Saturday, November 7, 2009

Day Seven: Beginning...Muddle...Ending

Congratulations to all of my fellow NaNo writing companions, all 150,000+ of you! Today concludes the first week of National Novel Writing Month. If you began last Sunday, and faithfully treated your computer as another body appendage all week, you should have reached at least 11,669 words and have a pretty good start on your novel. Some have already far exceeded that, and at least one person has already passed the 50,000 word finish line! The rest of us can only stare in awe as we bravely jog along wiping their dust from our eyes. Others have had life intrude and are struggling to catch up, and more than a few have yet to begin. If you fall into this last category, Paige and I would like to encourage you to take heart, take a deep breath, renew your commitment, grab your pen and notebook or place your fingers firmly on the keyboard, and write. Get something, anything, on paper or on your word processor. You can't hope to finish, if you don't start. If you don't have any ideas, or have too many vying for your attention, try ten to twenty minutes of free writing where you write whatever comes to mind without judging it. This simple exercise may help move you from thinking to doing.

If you are in the group that has been writing all week, and everything is going great, and the words are flowing almost faster than you can write them down, fantastic! Run with it! But for some, the first flush of excitement may be waning as you suddenly hit a snag in the story line. You may have the beginning down, and know where you want to end up, but aren't quite sure how to get there. In other words, the middle is a muddle.

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, the king tells the white rabbit, "Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop." That sounds like very sensible advice. But when you're writing, the process isn't always orderly, especially when you're trying to meet a word count deadline in a short period of time and are feeling the effects of sleep deprivation. Ideas dart around your conscious mind like kids playing keep-away. They don't line up in an orderly queue like well-disciplined British school children. How do you push through? What if you're drawing a blank and don't know what should come next?

If you already know the ending of your story, go ahead and write it. When making a movie, scenes are rarely shot in the order in which they appear in the final cut. Sometimes, the last scene of the film is the first scene shot. There's no reason why you can't do this in your novel, too. Perhaps once the ending is written, it will be easier to work backward to the beginning. Another idea is to look at your outline. (If you haven't done one yet, and you're stuck, now's a good time to do it). Decide what needs to take place in each chapter to get your characters from point A to point B. Then decide what scenes within each chapter will tell that part of the story. Once you have these main ideas and supporting ideas down, you can begin to craft descriptions and dialog to flesh them out. It may also help to write each chapter's main idea on an index card. Then write each supporting idea on a separate index card, and lay them out under the chapter in which they will best fit to tell the story. Doing this will take a little time, but it's worth it if it gets things moving again.

If all else fails, and you're starting to panic, go to the NaNo Forums page, look under the section titled "NaNo Tips and Strategies" for a thread called "Plot Doctoring." People there may be able to help you with such things as character names, coming up with a conflict or obstacle, plot twists, setting, dialog, or whatever your specific needs are. Don't be afraid to ask for help. The reason that thread is there is because we've all been, at one time or another, where you are now. With some fresh ideas, you can take your great beginning and your fantastic finish and unite them with a middle that's not a muddle.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Day Six: Who's in Charge?

In my blog entry for Monday, November 2, I began by saying that, as an author, you are in control of the people in your story: "...who will populate it, who will visit your town and how they'll arrive, what kind of work people will do, whether or not they are married and have children -- and pets, who their friends are, and their relatives. You are in control of their waking and sleeping, their hopes, dreams, aspirations, and expirations. You decorate their houses, pick out their clothing, and even determine their personalities and character traits, and how they will talk. In short, you control everyone and everything in your book." Sounds logical, right? But writing is a creative process, and creativity isn't always logical. It's the old right brain/left brain conundrum.

So, is it possible to lose control over your story? What happens when a character does something you weren't expecting, or turns rogue and hijacks your plot completely? Do you reign them in, sit them down, and give them a thorough tongue-lashing? Or do you let your curiosity get the best of you and give them free reign to see where they'll lead?

In the novel I began during last year's NaNoWriMo, I thought I knew my plot and characters pretty well. I knew who was going to be killed, and who was going to do the deed, and when it all would happen. The intended victim, Grace, was home alone during a snowstorm while her husband was in town at a meeting. She'd stayed home because she hadn't been feeling well. The roads were bad, he was late, and she was becoming anxious. She looked out the window, then went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Suddenly, just as the tea kettle begins to shriek, she hears a noise, feels someone grab her, and falls to the floor, dead.

