For the past eight weeks in our Write on 2017 series, we’ve explored ways to stay on course and on fire about our writing. Today we’re going to wrap up the series by discussing the most asked question I get when I give productivity workshops to writers, and that is, “How can I find more time to write?”
If you’ve already made writing a priority (remember this little clown?), it’s not a matter of finding time but better using the time you have. Here are a few quick tips:
1. Clock in for Business – While most of us do not have time clocks to punch when we start writing, there are a number of ways to “cross the threshold” into work. Sit in your writing chair and declare that your workday has begun. Put up a sign that says “Writer at Work.” Or create a writing log and sign in. The key is creating a block of time to write and then honoring that commitment. You wouldn’t cheat an employer out of an honest day’s work; don’t cheat yourself.
2. Minimize Distractions – Turn off all notifications on your phone. Disconnect your computer from the Internet. Tell your family or roommates that you are not to be disturbed unless there is a fire or flood. If it helps, pop in ear buds with the music of your choice or use a sound-streaming service such as Brain FM to improve focus and productivity.
3. Create to-do lists – Before your dedicated writing time, jot down everything you’d like to accomplish, things like number of new words you want to write or pages to edit. Planning ahead will keep you focused and provide a roadmap when you’re not sure where to go next.
4. Report to a goal or productivity partner – Every Monday I send an e-mail to one of my critique partners reporting what I accomplished in my writing world the week prior and what my plans are for the week ahead. She chimes in with praise or cyber hugs then shares her weekly writing update. We’ve been holding each other accountable for more than ten years, and I can tell you I’ve kicked out some pretty impressive word counts in the hours before our check-ins.
5. Tackle tough stuff first – If you’re struggling with a scene or a bit of research, get to it while you’re fresh. Tackling the tough stuff first will free up your mind and will most likely give you a boost of confidence.
6. Writing Sprints – If you’re having a hard time getting started, set a timer for twenty minutes and write, even if it’s something like, “I don’t know what to write” or “This story is giving me fits”. The act of engaging your fingers and putting words on the page should loosen things up. In addition, knowing that you have only a set amount of time will motivate you to get something down. Check out the Ruby Sprint Schedule, which runs during our annual Winter Writing Festival.
7. Reward yourself – In a business where you don’t receive a regular paycheck, it’s important to recognize your accomplishments. Did you finish a particularly rough scene? Dip into your stash of chocolate. Did you meet your writing goals for the day? Walk the dog or watch the next movie in your Netflix queue. These little rewards go a long way in helping you make big progress.
Now it’s your turn!
Your Assignment: Identify at least one thing you can do to better manage your writing time. Write it in the comment section below. Then, DO IT!
Shelley Coriell is an award-winning author of mysteries, romantic thrillers, and novels for teens. Her debut thriller was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of the Year, and her other novels have been nominated for an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award, Best Paperback Original of the Year from the International Thriller Writers, and a Kirkus Recommended Read. A former magazine editor and restaurant reviewer, Shelley lives in Arizona with her family and the world’s neediest rescue weimaraner. You can find her at www.shelleycoriell.com and Twittering @ShelleyCoriell.
Why do readers read? They want to escape their world. But you knew that, because you are also a reader.
The greatest writers through time have said that the best fiction takes a reader through a fact finding journey and also on an emotional journey. The emotional journey is what connects you and the reader. Without it, you’re just relating what happens in your characters’ lives. Bonding with the reader is the most important job you have as an author. But how can you do that? There are many ways, but today I want to discuss two.
First, recall emotions, especially those you’ve buried. Buried emotions are the best because they affected your heart. Recall a time you felt hurt or happy or lost or found. Allow yourself to experience the emotions again and write them down. By writing them down, I don’t mean just the term. Write the dialog used during the conversation and the reactions both physically and mentally you experienced. Be honest with yourself. The more you peel away the layers of your psyche, the more powerful your writing will be.
Here is an example as I recall my first taste of love. I’ve changed my hero’s name to protect him.
My first kiss happened in my family’s barn. The barn had been in my family for five generations. It was old and leaned slightly. Closing my eyes, I feel the cool air against my warm skin- the barn is built into the hillside. I can see the wood planks, turned gray from time and wear, just a few feet above my head. Bridles and lead ropes hang from pegs hammered into road milled posts nicked over years. Large rocks make up the foundation walls. My sorrel gelding is in his stall watching me, and dust mites float in the sunlight pouring in the door behind the boy who had chased me inside.
