Sometimes writing goes in a different direction

Sometimes things don’t turn out like you planned. And when it comes to writing that is often the case. Sometimes what you think you are going to write goes a total different direction.

This happened to me twice in the past week. The first time was when I was writing my post for this past Monday. I planned to write about an incident regarding a stranger approaching a student on his way to school. Since there has been an increase in stories of human trafficking in my city, I figured that is what I would be writing about and even looked up some facts and statistics.

But when I began writing, I realized my reaction to this incident was not the same as those of my neighbors who were more alarmed than I am. They resorted to ultra-protective parenting mode and declared that our children need to be protected and shouldn’t be walking to school. Once I realized this was what I felt passionate about, I addressed that rather than writing about the possibility of human trafficking happening in my neighborhood (which I am by no means worried about).

The other incident happened as I was finishing out a scene in my latest work in progress. One of my main characters is worried about not being able to protect his friends from a dangerous situation. I wanted a conversation between him and another character which I hoped would reassure the main character that he is doing as much as he can.

Now, I don’t follow a strict outline so I began writing with just that vague idea of where I thought the conversation would go. I figured it would be brief, but you know you can’t predict what characters will do if you give them free rein. I let the conversation flow, going further than I expected and revealing a bit of backstory. But the conversation felt natural, like this is what the characters would actually say.

As the writer, I could have forced the conversation to be what I thought it should be. But it would feel contrived and in the end, I probably would have had to re-write the section as it would have an “off” feel. I let the characters be their true selves and that should make the story better. I’m still on my first draft so I’ll leave in the scene as it developed. Whether it stays that way in the final draft is yet to be seen.

What these two incidents reminded me of is that you can’t always plan your writing. Sometimes you just need to write what works for you. Sometimes you need to throw your characters into a situation and see what happens and not stick with what you think will happen. You never know where it will lead you. And it just might turn out better than whatever you had imagined.

Challenge your character

The other day as I was struggling to write a scene, I realized the scene wasn’t working as it didn’t have any tension. Now not every scene needs to be tense or full of conflict, but one useful tip to give your characters challenges. Nothing should come easy for them. This advice helped me to fix the scene.

In reviewing another scene, I noticed the protagonist did something the first time he tried. And that reminded me of another blog I wrote recently called “Super Easy, Barely an Inconvenience” which is a phrase used in every Pitch Meeting on the Screen Rant YouTube Channel. In this series by Ryan George, a pitchman (Ryan) presents movies to a studio executive (also played by Ryan). Whenever the studio exec questions a plot area that might cause the protagonist trouble, the pitchman explains that that the protagonist has no trouble doing it hence the phrase “Super Easy, Barely an Inconvenience.”

Once I realized my character wasn’t having to jump a hurdle or struggle to do something, I knew I needed to rewrite the scene. Characters need to face obstacles. How they overcome these challenges is what makes the story compelling.

Making characters suffer or struggle can help advance your plot or can reveal something about their character. It creates tension. It makes readers want to keep reading to see what happens next. Will the character survive or how will they get out of this scrape? Maybe this will be the event that tells the reader what the whole story is about. The only way they will know is to keep reading.

The challenges and hurdles you throw at your characters can be physical or emotional. It could be overcoming an obstacle like a steep climb up a mountain or it could be emotional when they must face one of their fears to get what they want. Perhaps the action is putting a loved one at risk. This can weigh heavily on your character especially if they are the reason that person is in danger.

Writers can’t afford to be nice. Characters need to experience both ups and downs. They are not real, so it is okay to make them suffer. Have them fall from grace and then restore them. Push your characters, test them, dare them to do more than they ever imagined being capable of doing. Conflicts test your characters’ resolve or can add battle scars that shape future decisions.

So next time you are struggling with a scene, step back and see whether there is tension or conflict or if this is just a passing the time type scene. If it is the latter, you need to eliminate it or rewrite it until it has that edge your readers want.

Killing off a character or two

Looking to add conflict or tension to your novel? You might consider killing off a character – or depending on the type of novel more than one character.

Image result for murderNo matter what type of novel you are writing – thriller, mystery, romance – there may come a time when you need to kill off one or more of your characters. From serial killers to mysterious deaths to killing out of jealousy or survival, murder or death can add to the conflict of your story. And what better way to have your antagonist instill fear than to kill off a few people. Or it could be your protagonist doing the killing to preserve his or her life or that of a loved one.

