Do You Need to Return to the Basics in Your Writing?

File0001530883609After all the hoopla over the publication of Emma Jean, (which really is ongoing, I'm just still getting used to it being a part of my life) I returned to my WIP with great joy.  Nothing makes me happier than working regularly on fiction.  I may have mentioned this once or twice over the course of this blog's life.

And yet.  When I re-read my WIP, I realized I had some problems.  Like, BIG problems.  Plot and story problems.  Huge holes in the backstory (because, um, I didn't know it).  Characters I didn't get.  And so on.  I had written about 180 pages.  Up to page 70, the work was fairly solid.  But from then on, I was pantsing like crazy, and it showed.

Concurrently, I've been teaching my Get Your Novel Written Now class.One thing I harp on talk about a lot in that class is going back to the basics.  As in, novel writing is a long-haul project, and odds are good you're going to get lost somewhere along the way.  When you do, your best bet is to go back to the basics.

The fundamentals of fiction.

I took my own advice.   Read a book on outlining and thought deep thoughts about plot and story.  Applied those deep thoughts to the loose outline I had partially created.  Watched the story come back to life.  Danced a jig.

All of which reminded me of the benefits of going back to the basics.

Perhaps you need to, also.  Are you stalled in an area of your novel or memoir?  Then turn your attention backwards.  Let's review the fundamentals of fiction and then you can figure out which area you need to return to and focus on.  And, please, bear in mind, mention "fundamentals of fiction" to ten different novelists and you'll get ten different lists of fundamentals.  But, over the years, I've researched and thought and researched some more and boiled them down to these five.  You can quibble if you want.  Go ahead, do it.  I'll be happy to debate it with you.  But these are the five that make sense to me, so I'm going with it.

  • Character
  • Story
  • Setting
  • Theme
  • Style

Let's look at them one by one, and think how paying some more attention to these fundamentals may help boost your WIP.

1.  Character.  The starting point of story, to me, is character, as in characters in conflict.  Characters who have real desires, needs and fears.  There are so many different ways you can get to know your characters through filling out dossiers and histories (a bunch of them are mentioned here.  Do you know your characters?  Did you take time to find out about them in depth before you started writing?  If not, maybe its time to do that now. 

2.  Story.  Story is what happens in your novel.  Plot is how you arrange it for the reader.  Well, anyway, that's one defnition.  There's a ton of others, but for our purposes today, you could do worse than to think about it that way.  Do you know where you're going in your story?  Do you need to? (Some do some don't.) If you're unclear, perhaps you need to do some outlining.

3.  Setting.  Where the novel takes place, duh, and also so much more–weather, time, the things your characters surround themselves with.   Sometimes when I'm writing and something isn't quite right, I look at setting.  It can make an enormous difference if you're in the wrong place. 

4.  Theme.  Broadly, what your story is about.  I'm a fan of the it-will-come-out-as-you-write school of them and premise, because thinking about it makes my head feel like it will explode.  (I find this somewhat hard to believe, but in all the years I've written this blog, I've never written a post about theme.  Can you tell it's not my strong suit?  I think I better put this topic on my future blog post list, just to challenge myself.)

5.  Style.   Breathe a sigh of relief–this fundamental of fiction is not something you need to fuss about too much while you still working on the initial drafts of your novel.  Style is how you put words together on the page, and much of it comes at the end, when you check over you use of commas, choose strong verbs, and so on.  HOWEVER, you can train yourself to make good writing style choices as you write, and this is a good idea.

It is my belief that you have the novel writer's intution and you'll know which fundamental you need to go back to do and ponder if you get stuck.  I know and love my characters well, for instance, but I knew I needed some crucial parts of their backstory that would tie directly to my plot.  It can feel like you're wasting time when you take time to go back to the basics, but it will pay off for you in the end.

I promise.

So, tell me–which basic do you need to focus on ? Or is everything going along swimmingly for you? Either way, please share in the comments.

***Struggling with a writer's block that feels deep and scary and not something that can be dealt with by going back to the basics?  I love helping writers get back on track.  Go here to read about my services. 

Photo by mconnors.

What a Writer Does: Shawn Mullins 2.0

Yesterday, I wrote about attending a private performance by Shawn Mullins.


I wrote about how, at every concert that means anything to me, at some point early on I get a thrill through the very core of me that means I'm connecting to the music in a profound way.  That thrill is the same impulse that motivates my creativity and so its no surprise that I find myself wanting to write about it.  In that moment, I'm suddenly hyper-aware of how much I'm enjoying the moment, which paradoxically shifts me out of the moment if I'm not careful.

But here's the deal: this is, again, what a writer does.  As soon as I realized that the concert was touching me in a deep place and that I was going to write about it, I started to shape the narrative in my head.  I made a mental note of what he wore and scanned the stage again to imprint the visual in my brain.  Phrases and words started flowing in my mind.  This is usually the point where I'd pull out my journal, or in a pinch, my Iphone, and start taking notes.  But I was in a dark room and couldn't do that, so the notes were mental.   And so I'm thinking:

–How am I going to shape this story?  Is it better to set the stage, start with the build-up, why we were there, describe going in?  Or should I emply a mise-en-scene method and start in the middle of the action?

