Yesterday afternoon the day after Memorial Day, I ventured out to shop in person for only the second time in over two months. The crowd at the garden center plus the lack of social distancing and masks the first time made me cautious about doing it again.
So before I even got out of the car, I counted the number of other cars – fewer than ten – in the parking lot of the closest Ace Hardware. I pulled my mask up over my nose and spritzed my hands with the hand sanitizer Jess made from a few odds and ends she found in our hall cabinet early in the pandemic.
Once I was inside, an employee I recognized from previous visits greeted me and asked, “Need some help?” She wore a mask and a small sign on her shirt pocket that said in red Six Feet.
When I acknowledged that I did need help, she proceeded to guide me around the store where there were fewer than ten people including patrons and employees the whole time I was there.
She helped me find caulk for the front window of my house that I put plastic on last fall and a different kind of caulk to reseal the flashing on the roof. She handed the tubes to me instead of having me touch them.
She helped me find garden hose and a nozzle that’s easier for people with arthritis in their hands than the kind that you have to keep holding down to make them work. She put the hose and nozzle in my cart
She left on my own to go into the garden center to search for begonias, but checked me out again later after I’d passed through the line with six feet intervals marked off on the floor. The cashier stations had plastic panels to separate shoppers from cashiers. I paid by credit card. And soon I’d loaded my bags and plants in the back of the car, got in and spritzed my hands before I started the car.
I was on my way out before I spotted the display of discounted Memorial Day planters I hadn’t noticed when I came in because I was too busy counting cars. My hope that Ace would still have some was the reason I’d gone there in the first place, so I parked, chose three planters, paid for them, and again was on my way.
I did turn into the parking lot to a grocery store at the corner, but once I counted the thirtieth car, I said, “No way I’m going in there,” and left. My lessons for today, as the lock down restrictions lift and you venture out to shop, be smart and be careful.
Just wanted to touch base with you all today.
In the last week or so, I’ve followed this advice somebody gave on the opinion page of the K. C. Star as a way to fight the anxiety and depression of living through a pandemic: “Find something that brings you joy, and give yourself over to it.”
So I’ve gotten back into my writing and I’m really enjoying it though my plans on researching the weather for April 1901 for my book went sideways for a while because a couple of my favorite resources – the Kansas City Star archives and the Kansas City Library – said, “Oh we’re shut down right now so we can redo everything. It will be great when we come back.” Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . I need to know that stuff now. But I found another resource, so now I know generally at least what the weather was like on Easter in Kansas City a hundred and twenty years ago.
As you might be able to tell from the photo, my hair has gotten pretty shaggy. But I do have an appointment with my stylist the first Friday in June. And maybe until then I can trim up my bangs with my manicure scissors like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone does from time to time.
And really, we’re doing pretty well staying at home. Oh sure, I miss seeing my Game Night friends in person and going to the show at Cinemark. I really like to grocery shop in person instead of hiring someone to do it second hand. I’d rather exercise with my friends at the center instead of doing it at home through a Facebook Live link. Still, even though we wear masks, have to stay six feet from our neighbors, and can’t pet their doggies, we can walk about the neighborhood pretty much as usual.
But best of all, Jess is on paid leave from her job so she’s sheltering in place with me here in our little blue house. I can’t tell you how grateful I am not to be doing this thing alone. Plus, Jess has gone really far in making this a wonderful Mother’s Day for me. She cleaned the house! She baked peanut butter cookies! She gave me a pretty new top and fun jammies. She’s fixing breakfast for dinner tonight. We hug each other whenever we like.
How are you all doing?
I gather from assorted newscasts that lots of people have lots of time on their hands as they shelter in place. So they’re bored and they take to drink or binge watch The Good Place on Netflix or obsessively play Sudoku and Solitaire on their smart phones. Well, personally, we don’t have all that much spare time at our house.
Take online grocery shopping, for instance. Our service proudly keeps a tab on how many hours our shoppers have saved us, according to them. These savings average about an hour per shopper per trip. But the time-saving bit is pretty much a crock. Here’s why I say that.
Now, I’m systematic about grocery shopping and always make a list on a notepad I keep in the kitchen. I’ll add a dozen eggs after my daughter has made an omelet for breakfast for dinner and a bunch of bananas when I’m down to one. And just before I head off to the store, something I haven’t done myself in more than a month, I quickly check the vegetable, fruit, and cheese drawers in the fridge to see what I’m short on, ditto the pantry and freezer. I confer with my daughter about anything she might need. So overall, I hardly notice the time it takes to create a grocery list.
But the thing about online shopping is that you have to transfer your list to the shopping app and that takes time because you have to say what replacements you’ll accept for an item they don’t have or if they should skip it altogether something like a specific brand of Neufchatel cheese for which you will accept no substitute because you’ve tried them and they’re just a little slimy. Yucko on the toast. And thanks so much, but nonfat cheese is even slimier. Double yucko on the toast. (If you’ve read any of my previous pieces on shopping, you know how picky I get when I shop.) My daughter usually handles putting the groceries on the app and texting back and forth with our shopper in the store, but I stay close by so she can ask me about the Neufchatel or whatever.
