Ten Ideas for Your Novel-Writing Process

ten ideasTips for the Novel-Writing Process

I’m still a nascent novelist, but I’ve been working on novel #1 for about four years and, in addition to the light at the end of the book-tunnel, I can also see I’ve picked up a few ideas about getting from first page to last. I hope there will be at least one or two here you can use. Here goes…


Inspiration comes in two flavors. The first is plain old Basic Inspiration, that fire in the belly that makes you want to write a novel. The second is Story Inspiration, that idea that lands in your head and won’t stop banging on the interior of your skull until you start making it into a story. Both are critical, but you can’t expect them to just show up. You have to encourage them, so read (fiction, non-fiction, the newspaper, everything), see movies from all decades, take walks, write a free-form journal for an hour a day, examine your navel – do whatever you can to turn up your creative flame.


Writing won’t happen unless you decide, for sure, no B.S., that you’re going to do it regularly, according to some kind of plan. Lots of people encourage writing every day, and that’s probably idea, but if you can only write on Tuesdays and Fridays, commit to doing that. If you have to carry around a notepad and get down a couple of sentences whenever you’re at a stop light or caught in another of life’s pauses, do that. Whatever it is, do it. Sometimes the writing will go well, sometimes not. It doesn’t matter. Make the commitment and stick to it.


For me, finding time is the hardest part. I try to get in an hour a day, five days a week, more if possible. I’ve made this work in various ways: getting up early, writing at lunch hour, going into work a little late so I can write from 8 until 9. You may well have to give something else up. In my case, I gave up sleep, deepening my relations with co-workers by not going out to lunch, and increasing my work pressure by arriving at an awkward time. (To write this post, I’m giving up my Sunday afternoon nap. Woe is me!)


You don’t have to write in just one space; you can have several. I am lucky to have a basement office I can hide away in, in addition to a coffee shop just down the road. Personally, I find my work goes best in a place where I feel very much at home and where I can arrange the physical requirements of my work – PC, trackball, coffee — pretty easily. And if you’re writing at home, I highly recommend having a door you can lock.


This is so important to me I made it a separate item, even though I could have put it under “Space.” All the writers I know require some level of quiet in which to create. Noise distracts the mind, and an unfocused mind is a poor one for creating fiction. If I can’t find a place with the requisite degree of silence, I pull out headphones and turn up a white noise recording; white noise drowns out ambient sound without being distracting.


Having quiet doesn’t mean having absolute silence, just a degree of it. It’s helpful, I think, to have some sort of background noise that puts your mind at ease without distracting you. White noise, as mentioned above, is good, but my favorite is instrumental down-tempo/chill music, which is pretty much a deep beat with an overlay of soothing sounds. It has the effect of keeping me alert and relaxed at the same time. Sometimes, I don’t even use that; right now, I’m composing to the sounds of the space heater at one end of the room and the dehumidifier at the other. (Yes, it’s a swanky home office I’ve got, all right.)


Writing is work, often hard work, so give yourself a doggie biscuit when you finish a session or hit a milestone. One of my favorite rewards, especially if I’m home alone, is to crank up the guitar amp and play very loudly. I’m also highly in favor of cookies; almost any kind will do. Sometimes, if it’s the right time of day, I’ll have a scotch. Figure out what means the most to you and go for it. Have a brain, of course; rewarding yourself with a shot of bourbon after every paragraph is not the way to go here.


Take breaks, especially if you’re in a long writing session. Dale Carnegie, in How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (You should read this, whoever you are.), writes that a U.S. Army study discovered that soldiers who took a ten-minute rest every hour were more productive than those that worked straight through that time. I have a sort of internal clock that tells me when I need to get up from the keyboard. You may need to set a timer. Whatever works, just give yourself regular breaks; they’ll keep you and your writing fresh.


I like having a method for my writing. In fact, I like screwing around with the method almost as much as the writing itself. This gets into the old thing of writing by the seat of your pants vs. writing by a plan, or somewhere in between. Choose something that works for you. I am finding that I like to plan, but at a certain point, the planning hits a wall because I can’t think of the next thing. At that point I start writing, changing the plan as the story evolves. The subsequent parts eventually present themselves (I hope).

