Friday, August 28, 2009

First Things First

Last time we discussed raising the stakes in your fiction. But you may not be that far yet. Maybe you are still throwing around ideas for the novel you always wanted to write. Maybe you’ve been thinking of an idea for years, but you’ve never taken the next step and began planning your novel. That’s great. That’s what this blog is for.

How do you begin planning if you aren’t sure which way to go with your novel? The first thing I start with is the question “What if?”

What if a woman wakes up in a hospital bed with no identification and has no idea how she got there? What if a couple go hiking in a national park? The woman stops to rest and the man goes on ahead. When he comes back there is no sign of the woman and no one else remembers seeing her. What if a killer attacks women in a small town every night of a full moon? Each question that occurs to you as you pursue your ideas should—and will—lead to another, and another, and hundreds more.

What is the killer’s motivations? How does he choose his victims? What happened in his past that makes him want to destroy lives? What other suspects can you put into the story? You must have several. What makes them look guilty? What clues does the killer leave behind and how is he finally caught? What about your victims, who are generally the main focus of a novel?

How did the heroine gain the killer’s attention? Was she in the wrong place at the wrong time? Did she inadvertently offend or insult him without being aware? Does she work with him, shop at the same grocery store, see the same doctor? Does he love her from afar and feel she jilted him in some way?

There are thousands of other questions that need answered before you will finish your book. Readers expect multi-layered stories with characters they can empathize with and understand. Yes, even the killer. Give him/her logical motivations. Let your reader understand what makes him/her tick, even if what they learn sickens them.

Don’t let this stage of the process overwhelm you. It can be the most fun and exciting part of the process. You are exploring the possibilities within your story for the first time. You won’t be able to answer everything up front. Plotting a novel is a growing process. You will learn more about your characters as you delve deeper into their lives. You don’t know everything about a new friend the instant you meet them. It takes time. It’s the same with your characters.

Have fun and enjoy the process.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It's a Guy Thing

The other night while crocheting an afghan for a new mother at church I stumbled across a Jason Lee movie, made when he was still clean shaven and before his My Name is Earl days. The movie was called A Guy Thing. Not a terrible romantic comedy, but pretty easy to catch up on after missing the first forty minutes.

You may think formula is a bad word when you are in the planning stages of your book. You want to stand out in a crowd. You want something unique and exciting to offer an editor. But editors are looking for something that follows a well proven formula. Something guaranteed to earn back the $70,000 the publisher spent to produce it.

A Guy Thing stuck to the old tried and true formula like glue. Cute plot, likeable characters with some minor ones you could learn to care about. But the feature that stood out to me as a writer who studies these kinds of things to learn what works and what doesn't was the way the storyline kept raising the stakes.

Spoiler alert: If you care one way or the other how A Guy Thing turns out do not read any further even though you’ll miss a great illustration on raising the stakes. .

First, our hero, played by Jason Lee, got drunk and ended up in bed with another woman a few weeks before his wedding. Bad situation. But the drama doesn’t stop there. He finds out the woman in question is his fiance’s cousin. He has to keep her from spilling the beans to his bride. Cousin assures him they passed out and nothing happened between them. Problem solved as long as she keep her promise to keep those pouty lips sealed.

Wrong. Cousin happens to have a psycho ex-boyfriend who has them followed and gets pictures of them together. Now Jason Lee has to keep his bride from seeing the photos and protect himself from a psycho ex-boyfriend bent on revenge.

Things are pretty bad for old Jason. Especially since he is falling for the cousin while trying to retrieve the photos from Nut-job’s apartment. Did I mention Nut-job Ex-boyfriend is a cop. He pulls Jason over for a traffic violation and plants drugs in his car. Now Jason must figure out how to get out of jail, escape some police brutality, and not let his girlfriend know what’s going on, all on the night of his wedding rehearsal.

Okay, other stuff happens here as well, most notably to insure that soon to be jilted bride isn’t left high and dry without the true love of her life.

Don’t get me wrong. It was no mistake that this movie wasn’t featured at the Sundance Film Festival. But it proved that you must continue to raise the stakes throughout your story. Just when it looks like things can’t get any worse for your hero or heroine, you must find a way to make it worse.

John Gardner said to create the best characters possible and then put them in the worst situations imaginable. Love that advice. Continue to raise the stakes for your characters and then see how they wiggle out of an impossible situation.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Back to Basics

The fact that you found this blog indicates you have an interest in writing. More than likely you have had this desire inside you for years. Since I began seriously pursuing writing as a career I have only met one writer who said she didn’t grow up wanting to write. According to her she had a dream one night that transformed into a 700 page manuscript. Every other fiction writer I know—it’s amazing how many novelists you’ll find once you let the world know you want to write a book—claims to hear voices in their heads, imagines plotlines during weddings and funerals, and eavesdrops on strangers’ conversations in hopes of finding a twist for their current work in progress.

It is my hope this blog will offer the tools and helps necessary to bring your dreams of getting a book published to reality. Last time we discussed coming up with a basic idea in which to begin your book. We talked about all the places you can find ideas. There are also all sorts of tools and programs out there that will help you with this process.

