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: 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.

 

 

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 . . .

 

Novel Basics: Card # 1

Novel Basics

About those cards . . .

I put the numbers, names, questions and images on the blank sides of cards and save the lined sides for my answers and specific notes. But you do whatever works for you.

I also enjoy color, so I used a variety of colors of cards and different colors of pens, too. And no, there is absolutely no system or coding to the colors of the cards I used. The very idea of doing that makes my brain seize up. So if you prefer to put everything down in black and white on 3” x 5” cards that are blank on both sides, make it so.

When I teach the class in a physical classroom, I tell the students not to sweat the small stuff like making sure the bottom points of the heart meet on Card # 1 because typically we only have 90 minutes. But since the online version goes more slowly, knock yourself out on the arty stuff if you like.

Card # 1: The Heart Card

The Heart Card asks the question,

“Who wants what?”

At the heart of every novel–every story really, no matter the form it takes, novel, short story, play, movie or television script, or epic narrative poem for that matter–lies the question, “Who wants what?”

As like as not, what you write down on Card # 1, with only a vague notion of what your novel will be, won’t be very specific. You probably don’t have a name for the who, for instance. Your answer might be something not much more than the following:

Boy wants girl.

Girl wants boy.

Boy wants boy.

Girl wants girl.

Even more broadly, someone wants to find true love.

More specifically, a returning veteran named Jay Gatsby wants to find Daisy, the girl he left behind, and make her his own.

Let’s move on to other genres besides love stories . . .

In murder mysteries the detective wants to find the killer to keep her from doing it again and/or to bring her to justice.

Someone wants to escape something, his hometown for instance, or her abusive mother for another.

Someone wants to find something, the Holy Grail, a magical ring, or the owner of a lost dog.

Someone wants to get rich.

Katniss Everdeen wants to save her little sister Prim from the Hunger Games.

Minty Wilcox, the protagonist of January Jinx, the first novel in my Calendar Mystery series, wants to find a job as a typist/stenographer in Kansas City in 1899.

Princess Ella, aka Cinderella, wants to escape the walls that confine her in Walls, the first book in my Cinderella, P. I. series.

Often in fiction, as in life, a want becomes a need. Someone needs to find a job to stay alive. The Chosen One needs to save Middle Earth, the world, or the galaxy before he and everyone he knows perish.

Regardless, to start a novel you need to know what someone wants or needs to accomplish by the last page of the narrative. Or at the very least you need to have a general idea of who wants want in your novel. To put it in literary terms, a story needs a protagonist with whom the reader can willingly identify and who has a worthwhile goal.

I put that in bold because it’s important, but I’m not going into it right now. We’ll talk about that when we get to Card # 3.

Card # 3? What happened to Card # 2?

I’m so glad you asked.

P. S. Feel free to share what you put on your cards in the comment section. Ask questions, too.

P. S. S. If the online version of the Novel Basics goes too slowly for you, you can buy the print version of the book on Amazon and the eBook for only $2.99 at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07K2LXFRP