Wednesday, December 4, 2019

True Motivation: Writing What You Care About

Finding- and staying- motivated to write doesn’t have to be difficult.  There are a number of tips and tricks that work, but easily the most important is writing something so compelling, so important to you that you're motivated day after day.

Let’s go back to something I mentioned in my previous post regarding those wanna-be novelists who read exactly one blockbuster book then try to write a similar novel just to grab some of the cash and fame, only to discover that their pale imitations can’t even find a publisher.  Now writing with the expectation of hitting it big and selling a million copies of your book isn’t bad motivation in and of itself, but if all you’re looking for are huge royalty checks, your emphasis is on the wrong thing.  Those writers who jump on the hot and trendy genres before those trends fade away without caring much about what they’re writing have the hardest job of all- creating something that doesn’t speak to their hearts and souls, that has little meaning to them beyond the potential to pad their bank accounts.

That’s tough, dreary sledding, one that requires grit and determination to get through because greed can only get you so far. 

Worst of all, astute readers will know instantly that the authors of those hastily written books didn’t have a vested interest in the story, had only tried to satisfy the basic requirements of the trend, the barest minimum.  A mundane plot populated by caricatures rather than characters isn’t lasting literature, it’s fast-food filling at best, not a five-star meal you’ll always remember.  Now some writers can’t help but elevate their stories beyond mere imitation by creating well-rounded, fascinating characters with intriguing troubles, but that requires extra time and effort, and that could mean missing the trendy bandwagon and finding that nobody wants your manuscript because that ship had sailed; you missed the boat. Usually the trendy genres start with a novel that has something unique, a twist or unexpected element rarely (if ever) seen before, written with care by caring authors because there is no bandwagon yet, nor were those authors trying to start one rolling.  There was no ticking clock, no countdown to obsolescence, so they gave their novels all the time and effort needed to make them top-notch.  Someone wrote that first dystopian young adult novel, someone else wrote that first vampire love story, and did so because they felt compelled; they were genuinely interested in their stories, not just the potential paychecks down the road.  Imitation novels tend to trend downward in quality as they flood the market, with only a handful equal to the originals in depth of characters and plot.  The rest were written in haste just to ride the coattails, grab a handful of left-over dollars while the grabbing is good and it shows.

That’s not just tough sledding, it’s soul-sapping.

If, on the other hand, you ignore what’s trendy and focus on writing about characters you care about, who speak to you and demand their stories be told, something amazing will happen; it won’t be hard at all to stay motivated.  Now there’s always that “moment of ugh” when you sit down to pick up where you left off in your novel, but how long that “ugh” lasts depends on how compelling your story is to you.  While you don’t have to be obsessed to the point that you can’t eat or sleep until your novel's finished (that’s happened to writers and it’s not pleasant), having the story itself  be your motivation will go a long way to making your writing less arduous, and at the end you’re far more likely to have written something publishers need and want.

Next time: those tips and tricks to overcome that “ugh” moment when you sit down to write.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Plotter or Pantser?

I’m a plotter when it comes to writing novels, and wrote a detailed, single-spaced outline of An Audience for Einstein before starting chapter one. The same was true of my two earlier novels. Since “to plot or not?” is an important consideration for novelists, I thought I’d discuss the pros and cons of both approaches.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, pantser- as in flying by the seat of- is the name given to those bold writers who start with the proverbial blank sheet of paper and merrily begin typing or dictating their novels with- supposedly- only a vague idea of where the long, winding writing road will take them. I take the boastful claims by those pantsers who swear they had no idea what they were about to write with a grain of salt and you should to. Here’s why.

Plots have an inherent structure that vary by the type of novel you’re writing. There are the coming-of age novels, the hero’s quest novels, the self-discovery novels (usually involving an epiphany of some kind) and many others I’ll discuss in future posts. There are also significant structural differences between genres- hard-boiled detective mysteries are different from the Harlequin-style romances, which are different from cyberpunk novels, etc., although there are intriguing “hybrids” that successfully blend genres. (I’ll discuss why it’s probably a bad idea to start your career as a hybrid novelist in a future post, particularly if you’re expecting great and immediate commercial success.) Each type of novel has its requirements that must be realized for that novel to be categorized as that particular type. Stray too far from those requirements and your novel will lose its label. It’s important for readers to know what kind of novel an author has written since readers have their likes and dislikes and gravitate to those novels that check all their “like” boxes. Sally loves romances but hates science fiction; Bob loves mysteries but hates romances. The same is true of writers. For example, I will never, ever read or try to write a 600 page historical romance set in Victorian-era England. Ever. For other novelists, historical romance novels are all they read and write.