Permission, Forgiveness, and No

In a world where there are so many “oughts” and “shoulds” clamoring for your time and attention, it’s hard to write without thinking you should be doing something else. These thoughts usually run something like, “Am I crazy, sitting here writing this novel maybe nobody will ever read? Shouldn’t I be mowing the lawn or something?” You won’t write too well if you are thinking about the dad-burned lawn. So, first, give yourself permission. Say it to yourself. You could even look in the mirror. “Carson, you have my permission to write.” On the heels of permission, it’s helpful (for me, at least) to add forgiveness. “Carson, I forgive you for writing instead of mowing the lawn.” You also have to claim the power of “no.” If you’re going to write, you have to draw boundaries, and “no” is what boundaries are made of. So, to whoever is calling for you to do something else, say something like, “No, I am not going to mow the lawn now. I am going to write fiction.”

Special Bonus Idea! Enjoy yourself!

Sometimes I read blogs or whatever from writers who say how hard and unpleasant it is to write a novel. I have to shake my head at this. It’s extremely unlikely any of us is going to make big bucks from our fiction work, or even enjoy a large readership, so if you’re not enjoying it, why do it? Do whatever you can to make your writing more enjoyable. Some of those things are listed in the paragraphs above (which I’m sure you’ve read with rapt attention). Get a comfy chair. Work with a cup of tea or coffee to sip. Work on the porch on a nice day. Most of all, enjoy the process of watching your story take shape on the page. Don’t judge it too soon or too harshly, just putter with it and enjoy each moment. And that’s probably the best advice in this post.

Thanks for reading; see you next time, I hope.


Tools for Novel Writers: Character Traits, Inner Resources

Character Who?Queen Elizabeth the first was quite a character

In a normal blog, you’d expect a post with “Character Traits” in the title to be about crafting great fictional characters. Well, that’s a good subject, but this pile of prose has nothing to do with it. What I want to talk about is your character—and mine, for that matter.

Lots of people start novels, but few finish them. I got to thinking about why and, in my uncontested position as Lord Mayor and Judge of All the World, I concluded that the non-finishers either don’t have the character traits needed, don’t have them in sufficient quantity, or they possess them but haven’t brought them to bear on their writing.


There’s nothing more important to a novelist than stick-to-itiveness. A novel is a multiple-draft journey of 50,000 words or better. You’ve got to plan and execute, then plan and execute again, until the thing is done enough to put a fork in. If you’re a part-time writer like me, composing in dribs and drabs during the week, just cranking out a first draft can take a couple of years—I speak from first-hand experience on that.

Once you get the novel ready for publication, then you’ve either got to market it to agents and publishers, if you’re going the traditional route, or directly to the public, if you’re self-publishing. Achieving success in either of these modes takes time, as well. And don’t forget the second novel, and the third, and all the others. Often it takes a writer several books to get anywhere at all.

So that’s persistence. If you don’t have it, get it. If you do have it, shine its light one your novel writing.


Patience goes hand in hand with persistence. While you’re walking the long road that is crafting a novel, you’re going to run into the heebie-jeebies of haste. You’ll be eager to finish every single draft, especially the last one. And then you’ll be tearing your hair out making changes from editors, agents, or other valued critics, like beta readers, wishing you could OMG just put it out there already!

At times like these you’ve got to push back from the desk (not for too long) and whisper “patience grasshopper” to yourself. (If you don’t know where the grasshopper thing is from, you owe it to yourself to find out!) Patience isn’t just the quality of calm endurance; it is also the quality of being in the present moment with whatever you’re doing. If you can focus on one day, one moment, one task of writing at a time, the patience comes a lot easier. Practice makes is easier, too.

So, that’s… wait for it…







See what I did there? Wasn’t that cute? No? Oh, well, on to the next topic.

Quiet and Solitude, Tolerance Thereof

You’re going to have to endure a certain amount of quiet isolation. When I say “silence” I’m not quite talking literally; for example, I like listening to some downtempo chill when I’m writing. Stephen King listens to hard rock and even metal, I think. Others like just freakin’ quiet, I’m sure. And I don’t know of anybody who writes in a crowded room where they are expected to respond to conversation; coffee houses work (for some) because, even though there are people around, you don’t have to deal with them.