I can smell a mixture of summer sun, feed and manure. I hear the munching of hay as the cattle fed and the sound of my horse’s neigh and snort. There is a dip from the nozzle near the shaft to the silo. I also hear the whispered alto voice of the boy with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, as he declared his affection for me. His gorgeous cobalt eyes were magnified behind glasses: dark framed like Clark Kent’s. Eric was my hero and always would be. I’d love him until the end of time.
My heart thumped against my breast, knowing Eric really liked me while my toes wiggled in my boots as if telling to run because if my dad found out about the kiss that was about to happen he would kill the boy and ground me for a month. My spine stiffened and my step was defiant as I cut the distance between Eric and myself, committed to take my chances. Looking up at me, because he was about two inches shorter, Eric’s eyes widened before closing as his lips met mine. For a brief few seconds, we entered an unknown world, a world we knew we’d entered again, in due time.
“Will you go to the movies with me on Saturday night? I can meet you there,” he said in a rush.
I simply nodded, afraid my voice would crack.
Writing the memory down gave me tons of ideas of how to write emotion into any first kiss scene, no matter what the age of the characters.
As an exercise in your comments, write about your first kiss. What do you recall?
Second point: Everyone has experienced a first kiss. Using that scenario immediately connects you to the reader. But what happens when you’re writing beyond your experience? Research is the answer. Say you’re writing a scene where the characters have experienced a fire and have lost everything. You’ve been fortunate enough not to have that disaster happen to you, so what you can do is ask someone who has. I did this and I’ll never forget the two of the responses I received.
One woman she said she always looked at her husband as the rock she could count on, but the day they lost everything, her husband fell to his knees literally and was lost. She took over the responsibility to shoulder their way through rebuilding their home and lives. That catastrophe made her stronger than she thought she ever would be.
The second woman told me she felt guilty after suffering the loss of everything. Her guilt was over her family’s heirlooms for which she had been entrusted. For generations the treasures from England had been kept safe and passed down. She was the one to fail to do so. She was ashamed of herself. It took her a long time to come to terms that the lost was not her fault.
Both are very unique outlooks on a tragedy that can connect you with many readers who’ve had the same experience. And for those readers who have not, we have a better insight into the depth of emotional upheave that a fire can cause.
So show your readers your passion. Reveal your heart and the heart of others.
About the author
I began my writing career at the age of nine and sold three handwritten copies of a twenty page story. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and follow in the footsteps of my favorite authors, the ones who took me away and inspired me. Many years later, here I am.
I’ve earned the nickname of trouble from family and friends. Okay, I admit I do stir up things now and then, but in my defense I’m usually the one called on to champion a cause.
All that life reveals is fair game to a writer.
Join my newsletter at www.autumnjordon.com to learn more about me and my works, including my Christmas romance Perfect.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve discussed the story beats that make up the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise. Today, I’m going to introduce some original work on an archetypal story structure that I call The Sinner’s Redemption.
I don’t believe anyone has laid out the beat sheet for a redemption story, but I could be wrong. I haven’t done an exhaustive literature search for this. What you see below is a story beat sheet that I developed myself.
What is it about redemption stories? We love them. We tell them all the time. And like any archetypal story structure, readers recognize the structure. Classic examples of redemption stories include: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment, A Christmas Carol (and the many spin-offs of it including It’s a Wonderful Life), as well as many sports comeback stories like Bad News Bears.
Like the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise redemption stories are perfectly fitted to a specific protagonist archetype. Theoretically a redemption story can be told about any person with any kind of archetypal behavior system, but usually redemption stories involve protagonists who are Misers, Addicts, Rakes, Harlots, Thieves, Villains, Vampires, Shapeshifters, Zombies, or Biker Boys with Tats. But for the purpose of simplicity, I’m going to call the protagonist archetype a Sinner.
In short, redemption tales usually begin with a protagonist who has already fallen from grace, or who, like the Ancient Mariner, commits a crime and falls from grace in the first few scenes. Unlike the Hero who start his story in an “ordinary world,” or a Virgin who starts her story in a “dependent world,” the Sinner begins his tale in a “miserable world.”
Here are the story beats for a Sinner’s Redemption, using examples from the movies It’s a Wonderful Life and Electric Horseman.
