Sometimes gratitude is not just for those wonderful things and people who come our way. Sometimes gratitude results from swallowing a bitter pill. I’m talking about being grateful for mistakes, failures, and bad decisions. I like to believe that these foibles allow us to grow, change, develop empathy, and become better people.
This is also true of characters we create in fiction and real people we write about in nonfiction. The adage “write what you know,” comes into mind. Stephen King says it best in his book, On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft:
“You undoubtedly have your own thoughts, interests, and concerns, and they have arisen, as mine have, from your experiences and adventures as a human being… and you should use them in your work.”
Think about Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, as he wrote about his chosen life in penury in his memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London; and how his experiences led to writing essays and novels (Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Animal Farm) about social injustice.
Novelist Terry McMillan has written about her life experiences, and romances pleasant and heartbreaking, in two novels, Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
Friend and fellow writer Jenny Milchman’s first thriller, Cover of Snow, came about after a frightening experience that happened to her when she was eight years old. The incident gives me chills when I think about it. Her babysitter had told her that he’d planned to kill himself that night when he returned home and that she shouldn't tell anyone. Luckily, she told her parents and they informed the boy’s mother who went into his room and found him with an open bottle of pills. This incident was the foundation for her debut novel many years later.
I wish I could turn back the clock and erase some of my mistakes, but I am grateful they happened because they made me a stronger person. I use some of those experiences to bring depth to my writing. I have yet to find the courage to lay my worst moments down in a novel, even though a few unpleasant and fearful episodes have found their way into my Kate Caraway mysteries.
Last month I compared a story's setting to "icing on a cake." But what about the cake itself? Plotting, structuring, and manipulating the story of a novel is, for me, like making a multi-layer cake.
Step One: Formulate the Idea
Since I am a pantser (a writer who plots by the seat of her pants), I start with an idea, then a first sentence, an image of a character, or a snippet of dialogue. As the story unfolds, much changes as more ideas surface. The plot of my second Kate Caraway mystery, A Two Horse Town, came about when I was daydreaming while driving through the Arkansas county side. Suddenly eighty-two-year-old Ida Springfield appeared and began telling me her story. I had the plot outlined by the end of the week.
Step Two: Check the Direction
Once I know where I'm headed, I take a close look at the plot, subplots, characters, and setting, making sure they complement one another and take up the appropriate amount of the story. The theme (what the story is about) is nailed down in a word or a phrase. Then, in a sentence or two, I follow with the premise (the message I want to convey to the reader).
Here are two examples:
Ernest Hemingway's theme in Old Man of the Sea is courage.
The premise is "a person can be destroyed but not defeated."
The importance of faith is the theme in John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.
The premise is "Owen Meany believes that he God's instrument and Owen sets out to fulfill the fate."
Step Three: Check for Subtleties
I list all the red herrings-maybe even adding one or two-and make sure they don't reveal too much. I also make sure the foreshadowing and backstory moves the plot forward without muddying the waters. Run Dog Run begins with the backstory, but only hints at its effect on the main character. This thread runs through the entire series. It doesn't bog down the main story.
Step Four: Tie Up Loose Ends
Because I plot as I go, I often head in different directions. If I have a scene that goes nowhere, I have to add to it or eliminate it. I look at all my characters. Are they necessary? Does their presence have conclusion? For example, in a work-in-progress, I've introduced a new character. His presence led to an important scene. Then I realized he's barely mentioned again, so I had to bring his presence to conclusion.
Step Five: Check for Originality, and Punch-Up Descriptions
I check for clichés, overused metaphors, and similes, replacing them with my own. Descriptions should be visceral and not mundane.
"The smell of fruitcake hit us in the face like a Christmas nightmare," is more descriptive than "The smell of fruitcake was nauseating."
Or this one: "She forced her feet into a pair of shoes that were too small." That's easy to imagine. But this etches the image into the reader's mind: "Her pudgy feet spilled over a pair of tiny pink pumps-resembling dough rising over the side of a bowl."
Step Six: Check Strong and Weak Words
Writing teacher Jessica Morrell says it best: "Every word in every sentence needs a job. If it doesn't have a job, fire it." This involves shortening dialogue, eliminating unnecessary adverbs and strengthening verbs. It doesn't matter what genre you're writing, your story must have action, suspense, and tense scenes. The scenes should contain the most emphatic words at the end of the sentence. In a scene from Murder at the Driskill, Sydney is chasing a bad guy and finds herself in a dark warehouse.
"I stood between a headless man and a rabbit whose nose twitched to the beat of my pounding heart. Dracula's image reflected off the blade of a guillotine".
Step Seven: Enhancing the Writing
First and last sentences of every scene and chapter should be checked for their strength to keep the reader turning pages. Make sure the transitions are clear.
Here's how chapter one ended and chapter two began in David Baldacci's thriller, The Last Mile:
Staring at the floor now, Skinny Glasses said, "There's been an unexpected development in your case. Your execution's been called off."
He was still dressed in his white jumpsuit with the warning on the back, but something else was missing.
Step Eight: Conduct a Word Hunt
Search for words consistently overused (like, also, when, as, then, just, really), words often misused (doing for going and vice-versa; there, their, or they're; for, of, or from; my or me). Search for words spellcheck can't catch (burden and bourbon). I made this mistake several times in one of my stories; the editor didn't catch it either.
Once these writing steps are complete, I have a working draft. It's good enough to share with my writers' critique group, a beta reader, proofreader, copy editor and line editor, but not ready for public consumption.
If you want to make a cake that will win a baking contest, you have to put it through several trials and tests. If you want to see your book on a bookstore shelf, you have to do the same. You can't have your cake and eat it too, but you can write your book and have it published.