Just saying … the first crocus is blooming and the Swiss Chard is growing in the greenhouse. Ya – Northern Vancouver Island.
And here I am writing away at my new desk in the dormer. All is right with my world.
Okay – it happens. We all know it happens. There you are logging hundreds of words a day, going full-steam ahead, typing with one hand and patting yourself on the back with the other. Then, wham! The wall. Danger. All of the above!
I had probably written 35,000 words when it happened – that horrible feeling that there is nowhere for any of my characters to go. I’d somehow managed to tell all their collective stories and to solve all their problems without ever getting the book off the ground. Talk about a wall. Talk about undertows! Talk about fear of all manner of wild beasts.
When I hit the wall, I go out walking. And lucky for me, my trails in Feb. don’t need the above warning signs. Pretty quiet these days. On one of those walks, I got the idea to put each storyline to the question.
Ah … you say … the question? What can that be?
Where is the tension? Where is this going?
Yesterday, the ideas began to explode in my head like cannon fire. And I could see why I hit the wall. I’d revealed far too much about the characters far too soon. That’s easy to fix. One can always switch blocks of writing from here to there. And I hadn’t allowed myself to come up with enough action events to propel the storylines.
I was in possession of a plethora of action events. So, I took a scene plotter approach. I plugged my characters into those events and thought about how putting them in certain places at certain times was going to move their individual and collection storylines along. I know where they’re all going to end up – so that helps. As you can see, I’m out on that dangerous bridge without a care in the world. Of course, I’m not planning to dive.
Inevitable though, one day’s wild excitement is followed by a day of panic. As I contemplate the work involved in weaving all the threads together to create the tapestry that is unfolding in my mind, as I think about cobbling the pieces of story fabric together to create my quilt … it is daunting. Back to the walking.
(The photo below is the church on Zuckerberg Island near Castlegar. That is where the bridge above went to.)
This whole writing process is like these socks I just finished knitting for myself. I call them my socks of many colours composed of all the bits of yarn leftover from my various holiday sock knitting projects. What I love about them is that I only need to look down at my feet and I can see the yarn that went into socks I’ve made for so many people I love. The book is like the socks of many colours – bits and pieces of my whole life knit into something wholly new that came from me but isn’t me at all.
A great story is life with the dull parts taken out – Alfred Hitchcock.
Morning grey on the Fraser River – day two of our fall trip. Nothing dull about that pic. In novel writing, we want no dull characters, no dull situations, no dull settings. But, let’s be clear on what constitutes dull. The definition, in terms of writing, is unique. Any action that doesn’t move the story forward is dull. If teeth brushing is integral to the movement of your story, then teeth brushing is not dull. Maybe your character is brushing her teeth and as she spits blood into the sink, she decides once and for all to leave the brute who smashed her in the face that morning. Definitely not dull.
On the other hand, the photo below, is vibrant with fall colours. It is no dull grey expose but what does it have to do with the story? The colours may pop but if they aren’t moving the story forward, dull, dull, dull.
Action is plot and plot is action. I’ve read that genre novels are action driven. Lots of things happen to the character. Literary novels are more about the interior life of the characters. It could be said that the character happens to the plot. In each case, the story must find a way to move. It seems to me that most good novels are a combination of the two.
A plot without good character development is all action and no bonding. The reader can’t get invested. On the other hand, character development without a plot is like being all dressed up and having no where to go. And by the way – have you ever heard of a Turban squash. I hadn’t until we stopped at the Marisposa Organic Fruit Stand outside Keremeos.
At its most basic, plot is how a character deals with challenge. And it’s all about movement. Want something, go somewhere, learn something, come out the other end changed. There you have it. Bare bones, but if you can’t see down to the skeleton, you can’t write a decent novel.
The photo below is Sunset in Osoyoos, the end of day two of our fall trip. The bulrush chimes near the art gallery. I hadn’t been back to Osoyoos since selling my dad’s house in 2010. He’d died late the previous year. I wasn’t expecting the return to bring back such powerful, overwhelming memories. Death changes everything.
Each morning, I start my writing session by opening a document called Warm-Up Pages. I put my fingers down on the keyboard and type without stopping for five minutes of wild writing – anything and everything that comes into my head. The wildness of that opening exercise kick starts me into serious work. Before I know it, I’ve got my draft document open and I’m on my way.
My current work in process – book five in the Crater Lake series – topped out at 21,500 words this afternoon. I’ve got most of the first two chapters written and seventeen of the thirty characters I want to hear from our now on the written page.
