What a novel idea!

England, Italy, London, Milan, Minnesota, novel writing, organized crime, outline, Psych, St. Paul, synopsis, Uncategorized
So far I have written six novels, each of which is a standalone book. Three of them take place in the St. Paul, Minnesota and three of them are located in Europe (one in a fictitious prison camp somewhere in England, one in London and one mostly in Milan, Italy). In the past few years I haven’t written any novels at all, but instead concentrated on nonfiction and poetry. Nevertheless, I have, from time to time, tried to come up with plots that might lend themselves to a full-length novel. Here are just a few of the possible contenders:
1.     A guy who is having a midlife crisis decides to quit his job and head off on a road trip across the USA. The story also involves his relationship with his father, whom he had always admired, until… he discovers a dark secret about him that changes his whole perspective. His route takes him through small towns and large cities and he has encounters with various people, including a number of weirdoes, criminals and crackpots. At one point he is held hostage during a bank robbery. The back story unfolds, as he travels, through the use of flashbacks.
Here it is unclear whether the story has “legs.” Is there enough of a basic plot to last a whole book? Possibly not. There would need to be several subplots tied to the main plot in order to make it credible as a 70k+ word novel. Also, the idea of a guys simply doing a road trip seems kind of aimless. He would need to be searching for something specific.

Character Profiles… or not

background information, character development, character profiles, novel writing, outline, Uncategorized
There are all sorts of preparatory exercises you can do when planning a novel. As well as drawing up an outline, chapter by chapter, and researching times, dates, places, people and things, you could also come up with a character profile for each of the main characters. This sort of approach is recommended by many teachers of creative writing. The idea is that you write down everything you know about your main characters: where they went to school, their favorite color, what they were like as a child, whom they dated, where they went on vacation, and so on. What this is aiming to achieve is twofold. First, you get to know your characters intimately so that you know how they will react when they meet each other, and that keeps your story plausible. Second, you can use the character profile as a fact-checking mechanism so that if you, for example, refer to something in their past you can keep your facts consistent.
It sounds like a good idea. But there are other people who maintain that nailing down all those fact about your character can make them predictable and one-dimensional. It’s the same argument that is used by proponents of the “no outline” stance and it does have some merit. They also say that it takes all the joy out of writing if everything is predictable. After all, part of the excitement in writing a novel is the thrill you get when your character says or does something that you had not foreseen. In that case, the novel takes on a life of its own and the author is just as surprised as the reader by the direction the character development is taking.

             I can’t really make my mind up about it. I suppose it depends what kind of novel you are writing. If you are writing an action-packed thriller in which the plot speeds along like a freight train, then perhaps deep character development is not necessary. Sure, you need to give some complexity to your characters, but not so much as you would if you were writing a romance novel.

I once tried to draw up a character profile for each of the main players in one of my novels and found it rather difficult to come up with a lot of intricate detail on their backgrounds. One method that has been suggested is to imagine you are in a room together with one of your characters. Then you simply sit down with them and ask them a list of questions. In other words, you let them do the talking. For some people that might work well. Others might find it difficult to imagine sitting down with a fictitious character. And yet others may be so good at it that they have to see psychotherapeutic counseling for multiple personality disorder. I suppose one aspect of interviewing your characters that might work is that the more you get to know them, the more you will end up liking them. But the reverse might be true also. Once you get to know some of your characters well you might just as easily hate their guts. And that would be bad news for your novel, especially if they happened to be the protagonist.
Another aspect militating against character profiles is that characters in a novel can develop and change according to the circumstances they encounter as the plot unfolds. If you have already decided everything about them from their shoe size to when they last had a haircut then you may find yourself with fairly static characters who remain the same no matter what gruesome experiences you force them into in the course of the novel.
            Maybe next time round I’ll take the character profile method for another test drive and see if it helps my next novel or hinders it. Maybe I’ll write a romance novel. And maybe tomorrow the sun will rise in the west and Donald Trump will be bald.


