kidnapped by a free-spirited relative. Her stories about her and her aunt on the run become funnier and more bizarre as the book progresses.

Avoid mismatching tones of primary and secondary plots. If this is a dark story with significant danger, even the possibility of death, for the kidnapped child, matching it with the zany aunt on the run won’t do either plot any good.

Link two stories, separated by geography or time

Vicki Lane is absolutely wonderful in doing this with her Elizabeth Goodweather series. One plot line is current day, one is in the past, and what links them is the geography. Both stories happen in the same place.

The trick here is that the secondary plot can’t be all back story, one person telling other people about what happened. We have to actually take the reader to the different location and/or the different time. This usually involves having more than one point of view character.

In a series, bring forward a tertiary plot

Our story is about being killed for not paying gambling debts. During the series, one of the background characters is known to have a gambling problem. This is the book where he gets a larger role, so that by the end of the book, he’s admitted he has a problem and is seeking help.


Tertiary plots fill in holes

While secondary plots are almost always needed, tertiary plots are optional. They add a bit of sparkle. In quilting, this is known as a zest strip, which is a thin line of cloth, often no wider than 1/2 inch, which picks up one of the colors in other fabrics and adds zest or pop to the quilt. Uses for tertiary plots include

Thread a background plot forward through a series

This is the gambler above. His problem gets to hover in the background until we need it.

Thread the source of a vital piece of information through the book so it doesn’t appear out of nowhere

In the last episode of Magnum, the primary plot is Magnum reuniting with his daughter, Lilly. The secondary plot is Rick getting married. Akin to the secondary plot is Magnum, a member of the wedding party, missing every fitting appointment for his wedding clothes.

Viewers assumed this was a comic tertiary plot, and that Magnum would get to the last fitting with seconds to spare; that Higgings would produce a perfectly fitting tuxedo out of thin air; or that Magnum would show up for the formal wedding dressed in his usual Hawaiian shirt, cut-offs, and flip-flops. Just in case there is a single person on the planet who hasn’t seen this episode and still plans to, I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say that what he shows up wearing is a total surprise, which carried the final episode to a new level.

Increase the word count

We’ve written a great book, but our editor says it’s 5,000 words too short. In all likelihood, we’ve said what needs to be said about our primary and secondary plots. Rather than try to pad, throw in a small, third-level plot.


How much is enough?

I’m wearing my personal opinion hat. These figures aren’t scientific. This is my best educated guess, honed over a decade and a half of serious writing. Feel free to debate with me.

  • The primary plot needs to be in every chapter. Period. If it’s not there, what is that chapter doing in the book?
  • The secondary plot should not be more than 1/5 to 1/4 of the book; for a 330 page book, that’s 66 to 82 pages. Any longer than that and it threatens to overwhelm the primary plot.
  • The tertiary plot should not be more than 1/10 of the book; even 1/20 may be enough. For the same size book, that 16 to 33 pages.

How do we know how much secondary and tertiary plot we’ve written?

We count the number of pages. That’s not as onerous as it sounds. First, we skip counting occasional two or three lines of dialog. So if our Magnum episode were a book, an exchange like this wouldn’t need to be counted.

“You missed another appointment with the tailor.”

“I know, I know. Later, Rick.”

Count no earlier than the second draft; third draft might be even better. I’m assuming we’re working in either Word or Scrivener.

  • Pick two bright highlight colors, one for the secondary plot, one for the tertiary plot. Let’s say blue for secondary; and yellow for tertiary.
  • Scroll through the document, looking for secondary and tertiary scenes. Highlight the first and last lines of those scene.
  • Once we’ve been through the entire document, set the view so multiple pages are seen at one time. The blue and yellow lines will stick out. Estimate the number of pages for each scene.
  • Look at not only the number of pages, but spacing as well. Do the blue and yellow colors pop up with some regularity, or does the tertiary plot disappear for 200 pages, then suddenly reappear. Not good; needs fixing.

I  hope you’ll be back next week, Tuesday, September 9, for Write the Novel — Flash Symbols, micro-details that, like tertiary plots, add zest and sparkle to a story.

Thursday, September 4th, because we’re all trying to get back in the school year habits, Level Thinking will discuss forming new habits.

My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Habits for Starting a Book

Unless you’re in one of those unfortunate families that started school in mid-August, I’ll bet the kids where you live aren’t really back in school. I mean, really back in school, not in the adjustment phase. Somewhere past new clothes, new haircuts, new backpacks, and into sensible breakfasts, homework after supper, and refrigerator doors festooned with schedules.

