Nora Webster, a new novel by Colm Toibin, doesn’t seem to follow the rules for novels. But, as the NY Times Book Review notes, this is a “deceptively quiet drama” that drew me in and forced me to keep reading to the end. In my recent reincarnation as a budding novelist, I have found myself analyzing other novels to see if they follow the path set by strict constructionists like K.M. Weiland and Larry Brooks.

If, at the surface, this novel is just “about” the life of a 40-something woman living in Ireland in the 1960’s going through the first years after the death of her husband, and not about some heroic journey or struggle, why did I like it so much and why did it keep me reading?

1. Nora Webster (the character) is appealing. I sympathized with her plight and wondered how I would respond to the death of a spouse. After the funeral, she must deal with nosy neighbors who come unannounced to offer sympathy but really to have someone to gossip about.

Nora also must deal with friends and relatives (including her own chidlren), who want to give her advice or criticize her decisions. Nora seems to be suggestible, making decisions without much thought. She is convinced by relatives to sell the family’s summer home. Although initially she doesn’t sound convinced, she makes an instant decision when she visits the place and realizes it will provide her with much-needed income.

Nora is also dealing with the memory of husband, who, she admits, was liked by everyone. Her family liked him more than her, and she must figure out new relationships with these people.

The NY Times book reviewer called her “icy” and says she is “distant and sealed off,” even with her children. This writer obviously has never had a spouse or loved one die. I that she was in shock and dealing with her grief, which left little room for her children.

Nora is forced to take a job, after she had loved being at home and married. Her situation sounded pretty awful to me, and she again gets swept along in events without much thought. I thought a number of times as i was reading this about the dictum, “Don’t make any big decisions for a year after a loss.”

Nora’s story ends three years later, when she seems finally to be coming out into the light after the darkness of her grief.

2. Nora’s story is interesting

Ever since I read Larry Brooks’ books (Story Engineering and Story Physics), I’ve tried to analyze novels for their structure. Every novel focused on a main character should have some kind of “hero’s journey,” either external or internal. In an internal struggle situation uch as this book, the character should show progress toward some kind of realization.

Nora’s struggle is quieter, as she tries to move forward day by day, dealing with family situations and work situations and financial situations. Her struggle did keep me reading, to find out what was going to happen to her and whether she was going to get her life together and become independent, if not entirely happy.

A novel should also have high points, “pivot points” as Larry Brooks calls them, at defined points throughout the novel. In the case of Nora Roberts (the character) the high points are not readily apparent. So I looked at the book and tried to find the 1st pivot point (at 25%) and the midpoint (at 50%) to see if the story structure was apparent.

The 1st pivot point comes as Nora and her sons visit her sister and her family. Nora asserts her independence by not going on the family outing and increasing the heat in the fireplace. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s a victory of sorts for Nora, who never has been assertive.

At the midpoint, Nora goes to a meeting of workers and votes for a union, without consulting anyone or thinking it over. It seems she is again asserting herself, making her own decisions, when in the past she would have asked the opinion of her husband and others. This decision ends up with some serious repercussions for Nora, as her employers find out about the union and are very upset.

As I said, there’s nothing terribly mysterious or suspenseful in this story. No dramatic ending, either. It’s just the quiet story of a woman. I think that’s why the author chose the name of the book, and why he refrained from another title.

So, can a quiet book that doesn’t have any particular drama make readers want to keep reading? Yes. Even though I recognized that Nora Webster wasn’t going to be plot driven, I was drawn into Nora’s life and wanted to know that she would survive, become stronger, and make a better life for herself.

Sometimes the exception is just an exception.

 

Read my Goodreads review of Nora Webster.

Tags: book review, Colm Toibin, K.M. Weiland, Larry Brooks, Nora Webster, NY Times Book Review, story structure

talent

H. Michael Karshis/flickr creative commons

Diana Gabaldon, author of the very famous – and lucrative – Outlander series of historical romance novels, said in a recent interview with Kirkus Reviews that she sold her first book before she was even finished writing it. Gabaldon said she sent her unfinished manuscript, through her agent, to five publishers, and her agent ended up negotiating with three of them. So was it her talent that got her this first publication? Or was it luck?

I don’t believe in luck. There’s no such thing.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: In my opinion, there’s no such thing as luck.

