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Posts tagged ‘novels’

Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk: Your elusive creative genius

For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, TED talks are delivered at a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading”.  TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design.  Past presenters include Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, and Bill Gates, to name a few.

I love this talk on nurturing creativity delivered by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love in 2009.  Enjoy and happy writing with your elusive creative genius.

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Debut Novels on my list for May/June

It’s that time again.  Time for my list of top five debut novels coming out in May/June.  This month we have a diverse group of books ranging from historical fiction, to fantasy, to a cross-cultural story of immigration and displacement, and finally, a genre-bending graphic novel.  Hopefully you’ll discover something new to add to your reading list this month.  Happy reading and happy writing!

Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani

A lush, sexy, evocative debut novel of family secrets and girls’-school rituals, set in the 1930s South.  It is 1930, the midst of the Great Depression. After her mysterious role in a family tragedy, passionate, strong-willed Thea Atwell, age fifteen, has been cast out of her Florida home, exiled to an equestrienne boarding school for Southern debutantes. High in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its complex social strata ordered by money, beauty, and girls’ friendships, the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a far remove from the free-roaming, dreamlike childhood Thea shared with her twin brother on their family’s citrus farm—a world now partially shattered. As Thea grapples with her responsibility for the events of the past year that led her here, she finds herself enmeshed in a new order, one that will change her sense of what is possible for herself, her family, her country.

Weaving provocatively between home and school, the narrative powerfully unfurls the true story behind Thea’s expulsion from her family, but it isn’t long before the mystery of her past is rivaled by the question of how it will shape her future. Part scandalous love story, part heartbreaking family drama, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is an immersive, transporting page-turner—a vivid, propulsive novel about sex, love, family, money, class, home, and horses, all set against the ominous threat of the Depression—and the major debut of an important new writer.

Named a most anticipated book for Summer 2013 by The Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly

The Blood of Heaven

The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom

One of the most powerful and impressive debuts Grove/Atlantic has ever published, The Blood of Heaven is an epic novel about the American frontier in the early days of the nineteenth century. Its twenty-six-year-old author, Kent Wascom, was awarded the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Prize for fiction, and this first novel shows the kind of talent rarely seen in any novelist, no matter their age.

The Blood of Heaven is the story of Angel Woolsack, a preacher’s son, who flees the hardscrabble life of his itinerant father, falls in with a charismatic highwayman, then settles with his adopted brothers on the rough frontier of West Florida, where American settlers are carving their place out of lands held by the Spaniards and the French. The novel moves from the bordellos of Natchez, where Angel meets his love Red Kate to the Mississippi River plantations, where the brutal system of slave labor is creating fantastic wealth along with terrible suffering, and finally to the back rooms of New Orleans among schemers, dreamers, and would-be revolutionaries plotting to break away from the young United States and create a new country under the leadership of the renegade founding father Aaron Burr.

The Blood of Heaven is a remarkable portrait of a young man seizing his place in a violent new world, a moving love story, and a vivid tale of ambition and political machinations that brilliantly captures the energy and wildness of a young America where anything was possible. It is a startling debut.

The Oathbreaker's Shadow

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow by Amy McCulloch

In the world of fifteen-year-old Raim, you tie a knot for every promise you make. Break that promise and the knot will burst into flames, scarring your skin and forever marking you as an oathbreaker. Raim has worn a simple knot around his wrist for as long as he can remember. No one seems to know where it came from or which promise it symbolizes, and Raim barely thinks about it at all–especially not since he became the most promising young fighter ever to train for the elite Yun guard. But on the day that he binds his life to that of his best friend (and the future king), Khareh, the rope ignites and sears a dark mark into his skin. Scarred now as an oathbreaker, Raim has two options: run or be killed. He chooses to run, taking refuge in the vast desert among a colony of exiled oathbreakers. Will he be able to learn the skills he needs to clear his name? And even if he can, how can he keep a promise he never knew he made in the first place?

We Need New Names

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Darling is only 10 years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo’s belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad.

But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America’s famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut calls to mind the great storytellers of displacement and arrival who have come before her–from Zadie Smith to Monica Ali to J.M. Coetzee–while she tells a vivid, raw story all her own.

NewSchool

New School by Dash Shaw (Note: This is not a debut novel.  Shaw wrote Bottomless Belly Button and BodyWorld.  Just a June release that I’m excited to read.)