Example: Electric Horseman
Example: It’s a Wonderful Life
THE MISERABLE WORLD
The story starts in one of two ways:
The Sinner has already fallen from grace and is living in a world that is cold, bleak, dark, and divorced from all things spiritual. He is unkind, uncaring, craven, and values all the wrong things, just like Ebenezer Scrooge
The Sinner falls from grace. The Sinner is not a bad guy, but he (or someone close to him) makes a spectacular mistake that puts the Sinner into a miserable world.
Sonny Steele is a five time all around rodeo champion. At the end of his career he takes a job with AMPO, a giant corporation, to pitch their breakfast cereal. Now he’s trotted out in an electric cowboy suit and paraded around at rodeos. It’s a humiliating fall from his former glory.
George Bailey is a good man, but his bumbling uncle has lost the Savings and Loan’s money and a bank examiner has just arrived to audit the books.
WEARING THE ALBATROSS
There are three possibilities for this story beat: 1) The Sinner will assume the guilt and all the responsibility for his fall from grace. In fact he wallows in guilt. 2) He might be like Ebenezer Scrooge so far gone that he doesn’t even recognize how miserable he is, and he delights in being a real villain and ass, or 3) He will find himself in a state of utter despair.
Sonny is so humiliated by his life that he takes to the bottle. He drinks all the time, and is often so drunk that he can hardly stay on his horse when he has to do personal appearances.
George assumes the blame for the missing money. He knows he’ll be sent to jail the next morning because he has no way to replace the missing money. He despairs.
REJECTING THE MESSENGER
In redemption stories, there is a benevolent force at work behind the scenes determined to redeem the Sinner. The Universe of Goodness will send the Sinner a messenger, designed to shake him out of his misery. The Sinner usually ignores or misses the message the first time it’s delivered. But like Scrooge encountering Marley’s ghost, the message often makes the sinner uneasy or angry.
At a corporate wide event in Las Vegas, Sonny is late to a press conference. Reporter, Hallie Martin, out for a good story, asks him a question that pierces his armor. He dodges the question, but it shakes him up.
George is beside himself. He goes home to his wife and family only to discover that his daughter Zuzu is sick. She is there to remind George of what he holds dear, but George misses the point, and instead, he yells at Zuzu’s teacher when she calls to see how Zuzu is feeling. Zuzu gives George a token of goodness in the form of the petals from her broken flower. He puts the petals in his pocket before he dashes out of the house desperate to find a solution to his problem at the bank.
THE VALLEY OF LIFE AND DEATH
About ¼ of the way through the story, the Sinner leaves his miserable world and enters into the Valley of Life and Death. In some redemption stories, like A Christmas Carol, this is a paranormal purgatory where the rules of physics do not apply. In other redemption stories, it’s a metaphoric valley. This place may be divorced from society, or it may be more akin to a secret world. Scrooge is allowed to visit his past and future life in a dream world. The Ancient Mariner is stuck on a death ship with the souls of his shipmates. In Les Miserables, the Sinner is sent to jail.
The PR department introduces Sonny to their new corporate symbol, a million dollar race horse named Rising Star. The company has sedated the horse and done other things to it jeopardize its health and wellbeing.
Sonny, who has been happy to take money in return for being demeaned, is suddenly unable to let AMPO do the same to Rising Star. So Sonny steals the horse and rides him off into the Nevada desert, a metaphoric Valley of Life and Death.
George tries to raise the missing money from Mr. Potter, who only points out that with George’s life insurance policy, George is worth more dead than he is alive.
George enters the Valley of Life and Death by contemplating suicide.
A GUIDE WILL APPEAR
The Sinner will not face the Valley of Life and Death alone. He will either be guided through it like Scrooge with the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future, or the Sinner will journey with someone whose main story purpose is to make him review the choices he’s made during his life.
The police and Ampo are on Sonny’s tail, but they have no clue where he’s gone.
Hallie, the reporter, is way smarter. She talks to Sonny’s cowboy friends, learns something about Sonny’s past, and goes off to find him.
When she finds Sonny, Hallie discovers that he plans to release Rising Star somewhere out in the wilderness. She talks him into letting her tell his story. Hallie and Sonny team up and begin a trek across the wilderness together. In this redemption story, both Hallie and Sonny will review their respective lives while they travel cross-country on foot.
Heaven sends Clarence, an angel-in-training, to stop George from killing himself. Clarence who knows all about George’s past, decides to show George what the world would be like if George had never been born. Together they take a tour of an alternate Bedford Falls, where the villain, Mr. Potter, is in charge of things.
