Novel Tips

I volunteer on the board of directors for the Ottawa Independent Writers (https://www.ottawaindependentwriters.com).  One night, I spoke with some people at a meeting who suggested that they wanted to learn the basics of writing a novel and what was the best venue?  I didn’t have an answer for that because I am self-taught for the most part.  But what I do have is my experience.  I have been writing for over twenty years.  It started out with poetry and I gradually added short stories, novels and now blog posts.  I’m learning by reading books (of course) and trial and error.  So for the next few blog posts, I’m going to talk about ‘How To Write a Novel,” in my own style.  Hope you’ll stick around for the ideas, even if you aren’t a writer.  You never know, you might become one.

Part One: The character(s)

So you have this great idea that you want to turn into a book.  It’s going to be absolutely wonderful and you can’t wait to get started.  So do it, start writing.  Write out a starting paragraph, even a chapter.  You can do your character development at the same time or before you write.  It’s entirely up to you.  But the character is everything.  So much so, let’s stop using the word ‘character.’  I don’t want to hear about these people as if they were fictional.  I want you to convince me that they’re real.  So how do we do that?  Get to know your character, first and foremost.  I’m not suggesting that you need to know how they celebrated their twelfth birthday or which vegetables they prefer.  But know their important aspects, their personality.  This will help you when you start throwing them into situations (a future post).

An Example:

I wrote a book called Pure Red Sand: An Expensive Retreat.  Actually, I wrote three books with these characters but you’ve probably only seen one, unless you’re an early follower with a Kindle.  I started this novel on a laptop on a small island in the Labrador Sea.  It was the first time I’d just decided to write a book.  I had the benefit that the book was VERY loosely based on a short story.  But very quickly I realized that the characters were too one dimensional to transfer from a four page short story to a 900 plus page trilogy.  They just weren’t strong enough.  So here’s what I decided while I was writing the first chapter.  

Nadine was going to be a strong woman.  She’d grown up that way and had little choice.  But there were repercussions for that kind of strength, in her life anyway.  She always made the difficult decisions, looking at things logically and with the best of intentions but maybe not with emotions at heart.  That might have made her a great medic.  But it also made her prickly with other people, unwilling to trust and maybe even reluctant to take on anything resembling a greater responsibility.  After all, she’d made a success out of her life.  Wasn’t that enough?  As many of you know, it wasn’t.

So once I had my character written, once I knew her, then I would know how she was going to react in certain situations.  For instance, when strangers came to her home, would she welcome them in or turn them away?

An Exercise:

Here are some questions you might want to consider when thinking about your character.  Whether you keep your ideas in your head (like me) or you want to write them out, this might help:

Are they of their own time? (Do you have time travel/a new world/an adventure?)  If they are, then you can take a lot of things for granted.  If not, keep in mind how people react to new things.

What things do they have in common with you? They say write what you know.  But I see a lot of scope in not being me.  That said, I find it easier to write the character when I have something in common with them.  Like Nadine, I always wanted to be strong.  I could empathize with her efforts and her mistakes.

What’s their emotional state?  People who have a fairly stable life are going to react differently to a crisis than those who are already having crises of their own.

How did they grow up?  Did they have economic/social stability?  Were they loved?  We’re all heavily influenced by our past.

Where are they now?  Nadine was a loner and a little anti-social in the beginning.

What kind of social network do they have? Are they close to family and friends or separate from those around them?

Keep adding your own questions until you have your people!

News:

If you’re in the Ottawa area on December 9, 2017, I will be at the Indie Author Book Fair. St David and St Martin Church Hall, 444 St Laurent Blvd. 2-6pm.  Come visit and pick up a couple of holiday presents.  A book makes a wonderful gift.

 

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Down the Rabbit Hole

I watched a documentary, on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnF6Wej3YO8&t=117s), recently about the origins of romance in Britain.  While I put this on as a background to chores I was completing, I found the topic interesting, especially where it was related to books, novels, to the story (ie. pre 1920ish).  From their perspective, society learned about romantic love through the stories they read en masse.