What I mean is you have to create a space that makes it possible for you to create characters, plot and all that good stuff. Once you’ve made it, you have to commit to spending lots of time there; otherwise, no novel.


A person who lets themselves be distracted by a lot of different things is going to have a hard time completing a novel. I won’t say such a person can’t do it, just that it would be extra hard and extra slow. I know this very well, being of a somewhat “AD… ooh, shiny…” disposition myself. Even so, I have taught myself to focus little by little and after many years have become able to manage my distractible disposition. An hour is great for me; then I get up and stretch, or play a few minutes of guitar, or check on Facebook, or whatever—just for a few minutes. Then I get back to it. But during that hour, I am on task, not thinking about much else but the writing and taking the occasional sip of coffee.

Figure out what your focus rhythm is. If you can’t focus at all, you can learn. I learned a lot about focus by taking martial arts and yoga classes. Those physical pursuits require a level of attention that translates pretty well to writing. You can figure out something that will work for you, no doubt. But you’ve got to find it.

It’s Just Me

These observations on character traits needed for writing a novel are based on my own experience to date. Your mileage may vary. A lot. But I hope this piece gets you thinking about inner resources you can develop to make your writing better and more fun.

Let me and the other two readers know if you’ve got any other ideas about inner resources a novelist should develop and how they might do it.

On-the-job Training with the Rewrite of the Rewrite

On-the-job Training

Two boys doing paperwork on the job

As regular readers of this space (a.k.a. people with too much spare time) already know, I’m working on the second draft of my first novel. Novel making is one of those jobs for which on-the-job training is a must, I’ve discovered, no matter how many craft books you read or workshops you go to before you start.

One thing my O.J.T. has taught me is that as you rewrite, you’ll discover yet more things that need attention, from miniscule nits of prose to Godzilla-like swaths of illogic. For me, correcting all these things at once would be maddening. To bring some sanity to the process, I’m rewriting in layers—more layers than I expected when I started out.


Layers of soil

When I began the rewrite, I thought I’d be correcting the faults in the storyline and fixing the prose at the same time. Well, kids, that ain’t happening. I find it’s all I can do to get something down that corrects the story problem at hand and vaguely resembles the English language. Later, in another layer of the rewrite, I’ll go back and fix the prose.

Now I have to decide if I’ll fix the prose before I fix the second bunch of story problems I have uncovered as I’ve been tinkering with the first batch. Among these are:

  • Proofreading matters, such as being consistent with the use of “leaped” or “leapt.” In a book with as much leaping about as this one, I need to pick one term and stick with it.
  • Story-world items, like the thin spots. Right now, they are sort of ragged holes in reality, but of late I’m thinking they should have a thin fabric over them that you have to tear through. I’ve got to figure out if that’s a good idea and, if it is, implement it.
  • Plot gaps. For example, I’ve got a character that I was going to eliminate, but now I want to keep him. The problem is, he disappears halfway through the book. How do I get him back in there?

So, now I’m looking at a rewrite of the rewrite, and then a rewrite of the rewrite of the rewrite. And that’s just the second draft! What an adventure this writing project has turned out to be.

The Plan

A bulletin board with post it notes for a software plan

What does this have to do with you, if you’re a writer reading this and waiting patiently for something helpful? Well, what I’ve found is that it’s helpful to have a plan and keep working it. Mine is roughly this:

  1. Analyze and rework the beat sheet for improvements.
  2. Arrange a fix-it matrix.
  3. Work simultaneously through the fix-it matrix and changes from my critique group.
  4. Record changes needed for the rewrite of the rewrite (story fixes, etc., not prose) as I go along.
  5. Complete the rewrite of the rewrite.
  6. Complete the rewrite of the rewrite of the rewrite (prose).
  7. Then, depending on how ready I think the thing is, either start draft three or send it out to beta readers. I’m not sure which—that’s another part of O.J.T.


The riddler

Got any challenges with rewriting and clever solutions? Tell the world in a comment.