I thought I’d share a few excerpts from my warm-up pages. I can type a lot in five minutes chunks everyday but most of it is as you would expect warming up and stretching to be. Not so exciting if you aren’t there for the subsequent work out.
Feb. 7, 2019
In the space and in the chair – first steps. The day is dullish grey with a snow threatening sky. We’ll see what comes.
For this novel, I am liberating myself from the need to explain huge chunks of back story. Here is my message to the reader who picks up book five in a series without having read any of the previous books – expect to be somewhat confused. Not completely out to sea, but not totally in the know either.
Feb. 8, 2019
Bookmarked a couple of log salvage and boat research sites. I’m as awkward writing some of today’s scenes as the characters are to be in them.
Feb. 9, 2019
Just because something might be sad doesn’t mean I shouldn’t go there – readers don’t mind being sad as long as the emotion is real.
Feb. 10, 2019 – 10:20 am
A two hour block of writing time slips by quickly. The discipline of knowing when to stop is as important as getting my butt in the chair to start.
Had some great ideas while I was out walking yesterday.
There is a gentle snow falling outside my dormer window this morning. I love this space for focus.
I’ve been looking at Paper Raven’s notes on the novel blueprint method and the Act One Tipping Point. I love this … “The story starts when life can no longer go on the way it has in the past. Something threatens the worldview of the characters. There is a sense that all is not well – trouble looms on the horizon. Big change is coming.”
Feb. 11, 2019 – 10:10 am
I finished chapter one yesterday! Rough, of course. To be expected. Setting descriptions and detail work will come later. Cut a huge section from the piece I had roughed out. Way too much talking.
A writing routine has emerged. Write for two hours, walk for an hour, have lunch, knit on my current sock project, work for another two hours.
Feb. 12, 2019 – 10:00 am
Another day – bright sunny skies but the cold continues. I love the feeling of my fingers moving swiftly over these keys. When I come up to the dormer room to get started, I anxiously await those few moment that Word takes to get my document open, so I can start. It is wonderful and exhilarating to feel this way again!
I wrote in my head for my entire hour-long walk. Now, I feel as though I’m going to explode if I don’t get some of these ideas on paper.
Well, that was six days in the writing life. How do you get your writing day going? Is a routine important? Are you rigid with a schedule or is it anything goes? Let me know.
I decided to perk this post up with some pics from Day one of our fall trip because photos of my writing sessions would be dead boring. We travelled from our Island home to the lower mainland, visited Minnekhada park in Coquitlam and caught sunset on the Fraser River.
Today marks an important transition: the day I tipped over from note taking to writing book five in the Crater Lake series. Word count – 1500. A modest start, you say. True … but I am thrilled. My dormer desk is working like an early spring tonic. The chance to focus and let my thoughts roam free is invigorating and productive. Even just a couple of hours at the keyboard in this new setting, when combined with my daily walk on the lake trails, has the creative pump gushing ideas all day long.
Not all is easy breezy, though. There is the early stage of idea overwhelm to deal with. I have been here before but that doesn’t seem to help. It goes something like this – I get one scene roughed out. I’m comfy in the heads of a couple of characters. Then, before I can stop myself, I’m thinking of all the other characters who are literally clamouring for attention and I start to panic. Can one brain hold so many storylines?
When it starts, I tell myself – that’s what paper is for. Get it down, one section at a time and move on.
Prior to getting my cherished 1500 words today, I had combined all my notes into one Word doc. I set up the handy-dandy navigation tool in order to quickly move between sections.
I recall blogging about this feature when working on my last book. First, choose a heading under styles for your chapter and section titles. Generate a table of contents and then with a simple click, turn on the navigation pane (under view) and quickly move to any section. At this stage of writing, I make my chapter and section titles super descriptive.
The Word doc I’m describing is now my prelim, prelim, prelim first draft. And that is one exciting statement! Next, I begin roughing in each section of the first four chapters. These I’ve already outlined in some detail. Once that is done, all my characters will be on the playing board ready to rock and roll. If experience is any guide, I won’t need to do much outlining after that – the characters will take over the story. I will simply be the scribe.
I wonder what the cover number five will look like? Too soon to even guess.
There is no such thing as the perfect writing spot. We all know that. Though, I must say, granddaughter Emma looks almost perfect right where she sits at my desk. And my son, Doug, looks pretty productive, too.
There are simply writers who sit down and write. Wait around for the perfect spot and you won’t be writing much. And yet … periodically, I disrupt our whole house as I attempt to fulfill this most illusory need.
