Novel Basics Card # 16

Novel Basics Card # 16

The Subplot Card

The subplot card asks the question,

“What else happens in my novel?”

The novel is a huge beast and needs a lot of plot to reach the minimum required 40,000 words that will go into it. One way a writer often finds those words is with subplots. (Please note that the subplot card, like the wall card, might be a placeholder.)

Indeed, though the publishing industry is always changing, it’s still fairly common advice in publishing that if an author wants a career, she will write a series or trilogy on the theory that the more you write the more you sell. And while the reader expects the major “who wants what?” plot to be resolved in each novel, the subplots and the continuing characters in the series often serve to pull the reader from one novel to the next.

Exactly what the subplot contains depends in part on the genre of the novel. For example, in romantic suspense, the love relationship provides the main plot line and the mystery/suspense provides the subplot with lots of fun interferences with the main plot in play. If you’re writing a mystery novel, you’ll flip that with the mystery plot primary and a romantic subplot secondary.

Many writers, no matter the genre of the novel, might introduce the protagonist’s family and/or friends into the novels to pull the readers from book to book. Will Stephanie Plum favor Ranger or Morelli this time? the fans of Janet Evanovich’s very popular and long-lasting series wonder. They also wonder about the goings-on of Stephanie’s family, especially the outrageous Grandma Mazur.

Each novel in my Calendar Mystery series has its own murder mystery, resolved by the end of the book. But each might also have two or three subplots that carry over from book to book. January Jinx, the first in my calendar mystery series, has three subplots: Minty Wilcox’s goal of getting a suitable job for a woman in Kansas City around 1900, the romantic subplot with Daniel Price, and Minty’s on-going relationships with her family members. Also, Fatal February, the second novel in the series, has an additional mystery subplot besides the major plot line. Mischief in March, the third novel, has a romantic subplot that features two long time supporting characters in the series.

If you look closely at the picture of Card #16, you’ll notice that the subplot has its own plot line. Very typically, the subplot begins after the major plot is in place at the start of the book. The subplot might end pretty much before the second set-up scene, or it might end in the dénouement. Some authors put a cliffhanger related to a subplot on the last page of one novel to hook the readers into anticipating the next one. For example, I put a cliffhanger at the end of Mischief in March setting up a new mystery plot that I later resolved in a short story.

I’d be wary of doing that however. Some readers deeply resent that sort of ending. And it also put me in a bit of a pickle of how to resolve the issue for my readers in a timely manner. Ultimately, I wrote and published the short story called “Detectives’ Honeymoon,” later included in Old Time Stories, Book 4 of my Calendar Mystery series and also in the boxed set of the first three novels plus that story.

The boxed set, nearly 1,000 pages of historical mystery fiction, is now available for only $8.99 at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07QDKF413

Next will come Card # 17.

Novel Basics Cards # 14 & 15

Card # 14, the First Set-up Scene Card asks the question,

“What leads to Act 2 of my novel?”

Near the end of Act 1 of your novel, after you’ve hooked your reader with the beginning scene and shown your protagonist and her world, you need a scene in which the protagonist commits to the action required in the book. Syd Field called it Plot Point 1 of a movie script and other authors have used the same term for the novel. But I prefer the term set-up since that’s what this scene does. Specifically, the first set-up scene sets up the action that follows in Act 2 in which the heroine confronts the problem and tries to resolve the situation by jumping the hurdles in her way.

It’s like the moment in a boxing match–after the fighter you favor has strutted into the ring, likewise his opponent–when the bell rings and one of boxers throws the first punch, thus setting the tone and character of the match. Or the tennis player puts the ball into play. The private eye might have signed the contract earlier, but now he emotionally commits to it.

In a romance, the heroine and her love interest, having met cute in Act 1, decide to try to make a go of it somehow.

In fantasy, the first set up happens when the hero accepts the call to adventure and sets off on his epic adventure through Middle Earth or goes off to Hogwarts for his first year of wizardry school.