Tools for Novel Writers: From Fix-it Sheet to Fix-it Matrix

Taming The Imps of Rewriting

If you want to pry the lid off a barrel of imps and dump it out on your shoes, start rewriting your novel. That’s how I feel today, at any rate. There’s not just one thing to do. You’ve got to revise words, fill in plot holes, make characters look, act and speak consistently and, oh, sweet Saint Syrup of the Waffle House, do a hundred other things. And when I say imps, I mean imps, not tasks, because they slide out from under you, escape your attention, pile up in a writhing disorganized mass and do their best to make you crazy as a June bug in, well, like, June. It’s enough to make you run away screaming.

But I want to promote myself from nascent novelist to stuck-with-it-and-totally-finished novelist. And I presume, since you’re reading this, so do you. Or maybe you’ve done it before and you want to do it again. Let’s not split hairs. Or hares, which would be messy.

What I mean is, here we are. So let us gird up our loins and tame the imps.

The New Rewriting Steps

First, obtain a beverage. This should be free of alcohol or any other potentially mind-bending substances. I prefer coffee and, no, caffeine is not a mind-bending substance, it is a vitamin. Look it up.

Second, sit down (or stand up, if you prefer) at your chosen tool of literary construction.

Third, assemble the following: manuscript, beat sheet and fix-it sheet. (I described the fix-it sheet in “Tools for Writers: Fix-it Notes and the Fix-it Sheet.”)

Fourth, get something to make a matrix with. (A matrix is a grid; I am obligated to call it a matrix because of my brief sojourn in Hell… oh, wait, that was MBA school.)

Fifth – here’s the fun part – make a new, improved, fix-it sheet. This one enables you to track your rewriting tasks against your chapters with much more ease than the fix-it sheet.

I made my NIFIS (New, Improved Fix-It Sheet) with Microsoft Excel. Here it is:

 New Improved Fix It Sheet for Rewriting

Imps are listed across the top, sections down the left side.

Creating Your NIFIS

Take all the things you need to fix as noted in the three documents gathered in the third step and go to town making columns. Then fill in your sections in the leftmost column, or list them a section at a time as you work on them. As I go through the list, I check stuff off or mark it n/a (not applicable). I like this because it gives me one cage for all the imps, is simple to track and allows me to make the tasks as general or specific as I like. “Beat Sheet Changes” and “In-Line Fixes,” for example, are high level tasks; I track the details in the beat sheet for the former (duh) and in the manuscript for the latter (by just erasing the in-line fixes). On the other hand, “Fix-it: More Factories” is a reminder to include more of Satan’s weapons factories in the setting throughout the book, a pretty specific item.

Goofs of the Past

To give you an idea why I went this route, check out what happened with the fix-it sheet when I started revisions:

 Old Fix it Sheet for Rewriting

I still love the fix-it sheet for keeping track of issues as you go along, but it doesn’t really provide a good way of tracking where the tasks have been done or if they’re not applicable to a chapter. I also found myself resorting to symbols to indicate if changes were noted at specific places in the manuscript, were issues permeating the whole thing, etc. That was pretty clumsy. Sure, you could do it this way, but it would be a mess and I’m kind of an organization freak when it comes to the writing (in case you hadn’t figured that out already, based on this post).

I may revise my rewriting tools again sometime. I’m learning as I go and the novel, the tools and novelist-me are all still works in progress.

Bonus for the Curious

If you noticed the tabs “Arcs” and “Hair References” at the bottom of the NIFIS, check back here soon for a post explaining what those are all about.

Leave a Comment

If anybody has a better way of keeping their rewrite life in order, please let me know in a comment. Thanks!

I Met A Passionate Writer

Become terminally passionate... by Louography on Flickr. Link: http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7240/6874378932_33f7befb77_m_d.jpgWriting About a Writer

I was going to write a post about a handy spreadsheet I figured out for tracking rewrite progress and maybe throw in some thoughts about the random discoveries you make during the editing process. I still think I’m going to do that, but this week I can’t, because I met Lauren.


Lauren is a young woman I met at a place called Gilgal, where women go to recover from addiction and abuse which often – surprise! – go hand in hand. I don’t know Lauren’s whole story, but I do know she’s trying to put her life back together after a significant amount of time spent dancing with Dr. Feelgood.

Lauren is bright-eyed, personable and very curious about the world. I think this might be because she hasn’t really spent much time recently in the land of the mundane. We got to talking a little about the Internet, and she was not sure at first what Google was. That’s how out of touch she’s been.

