I don’t do this often, but this amazing blog post by Kristin Lamb about log lines and how they can help you not only figure out the gist of your story and it’s major conflicts, but also help you stay on track as you write it, is just amazing! Check it out:
Everyone has metaphors for the writing process. Myself, I’ve already written about how writing a book is like restoring an old car (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/is-your-novel-a-rust-bucket-mine-is/), and this week, I came up with another metaphor for my young adult novel.
What I’ve got is a Ziploc bag full of puzzle pieces. I don’t know what the puzzle should look like. I don’t even know if all the pieces I have are from the same puzzle! One thing I’m sure of: I do not have a complete puzzle.
So how do you put together a puzzle with no picture and no guidelines?
Good question. But this is how I often write novels. I get scenes in my head. Snippets of dialogue. A character doing something. They come to me, often as ephemeral and insistent as a wisp of smoke. Forcing me to notice them. (And sneeze.) And from there, the scene evolves. It may be a page or two. It might be twenty pages. Either way, it’s a scene. I don’t know exactly what happened to get us there, and I may not be sure what comes after. But I’ve got a scene in my head, and I write it Then And There, before it evaporates. Because once it evaporates, it’s gone and it will never come back.
Nota Bene: If a scene comes to you don’t think you’ll remember it later – you won’t!!!!! You won’t remember the exact dialogue, the exact sequence of events, and you’ll lose the magic of that moment. Just drop whatever you’re doing and go write it. Then. And. There.
So I write these scenes, and then I get to put them into some semblance of order, and then I get to figure out where the missing pieces are. Maybe I’ve got some sky, but only a handful of leaves to tell me that a tree should be there. Or maybe there’s supposed to be a covered bridge in the picture, but all I have is the road leading to it, and a bit of the roof. But if I know what should be there, I can figure out the rest.
And that’s what I have now. Is this one book or two? I can’t even tell you that much! When I started my first urban fantasy novel, it was one novel. That was it. One very simple novel. It’s since evolved into at least a six-book series and although I know exactly what’s going to happen, getting it started has been the issue, in large part because of the way I write – in these puzzle pieces. Where does this scene go? Before or after this one? Wait – who’s this person????!!!! Why are you in my novel???!!! I did not invite you!
You have to trust the process.
A few years ago I had a character – Shannon – walk onstage and make herself at home. She was about as welcome as a cockroach in a wedding cake, but she insisted on staying, and my MC, Erin, insisted on interacting with her. Now, I cannot imagine the novels without her. She is the perfect foil for Erin, and her choices and actions make life interesting for everyone. Had I not trusted that she had a place in my novel, if I had been completely welded to an outline, I’d have jettisoned her – and my novels would have suffered as a result.
Nicky’s story has been a little different, in large part because I’m working within a historic framework. I want to keep it as close to ‘real’ as I can, which even includes using actual newspaper articles from 1924. But there are scenes that need to be there, and I have to trust that Nicky has given them to me for a reason. The question is – as I read through the entire thing – where do all the scenes go? What’s missing? What has to go in that I haven’t written yet? And . . . is this one book, or two?
I’d only ever imagined writing one book. But the more I look at what I’ve done and what I have left to do, if this is one book, then it’s going to be as long as Harry Potter #5.
Still, I have to trust that I’m doing the right thing. E.L. Doctorow is credited with one of the most famous sayings about writing:
“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Since Nicky’s a rumrunner, this is very appropriate. 🙂 Sometimes, I feel like I’m driving like James and Richard in the Bolivia trip: I’ve got two flashlights taped to the hood of my car! Not even headlights! Then, you just have to trust that the road is still there, even if you can’t see it very bloody well.
So if you’re not an outliner, if you can’t stand the thought of being shoehorned into a plot line, don’t feel you’re alone. Hey, at least someone didn’t just dump a bag of puzzle pieces in your lap and tell you to get to work. 🙂
Cottages for sale. $3,000 each. Must be moved.