In Theresa Hupp’s historical Western novels Lead Me Home and Forever Mine, the characters begin their journey on the Oregon Trail in the first set-up scene.

And now let’s move on to another pivotal part of your novel, the Second Set up Scene.

The Second Set-up Scene Card asks the question,

“How leads to Act 3 of my novel?”

Similar to the first set-up scene, the second set-up scene, more commonly called Plot Point 2, sets up Act 3 of the novel. That is, it sets up the climactic scene of the novel, the most intense scene of the novel, and also the aftermath of the climax, the dénouement. In the second set-up scene, for example, the hero prepares to make one more attempt to defeat the villain, or the antagonist throws one last, truly daunting challenge in the hero’s way. The protagonist girds her loins, or the villain musters his troops.

In Western fiction, the sheriff sets off to meet the swaggering bad guys in the middle of the street of the little cow town.

In romantic fiction, the hero prepares one last attempt to woo and win the gal he loves.

One of my all time favorite second set-up scenes in crime fiction appears in Dick Francis’s debut novel, Odds Against. Sid Halley, already handicapped with a missing hand, wakes up strapped to a boiler about to explode. Oh boy, you say to yourself, Will Sid get out of there in time to avoid dying? How will he do it? If he gets free, does he go after the bad guy and catch him? No spoilers from me. You have to read this great novel for yourself to find out.

Don’t worry if you don’t have much of an idea for this scene when you initially make out your cards. It will come.

Next time we’ll move on to one more plot card.

 

Novel Basics Cards # 12 & 13

Novel Basics: Card # 12
The Climax Card

The Climax Scene Card asks the question,
“What’s the high point of my novel’s plot?”

Back when I taught Creative Writing at one of America’s top community colleges, often as I introduced the topic of the moment of the highest intensity of your plot, the part of your plot that the entire book has led up to, some young male would snicker as he leaned over to the young female he wanted to impress and make some remark about climaxes that he figured that I wouldn’t understand because as a professor I was just too naïve about all such subjects.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s what it’s usually called, kiddo. Get over it,” I didn’t have time to say.

At any rate, the climax scene, aka the crisis and the catastrophe, can and often does show the do-or-die moment. It’s the highest point on the inverted check mark. Perhaps it involves the final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist. Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, his excellent book on mythic structure for fiction and scriptwriters, calls this scene “the ultimate ordeal.” In a coming-of-age novel or a novel of ideas, the strongest, most powerful and intense scene may be when the protagonist has an epiphany about himself or life itself.

Traditionally, the climactic scene brings about a change in the protagonist’s fate, for better–he gets the girl and lives happily ever after with her–or for worse–he dies.

It’s the point in the novel when the protagonist finally resolves the problem of the book or dies trying, when Captain Ahab, for instance, finally confronts the whale in Moby Dick and dies.

In a western, it might be the shoot-out between the sheriff and the leader of the robber gang. In a traditional British murder mystery, it’s the scene in the library when the detective reveals the identity of the killer. In a romance, the lovers resolve their differences at last. In a coming-of-age novel, it might be the scene in which the protagonist finally discovers the truth about her father or his mother. In Stephen King’s psychological horror thriller Misery, Paul Sheldon finally vanquishes his number one fan, the cruel nurse Annie Wilkes.

Sometimes the climax might be a fairly intimate scene, with just the villain and the hero duking it out in the dark. Many mysteries have this sort of pivotal scene, but some novels have much larger climactic scenes with whole armies facing each other on the battlefield. I’ve grown to admire the climactic scenes in the cozy mysteries of Nancy Martin and the romantic adventures of Janet Evanovich for the way both authors bring together every major character in a dramatic, yet comic scene that resolves the mystery at last.

An important tip: avoid letting another character rescue the protagonist at the climax, a fairly common mistake for beginners. In a good, solid plot, the protagonist’s lover can’t come riding up on a white horse, fell the villain, and cut the ropes that tie the damsel to the railroad track. If the damsel is the protagonist, she has to do all of that herself and have the villain’s neck under her dainty foot when the lover rides up on his white horse, slightly too late.