I always loved going back to school because I was a routine-loving gal, who was overly fond of school supplies. Okay, I had a touch of obsessive-compulsiveness, and I adored school supplies, especially new boxes of crayons, all sharp, pointy, and standing in rows. The first thing I did was gently tip them out onto a soft surface so they wouldn’t break, and reorganized them by color families. Obsessive-compulsive.

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” ~W. Somerset Maughan, writer

Contrary to the myth that writers are free-spirits who have lousy health habits, bohemian lifestyles, and sustain their productivity with coffee, other substances, and good reviews, writers who keep going for the long haul develop healthy, successful habits. We need different habits for starting a major project; for handling pressure; and for ending a major project.

Let’s start with starting a project. What habits do we need to develop?

Enough sleep

When we begin a major project, the first thing we need is consistent, restful sleep. Current recommendation is at least 7 hours a night, but a huge portion of adults are getting by — or think they are getting by — on 6 hours or less every night. Night after night. Here’s 7 reasons that is a very bad idea.

At least once a week, we need to sleep an extra hour. Until Daylight Savings Time ends on November 2, we might need to sleep an extra hour twice a week. The reason is that our bodies run on a 25-hour cycle; clocks run on a 24-hour cycle. Getting extra sleep one or two morning a week resets our body’s internal rhythms.

Plan Treats

Set-up treats ahead of time. One year my family gave me a tea subscription. Every two months, a small package of tea arrived. Some months that little gift was just the boost I needed to keep going.

We might pre-purchase gift cards for ourselves, or season tickets to something fun, or set up a dozen envelopes with a little mad money in each one, to be used in the future for small treats when the writing is either going terrific or really, really rotten. Creative people desperately need good things to look forward to on a regular basis, so we have to pre-prime the creative pump by assuring ourselves, in advance, that goodies are on the way.

Honor Research and Inspiration

Announcing that we are establishing a routine for research comes easier for many writers than justifying the other types of time. “I’m off to Majorca to do research,” slips easily from our mouth to be greeted by our friends’ jealous groans. Don’t we wish? More often, it’s “I’m off to the library to strain my eyes at the microfiche reader,” but even our non-writing friends understand that writers must do research.

We also need to establish inspiration habits, which are completely different than doing research. Research fills our notebooks. Inspiration fills our hearts. Think of collecting inspiration as being akin to a sailing ship taking on provisions before the crew sets out on an around-the-world journey. We need to start our book journey with our creative quartermaster stores filled to the brim.

However we organize our new creative project; whether it’s in notebooks, folders, or on an electronic writing program, devote a section to Inspiration. Collect quotes and pictures. Bookmark 25 to 50 web sites for people people and activities that get our juices going. Visit those sites regularly for quick pick-us-up inspiration.

Honor thinking

Most of all, when we begin a new project, we need time to hear ourselves think. This is often the hardest thing to justify to ourselves. “But I think about my book all the time: in the shower, in the car, while I’m waiting in the dentist’s office, etc.”

In a study about work, first graders were presented with two pictures. In one a man hoed his garden. In the other he sat back in a chair with his hands behind his head, staring into space. The children were asked, “Which man is working?”

One first-grader selected the man staring into space and could not be dissuaded to change her mind. Her father was a writer. She recognized that sitting back in a chair, staring into space was work for some people. We should all be so lucky in our family and friends.

Shut out the world

As writers standing on the precipice of a new project, the most deadly line we hear begins, “As long as you’re not doing anything . . .” My advice here is simple. Lie. Outright lie if you need to. “But I am working on something. I started my new novel last week and I’m already up to my eyebrows in research and outlining.” Then go to our offices, set every electronic device we own to babysit itself for while, and sit in our chairs with our hands behind our heads, staring into space. It will do us and our incipient plot worlds of good.

Let’s see, what are we working on?

Next Tuesday, September 9, on Write the Novel, I’ll have thoughts on Flash Symbols — micro-details that hook readers in very sneaky ways.

Next Thursday, September 11, come back for more habits writers need, or how to survive living in a pressure cooker.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Secondary/Tertiary Plots – Part 1

I am so red-faced. This ended up in draft status last week, instead of queueing for posting. My sincere apologies.

Last week I wrote about the primary plot, the thing that drives a story. Secondary plots are smaller threads that weave themselves through and around the primary plot. Tertiary plots are grace notes, which pick up highlights, the way beading picks up highlights in embroidery.

Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.

Consider an imaginary mystery, Devil at the Dinner Table. The theme is how a couple in their fifties cope with major changes.

Minette and Dougie Shaw live in Drumheller, Alberta. Dougie owns a feed-and-hardware store. Minette is assistant manager at a local grocery.

