Monday, November 24, 2008

Beginning, Middle, and End

By the Numbers

As of right now, my NaNo is the second longest single piece I’ve ever written. If I meet my goal of 75,000 words by Nov. 30, it will then be the longest piece I’ve ever written, surpassing the 73,900 words of the previous novel attempt (which I keep telling myself I’ll finish someday).

Writing something of this length has really taught me about narrative structure, which is what I wanted to write about today. I will call this a descriptive post, rather than prescriptive advice. This is how I’ve figured out structure, and this is the structure that works for the book I’m writing now. But it is not for every writer, and it is not for every book. I’m just kind of fascinated right now with how simple the formula turned out to be, and how well it is working for the structure of my NaNo.

For reference, my book is a non-magical fantasy (at least that’s what I would call it; I don’t know that it fits neatly into a genre [thank gods]) that is equal parts plot- and character-driven, and will run, in my approximation, about 75,000 words long. The final word count of the book has been something I’ve been trying to predict since I hit about 40,000 words. Will it be 75,000? Will it run toward 100,000? Because I’ve been extremely diligent (23 days going strong) in writing 2500 words per day, knowing the actual length my book will turn out is helping me to schedule a finish date, especially with the holidays coming up. I don’t want to be caught going on a five-day trip when I have just one or two chapters left to write. In trying to estimate word count, I actually started thinking really deeply about structure. Yeah, you’d think a decent writer would think about structure first, but when you’re doing NaNo, word count is king.

Beginning, Middle, and End

I think we’ve all heard that any narrative should have a beginning, middle, and end. I think even the oddest of narrative structures and those that may even seem formless can still be divided into a beginning, middle, and end. So when I started trying to estimate the final word count of my book, I took a look at how long my “beginning” was. At first, I thought it was about 40,000 words long. This really scared me. 1) I thought I was headed toward writing a 150,000-word whopper. 2) I know I don’t have enough story for 150,000 words. I have four main characters and one setting—no way! 3) Because I knew my book was not going to hit 150,000 words, that told me I had way too much beginning. That would either mean cutting a lot of stuff (stuff I really love, and stuff I’d like to think I put in there for a reason) and/or doing a lot of re-organizing and editing (maybe the stuff I love can go in the middle). But the bottom line was that I had a major structural flaw in my novel.

But then I look another look. How was I defining the “beginning”? When I came up with the 40k count, I was defining the end of the beginning/beginning of the middle by a certain event in my book that changed my protagonist’s perceptions about what was going on around her. But as I looked more closely, I realized that the middle of the book began a lot earlier. It was when my protagonist made a choice that sparked every subsequent action in the book. In Secernere, my protagonist, Aurora gets kicked out of the titular setting. And I mean violently kicked out. She’s knocked out, tied to a horse, ridden into the middle of the woods, and dropped off with a map, some food, and explicit instructions never to return to Secernere. For reasons I won’t disclose here, she makes the choice to return anyway. Sound like a stupid decision? It probably was, and it was also the decision that launches her into the middle of the book. This happens at about the 22,000-word mark—a much wieldier chunk.

Establishing what it was that caused the shift from the beginning to the middle is when I came up with my own definition of how to structure my novel based on the beginning, middle, end theory, which in turn allowed me to estimate my final length. This is what I came up with.


In the beginning you establish setting (time and place) and all your main characters (your protagonist, antagonist, and any characters who will assist them in major actions or decisions). You also establish a major conflict (notice I said “a” major, not “the” major conflict; this was the root of my earlier miscalculation). Then your protagonist must try to solve this major conflict by making a choice—but fail. If she succeeds, what is the impetus to keep reading? She must make a choice that exacerbates her major conflict into something much more substantial, and this will lead us into the middle of the story. Finally, you have an obligation to the reader to hang Chekov’s gun on the wall. If there is an object (or fact or setting) that is going to come into play during a climactic moment of the story, you have to introduce it now. You don’t have to be showy about it; in fact, the subtler you can be without cheating the reader, the bigger the payoff will be at the end.

