BACK TO BASICS: WRITERS’ BOOT CAMP PART II

by Miko Johnston

In any story, the beginning sets up the problem that must be solved and the ending solves it. How that happens comprises the plot, which plays out in the middle chapters. A good plot is like a good EKG, with lines that zigzag up and down. When tension and stakes increase, the line climbs upward. You never want a flat line; in matters of the heart and story, it indicates death.

In my last post we reviewed the three basic ways to begin a story as well as some techniques to get those opening pages written. What if you’ve gotten that far but haven’t moved forward?

Many writers get stuck after writing the opening chapter. A common problem is trying to perfect that opening. As a bone fide Brooklynite, I can say fuhgeddaboudit.

Nothing will hang you up more than trying to go over and over that first chapter, endlessly fine-tuning it before moving on. You can’t. You shouldn’t. Put it aside and keep going. Finish your first draft. Once you know how the story unfolds, go back and figure out how to fix the beginning.

Do you have a beginning and an end in mind? Then build your story like a bridge – set down firm spans on both ends and connect them in the middle. I wrote my first novel that way, working the plot backward from the final chapters and forward from the earlier chapters. Mysteries often fall into this category; you know the crime (beginning) and whodunnit (the reveal at the end). Work your clues in both directions until they meet in the middle.

What if you don’t know where the story is going? Many writers prefer to wait for the muse to whisper in their ear rather than draft an outline. In that case, why not choose a path and follow it to its logical conclusion? Think of it like those maze puzzles – a path may lead to a dead end, but then you’ll know it’s a dead end and try another path, eventually finding the one that leads you in the right direction. Everything you write will help guide you to The End. Two caveats, though:

-If you have a beginning and only a vague idea of the end, you’ll want to have enough to get you well into the middle before you tackle a novel, otherwise you may never reach your destination. My second book took over four years to write; I meandered through two plots I ultimately discarded, then conceived a third one worth pursuing.

Some writers feel as soon as it’s on the page, it’s permanent. Not so. In my second novel I found a way to solve a plot problem with a birthday surprise for my heroine, but I’d already given her a different birth date in my first novel. How could I get away with that? It took a week to realize an easy solution: neither book had been published yet, so I could change the date in book one to fit my new development.

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Are you stuck in the middle?  Writing your middle chapters, but unsatisfied with them? Fortunately, sit-ups and planks aren’t required.

Ways to improve a weak middle:

1 – Always keep your genre and theme in mind.

Your genre can shape how your story unfolds. A humorous cozy should be light and fun. Noir should be steeped in atmosphere. Use your theme or log line as the foundation on which you build your plot, and a guide to move it along.

2 – Take advantage of the multiple uses of dialogue

It can move the story forward, briefly slow the pace, draw our focus to a plot point or clue like a camera close-up, inform us of character, or foreshadow a later development.  Dialogue tags like Jon said identify the speaker, but by using a bit of action – Jon tossed his keys on the table – you also add movement. Finally, consider how your characters speak and what they don’t say.

3 – Keep the plot, and your character, active.

Not enough action will bog down the pace, but action means more than shooting and fighting, or running after suspects. Action can be physical or mental. Action is your character DOING whatever it takes to reach her goal.

4 – Have at least one mid-point crisis.

A good story always launches with a crisis and climaxes with a bigger one. Crises generate tension, which keep the middle from sagging. Introduce sources of conflict, whether leads in the investigation that fall through, the death of a material witness or ally, or a setback in the hero’s goal. Just make sure the crisis fits the story’s momentum and doesn’t exceed your climax scene.

5 – Avoid dumping in too much backstory.

Whether you’re trying to bring your character to life or writing a sequel, you need some backstory, just not too much. What are you trying to accomplish with the information? Insight into the character’s past that would explain why she does what she does? A reminder in a sequel of an event in a previous book? Ask yourself three questions:

            Is this information necessary for this story?

            Does it help to define the character or support the plot?

            Does it move the story forward?

If no, leave it out. If yes, then keep it brief. I read a few series and find the best of them will remind readers of characters and events with a line rather than a paragraph.

6 – Watch out for repetition.