In Dash Shaw’s new, full-color original graphic novel, a boy goes to seek his brother on a theme-park island.

In this brand new graphic novel from the acclaimed author of Bottomless Belly Button and BodyWorld, Dash Shaw dramatizes the story of a boy moving to an exotic country and his infatuation with an unfamiliar culture that quickly shifts to disillusionment. A sense of “being different” grows to alienation, until he angrily blames this once-enchanting land for his feelings of isolation. All of this is told through the fantastical eyes of young Danny, a boy growing up in the ’90s fed on dramatic adventure stories like Jurassic Park and X-Men. Danny’s older brother, Luke, travels to a remote island to teach English to the employees of ClockWorld, an ambitious new amusement park that recreates historical events. When Luke doesn’t return after two years, Danny travels to ClockWorld to convince Luke to return to America. But Luke has made a new life, new family, and even a new personality for himself on ClockWorld, rendering him almost unrecognizable to his own brother. Danny comes of age as he explores the island, ClockWorld, and fights to bring his brother home. New School is unlike anything in the history of the comics medium: at once funny and deadly serious, easily readable while wildly artistic, personal and political, familiar and completely new. Full-color illustrations throughout

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Writing and Memorial Day

Memorial Day Flags

Memorial Day for many means a day off of work or school, backyard barbeques with friends and summer just around the corner.  It is all of those things, but this annual federal holiday means so much more, too.

Memorial Day is a day of remembering.  A day to remember the men and women who died while serving in the US Armed Forces. It was formerly known as Decoration Day, which originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. By the 20th century, Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service.

Yesterday, while driving past a cemetery packed with people placing flags into the ground near headstones, I explained to my two boys (aged 8 and 5) the meaning of Memorial Day.  We talked about their relatives and friends (some distant and some immediate) who served or serve in the armed forces. We talked about war—and the shades of grey which color our government’s decisions regarding our freedom and our country’s role in the world.

As my little guys processed this complicated information, I was reminded of a conversation with my oldest.  His elementary school annually participates in the One School One Book program. The book for 2012 was Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.  This book is beautifully written and deals with complicated subjects like divorce, alcoholism and war.  It was a mature book for my first grader to process, but it provided excellent fodder for family conversations about our world.

In the book, the main character, Opal, befriends the town’s librarian who shares great stories about her past, including a tale about her great-grandfather, whose family members died while he fought for the South in the Civil War. Grief-stricken after his return from battle, he decided he wanted to live the remainder of his life filled with sweetness. Thus, he invented Littmus Lozenge candies that tasted like a combination of root beer and strawberry with a secret ingredient mixed in—sorrow—which makes anyone who tastes it taste sorrow.

I will never forget my seven-year old staring up at me with big eyes and saying, “That’s how I feel, Mommy.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“When you explained war to us. And when you were talking about the hard decisions that the President has to make. I felt like I was eating those lozenges.  I tasted sorrow when you talked about that.”

Wow!  From the mouths of babes, right?  This, my friends, is the power of literature.  It is why I read and why I write.

Saturday’s post contained a quote by English playwright and screenwriter, Alan Bennett.

The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is.  Set down by someone else. A person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

This was the case for my son.  Across miles and pages, Kate DiCamillo had taken his hand.  Yesterday as he sat with his face pushed against the car window watching those people adorn the cemetery with flags, he was sucking on one of those Littmus Lozenges again.  He didn’t say anything, just nodded and listened.  But I could tell that Memorial Day was a palpable concept for him. Thanks to Kate DiCamillo, my son could taste the sweet and the sorrow.  Thanks to great writing, he could put words to his complicated emotions.

So while I’m cranking out my own words this morning and then enjoying some laughs at our neighborhood cookout, I’ll be sucking on one of those lozenges too.  And I’ll have Kate DiCamillo and thousands of other writers to thank for helping me find the words to describe life’s complicated emotions.  Happy Memorial Day to you.  I hope you taste the sweet and the sorrow.

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The Best Moments (as a Reader and a Writer)

This happens to me all the time. It gives meaning to reading, writing and life…

The Best Moments

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Debut Novels on my list for September

It’s that time again.  Time for the list of September debut novels about which I’m excited.  This month we have four stories about war, families and even Hollywood ingenues.  Hopefully you’ll discover something new to add to your reading list this month.  Happy reading and happy writing!