So at least tentatively figure out which of the obstacles the hero confronts is the most intense, the do-or-die moment for your book to describe briefly on your Climax Scene Card. Now let’s move on to another major scene of your novel.

Novel Basics: Card # 13
The Midpoint Scene

The Midpoint Scene Card asks the question,
“What happens halfway through my novel?”

About midway through your novel, you will need a scene in which the plot takes a surprising turn of events or shifts in a new direction. The midpoint scene is very important structurally for your novel. For one thing, if you have a strong midpoint scene, your novel will not sag in the middle, a flaw I’ve heard at least one successfully published novelist complain about.

The midpoint scene is sometimes called the rug pulling because things seem to have been going well for the protagonist, but now something happens that changes everything for him, so he might have to start over again or almost. (The middle point of a W is a really good way of representing this part of a novel.)

For example, after a great struggle involving many challenges, the lone mountain climber grabs a loose rock and falls into a crevasse and breaks her leg. Oh gosh, the reader says. Will she get out of there? And how? Will she make it to the top? (FYI: she can’t get rescued here either.)

In her Adam Dalgliesh novel Original Sin, P. D. James waits until midpoint for the murder to occur after we’ve gotten to know all the characters including the detectives, the suspects and the victim.

In a romance, the guy and the gal get to know each other or at least try to in the first part of Act 2, but about halfway through Act 2 they have a misunderstanding or a falling out. For example, around the middle of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth Bennet for all the wrong reasons and quite rightly she refuses him.

The midpoint doesn’t necessarily have to be negative. Perhaps in the first half of the book, your heroine has overcome some of her initial obstacles to achieving her goal of getting the guy. And now, strengthened by surmounting earlier obstacles, she’s gained the ability to confront the more challenging obstacles to come in the second half of the novel.

In her excellent book How to Write Killer Fiction, Carolyn Wheat says that in the first half of Act 2 of a mystery we have the first detection. In this section typically the detective is on the false track or the bumbling police detective gets it all wrong. But at midpoint something happens that leads to the second detection and the correct solution. The detective’s prime suspect turns up dead, for instance. Or Miss Marple takes over the investigation.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen receives her first gift from her sponsor on page 188 of the 374-page novel.

Next time, we’ll consider two last major scenes you need to figure out as you’re brainstorming your novel.

 

Novel Basics: Cards # 10 and # 11

Novel Basics: Card # 10
The First Scene Card (aka the Hook)

The First Scene Card asks the question,
“How will my novel start?”

Entire books have been written on the importance of the start of your novel. I won’t list any of these books here. But I will say that, above all else, the first scene of a novel must be compelling. It needs to pull your reader into your story, so it’s often called a hook. It also usually introduces the protagonist. Your protagonist, what she wants, her world, just what sort of a person she is, and something of her backstory are the basic subjects for Act 1 of your novel. That’s a lot for you to figure out before you decide where your book starts.

You probably won’t want to start with your protagonist’s birth, Dickens’ masterfully written David Copperfield to the contrary.

Bernard Cornwell begins The Last Kingdom, the first book in his epic Warrior Chronicle series, by telling us that the book (and series) protagonist Uhtred wants back his ancestral lands stolen from him. And then at the bottom of page one, we move right into Uhtred’s account of the day in 866 when his life changed, that is, when he first saw the Danes invading England.

Many beginning writers start with the protagonist waking up in the morning and then take him through the ordinary routine of shower, sh*t and shave. (Actually, I’m quoting from a student’s story.) Believe me. This has been done before, and it hardly ever works. Really you want to start your novel on a day when something different happens.

Now, I realize that the opening to your book might be very vague to you or even absolutely wrong when you first make out this card. In his memoirs Seldom Disappointed Tony Hillerman talks about the drawer he had full of first chapters, that is, false starts to some of his Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn mysteries. (Wonderful series, one of my all time favorites.)

