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Category Archives: Novel writing

Plotting Your Way Through Your Story

I wrote the original version of the below a few years back when I was Writer in Residence for the Toronto Branch of the Canadian Authors’ Association. With a few updates, which I have now made, it is still relevant for us authors. So here goes. 

 

Plotting Your Way Through Your Story

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down. — Kurt Vonnegut, science fiction writer

Vonnegut describes the fiction writer perched at the computer. The writer is ready to roll with the plot. Sometimes he soars, but sometimes his wings get clipped.

Let’s look at some baddies in fiction plotting.

A literary magazine editor once scrawled on one of my short stories, “This is not a short story. This is an incident.”

A novel that I evaluated contained quirky characters. However, they solved everything too easily and their relationships, including the love relationship, had no problems.

In another novel, the author tried to carry most of the plot with dialogue. Dialogue is good for showing the reader rather than overdoing the narration. But you can overkill with dialogue too.

In another novel, the author had created a certain atmosphere from the setting and characters. Unfortunately, the plot resembled those 500-piece jigsaw puzzles that you finally toss out in a garage sale.

Kurt Vonneget describes plot as

I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away — even if it’s only a glass of water. … When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are. … And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other.

The characteristics of a good plot are:

  1. A protagonist or main character with a conflict to resolve. The characters drive the plot. Let them struggle to get there. Life may be a bowl of cherries, but the characters need to experience the pits.

  2. The plot moves forward, usually chronologically, although some flashbacks can work. If you get lost, use Doug Lawson’s rule, i.e., figuring out where the characters would rather not go.

  3. Events must be connected, not random and they must link from one event to another with some purpose.

  4. The plot must be believable, whether commercial or literary fiction. Your story line may seem unbelievable, but you make it believable by suspending the reader’s disbelief. Think “X Files.”

  5. Their must be a climax, whether it’s a moral one in the protagonist’s mind or the opposite extreme, such as a sword fight. Think protagonist and antagonist together at the edge of a cliff – for an analogy.

  6. The plot must have some resolution in the end. With series mystery novels, something, perhaps in the main characters’ personal lives, is often left hanging for the next novel. But the main plot must be resolved or you cheat the reader.

 

And the usual, if you click on the Beyond Faith book cover at the beginning, you go to a link with more info including a bit about its twisted plot.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

 

 

 

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Catching story ideas on the fly

 

I’m a writer as rarely as possible, when forced by an idea too lovely to let die unwritten.

– Richard Bach

Our story ideas may not be as esoteric as Richard Bach’s – he wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  Where can we get story ideas and when we get them, what do we do with them?

Story ideas often pop into our heads when we are busy doing something else or more likely when our mind hits a lull. Or we are reading an article in the daily newspaper or the classifieds (online or in print) and our right brain, the creative side, suddenly wakes up. A conversation overheard on a bus, especially those cell-phone monologues, conversations overheard in restaurants can suggest several story ideas, often of the criminal intent. Brochures on community groups, art shows, and even the supermarket flyers can inspire. Take the old (former) Dominion supermarket slogan, “We’re fresh obsessed,” and try to look at a story angle that is fresh. Taking a shower or bath is also guaranteed to fill you with more than water. The Internet is full of potential story ideas. Don’t underestimate the power of dreams. Drugs and alcohol are not recommended as you will see from the following example.

Late one night a photographer friend once thought he had a brilliant idea. He scribbled it down on a piece of paper before he crashed for the night. When he woke the next morning, he looked at the paper. On it he had written, “I am very drunk.”

Another moral from this story is look at photographs. A picture is worth a thousand words, but before the words come the ideas.

What do you do when an idea hits? Grab it before it disappears into the nether area of your mind. Write it down. Keep a notebook (electronic or paper) handy. If you think faster than you type or scrawl, use a recorder for dictating your ideas. If the source is the Internet, bookmark it under the heading “Story ideas.”