Or it could be an accidental death – a fire, a car accident, a drowning, an allergic reaction, the list goes on and on. For more suggestions and how they might affect the other characters, check out this blog.

Image result for rulesBut no matter who is doing the killing, you still must follow the rules. As with any character action, there needs to be a reason behind it. No one – not even serial killers – kill without a reason. It may not be an obvious reason such as self-defense but even mass murderers have a reason for what they do. It is not “just because” or because they are “evil.”

And if they are going to kill off a character in your story, you need to make sure there is a good reason for the character to die. It could be to advance the plot, spurring your protagonist into motion. Or it could be to add realism. No one expects to read a war drama without anyone dying. But it just shouldn’t be because of “shock” value or you need something to happen.

Image result for death of a characterNow killing off a character you have spent time developing or are attached to can be hard. It can be equally hard for readers when a favorite character dies. When done right, a character’s death can break a reader’s heart, but if done wrong, it’ll just exhaust their patience.

As I delve into this topic, I will divide these characters into two categories – minor characters and main characters.

It is much easier to kill off a minor character. Many times, you and the reader are not as attached to them. I always think of a minor character as the first person killed in a horror movie. They are not usually well developed. No one has had a chance to really get to know or like this character before they die. Because readers can spot these insignificant expendable characters, I don’t encourage you to add characters just for the purposes of killing them off.

Image result for grave stoneNow killing off a minor character might be easy, but it is something entirely different to kill a main character. Remember, you shouldn’t kill a character just because you or someone else thinks you should. You should only kill off a character if it will advance the story. This could mean that this person’s death contributes to the development of another character or advances the plot in some way. The death can spur someone into action or show a strength that wouldn’t have been shown without that death. The main thing is not to this on a whim. Make sure you think of the consequence losing a main character will do to your story and the remaining characters and make sure the cost is worth it.

If you are willing to kill off main characters, you can have your readers expecting the unexpected. They may cry at the deaths and hate you for doing that, but they will know something else. They will know everyone is at risk. And that adds tension to your story.

Cutting unnecessary scenes from your novel

Every author at some point will write a scene that just doesn’t really need to be in their novel. The scene might be rehashing something the characters or reader already know. Or maybe it is connecting two scenes that could have been connected another way such as with a chapter break.

Every scene in your novel should be an integral to the story arc. If it isn’t, then it doesn’t belong in your story.

These unnecessary scenes can derail the plot or bore the readers.

So, as you are writing or revising your story, take a good look at each scene and make sure it belongs in your story.

Here are 11 types of scenes (or parts of scenes) that might be unnecessary.

  • A day in the life – Sometimes descriptions of a character’s daily routine can be interesting or provide important details into that character. Or it can simply be boring. There scenes often appear at the beginning of the novel as the author gets to know the character or isn’t sure how to start the story.
  • Backstory – You may have spent a lot of time developing the backstory for your character, but rarely is it necessary to share that backstory with the reader. And if you do share some backstory, it should be bits and pieces as needed instead of a long dump of information.
  • Hanging out – Conversations may break up action or scene descriptions but should only be used if it progresses the plot. No one wants to read the conversation of two characters just “hanging out” or exchange of pleasantries.
  • Description overload – Descriptions let the reader see the characters and the setting. But there is such a thing as too much description. Readers may tend to skip over this if they know nothing is happening. (I’m one of those readers.)
  • Information overload – Sometimes your character needs to update another with an event that your reader has already witnessed. There is no need to tell the event again unless perhaps in the rehashing (or internal dialogue) something will be revealed, or a connection will happen as the puzzle pieces fall into place. You can even create some conflict if the characters don’t agree on the fact or relevance.
  • Too much character thought – Extended character thoughts can become tiresome especially if they are doing nothing to drive the plot forward.
  • Repeated scenes/information – Repetitive scenes are an easy trap to fall into. But once you establish your character as a caring, dog-rescuing woman or top-notch safe cracker, you don’t need to go over it again in another (and another) scene.
  • Times-a-wasting – Characters need to take a break from the action. But you don’t want characters to sit around rehashing their tough day or just resting. Make sure their actions and dialogue move the plot forward.
  • Minor character relationships – Minor characters can give your main characters someone to interact with but you don’t want to spend too much on their life or history or romantic relationships unless it moves the plot forward. Heck, there are some minor characters that don’t even warrant a name.
  • Research dump – As an author, you may do a lot of research into something – your character’s career or hobby – so that you can paint their life realistically. But there is no reason to put in scene after scene with details of these jobs/hobbies. There is nothing wrong with using information to bring color and realism to a scene, but the scene should never be about the information unless it is actually driving the plot.
  • Transitions – Whenever you switch settings or jump time in your story, you’re usually going to have to account for what happened between Point A and Point B, if only to avoid disorienting readers. But this doesn’t mean you have to show your character driving to the next location. In fact, often you can easily change scenes with a chapter or section break with just a few words noting the time or location change.