I imagine these cottages, all in a row. Waiting to be adopted. I wonder where they are.
Must be moved. I wonder how much it costs to move a building.
Thus begins one of my favorite books, my own personal fairy tale: Cottage for Sale: Must be Moved by Kate Whouley.
Don’t we all have our own? Whatever it is? Didn’t we all grow up with them? Cinderella. Snow White. The prince riding in on the white horse to save the day, to rescue us from the evil stepmother, or boss, or bullies. From the time we’re old enough to handle the remote – or even before – we’re raised to believe in magic and love and blah blah blah.
My fairy tale is different.
See, it’s always been my fantasy to move a house. An old house. An old house that’s about to be razed, and needs saved. An old house with charm, character. An old house with stories and elaborately carved newel posts, with a huge porcelain farm sink and hardwood floors, with transom windows over the doors and a bay window and the original woodwork inside. The style of house has changed as I’ve gotten older; I used to dream only about Victorian homes – the gorgeous details, the tall ceilings, the whimsy and artistry. Now, it’s Craftsman-style houses that draw me in. The spacious floor plans and attention to detail – and the fact that while everyone wants a Victorian, almost no one seems to want my beloved Prairie Style homes.
But I thought I was totally crazy to want to do it – until I found Kate’s book.
Kate lives on Cape Cod, where houses are small, the Conservation Commission is strict (rightfully so), and space is at a premium. She loves her little corner of the Cape – the cranberry bog, the woodchuck who lives in the hill next to her house, the day lilies and daffodils and lilacs and trees and birds. But her house is tiny, and she has spent years wanting to expand, exploring every option. It seemed impossible – until she opened the Penny Saver one day, and saw the ad that changed it all.
Going mostly on faith, she embarks on a quest to purchase a cottage – the one in the very back, the one with the Mexican tiles in the kitchen and the little sliver of soap left on the sink – and move it to her property, and attach it to her house, creating a home. She has to navigate small-town bureaucracy, the logistics of actually moving a house – even a small one – dealing with plumbers, electricians, concrete guys, and others, and overcoming her own doubts and fears about the entire project along the way.
Kate’s is a story that resonates with me on several levels. Obviously, the entire house-moving idea appeals to me. If she can do it, so can I . . . someday. But it’s more than that. Her observations of the people around her, her interactions with them, are so warm and appealing that you really do want to move to the Cape just to be near them all. She is incredibly aware of her own motivations and fears, and has no hesitancy in putting them on the page. Her love for the land she owns, and the animals she shares it with (especially Egypt, the Cat-in-Charge), comes through loud and clear. Her writing style is a little different – it’s present tense, which I tend not to like, but in this case it works well.
I love this book. I read it at least once a year. When I start to feel down, when I lose yet another house to the bulldozer, when I look at my bank accounts and realize there’s nothing there . . . I go back to this book. Kate’s faith in the project is the only thing that carries her through it. Faith that the Conservation Commission will approve her requests – because she has to buy the cottage before she gets their approval. Faith that the cottage will fit on her property; faith that it can actually be put there. Faith that she can afford it, even though she’s self-employed and doesn’t precisely have a steady income. Faith that the project will come together, even when it seems things are at a standstill. Faith that it will all come together, just as she envisions it, even when no one else seems to think so:
“It isn’t hard for me to envision what the house will look like when it is finished, but as I receive visitors I realize that most of them do not see what I see. I give them the tour, tell them what wall will come down, what doors will be replaced, what the roof will look like . . . At some point, they invariably say to me, “What a lot of work!” . . . And these echoes of my neighbor’s remark tell me I am communicating process well enough, but I am not able to share the visuals that I carry with me in my mind’s eye. It is a lot of work, sure, but what I can already see motivates me, propels me forward.” (p. 161)
Yes. My personal fairy tale. No matter what, Kate is determined to move this house in order to change her life for the better. And that really is what it’s all about, in the end – changing her life for the better. Creating space for more work, more family, maybe even someday a partner. Creating a home in which she can be who and what she is.