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets by Kathleen Alcott

Ida grew up with Jackson and James—where there was “I” there was a “J.” She can’t recall a time when she didn’t have them around, whether in their early days camping out in the boys’ room decorated with circus scenes or later drinking on rooftops as teenagers. While the world outside saw them as neighbors and friends, to each other the three formed a family unit—two brothers and a sister—not drawn from blood, but drawn from a deep need to fill a void in their single parent households. Theirs was a relationship of communication without speaking, of understanding without judgment, of intimacy without rules and limits.

But as the three of them mature and emotions become more complex, Ida and Jackson find themselves more than just siblings. When Jackson’s somnambulism produces violent outbursts and James is hospitalized, Ida is paralyzed by the events that threaten to shatter her family and put it beyond her reach. Kathleen Alcott’s striking debut, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, is an emotional, deeply layered love story that explores the dynamics of family when it defies bloodlines and societal conventions.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

“The war tried to kill us in the spring.” So begins this powerful account of friendship and loss. In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city. Bound together since basic training when Bartle makes a promise to bring Murphy safely home, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for.

In the endless days that follow, the two young soldiers do everything to protect each other from the forces that press in on every side: the insurgents, physical fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from constant danger. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him and Bartle takes actions he could never have imagined.

With profound emotional insight, especially into the effects of a hidden war on mothers and families at home, The Yellow Birds is a groundbreaking novel that is destined to become a classic.

The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

Yael, Avishag, and Lea grow up together in a tiny, dusty Israeli village, attending a high school made up of caravan classrooms, passing notes to each other to alleviate the universal boredom of teenage life. When they are conscripted into the army, their lives change in unpredictable ways, influencing the women they become and the friendship that they struggle to sustain. Yael trains marksmen and flirts with boys. Avishag stands guard, watching refugees throw themselves at barbed-wire fences. Lea, posted at a checkpoint, imagines the stories behind the familiar faces that pass by her day after day. They gossip about boys and whisper of an ever more violent world just beyond view. They drill, constantly, for a moment that may never come. They live inside that single, intense second just before danger erupts.

In a relentlessly energetic voice marked by caustic humor and fierce intelligence, Shani Boianjiu creates a heightened reality that recalls our most celebrated chroniclers of war and the military, while capturing that unique time in a young woman’s life when a single moment can change everything.

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

In 1920, Elsa Emerson, the youngest and blondest of three sisters, is born in idyllic Door County, Wisconsin. Her family owns the Cherry County Playhouse, and more than anything, Elsa relishes appearing onstage, where she soaks up the approval of her father and the embrace of the audience. But when tragedy strikes her family, her acting becomes more than a child¹s game of pretend.

While still in her teens, Elsa marries and flees to Los Angeles. There she is discovered by Irving Green, one of the most powerful executives in Hollywood, who refashions her as a serious, exotic brunette and renames her Laura Lamont. Irving becomes Laura’s great love; she becomes an Academy Award­-winning actress—and a genuine movie star. Laura experiences all the glamour and extravagance of the heady pinnacle of stardom in the studio-system era, but ultimately her story is a timeless one of a woman trying to balance career, family, and personal happiness, all while remaining true to herself.

Ambitious and richly imagined, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is as intimate—and as bigger-than-life—as the great films of the golden age of Hollywood. Written with warmth and verve, it confirms Emma Straub’s reputation as one of the most exciting new talents in fiction.
What about you?  Do you know of any September debuts I should add to my list?

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Words of Inspiration for Writers

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it. – ERNEST HEMINGWAY

 

Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing. – NORMAN MAILER

 

Any man who can write a page of living prose adds something to our life, and the man who can, as I can, is surely the last to resent someone who can do it even better. An artist cannot deny art, nor would he want to. A lover cannot deny love.  – RAYMOND CHANDLER

 

I love being a writer, what I can’t stand is the paperwork.  – PETER DE VRIES

 

You can never correct your work well until you have forgotten it. – VOLTAIRE

 

Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven. – WALTER BENJAMIN

The Characters – Create a visual library to get to know your characters: Novel Writing Prep Series

Sometimes no matter how much time you spend getting to know your characters, a picture is worth a thousand words.  Pardon the cliche, but it’s fitting for this topic.  I can spend hours creating detailed character outlines, but sometimes I don’t feel like I truly know my characters until I find a picture that speaks to me.  As authors we spend a lot of time focusing on the internal characteristics of our characters.  Are they responsible? What makes them angry?  Does he/she have any physical or speech tics? How will we break through her facade of selfish boorishness and get to the insecure little girl inside?

