Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Puzzle of Writing a Novel: Finding the Straight Edges

 If you read last week’s post you know that I am looking at working a jigsaw puzzle as a metaphor for writing a novel. Last week’s post was about keeping our eye on the “box.”  [Click HERE if you missed that one.] Today I want to talk a bit about a strategy experienced puzzlers use early on: finding the straight edges.

For the jigsaw puzzle, the straight edges offer definition. They create a framework wherein the picture will be completed. I think that’s where novelists begin as well.

As many puzzles have four sides and four corners, this week’s blog addresses four angles to explore when framing the novel.

First, I think each writer needs to consider his or her own situation. How much time can you give to your writing? What do you want as your end product? Do you see this as your magnum opus or first attempt? When I was drafting my doctoral dissertation, I received excellent advice from my mentor. He said, “There was a time when a dissertation was a lifelong work. Not anymore. You can spend your life including everything in the manuscript you can find and never graduate or you can do what you can do; do it well and move on.” I graduated if that tells you anything. Frame your novel to be something you can finish before you run out of steam. This will also help you avoid the dreaded sagging middle. [Click HERE to read more about the sagging middle.]

The second angle is to think through or study your genre. Each genre has a set of requirements or expectations. Knowing those parameters helps frame the story. I remember sitting in a conference workshop a few years ago when I first learned this reality. The presenter was talking about romance novels. She said there is a formula and if you want success, you need to implement it. It went along the lines of boy meets girl and they like each other but there is conflict. Somewhere along the line there is resolution and a first kiss. Then there is more conflict that threatens their relationship but they find a resolution and finally there is a wedding. Or something like that. The point is this: Your genre offers you a straight edge, a framework to guide your book.

Plotting and identifying the story problem is another straight edge for piecing together a good novel. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to plan every detail or produce a sixty-page outline of the story they hope to complete. Far from it. Yes, I know many writers who claim to be “pantsters,” and don’t plan anything, though I suspect all writers have at least some notion of a story line when they sit down to compose their work. [Click HERE to read more about Plotters and Pantsters.] The truth is this: Good novels hook the reader in the first ten pages, the problem needs to be apparent early on, conflict needs to surface early and ramp up through the first three quarters of the book, you must have an idea of when to insert those critical turning points, and novelists need to be able to bring a satisfying end to the book. There are dozens of models out there to study and explore. A strong storyline provides a strong framework for the novel.

For the final side of our novel puzzle, I want to address Point of View (POV). If you can determine whose POV you are using and stay true to it, you will have a powerful manuscript. Unfortunately, I see all too many budding authors who want to include the point of view of each and every character. You need to be a master crafter to do that and not confuse your audience. The easiest straight edge for this part of the puzzle is to adopt one person’s point of view for the entire book or at least for each chapter or scene. [For more on POV, click here for an archived post.]

There you have it. Four sides. Four angles. Straight edges to help writers create a framework to craft a meaningful story.  Next week’s post will be about sorting through those myriad of colorful pieces to build scenes.

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