But hold on...that's not the killer bending over her, it's her husband. He'd arrived home, heard the tea kettle, and walked in the door just in time to catch Grace before she hit the floor. So, what just happened? Where's the killer? Did he run his car off an icy road so he couldn't get there before her husband did? Did he get the wrong house? Or did my characters just hijack my story? Maybe Grace decided she didn't want to get killed off. As it turned out, I liked Grace and was glad she hadn't died right then, so I developed a subplot for her and her husband and a different character emerged as the killer...someone nobody would have suspected. For that matter, I hadn't suspected them, either. The story took a completely different path from the one I had originally set out on. The basic plot didn't change, nor did the ending, but the route my characters traveled to get there did.

Sometimes, giving your characters the freedom to develop on their own can work for you. Other times, not. It's fine if you know what the characters are doing, where they're going, and if it all fits within the parameters of the story you want to tell. It's not so fine if they lead you into a muddle of events and subplots that turn your story into a chaotic, rambling, jumbled up mess with no way out short of resorting to deus ex machina, defined by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as "An unexpected, artificial, or improbable character, device, or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation or untangle a plot." Nothing screams amateur like resorting to this device to make everything turn out right. If your characters and plot are starting to look more like a tangled mess than the beautiful tapestry you were weaving, do what knitters and weavers do: rip it out--at least back to where it veered off track--and start over.

Writing requires creativity, but it also requires discipline. When all is said and done, you're in charge. You can allow your characters to have input into the story, but don't let them get carried away. As the author, you are in charge and all final decisions about what happens, and to whom, are yours.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Day Five: Pacing Your Story--The Goldilocks Principle

We all remember the children's story "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." Mama, Papa, and Baby Bear go for a walk while their porridge cools, and a little girl happens upon the house and decides to explore it. Once inside, she tries out their chairs, their porridge, and finally their beds. In each instance, two of the three are too hot/cold, big/small, hard/soft, but one is always "just right." Pacing is the process of controlling how fast or slow your plot develops within the construct of your story. The Goldilocks Principle in writing refers to getting that pacing "just right"--not too slow, not too fast--and matching the pace to what's happening in each scene. Some writers are able to do this as they write; others add pacing when they begin their revisions.

The key to pacing is variety. Longer, compound sentences tend to slow the pace, whereas short, choppy sentences and sentence fragments speed things up. If your character is taking a leisurely, meditative walk in the woods, you can use longer descriptive sentences to create the setting and reflective mood. But if someone suddenly starts chasing her, her mind isn't going to be on observing what's around her, but on survival. Shorten the sentences to create tension and pick up the pace.

Dialog is another way of varying the pace. Think about how people really talk. If someone is recalling a pleasant memory from long ago, they may tell it in more detail, digressing here and there, meandering through the experience. On the other hand, if someone is distraught, nervous, or scared, their thoughts and words will be choppy, jumbled, disconnected.

It is important for the writer to learn when to speed things up and when to slow them down, how long to sustain the tension and when to give the reader a break from it. If it feels like things are too slow, insert some action, either physical or mental. By alternating tension and relief, you can build to a more effective climax without losing the reader along the way. And remember that every passage, whether description or action, must advance the story. If a passage just sounds "nice" but doesn't move the story along, discard it.

One pitfall for new writers is not knowing when to end their story. Don't write past the ending. Once you've achieved resolution to the conflict, let the story draw to a quick, natural close. If there must be an epilogue, make it brief. Likewise, don't end the story too abruptly, leaving the reader unsatisfied. Even an open ending should give a sense that this part of the story is finished.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Day Four: Pacing Yourself

Fast and furious, or slow and steady -- how do you pace yourself during NaNoWriMo? It depends on the individual, and there is no right or wrong way to do it. But sometimes, what has worked for us in the past, suddenly doesn't work for us any more.

As in the past, all of the anticipation that had been building up during October, manifested as creative overdrive when the virtual starting gun fired at 12:01 a.m., on day one, November 1. I hit the ground running, ideas fresh in my mind, energy flowing, couldn't get the words out fast enough. I felt like I could sustain this pace forever, and was annoyed when non-NaNo necessities, such as eating, paying bills, and catching a couple of hours sleep, threatened to slow me down.

On day two, that pesky internal editor/critic showed up trying to distract me by critiquing what I'd written the day before. I reminded it, and myself, that the purpose of NaNo is writing -- the editing and critiquing come after the clock runs out on November 30. Founder Chris Baty had warned of the temptation to second guess yourself in "A Guide to the Novelling Month Ahead." For November 2, he wrote: "Stop writing. Wonder if you should start over. Keep going. Feel better." So, I muzzled the internal editor/critic and pressed on. The words didn't flow quite as quickly because I had to veer off the "write" road onto a side path to do a little research on locations, culture at the time in which the story is set, and a few other details. That taken care of, I continued setting the stage for the "meat" of the story.

