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.

Deadline.

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.

Pre-everything

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Level Thinking – The Value of Negative Space

Once upon a time, there was a rhythm to submitting manuscripts and publishing.

Never submit a manuscript or look for an agent in August. Everyone in New York is out of town in August. As for December, close up and go home. Publish in May to catch the summer readers and in October for the Christmas market. Never, ever release a book in January. No one buys a book right after Christmas.

The seasonal rhythm of writing has vanished like the dodo bird. Finish a book on Tuesday; start writing the next book on Wednesday. Come home from a convention; get ready to go to the next convention. Submit a manuscript or hunt for an agent every day of the year, with the possible exception of Christmas Day itself. With electronic publishing, publish even on Christmas Day.

Negative spaces is what surrounds activities and events. An image is seen not only because of the image itself, but because of the space that surrounds it. Good negative space makes an object pop.

There are no negative spaces in writing any more, except the ones we create for ourselves. That makes them even more important.

The first writing negative space I encountered was in a class I took almost thirty years ago. We were required to keep a daily journal, writing down snippets of overheard dialog, descriptions of people or events, news stories that caught our attention; in short, anything that might make a good story. Only, we weren’t to grab our notebook and write these things down as they happened. The instructor asked us to wait a full twenty-four hours before committing them to paper.

He said that beginning writers were often afraid to lose the moment. Fearful of not getting the dialog or the description word perfect and correct, we focused on immediate retrieval. He said that we needed to train our writer’s mind to do two things: first, to develop memory because there would be times that we simply couldn’t get to a notebook. Second, to let the thing we wanted to remember settle; in essence, adding negative space around it so we saw it more clearly.  If we couldn’t remember it after twenty-four hours, chances were what we thought so brilliant in the moment wouldn’t make a terrific story after all.

It wasn’t easy to wait. My fingers had this intense desire to scrabble in my backpack, pull out my journal and write. Sometimes I grieved over forgetting. If I’d only written it down yesterday . . .

Gradually, I came to realize the dimensions of what he was trying to teach us. There was a huge difference between things remembered in exact detail, and things remembered as fiction. For some experiences it mattered that I could recall the exact smell, the sight, the colors. For others, it was more important to remember the—gestalt, for lack of a better word—how I was moved by the thing rather than the exact details of the thing itself. Both had a place in writing, and learning how to do both made me a better writer.

Over the decades, I learned another lesson about negative space. If the business of writing has become a 24/7 occupation — I believe that it has — then we, as writers, have the freedom to set our own seasons. Yes, there will always be deadlines coming at us faster and harder, with none of this nonsense about taking August off or relaxing in December. But I truly believe that it will be the negative spaces with which we surround our work that will enable us to survive.

We have to develop a whole range of negative spaces in order to survive. Five-minute vacations that we take on a moment’s notice. Ways to shut off that nagging “What am I going to do about Elrod’s lack of motivation in Chapter 7?” long enough for Elrod to work out the answer for himself. Entire days off in which we restore, restock, and replenish those creative gifts we have been given.

Recently, I added Jennifer Louden’s Conditions of Enoughness to my tool box. She says that as creative people we tend to over plan, over commit, and over work ourselves. Her COEs are four steps to limit doing that.

Recently, a rather pompous writing expert pontificated to an audience I was in that, “Writing today demands a full-time commitment. If you’re a part-time writer, you’ll never be successful.” Oh, dear, I have a life outside of writing. I love that life. I guess that means I’m not a real writer.

I came home depressed until I caught site of a mini-quilt I did a couple of months ago.

168 hours = 1 week

168 hours = 1 week

There are 168 hours a week, so unless we’re writing 168 hours at a time — yes, some weeks seem like that — we’re all part-time writers. And many of us are darn good at working part-time.

“It takes peace of mind and clarity to recognize and reorder meaningful, personal priorities . . . Many of us assume that we can continue to get along just by winging it indefinitely. We can’t. We need an antidote for the hurried and harried lives that threaten to tear us apart.” ~Sarah Ban Breathnach, author

Hope to see you back next Tuesday, September 2, for Write the Novel – Secondary and Tertiary Plots, what are they and how do we use them.