To sum up using chess as a metaphor (which I happen to be doing quite substantially in my NaNo), the beginning is when both players have had a couple of turns. The pawns have moved into the field of play, and maybe a knight has come out. Things are just getting started. But you can’t move to the middle until somebody steps up and captures their opponent’s piece.

Note: I will not argue here that having your character make a choice is the only way to go. You can write a novel about a poor guy for whom everything just goes wrong, and it’s never his fault. But that will get really boring really quickly. When that character takes action on his own behalf, that’s when you’re really going to hook your reader. And I would argue you better hook your reader by the end of your beginning, or they’ll never bother reading the middle.


By now, all your main characters are in play and they are beginning to engage each other in conflict. To continue the chess metaphor, most of your big pieces—knights, bishops, the queen probably—are out in space, being aggressive or taking cover from aggression. Things are happening.

You also have to introduce all your secondary characters by the middle. I would define a secondary characters as anyone who speaks more than two lines of dialogue or has any observable effect on the situation of any of the main characters. (If you have a lot of tertiary characters speaking more than two lines of dialogue, consider whether they can be combined into a representative secondary character, or if their dialogue can be paraphrased; it can be a waste of narrative space to make things or people draw attention to themselves when they are not necessarily important to the story). Bringing a secondary character into the end section without introducing him here is unfair to your reader. The mailman might not be a secondary character if he’s just delivering mail, but if your mailman is going to get bitten by your protagonist’s dog and cause the dog to be put down in the end section, we better see that mailman now, even if he’s just delivering mail. (I would recommend introducing your secondary characters in the beginning, if possible, but not if it means awkwardly stuffing them into a crowded room.)

The middle is also where you will clearly establish the major conflict. In my novel, “a” major conflict for Aurora in the beginning section is that she has ended up far away from home in an enemy country, with no easy way to get home. Yeah, that sucks. But “the” major conflict is established when she returns to Secernere and discovers that a man living there wants to kill her. Now she can’t go home, and she has to hide from a man who wants to kill her. That really sucks. Every choice she makes is going to stem from that conflict—trying to get home without being killed.

But not only should you establish the major conflict here, you should also complicate it at least one time, preferably more. Each decision the character makes should further complicate the conflict. If they ease the conflict, you lose tension and you lose the attention span of your reader. But I think it is fair, also, to have circumstance play into your conflict during the middle. In Secernere, Aurora meets a little girl whose life has also been threatened by the villain. So now, not only does Aurora have to get home without being killed, she feels the moral obligation to help this little girl not get killed, too. Do you think that little girl is going to become a liability at some point? In the words of Sarah Palin, you betcha.


The end begins when things really can’t get any worse. You’ve complicated your conflict as much as you can without losing your readers’ suspension of disbelief—she’s backed into a corner with a sword pointed at her face. This is where you have your climactic scene, which is the culmination of all conflict exploding because the tension was just too much. If you’re writing the type of book that has explosions, this is probably where large things will blow up. In Secernere, my four main characters have thus far been playing a game of cat-and-mouse, and no more of two of them have ever been in the room together at the same time. In the climax, I put all four of them in a room together, and it is very crowded and very tense. If you hung Chekov’s gun, this is where it will be fired.

But the end is also where the smoke clears and your wounded hero limps off into the sunset—the dénouement. We might get a few lines of epilogue, or whole chapters of it, but things should be tied up in a way that pays service to the amount of emotional investment your readers have invested in your characters. “They lived happily ever after” doesn’t cut it.

I would also hazard here that the “perfect” ending is the one that no one saw coming but that could not happen any other way. If you’ve set up your characters and their respective guns (which could be anything from a physical trait like hemophilia to a psychological trait like hubris to an actual gun) fairly and accurately, they will propel themselves toward an inevitable end that will be both exhilarating and immensely satisfying to your reader. There are other ways to handle your endings, the only real “rule” is to be fair.