It’s not the first time I’ve thought about or written about the power of the story but it was an interesting new take on it.  If we can change society (at whatever pace), that’s a heavy weight to bear.  I am definitely not suggesting that I can or that anyone else will.  But art does have an influence.  I don’t see it as a responsibility or a duty though.  Perhaps more of an opportunity.  Charles de Lint said “all endeavour is art when rendered with conviction” (1996/1999).  We can make artistic gestures out of our everyday (consider the Japanese tea ceremony versus pouring a cup of tea).  So this is not just for people who consider themselves artists, but maybe for everyone to be aware when we create.  Everything we put out there is a manifestation of ourselves, of our lives and of the material we take in.  Sometimes I refer to taking in too much as ‘over stimulation’ and that I need to take time to assimilate it (just how I work).  In a way, it’s an awareness of our every action in the present.

Well, that went down a rabbit hole, now didn’t it?  Hopefully you’re all still with me here.

I want to make sure that I continue to create.  Not just because I don’t believe I have a say in the matter.  But perhaps because I want to.  Because I want to share the stories with you.  I think, deep down under my neurotic self-doubt, that they’re worth reading.  If I can get caught up during editing and wonder what will happen next, maybe I can keep your attention for a while.  Maybe until the end of the story…

 

NEWS:

If you’re in the Ottawa area, I will have a table at the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair (http://smallpressbookfair.blogspot.ca) on November 25.  If you’re in the area, please drop by.  There will be a good crowd of publishers, authors and bookmakers to meet.  Plus, admission is free!

A Bad Case of “Then What Happened?”

Have you ever read a book that was so good, it was like a drug?  That you’ve found yourself doing chores one handed so you can keep reading.  Putting the book down just before going out the door and with deep reluctance?  I love those stories and when they’re that good, I feel like you can go back multiple times and the magic will still be there.

As requested after my last blog post, a little sample of some of my work.  This is the opening to a small series of interconnected short stories called “It was Supposed to be a Dream.”  They’re currently published as a chapbook, volume 1 in “The Collected Words.”

I remember the night I first met him.  It was so late and I was closing out the coffee shop.  I remember being weirded out by the feelings I got off him.  I normally get nothing off the living because they didn’t need me until after death.  But he felt empty.  The kind of empty that is an endless pit compared to normal puddles.  I didn’t say anything although he looked at me strangely.  I brought the young couple in front of him some pie.  She was one of the self-proclaimed wiccans of the town and he was a straitlaced youth.  I felt bad for her because I could tell he was in it for the kicks.  She was loudly explaining how there was more to the world than we know.  So I tried to do the right thing and support her.

“You have no idea,” I offered.

“This is a private conversation,” she responded coldly so I backed off.  Maybe she was more in tune than I gave her credit for, maybe she saw what I was trying to hide.  Maybe she didn’t want me honing in on her date.  Life gets complicated no matter which way you walk.  I just remember how Michael turned suddenly at my comment and the eyes behind his sunglasses seemed to drill into my back as I returned to the counter.  He followed me there, standing in all his cold, empty glory.

“You can see them, can’t you?” he asked hoarsely.

I didn’t know how he knew but I just agreed.

“Good.  I need your help.”

A Plea to the People

I have been silent for a long time.  That’s partially my fault and partially the consequence of moving, of going to school once again and keeping up a part time job…oh yes, and writing.  All those words that need to be recorded.

This morning, something very scary happened when a certain person was elected to power in a very influential country.  I’m not suggesting how anyone should feel about that one way or another.  But as a woman, with LGBTQ+ friends and relatives, I am scared.  As a living being on this planet, I am scared.