Now, I know you probably recognize some of these scenes not only from your own work but that of other famous authors. I know a well-known romance author who often does the research dump.  And maybe these scenes worked in that story, but in most cases, these scenes are completely unnecessary, and readers wouldn’t miss them if they aren’t there.

As you write or edit your story, look at each scene. Imagine the story without it. Would the story still make sense? Would the plot still progress, and the character development still flow? If the answer to these questions is yes, then the scene is not needed. If there is only one or two important elements in the scene, then you might consider adding these elements to another scene and cutting out the parts that don’t advance the story.

Do this consistently and you will create a solid novel with no unnecessary scenes, and hopefully one that readers will want to keep reading rather than closing the book.

Avoiding distractions to stay on task

Staying on task is hard. Really, it is.

There are countless distractions whether you are at work or at home. There are ringing phones, text messages, social media, news, co-workers or kids. It can feel like you never get any uninterrupted time. (I felt that way today as I wrote this blog. Numerous times the kids came in to chat.)

Often to feel like I am getting stuff crossed off my to do list (whether it be writing, PTA or home tasks), I try working on several things at once (usually 10 minutes of this, 10 minutes of that). And while it might feel like you are being productive since you are multi-tasking, it often is a false sense of accomplishment. You are busy with multiple tasks, but you are not completing any of them. (So true.)

Here are some tips to help you avoid distractions and stay on task:

  • Listen to Music – This can help isolate you from surrounding interruptions while also getting your brain moving and thoughts flowing.
  • Isolate yourself – If people (say my kids for example) keep interrupting you, then avoid them. Go somewhere with less interruptions – the conference room at work or the home office or bedroom if you are working at home. (At home, a sign on the door might slow some of those interruptions.) Heck, you can even go elsewhere to work. Go to a café or the library to work.
  • Remove distractions – That’s right. Put away the phone or at least turn off the ringer and notifications. (People will survive if they can’t reach you for a bit.) Close your email. It will be there later when you have time to check it. Disconnect the internet if that will keep you from getting distracted by Facebook, YouTube or news sites. You are always just one click away from wasting 30 minutes on the internet.
  • Let others know you are busy – Schedule some time on your calendar so that others don’t or can’t schedule something with you. Let kids or coworkers know you will be busy and are not to be interrupted.
  • Stay with one task – Be disciplined enough not to start another task until the one at hand is done. If another task enters your mind, don’t jump to do it. Write it down on your to-do list. Sticking with one task takes practice and discipline.

These tips are designed to help you stay on task. Whether you can execute them and do that remains to be seen. I know for myself that I am often distracted by the kids or YouTube videos or trying to do several things in one stretch of time. I know that at the end of the day I often feel like not enough was done. I do find that setting a timer sometimes help me stay with that one task for a set amount of time. Now whether I finish it in that time depends on the task. Hopefully, you will have the willpower to implement these things and become more productive.

As for me…well, I am working on it. (She says as types while chatting with her daughter and watching a movie on TV.)

Using the S.M.A.R.T. strategy to set your writing goals

Last week, I wrote about how long it takes to write a novel. (Short answer, it is different for everyone and for the different lengths of stories.) But something that helps many writers stay on task and get that novel written is to set goals. And not just any goal but realistic ones.

Now before I start in on writing goals, just know that this isn’t for everyone. Some people write sporadically and goals – ones they are likely won’t be able to meet – are only going to lead to frustration. And sometimes goals and the pressure to make them can stifle your creativity when the words just aren’t flowing.

