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For some writers, the process of crafting a novel gets easier with each work.
Unfortunately, I’m not a member of that group.
Counting one that I tossed, three that are out of print and will stay that way, and five written with my husband, I just finished novel number 19 (No Substitute for Myth, to be released in June—or so I hope). Even though I knew the characters well because it’s the fourth in the series, and even though I had a clear idea of the plot, I struggled through the middle. Some of that struggle was due to elements I decided to add. Some was due to a feeling of being “held hostage” by my characters and wanting to be out of my office and living a life of my own.
In the previous substitute book, the beginning gave me fits. For number four, that was a cakewalk. Sometimes the ending is elusive, and sometimes I visualize the conclusion long before anything else.
Recently, while waiting for inspiration to deliver a perfect simile, I made a list of what I find most difficult about crafting a novel.
Getting an Idea. Because I’m afraid every idea will be the last, I treat a new one like the discovery of a rare plant. I record my “find” on a file card, post the card on a bulletin board, and then watch it, waiting for fresh shoots and leaves. Meanwhile, other ideas may be passing me by.
Plotting. The planning writers do is equivalent to that huge percentage of an iceberg beneath the surface. It supports your story. But the process of plot-building can be slow, and I’ve found that once characters interact, things can change. So, while I know how a book will start and how it will end, my plans for everything in between are often vague until I get there.
Crafting the Opening Sentences. Unless they come to me in a cheesy-snack-fueled dream, these are tough. So tough, in fact, that I often leave a blank space. When I reach the end, I have a better idea of how to plant the seeds of theme and plot on the first page.
Sitting. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the consequences of spending too much time on your ass-et.
Not Borrowing from Others. I don’t mean plagiarizing; I mean that unconscious shift toward a style or turn of phrase brought on by admiration for the skill of the author I’m reading at the time.
Making it Through the Middle. No matter how many file cards I’ve accumulated and how much plotting I’ve done, sometimes I feel like I’ve waded through a swamp only to step into quicksand. Often I have to go back to the beginning and work forward, reintroducing myself to characters I created weeks ago and have half-forgotten. The ending, like a mirage, seems to retreat before me.
Controlling the Snacking. When I’m stressed—and being stuck in figurative quicksand is stressful—I snack. (And I’m not talking about munching on baby carrots or apple slices.)
Taking Advice. Unless I’ve asked for it, I hate getting advice. And even when I’ve asked, I hate taking suggestions. So, when I’m deep enough in a quandary that I solicit ideas, I set them aside for a week while I work past a bout of I-should-have-seen-that resentment.
Ignoring Advice. I’m referring to the unsolicited and random suggestions that come from well-meaning folks who always wanted to write but never did. “You should write about my garden club and be sure to name all the members or someone will be mad.” “Don’t forget to give your protagonist a few cats.” “You should set your stories in Bermuda.”
The Ending. I think of an ending as the perfect meal—all the good stuff on the plate in portions that are just right. Not so much that servings and flavors run together. Not so little that I close the book feeling hungry. Just enough that I’m satisfied and want more from the same chef.
The title. Titles are tough because a few words have to do a lot of heavy lifting. In fact, they have to do so much lifting that I’m going to “save my strength” and save the topic for next month, when I’ll enlist writing coach Elizabeth Lyon to help me.
In the meantime, what do you think is the most difficult phase of writing a novel and why?
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton. She lives in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking. www.deadlyduomysteries.com http://www.deadlyduoduhblog.blogspot.com/
Although I don’t consider myself a star graduate of the write-what-you-know school of crafting a novel, I’ve found personal experience provides a firm foundation. Still, a few months ago I found myself on shaky ground, deep in write-what-you-don’t-know land.
When I pounded out the final pages of Through a Yellow Wood back in 2011, I thought I wouldn’t visit Hemlock Lake again. So, in tying up loose ends and leaving the characters looking toward the future, I gave Camille a baby bump.
2014 rolled around and my fictional folks started lobbying for me to continue their lives in a third book. Since the previous mysteries began in the spring and concluded in September—and since I’m a Virgo and can’t resist a pattern—I knew this one would start as winter retreated from the Catskills. That meant Camille would have her baby on the pages of The Devil’s Tombstone.