Now, back to the boastful claim by the pantsers that they had “no idea” what kind of novel they were writing. I don’t believe that to be quite true because of their own inevitable literary likes and dislikes. Name a pantser’s favorite genre or type, and the odds are enormous that’s exactly what’s going to appear as their blank pages begin to fill up with prose.

Whether they admit it or not, there are two other reasons to believe that pantsers actually have a good idea what they’re going to write before they start writing, beyond their own literary genre prejudices. Familiarity and comfort zone.

If you’re favorite genre is romance, you’ve probably read all the major romance authors, maybe went to a romance novel convention or two, and have your own opinion of what a good romance novel should constitute. That familiarity can’t help but spark your imagination in the genre that so intrigues you. Undoubtedly you know that to write good fiction, you need to read good fiction; you can’t operate in a literary vacuum, and by reading as much as you can (particularly but not exclusively in your chosen genre) you’ll be surprised at how many plot ideas occur to you, plots formed from the totality of all you’ve read yet original rather than derivative. (It’s the wanna-be novelists who read just one novel- usually a blockbuster- and want to duplicate that success for themselves who write the derivative books, ones that are mere shadows of the original and hopelessly unpublishable.) As for comfort zone, if you’ve never read a mystery novel, you’re well aware you have no idea what those plot requirements are, or even how to begin writing one without leaning heavily on all the old, worn-out plot clich├ęs, which of course you’d never do. That genre’s just not in your comfort zone.

All that further narrows down what’s going to appear on the page as the pantsers write their novels.

So, do pantsers actually plot their novels in their heads? In a word, yes. What I believe successful pantsers have in common is the ability to gather all the elements needed for a novel in their subconscious minds and let those elements grow and connect, bubble up and expand until there comes a point they just know they’re ready to sit down and let it spill out on the page. It won’t be perfect, that first draft (none are, really) but in the end what they’ll have can keep the momentum going.

It’s a fairly rare ability to form and hold a novel all in your head, but I would compare successful pantsers to the best chess players, who can see in their mind’s eyes the myriad counter-moves an opponent might make as they contemplate the next move of their own. It’s that ability to see far down the road, consider the possibilities and select the best choices that makes winging it possible.

A few pitfalls, though. I suspect those pantser first drafts have multiple holes in their plots, the sequence of events somewhat skewed and not all the characters quite flesh and blood. Some of those drafts are probably short, too, less than average length for the genre they’re writing. But all that’s fixable in subsequent drafts.

Does that mean if you think you can do it, winging it is the way to go if you’re itching to start your novel? Possibly not.

For some novelists, there are advantages to having an outline, a roadmap to follow. One is the solid reassurance- right before your eyes- that yes, I can write this novel because here it is, spelled out from beginning to end and everything makes perfect sense. No plot holes, the timeline’s clear and the ending wraps everything up nicely with no loose threads. Those novelists are the type who can’t say “surprise me!” like the pantsers when the next chapter is looming and it’s not all that clear what comes next. Some writers thrive on that kind plot ambiguity in an adrenaline-pumping sort of way, take it as an exciting challenge to overcome; others freeze up and can’t write another word.

Perhaps it’s a combination of both confidence and daring as to whether winging it is right for you.

Another advantage to having a written, detailed outline before you begin: your first draft will probably be pretty darn good, or at least as good as your outline. Most likely that means fewer subsequent drafts will be needed to make your novel publisher presentable. No sudden realization that whole scenes or chapters need to be cut or created, or that a subplot you thought was a great idea detracts from the novel instead. Those are the kinds of risks you take when you’re a pantser, and although there’s a subset of pantsers who’s first drafts are as good as those of the best plotters, that ability seems rarer still. Going back to the chess player analogy, those few expert pantsers are the Grand Masters of their craft.

Only you know if you’re a plotter or a pantser, but either way you need to get motivated and stay motivated to write a novel, the topic of my post next time.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

An Audience for Einstein: From the Beginning


All good words to describe what happened to An Audience for Einstein over the many years I contemplated, outlined, and finally wrote the book.

I had the title first. Not sure where it came from, back when I was all of about eighteen. It was one of those spontaneous title ideas that suggest enormous possibilities, but actually gave me pause. I mean, really, Einstein? Without giving anything away, Einstein is mentioned several times in the book, but never makes an appearance. But still, just evoking the name of one of the most influential thinkers in the history of science gave me pause, made wonder f I would ever be able to capture the lyrical, almost metaphysical mood that the title suggested.