So if it wasn’t luck, was it talent? Or just good old fashioned hard work? Or maybe it was her ability to engage in “smart practice” – specific self-evaluation while doing her writing.

Over and over, I hear people say that you have to work hard, do the time, write-write-write. It’s the 10,000 hours thing, right? Well, not entirely. Malcolm Gladwell, who popularized the 10,000 hours concept, says in a recent Reddit AMA:

practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.

Note the conjunction of “natural ability” and a “huge investment of time.”

What about this “Natural Ability” Thing?

A recent article in The Atlantic, titled “Can Creativity Be Learned?” looks at some recent studies of creativity. On the one hand, it concludes, some individuals have “inherent neurological and personality traits” that make them creative. One study

found that highly creative individuals have more activity in the part of the brain containing the ability to make original associations, to blend information from various scenarios and experiences (known as “conceptual integration”), and to understand complex metaphors and comparisons.

This study concluded that the personality trait of “openness to experience” might make some individuals more creative. Another similar study concluded that

people who have brains that process information faster can also make more diverse connections and original associations, a hallmark of creativity

But, says the article, creativity can be learned or encouraged. You can actively build your tolerance to new experiences, as I’m doing with my trips abroad in the past few years.

What need to be “talented”? The Atlantic article suggests some factors contributing to creativity:

 

1.Time – maybe not 10,000 hours, but some time

2. Experience – of life? of hardship? of love?

3. Raw talent (the quick brain processing ability mentioned above), and

4. Openness to new experience.

5. To that I would add self-control, the ability to focus on a task.

Deep Work/Deliberate Practice

And this is where the concept of “deep work” or “deliberate practice” comes in.

Cal Newport  says that deep work is

cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.

How to work deliberately

The best place to start on your way to deliberate practice/deep work is to consider this article by Geoff Colvin, called “Talent is Overrated” (PDF version). I’ve done a detailed analysis of this article, and I’d like to suggest you do your own analysis, to think about how you can work more deliberately, to drive the process of “smart practice” in setting up your plan for writing success. His article is for all creative professionals, and it’s very important for writers.

Colvin provides details about how to make your practice smarter and more deliberate, before you do the work, while you are doing the work, and after you’ve done the work. At each level, it’s about understanding what you are doing and why, and being very specific about your goals and whether you’ve met them. Sure, it sounds like the familiar feedback loop, but it’s more detailed, more, well, deliberate.

The “price of top-level achievement is extraordinarily high,” Colvin concludes, which is why few make it. The most important take-away from this article, for me was the two questions Colvin asks at the end:

  • What do you really want?
  • What do you really believe? (About yourself and your potential)

Good questions to ponder for all writers. Even Diana Gabaldon. No matter how creative, how talented a writer you are, you’re going to have to work smart to achieve your goals. Every day.

Back to writing…

 

 

 

 

Tags: Cal Newport, deep work, deliberate practice, Diana Gabaldon, Geoff Colvin, smart practice, writing success, writing talent

How do you keep track of your writing production? You don’t? Should you?

I’ve been asking myself this question for a while now. It seemed to me that the effort of keeping track was just another time-waster, something else to distract me from my main job of in which the author showed how he keeps track of his writing output, on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis. I’m all about Excel worksheets and keeping track, so I thought I’d put together a writing “dashboard,” sort of showing myself the same thing.

Why Get and Use a Writing Tracker?

  • It engages your “habit circuitry” (Cal Newport). That is, it helps solidify and affirm the habit of writing.
  • It keeps you accountable to yourself. You know if you won’t work on your writing for a day, you’re going to see a big “O” for that day. And if you don’t make your word count, you won’t get to your goal for the month.
  • It helps you stay motivated. It’s fun to see your progress each day toward your goals.
  • And it might give you some ammunition some day if the IRS wants to know if you are a “real” writer. You can show them the spreadsheet so they can see you are taking this writing business seriously.

The Writing Tracker I Chose

Then I ran across Jamie Raintree’s website. She is the source of the writing progress spreadsheet I am using. I liked Jamie’s because it was easy, it gave me the flexibility to work on several projects at the same time, and I can see visually how my writing is progressing, both in the monthly calendar and the line graph. I can see the days I don’t work (note the “Out of Office” column, for a time when I was on a trip). I added the “notes “section at the bottom to remind myself what was going on. I don’t use it every day, just when I want to keep track of special projects.