A Passion for Writing

So what does this have to do with writing?

Well, we’re sitting there eating some pizza and chewing the fat, and she tells me she’s a writer. When she was ten, she told me, she wrote a book called “Killer Fleas” (if I remember correctly) about a flea that gets exposed to lawn-growth chemical and grows to huge size. Mayhem ensues.

Along the way, Lauren told me, she lost her writing because of drugs, but now, in a safe environment that fosters recovery and spiritual growth, her gift has returned in the form of rap poetry. She recited one for the rest of the women and our group of visitors. I wish I could quote it for you; it was a moving piece about finding your strength.

I think if you journey through a long dark, like Lauren has, and found your art again, you are truly blessed by God, the universe, human nature, whatever you want to call it. And you’re also passionate. Lauren was perky while we were talking, but when her poetry started to flow out of her she was glowing.

Make An End To Complaining

A lot of writers, particularly us part-time ones, complain about the obstacles that stand between us and our art. Our families keep us too busy! Work is too demanding! I can’t get the quiet I need!

Look, folks: we need to stop whining and lay hold of the passion that started us down this road in the first place. The everyday stumbling blocks most of us face are NOTHING (YES I AM SHOUTING!) compared to what Lauren has been through, is going through.

Lauren is very busy rising from the ashes.

Yet, Lauren writes.

Can we do less?

Gifts for the Fiction Writer

A wrapped gift held in two hands writers like special giftsFiction Writers Like Gifts, Too!

Ah, the holidays. That wonderful time of year when we chase excessive meals with seltzer tablets, spend money we don’t have, push our stress levels to the limit and love every (well, almost every) minute of it. More importantly, it’s the season of giving. Of gifts. To me. Yippee! Which thought brings me to the point of this holiday post: What are the best gifts you can you give the part-time writer in your life? (You know, that misanthrope in the basement who’s always hunched over the keyboard or staring at the ceiling? Yeah, take a minute to go check. I’ll bet they’re still there. I’ll wait.)

You found your writer, I trust? And wiped the drool from his or her chin? Great. So, back to the point. Here are some things you can give your pet writer.

And Now a Moment of Editorial Clarity

Hey, you writers! This post is addressed to the non-writers in your house, but they probably aren’t ever going to see it. If you want to receive any of these gifts for Christmas, or for [insert your holiday here], you probably need to ask for it. You are worthy. Your craft is worthy. Put this stuff on your wish list. Now, back to our regularly scheduled babbling.


With everything else he has going on, the part-time fiction writer is always wishing for more time. Tell your writer you’ll do the cooking this week, or the yard work, or that you’ll just forego whatever time-consumer it is for a period of time, and that the time saved is for writing.


Because she has chosen to be a family person (or, if younger, is forced to be a family person), the part-time fiction writer’s life is often filled with racket. The simple ongoing noise of a household is often enough to pierce even the most sophisticated of white-noise-and-headphones arrangements, the library isn’t always accessible, and the doghouse is distractingly odiferous. Give your writer some quiet time. Get everybody out of the house. Drive her to the library. Declare an hour in which she be treated as though she were sick and napping.

A writing retreat

If you can swing it, give your writer the gift of a writing retreat. This will be a place where the time and quiet are already built in. It will be a place away from home so your writer won’t be tempted or guilted by domestic responsibilities. He will be so grateful you might even talk him into coming home afterward.

Face time and critique by an agent

If you look around, you can find writer’s conferences where (for a fee) your writer can the first part of her manuscript evaluated by real, live literary agent. This is more for folks set on the traditional publishing route, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if your writer is going the self-pub route, a professional evaluation could yield some valuable insights. (I highly recommend you do this through a reputable writer’s conference; don’t just pick some “agent” off the internet or something.)

Editing and/or proofing

If your writer’s manuscript is ready for it, get him a package of editing services. The manuscript might need a developmental edit, in which a “book doctor” addresses fundamental issues of story structure, character development and the like, or a copy-editing job, or something in between. Giving this gift might save a book.


