Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Make A List. Check It Twice.

So you want to write a book? Good for you. Tell me about it.

Have you selected a genre yet? If you’ve already chosen fiction, that’s half the battle. But there’s more. A lot more.

Better know your genre up front. There are guidelines for what each genre should include, and you need to be aware of them so you don’t confuse or disappoint your future readers. Let reader expectation be your guiding light.

There’s a fine line, or a big gap, for example, between children’s and young adult, between thriller and mystery, between crime and horror. Learn the differences and avoid problems later. Not just in the story, but also in the marketing.

You probably already have your idea for a story and a character. Some people say if the protagonist changes at the end, then your story is literary fiction because it’s character-driven. If it’s action, your book lands on the commercial side instead, because it’s plot-driven.

Helpful for a starting point, but that’s not all there is to it. My writer friend Tosh McIntosh points out that literary vs. commercial are really “two sides of the same coin.” Things happen to your character that might fascinate or frighten a reader, but the story unfolds a certain way because of who the person is or becomes.

Decide which is more important to you and focus on your story with those differences in mind. Make a list in two columns and see which is longer. (We’ll talk about building a character in a future blog.)

Once you’ve decided on a protagonist and a storyline, the temptation to sit and pour out words will overtake you. Succumb to it and wander anywhere you like. Write all you can for several pages. Then stop and realize you can’t use much of it. Why? Because you didn’t make a list.

How can storytelling be distilled into a list? Glad you asked, even if you aren’t a list maker.

Every idea yearning for success morphs into a plan, and you are about to embark on a journey more entrepreneurial than you perhaps realize. You are inventing and creating a product for a specific market, and if you don’t pay attention to product details from the beginning, you are doomed to a mediocre outcome. Or an endless existence spent wondering how to get out of Limbo Forest.

Some writers make outlines of scenes instead of lists. Where to start? At the beginning. Who is in the first scene, when and where does it take place, and what happens? Four easy columns on a spreadsheet. Details aren’t necessary at this point; a broad brushstroke is acceptable.

Now add a fifth column. What changes at the end of the scene? You must know this to propel the story forward. The change can be action (the aliens landed) or internal thoughts or realizations (this person doesn’t love me).

Move on to the next scene based on what the character decides. For a good definition of scene and sequel, see Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain. Get a least five combinations down before you start to write a single word. And don’t even try a whole paragraph yet.

Once you have a reasonable working outline for the first third of your story, you’re still not quite ready. Even if you already know the ending. Time for another list.

What now? Be patient.

Say hello to your protagonist. Then sit down with her/him and get acquainted. Make a list of traits, both physical and intangible. Listen to this person, who isn’t you. Hear the voice, the cadence in speech, the accent born of locale or ethnicity. Ask where s/he is from, about her/his family, job, religious beliefs, attitudes, politics, education, prejudices. What makes her/him angry or happy? Extrovert or introvert? Conceited or humble?

Determine what is your protagonist’s biggest challenge (fighting the aliens or finding true love) and list what qualities s/he possesses to achieve the goal. What is s/he lacking? A flawed character is more interesting.

List the flaws. It will help you develop a character arc (how your protagonist grows or changes) if you are writing literary fiction and will make your thriller more thrilling and your mystery more mysterious if your story is commercial. See ‘character archetypes’ for guidance. Also read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogel.

Now list the other characters, especially the antagonist. Yes, here we go again, another list. Interview the main ones, ala the protagonist.

Once you’ve completed outlines and interviews, it’s easier to see the path your story will take. This method is flexible with creativity, not chiseled in granite, and will keep you from wandering into the wilderness. It’s work, but so worth it.

Cynthia J. Stone

look for Mason's Daughter, to be published soon