Then let the idea rest for at least a few days. The idea will simmer in your subconscious and when you sit down at your computer, the act of starting to write will draw out these ideas. On rare occasions, a simmering story suddenly bubbles and you are compelled to write it right now. Do so – if you don’t you might not only lose the momentum, but the idea as well. Nothing, except maybe a blank screen, is worse than an idea gone stale because it was left in storage beyond its best date.

Follow the advice of Martin Woods, who said,

“Write great ideas down as soon…”

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Author of the Beyond mystery novels – whose ideas came from all of the above.

And if you click on the Beyond Faith cover icon at the top, it will take you to the one of the online places the novel is available – as well as more details about the novel itself.

 

 

 

 

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Plan some novel writing time during holidays

Sharon’s latest Beyond mystery.

When you are overstuffed with turkey and Christmas cake; when you have had it with family cheer; when you are…well…bored with all the Christmas songs, sales, and noises, just write.

Shut yourself in your room, the rec room, your office – somewhere away from everybody, and start writing that short story, that novella, that novel, that personal essay, that memoir, that poem, that play, that… Well, you get the idea.

And speaking of ideas, maybe you have a story idea – plot or characters or both running around in your head, but you just haven’t had the time to do anything with it because you have been buried in Christmas paraphernalia. Once the hoopla of Christmas is over with and before you get into New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, and all those new resolutions, get a head start.

That last paragraph describes me. Instead of visions of sugarplums dancing through my head, the next Beyond mystery novel is swirling around. I have an idea for a plot premise and new characters (and old ones, too  this is a series, after all). Each time I think of it, more ideas run through my mind. However, unlike my other Beyond books, I can’t seem to come up with a beginning – what to start with and where to start it. Considering the ending for Beyond Faith (and you’ll  have to read it to find out. No spoilers here), it is no wonder this is happening.

So, I’m going to get at it between Christmas and New Year’s. Not even going to wait for Boxing Day to pass. I hate crowds so don’t do Boxing Day (or week) Sales. And while I’ll get some things online, clothes aren’t part of that. I have to try things on first. So during that time I will  start by getting some of these ideas in a Word file and maybe even do a rough outline. Maybe even get at least an idea of the beginning. I know some of the remnants from Beyond Faith will require some research, so I might also do that.

Sounds ambitious? I’ll let you in on something.

Starting tomorrow, December 19, I’m taking two weeks holidays (staycation or is that stayvacation?) but the first few days will be spent finishing Christmas shopping, wrapping presents, and spending Christmas Day with my son and his girlfriend. I am also hoping to get together with a few friends outside of Christmas Day.

What I am not planning to do is working on client projects, volunteer work, and answering any related email. Strong emphasis on the latter. My days seem to include too much time replying to email that is not from friends and family. And one of my new year’s resolutions will be to have set times to do emails and if they don’t get done that day, they sit in the pending file. I mean, even my client work time was suffering because of dealing with emails.

Just as long as the email accounts are working – there has been a bit of some accounts not working in the past month.

I’ll let you know January 4, 2018 how it went, because this is my last author post here for 2017. I am still posting to my personal blog next week and the next – because that’s personal. In case you are interested in reading those posts, here is the link. Not too much about writing, except memoir writing, goes in there, but…. I will still post to Facebook (my main account) and my author Facebook page, and Goodreads. I better post to Goodreads. I am still updating the list of books I have read this year and doing book reviews for some of them. Finally got off to a good start a couple of weeks ago and then got side-lined by…you guessed it…email. Well, also shovelling snow.

Meantime, have a happy and health holiday. And write.

Oh, yes, if you click on the Beyond Faith book above, it will take you to one of the online places where it is available. There is a New Year’s Eve scene in it and PI Dana Bowman, the main character, isn’t spending that time making new year’s resolutions.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

 

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When in doubt kill the character off?

 

Dana Bowman from the Beyond mystery series. Still alive.

In last week’s fall finale of The Blacklist, Tom, one of the major characters was killed off in a very brutal way. Those following the British series Inspector Banks were jolted in one episode where a major character DI Annie Cabbot was killed. Blue Bloods killed (off screen/between seasons) a minor, but important to the series character, Linda, Detective Danny Reagan’s wife.