Is that manuscript all ready for prime time? If it is, and your writer is going the e-book route, one of the best gifts is a professional formatting job. A bunch of layout errors can make a book look bad, even if it’s great. Help your writer avoid that problem.

A book cover

Everywhere I look, the pros are saying “get a pro to do your book cover!” What with the prevalence of image editing software, your writer might be tempted to do this critical piece of work herself. That is how lousy covers are born. Buy her a nice one.


Okay, this one’s not really a gift. It’s more a lifestyle choice. Just say “that’s good writing,” “go get ‘em tiger,” “you can do it,” or any such phrases on a regular basis, with sincerity. Writers often carry a lot of self-doubt and some simple support helps a lot. Practice in the mirror if you need to.

Constructive criticism

Constructive criticism is even more valuable than encouragement. If a story is going wrong, your writer needs to know. Be straightforward without being harsh. This gift is as likely as editing and proofing to save a book.

Books about writing

Books about craft are always welcome. Try Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, by K.M. Weiland, Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks, Nail Your Novel, by Roz Morris, or Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition, by Renni Browne and Dave King.

A nice bottle of whatever

After an intense session of writing, there’s nothing like a wee dram of your favorite hootch. If your writer isn’t the hootchy type, then bake them a cake. If they don’t do cake, you’re on your own.

Happy holidays! See you next time.

Tools for Writers: A Pace Sheet for Your Novel

Pace chart for writing a novelKeeping up with the pace

I don’t know about you, but when I’m down in the weeds of writing my novel, it’s hard to figure out if the pace is right or not. I have to pull my head out of my, um, fiction and see if the story is bouncing along as it should, speed-wise.

That’s what pace is – the speed at which your novel clips along.

Elements of pace

There are a lot of different aspects to pace:

  • The amount of action in each scene. The more action in a scene, the faster its pace.
  • The length of the scenes. Shorter scenes strung together tend to quicken the pace.
  • The number of action-poor scenes in relation to the number of action-rich scenes. The more action-rich scenes you have, the faster the pace.
  • The length of the paragraphs. Shorter paragraphs create a sense of urgency, which quickens the pace.
  • The length of the sentences. Shorter sentences also create a sense of urgency, like shorter paragraphs.
  • The words used. Using plainer, more terse words quickens the pace; for example, “pusillanimous” will slow you down compared to “chicken.”

Okay, fine. There’s pace, more or less, but a definition of pace is not really what I’m after here. I mean, it’s great to know what it is, but how do you know when it’s right? You’re sitting there with fifty or seventy or a hundred scenes and the trouble is, how do you hold them all in your head so you can step back, look at the pattern they make and see whether or not they combine to produce the pace you want for your novel?

Well, you can’t. I can’t, anyway. Maybe you’re some kind of memory genius who can envision all that material at once, but not me. My brain is just too tiny. So, what’s a writer to do? Figure out a tool, that’s what.

Making a pace sheet

Enter the Pace Sheet (insert imaginary triumphant trumpet fanfare here). I use this device to help me visualize the pace of my novel. Here’s what you can do:

  • Have a novel planning matrix, beat sheet or outline. If you’re not clear on that, check out <planning matrix post> or some other worthy source.
  • Rate each scene on your matrix for Pace, scoring them as 5 = very fast, 4 = fast, 3 = medium, 2 = slow, 1 = very slow. Use the factors of pacing, along with your gut, to make your judgment.
  • Using a spreadsheet program, create a spreadsheet with one column labeled “Scene” and one labeled “Pace.” Enter the scene numbers and their corresponding pace scores in the rows as needed. Here’s what I mean:

    Spreadsheet columns for a pace sheet for your novel
    Pace sheet columns. Click to enlarge.
  • Highlight the data and create a chart with it. I ended up using a bubble chart, and here’s what I got for one of my drafts:
    Bubble-chart pace sheet for a novel
    Pace sheet bubble chart. Click to enlarge.

    As you can see, my novel is pretty fast-paced, which is what I wanted. I’ve got plenty of 4s and 5s with enough lower scores to balance things out. Notice at the tail end I’ve got a load of 5s crammed together; that way I know my ending has the excitement I want.

    So, there you have it, a simple tool for pulling back from your novel and checking the pace.

