Novel Basics Card # 20

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 # 17

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: 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: Card # 8

Card # 8
The Place Card
(aka Setting)

The Place Card asks the questions,
“Where and when does the novel take place?”

One of the elements I’ve always loved about reading novels is their ability to transport me to faraway places and long ago times like the Ancient World of the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries by Lindsey Davis or the medieval world of Brother Cadfael in the historical mysteries of Ellis Peters. There’s a whole romance subgenre that takes place in Britain during the Regency period. James Church’s fascinating Inspector O series takes place in modern-day North Korea. The sky isn’t even the limit. Consider Andy Weir’s The Martian that takes place, at least in part, on Mars. Artemis, Weir’s second book, takes place in a city on the moon.

The times and the locales for your novel will heavily shape its content because setting supplies many things. Growing up in a small town, suburbia, or a big city all will affect the nature of your protagonist, for instance, in different ways.

It very well might supply be the antagonist like the frigid cold of a Siberian winter in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Weather can matter a lot in fiction, in part for the mood of the piece. (If you place characters on a space ship headed to Mars, you might not have weather, but you might have debris hitting the ship.)

Setting will supply minor characters. For example, the doorman who greets your protagonist when he comes home from a long day on Wall Street will have no place in the small riverside town you’ve chosen for where your protagonist grows up in the 1950’s. For that book you might need an old lady who runs the corner grocery store instead.

Something else that will affect how your book turns out is when it takes place: past, present or future, and what each choice requires. Specifically if you choose some past time as I did for my Calendar Mysteries set in Kansas City around 1900, you might need to do research. Setting your book in an imagined future as did Andy Weir for The Martian and Artemis might require research as well. Using the present day, as I’m considering for the contemporary cozy mystery series I haven’t started yet, might seem like a safe choice, but it very well might require research into police work.

Another thing you will have to take into account is the amount of time involved in the action of your novel. Consider the difference between One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a very short novel, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karina, both very long novels that span years.

And quite importantly setting can provide obstacles to your protagonist in achieving his or her goal . . .

That will soon bring us to Card # 9, but first I want to take a short break from the card method of brainstorming your novel to talk about two very helpful writing techniques.

Novel Basics: Getting to Know Your Characters

If you have the time and inclination, you might want to get acquainted with your major characters at least a little bit before you move on to the next card because characters are quite possibly the single most important element of your novel.

Now, I know from my experiences in my book club that most readers don’t care much about novels this English major appreciates like a really well executed coming-of-age historical mystery set in New York City in 1919. But readers can’t identify with the characters, that is, put themselves in the characters’ shoes, they might not like the book. One of my favorite mystery authors has written a popular series with a hit man as the protagonist. But I just can’t bring myself to read them.

On the other hand, if readers love the characters, they might still love a novel that has a flaw or two. Several of the top novels or series among those on the list of The Great American Read, for example, have rather episodic plot lines. These include Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander that came in as America’s second favorite novel (after To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee), undoubtedly due to the charms of the resourceful time-traveling Claire and her stalwart man in kilts.

During the finale of The Great American Read, Gabaldon confided that when she first was working on Outlander, her husband discovered she had eighty files on her computer named Jamie. You might not want to do that much pre-writing about characters in your novel right now when you haven’t even finished your cards, but it will really help you if you explore them a bit up front.
Here are some methods you might use to get a handle on the characters you made several Novel Basics cards about.

Lots of people, including myself, use a set of basic questions they answer about each major character. My template includes the following: the character’s name, his or her role in the book, gender, age, family and/or cultural background, basic physical appearance, usual manner of dress, distinctive physical feature and/or verbal habit. Also you might want to know the character’s major psychological trait expressed in a single word, ambitious for instance. For mysteries, I also like to know each major character’s secret.

Following the advice of science fiction/fantasy author Orson Scott Card in his book Characters and Viewpoint, part of Writer’s Digest Books The Elements of Fiction Writing series, I keep a character bible for my cozy historical mysteries. If you want to start one now, go ahead.