So for now at least, think of a day in the life of your protagonist when something out of the routine happens or recently happened or that protagonist finds out about. It’s not a business-as-usual moment. It’s the start of something different. Uhtred’s life changes completely when the Vikings arrive in his world.

Think about the start of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, on what was decidedly not an ordinary day. Mr. Dursley sees a cat reading a map and several men wearing brightly colored cloaks. Owls are sighted flying in daylight all over the country. What is going on? Dursley wonders, and so do Rowling’s readers.

Often it’s when the character appears who gets the plot car going. In walks this dame of noir mystery fiction, for instance. The wizard Gandalf arrives in the little Hobbit town to fetch Bilbo Baggins off on an adventure.

Some novels start in medias res, that is, in the middle of things. A crime novel might start with the discovery of the body, for instance, another extraordinary event even for cops.

Card # 11: The Last Scene

The Last Scene Card asks the question,

“How will my novel end?”

By now, you shouldn’t be too surprised that the second scene card you complete gives the answer to the question on the Heart Card for your novel, the answer that you put on the back of your Outcome Card. But here, you can expand on it a bit to include the following options.

Yes, and furthermore . . .

Yes, but . . .

No, and furthermore . . .

No, but . . .

Yes, Cinderella gets her Prince Charming, and furthermore they live happily ever after.

No, Gatsby doesn’t get Daisy and furthermore he’s murdered. But Nick considers him worth more than a whole lot of other people including Daisy Buchanan that Gatsby tried so hard to woo and win.

Because I don’t like to use spoilers when I’m writing about the novels you might read, I’ll make some of my examples for the last scene fairly generic.

In Westerns, the hero, having vanquished the villain in a shoot-out and leaving the girl behind, rides off into the sunset.

In categorical romance novels, the girl and boy might ride off together in the sunset on the same horse.

In epic fantasy, the dragon slain and the treasure retrieved, the hero and his buddies celebrate in a victory feast.

Nick Carraway packs his bags, sells his car, prepares to go back home to the Midwest on the train, and reflects upon the lesson he learned from Gatsby.

In the last scene of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the protagonist decides that he’s had a fairly decent day, almost a happy one, one of the 3,653 days in his ten-year stretch in the prison camp, the three extra days being for leap years.

January Jinx, the first book in my Calendar Mystery series, has a yes, but ending. The novel starts with Minty Wilcox on her way to seek employment as a “business girl,” that is, a typist/stenographer, in Kansas City, a place that could downright deadly in 1899. Does she get that job? Okay, I’ll reveal that yes she does. (And furthermore, she meets this really good-looking gent.) But . . . That’s all you get.

Traditionally called the dénouement or unraveling or untying or the clearing up of your plot, the last scene of your book presents the aftermath of the next scene we’ll work on. The last scene ties up any remaining loose ends in the plot, and as is sometimes the case in series fiction, possibly sets up the next book. Do note that sometimes readers complain bitterly about a cliffhanger at the end of a novel, even if you’ve tied up the main plot, but especially if you don’t, so really I can’t advise it.

Novel Basics: A Brief History of Plot

Novel Basics: A Brief History of Plot

 

Way back in 4th Century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle gave the first guidelines to plot structure when he said that a tragedy needs three parts: beginning, middle, and end, later called Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3. He also stated that the beginning isn’t necessarily preceded by any significant action, the middle grows out of the beginning, and the end grows out of middle. A successful plot might contain a surprise like some sort of shift in the action or finding out a secret from the past.

This very simple statement belies all the variations, refinements, arguments and applications to assorted kinds of storytelling that have developed since that time. Those variations included that of Horace, a Roman poet, who later said that a play needed five acts. Both Aristotle and Horace were talking about stories performed on a stage with live actions. Some differences and divergences of how plots were structured came about with the novel.

