The holidays were great. Three kids made it to our house for Christmas, including the oldest, who made it back from a deployment to Europe just in time. The fourth is in South Carolina and could not travel due to Navy Covid restrictions, but stayed connected through the magic of technology. It was a great family time, but now it’s time to get back to work, and here are my six writing goals for 2021.
Write 1,000 words per working day. There are 260 working days per year, so 260,000 words total for the year. Writing that counts for this goal includes new novels, short stories, and blog posts.
Read 75 books I have not read before. I usually read a couple of books a week, but some are re-reads.
Write a short story every two months–6 total for the year.
Lovingly embrace failure.
Lovingly embrace failure. Collect 20 rejection letters from submissions for publication or from literary agents this year.
Finish the first draft of a new novel this year. I have two that I started and abandoned. It’s time to dust one of them off, re-think it, re-plan it, re-plot it, populate it with some fascinating characters, and then write the first draft.
Finish the rewrites of two novels I have languishing in the lonely desk drawer of stalled projects. I made pretty good progress on one of them in November and December but got distracted by the holidays and a sudden interest in Python programming. My hope is to get it in shape for publishing by the end of February. The other one is a bigger, messier project that will have to wait until later in the year.
That is my writing plan for the year. One thing I learned from NaNoWriMo is the importance of tracking my daily progress. For that, I have a little notebook. Thanks to this post, I have added 331 words to my total for the day, and I am off to write the other 669.
“Defeat Into Victory” is the World War II memoir written by Field-Marshal Sir William Slim. He commanded an allied corps of Indian, British, and Burmese troops as part of the force that attempted to resist the Japanese invasion and conquest of Burma in 1942. The allied forces were beaten and forced to retreat to India. After the retreat, he retrained and reorganized the allied forces to deal with Burma’s unique battlespace. Then he was appointed to command the 14th Army, which led the successful effort to defeat the Japanese forces and drive them from Burma.
Slim’s account is a masterpiece among the historical accounts of WW2 campaigns. He faced a stunning array of challenges, including everything from the logistics of feeding and supplying his 14th Army, in a country with few roads and rail systems, to dealing with abrasive personalities such as American General ‘Vinegar’ Joe Stillwell. The biggest challenge was the Japanese Army with their never retreat, never surrender fighting spirit. Slim’s men eventually outfought the Japanese, and he outthought and outgeneraled their generals and finally drove their armies from Burma.
Slim’s account is a masterpiece among the historical accounts of WW2 campaigns.
Read the book slowly. (I recommend with a detailed topographical map of Burma close at hand.) He buries many gems of wisdom throughout the text. These include concepts like the critical importance of morale and the effectiveness of close cooperation between ground and air forces. His brilliant campaign demonstrated how training, initiative at the small unit level, and strategic and tactical flexibility are all elements that lead to battlefield victory.
The book is a portrait of excellence in military leadership and command and a very entertaining read.
Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon is running a livestream event called the 2020 Portland Book Festival. It runs from November 5 to November 21, and features hundreds of free events that you can tap into on their website.
A week or so ago, I wrote this blog post entitled, “Joe Biden is a Plot Goldmine”. The piece discusses using current events a fodder for creating plots for novels and stories. One of the examples I use the continuing saga of the Biden family. I proposed what I think are three good plot lines that could be developed from the sordid story of Hunter Biden and his father, Joe. Seems I wasn’t the only one thinking along these lines.
…2020 is the year of reality being stranger than fiction.
Drama and comedy spring from the collision of the needs, desires, and emotions of characters in a story. This is called conflict, and conflict is a prerequisite for all engaging storytelling.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a scene about a late-middle age man who is laid off from his job, and he drives to downtown Portland for an appointment with an employment agency. A writer could pen this scene in a couple of ways.
In the first version, the man drives to his meeting in sunny, dry weather and light traffic. He finds a parking space close to his destination. He arrives at the appointment early, meets with the headhunter. The meeting goes well, and he leaves it encouraged and convinced that he will have a new, higher-paying position by the end of the week. He returns to his car, drives home, and arrives safely to deliver the good news to his loving and supportive wife.
The worst thing you can do to your characters is to make them boring.