On day three, things were still going well. The characters were becoming more real, the setting more developed, and all the elements were coming together. I ended the day in high spirits, still ahead of the three-day word count goal.

Then, when I woke up to go to my physical therapy appointment Tuesday afternoon (have been in p.t. since injuring my hand in mid-July), I realized that my hand was the ONLY thing that wasn't bothering me! After three days of flat-out writing, my eyes were burning, my brain was fogging, my body felt like it had been hit by a truck, and I was completely exhausted. The realization began to dawn that I can no longer pull consecutive all-nighters as I did when I was younger--not without unpleasant consequences. Wisdom dictated that I take last night off, give myself and my characters a rest, and start fresh tonight. Being ahead in the word count helped, as did the fact that my writing for yesterday had been completed the night before.

So, where does that leave me today? Right on track, and with the added bonus of nine and a half hours of sleep under my belt. Hopefully, my characters also had a good night's rest so they can better deal with the things that are going to happen to them.

If you're feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and thinking of quitting, stop and take a break. Some participants write less during the week, then catch up on the weekends. If you're starting to fall behind in the word count, don't beat yourself up over it. Get up, walk around, talk to a friend or your writing buddy, watch your favorite show, read a book, pat the dog, get some sleep, and start fresh the next day. After all, what's the worst that can happen? Even if you don't hit 50,000 words by the end of the month, you will still have written more than you would have if you hadn't tried in the first place.

So, after last night's brief hiatus, and feeling refreshed, it's back to the keyboard!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Day Three: Do Horror/Thriller Writers Ever Scare Themselves?

A few days ago we celebrated Halloween which is rooted in Celtic traditions having to do with dead spirits returning to the land of the living, causing mischief, and scaring people. The Celts used sacred bonfires and sacrifices to try to keep these spirits at bay, and disguised themselves by dressing in animal costumes. Another tradition, the jack-o-lantern, came from Ireland and was originally a carved out turnip, not a pumpkin. Over the years, costumes and traditions evolved, but the "scare factor" remained an integral part of the celebration--especially when featured in films and books. Today, many people throw Halloween parties, like the one in my novel, turn off the lights, and sit around telling ghost stories to scare their friends.

Even apart from Halloween, we seem to like to scare ourselves -- as long as we know we're really safe. Whether the old Dracula, Mummy, and Wolfman movies of the early 1900s, or more recent offerings such as "The Blair Witch Project," the "Friday the 13th" series, "Paranormal Activity," and many others, people like to experience the fight or flight response without actually having to do either. And then there are the scary novels by master horror/thriller writers Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Jeffrey Deaver, and Nate Kenyon.

As I was working on my novel last night, a scene in which ghost stories were being shared, I found myself becoming slightly uneasy and it made me wonder: Do horror or thriller writers ever scare themselves? Did Stephen King lie awake nights because he felt like he'd made one of his characters too real -- like his protagonist, writer Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half? Did he have nightmares about Ronald McDonald after he wrote It? Did he hesitate, if only for a moment, before taking a bite of pie after he wrote Thinner? Was Dean Koontz afraid to fall asleep, while writing The Bad Place, like his main character Frank Pollard? And how well did Nate Kenyon sleep after a decomposed corpse attacked one of his characters in his newest work, Sparrow Rock?

I didn't have the opportunity to ask Mr. King or Mr. Koontz, but I met Mr. Kenyon a few months ago online through Suzanne Beecher's Dear Reader online book clubs; so I sent him an e-mail, and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to respond.

Donna: Nate, have you ever given yourself nightmares from something you've written?

Nate*: Sure. I've had nightmares from something I've written--and I've written about my nightmares, too. In fact, my most recent thriller, THE BONE FACTORY, was sparked by a particularly creepy dream about a man totally alone in the deep woods at night, wading through thigh-deep drifts of snow and looking for a dead body. It was so vivid and unsettling, I woke up at about 3 a.m.,
got right up out of bed and wrote that scene. The entire novel sprouted from there.

My upcoming novel, SPARROW ROCK (May 2010) gave me nightmares one night. I wrote a scene where the resurrected body of a long-dead friend returns to the bomb shelter where a group of teens are holed up to pay them a visit. That scene really creeped me out, and that night after I'd finished it, I had a dream about a high school friend of mine who died and then came back to life. Didn't sleep much for the rest of the night!

So, apparently it works both ways: nightmares can generate stories, and stories can generate nightmares--even when you're the author. Now I don't feel so bad about not being able to sleep last night after I finished the ghost story scene. It seems I'm in good company.