MEETING THE AVATAR OF GOODNESS
While the Sinner is wandering in The Valley of Life and Death being forced to review his life and the choices he’s made, he will encounter at least one Avatar of Goodness whose fate rests in his hands. Scrooge had Tiny Tim. Jean Valjean had Cozette. Often this Avatar of Goodness is innocent, naïve, and even Christ like.
As they trek across the wilderness, Hallie digs deeply into Sonny’s past life. She meets some of his friends along the way and comes to realize he’s a better man than the drunk she first met. Sonny learns a lot of about Hallie ,too, and makes her reevaluate the reasons she wants Sonny’s story. For Sonny and Hallie, their Avatar of Goodness is Rising Star. As they tend to the horse, he gets stronger, and their motivations for setting him free gets strong as well.
George Baily encounters himself. Oddly, in this redemption story, the Avatar of Goodness is the protagonist, whose life and choices have changed the course of history in the small town of Bedford Falls.
HE SEES THE ERROR OF HIS WAYS
At the close of the Sinner’s journey through the Valley, he has come to see how his past choices may not have been good ones. And he wants to save and/or help the fate of the Avatar of Goodness.
For a while it looks as if AMPO and the police are going to get the drop on Sonny, because, early on, Hallie gave them information about the place Sonny intended to set Rising Star Free.
But at the last minute, Sonny reveals the release point for Rising Star, and its hundreds of miles away from where the cops think it’s going to be. Together Sonny and Hallie release the horse, and agree that the true location doesn’t ever need to be disclosed.
George is shocked and horrified by what Clarence has shown him. He comes to understand that his life means something. Suddenly George finds himself back on the bridge where he’d been thinking about ending it all. He reaches into his pocket and finds Zuzu’s petals.
It’s not enough for the Sinner to see the errors of his ways. Only an act of true repentance or forgiveness will allow him to move on. Scrooge wakes up from his dream and immediately buys a turkey for Tiny Tim and his family.
Hallie comes to realize that there are some stories that are not worth telling to the world. She gives up her story, and she asks for Sonny’s forgiveness. Sonny forgives Hallie, and as she gets on a bus to return to New York, we know that Sonny’s days of selling himself to corporate America are over. He’s ready to face the penalties for having stolen a twelve million dollar horse, and he’s moving on with his life.
Even though George is facing prison time, he knows the answer isn’t suicide. He must go home and face his problem head on and accept the punishment.
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF THE MUNDANE
The Sinner’s world remains the same as it always was to everyone living in it except the Sinner himself. When the Sinner sees the error of his ways and repents, his miserable world is transfigured and becomes holy. The Sinner emerges from the Valley of Life and Death into a world that is as close to heaven as any world can get.
Hallie has seen things a girl from New York never knew existed. Her view of the world has radically changed. She sees beauty in things she never saw before.
Like any good Cowboy, Sonny heads off into the sunset with his head held high. He’s no longer a puppet of corporate America, but even more important, he’s preserved a piece of sacred nature by releasing Rising Star into the wilderness to run free.
George runs through Bedford Falls like a mad man, even though he knows that tomorrow he’ll be charged with bank fraud. It’s almost as if George is seeing the town for the first time.
When he arrives home, he discovers that all the people whose lives he’s touched have banded together to raise the funds George needs to replace the missing money.
So there you have it –The beats for the Sinner’s Redemption. I can think of many other stories like this: Crime and Punishment, The Family Man, The Shawshank Redemption, The Mighty Ducks.
And – wait for it – the first book in my new series, A Christmas Bride, that will be available this coming September. In that story, a widower is living in a miserable world, no longer able to hear the messages that this eight year old daughter is trying to send him. . .until the his deceased wife’s best friend returns to town, gets all up in his face, and forces him to take a good long look at his life and the mistakes he made during his first marriage. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s a redemption love story, set during the holiday season. And it was during the writing of this book that I realized that most redemption stories have a structure to them that is repeated over and over again. And while the character arc for my heroine is probably more of a Virgin story, the much bigger character arc of the hero in this book is definitely a Sinner’s redemption. In fact, the first comment my editor made in her revision letter, was “wow, the hero’s arc is the biggest one you’ve ever written.”
Yeah. Because it’s a redemption story.