I often forget to think about my characters’ physical appearance.  So, I spend some time with my favorite friend, the internet, until I track down some pictures that speak to me.  And then I save these images to my character sheets.  Eventually I end up with something like this:

This collage offers a glimpse at some of the characters in my historical fiction novel.  I print this out and hang it above my desk while I’m working.  I have one of these for every work in progress.  It isn’t always the physical appearance that speaks to me.  Although I must say that my character Konrad is the spitting image of Harvey Keitel.  The minute I created that character, Keitel popped into my brain.  My character of Tom, however, doesn’t look exactly like Matthew Modine (circa 1995), but there’s something about Modine’s expression in this photo that pulls me right into the seriousness and intensity of my character Tom.

Per usual, an activity like this needs to be limited.  The internet, as we all know, can be a time suck for authors.  I usually give myself a day.  I surf with wild abandon looking for just the right photo for each character.  At the end of the day I usually have a fairly good stack of images to sort.  I put them together in pairs.  Do Ivy (my MC) and her best friend look too much alike or do they offer up a visual contrast?  Is there any resemblance between Ivy and her parents or have I created an adoptive family rather than a family of blood relations?  I rework my choices until I’m comfortable with the combinations.

Then I answer one question about each of the final photo choices.  “What is it about this photo that represents my character?”  The answer to this question may be simple.  In the case of Konrad, the answer is, “He looks exactly like Harvey Keitel.”  In the case of Tom it might be, “Matthew Modine’s angular chin and the faraway look in his eyes make me think of Tom.”  These sentences are often very revealing.  Until I defined the reason for my photo choice, I didn’t realize that the faraway look was important to Tom’s characterization.  This exercise often reveals personality traits that are important to my character’s underlying motivations.

Once I have those images staring down at me, the hard part begins – weaving the physical attributes of my characters into my writing. It’s tough to describe the curly mass of hair on Natasha Lyonne’s head (bottom row center) without sounding cliche or slowing down the pace of the story.  We’ll talk more about this in another post.  But for now here is a wonderful article about describing your characters’ physical attributes.  For now, I’m off to work on my WIP’s character collage.  Happy writing!

P.S. Sometimes I see people on the street who are the epitome of my characters.  Just yesterday, there was a high school-ish girl walking into the grocery store with pink flannel house slippers and long dark hair with a blond streaky feather woven in.  The way she tossed her hair and slouched along in her slippers would be perfect for a character in my WIP.  I thought about pulling out my cell phone and stealthily snapping a photo of the girl.  But then my level-head get the best of me.  How would it look if the 30-something mom who was hanging out in her car in the grocery store parking lot was snapping photos of the high schoolers on their lunch break.  Hmmm…  not good.  I put down the phone and today, I’ll spend some time searching for a photo online that might replicate the look of my local teenager.  Or maybe I’ll get brave and try to draw her picture.

What about you?  Have you ever created a collage of images to get to know your characters?

Words of Inspiration for Writers

Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he’ll eventually make some kind of career for himself as writer. – RAY BRADBURY

 

The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home. – JOHN CAMPBELL

 

Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any. – ORSON SCOTT CARD

 

Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it… – MICHAEL CRICHTON

 

One of my standard — and fairly true — responses to the question as to how story ideas come to me is that story ideas only come to me for short stories. With longer fiction, it is a character (or characters) coming to visit, and I am then obliged to collaborate with him/her/it/them in creating the story. – ROGER ZELAZNY

Using Scrivener to Write a Novel

** I’m hosting a Scrivener giveaway.  You might want to check out the giveaway post and enter to win your own copy of Scrivener. The contest closes on Wednesday, February 22 at 8 PM MST. **

When I’m drafting my fiction or my long non-fiction projects, my go-to software is Scrivener*.  Let me preface this discussion by saying that I’m not perked in any way and I don’t receive any freebies from the people over at Literature and Latte, the company that created Scrivener.  I plunked down my own $40US (very reasonable in my opinion) to buy my own version of the program just like the rest of the world.  So no freebies – I just love the program, because it has brought a new level of organization to my writing life.

