Friday, July 25, 2008

How to start a novel: write first or outline first?

In March, I gave a seminar at the LDStorymakers writer's conference entitled, Creating Your Inner Writing Team. One point I discussed was the way one's natural preference (right brain or left brain) can affect the process of writing. While most people have and use both sides of their brains (hee, hee), our natural preference affects how we go about a project. I gave the example of folks who find it easy to outline a paper and then write it following the outline and folks who are frozen at the prospect of beginning with an outline. They have to write the paper first, then the outline!

So now Nancy and I are working on a project (Lael's writing a YA novel for the national market), and the question of how to begin raised it's head. When writing my earlier novels, I had an idea, and then sat down in front of the typewriter or computer and started writing. I often only had the vaguest notion of what characters besides the protagonist would populate the novel and what the plot points would be.

For example, when I wrote my first novel,  The Broken Covenant, I wanted to explore why and how a "good" LDS woman would move from being a devoted wife to having an affair. I had no idea how to begin, so I started writing the conversations I knew this character would have. With the man in question, her husband, her children, the bishop, etc. 

I followed much the same process with my other novels. However, working with Nancy as co-author requires a different plan. Outlining and plotting first! Oy vey! Nancy came up with a great idea. Through brainstorming, we knew who the main characters were and what the general plot line would be (a road trip/development novel). But we had to go far beyond that so we wouldn't waste time going down paths that were unproductive.

Luckily, about that time I got a copy of The Writer's Journey/Mythic Structures for Writers by Christopher Vogler. What a fascinating book. Basically, Vogler shows how every successful work of fiction--humorous, epic, whatever——has a character arc that can overlay classic idea of The Hero's Journey. There's been much discussion, for example, of how The Hero's Journey can be seen in the Star Wars trilogy. 

So I used the points on the character arc that Vogler outlines in the book as a scaffolding to begin plotting the new novel. The points are, 

1.  Limited awareness of a problem
2.  Increased awareness
3.  Reluctance to change
4.  Overcoming reluctance
5.  Committing to change
6.  Experimenting with first change
7.  Preparing for big change
8.  Attempting big change
9.  Consequences of the change
10. Rededication to change
11. Final attempt at big change
12. Final mastery of the problem

I was amazed at how working with these points opened up all sorts of possibilities. Before long, I had a basic structure on paper. Now Nancy and I can have fun filling it out and refining it. 

Of course, even with this outline, new ideas and unexpected plot turns will come up in the writing itself. I'm looking forward to seeing where we'll end up, but happily we have a good idea of where we're going!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Book review

I’ve set myself a goal for the next year to read as many books by LDS authors as I can. I started off with Tristi Pinkston’s book Nothing to Regret because I’m thinking of doing something myself concerning one of the World War II Japanese relocation centers. Here is my review of the book:

Tristi Pinkston knows how to get a story started and keep it rolling. She begins her book Nothing to Regret with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. Ken Sugihara, her protagonist, has been happily attending Berkeley, but the events of that day totally change his life. He is Nisei, an American of Japanese ancestry. Much to his consternation, he and all other people of Japanese ancestry on the west coast are suddenly outcasts, looked upon with suspicion and suspected of spying. Almost before they realize what’s happening, they are interned in various “relocation centers” throughout the west. Ken and his family are sent to Topaz, Utah, where they are virtually prisoners.

Life is monotonous in the camp, so when Ken, who speaks fluent Japanese, has the opportunity to go on a very dangerous mission as a American spy in the heart of Japan, he accepts, knowing that serving his country in this way is fully as dangerous as being in the front lines of the war. Thus begins a saga which the author keeps moving at a fast pace until the surprising ending.

The author sustains reader interest throughout the book through unexpected twists and turns. She has done her research well so that it has the feel of authenticity. I recommend this book for all World War II buffs as well as those who just simply like a good story.

Review by Lael Littke