But for others, setting writing goals helps keep you motivated and on track. For these goals to be helpful, they need to be clear and realistic. You can’t expect to write 10,000 words in a day when you only have an hour a day to write.

Looking online, many websites say your goal needs to be S.M.A.R.T. – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time Bound.

Specific – You can’t just set a goal of writing a novel. This is too vague. You can easily become overwhelmed (and unmotivated) with this type of goal. Instead, make it a goal of writing an hour a day or a specific word or page count.

Measurable – You need to know when you have accomplished your goal and can cross it off your list. This is where the above-mentioned word or page count come into play. And since your results are measurable, you can easily adjust them. Say you set a goal of writing so many words or pages a day, but you’re not always meeting this goal, you can either work harder or adjust your goal to something more realistic.

Attainable – You need to set a realistic goal. If you set a goal of writing 20 pages a day but you work and are raising a family, chances are you won’t be able to maintain this goal. There is nothing wrong with adjusting your goal if you find yourself unable to meet your goal. There is no point in setting a goal that isn’t achievable. All that will do is discourage you even more.

To set a realistic goal, be honest with how much time you can devote to writing. Then look at the time and decide how many words or pages you can realistically get done. Don’t want a daily goal since your productivity fluctuates? Try a weekly goal. Take what you think you can do in a day and times that by how many days a week you plan to write. (Hint – it probably shouldn’t be seven days a week as a day away from writing can be a good thing.)

Relevant – Your goal needs to related to your overall goal. So, your goal to write so many pages is just a step in writing your novel and part of your overall goal of becoming a published author. Thus meeting your goal of 1,500 words a day, five days a week will ultimately help you complete your novel and move onto your next goal (editing and publishing).

Time-Bound – This simply means your goal needs to be done in a certain time period. This helps you to schedule it in your day/week.

All of these criteria can help you develop realistic goals that will help you complete your novel. To keep on task, it is helpful to review and adjust your goals on a regular basis. The point is not to feel bad if you are not meeting your goals but to make them attainable.

Looking at how long it takes to write a novel

Last week I wrote about the ups and downs of writing. Sometimes I am cranking out the words and other days I am struggling to find time to write.

As I read about the experiences of other authors, I hear about authors who write thousands of words a day. And while it is good to have a writing goal and to be actually writing, is it worth it to write a lot of not so good words or should you strive to write quality writing? Do you want to cut a lot of what you write?

Well, I guess that is right, but I do hate deleting a lot of what I write so my writing is slower as I strive for quality passages verses a high number of words. And of course, I do edit as I write so that takes longer to write. But I am getting off the topic here.

Today, I wanted to talk about how long it takes to write a novel, and how you should take it with a grain of salt when other authors say they crank out books every month, every other month or how ever often they say they write a book.

If you ask 10 authors how long it takes to write a book, you will probably get 10 different answers. For some it takes 10 years or 4 years or 1 year or 6 months. It can take a long time to write a novel if you have research, complex plots or if you spend a lot of time fine-tuning sentences. How often you write and for how long, your level of writing experience, the genre, and length of novel also play into how long it takes to write a novel.

This is that grain of salt thing I mentioned when listening to how long it takes authors to write a book. Here is a list of books and how long they took to write. Note the word count, some of these books are short. I could certainly crank out more books if my stories were 28,000 or even 53,000 words.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – 3 weeks (67,000 words)

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – 6 weeks (28,000 words)

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer – 3 months (112,000 words)

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – 9 months (53,000 words)

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling – 1 ½ years (19,500 words)

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien – 2 years (95,000 words)

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – 2 ½ years (99,000 words)

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin – 5 years (293,000 words)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling – 6 ½ years (77,000 words)

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 10 years (418,000 words)

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – 12 years (655,000 words)

The argument for writing books faster is that your readership grows exponentially with each book. Fans of your first book will often read your second one. And readers who find you later on, if they like your writing, will go back and read your other books. If you take too long to publish your next book, there is a chance readers will forget about you. (Or so the thinking goes among some authors.)

But cranking out sub-standard books is also not a good thing which sometimes happens when authors rush their stories.

So, when aspiring or newbie authors ask how long it takes to write a novel, it really takes as long as you want or need it to take. And that is different for all of us.