There’s a stout, gray-haired man who’s been sitting at the same table at my local Starbucks every morning for a few months. Usually he’s alone. Sometimes someone strikes up a conversation with him and sits down. He has an accent. Whether it’s the illogical effect that accents have on us, or whether there’s something else about him that I can’t quite put my finger on, he seems wise. I have never spoken to him, but I have noticed him. Yesterday, as I was leaving the Bucks, he hurried from his table over to the counter where the barista sets the drinks and called, “Miss? Miss?” The barista gave him her attention, and he said, “The one in the yellow sweater,” and hurried back to his seat. As I exited, the woman in the yellow sweater entered. I wondered if the free coffee would surprise her. I wondered if she knew the man with the accent outside of a daily smile at Starbucks. I wondered if she would be charmed or uncomfortable. If you wonder at these kinds of encounters throughout your day, you were meant to be a writer. If you notice that hurrying to the counter seems out of character for a man, you were meant to be a writer. If you notice that the woman is sitting with him the next day, and you wonder if he has a chance with someone with cute dimples, someone a little younger than him, you were meant to be a writer. Do you wonder? Do you notice? Write it down. You are meant to be a writer. Whether your characters are as real as the hope of love blossoming at my local Starbucks or only real in your head, you are a writer. Write it all down.
Yet another singer has fallen in the battle against the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner. This time it was Aaron Lewis before game 5 of the 2014 World Series. I’m not here to pass judgement on him, but to give my opinion about why so many people stumble over the words.
For one thing, there’s the repeated melody at the beginning. “Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light” isn’t hard to remember, because it’s the beginning of the song. So even though its melody sounds like “Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,” we usually make it through the first line. Where most people get in trouble is either the second or fourth line, which also sound like each other. So, as with Lewis, “What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,” can turn into “O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming.” Or sometimes we hear a mix and match of those two lines. “O’er the ramparts we hailed, were so gallantly gleaming?” Huh?
Compare that with God Bless America’s ever-changing melody, and you can see why God Bless America is not the one famous for bringing down multi-platinum stars.
1. Oh 2. What 3. Whose 4. O’er
The other reason I think The Star-Spangled Banner is hard to memorize is that the poetry is not a linear story like most of the songs people these days are used to. And The Star-Spangled Banner was first a poem. Many of its sentences are reversed, and like much literature, it starts with the end of the story. If we can understand what happened in the battle at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, 1813, we can better remember the lyrics.
1. Evening. We proudly hailed the flag at twilight’s last gleaming. (It has broad stripes and bright stars which gallantly stream.)
2. Nighttime. The rockets have a red glare. Bombs are bursting in air. Their light gives proof that our flag is still there. (Historical note, it might be the fort’s “storm flag” we’re talking about here.)
3. Morning. The dawn’s early light! Say, can you see our flag? Yay!
So, you see, the song starts at the end of the story, goes immediately to the beginning of the story in the second line, then hits the middle and the end again, much like many classic novels. When I first heard the song as a child, it seemed a jumble of random words like the mysterious “donzerly.” What was donzerly light?! Something very American, I was sure. Now that I know the story of Fort McHenry, (I encourage you to read more about it) I have a fighting chance in the battle against the infamously difficult lyrics of our national anthem.
Is My Plot Good Enough?
When you have an idea for the plot of your next (or first) novel, whatever you do, don’t stop and spend six months trying to decide whether it’s an interesting enough plot to sustain a novel. Any plot can be good enough if it’s done right, with good pace, character development, and humor. It can be good enough if you love it.
Oh, and one more thing. Not only must you love it, you must have subplots. The first book I wrote was a very nice girl meets boy story. The plot revolved around forgiveness, and I loved it. The problem was that when I finished it, carefully not using any unnecessary scenes, I only had about a hundred pages. Some books might be in their perfect form at a hundred pages, but not this one. When I asked a successful writer what I could do, she said “subplots.”
Take it from me – it’s much easier to START with subplots in mind than to go back and try to add them. And for a full length novel, you’re GOING to need them. Say your main plot is about a woman meeting her biological father. Maybe it’s called Genes. Maybe the story takes you through Annika’s decision to find him, her struggle to find him, and her struggle to understand him when she does find him.
Great. Now what could the subplots be? Let’s think of two. First, maybe Annika has a brother named Jens. Maybe Jens is happier not knowing who his father is, and he knows that if Annika meets their father, he’ll have to meet the father, too, or at least hear about him. Maybe Jens is on the verge of losing his job because he keeps coming to work late. Annika loves Jens and wants to find out what’s keeping him up so late that he can’t get to work on time. She also loves him so much that she’s not sure she wants to upset him by finding their father.
