It’s amazing how writing a romantic novel interferes with blogging. I got into NaNoWriMo properly about three days before it finished and now the only thing I’ve got on my mind is what to do about the fact that my hero has completely ignored my plan and gone off piste. Ignored it, I tell you. The ungrateful bugger. You create these characters, give ’em charm and fabulous looks and this is how they thank you. Mind you, he has a point. I had made him a bit underhand about the heroine’s inheritance, and you can’t have a chap doing that. However much of maverick he is.
They can do everything else, though. They can kidnap a girl, impugn her honour, assume she means ‘yes’ when she says, ‘no’ (but only if he loves her really), and seemingly cheat on her left, right and centre (but only if, at the end, the girl he was seeing so much of turns out to be his long lost sister, or the impoverished widow of his best friend). But money? Only a cad would do a girl out of her inheritance. Odd, where all these unwritten rules come from.
I’ll just have to make him misunderstood, instead. Bloody romantic novels. Bloody writing. Does your head in.
On Saturday I signed up for NaNoWriMo. On Sunday I wished I hadn’t. I haven’t written a full length romantic novel for nearly 20 years, and I’ve begun to think that I should try to write another one, simply to see if I can still do it.
I always tell my students to plan; to think about their characters, to have some idea of what is going to happen. Did I do this? No. I did not. I just woke up with a vague idea of my hero and heroine meeting in a car park (yes, really) and charged straight into it. First page, great; second page, okay; third page, blank.
I hadn’t realised, at first, that when you take part in the National Novel Writing Month, you:
And get this; there’s a little window where, every day, you log in how many words you’ve done.
So there I was on the morning of November 1, thinking that I was just going to coast along in a dreamy sort of way, writing an unspecified amount every day (so, nothing, then, ed) until I contacted Tara Sparling and she put me right on the details. (Now there’s a girl who is on fire –well, not literally, you understand, because that would be somewhat inconvenient, but she has a great idea and she is, as they say in Ireland, away on a hack with it).
A few hours later (she must have hypnotised me, guv) I found the website, signed in, put in 50,000 words as my target and the NaNoWriMo computer helpfully told me that my average of words per day should be 1,167. On Saturday I wrote 867 words. Yesterday I deleted quite a lot of those, and wrote 871 more. At this rate, the computer has informed me, I will complete my magnum opus on January 26 (what year, ed?).
Trouble is I have no idea what my characters are going to do next. They’re just sitting there, like dummies in a car, and there’s no oomph. I’d like to shoot both of them, but I’m not writing a murder mystery. It’s all very well having a target average and a deadline, but since my characters are so wooden that they’re giving my brain splinters, it might be time to rethink my strategy.
It’s odd to think of writing in such a clinical way, but when I used to write full time I sat down every morning and aimed to write 2,000 words, even if half of it was rubbish and I had to scrub it. Overall I still achieved something, to the point where I ended up with a complete book. And then I had children, and stuff happened, and writing romantic novels rather fell by the wayside.
I’ve signed up with NaNoWriMo because I need to get that discipline back. I’m determined to get to the end of another book by November 30. So, I’m going to be ruthless. I’m leaving my frustrating pair of no-hopers outside a Hollywood motel, with their fuzzy backgrounds and unplanned future and I’m going straight to Plan B. I’m going to resurrect my plans for a book I began to draft this summer, which lapsed because summer and a lack of self confidence got in the way.
I really think I might make it to the end of this one. I have a cunning plan, you know.
Pictures via Creative Commons, via:
I was leafing through one of my daughter’s fashion magazines yesterday and I came across an extraordinary article by a woman trumpeting on about what a perfectionist she was. She is such a stickler for detail, it appears, that she once ran out of an eyebrow salon with only one eyebrow plucked because she didn’t like the way the beautician had shaped it. Like that’s really going to improve your looks.
However, the author was obviously not such a perfectionist that she could see that her piece, which droned on for another whole page (wtf?) was the most self-obsessed drivel I’ve ever fallen asleep over read.
But. It got me thinking about perfectionism. And what a terrible thing it is. Perfectionists, it seems to me, worry so much about the detail, that they forget about the big picture. They’re so worried about a wrongly shaped eyebrow, they ignore the overall look.