To Sum Up

Beginning: Setting, all main characters, all guns, and one major conflict. Protagonist makes a choice that gets her into a jam.

Middle: All secondary characters, the major conflict, and at least one complication to that conflict.

End: All complications have occurred; things can’t get any worse. All guns are fired. Everything is tied up (neatly or not is your call).

As far as lengths, I think the formula that will work for me is a beginning that is half as long as the middle, and an end that is half as long as the beginning, i.e., a ratio of 2:4:1.

Using this formula, my book will be about 77,000 words, and I will start writing the beginning of the end at about 66,000. I am at 57,500 words currently, and 66,000 feels exactly right to hit my climax. My chapters have been running about 2,500 to 3,000 words, and I have outlined about 2–3 chapters left to finish establishing my middle. That leaves me 11,000 words for the climactic scene (which probably shouldn’t last more than a two chapters—one to set it up and end on a cliffhanger, and a second to resolve it), and two more chapters for the denouement.

Planning a structure may not work for everyone—especially during the free-reign, first-draft stages of NaNoWriMo. But for me, who’s working on a pseudo-second draft of this particular novel, it’s been a complete epiphany. If an outline is the equivalent of a map to completing a novel, then a planned structure with approximate word counts is the equivalent of Google driving directions where it tells you how long it will take you to get there. When the end is in sight, getting there goes by so much quicker and feels so much easier. (And if I stick to my 2500 words a day, I know my novel should be complete on December 1st, and that is a really cool feeling to have.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Rule One: Writing Gets Priority

Over at this week, fantasy author Jane Lindskold* (notable both for her own considerable body of work, and as a partner to the late Roger Zelazny) posts a two-part essay here and here about the choices she's made in shaping her writing life, both before and after becoming a full-time pro:

Life seems to nibble away at writing time. For almost all my adult life, I’ve been in a serious relationship. I’ve owned and/or maintained my own home. I’ve always supported myself. No kids, but pets, gardens, gaming... I love to read. All huge time eaters.But no matter how drawn I am to these other things, I write. When I had another full-time job, I wrote seven days a week. Now that writing is my full-time job, I write five. This holds even when I have a “working weekend” doing book events or conventions.

Writing gets priority.

If there's anything that successful (for whatever value of that you like) writers agree on, it seems to be this: there's no substitute for the butt-in-chair time. Steal it if you have to, because only writing is writing.


*Who also offhandedly called me "handsome" once during a panel at Balticon, but that's neither here nor there.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Anyone else feeling crippled by idiom upon axiom of dubious, seemingly contradictory writing advice?

“Yes!” they said loudly.

Don’t use too many adverbs.

“Yes!” they proclaimed.

Don’t use synonyms for “said.”

“Yes!” they said in a loud manner.

Be succinct.


Show, don’t tell.

“Yes!” There was a flurry of head nodding among the group.

“To be” verbs are clunky and slow down your action.

“Yes!” They nodded vigorously.

Don’t use too many adverbs!

“Yes!” They nodded with vigor.

Don’t forget the tension in your scene.

“Yes!” While nodding with vigor, they turned to see a tyrannosaurus rex stomp into the room.

Don’t spring unbelievable plot twists on your unsuspecting audience.

Vary your sentence structure, but don’t make sentences too long. Use interesting and varied language, but don’t use words that send your reader to a dictionary. Use dialogue to improve characterization, but don’t spend time on mundane conversations. Show details, but don’t bog down the story with unnecessary information. Provide back story to make your characters three dimensional—but don’t do it in the first chapter! Talk about weather; it creates ambience. Don’t talk about weather; it’s gratuitous. Use research to add veracity, but don’t put too much into the story. Show your writing to someone, but don’t show it to someone who likes you too much to tell you the truth. Write without revising. You’re not finished until you revise. Forget about your audience; write for yourself. Never forget your audience!