The worksheet is set up for a year, with a tab for each month. This month, I worked for several days on an application for a writer’s workshop (Writers in Paradise, at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL, in January 2015).

If you are even mildly familiar with Excel, you can modify the tracker to fit your specific needs. If you aren’t Excel-worthy, you can just use the thing. It’s that easy. I added a writing goal for the month and used the running total so I could see how close I am to my goal for the month.

In case you are wondering, at this point I’m editing, not writing from scratch, so I use a rough estimate of word count, based on the time I’m working each day (an hour is roughly 1000 words).

If you want more information about Jamie’s writing progress spread, see this page from her website. She asks that you email her to request the file.

Which Writing Tracker Should I Use?

There are lots out there and most of them are free. Writers are great at sharing with one another. Find one that fits your needs and try it. If you don’t like it, try another one.

Here are some I found in a quick search:

  • Tia Ross has a bunch of writing progress trackers
  • iTunes has a WordTrack app you can download. This one tracks writing speed, which I’m not interested in.
  • NaNoWriMo has some word tracking spreadsheets. These are specifically to help you write 50,000 over the 30 days of November.
  • And, if you are using Scrivener, you can set daily writing goals, and track your overall progress toward your total writing goal for each project.

Tags: Jamie, nanowrimo, writing progress, writing tracker

I have done it twice now – and no more! What I did was to attend a writer’s workshop the wrong way. You know, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We say, “But this time it will be different.” No, it won’t.iStock_000039425412Small workshop

I have attended two writer’s workshops – once in Florida in January, and a second this past week in Iowa. In both cases, my mistake was not fully investing in the process and not taking advantage in all the workshop had to offer.

At the Florida workshop, I stayed with family, and tried to get to see family members while at the same time going to the writing sessions. I missed some good stuff that the workshop had to offer in addition to the workshopping sessions.

At the Iowa workshop this week, I decided since I was so close I would stay at home. Bad idea. I got entangled in stuff going on at home. I had to rush around to attend workshop sessions and then rush back home. I had to take a day off to do errands. Too much.

What I WILL do different next time: I will make sure I am fully present – both physically and mentally – for the workshop. I will stay at the workshop location and participate in as many activities as I can. After all, I paid for the whole package, so I should get my money’s worth.

Now, a little more about the workshops.

The Florida workshop was Writers in Paradise, the 10th annual version of an excellent writer’s workshop at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. I took a novel writing workshop with Ann Hood, who was fantastic. She gave us lots of general advice and, more important, she was able to home in on the key issue with each of our writing samples. And she nailed it every single time. I saw exactly what I needed to come home and give a fresh start to my novel. I took a giant leap ahead in my fiction writing skills, but I didn’t attend any of the readings or extra sessions. I left a lot of possibilities on the table.

The Iowa workshop was the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, which runs over several weeks, with different week-long or weekend-long workshops each session. I took a workshop on historical narrative with Margaret Patton Chapman. She included some “field trips” to see how to access research materials and incorporate them into a historical work, and she discussed “narrative distance” and voice in the historical novel.

Kristen Lamb says all writers should attend writer’s workshops, and I agree. She says:

A conference is our way of accepting the challenge and rising to the call. It means we are willing to invest in our dreams. We transition from a hobbyist to a professional. Professionals seek information, guidance and are unafraid to put their money where their mouth is.

In the end, after reviewing what I learned, I did come away from each workshop with new motivation, new insights, and new skills. But I could have formed more bonds with fellow writers, rubbed shoulders with agents (in the case of the Florida conference), and gained valuable insights.

Oh, well, better next time.

More on Attending a Writer’s Workshop

Here’s a list of writers conferences and workshops from NewPages

How many hours a day should a writer work? What’s too much (or is there such a thing?) What’s too little?

On the one hand…Deep Work and Flow

I’m a big fan of the concept of Flow, a concept that features in the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, I know that’s quite a name).  Flow is “optimal experience,” the time when you are most creative. It’s that time when you are so immersed in your work that time passes and you don’t realize it; it’s a time of deep involvement and enjoyment. For a quick overview of the concept of Flow, see the author’s TED talk.

