Monday, February 3, 2014

The Bermuda Triangle of Writing

by Joan

I’m in a writer's frenzy. I feel like a book that doesn’t know what it wants to be. 

While working on my novel-in-progress, I’m also writing (or thinking about writing) essays, short stories, books reviews, travel blog, personal blog, and this blog. I’ve got excel spreadsheets for my WIP outline, contests and literary journal submissions, and more ideas than time. Every time I open a file, I’ve suddenly got something to say that belongs in a different file, or perhaps the opening line to yet another (unfinished) short story.

Recently I’d started feeling like I was in the Bermuda Triangle of my novel, getting trapped in the first third without a way through to the next part. I’d jotted a brief outline of where the story was headed, including a twist that, if I pull it off, could be game changing for me. And maybe that’s why I’m stuck – it’s scary and harder than anything I’ve written.

When my desk is as cluttered as my mind, I know it’s time to take a step back and organize. At least once a day, I spend a half hour or so scrolling through social media for publishing news and tips. I often find myself clicking on Twitter links to industry or craft essays.

Last week I came across author Karen Woodward's wonderful blog. Karen writes urban fantasy and shares DAILY tips on craft.

The post I discovered last week (originally posted in December)  has changed the way I’m writing this novel. And it’s all because of index cards.

The idea is that a novel is a series of sequences. We introduce characters and setting, foreshadow conflicts to come, add conflict and “try-fail” cycles. In the end, there’s a resolution, the character achieves his goal or stakes are raised.

Within each sequence (in my book, I think of them as Parts I – IV), there are scenes and sequels.  For each scene, I used a large index card, first noting a short description and then adding:




What is my character's goal in each scene (should be consistent with her predominant goal), what will keep her from the goal, what setbacks will she encounter while she tries to move toward her goal. While filling in the details, I referenced back to both my outline and my draft. I soon found myself adding paragraphs or even pages spurred by these ideas. 

Next I added sequels.

Ms. Woodward quoted Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer to describe sequels:

“A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes, like the coupler between two railroad cars. It sets forth your focal character’s reaction to the scene just completed and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come.”

So following each scene, I noted the elements of a sequel:


Review and options


What is my character’s reaction to the previous scene, what are her thought processes, what will she decide to do next? This should logically flow to your next scene.

What I realized pretty quickly was that I had a great character, a big-picture notion of her trajectory and the book’s themes, but not specific immediate goals and conflict. Using this method, I’ve now outlined over half of my book. 

A danger of using a method like this is that it might become too formulaic. I’ve read books that I find way too contrived. (Heck, I’m pretty sure I’ve written a few). As I see it, the trick is to incorporate these elements while keeping the scenes and dialogue fresh and surprising. And of course the most important thing is to just keep writing.

I can see now that applying the method to my other writing projects will help as well. It might just help me take those essays and stories from unfinished to finished.

Have you tried this method or others? And how do you decide what to write next?

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