Tag Archives: ideas

On Icebergs, Novel Writing and Journaling

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Tip of the Iceberg

Tip of the Iceberg — Image by © Ralph A. Clevenger/CORBIS

It’s a metaphor that gets used a lot, but I’m going to make an embarrassing confession about its application to novel writing: for the longest time, I didn’t get it.

See, I had approached writing a novel like so:

  1. Think of an idea
  2. Start writing chapter 1
  3. Keep writing until you hit “the end”
  4. Go back and revise a million times until it works

Was the underside of the iceberg just all the stuff I cut from each draft? I honestly didn’t
give it too much thought. I know every writer crafts differently, so I figured this was one of those things that other writers did and maybe it didn’t apply to my process.

Or maybe, in hindsight, I didn’t have enough process yet.

book-journalBack in February, a friend gave me a journal as a birthday gift. It took me until April to decide what to do with it, because I refuse to start a journal until I’m sure what I’m going to fill it with. I have a personal journal that’s so thick it’ll take me another two years to finish, so I wanted this one to be for something else.

After reviewers read my novel draft in March, I realized that the story needed to go in some darker directions. I needed the story to be more bleak. And I realized that I wanted to understand my own magic system and characters and setting better than I did.

Suddenly I knew exactly what I needed that extra journal for.

heart-science

I began with magic-system stuff and progressed to everything. The more I wrote, the more I realized there was to write. I sketched and mapped settings, I jotted down research notes about relevant phenomena, I analyzed the numerology and astrology of every character.

gina-and-chrisAnd most importantly, I wrote lots and lots of backstory—pages and pages of situations that happened to my characters in the years preceding the story, down to why they were riding the elementary school bus in third grade and what family circumstances were like for each of them back then (nine years before the story starts). I even ended up writing about things that happened to my character’s parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. I spent the summer fleshing out their lives and having a marvelous time.

The result is over 200 pages of handwritten notes that cover just a small portion of the thinking and processing that went into them.

Now I’m at the point of placing those insights into the story—and the iceberg analogy suddenly makes sense. Because from all that backstory, I’ve been inserting maybe two sentences at a time into the novel itself—details that give it the depth of those extra pages, even though readers won’t see what’s underneath.

With the next novel I work on, you can bet I’ll have a journal from the start.

Three Steps to Complex Characters (Part II)

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Okay. Your character has a face and an energy type! This is exciting stuff! You’re well on your way.

Next up, not surprisingly, your character needs a NAME.

Now, sure, you could just give him or her your favorite name, that one that was a little too wild to use on any actual children or say out loud all the time but you know would be just too cool in print. You could. Maybe. But I’d like to convince you that the best choice is a name that perfectly fits the character.

We do this with real children. In fact, if you’re currently trying to decide on a name for your upcoming bundle of joy, this info I’m about to share might be even more invaluable. I certainly wish I’d known, for example, that the letter Z signifies “aggression/conflict” before I gave a certain child of mine a name that starts with it—except that, of course, it is exactly the right name for that aggressive little kid. And luckily the other letters in his name have to do with thinking and wisdom. Fingers crossed he grows into those soon haha.

Believe it or not, characters can embody their names just as much—whether or not you understand the name in advance. For example, with my Peter Pan retelling, I chose to stick with the names Wendy and Peter, and it was amazing how much personality came with those names that I didn’t realize ahead of time. I “crafted” their characters years before learning anything about nomenology, and yet the names are dead on.

Read the rest of this entry

Three Steps to Complex Characters (Part I)

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face 5Last week I shared Pixar’s 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling, and I’m going to be honest and say that when you’re at the very beginning of writing a story, it can be overwhelming looking at that list and knowing where to start. But as promised, I’m going to walk you through the process as I go through it myself, and these past two weeks I’ve started firmly with character, loving every discovery and where it’s leading.

Check out some of Pixar’s rules that have to do with character:

#6 What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#13 Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable characters might seem likeable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
#15 If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

When I wrote my first novels, I had no idea how to figure those things out. I muddled through it in the dark, as if blindly trying to distinguish characters’ features by mauling them with my hands. It wasn’t until several (okay, six) drafts into my second novel that I hit on three secrets that have turned character development into a straight-forward science.

You can utilize these three secrets at any writing stage, whether you have no idea what your story will be or you’ve already completed six drafts. I’ve done it in both cases (as mentioned) and found these three steps invaluable either way. Read the rest of this entry

A Story Jar

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“Tell her about the polar bear!” I prompted my seven-year-old when my sister asked how our latest zoo trip had gone.

It had been probably our best visit yet, full of up-close encounters, including the polar bear swimming right up to the glass where the seven-year-old had been standing, face full of wonder.