In the second version, the man, believing he has job security, buys an expensive car that he will be making hefty payments on for the next seven years. The next day, he gets fired. He finds a head hunter who will talk to him and sets up an appointment. He drives his new car to downtown Portland in a steady drizzle and heavy traffic. He manages to find a parking spot, but it has a 15-minute limit. He parks there anyway and rushes through the now pouring rain to his meeting. He has trouble finding the place but finally arrives twenty minutes late and soaked to the skin. He goes into the meeting confident that his knowledge and experience will net him a good position, but the meeting does not go well. The head hunter, a young woman in her twenties, tells him she might be able to find him a job, but it will probably pay only about 2/3 of what he was making in his old job. In frustration, he argues with her and finally storms out of the meeting. It is still raining as he walks back to his car, and as he approaches, he sees a meter maid shoving a ticket under his wiper blade. He grabs the ticket as he passes the car and confronts the meter maid. As they argue, he hears a terrible crash behind him. He turns and sees that a person who jumped from the adjacent building has landed on his brand new car.
Which version is more likely to hold a reader’s interest?
The second version works better than the first. In the first, everything goes right for the character. There may be a concern with losing his job, but he is confident of getting another one. Everything goes as planned. He has smooth, safe trips to the appointment and back. He finds a parking spot. The interview goes well. He can share the good news with his wife.
The second version is much more enjoyable. It’s got the inner turmoil of the man, caused by his predicament. This includes anger over being fired, uncertainty about the future, the frustration of being late for the meeting, and looking like a drowned rat when he arrives. Then there are the arguments with the head hunter and the meter maid. Finally, he is the victim of a seemingly random mishap that destroys his car.
The second version has what the first does not–conflict. The whole universe seems to be conspiring to frustrate this flawed character’s goals and aspirations, including his own thoughts and emotions. This conflict delivers a character with whom a reader can identify. It triggers emotions, such as pity or amusement in the reader and engages them in the story.
When you create a character, give them conflicts. The worst thing you can do to your characters is to make them boring. Let them be at war with themselves and the world around them.
Current events can be a rich source of plot material. Last year I read a story about a decapitated murder victim that had been left on a judge’s front porch. It turned out to be a “fake news” story, but for me, it became the basis for a novel about a corrupt county judge and a small-town detective.
The combination of Covid-19, Portland riots, and wildfires has also been a rich vein of ideas. I used these calamities to revive a novel I wrote a few years ago. It is a dystopian tale set in Oregon after an EMP attack. I am rewriting it now and resetting the time frame to post-2020 Oregon. The addition of a pandemic, anarchist, and the travail of burned out rural communities will help make the tale more plausible. Covid-19 also figures in a short story about a man hospitalized for the virus and emerges three weeks later to find out he is the victim of a crime that threatens to ruin his reputation.
If you want an excellent example of current events that would help develop great plots, look no further than Joe and Hunter Biden. They are generating more drama than Cecil B. DeMille ever dreamed was possible. The advantage of the Biden drama is that most major news organizations are reluctant to print anything about it. This means that the material will be fresh for your readers.
Current events can be a rich source of plot material.
Here are three ideas to try out.
The rich, privileged son of a former Vice-President ruins his own life, scuttles his father’s presidential ambitions, and jeopardizes the future of an entire great nation with his dissolute, corrupt actions.
The US Vice President leads a corruption scheme to enrich himself, his family, the sitting President, and the President’s presumed successor by selling his influence to hostile foreign nations. It all goes south when the wrong person is elected President. A massive coverup effort ensues. It becomes more and more complicated when the Vice President is unexpectedly nominated by his party for President in the following election.
A ruthless and power-hungry California Senator is wisely rejected by voters in the party’s primaries, and an elderly, semi-senile, former Vice President gets the nomination. The Senator colludes with worried party officials to get her chosen as the Vice Presidential nominee. After the election, they plan to elevate her to the President by exposing her running mate’s mental incompetence.
Those are just a few obvious ideas. I personally like number 2. It is too bad Tom Clancy is not around to write it.
In any event, this illustrates how useful it is to look to current events for plot ideas that can form the basis for a story or provide elements to enrich your tale.
All stories occur in the context of larger stories. Each character is shuffling along through the larger tale that is their life, and suddenly they are plunged into the situation that forms the premise for the story you are writing. For example, I just finished reading Robert Bailey’s novel, Legacy of Lies. In it, a well-respected Tennessee District Attorney finds herself charged with the murder of her ex-husband. A key question is, how and why did she end up in this challenging situation? The answer is found her backstory–the larger story of her life. It is found in the choices, events, traumas, and triumphs she experienced that form her personality and create the choices and conflicts she faces at the beginning of Bailey’s fine novel.
When you fashion a story and look for effective and exciting plot lines and compelling drama, one of the places to look is in your characters’ backstory. Try to create a character profile for all your main characters and key minor characters. Start with a physical description of your characters, which I discussed here. Then write up a backstory for your character. It can be as detailed and as long as you like. It can also be short and concise. The key is that it answers how and why the character has ended up in your story. Also, keep in mind that you are not writing this backstory for publication. It doesn’t have to be well written—brainstorm. Spill your ideas on the page, content that no one else will likely read them.