“Yes!” they proclaimed vigorously in a loud manner while they were running away from the fifty-foot-tall inner editor monster that was stomping on libraries and bookstores and the futures of every writer who ever thought “maybe I could . . .”

No wonder writer’s block exists.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Proverb from Polonius

Ah, November ... the time of year that forces me to get face-to-face with my writing strengths and weaknesses.  Especially the weaknesses.  After an uncharacteristically strong sprint out of the gates over the first weekend, I'm back to plodding through more familiar Nanowrimo territory: 10,000 words behind the Average Daily Word Count and more nights spent not writing than writing.  I've been in the doldrums, mired in self-doubt (can I really call myself a writer if this is all I've got?), my characters stubbornly refusing to develop further and the plot that felt ingenious and exciting last week is looking mighty thin.  

It's easy, at this point, to feel like I'm doing everything wrong.  I find myself breaking all the Nanowrimo rules: re-reading, re-writing, and refusing to show up to nano every day.  I watch everyone else's word counts steadily creeping (or leaping!) upward; mine's just flat-lining.  

But I realized that I'm judging my work by other people's standards, and when I'm doing that I'm always going to feel like my work doesn't measure up.  Writing is a highly personal process, so it makes sense that each writer writes in her own way.  

For me, the exciting part of writing is the revision process.  Editing makes me happy.  I like taking a mushy pile of words and molding them into something strong, meaningful, and sharp.  Right now I'm mining for iron to melt down so I can eventually hammer out a sword.  I like the hammering part.  And I really like the sharpening.  

The flip side being that the mining/building up part - finding the words to put on the page - can be agonizing.  I have a hard time writing enough.  (And trust me, during Nanowrimo, that's the last problem you want to have.)  Sure, parts of the building up process are fun - usually right at the beginning, when the ideas swirling around in my head are the greatest I've ever thought, my plot's taking shape and my characters are coming alive, and there's nothing but potential.  

But then follows the endless (necessary) grind of building up that story ... and building ... and building.  I know I'm not alone in these feelings (I've read enough nano posts and pep talks to know that week two's a bitch for everybody!), but lately I've been feeling like I'm building the Eiffel Tower (full size, not to scale) with toothpicks.  And I have to transport each toothpick, individually, from India.  

So lately I've been doing some soul-searching, wondering why I'm putting myself through this agony if I can only eke out one word at a time but I've challenged myself to eke out 50,000 words and only given myself 30 days to do it.  It makes me want to crawl between the covers of Pride and Prejudice and never come out.  

But then I reminded myself, hey, I can write.  I've been writing all my life.  I've already figured out what works best for me, which is throwing a bunch of words on the page, printing it out, scribbling all over it, typing a bunch more, and repeat.  

Another wise piece of advice from my drawing teacher came back to me as I perused those first couple pages of my manuscript - pages I've looked at any number of times on my computer screen.  He used to advise us to frequently step back from our work, and take a look at the whole thing.  If you stay too close for too long, things get distorted.  

So, I took a step back, scribbled my notes, and all of a sudden I felt re-connected with my nano-novel after days of feeling very blocked.  Staring at those pages and pages of text made me realize something - that my book is crying out for some structure.  I just need to break the damn thing into chapters, and work on building up each chunk.  

Now, it's back to the grind, keeping Polonius's advice in mind ... And this above all, to thine own (writing) self be true!  

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Okay, so it sounds a little dirty. But it means this: Personal Novel Writing Life. I’ve decided that November 1st marked for me the beginning of PeNoWriLi.

