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My guest this week says she always begins a project by assembling a sequence of music tracks. To start with, she notices every word and note, but after a while they settle into a familiar environment – a mental writing room that claims her attention and tells her it’s time to immerse. The novel she’ll be sharing with us is set in 1938, so her soundtrack is a mix of her own favourite contemporary songs to help capture the mood, and then a lot of material from the period of her story to conjure the historical period. She is NYT bestselling thriller author Rebecca Cantrell, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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Once upon a time, a schoolgirl resolved to never be a slave to music. She says she is glad this promise never lasted, because she cannot imagine having a creative life without music to guide and inspire her. Her latest work is a historical novel for young readers about the story of cacao, and features a heady soundtrack of Lana Del Rey, Cirque du Soleil and Manish Vyas. She is multipublished author Birgitte Rasine and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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This post was provoked by a tweet. I was working on Nail Your Novel 3 and tweeted that instead of writing ‘the three-act structure’ I’d written ‘the three-cat structure’. Keyboard possessed by Blake Snyder?
Teddi Deppner (@tmdeppner), who you might have seen commenting here from time to time, rejoined:
‘I sure would like to see alternatives to the 3-act structure. Especially for non-movie, non-novel storytelling.’ She elaborated:
‘I want to write serial fiction that offers an experience more like an ongoing TV show (instead of a novel)… I wonder how comic book writers structure their stuff? Maybe that would be similar, too…’
It happened I knew just the man…
‘Not sure that I do use 3-act structure. I just write each episode as it comes, like a TV show. Structure emerges, not planned.’
Darn! There I am, writing about structure for my next book, and I’m nearly trounced by my own team. Dave has always been sceptical of writing ‘rules’. I persisted…
‘But does the structure follow the 3-act pattern?’
‘In retrospect, you can see a 3-act structure in each season.’
3 and 4-act structure
In case you’re scratching your head, here’s a catch-up. Briefly, the ‘act’ structure is all about where you put crescendos and twists in your story. There’s a general pattern that turns out to be most satisfying to audiences – a major change at roughly a quarter in, then another one at the three-quarter point. That’s three acts. It’s also good to have another change at the halfway point, which actually makes four acts, but some people don’t count that so they call it three. Why three? It’s beginning, middle and end. Simple.
Whether you call it three acts or four, it works so well it’s been translated into a fundamental formula. Some writers use it to outline before they start. Some use it to troubleshoot – if the story feels flabby, you can tighten it by restructuring to fit this shape. If you have a long-running story with characters and plotlines that mature at different rates, you can construct each of the arcs so they hit those markers.
… and back to Dave. As I said, he’s wary of the idea of storytelling ‘rules’ or ‘principles’, preferring to write by instinct. Indeed he told me that many years ago, a friend came back from a writing course with news of a wondrous formula – this three-act thingy. Dave had never heard of it, and indeed had already published several books. However, when he investigated further, he found he’d structured them with the major crescendos and twists at the quarter points.
This is how it is with writing – or any art. We all understand some aspects innately. For others we find it helpful to be shown a rule or a principle. In my case, I understood structure and pacing from the get-go. I struggled, though, with ‘show not tell’ and needed a good bit of nagging to grasp it.
Thanks for the pic, Sandy Spangler
(So yes, I am working on Nail Your Novel 3, which will tackle plot. It doesn’t have an official title yet, nor a release date, but if you’re interested, sign up for my newsletter. Other Nail Your Novel books can be found here)
And in the meantime…
Which writing rules do you find easy and which do you find difficult, either to grasp or to accept?
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My guest this week says that when he writes he chooses his aural environment carefully. There’s a cafe in his native Montreal that plays just the right music: not too loud, not too unfamiliar; exactly right for random creative loosening. He attributes one of his major characters to a chance playing of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade on Winter while he was driving on a midsummer day – the sudden meteorological transformation was exactly what he needed to start creating this pivotal player. He is YA writer JB Dutton, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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I was so delighted when I found out my guest this week writes to music. She’s the winner of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) with a story of genetically enabled time travel, death threats and romance. She says music is her writing cave and time machine, shutting out the modern chaos of family life, rewinding her to times in her own past and conjuring up periods like the 1893 Columbian Exposition. She is Rysa Walker and she’s on the Red Blog with the Undercover Soundtrack to Timebound.
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‘I like Nail Your Novel,’ said Lauren Orbison to me on Twitter recently (which was nice). ‘But you now need to write Nail Your Second Novel. It’s tough sometimes to get back to writing after finishing something.’
I understand what she means. First novels are usually written over many years. We might put more time, work and learning into it than we ever dreamed we could put into one project – short of actually rearing the next generation. Then suddenly, the novel’s done, it’s out and we’re wondering: how did I do it?
I’ve certainly felt like this. One minute, I’m stealing time to be with a book that has become as familiar as an old friend, refining to get the depth and finish I want. No other phase for me is so rewarding. I’m understanding my material. I have a book, for sure, at last. It reminds me of when I was at plays at school. In the final rehearsals we’d be adding refinement on refinement, amazing ourselves at how inventive we were being. The shambolic months were behind us.