The answer was no, initially, so I wrote those two other books first. That’s how much the very idea of the book scared me.

Those first two novels weren’t meant to be just learning experiences, however- I fully expected both to stand up on their own two feet, sprout wings and soar. (The first will be re-engineered, and the second will be stripped down for parts, the same way an auto mechanic makes use of a "parts car"- take what’s good- a turn of a phrase here, a bit of description there- and scrap the rest.) But what I gained by writing those two novels first prepared me to finally wrap my arms around all the myriad elements of An Audience for Einstein.

Like a high-rise, it has many levels, each one with its own interesting characteristics and purpose.

That was a first for me. Those other novels were ranch-style dwellings for my characters; sturdy if not spectacular, serviceable but mundane. Nothing wrong at all with that; many characters in decent novels live in simple story structures. But multi-level living- where your characters not only live literal lives, but represent something larger than themselves- gives characters more headroom, more nooks and crannies to explore.

And An Audience for Einstein has plenty of nooks and crannies.
Actually, it’s when your characters become extended metaphors for something larger than themselves that the roof is raised on your novel to make room for them to exist on a higher plane as they go about their daily business, sort of like having meaningful ghosts in the attic. This kind of dual existence is found in books generally regarded as literature, and is absent in works deemed "popular" or "beach books" or whatever tag given to books meant primarily to entertain. Usually these popular works have some shocking or risque plot elements that garner great word-of-mouth- that’s what sells them. Serious works, on the other hand, tend to be original not by being spectacular or unusual, but sometimes quite the opposite- by being eye-opening in how "ordinary" they are.
A great novel from a few decades back illustrates this point nicely- Ordinary People by Judith Guest. The title- I’m quite sure- was not a fluke; this remarkable book makes a point of keeping the reader grounded (and fully connected) with its characters by making those character seem absolutely flesh-and-blood. Engaging your readers by creating characters they can relate to- that they care deeply about- trumps any out-of-this-world, can-you-believe-it plot, any day of the year- at least as far as creating a lasting and memorable book is concerned. That’s what I mean by "ordinary."

Here’s another example. Back in the 1920-30’s, there was a writer whose novel sold in the millions, at a time when a million sold was really something. In his era he was Steven King, Dean Koontz and John Grisham all rolled into one.

His name? Why, none other than S.S. Van Dine, of course.

Who, you say? Well, my point exactly. In fact, he was once quoted as saying that "the plot’s the thing," so of course that was his main focus. His novels had all the twists and turns of a first-class roller coaster, with developments so startling that readers would actually sit up in bed in astonishment over something they never saw coming. Yet for all that clever plotting, his characters were gossamer, ephemeral and ultimately…forgettable, along with his books.

The long-term result of his philosophy of plot over characters? A young writer who emerged at about the same time he did soon eclipsed him, a writer who had a hunch that characters were the main reason for writing a book. That writer’s fist novel, in fact, didn’t have much of a "plot" at all- the characters just sort of wandered around, drinking and fighting among themselves. And in the end, they pretty much ended up right where they had started, with nothing really new or changed. Not much of a plot at all.

The writer? Ernest Hemingway. The novel? The Sun Also Rises.

And oh, he paid close attention to language too, something else S.S. Van Dine didn’t. Hemingway knew that how things were said was as important as what was said, having learned that from his pilgrimages to 
27 rue de Fleurus in Paris, Gertrude Stein's salon.   
Obviously the characters in Hemingway’s book represented Stein’s lost generation, those young men and women who- after living through the horrors of WW1- found life to be empty, devoid of any real meaning. Those were his character’s "ghosts" on a higher plane, what helped Hemingway capture his generation brilliantly. And not only did readers respond, but Hemingway managed to alter the landscape of American literature forever in the process.

Needless to say, with his emphasis strictly on plot, S.S. Van Dine did not.

This attention to characterization is what I was after in An Audience for Einstein. I wanted ordinary characters in the sense that readers would say "I know these people," characters who would suggest plot twists and turns- not sit by meekly and have the plot foisted upon them- characters whose lives spoke to universal themes and issues and concerns.
Writing those first two novels prepared me to achieve that, and gave me the confidence to look at all the notes and false starts I had written over the years to finally sit down and write the book that had eluded me up until then.

Next installment: Are you a plotter or pantser?

