In early August I'm going on a self-imposed solitary writing retreat for just shy of a week. Left to my own devices at home there are always a million reasons I come up with not to work on fiction: I have to work at my day job, I have a book review due, I'm sleepy, I have physical therapy, it's my turn for Words with Friends, etc.
At this particular retreat there will be no TV, no phone (save for emergencies), no internet, no kids and no day job – just me and my laptop. No distractions, no excuses. The place is immaculate, air-conditioned and has a kitchen. I'm bringing frozen dinners, simple breakfasts and lunches, and a whole butt load of coffee. Simple provisions for a simple week.
My goal for this time away is to get a decent start on a novel and work out the first draft of an outline. The first go-over of character names would be great, too, since I always get hung up on that. It's tough coming up with names that don't sound goofy to me and pretty much every name I think up sounds goofy to me. Why, I don't know. I think it's a self-conscious thing, a fear they won't sounds genuine, fit the characters, etc.
But then, when I read a novel I'm not so much looking for missteps an author makes naming characters – unless it's desperately bad – as how those names are initially conveyed and subsequently used. An unnatural approach that makes me feel stabby concerns one character calling another by his/her full name every time he/she is addressed – more than one time in a conversation, etc. – lest the reader has the attention span of a wasp in a room full of women with fly swatters.
You have to give the reader some credit. Establish that person's presence, differentiate this person from others by usage of mannerisms and descriptives. Don't tell me the person's full name if s/he leaves the room and for god's sake don't tell me s/he walked "through a door" unless there's something key about it. If s/he goes through a window, or walks straight through a wall, okay. But when one person leaves an interior scene I pretty much figure it's by way of a door.
Now we're getting into the actions of a character, messy devices lazy writers use to take the reader's attention away from the plot. Don't tell me anything I don't need to know. Instead, tell me about the character's reactions to the world around him. I don't care about the pattern of the wallpaper, unless it's significant to the character. Maybe it has a nursery design and the character's child died – or it's a infertile woman. If there's a cowboy print it may remind a man of Roy Rogers and watching the movies with his dad when he was little. If it doesn't matter to the character's story, it doesn't matter to me.
Use of character names, show don't tell and what else…? Oh, silly me, the plot! Once upon a time all plots were linear; now the whole thing is up for grabs. Experimental writing flops all over the place like I do when I have insomnia but refuse to give in. Some fiction makes use of flashbacks or takes place solely in the past. Or the future.
The basic rule of thumb, when it comes to plot, is called Freytag's Triangle:
Inciting moment – hook(s) that draw the reader in
Intro of characters – fleshing them out as you go
Intro of setting(s)
Establish struggle/conflict - Why does the reader care about these people? What's this story about?
Rising Action to Climax
Ordeals and complications – Characters struggle to come to grips
Falling Action to Resolution (Denouement) – Catastrophe or Reward
Epiphany/Knowledge – Characters solve problems or come to realizations
Transformation of characters – growth
Last Moment of Suspense or Resolution
Wrap up loose ends/Possible dangling ends (You don't have to answer every question)
Look how simple it is! Anyone can write a novel!
Of course nothing's absolute. Depending on how observant you want to be of classical story telling you can turn anything on its head. For my first run-through, though, I'm planning to follow the diagram set up as long ago as there have been stories, from "once upon a time" to "and they were all killed in a fiery explosion."
Next time around I'll talk about following the trail blazed by another writer, why that's okay and how you go about it. Why re-invent the wheel, especially when there are only, what, three or four plots every writer uses over and over?
As I read, somewhere or other, all novels can be boiled down to one of two things: someone comes into town or someone leaves town. True, or someone trying to look real smart-like?
Danged if I know. But I'll carry this on in my next post on the topic.