But one of the things that came to me this morning, while I was feeling a mix of fear and sadness, was how important our voices are and will be in the coming days.  More than ever, we need our artists, our musicians and our writers.  So I implore you to speak out for good things, for a better future.  Speak out against racism, homophobia, misogyny and everything else that makes all human being less than what we’re capable of.

And stay hopeful.  Always.

The Relief of Hearing ‘No’

 

I recently wrote a book that was supposed to complete my science fiction trilogy (*note: It has become a series more than a trilogy. This group of three books is focused on the same main characters.)  It was the first time that I’ve written a book without a reader for at least part of it.  No one has read this book to date.  As I began to edit and prepare for publication, this fact began to bother me more and more.  I had sent it out to people to read and generally the feedback was along the lines of “it’s good but I just haven’t had time and I’ll get to it next week for sure.”  Now, that’s completely fine.  We’re not all reading addicts and we all have busy lives.  My fear grew though as the same reasons happened repeatedly.  Was there something wrong with the book?
Last night, one of my readers was finally honest about the manuscript.  They said no, it wasn’t working.  They weren’t taken in by the story, not like they had been with the first two.  Now, let me point out that I’ve completely written the book by now and edited a major part of it.  But instead of feeling overwhelmed and devastated, I actually felt relief.  Okay, it wasn’t working.  I immediately began to think about how I’d written it and how to go about doing it better.  My only regret is that I didn’t catch this sooner.
I think some of my early fear and now relief is tied to how I wrote it.  Looking back on the piece, I was very focused on tying up all those loose strings.  Maybe I spent too much time telling and not enough time showing, a common fault in writing.  But the characters are still speaking with me and together, hopefully, we’ll figure out how to change this so the story can come back to life for my readers.
So, more than ever, if you are a beta/early reader for a writer, take a lot of pride in that trust.  Some writers absolutely need that feedback and it’s an essential part of the process.  And please always be honest.  You can say hard truths in kind ways.  But saying nothing doesn’t help.
As you can tell, there will now be a delay in the publication of the third book in the Pure Red Sand Series.  But you can still find the first two and catch up with Nadine and Sven while I try and make sure their stories come to a better end.
This post goes out to my beta reader for the third book.  They are very much appreciated.

Lost Nomad on a Literary Front

I lost a story the other day. Or at least I think I did. Or I never wrote it. All are possibilities.

I am a nomadic pack-rat. Yes, think about the consequences of that for a moment. In the last 11 years, I have moved twelve times. The longest I’ve ever lived somewhere is two years and during a year of that I was hardly ever home. Did I mention I have a “minor” addiction to books? Yes, ladies and gentlemen and those yet to decide, I have moved an awful lot of tattooed dead tree from one end of a country to the other and all over some cities. That’s a lot of transition. I guess it’s not surprising that I may have lost one story in recent memory. Perhaps it’s more impressive that I haven’t lost more.

So let’s take all that idea hopping in stride for a moment. Stories are the greatest part of my life. They always have been. I find escape in those black words typed in various fonts. I can see new places and lives. When I write them, I get to live them. I’ve been a man and a woman. I’ve been old and quite young. I have lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with bustling petticoats and vests and ties. I have been a captain on a spaceship and a mad woman hiding in a corner. I have put my everything into these people. Because if they are not real, if I cannot recognize them as friends of a sort, then how will others believe?

Maybe that brings us to the ideas of loss. How losing a story can shake my ground in a startling way. [Side note here: I have backed up things and printed things as often as possible. Organized and collected. I have also crashed three hard drives, killed two motherboards and wiped an external hard drive by turning it on. To say I have bad computer karma is an understatement. We won’t talk about the two floods of my office…] So, if you give parts of your soul to your creation, as every artist must, and lose it, how can you dismiss that? I don’t have an answer.

Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll come back to me, buried at the bottom of a box or in a forgotten back up. There’s always hope to see them again. But I yearn for the day when that won’t have to be a possibility. When all my work can be in one place for more than months at a time. When my packrat skills no longer culminate in a horrifying moment of “I own how many boxes of books?!” (Only because I won’t need to pack them again. You can NEVER have too many books)

So here’s to a disconnected ramble, to loss and rediscovery and to finding a real home for me and all of my fictional friends.

Q & A with the Author

A few weeks ago I asked my readers if they had questions they wanted to ask about my world on Mars (from the novels Pure Red Sand: An Expensive Retreat and Uncomfortable Truths) or about writing in general. I promised to answer everything. So while I had few questions, I hope you might enjoy the answers.

A little background first. The Pure Red Sand world is very loosely based on a series of short stories that I wrote while in high school. There are few similarities between them and the books I have completed but they were definitely the spark.

  1. How difficult was it to build the world for your characters?

I’m more of a character driver writer than a place oriented one. I knew my characters to some degree from the stories. I looked around from their perspective and described where they were living. As the story developed, I found myself writing and imagining more and more of it. I think they grew at the same time, piece by piece as my people expanded into the community. I just have to remember to tell my readers what it looks like because sometimes I forget that they can’t see what I do.

  1. How early did you know this was going to be a trilogy instead of one book? Was it fully conceived as a trilogy from the start?

I can’t remember if the stories were supposed to be a trilogy or not. I’m not fond of sad endings so I suppose when Sven went back to Earth, there had to be a second one. They continue to show up in the background in some of the other stories I wrote later but it’s a very different world than I created at the end of the novel trilogy. A roundabout answer but I can’t remember if the stories were conceived as a trilogy but since they are, it made sense to have the books follow the same general framework.

  1. Who was your favourite minor character and why?

I found this a hard question to answer. I think I can narrow it down to two. Karl in a lot of ways. I identified with his slow process leading to a revealing moment when achievement or failure happened. He’s a supportive person and I see elements of myself in him (not intentional). Robin to a lesser degree but she’s already demanded her own book. I don’t like Louise but I’m intrigued by her decisions, about her continuing impact on the story. She was never meant to be more than a couple of lines in the first book. Instead she grew and became real in a sense. They’re not perfect but no real people are either.

  1. Why are there no cats on Mars?

I can think of two reasons for this but I’m not sure which is more accurate. The first is that human life was so cheap there. It’s hard to see animals thriving. The other option might be purely logistical. In the first chapter of book 3, Nadine and Anna talk about shipping from Earth to Mars and Anna complains that it takes six months for anything bigger than a loaf of bread. I imagine she’s exaggerating but when food is scarce and everything is hard to come by, maybe it wasn’t practical. Or it could just be the weather.

  1. Given the ongoing discoveries by the Mars Rover, how do you see our views on Mars changing?

I don’t know that they will change in their essence. I think we’re all hoping to set foot on that planet in the future. We learn new things about it all the time. I was excited about the discovery of water there too. Who knows, maybe I haven’t discovered my own version of humidity collectors out there yet. Nothing that has been discovered makes my world any more or less likely to exist. So I’m following it like everyone else. Mars is a very cool planet, fictionally or in reality.

  1. What drew you to write about Mars?

I don’t really have a good answer for that. I didn’t want to write in a historical period at the time because I was reluctant to get tied down by facts. Building my world on Mars let me imagine everything. That’s been both wonderful and terrible.

  1. If your books were turned into a major motion picture, who would play the main characters?

This is such a hard question to answer. I have the vaguest notion of what people look like. I’m more intimate with the inside of their heads. But I did my best and I have come up with two names that sort of have characteristics of my leads. I think Angel Coulby looks a little like Nadine and Alex Pettyfer looks a little like Sven. Neither is exact but I’m not sure you would ever find a real person like the ones in your head.

 

 

That’s all I have. I hope you’ve enjoyed the questions and answers and that you drop back to visit the blog again. If you want clarification or more detail on anything you’ve read on the blog, comment or send me a message on the facebook page. All the best!