Wednesday, December 29, 2010

THE END OF A YEAR PART 2: Does your novel pass the checklist?

   An Illustration
"Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?" 

"To know what would have happened, child?" said Aslan. "No, Nobody is ever told that." 

"Oh dear," said Lucy.

"But anyone can find out what will happen," said Aslan. "If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me-- what will happen?  There is only one way of finding out. . . " 

"But they won't belive me!" said Lucy.

"It doesn't matter," said Aslan.

"Oh dear, oh dear," said Lucy.  "And I thought I was so pleased at finding you again.  And I thought you'd let me stay.  And I thought you'd come roaring in and frighten all the enemies away-- like last time.  And now everything is going to be horrid."

"It is hard for you, little one," said Aslan.  "But things never happen the same way twice.  It has been hard for us all in Narnia before now." 

Lucy buried her head in his mane to hide from his face. But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up.

"I'm sorry, Aslan," she said.  "I'm ready now." 

-Prince Caspian Chp 10, pp. 137-138

Facing the Fear

The would-haves.  The what-ifs.  They get us every time.  And like Lucy Pevensie, at the end of 2010, I found myself asking God, "What would have happened?" What if I did decide to take the plunge, start the new year with a new novel, new plot?  Would people think I was a quitter?  What about my students? I had spent an entire semester telling my creative writing classes how I was writing a novel.  Was I supposed to just waltz in January 3rd and shout "Surprise! Change of plans folks!"

Mostly, I was afraid of what my parents and close friends would say, "Typical, Amanda.  She never sticks with anything." (I realize now this was just the fear talking, but roll with me people).

I vacillated between just finishing my novel- hammering out those last ten chapters, then tossing the manuscript in a drawer and saying whatever- at least it was practice and it would never see the light of day; and trying to figure out some way to salvage my little novel that could.

I spent the day before Christmas Eve shopping with my mother- and talking her ear off about my plot problems. Bless her heart.  I ended the day with some great last-minute gifts, and a "solid" feeling in my heart that I should keep what was working in my novel: my cast of elementals, and throw out the rest. In mom's words, "If you know what the people like, then give it to them." (This "throw out the rest" was VERY scary, because it was everything I had been working on up until this point: everything that had been workshopped.  But, at the same time, it was freeing.)

Finding out What Will Happen...

I am not sure exactly why I brought my writing journal to the candlelight Christmas Eve service.  Surely, the family was there for. . . you know- the celebration of Baby Jesus.  But, as a dutiful writer, I felt like I should take my journal everywhere.  You never know when you might need it.

On the drive to church I sat in the car thinking about a fresh way to approach my story, and decided on completely ditching Cora as the main character and instead using one of the elementals- a sylph. I had really liked her character, she is an air elemental who is afraid of heights,  and I hadn't gotten a chance to write about her in the old manuscript. So now- I had my protagonist.  She needed a love interest- for which I chose Fino- the salamander (fire elemental)- since he was EVERYONE's favorite character.  The next thing I knew, we were in the parking lot at church.

I literally walked through the front doors, sat down, and started writing. The orchestra played all the great Christmas songs.  The praise team sang. People were baptized. I kept writing. We stood up.  We sat down.  I kept writing.  My dad leaned over and asked my mother what in the world I was taking notes on. She said she didn't have a clue.  I didn't stop writing until it was time for us to light our candles and sing Silent Night.

And that was it.  That was my Christmas present.  A brand new novel. Completely plotted out. (Just about).  Writers out there- do you want to know HOW I know that this idea is 10,000 times more workable than my old novel idea?  Here's a checklist. (Old idea I had to FIGHT to get it to fit in these four points. New idea, fits like a glove).

The "You're On the Right Track" Check List 

1. Can you summarize what your main character wants and what is at stake if she doesn't get what she wants in a sentence? (In my writing classes we do the "Somebody-Wanted-But-So." Somebody: is your protagonist, Wanted: tell us what she wants more than anything, But: what is standing in the way (include what's at stake if she doesn't get what she wants), So: what is your protag's plan?)

2. Can you fit your novel's plot into the 8 point Plot Outline as mentioned in Weronika Janczuk's blog posts from Death of a Novel: Part 1? This should be a good fit, not something that you are constantly wrestling over.  If your plot begins to feel in any way forced or contrived to you- it will feel that way for your readers too.  They can sniff out a deus ex machina whether it happens in the ending or somewhere in the middle.

3. Does your novel have both public and private stakes? If your protagonist doesn't do _________ or achieve__________ or whatever, something needs to happen that is personal for her, and the public should be affected.  Now, we aren't talking WORLDWIDE public- unless you want to be.  But, for your novel to have some spark to it, we have to believe that your protagonist is linked to the outside world. Our actions have consequences that affect ourselves and those around us.  How far you want that circle of influence to spread is up to you.

4. Do your novel's stakes include a timeline? Even if your characters aren't racing to stop a ticking bomb, your novel needs to have some time element. Time helps drive the conflict. Without conflict, there is no plot.  Take the fabulous 80s movie The Breakfast Club.  The whole movie spans the length of a Saturday detention. But what they do in that time frame. . . ah!  There's the genius:  running around, goofing off.  Trying not to get caught. Pulling pranks. Learning life lessons.  And then there's the question that hangs in the air at the end, "When this is over, when we get out- will we be friends, or will we go back to ignoring each other?" In a sense, the detention is the ticking bomb. Because when detention ends, their lives will change, one way or another.

This new year promises to be exciting.  I have outlined, plotted, and researched in seven days what it took me MONTHS to do earlier.  At this rate, I should start writing the first week or so of January.  I don't say this to boast, only that when it works- it works. Will there be days ahead when I don't want to write?  Definitely.  Will there be rejection and pain and hardship? Of course. But what 2010 taught me was to trust myself, in my abilities as a writer.  I know good writing when I read it in others' works, and I know when my writing mechanically falls short.  For me, stopping in the middle of my novel, taking a fresh approach with a new protagonist and plot was the right decision.

"What you want is practice, practice, practice. . . I feel every time I write a page either of prose or of verse, with real effort, even if it's thrown into the fire next minute, I am so much further on."  C. S. Lewis

Like Lucy, I feel the lion-strength again, and I say: "I'm ready now!"


  1. Some great points to ponder and I'm so very glad you got such a wonderful Christmas present after all!

  2. I enjoyed this post, especially the part about you taking your journal to Christmas Eve Mass, I got the concept for my first novel in my first Good Friday Service.

  3. this is really sweet. I think a lot of people in the book blogging community (including myself!) really look up to you. I'm always checking out your blog help posts and such to answer some questions I may have. Thanks for everything :)
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