Our cabin is somewhat unconventional. Right angles and doors are rare. Open concept is taken to the limit. Finding my perfect writing space has been a challenge that is as much about my personality as it is about the house. I like a change now and then. Over the years, I have had my desks in at least eight areas of this small cabin. I’m sorry to tell you that the first few set-ups predated our time with digital cameras, so words must suffice.
I started with a small desk in the uppermost loft. We had to hoist the desk over the railing from one loft to the other since it wouldn’t go up the narrow stairs. It was years before we had installed a rake window looking out over the garden in that area. Maybe I would have stayed put if I had waited for that window. Who knows?
Next, I got a larger desk and moved to the big loft, against the railing that looks down into the living room. This railing just got a major facelift so I decided to include a photo, though my desk in that location is long gone. I was near that railing for a while. I loved the vantage point but hated how the whole mess of computer cords and the piles of books on my desk looked from below.
Soon enough, I was on the move again. We converted the dining room section of our open concept main floor into a full-fledged office with built-in bookshelves that surrounded my desk. I do wish I had a photo of that set-up for you. It was really neat. I wrote many academic papers in that space. I was productive and for me and Bruce, the loss of the dining room was no big deal. We still had our kitchen eating space. But the repurposing brought multiple complaints from all visitors who had fond memories of the large table that previously occupied the dining room and could seat a dozen in a pinch.
We reclaimed the dining room as dining room, though in the photo below, we had long since lost that huge table.
Upstairs, we had knocked a door through the middle loft, so all three lofts were connected. The area on the main floor that contained a closet and the narrow staircase to the highest loft became redundant. We created a library/office space for Bruce and removed all the desks and built-in shelving from the dining room to that area. Below, you can see this is a wonderful cosy spot.
Meanwhile, I moved down to Victoria for several years to attend university. In my apartment, I had the entire dining room converted to an office. I think we ate at a small table in the living room. A lot can be deduced about an individual from the amount of space they are willing to allocate to desks.
I had satellite desks at the cabin for holidays and the summer months.
When I returned full-time to the cabin, Bruce designed a built-in desk for me in the sloping corner of the big loft. I was upstairs again! I distinctly remember writing my methodology paper for my unfinished dissertation there. But after a while, looking into a dark corner made me feel stifled. Okay for research methodology but it wouldn’t work for novel writing. Time to move again.
I couldn’t exactly haul the built-in desk around, so I simply moved my laptop to the kitchen. The table proved to be the most fruitful writing space I have ever had. I was so productive that more and more stuff followed me down to the table and before long we barely had a spot to eat. Well, over time, that became untenable.
I moved to the dining room again … completely central to the rest of the cabin.
A space begging for interruption. I pined for the wide-open view of the lake from the kitchen table. Thus, the era of trying to have it all began. I moved one desk up to the kitchen.
Again, much work occurred in front of that view of lake but there were downsides. I had become a two-desk person and one of them had to stay in the dining room. I felt fractured.
One day, Bruce said, “Why not take over the whole kitchen eating area for your office. We’ll move the table to the dining room.” I was in heaven. I had both my desks, huge windows, an easy chair. Perfection at last. And close to the coffee pot. What more could a writer ask?
The howls from visitors began anew and my guilt at commandeering such a big slice of our square footage grew. When we had guests, we had to haul all the food for every meal down to the dining room and people missed eating up in the kitchen with those wonderful views. Compromise was called for. Back to only one desk in the kitchen plus table.
Fractured again, I tried both desks plus the table. Unbelievably crowded and even I was howling.
Through all our back and forth with desks from dining room to kitchen, we had kept our china cabinet in the dining area. The next move saw us drag that cabinet up to the kitchen and that meant both my desks could tuck into the dining room space much more effectively and the whole open concept main floor looked cozy and sleek. We loved having the spacious kitchen back and having the china cabinet where it should have been all along. Hopefully, we told ourselves, this was the end of moving desks.
But not so fast. The dining room is still central – it feels like grand central to me.
I bemoaned the fact that I had neither walls nor door and considered the solution of Les Nessman from that old sit com, WKRP in Cincinnati. Maybe I could draw where the walls should go on the floor and chalk in the door. But in my heart I knew, that would not stop distraction. Then it came to me – like a bolt of lightning – we have an underutilized space with a door. Our dormer room upstairs – the middle loft. One of the few places in this cabin I have never attempted to work. The kids use it as a playroom when they visit. There are big windows and an interesting view.
I was resolved that this would be a different sort of move for me. I had no intention of converting the dormer to an office. I love my office space right where it is. What I envisioned was a work area only big enough for my laptop. Whenever I felt the need for isolation, I could cart my laptop to the dormer, shut the door and stay put in front of the keyboard. No interruptions and no distractions.
