Metamorphosis of a Cabin… ahem, I mean Novel

It started as an ugly shell – just hand-sawn timbers and rough plywood. Our wilderness cabin wasn’t meant to be anything more than a fishing shack, and that’s all it was for many years.

Then the dynamics of our family changed and we decided it had cottage potential. We began to modify the shack to make it habitable year ‘round. The porch was closed in and insulation, wallboard and flooring were added. A wall went up to create a 6’ x 7’ back-corner bedroom. Cedar siding rescued from a demolished city house finished the exterior.

Improvements were gradual, but through the years each renovation and refinement made our little cabin in the woods more livable. A recent expansion doubled the design to a generous (?) 480 square feet, and now the exterior has been re-clad in recycled vinyl siding.

What was once ugly has become passably attractive. The drafty fishing shack is now snug even at -35 degrees. It’s still rustic, without electricity or running water, but it has morphed into something relatively comfortable.

The cabin’s metamorphosis could be a metaphor about novel writing. I know, I know… you have to stretch your imagination a bit here, but think about it. We start with an idea, begin constructing the bare bones, flesh it out, stand back and evaluate, and then revise the whole configuration until it becomes an organized and interesting story. At each stage it’s recognizable, but not particularly exciting. It takes a lot of work and a fair amount of know-how to develop the initial idea into a solid structure.

 

I wonder how many shacks in the woods were destined to become more elaborate buildings.

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Do you have many sketchy ideas in your notebook waiting to be developed into something more? How much planning will be needed before they take shape? Will you draw up a detailed blueprint first or construct as you go?

What’s the Point?

As I clipped the quaint silver cross onto a fir branch I took a good look at it. A little shabby, bare on the edges, bits of broken wire on some of the corners.  Years ago we spray painted it and sprinkled on fresh glitter to spiffy it up, but it’s still looking a little dilapidated. I suppose it has a right to be. It’s as old as I am, and I’m a little worn around the edges myself.

 

My parents bought this ornament the year I was born and it has been on every one of my Christmas trees. We have a half dozen other old fashioned ornaments that were on my grandparents’ trees and have been passed through the family ranks, too. None of them are really beautiful anymore, and look a little out of place among the newer baubles, but we treasure them anyway.

 

We have a delicate white baptismal dress and underslip that has been worn by three generations of babies in our family over a period of almost seventy-five years… all but two of the babies also cuddled into a handmade white shawl that is fifty years old.

 

Ask any of my family about Christmas fruitcakes and you’ll hear that they have to be made on November 11th as they have been every year since I started making them back in the 1960s, and every family member present must take a turn stirring the batter, regardless of their age. (We won’t mention the ongoing argument about whether dark or light cakes are better tasting!)

Traditions. How do they get started? What makes them endure? And do traditions find their way into your writing? What do they tell readers about your characters?


Now What? Life After NaNoWriMo


Around the world red-eyed wrimos are looking at the numbers in awe and whispering, “I contributed words to that total.” Then they look down at their NaNo manuscript with despair and groan, “But it’s all crap!”

 

Yup, that’s the curse of taking part in NaNoWriMo. Participants worldwide wrote a total of 2,872,682,109 words in November but many of them will disappear in December with a stroke of the delete key as frantic revisions get underway. After all, we wouldn’t want anyone to peer over our shoulder and see the caliber of writing that we threw onto the page in our November 1,667-words-a-day sprint.

 

Mind you, some wrote novels just for the sake of saying they wrote a novel, regardless of its quality, and they’ve already put it aside, not caring to write again until next November. But for many of us there was always the intent to carry on after November 30th and revise and refine the nucleus of a worthwhile story. We’ll take time to reflect on it, and then we’ll go back to work and start chiseling away the rough stuff to find the gems within. That’s when the real work begins.

The NaNoWriMo website has a page with tips and tidbits on the post-NaNo experience, and there’s a forum called “December and Beyond” for those who want to continue sharing the journey known as NaNo afterlife.

 

Me? First I have to clean grungy bathrooms, search out coffee-stained clothes to launder, check back shelves in the fridge for furry green stuff, and generally try to catch up on all the chores that were ignored during November. Oh, yes, and maybe get some sleep and start some Christmas baking.

 

In between I’ll be back at the keyboard. I only wrote 33,286 words last month. I have a novel to finish.

