Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wordcraft -- Bones of a novel, part III

With one week left in this November’s NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month), I’m hearing cries of anguish as even writers who have kept pace with goal of writing fifty thousand words in thirty days feel the strain. The main reason, I think, is starting the race without a map.

Okay, I’m crazy about structure. But I got crazy by learning the hard way how tough it is run a race without knowing where the track is. A reminder came earlier this fall at Pyr editor Lou Anders’ writing workshop.

I’m writing a contemporary novel, but, desperate to enter the science fiction/fantasy workshop, I pulled out the first chapter of a nearly decade old fantasy novel to enter. Despite some qualms, Anders liked the premise and characters, but when he asked for a pitch-length synopsis, I was stuck. The remainder of the novel sprawled too hopelessly even to summarize.

It’s coming together now, thanks to help from Anders’ one-day novel writing workshop.

I posted about the three-act format of screenwriter Dan Decker (author of Anatomy of a Screenplay) last month. But with only a week of NaNoWriMo to go, how about fantasy author Michael Moorcock’s suggestions for writing a novel in three days? Yes, THREE DAYS!

First step -- have a lot of people after the same thing. And make it something concrete. (Sorry, world peace isn’t achieved in three days.)

At first glance, this sounds like every fantasy quest plot. But the more I thought, the more it seemed to apply to a multitude of genres -- a search for a ring of power or a wedding ring. For Princess Leia or Rapunzel. For the evidence to convict a suspect or to clear a family’s honor.

Second step -- have a protagonist ready to walk out on the whole thing when something else comes along. Notice, you don’t need to open with the heroine’s birth. Just her moment of decision, her fateful choice, her call to adventure -- whatever term appeals to you. He gets an offer he can’t refuse. The doorbell rings and an old love appears. (Just don’t make it the alarm clock sounding. It’s been done too often. Trust me.)

Third step -- the end. (Wiping the sweat from your brow!) But don’t ignore the end. According to Anders, for the ending, Moorcock suggests looking back to the beginning and picking a character from the past.

I love having the end mirror the beginning. I’ve heard suggestions elsewhere to have the final scene echo the opening one, but with a difference. Bilbo returns to his hobbit hole, only to find all his possessions being sold at auction. Or, to look forward to Friday’s adventure classic, A Wrinkle in Time, the opening sentence, “It was a dark and stormy wind,” is permuted into the final one, “But they never learned what it was that Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which had to do, for there was a gust of wind and they were gone.”

I’ll write more later about structure, and suggest you take a look at what author and former editor Kristen Lamb has to say at But for now, watch out for the bones, and a happy ending to all!

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