And that meant I was in big trouble. I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but giving birth wasn’t one of them. What if I got it wrong?
Channeling Butterfly McQueen as Prissy in Gone With the Wind, I raced to my husband’s office (AKA the man cave in the basement) crying, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!”
“Pick an evening when I’m out,” he counseled when I calmed down. “Invite your gal pals over for one of those macaroni-and-cheese-fueled talk sessions. They’ll give you graphic details.”
Eeekkkk. That was exactly what I wanted to avoid.
As the oldest of a pack of cousins, I often overheard my mother and aunts sharing their experiences during labor and delivery. I was too young to fully understand, but old enough to pick up on words like pain, exhaustion, intense pain, contractions, endless pain, pushing, screaming pain, etc.
I got the idea—giving birth was a far cry from a walk in the woods or a picnic at the beach. I also got that each woman experiences labor in different ways, and that time and pain could vary greatly.
A few hours spent scouring the Internet and a slew of postings confirmed that I had plenty of leeway. If I wanted Camille’s baby to pop out, that could happen. If I wanted labor to go on for a day or more, that could also happen.
I decided Camille would be in enough trouble already—stranded by a snowstorm miles from medical assistance—so I cut labor short. But being stranded created new problems for Camille. And for me.
Back on the Internet, I scrounged information on home deliveries and problems that could arise. I read about dilation and contractions, umbilical cords and the placenta. My head spun about like it belonged to the girl in The Exorcist.
How much detail would female readers want? What about male readers? And what about my male protagonist?
I couldn’t recall my father or uncles hanging around while their wives recounted birthing stories. In fact, I recall them doing disappearing acts worthy of the greatest illusionists.
In the end, I glossed over parts of the process and left out far more than I put in. After reading the scene a friend told me, “At first I was angry that you didn’t describe the birth. I felt cheated. Then I realized that anything you wrote wouldn’t be my experience and I would feel angry about that as well.”
That doesn’t exactly mean I got it all right. But maybe it means I didn’t get it all wrong.
Did I learn a lesson from my venture into write-what-you-don’t-know land? You bet. I’m close to 200 pages along in No Substitute for Myth and sticking to writing what I know. Um, except for the parts about Bigfoot.
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton (The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor, Deception at Devil’s Harbor, and the short story collection Sucker Punches).
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She’s now a substitute teacher in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking. www.deadlyduomysteries.com
For some writers—and I’m one of them—writing a synopsis seems more difficult than writing a book.
With a book, there’s plenty of “room to roam,” dozens of pages on which to flesh out characters and enlarge themes. There are opportunities to slow the action to provide sequels to follow tense scenes and add description to set the mood and foreshadow action to come.
But a synopsis must be pithy, a neat progression of plot points, thumbnail sketches, tight but evocative description. It must be a distillation of tone, theme, and character arc.
So when writing coach Elizabeth Lyon suggested I write two versions of the synopsis for An Uncertain Refuge, I came as close as I ever have to giving up on my writing dream and getting out that failed knitting project (Who knew a scarf would be so difficult?) from 1970.
To her credit, Elizabeth’s logic was sound. She felt the synopsis I’d labored over for two weeks (Fourteen days! Long days!) didn’t do justice to the emotional journey of the protagonist. She said my synopsis didn’t fully illuminate where Kate Dalton was when the novel began, the challenges she faced, the ways in which she grew, changed, and adjusted her attitudes, and where she was at the end.
Not wanting to break my perfect record of resisting good advice, I fought Elizabeth’s suggestions the way a feral cat fights a bath.
There came a point, however, when I realized I was expending more time and energy avoiding the project than I would if I just did it. So, after kicking over a wastebasket or two, punching out a family-sized bag of corn chips, and downing an adult beverage, I got right to work.
“Easy” is not a word I’d use to describe the process. Neither is “painless.”
“Time-consuming?” Sure. “Frustrating?” You bet. “Worthwhile?” Yes.
When I was finished, I presented both versions to Elizabeth. She reviewed them and gave me a lukewarm “Okay.” Then she dropped the bomb. “Now put them together into one synopsis.”