Sometimes you might let a character audition for the role you intend for her to have. That is, put your protagonist inside one of your obstacle scenes and see what she does and says.

Some writers will interview their characters up front. This is especially useful for the narrator of the story and also for the antagonist. (You might be surprised by what that villain has to say.)

One of my students kept a file on his computer of interesting people he saw that he might want in some future book.

Pin a picture of the character up on your cork board if you have one. I modeled the Prince Charming of my Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mysteries for grown-ups after Nathan Fillion as Captain Mal in the Firefly series. (Hey, it worked for me.)

So relax for a while, let your imp loose, and get acquainted with some of the characters you might put in your book.

Please come back tomorrow for Card # 8.

Novel Basics Cards 6 & 7

Today we have cards for other important two characters in your novel . . .

Card # 6

The Match

The Match Card asks the question,

“Who fires up the plot car?”

 I know. I know. This is a bit of a mixed metaphor because you wouldn’t really want to burn up a car. Still, I think the image of the match works well to get at the nature of another essential character that you’ll need–someone who appears near the start of your novel to get the plot going. Once you’re onto this sort of character, you’ll see lots of them in the novels you read.

For example, a noir mystery novel often starts with some blonde, wearing a tight black suit and stilettos, swaying into the tough private eye’s office to hire him to find out who murdered the victim or where her sister has gone. Several of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels start with potential clients–though not usually sexy blondes–entering his office.

Sue Grafton has a woman wrongfully imprisoned for murdering her husband come to Kinsey Millhone to discover the true killer at the start of A Is for Alibi.

Early in Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only, the first V. I. Warshawski mystery, the private investigator heads to her office at night through steamy Chicago to meet a potential client who refused to give his name to her answering service. But she needs to pay her bills, so she goes to her office, and thus she meets a man who wants her to find his son’s missing girlfriend.

I’ve given examples from mystery fiction, but that’s not to say writers of other sorts of fiction don’t have this sort of character, too. For instance, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit begins with the wizard Gandalf arriving in town and carrying Bilbo Baggins off on an adventure.

Fiver’s horrid dream of death and destruction to the warren sets in motion the long, epic journey of the rabbits in Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

Wanting husbands for her daughters, Mrs. Bennet gets the plot of Pride and Prejudice going by sending her husband to call on the eligible and rich bachelor Mr. Bingley who has rented an estate nearby.

Card # 7

The Mouth

The Mouth Card asks the question,

“Who tells the story?”

Novelists have many options for narrators for their books and exactly how those narrators will present the narratives. I’ll give you some common choices. I’ll also note that sometimes, once you get into your novel, you might change your mind from what you write down on your card initially and what you later decide might be a better choice. The common terms for these choices are viewpoint, point of view or perspective.

By far the most common choice of point of view is first person from the perspective of the protagonist, that is, the guy or gal in the driver’s seat of the plot car. “That day when I saw this dame come in my office door, I said to myself, ‘Mike Hammer, you know she’s trouble. Gorgeous, but trouble.’”

But sometimes the first person narrator who tells the story in his own voice isn’t the protagonist, but the second most important character in the work, the ally. This can be due to a very practical reason: the protagonist dies before the end of the novel. That’s one reason why Chief Broom tells McMurphy’s story in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That’s why Nick Carraway tells Gatsby’s story and Ishmael tells Captain Ahab’s. “And I alone remain to tell the tale . . .”

(Believe me when I tell you that few things annoy a reader more than getting to the end of a novel and finding out the person telling the story has been dead the whole time.)

Narrators can be innocent and say more than they understand, at least in the early pages of the novel, like Maisie in Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, for example. Ishmael of Moby Dick is sort of an innocent, too.

A narrator can be reliable like Nick Carraway. Or a narrator can be unreliable, like drunken, deceitful Rachel Watson, The Girl on the Train, in Paula Hawkins’ best-selling psychological thriller.

Speaking of that book, it’s told in first person from three women’s points of view: Rachel, Anna and Megan. If you’re an experienced novelist and want to use multiple first person viewpoint, I say go for it. If this will be your first novel, I’d say save this choice until your later books and keep this one simple.