*My thanks to Nate Kenyon for answering my blog question. To find out more about him and his novels, visit his website:

Monday, November 2, 2009

Day Two -- Using Real Places in Your Story

When writing fiction, sometimes it's fun to create the setting out of thin air. You are the founding father of your city or town: you get to name it, decide what buildings are there, who will populate it, who will visit your town and how they'll arrive, what kind of work people will do, whether or not they are married and have children -- and pets, who their friends are, and their relatives. You are in control of their waking and sleeping, their hopes, dreams, aspirations, and expirations. You decorate their houses, pick out their clothing, and even determine their personalities and character traits, and how they will talk. In short, you control everyone and everything in your book.

But what happens when you decide to introduce real people or real places into your fictionalized novel? Suddenly, the rules change. For example, if I decided to use George Washington as a character in my story, I can't call his wife Sally or have him reside in a twentieth century apartment in New York City. I might be able to write an account of a fictional event in his life, but family names and geographical locations would have to line up with what is historically accurate, and the fictional event would have to occur at a logical place in his life's timeline.

As I began writing chapter two of this year's NaNo book, I realized I needed to do a bit more research before I could proceed. Although my story is fiction, there are elements in it that are based on something that may or may not have really happened, but are definitely tied to a real place. Some of my fictional characters are college students at the very real University of Vermont. So, I had to do a bit of research about the dorm names and locations, what the library was like at the time in which the story is set, how long it would take them to drive from their dorm in Burlington to a friend's family home in Stowe (another real place), and where in Stowe that home would be located. The legend on which the story is based also takes place at a certain time of the year, so that, too, had to be accurate.

Had I known I'd be writing this particular story, I could have done my research in advance. But if you read my blog yesterday, you'll know that I switched plots at the last minute. And, although I had done a rudimentary outline for this particular story two or three years ago, I had not yet researched the historical elements.

Normally, that wouldn't create a problem. But when you're trying to write a novel in thirty days, you don't have a lot of time for anything other than writing. Time spent on research translates into less writing time, which translates into a lower word count, which translates into more pressure to meet the daily goal. So, how did I do today, you ask? Actually, not bad. Since I exceeded the 1167 word count minimum yesterday, it gave me a buffer for today. When I combined yesterday's 2425 words (a slight revision added one word to yesterday's original total) with today's 1268 words (a shortfall), I still had a two-day total of 3693 which leaves me with a buffer of 359 words heading into day three. It's not a lot, but at least I'm not lagging behind. And, who knows -- I might be able to work on it later in the day and get that word count even higher.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Day One -- And They're Off!

NaNoWriMo 2009 began at 12:01 a.m. November 1. Was anyone else a little confused because of Daylight Saving Time coming to an end? As I stared at the clock at midnight I wondered -- does NaNo start at 12:01 before the time changes, or after? Although the time change didn't officially occur until around 2:30 a.m., I reset my clocks and started at the new time just to make sure I was following the rules, either way; so I either started right on time or an hour later depending on your point of view.

With preparations completed, I was both excited and apprehensive: it's exciting to begin a new novel, but daunting to open a word processor and stare at a blank screen when you know you have to fill it with at least 1167 words to meet the day's goal. So, how did I, as a veteran NaNoer begin? By checking e-mail just in case anything important had arrived since looking at it earlier in the evening -- nothing had. Then a quick peek at Facebook (a friend had posted Halloween pictures of her kids--so cute--and there were a couple of notifications), and finally, Twitter and my blog to see if there were any new Tweets or comments that needed a response. Once the distractions had been cleared away (it's best to begin with an unfettered mind, after all), I was finally ready to tackle that blank page.

The first step was to review my, which file did I put that in? A file search turned up nothing. Time was ticking, and frustration was building. Where's that outline??? Oh, wait...I wrote it out by hand in my notebook instead of on the computer. Okay, here's the outline! But maybe I'd better check my other story ideas and notes first, just to be sure this is the story I want to write. Hmmm, well, maybe not. This other one sounds pretty good, and the outline is more detailed. So, out with outline number one, in with outline number two. After a few false starts, I finally found my rhythm and the story began to flow.

Now, all of this may sound rather undisciplined, but there is a method in the seeming chaos and procrastination. My approach to writing is akin to a city water system. If there is debris in the pipes (those distractions I mentioned), the water can't move swiftly and efficiently because something will always be popping up to divert it. And, although water may be in the pipes, if you don't have any pressure behind it, nothing is going to happen when you turn on your tap. My muse works best under a certain amount of pressure -- not too much, just enough to get the flow going.

With the distractions dispatched and the pressure at just the right strength to keep the stream of words moving along, by 4:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, I had written 2424 words, and chapter one had been put to bed. And now, I'm going to follow suit.