Tag Archives: Writing scenes

5 Things I Relearned Starting a New Book

Poor little car loaded with baggage on a tangled highway, like a writer starting a new book!

The right turn has to be here somewhere!

It’s been a while since I started a book from scratch.

One of my two latest ventures is the third volume in a mystery series I’ve been working on for some time. But the other is new—premise to hand-written scribbles to first keyboarding. I’m about 15,000 words in. And it’s taking off.

By taking off, I mean every time I finish a scene, the next one’s shaping up in my mind. I’m excited about sitting down to the draft every day. Zoooom.

Both of these plunges into new writing confirmed a few things I thought I remembered about starting a book. Other writers might find these experiences resonating with theirs.

Here’s what I know.

1) You must WRITE.

A lot of people advocate detailed outlines, but if the outline isn’t coming or not a natural move for you (I’m a pantser), I argue that you need only one element of your new book before you start putting words on a page: an idea. Something that’s been kicking at the edges of your mind to get out. You can carry this idea around, stroke it, dunk it in your morning coffee . . . but to give it body and breath, you must start to write. Writing teachers share an adage most credibly attributed to Flannery O’Connor: “I don’t know what I think until I read what I wrote.” For reasons beyond my pay grade, the physical and mental process of actually writing triggers something that no other process can.

A writer with light bulbs overhead--and one going off!

2) Accept your “shitty first drafts.”

Listen to Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird. I have to remind myself of this every day. This tolerance for failure applies both to the whole novel and to those early “thinking” notes and stabs at dialogue or description. Not a word you write at this stage has to be good enough to go on the finished page. A lot of it is for you to know but never tell your readers (e.g., that your MC loved runny eggs when he was eight). You’re world-building, poking into corners you didn’t know were there. You’ll leave a lot of what you find behind, but it’s the finding that makes your world come alive.

A weird, writer-built world!

3) Set doable goals.

As much as I love writing, I personally do NOT need disincentives to do it. Nothing disincentivizes as much as feeling that I MUST complete a whole chapter at a sitting. People have different tricks to fend off procrastination. Sometimes I commit to filling a single notebook page. Or I set a timer for thirty minutes. During that thirty minutes, I must focus on the book. I’m allowed to reread the last session’s work or play with plot points, but before that timer goes off I must write something. Usually, when I stop, my mind’s at work, words still packed inside my pen for next time.

 

4) Allow incubation time.

This point goes with #3 above. Short sessions over the course of a day or a few days leave blank spaces in between for amazing things to happen. That perfect word you couldn’t find, that twist in a planned scene where your characters surprise you, that metaphor you just couldn’t sort out—when you come back from doing other things, they just fall onto the page. Don’t try to force this. Incubation is a mysterious process. Actually writing (see #1) gives it a place to do its thing.

A mysterious scene of ruined stone piers stretching into a foggy sea.

5) If a scene tells you it’s not working, listen.

Inevitable! Here are some strategies that have worked for me when a scene freezes up:

  • Make sure you’re writing a real scene. If you’re just lecturing your readers on a bunch of stuff you think they ought to know, you can get just as sick of the droning as they will. To get your blood rushing, toss your characters in a pile and let them thrash around.
  • Write sticky scenes or passages from multiple viewpoints or in multiple voices, just to see what happens—you’re not stuck with the fails. In my new book, I’d struggled to fire it up, but then, without warning (see #4), up popped a different voice, and the character who’d been stumble-tongued suddenly started talking. The whole book began to spread itself before me, just from that discovered voice.
  • Start at a different place in your story. Maybe you’re trying to pile up too much backstory rather than getting on with the chase. Or use the common device of starting at a crucial moment, then returning to the past to tell readers how your folks got themselves into this mess.
  • Start with conflict, not crisis. (This is the single best piece of fiction-writing advice I ever received.) Okay, your characters are about to go over a 100-foot waterfall in a leaky barrel. But once they hit the rocks below, you still have to figure out who the survivors are and what their story they’re living, and that’s where the work is. Jump-start with their argument the day before about why they’re doing it, whether they’re doing it right, and whether they should do it at all. Their answers to those questions are the story, and the waterfall is just a device to slam them into their reasons for answering those questions the way they did.

A beautiful Florida river

I used to compare starting a book to finding my way into the center of one of those Florida cypress stands I liked to explore: you try what looks like a path, only to find your way blocked; you try another, ditto. Then, abruptly, the trees part before you, and you’re at the secret heart. The innards of a new book can just as hard to push into. It was nice to find these strategies working to clear the path once again.

What works for you when you’re starting a new book?

 

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Filed under inspiration for writers, Plot Development for writers, writing novels

How To Write A Scene That Works: The Story Grid Way – by Valerie Francis…

Here’s an article that breaks down the basic elements of story structure to the scene level, with excellent, clear examples. Sometimes I suspect writers think they’re too “literary” to observe the basics that this article (from The Creative Penn via Chris the Story Reading Ape) lays out. But these guidelines are just that: basic. Because they work. Pay special attention to the discussion of the “literal” and “essential” elements of a scene. Enjoy and apply!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

 on The Creative Penn:

Intro by Joanna Penn:

It can be easy to assume that writing a story is just about getting words on the page. After all, we’ve read and watched and listened to so many stories that creating one can’t be difficult, right?