We all know best-selling authors of series who, after a dozen or more books, begin padding their sequels with repetition. Just like unnecessary detail will bog down your story, so will repeating events or dialogue over and over and over and….. If you’ve just written a scene where an action occurs, your character doesn’t have to repeat this information to another character in the following scene. She told him what happened or words to that effect will suffice. If we need a reminder of what transpired later in the story, keep it brief.

7 – Reward and surprise us.

What’s worse, a story that’s totally depressing or totally predictable? Trick question; it’s a tie. Even the most dystopic stories must have moments of lightness. Whatever your character’s goal is – trying to solve the murder, find true love, succeed in business or win the battle – mete out some successes along with the setbacks. Lace in enough twists and surprises to hint how the story might end without giving the ending away.

This is particularly true in mysteries. Setting up a good red herring can be tricky since readers expect them. They’re delicious when they surprise us, but like all fish, if they’re mishandled they stink. As much as I enjoyed Girl On A Train, it was obvious who the murderer was a hundred pages before the book’s conclusion. Nothing’s more disappointing than knowing without a doubt exactly how the book will end. You presume the detective will solve the murder, but still want the pleasure of discovering HOW it happens, especially if the manner is unexpected. Just make sure that the reward or surprise is rooted in the story. Don’t plop something in for convenience. Weave a subtle thread back to earlier chapters to set up the surprise properly, or base the reward on something she wants or needs, even if she doesn’t know it.

8 – Keep the dialogue and prose in proportion.

Do you have enough dialogue? Too much? What about sensory detail, setting, character descriptions? There’s no magic formula but we don’t always consider the balancing act. Rereading your story, looking for something you don’t always consider, gets you looking at your pages in a different way. You may catch something that’s not working, even trigger an idea or solution. 

9 – Keep the middle in proportion.

I am not partial to using formulas for writing books (and have the luxury of not having to rely on them). However, if you’ve written several chapters and are unsure how the story is progressing, consider the percentage of pages dedicated to the middle versus the beginning and end. Although not a precise measurement, the opening, from Once upon a time to the inciting incident that launches your story, should comprise about a quarter of the total number of pages. So should the final act, from the climax scene to The End. That means the middle should be roughly half of the story. If your opening chapters comprise sixty pages and you’re up to page 300 but nowhere near the climax, your middle is probably bloated. If your middle is proportionally light, flesh it out or shorten the rest.

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Still stuck? If you’re a visual person, try charting out your story, or as much of it as you know, on some kind of diagram. I’ve used line graphs, with peaks for crisis points and valleys for slower parts. I’ve used box charts, where I divide a sheet of paper into sixteen boxes – four for the beginning, eight for the middle and four for the end. In each box I briefly describe what’s happening at that point of the story. This shows me how the plot is developing as well as the balance between the acts. Since I write historical fiction, I also parallel historical events with my characters’ lives. If you write mysteries or thrillers, especially the cat and mouse variety, you can chart your hero’s progress against your villain’s actions.

If you’ve conceived some scenes but not an entire chapter, write it in chunks and assemble it later. If you prefer working with a hard copy, write the individual scenes, conversations or actions, leaving ample white space between them. Print them, cut them into sections and assemble them as you think works best. Move everything around until you have the order you want, and insert blank paper between the sections that need connecting. Pencil in notes about what you need to connect the passages. Use this to guide you through completing the chapter, or flesh out other chapters. It moves you forward. If you don’t like the direction, at least you’ll know another dead end to avoid. This can be done on the computer if you prefer working that way.   

Another technique that has proven helpful is to change ‘jobs’; instead of writing prose, think of yourself as a movie director. Can you visualize the scene you’re trying to create? How would you direct your characters? If there’s something missing in the scene, get input from the set dresser or wardrobe coordinator. As authors we tend to see our work from on high. Peering at it from a different angle gives us another perspective. Even closing your eyes and envisioning the words you’ve written (or listening to them being read) will make them pop and come alive, or hint at why they don’t.

Consider writing free-form dialogue, which I’ve described in this earlier post. This gives your characters an opportunity to speak for themselves. Sort of like the director asking the actors to ad lib their lines. If that doesn’t work, you may not know your characters well enough to ‘speak’ for them. In that case:

-Play the “who would I cast as…?” game – think of people, either famous or those you’ve known, and match them with your characters. Consider why you chose that person to help you flesh the character out.