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Level Thinking – Things I learned at When Words Collide

I’m fortunate to have attended all four When Words Collide. This is a genre writers conference, held each August in Calgary, Alberta. If you’re a writer, and there is any chance you’ll be in Calgary 2015 August 14 to 16, I urge you to sign up for the WWC newsletter  and consider attending.

Here are six things I didn’t know before I attended this year’s conference

Branding develops a consistent image that links us, as human beings, to our books

“A brand positions an author so that she is unique. Our brand must be a subset of our personal self that best relates to our fiction.” ~ Kate Larking,  fiction marketing expert

Brand wasn’t new to me. I developed a brand several years ago. Here’s my core message.

Strong women enjoy adventure, but everything comes at a price. The past overtakes everyone, but it doesn’t have to overwhelm everyone. Transformation comes through courage, strength, and honourable relationships; healing comes through reflection and honesty. There’s strength in adventure and adventure in strength. To those who fight for it, life has a flavor the protected never know.

The real eye-opener was realizing that I haven’t taken full advantage of that brand in what I include on my web site. I need far, far more links and material about adventurous women there. That’s going to guide my next web site renovation.

It’s no longer a question if to self-publish, but when

Knowing how to self-publish has become as essential a tool in our writers’ workbox as being able to create characters, plot, and use serial commas correctly. Everyone from first-time published writers, to writers multi-published by large, traditional houses said that self-publishing is now a part of every writer’s career path.

Word length no longer matters

This is directly tied to self-publishing. Word counts were artificial limits imposed by the needs of producing books of such and such a size and so many pages in order to fit printing presses. Because of self-publication and the multiplicity of devices now available, both the short story and the novella are making come-backs, as well as forms that we don’t have names for yet.

What we publish between books is as important as the books themselves

Appetite for content is insatiable. Readers are no longer content with even a book a year. They expect short stories, novellas, character interviews, and additional material to be published on the author’s web site. We have to feed the pipeline constantly.

Time lines for traditionally published books to be successful have become impossibly, unbelievably short

“Most new books from traditional publishers are released on Tuesdays. Because gathering on-line of statistics is instantaneous, authors now have 48 hours for their books to be successful. If sales numbers aren’t good by the end of Thursday, there won’t be a contract for a second book.” ~ Dr. Robert Runté, teacher and editor

“Book sales for traditional publishers are so much more front-loaded now. You hear about a book that interests you. A couple of weeks later you tell your mom about it. A couple of  months later she goes looking for a copy to give you for the holidays. She’s likely to discover that it’s no longer in stores. Bottom line, if you see a book you think you might like, buy it. Right then.” ~ Ian Alexander Martin, publisher

“Kindle tracks not only what books are sold, but what books readers read or don’t finish. A book’s sales may be high, but if the percentage actually read is low or the percentage not finished is high, that book is dead.” ~ Hayden Trenholm, writer, playwright, and managing editor

New resources

Next Tuesday, August 26, I continue Write the Novel with a look at secondary and tertiary plots. Hope to see you then.

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Write the Novel – Primary Plot

In any book, the primary plot is where the heavy lifting gets done. It’s what the book is about. Those of us who write genre fiction know there are both restrictions and freedoms. Genre stories are always about a single theme.

  • Adventure — salvation quest
  • Romance — overcome obstacles to find love
  • Science fiction/fantasy — ramifications of asking “What if…?”
  • Western — land, water, and a chance to start over

For mystery novels, it’s solving murder. Period. No, it wasn’t always like that, and there may come a future time when it’s different again, but for right now, it’s murder. There is a little more leeway in mystery short stories. Some are about revenge, theft, or uncovering secrets. For thrillers, it’s how much damage will be done, and to whom, before threat is quelled.

Here’s the primary plot of any mystery novel

  • Someone dies.
  • Someone investigates.
  • A limited number of suspects are identified.
  • Clues, red herrings, and obstructions confuse the issue.
  • Likely, a second person dies. This death strikes the investigator closer to home than the first one.
  • Danger rises; prices are paid. There may be additional deaths.
  • The final clue is uncovered.
  • There is a show down between good and evil.
  • The characters resume changed lives.