All stories occur in the context of larger stories.
Here is an example of what I mean. This is the backstory of a minor character, Melody Frei, in a novel I am rewriting and editing now.
BACKGROUND: Grew up in Portland in a lower middle-class family. Went to Lincoln High School. Had sort of a wild life during HS, but still did well and finally went to college at PSU where she met the protagonist. She married him when she was 20 and quit school in her junior year to have their first child. Things went okay until she ran into one of her old HS boyfriends in about year six of her marriage. This chance meeting led to adultery, drug use, and an eventual divorce. She ended up living with a series of boyfriends, doing rehab on multiple occasions, with the financial help of the protagonist, and generally living a hard existence alienated from her former husband and children.
When Melody first appears in the story, she is on the street, wandering around with her latest boyfriend, Ricky, in the wake of a terrible disaster. The backstory tells me how and why she ended up there. It provides context for the conflict between her and the protagonist for the rest of the story.
Finally, think about how much of a character’s backstory should end up in the story itself. If you spend a lot of time on it, the temptation is to use it all. Don’t do it. Nothing is more boring than an information dump. Just use enough to give your reader the information they need to follow the story. Feed the details into the story a bit at a time and don’t use parts of the backstory with no relevance to moving the tale.
Take the time to get to know your characters, and it can pay dividends when you starting writing your story. A character sketch can be an excellent tool for doing that. You should definitely do one for each central character and at least a shorter version of minor characters.
The place to start is with the character’s appearance. First, work out the basics–age, race, eye and hair color, height and weight, skin tone. Then go on to how your character dresses. Keep in mind that the character may dress differently in different situations. Lee Child’s character, Jack Reacher, is distinguished by his practice of buying new clothes when he needs clean clothing and throwing away the dirty ones. Finally, consider the unique characteristics and mannerisms of the character.
…distinctive attributes make a character memorable.
It’s here you can conjure distinctive attributes that help make a character memorable. Think of John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport with a thin scar running through his eyebrow to his cheek, and a smile that can be scary. Then there is Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a creation of James Lee Burke, who has ink-black hair and a mustache except for a white patch above one ear, a legacy of malnourishment during his troubled childhood.
Another thing that can be helpful is to look around online and find a picture of someone who matches your vision of the character you are trying to create, and include it in your character sketch. I am a visual person, so if I describe the character in a book or story, the photo helps to do it in a more creative way than just listing vital statistics.
Below is an example of the appearance section of a character sketch for a book I am currently rewriting. The photo is one that I found browsing the internet that fit the bill of what I needed.
Creating bad guys or gals for your story is usually easier and more interesting than creating good ones. It’s probably because they have built-in conflict, and conflict is what makes a story hum. One source of good material for wicked, evil characters is your own experience.
All of us have encountered people in our lives that have mistreated us, insulted us, or lied about us to others. When you think about them, old emotional wounds open, and thoughts of anger and even hatred flare. Use this bitterness.
Use this bitterness.
The best way to deal with emotions toward such people is forgiveness. Bitterness and revenge are self-destructive. There is an old saying that you should dig two graves if you go seeking revenge. That does not mean you cannot use your enemies, and the strong emotions they trigger, as a rich source of material for creating loathsome characters for your stories.
It can not only help you craft engaging, memorable villains but in a subtle way, you get a measure of payback without the cost of overt revenge by immortalizing the abhorrent character the antagonists in your life in a work of literature.
My book, Trail to Peril is available on Amazon. Just click on the cover ->
Do you have a story bubbling away in your head, struggling to get out? Do you wish you could get it down on paper, but you don’t know where to start?
November is National Novel Writing Month, and the non-profit organization, NaNoWriMo, provides the opportunity, encouragement, and structure to help you realize your literary dream. The task is to produce a 50,000- word first-draft novel in 30 days. It sounds daunting, but according to their website, it has been done nearly 368,000 times.
The task is to produce a 50,000- word novel in 30 days.
I have done it twice. It is challenging, but the key, like most everything in life, is prior preparation. That is why now is the time to start thinking about it. You need a plot, characters, a theme, settings, a compelling event, a beginning, middle and end, and 60 or so scenes to create your novel. Use October to work out all of those details, and writing 1,666 words a day in November is a doable, even enjoyable task.
The best part is that sometime around November 29th or 30th, after bringing your story to life, you get to write the words “The End”, knowing you have done something few have done. You have written a bad novel.
Then the task is to turn it into a good novel, which is a different adventure.