Writing is not Linear

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Writing a novel—even a short story, for that matter—is not a linear process. An idea reveals in a thousand different ways: a character, a scene, a bit of dialogue, perhaps a title or theme. From whatever point a writer starts thinking about a potential idea, the path to completion takes many directions, and the journey is seldom a straight line.

With the advent of NaNoWriMo two days away, the common advice will say, in one way or another, “Get the first draft down in whatever form (paper or Word document), knowing it will be crap and will require drastic revision.”

I am one of those expounders, yet my first draft does not normally follow from page one through to page 400. Within the writing of the first draft, there are times when the chronological order does not work; I have to shift from the linear view to a more scattered accounting.

The instances when I halt forward movement inevitably occurs when an event or moment in the story future must be written now because, (1) the scene occurs with a fever-pitch need to get written for fear it might be forgotten or diluted if I wait, (2) the instance is revealed full-blown, and/or, (3) there is an important goal to shoot for, probably because of current plot foreshadowing.

At times it is enough to simply make a note about a future scene, a jot to jar my mind, a moment where I know there is something I wish to portray, but the particulars remain misty. The idea dwells in the kernel stage and needs time to grow within my subconscious—those are not the times I’m talking about.

When a full-blown future scene assaults me during the chronological writing, those instances when characters and plot congeal in that perfect adrenaline rush kind of way, I have to put the linear view aside and jump ahead 50, 100, even 200 pages further into the story; the linear story line awaits my return.

I work with a nominal outline, filling in scenes and weaving conflicts as I go. At the outset, I know where the story travels, though never is the journey crystal clear—the journey (how my characters get to the end) is what I enjoy the most about writing, the not knowing for sure how my characters will succeed. In this way I am both creator and reader, the former hoping to surprise the latter.

As I have said many times, the most important thing is to write every day. This is the main thrust of the November writing challenge, that is, to prompt writers to develop the habit of writing each day, and especially those days one is not inclined. NaNoWriMo is also a great time to try a new genre or style, something I plan to do this year.

When you sit down to write, start where it feels most natural; you might find a scene goal that fits perfectly at a future time in the story line, or more often than not, you will begin at chapter one. Either way, do not restrict yourself by only thinking and writing linear—the scenes and instances that surprise you in the middle of writing are often the most fun to write.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Fall Into Something New

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I love autumn: trees shedding golden leaves crunching beneath my feet, pale blue sky sharing space with billowy gray clouds, flocks of birds soaring overhead on their yearly journeys, and bushy-tailed gray squirrels leaping from thick oak branches to thin pines.

For the writer, fall is a perfect time to close the door and write while rain taps against the window, or curl up with a favorite book and a steaming cup of hot chocolate in front of a dancing fire.

These months leading toward the end of the year offer many writing activities such as NANOWRIMO—an acronym for National Novel Writing Month—and How Writers Write Fiction, a free writing class from Iowa University. I encourage you to seek out both to help improve your craft.

Most of all, though, the present season is a great time to review, to reflect, and to create.

Take a courageous step to write in an unfamiliar genre or style, test yourself and journey into potentially uncomfortable territory—searching new things will make you a better writer.

If you normally write fantasy, try a hard-boiled mystery; should romance be your forte, write a science fiction story (with romance thrown in, of course); a historical fiction writer may find a shoot-em-up western a nice complement. Whatever you write, fall is a great time to experiment; you might find interests broader than you realize.

The main thing, as always, is to write daily.

I have a snippet file, a document where I note anything not associated with a current project: observations, characterizations, bits of dialogue; possible story, novel, or article titles; thoughts about the craft, scenes, plots and their twists, a shopping bag of succinct and interesting tidbits.

Often during the year—and especially this season—I open the snippet file and read through my collection. Some are trite, a couple may prove semi-profound, but always interesting. Inevitably I find an item I can either adapt to a current work-in-progress or something that prompts me in a new direction—and it’s kinda fun.

I carry a 3×5 lined notepad wherever I venture, and it fills with snippets scrawled in the heat of the moment. When I sit at my computer, I add these bits of writing to my snippet file, which has now grown to dozens of typed pages and hundreds of entries. Notes such as:

Dale walked on tip-toes as if his heal harbored a painful splinter he dare not put weight on, like a mouse dancing across cactus.

