Follow the Crazy Brick Road

brickroad

A Disorderly Day

Yesterday, the day got away from me. I was going to write, meditate, make lasagna, do some family insurance paperwork, fill the birdfeeders, bake some brownies and write this blog post. Instead, I wound up running a set of errands and going on a garden tour with my wife. Very little on my lengthy to-do list got done.

If your story’s taking an unexpected turn, that probably means it’s alive.

I could have gotten frustrated about this change of plans—in fact, I came very close, but I didn’t. Instead, I decided to just go with the day and see where it took me. As a result, I had one of the most pleasant Saturdays I’ve had in some time.

Isn’t this a Writing Blog?

There’s a so-what here for novel writing, whether you write with a plan or by the seat of your pants.

Sometimes, the story is going to get away from you.

Your characters are going to do that apocryphal thing where they take on lives of their own and start doing what they want to do, or you’ll realize you’ve written yourself into a corner, or you’ll realize you’ve got a tiger by the tail when you’d been going along thinking you had a tame bunny by the floppy ears.

The bunny-become-tiger thing is happening to me with my current novel. I thought I had a nice, tidy idea about two sister getting separated and it’s turned into this juggernaut with monsters, assassins, a huge geographical landscape and a little magic. The prospect of corralling all this material is not a little daunting.

Be Grateful

Yet, when something like this happens to you, I don’t think it’s time to throw up your hands in defeat or disgust; rather, it’s time to throw them up in gratitude. If your story’s taking an unexpected turn, that probably means it’s alive. The thing to do is roll with it, revising your plan or changing your pants as needed. If it turns out badly, well, that’s what rewrites are for.

Just follow the crazy brick road, using your best judgment as a sturdy walking staff. It might turn out to be one of your best journeys ever.

Happy Writing,

CarsonCraigSignatureCroppedTransparent

 

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Writing Action

actionAction, Baby!

When I’m writing a novel, I always write the kind of thing that will keep me amused and engaged. As it happens, I’m amused and engaged by action scenes, so you’ll find a lot of them in my work (which you should immediately purchase, of course). I got a nice note from one of my writing group buddies, who bravely suffers through drafts of my latest whatever, saying that he thought the action scenes in the last portion of novel #2 (The Farthest Hour) were quite the thrill-makers.

I glowed for a few minutes, and when that settled down, there being no work or household crisis to deal with, my mind wandered to thoughts of why the action scenes were working, at least for this pal of mine, who pens some corking passages of mayhem, himself. (Bagger Island and its sequels, by Denis Hearn – highly recommended.)

Stakes

The lead character in the scene, normally your protagonist, needs a good reason to get out of the easy chair and get into action, and that means something serious must be at stake. In a recent scene from Farthest, the protagonist’s best friend is strapped to a cross and about to be flayed alive. She doesn’t want him to die, much less suffer such a horrible death. She’s launched into action because of the stakes.

Drama

The cardinal characteristic of an action scene is – duh! – action. It can’t be just any action, though. It’s got to be dramatic enough to draw the reader in, and it’s got to move the story forward. Luckily for me, my lead happens to be preternaturally good at accurately throwing things, and is also carrying a set of throwing knives. From across a city square, she flings one of the knives and nails the would-be flayer in the neck, taking him down and giving her friend at least a temporary reprieve. So, that’s one down: it’s dramatic.

Story Movement

But what about moving the story? If the scene just stopped there, not so much, but it doesn’t. The sudden crack in the apparently total power of the authorities breeds controversy in the crowd. Some wanted the flaying to happen, some didn’t; now they start yelling about it, and the next thing you know, there’s a riot. Best friend and his fellow prisoners are evacuated and the protagonist, is identified as the knife-wielder and arrested. Now she is hauled off into the belly of the beast she was just busy resisting. If that’s not plot movement, I’ll drink a beer. Hell, I’ll drink two. You’re buying.

Physical Movement

Another hallmark of the action scene is physical movement. In the scene I’ve been talking about, the protagonist not only throws a knife, but works her way through a thick crowd, rides in a rickshaw, and gets tied up and thrown onto a horse. Her friend also spends some time tied and mounted, and is then taken down, tied to a cross, and forced by survival instinct to do a lot of useless struggling. The flayer parades around with his knife and actually starts the job before getting distance-stabbed. By the end, the cops are high-tailing it out of there, leaving a square boiling over with rioting civilians. You get the idea.