A recent FastCompany article includes the concept of flow to show that an optimum number of hours of creative work should be about 5 hours a day. It’s about what Cal Newport calls deep work. Newport defines deep work as  “cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.”  Newport says we waste our creative time doing shallow work (like emails, blogging, etc.) when we should be doing deep work, to improve the value of our work, increase the volume, and create more satisfaction. He says skill trumps passion and the only way to get skilled is through deep work.

So, 5 hours a day?  Does that mean I’m not doing good work if I stop at 1000 words a day?

On the other hand…Write a Little a Day

Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” (Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen)

Stephen King (On Writing) tells fiction writers to aim for a target of 1,000 words a day, six days a week. Sounds good to me.

Leo Babauta at Zenhabits says that writing daily is life-changing. It clarifies your thinking, makes you a better writer, helps you break through writer’s block and come up with new ideas regularly.  encourages you to start small. Maybe that’s less than 1000 words. It doesn’t have to be 5 hours!

And Colin Nissan at McSweeney’s has an even better reason to write a little every day: It strengthens your writing muscles.

In conclusion – a balance

A little a day is what I can handle. 1000 words on one novel, some work on another. I have a life, even if I’m retired. But on some days, when I have time, I can set aside 5 hours or so and see what happens. Maybe a little a day PLUS some “deep work” days is the secret.

More on daily writing:  Daily Writing Tips

 

 

Tags: fiction writing, flow, Stephen King, Writing, writing advice, writing tips

Help me select a cover for my first novel, A Hill of Beans. iStock_000010235656Small book cover

I wanted a cover for my new novel for several reasons, but mostly because I want to use it as motivation to help me finish the book. I admit it – I need all the inspiration and push I can get. My plan is to print out the cover and use it as my desktop, and put it where I can see it every day.

Here’s how you can help:

Read about the book then click on the contest link and select the cover you like best.

About A Hill of Beans

The premise - An older woman survives the disaster that thrust the world back to the 18th century, only to confront an evil threatening her Midwest town.

Audrey Larkin, age 60 and retired, lives in a town in Iowa. In 2018 an EMP hits the town and who knows how much more of the U.S. (An EMP is an electro-magnetic pulse that wipes out all electricity and electronics and communications. It also stops water pumps, appliances … you get the idea.) No one knows how it happened or how long it will be until “the Grid” is restored. The town’s physical structures are left untouched, but many die in accidents during the initial blast and all must learn to survive without modern conveniences.

The story initially focuses on how Audrey, her husband Robert, and their neighbors and friends who must learn how to survive. As they work, they see strange things happening at the shelter across the street and the more Audrey and her friend Carla learn about the shelter’s director, the more concerned they become.

The title comes from a line in Casablanca:

Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

The phrase “a hill of beans,” has the meaning of “something of little importance.” I like the irony in this phrase, because it’s only by a few people taking on the issues in their own neighborhoods that this “crazy world” can be changed. Who knows what could be the large effect of small actions, like Rick’s sending Ilsa on the plane with her husband, or Audrey’s fight to free the people in the shelter from the evil that controls them?

Here is the link to the contest: 99designs contest: Cover for A Hill of Beans

In case you are curious about 99designs, they are an online site to allow individuals and companies to find designers by posting contests for artwork – for logos, t-shirts, web pages, mobile apps, advertisements, illustrations and more. I have worked with them on web design and other projects. Under their new format, you select the level of payment you want. I chose the lowest level, knowing I would still get good designers. The higher level of payment the more designers, and the more designs, you can attract.

After I got designs, I began rating them, communicating with designers collectively and individually, to clarify what I wanted. (“I don’t like the woman’s hair,” “Can you make the color brown for fall?” “This is a small town, not a big city.”)

You can guarantee the payment – or not. I waited until I saw that I had some acceptable designs, then guaranteed the contest. Designers like the guarantee, since they don’t want to put a lot of effort into a contest that may not pay anyone.

I had over 100 designs to choose from – some designers submitted multiple designs. I selected finalists and now I’m deciding on a winner. I like the timeline – it’s pretty tight, which is fine. Only a few days to collect initial designs, then more time to select a final winner. If you’re considering this, plan on spending an hour a day at least on communicating with designers during the initial phase. Then some time getting comments (as I’m doing) and deciding on the final design.

Thanks for participating. I would appreciate your comments on the novel, the title, and the quality of the designs.