Mournful groans of the emotionally afflicted.

Mourners wailed and groaned as the casket carried by eight pall-bearers passed by.

The rich know not the travails of the poor, who dream of being like them one day.

“I like your beard; it covers your face.”

Unimaginative and of little value by themselves, perhaps, but one may provide a springboard to something more. If you do not have a snippet file (and every writer should, in my opinion), start one and review it occasionally—you will witness improvement to your wordsmithing skills, and it might even trigger a new project.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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A Time-Tested Story Format

Search the stories of antiquity when actors traveled the countryside entertaining small crowds with their plays, and you will notice the writers understood the validity—lo, the necessity—of the Three Act format.

The Three Act format remains a mainstay of modern storytelling, dramatized on screen in movies and even most 30 minute sitcoms. Why? Because three distinct acts (or sections, if you prefer) works to keep the viewer or reader involved as the story unfolds, scene by scene, one act to another, seamlessly to the satisfactory conclusion.

There are other proposed formats, but I will stick with the Three Act structure because other descriptions are merely variations of the original. Some describe the Three Act format as Beginning, Middle, and End, which can be useful, although that definition is a bit simplistic for our study.

The Three Act format can and should be a road map for the creator, sign posts to keep the writer on a logical path to the end of journey. When first developing a story, I ask myself these questions:

  1. Where does this story begin?
  2. What problems and conflicts will the character(s) have to overcome?
  3. How will this story end?

By this time a character has already formed in my mind, and I have the gist of where I want to go. Although I may know where I want the story to go, I may not know how to get there—the Three Act Format assists to define the direction and outcome best suited to the needs of a particular story.

The opening Act introduces the character(s), the setting, and the initial story problem.

Act Two complicates the problems, digs deeper into the character—adding flaws and situations to overcome—and initiates more roadblocks.

Act Three, which is often the shortest of the parts (in term of word count or, in the case of film, minutes), shows the character resolving the story-problem and a look to the future. Do not miss that last part, a look to the future, as that story attribute gives the reader an enhanced sense of resolution.

ACT ONE

The last two weeks my posts have focused on the all-important story opening: How to Grab the Reader, focusing on the Hook, and stirring the Story Stew, new problems and action drawing the reader deeper into the story or novel.

Both are parts of Act One, but not the totality. In my story, Nychelle’s Gate, Act I ends when Nychelle escapes her clan and begins a solitary journey into a frightening and unknown world.

Think of the first act as the set-up of the story, that all important invite to your reader. Of all the sections, the opening is the most important—a reader won’t continue reading if they are not drawn into the story by the Hook and stirring the Story Stew. By contrast, the Hook is gone after its appearance, the stirring of the stew continues throughout.

ACT TWO

The transition from one act to another will appear naturally if done with planning and forethought. Even something like, Three hours later, Fred and Gwynn reached the cabin on the lake, and although a time transition mostly, is a way to get the characters to the next scene where something dramatic happens.

The second act introduces new obstacles the characters must overcome on their quest to solve the main story problem. In the example of Fred and Gwynn, perhaps they are taking a much needed weekend together to solve their marital problems. The question arising in the reader’s mind (will they save their marriage?) is the mystery you, as the writer, must solve. Think of it like a puzzle where you add the pieces—harsh words, misunderstanding, appearance of another relationship straining the marriage, or intruder that draws the couple closer—one by one until you solve the problem previously laid out.

ACT THREE

The third act is where you bring all the obstacles and foreshadowing to a successful conclusion by solving the mystery piquing the reader’s mind.

Going back to the mention earlier of a look to the future, your conclusion should point to the character’s future because, of course, the character’s life continues after the story’s last word; unless killing off the character is your conclusion, which is a hard sell in most cases.

Readers want to know that life goes on for the characters with whom they have developed an intimate relationship. The character’s future is an important addition to the end of a story, one which gives the reader a sense of continuity and hope.

Next time you are writing and don’t know where to go, try to break the story into the three distinct Acts, each separated by a door into the next.

See you on the next page,

Rick