Shelley Widhalm

Archive for the ‘Writing Novels’ Category

Writing as puzzle solving

In Freewriting, Writing, Writing Novels, Writing Processes on December 4, 2016 at 11:00 am

Writing is like solving a puzzle, at least when approaching the story or novel without planning or forethought.

I’m a pantser writer, but I’ve decided for my next novel, I’ll engage in the planning approach. I’ll come up with an overriding idea, a beginning and an ending, and a few of the character sketches, instead of writing and seeing what happens.

Why am I going to the other side?

Writing’s become a bit painful and an emotional experience for me, where I have to face myself and how I write and process the story. I get lost in where to go next and don’t know where I’ve been. I just keep writing like I’m in a speed writing contest, when what I really want to do is write with purpose and direction. I want a plan.

By freewriting my stories and letting what happens happen, I’ve noticed how I’m trying to solve a mystery, though I’m not writing a mystery. I write myself in a corner, or multiple corners. A short story becomes a novella. A piece of flash fiction becomes a short story. A novel goes on too long past the 100,000-word mark when I want to write 80,000 words.

This get-myself-in-a-corner writing is the result of my main character needing to solve something, but I don’t let her solve it because all these other characters prop up and she has to interact with them and get through her own plot, because if I say, “Magic. Problem solved,” the reader won’t buy it.

I have to get her to the end of the story.

I have to solve how she and the characters interact to carry the plot forward through the middle all the way to the end.

But instead, I’m mired in the story, so I have to look back at what I wrote and figure out where the story is headed, picking up clues in what I’ve already written. I have to figure out the plot strands and bring them together, knowing my one basic question, while also wondering, but how do I get there?

I’m stuck in the middle and have to move backward, do some planning and thinking, and then I can get back to writing. What I do is stop, plan, and write. So am I really pantsing my novel, when I really had to middle-plan? The arc has to come full circle, not move in a straight line of writing whatever pops into my head.

That’s where the pain comes in. I’m in the middle of writing, and I have to throw my nature aside and start planning.

What is it like for you? Are you a pantser or a planner?

Balancing back story in novels

In Back Story, Writing, Writing Novels, Writing Processes on October 9, 2016 at 11:00 am

A member of my writers’ group helpfully pointed out how my short stories have too much back story.

I wanted to tell her, but my stories need all those details! And right now!

But, she was right … writers shouldn’t front load the opening of a story or novel with back story, which literally takes a story backward out of the present moment into the past. The details of back story need to be revealed throughout the novel and not in large chunks of description and exposition.

Back story, which is everything that came before the novel’s opening, can be in the form of flashbacks, character musings and recollections, and descriptions of character history. It can be details about the setting and plot that came before now. And it can be an explanation about why the characters behave and act as they do in the present moment and how they came to that moment.

The problem with back story, especially if it’s laid on too heavily particularly in the beginning, is it slows the pace or forward momentum of the novel, causing scenes or the entire novel to drag.

A novel that has a strong opening is cinematic with the story playing out moment by moment. It sets the story in motion while also establishing scene and introducing characters.

Leaving out details of the back story, or past, helps create tension for readers, who don’t need everything spelled out but want to guess the reasons for plot action and character motivation and to put together the clues as they read along. The tension is created between what readers know and don’t know, pulling them into and through the story.

Here are a few approaches to adding back story to give the clues readers need without giving them too much information:

  • Figure out the back story that’s necessary to the plot of the story and cut what the reader can figure out from dialog and action.
  • Reveal character through action and dialog and less through description.
  • Rewrite a scene heavy with back story as a play or screenplay, using only dialog and brief descriptions of action, setting and characters.
  • Weave in back story into the narrative of the entire story, keeping the immersion of details and descriptions short; or use the back story to provide a timeout or sense of mental relief for the reader in a scene with heavy action, quick pacing and a great deal of tension.