 

 

Tags: book covers, book design, novel writing

I never realized how hard it is to do something creative, like write a novel. Every day is a battle to get going and stay focused and keep butt in chair and make stuff come out on the computer or on paper.

One of the biggest helps to me in this endeavor has been Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art. And it truly is a war, that must be fought and won every day.

I recently viewed an interview by Joanna Penn with Steven Pressfield about mental toughness and overcoming resistance. It’s worth watching, to get a sense of what Pressfield’s message.

The War of Art is in 3 parts – Part 1 describes what Pressfield calls “the Resistance.”  He makes the Resistance sound like some malevolent, evil force in the universe. Well, maybe, but I think he’s exaggerating to make his point.samurai iStock_000014210757XSmall

The third section is the good forces, Angels, that guide us on our way. He talks about God and the Universe.

Pressman’s stuff sounds like The Secret, which was popular back a few years. It is the kind of stuff that allows people to believe that if you think about getting that parking spot at work, you’ll drive into the lot and it will be there.

I don’t think it’s that big or that personal. It sounds more to me like the endorphins, the natural high we get when we exercise or make love, or do a number of other things.

But if it helps me or you get to work, that’s great. That’s his point.

The second section is about being on the job, being a professional, getting to work as if this were a job where you had to work to get paid. Well, you do. So just get to work. Whatever thought games you have to play with yourself. As Nike says, “Just Do It.”

I prefer Yoda’s essential bit of wisdom: “Do or do not. There is no try.”yoda iStock_000021310564XSmall
Actually, Pressman sounds a bit like Yoda. All the stuff about “the Force.” But then this stuff is basic, universal.

Read Pressman but don’t get too hung upon the details. Feel the Force (the Angels, or whatever you want to call them), resist the Dark Side (the Resistance) and just get to work on your writing, or whatever it is you want to do.

 

Chillihead – Flickr Creative Commons

I love discovering new poets. The poetry I enjoy tends to be reflective, not love poems but about life and nature and the nature of life. I want poetry to (a) heighten my emotions, and (b) make me think. Sounds contradictory, doesn’t it?

Two simple ways poetry can help your fiction writing: (1) Use of poems or lines from poems in the introduction or chapter headings of your novels, and (2) Use of poems to find a title for your novels. Shakespeare’s poems – and plays are especially good for this, as is the Bible.

But the best way poetry helps fiction writers is in improving writing.

Even the simplest poems, like this one, can bring strong images to writing:

 In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

What a beautiful, haunting image this is.

I began looking at poetry as a way to write better when I realized I was writing fiction like non-fiction. For over 30 years, I’ve been writing manuals and how-to books to help people start and run small businesses.For example, from my current work-in-progress, The Thriving Writer:
Brand recognition is important and writers need that recognition as much as companies selling commercial products or services. James Patterson might be able to get away with not having a recognizable logo, but many writers have “branded” themselves in some way. As difficult as it is to come up with the perfect name, it’s even more difficult for many people to choose a logo that perfectly exemplifies their business.  I’ve seen business people muddle over pages of logos with subtle differences, attempting to find THE ONE.  Of course, like the name, the choice of a logo is one that stays with you for a very long time.  Many of the same considerations apply to logos as to business names.
Pretty dry stuff. So I started gathering up poetry books, discovering new poets, and learning how to write with more imagery and subtlety of language, to make my novels less like how-to manuals and more poetic.
Jolene Paternoster says, “Fiction writers can look to poetry for original and beautiful descriptions of everyday happenings and objects.” That’s true. That’s what I’m trying to do.
And Bob Stallworthy says, “Good fiction, just like good poetry, has a lot to do with using precisely the right word in the right place in the line. And, …when we get this right we get the image we want that makes the reader say, “Wow! I never thought of it like that before.” Isn’t that what we, as writers, want?
While I agree with Bob, I think what we fiction writers want is for the language to be unnoticed but effective, so it doesn’t overpower the story. Like a little hot sauce – but not too much – in a fantastic Ultimate Grilled Cheese sandwich.
An example of beautiful poetic fiction writing, in one of my all-time favorite books: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. The author started out in computer science (talk about dry!) and got an MFA and went on to write this extraordinary novel. (I gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads, something I almost never do.)

