Month: April 2011

Process and Novel Writing

The process of writing a novel is daunting. There are probably as many means and systems as there are writers. I found one that seems promising, and I have been going with that for my first attempt.

It’s called the Snowflake Method. I learned about from my friend Paula Johnson over at Rose City Sisters. Basically, the Snowflake Method breaks novel writing down into ten steps. The first nine are all prep, and the tenth has you writing the first draft.

The idea is to start with very broad stokes then gradually get more and more specific as you progress. So, the first step is to write a one sentence summary of your novel idea. The second step is to expand that sentence into a five-or-so sentence long paragraph. In Step 3 you write up a one-page summary of each of your main characters.  And so on and so on, until you end up with a very detailed outline.

There are a couple of interesting things about this process.

First, as rigid as it sounds, it’s not meant to be linear. As you complete each step, you get a better understanding of your characters and plot. With that new knowledge, you go back to earlier steps and revise as necessary. Once you add characters, for example, it may be that your five-sentence outline needs to be altered to accommodate someone or something you hadn’t thought about before.

The second interesting thing is that the process is not linear at all. I have been working through this process for a few months now, and I am on Step 9. Just today I completed a thorough outline of the novel based on all of the scenes I set up in Step 8. And now that I’m done, I can see a huge restructuring of the events of the novel that need to take place.

Some of these are character-driven changes. For instance, I originally planned to have one poor character die in chapter one. Actually, he has to die to get the novel moving. But as I thought about the story from his perspective (Step 5), this character more or less blossomed. After seeing how he fits into the overall story, I think he needs to reappear here and there, even if as a ghost, for no other reason than whenever I think about the story, his voice pops up in my head. Very weird.

Other changes are plot driven. Because I can see the novel as a whole, I can see places where an event made sense initially but now seems totally out of place, or where a conversation between two characters ought to be between two other characters.

It’s all very interesting.

Does the Snowflake Method work? I don’t know yet. I’m stuck here at Step 9 for what may be the rest of my life. But it is a structured approach that fits with my need to focus on details before I feel comfortable letting go and getting a sense of the project as a whole. For better or worse, that’s just the way I work. And this has already gotten me further than I ever would have gone without a structured approach.


Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in Fiction, 0 comments

Tropes and Clichés

As I stated earlier, I decided to make the protagonist of my first novel an amateur sleuth. As all other decisions in getting started on a novel, I worried about this quite a lot because it’s a sure groaner. As in, sure to make people groan when they hear that. But after some consideration, I decided to stick with it.

The amateur sleuth I have in mind is based, loosely, on my situation: a married, middle-aged man, late-term dad with an eight-year son old to watch, and most tellingly, a work at home dad. As opposed to a stay at home dad. The distinction becomes important because a character who gets killed in the first chapter is a stay at home dad. As opposed to a work at home dad.

So, two issues: (1) how to make the protagonist a lot more interesting than I am, and (2) how to deal with my own embarrassment when I tell people that yes, really, it’s yet an amateur sleuth story.

As to the character, I started by searching for any other novels with amateur sleuth stay or work at home dad. And sure as hell, I found one: The Aaron Tucker series, a trilogy written by Jeffery Cohen. So I bought the books and read them.

I have to say, I wasn’t all that impressed with the main character. (If you’re reading this Jeffrey, sorry. You probably won’t like my stuff all that much either. I’ll buy you a beer if you’re ever in California and we can talk about it.) What I found lacking was that the protagonist and his at-home situation seemed too close to what I could easily imagine was the author’s real life (happily married with two children, including an autistic son whose behavior often takes center stage). What I took away from the trilogy was that to the extent I base any character on a real person, I should make sure to untether the character from the person. Maybe exaggerate a trait, say, or invent entirely new ones. Start with the template of a real person maybe, but make sure that character isn’t bound by that person’s personality, at least as I see it.

Is that how it works? I don’t know, but it’s working so far.

As to the whole amateur sleuth thing, I found a fantastic resource online that has allowed me to think about an amateur sleuth not as a cliché, but as a trope. The difference is everything. The site is called TV Tropes. The website is actually a wiki dedicated to identifying tropes in TV and other media.

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means “stereotyped and trite.” In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them.