Creating a life.
Maybe that’s why this book resonates with me so much. It’s not about moving a house. It really is about creating a life for yourself, despite the naysayers, despite the difficulties.
A lesson that some of us probably need from time to time.
And that, really, is my personal fairy tale.
Gosh, I can’t believe it’s been six weeks since my last blog post! OMG.
In my defense, I was working on rewrites to two novels, classes started two weeks ago, and I’ve been taking care of various sick kitties and family members. (I prefer the kitties.)
I also rescued this:
Last Saturday, I went to my favorite haunt, College Hill Coffee, to write for a couple of hours. As I walked outside, I saw a bird standing in the next street. He was small – I thought at first maybe a pigeon or a collared dove. But his long tail told me he wasn’t either of those things.
As I approached, he watched me, but other than moving a few steps away, didn’t offer much in the way of fear or even wariness. Which worried me, of course. I didn’t see any obvious injuries, but he also wasn’t flying away. And he was in the middle of a rather busy street. So I grabbed a towel from my car (yes, I keep towels in my car for emergencies EXACTLY like this!), draped it over him, and VERY carefully, wrapped him up. (I’ve done this before, yes – cover the eyes, and they are less likely to struggle or be afraid.)
Not a cheep. Not a struggle. Nothing. I called my vet. He answered. I explained the situation – at the time, I thought what I had was a young hawk. YES, he could meet me at the clinic – was 15 minutes too soon? Nope! Not at all. I think I may have gotten him out of something he didn’t want to be doing, to be honest . . . so, Birdie and I got in the car and took off. I was glad no one stopped me. I don’t know how I would have explained that I had a wild bird wrapped up in a towel on my lap. I mean, it sounds totally logical to me, but I’m not sure how logical it would seem to anyone else.
Now, we know that Buckbeak is a Mississippi Kite. They are among the smallest of the raptors, and Buckbeak is a juvenile, probably less than 8 weeks old, because at 8 weeks, they begin to change color and go grey. He was very weak and dehydrated when I found him, and also had two broken bones in one wing. Everyone at the clinic has fallen in love with him; he has a large area in which to move and chase his bugs (he won’t eat anything dead, they tell me), and we are hoping he will heal well enough to be released. However, as you can tell, he’s becoming quite trusting and is a total camera hog! I am hoping that if he can’t be released, we can find him a program where he could be a a educational bird.
Inspiration can come from the most unusual places.
This week, I’ve been reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. I picked it up mostly because it was .99 at Goodwill, and also because it sounded interesting – I feel like a misfit most days, and I have my share of giants to take down! (Don’t we all, though?)
In this book, Gladwell discusses why the epic battle between David and Goliath is often misunderstood. He argues that you need to look at it in the historical context. David, a shepherd, was used to taking out would-be predators with his slingshot. It was not only the preferred weapon for defending your flock; it was the only weapon! So for him to walk out onto that field and take out Goliath – who anticipated hand-to-hand combat – in such a way shouldn’t actually surprise us at all. All David did was use Goliath’s own skills and assumptions against him.
That’s interesting, obviously, but Gladwell goes deeper, looking at famous people – some you may have never heard of before, like Jay Freireich, who pioneered the use of extra platelets to stop leukemia patients from bleeding to death, and developed the cocktail we now call chemotherapy. He argues, in part, that sometimes great adversity – losing a parent, having dyslexia, etc. – can actually fuel greatness in a person, because they learn to compensate and then succeed in spite of that.
But that’s not what got me totally interested. No, what had me reaching for my pen to scribble, in great big blue ink letters THIS IS NICKY!, was the idea of hits, near misses, and remote misses.