Back story, especially in the beginning or told in long descriptions or tangents off of other tangents, causes the tension of the story to slacken. It becomes something to read and less of a story. Back story is a literal pause in storytelling and plot. It’s the then, not the now.

Improving a novel’s subplots

In Subplots, Writing, Writing Novels, Writing Processes on September 18, 2016 at 11:00 am

A single plotline typically isn’t enough to carry a story to the end, so complications in the subplots are employed to add depth, complexity and tension to its unfolding.

The subplots aren’t separate from the main story, but often involve characters and action close to the point-of-view or main character. They are the stories within a story that support or drive the main plot. The smaller stories are woven into the main story, moving back and forth from one to the other, not parallel with one forgetting the other.

In one of my young adult novels, the main plot follows the course of a teen girl seeking to belong at home and in school, while two of the subplots involve her neglectful father who engages in part-time parenting and an alcoholic mother who has reasons, or excuses, for drinking. As I tell their stories, I add depth to the teen’s story by explaining why the family is falling apart.

The subplots in a novel involve less action and present less significant events than does the story of the main plot. They have to have a purpose and affect the outcome of the main plot, connecting in time, place or thematic significance.

My subplots in the YA novel demonstrate neglect and the resulting feelings of not being accepted or wanted on multiple levels. How the character handles her responses will show her growth.

Subplots enhance a novel in various ways, such as by:

  • Adding an idea.
  • Impacting the novel’s resolution.
  • Introducing secondary characters or depicting characteristics of the main character readers otherwise wouldn’t see.
  • Underlining the storyline’s actions or providing relief from the story if it’s heavily packed with action or is dark in mood.
  • Serving as a way to complicate the main character’s life—private, personal or professional—such as through a budding romantic relationship or a complication in the workplace from a jealous co-worker.

If the subplots have other characters, called supporting or minor characters, the subplot characters need to interact with the main character at some point in the telling of the story. Otherwise, the different stories remain separate.

If there are too many subplots, they distract the reader from the main plot. The subplots have to contrast with the plot but not repeat or compete with it, taking away too much attention or scattering reader’s attention.

They also need to be complete stories with a beginning, middle and end, just like the main plot.

Escalating tension in stories, novels

In Writing, Writing Novels, Writing Processes on September 11, 2016 at 11:00 am

Like pacing, tension in a short story or novel is what compels readers to turn the pages.

Pacing is a structural and line-level element of the writing process, while tension centers on conflict.

Tension, according to the dictionary, is the act of stretching something tight, or the condition of being stretched or taut.

A story that is taut does not have extraneous words, characters, dialogue and plot elements. Every aspect of the story is directed toward the climax, the peak or most intense part of the telling. The drive toward that climax is the point-of-view or main character’s unmet goal or need, moving the story forward.

Stories with a good level of tension make the reader want to find out what will happen next and next and so on. Will the romantic girl get her guy, despite all the obstacles to their love, or will the (fill-in-the-blank) solve, find, resolve or get something?

The main character faces external and internal opposition through the story’s beginning, middle and end in the story’s movement. External opposition comes from life events or the other characters blocking the main character from getting the main want. Internal opposition comes from the character’s negative thoughts, insecurity, lack of focus or other emotional state.

The opposition is the result of both internal conflicts, which are about characters, and external conflicts, which are about plot.

As the story progresses, the tension escalates. A story doesn’t advance by events happening one after the next, but by this escalation. The tension, however, should not follow a constant upward line where things get more and more intense.

Instead, the tension needs to vary, as well as the pace, to add interest and intrigue to the unfolding of the story. Changing the pace—the tempo or rate of the story’s progression—shows the different moods and action in the story.

A slow pace includes narration, description and digression, while a faster pace uses action and short, clipped dialogue, creating a lot of white space on the page. A slow pace

emphasizes important moments in the story; a quick pace hurries it along.

Tension is what keeps the story tight through those slow and fast movements.

