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.


How to Write a Novel in a Month

60000-word novel, blurb, chapters, finding time to write, NaNoWriMo, outline, summary, Uncategorized
National novel-writing month (NaNoWriMo) comes around once every November, the object being to write an entire novel in a month. But you could choose any month to write your novel. The possibility of writing a novel at all, let alone in one month seems beyond the bounds of reason. Yet, it is possible. A little bit of discipline goes a long way and if you are committed to the task, you will find that you can complete the novel in the time allocated without even breaking a sweat.
Before you start, there are a small number of things you need to do to prepare.
1.     Decide what the novel is about. Can you summarize the plot in 200-300 words? These are the sort of words that you might find on the dust jacket of a book. If you can’t sum up what the novel is about in a paragraph or two, perhaps you need to do some work to get it clear in your mind. Who is the main character? What are they trying to achieve? What stands in their way? How is their main opposition eliminated in the course of the book? Is there a satisfactory conclusion? Apart from the last one (which would involve a spoiler of sorts) these are the questions that the blurb – or short description – should answer.
2.     Do an outline. An outline is a document that contains a short description of what happens in each chapter. Some writers dispense with the outline and just start writing, making the story up as they go along. The disadvantage of this approach is that you can end up taking the plot down various rabbit holes and you run the risk of grinding to a halt. Another risk you run by not outlining is not really knowing where to finish the story. This can result in either an abrupt ending, or a bunch of loose ends that are not tied up by the time the novel finishes. So make it easy for yourself and work out the action beforehand for each successive chapter. For our purposes, divide the novel into 30 chapters, each of which will be about 2,000 words long. 60,000 words is about the minimum you need for a modern novel. Writing an outline also allows you to iron out any bumpy patches in the plot beforehand so that all you need to worry about later is writing the book.
3.     Write the first couple of chapters. This gives you a head start. The purpose of writing the first couple of chapters is to get you into the swing of writing. It may take you a couple of tries before you settle into a style of writing that you are comfortable with and that you can sustain throughout the length of the novel.
4.     Get the agreement of those you live with so that they can be persuaded to get behind the project and allow you the time you need to write. If you don’t, then expect the next month to be a rocky road!
These preparatory steps can be done over a period of weeks or even months before you even get to the writing part. They are important for leveling the playing field and making it easy on yourself when you sit down to write the novel.
Obviously, the biggest factor in whether you are able to write a novel in a month will be whether you can find the time (see my blog post on December 30, 2015 on FindingTime to Write). The proposition involves prioritizing writing time so that it comes relatively high on your list of daily tasks. In this case, you may find it useful to divide the novel into weeks. Your weekly schedule might look like this:
Weekdays: Get up early and write for 1 hour. In the evening skip TV and write for an further 2½  hours (at the reasonable rate of 600 words an hour that’s about 2,000 words per weekday). Of course, if it is impossible for you to get up any earlier than you already do, you could just transfer your writing time to the evening and work from 7 to 10.30 p.m. Or whatever combination works for you. Here, you can see that you are going to have to sacrifice some other enjoyable pastime, such as vegetating in front of the TV all evening. But it’s only for a month! There are 5 weekdays and, if you aim to write 2,000 words a day, that comes to 10,000 words, leaving you 5,000 words to write at the weekend.
Weekends: Weekends for many people tend to be the time when you lie in bed for longer and wander about in pajamas eating cereal at midday. What you have to do is come up with about 4 hours on Saturday and about 4 hours on Sunday and you will have hit your target of 5,000 words for the weekend. Getting up early might work. Working late into Saturday night might work. It’s up to you. Yes, it might be difficult because you will be out of your usual routine. But it’s only for a month!
With this schedule you will clock up 15,000 words every week and after a month you will have over 60,000 words to show for your efforts. There are other ways of doing it, of course. You could carve out every weekend and work from dawn till dusk, or even cash in a week’s vacation time and write 8,500 words per day to complete your novel. Any way you look at it, at the end of the allotted time you will have a fully-fledged novel manuscript in you hands and can then work with that.
So, say you somehow manage to get your family and those you live with to agree to giving you the time you need to write and you have enough discipline to stick to the task, what exactly do you do when you sit down to write? Well, that is easy, because you have gone through the preparatory steps mentioned above. You simply follow your outline, chapter by chapter, until you reach the end of the book. Don’t worry if what you are writing down does not appear to be of the best quality. You can always go back and edit it later. What matters is that you have a complete novel under your belt. From then on the task is revising the text in order to get it ready for submission to a publisher or literary agent. Or you could short-circuit that process and go ahead and publish it independently yourself.
This scheme allows you to write a whole novel in a month. But you could make things easier on yourself by writing 1,000 words a day and completing the project in two months. The choice is yours. If you have any ambitions as an author, what matters is that you give writing some priority in your day-to-day schedule and thus give yourself a chance of completing your writing projects.


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.