    One last note: If you want to do this with pencil and paper, you certainly can. Graph paper would work well, I think, with five pace rows on the left and a column for each scene. You’d just mark the intersection of pace score and scene number with a dot, then connect the dots with a line or make bubbles around each dot.

    If you’ve got a spiffy definition of pace, or a clever way of judging the pace of your fiction, please let the rest of us in on it with a comment, okay?

    Happy fictioneering!

For Novelists: A Planning and Re-planning Tool

A matrix of numbers unlike the novel planning matrix.
No, not this one.

A Novel Planning Matrix

Thanks to Some Fine Writers

To kick this post off, I want to thank one of my favorite writers of the last several years, J. K. Rowling. It is from her that I swiped the novel planning matrix I’m going to describe. I’ve taken this writing tool and tweaked it to suit my own style, and right now I’m using it to plan the structure for the second draft of my first novel. I also want to thank Roz Morris, author of Nail Your Novel, who really clued me in to using a beat sheet, of which the matrix is a fancified example.

Columns in the Novel Planning Matrix

This bad boy has six columns. Here’s what they are:

  1. ID: The number and name of the scene. I like setting up the matrix so the ID number changes automatically when I move a row, and because the numbers can change I like having a name to identify the scene as well. ID is useful for keeping track of what the heck you’re doing.

  2. Time: When I get around to it, I’m going to put the timing of the scene here. Working out the timing of it all will be a post, I think! Time is useful for making sure things happen in logical sequence and for building towards a satisfying climax.

  3. Main Character: The character from whose point of view we see the scene. Main Character is good for being sure your fiction isn’t populated by empty furniture.

  4. Purpose: The purpose the scene plays in the novel, what it’s supposed to show or make happen. Filling in purpose helps you figure out what’s more or less important and what should be ditched altogether.

  5. Action: Here’s where I put a brief description of what happens in the scene. Sometimes the events are in sequential order, sometimes they’re in the order I thought of them. I also put notes about things to fix, rethink or foreshadow here, in a different color.

  6. Conflict, Pace, etc.: This is a catch-all column I use to hold information about the scene that isn’t action. Conflict, of course, records what the point-of-view character is up against; there could be more than one thing. For Pace, I use number, 1 for very slow, 5 for very fast. I suppose 1 could translate into “not much drama or action, maybe some reflection or preparation,” while 5 could “high drama and more action than a barrel of blood-sucking, tap-dancing, mutant killer monkeys.” I’ve been having some issues with theme as I rewrite, so I’ve been using a note for “Theme” in this column, too, recording how each scene supports (or should support, at least) the theme.

A Picture of the Novel Planning Matrix

Okay, so here’s what it looks like. This is the matrix I’m using to re-plan my novel for its second draft, so it’s full of notes in red-brown. Try to resist the temptation to steal my brilliant ideas… yeah, right. Anyway

It’s Easy!

The matrix is pretty easy to whip up in the word processor of your choice, as long as it has a tables function. You could also use a spreadsheet program, although I find those a little lame for heavy text applications like this.

I love devices like this because you can tweak them all you want and make them your own, which I hope you’ll do if you like this. If you don’t like it, maybe it will inspire to come up with something that better suits your style.

Got any cool tips or tricks for planning or re-planning your novel? How about giving us all a break and sharing them in a comment?

See you next time!

The Part-Time Fiction Writer’s Juggling Act – Part 4

Writing fiction part-time can be like taking a slow boat to China, or to anywhere.Take the Slow Boat to China – or Wherever Your Book is Set

As a part-time novelist, there’s one thing I dream of all the time: finishing. I am really looking forward to that golden moment when the last edit is in, the cover art is approved, the copy is formatted and my little book is launched. Oh, but there’s a long time to go, because the fiction writer who juggles many other things can only make progress so quickly. Sometimes I feel frustrated, like a racehorse champing at the bit in the starting gate (or, maybe, in my case, the old farm nag eager to get back to the barn and that tasty bag of oats).
I’m pretty sure many of my fellow fiction writers feel the same way. We must find ways to cope.

Make incremental progress

How do you eat an elephant? Same as anything else: one bite at a time.

