My Books

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Writing Bits: Endings

““Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.[1]

The ending of your book leaves the last taste of you. A good ending stays with a reader like the finishing notes of a beautiful symphony or the last taste of a delightful dinner. It gives off a sensation of pleasure and a sense of having ‘gotten there;’ as if the journey is over, and was well worth it. A good ending should make the reader want to turn to the beginning and start all over again.

“So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.[2]

The last line is important, and fun to write and speculate on, but the ending of your book starts when you begin your last chapter. Or, you can argue, the ending really begins in the first chapter. You have characters and a story now, and they are headed to some final stopping point. How are you going to end it? Do they all die off? Do they live happily ever after, or does the bad guy die a gruesome death first? Or is it a kind of existential thing where it all turned out to be a dream? However it ends, make it taste good to the reader. Take your time. Mould the ending and shape it until it is strong and firm, tying up all loose ends in your book. Try and give it the sensation of doneness. You want people talking about your book, recommending it to others, and ready to read it again. Your ending can spoil that; or help ensure it.

““I’ll have a jolly good stab at it, governor,” said the Hon. Freddie.[3]

I don’t think the ending is the most important part of your book. After all, the reader liked the rest of it enough to get them there. But I do think ending strong is one more thing that will push your book above the sea of mediocre reading material into something worth telling a friend about. If you love a book all the way through, and then it sort of fizzles into a weak ending, it leaves you feeling a little cheated. As if a five course meal left you with a burnt taste in your mouth, or a lovely symphony ended with a minute of discordant chaos. It is a disappointment and can spoil all the rest of it.

“Between Barton and Delaford, there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate – and among the merits and happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.[4]

How many of you felt disappointed at the way such a wonderful, classic story ended? It was abrupt. I had the sudden idea Jane Austen got tired of the story and said, “Let’s end this thing!” Yes, I was glad both the girls got their men-folk and lived happily ever after, but I wanted to know more about it. Especially as all the rest of the book had been leading up to that point, their marriages and settling down. I was looking forward to finding out about it. Instead it was over in a few swipes of her pen, just when I was ready to savor the happy moment. Write like Jane Austen, by all means, but don’t end your book like she ended Sense and Sensibility. Abruptness can kill the mood gruesomely, and not just in an Austen style book.

““Ah!” A rare, a very rare smile touched Alex’s lips. “An oxyacetylene welder.[5]””

Alistair MacLean is one of my favorite suspense/espionage authors; but his books always end so abruptly. The whole way through the main character is just barely surviving, while trying to save the world, and of course keep the girl alive. Then finally, just at the last minute, he wins! He smiles. She smiles. And then the book is over. And you are left wondering what they did with the bomb after they just barely managed to stop the timer, or some other random little thing that you really would very much like to have known. You can’t please everyone. But I think an abrupt ending on an otherwise good book annoys just about everyone. If you liked the characters and loved the story, you want to know what happens to them at the end! And if you the author go to all the trouble of making your characters and story likable, then take the time to add in those few extra details at the end. But don’t make the other mistake.

“In the present case, it is as essential to surmount a consciousness of an unreal freedom and to recognize a dependence not perceived by our senses.[6]

I read War and Peace. And I liked it. I liked it very much, it is an excellent story, and I encourage you to slog through it and enjoy it. But don’t end your story with an entire book of philosophical ramblings. There are abrupt endings, and then there are endings that never end. You don’t have to give your reader every single detail and fill out all the corners in their minds. They can figure out a lot of what happens in the end on their own. Watch out for both errors when ending your book, try not to give too much, or too little at the end. Use your own judgment on how to finish strong. If you want tips, go find your favorite books and see how that author crafted the end of their story. Dissect it mercilessly. You might be surprised by how easy it is. Some of my favorite books end with a simple recapping of everything we already read.

“There, to conclude, all were happy, united in the present as they had been in the past; but never could they forget that island upon which they had arrived poor and friendless, that island which, during four years, had supplied all their wants, and of which there remained but a fragment of granite washed by the waves of the Pacific, the tomb of him who had borne the name of Captain Nemo.[7]

It is an efficient and easy manner to give the reader a kind of friendly glance back. If they liked the book, chances are they will enjoy being reminded of some of the best parts. Or if you have a point to your book, you can leave them with a parting thought. Something for them to mull over and chew on a little after those last words are read.

““We have been sitting with a ghost. Dr. Herbert Warner died years ago.[8]””

Ending with a parting thought is a beautiful way to leave your reader. It will make the book stick longer, and the longer it sticks, and the more they think about it, and the more likely they are to talk about it to someone else. And the more likely they are to get the point you were trying to make. If you are smart enough to write a book with a good point, end strongly on that point. Give it beauty and weight, and it will linger on in the reader's mind. Have you ever thought about that old phrase, “a pearl of wisdom?” A pearl is made by a little bit of something getting inside an oyster and sticking around, getting turned over and over, until it solidifies into something truly beautiful. A thought can be the start of something beautiful.

“But if the Professor was right it was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia.[9]”  

Ah, the tried and true sequel idea. If the reader really loved your work, they are going to be very excited and happy if you hint at more coming soon. It leaves a pleased excitement behind. And after all, isn’t that how the best book in the world ends? Something else is coming soon, something even better. Be ready for it! And oh boy, I never cease to be excited at the idea of that sequel! But look again. Here, at the end of the Bible, you see it all. It is a filled in ending, but not too long. Much of the major points and promises are recapped. We are left with great thoughts to mull over (how many countless sermons could you preach from these two verses alone!). And we are left with excited hope stinging our minds and hearts with expectation. It makes me want to go read the whole book again, just to be able to understand and delight in the truths contained in this beautiful ending!

“He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.[10]

[1] The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien
[2] Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan
[3] Something Fresh, by P.G. Wodehouse
[4] Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen
[5] Partisans, by Alistair MacLean
[6] War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
[7] The Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne
[8] Manalive, by G.K. Chesterton
[9] The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
[10] Revelations 22:20-21

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Writing Bits: Angry Socks

This should probably actually be titled, “The Place of Randomness in Your Writing.” But being a post about randomness, I felt it ought to have a random title. I spent the last two posts explaining why you needed to be ordered and detailed; this is more about the other side of a book. There is a place for the unplanned. Or perhaps it would be better to say the unplanned can manage to find a place, and it makes a book better when it appears.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck, staring at my page, thinking “I know where I am supposed to get too, but I have no idea how to get my characters there.” Trust me, all the plotting in the world is going to still leave you hanging sometimes, wondering how to get from plot-point A to plot-point B. And you sit and stare. And take a sip of your coffee, and stare some more. And then you do one of two things; you either go check your facebook and give up on writing for the day, or you add in something random. You just start typing. Your characters are already at plot-point A, you know where plot-point B comes in, so just start typing with B in mind and see what happens. Often something strange will pop up. Something totally unexpected and unplanned. It might be a wonderful new character you had never envisioned, like a love-sick goat, or it might be an event that revolutionizes your book and gives it a zing and sizzle you had never imagined.

I remember one year I was at one of these places and completely stuck. So I sat my fingers on the keyboard and started typing, waiting to see what would come out. “Boom!” was the first word that came to mind. So I had an explosion, naturally. It turned out it fitted quite nicely and got some decent silly parts into the tale, as well as some unplanned excitement that was needed to keep the interest up. There have been other times where I came back after the book was written and reread my random just-typed-to-get-from-A-to-B parts and deleted almost the entire bit as nonsense that didn’t fit in with anything. But, it still served to get me from A to B and to keep me writing. Remember, especially if you are writing for National Novel Writer’s Month, this is a rough draft of your book. You have to get the whole book written before you can make it better. What you write now does not have to stand for all eternity. It has to stand long enough for you to finish the book. Then you come back and edit it, and turn all those rough parts you didn’t really love into something you can gloat over. Randomness can have a beautiful and extremely entertaining place in getting that rough draft finished.

That is one major way randomness can have a use, in getting us to just keep writing. But it has more than one use. Stop for just a moment and think about instances in books that have made you laugh. Some are puns, sometimes it’s ridiculous situations, sometimes clever comebacks; and sometimes it is a random comment that has no place in the story. Randomness can be hilarious. Use that moment when you are completely stuck on what to do, let it add a bit of humor to your book. Let something strange and unexpected happen. Let the love-sick goat rush out into the midst of your character’s camp and stir things up, or a drunk hobo add in a comical song or two. You might find the unplanned part is just the part you love the best, and the part your readers love the best.  

“But… but… if it is totally random it will ruin my plot and carefully constructed characters!” I hear the authors out there objecting. Possibly. But that really isn’t too much of a concern at this point. If when you reread your book your random parts wreak havoc with the tale, delete the scene and put in a carefully constructed piece that speaks peace to your author’s heart. But remember it still served to get you past that bump you hit in chapter 3 and kept you moving to the end, so don’t complain about the randomness too much. But in my experience the random bits give the book a sense of liveliness that is at once humorous, enjoyable, and impossible to plan. And there is a natural reason that liveliness pops in.

Stop thinking about books for a moment and think about life. Every day brings something unexpected, unplanned, and random. Maybe the car doesn’t start when you get in it to go to work. Maybe it’s the cat bringing you in a bird as a present, which when released immediately flaps into your rafters and refuses to come down. Maybe it’s an unexpected letter from a friend, or news of momentous import that you never would have guessed. Whatever it is, there is always something. You can never get up in the morning and have the day exactly as you want it. This is a fact of life. Outside influences jump in and just… mess up all those complicated plans. I stopped keeping a schedule several years ago because the frustration of something else consistently coming up during my scheduled business just wreaked havoc on my good moods. It can drive you crazy! But oftener then we like to admit, if you let them, the messes can turn out to be the memories that delight your soul for the rest of your life. The random, annoying, frustrating things that push us out of our planned day into something else always make for the best stories. And the best novels are the ones that seem like real life. “Truth is stranger than fiction” it is said, and it is very true; which means a little strangeness in your fiction makes it seem more true. If you can never fully plan your life, why should your characters be able to fully plan theirs? Just because something pops into your stories that you didn’t envision when plotting doesn’t qualify that thing as bad. It only qualifies it as unexpected. Use it. Embrace the randomness. Make your characters learn to adapt to the random, and they will seem more real for it.

Randomness is a tool in the writer’s belt with many uses. It can be a ladder that helps you surmount the bumps from point A to point B, it can be a conveyer of laughter and a spark of lighthearted fun, and it can be that missing ingredient that pushes your book into imitating reality. And while you’re teaching your characters to adapt to the randomness of their life, take the lesson to heart and enjoy those interjected random moments in your own life. Mr. G.K Chesterton understood the lesson when he said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Writing Bits: Focusing

As I type this I am riding in our family minivan, with five year old twin siblings in the back making all sorts of interesting noises, my seven year old sister beside me discussing her King Tut book with our Mom, while Dad listens to Spanish radio through the car’s speakers, and El Paso traffic rushes around us as we make our way to San Antonio. The point? It is possible to write without waiting for the perfect moment. The perfect moment rarely comes. If you wait for it, you’re libel never to write at all. In this second installment of our little writing series, let’s look at the importance of focusing, and ways to help focus on your story.

It is impossible to write something well if your mind is racing off on something else while your fingers type. Believe me, I know this because I do it all the time. If you’re distracted as you write, your story will reflect that. It will come out disjointed, choppy, and badly written. This is a general fact of life; if only half of you is paying attention to a job, the job will come out only half as well as you can do it. But with a novel this fact can be even more starkly seen. Think about two different times when you pick up the same book;

Situation 1.) You feel like you just have to stop for a moment on a Saturday afternoon and plop onto the couch, only to immediately hop up again because a dog bone and two wooden trains were on your seat. You shove them away and sit down again, grabbing at a book to try and distract yourself from the messy living room. As you flip open the cover, your phone vibrates with a new text in your pocket, and your toddler races through the room yelling. After watching to make sure the dog is outside where the toddler can’t jump on him, you remember the book and flip open the cover to read; “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton[1].”

Situation 2.) You sit down in your comfortable armchair, a contented sigh sliding from you at the sensation of being off your feet, and feel the delightful silence of a house with finally sleeping children close in. After a minute of just sitting, you flip a Bach album on, and then pick up the book nearest to hand. The cover is a lovely deep black with an interesting picture on the front and a nice smooth feel in your hands. That being noted, you flip open the cover and read the first line; “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”

In Situation 1 that first line hardly even registers on your mind. You read it over three times, and start to think it might be okay. Then the toddler yells again, or the phone rings, or something breaks in and you lose your train of thought. Once you come back to it, you find you have to read the second line twice to understand it, and then move on to skim the first paragraph. But it still just bounces off your brain and out into thin air without making an impression. After two minutes you put it down and begin to clean up the living room, vaguely wondering why your friend recommended a book that has such an uninteresting beginning. But in situation 2 you have the opportunity to focus on the book. And what happens? After a few paragraphs, if it is at all a good book, you’re going to be drawn in. The Bach album fades into a faint background noise in your mind, and you begin to live the adventure with the characters. A few minutes more, and the act of reading is even forgotten. The places, people, and plot take shape in your mind as your eyes take in the words. You begin to forget you are even sitting in your chair. You’re in another world fighting epic battles with strange creatures, and by chapter three you’re probably ready to stay there all night and thinking, “Wow, this is a really good book.”

What made the difference isn’t the book; it’s your frame of mind. When you focus on a novel, you’re able to enjoy it and be drawn in to the story. Stop and remember for a moment and I’m sure you can think of an instance in your own reading life like this; times of forgetfulness, when everything but the story fades away until it seems alive. The same idea goes right along with writing a book. You can gain that same feeling of forgetfulness, of losing yourself in the story, when you write. And that is when your story is the smoothest and the most enjoyable to read and to write. If you are completely distracted, your sentences are going to be all mixed, what you do get written will be choppy, and you will certainly have no fun with your writing. But, if you can focus enough to get drawn in, to gain forgetfulness of all but the words, your writing starts to flow from your mind onto the page as if you’re just watching the story unfold. One of the greatest challenges of writing is focusing enough to get into the right frame of mind. If you can make yourself focus on what you’re writing for five minutes, it almost always cures even the deadly curse of Writer’s Block, the bitter word biter that has destroyed so many books. And it can also cure the evil cousin of Writer’s Bock, Frustration; that pent up grumpy realization that ‘nothing is working.’ He makes a writer slam their laptop closed and go off in a huff to drown their sorrow in ice cream. But with a backspace key, a little patience, and a few minutes of determined focus, you can beat both these dreaded foes. After the third erasing of the same chapter beginning and starting again, it starts to click. There comes the happy realization that the chapter’s beginning sounds a little more like you want it to sound, and then things begin to get smoother. And as the words come easier, focus becomes clearer, and you begin to be drawn into your creation. And that’s when the fun begins.

All this sounds great right? But how do you focus when, well… LIFE is all around you all the time? Sometimes you can’t. That’s life. There are some times when you are needed somewhere else, no matter how far behind you are on your novel’s word count. Always remember, our first duty is not to our novel, but to our God. And He calls us to love others as ourselves. If you’re needed somewhere else, don’t hole up with your novel. Sit the story aside, do your duty with joy, and when you are able to come back to the story your conscience will be clear and your soul will be at peace. And a soul at peace is a great help to focusing. But beware, Frustration loves these times. He feeds on them like a locust devours crops. But Frustration can still be beaten by three simple time-tried remedies; prayer, patience, and the common sense to pick your writing times. Wait until you know you do have a little time before you flip that laptop open. Yes, you’re still likely to be called away. But you are less likely to be called away if you wait until you at least think you have a few minutes to spare. Use common sense. And keep your eyes peeled for opportunities. Using common sense doesn’t mean you have to wait until you have a Situation 2 on your hands. Keep your laptop battery charged, or your writing notebook in your car. Then, when you find yourself in the mall waiting for someone to find that perfect pair of shoes, pull it out and start writing. Or even when you’re wandering around in the zoo with your family and notice a great bench in the aviary, take the opportunity to get a few paragraphs in while everyone else heads towards the reptiles. There are more opportunities then you might think if you keep yourself prepared. Just think about all the time you spend sitting in the car staring idly out the windows! If you don’t get carsick, a car ride is one of the best times to sneak in a little extra writing.

Which brings us finally to what I was actually supposed to be talking about when I started typing this; what does it take to focus on your novel? What do you need to stuff in your backpack in order to be prepared? I have three things that are essential for me to focus on my book and quickly slide into that smooth sensation of being drawn into the story. I hope they are helpful to you.

Determination. My brain is a lot like a happy dog, easily distracted, and delighted to go running off chasing any rabbit that shows its fuzzy head. The rabbit trails in my mind are well-trod, and rarely get lonely. Actually my brain is often more like four dogs who all go racing off after different rabbits at once. Have you ever tried to get four dogs to do the same thing at the same time? I had the brilliant idea to train my two corgis to do a syncopated roll the other day… I gave up on it pretty quickly. But with a little work, you can train your mind to behave and do your wishes. It isn’t that difficult and we all do it. When your brain wants to think about the chicken in the oven, stop it, and tell it to get back onto figuring out how to get your character out of the mess you shoved them in during chapter two. Then when it wanders off to the movie you watched last night, make it stop and get back on track. Some days it’s easier than others. The level of caffeine racing in the blood can drastically change number of rabbits that pop up calling you to chase them down their trails. But after a few minutes of studiously making your brain focus on your words, the rabbits begin to dive back into their holes, and the rabbit-trails are easier to ignore. There are not many tips to help with this, it’s just a matter of making it happen. Focusing takes a certain amount of self-control. Some days it takes a whole lot of self-control. There are, however, some tips for making it easier. Two especially come to mind, so keep reading.

Music. Make yourself a playlist early on in your novel. You know what genre it is, and what style you want, pick music that matches. Find a soundtrack that fits with your novel, or find eight soundtracks and a pop album. Almost all my playlists are taken up with John Powell soundtracks; Knight and Day, How to Train Your Dragon, Bourne Supremacy, and a few other random things, such as various Piano Guys songs. Most of them I haven’t even watched the movies, I just love the music. For one set of books I listened almost exclusively to the Narnia soundtrack, Powell’s Dragon soundtrack, and Hevia (a great Austrian/Spanish asthmatic electric bagpiper). Whatever, get out there and find yourself music that is fitted to your story, and play it when you write. After a few times, that music will automatically start to trigger the feeling you get from your book. The human brain is a funny thing, and a very skilled thing. It remembers feelings and tacks them with sensations. Those particular songs in your playlist will win half the battle of focusing. When the sound invades your mind, memories flood you. Scan your last paragraphs as it plays, and suddenly you remember exactly who your characters are, what their world looks like, and what you were writing last time you listened to that song. It gives you the feel of your book, which is exactly what you’re aiming at finding when you first sit down to a writing session. Your playlist will hand that to you without much actual work on your part. It takes a few days of writing to get those triggers in place, but it happens. And as an added bonus, two years later when someone flips on a song from your playlist the same sensations will come back, and you remember how much fun you had that November when you wrote that great novel of yours. But even with music playing it is still easy to get distracted, especially when the world around you is going crazy hyper. There’s one more trick that can cancel out a lot of the crazy, a tip that goes hand in hand with your book’s mood music.  

Headphones. Invest in a decent pair of sound excluding headphones. This is absolutely essential if you want to be able to write without waiting for the right moment for it. Pop open your laptop, stick your headphones in your ears, turn on your playlist, and TAH-DAH! You are in your own little world. With even a cheap pair of earbuds, if you turn your playlist on loud enough everything fades out of focus, except that music triggering the feeling of your book. The music might seem distractingly loud when you start, but it will fade into a background noise-blocker after a few minutes of typing. And even when you forget it’s playing because you’re so focused on telling your superlative story, those earbuds keep all the incredibly distracting noises from breaking through to register in your mind. Keep your eyes on your screen or notebook, keep the headphones securely on, and let the music do its work. As it plays, breeze the plot points that you’re supposed to get into this new chapter (see my earlier post on Plotting) and remember your ideas. Then sit your fingers on that keyboard, take a deep breath, and start in.  Now by the time you actually begin to type you’ve already nearly gained that sensation of being drawn in to your story. After that it just takes a certain amount of determination to keep your eyes on your screen instead of wandering off to the pretty birds in the aviary, or the traffic whizzing around your windows, and you slide right into that smooth focus that allows you to begin to forget yourself and enjoy your book. And those songs keep feeding your subconscious the feel of your book, and gaining a stronger trigger for the next time you open up your laptop. Which means the next time you want to focus, it’s going to be even easier to be drawn in to your book.

See, focusing in the midst of even absolute chaos isn’t that hard after all! But I will give one word of warning; it is a good idea to mention you are going off in your own world before you put your earbuds in and turn up your music. An early warning allows the people around you know they have to punch your arm to get your attention. If you neglect that duty, you might worry them, or make them mad by your studious snub-ery, or you might take off your headphones only to find out you are eating at Phil’s Crab Shack instead of the Olive Garden you wanted. Be prepared to get left out of the world that’s actually around you if you really want to focus on your book’s world. But creating something truly unique and adding a slice of yourself to the literary world is part of the reason we all love writing, isn’t it? And getting that work smooth is worth having to find something likeable on a seafood menu every once in a while.

[1] The Fellowship of the Ring, by JRR Tolkien 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Writing Bits: Plotting

National Novel Writer’s Month is looming closer and closer. I was thinking about it the other day, and decided it would be fun to do a series of writing topics. October is the perfect month for it; hot drinks abound, good pumpkiny sweets are available (great aids to the creative brain cells), and curling up with a book seems especially appealing with the colder weather. Not that it ever really gets cold down here. But that’s beside the point, the point is I am starting a writing topic this month. If you think of something you would like me to talk about (side notes vs. footnotes, settings, ending a book, etc.) Facebook me on my author page. But remember, everything I say is my take on it, and I know other people have completely different methods. All you fellow authors out there, write your technique up and let us know! I would love to find out how you go about writing your book, send me a long comment so I can try your method sometime. Now, for all you fellow novelists out there, and for those of you who notice the bizarre people staring blankly at a wall for thirty minutes and wonder what they are doing, here is the first installment; on Plotting Your Novel.

Have you ever settled in to read a book, loved the opening line, been drawn into the setting so much you felt like you could see it, and loved the characters… and halfway through you tossed it away with a sigh because the book wasn’t going anywhere? I know I have, on several occasions. If you have everything else right, but you don’t tell a good story, you’ve lost your audience. The essence of a novel is the story. Tell a good one, and people will keep reading. Ramble some and you're fine, so long as you bring the reader back to the story. But take the reader nowhere, and you find yourself reading your book alone. Which all goes to say, the plot is important.

My own plotting for my stories has been an evolution through trial and error. In some of my early tries at writing, I just sort of had a vague idea and stared writing, hoping the idea would become clearer as I went along. My books always came out feeling like I had done just that, with conflicting little statements and diverging themes that never quite gelled by the end of the story. And then I decided to write a mystery. And for that I needed a plot. Thus began the first of my steps to where I am now; the Brainstorming Stage. Instead of pulling up a Word document and starting a story, I pulled up a Word document and started to furiously type any and all ideas I had for the story I wanted to write. From that I pulled the ideas that sounded the best, and typed up the final ideas and thoughts of where this story needed to go, converting it into a kind of map. It gave me a muddy sense of direction. But half a map is better than none, and that story turned out better then my other attempts. And yet a few years later, I came back to it and realized I was confused by some of the elements of the plot in that book. Thus I moved on to my next step; flushing out the ideas into a realized plot and putting the revelations that needed to fall along the way into their proper places before I even started writing. It was a better step, and worked much better. Here is my method now.  

The Brainstorming Stage comes first. It is still the first important step, where all the ideas that suddenly pop into your mind when you’re driving down an empty highway, or doing the dishes, or some other mindless chore where your brain runs off and chases rabbits on the rabbit trails you usually avoid and ends up thinking of some great revelation to do with a book, get put down in long rambling sentences with bad punctuation because you are so excited over this idea of yours, and you know you will forget it if you don’t get it written down quickly. Here your ideas can ramble and be as muddy as you like. So long as you understand your sort of shorthanded comments and bad spelling, you are doing great. Write it all down, and have a wonderful time with letting your mind play with ridiculous, impossible situations, and character names that will almost certainly change later.

Polish it. Go back and reread your brainstorms. Pull out the ideas you love and that make sense, and clean them up a little. Refine them into a real idea that congeals into a good plot. If it isn’t a good, original plot that will keep the readers interested for the whole novel, go back and do some more brainstorming. Once the general idea is settled, I like to make sure I have the whole thing fully explained to myself. Generally I do that by writing it out from the bad guy’s point of view. After all, in most stories it is the hero of the novel that the reader follows, and he spends the book finding out what the bad guy has been doing so he can stop it. So when writing a story with a bad guy somewhere in its pages, I have to know what it is my protagonist is going to have to find out before they find it. Typing up all that the antagonist has been up too, from the beginning through all that we have to lead the protagonists to discover, gives a great clarity to where to take the readers. Enjoy it. Make it sneaky and dark, or sneaky and silly, depending on your book. If you enjoy it, the reader is much more likely to enjoy it too. And now we have a good plot! Pat yourself on the back (proverbially), refresh your cup of tea, and start in again.

Outline it. Once I have the plot settled to my liking I put it all down step by step. Start with “Chapter 1” and explain what you want to happen in that chapter. Leave it bare bones, or flesh it out impressively, whichever you like best. But tell yourself everything you need to remember to get into Chapter 1 when you start writing. And then go on to Chapter 2, and so on all the way till you get to the end of your plotline. And now, stop and glance over it. You have a good strong plot all laid out, waiting to be turned into a brilliant story! Go brag about it a little, or just get another cup of tea, depending on which option makes you happiest. Getting excited about changing that bare chapter outline into a story yet? That’s usually when I get hyped about my newest creations-to-be.

This method sounds like it would make writing a book so lucid and definite, doesn’t it? Maybe even a little boring. If you know exactly what’s going to happen when and where, why even take the trouble to write the book? Well, I have at least one answer to that. The reason I have to go to all this trouble of typing up plots instead of just writing is simple yet surprising; a story tends to take me places I didn’t expect. It sweeps you off your feet and takes you along as if you were only half telling the story, and your characters are telling the other half of it to you as you type. There is always something unexpected that pops up when I'm writing. Usually it is mild enough, but there have been times where I’ve been halfway through writing a book and suddenly a great plot revelation jumps out at me from nowhere and revamps the entire thing. And the characters! A character takes on a life of its own when they begin to flow from typing fingers into a book. It’s a beautiful, and slightly unnerving, thing when you start to think about it. You know what your characters were supposed to be, or at least the ideas you had of who they should be when you started writing; but then when you’re all done with the book and read how they react in situations, you realize there is a lot you had never planned, and this character is someone you never really envisioned.

C.S. Lewis once used the anomaly of these living characters as an illustration of how freewill and God’s sovereignty exist in the same world. God is the story teller, the plotter, He knows exactly what is going to happen and has created all these characters that interact with one another. But somehow, someway, the characters still take on a life of their own. They create their own characters to a large degree, even though the author is still in charge. It is very strange, and very hard to explain. If you want to know how it works, I suggest you start plotting and write a novel. Maybe this November. But my last bit of advice? Let it happen. Let the characters take you places you didn’t expect, and be excited about new plot revelations, even after all the work you put into a chapter by chapter outline. If you try to keep them chained to what you first envisioned, you’re libel to get frustrated and stop enjoying writing that particular story. And after you’re done, look back at your brainstorming and who you thought these characters were going to be. Then read over your book again, and see who they turned out to really be. And then take a moment to thank God that He holds the ending of our own story in His great hands.