Novels: Putting the Puzzle Together

Everyone has metaphors for the writing process. Myself, I’ve already written about how writing a book is like restoring an old car (, 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.

soapboxNota 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. 🙂

“You Are Here!” – The Importance of Creating Historical Settings

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about pop culture references in your work, and how they can be taboo to some, and ‘setting’ to others (

When you’re writing a novel set in present times, it’s a bit of a two-edged sword. For example:  the movie Clueless turns 20 (I KNOW, right? 20? How did THAT happen?!) this summer. If you grew up watching it (I was in my teens when it was released), then the cultural references are something you totally get. When Cher says “I think they’ve seen that Tina and Ike movie way too many times” (and I think I just got that quote wrong!), you know exactly who she means and why she’s saying it. It’s context. And let’s face it:  who hasn’t said “That was way harsh” in the last twenty years? 🙂 The designers (“This is an Alaia!” “An A-what-a?” “It’s like a totally important designer!”), the cell phones, the gay best friend – they all date this movie to one very specific time period.

The same is true of your novel. You have to remember that even if you’re writing a contemporary novel, some day it will be a historical. There, did that blow your mind? But it’s true. Think about it. Think about the books you had to read in high school:  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice . . . written by people who were writing about their own era, and yet today they are historical. Some day, the same will be true of Gone Girl.

But if you’re writing a historical novel, getting the details right is key, because you’re not throwing around pop culture references:  you’re creating setting.

Currently, I’m reading City of Women by David R. Gillham. Set in 1943 Berlin, it’s a fantastic glimpse inside that city and the lives of the people just trying to survive the war. Gillham hasn’t just plunked down a few facts here and there to add flavor; he’s immersed the story in the setting. I adore it. I feel like I’m there. This novel could not have occurred at any other time, in any other place.

Had this novel been written in the 1950s or 1960s, the references to the movies they watch, the war rations, the patriotic songs, might be considered trite and unnecessary. But seventy years removed, all these things let the reader see precisely what Gillham wants us to see:  Berlin, 1943. Harsh, cold, barely functioning, Gestapo everywhere. A place where one’s identity card must be at the ready at all times, and speaking out against the Reich is death.

The book is so well written, in fact, that I had trouble choosing a passage to demonstrate what I mean. But here’s one:

Another blast shakes the cellar, and the lamps blink frantically. But by this time the rest of the shelter’s inhabitants must welcome a bomb blast or two, if only to silence Frau Remki’s suicidal indictment (*of Hitler; she’s just called Hitler the devil, which is Not Good in 1943 Berlin, to put it mildly). And indeed when the light sputters back to a low-wattage glow, the woman has sunk back down to her place like a pile of rags. The thudding explosions grow more distant, but the cellar remains a densely silent place . . . One long, aching howl, signaling that the RAF has crossed over the line into Hannover-Brunswick airspace, and that Berlin, that vast, rambling city, is all-clear.

Gillham has it all:  the street names; the exact trains; the brand of the really good, black-market cigarettes; the German terms, unobtrusively explained either by context or within the next line.  Even the furtive, illegal act of listening to the BBC with your ear pressed to the speaker, the sickening realization that what Berlin is being told about the Eastern Front is a complete propaganda lie . . . You are there. You’d really rather not be. But you can’t escape.

Getting these details right is at the heart of any good historical novel. But as I learned at the Oklahoma Writer’s Conference this spring, you’ve got to have an agent who ‘gets’ that time period. There was a ‘first page workshop,’ where some people got to submit their first pages for critique by the agent (and the audience). We read a relatively good page, set in the early 1930s, in which the character looks at the thermometer (as I recall, it actually said that the thermometer was hanging outside the window) and notices it’s very hot, very early in the morning.

“See,” the agent said, pointing out the word thermometer, “this has to change. This should be thermostat. This is sloppy writing. This is what I meant when I said you need to proofread.”

Before I could say a word, the older lady next to me jumped to her feet. “Uh, no,” she said, “the word should be thermometer! This is one of those big Dr. Pepper thermometers that used to hang outside of buildings! I know exactly what they’re talking about!”

So writers, take note:  your readers will know, and your agent may not. Get it right anyway, and be ready to defend your word choice if necessary! But that’s precisely the kind of thing I mean. Look at maps – but look at photographs, too. Describe the buildings you’re writing about. Describe the clothes, the cars. Don’t say He was wearing a hat; be specific to your time period. Is it a slouch hat? Gray fedora? Stetson? Tweed driving cap? Is the building granite or limestone? It’s not just about the details, it’s about the right, exact, and accurate details.

Create the setting for your novel. Create the setting that your characters can live and breathe in, that contributes to the plot. Create the setting that captures readers and holds them hostage, where they breathe the foul fog off the Thames, or hear the jingle and creak of harness, or break a wrist cranking over a Model T engine. Create the historical setting that becomes a character itself.

Even if you’re writing a contemporary novel. 🙂

When That Scene Just Doesn’t Work

We’ve all been there.

You’re typing away madly, barely hanging on as your characters get deeper and deeper into trouble. Or you’re lost in the rush of the words, the meter and cadence and rhythm.

And then . . . it isn’t coming so fast anymore. You’re struggling. You’re not sure why. You just feel that Something Isn’t Right With This. Nothing you can put your finger on. Just a subtle shift in the universe, is all. The dialogue feels stilted. Your characters, stifled. Your action, weird.

What do you do?