Friday, November 22, 2019

That D.O.A. Second Novel

My award-winning published novel:


My second novel was written with the cold calculation of a banker tallying the day’s deposits- with serious purpose, but little emotion other than a tinge of hidden greed. I went through great lengths to make sure the plot was sound and solid, with no voids or structural defects. The characters were similarly drawn, their strengths and flaws well matched to what the plot demanded of them. Every chapter carefully carried its own weight, each one spanning the plot foundation in precise, measured fashion so the structure wouldn’t sag. And in my desire to avoid the ridiculous length of my first novel, I deliberately set a 60,000 word target with all the zeal of a missionary who’s convinced he knows how many souls he has to save to ensure heaven for himself. This novel (I was hoping) would hit it big, thanks to my meticulous preparation.

It all came to nothing.

Perhaps I secretly knew that could be the only result. My characters didn’t flinch, didn’t say a single unnecessary word, didn’t ever do anything out of character or have even one original thought. I wouldn’t allow it. I was guilty of character abuse in the third degree, providing them with just enough air to speak but not enough to breathe. They were convincing automatons, but not people- certainly not ones you would care to care about. Instead of flesh, there was wax; instead of souls, there were springs. And so they smoothly went through their mechanical motions in my mechanical plot, never doing anything wrong in a way that would worry you eventually if you were a parent: damn it, show some resentment, will you? You’re scaring me. Free yourselves from my tyranny!

So what did I learn from this year-long writing exercise? Well, limits, for one thing. There are limits on how controlling you can be towards your characters. They do not respond well to overwhelming external forces; they become compliant in a way real people don’t, spirits crushed and souls drained. What I learned to cherish are those moments when characters bark back at marching orders that are at odds with who they’ve become, fists displayed instead of salutes. Those can be warning signs- ones I ignored in my first novel- but they can also be the first signs of life, a time when you should leap up from your desk chair and cry Eureka! because you just struck gold, my friend. Too much of that, of course, and kiss goodbye your best-laid plans; your characters are going places you probably don’t want to visit, as I discovered when I gave the characters in my first novel free reign and they took things to extremes. Hijacked, and I was to blame.

Your characters must be allowed to suggest some elements of your story, steer the ship once in awhile or they’ll never come alive. Try to wind your story too tight around them, and you’ll have what looks and sounds like genuine characters, but are really just hollow puppets for your plot, soulless beings going through the motions to satisfy their cruel creator. And your book will suffer for the restraint, with opportunities lost and the cart (no matter how brilliantly designed) before the more-important horse.

Creating characters is a balancing act you have to master, one that takes a firm hand against outright mutiny while remaining open to reasonable suggestions your characters might have. A well-crafted story is essential, of course, but characters- it turns out- not only count, they count the most.

Next up: An Audience for Einstein: the early days.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

That Bloated First Novel

My award-winning novel:


Okay, from the beginning then.

My first novel topped out at over 250,000 words. That's not an out-of-this-world number, but for an unknown novelist's first book, it's huge. To my knowledge, unless you're already famous, publishers want reasonable for a first book, not borderline gargantuan. The only genre I'm aware of where you can "get away" with anything that lengthy right from the git-go is Romance, particularly Historical Romance. This was not. And, not surprisingly, most of the comments I received- as flattering as they were about the quality of writing- said something like "length is a problem here." Unless you've written a sure-fire blockbuster (or at least, a publisher thinks you have) size does matter.

So that's the lesson I've learned, and I'm passing it on to you.

Now, as to what specifically pumped up the volume on that book. It all began with my own self-doubt that I could ever write something long enough to be officially classified a novel. I didn't want to write a novelette, or a novella- I wanted to write a novel. So with only a vague idea for a beginning, middle and end (which, admittedly, is more than some novelists start with) I took every opportunity that presented itself to pad the book, thinking (falsely) that I could "fix it" later if length turned out not to be a worry.

Little did I know how difficult it is to cut scenes, sections, and entire chapters when the writing itself is pretty good. Up until then all I had written were a few short stories, where the cuts were shallow and relatively bloodless. But with this, once I began to rewrite, I fell victim to a paralysis of sorts, a fear that the cuts would travel too deep, that I might accidentally slice into the very soul of the book, sever an artery and leave it for dead. And for the life of me I just couldn't tell where the blubber stopped and the book's soul began. Nearly every hard-fought word seemed positively essential.

So, my answer to that was; take out only the most superficial. Instead of the liposuction the manuscript needed, all it got was a nip and tuck before I sent it on its merry way. It might have made me feel better but the patient still had more than a few nagging problems.

Part of it was that lack of confidence that drove me to force-feed the book in the first place. And what an awful diet it was! People and places that were meant to have only brief, supporting roles were described in loving detail. Anything a character said that suggested an interesting digression by another character was followed, a tortuous road that I (somehow) managed to eventually turn back to the story at hand but only after too many words were spoken. Whole chapters were devoted to the most minor of characters and some new sub-sub-plot they inspired on the fly. If all this had been boring or poorly done, it would have been easy to take an axe to it.