Here’s a sample:

This will be his earliest memory.
Red light, morning light. High ceiling canted overhead. Lazy click of toenails on wood. Between the honey-colored slats of the crib a whiskery muzzle slides forward until its cheeks pull back and a row of dainty front teeth bare themselves in a ridiculous grin.
The nose quivers. The velvet snout dimples.
All the house is quiet. Be still. Stay still.
A perfect example of “show, don’t tell” in lovely language.
So, I’m reading Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Stanley Kunitz, Yeats, (notice the Irish poets, please), Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and more, as I get the chance.
Some more recent additions to my list of favorite poets:
Robinson Jeffers. Example: The Place for No Story.
Loren Eisley. All the Night Wings (book)
Theodore Roethke Night Journey
Onward and upward.
A recent article in the New York Times about “Poetry – Who Needs It?”

In a Station of the Metro

by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

– See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15421#sthash.q8yefZgi.dpuf

Tags: fiction writing, Ireland, national poetry month, novel writing, poems, poety, writing tips

It depends on how you look at it. I’ve found two ways to get started writing again on my novel. Unfortunately, neither actually involves writing the novel. They both involve getting deeper into the novel and working out structure. Both have helped me work out issues and settle questions I had in my mind, and both have given me a mental boost to start writing again.

I finished my first – really awful – draft, went to a writer’s workshop, read some books on writing, and I’m now taking a course on storytelling. In the process, I have re-started my novel, working on a second draft. But some suggestions in the writing course and the workshop got me working on my novel again. Although they took some time – several days on each – I have been able to use them to begin working more confidently on my novel, knowing where the story is going and where it will end up.

I made up both of these, but they might be out there somewhere, in a similar form and I know other people have different ways of doing this (note cards, posters, etc.). There’s nothing new under the sun, after all.

1. The Story table. I created a simple table in Word. My purpose was to see things in parallel – the outer journey (plot) of the book and the inner journey of the main character. After I started, I added the inner journey of what was going on with the antagonist and the descriptions and events for the other main characters, including character arcs for some of them. Then I added sub-plots, and “breadcrumbs” (those hints that will be needed at the end).

The headings for the columns in the table are:

Structure: The basic story diagram (from The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages) of rising action, plot points, to climax and falling action.

* Storyline: Next to the structure, what’s happening when, by days and times. The plot points on the first column are next to the events at those points.

* Timeline/history. What’s happening in the outside world each day of the story. The timeline/history has been created (see below).

* Protagonist - internal – character arc. What’s happening with the protagonist; what she is feeling, thinking, how her character is developing.

* Sub-plots. What’s going on with other characters who are important to the story.

* Antagonist. What’s going on at each point with the antagonist, relative to each point in the story.

* Breadcrumbs. Points at which I need to insert specific facts which will be needed later.

2. History/timeline. This document was developed from a suggestion at the writing workshop that I needed to set up the “rules” for the world I was creating. I want to write historical fiction, so it made sense to do this. It would work well for all types of fiction, though, as the author is creating a world that may differ in small or large dimensions from the world we actually live in. To think of it another way, the world appears differently to each of us, so the author can create the world in his or her own image.

This document is a detailed description of the world of the story, before the story starts and during the timeline of the story. No individuals are mentioned, but events are described in detail, along with situations and facts about the various areas of the city. For each day, the weather and other natural phenomena (eclipses, for example) are described.

For example,

Timeline/History

 Falls River, Iowa ,is a small city of about 100,000 people, with a county of about 150,000 people. People outside of the town, in the county, live in various small communities. The smaller communities are largely farming – corn and soybeans and some cattle and pigs. The city is on the Dover River.

 Day 1: September 19, 2018.
     The day was clear and sunny, an early fall day. The temperature was about 64 at 10 a.m. The high for the day was 71, falling to 55 at 10 p.m.

The electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) was detonated at 10,000 feet in the atmosphere at 10:20 a.m. on Wednesday, September 19, 2018, over Kansas. The blast immediately wiped out all electronic devices and the electrical grid of most of the U.S. (except California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii, and the western parts of Nevada.)  

No cars made after the 1970s were able to run because of their computer circuitry. Older cars would run, but it would be difficult to find gas for them because gas station pumps were not working and no gasoline trucks could deliver more gas.

Phones and cell phones, portable devices, tablets, and computers would not operate once they ran out of batteries. No satellite service was available and no Wi-Fi networks would work because routers running on electricity were inoperable…..