Next week, finding the story beats when your story isn’t a Hero’s Journey, a Virgin’s Promise, or a Sinner’s Redemption.
In the sprints, many authors have announced that they’ve completed their work, first draft or edits. Others are following their footsteps. I thought we’d take this opportunity to talk about endings.
We all know that our endings MUST leave our readers satisfied. The ending can be happy or not. Or, it could leave the reader completely hanging out there with a hundred questions about what happens next, if that is what the reader has expected and will want-think saga. However, don’t leave the ending up to the reader to draw conclusions. They are the reader, not the author.
Endings need to answer or allude to the resolution of the main character’s conflict. If you allude to the hero’s trumpet but don’t actually show it, this opens the door for disaster to happen in the beginning of the next story, if that is your goal.
As you head toward your end, ask yourself what was the main conflict? Did you resolve it? Remember the hero can win the battle (his priority) but the war can still rage on.
Make the main character the catalyst for the outcome. It is their battle and they are the hero of their story. Make them work to make the things happen in their favor.
Have you read a story where things just came together at the end, tied up with a pretty pink bow? Did you feel cheated, let down? You’ve worked too hard building characters, emotion, and tension, just to tell your characters, to kiss and make-up like children. Don’t come up with contrived details to end your story. Don’t be lazy now.
Don’t end the story using new information that has come out of the blue. Your readers have invested time, getting to know your characters and have racked their brains formulating theories about the outcome, don’t cheat them.
If your ending is going to twist, make sure you sprinkle signs throughout your story. That way, the reader will say the author did warn me, but I let the clues go over my head. They’ll look at the story in a total different light. A light that includes five star reviews. A great example of a twist ending was the movie ‘THE SIXTH SENSE’. If you haven’t seen it, do it. It’s a great study.
And finally, know when the story ends. The reader does not need to know what happens with every character. Once your main characters’ reach their goal, whether they won the battle on a blue star in a galaxy far, far away or lover’s pledge their undying love and go to sleep only to die in each other’s arms, the story is over. It’s time for the reader to feel. Tie up loose ends (brief anti-climax) before the grand climax.
A great ending makes your reader feeling something, good or bad. It makes them think about the story a long time after closing it. It makes them talk about your book to their friends. And it makes them buy your next.
Does anyone have any other advice on writing a great end or examples of great endings?
Twenty years ago, the only tools I needed for a productive writing session were a sharp pencil and a fresh notepad. But that was before the internet. Now my already short attention span gets pulled in every direction. So to increase my word count or to even get a single word on the page, I need help from high- and low-tech writing tools. These are a few of my favourites:
I’ve raved on about this internet-blocking software before, and for good reason—it’s simple and it works. Activate Freedomand it’ll become impossible to connect to the internet or email from five minutes to 12 whole hours. The only way to override it is to shut down your computer. Honestly, it’s the best $10 I ever spent. If I have 15 minutes spare, I will switch on Freedom and write at least 250 words. The same developer created another app called Anti-Social($15). This doesn’t cut you off entirely — you can block specific sites that are most likely to drag you into a cyber black hole. (Hello, Pinterest! Or should I say goodbye?)
Write or Die
If you need a good scare to get you working, the web-based Write or Die is perfect for you. Set a word-count target and the time in which you want to achieve it. Fail to meet your target and the app will emit a poisonous substance that will kill you in three seconds display a consequence, like a disturbing image or an annoying alarm. It’s not all dire — select Reward mode and ye shall receive pleasing sights and sounds when you reach your goal. This app is $20, and there’s an option to try before you buy.
I no longer use plain old MS Word to write my manuscripts. Instead, I work with Scrivener. It allows me to keep plotting and revision notes, critiques, synopses, images, research, and the manuscript in one file. I haven’t explored every function of the software; I’m learning new things all the time. Ruby sis Anne Marie Becker alerted me to a target tracker, which is great if you’re a visual person and like to see your word count grow in chart form. (In Scrivener, go to the Project menu —> Show Project Targets.) I also love the random name generator in Scrivener (Edit menu —>Writing Tools —> Name Generator). Prior to that discovery, I used Name Dice for iPhone to come up with first and last name combinations.
For great advice on using Scrivener, check out these past Ruby posts:
This alternative to virtual and paper sticky notes allows you to float ideas and images on your virtual desktop in one handy document. I use Scapple when brainstorming or working through a synopsis. It’s made by the people who devised Scrivener and can be yours for $14.99. Free trial available.