Happy New Year!

goals, Happy New Year, New Year resolutions, novel writing, obstacles, schedule, Uncategorized
It’s a new year, a new start. First question: how did you do with fulfilling last year’s resolutions? “What resolutions?” I hear you cry. Yes, I know. Last January is now just a distant, fading memory and who knows what you resolved to do in 2015? In any case, it’s now that time of year again and it behooves us to straighten the spine, stiffen the upper lip and seize the day. And after that little work out how about coming up with some resolutions for 2016?
If you are a writer of any kind, you will want to include some literary goals in your general ones. Here are a few suggestions to bear in mind when drawing up your short list of candidates for inclusion in your New Year’s honors list.
1)    Choose realistic goals.
One thing that is guaranteed to scupper your chances of reaching the goals you set is if you set your sights too high or don’t take into account external factors. So, for example a reasonable goal might be to write a novel during 2016. An unreasonable goal might well be getting it published. For a start, the publishing process is notoriously slow and even if a publisher were to accept your manuscript you might not see your book in print until well into the following year. That side of it is outside your control. So choosing targets that are within your grasp is a much more sensible solution.
2)    Come up with a plan for achieving your goals.
It is one thing to establish a set of goals. What matters and, in the end, what ensures success or guarantees failure is how you plan to achieve those goals. That means:
  1. setting realistic deadlines;
  2. taking steps to rearrange your life to facilitate the achievement of those goals;
  3.  it might even involve rearranging the layout of your home to make it easier for you to write; and
  4. it might involve looking at your schedule and shuffling things around a bit to facilitate your writing time.


3)    Choose how you are going to reward yourself for achieving your goals.
We all need incentives, so how are you going to reward yourself for hitting the targets you have set for yourself? A bottle of champagne? A night out with some friends? A brand new Ferrari? (Okay, back to point no. 1 about realistic goals.) Incentives, give you some impetus to finish the task at hand. However, they can’t be the only reason you write. If you’re not writing for the sheer joy of it and for the satisfaction you get from creating something new, then maybe writing isn’t your thing after all.
4)    If, during the year, it looks like you’re not going to achieve some of your goals, adjust your objectives so you achieve at least something.
This eradicates the demoralizing effects of failure. If you adjust your goals as you go through the year, you might find that, although you didn’t achieve the initial goal, you still achieved several secondary goals. Similarly, though, if you find you are not going to achieve what you set out to in your New Year’s resolutions, you might also want to examine what is stopping you from achieving each goal and take steps to sidestep it.
5)    Do what you can to eliminate obstacles in the way of achieving your goals.
In some ways, this involves looking ahead. There is no point in ending up in the middle of a problem and then choosing to act. Look ahead constantly and assess how close you are to achieving what you set out to do and anticipate any obstacles that are looming in the distance. That way, with some deft sleight of hand you might, in fact, avoid the problem altogether.
6)    Enlist the help of others in achieving your goals.
It is a fact that no man is an island (although, after having consumed huge quantities of festive food at this time of year, you might feel like one). Don’t just write down your list, make it public, share it on social media if necessary. Get the backing of your family and friends. Ask them to help you achieve your goals. And if it looks as if, during the year, you’re going to be way off track, ask them what they can do to help.
7)    Break your list down into minor goals.
For example, “Write a novel by December 31, 2016” is fine as an overall goal. But “Write the first three chapters by the end of February” is easier to achieve. So if you break up your goals into minor objectives, not only does it give you a better sense of progress and achievement, but it makes it much more likely that you will, bit by bit, achieve the overall goal.
This is a time that comes round only once a year, and another chance to set goals and achieve them. If you want to be successful as a writer choose your goals wisely and get started straight away. Happy New Year and good luck for 2016!


5 rookie mistakes when writing a novel

Lab Rat, Milano, novel writing, Oscar Wilde, outline, punctuation grammar, Uncategorized
“I quite admit that modern novels have many good points. All I insist on is that, as a class, they quite unreadable.” Oscar Wilde