I remember one of my children going to school with a brilliant story and coming back utterly dejected because the only comment the teacher could make about it was that the capital letters were all in the wrong place. Perfect teacher? I don’t think so.
Perfection is an impossible dream. When we plan to be perfect, it generally all comes apart at the seams. And if we place too much importance on perfection, we miss the little unplanned things that make life so sweet.
Perfectionism is a pain in any walk of life, but it absolutely kills creativity. Nothing is worse, when you’re in full flow, than to feel that you’ve got to stop and alter what you’ve already written, because it doesn’t read quite right. Or there’s a spelling mistake, or….whatever.
That’s why free-writing is such a brilliant idea. It means that you can just get your stuff down on paper and forget about form and structure. New ideas and phrases just appear, and you’re amazed how they got there. And when it’s all over, and your creativity has run into a wall, then is the time to go back and fossick about with the they’res and theirs and there theres.
Having said that, I did find myself self-correcting all the way through this piece. Not that I’m a perfectionist or anything…
Images via Creative Commons, from:
Did I tell you I was writing a book? It must be 20 years or so since I lay back on the old chaise longue, put my hand to my furrowed brow and began scratching away. Have you tried it? (Have you been at the gin? Ed). Anatomically impossible, unless the dog holds your notebook. Plus the pink feather boa gets in the way.
So here I am clattering at the keyboard and I have to admit that all my best laid plans have gone totally agley. Like, totally. All that stuff I said about planning? Out the window. Plotting? Likewise. I mean, I made a plan. I made a jolly good one, with everything that was going to happen in each chapter all down for me to follow. But now that I’ve actually started scribbling, nothing has gone to plan at all.
My characters have stayed pretty much the same. The hero is still the drop dead gorgeous man I envisaged, although rather more ruthless than I had bargained for, if yesterday’s draft is anything to go by, but he keeps I keep changing his identity (Poor background or rich background? Texas oilman, or war hero? Or both? I spect I’ll find out eventually). Heroine has remained pretty much the same too, just not quite such a drip. So that’s all right.
The thing is, that as I write, new and exciting vistas open up, that hadn’t occurred to me when I was just thinking. So I take a sharp left or right off my highway, without a map. I have no idea what is going to happen, but it’s exciting and, really, to me, that’s the whole joy of writing fiction.
Remember that foolproof plotting sheet that I dug out of somewhere? The one showed you how your plot should progress? Strangely enough my new direction (so far) fits in with all those rules, just in a different way.
Anyway, I’m off. Got writing to do.
Here’s an interesting thought: lots of authors don’t like plotting their stories. They say they’re waiting to do it, they say they’re willing to do it. But when it comes to the moment with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil, do they really want to do it? No, they don’t.
Look at me. All this stuff I’ve written. Have I ever plotted it out? No. Not properly. I’ve scrawled a few ideas on a sheet of paper and then thought, bugger this, I want to get started. Also, there seems to be a feeling that if you plan something out, you knock the fairy dust off it. You are turning what should be an artistic creative exploration into some kind of mechanistic plodding.
In the last few weeks, I’ve decided that I’ve got to get off my butt and write another romance. When it came down to starting, this week, did I plot it out first? Did I plan? Did I take any of my own advice, as given to everyone else in my blog posts? No, I bloody didn’t. I shied away from it. I decided, instead, to just freewrite; I wouldn’t , as I usually do, rewrite and rewrite, I would just keep going until the end, which would probably be about 5,000 – 7,000 words, and then I would use that as my plot. Clever, huh? Yeah, right.
And I suppose I would have gone on like that and probably got through, if it wasn’t for the fact that I teach a creative writing class and they’re all having some difficulty with giving their stories real narrative drive. I mean, making the reader feel as if the author is in charge, that they know where they’re going.
The research on plotting that I’d done up until that point hadn’t come up with anything that’s really useful. I wrote about it last week, about how you start with your hero wanting something, and then you keep putting obstacles in their way until you decide they’ve had enough and bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. But it was all too vague. If I’m going to get advice, I want practical stuff. I want something that I can use, that is going to work for me.