Keeping all those balls in the air is a lot of work. It’s what we writers lose sleep over, discuss endlessly, and buy writing software programs to help us do. Learning how to do manage our primary plot is what our lifetime commitment to writing is all about. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet. If there were, I’d put it in this blog and we could all meet on some restaurant patio to eat nachos and the adult beverages of our choice. Instead of the magic bullet, here are two thoughts I had recently while attending a great writers’ convention.

To plot or not to plot

Each writer has a different take on how much of the book to plot out in advance. I once met a writer who claimed to have a 150 page outline for a 300 page book. That seemed excessive.

The shortest premise for a book was, “I met someone who has an idea for a mystery about a dinosaur detective in Los Angeles. He doesn’t quite know where it’s going yet.”

At first I thought she meant the protagonist was an old-styled, cigar-smoking, hard-drinking LAPD detective. No, she meant he was a Velociraptor named Vincent, and that idea evolved into Anonymous Rex and two other books by Eric Garcia.

Is it better to plot extensively or not? This question surfaced once again at that writers’ convention. My take on this we need to learn to do both. It’s like having different tools in a tool box. Sometimes we need a hammer; sometimes we need a screwdriver. The two are not interchangeable. Plotting and not plotting are not interchangeable. At some point in the story we need to be able to plot down to minute details. At other points, we need the confidence to wing it and trust that the writing gods will smile on us.

Plotting has nothing to do with what comes next

At the writers’ conference, I had lunch with a fellow writer. In answer to the question, “What are you’re working on?” I received a long list of “and thens.” . . . “and then she decides she has to go back to Vancouver . . . and then she runs into an old school friend . . . and then they try to find out why Harold divorced his wife . . . and then . . .”

I found it hard to care, and then, going home I tried to decide why. It was because after the entire recitation I had no clue what was happening inside the character. What motivated her? What internal struggles did she face? How had she grown because of the experience?

“What are you working on?”

  • Answer #1 starts: “University student Jo Fleming survives by driving a cab at night.”
  • Answer #2 starts: “Every night, Jo Fleming cruises downtown Toronto stalking the person who ruined her mother’s life.”
  • Which one grabs you? #2 would certainly grab me more. In fact, it might evolve into an entire book blurb.

A Week to Kill

Every night, Jo Fleming cruises downtown Toronto stalking the person who ruined her mother’s life. When she finally meets the man of her nightmares, they are both a long way from the corner of Bloor and Dundas. With a week to kill in a posh resort where three Canadians have already died, Jo revels in the opportunity to plan a perfect murder. But, she, not her quarry, may be the fourth Canadian tourist to die. Desperately running from an attack, she is horrified to realize the only person who can save her is the man she hates enough to kill.

The primary plot is about what challenges the protagonist, and how her life unravels. Stop plotting what comes next, and try working on how life gets worse and worse for the characters. It’s a great way to approach our primary plots.

There’s more. I hope to see you back on August 26th for secondary and tertiary plots.

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Art, I made this, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Merit Badges 4

Today we conclude our summer series of merit badges for writers.

 

Merit badge Writers of a Certain Age

For those of us who have been around a while

Writers of a Certain Age

This one is for writers who have been around a while. We began our writing careers writing in longhand or using a manual typewriter. We remember how mimeograph ink smelled and the way it turned our fingers purple. We erased on carbon copies with a small brass stencil and a crumbly erasing pencil, which had a white eraser on one end and a stiff blue brush on the other end. We sent a SASE with our submissions and bought International Reply Coupons if our submission was going to another country. We had to look up words in a dictionary and did research by going in person to the library.

We’ve been around for a long time and this badge celebrates our persistence! You go, girls and guys!

Merit Badge Writers of the Purple Page

To celebrate those slightly embarrassing things we’ve written

Writers of the Purple Page

This is for those of us who have written—let’s say anything involving parts of the body or clothing, which throbbed, heaved, ripped, or enlarged, or characters blessed with milk-white skin and raven locks. If we’ve ever written anything that would embarrass an elderly, conservative relative. If we’ve ever written fan fiction, and had a hot date with someone else’s character. If we’ve ever written under our burlesque name.

Burlesque, for those of us who don’t yet qualify for the Writers of a Certain Age badge, was a form of entertainment popular in Britain and the United States from approximately 1880 to 1920. It involved ribald humor and dances that would embarrass an elderly, conservative relative. The women who danced in burlesque theaters worked under pseudonyms, sort of nom-de-danse names.

