Keeping the Plot on Track

There are quite a few books and articles out there about the small number of plots, usually a number well below ten, that all stories can be mapped to. Editors and reviewers will often quickly spot the type of plot and then grade the story by how well it adheres to the typical and related plot map.

Perhaps the quest doesn’t start early enough or the monster isn’t menacing enough, whatever the case, plots can be made a little too paint-by-numbers if we aren’t careful. Generally, the plots are the planned stops on the trip and everything else that happens are the small detours and other (occasionally unplanned) stops along the way.

I like to keep the plot on track, but still give the characters a little freedom to take some unscheduled stops along the way. Whatever the method, the goal remains to keep the plot going while still making a story feel fresh and new.

I took this photo in Scotland on The Jacobite steam train, as I jockeyed for space at the window in a sea of other tourists to snap a photo as the train edged along the Glenfinnan viaduct. In trying to allow everyone to have a few seconds at the window, I didn’t even have time to really see the photo until I had sat back down at my seat (and I barely had time to appreciate the view).

That entire train trip was made completely unique when the track curved along the viaduct, resulting in a trip like no other. Yes, there are other beautiful train trips in the world and other trains that cross viaducts. And yes, there are millions of miles of train tracks that are all the same, with maybe a handful of differences. But, like a great novel, there is only one that takes this exact journey and that makes all the difference. Keeping the plot on track is every writer’s responsibility, as is providing a unique journey for the characters that is still unlike any other. What a wonderful challenge!

Five Beach Read Recommendations

person reading book on the beach

It’s beach read season – perhaps my favorite time of year! A time when everyone starts asking about book recommendations for their long flight, camping trip, or actual beach vacation. As an avid reader, I thought I’d share some of my beach read recommendations with you. 

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The Wonders of a Vacation

We all know that when we try to remember something, whatever it is eludes us for a while until we stop thinking about it entirely and then – bing! We remember, just when we gave up on it entirely. Perhaps the universe likes to mess with us that way.

I know that some writers say to write every day without exception, with the idea that you are always writing and keeping the channel to the ‘muse’ wide open. I’d be lying if I said that I followed that advice.

Sometimes I choose to take a writing vacation – when I have no expectations on writing anything at all. It’s a purposeful method of focusing the mind by not focusing. It works for me anyway, and any time another writer says that they deliberately write every day regardless of what they write, I always congratulate them, just as I would to someone who says they train everyday for a marathon.

What works for some of us, doesn’t always work for the rest of us, so please let’s avoid the Writer’s Guilt. I’ve written myself a permission slip that I don’t need to worry about writing every day. Just when I worry that I haven’t written anything in a while, I sit at the computer and – bing – several chapters fly out from my fingers and usually the plot problem that I had been stuck on also gets worked out magically. Instead of running daily for a ‘novel’ marathon, I’ll run 5k, then take a break, run a 10k, then take a break, and finish strong.

We all need breaks now and then – so go ahead and take one. And fellow writers, please, let’s not try to make anyone feel guilty about not blogging every week or working on their novel every single day. We can give ourselves (and each other) a pass to take a writing vacation and to reset our focus, so we can finish strong and improve the overall result.

 

A Fresh Start for Writing

snow drop blooming through the snow

Spring epitomizes a fresh start. It’s a great time to dust off the writing projects in progress and take a new look at them. Like spring cleaning, it’s an opportunity to step back and look at your stories with a view of what could be trimmed out to make the story work better.

It can be really hard to edit out pages that you’ve spent a long time crafting to work within a story, but it’s so important to look at your project with a more objective and less invested view. I always recommend that writers get editing help from ‘someone who doesn’t already love them.’

Your friends and family want you to succeed and they also don’t want to disappoint you, so having them as editors often means writers don’t get the tough love that a less personally invested editor would provide.

Writing groups can be great for that kind of feedback, as well as professional editors. Don’t get me wrong, family and friends can provide great feedback on works-in-progress, however, often their focus is to spare your feelings.

What a writer’s friends and family often don’t realize, however, is that writers are like the first flowers of spring (snowdrops) that break through the snow. Writers actually bloom through adversity and constructive criticism.

Sometimes there’s this romantic idea about writing where new writers think that they’ll just whip out a story that everyone will fall in love with and it won’t require any edits. As if the great writers just sat down and drafted out a best seller without any challenges. Of course, the reality is that writing anything that authentically speaks to readers requires a lot of hard work, frequent re-writes, constructive criticism, and dedication.

As Harlan Ellison is known to have said, “People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.”

Keep working at it, writers. Use this spring as a fresh start for your writing projects and go for it. Find someone who will give you constructive feedback and help you grow as a writer. If the only feedback you are hearing is that everything is perfect, then take that as an invitation to find another reader / editor who will challenge you to help you get a fresh start.