Primary Plots

  • The RCMP arrest Dougie for a banker’s murder, so to clear her husband, Minette solves the murder.

Secondary and Tertiary Plots

  • Minette discovers that the feed-and-hardware store is almost bankrupt, and in addition to working at the grocery, she starts her own business to support her family.
  • Stress jeopardize Minette and Dougie’s marriage.
  • Dougie covers up that he has diabetes and that his poor health contributed to his business failure.
  • Minette’s cousin-from-heck, Eustacia, arrives for the Christmas holidays, and since Minette is desperate for money to start her business, she begs Eustacia to be her partner.
  • When their daughter, Jade, comes home from university on Christmas break, Minette tells her there’s no more money for tuition.
  • It’s a combination Christmas story/family reunion.

Consider this

Gone with the Wind had one primary plot and one secondary plot.

  • Primary plot: Scarlet O’Hara learns that men are real people, not toys.
  • Secondary plot: She survives the American Civil War and Reconstruction.
  • Everything in the book’s 1,024 pages relates to those two plots.

In contrast, Devil at the Dinner Table has so many primary plots, secondary, and tertiary plots that it’s unlikely any author could finish writing it or any reader would want to read it.

As I wrote last week, the primary plot in any mystery novel is solve the murder. We’ve got that, so we’re okay there.

At first glance, it appears that there are a walloping six secondary and tertiary plots. Look again. See how many sentences have and, so, but, because, in addition to or semi-colons? Keep in mind one simple sentence equals one plot. Every time one of those conjunction words or punctuation marks appear, we’ve slid into another plot.

Breaking down our original list

  • Minette discovers that the feed-and-hardware store is almost bankrupt.
  • She starts her own business to support her family.
  • Stress jeopardize Minette and Dougie’s marriage.
  • Dougie covers up that he has diabetes.
  • Poor health contributed to his business failure.
  • Minette’s cousin-from-heck, Eustacia, arrives for the Christmas holidays.
  • Minette begs Eustacia to be her business partner.
  • Their daughter, Jade, comes home from university on Christmas break.
  • Jade discovers there is no money for tuition.
  • It’s a Christmas story.
  • It’s a family reunion story.

Trust me, eleven subplots are too many. Ways to winnow down subplots include determining the difference between an incident and a subplot; refusing to two-step in plot development, and focusing only on the subplots that relate directly to the main plots.

An incident is one emotionally-charged event, which may be crucial to the story, but the reader doesn’t follow it as a thread throughout the book. In Gone with the Wind, Bonnie Blue Butler’s death was an incident, not a subplot. Incidents both turn the current plot, and sow seeds for future books.

Jade learning there is no money her tuition is an incident, rather than a secondary plot. Jade can either be emotionally supportive to her parents, or flounce out in heated anger. In either case, in a series, no resolution is needed in this book. Let the unanswered question of what will Jade do now hang there, and pick it up in the next book.

On the other hand, a good secondary plot runs through not only a single book, but the entire series, like a ripple of pink fabric running through an otherwise blue-and-green quilt.

Two-stepping belongs on the dance floor, not in subplots. Minette learns that Dougie’s business is failing, and convinces Eustacia to be her partner, and founds her own business is not only two-stepping, it’s three-stepping. Each element could be the focus of one book. It’s important to bring series characters along using baby steps. Finding out the business is in trouble is enough for one book. Stay there. Dive deep into all the implications of a fifty-something wife, learning her financial security just disappeared. Look at it from different angles. Wring it out for all it is worth. Let it fill the entire book.

Finally, focus only on secondary and tertiary plots that relate directly to the main plot. How much does Dougie’s diabetes contribute to the story? More important, how much of the book’s word budget will the author spend on visits to the doctor, Minette learning to cook diabetic meals, conflicts between Minette and Dougie about is he or isn’t he doing what the doctor said, and the inevitable diabetic reaction at the book’s climax? The likely return on investment won’t be worth it.

Books set in December can’t help but be holiday stories, but adding a family reunion to everything else pushes the book over the top.

A revised, and manageable, plot list for Devil at the Dinner Table might look like this.

Primary Plot

  • When the RCMP arrest Dougie for a banker’s murder, Minette clear her husband by solving the murder.

Secondary Plot

  • Minette discovers her financial security has disappeared.

Tertiary Plot

  • Eustacia, Minette’s cousin-from-heck, arrives unexpectedly to spend Christmas.

Next Tuesday, September 9, I hope you’ll be back for Secondary and Tertiary Plots – Part 2. We’ll look at how to recognize secondary and tertiary plots and how much of a book should be devoted to each plot.