Near the end of last season, NCIS Los Angeles killed off Michelle, the wife of NCIS Agent Sam. Michelle’s roll wasn’t even as a regular, but as a recurring guest. But in a twist, the actor who played Grainger – Miguel Ferrier – a regular –  died in real life. Instead of following suit, the writers and producers had Grainger quit NCIS and go off to some faraway place.

 

 

Perhaps the weirdest one is the actor who played the original Morse on the old Inspector Morse series. Yes, the producers had Morse die of a heart attack when they were killing the series. But not long after the segment aired, John Thaw, the actor who played Morse died  also, but from throat cancer.

Lately, TV series seem to be in a killing mood. Want to delete a character from the series. Kill him. Actors playing the characters want more money than the new contract will offer. Kill off their characters.

So what does this have to do with fiction characters in novels? Maybe something as some of those series originated from books.

To me, killing off a character just to get them out of the TV series, out of the novel series, or even just out of a novel is a poor way to do it.  If you are going to kill a character there must be a reason within the story itself, something with the character and his other relationship with another character or characters.  Even in murder mysteries, characters are bumped off for some reason – maybe they were going to reveal something bad about the murderer, maybe they stood in the way for the murderer to inherit money, maybe revenge and yes even the so-called random killing spree where the killer kills for no apparent reason. there is always some reason even if just in the killer’s mind.

If a character in your novel dies from natural causes,  it has to be worked into the plot. Let’s look at a scenario from Beyond Faith, my latest Beyond mystery. There are two brothers – Gerrard Olsen and Larry Olsen. Near the beginning one of them gets killed. Without giving any spoilers, I had to think which brother and why and of course, who killed the brother and what led up to the killer doing so. That doesn’t come out right at the beginning, but PI Dana Bowman and her fraternal twin brother PI Bast Overture, and Det. Sgt. Fielding are trying to find out. Like most of my mystery novels and short stories, it is not straightforward. It all rises from the characters – who they are – what they have gone through and are going through in life and would they cross that line to kill? That latter is very important for an author to consider. Some characters are such bad assess in what they do that killing is believable. Other bad ass characters commit a lot of crime and/or are mean and ill-treat the people in their lives, but draw the line at killing them. Then there is the so-called good character who is pushed beyond his limits to the point where they kill.

Iit really all boils down to the character and the plot – and the two go hand in hand and drive each other. If you want one of your novel’s major characters to exit the novel, killing them may not be the only answer. That often comes across as lazy writing. Tthat can happen in mystery novels too, although when you get to the end and the good guy confronts the bad guy (or gal – guys don’t have the monopoly on being bad asses), the author has to “get rid” of the bad guy, but shooting her dead is not always the best way. The author has to consider who the good guy/gal is and how she would deal with it. Would she arrest the bad one? Or shoot him? Torture him? Push him into the lake and let him either swim or drown? Having said that, sometimes the good guy (or gal) isn’t the trigger-happy person, but is forced into a situation where it is ether the bad guy’s life or his. Then he might have to shoot – but not always to kill. Be creative. Many authors are. They have killers disappear during one novel only to return in a later novel. Chances are with this type of scenario, the novel’s protagonist probably has had some kind of a relationship with the baddie – so he will have to deal with the before and after. Unless you are a sociopath, you will be scarred  by the death of someone close to you. You will have to grieve.

Back to Inspector Banks and the killing of Annie. That does not happen in the books by Peter Robinson the British series is based on. And to me that is a disrespect for the original author. True, TV series don’t follow the novels they come from and often go off the novel’s track, often for a good reason. They can’t get all the novel contents in a movie or limited TV program. And series have to expand beyond the novel’s plot.

Killing a character on TV or in a novel shouldn’t be done just to eliminate him. There has to be a reason – beyond the character just being bad or leaving the TV series. Haven’t these producers heard of just getting another actor to play the part? It was done years ago with the comedy series Bewitched when the actor playing the husband died. And it was done recently with the British series Jack Taylor. A different actress now plays the part of Kate. Both work.

