Twelve Easy Steps Make a Novel

So, you’ve always wanted to write a novel.  Or maybe you’ve got to write a novel fast to meet a deadline.  Novice or beginner, you are faced with where, how?  The following steps are a guideline.

1)  Set aside a time and place to write.  If possible, the same number of hours and the same time every day, so that writing becomes a habit.

2)  Gathering.  Choose a story idea that will allow you to do the following:

A)  Write what you know and who you are.

B)  Harvest your life.  Write the kind of story can you tell best.  What do you have to say?  What issues do you feel passionate about?

C)  Carry index cards.  When an idea pops into your mind, write it down.

D)  Journal or write morning pages.  I sometimes get up and write three or four pages in the morning on whatever I feel like with the purpose of directing my thoughts toward my work in progress.  Usually, I get something about my present story that is pretty good and pretty deep that way.

3)  Research.

4)  Organize index cards and the good stuff from those handwritten pages.

A)  Get a three-ring binder notebook, dividers, and plastic sheet protectors that can hold weird-sized scraps of paper or index cards.

B)  Cut out the parts from morning pages that have to do with your story and put them into your notebook where they belong.  Put anything that seems relevant into the appropriate sections of this notebook.  I organize my notebook in the order closest to the story’s actual shape.  My dividers are labeled premise, proposal, research, setting, character, and plot.  I divide the plot section into beginning/inciting incident, act one, act two, act three, or first big moment, second big moment etc., black moment, crisis, resolution.  I stick a lot of my research into this notebook.  That way I have my book in one place, and I can carry it around if I wish.  Usually, my notebooks get so fat, I end up with more notebooks.  I am extremely disorganized when I create.  This system organizes me.

5)  Define premise.  Refine your ideas into one single, controlling idea.  Express it in a single sentence that contains a compelling dramatic question.

6)   Develop characters.

A) Hero and heroine should have good hearts.  They should not be perfect.

B) Think about archetypes

C) Backstory

D) Break in Character-- Who does this character think he is?  Who does his family think he is?  Who does the world think he is?  What are his dreams? His beliefs? Vulnerabilities? Ideas in conflict.  Complex characters aren’t who they seem to be, want to be, or pretend to be.  This is where internal conflict is born.  Your story must force your characters to grow or gain insight.

E)  Give your main characters three or four strong traits or beliefs that control his behavior, one of which can change.  The trait that changes can be a flaw that changes because of what your character learns in your story.  Scenes should slam this particular trait, forcing him to grow.

F) Think about casting.  Throw conflicted characters into complex, conflicting relationships with other powerful characters who are not like them, who react differently and, therefore, maddeningly to the same stimuli.

7)     Give your main characters clear, vital, deep-rooted conflicting goals.  The characters do not have to know what their real need or goal is or approve of it.  But your character must need something so desperately that if he doesn’t get it, he can’t be whole.  Goals must come out of who the characters are and must be well motivated.  Think about several types of goals for your people—the main goal that spans entire novel as well as temporary or immediate scene goals.  Usually my characters don’t know what they’re about.  Usually, their major flaw blocks necessary self-knowledge.  They may not admit they are unhappy, but if they weren’t lucky enough to fall into my story, they would have stayed messed up forever.  Plot events should force them to discover who they are and what they want.  In the beginning they may fight their true goal or dramatic need.

8)  Plot.  At this point, I take a look at a book map of The Screenwriters Workbook by Syd Field.

A) I study the paradigm for screenplays set out in that book.

B)   I get out a large poster board, a dry erase board, or sometimes even a scroll of Christmas wrapping paper.  Sometimes I use the white or back side of the wrapping paper because it is more portable than a poster.

C)  Then I take out index cards and post-it notes.  I list things that can happen to characters, things that need to happen to them.  Think about romantic conflict and external conflict.  The romantic conflict comes from deep within the personalities of these two characters—why don’t they believe their relationship could work?  How do they have to change or grow to resolve their relationship?

D)   Think up scenes that slam them and dramatize the characters’ internal growth and their romantic bonding.

E) Test their love. Test leads to black moment, crisis, epiphany,  character growth, and resolution.

F)  In plotting, remember, events that happen in your story are best if they spring from actions your characters take to solve problems.  Such events should set off a chain reaction of dramatic, interesting emotional reactions and actions that keep your story moving.  Your characters’ emotions are always more important than the actions.

G)   Think up worst-case scenarios for your particular characters and worst-case but highly-attractive love interests for them.  Dramatize conflicts on index cards or post-it notes.  Cards should contain scene ideas.   Think about these questions when thinking about scenes: what has to happen?  Where?  What is argument?  What is point of scene?  Then how should conflict be revealed in scene—through dialogue, thoughts, or action? Whose viewpoint?

H) Arrange these scenes in most dramatic order.

I)    Stick post-it notes on poster in best order.  Keep in mind that even if you don’t write the book exactly as you are planning it, planning it forces you to think about it, which is how you get the good stuff that seems accidental.

9)  Write.

A) If I am having a hard time with a scene, I pull out every note, scrap of paper that has dialogue a character description etc, and all the research I need for this section of the book.  I put these materials into a single manila file folder or sheet protector.

