It's Not Always in the Planning

What makes a novel a page turner? How do we, as writers, know we are keeping the reader engaged? Is there some magic hocus-pocus or formula, or do we just hope and pray our stories are so engaging the reader can’t put it down? Too many books fail, yet even the bestseller list doesn’t always deliver books that keep us turning pages. Is it just a subjective phenomenon? There are many answers to this, but I would like to explore one of many angles.

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We writers are a nervous lot. We can’t keep from writing but we fear what we write is not good enough, that readers will laugh at our make-believe worlds and close the book, that we’ve wasted our time, that our “sweat equity” was all for nil. After all, we aim to entertain, to garner an audience, to make some small impression in sharing a bit of our soul. Thus, what makes a book tick?

When a reader admits they were glued to the pages, that’s “music to a writer’s ears” and can be a very humbling experience. It validates all those hours behind a computer, exercising a precarious imagination and nimble fingers.

Again, what wields a book into the page-turner category? Is it an accident? Does the writer just get lucky? Or could it be something entirely simplistic like the writer beginning with the bare bones of a story arc minus the dreaded, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph story outline?

When a writer takes a journey, he sets out on a fantastic trip, and like a vacationer, the writer has has two options. Plan a detailed itinerary or be adventuresome. 

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The first option—scheduling: Outlining every minute of every day, where even lunch and dinner are preordained, a vacationer knows exactly what to expect. Yet, having no wiggle room or spontaneity actually fosters boredom. There is no excitement in knowing exactly where a person is going to be every given moment. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes may be new, but the experience has lost spontaneity and eliminated little to no new discoveries.

The second option—spontaneity: Having a flight plan, a hotel chosen, a car rental reserved and a list of possible activities can spawn the most anticipated trip of a lifetime. Arriving at the hotel and browsing the lobby’s endless brochures on local sights and entertainment leads the vacationer on a mysterious, gripping adventure. As the day unfolds, so do surprises, but the best vacations are those without a rigid plan or a single idea of what is going to happen next, where choices are endless.

I believe the second version is one technique propelling a novel into a page turner. As a writer who sits down with a complete but rough story arc (all main characters and subplots organized), I let the scenes unfold by allowing my characters to initiate their own discoveries. They often come up with more intriguing ideas then I do! I take an unpredictable, detailed journey with them. It is still a journey held within the constraints of the plot, counting on life to happen with actions and reactions consistent with my characters' personalities. They work through their life-changing crises and eventually arrive back home. I allow my characters to surprise me, teach me, infuriate me, and live life learning from their own mistakes. Just like real life.

 

 

Speed Writing

In a world where technology has accelerated the delivery of services, information, results, business—you name it—the word speed has become a buzz word for terms such as speed dating, speed dialing, speed skating, speed racing, speed testing, etc., but what about speed writing? Although speed-writing generally refers to shorthand, it can be used to describe a creative writing process.

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Often, a writer hears advice to just “get the story down on paper.” Do not worry about anything but the basic story. In that sense, I call it speed-writing. Whatever pops into your head, transfer it to paper. For example, the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is the most impressive proponent of challenging writers to meet a 50,000-word goal during the month of November. 

The theory is, once the writer creates the bare-bones draft of his story, he can begin the real work through editing and revising—adding, deleting, embellishing, reworking, and rearranging—until the story is polished.

This may work for many writers, but what I have experienced in trying this method is short-changing my original vision. When I sit down to write a scene, I have a certain feel for the setting, how the action unfolds, my characters’ emotions, interactions, and reactions, the combined atmosphere and tone. With speed-writing and dependence on the rewrite, I have found I’ve forgotten or cannot recapture my initial picture once I go back. Therefore, my manuscript suffers.

When I write, I prefer the tedious method. It may take me longer, but my words have to fall on paper with a rhythm, a sequencing speed-writing doesn’t capture. My biggest fear?  Quickness can backfire. I risk losing my original vision, poetic prose, artistic style, and cohesiveness. Extensive revision doesn't always capture the authenticity.

Again, there are no concrete rules for writing, no set processes one must follow. Speed-writing may work spectacularly for some writers but not all. Others may chose a more deliberate approach. How a writer arrives at a creative product is as varied as the color wheel. In the end, creativity isn’t creativity if it’s subjected to rules.

When a Writer Needs Therapy

Most people live in the real world, but writers, well, we have an excuse to live in make-believe worlds. We create people, places and conflicts. We throw our characters into sticky situations with no hope of reaching their goals. On their journey, they learn about their deficiencies, how to adapt, and what they’re made of. Not-so-nice people or natural forces tend to make things difficult for them, preventing them from getting from point A to point B. It’s a messy existence, if not totally depressing. How could things get this bad? What did they ever do to deserve misery? We writers can be downright mean sometimes, but we can also be their cheerleader.

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Writers and Their Books

Writers and Their Books

As with any profession, a writer must always refresh, recharge, and revisit nuances of honing his writing skills. It’s not enough to take a class or two, write a bit, and then assume he understands everything there is to creating stories. Nor is it enough to read a blog or two, attend seminars at a writing conference, or just read.

My many bookshelves house as many books about writing as they do novels I’ve collected. I consider writing part of lifelong learning. I’ve read every instructional topic from cover to cover, sometimes more than once, just as anyone would reread a favorite book.

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