Book Review: The Novel Writer’s Blueprint

Paperbackbookstanding-226x300I've got a new book for all you fledgling novel writers out there.  

It is called The Novel Writer's Blueprint: Start Writing Your Novel Today, by Kevin T. Johns.  I discovered the book when Kevin emailed me a wonderful query asking if I'd be interested in reviewing it. Since I'd just published a rant post about how often I got approached by people with terrible queries, I leapt at the chance.  

Kevin sent me the book, I read it, and now I'm reviewing it.

I like this book quite a bit.  It lays out in five steps the system that Kevin believes will allow you to write your novel.  (The genesis of the five-step system was Kevin's own struggle to write his first novel.  It took him eight years–and he swore he would not let that happen again.  Can you relate?)

The five steps are as follows:

1. Genre Selection–Learn to harness the power of genre.

2. Story Structure–Select a story structure already proven to work with readers.

3. Puzzle Work--Piece together your scenes into an indispensable beat-sheet.

4. Preparatory Regimen–Sharpen your writing skills.

5. Running the Marathon–Implement protocols to stay on track and beat the biggest challenges.

Not mentioned in this rundown is his introductory chapter, which has a lot of good information in it as well.

My favorite chapters were #2 and #4.  I love #2 on story structure, because I'm a story geek, and Kevin has a film background so he's well versed in various structures and he presents them clearly.  Chapter #4 covers a good collection of tips for writing, such as timed writing, mind mapping and brainstorming.  Kevin also mentions a technique called "Writing Down the Page" which it turns out I do all the time, but didn't have a name for.  It's when you write a sketchy outline of your chapter so you have the general flow down.

This book is perfect for the first-time novelist who wants a picture of the road ahead before launching onto the journey.  And seasoned novelists will find a few tips of use as well.  Check it out, guys.

Do you have a favorite book on novel writing?  Please share! 

Two Crucial Writing Tools

Sometimes the tools I use as a writer are so integral to my work that it doesn't occur to me to write about them.

Even though writing about writing is part of what I do.

Tool Number One: The Book Journal

Case in point: On Saturday, the local writing group I co-lead hied ourselves off to a mountain cabin for a snowy (yay) day-long mini-retreat.  (Thanks, Renee, for the use of your wonderful place.)  In the course of our discussions that day, the idea of keeping a journal or some kind of notebook in which to write about your novel (not on it) came up.

And apparently, I was the only one who did this.  Which flabbergasted me, because I could not live without this tool.  I'm constantly scribbling notes about my characters, plot, setting and so on.  Thoughts I have when I wake up in the middle of the night but don't have time to put into play.  An idea for the end of the story.  And so on.

Let me repeat: I could not live without some kind of notebook to corrall ongoing ideas for my novel. But it's so much a part of my process I never think about mentioning it.  I just thought everyone did this.

If you don't do this, I recommend you start.   You'll find it a wonderful way to get your brilliance out of your mind and onto paper when you don't have time to actually work on your book.  Along the same lines, another thing I sometimes do is open a "notes file" on the computer in which to dump ideas about a project.  This might work as well or better for you.

By the way, John Steinbeck kept journals about his ongoing writing projects. You can read about one of them here on Amazon.

So that's tool number one.

Tool Number Two: The Hold File

This tool also came out in discussion on Saturday: the hold file.   I create one for each project and label it as such: Hold for Blue Sky, Hold for Emma Jean, and so on.  Then, when I delete something I copy and paste it to the hold file.  This is handy in case you want to put something you deleted back in.

Though mostly that never happens.  But what does happen is that the hold file allows you to feel okay about deleting stuff, because you know that should you mourn that fabulous sentence too much, you can always retreive it.  I'm working on revising an old short story and I've cut five pages from it–all of which are safely stored in my hold file so that I can access them when I panic.

So those are my two crucial tools that it never occurs to me to mention.  What are yours?  Tell us about them in the comments–it helps other writers so much.

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.

Novel Writing: The Remake Your Life Plot


I'm about three chapters into a new novel and the other day when I was making some notes on themes and events to come, the thought occurred to me that I'm writing a Remake Your Life plot.

I made that name up, but these kinds of plots are staples of women's fiction.  For various reasons, the protagonist's life falls apart, usually in unexpected ways, and then she has to go about finding a new one. 

As I made notes and pondered, a rough basic outline of this kind of story came to me and I jotted it down.  Here it is:

1.  Everything falls apart, and/or the protagonist loses everything she's held dear.

2. She has no choice but to start over again, often in a new place.

3.  There, she's a stranger in a strange land.  She has to navigate in these strange new surroundings and it is often puzzling.

4.  But slowly, she settles in.  And bit by bit things begin to go well.

5. However, there is still more to be learned.  Any lingering issues left over from the problems at the start will now rear their heads to be solved.

6. The heroine's actions come back around to haunt her, good and bad. 

7.  The choices the heroine has made in the second half of the book are now what truly count because these are the choices she has made as her new, wiser self.

8. The heroine uses these new found traits and skills to manage the final crisis.

9.  Often, but not always, she returns home triumphant.

This is also a variant, of course, on the heroine's journey.

What do you think?  What did I miss?  What did I get right?  Have you ever written a lot like this?  Guys, why aren't there more novels with plots like this for men? 

I'd love to hear your opinion.

*Don't forget to sign up for my bi-weekly newsletter.  In return, you'll get a free Ebook called Jumpstart Your Book with a Vision Board.  It will help you envision plots like the one discussed here!

**Photo of board game by Will Folsom.