Planning a scene in your novel

Writing a novel

As I start my next manuscript, I’ve been toying with different ways to plan scenes.

Quick aside — go read Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I’ll try to post soon about why it’s so good. She has a lot of smart stuff to say about common writing myths and getting story right.

Anyway, back to scenes. I’ve done a lot of groundwork for imagining my world and characters, and I know my novel’s trajectory. But I’m an underwriter, which means I struggle with word count. I need ways to keep myself on course and incorporate that world-building little by little into the actual writing.

So I ask myself these questions to prepare for writing a scene, and so far I’ve found they work like magic:

  • What is the purpose of this chapter?
  • Whose POV will this be and why? What’s their emotional state going in?
  • What is the goal, conflict, and disaster?
  • What is the reaction, dilemma, and decision (emotional reflection)?
  • What is the twist that will keep people reading, or how does the problem get bigger?
  • How do things go wrong for the protagonist?
  • What choices does the character make here?

And then, once I’ve answered those:

  • What is the setting, and how can I set the scene as I begin?
  • What description the five senses will help me set this scene?
  • How can I anchor the characters’ behaviors to their past in this scene?
  • How can I deepen the characters’ misbelief (flawed worldview) in this chapter?

By this point, I’ve usually come up with a lot of ideas and gone way deeper into my brainstorming than I anticipated, so I’m ready to begin. But just in case, I sometimes also answer these last two questions:

  • What about my world can I reveal, or dig deeper into? What can I sprinkle in?
  • How else can I ask “why” to make the story richer and motivations more believable?

Since I use Scrivener, anytime as I’m writing that I hit on something I need to research more (including terms or general world choice), I leave myself a note on the side and keep typing.

Your turn. How do you prepare to write a new scene?

A lesson on writing tension from a bad horror movie

Sleepaway Camp III

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. So yesterday, my fiancée and I snuggled up together to celebrate with a good old-fashioned horror movie.

Too bad it sucked.

Granted, the first Sleepaway Camp was a great movie. Some kids attend a summer camp and wear ridiculously short shorts, and one of the campers starts offing people. Classic set-up. Sleepaway Camp III was free on Amazon Prime, so we thought, “Why not?”

Ha ha.

Sleepaway Camp III follows the same premise as the first film, only the original killer, Angela Baker, has returned to do away with another generation of kids — half pretty rich teenagers from states like Ohio, half gang members and delinquents.

Angela ends up killing almost everyone in the movie, and it couldn’t be more dull. Even Angela sounds bored doing it. (“Just taking care of business.”)

The movie has no tension, the undercurrent of electricity that makes us care, worry for the characters, and squirm in anticipation. Which provides a pretty good lesson on why tension is important to any story.

Problem 1: Sleepaway Camp III is told from the killer’s point of view.

We follow Angela around everywhere, and we see everything she does. That doesn’t leave much to the imagination. She can’t pop up and scare us if she’s in every scene.

Nothing is unexpected. We know as soon as she gets someone alone what she’s planning. No surprises there.

Problem 2: Everybody else sits around.

Half the characters are “troublemakers,” but no one actually does anything. The black kid listens to rap music. The others fool around in the woods. Wow. Such behavior. Much rebelling. Aside from a fistfight fight early on, no one does much else than insult each other or make out.

Most importantly, no one makes Angela’s life harder in a way that actually counts. The kids tease her by lighting a firework in a fish. She retaliates by murdering them.

Problem 3: Angela’s actions are totally predictable.

Angela’s already a known killer who detests swearing, drug taking, fornicating, and … laziness? So we know exactly as soon as someone makes her hit list. She has no secrets left for us to discover, no mystery to her actions or words, and her moods are totally transparent. She’s practically in cahoots with the audience.

Sleepaway Camp III

Problem 4: No one notices anything.

The campers are separated into three groups, or Angela picks them off a couple at a time. Whenever someone walks by, they wonder, “Hey, where is what’s-his-face?” And Angela makes up a lie like, “Oh, she went back to the main camp,” or, “They went fishing.”

No one actually finds the corpses or sees Angela doing any wrong, so no one suspects her until she wants them to (at the end). There’s no urgency. They’re all so oblivious, she takes her sweet time.

Problem 5: Her only opposition is absent for half the movie.

The only character who stands a chance against Angela is a cop/counselor with a grudge against her. Conveniently, he doesn’t recognize her for most of the movie. When he finally figures it out, she shoots him.

Snore.

How do you add tension to your stories? What’s another example of a movie, book, or show that does tension right?

5 answers to the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Every writer knows this question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Typically, writers respond with something along the lines of, “Um … I dunno! Ha ha ha!” And inwardly does this:

writer scream

Next time you’re asked this question, give people an answer they can understand … or at least one that’ll make them never want to talk to you again.

Answer: “I had this crazy dream …”

“One day I woke up from this crazy dream, where my underwear was on fire, and everyone was staring at me, and then I had to ride this crazy rollercoaster with a bunch of hamster people. And that’s how I got the idea to write a book about a dystopian future.”

Answer: “I browsed the internet.”