One of the earliest ways extended fiction was structured was the still popular picaresque plot, so named because Miguel de Cervantes used this type of plot in Don Quixote, first published in 1606, in which the hero and his sidekick, a rascal or picaro named Sancho Panza, go on one adventure after another.

The picaresque plot tends to have a bunch of episodes loosely strung together, that is, just one darned thing after another. You might recognize it from the very popular Fifty Shades of Grey. (Honestly, I haven’t read that novel. But a friend of mine read the first few chapters and reported that the book seemed episodic to her.)

Charles Dickens structured The Pickwick Papers, first published in installments in 1836, in similar fashion though he did frame the adventures with an overall story about Pickwick’s wedding proposal to a woman who sued him for breach of promise for not following through at the end of the novel.

I’ll omit some of the other variations of plot structure and skip to Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, first published in 1979. Field said that successful movies tend to have three parts: Act 1 that runs for about thirty minutes (about thirty script pages), Act 2 that runs sixty minutes (about sixty pages), and Act 3, that runs to no more than thirty minutes. Field also says that a successful movie has six essential scenes.

Not long after that, Robert J. Ray in The Weekend Novelist described the structure of a novel as similar to Field’s paradigm, but with more pages in each act because the novelist must put much more on the page than the screenwriter does. Suffice it to say that the plot of a novel needs several scenes, six or even as many as nine including scenes that cut up the large Act 2 into manageable parts.

Scriptwriters are often so precise about bringing in the essential scenes that you can time them. “Hey, hey, wait for it. Wait for it. Ah, here comes Plot Point 1, right on schedule at minute 29.” Novelists generally aren’t so precise about hitting the plot points, but still successful novels usually place these important scenes at fairly regular intervals.

W. Somerset Maugham, author of almost twenty novels, once famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” That hasn’t kept other writers from writing books on the subject and coming up with more rules, up to ten in one instance. My own take on this is that the novel you write tells you what it needs and wants to be as you write it, including decisions on structure. For example, although the classical template might dictate otherwise, Suzanne Collins divided The Hunger Games into three parts, all about the same length: Part I–138 pages, Part II–106 pages, Part III–130 pages.

As for myself, a writer primarily of mystery fiction, I prefer a more logical plot than the picaresque novel has, not one darned thing after another, but a tightly connected chain of events: that is, one more thing happens because of what happened before and the whole situation getting more and more complicated until things come together in a big scene in which the whole situation gets resolved.

My favorite representation of plot is the inverted check mark with the three major acts and the six major scenes overlaid on it because this diagram shows how the action and the tension of a well plotted novel build to the highest point of intensity in the book that’s resolved before its end.

Tip: Instead of thinking of plot structure as a formula, think of it as a skeleton, the bare bones on which you need to build your novel.

Next, we’ll move on to Card # 10, the first of your six scene cards. But before we do, here’s an important question for you: Where will you get the ideas for these scenes? Why from your obstacle cards, of course.

Novel Basics Card # 9

Novel Basics Card # 9
The Wall Card

The Wall Card asks the question,
“What could possibly go wrong?”

In truth, Card # 9 is a placeholder because you will need lots more than just one wall or obstacle that keeps your protagonist from achieving her goal right away. This card is one of my favorite cards because I have so much fun brainstorming all the things that could possibly go wrong in my hero’s journey. As a fiction writer, I’m especially adept at creating nightmare scenarios.

Exactly how many hurdles you need your hero to vault is partly a matter of scale. Hemingway needed lots more obstacles for Jake to surmount in the full-length novel The Sun Also Rises than he needed for Santiago in the novella The Old Man in the Sea.

Once, Janice Young Brooks, author of the historical novel Guests of the Emperor and as Jill Churchill the Jane Jeffries mystery series, confided in me that she likes to have “thirty-six things” to put in a book before she starts. They might not all be obstacles, but still she knows what she’s aiming for.