 

Indie Reading List Challenge

Recently I was part of a local library event with several other Indie Authors, to help others interested in publishing their novels. The sense of community at the event was lovely and the other indie authors shared their tips and experiences. It felt to me like meeting up with a kindred book group of authors, who have stories they just want to share with the world.

The event also got me thinking about what else I could do to support fellow Indie Authors, outside of providing tips, advice, and participating in similar events. I decided to create my own Indie Author reading list challenge, where I plan to read at least one indie author per month this year.

I was also inspired to create a separate Indie Author book shelf in my Goodreads reviews, to highlight indie authors and help them with adding a review for their book(s).

Ironically, I think that sometimes we indie authors forget to toot the horn for our fellow authors – mostly probably because we are so busy with our own work, blogs, and day jobs. Fortunately, adding indie books to our reading lists is easier than ever and is probably already supported by your local library.

For those of you interested in participating in your own version of the Indie Author challenge by adding more Indie Authors to your reading list, here are some tips on how to find their work:

  • Discover Indie Authors from contest winners featured in contests that are exclusive for independent publishers like the Forward INDIES, the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards, Indie Excellence, or the IPPY Awards to name a few.
  • Participate in an Indie Author Day event to find local indie authors in your community
  • Ask your library about Indie Authors they have books for and if they participate in Self-e which connects libraries with Indie Author Ebooks
  • A lot of Indie Authors publish via CreateSpace, so you can also query “createspace” as the publisher in your library to find some indie authors that way.

Once you do start adding in some Indie Authors into your reading list stack, please consider writing a review for them in Amazon, Goodreads, or another review site. Your reviews help others discover these writers – which is exactly what I’m hoping for with my Indie Authors Goodreads shelf.

 

The Road Less Traveled

Some of my most favorite vacation spots that I choose to return to, are places that very few have heard of. Stumbling upon a hidden gem known only to locals is a triumph for most travelers, including myself. I took this photo in Scotland on the Isle of Skye where there is a beach frequented by cows. Yes, you read that correctly, cows on the beach.

In the photo you can see a few cows up on the right of the road just in the distance. While many might not travel all the way to Scotland to visit a remote beach known mostly only to the cows, it was a real thrill to me. The peaceful quiet of the water lapping against the rocky beach, along with the occasional ‘moos,’ and no crowds of tourists felt like entering a magical realm.

I often seek out the roads less traveled wherever I go, and they each provide their own rewards. One time such a road brought me to the middle of Kansas, where I went out of my way to stop at the geographic center of the United States and found a stone marker in the middle of the prairie and stopped for a minute to listen to the wind blow across the fields.

Another trip brought me to Cape Disappointment, where the first flicker of the idea for my novel started falling into place. There’s a reason that in the novel, The Magic of Cape Disappointment, the protagonist stands at the edge of the cliff near the lighthouse which lies at the end of a trail – a location which is central to the story for several reasons. The character is there because I ended up there myself on one of my journeys along roads less traveled.

In the novel, I had very much hoped to take readers with me to that remote destination, where they could stand next to the protagonist and look out across the vast Pacific ocean while sea birds swooped and squawked around them. Cape Disappointment is a special place indeed and I do return there as often as I can.

Perhaps my next novel will include cows on the beach or feature the quiet prairies in the middle of America. Either way, my travels will continue to include places less often visited by others, and I’m sure new favorite destinations will emerge. Inspiration is a quirky and often flighty thing. In my case, inspiration doesn’t lurk in my laptop. Instead, she waits for me on the roads less traveled.

I hope this year finds you discovering some new places as well, and if you make it out to Cape D, please be sure to take the time to walk over to the lighthouse and enjoy the view.

Transformations

Winter is an excellent time to curl up with a good book, and to observe a character’s journey from their ‘before’ to their ‘after.’ As a writer, it’s also a great time to curl up with the laptop and move the work-in-progress along. When it’s cold and blustery outside, staying warm and cozy inside with several projects one might have been putting off during sunnier days seems an easy way to pass the time.

This picture is from a trip I took to Finland in April on year. Yes, April. While many of us might associate April with the green of spring, there are many places in the world where the thaw has yet to arrive. There is beauty in a frozen winter with bright blue skies and a landscape that changes before our eyes.

Of course, snow brings along many inconveniences, yet it can also effortlessly transforms our world overnight. A good novel can provide the same effect, when we immerse ourselves in a world that is much like our own, yet still strikingly different.

In my novel, The Magic of Cape Disappointment, winter is both the starting season and ending season for the novel. The character’s transformation is complete within the bookended seasons of that year.

Of course, winter also brings us with the new year where we plan our own transformational goals for the coming year. Whatever the year has planned for us, I do hope that it includes many easy, sunny days, as well as, reflective winter days where we cozy up to a good book by the fire and make plans for the new year ahead.

