NaNoWriMo Day #2 and the Craft of Writing

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So today is Day #2 of NaNoWriMo and my progress is still slower than I’d like it to be. I’m working my way through this week’s worksheets but I ran into a bit of a snag. It’s been a long time since I’ve really thought about the craft of writing. What exactly makes something in a scene a hook/catalyst event is or what exactly makes up a scene? To a lot of people, I might be overthinking these things but I didn’t feel like I could move forward without a clear understanding of what these terms meant in terms of crafting my story. Luckily for me, I have a whole shelf of how-to write books that I turned to for answers. I’ve also read most of these books at least once in the past (even if the information didn’t stick in my brain), so I didn’t have to waste a lot of time looking for answers.

To get a clear understanding of setting up the basic premise (also known as the hook or story catalyst), I turned to Syd Field’s Screenplay The Foundations of Screenwriting. This book is a classic in the how-to writing world and even though I’m not writing a screenplay, most movies follow the basic three act structure and follow a lot of the guidelines set out in this book. This is a breakdown of classic storytelling at it’s best and it provides a lot of wonderful examples (and it’s easier to watch a 2 hour movie then find the same concepts laid out in a novel). I didn’t reread the whole book (after all, I am trying to make forward progress!); I turned to Chapter 7 – The Setup, where Syd Field includes the first 10 pages of the screenplay for Chinatown and then explains exactly how in these first few pages the screenwriter introduced the main character, stated the dramatic premise (the hook), and sketched out the dramatic situation that would propel the story forward in a linear direction until it reaches the end.

This was super helpful because it reminded me of how much an author needs to do in those first few pages of a story and yet make the writing tight, focused and compelling all at once. A lot of this will get refined during the revision process, but seeing a great example of getting clear on what I would need to do helped me understand why the first 10 pages of my launch book (I really need to come up with a secret name for this book) did NOT work.

In my launch book, the first scene introduces the hero, an intense and cynical Italian business man who is finally learning the details of his brother’s last and will and testament (his brother died 6 weeks previously). In this scene, the reader learns that the hero’s brother left his entire estate to his sister-in-law and that infuriates the hero. He just knows (because he’s a conceited ass and doesn’t seem to put any real thought into anything) that his brother’s sister-in-law is a scheming slut (just like her sister was) and that he must get the family villa back at all costs (except that he doesn’t even state his intentions that clearly). In the next scene, we’ll learn that he had to haunt down the slutty heiress in-person (I’m not quite sure why he didn’t send his attorneys to do the job) but this whole scene doesn’t work on a lot of levels. The main one being that the story premise, Will he convince the slutty heiress to sell back his brother’s villa? isn’t really that interesting. The stakes aren’t clearly defined about why he has to take action right now. Yes, the slutty heiress could sell the villa to someone else, but since she doesn’t even know she’s inherited the property, that isn’t really a problem yet. But for some reason, the author really felt like we should care – mostly because it’s just a catalyst to getting the hero and the heroine (who is the slutty heiress in question) together. P.S. Because this is a Harlequin Presents novel, you just KNOW this heroine isn’t going to be a slutty heiress. Still, the hero’s quick judgement to assume the beneficiary of his brother’s estate is a greedy slut because her sister was did NOT sit well with me. The other thing that bothered me immensely about this opening scene is that there was so much backstory dumped on the reader. It felt like the main characters were the two people who died before the story begin – the hero’s brother and the heroine’s half-sister.

Which leads me to the second element of craft that I did a deep dive into – what is a scene and how do you make it compelling? To answer that more complicated question, I turned to Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. I always tell people that if I got dumped on a desert island and was only allowed one how-to writing book, I would absolutely take this one. This is a masterful book that breaks down every element of commercial fiction and makes it easy to understand (and actionable). To help me understand why the pacing and tension of my launch book wasn’t working, I turned to Chapter 4 – Conflict and How to Build It. In this chapter Swain breaks down what needs to be included in a scene and the sequel and how to make sure they work beautifully in your story. As I was reading through this chapter, I was able to see the reasons why this story doesn’t work from a structural view – the scenes are poorly planned out and don’t have enough true conflict. The characters themselves don’t have enough at stake. There is also a lot of FORCED sexual tension, which I hate. At her initial meeting with the hero, the heroine is “transfixed” by the hero’s “amazing eyes, gloriously fringed and accentuated with spiky, inky lashes.” There is a lot more of these breathless descriptions during the scene and it all just feels very false. It’s not that the hero can’t be super good-looking, but the descriptions themselves don’t sound very sexy to me. In a future post, I’ll find examples from authors I love where they heroine’s initial reaction to the hero’s good looks is beautifully interwoven with the story telling itself. Somehow the hero’s (and/or heroine’s) make an impact on how the scene plays out. They aren’t good looking just because – those good looks contribute to the story in a meaningful way.

On Day #2 of BIAM, my exercise is to sketch out the 10 primary scenes that will make up my novel (figuring out the hook was yesterday’s worksheet that I was filling in today). And that’s when I immediately found myself bogged down by the questions, “What is a scene? How can I identify the scenes in my launch book and how can I improve them? How can I actually make this story work?” I feel like the additional reading I did today has really helped me gain some clarity on specific elements of craft that I need to master as I write out my new manuscript.

I do feel like I’m making some progress but it’s far slower than I wanted and I’m not actually working on the story itself yet. My game plan has changed a little bit since yesterday. Now, my plan is to reread the first act of my launch book and feel in as much of the first 7 days of worksheets from BIAM as possible before I then write my first 50 pages. I still need to sketch out the 10 primary scenes and I’m not sure if I’ll get to that today (although I might try; it’s just that between all of my craft studies, close rereading of my launch book, AND trying to keep up with daily blogging, I’m already spending hours on what I consider “writing time;” and at some point, I need to focus on my client projects that are waiting for me in my regular day job!)

Today’s Writing Goals: Finish Day #2 (10 scene cards) of the BIAM worksheets and maybe print out Day #3 so I can be prepared for tomorrow. Onward and upward!

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