A more answerable question is where you can look for the obstacles you might place in front of your protagonist. Here are some suggestions.
1) A physical impairment can provide obstacles to a protagonist. For example, the protagonist of the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) lost part of a leg in Afghanistan and often this physical impairment interferes with his life and his investigations.
2) Another source for obstacles preventing your protagonist from reaching his final goal right away might come in the form of some inner conflict. Self-doubt, shyness, lack of confidence, any of those would be good.
3) Other characters in the novel can provide obstacles. The major antagonist is an obvious choice, but the other characters can as well. These characters don’t necessarily have to be alive. In the Inspector Ian Rutledge series, set just after World War 1, by the mother-son writing team of Charles Todd, Hamish MacLeod, a soldier that Rutledge ordered executed, speaks up from the back seat and sows doubt in Rutledge’s mind almost every time Rutledge drives a car.
4) The settings can provide powerful physical obstacles to the protagonist getting where he needs to be. Again think about the bitter cold of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or the perils of grocery shopping in America in April 2020.
5) The mystery author Marcia Talley is an expert in finding complications for the protagonist of her books in the daily news.

If you have the time and inclination, you might go ahead and jot down a few ideas for obstacles to your protagonist that pop into your head right now. Tip: Put each idea on a 3” by 5” note card so you can arrange them in order of intensity or danger later on.

Please come back tomorrow for a discussion of plot.

Novel Basics: Keeping a Journal

A Million Words

One of my former colleagues used to tell his writing students that, in order to become writers, they had to produce and throw away a million words.

That sounds daunting, doesn’t it?

Another piece of advice goes, write a page a day and in a year you could write a novel. In these terms and calculating that each page contains about two hundred and fifty words, you need nearly eleven years to produce a million words.

But why don’t we look at the math a little differently?

Let’s say that you decide to use journaling to practice the craft of writing. Sprint writing, that is, non-stop writing done for a short while, can produce about two hundred and fifty words in a typical ten-minute session. Twenty minutes a day of journaling would produce five hundred words which means you could crank out your million words in five and a half years. Forty minutes a day would get you your expendable million words in two and three-quarters years.

On the other hand, twenty to forty minutes a day practicing an art form you aspire to master is very little time, especially compared to the work put in by a budding pianist who probably practices a minimum of an hour a day or a dancer who may put in several hours a day. And twenty to forty minutes of practice a day is far below the standard eight-hour work day.

So just for the sake of argument, let’s boost our writing practice to an hour a day. (And do notice that unlike the dancer who must frame the practice session with a warm up and cool down, the future writer can practice writing in several short sessions every day.) If you write an hour a day, you will produce about 1,500 words a day which translates into 667 days or 1.8 years. Compared to the other arts we’ve mentioned, this is a very brief apprenticeship.

And chances are you will notice what I noticed after less than a year of journal-keeping: that it primes the pump for other writing like stories, poems, and articles that you won’t have to throw away because the words you’ve written on the way to your million have given you fresh ideas and fluency.

So speaking as a multi-millionaire of throwaway words, I advise you to start writing–now.

“A Million Words” received a Special Honorable Mention in the filler category of a ByLine Magazine writing contest in 1999. It was later published in Fiction Writers Guidelines.

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For Christmas 1984, a dear friend gave me the beautiful book shown in front of several others in the photo. On January 1, 1985, I started filling its lined pages. Before the end of March, I’d filled every page, so I got another notebook about the same size though not nearly as nice. After I’d filled that one, I bought another and starting filling it, too. I’ve forgotten exactly how many I’d filled by the end of ’85. I can tell you that I drafted two novels in ’86: one in the spring semester while teaching a full load at one of the top community colleges in the United States and the other during a sabbatical leave in the fall.

Definitely I credit my journal-keeping habit for priming the pump for those two novels and many of the other pieces of writing I’ve done in the thirty-five years since then. My current journal is Book # 140. Except for possibly missing five days, I have literally written a journal entry every day of my life in the thirty-five years since I started. Some days my entries are very bare bones, little more than the date and a very brief weather report, especially when I’m working on a long project like a novel. But some days I go on and on.