Getting the Knack

The best way I know of (my knowledge being, admittedly, limited) to get the hang of writing action is to sort of marinate yourself in it. Read a lot of books with action—fiction and non-fiction. (Ever read Into Thin Air? Wow. Watch action-packed movies and TV shows. Read some more! Engage in a bit of action yourself, if you can, to the best of your ability; get some martial arts instruction, go mountain biking, walk the dog on a new route, whatever you can manage.

Most important of all, start writing action as soon as you start marinating, or even before then. As with everything else in life, practice makes you better.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Carson

Writing Prompt: Write an action scene starring Wishie the Troll and leave it in the comments!

wishie-cropped-for-090916

Down the Writing Rabbit Hole

rabbitholegraphThe Rabbit Hole

Because I’m kind of a geek, I like to keep a line chart of the number of words I’ve written in my novel to date. Usually, this is an encouraging exercise, because I can see the number of words mounting up, day after day, week after week, passing the magical 50,000 mark that separates novel from novella, and heading on to the 80,000 words that, in my mind, signals a robustly realized book.

Sometimes, though, the graph ends up looking like the image above (or next to, depending on your display) this line. Note the steady climb upwards (wild cheers!) followed by the precipitous drop (miserable groans and sad emojis rabbitholesademoji). The drop represents a trip down the writing rabbit hole.

rabbitholeholeWhy The Drop

I was writing along my merry way, following the adventures of a major, though non-leading character, when a terrific idea for his backstory smacked me upside the head. He’s an assassin, and the backstory was going to be about the first time he killed a man. It was all there in my head: he’s just a kid, he gets imprisoned by some bad guys, escapes, and makes the kill to avoid recapture. There was a little circus troupe and a mysterious, crumbling wall in the middle of the forest. Gripping stuff! A no-miss detour off the main story line!

Until I started writing it. The dratted thing just got longer and longer, rambling along with no end in sight. So I started over. Same result. Ramble, amble, bumble. Undaunted, I went at it again, determined to keep it short while retaining the excitement. The result of that venture was something akin to an overused dishrag.

Eventually, after about two weeks and five or six thousand words, I just excised the whole thing. That’s where the drop comes in. All those words, all that time, zapped.

Feh. rabbitholesademoji

Not a Complete Loss

I was pretty well disappointed and annoyed about that loss of time and words, but, as you can see, the graph took an uptick right away. Having freed myself of the backstory and gotten back to the present condition of this character, I found the story taking off again, better than before. Even though the backstory adventure was incomplete, it had given me a better grasp of the character’s background and motivations, which made his current situation easier to write about.

So What?

  1. I didn’t get rid of that backstory altogether. I cut it out and pasted into another document, to be saved for later. It might be useful for reference, or for another entirely different novel, or for a later section of this one.
  2. I got to know the character much better. Now, when he has to turn right or left, I’ll have an improved intuition about which he will choose.

Go ahead and curse those rabbit holes, but not for too long. You never know when you might come out the other end and find a pot of gold. I know, that’s rainbows, but you get the idea. Right? Sure you do. See you next time.

Comments?

Wishie says to leave a comment or he will keep staring at you with his mildly creepy fixed expression.

wishie-cropped-for-090916

 

Tools for Novel Writers: The Editing Checklist

guy marking off a checklistEditing Your Novel with a Checklist

A rare and wonderful thing happened to me the other night. I was at my writers’ group meeting, getting a critique of my rewrite’s first 30 pages. Everybody said it worked—and believe me, they would say if it didn’t, bless them—and, best of all, one person called the submission “flawless.”

Let’s just take that in for a minute…

Flawless.

Ahhh…

The Checklist Works

Okay, time to snap out of it. Praise great, but I always keep in mind it’s important to keep it in perspective and continue to be your own strictest judge of your work (inasmuch as you can do that without making yourself crazy). Still, it seems that in this case I did something right. This being a relatively rare occurrence, I thought I’d step back and try to figure out what it was, this thing of rightness.

After some consideration, I came up with this: After researching best practices, I came up with a rewriting checklist and started using it to grind through my first draft.

The best practices come from a variety of sources: My sainted wife, my writing group buddies and books like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne, The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel, by James Thayer and others.

My personal list is set up in Microsoft Project, because it’s great for tracking a sequence of tasks. I got a sweet price deal on it (thanks, day job!) and know how to use it (thanks again, day job!), so that works for me. For most people, a spreadsheet or a plain old word processor list would probably serve just as well. You could even go old-school and use some kind of paper setup.

The main thing is to have a list, regardless of how it’s physically constructed. I’m going to share mine, leaving out most of the the checkpoints specific to my particular story, except for examples.

