Pointers from the Pros: Author Berta Platas on the Basics of Novel Writing

Pointers from the Pros” gives tips from authors and publishing industry professionals on everything from craft to querying to their experiences on the road to publication.

I spoke at the 35th annual Southeastern Writers Association conference in beautiful St. Simons Island, Ga., two weeks ago and took copious notes at the sessions.  Although I couldn’t go to all the faboo classes, I’m sharing some tips from some of the ones I was lucky enough to attend.

Here is what awesomesauce chica lit author Berta Platas* had to say in Beginning Novel Writing.

Platas herself!

THE BASICS

  • Novel: a long work of narrative fiction
    • could be based on a real event, but you change it up
  • Novella: a 60-100-page work of narrative fiction
  • Short stories: under 60 pages
    • Novellas & short stories are not published on their own—but in anthologies
  • Genre: a category of story type—where you’d find a particular book in the bookstore
  • Stories can be character- or plot-driven (strong suspense).
  • Pace-heavy books most often get made into movies.

A book similar to Angela Landsbury's MURDER, SHE WROTE series would be an example of what would be classified under "cozy mystery."

CHARACTERS

  • Your hero cannot be perfect—perfect people do not exist.
  • Give them flaws—but not too many.
  • Internal conflict: conflict within the character’s own self
  • External conflict: some outside factor is stopping the hero from attaining his goals
  • Be mean to your characters—it’s hard, but do it!
    • Figure out what your characters are most afraid of—and then stomp on it.
    • What are they afraid to lose?  Take it away from them.
  • The main character has to change or you have no story.
    • If the MC does not change, then there has to be a reason.

GOAL, MOTIVATION, CONFLICT

  • An easy way to craft interesting characters: goal, motivation, conflict
  • Goal: What does the character want?
  • Motivation: What causes the character to want this?  What drives her to seek it?
  • Conflict: What (or who) is standing in the way of the character attaining her goals?
  • Do this for your heroes as well as your villains.
    • Everything your villians do, they have reasons for (in their minds)
    • They think their actions are right or justified in some way.

IN THE FLESH

  • Flesh out your characters—interview them (character sketch)
    • You don’t have to use all of it, but if you’ve got everything down somewhere, you will have more believable characters
  • This will also keep your characters true to who you know them to be.

POINT OF VIEW

  • Who is the best character to tell your story?  It may surprise you, after you flesh them all out.
  • 1st person POV – uses I/me/we/us/our/etc.
    • This is limiting in that you can’t see anything the main character isn’t seeing.
  • 3rd person POV – uses he/she/they/their/her/his/etc.
    • Close third is 3rd person limited feels like 1st person, but it isn’t.
    • You can have other POVs with 3rd person limited.

Sketch out your characters.

  • Multiple POVs allow you to see different parts of the story.
    • When doing this, however, the voices need to be very clear.
  • Be careful not to “head-hop”—going between multiple perspectives within one scene or chapter = confusing.

OTHER SUGGESTIONS

  • Stick to 10-page chapters (helps the pacing).
  • Make sure there’s a hook to each chapter. (“She opens the door and sees something amazing.”  Makes you turn the page.)
  • Give your character a friend, in order to impart info.
    • But don’t have a cast of millions; keep it as slim as you can.
    • Sometimes these secondary characters have subplots
  • Don’t give walk-off characters backstory.
  • Don’t have unnecessary actions or details because your reader will invent reasons and fixate them.
  • Kill off all your characters—and then bring them back to life as needed. 🙂

*Click here for my SWA Presenter Spotlight on Platas.

No “In the Blogosphere” This Week . . .

. . . I’m flying home from the conference today.

But please do check out my previous three posts from this week.

I will blog more of my great notes and “pointers from the pros” throughout next week as well.  Lots of great info to share from SWA.

Have a great weekend, all!

Pointers from the Pros: Author David L. Robbins Talks Plotting & Outlining

Pointers from the Pros” gives tips from authors and publishing industry professionals on everything from craft to querying to their experiences on the road to publication.

I’m speaking at the 35th annual Southeastern Writers Association conference in beautiful St. Simons Island, Ga., this week and taking copious notes at the sessions.  Although I can’t go to all the faboo classes, I’m sharing some tips from some of those I’m lucky enough to attend.

Here is what historical fiction author and James River Writers co-founder David L. Robbins* had to say about plotting and outlining.

Robbins. (Photo by Adam Ewing)

BASEBALL WRITING

  • Think of a successful book as a home run.
  • In baseball, in order to hit a home run, certain things have to happen, or it’s not a home run: player has to hit the ball and run all the bases.
  • Main characters need to run the bases of their stories—and they each do it in different ways.
  • Design a specific character that will run the bases—and then, run alongside him.  Record how he does it.
  • You might only have four bases; you might have 40.  But let those be the only parameters, rather than outlining.

IT’S ALL ABOUT CONTROL

  • Don’t write 900,000 words.
  • Physically control as little as you can, and let the rest have a certain autonomy.
  • However, don’t let your character keep running into right field; control him.  Get him to second.
  • The Juggler
    • With several items in the air, it looks like chaos.
    • The juggler only has two things in his hand at a time; yet, he still controls six or seven in the air.  He knows the orbit and the momentum.
    • Books we love demonstrate this: The reader loves the sense of chaos, but that’s because the writer has absolute control.

RECOLLECTIVE VS. RECORDATIVE WRITING

  • Recordative: Run the bases with your characters & record what they do.  There’s an immediacy to your imagery when you’re recording something.
  • Recollective: If you use passive verbs, there’s a detachment.  If you’ve outlined too much, you’re remembering what the character did, rather than experiencing what he did—and the reader will be detached.

ON OUTLINING

  • Don’t do it!  When you outline, you’re following a recollection when you go to write.
  • He’s a fan of pivot points (the “bases”).
  • Outlines hobble or hamper characters.  Let the characters surprise you.
  • An outline makes them run to first base a month before your character actually gets there.
  • Know generally where the book ends, and figure you’ll get there—be in the moment.
  • It’s insecure writing if you need to outline too much.

Don't let your paint brush drip!

ON BEING AN ARTIST

  • Manet didn’t decide where to put a brush stroke; he just did it.  Have your brushstrokes.
  • Set out the pivot points (bases) and trust yourself as an artist.
  • What’s in the character’s head, heart, & how he’s going to get there is all brushstroke for him.

*Click here for my SWA Presenter Spotlight on Robbins.

Live from SWA All Week

I made it to St. Simons Island, Ga., last night—unscathed—and I’m gearing up for my third year at the Southeastern Writers Association conference (35th year for them!).

As my regular blog peeps know, I have returned this year as an instructor (my session on journalistic writing is Wednesday, so if you’re here and you want to catch it, come on down!).

All week, I’ll be blogging about my adventures as well as sharing notes from the sessions I attend—so stop back.

With only about two hours underway:

  • I announced to the entire conference I have poison in my room
  • Author David L. Robbins told me I have Justin Bieber hair

What will tomorrow bring?

Do you see it??

If you missed my SWA presenter profiles and interviews, click here for a complete list.

What Should Every Writer Know About Journalistic Writing?

Late last fall, I announced I’ll be teaching at the 35th Annual Southeastern Writers Association conference (yay!).  Believe it or not, that is at the end of this month(Where does the time go, I ask you??)

Right now, I am putting the finishing touches on my workshop, “The Well-Prepared Freelancer: Journalistic Writing and Its Benefits for Writing of Any Kind,” but I need your help. (Pretty please?)

When I originally designed the course and pitched it to SWA, I intended it to be a four-class workshop, in which I’d teach the basics of journalistic writing and then show how to apply those skills to not only news stories but to other types of writing (i.e., query letters, manuscripts, short stories, etc.).*

However, with all the great presenters who are going to be in attendance at SWA this year, they were only able to fit me in for one class.  So, while I still intend to do this, I am somewhat limited on how much I can cover.

My question to you, Dear Blogosphere, is: What should every writer know about journalistic writing?

What questions do you have?

What do you think is important to know about it?

Furthermore, if you were attending a course like this, what would you expect to take away?

(Okay, that was technically four questions—but it’s a writing conference, not a math conference!)

I would greatly appreciate any thoughts you might have on this subject, as I whittle down my syllabus.

Thanks in advance, pals!  *mwah* (That was a kiss, not the beginning of my evil laugh!)**

Leave a comment, or I'll gnaw on your kit-ty. MWAH-HA-HA-HA-HAAAAA!!

*Click here to see my previous post on this, where I go more in depth in terms of my my purpose and rationale for the class.

**No, I don’t know what’s with my colored text today.

In the Blogosphere: 4/26-5/21

“In the Blogosphere” is a series, which lists links to writing-related blogs I’ve stumbled upon throughout a given week (usually).

It’s been a few weeks since I did one of these posts.  As I’ve mentioned, it’s been busy, busy, busy.  I’ve been saving posts, but I haven’t been sharing them—how inconsiderate of me!

RESOURCES

This oldie but goodie post is from John Robert Marlow’s Self Editing Blog, and it deals with something I’ve seen a lot of lately: bouncing eyeballs.  Many writers—especially those writing young adult lit—have eyes and jaws and stomachs (and such) doing all sorts of things they couldn’t possibly be doing.  And while expressions like “she rolled her eyes,” “his jaw fell to the floor,” “his stomach dropped to his knees” are simply that—expressions—idioms—they can sometimes be jarring to the reader, and it is recommended by many that writers avoid using such phrases.  Marlow’s post does a great job of explaining why.

I mean, this is an eye-roll according to Morfland of OpticalFantasies.com!

And, my absolute favorite example of this comes from when I attended book doctor Bobbie Christmas’s class at the 2008 Southeastern Writers Association conference.  Christmas said she was editing a romance novel, and one of the lines read, “Her eyes were glued to his crotch.”  If you think about that image—the literal image—that can definitely take you out of what I’m sure was supposed to be a hot-and-heavy moment!