The Amazing Story Generator by Jason Sacher is a fun flipbook designed to spark thousands of plot ideas. The spiral-bound pages are horizontally divided into three elements – an introductory clause, a subject, and predicate. For instance, In a post-apocalyptic world, a computer hacker is transported to a new galaxy. Flip just one of those elements — say, the subject — and you could find a more comical direction: In a post-apocalyptic world, a clown in training is transported to a new galaxy.
Here’s my cat being very unhelpful indeed:
’Tis the season for giving, so I’m *giving away* a copy of Freedom for your Mac or PC! All you have to do is tell me what makes you more productive or what sucks your time away. Who’s game to write a story about a trainee clown in a new galaxy?
My children came into the world with two sets of grandparents and two sets of great-grandparents. Safe within the nurturing embrace of their large and loving family, they thrived.
I can’t recall whether Son was in kindergarten or first grade, but one day, he arrived home confused and agitated. A classmate claimed to have no grandparents. How could that be?
The shattering of normal had begun.
This is one of my favorite memes (sorry, Angelica, but Carolyn will always be Morticia to me). In one pithy sentence, the truth is revealed: Normal isn’t a wide brush that coats every life with the same paint. It’s a series of brushes comprised of various materials, camel hair, boar bristles, razor wire, each a different width and bearing a different color.
We’ve all heard or read about that mystical, magical, elusive element called Voice. From whence does it come? How do I get it?
The answer is simple. As you experience life, you acquire streaks, stripes, and spots of matte, satin, gloss, and glitter. It’s from that chromatic chaos tinting the neutral base of your inherent nature Voice emerges.
Voice is you–who you were, are, and even who you will become. If planning your next visit to an exotic land is your normal, that adventurous spirit will traipse across the page. A perennial optimist? Sunshine will light your words. Pessimist? Gloom will shadow your prose. Try though you might to disguise it, Voice will illuminate the real you.
Have things in your world ever become so overwhelming you wanted to divorce your life? Okay, maybe not divorce, but how about a legal separation? Or, at the very least, a lengthy vacation?
Life will, eventually, test every hope, dream, belief, and perception, pushing you to the edge of your mental and physical endurance. It will leave you asea, battling crashing waves, glowering skies, and circling sharks. Survival will demand all your attention. Day by day, you’ll struggle, hope for rescue, search the horizon for signs of land.
This becomes your normal.
Then, for better or worse, it will change. You’ll look back and either be relieved to have washed ashore or nostalgic for storm clouds because the sun is baking your brain.
Here’s the thing: As much as you curse what- or whoever tossed you overboard, there are things to be learned within your circumstances. Without these lessons, your stories will lack depth, credibility, and empathy.
Your Voice will lack resonance for your reader.
(Just for the record, the same holds true for joy and other aspects of living. Trials, however, seem to sharpen the learning curve.)
Authors, and their work, mature and grow within the framework of each individual’s normal. The frames are all different and constantly changing. Some are heavy and gilded, some thin strips of salvaged wood. Time can strip the gilding, embellish the wood, but within the frame, Voice, although evolving, remains unique.
Thus, I encourage you to reevaluate your normal, the joys, trials, and general messiness of living.
Accept it. Embrace it. Learn from it.
Put it to work.
The vanquished is always servant–or, in the fly’s case, dinner–to the victor.
For those of you who know me, you know that I spend most of my life in the state known as clueless. For example I’m mystified by the need for daylight savings time and pantyhose and signs that say, “hand dipped ice cream” because what else are you going to dip it with? But I digress…I’m here to talk about writing.
Warning: This is not for you psycho plotters who have charts and character interviews and drawings of your character’s hometown taped up on the wall. This is for we clueless who sit down to a blank page and try to figure out what’s next….yep, I’m talking about us pantsters.
Don’t confuse the lack of plotting for a lack of vision. Just because pantsters sit down to a blank page doesn’t mean we don’t know where the story is going. We know how the story ends, its just all those scenes after chapter one and before ‘the end’ that aren’t clear.
So down to brass tacks…
What happens when you’re clueless where the story goes from here? You can see the finish line but you’ve lost your way and don’t quite know how to make it to the end.
Try the Rule of Six.
There are six different solutions to every problem.
When you’re stuck, go back to the last decision the hero or heroine made and try the rule of six. For example, your heroine walks in on your hero kissing another woman. You heroine can:
1) Slap him and storm out.
