Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Becoming a Writer Part 3

Let's get a few basics out of the way. To become a writer you must...

  • Have a seventh grade reading spelling competency. CHECK
  • A story idea. CHECK
  • A writing implement. Pen, pencil, paper, computer, crayon on the wall. CHECK
  • Some modicum of determination and inspiration. CHECK
  • Time each day, even a minute, to write. CHECK

After the first blaze of inspiration fizzles -- anywhere between one sentence and fifty pages -- you have to figure out just where this book is going.

Here are some key tools to making your idea into a publishable novel.

1. Dynamic characters. There are several ways to do this. Creating a super hero like Superman. Creating a super cop or super cowboy. A heroine who can draw the attention and restraint of a vampire. ;)

Mostly great novels are made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. The character Elizabeth in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ask key questions: What does my protagonist want? What's keeping her from getting it? Why can't he get over his fears to realize his dream? What wound still darkens his heart? What is her story journey and what will be her epiphany? What can she do at the end she can't do in the beginning.

In Dining with Joy, it seemed rather simple, but the thing she could do in the end she couldn't do in the beginning was make banana bread! It took a whole book and emotional journey to get her there.

Do your character work! Figure out who these people are. Ask "why" until you get at the rock bottom answer.

Me: Why can't Joy cook?
Me: She's an athlete. Just doesn't like it. Doesn't have that gene.
Me: But she never learned to cook?
Me: Her father did all the cooking. Not her mom. No example.
Me: Yeah, but, she's a cooking show host...
Me: Her father never let her in the kitchen. He was creating.
Me: And...
Me: She started resenting him, and cooking.
Me: Ah, now you're talking. But so much she didn't cook?
Me: (eventually) She never learned to cook because she resented her father, thinking he loved food and cooking more than the family.


Now, I can take all of that as a building block to the plot.

2. Work out your plot blocks. Know where your story is going. Even if you like the creative, pantser process. A friend was studying architecture. She wanted to do design, be creative, forget the rules. Yet each time she turned in a design, her professors told her, "this will fall down. it's not usable." Finally, one prof said, "Learn the math. Then you can do what you want."

My friend was amazed at the power and design ability she had once she learned the rules of building buildings.

Learn the rules of the craft. Work out your story so you know where you're going. Even for a fun road trip, you have a map. A plan. Take the time to figure it out.

Weave the plot with the characters fears, goals, dreams and desires.

3. Cause conflict. Things should not be easy for your protagonist. People should not be polite. Issues and people, life, disaster, whatever should get in the way of your protagonist achieving his dream. Or, perhaps he's given up on his dream and you story is how one more event makes him almost give up on life.

You need conflict for a great novel. Author Davis Bunn had a NY publishing house editor tell him, "Ambush the reader." Let the unexpected happen. Make it happen. Turn situations and dialog upside down and write what you see.

In Softly and Tenderly, Jade was beginning to give up on having a child of her own. She'd lost three to miscarriage and one to abortion. But she was secure and loved in her marriage to Max. Until...

Then a woman is killed and Jade learns Max is a father and must raise his son. We ambushed Jade in that book. Hopefully, we ambushed the reader. :)

4. Weave the spiritual or emotional message with the characters plot and journey.

5. Bring all conflict forward. Don't hang back with a story point for some big reveal while filling the pages in between with chapters that don't move the story forward. Don't just repeat what the reader already knows.

In Dining with Joy, I wanted the big disaster to be Joy failing on a national talk show. I'd planned to write this about 2/3 of the way through the book. But I realized it needed to come more in the middle. But then what? What happens after she's outted?

Well, I had to dig deep and figure out what else was going on in Joy's life and figure out her final disaster. It was a smaller one, but after all she'd been through to that point, it was the most emotional one.

So... AMBUSH THE READER! Allen Arnold, fiction publisher at Thomas Nelson says, "Conflict makes great novels."

6. Have a satisfying ending. After you've taken everything from the protagonist, bring back hope. Let him finally find peace, achieve his dream, or whatever. The ending doesn't have to be happily ever after, but must be satisfying.

7. Once the novel is written, in all it's crappy glory, rewrite with word painting in mind. Be more careful and purposeful with your word choice. Start layering in emotional and physical colors. Make sure you have 3 of the 5 senses in every scene. Begin to hone and craft.

8. Mostly, tell a story. Take us on a journey with a complex, compelling character that we'd put up with almost anything to hang out with for 350 pages.

God bless your writing!


Leigh Duncan said...

Great lesson, Rachel! And yes, you definitely ambushed the reader in Softly & Tenderly...and I loved the way you did it.

Rachel Hauck said...

Thanks Leigh! I appreciate you!


Mary @ Giving Up On Perfect said...

I just finished Dining with Joy. I knew I'd like it (I've really enjoyed your other books!), and I did. It wasn't predictable or fluffy, and I certainly appreciate that in a novel! I also liked how the characters weren't perfect.

Actually, now that I think about it, I liked the characters so much that I would have probably enjoyed reading about them for another couple hundred pages. (It's a good thing you didn't write that much more for me to read, though. My dishwasher needs to be emptied and my laundry needs to be folded - and neither would happen if I had 200 more pages with the folks of Beaufort!) :)