To explain, imagine you’re in the London Blitz of 1940 – 41. The German Luftwaffe is dropping bombs on the city almost every night. But night after night, you don’t get hit. Maybe the neighborhood over does. Maybe you know someone who was killed. Or maybe your house gets hit, but you survive without a scratch. You start to think hey, this is all right, it’s not great but I’m still here, so why bother worrying about it? And eventually, depending on your mindset, you might even start to think of yourself as invincible. Freaking Germans couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn, let alone my bloody house! Lousy shots, the lot of them.
It sounds crazy. Totally crazy. But the reason I scribbled OMG this is Nicky! on pages was because it totally IS Nicky.
Nicky is my little 14-year old rumrunner. And he fits the entire profile of this book. He lost his dad at age 8. He had to support his family because his mother totally checked out. He’s the smallest kid in his class and is constantly being bullied, and has to learn to defend himself. And then there’s the rumrunning!
One thing I always sort of struggled with in my mind was the question of how likely it was that Nicky could/would survive so many go-rounds with the law and the Klan and still get away with it. I mean, he’s good enough to not only get away from the Klan/law in one scene, but also to make sure their cars go off in the creek; he eludes the Feds; he evades them again when he’s set up by a rival.
Sure. I set it up. Nicky’s a damn good driver, and his car is one of the best in the county. He should know – he helped build it. He’s got the skills. He’s got the guts. And he knows how to use his knowledge. Furthermore, he knows how to use the ‘knowledge’ of the Feds and the Klan against them. Who would think a runty 14-year old in a souped-up Model T could do all the things they do? But he does.
And there was tiny part of me that questioned if people would really believe it.
But, according to the Misses Theory above, if you have enough near and remote misses, you start to believe nothing can happen to you. And, the more trials and hardships you endure in your life early on, the more likely you are to take risks normal people wouldn’t take, simply because you have no other options. Nicky 100% fits that profile. He lost his dad, he could barely earn enough to make ends meet, he basically raised his twin siblings. By the time he’s forced into becoming a rumrunner, he has no other options. So between these two things – feeling invincible and being forced into a corner – it all makes perfect sense to me.
So if you’re struggling with character motivations, you might want to see if there are any books out there that cover that character’s issues. Characters with issues are characters we care about, after all. We root for the underdog. Harry Potter should have died as a baby, but he didn’t – so he went into that final battle with Voldemort as the clear underdog, and yet (spoiler alert!) he still won. Seabiscuit was the underdog of the 1930s – there was no reason a small horse who’d never won a race in his life ought to be able to be a great racehorse, but he did it. A few years ago at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, a German Shepherd captured everyone’s hearts because he’d been rescued from an abusive situation in which he almost died – and yet went on to win Best in Group.
Underdogs have reasons for winning. Take inspiration from them. Take inspiration from psychology books, from self-help books, from everything around you. I had no idea David and Goliath was going to help me be more at peace with Nicky’s exploits – but it actually helped me understand that in truth, Nicky’s story is actually, already, the only way it could ever possibly be, because of who Nicky is.
Inspiration. Go get some!
Link to David and Goliath at Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/david-and-goliath-malcolm-gladwell/1115837698?ean=9780316204378#/
“Every gambler knows/that the secret to surviving/is knowing what to throw away/and knowing what to keep . . .” – Kenny Rogers, ‘The Gambler’
This is a line from Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler.” The song is about a young gambler who meets up with an old gambler, who gives him some sage advice about life before dying on the train bound for nowhere. A very cheery song.
But, just as the young gambler ‘found an ace that I could keep’ in that advice, maybe we can, too.
As writers, we also have to know what to throw away and what to keep. Rewrites abound with these choices. We’ve all read books – especially debut novels – where we think hmm, couldn’t that line or paragraph or entire chapter have been cut without doing anything to the book? And in truth, we’re probably right.
Of course, when it’s you in the writer’s seat, and it’s your baby you’r taking a red pen to, those choices are much harder to make! Once someone – a beta reader, perhaps – suggests, ever so gently, that perhaps this paragraph could be cut because . . . we tend to instantly launch into defense mode. Truthfully? We know they’re probably right. But admitting that is so hard!