Novels vs. novellas

In Writing, Writing Novellas, Writing Novels, Writing Processes, Writing Short Stories on May 22, 2016 at 11:00 am

I wrote a short story I intended to be a short story, but then I thought when it kept going on and on, it might be a long short story.

Now, at 15,000 words, it’s anything but.

Nor, is it a novella.

That means I’ll have to cut a few thousand words or add a few scenes and more words, develop the characters more deeply and add to the plot strands.

So, what makes for a novella and is it a viable option for storytelling?

Novellas are typically 20,000 to 50,000 words or 17,500 to 40,000 words, depending on the definition you find.

Comparatively, novels can be 50,000 to 90,000 words (or more), or an average of 80,000 words, and short stories can range up to 10,000 words (though I’ve seen some literary journals accept longer short stories).

A novella, intended to be consumed in a single sitting, typically has fewer conflicts than a novel but is more complicated with more scenes than a short story. There is more time to develop those conflicts and the characters engaged in or instigating the conflicts.

The conflicts are part of one storyline, instead of part of several subplots which can be developed in longer works but are difficult to fit into the framework of a short book. There also is typically one point of view, though there is space for more details and description than in a short story.

And the setting can be varied that unlike a short story is best confined to one time and one place or a couple at most.

In essence, a novella is a shortened novel or a very long short story that isn’t here or there, but there are a few that have had success, like Edith Wharton’s “A Lost Lady.”

As for mine, I will review what I’ve written and see if it fits the arc of a complete story, or if I stopped early because I’d set my mind to writing a short story and had just gotten carried away.

On to editing and revising and reconsidering the next step for my short story-novella-novel, or whatever it will be.

Short stories vs. novels

In Writing Flash Fiction, Writing Novels, Writing Short Stories on May 15, 2016 at 11:00 am

I find writing short stories more challenging than going for the long haul of writing a novel.

A short story requires you to get in, get out and do it in a way that brings in all of the story elements—plot, character, setting and dialog—without boring the reader. With a novel, you can take your time—but not too much—setting up the igniting spark, storyline, theme, character identities and other story elements.

The length of a short story varies from 1,000-5,000 words or anything or up to 10,000 words, depending on the publication or publishing house doing the defining. Generally, anything less than 1,000 words is considered flash fiction.

Novels are 50,000 words or more, or average 75,000 to 90,000 words.

Because of their length, novels need to sustain readers’ interests over several reading sessions, while a short story can be consumed in one sitting in a few minutes or a couple of hours.

Because of limited space, a short story focuses on a specific time, place, event and interaction. The timeframe typically covers days or weeks, and the setting cannot be in too many places.

Short stories typically begin with a crisis or conflict, getting to the point right away, lacking the time or space for long setups. They have one or a few characters and present a snapshot into the lives of those characters, avoiding long character histories and descriptions.

Also when writing short stories, consider the following:

  • Show, don’t tell with the action.
  • Use first or third-person, or two characters shifting point of view.
  • Express a single theme, or message to get across to the readers.

Essentially, think of a short story as a scene or two that tells an entire story in a quick-to- consume fashion.

Inside look at a writer’s writing process

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Novels on September 20, 2015 at 5:00 am

Typically, I blog about writing processes and the elements of writing and storytelling, as well as what I think about the writing life and my reflections on writing.

I thought this week, I’d do something a little different and reveal snippets of my journal on my reflections of writing my current novel project, which is about an unhappy waitress who wants to be a musician but is stuck from underlying, ignored trauma.

In early June I journaled: I want to write another novel, but I’m a little stuck. I know I’ll work through this and will figure out the steps I need to take. I feel a little lost. I feel like I need to be writing, but specifically, what do I write?

June 29: I ended up writing 650 words in my novel, if that’s what it is, and reached 2,000 words (including a few notes). It was a struggle to write, but I made myself keep going, and I came up with a few words.