And then, quite by chance, on Twitter, I found this brilliant website: thescreenwritingprocess.com. It’s for screenwriters really, (no shit, Sherlock) but they have step by step instructions on how to lay out a plot, and I read them and I felt as if I had discovered New Life.
You can get the whole bit, if you’re interested, by going to their site. But in a nutshell, the first thing they advise is to write a premise (or a logline as sreenwriters call it). This is how you do it: Describe your protagonist (cab driver, mother, superhero, whatever) then give them an adjective that sums them up (world weary, alcoholic, retired), then describe their aim (saving the world, saving a child, singing in Eurovision). Then describe who/what is standing in their way. Then put it in a sentence. Like so: World weary mother wants to sing in Eurovision, but has to fight off alcoholic superhero.
Try it with something you’re working on. It’s hard. I thought I would find it easy. I thought I had all my plot in my head. It was only when I attempted this, that I realised that my heroine was a wet blanketty drooping victim, my hero had no personality, and there was no narrative drive.
The trouble was, in many ways, I was rather fond of what I’d written. Promising myself that this was just an exercise, I re wrote my logline just so that sentence sounded good, and then I thought, half grudgingly, half excitedly, Hey, this might actually work as the basis for my story. Then, I followed their plotting instructions. I found myself sketching out a completely new story on the foundations of the old one, but one that now had structure and flow.
Then I took it to my class. I could tell that some didn’t want to do it at all (see fairy dust, above) but they all tried it, even if, for some, it was just as an exercise that they were certainly not going to let anywhere near their inky darlings. Some found the loglines really hard to complete. Some felt the whole thing was silly. Some felt that it showed their stories weren’t dramatic enough, but I don’t think this matters. A premise doesn’t have to be Kerpow! You can apply a logline as easily to Pride and Prejudice as you can to X Men. The point is that you, as an author, know where you’re going. Then we went through the plot stages, with a similarly doubtful reception (see fairy dust, again) but once started, I could see them beginning to think really hard about the structure of their stories and what needed to happen when. Now they’ve taken them home to complete. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.
I’m writing another romantic novel. At the moment I have two characters, a secondary (but pivotal character) and a cracking first chapter. But the rest, as Shakespeare said, is silence.
Working out the plot of story has got to be the hardest task for a writer. So imagine my joy when I found loads of self-help stuff for novelists on the internet. Plotting, it all seems to say, is child’s play. Just follow the advice and you could knock out a scenario in your lunch hour.
The received opinion on writing plots is that they should be character driven. Build your characters and they will take you there, to paraphrase Kevin Costner. Which is pretty good advice, but characters do need some kind of motivation.
Which leads me swiftly on to the ‘what do they want’ school of plotting. Here, the experts advise that you work out what your characters want, allow them to embark on the job of getting it, put obstacles in their way, let them overcome them, hit them with a socking great disaster, and then, ta dah! allow them to pull through into the sunny chapter that finishes with those marvellous words, The End.
I quite like this theory, except that my characters want irritating and intangible things, such as happiness and independence and, since this a romance, lerve. And that’s the problem. In a romance, if two characters fancy each other, the hard bit is not the motivation. It’s keeping it in check. And so you have to think of some sort of sub-plot that’s going to get in the way every time the heroine gets her hand on the knob (down, boy) of the bedroom door. This can be anything, a row over property or an inheritance, or a misunderstanding about other possible lovers (who always turn out to be long lost cousins, or conveniently gay).
I suppose I could be terribly practical and say, well, the hero wants the heroine, on the table, in the library in Chapter Four. She could throw a book at his head, (minor problem), they kiss and make up; but he might then develop concussion on the eve of their wedding and be rushed to hospital (disaster) only for him to wake up at the sound of her voice in Chapter Ten. Actually….wait a minute…that’s not bad (it’s terrible, ed).
Another way of cracking the problem is to look back at your story from the point of view of one of the leading characters, and get them to tell you how they got through. That, on the surface, does sound a bit potty, as you are asking an imaginary person to give you a hand, but looking at things from different perspectives can help. ‘Tell me how you fell in love with so and so, mummy?’ or ‘Tell me how you nabbed the murderer.’