It’s really hard to know what to throw away. I’ve been working on that dratted middle part of my novel for the past week, rearranging scenes, editing others for tension and pace, and yes, cutting some entirely.
Oooh. Yeah. I hear the gasps. What do you mean, you cut? Lines? Oh, my goodness. How could you do that? Wait. You cut – gasp! – scenes? (Horrified silence that drags out . . .)
Yup. Scenes. Entire ones.
How do you know if things need to be cut? Well, if you’re like me, you spend 9 years – off and on – making small edits and revisions and hearing a little voice inside telling you that something’s Not Quite Right, but being unwilling to make the hard choices because that will mean Armageddon.
Let’s think about that little voice for a second.
We are writers. We are readers. At least, we’d better be. We know when something feels ‘off.’ We may not be able to pinpoint precisely what that is, but we know it, deep down. There’s a little hesitation when we read certain paragraphs. We gloss over some sentences, unwilling to look them in the eye. We frown over the transitions from one scene to another, or one chapter to another. We scrunch up our faces at character motives and don’t even get me started on how much we dread reading some dialogue! That’s the little voice writers have. It doesn’t magically appear. It’s developed over time, as we write, edit, read, write, edit, read, write . . . We get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, what our voice sounds like, when we’re imitating others.
In short, listen to the freaking little voice. You may not know what’s going on exactly, but stick a Post-It note on that page anyway. Put a frowny face on it. Just remind yourself that Here Be Something To Work On. Because that little voice? It’s there for a reason. It’s there to tell you how to make your novel better.
Another thing to keep in mind is the issue I’m having right now: scenes that no longer fit. What do you do when you’ve revised and edited, and suddenly that pivotal scene in the middle, the one that once changed the entire thing for your characters, isn’t needed anymore? This is what I did to myself. I had a scene that – okay, let’s be honest. I knew it didn’t work. I knew it was out of character for my MC, Erin, and I knew my other MC, Kai, would never ever in a million years NEVER let her do that. But it didn’t matter. I couldn’t let it go.
And then I made some major changes earlier in the novel, and that scene is now . . . not necessary. So I cut it from the new draft. It just never got copied and pasted over. I’m still wrestling with whether this is good or not!
But. Here’s the thing: if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t belong in your novel.
For a long time I considered this scene sacred, integral to the novel (yes, despite my misgivings about it!). But here’s a sad fact: if the scene doesn’t go in, it won’t matter. Seriously. It won’t matter to the novel at all.
(At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I’m not entirely convinced.)
There are other reasons to jettison paragraphs or entire scenes. One is simply that it doesn’t move the story forward. It might be pretty. It might be some of the best writing you’ve ever done. Does it add to the story in any meaningful way? Does it provide for character development, plot twists, new information? If not – let it go. Or, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch put it,
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (On the Art of Writing, 1916).
Or, if you prefer the great Stephen King:
“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)” (On Writing)
Or, you’d rather, Kurt Vonnegut:
“Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” — (How to Use the Power of the Printed Word)
(And please remember: just because you don’t use it in THIS novel doesn’t mean you can’t rework it for another one! Nothing we write is every truly gone. Plus, your future readers will never know it used to be there. All they’ll notice is the nice, tight pacing, the flow from one scene to the next, the rapid plot development.)
Another reason is parallel to the one I mentioned above – after you’ve revised, you suddenly have a scene that just doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe your character’s motivations have changed. Maybe you’ve added – or deleted – a character. Whatever the reason, it’s just not necessary anymore. Take heart in the fact that you recognize this, and you’re ready to make the sacrifice for the novel’s greater good!
So if you’ve had paragraphs that you felt were extraneous, or lines of dialogue that don’t go anywhere, or even entire scenes that don’t work anymore, don’t be afraid to cut those bad boys right out of there. Cut them! Do it! Now!
Doesn’t that feel empowering? Scary, yes, but empowering?
