Answering Nova Day

(What is this? My very own meme, which could take the form of other Friday memes out there — random five or ‘fessing up — or non-Friday memes, or anything! Point being to have a little fun and get a little interactive. Feel free to snitch my logo at left and do your Friday thing!)


I’m calling today’s Free-For-All Friday installment “Answering Nova Day” because this strikes me as a fun thing to do.

Nova left a comment on my Monday Thoughts post. This comment consisted of a couple of questions that continue a couple of thoughts and are worthy of free-for-all-ing on this soggy Friday.

On the topic of outlining, Nova asked, You know I’m going to write an outline for the next novel, but if it’s anything like what I did the last time I don’t look at it after it’s written and I change the story quite a lot…What’s your non-outlining plan?

Funny you should ask, Nova, because I’ve been thinking about that lately. And I confess:

I love index cards. I’m the index card queen. I’m also the brainstorming and character analysis queen. So, after catching a whiff of something  — could be an image like two people walking down a lane (last novel) — I chase the whiff down with said brainstorming and character analyses until I’ve got a semblance of an idea.

(My question always is: How do people come up with their ideas? I have to torture them to get them to reveal themselves! What about you?)

The character analyses are the big thing for me. And if you believe that character is plot and plot, character, then you’re probably not surprised that plot points arise out of the analyses.

This is where index cards come in. I jot every scene idea onto its own card. Also, every scrap of dialogue that floats into my head, every what-if possibility, everything. I end up with way more cards than I use. I shuffle through them as I write the first draft, adding to their number, setting aside those that become moot or simply too silly to use, and so on.

I usually stop writing the first draft (last time it was at around page 120) to take stock of what I have. By then, I have a way better idea of the story. If I remember rightly, last time I did this, I spent many weeks analyzing and revising to sinc up the material with what I now knew to be true for the story. (That said, the first draft is still a mess.)

I do wish I had a better process. I would love to be a person for whom the one-sentence what-if? idea and subsequent outlining came easily…

And next, regarding deadlines, Nova asked, What’s your next self-imposed deadline?

Once again, funny you should ask, Nova, because yesterday I decided that my next self-imposed deadline is, ta-da:

Finish revising the older novel I’ve been working on and send it to my agent in January. I’m even going to call her to let her know this — that’s really putting the flame under my tookis, isn’t it?

What Thriller Novelist Phillip Margolin Had to Say

In my quest to hear how experienced novelists do it, I arrived along with many fans to listen to Phillip Margolin talk about his latest novel, Executive Privilege. I was curious about him because way-back-when I worked for the publishing company that first landed him on the bestseller lists. I remember the buzz that went around the editorial offices about Gone, But Not Forgotten. He was the “it” author that season.

Highlights from his talk:

1. Advice to writers: Don’t rush the writing on your good story idea lest you peter out prematurely, get dejected, and subsequently set aside what is actually a solid premise. He sometimes develops his plots over years. For example, the premise for Executive Privilege came to him in the early 1990s. (The premise: Can a U.S. president be a serial killer? Hmm…I had a few thoughts on this!)

2. Initial novel ideas: His often revolve around a moral dilemma. For example, Margolin was formerly a criminal defense attorney, and one day he got to thinking about whether there existed a criminal so morally repugnant that he would refuse to defend him, only to have to anyhow. This is Gone, But Not Forgotten.

3. From idea to initial plot ideas: Sometimes, on the other hand, his initial ideas aren’t so deep. His example centered around the image that came into his head upon watching a couple making out on a beach (on t.v.). He imagined a guy in SCUBA gear pulling the woman beneath the waves to kill her. (Gotta love his macabre imagination.)

First, he asks himself the journalistic basics–who, what, where, when, why, how–until he arrives at an interesting scenario that lends itself to conflict. Who is the man? (Judge) Who is the woman? (His mistress) Where are they? (Island paradise) Why? (Privacy) As far as the underwater killer goes: Why would the murderer kill someone in such a convoluted manner anyhow? Then, what does the judge do about his politically disastrous situation? Does he become the main suspect? And so on.