Sitting up in the dormer, Bruce and I threw some ideas around. We have a set of built-in shelves under the window, and we decided that something designed to fit on the shelf and jut into the room slightly would suffice. Bruce rounded up a package of leftover hardwood pine flooring that had been given to us by friends after they redid their bedroom floor. He constructed this lovely little work surface with a back that holds it tightly in place under the upper shelf.
So now, here I sit. I am writing undisturbed, enjoying the sound of the rain on the dormer roof outside the window and loving the view of the trees, multiple shades of green all around me. It’s a bit like sitting in a tree fort.
Hopefully, all is well that ends well. I can never say this will be my last move, but I sure enjoy the way things are now. In closing, I dedicate this post to the one who has cheerfully, (for the most part) hauled my many desks from place to place. Thank you, Bruce. As always, your support is greatly appreciated. Here’s a great photo of what Bruce was up to the other day – time to clean out that composting toilet. I bet hauling around my desks is way more fun.
Being the author of an ongoing series, I am fascinated by how authors keep their characters fresh and their readers wanting more. My son suggested Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels as an interesting case study. After reading the first three books, I was hooked. Research quickly gave way to pleasure as I read every single book. The feature on Kindle that directs me to purchase the next book in the series as soon as I have finished the previous one is extremely helpful – translation – irresistible.
With my research hat on, I asked myself, what makes Jack Reacher a hero who bears up through so many novels? Well … he’s quirky. His constant pursuit of coffee made me love him. Black, steaming hot and out of a thick white mug. Reacher is all about his coffee.
Then there is his abhorrence for personal possessions – exempting his signature folding toothbrush – this leads to any number of odd and humorous situations. Buying new clothes every three days just adds to Reacher’s quirky mystique. When he remarked that he was amazed to discover second-hand janitorial wear, I cringed and said to myself – Oh my God, Jack – no.
Don’t let Hollywood fool you. Tom Cruise is not Jack Reacher. He is as far from Jack Reacher as anyone could get. Just my opinion. Reacher has hands like pancakes, mussed up hair, cheap, baggy clothing and enough scars to make you cringe, he’s no Don Juan. And he knows it. He’s self-deprecating to a fault.
As the authors of serial fiction, what can we glean from Lee Child’s success? First, we shouldn’t be afraid to create a quirky character. Readers end up loving the eccentricities. One caveat – there must be a reason for the character’s quirkiness. Random weirdness is not what we are after.
Lee has created a wonderful Littlest Hobo persona for his main character. Jack Reacher roams from town to town making things right.
There’s a voice that keeps on calling me
Down the road is where I’ll always be
Every stop I make, I’ll make a new friend
Can’t stay for long, just turn around and I’m gone again.
Maybe tomorrow, I’ll want to settle down,
Until tomorrow, I’ll just keep moving on.
Down this road, that never seems to end,
Where new adventure, lies just around the bend. (Maybe Tomorrow – Terry Bush – Theme song from the Littlest Hobo)
Reacher’s sense of justice is unfailing. He can always be counted on to handle anything thrown at him in terms of physical demands, he always ends up with some girl – though not always the glamour girl. He is more a man who falls into various situations when it comes to women. Some of his relationships last over a couple of books. Some he returns to books later, but Jack is the quintessential wanderer and the beauty of him is that he won’t settle down. Down the road is where he’ll always be.
The movement around the United States is another fascinating aspect of the Jack Reacher novels. In each state and city Reacher finds himself, Child lavishes on location details – streets, landmarks, climate and local customs. It’s like being on a road trip.
Another gleaning – locations rich in detail work well to move characters and books along. Discovering a new city through the eyes of a well-known character is a reader’s delight.
Lee Child does an excellent job at doling out Reacher’s history. Whole books are devoted to his time in the army as an MP and these additions to the series answers the questions that pop up for readers who follow Reacher from town to town and wonder what can possibly motivate him to act as he does.
Our final gleaning is to create a character with a past complicated enough to keep his or her internal struggles going strong book after book. Jack Reacher’s past will take him the rest of his life to work out and that serves Lee Child well. And another caveat – that internal struggle must lead, though it may be halting and awkward at times, to ongoing character development. No reader will put up with being stuck with a character on a long-term basis who isn’t learning and changing.
There you have it. Recipe for a hit series. Makes you want to start doodling around with some character profile cards, doesn’t it? Meanwhile, here’s me thinking I might re-read the whole series.