What are you working on during December?

Waiting in Hope

We sang, “Hope is a Star” yesterday in church, and lit the first candle to mark the start of another Advent season. Wikipedia says the term comes from the Latin word adventus which means coming, and that Advent is “a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the nativity of Jesus at Christmas.”

Not just “waiting”, but “expectant waiting”. Not a passive sit-back-and-wait-until-it-gets-here kind of waiting, but a time of active participation that gives meaning to our Christian hope.

In my last two novels there are scenes that take place at Christmas. For one character it is a time of anticipation, for the other, despair. While I was writing I had to remind myself that life is like that – different for different people. Not everyone approaches the Christmas season with the same joy that I experience.

But most have hope.

What do your characters hope for? As you enter this Advent season, what do you hope for?

Making Better Use of My Time

 

Google Reader helps keep my blog-reading habit under control. One day I took the time to enter the URLs of my favourite blogs as ‘subscriptions’ and now I can access them all in one place. A quick glance lets me know which ones have new postings so I don’t have to waste time travelling to each bookmarked blog to check.

Sounds simple enough, but on second thought my opening sentence is misleading. Better to say that Google Reader consolidates my favourite blogs into one place. Period. Nothing really keeps my blog hopping under control except self discipline or good old lack of time. But what it does is allow me to use my blog-reading time to better advantage.

That’s how I managed to catch up on some of my favourites while taking a brief break from NaNoWriMo this morning. That’s how I discovered I’d missed two valuable posts by Rosslyn Elliott. That’s how I was inspired to create this post. I still haven’t made it back to NaNoWriMo.

Something Rosslyn said created an eureka moment – one of those ‘I knew that but she said it so much better than I could’ thoughts. In What Makes a Novel Feel Real? – Part 1, she suggested, Don’t get so focused on a slamdunk pace that [you] leave out the everyday moments, the normalcy that makes the novel feel real.… I’m not saying we should never have burning buildings, but unless we balance those events with the more mundane dramas that fill most of our lives, novels feel fake.”

I’m not going to re-run her posts, but I do suggest you go read both of them. I’m heading back to Google Reader now to re-read her Part 2. Then I really have to get back to my NaNo novel. At 21,300 words I still have a long way to go, and today is already the middle of our NaNo’ing month!

To reiterate Rosslyn’s question, what does it take to make a novel feel ‘real’ to you?

November? NaNoWriMo? Really? A Rebellious Wrimo Speaks Out

What? I’m not allowed to feel rebellious? Well, too bad. I am! On Monday morning, November 1st, the writing world will be waking up to wrimosity… my word for writing animosity. Anyone who has openly admitted to participating in NaNoWriMo‘s thirty-day dash to a 50,000-word novel has likely encountered disbelief and ridicule from friends, family and incredulous neighbours.

But not from fellow writers and wrimos. No, we understand the drive to produce words. Anything that can give us an extra push towards literary achievement is a good thing. But there are some among us who are feeling the pinch to produce under difficult circumstances.

There are rules attached to NaNoWriMo that are creating frustration in the ranks. The intent of the NaNo endeavour is to create a complete novel, from beginning to end, within the thirty days. Those of us who didn’t plan ahead find ourselves with partial novels on the go… ones that we want to finish before starting something else. Ones that we would work on as a NaNo project if it weren’t for those darned rules.

Some are admitting that they plan to participate anyway, and only count the new words that are written during the month. Others are carefully adhering to the rule and only “shadowing” NaNoWriMo, using the month to continue working on a previous manuscript with a self-monitored goal of 50,000 new words. Still others are escaping entirely and dedicating their headlong lunge to 50,000 words in a “Write Non-fiction in November” (WNFIN) challenge.

Now the calendar is flashing itself provocatively at us, jeering at our lowered eyes, reminding us that there are only two more days — just one weekend — between us and the starting gate. It’s almost decision-making time. The Twittering has begun, there’s a Facebook page organized, and a blog on the go (from founder Chris Baty’s ‘Office of Letters and Light’). Everything is ready except ME!

If you haven’t already seen the following video that’s making its way around the web, here’s a little ditty that’s helping to get fellow wrimos in the mood.

So, how about it? Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Will you be raring to start as the minute hand slides away from midnight Monday morning? (Does anyone still use those watches and clocks with Mickey Mouse arms or is everything digital now?)