Over all those years of journal keeping I’ve found that it has help me develop my writer’s voice and also rather organically grows other pieces of writing. For example, several years ago, I found myself recording snippets of observations of crows in my neighborhood on the pages of my journal. And eventually they coalesced into one of my more popular pieces, “Crow Lessons.”

Currently, I’m struggling with finding details for my current WiP, set in Kansas City in April 1901. With previous novels and stories in this series, I’ve done research in The Kansas City Star archives, especially details about what the weather actually was on a particular day. But the newspaper has changed the mode of access to those files and I haven’t been able to get in. Now I suspect that the newspaper has lots more important things to do than guide an indie author to the right link.

But then the other day, quite dreary with thunder and freezing rain falling, as I was doing my journal entry, I had a Eureka moment. I could use the weather in Kansas City in early April 2020 for two and half weeks later in April 1901 given the changes brought by climate change. And suddenly, I saw that male cardinal, bright red against the small, tender leaves of the hedge around my patio, that chirped in apparent dismay as something my character could see. Oh yeah and a neighbor’s daffodils and . . .

Thus is the magic of your journal that it helps you be a writer in small ways and big every day of your life. So if you don’t keep a journal, start one ASAP. (You can use the sprint writing method to explore the setting of your novel.)

Please come back tomorrow for Card # 9, one of my personal favorites.

Novel Basics: Warming Up

A Writing Warmup

Long ago in the ‘70’s in graduate school at the Ohio State University, I learned a warm-up writing technique that I used on the first day of every college writing class, no matter what kind, for the next thirty-five years of my writing career. Indeed, I used it in the sample class I taught my future colleagues who later told me cinched the deal since it was a leading edge, process-oriented writing method.

So what is it? It’s called sprint or speed writing, and it’s perfect for quieting that ump or inner critic that might be plaguing you.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Get something to write on and something to write with. Pencil and paper are fine or you can do it on your laptop.

2. Also get a timer. The kitchen timer works fine or you can set the timer on your phone. Set it for a short amount of time, 5 minutes minimum, 10 minutes tops.

3. You need something to write about. My personal classroom favorite – indeed the one that got me the college teaching job I had for twenty-five years: Something that really makes you mad.

4. Here’s the basic rule for the exercise: Once you start writing, don’t stop. Don’t worry about spelling or correct usage. If you can’t think of a name, leave a blank. If you get stuck, repeat the word you’re stuck on until you think of something else to put on the page. Especially do not worry if you go off on a tangent from the topic you started with because you might discover what you really want to write about.

5. Here’s the topic for this exercise: Something that makes you really mad.

6. Ready. Set. Go.

7. When the time is up, finish the thought you’re working on, put your pencil down or lift your hands from the keyboard. You might want to massage your hands as you think about what you just wrote, especially any surprises you noticed about what you wrote or how long it took to produce the number of lines you did.

Congratulations. You’ve just practiced sprint writing. I use this method a lot and for all sorts of writing including fiction and creative nonfiction.

Novel Basics: Imp v. Ump

Some Reflections on the Creative Process, not Limited to Writing

Imp v. Ump

Imp: I wrote a story. I wrote a story. It’s so much fun. The characters were really talking to each other. I love them and the end is super great.
Ump: Let me take a look at it.
Imp: Sure . . .
Ump: Well, let’s see. You left out a word on the first page.
Imp: Okay . . .
Ump: And on page three you put an apostrophe in its when you shouldn’t have.
Imp: Are you sure?
Ump: Of course, I’m sure. And on page five . . . Imp? Imp? Where’d you go?

Imp? Ump? What are you talking about now? you might ask.

It goes back to the left-brain, right-brain theory of how our mental processes work and the attachment of the label left-brained to someone who tends to be logical and critical and right-brained to someone who tends to be creative and imaginative. I call the former voice in my head my ump and the latter voice my imp.