Transformation can occur overnight, as with waking up to a snowy scene, or it can be more gradual like plotting out and writing a new novel over the course of several months. Either way, we grow and change through the seasons of our own lives. I hope this year brings everyone great joy and comfort…and, if we’re really lucky, a little magic.

Reading and Writing

I read a lot and my book choices span most genres. Generally speaking, at any one time I’m probably reading two or three books. I might discover them at the library or learn about them from a friend, but either way there’s always a stack of books with bookmarks somewhere in my house. Sometimes my travels inspire me to read about a place. I enjoy reading, learning new things, and talking about books with others.

Generally I finish most of them and I find it pretty easy to pick up where I left off. Library books always get read faster, because of the timeline required to return them. When I’m writing, I often avoid fiction all together to avoid the possibility of another author’s style getting mixed into my writing project.

While some prefer sticking within a favorite specific genre, I enjoy the challenge and diversity of switching it up, based on my mood, what’s interesting to me at the moment, or which library hold gets delivered first. I could hardly say that I have a reading plan or anything that resembles cohesion. On my Goodreads page, I review books that I have enjoyed and you’ll see that they vary from science fiction to mysteries to non-fiction, and everything in between.

I also try to really challenge myself with a book that I wouldn’t typically read or something that’s super long and a big time commitment at least once or twice a year. My reading also inspires me about potential story ideas, characters, and improving my own writing by learning from other writers.

I’m sure that most writers read a lot – mostly because we love books. I do hope that readers enjoyed my book, The Magic of Cape Disappointment, and that it ends up in a lively discussion in their book club one day or with their friends. Keep reading, friends! There are so many wonderful books out there.

Writing with Sound

Waves can roll gently onto a beach while the trees whisper in the wind, or they can roar and crack the driftwood when they crash. Adding sounds to any prose can make a scene feel more real. Sound is an easy element to forget when writing a draft because typically the focus is on setting the scene and dialogue.

Sounds can be subtle scene-setters, however, and often in editing or even in early drafts I now will always make a point to stop and think about what the characters would hear in whatever situation I’ve written for them. Aside from spicing up the narrative and making the scene feel more realistic, sounds can also step in to ‘show’ something to the reader instead of telling them.

For example, imagine a scene in a busy restaurant where two people are having an awkward conversation. Telling the reader that the character paused during an awkward silence at dinner which can work to get the point across, but it might be better to focus the scene on the silence itself with something like: she didn’t respond to the question, and instead focused on the jangle of the spoon hitting the mug like a bell ringing as she stirred the coffee.

Because we often associate sounds with our own memories, the second version of the same scene that includes the spoon jangling in the mug brings the reader into the scene more closely and also help them remember that moment in the scene more because of what was excluded as much as the sound included.

When I’m stuck in a chapter or feeling a sense of writer’s block, refocusing the writing to add in sound often helps improve the scene and help usher me into the next chapter. It’s a little trick that I’ve found to be helpful. I hope that this writing tip ‘clicks’ with you as well!

Scene Setting

Setting the scene in writing projects helps transport the reader to the world they are reading about. I like to think that drafting out long descriptions of what a house looks like or what the characters look like then steals a little bit of the reader’s imagination. A reader brings their own view into the fictional world created by the writer, and it’s important to let the reader fill out some of the details in the scene themselves.

Details, and choosing the right details, shared about characters or locations provide just enough for a reader to transform themselves. For example, one thing that I make a point of doing in my writing is allowing the readers to determine what the characters look like. I trust the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks and to co-create the world that I’ve built for them.

That style grew from my own reading, where after a few details about reading about a character, I develop a picture in my mind about them. When additional details on page three or twelve then change that image in my mind, I personally get annoyed as a reader. I already knew what the enchanted cottage garden looked like with only the description of the beige limestone, slate shingles, and wild green garden that grew without any clear intention yet seemed purposefully designed (picture above, for example). Note all of the other details that I left out of my description on purpose.

When the writer then adds a long description about the type of gravel used in the garden paths and the specific flowers that dot the pathway, then my image is dashed as a reader. How authors describe characters and scenes I think probably has a lot to do with the types of books they enjoy and how much of their imagination they like to provide to the reading experience.

For my characters, I trust the readers to round out their images based on some carefully deliberated details. I don’t expect that the reader will have the exact same image in their heads that I do about one of the lead characters, Sam, for example. I describe Sam as someone who looks like a handsome outdoor clothing catalog model.

While some may say that this approach leaves too much for the reader’s imagination to fill in, I disagree. I think a writer’s job is to bring the reader to the the world and to introduce the characters with just the right details – then allow the reader to make the story their own. Trusting in that ‘team’ approach to writing is just one approach of many for setting the scene. The fun part of reading is being able to experience all the different types of writing styles and to discover which ones appeal to you the most.