Don’t expect to, or even try, to knock out huge swaths of your opus at one time. Write a little here, a little there. One kind writer told me she writes whenever a little sliver of time presents itself; for example, when she’s stuck at a train stop or a long light, she writes a few lines.
You can try the squeeze-it-in approach, or you can just set aside small amounts of time each day or week to enjoy the craft. I’ve another literary buddy with a busy job and a very demanding home life, who spends his lunch hour writing and he’s cranking out a good 60 pages every two weeks – not bad.
I suggest you keep a spreadsheet or other record of how many words or pages you create in each working session, with a cumulative total based on that. It’s very encouraging to watch your progress mount up. Sooner later, you’ll be done!

Have patience

I’m staring at the heading just above this line and thinking, “Okay… how?” Writing fiction part-time is often an unsettling experience. You want to go, go, to, but you just can’t. Having patience is the ability to calmly endure that feeling.
After reflecting on the matter a bit, I have to conclude the best way to boost your patience is to remember that you are in this situation by choice. You have decided to include many other things in your life. Nobody made you do it. Besides, you probably made those choices because they are advantageous for you and yours. So remind yourself of this, take a deep breath, and endure.

Enjoy yourself

You are performing the part-time fiction writer’s juggling act. Congratulations and welcome to the club. I hope you enjoy the juggling, because that’s the most important thing of all. Sure, you’re on the slow boat to China (or wherever), but the beauty of a slow boat is that you get to savor the ride.
There are all kinds of reasons to write – a deep-seated psychological need, a philosophical axe to grind, the hope of fortune and fame – and those are all fine, but if you ask me, the main reason for the part-time writer to keep going is enjoyment of the writing process itself. You sit down at the keyboard or notebook when you can, not knowing if anyone besides you will ever see the results, and you do it because it’s just fun.

Writing fiction is hard. If you don’t enjoy it? Why bother?

Speaking of enjoyment, if you liked this post, check out the related ones:
The Part-Time Fiction Writer’s Juggling Act – Part 1
The Part-Time Fiction Writer’s Juggling Act – Part 2
The Part-Time Fiction Writer’s Juggling Act – Part 3

Onward! Even When Your Fiction Writing Stinks

02-27-13 OnwardIf I have learned anything about writing fiction this week, it’s that the magic genie comes and goes. I’m talking about the magic genie that makes your writing worth someone’s putting an eye to.

Monday was painful. I had to squeeze fiction in amongst a bunch of other stuff and what came out was corny or wooden. Tuesday was much the same. But then, on Wednesday, something happened. My imagination woke up, the cork came out of my word-bottle and the next thing you know I was writing about pirates-turned-gladiators-in-Hell and a prison where the inmates are encased in solid blocks composed of some – let me exercise some delicacy for once – especially unpleasant materials. I had action, sights, smells, characters, plot movement—joy! Thursday and Friday continued this happy pattern.

So what does this have to do with you, dear reader, who is perhaps, like me, a time-challenged part-time fictioneer?

Everything. Well, okay, a lot.

The one thing I did on each of this week’s five working days was sit down and bang out some fiction. Stinky, glorious, whatever its quality, I hammered on it. That happened for a few reasons, handily revealed by hindsight:

Habit. Over the last year-and-a-half or so, I’ve become accustomed to the routine of carving out about an hour or so five days a week to work on the not-so-great American novel. So part of getting through this last weird week was just reflex, one I’ve developed through some early discipline.

Big Picture. I kept reminding myself that this is the first draft. It’s okay for the first draft to be rough—okay, terrible—in places, or even all the way through. I’m just at step one of a lengthy, multi-step process.

Permission. I followed the advice of J. A. Konrath and gave myself permission to write crap. It never fails to surprise me how that little attitude adjustment will help you keep going.

Associative Causality. That sounds important, huh? Let’s say it again, together: “associative causality.” Ooooh. We are smart. Actually, I’m not smart enough to come up with a term to encapsulate the notion that because our thought processes proceed by associating one thing with another, that even crummy writing produces thoughts and ideas that eventually cause your brain to spit out something halfway decent. This is just a pompous, ten-dollar way of saying I realized that if I kept going, something good would happen. I just didn’t want to call it “optimism,” okay? Too cheer-leader-y.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. I hope it’s helpful. Good luck with your genies, folks.