Then it’s over. On the one hand, my novel is out in the world as a finished piece. Readers might be asking what’s next (bless them). And what have I got? Something much rougher, perhaps – to me – offensively so.
This, I think, is what Lauren is talking about. Some writers find it blocks them completely.
I’ve learned the way to deal with this is to get another novel to a confident state before the mature one sets sail. I know that if I get to the end of The Mountains Novel and I haven’t got a serious contender for Next Novel, I will be severely fretful and will rail at the muses for abandoning me. But The Mountains Novel will need periods of enforced rest after each draft and that’s when I’ll get developing the next one. Could be The Flying Novel, The Venice Novel, or – as I’ve had a few other ideas arrive – Someothernovel entirely.
So far, so good.
But what if you’ve completed the one novel you’ve spent years on, and you haven’t started incubating another? What if that first idea started so long ago that you’ve forgotten how you ever got it?
Or what if you have ideas but they don’t excite you? I have various plots I’ve thought of, but I don’t feel moved to write them. I’m missing the ingredient that will make me want to quarry them – because I haven’t found the theme or idea I want to take to them. They’re clay without a soul.
First of all, if you’re feeling so emptied, you can’t create. Go and stoke your imagination. Your first idea probably came to you out of the blue, while you were following something you were interested in. So read books and do things just because you want to, no ulterior motive of research. You can’t force yourself to have a great idea any more than you can will yourself to fall in love. But you can flirt with things that could bite back (in a good way).
If you’re still frustrated because you’re not actually ‘working on’ something, make this period of exploration into a project. Set yourself a target to read x number of novels, y number of non-fiction books, or have a brief sabbatical at an evening class so that you feel like you’re completing something. Think of it as an appointment with your muse. If you’re really desperate, read something you’re guaranteed not to like. The chances are, you’ll rile yourself so much you’ll be bursting ideas in no time.
And next time, don’t wait until the first novel is over before you work on the second. (There’s plenty more about developing ideas in Nail Your Novel, whether you’re on debut tome or umpteenth…)
Well that’s my method. Have you finished a novel and found it hard to get on with the next? Perhaps you have a steady stream of works in progress… Let’s share in the comments!
authors, beginners, creative development, creative writing, creativity, deepen your story, developing a novel. how to develop a novel idea, drafting a novel, entertainment, fiction, Fix and Finish With Confidence, having ideas, how to break writer's block, how to have ideas, how to have ideas for a novel, how to start a novel, how to start writing a novel, how to write a book, how to write a novel, how to write your second novel, ideas, inspiration, Lauren Orbison, make yourself inspired, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, polishing, publishing, Roz Morris, second novel, The Flying Novel, The Mountains Novel, The Venice Novel, where to find ideas, writer's block, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, writing routine
My guest this week used to regard music as a mostly-ignorable atmosphere. Then one inspirational moment changed everything. She was listening to Mike Oldfield when a character leaped, fully formed, into her imagination – an enigmatic pirate of the Caribbean, skilled with a cutlass and a roguish smile. This character also proved a turning point in her career, as her agent advised her that the adult readership did not want stories about pirates. But so strong was her conviction about the character that she wrote him anyway – and thus her indie career was born. She is Helen Hollick, her novels are the Sea Witch series, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack. All say ‘arrr’.
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My writing post this week has a science fiction flavour. And my Undercover Soundtrack guest will continue the theme with the music that helped her write her debut, also sci-fi. She says she uses music to create a consistent space to sink into a book, and for this is must be music she knows by heart. She draws on tracks that have been favourites since she was a teenager because they still make her believe anything is possible – which is a rather excellent way to start the creative day. She is Chele Cooke and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, Chele Cooke, Dead and Buryd, deepen your story, Description, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, fantasy, Fix and Finish With Confidence, grunge, hostile planets, how to write description, John Mayer, Matchbox Twenty, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Nickelback, Out of Orbit, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, science fiction, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing to music
Fasten your seatbelts for a trip to Haiti. My guest this week was inspired to write his first novel by a spell as a volunteer after the 2010 earthquake. When he returned to the US he began to write a story of friendship, the struggle for justice in the face of impunity, sacrifice for the community and the foolishness of scarcity in a world of plenty. To recreate that distinctive place and define his characters, he returned to the music he heard pouring out of the radios in Port-au-Prince – folk, rock, rap and hip-hop. He says his work is a protest novel and so he’s donating the proceeds to aid organisations he worked with to help further education, advocacy, justice reform and prosecute human rights abuses. The novel is Because We Are; he is Ted Oswald and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- Reading revolutions: serialising a novel – interview at the Malaysia Star March 6, 2014
- ‘This song says it’s time to get serious’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rebecca Cantrell March 5, 2014
- Planning your story – a checklist for success: and win Nail Your Novel in print! March 4, 2014
- Publish or selfpublish? Advice for the 2014 writer March 3, 2014
- ‘Music that flows into the marrow of the soul’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Birgitte Rasine February 26, 2014
- 7 stages of writing a book – video discussion at IndieReCon February 25, 2014
- A conversation about story structure – and writing rules February 23, 2014
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