As I’ve revealed to some of you, I am flagrantly flouting the most sacred of NaNoWriMo rules: “Previously written prose is punishable by death.” Well, kill me then: I am working from the draft I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year, my block, if you will. I decided to do this because, as much as I wanted to participate in NaNo, I could not bear to have yet another partially finished draft of something that “has potential.” I want to finish something, goddammit. And if it takes an arbitrary, made-up reason like NaNo for me to start working towards that goal, then so be it. NaNo is a convenient alibi for me to actually be a writer when the business of every day life gives me eleventy-thousand reasons not to be one. So why not PeNoWriLi? If it takes an arbitrary, made-up reason for me to be a working writer, then here it is.

The thing is, I’m not getting any younger. This very realization hit me quite soundly over the weekend when I made the decision that I am applying for grad school in January. That means I have just a year and some change before I am committed to a very large and difficult amount of work, in addition to my full-time job, for the next five years. If I can’t find the time or energy to write right now, how on earth am I going to do it when I have to attend class and write papers? Very simply: I’m not.

So that means I have this next year to finish something. For me (and we all have different measures of success), that means:
  • completing a first draft
  • revising the plot and characters for a second draft
  • revising the lines and words for a third draft
  • proofreading it
  • beginning the process of finding an agent

That’s where I want to be in a year. I’m not going to get there by writing really hard for 30 days. I’m going to get there by writing really hard until I’m done. NaNoWriMo won’t get me there, but PeNoWriLi might.

My NaNoWriMo goal is to churn out 75,000 words by the end of the month. That means 2500 words per day, every day. As of this moment, I’m behind, but who isn’t? I'll consider myself a "winner" if I do that, since I've used a good amount of words from my previous draft (though, as of today, I've diverged from my original plot in such an extreme way that barely any of that first draft will prove useful to me from this point forward). I also estimate that that will put me about 50–75% through the novel I’m writing. Come December first, I plan to make use of NaNoWriMo's momentum and write daily whatever amount of words seems comfortable – 500, 1000, 2500 – whatever will allow me to maintain consistency of output. The bottom line is I don’t want to just hack away at it anymore. I want to publish a book. Lesser people than me have done as much. Why not me, too?

My most recent motivator has been to mock up a cover for Secernere (working title) and a few pages of text into printed format and tack them up to my desk. I’ll never see that book in print unless I write it. So I’ll write it.

Here's to PeNoWriLi.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Building block

It all has to start somewhere. 

One of my favorite bits of writing advice came from one of my college professors who was coaching me through my senior thesis.  As we mused about the revision process, he told me that as writers, we are like sculptors - only our job is harder, because before we can begin carving the statue, we first have to build the block of marble.  

And for those of us participating in NaNoWriMo, that's what November is all about.  This is when we build the block.  It might not look pretty, but that's because we haven't gotten to the actual sculpting yet.  

It takes a lot of effort to build that block, because the only way to do it is word by word.   Each of us is creating a universe, using only our imagination, the keyboard, the blank page.  It's a thrilling and frightening experience.  And sometimes it's frustrating, because the block is rough and unbalanced and has lots of holes.  

But somewhere underneath exists the statue, waiting to be carved out.  

Sunday, November 9, 2008

I Can't Go On, I'll Go On

So it happens that I'm behind in my NaNoWriMo novel this year; like, really far behind, like embarassed-to-post-my-lousy-word-count behind. Sane people in my position would do the math, look at the odds of getting out the rest of the 50K in the next twenty days, and shut down the Word file in favor of doing soemthing a little less antisocial and masochistic with their November.

For good or ill, the pursuit of writing does not lend itself well to sanity; and, as another irresponsible scoundrel famously said, "Never tell me the odds." I'm settled down to refusing to be beaten, firm in the hope that I can rally myself and make up the difference yet - the month is young! I have three solid weekends yet! Keep the coffee coming! If I had any sense, I'd never have come on board to this in the first place, and since I very obviously don't, might as well keep at it until the curtain comes down.