The problem was, I made it all interesting.

The problem is, interesting in itself does not automatically confer a good story.

I know there are writers with the opposite problem, who do write a novelette when they wanted a novel. I have a few 50 page "novels" of my own somewhere around here. What I think the problem is with these "shorties" is that the story isn't hefty enough to carry it far. Like expecting a bantamweight- no matter how good- to go the distance against a heavyweight, it just ain't gonna happen. You can usually sense that around page 40 or 45 or so. The foot speed is gone, the jabs not as crisp, and before you know it your story's sitting in the corner, eyes glazed and out of breath, unable to answer the bell for the next round.

It's a pretty lousy feeling, especially after getting your hopes up. And sometimes you just don't know if your story is the champion you thought you had until you start to write it.

At least those shorties don't consume years, like my first novel did.

My bloated novel, on the other hand, had a story that lent itself quite well to novel length. What I did was ruin it by not trusting or believing it. So now- knowing better, and with a few more bouts under my belt- I'm about ready toss that novel into the gym, where I'll get it in shape to be a contender. Now that the demarcation between book soul and mere excess is clearer to me, that first novel still has a good chance of being a champion.

Next time up: my second novel, that perfectly executed writing exercise that I was convinced had all the elements of a successful novel- only it didn't.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Who Is This Guy?

My award-winning novel:

Hi. I'm Mark Wakely. My first published novel, An Audience for Einstein, was just reissued by DartFrog Books. It took over two years to write- part time, of course. Before that, I wrote two others novels that went nowhere, and want to start these entries by discussing those early efforts since more than anything they make this blog possible.

My first novel was a bloated beast I undertook with great trepidation. It became bloated because like many new authors who have never attempted a novel, I wasn't sure I could go the distance. Novels are really, really long, I knew; novels are complex and convoluted; novels quite often defy completion, particularly when written by nervous neophytes like me who wonder if they can even imagine the finish line, much less cross it.

To say I underestimated myself would be an understatement.

What I discovered instead is that, given half a chance and a writer's over-eagerness, just about any novel can mushroom to unhealthy proportions with too many spontaneous sub-plots, tempting tangents and minor characters who refuse to relinquish the stage. There were times when I felt like a helpless observer as I wrote, the word count racing upward to nose-bleed heights, the final chapter I had in mind growing more and more dim and distant instead of brighter at the end of the proverbial tunnel. When it finally (mercifully) did come to an end, I felt wrung out, depleted and depressed. Fortunately, because I write my first drafts with care the rewrites went much faster, although the patient hardly lost any weight since I was still overwhelmed by my towering creation and wasn't sure what to cut exactly or even where to begin. So, all I could do is stoically bundled it up and send that not-so-little piggy out to market to see what "they" had to say about it.

To my great surprise I received some very kind words, if no publication offers.

Honestly, those kind words floored me. I had always assumed I would bravely paper my walls with cold, impersonal rejection slips so I could gaze at them smugly years later when I was an enormous success. What I got instead were mainly typed or handwritten notes telling me no thanks in either the most apologetic way or the most encouraging, as in the totally unexpected "please send us your next book."

Up to that point, I wasn't sure there would ever be a "next book."

So, I came closer than I thought I would with that one. Why? Because the two main characters I had created were alive. It was their heartbeats I heard then, and still hear, and which makes wading back into that quagmire to rescue them worthwhile someday.

And then there was a second book.

This time, I thought, I'll be smart. I'll be prepared. I'll have this book in such a tight strangle hold it won't dare expand without my explicit, written permission. I read all kinds of "How To Write" books and magazines (more about them in future entries) and wrote a detailed plot. (Oh hell, it was a manifesto, that's what it was.) I even workshopped it (an experience in itself; more about that later) as I methodically stamped out each measured chapter. After all that planning and preparation the final manuscript that emerged was almost an afterthought but I hit my goal almost precisely: 60,000 words. Never mind that the characters were D.O.A. or that the plot skeleton was not only showing, it was all bleached bones; I had set a goal and reached it. I was finally a disciplined writer who would never, ever again be dictated to by his material.

I sent the book out twice, got two printed rejection slips without any kind words (which I did 
not put on my wall) and then filed the manuscript into the deepest, darkest desk drawer I had, never to see the light of day again.

But wow, was I disciplined. As if that's all a writer needs to succeed.

More next time about my first try at being a novelist.