The editors further define trope as “a conceptual figure of speech, a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.”

The wiki, “a buttload more informal than Wikipedia,” has a lot of fun identifying and explicating tropes. It’s really worth perusing the site, if nothing else just to look at the article titles (e.g., “Little Old Lady Investigates,” “Reverse Whodunit,” “Alone With the Psycho,” “Asshole Victim”).

Anyway, so now when I think of my amateur sleuth, I think of him as an Amateur Sleuth, a type which any reader will load with baggage from past amateur sleuths like Miss Marple, the Hardy Boys, Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote), The Harts (Hart to Hart) and others. And knowing something about what expectations readers have, I can rely on those to streamline aspects of the plot, or of the main character. I can play around inside the conventions (by creating a variation on the Busman’s Holiday, another trope) or think about playing with the genre by subverting expectations. The important thing is to remember to use the trope as framework, and to avoid slipping into cliché.

Can I really do any of that? I don’t know. But it’s fun to think about. And at least I’m not so embarrassed about what I’m writing that I’m frozen at square one.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in Novel Writing, 0 comments

Thoughts on Writing a First Novel

My friend Rick, who has been designing and building custom bikes for over 30 years, says that building a bike for someone is like walking naked down the middle of the street: Putting all of your knowledge and skill and sense of design out there for everyone to judge. I’m thinking writing a novel feels pretty much the same.

Sometime around the end of this past January, I started writing a novel. I have written pages and pages of summaries, outlines, character profiles, and scene sketches. Not a word of the novel yet; all background prep so far. I wanted to document the process for myself and for anyone who cares to follow because more than anything, writing a novel is all about process. At least for me. At least so far.

To begin with, there is the process I allude to above: all the background work it takes to make a reasonably long-term project cohere as it progresses. At the same time, I view the process of writing a novel as a step in learning how to write novels. That is, this first effort is not so much an end in itself – a quest to produce a marketable work of fiction – as it is a way of learning how the process works so I can write a better novel next time, and a better one after that. It may not turn out that way. Maybe this will be the best, or the only, novel I write. But I have to believe that writing long fiction is a lot like most creative endeavors, and that you get better with practice.

Another part of the process I have been struggling with is admitting that, yes, I’m working on a novel. Because what’s the first thing everyone says when you tell them that? What was the first thought you had? “You’re writing the great American novel, huh?”  There is so much baggage accompanying that phrase. It’s much easier not to say anything and tell people work is slow and I spend a lot of time taking over childcare duties. Which is all true; it’s just not the whole truth.

But in case you’re wondering, No, I am purposely not writing the great American novel. I am aiming to write a good summer book. The kind you read at the beach, enjoy, and forget about moments after. Why? For a few reasons.

First, it takes a lot of pressure off. Second, I think at this stage of my writing ability it is as much, and probably more, than I can hope for. And third . . . because it’s fun. Every aspect of it. Researching facts, evolving characters, working out holes in the plot, reading other writers’ blogs, following writers’ tweets . . . All of it. Just fun.

For this first book, I am going with the most common novelistic trope there is: The Amateur Sleuth. I am basing characters on people I know and the plot on situations I’m familiar with because I think that is easier than dreaming up an entire world. And for this first time out, I think it’s reasonable to use a few crutches to help me hobble along.

Because let’s face it, writing a novel is a shitload of work. We’re talking 70k-100k words, which at 250 words per double-spaced page, is somewhere between 280 and 400 pages. And even in a simple novel you have to create believable characters readers will care about, sustain that believability through a series of occurrences in the plot and sub-plot(s), write in a style that sustains the “vivid and continuous dream,” in John Gardener’s words, and in the end, make it look like it was easy.

All of which leads to a more subtle part of the process of writing a novel. And that is my insecurity. What if no one really cares about the things I write about? What if the things I find moving others find sentimental? The things I try to make funny fall flat? What if I offend everybody? What, ultimately, will people who read this novel think about me?

If I could be Stoic, it wouldn’t matter what people thought about me (“If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?”). Hell, if I thought I knew what I was doing it wouldn’t matter. But neither is the case. Which is why the hardest part of writing a novel, so far, is being willing to tell anyone that I am writing a novel.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in Novel Writing, 0 comments