What are your thoughts and ideas on killing off characters in books and TV. Do you kill of any of your fiction characters? Why or why not?

Comments, please.

Cheers.

Sharon.

Sharon’s latest Beyond mystery links to Amazon

 

 

 

 

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Keeping the suspense in your novel’s plot

As an editor I have read and edited a variety  of fiction manuscripts. The creativity of many of the  writers and the wide range of story lines is very interesting. But one thing (among others) I sometimes find is the lack of sufficient suspense. The story drags; the story, well, it flat lines. Here are a few tips on creating suspense in your novels.

1. Leave your reader hanging – at the end of the chapter is a good place because it not only raises the reader’s interest, it gets him or her reading the next chapter. Here is an example from my mystery novel Beyond Faith.

“From what Sister Olsen had told me about her brothers, I had some idea what might be bothering Eli. Too bad neither Eli Foster nor I had all the facts.”

2. Ask a question. You know the old saying “questions are the signs of intelligence.” Questions also make the reader want to continue to get some answers. These are questions in the narrative, the character’s inner thoughts, not in dialogue. Obviously in dialogue, another character will usually answer the question although they might lie.

Again from Beyond Faith, “Who were they? And why did one seem familiar?” (all Beyond Faith excerpts, copyright 2017, Sharon A. Crawford, published by Blue Denim Press.)

3. Don’t tell all at once. Keep some information from the reader. I do a lot of this in Beyond Faith. The idea is you build up your plot with tidbits even if the character knows more than she is letting on. This is just the opposite from the example in point one above.

4. Use foreshadowing.This is often in conjunction with another technique. Again, see the example in point one above. Another example of foreshadowing is when the character is heading for an encounter they don’t relish. Perhaps with someone they don’t like and know is a nasty person. Build up the tension by getting inside the character’s head. How does the character feel? Scared? Are they sweating? Do they try to avoid meeting this character or delay the meeting by driving the long way to the meeting place. If it is in a restaurant, do they drink a lot, drop the cutlery, knock over a glass of water?

5. Or as a twist, the person is overly confident about meeting someone – a piece of cake, the character thinks. Then, wham, when they get to the meeting place, something happens – a car runs her down; someone takes a shot at her. She finds the person there all right at the meeting place – lying dead on the ground. You can tell I write mystery novels.

6. One suspense-building technique that I use is to have two main characters both heading for the same place at the same time – maybe one knows the other is there; maybe not. But one or both of them know that there is danger at the other end. Each one is racing to get there and perhaps save the other. You flip back and forth between the characters in separate scenes or short chapters. Show the reader what each character is thinking and what is happening to them. And don’t make it easy. In Beyond Faith I have PI Dana Bowman following Eli Foster in their respective cars; then I flip over to her fraternal twin, Pi Bast Overture who is not following anyone, but he has found out vital information about another character and figures out what this character is going to do so he is off to stop it. And no, I don’t tell all to the reader. And I’m not telling you any more here.

There are many more ways to create suspense. The twisted plot is one. And you can get ideas by reading published novels, the ones that do build suspense. Yes some crappy novels get published and I am not referring to self-published here.

And keep writing and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.

And join a writing critique group for feedback.

And when you have rewritten a lot, hire an editor.

Then you can do some more rewriting.

I just started reading Hunting Muskie, a collection of literary short stories by Michael Robert Dyet (Blue Denim Press, fall 2017 – yes, same publisher as me). The first story “Slipstream”, has many plot threads popping up – all connected to a theme. And it keeps you reading. It also breaks the idea that some people have (mea culpa sometimes here) – that all literary stories don’t contain suspense.This one sure does have suspense.

Happy reading and happy writing.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

 

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When Your Fiction Characters take over

Dana Bowman from the Beyond mystery series

Fiction characters taking over writing your novel or short story is usually seen as a good sign that your characters are developing.

But where do you draw the line?