Definition of ump: the critic, the perfectionist, the logician who lives on the left side of your head, the English teacher of everybody’s nightmares who says, “If you don’t get this absolutely perfect the first time through, you might as well not start at all.”

Definition of imp: the energy, the source, the little kid who lives on the right side of your brain, jumps up and down, waves an imaginary hand to get your attention, and says, “I got an idea. I got an idea.”

In essence, writing isn’t a left-brained activity. It isn’t solely a right-brained activity either. It’s a whole-brained process. To write anything including a novel–maybe especially a novel–you need both your ump and your imp.

But if you let your ump shoot its mouth off too early in the process, you will completely demoralize your imp. And it will quit talking to you altogether and curl up into a small, tight fetal ball.

So when your ump starts saying to you, “Wait! Wait! That’s not exactly the word you need”; or “Is that the correct there, their, they’re?”; or “Why bother? It will never sell”; just say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, button it, Ump. You’ll get your chance later.” And then, coax your imp to come out and play.

We are not after perfection here. We’re looking for the basics you need to know about your novel before you start to write it, or most of the basics anyway. For example, you might not come up with all the major characters the first time through your cards. Probably you won’t know all of the characters’ names. You might not answer all the questions. It’s not as if you have to show your work to anybody. So relax and enjoy the process.

Telling your ump to cool it goes for drawing the images on your cards, too, if you decide to do them at all. Some of the images on my deck of cards are really messy. And I simply don’t care. At this point, you shouldn’t either.

Join me tomorrow when we’ll talk a bit more about the people of your book.

Novel Basics: Summing Up About Characters

You’ve probably noticed that so far we’ve mostly talked about the characters, the people of the book you’ll write. And maybe you’ve already noticed that your characters are fueling ideas for your novel. But before we move on to issues of plot, that is, driving the plot car to the end point of your journey or walking the plot tight rope, I’d like to point out a few more things about characters.

I’m a fan of mystery fiction, and mostly that’s what I read with a smattering of science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction from time to time. So the first point about characters relates to mysteries in particular, but really you can do this with the principal characters of any novel.

1) Everybody has a secret.

2) A character can play two roles at once. This happens very often when the narrator tells his own story in first person. Or the ally is the narrator as in The Great Gatsby. But it can happen in other ways as well. Perhaps the ally also serves to start the plot by coming to the protagonist for help.

3) Any character can play a different role from the one she started out as. For instance, in mysteries, the protagonist/narrator can turn out to be the killer. An apparent antagonist/suspect can turn out to be an ally. An ally, that is, the confidant or sidekick, can turn out to be the killer. The character that gets the plot rolling can turn out to be the killer. (I just love it when a skillful writer fools me. Don’t you?)

4) Sometimes you need more than one of any type of character. In a novel, quite a few characters can pose a threat to the protagonist accomplishing her goal. In Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only, for instance, a crime boss sends a couple of his goons to pick up Vic, the tough female private eye. In my own January Jinx, the first novel in my Calendar Mystery series, the protagonist, Minty Wilcox wants to find a suitable job in old Kansas City. But not only does the major antagonist interfere with her reaching her goal, but so does Minty’s mother who views her daughter’s wish to help with household finances as a sign of her own failure to manage them.

5) If you have trouble finding directions for where your plot car could go, ask your characters. They might surprise you with their inventive suggestions. Sometimes a character might suggest something outrageous. For instance, when I was drafting my second novel, set in a dystopian future, the antagonist wanted to kill the protagonist very early, but I couldn’t let that happen of course. But the antagonist’s attempts to kill the protagonist made for some really dandy plot developments.

Coming tomorrow . . . Previously, I’ve done the Novel Basics class live in about 90 to 120 minutes with a bunch of people busily creating their personalized packs of cards as we go along. But really right now, many of us have the time to explore some of the aspects of our novels. So tomorrow I’ll give you some tips and suggestions for brainstorming fiction more generally and characters specifically. See you then.