Combining the two meant boiling down 10 pages into 5. That involved tough choices and hard decisions and (Gasp!) deep thought. I punched out a giant-sized sack of pita chips, kicked a footstool, and found a dozen reasons to delay or ditch the project entirely.
But then I got down to it and, after a solid week of work, had a polished product I could send out. Over the next two years, that synopsis went to hundreds of agents and editors. It raked in a few dozen requests to view the first chapters, but no one wanted to take a chance on it. Eventually I published the novel myself. (E-sales to date: 16,000+)
Given all of that frustration and time spent, was the synopsis exercise worthwhile?
I developed more discipline and focus. I learned how to refine my thinking, strengthen description, and capsulate characterization.
Would I do it again?
I don’t know. But one joy of self-publishing is that I don’t have to.
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries, Hemlock Lake and Through a Yellow Wood. Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and five novels written with her husband, Mike Nettleton: The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor and Deception at Devil’s Harbor.
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. Her interests are reading, gardening, and NOT cooking. Website www.deadlyduomysteries.com
A few days ago I watched a group of high school seniors struggling to write two-page essays about their lives and their plans for the years after graduation.
These were kids who spend untold hours sharing information—sometimes what I consider to be way too much information—in conversations and phone calls and text messages. This was a topic that required no research or attributions. The assignment seemed like a no-brainer.
And yet, after putting down their names and the date and the class period, most of them came to a full stop. Hung up on how to begin, they stared at that blinking cursor.
I felt their pain. Hoping to hook readers who happen across my books but aren’t familiar with my name, I labor long and hard on first sentences and leading paragraphs. Years ago I learned to delay the stress of crafting that opening and leapfrog into the story by leaving a blank space and writing this: Something brilliant goes in this space and I know I’ll think of it later.
I passed along that advice and saw a few kids catch fire and start hammering their keyboards. Others, though, sat like statues. I offered another piece of time-worn writing advice. “Don’t worry about getting your sentences and paragraphs in order. You have that cut-and-paste function. Move things around and clean up transitions later.”
More fingers prodded the keys, but about a third of the class was still floundering. I hit them with the ever-popular first-draft dogma. “It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be great or even good. It just has to be done. You’ll fix it later.”
That was enough incentive for a few to suck in deep breaths and tap hesitantly at the keys. But there were still three staring at their screens with expressions of fear, loathing, panic, and/or soul-searing anxiety. Trotting to their sides, I did a quick survey: “What are you having trouble with? What would help you?”
If you’re a writer, their responses won’t surprise you. They felt that what they wrote—in this first draft or any other—wouldn’t be good enough.
Thanks to that critical little voice in my head, I know Not-Good-Enough Territory well. In fact, I take up residence there every time I sit down to write.
The terrain is riddled with sinkholes and quagmires and quicksand. If a map exists, it’s not accurate. Storms swirl across the landscape and a sudden freeze is always imminent.
One trick to traversing this hostile land is to get moving and keep moving. If you write fast enough, you may outdistance the inner critic or develop enough momentum to leap across or plow through obstacles it throws in your path.
Another trick is to be your own BFF and make plenty of positive noise to drown out snarky comments that could bring you to a halt. If you can’t shut the inner critic up, then shut it down. Congratulate yourself on every simile and bit of dialogue. Cheer the completion of each paragraph. Reward yourself for every chapter.
I shared that philosophy and saw one boy take it to heart. In a few moments he was pounding away. Ten minutes later he had a full page. One of the others managed a paragraph before the bell rang. The third said she couldn’t work in a room filled with people, but made notes.
As for me, when I got to my keyboard, I took my own advice, shut the little voice down, and cranked out eight pages. They might not be good. They might be barely this side of dreadful. But they exist.
What are the tricks you use to get the job done? Leave a comment and share your strategy.
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of more than a dozen novels, including the Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), and the Catskill Mountains Mysteries (Hemlock Lake and Through a Yellow Wood). She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers and is an active supporter of her local bookstore, Cover to Cover. Her interests are reading, gardening, and NOT cooking. Website