In the interest of full disclosure, though, I don't want to give the impression that my determination is something I've carried with me from the start of this endeavor. As recently as last night I was saying to my wife that I may have already bolloxed this year's effort up for myself, that with such a really paltry output so far I wondered if I might as well just, yanno, not bother with putting any more effort into it this time around. My wife being a long-suffering NaNo widow of five successive years, watching me year after year grit my teeth and sweat out the 50,000 words at the expense of much normal human activity, I figured she'd be the first to say, "Hey, you've already proven you can do it - no shame in letting this one slide." Heaven knows she and the dog and the cat would all be just as glad to have me shut up in the office a lot less between now and December, right?

Instead she said, "If the whole point of doing this is to get you writing, why in the world would you quit now?"

And she is, of course, absolutely right. (There are reasons we've been married for a whole decade and counting.) If the only reason I sign up is for the prize of a shiny Winner! bar in my NaNoWriMo profile on November 30, I'm no kind of writer at all.

So here I am, on a lovely Autumn afternoon when I ought to - by any sane standards - be out admiring the leaves, or doing the week's grocery shopping, or going to a movie, or walking the dog, instead applying butt to chair and hands to keyboard to try and get as many words into my book as I can between now and bedtime, to try and close as much of the gap as I can between where I am and where I ought to, want to be. Those words might not even be any good; they might not, in the end, be enough. But that's not the point. The point is to keep going, one word after the other, one at a time, to put something into the world that wasn't there before - not to have written, but to be writing. Everything else is icing.

Come the end of the month, I may not win, but as long as the work goes on, I'm not going to call it a loss, either.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Suspension of Disbelief

Ah, NaNoWriMo, that old ghost—back to haunt us post-Halloween once again.

I don’t know about you all, but I’m already 3,000 words behind (though, granted, I haven’t gotten today’s session in yet). I started a day late. And I blame Bob Dylan for that. My boyfriend and I watched No Direction Home on Saturday night after dinner, with his promise that it would inspire me. I would say, however, the effect was more simultaneous inspiration and dejection. Though the movie never went deep into Dylan’s writing process, the implication was that his most genius work spilled out of his head in a mostly final, perfect form. Photographs of his “marked up” lyric sheets showed that, for him, significant revision meant changing “old” to “ol’.”

It’s that kind of idea that can really wrap itself around your creative brain and start to constrict. Knowing you have to churn out 1667 words a day for 30 days straight, it’s impossible to believe that your most fatal mistake will be a letter where there should have been an apostrophe. It’s more like exposition where there should have been dialogue, or a hero where there should have been a villain, or a completely disjointed narrative mess where there should have been a plot.

And yet, that’s what we force ourselves to believe during NaNoWriMo: that everything we’re writing is perfect and doesn’t need changing. If we don’t fool our brains into believing that the words rapidly flowing forth from our pens are pure gold, then our inner editor will wave his mighty red pen and stop all progress in its tracks (my God, look at the mixed metaphors already taking hold). Unless you are one cocky sonuvabitch (or just deluded, or, well, published in multiples), November is a month of lying to yourself just to get from one day to the next—or even from one word to the next. It’s the suspension of disbelief in yourself.

How long does it take for the lie to take hold? I tell you, it won’t happen on the first day. My first day was so full of doubt that I couldn’t even start. But maybe two hours in on the second day, or five days in, or a week: it will happen. All your notions of failure will fall away, and you’ll start riding that high of the lie.

Then, maybe twenty days in, or perhaps at midnight on November 30, you’ll realize you didn't need to lie all that much, and maybe you do have some perfection in you, too.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Day One

Well I am Jessica and am a new member of Writer's Block. I double majored back in college in Mass Communications and Psychology, and ended up going the psychology route for my career, and went on to get my Masters and am now a counselor in private practice. However, I have always written on the side, whether it be poems, short stories, or now a novel. I am also a Mom to a 20 month old son, so I'll be doing most of my writing now when my son is napping.

As for day one, I only got 390 words, falling short of the 1600 goal. I have the whole plot outlined in my head, but it was hard for me to get started, but hopefully it will get easier.

How are the rest of you doing?