And another thing about time and online shopping . . . When your shopper is actually in the store and shopping, you have to go through the list again, explaining by text why you won’t accept a substitute for the hand soap you use because you have sensitive skin. (FYI: All those 20-second hand washes, even with my preferred soap, have wrinkled the backs of my hands and made them shiny too, so my skin looks like some kind of weird baklava.)
Also, I know the stores we order from better than most of the shoppers, so they get lost sometimes and need to text for directions for items like tortillas that I would go right to if I were shopping in person. So overall we spend as much time online at the store, or maybe more as we would if we were actually in the store and shopping. Plus, I miss the retail therapy and the pleasure of smelling the peaches to see if they’re really ripe.
And once the shoppers deliver my stuff, I have to process the perishables by spraying the packages of frozen foods with disinfectant, for instance, before I hustle them into the house and into the freezer or in the case of produce like apples and clementines giving them a bath in soapy water. This takes time, too.
But really the time required is beside the point and neither the shoppers’ fault nor the service’s either. It’s the pandemic and that insidious virus. And thanks to those shoppers going out into danger in my stead, I feel fairly safe from it. And I am better off than if I were out shopping on my own. So again, thanks is due to those who help me.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to go play Solitaire Go on my iPhone for thirty, forty minutes, maybe an hour . . .
Novel Basics Card # 20
The Cover Card
The Cover Card asks the question,
“What’s my novel’s name?”
The wise organizers of NaNoWriMo say that those who have covers for their projects before they start drafting them are 60% more likely to write it that those who don’t. I think possibly that simply giving your novel a name helps make it real to you and so you’re more likely to write it.
The card I’m using as a sample this time isn’t a generic one like many of the others. Instead it’s a very rough draft of the cover I plan on using for my current WiP that also was the novel I drafted during National Novel Writing Month in November of 2018. Apart in April will be the fourth novel and fifth book in my cozy historical Calendar Mystery series. (Yeah I know the sketch on this card is crude and I’m so not apologizing for that. You shouldn’t be thinking perfection either as you make this last card.)
In the past I used photos I found in the great Dover book Victorian Fashion in America for the covers of the novels in this series. But for this book, I’ll use photos of my grandfather and grandmother on my mother’s side. And the title, like those of the first three novels in the series, states the month in which the book takes place, uses alliteration and/or assonance, is brief, and states the theme (or at least hints at it) or overall mood of the novel. Titles of the novels so far are January Jinx, Fatal February and Mischief in March.
So on your last card at least give the tentative title for your novel (a real name not Work in Progress), your name or the pseudonym you’ve always dreamed of using, and possibly an image for your cover.
You might want to put “ a blurb” on the flip side of your cover card. That is, in a very few words describe the novel you want to write. Here’s an example: “an action-packed thriller with a wounded hero.” Possibly my blurb for Apart in April will be “Driven apart by a personal tragedy, a runaway wife goes undercover as a detective. Meanwhile her husband struggles to win her back. But first he has to figure out where she has gone from the letters she strews behind her like Jack’s crumbs in the forest that contain clues of her whereabouts.” It’s way too long, but it’s not bad for now. I’ve got time to work on it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through twenty cards that we’ve taken together. For tips and suggestions on what to do after you’ve brainstormed your novel, get your own copy of Novel Basics, a brief yet complete guide to writing a novel, in print for $8.99 from Amazon or the eBook version, now only $2.99, at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07K2LXFRP
Novel Basics Card # 18
The Reader Card
The Reader Card asks the question,
“Who will read my novel?”
By now, you probably have a fairly good idea of who will want to read your novel. For one thing, chances are good that your target or ideal reader reads the same sorts of novels as you do, and lots of them, too.
Try to get specific in identifying your ideal reader. For instance, if she reads women’s fiction, does she prefer cozy mysteries with women sleuths? Are the sleuths amateurs or police officers? Or does your ideal reader love romance novels? Must those books be wholesome and clean, with maybe a shy kiss at the end? Or does your reader relish erotica with lots of heavy breathing?
Is your ideal reader a male who enjoys a blood and guts, action-packed thriller with some very specific sex scenes?
As like as not, your ideal reader is the same gender as your protagonist and a similar age as well because it’s customary in publishing that the reader is about the same age as the protagonist of a novel. (In Young Adult fiction, the protagonist might be a bit older than the reader in order to serve as a role model.)
Long ago I had the fantasy that someday I’d write the book that everybody reads the year it comes out. I haven’t written that novel yet. But Suzanne Collins might have come close with The Hunger Games. A friend’s twelve-year-old granddaughter read those books and so have I, many decades older. Some of my contemporaries have read every one of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
Speaking of that writer, Rowling has written and published four novels in the Cormoran Strike series so different from the Harry Potter series that she uses the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. The target readers for those two series are very different and their expectations quite different as well.