To use the  checklist, I edit one section/scene at a time, grinding through one task at a time until I’m ready to move on to the next. It’s not as much fun as writing the first draft, but it’s not as bad as it sounds, either. And yes, I am so retentive my checklist has sections. Don’t hate me because I’m over-organized; hate me because I’m beautiful.

Section 1: Make beat sheet changes.

This section doesn’t have any sub-headings. As part of the rewrite, I revised my beat sheet so the story elements are cleaner and hang together better. The first thing I want to do is make those changes.

Section 2: Writing checks.

This is the big kahuna. If I can fix these, I can be pretty sure that my prose isn’t garbage. It might be a day away from going sour, yes, but garbage, no. The checkpoints are:

Show/Tell: Is there anywhere I’m telling instead of showing, at least too much?

Watch for info dumps: Am I laying information on the reader and not trusting her to figure stuff out from context?

Minimize interior monologue. First-person italics best, but still minimize. In my novel, the lead character is alone a lot, so I use italicized interior monologue to show his thoughts. It’s easy to go overboard with that, so I try to pare it back.

Beats (bits of business) – balanced use: A beat, or bit of business, is something a character does during conversation or when you want to remind the reader that they’re there when perhaps they are just standing to one side. This is stuff like scratching, or unwrapping a stick of gum, or engaging in a nervous tic. Too much of this makes dialogue too busy, too little makes it drab and unrealistic, so you have to find a balance. Have fun.

Watch overuse of metaphor and simile. I love metaphor and simile like I love beer and chocolate! They are the shoals upon which the raft of my craft often runs aground… because I use them too damned much. Here is where I cut and weep, cut and weep.

POV clearly of the character, consistent, focused. Make sure the point of view is consistent and that it belongs to the character it’s supposed to. It’s easier that you think to whaz this up.

Section 3: Character checks

This section is mostly specific to the needs of my novel, but there are couple of ideas more than one person could find useful.

Characters arcs (especially lead): I got a big clue from my writer’s group that, in the first draft, the lead character hadn’t changed much by the end of the novel. So now, in every scene, I check to see how, or if, the POV character is developing at all, even a little bit. I pay special attention when the POV character is the lead. If there’s no character development at all, I have to ask if the scene needs revision or even if it needs to take the USS Scissors to Cuttingroomflooristan. Just last week I zapped an entire section because, despite its cool action sequences, it didn’t do squat to advance the characters… or the story.

Character-specific checks: This is a list to remind me to work on certain aspects of characters when they appear. For example, one of mine is “Adrasteia and Colin: build the love story.” Since the love story is new for the rewrite, I need to keep a watchful eye on it. Yours could be anything you like, from “Remember Fred has a nervous tic” to “Zelda sometimes has three legs, but not always.”

Section 4: Scene checks

I use this section to look at scene structure.

Action scene; goal, conflict, setback: Does the scene meet these criteria? Is it supposed to be an action scene?

Reaction scene; reaction, dilemma, decision: Does the scene meet these criteria? Is it supposed to be a reaction scene?

If the scene doesn’t match one structure or the other, what is it? A big blob of wordy goo clogging up your story, or a hidden gem that needs cleaning and polish?

Is the POV character the one with the most to lose in the scene: Be sure the scene centers on the right person. Not long ago I struggled with a section for days before realizing it wasn’t working because the character I was using as the POV wasn’t the one with the most to lose. Once I fixed that, the section worked.

Section 5: Novel structure checks

Here I have a list of the generic names for the main points in the novel, like “plot point one.” My list conforms, more or less, to the dramatic structure laid out by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering. You can use whichever structure you want, say, just Acts 1, 2, and 3. Brooks works for me.

Section 6: Specific scene/story checks

This is another list of reminders, like “more foreshadowing of the revolution,” and “Library Angel – pick him up later.” These are things I want to develop in the revision or make sure I come back around to. Pretty straightforward stuff, methinks.

Section 7: Read aloud

No subheadings or lists here, just the one thing: “read aloud.” Reading your stuff out loud is, I believe the primo way of catching your goofs and improving your writing. Reading aloud slows you down, making it easier to catch the missing commas and whatnot. It also makes it very clear when your prose is a malodorous pile. If you do nothing else, do this!

That’s it! Yes, it’s long, yes, it’s tedious, yes, working your way through it for each section is a festival of rump pain, but it seems to be working, at least for me. I expected writing a novel to include a lot of just plain, slogging hard work and I was right.

Yeah, I know… For once I’m right and it turns out to be that.

It’s a long road we’re on, fellow part-time novelists. I hope this helps. Good luck.