For the past couple of years I have been dressing  up as my main Beyond mystery novel character, Dana Bowman, and do short comedy skits at libraries, cafes, etc. In the past few months, when rewriting Beyond Faith for my publisher, Dana has been taking over. It is like I am channeling her.

This isn’t the first time that was picked up. A few months after the previous Beyond novel – Beyond Blood – was published, I was interviewed on the Liquid Lunch on thatchannel. com. Sandra, one of the interviewers said it was like i was channeling my characters. Hmm. Around about the time I started doing skits featuring Dana.

But now Dana is claiming to have written Beyond Faith? What? We have internal discussions about that. Right now I’m letting her think she co-authored Beyond Faith with me. Really, it is my name on the book cover, although she gets mentioned on the back cover – in the book synopsis.

Internal discussions may be the key word to some sort of sanity. Or if out loud in the privacy of your writing space, your office, your home. You don’t want to be like the pour soul on the subway last evening.

He was a young fellow in a hoodie carrying a backpack. Which could be a red flag. He was running back and forth to the different subway cars – something not allowed on the old subway cars with actual doors between cars. As he entered the cars he would look at someone and carry on a conversation about something that made no sense. Then he would dance around a bit, grab the bar overhead and start swinging. After a few minutes of this, he went into another subway car.

I suspect he was high on something. But what if he was in character? What if he is an author and he was letting his character speak? What if?

Probably not. But it could serve as a guideline of how far not to go with your character acting out. Public transit and public streets no. But if you are a scheduled author presenting at a library or conference, yes, be your character.

And in the privacy of your writing area, yes – if it helps you develop your character, develop  your plot.

There is a fine line between madness and sanity and I’m not sure where authors can safely cross the line.

As for Dana Bowman, I’ll still channel her; I’ll still carry on conversations with her. I will sometimes listen to her.

But I wish she would listen to me sometimes.

The bane of creating characters.

If  you want to see how Dana is invading my life, see the comparisons between the two of us posted on my website here.

And please comment to answer this question. Are your fiction characters taking over writing your plot? How do you feel about that? Is it a help or hindrance to your writing?

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Here’s the cover of the latest  Beyond mystery novel. Click on the cover to see one of the places the book is available. And as you can see Dana Bowman’s name is not on the cover.

 

 

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Introducing Beyond Faith – the cover at least

It’s here – Beyond Faith, the third book in the Beyond mystery series. Well, the cover is. Take a look.

 

And here is what true crime author Nate Hendley has to say about the book.

Beyond Faith offers secrets, lies and death with a connection to the Catholic Church, set in small-town and big-city Ontario. It’s a great story with a great pair of unlikely protagonists (a brother-sister pair of twin investigators), twists, surprises and Sharon Crawford’s distinctive tone and shining dialogue. Recommended for any detective-story fans yearning for Ontario-based tales.

– Nate Hendley, true-crime author (Steven Truscott: Decades of Injustice and The Big Con)

And here’s what I, Dana Bowman, have to say about it

I am thrilled. It perfectly illustrates my book. It…Oh, oh, I hear Sharon A. Crawford coming. She thinks she wrote Beyond Faith, but I have a thing or two to tell her about that.

Voice of Sharon: Dana, what are you up to now?

Dana, shrugging her shoulders: Just publicizing Beyond Faith – that cover is very intriguing. And very apt for the book’s contents.

Voice of Sharon: Which I wrote.

Dana: Really?

Voice of Sharon: All right, Ms. Dana Bowman private investigator. That’s enough. Get your you-know-what back in the agency office. Detective Sergeant Fielding wants a word with you.

Dana: Oh, all right. Coming.

Dana, looking up: Sharon is creating a Beyond Faith page on her website and it is rumoured to be going live soon. Meantime, check out hers and my upcoming appearances on that website under Books or under the Gigs and Blogs page here. See you next week.

Dana heads into the agency office.

Voice of Sharon: That Dana. Sometimes I wonder why I ever created her. But like she said…see you next week.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Sharon A. Crawford mugshot

the real author of the Beyond mystery books.

 

 

 

 

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