Friday, February 19, 2010

How to Write a Novel 4: Plot, Part III

Quote: “Writing a book is like driving a car at night. You only see as far as your headlights go, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
~E.L. Doctorow

Helpless, by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

So I am deep in the editing trenches, and it’s heartbreaking. Once you start to see some of the flaws, you see them ALL, until you’re correcting post it notes to yourself. Did you ever see that cartoon, where Bugs Bunny sees a gorgeous woman (or bunny? Bunny-woman? Ack, no furries!) from a distance, so he chases her all through the episode, only to find out when he catches up to her, she’s dead ugly?

THAT is what editing is like. You tell yourself you’ve written a masterpiece, but you start to edit you realize how appalling your lack of ability to string a series of sentences together is. Of course, this is just me. I am sure all of your books are works of art, and you won’t have to edit them at all.

On the bright side, I bought some more red pens yesterday.
I like to edit with Sharpie ultra fine point permanent markers. They have felt tips, and bleed slightly through the paper, but my goodness does it show up well. I went to Wal-Mart first (please don’t hate me, I am broke), but could only find the multicolor packs. You would think red is the second most common color, but nooooooo there weren’t any packs of just red pens. So as I was driving away, I noticed an Office Depot that I completely forgot about. I pulled in, and spent more money on writing supplies. They have all KINDS of Sharpie colors, but I still like red the best for editing. It looks like blood. I feel like I really am murdering my darling (also, I think all this editing has driven me slightly insane. *cough*)

I edited my scene for the blogfest “Whoops”. I am very, very, very, very excited, because it has some of my favorite characters in it, and I can’t wait for you guys to met them. But again, my appalling lack of grammar was apparent in the first draft, so I have cleaned it up a bit so you guys don’t know how illiterate I truly am (drat, said that out loud. Inside voice, Elizabeth, inside voice).

But I digress. For now. Onward brave steed!

9. Title, Genre

This is pretty basic. You need to title your story. ;)

I like titles that are metaphors, or interesting in some way. I try to come up with titles that will make the reader want to pick up the book. While there’s nothing wrong with a book called “The Writer”, it doesn’t really say anything about the book either. Nothing that intrigues me, anyway.

Let’s face it: there are a lot of books in the bookstore. You might consider titling your book something eye catching. If you like simple titles, that is your little red wagon. It’s just something to consider.

Examples of titles I like:

“The Lovely Bones” I thought: How can bones be lovely? What the heck? So I picked up the book…
“Heart Shaped Box” Very evocative, and alludes to the song.
“Tunes for Bears to Dance To” Again, very evocative. Bears dancing? To what tunes?

And so on.

Your genre is important because it tells the library and bookstores where to shelve your book. Oh yeah, and editors and publishers are mildly interested in it as well. This tells them, vaguely, what sort of events are in your book.

Some people feel like genre is a yoke that stifles them and they should be able to write whatever they want. And they aren’t wrong. Write whatever you want. But if you want to sell your book, as most writers do, you’re going to need a genre for it. Just saying.

10. POV

Point of view. What tense and from who’s perspective the story is being told. We learned about POV in English, and you’re probably already aware that most books are either written in first person (I saw, I went), or in third (Detective Brewster saw, Detective Brewster went to kick some robber butt).

I like to write from both, and I don’t believe that one view is more limiting or close than another.

Observe, from my Blogfest Love at First Sight (with zombies!) Scene:


We are all in the process of dying. If I concentrate hard enough, I think I can feel the death of my skin cells, flaking off one by one.
I can sense the zombies circling around us like slow vultures, always on the back of my subconscious. It helps me survive the zombie apocalypse, but robs me of sleep and peace of mind. Still learning to cope, I woke up in a foul mood, which for once had nothing to do with zombies.
It was Valentine’s Day, and no one knew it.


We are all in the process of dying. If Lilah concentrated hard enough, she thought she could feel the death of her skin cells, flaking off one by one.
Lilah could sense the zombies circling around them like slow vultures, always on the back of her subconscious. It helped Lilah survive the zombie apocalypse, but robs her of sleep and peace of mind. Still learning to cope, Lilah woke up in a foul mood, which for once had nothing to do with zombies.
It was Valentine’s Day, and no one knew it.

Now, it will take you a little while to get used to the main character tags “I” or “Lilah” but a hundred pages into the book, you aren’t really paying attention to “I” or “Lilah”, you’re paying attention to what is happening to her.

You might disagree, but I really don’t think there’s a difference. You might have a personal preference for one POV or another, but again, experimentation is fun, and you should try it. I wrote a short story in second person, and it was a PAIN, but it was also FUN.

Mostly, I use third if I am rotating POVs, that is, if I have more than one main character telling the story, and first if it’s only one person. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have rotating POV in first person. You just need to make sure you let everyone know when you change perspective.

11. Journey

Noah Lukeman talks about journey in his book, The Plot Thickens, which is another way to say character growth. You want to make sure your character does that by the end of the story.

It’s the most satisfying to read about people that are affected by the events of the plot. You want a character who changes, who grows, who learns things about themselves, and others. This give your story deeper meaning, and helps it become more universal. It’s why I can read about an elderly man, and still relate. I relate to what he’s going through in the story, his life experiences.

It’s also how you can make your non-human characters more relatable, if the reader can relate to Bobo the troll barbarian’s inner turmoil over his dead parents.

12. The Nitty Gritty

Now that you have considered all of that, if not figured some it out (for me this is a rotating process, going back and forth between all of the different elements, tweaking as I go), it’s time to actually decide on your plot.

Yikes! Decisions! Oh noooos!

I know, it’s scary. Each decision you make it yet another way your story isn’t going to turn out. But take heart, because if you just stay in this phase of thinking, tweaking, and brainstorming, you will never get the story written. A lot of people stay in this phase, without ever writing a book, so it’s up to you to take the plunge and go for the gold, and *insert metaphor for taking a risk here*.

So, start figuring out the events of your story. By now, you might have a lot of ideas, and just need to put them in order and fill in gap.

Or, like me, you’re totally clueless and don’t know what to do next.

What I do is go back to the characters. I work on them, flesh them out, and figure out what sort of situations would challenge them, and find a way to make that happen in the story. I find that things just start falling into place afterwards.

Using our example, you could develop Detective Brewster and his sister further, and mirror their inner struggles. Maybe she becomes the second main character.

When I have more than one main character, I normally have three. Odd, I know (literally-----zing, didn’t expect that pun, did you?). Once I wrote a book with just two main characters, but there was just too much back and forth between them, and not the rest of the story. It felt very claustrophobic, and got really static. Once I introduced a third person with loose connections to the other two MCs, everything cleared up. The scenes were dynamic and interrelated, without being overcrowded. Or you could switch to an antagonist or a secondary character who isn’t present for some of the other events of the story.

Continue to develop your characters, and try to develop their inner struggles, their lives, their hopes, and fears. Think about the worst thing that could happen to them, and then make it happen. Brainstorm, talk to the wall, your dog, your mom, about what could happen, what would make people hold up a bank, and what people might do when that happens.

You’re looking for a slice of the human experience. Don’t be afraid to bring your personal feelings into the matter. Why do you think people do bad things? It’s not that your novel serves as a vehicle for your opinions, but rather a way to express what is on people’s minds. Remember, you’re saying what other people can’t articulate.

Little by little, the plot will come. We are about to talk about setting, and that also helps with the plot, believe it or not.

So, next time, Setting! A noble hero of novels, but so underappreciated.

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