For a long time Scrivener was only available for Macs, and believe me I didn’t need yet another excuse to buy a Mac.  However, I use a PC and in early 2012, Literature and Latte finally released a full-version of the program for PCs.  You can bet I jumped on board.  Here are the top five reasons why:

1.  Brainstorming with the Corkboard: When I’m brainstorming for a novel, I have a million ideas jotted down on napkins, notebook, iPhone notes, etc.  Scrivener gives me one place to store all of them.  We’ve already established that I’m a visual person (I love Pinterest).  Scrivener’s corkboard gives me a visual way to see and rearrange my scenes and ideas.  I can include notecards, photos and sound clips, and rearrange them to my liking.

2.   Writing Templates: Scrivener comes with writing templates built in.  When I start a new project, I can easily pull up a template for a novel, short story, research proposal or screenplay, and be ready to roll in minutes.  You can even create a file of your recipes using Scrivener’s templates.

My favorite part is the ability to customize my own template.  Yesterday we talked about the 4-part structure which many people use when drafting a novel.  I’ve created my own 4-part Template complete with notes by famous writing craft-gods (like Larry Brooks and Anne Greenwood Brown) to give me reminders of things to think about when I’m drafting my scenes.  I also included templates for characters sketches, sheets on which I can trace my character’s arcs, and even a place for setting descriptions.

3.   Scene Ideas and Keywords: Do you ever have a brilliant idea for a scene, but you don’t know where it will fit in your story? In the Novel Template I created, I have a folder for Scene Ideas.  The folder has two sections: “Ideas to Be Placed” and “Ideas Not Placed.”  The Ideas to Be Placed are scenes that I know will appear in the story at some point.  I just don’t know when and where when I come up with the idea.  The Ideas Not Placed is the folder where I dump all of the other scene brainstorming that doesn’t make the final cut of the novel.  These scenes are sometimes useful during rewrites, might make their way into another book, or might never see the light of day beyond the “Ideas Not Placed” folder.  I can code the cards with keywords (which appear as color bars on the side of the notecards) so that when I’m searching for that perfect scene I dreamt about three weeks ago which applies to the romantic sub-plot, I can sort by keyword and instantly find the notes.

4.  Scene Manipulation: Let’s take the organizational function a step further.  Let’s say your scene ideas are fully fleshed out.  You’ve been hopping around, writing scenes that appeal to you when inspiration strikes – rather than writing in order.  It’s time to place one of your “homeless” scenes.  Open your Scene Ideas folder and drag the appropriate card to the right Chapter folder.  Rearrange your Chapter cards until the scene is in just the right place.  The brilliant part?  Scrivener reorders your manuscript for you.  If you were to print the manuscript, the new scene would appear right where you put it.  No cutting and pasting.  No copying and then hunting for the right spot in your 200-page manuscript to insert the new scene.  Drag and drop the card and the entire scene appears in the right spot.

5.  Research: I love Evernote and Pinterest and my Internet Explorer Favorites folder, but it’s tough to toggle back and forth between five things to find just the right fact or figure.  That’s where the Scrivener Research folder is helpful.  I can save images, PDF files, movies, web pages, sound files—right inside Scrivener.  The split screen option allows me to look at one file while typing in my manuscript simultaneously.  This was hugely helpful when I transcribed hours of interviews for my non-fiction book last summer.

I even have a Scrivener Project file for my Writing Project ideas.  It contains folders for Long Fiction, Short Fiction, Theatre, Children’s Fiction, Articles and Non-Fiction.  This is where I store all of my notes and ideas when I’m in the thick of a project.  Never fail, you’re hard at work on Draft #2 of a magazine article, and an idea for a new novel pops into your head.  I open the Long Fiction folder and start a new file for the novel idea.  I can spend 15 minutes jotting down notes and saving some research links, and I know it will all be waiting for me when my work in progress is complete.

If you haven’t tried Scrivener, Literature and Latte has a free 30-day trial.  Feel free to download my 4-Part Novel Template.  It might just give you the push you need to finish that novel you’ve been dreaming about or reignite your enthusiasm for a floundering project.