Another very common choice is third person narration limited to the perspective of the protagonist. All of January Jinx, my first Calendar Mystery, and most of the second, Fatal February, stick to my protagonist’s point of view in third person. One advantage of this sort of viewpoint is that it gives some distance for the reader on the action. It can do the same for you the novelist, too.

You might consider using an omniscient viewpoint, a popular choice in 19th century novels. That’s when the narrator is some sort of godlike, all-knowing creature who looks down at the characters in the book. An early and famous example of this sort of point of view is Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in which the narrator sometimes says things like “So what do you think of Becky Sharp now, dear reader?” Occasionally omniscient viewpoint cropped up in twentieth-century novels and even twenty-first century novels like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

But these days, most novelists stick to a third person perspective that’s limited to a couple of characters, the young woman and her potential lover in a categorical romance, for instance, or no more than four or five even in a huge book like Stephen King’s 800+ page American epic The Stand.

A word of caution about shifting from first to third person . . . In T Is for Trespass, Sue Grafton shifted back and forth from the third person viewpoint of the antagonist and the first person perspective of series protagonist Kinsey Millhone instead of sticking to Kinsey’s perspective as Grafton did with most of the books in the series. But Grafton had lots of writing practice by then. She also started the book by using third person point of view to set up that expectation before she moved to Kinsey’s usual first person viewpoint instead of springing that character’s angle on the story suddenly and without warning later on.

Andy Weir used the device of Mark Watney’s log to alternate smoothly between first person and third person sections of The Martian. Throughout Mischief in March, the third novel in my Calendar Mystery series, I have Minty Wilcox write in the journal that she calls A. M. Wilcox’s Investigation into All Things Daniel Price and thus she moves back and forth between first person and third.

Novel Basics: Cards 4 & 5

The cards for today are two important characters in your future novel, one opposed to the protagonist and the other allied, more or less . . .

Card # 4
The Boxing Glove

The Boxing Glove Card asks the question,
“Who will oppose the star of the story?”

Card # 4, the boxing glove, asks the question, “Who will oppose the protagonist as she attempts to reach the goal?” That is, who’s the antagonist of your novel? And why does the antagonist oppose the protagonist? In other words, who’s the bad guy or gal? And why?
(Actually, it’s more fun for you and your eventual reader if the antagonist has some redeeming virtues or at least is interesting.)
You can call him the villain if you like although your antagonist might have a perfectly logical reason for his despicable actions, or at least they make sense to him. For example, in January Jinx, the first novel in my Calendar Mystery series, the ignorant, so-called sheriff of Campbell, Kansas, messes with the protagonist’s goal of finding a job because he thinks he can extort a bunch of money from her.
It’s not uncommon for a novice novelist to let the antagonist drive the plot car from the start and just keep on doing that until the plot car runs right off the road. The protagonist and the antagonist should be worthy of each other. And often the antagonist seems to be winning at the start of the novel. But sooner or later she probably should get her come-uppance.
Personally, I don’t read lots of horror fiction, but I have read Stephen King’s Misery. It has a superb yet terrifying antagonist, Annie Wilkes, who proclaims herself to be novelist Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan.” She is a really scary woman, that’s for sure, and she does many bad things to the author, including forcing him to write another sappy novel in his sappy series. But eventually Paul wins out though he’s left physically and mentally scarred.
Note: The antagonist doesn’t have to be human. It can be a force of nature like the ocean in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Card # 5
The Ear

The Ear Card asks the question,
“Who helps the star?”