B) Organize these bits of paper into a stack that is in chronological or in scene order.

C) Get them into computer in the order you believe they should be.  Usually, the work will starts getting easier.

D)    No matter how negative or blocked you feel, write.  Write something, every day.

E)   If you are extremely negative, give El Negativo or La Negativa a notebook of his/ hers and let him/her write.  When he/she is done, get back to your real work.  Set writing goals and commit blocks of time toward this project.

F)   Write.  Let yourself write badly.  After about a hundred pages, I usually find my characters and book.  Sometimes great scenes spring into my mind that have very little to do with all the plotting and planning I did in the beginning.

G)   Usually, I replot my synopsis after I’ve written the first fifty pages.

10)   Endings.  About three-fourths of the way through a book, I usually reread and redesign the book again to try to figure out the very best ending for my story.  I usually write the last two or three chapters in a day or two after it comes to me.

11)  Revision.  I keep printed pages in a three-ring binder.  When I have revision ideas, I write them on post-it notes and stick them on the pages to be revised or stick them into a sheet-protector that contains all revision notes for that chapter.  Try to avoid constant revision when writing. When story sags, remember that conflict is the gasoline that drives your story and that must drive every scene.  Ask yourself what is the conflict? What is your character doing to resolve the conflict? Tip: wherever possible, cut.

12)  Tips I’ve learned through the years.  How to use how-to-write books.  Depression.  Rumors about the writing business.  Happiness. Writer’s block.  Burn-out.  Jealousy.  Speed.  Silent retreats.

13)  Books and workshops

A) The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field and anything by Dwight Swain

B) Maximum Achievement by Brian Tracy

C) I think Laura Baker’s and Robin L. Perini’s workshop on Story Magic would be great.  I enjoyed Robert McKee’s workshop on Structure and David Freeman’s workshop on Beyond Structure.

Ann Major’s Favorite Resources on Putting a Novel Together

The Screenwriter's Workbook   by Syd Field
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain
Writing to Sellby Scott Meredith
How to Write Best Selling Fictionby Dean R. Koontz
How to Write a Damn Good Novel I& 2(Two books)  by James N. Frey
Writing Novels That Sell   by Jack M.  Bickham
The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler
Bestseller/Secrets of Successful Writingby Celia Brayfield
(the above is published by Fourth Estate Limited in the UK)
Writing The Breakout Novelby Donald Maass

Favorites on Characterization:

Characters Tell Your Story   by Maren Elwood
The Writer's Guide to Character Traits   by Linda N. Edelstein
Heroes & HeroinesSixteen Master Archetypesby Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, Su Viders
How to Build Characters   by Dwight Swain (not sure of this title)

Favorites to keep you going:

On Writer's Block/ A New Approach to Creativityby Victoria Nelson
Writing in Flow/Keys to Enhanced Creativityby Perry

For Inspiration:

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Maximum Achievement  by Brian Tracy

One I just like--

The Romantic Comedy/The Art and Craft of Writing Screenplays that Sellby Billy Merrnit

Workshops that are great:

Story Structure by Robert McKee
Beyond Structure by David S. Freeman




Ten Tricks To Get Your Book Back On Track When It Falls Apart

Co-authored with Annette Broadrick

Too many workshops give the impression that writing should be a formulaic, paint-by-the number activity. If we were to guess, we would say that most novelists have had at least one book fall apart, or they realize the story they intended to write is taking an entirely new direction.

Just when you think you know your characters, your hero hops in bed with the other woman and shoots the heroine when she catches him. Bang! Slam! Bam! Your perfect romance has come to a screeching halt. What do you, the author, do?

We've come to realize that when a writer pauses in the creative process and decides the story isn't working, her creative muse has come forward to point out that fact. Sue Grafton once said at one of the seminars we've attended that when she sits down in front of her computer, she calls up, "She Who Writes."

Annette finds this imagery quite helpful. She believes that She Who Writes is the one who forces her to stop writing and to look at the story with a new perspective. Should this happen to you, do not throw your manuscript in the trash along with a lighted match. Now, it's okay to visualize throwing all those pages away. But then sit back and mentally start pulling the sections out you love.

Perhaps a character really rings true, or a scene works even more brilliantly than you imagined. Perhaps a plot twist would work if you went back to the beginning and set it up and reshaped your idea.

Annette's plots tend to fall apart after three chapters while Ann's fall apart right before the end.

What do we do?

Go back to the idea or character that sparked the book in the first place and try to figure out why you got off track. Is it the characters or the plot?

Let's start with the characters. Are they sympathetic? Every character is flawed in some way, otherwise he/she would be boring and wouldn't deserve the space of a novel. Review how you've developed your characters. Do you like them? Would you like to get to know them better? Most importantly, are they basically decent human beings under stress, hence we know the behavior that causes the problems is not typical or habitual?

Annette has trouble developing sinister characters because she is not comfortable putting herself in that character's place in order to figure out how he/she thinks. Ann has a head full of demons with bizarre fantasies. She likes to get her revenge by putting them in her books and making sure they get worse than they deserve.