He looked at me funny. “What do you mean?”

“Tell her how cool the polar bear was.”

“But I don’t know what to say.”

The same thing happened during writing time with school. I’d ask him to write a story — just a one-page, second-grade-level story — and he’d be stumped for ages, even if he already had a prompt and knew what he wanted the story to be about.

I hated seeing him so tense about it. I wanted him to gush with excitement over both the real story of the polar bear and his own made-up stories.

And I realized that the skill we needed to foster was storytelling.

As usual, Pinterest came to my rescue with the idea of a story jar. I sliced up neon note papers and told the kids to write down anything.

The usual protest of not knowing what to write didn’t persist long. Before I knew it, they were begging me to cut more slips. They’d filled out every single one and still had more ideas!

Once I finally said “enough,” the storytelling itself was just as fun. They took turns drawing slips from the jar and adding to an epic-level story with a cast as big as their imaginations.

When their contribution felt weak, I pressed for more details:

Me: “What did the monster look like?”

7yo: “Ugly.”

Me: “How come?”

7yo: “He had brown spots all over him, like dirt and mud.”

Gradually their descriptions became more generous, like when the four-year-old’s monster turned “brown with blue spots and huge horns and three green — no, I mean red — eyes.” They also improved at connections that gave the story a better arc. When a random object showed up, I’d ask how it got there and they’d say things like, “The clever princess gave it to him.” Characters had believable motivations, such as the mouse putting on a life jacket and jumping into the sea to get away from the monster who couldn’t swim. Most impressive of all, the ending circled back to the beginning: the monster had squashed the mouse’s house, and in the end the mouse found a treasure chest that he used to make a new house.

We’ve done it twice now, changing slips to create a completely new story, and it’s such a hit that I’m sure it’ll continue to be one of our favorite school activities.

It gets me thinking, too. Maybe I need more creative exercises for my own writing. Maybe I need to work on my storytelling. Maybe I need to find ways to have fun instead of feeling stumped as I stare at the screen. Maybe I need to stretch my imagination just a little more.

Funny how even elementary school can be for grown-ups too.

Maybe I need to put all my story elements in a jar and mix things up a bit. 😉

Vacation Work

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I realize that the cohabitation of the two words in my post title reflects poorly on me as a human being. But as crazy as it sounds, when we leave for a seven-day cruise in the Caribbean this weekend, courtesy of my father-in-law’s 60th birthday celebration, I’m bringing work along — by choice.

I’ve never been on a cruise, but mainly what I imagine, especially with the glorious fact that our children are staying behind, is loads of free time while stuck on a boat (albeit a very large one designed to entertain your every possible whim). And as a writer, I am one of those strange people who devours free time, allocating as much of it as I can get my hands on for penning stories.

No, teaching tasks will not be coming along. I will have my summer syllabus ready to print before we leave. I will email my future students links to the websites on which they can find answers to all their questions. (If you’re one of said students, welcome! Click here.) And the new textbook that I need to read soon will not get anywhere near my suitcase.

Writing is a completely different matter. As many other writers have said before me,

When you tell me about the crazy cat that used to jump on your head every night and meow in your window well if you threw him out, I am filing that nugget away for later use. When I get a dazed look on my face, I am puzzling over a scene in my head. When our conversation fizzles out, I am restraining myself from telling you about the characters that live in my brain.

When we are stuck on the world’s most ridiculously sized boat, I will be scratching ideas for my next novel on a spiral-bound pad of paper.

Can I even describe how much I’m looking forward to this? Sure, I’ll have fun swimming and snorkeling and zip-lining and even ice skating (yes, ice skating on a boat — again, ridiculous). But a full week without the interruption of children will be the perfect opportunity to figure out the story that goes with my two main characters. I’ve been compiling all their adorable quirks in my head; vacation free time will let me explore the sticky tangles to which those quirks will lead.

I plan to buy a brand-new notebook to dedicate to world building, plot planning, and character unraveling, and I’m as giddy about it as a first-grader buying school supplies. Perhaps I’ll even treat myself to a few shiny pens to go with it. While my computer isn’t invited on vacation, especially with the per minute Wifi charges on the cruise (more ridiculousness), pen and paper might be two of the most essential items on my packing list.

So wish me bon voyage, and when I get back, if the conversation should lag, feel free to ask me what I’m plotting.

What about you? Do you ever bring creative-type work on vacation by choice?

Leave a comment!

Plot Twists and Story Snares

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God has a sense of humor. We call it “coincidence.”

Yesterday it took the form of a hair brush that my eighteen-month-old accidentally left at church. I happened to notice it missing two hours after church, which then sent me walking back to retrieve it, which ended with a rendezvous with someone I needed to talk to but wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to.