2) Laugh it off because she knows and trusts him and the woman he’s with is a hatchet-faced slut-bunny.
3) Slap the hatchet-faced slut-bunny and drag her out by her hair.
4) Not acknowledge that she saw the kiss, sell everything she owns, move to Italy, and stalk George Clooney.
5) Walk in and demand to know what’s going on.
6) Walk away, seethe about the kiss and throw it in the hero’s face for the rest of his life.
While some of these choices are stupid and there are only two viable options, the Rule of Six gets your creative juices flowing. And it’s A LOT of fun.
I realized from the beginning writing dual timelines was going to be a challenge; I’d never before attempted to interweave past and present storylines into a single novel. Yet due to the nature of what would ultimately become my latest release, The Pieces We Keep—in which a boy’s dreams are mysteriously linked to family secrets from WWII—I decided it was definitely worth a try. Among my greatest concerns, however, was that one storyline would outshine the other.
When I myself have read novels with dual timelines, frequently I’ve had to fight the urge to skim the present-day chapters to return to the historical ones. Granted, in large part this is likely due to my personal passion for tales of the past. But I also find that high stakes involving life and death are naturally inherent in most historical settings—from revolutions and world wars to times of slavery and civil rights—and can therefore easily dominate when placed directly beside current-day conflicts of familial or romantic relationships.
To overcome this obstacle, I tried to imagine which scenarios would be as devastating to me, or my character, as the harrows of wartime. My answer, as a mother, came without pause: losing my child in a tragic death, or perhaps in a battle for custody. Obviously there are many other situations that can ratchet up tension and maintain a high level of suspense, no matter the era in which they’re set.
Another challenge I encountered came from my choice to alternate the two timelines with every chapter. I am personally a huge fan of short chapters, finding it nearly impossible as a reader to put down a book when the end of the chapter is “just a few pages away,” but I realized it would be important to find a way to prevent jarring the reader. Also, since links between the two storylines in The Pieces We Keep are fed out gradually, I wanted to suggest a connection early on, without (hopefully) giving too much away.
To address both issues, and in hopes of creating a feeling of fluidity, I opted to start every chapter with a sentence that in some way echoes the last sentence of the preceding chapter. For example, one chapter would end with: “He left no proof of existence—save for the missive in her hand.” While the next chapter would begin: “A half hour later Audra sat alone on a stranger’s couch, the slip of an address still in her grip.”
Finally, another goal of mine was to immediately ground the reader in whichever era they were reading, never wanting them to feel “lost.” Date and location stamps were an obvious choice, but with more than 70 chapters in my novel, I felt these would be cumbersome and redundant (and perhaps even make the book 50 pages longer, ha). Fortunately, my publisher allowed me to use two different fonts, one for each chapter/time period. As a result, this required me to merely state the dates and locations at the start of the first two chapters. I’ve also seen this done in other novels to great effect when clarifying changes in points-of-view.
Needless to say, the tactics I’ve mentioned might not work for every book featuring dual timelines, but perhaps they’ll at least serve as options to consider while you’re brainstorming ideas for your own interwoven story!
Thank you, Kristina, for this intriguing glance at your process.
For those who want more information, Kristina will be stopping by periodically to answer your questions, and in true Ruby fashion, will be drawing the name of one lucky commenter (Shipping costs limit this to US residents only) who will receive a signed, trade-paperback copy of The Pieces We Keep. Of course, you can find all of her books at various retail outlets including Amazon and Barnes & Noble
Kristina McMorris is a critically acclaimed author published by Kensington Books, Penguin, and HarperCollins UK. Her works of fiction have garnered more than twenty national literary awards and appeared on the New York Times and USA Today bestsellers lists. Inspired by true personal and historical accounts, her novels include Letters from Home, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, and most recently The Pieces We Keep. Prior to her writing career, Kristina worked as a host of weekly TV shows since age nine, including an Emmy® Award-winning program, and has been named one of Portland’s “40 Under 40” by The Business Journal. She lives with her husband and two young sons in the Pacific Northwest, where she is working on her next novel. For more, visit www.KristinaMcMorris.com
So I’ve had this love affair with grammar ever since I can remember. In school, I relished writing research papers and making sure the punctuation and sentence structure were just right. I cherished being able to tell the difference between an adjective and an adverb. I loved the way sentence diagrams looked laid out on the page. How orderly my little world seemed. Everything had its place. I made good grades, because I always tried to follow the rules. If I wasn’t sure of something, I could go to my trusty little grammar book and look it up.