How my “writing tools” have helped me with my draft:

1. The story table helped me figure out where the plot points should occur, the character arcs of the protagonist and other major characters, how tension needs to build through the novel, how the sub-plots fit in, and how/when breadcrumbs might fit in. It sounds like a lot of work – and it was – but I’m moving ahead more confidently now, and having the outline in my head and on paper is immensely helpful in letting me be free to write instead of worrying about where I’m going.

2. The history/timeline made me spot inconsistencies in what was going on in the story and in the greater world. It also gave me some ways to bring in information to my characters, who were shut off from the world. It was fun to write the history, and I was finding some creative ways to add to the story. I might not use much of this, but it is important to know more than you put into a story.

With all this work, it’s taken me about a week, but I think it’s been helpful. Or have I just been procrastinating? What do you think?

Tags: character arc, historical fiction, novel writing, plot structure, writers outline, writing fiction, writing tips

House of Cards Opening Sequence (LINK)

Image via Manybits – Flickr Creative Commons

I just finished watching all 13 episodes of House of Cards, the second season. Wow! I reserve my superlatives for only the best, and this is it.  I give it 10 stars! But as I was caught up in the drama, I reflected on what the writers were doing and I could see lots of value for my own novel writing efforts.

Netflix just released the entire 13 episodes of the second season of House of Cards. The story focuses on Congressman Frank Underwood and his wife Claire. At the beginning of the first season Frank was denied the Secretary of State post he wanted in the new administration, and he sets out to get revenge on the president he worked to elect. Claire helps him and they have trusted allies and enemies. While I don’t want to give away all the plot twists, I can give you some general idea of some of the learning moments I experienced.

What I learned from watching House of Cards:

1. Less is More. Subtle and understated is better. A few words go a long way. In one scene, a man is about to do something and he looks at his fiance and asks, “You think I’m weak, don’t you?” She says nothing. Very understated, but you get the message. It’s left to the viewer to decide. A few lines of dialogue with interruptions are enough to show us the tension between two of Frank’s staffers. We don’t need to be hit over the head with the message.

2. Breadcrumbs are teasers. Speaking of little hints, I love the breadcrumbs, little bits of scenes that give the reader an idea of something to come. Showing someone with a gun sets up tension in the reader’s mind. The reader wants to know, expects to know what is going to happen. House of Cards does this brilliantly.

Characters get texts or phone calls and you’re not sure what they were about, but they are explained later. Or someone is in a scene and someone else is watching them but we don’t know who or why.

These breadcrumbs keep us interested, as do asides in a novel or information we don’t know that we need. Just make sure the breadcrumbs amount to something later. This is the concept that, if you show a gun in the first scene, it must be used before the end of the book. Don’t tease readers without following through.

3. Characters are multifaceted. Frank and Claire Underwood are pretty bad people – or are they? We see them doing some bad things, but we also see them in some tender scenes together and we see them thinking about and doing some pretty touching things. That makes them human, and believable. Frank develops a new hobby based on his interest in the Civil War and his family’s history, and some of the pain in Claire’s past is revealed. This pain also shows us more about the relationship between Claire and Frank, which is complex and therefore interesting.

Ruth Rendell, mystery and psychological thriller author, says, “I try, and I think I succeed, in making my readers feel sorry for my psychopaths, because I do.” The House of Cards writers have this figured out too.

4. Symbolism shows. Instead of telling us how Frank feels about his Southern roots, we see a symbolic gesture in what he does with a ring. A pair of cufflinks provides a moment of humor, but also a way to understand the relationship between Frank and another character. A birthday cake and how both Frank and Claire react to it shows more about their relationship.

5. Leave ‘em guessing. Every scene, every chapter, in House of Cards has some tension at the end, something shocking, something unanswered, or some thought that leaves the reader on the edge of her seat. In a novel, even works that are not mystery or suspense, you can end scenes and especially chapters with danglers.

The end of the season included a major plot resolution, but left lots of hanging questions that will – I hope – be resolved next season. I don’t like major cliffhangers at the end of a season or a novel because I think that’s unfair to readers, but a little mystery at the end of a novel is okay – it makes readers want to read the next one but doesn’t torture them for a year or more.

 

Tags: House of Cards, Kevin Spacey, Netflix, novel writing, writing fiction, writing tips

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