This is one of my favorites. Your protagonist needs an ally, that is, someone to talk to, aka a confidant–for a very practical reason. What’s that? you ask. Answer: so you can have dialogue. Fiction needs dialogue, that is, people talking, for it to come alive and jump up off the page. Also, with dialogue comes the ability to have conflict, the essence of what fiction is about.
I once had a student who didn’t like to write dialogue, so she arranged for the protagonist of her science fiction novel not to understand a word of what other characters, members of an alien race, said. Gosh, that novel was dead in the water, and after a while I refused to read any more of it.
But I’ve gotten way ahead of myself. Suffice it to say you need to give the star of your novel someone to help him or her. At the very least, the ally can help the protagonist achieve the goals of the book by listening to the main character, that is, by serving as the protagonist’s confidant.
You can have lots of fun with the ally since there are so many possibilities for this character besides providing someone to talk to. The ally can serve as the foil to the protagonist, for instance, the lippy girlfriend who’s temperamentally very different from the serious female protagonist. The ally can be the comic relief sidekick. You can even let the ally oppose the protagonist sometimes by putting her down or by expressing doubts about his ability to make a million bucks.
Think about how interesting The Silence of the Lambs became when Thomas Harris made the loathsome cannibal Hannibal Lecter Clarice Starling’s ally by giving her information that ultimately helped her find the killer.

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Novel Basics: Cards 2 & 3

Card # 2: the Outcome Card

The Outcome Card asks the question,

“Does (s)he succeed?” 

In answering the question on the second card, “Does she or he succeed?” you will figure out if the who gets what she wants or needs. Or more formally, does the protagonist accomplish his goal by the end of the novel?

Let me explain through an analogy. Writing a novel is a trip, and it won’t be a short one like bopping over to the closest QuikTrip to gas up the truck–unless of course the floodwaters are approaching and your protagonist named George must get enough gas not only for the truck but also for the generator back at the house so he doesn’t lose all the frozen food in the freezer during the inevitable power outage. And that way, his family of five including newborn twins . . . Oh, I do so love to write fiction, but let’s press on.

Writing a novel is a long and maybe even an emotionally arduous and physically challenging journey. So it’s good to know where you’re headed when you start out, so you don’t get lost along the way and end up making lots of little side trips that take you nowhere.

To use another analogy entirely . . . Writing a novel is like walking on a tightrope. It really helps if you have the far side of the narrative tethered to something before you start out, if not to a specific rock or tree over there, at least in the general neighborhood of where you want to be at the end.

Besides these reservations, knowing where you’re going lets you know what kind of journey you’ll make and allows you to plan the journey.

We’ll go into those issues later, but now, you should write yes or no on the back of your 3” by 5” card.

Let’s go back to the “girl wants boy” and “boy wants girl” examples we talked about for the heart card.

Yes, of course, Cinderella gets Prince Charming.

I’ve decided to speed things up a little so here’s another card today.

Card # 3: the Star Card

The Star Card asks the question,

“Who drives the plot car?”

On Card # 3, you’ll jot down a few details about who will star in your novel, that is, the kind of person in the leading role. I put the star inside a car because it’s very important that your main character, aka your protagonist, generally drives the plot of your novel and makes its actions happen, especially as he or she nears the end of the journey.

You might not know this character’s name yet, but probably you can already make some basic decisions about this character. Will your protagonist be male or female? How old is your protagonist?

Another thing you might want to explore on your third card–at least a little bit at this point–is why your protagonist wants to accomplish the particular goal that you’ve given that character. To save a life? His own or someone else’s? To prove herself? To clear his name, or her sister’s or his brother’s? To solve the crime and thus keep the murderer from killing more people? Why does Gatsby want Daisy? That question is so easy to answer. The poor guy loves her.

Another thing to think about even at this early stage of brainstorming your novel: what about the star of the novel keeps her from accomplishing her goal and your novel from reaching its outcome right away? He can’t be perfect. None of us are. Besides, perfection is boring. Even Superman has his Kryptonite. Something internal like self-doubt might hold your protagonist back or something external like a broken leg when she’s out in a blizzard.

Tip: avoid putting a complete schmuck in the driver’s seat of your plot car. It makes most readers uncomfortable to be forced to identify with someone capable of the worst villainy without any redeeming virtues at all, an all-powerful being who, for example, wants to wipe every person of color off the planet or destroy the galaxy or remove one person in every two from the galaxy for his own peace and quiet. On the other hand this sort of character will work very well as the . . .