To find your burlesque name, take the name of your first pet combined with the street you lived on when you were ten years old. My burlesque name is Blackie Freemont, which has a nice ring to it. I may name a character that one day.

Of course, this formula doesn’t work, if we lived on a numbered instead of a named street. In that case, try this alternate formula: combine an object that is either sweet or has a lovely odor with the name of a bird. Rose Nightengale? Robin Cinnamon? Hey, those beat out Bowser 68th Avenue.

What better symbol for writers of the purple page than a Mardi Gras mask? As they say where I come from, Laissez les bon temps roulier—Let the good times roll. If we’re a little hesitant about going public about having written purple prose, you have my permission to keep this badge in a drawer instead of displaying it on a badge sash.

Merit Badge Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again

It’s okay to stop. Right now. Really.

Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again

I don’t have to explain this one. Those of us who have earned it know who we are. Even though our contributions are hugely appreciated it’s okay to stop volunteering! Why not spend the next few months at our word processors instead? Writing a new novel would be hugely appreciated, too.

We can’t burn the candle at both ends forever.

I hope you’ll be back Tuesday, August 19, for Write the Novel: Primary Plots. After all, they are what the book is about.

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Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Build a Better Segue (BBS)

This blog completes our series of five critique abbreviations. Today’s abbreviation is BBS – Built a Better Segue.

It’s not pronounced the way it looks. Segue — seg-way — meaning a smooth transition between music pieces, conversation topics, scenes, or chapters.

Chapter end or scene change?

In general, chapters end with big reveals or emotional moments.

  • “Michael Garvey was the district attorney who sent my father to prison. I’ve wanted him dead for twenty years.”
  • “A patrolman in the valley just called in Francine’s license plate. I’m sorry, Toby. There’s blood all over the front seat.”

Scenes change because the story moves to a different location, time passes, or there is a change in a point of view.

Chapter end/beginning format

If we’re writing for a specific publisher, we must follow whatever chapter end/beginning format that publisher requires.

Since most of us write before we know who out publisher will be, it easier to use standard formats.

Between chapters

  • There is a forced page break at the end of the previous chapter. Put this in even if the last line on that chapter ends exactly at the page bottom. It’s just neater that way.
  • Title is centered, same font as the rest of the manuscript, and 2 points bigger than the body text. So if we’re using 12 point font for the manuscript, the chapter title is in 14 point.
  • Capitalize the first letter of Chapter and use numerals for the chapter number; for example, Chapter 23.
  • Putting the chapter title in all capitals, or making it bold are left over from typewriters, and we’ve evolved beyond all of that.
  • A word about renumbering. As we go through subsequent drafts, chapters will be added or deleted. Don’t bother renumbering each time a change is made unless there have been so many changes that we’re lost.
  • For additional chapters, add letters to the new chapters: Chapter 23, Chapter 23A, Chapter 23B, Chapter 24.
  • For deleted chapters, add a sentence at the next chapter’s beginning: Chapter 16 was deleted.
  • Once the rewrite is finished, go back and clean up the numbering.

Between scenes

  • Turn on widow/orphan control. It looks neater not to have only one line of the previous scene at the top of the next page, or one line of a new scene at the bottom of a page.
  • One double space after text ends, scene change mark, one double space before text begins again.
  • Use regular characters such as asterisks or hyphens for the scene change mark, such as ***** or – – – . Yes, it looks cool to use widgets or dingbats such as ✑ or ☃ as scene dividers, but it doesn’t look professional, and it can create formatting problems for the typesetter.

Life happens between chapters and scenes

Time passes, locations change, or a character’s emotional situation changes. Sometimes point of view changes. Readers need to be reoriented with each change.

  • After three days in Beijing, downtown Manhattan on a Monday morning felt pastoral. (The reader knows our detective is back in New York, but the city feels different because he’s been away.)
  • The only good thing about the drive to Cousin Sal’s farm was the sunset. I pulled over, sat on the hood, and watched pink and orange clouds melt into darkness. Melting into darkness was sure the way I felt. (Since the last scene happened at noon, in a diner, the reader will figure out that several hours have passed.)
  • Lakey’s fingers gripped the chain link fence. The little girl in the red coat and hat wasn’t in the school yard. Maybe she had more than one coat and hat. No, she wasn’t there, and she should be. It was time tell somebody, but who? Who would listen to an old bag lady? (Since the last chapter was in Reverend Small’s point of view, the reader knows that the story has switched to Lakey’s point of view.)