Getting In the Mood

Candlelight and soft music? I don’t think so! Then again, if I were writing in the Romance genre perhaps those are exactly the props I’d use to get into a scene-writing mood.

When it comes to finding story ideas we all have our distinctive sources. For me, a single image repeatedly appears in my mind, usually of a person in a particular setting. There is nothing else. No action. No plot. I begin to wonder who this person is, what’s happening and why. As the character’s state of mind is revealed the beginning of a story emerges and I write the first scene.

That’s how it starts. From that point I either keep writing ‘from the seat of my pants’, without knowing where the story will go, or I do a bit of basic planning, jotting down several key ideas that will guide me in a specific direction.

Sometimes before I even start writing I’ve seen and explored that mental image so many times the character has become familiar. Other times I get to know the person as the story develops. In either case my imagination begins creating a setting complete with meaningful props. That’s when I dig out my old magazines and catalogues, grab scissors and glue, and begin making a story collage.

My collages always begin with a picture that resembles my mental image of the main character. Beyond that it’s a random process during which I collect a hodgepodge of clippings. It’s an ongoing process throughout the writing of the first draft. I stick the clippings onto card, adding others as the story moves ahead. Usually I end up with anywhere from two to four cards which I slip into plastic sleeves and clip into my research binder.

During a current critique of my w.i.p. I was reminded that leaving cards in the binder doesn’t serve me very well unless it’s close at hand for frequent reference. Today I have the collage cards out to help me get back into the mood to improve a tiny slice of romance writing. There is no candlelight and soft music, just the picture of an ornate gold Celtic cross.

Do you use props to help get into a specific mood for writing a scene? What are they?

Writing a Really Bad Novel

Every so often it’s good to laugh at yourself. While reminiscing about my embarrassingly bad first novel I came across an old article written by John Hewitt at PoeWar entitled, Want to Write a Novel Badly? Here’s How! In it he lists 32 steps. I won’t admit how many of them I employed in that first novel, but it did give me reason to laugh at myself. Granted, I choked a few times, too.

Here’s what John says:

Do you want to write a novel? Most people try to write a good novel and fail. Dare to be different. Try writing a bad novel instead. If you finish, you will have either succeeded in writing a bad novel or failed and written a good novel. It’s a win/win situation. Here’s a guide to writing an absolutely terrible novel. The path is clear. All you have to do is follow it…  [Read more]

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When Is It Okay Not to Write?

When I coasted over to Brandilyn Collins’ Forensics and Faith blog today I spent longer there than I expected. Some days I skim a lot of blogs (I’m not admitting to how many), gathering up tidbits that are meaningful to me and hurrying past items that aren’t. I stayed to read thoroughly and then re-read her post, Five Reasons Why the Unpublished Can Stop Writing. I recommend you hasten over and read it for yourself. It’s meant for those who have yet to publish a book, but I think it speaks to all writers.

Here’s a peek at what she says: “A halt to writing is part of the journey. I stopped writing numerous times during the ten years I worked to be published in fiction. Once I even vowed I’d never go back.” This is from someone who now has at least twenty published books. It’s worth reading. You’ll feel so much better about those dry spells when you’re lambasting yourself for not writing. Go check it out here!

Portraying Pets With Personality

Have you ever considered that animals have personalities?

We’re on the move this week, visiting some of our family in BC’s Okanagan and Kootenays. All our families include dogs (although there is one cat among the canine crowd), and all of them get along well with each other. They may not tolerate the intrusion of a neighbour’s dog but a family member’s is welcomed with enthusiasm, and remembered by name between visits. It’s as though they understand they’re part of an extended family.

Each one has its distinct characteristics and that started me thinking about how we depict pets in our novels. Unless the story focuses on an animal, such as in Marley and Me, it seems like they are a presence without personality. They exist for the children to play with, as company for the protagonist, or as a threat to the antagonist. They’re just there. They are little more than “set dec”.

What a missed opportunity! Different breeds have different characteristics and the canny writer will research these and choose one that fits the character’s lifestyle, or create tension with one that is totally unsuitable. Just as a healthy plant enhances the hominess of a living room, so the right pet can complement a scene, offer comic relief or perhaps help reveal character flaws.

Have you included pets in your stories? What purpose have they served? Consider doing a short writing exercise that features an in-depth look at your favourite animal.