FYI – There are a few other free templates (here and here) out there for Scrivener.  One even uses the 4-part structure. Mine is a little different because it includes lots of writing tips from professional writers who are also craft gurus.  It also includes different scene cards, notes on scene development, etc.  Pick and choose the one that works best for you.  Or better yet, create your own to fit your writing style and brainstorming needs.

Click here to download the Scrivener Template zip file. You’ll be prompted to save the file.  Save the Zip file to your desktop or another convenient spot.  Unzip the file and copy the entire folder to the same location.  You must own a copy of Scrivener or have the free trial version to use the template file.

Open Scrivener –> File –> Open –> Open the Folder “Novel STM 4-Part Template.scriv” –> Open “project”.

Once the project is open, you can save it as a reusable template.

File –> Save as Template –> Name the file “Novel STM 4-Part” –> Select Category “Fiction” –> Click OK.

The next time you start a New Project, the template will appear on your list of template choices. Be sure to spend some time playing around in the template.  Expand all of the folders to see the built in options I’ve created (scenes, character sheets, plot point cards, writing tips, etc.)

Hopefully Scrivener will bring you as much joy and organization as it has for me.  Happy writing!

*Some images in this post are from the Literature and Latte website to illustrate the features of Scrivener.

The Roots – Determining the structure of your novel: Novel Writing Prep-Series

Whether you are a planner or a pantser, you’re going to need a few key elements to make your novel successful.  Like it or not, every story has a structure.  It may take multiple drafts to find these elements, or it may take some careful planning up front. Either way, the elements of a good story establish the stakes (what your main character has to lose), build tension, force your main character to change in some way (character arc) and take your reader on the vicarious journey you’ve promised them.

Everyone calls this structure something different.  Some will talk about the 5-part narrative structure.

Rumor has it that this pyramid was created by German playwright Gustav Freytag in the late 1800s. Freytag identified a five act structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement.  This structure was in use long before Freytag formalized it in 1863.  In fact, Freytag’s analysis was created to explain the structure of the Greek tragedies and Shakespearean drama.

Here’s a brief explanation of the five parts of the pyramid:

  1. Exposition or Introduction: The exposition provides the background information needed to properly understand the story, such as the problem in the beginning of the story.  This is where readers meet the main character and get a glimpse at the MC’s norm before the “storms” of the story’s main conflict sweep in.
  2. Rising Action: During the rising action, the basic internal conflict is complicated by the introduction of the related secondary conflicts, including various obstacles that frustrate the protagonist’s attempt to reach his goal.
  3. Climax:  The third act is the climax, or turning point, which marks a change, for the better or worse in the protagonist’s affairs.  If the story is a comedy, things will have gone badly for the protagonist up to this point; now, the tide, so to speak, will turn and things will begin to go well for him or her.  If the story is a tragedy, the opposite state of affairs will ensue, with things going from good to bad for the protagonist.  Simply put, this is where the most dramatic part of the story happens.
  4. Falling Action: During the falling action the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist.  The falling action might contain a moment of final suspense, during which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.  The falling action is the part of the story in which the main part (the climax) has finished and you’re heading to the resolution.
  5. Denouément or Resolution:  The dénouement comprsies the events between the falling action and the actual ending scene of the narrative and thus serves as the conclusion of the story.  Conflicts are resolved, creating normality for the characters and a sense of catharsis, or release of tension and anxiety, for the reader.

Screenwriters have become exceptionally adept at writing in the 3-act structure.  The 3-act structure is basically a simplification of the 5-part narrative – with the same components occuring within three acts.  Watch any movie, and you’re sure to recognize the point at which acts transition and rising action, climax and falling action occur.

William P. Coleman uses Stars Wars to explain the 3-act structure on his blog:

In a nutshell, screenwriters create three acts:

  1. Set Up: During the set-up, we meet the characters and recevie any key information that we need to process upcoming events.  There is often foreshadowing of events yet to come. The end of of Act One contains the Inciting Incident.  The Inciting Incident is the moment when the story’s primary conflict makes its initial center-stage appearance.  This affects the protagonist’s status, plans and/or beliefs, focing him or her to take action in response.
  2. Confrontation: Act Two, or the Confrontation, sees the protagonist facing the conflict to resolve the situtation.  There are several unsuccessful attempts to overcome the conflicts.  Often there are moments of retreat when the main character fails to overcome the conflict and retreats to sulk, scowl and regroup.  The stakes get higher and higher as the protagonist’s inner demons and the intensity of the protagonist’s problems increases.
  3. Resolution:  In Act Three, the Resolution, the protagonist has learned from his/her failed attempts, has faced inner demons which have prevented him/her from overcoming the main conflict, and the Inciting Incident is resolved.  This resolution isn’t always pretty – oftentimes the resolution is a surprising solution which the audience/reader didn’t see coming. During Act Three, we also see other loose ends and sub-plot tied up.  This act is a combination of the Falling Action and Dénouement from Freytag’s pyramid.