While this part of the writing process is the most fun, it can also eat into your writing time if you are not careful. I know writers who have spent twenty years on one idea that has never moved past the thinking stages. Don’t let this be you.

Write something. Play around with plot, red herrings, twists, and character sketches. Don’t get bogged down with one detail. If your villain hasn’t revealed himself or herself yet, don’t let this get you down. Play around with possibilities. Your story might go off in a direction you never saw coming. You don’t want this to happen too late in the process, but in the planning stages, it’s anything goes.

Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Seize the Day!

Know the true value of time; snatch, seize and enjoy every moment of it. No idleness...never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. - Lord Chesterfield

I have a friend who says he doesn't have time to write though he enjoys discussing his writing ideas with me. He is a busy man. He has a family and a fulltime job and property that needs tended. But he also watches sports on television nearly every weekend. He is practically addicted to computer games and loves surfing the Net for news coverage.

It's funny how we always find time for our favorite television programs, we never have to pencil eating into our schedule, and we religiously schedule vacation days from work. I am of the opinion that we find time for what we like. If something is important to us, we'll carve the time out of our calendars.

But writing is hard. It's easier and definitely more fun to sit around and talk about the art of writing and discuss our complex plotlines and endearing characters than to actually buckle down and get to work. So we put it off. We say someday. We wait until we're inspired.

Let me tell you, you get inspired by doing something, not sitting around and thinking about it. Once we finally realize the value of our time, often for many of us it is too late. While your life might seem like a long time in the midst of it, truly it is a blink of an eye. Before you know it, you'll look back and wonder what happened to all the years that transpired since you first said you were going to write a book.

How important is writing to you. Do you live it and breathe it and imagine conversations between your characters in your head? Can you picture them in your mind and walk down the same fictitious streets they walk? If so, don't put it off one more day. Someday you'll be gone and your stories will go with you. The voices will be silenced for all eternity. What a shame. Even if you only take a small step today, stop procrastinating! Write something today.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Great Beginnings

Before you put a pen to paper, before you create your first character, before you do the first iota of research or choose your book's setting, you need a great idea to kick things off.

People ask me all the time where I get ideas and how I insure that they’ll keep coming. Sadly getting ideas are the easy part; cultivating them and turning them into gold is the tough part.

Ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re everywhere. The trick is to recognize them when you see them. I get a lot of ideas from dreams. Most of my dreams are like yours——confusing, haphazard little snippets that fly out of my head the instant I awake. But occasionally I’ll dream gold. My husband recently dreamed an entire book idea from beginning to satisfying ending. The eight-page outline I wrote after he told me the dream is a long way from ready for the bookstore shelf, but it’s got potential written all over it.

Chatting with girlfriends is another foolproof way to get ideas. I have a particular friend whose life is chock full of drama. I have written——and sold——several short stories, and created characters for my novels from stories of friends of her friends of her friends. This technique for sparking ideas is also an interesting way to spend an evening at a not-so-interesting office party.

Keep your ears open.

Lastly to be discussed here, is everyday life. I’ve gotten several ideas during daily walks with my dogs. I clear my mind, pay attention to the world around me, and am amazed at the ideas those walks spark. While walking along the road one evening I imagined what would happen if a car didn’t make the turn and ran into me.

Then I wondered what would happen if the car hit me intentionally and tried to make it look like an accident. Who would want to hit a seemingly ordinary housewife? Do I have a stalker? Do I have a secret life my friends don't know about? Was it a case of mistaken identity?

The possibilities for these questions are endless. Try it sometime. Ask yourself "What If" about a seemingly mundane task you perform on a regular basis. How could that become the starting point for a work of fiction? These games are fun and often productive.

Give it a try and see what happens.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Everywhere I go people tell me they've always wanted to write a book. Some of them have never gotten past the romantic notion much of the world has about writing. Others have a pretty solid idea on which to build. But it’s just that; an idea they’ve never pursued. Then there are a few others who have actually played around with the idea; pursued a decent plotline, created a few key players, perhaps even come up with an unsolved crime or love triangle. But all they have to show for sometimes years and years of thinking about their book are a few pages of hastily scrawled notes.

My goal for this blog is to offer some of the tools and encouragement that will get you from just thinking about what a fantastic book you have inside you to actually putting pen to paper…or fingers to keyboard if you will.

You’re not getting any younger. Neither am I. Neither is the publisher you dream of hosting your book tour after your appearace on Good Morning America.

My challenge for you today is don’t wait. Stop putting it off. Write something today. Even if you don’t know where your idea will take you, or even if it’s an idea worthy of a book. Don’t worry about that right now. I want you to prove to yourself you can write. Something. Anything.

Write a snippet of dialog. Write that killer beginning you’ve got mapped out in your head. Write the love scene. Or the moment your hero realizes the identity of the killer. Comment to this blog post if you can't think of anything else. Just write something to get those creative juices flowing.

I’ll never know everything there is to know about writing a book. But I know a little. My fifth novel, Evidence of Grace, released nationwide at #18 according to Christian Retailing magazine.

More importantly, I’ve learned a lot about the business of writing since I signed my first contract in 2001. I hope to impart some of that wisdom to you and make your journey from idea to published novel a little easier.

Get ready. Get set…