Next we’ll talk a bit more about the reader as we discuss Card # 19.
Novel Basics Card # 19
The Intention Card
(Card # 19 is probably my favorite card from my entire pack.)
The Intention Card asks the question,
“How will my novel affect the reader?”
The novel is a tool of infinite possibilities, a sort of Swiss Army knife with a million blades. That’s one of the reasons I read. When I pluck a novel off the new mysteries shelf at the library and bring it home, I’m filled with hope that this novel will surprise me. Maybe the author will say something new or at least in a different way: tease me, thrill me, move me to laughter and to tears in the same book, make me think about the human experience in some new way, expand my life, or simply help me escape my troubling or mundane world for a few hours.
Note: our local libraries are all shut down right now. Yours probably is, too. But many still offer new books through Overdrive that you can check out and read on your tablet.
At this point, I’ll circle back to my brief history of plot by mentioning that Aristotle said the purpose of a tragedy is catharsis, to purge the audience with pity and fear by seeing a man fall from grace through his own hubris.
As for me, I believe that laughter is the best medicine for whatever ails you in life, so I like to make people laugh or at least smile when they read my novels and stories. And I give my stories happy endings.
So what’s the primary intention of your novel? Do you want to entertain your reader by scaring the heck out of him with your horror fiction? Do you want to make her feel sexy with your erotic romance? Or do you want to create a puzzle in a cozy mystery for your reader to figure out? Maybe you want to move your reader to empathize with other people who have survived great adversity, to understand some truth or theme about the human condition from someone else’s suffering that your reader can experience vicariously.
In addition, one of the best things about the novel is its ability to say something worthwhile. So give at least a tentative answer to the question the Intention Card asks.
We have one last card. And then your personalized Novel Basics pack will be complete. Join me next time to discover the identity of Card # 20.
Novel Basics Card # 17
The Genre Card
The Genre Card asks the question,
“What kind of a novel will I write?”
Ordinarily, I don’t ascribe to the saying, “Write what you know” because when writers don’t know something they need to put in their books, they do research. But in this case, I advise that you write what you know. That is, you should write the kind of novel you’re most familiar with because you read novels in that genre all the time.
To narrow this down a little bit, let’s imagine you’re at the library and you’re looking for something tasty to read. Where do you go? To the children’s department even though you’re an adult? To the shelves filled with Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror? Mysteries? Romance? Westerns? General Fiction that might include literary and historical novels? You should probably write whatever type of novel you check out and bring home from the library. (You can perform a similar exercise by figuring out which genre you gravitate to in your local Barnes & Noble or indie bookstore or on Amazon or Thriftbooks.)
To narrow the subject of the genre down even more, by the time you get to Card # 17, you’ve made quite a few decisions that affect the kind of book you’re writing, for instance, the gender and age of your protagonist. Consider the differences between Tucker MacBean, a boy just entering the Seventh Grade in present-day Kansas in Lisa Harkrader’s children’s novel Cool Beans: The Further Adventures of Beanboy, and grown-up Lady Edith aka Edie Gilchrist in Eloisa James’ take on the Rapunzel story in her fairy tale romance Once Upon a Tower set in London in 1824.
What sorts of plot developments you include will also affect what kind of book you end up writing. For instance, noir mystery fiction has loads more blood and guts, not to mention foul language and a cynical view of life, than your typical cozy.
But why does genre matter anyway?
Well, I assume that you might like a return on the time and effort it took you to write your novel by having people buy it, read it, and even review it once you’ve finished it. The chances of that happening increase if your novel fits in a niche, the smaller the better, so you won’t compete against authors like James Patterson in the Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense category of fiction, for example.
These days big genres like fantasy, mysteries, women’s fiction in general, and romance more specifically have developed many, very specific subgenres. For example, the cozy mystery subgenre can be further subdivided into culinary mysteries, cozy mysteries that include hobbies and crafts of all kinds, and cozy mysteries that have animals. There are even subcategories for Christian cozy mysteries and cozy mysteries with magic like the novels and stories in my Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mysteries for grown-ups.
Jim Butcher practically invented a new sub-genre–urban fantasy–with his Harry Dresden series described by a reviewer as “magic and wizardry meet hard-boiled detective fiction.”
Books like Butcher’s Storm Front bring us to a bit of an issue. For years, the standard advice in publishing was to avoid crossovers or mashups for fear of confusing potential readers, but that didn’t seem to deter Butcher who has published fifteen novels as well as three story collections in the Dresden Files series. The popularity of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and its sequels seems not to be affected by their mix of time travel, adventure, and Scottish historical romance.
Next time we’ll explore the issue of genre a little more with the discussion of Card # 18.
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.
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: 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.