-Try to describe your key characters in a word or brief phrase, then look for signs of commonality and discord between them.

-Define them with an image. For example, think of type fonts as a logo. If you were to assign a different font for each of your characters, which would represent them best?  

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Once you’ve written an attention-grabbing beginning and a turn-the-page middle, you need to reward the reader with a satisfying ending. In the final installment, we’ll explore what that means and how to achieve it.

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of three novels in the historical saga A Petal In The Wind, as well as several short stories. She is currently completing the fourth book in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

A “Ghostly” Post

by Jill Amadio

Inhabiting your characters’ heads is great fun. You can make up anything, criminal or law-abiding, and create whatever you wish as to their mental, physical, and emotional health. Conversely, inhabiting a real person’s head as a ghost in order to write their life story as a biography or an autobiography, is an entirely different challenge. No nasty habits revealed, no odd scenes to upset a reader. No puzzles to sort out unless one is writing an unauthorized biography. Ah, then their life can become far more interesting, an open book, pardon the pun. Gathering differing opinions from relatives and friends, researching from birth, yes, then the writer is given more latitude. With a cautious eye to libel, naturally.

Hired to write both biographies and autobiographies, 16 in fact, and all but one at the client’s behest, is fascinating. What interests me these days, though, as I finish polishing one such tome, is whether stepping into their shoes is informing and influencing my own fiction, the mysteries I write.  I’ve come to the conclusion that because I am constantly learning about people, places, and an enormous variety of subjects I am broadening my own knowledge and experiences while delving mercilessly into my clients’ lives.

I have been a cop, a lawyer, a businessman, a CEO, a diplomat, a realtor, a criminal, a motivational speaker, a body builder, a helicopter inventor, a movie star’s wife, a falsely-accused woman on trial, and others. All real people.   I have listened to and written about moments that brought me to tears, to laughter, and to an appreciation of courage, fortitude and, in my opinion, to occasional greatness. There are moments of modesty in some of these books, written and printed exclusively for the family instead of the public, that are appreciated, with grandchildren learning of their grandparents’ valor or brilliance, for instance, instead of regarding them as old fossils with nothing interesting to say.

Writing the first-person story for a retired U.S. Ambassador has taken me into the inner workings of the State Department; third world countries when America first established a consulate amid riots; the personal habits of a benign dictator, and a few dangerous incidents. One of my favorite biographies I felt privileged to write is of a woman who rose from extreme poverty to owning a casino, one of so many typical dreams realized. Another, of the first policewoman in a now-famous town in northern California. I was hired to write a true crime but after it was finished the surviving victim decided not to publish. I once held preliminary meetings in Laguna Beach with a murderer (currently serving life) until his gave the job to his best friend, a writer, before being indicted.

One biography written under my own name, published in nine countries and that took me to Germany five times, is the life of a World War II Luftwaffe pilot. This one I at first declined because my father was in the Royal Air Force during that war. But the publisher was persuasive and generous and I was intrigued enough to want to learn first-hand of the opposite side.

Not long ago and with several non-fiction projects under my belt I was hired to ghostwrite a novel. I was thinking at the time of writing a mystery series. After persuading the client to add a couple of murders, I created a forensic accountant and turned the novel into a cozy. I can barely add two and two so books on banking and CPAs required quite a lot of study, as did notes on the members of the Russian mafia who reside in Beverly Hills (they really do), and a few descriptions and tidbits about small planes. Happily, I was left alone most of the time to create characters, settings, criminal activity, and plots. When I finished practicing writing a mystery, thanks to this wonderful client who self-published on amazon, I began my own series.

