The Step by Step Guide to Writing a Novel that Kicks Ass

September 12, 2009

“Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook” by Donald Maass. Get it. Love it. Live it.

Practical, effective, explains the reasons behind the do/don’ts to help you avoid not only common beginner mistakes but really polish what you’ve got to make it thrilling and meaningful.

My only issue with it was that I didn’t always agree that the examples were effective because some of the examples didn’t follow his own advice! He mentions being specific but in his pitch example he has vague “dangerous cargo” and something like ‘must make an important decision.’ Same with the first line/last line list… I thought it was a trick question, that he was giving ineffective lines and on the next page he would show some ways to transform them because I found them average at best. Admittedly, none were specificly sci-fi/fantasy and I’m a hugely biased geek for those genres so it may just be me. Still, I went to the bestseller shelf a few weeks ago, only a few were my genre, read the first paragraph of every book, was was much more captivated by what was there.

Additional writing resources

“The Fire in Fiction” by Donald Maass. An excellent guide to building tension, with (mostly) practical prompts at the end of each chapter. This is more than just a ‘do/don’t’ book. He shows you what works, explains why it works, and then goes a step further to show how and why breaking the rules can work equally well.

Absolute Write – This bottomless writing resource includes a plethora of articles in addition to a forum frequented by writers of all shapes and sizes (bestselling novelists, newbie screenwriters, freelancers, variety of genres).

A place to find competant beta readers and get your own reading material as well. I’ve found some seriously grade A stories, diamonds in the rough just needing some editing to make them shine…can’t wait to see them on the shelves (:

My writing ability has skyrocketed since critiqueing others. There’s just something about seeing ineffective techniques in someone else’s work that really clarifies them in your own. I had no idea how redundant I was being nor how confusing my fruit basket of characters was. It’s amazing to see someone’s work brighten as they edit…now it can be frustrating to read books from the library because I can’t tell the author how I feel or what I think might work better ;p

Plus it’s just nice to come to a community of writers after spending hours locked to no one but the keyboard.

Then there are, of course, good ol’ writing classes and workshops. I have to thank my English degree for something šŸ˜‰

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Reader Involvement

July 19, 2009

Video games one up books because by their very nature, the player is involved. While I read a lot growing up, when I think back on the stories that really affected me… I think about a lot of video games. I miss Zoe Castillo from Dreamfall like missing a best friend. I still laugh over getting double-crossed by a dancer in Skies of Arcadia. I’m playing through Metal Gear Solid and the dialog drips with delicious tension. Every smart ass comment Snake makes about the situation they put him in–I’m there, literally I’m sneaking around getting shot at ;p

When writing novels, we want to get the reader involved as much as possible. You can break the wall of text and grab the reader through multimedia but for most of us beginning writers that’s not practical. We don’t have the artistic skill, connections or funding to develop something that extensive. We’ve just got a word processor and our imagination.

Instead we focus on vivid characters that a reader can understand–better if they can relate to them. We suggest sympathetic antagonists who meet frequently with the protagonist. But there is a way to take it a step further. It’s tricky and I’m working over in my mind how best to achieve it in the current WIP.

Let the reader know something the characters don’t. Let the characters misinterpret each other. Make the reader want to jump in there and say ‘but, if you only knew….!’

Sounds easy, right? The trick is to avoid coming off as contrived.

In my critique group, Tammy is writing a novel that has a great scene where two characters meet. There’s an instant connection between them. A teacher catches them, is going to write the boy up for fighting. Although they’ve just met, they pretend to be in a relationship because the girl has no history of fighting so her reputation protects him. He sees her staring at him lovingly….. he thinks she must be a great liar. But WE know that she’s interested! We want to step in and say, “Jess she’s not lying, she really likes you!”

She writes this beautifully–there’s a distinct reason why the information is hidden and the misunderstanding occurs. It’s not just fun, it’s believable.

Later on Tammy is thinking about making Jess’ caseworker Cacey’s mom. So Jess has this history of fighting and he wants to see his mom but his case worker, just doing her job of course, is getting in the way. Jess, trying to stay out of trouble but sometimes being forced into it, would naturally complain about his case worker to Cacey. If we know her mom is a case worker and we know he has a case worker…..we can put two and two together and BAM! We’re involved, we want to yell at Jess, “don’t say that! It’s her mom!!!”

I was watching John Tucker Must Die yesterday and there was one of those scenes where girl A is spying on The Guy, pretending to like him. Girl B is helping girl A and sneaks into a car with girl A to give her some advice. But before Girl B can escape unnoticed, The Guy gets in the car so Girl B must hide. As the audience WE know Girl B is still in the car, Girl A knows Girl B is still in the car. The Guy doesn’t. Hilarity ensues as he reaches in the back for CDs, nearly grabbing Girl B. This is a totally cliche set up, but it gets me EVERY time. I just can’t help watch or read on, wanting to know if the person hiding is going to get caught or what kind of craziness will happen as the person tries to avoid being caught. Even better when The Guy and Girl A leave the car……….and Girl B’s skirt gets caught in the door. Now we watch anxiously, wanting to give Girl A suggestions for how she can keep The Guy distracted while Girl B tries to get her skirt free.

The tactic can also be achieved by characters just being themselves and acting out their flaws. My friend Amanda wrote a great Metal Gear Solid fanfiction where Otacon’s awkwardness pretty much makes him shoot himself in the foot and just keep digging the hole deeper. Her original character (who I play in a radioplay based on a different fic), Olivia, is blunt to a fault and thinks his awkward overtures are meant as a joke.

It makes you really want to get involved, to say, Olivia…damnit, I know that’s how you are but poor Otacon!