They say that everyone has a novel inside of them. Could this be the reason for the epidemic of heartburn that pharmaceutical companies are constantly telling us about? It may be true that many  people think they have an idea for a novel, but there are very few people who actually take the brave step of going ahead and writing one. If you feel that you have a story that you would like to write, before you start it is worth bearing in mind the following obstacles to successfully getting it down in writing.
1. Not having a clear idea of where the story is going
The first novel I wrote, Lab Rat, was created mainly during lunch breaks. The company I worked for allowed employees an hour for lunch and during this generous time endowment I would sit at my desk and type away at the rate of about 500-600 words per day. When I got to around the fifty-thousand-word mark I stopped to consider what I was doing. Basically I was busy creating a monster of a novel that had more cast members than Ben Hur and meandered along its merry way creating problems that were never really solved by any of the characters. I had no idea where the story was leading and there was not even the slightest hope of plot resolution even in the distant future. It was at that point that I decided to draw up an outline and follow it to conclusion. Well, eventually I finished writing the novel and left it for several years before I went back and tried to grapple with it again. It was a mammoth task knocking it into shape, that involved cutting out about thirty characters, conflating timescales and eradicating from the text passages that seemed pretty good but were irrelevant.
There are a lot of people who say that to write a novel all you need to do is start writing. They talk about the author discovering the story as he or she goes along and allowing the characters to dictate the plot. That is all very well but quite often what you end up with is a primordial soup of a novel that needs so much work to rectify its deficiencies that it’s like writing it all over again. Either that or you end up with a novel that is unreadable and ultimately unsatisfying for the reader.
I’ve nothing against trying out a chapter or two first, without any clear aim in mind, but what I’ve found is that the sooner you sit down and write out an outline of the plot the better the book will be and the fewer drastic changes that are needed when you’ve finished.
2. Not tying up loose ends
It’s a tricky exercise writing a novel and it is easy to get lost in the labyrinth of plot points and forget to bring to completion some part of the action that you kicked off earlier. That’s another good reason to come up with an outline. With one novel I wrote, Milano, about an art heist, I even went so far as to draw up a chart of each scene. The succession of events was complicated and the chart helped me to keep track of everything that was mentioned early in the novel and make sure that it was brought to a satisfactory solution in the end.
3. Not finishing what you started
There must be thousands of desk drawers throughout the world containing the manuscripts of novels that were never finished. This can happen for a number of reasons. Many people dabble at writing a novel but don’t have enough confidence in their ability or they are daunted by the apparent immensity of the task before them and the endeavor slowly fades into nothingness.
One thing I’ve found that helps is treating writing as a professional activity rather than a pastime. That way, you can justify the time you carve out for writing without feeling guilty about it. Conversely, it also places some responsibility on your shoulders and forces you to write when you’re supposed to, without shirking.
Another thing that helps is if you plan to write a certain amount each day, or each weekend, or whenever it is that is a good time for you to write. That gives you a target to aim for and also gives you a sense of achievement when you’ve completed the task.
It also helps if you tell other people about your novel-writing project. It gives you some accountability, since they well might ask you how it’s going. You might even end up writing because you’re ashamed to face what other people might say if you give up. Which is all grist to the mill.
4. Including characters who are too similar
This is more to do with the nuts and bolts of your novel, rather the writing process itself. I don’t know about you but if I come across characters in a novel who have similar sounding names I get confused. I get confused even if the names have the same initial letter. In my own novels what I have tried to do is come up with a set of names that have different initial letters just to keep it clear in the mind of the reader whom everybody is.
Of course, that doesn’t really help much if two characters are very similar in other ways. For example, you might have two tall, dark, brooding protagonists who have a similar line in dialogue. That too can confuse the reader.
The same thing can happen if your novel involves a cast of family members. Sometimes that too can be difficult to straighten out in the reader’s mind.
The key is to give each character not just different names, but different characteristics and make sure that you periodically refer back to those characteristics. It can also help if you reiterate their relationship to the other characters by referring to previous incidents that have occurred in the novel that they were involved in.
5. Bad punctuation and/or grammar
Ah, this is a bit of a bugbear, isn’t it. Basically, if you produce a novel that has defective grammar and/or punctuation, it is never going to get published – unless you decide to publish it independently yourself. But even then, it will most likely garner one-star reviews if there are glaring textual defects like that.
If you are not very good at grammar and punctuation, it is a good idea to study it. One of the best grammar and punctuation manuals, I’ve found, is the Chicago Manual of Style. It goes into detail about every aspect of correct usage and syntax. A different edition is published every year or so, but you can purchase previous editions very cheaply from online bookstores.
If you are still stumped about how to write proper English, don’t despair. You can always write your novel and then hand it to an editor to correct for you. Yes, it might cost you a few bucks but you have the satisfaction of knowing that when you submit it to a publisher at least it’s in decent shape.
So if you have a novel inside you, don’t just reach for the Zantac. Get it down in writing – or typing – but remember the above points. They could just save you hours of heartache and pain.