But lately most of the coincidences in my life have to do with a mouse.

I’ve been thinking about the moment in a story when you recognize a plot twist: how sometimes it’s obvious in an instant because of a major coincidence, and how other times coincidences are inconsequential enough that the plot twist sneaks up on you until all the small coincidences start to compile and you realize that something big is happening.

The mouse thing, which might also be called a cat thing, was the latter kind.

I should begin by saying that I have never wanted a cat and don’t even particularly want a pet at all. If if I did, I’d lean toward a dog, hands down. Hubby is the same way.

But a couple of months ago we went to a neighbor’s house to pick up our kids after date night. We have been doing a babysitting swap with these neighbors for two years now, so when a beautiful cream-colored cat greeted us by rubbing against my leg, I asked, “When did you guys get a cat?”

The swap hostess laughed and said, “About three years ago.”

“Why have I never seen it?”

“It hides a lot. We hardly saw it ourselves the first four months it lived here. I only knew it was alive because it ate the food.”

This idea intrigued me. Could a pet really be that easy and unobtrusive?

That same month I also bought house plants for the first time in my life after reading about the health benefits (purifies the indoor air), and I happened to also read health benefits about having a pet (fewer allergies, colds, etc). But I still didn’t want one.

Then, last week, I heard nibbling sounds from behind the wall in the kitchen late one night. I froze, thinking, “Oh crap! What am I supposed to do about a mouse??” But then the corresponding thought was “I guess I’ll get a cat after all,” and that satisfied me enough.

Until I actually saw the mouse.

Two nights later my sister and I were at the kitchen table when a dark furry thing scurried across the floor and darted under the fridge. I called my parents, my in-laws, my hubby — asking everybody for advice. But the more they described poison and various traps, the more sick I became over the whole idea.

That’s when the other coincidences became noticeable. My kids had been watching Dumbo for like a week straight, and suddenly I pictured those stupid elephants freaking out about a mouse and felt dumb about doing the same. My eighteen-month-old has been in love with a lift-the-flap book called Follow the Prophet by Val Chadwick Bagley and his favorite page, about the boy Samuel in the Bible, has three or four cute little mice on it. Then my sister joked about “Gus Gus” from Cinderella and how we should give our mouse shoes and a shirt.

Snares! All of them!

Stories have this way of catching and changing us, don’t they? And it’s like we need only be reminded of them and suddenly they change our course: a story snare and a plot twist.

The next plot twist was the husband.

See, by this time I’d become pretty convinced that these coincidences and thoughts and feelings were adding up to the idea that God is suggesting, in His ever-so-humorous way, that we need a cat. So I prayed and told God, “Um, I actually don’t want a cat. I don’t want an extra living creature to take care of. I have three kids! But, if we’re really supposed to get a cat, and if it would be a good idea” — because I’ve noticed that God’s plans generally work out better for me than stubbornly opposing them (note the picture of the elephants above) — “then, God, you’re going to have to convince my husband. I’ll do the research and get ready for an extra family member; you use your coincidences on Hubby.”

The husband’s initial response: “Hell no!”

We talked about it. I explained my position. I gave him my reasons and plenty of concessions, like the fact that I agree with him and I didn’t actually want a cat either, but that I feel good about it for whatever reason. But though the conversation went well, nothing I said made him budge at all.

“No cats. No pets.”

“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “I won’t get one until we’re both agreed on it because that wouldn’t be fair.”

“That’ll be never. We’re never getting a cat. God would have to send a whole army of rats to convince me to get a cat.”

Amusingly, a few hours later, after I’d already gone upstairs for the night, Hubby happened to be the last one in the kitchen. He heard/saw the mouse scurry from under the fridge to under the oven. When he came up, his eyes were a little bit wide as he said, “I just met Ralph. I’m going to get traps.”

I had to explain that I can’t kill the mouse because all the story snares — now including his reference to Beverly Cleary — had gotten me thinking of it as an innocent creature we can’t kill for no reason.

“But you’re okay with a cat killing it?”

“Or chasing it away. A cat fits into the natural order of things. Poison and traps do not.” (Though four years ago, the last time we had a mouse, I poisoned it without blinking. Again, those darn story snares! Those plot twists that change our course!)

Before I knew it, Hubby was talking about naming the cat after the Yankees, how he wants a black-and-white cat he could call Pinstripe, and we were discussing where to put a litter box and a scratching post.

Funny enough, the person I talked to thanks to the hair brush yesterday mentioned something about choosing to see God in the coincidences — the plot twists — of our lives.

I totally agree.

Nice work, God. I’m impressed. 😉