A LOT of people will give you this advice:  “Push on through! Write it anyway! If it sucks, you can revise it later! Don’t stop!”

What the fruitbat kind of crap is that???

If it’s not working, IT’S NOT WORKING. Here, let me get my soapbox back out. soapboxThere, that’s better. Now, back to what I was saying. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. There’s a reason why it isn’t working. There’s a reason why your fingers have gone still on the keyboard and your brain — and probably your characters — are screaming at you to stop. Just stop. Everything. For five minutes.

So you stop. Phew. Isn’t that better? Now. Let’s figure out exactly What Went Wrong.

There are any number of reasons why a scene doesn’t work at a particular time. Some of the most common are:

1.) You’re taking a wrong turn or going on a bad tangent. Writers have a gut instinct about their stories and where they need to go. If you find yourself stuck, think about it for a second. Is this scene taking you down some narrow, rutted dirt road with no way out? Are you going to get stuck and have to wait for some dudes blaring “Dueling Banjos” from speakers to come bail you out? Maybe your gut is telling you that’s exactly what’s happening. Just like we need to listen to our instincts in “real life,” we need to listen to them in our writing lives, too.

2.) This scene will change your novel — and not for the better. Is it making your characters do things they shouldn’t be doing? Is it slowing down the pace? Is it going to result in a complete turnabout for your storyline, one you don’t want?

3.) It’s just boring. Or worse, it just sucks. This happened to me last week. The scene is crucial to my storyline; that wasn’t the issue. The issue was how it was written, initially. It — well, here. You can see for yourself. The first is the way it was originally written; the second is when I stopped and said, “this sucks!” and rewrote it.

Twenty minutes later, I saw Adam loitering in the shadows at the end of the porter’s lodge, inside the quad. When he saw me, he took a few steps forward, into the light, and I could see the fear leave his face for a second, see the relief that flooded through him – only to see it disappear in the next second, and the fear return. He stopped, some distance from me, and I slowed my steps, hesitant.

“Come.” He jerked his head towards the quad, and I followed him. It was a freezing night; my breath clouded the air, and I shivered in my heavy coat as we hurried down the cobblestone walks, through a small gate, and across another quad towards the dorms. I’d never been in this part of the campus before, but Adam seemed to know exactly where he was going, his long strides eating up the walks.

“Adam,” I gasped, “what the hell’s going on?”

Yeah, I’m a coward. What I really wanted to ask was whether he knew I could see ghosts, whether she’d told him. I didn’t have to; Adam gave me a quick glance, and in his eyes I saw everything.

“She’s flipping out,” he said. “Screaming about you and how you’ve done something to her and she’s got to talk to you right now so it can be fixed.” His steps paused, and he searched my face; then he stopped completely, and grabbed my arm to stop me, too. “Erin,” he said. “What does she mean? She said – she said to tell you they’re everywhere, and she believes you. She said – she said she has to see you, right now.”

Okay. It’s not bad, exactly:  it just wasn’t going anywhere. So I immediately stopped, and rewrote it.

Twenty minutes late, I dashed through the gates and saw Adam at the other end of the walk, in the shadows. He stepped forward, and I stumbled to a halt at the look in his eyes.

“Adam,” I whispered, “what the hell’s going on?”

His face was white; his eyes looked haunted, afraid. And when he touched my arm briefly, I could feel it trembling, even through my sweater and coat.

“Wish I knew,” he said. “She . . . she called me about an hour ago. Completely off her rocker. Begged me to come over, to make them go away. And then . . .” He took a shuddering breath, and jerked his head towards the quad. “Come on. Better you see for yourself.”

It was a freezing night; my breath clouded the air around me, and I shivered in my heavy coat as we hurried across the quad and out the north gates, towards the dorms. I’d never been on this part of campus before, but Adam seemed to know where he was going, his long strides making it difficult to keep up with him. Every now and then he’d glance over his shoulder to make sure I was still there, but he didn’t slow down, and he didn’t seem to want me to get too close to him.

Something twisted up deep inside me. But I forced myself to follow him into one of the nineteenth-century dormers and up two flights of steps. The entire house felt oppressive; I felt pressure from all sides, and my senses immediately went on guard.

I had to GET ON WITH IT. So I did.

4.) Your characters are telling you to stop. This does happen. Sometimes we think we know where a story needs to go and what needs to happen, and what we really need to do is listen to our characters. It’s not your story, after all; it belongs to them. They live in that world. They have to deal with the fallout of their decisions. And if they’re just sitting there like lumps, it’s probably because you’re not listening to them. Listen to them. Then do what they tell you to do.

5.) It isn’t moving the story forward. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, that beautiful prose that springs from our pens (or keyboards) just doesn’t get the job done. I’m a firm believer that if a scene doesn’t perform at least two functions, it isn’t working hard enough. A scene can be beautifully written and still have tension, deliver information, convey character and character changes. Scenes must move the story forward. If yours doesn’t, you have two choices:  revise it, or, as Stephen King says, “murder your darlings.”

Yes, I’ve had to do that. I hate it. But it’s not gone forever! You still have it on your hard drive, and your flash drive, and in the cloud, and  in hard copy, and in a dozen other places because we never ever have just one version of our novels, right?! And who knows? Maybe it can be reworked into something different. Maybe you can pull certain quotes or sentences and use them elsewhere.

So the moral of the story is, if you’re stuck on a scene — ABANDON IT. That scene isn’t the only gig in town, I promise! And what you learn from that scene will only help make the right one even better.