–What exact words do I use to describe him and the setting so that it will come to life?

–How on earth am I going to remember all this without writing it down?

But beyond that, I was excited because Shawn Mullins is at heart a writer's writer, and encountering someone like that always inspires me.  Some of the themes of his life are themes that I hold dear. As a young man, he lived in his van and traveled around the country, writing in his journal.  I'm a lifelong journal writer myself, and feel a kinship with anyone who gets ideas from journaling.  And Mullins also didn't wait to be rescued, one of Christine Kane's favorite expressions.  By this she means he didn't wait for an agent or a record label to anoint him.  When he couldn't get signed with a big label, he created his own, made his own CDs and sold them out of the back of the van.  More and more, I'm realizing that we need to take the responsibility for success into our own hands.

So those are some writerly thoughts upon seeing a performance that inspired me.  What about you?  Have you been inspired by music to write something? 

*The very cool photo is of an electric blues guitar, which is not really in the same ilk as Mullins' acoustic schtick, but hey, we're talking about musical inspiration in general here, right?  The image is by tvvoodoo and I got it at Everystockphoto.


What A Writer Does: Shawn Mullins Private Performance

Monday, I got an email.  I and a guest were invited to a private show at the KINK Bing Live Performance Lounge.  I'd actually forgotten that I'd signed up for the chance to get invited to concerts at the lounge, but was thrilled to take part of Tuesday afternoon off and drive downtown to see Shawn Mullins perform.


For those of you who don't live in Portland, KINK is a "heritage" radio station.  This means it has been around forever, broadcasting with the same format and call letters throughout the years.  KINK has always been a supporter of musicians and music in a huge variety.  It has also been my station of choice forever.  If you come to my house, the radio in the kitchen is on, and it is playing KINK.  (I'm probably one of the last humans on earth who is devoted to radio.)  Recently KINK was sold to a local company and they moved the headquarters downtown and created a spiffy new performance lounge.

So, yesterday, fewer than 20 of us stood in line at the stage door on a downtown street, waiting to get in.  We were issued Standing Room Only tickets, and watched as groups of people carrying swag bags were ushered into the lounge ahead of us.  They had been upstairs at a wine reception, no doubt a meet and greet with Mullins, (who I think was flown in just for this gig, as he's not performing anywhere locally) and were clearly people of some importance to the station–potential advertisers and clients, no doubt. 

After the important people got in, we entered and were told to stand at the back.  It is a small, intimate theater–maybe five or six rows of about nine seats on a lower level, four or so more rows on an upper level and behiind that the standing room.  We all milled about until the organizers realized it was 4 PM and some of the important folks were still upstairs drinking.  They told us to go ahead and take seats anywhere we wanted.  So we grabbed seats in the third row, front and center with a direct line of vision to the stage. 

And once Mullins took the stage, it was like being in a large living room with him.  Fantastic.  KINK's music director, Brad Dolbeer, talked to him a bit about Mullins' new album, Light You Up (click here to read a little about it)and then he started playing, beginning with Twin Rocks, Oregon, an ode to the ghost of Richard Brautigan, a literary folk hero in these parts, and continuing on through Beautiful Wreck, Lullabye and some tunes from the upcoming release I wasn't as familiar with.

Wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a signature felt hat, Mullins tuned his guitar (quoting John Prine: "I tune because I care") and chatted a little about the stories behind the songs.  Twin Rocks, Oregon was taken directly from a journal entry back in the days when he was living in his van ("like Jewel only she looked a lot better than me"), and Lullabye, his break-through hit, which was based on a story a young woman told him at a Chinese restaurant and open-mike spot in Hollywood.  I was totally taken with this guy and this performance, probably because A. he is a storyteller and B. his work is so writerly, because of the whole storytelling thing.  Since I've been visiting Nashville regularly, I've grown greatly enamored of the whole singer-songwriter thing, and Mullins definitely falls into that category. He's an old-fashioned singer, to my mind, the kind who evokes a life where unexpected encounters turn into precious moments.

There's a thing that happens to me when I'm at a performance.  If a concert is any good, there's a moment when I get a thrill through my very being.  It is a being present kind of moment, where I'm one with the music and the lyrics and the whole experience.  I'm in love with the moment and the world, which is the exact same feeling that a good writing session gives me.  And then I realize I want to capture it and write about it.  Because this is what a writer does.  A writer experiences things, processes them, and returns home to write about them.  A writer falls in love with the world so that he or she can explain it to others.

More on this tomorrow in Part Two of this post.  And you'll be able to see a video of the performance here, I think as early as this afternoon.

No, I didn't get to take a photo of him.  The picture of Sean Mullins is from Daniel C. Bentley, taken in Georgia in 2009.  Got it from Wikpedia and it is used under Creative Commons 3.0 license. The other photo is my sideways picture of my ticket, taken with my Iphone, about the only way I ever take pictures anymore.