4. Plotting: Margolin is an outliner. He spends months on them, and they can be up to 60 pages long. I asked him whether his stories ever drifted from his outlines. Yep, indeedy. Sometimes the changes come while he’s writing, sometimes as a result of the editorial process.

5. Relationship with publishing house: From what he said, it doesn’t sound like his publisher intrudes too much on his process. Yet, the sales force may suggest title changes. The Courtyard Athletic Club became Ties That Bind, for example.

Or, his editor may point out weaknesses in his manuscript (as all good editors should). He mentioned the case of Proof Positive, in which his original draft contained a point-of-view character in the first chapter that didn’t appear again (yikes!). He was flummoxed as to how to integrate this character into the rest of the novel until an assistant had a bright idea. He then spent eight hours a day for two weeks re-fashioning the novel.

6. Last but not least: My favorite quote of the evening, overheard before Margolin arrived: “I came because I heard rumors that he’s dating my ex-wife.” Now there’s a potential story!

Disciplining Your Daydreams, Part II

My last post yielded more thoughts…Here’s my version of a quickie post because I’m digging the idea of a nap about now (didn’t sleep well last night).

The debate between just-writing versus outlining-first is a funny one. Many novelists advocate one method over the other. (I’m a ‘tweener, a mix of both.) I get the sense that “commercial” novelists tend to outline and “literary” novelists, not so much.

I don’t advocate outlining over letting the words flow (or vice versa). I’m uncomfortable with rules that seem to associate themselves with labels such as “commercial” and “literary.” However, I’ll always recommend character analysis to anyone seeking my opinion on the matter.

Character analyses are good for everyone! Even, I maintain, for novelists who don’t care much about character development. I propose that knowing your characters backwards and forwards before you start writing can help you pinpoint your story, generate plot ideas, and keep your characters real.

Knowing my characters means I know what they wouldn’t do, which is as important in my writing world as knowing what they would do. Characters ought to act in accordance with their worldviews, personalities, backgrounds and so on. Knowing all that stuff automatically helps me discipline away those oh-so-brilliant (but actually wayward) daydreams for the story.

For character development and analyses, check out Elizabeth George’s Write Away. I found her discussion illuminating.

Disciplining our Daydreams (When Writing)

Here’s a few photos from today’s coffee house: Papaccino’s. Complete with a shot of a fellow who tried to flirt with me awhile back (sleeping guy). Sometimes I’m clueless; now he ignores me.

Just now, I left a comment on the Dystel & Goderich Literary Management May 6th blog post. And there for all to see is a real-life example of how compulsive we writers can be. Rather than let my original comment with its dopey typo stand as is, I HAD to leave the comment a second time with typo corrected. (Did you find it?) Now I appear more daft for leaving the same comment twice, especially since I’m a client — eesh.

I’ve been meaning to answer a question from “lactatingbookworm” because, unfortunately, it got me thinking:

Hopefully, new ideas will pour in whether we outline our novels or not — and this is good, more to work with. Choose your most-comfortable writing method and know that “disciplining your daydreams” (or, revising, to translate your words into my vernacular) is part of the process.

If the goal is to write a coherent and enjoyable novel, then pruning away those wondrous ideas and plotlines that don’t work is a must. You can choose when to prune: after you’ve written the first draft, while you’re developing an outline, while you’re writing the first draft, all along the way. I’m an all-along-the-way person these days.

Sounds like you’ve got a partial outline completed. Personally, I don’t need to know every last plot point before I start (though I write in-depth character analyses; have you tried this?). At some point, you just have to start — or re-start in your case. You can stop at any point to outline further.

This is my take on your question, lactatingbookworm. Hope it helps.  Truth is, anyone with staying-power, an idea, and the urge to write can complete a first draft — but does a first draft a novel make? Nah. You gotta have revision. And this is liberating! You can filter a muddy awful mess into a clear flow.

I imagine some seasoned novelists don’t revise much, but let’s not count them, okay?