Juggling non-fiction and fiction by writing about people’s lives, and in between times creating mysteries, can be a rewarding if sometimes angst-ridden experience. I could write a book…

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Jill Amadio is from Cornwall, UK, but unlike her amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, she is far less grumpy. Jill began her career as a reporter in London (UK), then Madrid (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, and New York. She is the ghostwriter of 14 memoirs, and wrote the Rudy Valle biography, “My Vagabond Lover,” with his wife, Ellie. Jill writes a column for a British mystery magazine, and is an audio book narrator. She is the author of the award-winning mystery, “Digging Too Deep.” The second book in the series, “Digging Up the Dead,” was released this year. The books are based in Newport http://www.jillamadio.com

Books: Digging Too Deep, Digging Up the Dead

Non-Fiction: My Vagabond Lover: An Intimate Biography of Rudy Vallee; Gunther Rall: A Memoire, Luftwaffe Ace and NATO General

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This post was submitted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin

Leftovers

This writing trail of thought started the other night when hubby and I watched the movie, How to Steal a Million, with Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn. We settled on this particular movie because I like looking at Peter, and hubby likes looking at Audrey. That being a point of enjoyment, I nonetheless snarkily(sp) commented several times during the movie that it was a stupid plot and the story moved far too slowly. Hubby didn’t complain at all—Audrey was quite striking, indeed!

Well, the next morning I woke up with a film-cut-like  picture of Peter and Audrey, contorted together in the broom closet(a classic scene in movie history I think). And I wondered why I had that picture in my mind, given I’d complained about the movie?

Some background information about me is, for some of the best novels I’ve ever read, or movies I’ve seen, an actual photo-type image remains with me that I can call up into my mind’s eye. And often they popup when waking up. It’s more than scenery, or location, or character features, or clothes…but a real photography type snap. There have, of course, been many novels I’ve read, enjoyed, even loved, that did not have mental pictures associated with them. Some examples of ones that did are:

  • Murder on the Orient Express, book and movie(s) dénouement scenes in the dining car, and/or out in the snow. For me, these are classic pictures left behind—and my all time favorite one is of David Suchet.[i]
  • Several real-person pictures of Boo Radley—from the book and the movie To Kill a Mocking Bird. (of course, in the movie, the fantastic actor Robert Duvall may have had something to do with the leftover picture(smile))
  • And a great and fun-filled–even though there’s a murder–picture I can still see is Friendly Farm itself, in Murder at Friendly Farm by Jacqueline Vick, and then another picture from Friendly Farm of Santa in the corn maze ,
  • Miss Marple sitting in her drawing room,
  • The Penguin Pool Murder by Stuart Palmer— a picture inside the New York Aquarium with Hildegarde Withers standing there remains quite vividly with me. (Even though I’ve forgotten “who” actually did the murder and I’ve never been to that aquarium…but what a vivid picture I still have)

These are all wonderful fiction novels and movies, so why after my snarkiness during How to Steal a Million, did I retain such a vivid picture? So I’m thinking there must be some storytelling reason(not just just eye-candy), why that picture from How to Steal a Million remains with me, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

But a more pertinent question remains with me—in my own writing, do I want a real snapshot like picture left behind as one of my goals? Or does that just happen given the nature of the story? Or, or? And all the time? Can you even make leftovers happen?

Despite my advanced age(smile), I am still Pollyannaish[ii] at heart, especially in my reading and movie watching inclinations. As a kid, I hated fairytales with bad endings(which were many it seemed)—and after seeing Bambi at the movie theater as a child, never knowingly watched a children’s Disney film again. Further, if it seems like a dog is going to get killed–won’t read, watch, or finish a book or movie if started. Indeed, hope, happiness, the world goes on unharmed, and bad guys get it in the end (even if in an ironic way) are my cup of tea.

So, after writing all these thoughts out—my answer is YES—I want to leave endearing leftovers. Not just thoughts or emotions, but real snaps that bring a smile to the reader’s face. [iii] Hmmm.

Definitely interested in your thoughts…

Happy Writing Trails!


[i] Just downloaded latest Hercule Poirot by Sophie Hannah, and looking forward to visiting the picture of Hercule(probably David Suchet) in my mind’s eye. FYI from Ecosia search—The Killings at Kingfisher Hill the latest Hercule by Sophie Hannah https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie_Hannah She’s written 4 so far https://sophiehannah.com/

[ii] Pollyanna is a 1913 novel by American author Eleanor H. Porter, considered a classic of children’s literature. (again, per my search engine Ecosia)

[iii] Back to another review of Never Forgotten to see if maybe there are some leftovers!