Now do one more thing: save your novel as an entirely new file. And do this every single time you make major revisions and cuts to your manuscript. I just spent about two hours trying to find an old scene that got cut, and now I need again. I was able to find it because I save my novels as new files all the time. No recreating it from memory. It just needs some tweaking to slide right into place.
This way, you can throw things away – and keep them.
Some people are morning people. Me, not so much. Mostly because mornings have a habit of bringing you Really Weird Things.
Since I live on a farm, very much in the country, I never quite know what to expect. In the past, mornings have brought me stray greyhounds, a porcupine in the barn (one really memorable morning, I found said greyhound sporting more than 300 porcupine quills.), injured horses, and one morning, a baby possum on the porch (which my black Lab had brought for me. He was quite pleased with his gift. He’s also brought me live armadillos. Those, I made him put back.).
Today’s escapade was like that.
For the past few weeks, a pair of blue jays have been jealously defending their nest against all comers. The nest is very high – about 60 feet up the tallest tree in the yard – but boy, do they think the cats are out to get them! I haven’t the heart to try to explain to them that my cats are lazy, and they suck at climbing trees. But I’ve been dreading the day when the babies try to leave the nest. Because the cats will be interested in them then.
This morning, when I went out for my walk, I was greeted by two tiny balls of blue-gray fluff with beady black eyes and wide-open mouths. Somehow, in the night, two babies, not quite fledglings, had fallen out of the nest. They were sitting in the grass in the middle of the yard, waiting for me, apparently.
They stared at me. I stared at them.
First, the fact that they survived the fall was a total miracle. Second, the fact that my two barn cats hadn’t found them yet was a miracle. Third, the fact that I’d chosen to go for a walk this morning, instead of letting the other seven barn cats out of their crates first, was a miracle. (YES, my barn cats sleep in large crates at night, with litter boxes, food, water, and blankets to sleep on. Sue me.)
I looked away. Looked back. Still there. Staring at me. Mouths open. Eyes beady. Waiting.
A normal person would say, okay. Nest in tree. Replace birds in nest. Easy. But remember, the nest is about 60′ in the air. I cannot climb that high. If my life depended on it, I’d be dead. So . . . I had to go to plan B.
The most important thing was to get them off the ground. So I cam up with the bright idea of getting a basket, using hay to make a nest in it, and putting the babies in that.
They stared at me. I stared back.
Then, I got a dog leash and secured it to the basket handles. I had a 30-foot lunge line (used for exercising and training horses), and the idea was to toss one end over a branch, secure it to the basket, and then hoist the basket in the air.
Okay. If you’ve never tried to do this, don’t. Hollywood makes it look easy. Hollywood also makes it look easy to drive 200mph in a stolen Lamborghini, and knock someone out with one punch. Hollywood sucks.
I would need a ladder.
I HATE LADDERS. They are all sentient beings, with one goal and one goal only: to kill as many humans as possible. But I leaned it against the tree and climbed as I high as I could make myself, which was enough to be able to toss the end of the line over the branch and feed it over, until I could reach the end from the ground. Then, I was able to clip the line to the dog leash, hoist the basket in the air, and secure the other end to one of my vintage lawn chairs.
I do not recommend this if you are tired, hot, out of shape, and also fending off 9 curious cats, one of whom REALLY wants to play with the lunge line (but could care less about what’s in the basket). Seriously, though, you can return baby birds to the nest; birds don’t have a good sense of smell. And apparently, even if only one or two babies fall out of the nest, if you fix a new one for them in the vicinity of the real nest, the mothers may take care of both nests. Who knew?
So that’s my morning. Sadly, that’s not even a really odd morning. Par for the course, really. Right up there with watching a skunk eat the dead bugs under the yard light.
I’m happy to report that this evening, the babies are fat, healthy, sleeping, and Mum and Dad Blue Jay are taking care of them. I’m hoping they are able to continue until they are ready to leave the makeshift nest.
Here are some good guidelines for dealing with baby birds that have fallen out of nests: