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Novel Writing Pyramid

Novel Pyramid

When writing or drafting a new story, sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the forest due to the trees – in the myriad of ideas that flash up in a brainstorm.  The pyramid above helps remind me of the emphasis each area needs in the overall structure:

If a story is too complex, you’ll lose or confuse your readers; but if it’s too simple, it becomes predictable and therefore no challenge to the mind of the adventurer who’s picked up your book to get lost in another world.  Most of the best stories are, at their heart, quite simple – “boy meets girl”, or “person achieves goal”.

If you don’t know what your settings and themes are, how can you effectively work toward the final outcome?  If you don’t know who your character is, and what your basic plot (goal and how it’s achieved) is, how can you guide the reader through dialogue or prose toward the desired conclusion?  Diction is important because it is central to creating the voice of each character, and sticking to genre-specific vocabulary and expressions (i.e. no proverbial airplanes through the scenes of a historical novel).  As Mark Twain once wrote,

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

And if you have the top four slices of the pyramid in place, but don’t have proper foundations – in other words, know your grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax (sentence structures, tense usage, etc.) then no matter how brilliant your plot might be, or your character development, if readers can’t get past your bad diction and grammar, you’ve lost them as present and future readers!

I’d like to encourage you to know your weaknesses, and develop them into strengths!  If grammar or spelling is a weakness, work on it – invest time into reviewing the rules – Wikipedia is an excellent source for articles on how to use punctuation, etc.  Buy a good grammar book, or even a grammar practice book with an answer key at the back (The “English Grammar in Use” series is one I used for years with EFLA students).  If plot or character development is a weakness, then make a list of questions for each, and take the time to think about and answer them.

Good writing is about quality; it’s about solid foundations and constant development, the honing of your skills; it’s about research, thinking outside the box, and being able to convey in words the images born in your mind.  Just as sharpening a pencil makes it easier to write, so does sharpening your mind and skills.

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Warning about Reading

Reading

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How To Boost Your Focus

I’m probably the most organised person I know; I’m not OCD about it, I just work better when things are organised.  Writing a book means that I accumulate bits and pieces of information, research facts, website links, editing tips, formatting guidelines, historical trivia that I can integrate into my plot (but only if I can find it when I get there), maps, diagrams, lists of names in various languages, grammar points to remember (I’ve made up a word for “points to remember” – poitrems – you heard it here first), How-To cheat-sheets for PhotoShop, publication checklists (pre- and post-), Shelfari to-dos, and… need I continue?  I’m just getting started.  And that’s my point.  If I’m not organised, I’ll waste half my day looking for something… where did I put that note about the dimensions of a modern casket?  Was it hot arsenic or cyanide that smells like garlic?  Are blue diamonds more valuable than pure white?  What kind of micro-organism poops arsenic?  A friend of mine complimented me one day when I told her some of the things I was researching; she said, “You’re just weird.”  And it’s something my husband repeats fondly on a regular basis.

So, I’d like to share a few of my organisational tips with you:

1)  Know thyself.  Know your weaknesses (You know, those distractions, procrastination excuses, time-eating habits like “just checking into Facebook for a minute before I sit down to write” and an hour later you’re hungry, then you see that the kitchen needs cleaning… you know who you are.).  Recognize those time-wasters, and nip them in the bud before they mushroom into a day wasted.  Keep your cell phone at a safe distance; wear earplugs if you need to; turn on music if it helps you focus, turn it off if it distracts you.  Write down points to research and only dive into research when you have 5 items on the list (and stay away from time-monster sites like Facebook and Youtube while you’re working!)

Character Profile Worksheet 12)  Find a system that works for you.  I organise my notes, etc. in various ways:  I have pocket-sized Moleskin books for quick reference character profiles, lists of words, family trees of characters, etc.; I also have lined notebooks with those heavy-duty post-it tabs labelling the sections (that are well-spaced apart for future additions); I write the section names on the front and back of those tabs so that I can find it from either way the notebook lands on my desk.  For instance, one notebook I always have at hand has sections like publications, pre- & post- publication to-dos, paperback formatting checklist, KDP guidelines, CreateSpace guidelines, grammar, PhotoShop Elements helps, editing checklists, proofing checklists, Beta checklists, and step-by-step guides for various publication formats.  Another notebook I keep on hand has things like time-related notes (Julian calendar terms, Ages [Stone Age = ~6,000-2,000 BC], etc.), medical notes (that’s where I put that note about modern casket dimensions), glossaries for archaeological terms, 18th century England notes, lists of museum curators’ names, phone numbers and emails, etc.  Besides notebooks, I keep “cards” – here’s an example (to the right):  I type up the information in PowerPoint, then save each “card” to .jpg format through MS Paint.  These cards are then saved onto my Tab through Dropbox, and Bob’s your uncle, I’ve got them handy whether I’m writing on the couch, on holiday, or in a café.

Pomodoro Time Management Tips3) Learn to focus.  I’ve recently found a great way to focus better through those hours of the day and night when I know I’m going to be most distracted:  It’s called Focus Booster.  It’s basically a timer on your desktop that counts down time increments, with an additional break-time at the end of each cycle.  The standard unit of time is 25/5, though you can adjust it to your rhythm.  The thinking is that anyone can focus on a given task for 25 minutes, even those who struggle with ADD.  In using it, I’ve realized how often I get distracted by a thought that comes into my mind while writing and I get up to do something quickly.  This way, I stay working for a solid amount of time, and use that 5 minutes to switch gears and get other things done; it’s amazing how much you can get accomplished in 30 minutes.  I’d encourage you to download it and give it a try if you struggle with concentration.  Here’s a second card I’ve made with the basic principles for the Booster.

Those are just a few ideas; if you struggle with a specific area, or would like suggestions on dealing with specific challenges in focusing, just ask away!  Focus well, and your writing will flow so much more smoothly and swiftly.

 

 

 

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The Debate: Online vs. Onscreen vs. Physical Reading

I came across an interesting article (click on the photo below to read it for yourself) on the Scientific American website; it compares e-reading to physical reading, and discusses the pros and cons, the questions as to whether our brains are adapting to deal with the new technological challenges, and whether or not we as a human race could risk losing certain cognitive functions by abandoning physical reading.  I found the article informative; but I also observed myself while reading and I discovered a few things:

As I write (type) this, I’m sitting in my usual writing location – in our home library surrounded by well over a thousand books.  I’ve collected antique books over the years, and have some nearly 200 years old, while I have my own latest books fresh off the press as well.  Those books, old or new, aren’t for show – they’re for reading.  I also have a Kindle, and often read books either on the Kindle or on my android Tab, or even my computer with the Kindle for PC app.  But as I read the article I found myself getting impatient, and I realized that the article, while professing to be a neutral assessment of the two mediums, had broken a few unspoken criteria for Netiquette:  When I read online my expectation is that the article is succinct (not rambling); 300-500 words is the optimal length (give or take a bit), and yet this SA article was over 3,900 words long, equivalent to 7 A4 typed pages (I copied the article to plain text for a quick check).  As a comparison, a random chapter from a novel (taken from my Kindle) was at 3,200 words (5 A4 pages).  Underlying assumptions are that a) a typical magazine or periodical article that works in a printed format should work equally as well for an online format and b) if it doesn’t it must mean that people reading online are less patient or (dare I say it?) less intelligent than our print readers.  But some of the questions (and one assumes they are rhetorical) the article raises are, “As digital texts and technologies become more prevalent, we gain new and more mobile ways of reading—but are we still reading as attentively and thoroughly? How do our brains respond differently to onscreen text than to words on paper?” Had they looked at any resources for tips on writing articles online, they would have seen a tip at the top of most lists regarding length.  Our brains do respond differently to online text because we have a different set of expectations or criteria.

Personally, I read a lot.  A LOT.  Both digital as well as printed formats.  I would classify myself as, for want of a proper word, “Polyliterate”: I read equally thoroughly in a book and on my Kindle / computer.  But criteria and expectations are different for online vs. onscreen, and I think the article misses that distinction.  Onscreen, I’m thorough; online, I expect the text to get to the crux of the matter within the first screen-length (and conclude by the end of the second); I have no patience for those sites that force a reader to click through several screens to get to their point(s).  Precisely because I work on the computer, my online time is more valuable; I want conciseness.  And as to reading books, like any true bibliophile I love the feel of a good book in my hands, the tactile experience of knowing just where I am in the context of the whole story; but I also love taking an entire library with me in my Kindle, getting lost in the story either way (and not the format).

Just Curious:

If any of you take the time to read the entire article (by clicking on the photo) below, what are your thoughts?  Or if you have given extensive thought to this issue yourself, what do you think?  What are your reading habits and expectations of physical vs. onscreen vs. online matter?

 

Image Credit:  Amazon

Image Credit: Amazon

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New Book Release: Redemption, the Northing Trilogy, Book 2

Redemption CoverAnnouncing the release of my second book, Redemption!  At the moment both books are available on Kindle, and coming soon in paperback.  If you enjoy 18th century fiction a la Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, I think you’ll love these two books!  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing them; before writing the third book in this series, however, I’ll be finishing two other manuscripts, in vastly different genres.  So keep your eye out for more news!

The reason for the brief interlude between the releases of The Price of Freedom and Redemption is that the second was nearly complete when I released the first one; POF had been done for a few months by the time I actually had time to sit down and go through the publication process for the first time properly; don’t think either book was rushed, as I’m meticulous with the nuts and bolts, and I would like to think quality, though that is up to the reader to assess, not me!

To read a snippet of the book and find out more, please check out my “Publications” page, and let me know what you think – I’d love to hear from you!

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New Book Release: The Price of Freedom

POF1 - Amazon Optimal Pixel

The Price of Freedom
Now available on Amazon

At last, I can announce it!  My first published book, pre-Regency fiction called “The Price of Freedom” is out!  Available on Amazon worldwide, and ready to read and enjoy in the Kindle e-book format!

It’s been a long process, and one fraught with delays, hiccups, a lot of homework, and the unsexy side of writing.  It’s my first baby – the story that started me writing several years ago, and has been the friend I honed my writing chops on.  It’s hard to let go of that baby and let the wider world into its life, and allow it to take on a life of its own, but so it is.

As you know, self-published books are dependent on word-of mouth marketing.  I would really appreciate your help!  If anyone would like to interview me, review the book, and / or write a great review on Amazon, that would be amazing!  If you know anyone remotely interested in literary fiction, Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer (my style has been compared to both of those writers by editors & other writers), historical fiction, Regency or Pre-Regency era, please pass the word on to them!

Here’s a review, from Sue Moorcroft (Author, tutor):

“She was tall and willowy, and had a way of coming into a room like a welcomed summer breeze, drawing all eyes to herself.” – What a great description! It’s the kind of thing I wish I’d written. It really conjures up an image for the reader.

“…his death at such a ripe old age could not conveniently be avoided I suppose…” – A great snippet of dialogue. It’s exactly this kind of sly humour, that Jane Austen did so well, that earns for Regency fiction the tag, ‘comedy of manners’.

So… pass the word, download the book, grap a cuppa and curl up for a good read!

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All About Perspective

So much is exhibited to the eye that nothing is left to the imagination.  It sometimes seems almost possible that the modern world might be choked by its own riches, and human faculty dwindle away amid the million inventions that have been introduced to render its exercise unnecessary.  The articles in the quarterlies extend to thirty or more pages, but thirty pages is now too much. So we witness a further condensing process and, we have the fortnightly and the Contemporary which reduce thirty pages to fifteen pages so that you may read a larger number of articles in a shorter time and in a shorter form.  As if this last condensing process were not enough the condensed articles of these periodicals are further condensed by the daily papers, which will give you a summary of the summary of all that has been written about everything.  Those who are dipping into so many subjects and gathering information in a summary and superficial form lose the habit of settling down to great works.  Ephemeral literature is driving out the great classics of the present and the past… hurried reading can never be good reading.” – G.J. Goschen, First Annual Address to the Students, Toynbee Hall, London, 1894

1894.  We tend to think of such times as “the good old days,” when life was slow and time was taken to read, contemplate, and discuss topics at great length.  Compared to now of course, they did; but the time in which we live now will look slow to future generations.  We tend to think that women today tend to be more scantily dressed than 50 years ago, and it’s true; but 100 years ago they thought exactly the same thing of their own time.