As writers, we must understand each character so well that we could do an in-depth biography on them. Not necessarily their birthdays and the color of their eyes and hair, although that helps the reader visualize them, but we go back to their childhoods.

Where were they born? What birth order were they? What sort of home did they live in growing up--parents who loved them? Or a dysfunctional family? What incidences in their lives helped to shape who they are at the time the book begins.

A lot of times we run into trouble because we don't know the characters well enough, and we don't like one or both of them, or the conflict really isn't believable. It's okay to fire a character or give him/her another novel. It's okay to rename them so you can "see" them differently.

Always, always when a book crashes, check the conflict driving the story before lighting the match to those pages. Conflict has to do with the characters and their goals, of course. The stronger the goals and the more desperately your characters want to achieve them, and the more powerful the obstacles in their path, the stronger your novel. The power of any novel lies in the dark side. You have to have conflict, intriguing conflict.

What do your characters want and what are they willing to do to get it? What or who is determined to stop them? The conflict needs to be large enough to carry an entire book, which often means if your book has stopped on you, you need to up the stakes.

The problem doesn't have to be life threatening, but it does have to be strong enough so that the reader will keep turning the pages to make certain the characters will be together at the end. Ann likes to give her characters a flaw, so that the character has room to grow and learn something vital to his/her soul during the story. Some crisis will force the character to change and see his world, his romantic interest, and himself in a more positive way.

Not only does a story need conflict, the characters need to make choices that box them into this ever-more dramatic situation. The pressure must become unbearable, and it must be impossible for them to flee and avoid resolving the issues at stake.

Ten tricks

1. First, print the book on hard copy and reread it with a red pen, marking only problems that have to do with character and story. Jot questions you need answers for on index cards.

2. Go back to the last good sentence in your manuscript. How did you go off track. Examine the characters' conflicts and goals. Play with ideas to strengthen the motivation and goals. Hint: concentrate on internal conflict.

3. On a single page write a description of your book that includes character, premise, and the dramatic question. This should be short.

4. What is boxing your characters into this story? Why don't they leave or date somebody else?

5. Outline your story on a single page. Describe each scene in a single sentence. Put a plus or a minus at the end of it. Does the scene end on a positive or negative note? Does one scene lead to the next? Do you have surprises that spin your story in new and interesting directions? Are you upping the stakes as your story progresses? You can quickly see which scenes need to be in your book. Ask yourself why that scene has to be in the book. And often you can tell what needs to happen next or what would be really fun or exciting if it happened next.

6. Get silent. Go off alone--no phone, no television. Focus. Pray to She Who Writes and then surrender to the muse. You will amaze yourself.

7. Rewrite a scene or scenes from another character's viewpoint. Interview some of the characters and ask them questions you don't have answers for.

8. Make a dream list. List all the things that you want your book to be and contain. Go so far as to imagine your book's cover and your book flying off bookshelves in a bookstore. You may be surprised when your dream pops fully formed into your mind one morning.

9. Never never give up. Keep writing. Some books come in a flash. Others come sentence by sentence, but as Annie Lamott says, you can make the whole journey that way.

10. Let others read and critique your book. Maybe a fresh viewpoint is all that's needed to spark the muse into action.

In conclusion remember that no matter how dark and terrifying the storm, eventually the sun comes out and the birds sing again. Always, always the blackest despair precedes brilliant bursts of profound creative enlightenment. The secret is to never give up.

So You Want To Write A Romance Novel

(December, 2001)

Go for it!

Nobody is born published. Not even the Nobel prize winners!

I usually start with my characters. They need physical descriptions, mannerisms, quirks, and backstory. You need to know about their childhood, their family, their sexual history, their career history, their beliefs and values. They need traits, goals, and a flaw. Goals, whether they be conscious goals or subconscious goals are extremely important.

It's best if their flaw is not such a problem in their lives at the end of your story as it was in the beginning. In other words, it is best, if your character learns something through what happens in the story that causes him to grow as a human being. It helps if your hero and heroine can be the embodiment of the other's worst fear.

Oh, and you'll need a premise. Many writers begin here instead of with characters.

As far as structure, goes, you need a beginning, an inciting incident, at least three turning points (or big moments), the last of which is the black moment when all seems lost. But it won't be lost because during the journey of your story, your hero has learned something that produces a vital change in him that enables him to win instead of lose. Then you write the happy ending. What the hero learns has to do with the theme of your story.

Many writers write a synopsis before they begin the actual novel. Write your story in present tense in five to twenty pages, depending on the length of your novel. Next write the first chapters. Do not be horrified if the writing is inferior. All first drafts disappoint. But at some point, something magic should happen. The characters start talking and changing all your well-made plans. What they do and say totally confuses you. Keep writing. Adjust your synopsis.

Think of this as play. Don't listen to negative voices saying you can't, especially if one or more of them is your own negative self-doubting critic who is trying to destroy you. Personally I have a head full of demons that spend lots of energy trying to cripple me.

Write. When all else fails, write. Surround yourself with positive people who believe in your dreams, and they will have a better change of coming true.

Good luck!