The truth is that writing a compelling story involves a lot more than words. You need to understand aspects of story structure. 

In today’s article, Valerie Francis breaks down the elements of a scene.

Continue reading HERE

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A Brief for the Lowly Dialogue Tag

Today I want to devote a few minutes’ attention to the lowly and often maligned dialogue tag.

I generally agree with what I believe to be the consensus: Dialogue tags (e.g., he said, she asked) should function almost as invisibly as punctuation and should usually be limited to the more “invisible” varieties like “said” and “asked,” that is, tags that don’t call attention to themselves and take over the page. I’m okay with an occasional “she snapped” or “he growled,” but when a writer starts scouring thesaurus.com for “original” ways of saying “said,” I’m outa there.

I also subscribe to the general view that “smiled,” “smirked,” “sighed,” “laughed,” and others of that ilk are not dialogue tags but actions. People smile while saying words, but they don’t smile words.

But even when writers in my various writing groups obey principles like these, they sometimes get dinged for ANY use of a dialogue tag that is not absolutely necessary to clarify who’s speaking. I understand that many writers consider economy and conciseness to be the overriding criteria for good writing, and I also understand that even in a long prose work like a novel (as, say, opposed to a poem), every word should be there for a reason.

Yet there’s a use of the lowly dialogue tag that I never see noted, let alone encouraged.

Well-constructed scenes in a novel or story, like the novel or story itself, have a rhythm. They have rising action, as characters’ words and actions build toward a pinnacle of conflict or a momentary resolution. Then, just as in story structure, there will often be a falling-off moment, then, once again, a rising action that is more concentrated, more emotionally or suspensefully laden, than the ones before.

“End of scene” lines, if they’re doing their job, bring the whole rhythmic structure home with a punch.

I suspect that most of us hear these rhythms as our scenes take on life. I also suspect that many writers, like me, find the discreet use of a dialogue tag, especially “said,” to be a useful tool in punctuating the various rising and falling moments in a scene.

To make this case, let me present two different excerpts of a scene.

These two men are driving through a south Georgia landscape in the wake of a local named “Pop” who claims to have a secret to reveal. The two men have a contentious relationship; at present they are reluctant partners. “McLeod” is more reluctant than “Bellweather,” who is at the wheel.

On they sped, back past the motel, back through town, and out the other side past the John Deere franchise and a feed mill, Pop’s truck spewing black smoke whenever he hit the gas. They tagged him north onto an unlined blacktop between low-growing fields. McLeod kept a vigil out the window. They passed flat expanses of greenery. “What crop is that?” Bellweather asked.

“Peanuts,” McLeod said.

After a good two miles, Pop spun right onto a one-lane red-clay road beneath tangled ranks of oak and pine. Bellweather braked, twisting the wheel to avoid ruts that were literally bouncing Pop’s fast-moving truck skyward. “You don’t think by any chance he means to lure us out here and rob and murder us? I bet he’s got a shotgun or at least a deer rifle behind the seat of that truck.”

One reader admonished me that the dialogue tag was longer than the dialogue! True. So let’s look at this excerpt without the dialogue tag.

On they sped, back past the motel, back through town, and out the other side past the John Deere franchise and a feed mill, Pop’s truck spewing black smoke whenever he hit the gas. They tagged him north onto an unlined blacktop between low-growing fields. McLeod kept a vigil out the window. They passed flat expanses of greenery. “What crop is that?” Bellweather asked.

“Peanuts.”

After a good two miles, Pop spun right onto a one-lane red-clay road beneath tangled ranks of oak and pine. Bellweather braked, twisting the wheel to avoid ruts that were literally bouncing Pop’s fast-moving truck skyward. “You don’t think by any chance he means to lure us out here and rob and murder us? I bet he’s got a shotgun or at least a deer rifle behind the seat of that truck.”

I contend that these excerpts read differently because of the effect of the tag. Without the tag, the information—that the crop is peanuts—becomes simply that—information, and not very important information. The question and answer could be omitted with no great loss. We know nothing about the nature of McLeod’s reply. Just a word uttered—idly?

Reread the same excerpt with the tag added. “McLeod said” becomes a punctuation mark, denoting a boundary setting off Bellweather’s futile efforts to make congenial conversation, casting the next narrative lines as a “next sequence.” Moreover, the very contrast my reviewer noted between the length of the dialogue itself and the tag emphasizes the shortness, the abruptness, of McLeod’s answer. The line becomes a half-stop, directed explicitly at Bellweather, to say, “This is not an occasion for chatting. We’re not friends.”

To a degree, it’s the solid, final beat of “said” that does a lot of this work. “Peanuts,” accented on the first syllable, doesn’t have this same force.

Is this a lot to read into a single two-word addition? Perhaps. But sometimes try within-scene transitions as well as scene, paragraph, and chapter endings with and without “said.” You may be surprised to hear that tags do make a difference. True, you can often substitute an action, but for concision, a simple dialogue tag, used judiciously, can do a surprising amount of work.

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