June 30: I wasn’t going to write, but I figured I should try. I wrote 300 words.

July 1: I finally got past my writer’s block. I didn’t even know if what come out was any good, but here it came, all at once, the sound and feel of the words carrying the fury of the soul. I wrote 1,050 words, and I loved it.

July 2: I worked on my novel (I wrote 425 words).

July 5: I sat out on the balcony with my dog, Zoey, to work on my novel and wrote 1,750 words, feeling like I was done and couldn’t write more without forcing it. It’s the most I’ve written in one sitting for this novel. I’m now at 6,000 words. It seems like it’s a slow process, and I’m not sure, exactly, where I’m going with this one, but I do feel more anchored when I write.

July 9: I met my friend, Sarah, at the Coffee Tree for a write-in, where I worked on my novel. I wrote 750 words.

July 15: I wrote 1,000 words. I felt better about myself and life, because I could do it and feel like I had a purpose and a direction, even if I’m still not exactly sure where my story’s heading.

July 23: I worked on my novel, but only had 45 minutes. I wrote 560 words.

July 24: I went to the LoCo Artisan and wrote 830 words and now am at 10,000 words. I figured out a couple of the scenes and felt better about where I was going with the novel.

July 25: I took Zoey with me to the Coffee Tree to work on my novel. I stayed for three hours, spending one-and-a-half hours on the novel and writing 1,900 words.

Aug. 4: I met Sarah at the Coffee Tree and worked on my novel. I wrote 1,650 words, and it felt like the words were flowing, and I had fun writing. I felt more centered and calmer after I wrote, and it felt like I was heading somewhere with my novel.

Aug. 5: I wrote 400 words, because I didn’t have much time, maybe about 45 minutes. It was nice to sit outside on a slightly cooler day and be next to Zoey, just doing writing. That’s the life I really want.

Aug. 9: I went Dazbog to work on my novel. I wrote 1,500 words in two hours.

Aug. 10: I went to the LoCo Artisan with Zoey along and worked on my novel. I wrote 1,100 words in one-and-a-half hours.

Aug. 12: I went to the Coffee Tree to meet Sarah and worked on my novel. I wrote 1,250 words in one-and-a-half hours, bringing me to 18,000 words.

Aug. 16: I worked on my novel. It was a struggle, but I kept pushing through. I wrote 445 words in 30 minutes and then figured I’d do better at it the next day (I just didn’t feel the magic but was able to leave off at a good starting place).

Aug. 17: I went to the LoCo Artisan, where I worked on my novel by identifying character and setting traits because at nearly 20,000 words, I’m forgetting little details. I then realized the work I struggled to do yesterday was lost. This is the third time I lost stuff with this computer. I wasn’t happy about it.

Aug. 19: After work, I took Zoey out and met Sarah at the Coffee Tree for our write-in. I wrote 440 words, basically the same number I lost, and I recalled most of the scene, so I felt better about things.

Aug. 20: I went to the LoCo Artisan to work on my novel. As I wrote, it felt like my novel was slowly unfolding where I just sat down and wrote, writing one thing after another. Things were getting set up, and then the spilling out of one thing after another guided me, and I imagined my setting, and it all started coming out. I wrote nearly 1,000 words in one-and-a-half hours.

Aug. 23: I took Zoey with me to Starbucks and worked on my novel for two-and-a-half hours, stopping for pet-Zoey breaks, because she’s an attention magnet. I wrote 2,150 words, feeling good about letting it pour out and unfold as the characters worked out the storyline. It’s like you write something and then you think of what to write next, and on it goes as words or images pop in your head to be written down.

Aug. 24: I went to the LoCo Artisan to sit outside to work on journaling and my novel. I wrote 1,500 words in one-and-a-half hours. It’s odd how fiction bubbles underneath with truth. It’s like I’m telling the truth of my story with lots of made up characters and plot happenings.