“People post the darndest things on the internet. They take pictures of their food. They rant about who died on television shows. They post a lot of GIFs. They’re basically characters who write themselves. I just copy down everything they say on Facebook.”

Answer: “Television.”

“I was basically so angry about my favorite show getting cancelled that I re-wrote the ending and changed all the names. … Yeah, that show. You know that one. I can’t believe the network, right?”

Answer: “I spend a lot of time with cats.”

“Well, I was sitting around, petting my ten cats, and I started to wonder … What if, like, they’re really people, reincarnated into cat bodies? And we let them watch us take baths and pick our noses and stuff? And we never let them go outside?! And we torture them by talking in baby speak all day! Really we’re just terrible enslavers of an entire once-human race!”

Answer: “I steal everyone else’s ideas.”

“Everyone who asks me this question usually follows it with, ‘You should write about this great idea I had,’ so I turn their ideas into novels and make lots of money, and I don’t have to share a penny. I am totally rolling in cash right now. I am up to my eyeballs in money.”

picard

Writing life: The moment you know it’s all gonna work out

Rowling gif

As you may know from this blog, I’m deep into revisions on a young adult fantasy book. It’s my second completed manuscript, and while that alone is an accomplishment worth being proud of, I feel like I’ve achieved an even greater milestone in my writing life:

I am more comfortable with revision than I ever used to be.

Revision is scary. Okay, that’s an understatement. After I wrote my first book, I found revision fucking daunting. I used to relentlessly Google things like, “How do you revise your book without getting overwhelmed?”

When I got to my second novel (this one), something changed. I joined a local writer’s group, and eventually I started setting quarterly goals so I would get my first round of revisions done. That quarterly schedule turned into weekly goals, which turned into a real revising habit — and now I sit down to revise nearly every day, without fail.

The secret, I learned, was that there is no secret. Revision is hard. It’s always going to be hard, and it’s a necessary evil if you want to get published. But there are ways you can make it easier.

Writer’s groups and critique partners make revision a hell of a lot more approachable. I suck at identifying critical issues with my novel — maybe less so now, but still, I’m way too close to the damn thing to know what I should even try to fix.

That’s the rub: When you try to revise without feedback, especially when you’re new to revision, you’ll probably identify “problems” to fix while missing the bigger issues that you should be focusing on. I remember I spent hours revising the first few chapters of my first manuscript — churning out draft upon draft — and guess what? It wasn’t a very efficient use of my time, and I zoned in on smaller, nit-picky issues like word choice when I should have been thinking about whether the story made sense and what needed more developing.

Revising in a vacuum is a useless exercise.

When you have other people read and critique your novel, you get a reader’s perspective, which is so crucial for identify the real problems with your novel. Readers pick out things you would have never thought of — things that matter. They don’t obsess like you do over your prose and making it “perfect.” They’re much more willing to accept your style.

Critiques can hurt, but they’re mighty powerful. And eventually, you get used to them, and you don’t take criticism personally anymore. Once you do — what’s there to be afraid of? Certainly not revision. No, sir.

Being comfortable with the revision process is one of the best feelings in the world as a writer. It means you’re not afraid to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in the name of making your novel better.

Do I ever still worry what readers will think? Of course. But I’m finding that I can survive whatever they throw at me. And that makes me so much more confident that I’m going to achieve my dream of being published one day.

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When reactions to your novel make you want to facepalm

facepalm gif

Sometimes you’re reading comments on your manuscript and you just feel like this.

Okay, so maybe it’s not the reader’s fault. Correction: It’s definitely not the reader’s fault. They’re not stupid; their opinion is legit. You just didn’t communicate yourself clearly, and now they’re super confused, and you’ve derailed their understanding of everything, and …

facepalm gif picard

You need to fix it, but where do you even start?

This is a question I’m struggling with right now, and honestly, the only solution I can think of is to take a deep breath and … think … HARD. Where did you lead your reader astray?

Sometimes the answer is right in front of you, and it’s as simple as pronoun confusion or omitted dialogue tags. Who’s the “he” in this sentence? Who’s speaking here? Bam, presto, fixed — you’re done.

Other times, you’re going to have to play detective. If you can, ask them more questions. Ask them what they think is happening in the scene — have them recount the story to you — and as soon as their version and your version don’t align … BOOM.

radcliffe

But when all else fails, or you don’t have the person in front of you to interrogate them, you might either have to a) add a little more detail to clarify what something is or what’s going on, or b) add more introspection so a character’s motivation makes more sense. Every action has a reaction, as they say, but sometimes you don’t understand what the hell caused the action after that. So make sure you’re connecting the dots on paper, not just in your head.

I’m finding in my revisions that sometimes I need to write in a few extra sentences if a paragraph is confusing my reader. Or I might have to go chapters back to where I introduced an idea and flesh it out more, answering their questions early so they don’t carry their confusion throughout the whole book. Or I have to add an entirely new scene because PROBLEMS.

the office

Writing is never a perfect process. Revision can make you want to tear your hair out. And no matter how much you revise, somebody else can come along and point out another issue for you to resolve.

Have patience. Be easy on yourself. Do one revision pass at a time. Your novel will keep getting better, I promise.