But I digress. 🙂

In this post, Paulo Campos of yingle yangle suggests using film to expand your use of body language.

WRITING FOR YOUNGSTERS

Since I write YA and am a recovering high school (and middle school for one year) English teacher, I have a soft spot for all things kids’-lit related.

In her guest post on the Guide to Literary Agents blog, Jewel Allen offers some tips on writing middle-grade lit kids will dig.

To swear or not to swear?  Andrea Brown Literary Agency’s Mary Kole discusses this very question in a few posts over at her blog, Kidlit.comHere is the first of those posts.

LOGLINES & YOU

In the quest for representation, I have discussed queries and pitches and loglines a lot with other writers as well as here on the blog.

Over at Writer Unboxed, Kathleen Bolton explains why you need to be able to boil down your novel to one or two sentences.

Curtis Brown Ltd’s Nathan Bransford concurs.

Here, Bransford tells you just how to do that.

Perfect your pitch! (Yes, Kyle, this pic is for you. Sadly, though, I have no idea who this player is. Sorry - I'm trying, though!)

PEP TALK

And what would the writing world be without pep talks?

Over at TotallytheBomb.com, YA author Jamie Harrington uses Rick Astley to keep us going when writing gets tough.

Sick of Nathan Bransford yet?  Get over it!  Here, he ‘splains that willpower is the greatest strength a writer can have.

Seekerville’s Camy Tang gives some ways one can balance writing and, well, everything else in life.  Stress not—it *can* be done!

PLATFORM

What’s this whole platform thing everyone’s talking about all the time?  Well, YA author Jamie Harrington will tell you.  She did a great little series over at her blog.  A must-read/view for all writers.

SWA Presenter Spotlight: David L. Robbins

As I announced in December, I will be teaching a workshop on journalistic writing* at the 35th annual Southeastern Writers Association conference next month.

To gear up for that, I am featuring interviews and spotlights with this year’s presenters.**

Next up is historical fiction author David L. Robbins.

ABOUT THE PRESENTER

This born-and-raised Virginian is another lawyer-turned-author success story—although, unlike John Grisham or Steve Berry, Robbins only practiced law for one year.  Actually, even less than that.

Robbins. (Photo by Adam Ewing)

According to his Web site, the College of William and Mary alum quit practicing law two weeks before his one-year anniversary of becoming a lawyer.  His father had stipulated that Robbins would have to pay him back for law school if he quit before one year; however, in a final act of negotiation, Robbins got his father to allow for the equivalent of a two-week vacation.  Well done!

Currently, his fast-paced novels include: Souls to Keep (HarperCollins) as well as War of the Rats, The End of the War, Scorched Earth, Last Citadel, Liberation Road, The Betrayal Game, The Assassins Gallery, and Broken Jewel (all Bantam).  His current work-in-progress is called The Devil’s Waters.

In addition to being an accomplished novelist and Latin classical guitar enthusiast, Robbins is the founder of James River Writers, a writing organization based in Richmond, Va.  He also teaches creative writing at the College of William and Mary—his alma mater—and will be this year’s Advanced Fiction instructor at the 35th annual Southeastern Writers Association conference.

THE INTERVIEW

Although Robbins and I were unable to coordinate our schedules for an interview, here is an excerpt from an interview he did for James River Writers, which may offer a bit of insight in terms of what Robbins will be highlighting in Advanced Fiction at SWA in June.

JRW:You mentioned at your book release event that although you are adamant about not using back story, you did this anyway. When is it necessary for an established writer to break the rules and what caused you to do it here?


DLR: I’m adamant about pacing. Back story, dream sequences, narration, flashbacks, all of these and more are devices which exist on a plane not concomitant with the story itself. While the reader is ensconced in them, nothing happens to the characters in real time. No jeopardy, no progress, no action. No pace. So I recoil—usually. In Broken Jewel, I used a lengthy recollection—and I believe it is some of the most beautiful prose in the novel, to be honest—to express a father’s checkered history with his son. The entire passage is a bad idea that worked. This demonstrates that there are no rules in art, only default settings. It is necessary simply for a writer to have a working knowledge of the “rules,” so when they are broken, this is done with control and intent. I did it on purpose. That’s my only explanation.

JRW: When writing historical fiction, how do you keep history from controlling the plot so that the protagonist can do his or her job which is to instigate the action rather than react to events?

DLR: Design active protagonists instead of victims. Immature writers often rely on plots where their characters are buffeted by events, villains, heartless nature, or bad mojo. The key is to write a tale from the perspective of main characters who drive the action, not merely survive it. Do this, and you’ll never have the problem of a character being overwhelmed by history. In fact, if you’re clever, you can even invent characters who actually explain some bits of heretofore veiled history. So that’s how it happened! See?

For more information about Robbins, please visit his Web site.

THE PLUG

Join us at the Southeastern Writers Association conference in June in beautiful St. Simons Island, Ga.  For the 4-1-1, please see their registration page as well as my post.  Reserve your spot today!

*To learn about the workshop I’m teaching, click here.

**For more SWA Presenter Spotlights, click the appropriately-named category in the right-hand sidebar.