Then I started writing for fun. I wrote manuscripts, entered contests, and picked up six critique partners along the way. And almost overnight, my world became a messy place. Why? Because the rules that once governed my writing, no longer applied—at least not as rigidly as they once did. So I’m here to mourn the loss of seven of my favorite rules:
The semicolon. Oh how I loved this little punctuation mark. Joining two independent clauses was once so easy. Just slip a semicolon between them and voila! The first manuscript I wrote was riddled with semicolons…well, maybe not riddled, but it certainly had more than its fair share.
The word that. When I was in school, I learned that an indirect quotation was always set off by this particular word. He said that I needed to finish my homework by tomorrow. I entered my first writing contest years ago and was in for a shock. Almost every instance of the word that had a strike mark through it. I couldn’t believe it. I went to several online groups and vented my outrage. And I found out the judge was right. When writing fiction, the word that causes a reader to slow down rather than glide over the prose. So I waved goodbye to my much used friend.
Never start a sentence with a conjunction. Okay, I admit I’ve embraced the breaking of this particular rule a little too well. My CPs often have to rein me in when it comes to starting sentences with ands, buts, or ors. I love them. To me, starting a sentence with a conjunction makes for a smooth passage from one thought to another. But (hee hee, see what I did there?) they really should be used in moderation.
The colon. I actually still use this punctuation mark, and my editor leaves them in! I think the colon has now taken the place of my beloved semicolon, since I can get away with sneaking them in from time to time.
The lowly comma. <big sigh> How many of you remember the thousand and one rules for comma usage? I can remember looking these up in my grammar book to make sure I put that comma in just the right spot. I loved the comma desperately (notice the forbidden use of the adverb in this sentence). But now? I’m a comma minimalist. No more debates about the serial comma. No more making sure each comma placement is just so. I want my readers to be able to drift through my story without putting them through an obstacle course of punctuation marks. Except when the tone changes or I’m writing romantic suspense. Then I use commas to make the writing a little more jagged or to make the reader push harder to get through certain passages. I still love how this little mark can change the tone and flavor of sentences. I just don’t follow all the rules anymore.
Sentence fragments. Yep. I’m now guilty of throwing a single word onto the written page, plunking a period after it, and calling it done. I can remember when that would have earned me a big red circle and an I.S. notation (incomplete sentence). This is another one that should be used in moderation (and I tend to sprinkle them a bit too liberally). When used correctly, the sentence fragment can make a big impact on your story.
A paragraph must have at least three sentences. Maybe this rule isn’t in effect any longer (yes, I’m that old), but when I was in school, this rule was a biggie. I often sat in my seat grabbing at any random sentence and sticking it into my paper just so I could call a paragraph a paragraph. Oh how my little world has changed. There are times in my books when I have a paragraph that consists of a single word. There’s always a flicker of guilt when I hit that enter key afterwards, but I somehow manage to live with the shame.
So that’s my list. How about you? Are there any grammar rules you’ve left behind and wished you hadn’t? Or do you find ways to have your cake and eat it too? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think breaking the rules should be an excuse for sloppy writing. As the old saying goes…you have to know the rules before you can break them. I admit I do miss the days when everything was cut and dried. I still tend to be a rule follower in real life, which creates a dilemma for me when I write. But <insert evil laugh at conjunction usage> I now tend to just shrug and move on to my next sentence fragment.
Recently, I’ve been rereading a series I discovered when I was younger. It’s a five-book middle grade fantasy series based on Welsh mythology entitled The Chronicles of Prydain. Since I’ve become a writer myself, I can’t help but noticing the author’s craft. Something really jumped out at me this time. The author, Lloyd Alexander, is a real master of character voice.
Each of his characters has his own unique way of expressing himself, and that voice helps them leap off the page. You get an immediate sense, through a character’s dialogue, of who that character is.
Take, for example, Eilonwy, the heroine of the series. She’s a secret princess, a bit of a motor-mouth, and one of the first feisty heroines I read about. Oh, and she often showed more sense than many of the male characters. I loved her. I wanted her to be real so I could be her friend. One of the ways the author sets her speech apart from the others is her penchant for spouting similes and metaphors—and they’re often just this side of implausible.