So there’s one subplot. At this point, you could write the whole book from Annika’s point of view (in first person, or third person limited) or you could switch back and forth between Annika’s point of view and Jens’s. For another subplot, you could make things more challenging for yourself by weaving in scenes of the father. Maybe he’s an addict. Maybe he’s famous. Is it a comedy? Maybe he’s hiding in Mexico to avoid paying parking tickets. (If it’s a comedy, Jens’s reason for staying up late could be funny, too. Maybe his neighbor’s son is convinced that Jens is a superhero, and Jens goes out late at night in costume and walks by the neighbor’s house to make sure the neighbor kid sees him.)
If you wanted to stick with Annika’s point of view, instead of your second subplot being about the dad, you could have another one about Annika. Maybe an old flame has offered her a job in another state, and she doesn’t want to move away from Jens, but she also wonders if there’s a chance to rekindle romance.
A friend recently showed me a copy of J.K. Rowling’s notes on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. You can find them online. In order to keep all her subplots moving along, she has in her notes a column for each one, and the chapter numbers along the left side of the page. Rowling is a master of plotting, and she shuffles her subplots so that you never tire of one because she sticks with it for too long, and you never forget about one because she doesn’t mention it for too long. And she has a lot more than three plots in one novel.
If you’re not the type to chart out your book before you begin, that’s okay. Just keep in mind that you’ll have more editing to do when you’re done. Did you tie up the ends of every plot (even the ones you might not have realized were plots when you started) and mention each plot frequently enough that the reader won’t forget one?
In Genes, we have a fine plot brewing. If you’re anything like me, though, you might accidentally skip to the climax too quickly if you don’t think about a few more bumps in the road for Annika. Does Jens’s misguided girlfriend send Annika fake letters from a nonexistent aunt? (I’m kind of wanting to write this book now!) What you don’t want is to get to the end of your story, have too few words, and try to pad your book with whole pages of how Annika feels. A whole page where the plot does not move forward is a storykiller, even if the prose is beautiful. We need to be careful to keep up the pace.
Like I said in the beginning, with good pacing, a little thought about subplots before you start, and interesting characters, almost any plot can be good enough for a great book.
The champagne burned her eyes, but she smiled and asked Romo, “How important was Buster Posey’s hit in the sixth?” She had a job to keep, after all.
The majority of the literature I read growing up was in third person, past tense, like the above sentences about Giants’ broadcaster Amy G. The pros and cons I’m listing, though, are not based on what I’ve read, but what I’ve written. When you’re reading a perfectly edited novel, it’s hard to see the difficulties that certain points of view present. But those difficulties are glaringly obvious when you’re writing. And so these tips come from my personal experience.
Third Person Pros:
1. You can switch to a different character’s point of view without having to announce it. (Do wait for a new scene, though. It’s the generally accepted rule to have only one POV per scene.)
2. Works well for a storyteller or fairy tale feel.
1. Writing POV character’s thoughts can become tedious. “I have a job to keep, after all,” she thought.
2. Easy to accidentally slip into character B’s POV when the scene is supposed to be in character A’s POV. The champagne burned her eyes, but she smiled and asked, “How important was Buster Posey’s hit in the sixth?” Romo laughed at Amy’s tenacity. That’s why they called her Amer the Gamer.
First person, past tense
The champagne burned my eyes, but I smiled and asked Romo, “How big was Buster Posey’s hit in the sixth?” I had a job to keep, after all.
1. Easy to get into main character’s thoughts
2. Easier to stay out of other characters’ thoughts.
3. First person is popular with young readers.
1. You are limited to one character, unless you title each chapter with the POV character’s name.
2. The character is telling the story from some point in the future where they know more about the story. It can take over the story. The champagne burned my eyes, but I smiled and asked Romo, “How big was Buster Posey’s hit in the sixth?” I had a job to keep, after all. If only I had known back then that Kruk and Kuip would make sure I’d keep my job even if I swore and dropped the mic. This problem can be avoided with a diary format.
First person, present tense
The champagne burns my eyes, but I have a job to keep, so I smile and ask Romo, “How big was Buster Posey’s hit in the sixth?”
1. Feels immediate.
2. The character can’t break in with information from the future, because they don’t know the future.
1. Some readers are not comfortable with present tense yet, but it’s becoming very popular.
I have to admit, I read many articles about POV when I first started writing, and they didn’t help me at all. I’ve done my best to explain the problems I’ve run into, but I don’t know if it’s any clearer than the articles I read. If not, my advice is to write a scene or two and then stop to evaluate. Maybe even rewrite the scenes with different points of view to see what works best. A little extra work in the beginning might save you a novel’s worth of regret.
When I first decided to write a novel, I checked out every writing book the library had. Most of them were well written, but not exactly what I was looking for. Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, for instance, was inspiring and a good example of nice writing, but I was already inspired. What I needed was the nuts and bolts. I found the help I needed with two authors.
First, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. (Gardner also wrote On Becoming a Novelist, which is more inspiration than nuts and bolts.) I have to admit, some of The Art of Fiction was a little too abstract for me, but there’s a lot of useful stuff to digest in it. One thing I love about Gardner is that he thinks it’s important not to depress people unduly. His own fiction is far from light, but he always keeps in mind that his readers might be on the brink of suicide, and he doesn’t want to push them over.
Second, Sol Stein. Stein on Writing and How to Grow a Novel have even more concrete advice to improve your writing. Dialogue, description, action, you name it, Stein will improve it. It’s been a while since I read these, so I went to the Goodreads reviews to refresh my memory, and I had to laugh. A few people complained that Stein was pompous and used excerpts from his own novels to demonstrate certain techniques. I remember thinking the same thing when I read them, but now that I have written my own nonfiction book and researched how to get permission to use copyrighted material, I completely understand his using his own work as examples.
By all means, read other writing books, too, and search for articles on specific topics like dialogue, plot, subplots, and characterization. But make sure that your reading includes these two classic writing teachers.
November is National Novel Writing Month. There’s a whole website dedicated to helping you write a novel in a month, and the people there at nanowrimo.org even admit that it’s all about writing a bad novel. The point is to get a bad first draft down, especially if you are one of the many people who have always secretly wondered if you could do it. This way you know you’re only going to give up a month of free time, and it will be over.
The first time I tried nano, I don’t know why I did it, because I was sure that only garbage could be turned out in a month. Maybe because nanowrimo is free, or because I like a challenge. Anyway, I only made it halfway through the story. The problem was that I came up with a story on November first, and realized a couple weeks later that I didn’t know enough about science to sustain my characters with few resources on a semi habitable planet. Darn. I liked those characters, too.
But I did learn some things. One, the 25,000 words I wrote were not any worse than the 27,000 words I’d spent more than a year on in another novel. Two, to avoid heavy research, I needed to set my next nano story in the here and now.
So last summer, I came up with an idea about 20 high school seniors on a field trip having a Canterbury Tales storytelling contest. Sadly, I still had months to wait until November, and although it’s not against the rules to outline before November first, you’re not supposed to write any of the actual prose. So I outlined, and outlined, and outlined. And I learned something my second year.
Outlining helps. Although my story only came out to 25,000 words again, it was a complete story, and thanks to the easy self-publishing options at CreateSpace, I could publish any length book I wanted. Yes, it needed editing, but it was a decent first draft.
This year I have been outlining like mad again. There’s nothing more I can outline. My comedic Cinderella and her friendly stepsisters’ story runs through my head almost like a movie. I’m aiming for 50,000 words so that I can get that virtual “winner” medal on my nano page, but I’ll be happy with a 40,000 word novella, too.
You still have time! Find a memorable character in your brain and throw them into a crazy situation. Will it be good or ridiculously bad? Only one way to find out.
HOW TO NANOWRIMO
1. Sign up at nanowrimo.org.
2. Explore the FAQs and find “buddies” on the website.
3. Start a planning document. Write down your characters’ physical descriptions and important facts about their backgrounds. Make sure you have at least one possible resolution for your character’s situation.
4. Keep an eye on my blog for upcoming tips on novel writing.
5. On November first, start writing! You don’t have to write scenes in order. You do have to upload your 50,000 word document to the nanowrimo website between November 25th and 30th if you want to be an official winner. Note. Different programs count words differently. I wouldn’t stop at 50,001 if I were you.
6. Be okay with a messy house, at least for one month.
7. Don’t edit. Keep moving forward. December is for editing.
8. Pretend you are a novelist. Because you are!
I’m not a fan of discussion questions at the end of a book, because when I finish reading, I compulsively turn the pages and read the questions before I’ve sat for a moment (or a day) and let my own thoughts meander around in my head.
However, in case anyone is looking for discussion questions for Anaheim Tales, here are some ideas. NOTE! THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THESE QUESTIONS!
1. Which characters do you think Geoffrey understands better by the end of the book? Do you think there’s anyone he doesn’t understand better?
2. Which student did you most identify with?
3. Have you ever had a teacher like Mr. Tabard?
4. The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, ends before the characters reach their destination. Were you disappointed with the ending of Anaheim Tales? What do you think happened over the next few days?
5. In The Canterbury Tales, a winner is never declared. Which story do you think should have won in Anaheim Tales?
6. There’s a question that Mr. Tabard says he’ll answer for Allison if she asks it again after she graduates. Do you think she’ll remember?
7. Geoffrey considers romantic relationships with three different classmates on the bus. Each would end up a very different kind of relationship. Discuss.
8. Do you think a good story needs a conflict? What about a good life?