Future generations will think it quaint that we had things called “CDs” or “DVDs” (that looked exactly the same but the playing devices were incompatible with one another!) that were physical discs you actually have to put into a machine to hear music or watch a film; or telephones that actually needed electricity, or computers that needed an internet cable, or batteries that needed changing.  Our miniscule cell phones will look as bulky and clumsy to them as ‘80s films’ cell phones do to us now.  Magazine ads from the late ‘60s were more wordy than some full-length newspaper articles today.  Ads today don’t even use words – they have to grab you with an image because you’ve just sped past in your car, on your bike, or in a tram or bus or train.

First passenger railway 1830, Liverpool & Manchester Railway.  Source - Wikipedia

First passenger railway 1830, Liverpool & Manchester Railway

Literature is changing too.  When was the last time you read a tome?  Do you like to enjoy slow reading, like fine cuisine, or do you prefer to read a book in a weekend, and if it will take much longer you’re not as interested?

“With the advent of cheap newspapers and superior means of locomotion… the dreamy quiet old days are over… for men now live and think and work at express speed.  They have their Mercury or Post laid on their breakfast table in the early morning, and if they are too hurried to snatch from it the news during that meal, they carry it off, to be sulkily read as they travel… leaving them no time to talk with the friend who may share the compartment with them… the hurry and bustle of modern life… lacks the quiet and repose of the period when our forefathers, they day’s work done, took their ease…” – William Smith, Morley:  Ancient and Modern, 1886

It’s all about perspective.  So the next time you get impatient, stop and think about those past generations who felt intimidated by the speed of a steam locomotive, and instead be grateful you’re stuck in traffic.

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Musings on the Unsexy Side of Writing

WordItOut-Word-cloud-223251When someone discovers the avenue of writing as a way of expressing their creativity, I can guarantee you they don’t think, “Gee, I can’t wait to get to all those technical details it will take to launch a book!”  That technical nitty-gritty is what the Swiss would call the “unsexy” side of writing.  If you’re a writer, and you’re anything like me, it’s the last thing you want to spend your time doing – I’d much rather be working on the next manuscript than tackling things like blurbs, bios, and summaries, all in various lengths.  I’d rather not have to tackle the issues of pricing, cover art decisions, marketing (most writers enjoy the isolation it takes to be a good writer and concentrate on their craft – we are not born me-salesmen!), networking and promotion.  But that’s the phase I find myself in right now.  And perhaps my situation is a bit more challenging because I am an English-language writer living in an area of a country that speaks an unwritten language:  I live in the Swiss-German speaking area of Switzerland.  There are a variety of dialects here, none of which have an official written structure or spelling (it is usually spelled phonetically, which varies according to the dialect).  High-German is the language of the newspapers and magazines and television (for the most part), but it’s not the language you hear on the streets.  And I certainly don’t have a local writer’s group from which to draw inspiration or encouragement.  I can’t just zip down to the local bookshop and see which publishers are interested in which topics.  It’s just me, myself and moi when it comes to getting it done.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ve got several irons in the fire at any given time:  At the moment I have no less than six novels at various stages of completion.  The second novel of a trilogy is on next, but will soon get put on hold as I travel to Norway for historical research this summer, for another novel in the making.  Focusing on one project at a time is the most efficient way to work; but sometimes it’s not possible.  I actually like the variety, from 18th century fiction, to 8th and 21st century fantasy fiction, contemporary fiction, science fiction… I’ve got my fingers in a lot of pies.  For me the key is self-discipline; setting goals, priorities, and daily schedules so that I can reach those goals one step at a time, all the while not letting any of that quench my creativity.  It would be great to have a support network of writers with whom I could bounce ideas around, or glean encouragment from, or be inspired by.  But life is where it is, so I’ll take the encouragement in any form it comes.  And I’ll slog my way through the unsexy side of the craft, and maybe even learn to enjoy it along the way!

 

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