There’s no secret to changing perspective. You must be clear and courteous to the reader, just as you would be to a guest.

~Jerry B. Jenkins, novelist

Join us next week, Tuesday, August 17, for the Primary Plot.

On Thursday, August 14th, we also finish up our mini series on merit badges for writers with Writers of a Certain Age, Writers of the Purple Page, and Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again.

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Art, I made this, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Merit Badges – Part 3

Today we continue with our series of merit badges for writers and readers because we all need an Atta-a-Girl once in a while.

Series Maven

This is the second in our badges for readers as well as writers.

Sometimes we just have to have it all. Every book in a series, lined up in perfect order on our bookshelf.

 

Merit Badge Series Maven

Waiting for the last one

Award yourself this badge if you will go or have gone to any lengths to own a complete series and/or read it in order. This includes—but is not limited to—bugging librarians, requesting inter-library loans, dropping not so gentle hints to friends and family as to what you want for your birthday or holiday gift, sending out general SOS calls for books on the Internet, driving to another city to buy a copy of the book, or paying an exorbitant amount for the one book needed to complete your series.

Book Tour Survivor

Being a writer isn’t easy. Being a writer on a book tour is a test of humor, stamina, patience, planning skills, and the ability not to trust GPS to get us where we need to go, but rather take out a map and read it.

Merit Badge Book Tour Survivor

What do you mean, you think we’re in the wrong state?

 

Award yourself, and any traveling companions, this badge if you have done at least 2 of the following:

  • Laughed until you cried listening to other authors describe the machinations of their book tour, only to find out later that everything they said was true and then some.
  • Spent three hours making conversation with two bookstore employees and the store cat because you scheduled your signing opposite a major local sporting event, the Rolling Stones return tour, and/or the worse weather the town has had in 50 years. “We never have hail in October, honest!”
  • Added an extra stop on your tour at the last minute, but without checking a map. Then you found out that the Springfield you thought you were signing in—the one only 30 minutes from your last stop—isn’t the right Springfield. The one you’re committed to is half-way across the state, but not to worry. You can still make it if you drive all night.
  • Eaten the most incredible meals, in the most bizarre circumstances and laughed yourself silly while eating it because you know what a great story this will make at the next convention you attend.

Extreme Researcher

It’s not easy being a writer’s family member. There are questions significant others learn not to ask. Do I smell gunpowder? Why is there a raw chicken in the sink with knitting needles stuck in it? The Poison Lady returned your call. She’ll be home tonight if you want to call her back.

They also learn to adopt a nonchalant stance and fix their eyes on the horizon as we ask police officers if we can hold their tazers; airport baggage security checkers what’s the weirdest thing they’ve ever found in a suitcase; and construction workers how long it would take a body to sink into freshly poured concrete.

Merit Badge Extreme Researcher

Does this or doesn’t this look like a poison blow fish?

Award yourself this badge when you have done at least one activity from each category listed below in order to research a book:

Research in extreme places

You’ve done any of the following activities for a book: snake or other wild animal handling, skydiving; scuba diving; mountain climbing; rappelling; skateboarding, break dancing, in-line skating over the age of 55, or cave exploration. Going with a guide through Carlsbad Caverns doesn’t count for the last one. We’re talking the light-on-your-helmet, wedging yourself through tiny holes kind of cave exploration.

Danger pay research

Gone on a ride-along with a police officer or taken a civilian police course; learned to fire a gun or fight with a knife, taken up a martial art, or attended a para-military basic training course. Give yourself full credit, and award yourself the badge, if you served in the military.

Researching the law

Done something slightly illegal. If you’ve done something blatantly illegal, I don’t want to hear about it. I’m putting my hands over my ears. I’m not listening. La-la-la-la-la-la-la.

As often as not our whole self…engages itself in the most trivial of things, the shape of a particular hill, a road in the town in which we lived as children, the movement of wind in grass. The things we shall take with us when we die will nearly all be small things.

~Storm Jameson, That Was Yesterday, 1932

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