The final way, which in the end is the one I always go for, is after planning your characters and plotting as far as you can, just start writing. The trouble, of course, is the ‘just start writing’ bit. Committing to write at least 50,000 words is hard. And we’d all rather faff about with spider diagrams and five-minute free-writing than get down to the grind. However, as you write and become absorbed, your characters will do stuff that surprises you, and that will open up new possibilities, which hopefully will keep you going at least until the next chapter, and then the next.
So, crack on, dear writer. And if you get stuck, you can always follow the advice of my former editor at Mills and Boon. I was wailing at him because I had got to chapter four and everything had begun to look rather stale, flat and unprofitable. ‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Just introduce some mental torture or a bit of sexual tension. That’ll take you through until your brain picks up again.’
Telling one teeny lie can get you into all sorts of difficulty, as I discovered when I began the process of buying a vintage motorbike for my husband. I had to get a friend of a friend to collect it and, not surprisingly, him indoors wanted to know why I was on the phone all the time to another bloke.
It all worked out ok, but the stress was tremendous. So why do we choose to write stories that are constructed from a whole pile of lies that all have to mesh seamlessly? Dunno, is the answer to that one. But I can say this, as writers, we have to tell those lies with the utmost truth, or the reader just won’t bother to keep reading. After all, if they are willing to suspend their disbelief, the least we can do is not waste their time. We need to take them into this world that we have constructed and keep them in until the end. We don’t, under any circumstances want them asking the kind of questions that begin with, ‘Yes, but why did…?’ or ‘Didn’t Lady Romilda have blue hair in chapter one?’ or ‘I thought Smithers’ mother was a wandering gypsy with a limp?’
There are exceptions to this rule. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was always forgetting exactly in which leg Dr Watson had been hit with a Jezail bullet in Afghanistan, and some really geeky types have proved that it is practically impossible to work out the room plan of Blandings Castle from PG Wodehouse’s descriptions. Neither of these points detract from the stories (the variations are visible from story to story not within each one), but you can bet your blog stats even these masters of storytelling got plenty of complaints.
Constructing characters can be the biggest problem for most writers, even though they are really the most important part of a novel, as they drive the plot. When I started writing Mills and Boon novels I would think of a sort of scenario; Caribbean island, pirate/property tycoon and virginal but feisty heroine and just go for it. Of course, by chapter three I was in a terrible tangle, because I kept changing my characters’ backgrounds, and by chapter four the whole thing was imploding. Was the heroine a librarian or a secret agent, and how could the villain be in two places at once?
I used to think planning was beneath me. I thought it would take all the spontaneity out of my writing. I thought I ought to be able to sustain a story from beginning to end without the need for notes. (Yeah, right, Ed.) Although it has to be said that you can do this if:
Constructing characters can be really good fun, especially when you’re feeling really blank and dull. The first method you can use is defining a character by their possessions. Make lists of 20 things you might keep in your handbag, or your fridge, or the attic. Or make lists of expensive things, or creepy things (if you’re writing a horror story) or things that would fit in your hand or your pocket. This is surprisingly absorbing, there’s no pressure to write anything (which is always handy if you have writer’s block) and it really does kick start the imagination. Then all you have to do is choose two or three things, from each of the lists you’ve created, as possessions of one of your characters. It’s amazing what you can come up with.
Once you have a character complete with stuff in his/her pockets/attic/fridge, then you can go on and give them an appearance, and a place to live in, and excitingly, a secret (This is important, because every good story needs conflict). By this time, it becomes easy to visualise this person’s family or close friends, and then you can start thinking of what is going to happen to them.
Try it. Let me know how you do. I’ll post some more ideas next week.
JK Rowling’s story plan for The Order of The Phoenix, taken from Chandler Baker’s post
If you are a teacher and are looking for inspiration for a lesson plan, you can use the idea of telling lies as an icebreaker, with the students disclosing three things about themselves, one of which is a lie, which the other students have to guess. Making lists of possessions also works really well as a competition between groups of students (ie, the first group to come up with 20 particular things).