(Credit is due to Bubblecow and wikipedia for help in some of the verbiage for these definitions.)

You can see that whether the story is comprised of five acts or three acts, the elements of dramatic tension and resolution are the same.  This structure allows a writer take her readers on a journey.  The journey is filled with Conflict.  I had a writing teacher who used to pace around the classroom, smacking his hand on his forehead, saying, “Conflict, conflict, conflict, my children!”  If you don’t have conflict (and ever more increasing conflict with each turn), you don’t have a story.  This conflict doesn’t have to include car chases and serial killers.  Some conflict is subtle and emotional and gets to the heart of the human experience.  Perhaps two days before her wedding, Jane decides she doesn’t want to get married.  Conflict!  Perhaps Joe loses his job and is forced to come up with another way to support his family. Conflict!  Perhaps John is secretly jealous of his roommate and decides to tamper with his grades to get him kicked out of school. Conflict!

With all of this conflict, the protagonist needs a chance to experiment, challenge the antagonist, fail and regroup for another “fight.” Along the way, the protagonist is changing.  His relationships with the story’s secondary characters develop and change, too.  At the end of it all, the conflict is resolved, for better or worse, and Jane or Joe or John are different in some way.

We’ve already established that I’m a planner.  I like a road map to follow before I start writing.  But, this doesn’t mean that I plan out every scene in painstaking detail.  I simply put together a blueprint that includes all of the key elements needed to keep my story on track and appropriately paced.  Then when I sit down to write, I can let my right brain take over and add all of the creative elements that make the story a novel rather than an outline.

My planning tends to follow a four-act structure.  It’s really three acts, but Act Two is broken into two parts to make the MC’s emotional journey more clear.  Two very good resources for learning more about this structure are Evan Marshall’s book The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing and Larry Brooks’ book Story Engineering (in particular the section on structure). These books have great tidbits of advice for someone planning a novel.  I’ve adapted parts from each of their books and created a process that works for me. Here’s a look:

A novel of 80,000 – 100,000 words has approximately 60 scenes.  I divide the scenes up like this:

Some of the verbiage in the above diagram was adapted from Larry Brooks’ blog. Rebecca Berto also offers a great analysis of Brooks’ Story Engineering over at her blog.

Remember, this isn’t a paint-by-number approach to novel writing.  This approach may not work for everyone.  For me (a planner), this structure doesn’t result in a painstaking outline of each scene. There needs to be room for a lot of creative discovery along the way.  Rather than an outline, the result is more like a map.  A novel is a scary prospect, especially when you’re halfway done and you’re trapped in the murky middle.  With this approach I know what my two Plot Points and my Mid-Point scenes will be before I start writing.  I plug everything into Scrivener* (my choice for drafting software), and I have a map.  When I’m trapped in the middle of the forest, I know the next point to which I need to make it to find my way out.  I may not know what pitfalls and discoveries the route will hold for me, but I do know that I will have quite an adventure getting from Point A to Point B.  It’s rare that I know how the story will end when I set out to write it.  But, with Plot Point #2 pencilled in, I know how I’m going to get there.  By the time I get to the second Plot Point, the ending flows pretty organically.  At that point, the Main Character has taken over and is making choices of her own – organic choices which make sense within the confines of my map.

This approach may not work for everyone.  Some need to set out in the wilderness without a map – making all of the discoveries along way.  For me though, the safety of the map leads to success.  What is success?  In my mind it is finishing the novel.  Then I need a completely different map to guide me through the murky world of rewrites and revisions. But that’s another post, isn’t it?

*Tune in tomorrow. I’ll been pulling together some screenshots and samples from my Scrivener novel template.  They may be helpful if you use Scrivener for drafting.

What about you?  Do you create an outline? A map? Or do you set off wandering in the novel-writing wilderness armed with nothing more than your story idea and a keyboard?

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