Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Designing Scenes

I thought I’d talk about designing scenes a little bit since I seem to be doing an awful lot of it lately. It’s not something I do all the time, but it comes in particularly handy when I’m under a deadline and have to produce pages at a certain rate.

For me, scene design is a way of nailing down the structural support beams of a scene so that I can begin filling in around that. It’s also a way for me to get a handle on what a scene is about, both internally and externally, so I don’t have to write as many versions of it.

The traditional idea of outlining a scene talks in terms of identifying a characters goal or objective in a scene. What does the character want, who is standing in her way, and how does that get resolved.

However that doesn’t really work for me for a couple of reasons, one of which is my own limited ability to see beyond the nose to nose type of conflict that creates. Also, my characters tend to be reactive rather than proactive. Part of that stems from them being kids moving in an adult world; their ability to devise concrete goals is greatly curtailed. I deal with this by having them have concrete emotional goals; wanting to keep their family safe, longing for their old life, etc.

However, once an external event happens, they have a goal in how to deal with that, but I seem constitutionally unable to write a book where a character starts out with a concrete goal and pursues it until the end of the book.

So when brainstorming or designing scenes, I tend to think more in terms of:

What has to happen in this scene?
What sort of event has to take place in order to force the character out of her comfort zone and get her to take action?
How does her action further the plot?
How does that decision and subsequent action affect her internal arc/growth?
Is it a huge step forward? (And if so, how does that feel for her?)
Or is she falling back on old behaviors?
Does anything in this scene change her world view? Change how she views the people around her?

Then of course there are the fundamentals:
Where will the scene take place?
Is there a location that would give it more drama?
A time of day that will create even more tension?

Often a lot of that has to be researched. Usually, in that research, I will find some hidden gems that add to the scene or plot.

An Example: Theo has to sneak out and do X.

So the stuff I have to figure out before I even write the scene might include:

Where is she going to sneak to?
Whom does she have to evade while sneaking?
What sort of travel is involved, and what sort of complications does that bring? i.e. How hard will it be for her to hire a carriage on her own, walk the three miles, etc.
Will there be someone waiting for her when she gets there, either friend or foe?
What physical challenges will she run into? A locked door, being followed, not knowing where she is going, needing directions, etc.
Then once she gets to where she needs to be and completes X, how does that make things worse or add complications?
If it doesn’t, is there something I can do so that it does?
Does the scene ending create a false sense of completion? Or does it tumble the reader directly into the next scene? (And I think you need a variety of both in a book.)

Another, less dramatic scene might evolve this way:

Theo is in Egypt with her mother, having been allowed to come along on a dig. Being on the dig is a big part of Theo’s Egypt experience, but it’s not where the heart or heat of the action of the book is. Still, I need to include some of it because it’s a fundamental part of the book.

Scene: Theo goes to excavation sight with Mother

What are the physical characteristics of the sight?
Do they lend themselves to complications or revelations?
Is there a way to connect any of those complications or revelations back to the major plot going on? Can her actions in this scene lead her to an epiphany she can use later in the book?
Do they encounter anyone unexpected at the sight?
What other characters are in this scene?
Can I use those relationships to echo or contrast with the main plot?

Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, you get the picture.

One last important element for me in scene design is to sit down and figure out what the other off screen characters have been doing and how their off screen actions might impact what’s going on in the scene. It’s also where I check to see how Theo’s actions might be affecting other aspects of her life. It’s surprising how much stuff I can dig up that way.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Well, I finally let myself print out my WIP pages today and, by Jove!, we have a real, live manuscript! 212 pages worth. Of course, it’s missing the last 50 pages, but it is very much a part of my process to have to stop and revise the whole thing at least once before writing the ending.

I also have to take a few days and design and develop the Top Secret Location and Community in which the last act takes place. I had hoped my subconscious would do all of it while I was busy occupied elsewhere, but it didn’t. Yeah, it was a bit of a pipe dream.

One of the problems I’ve had with this book, in addition to changing locations so d@mn many times, has been one of communities. I think one of the reasons readers like series is that they become attached to the characters and the community those characters form. A huge challenge I’d given myself in the fourth Theodosia book was that I’d completely changed up the milieu and removed Theo from her community, the readers community, as well. Plot and character-wise, it had to happen—she has to be on her own and left, for the most part, to her own devices. But is has risks, too. Risks that readers will miss the other characters they’ve grown fond of. Also, one has to create new communities to take their place. And that’s a lot of bloody work.

However even with that last act still hanging over me, there is something very, very satisfying about that two inch high stack of paper. Progress!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Our cat slept in our bed last night for the first time in about twenty years. Up until that point, I had slept with a cat for nearly all my life. But then we had babies and kids and they took up room on the bed and sleep became oh-so-precious that knitting cats or felines who chose to nurse on one's ear at 3:00 a.m. and cost us precious sleep were just too big a liability. But last night we just thought, she's getting old, we're caught up on our sleep, what the heck.

I have to say, I had forgotten how lovely the feel of that warm little cat body pressed against your leg was, that magical feeling of waking and realizing she was still on the bed, all cozily asleep next to you. I love that a lack of sleep is no longer such a huge factor in my life that I can't make room for the cat.

And actually, I think that will make a nice theme for 2010. Find more time to simply enjoy holding the cat on my lap and letting my mind wander.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Of Writing and Training Wheels

I’ve been thinking a lot about story beginnings lately, fueled in part by the two books I’m working on, but also on my reading and television watching. There is such a fine art to beginning a story. My son and I have been watching The Wire, and it is great TV. However, we almost stopped watching the first season after the first two episodes because we were so lost. It was only the huge amount of praise the show had garnered that kept us going.

As I mentioned before, the second season opened with an entirely new milieu, which was surprising, but refreshing. So many audiences (reading and television) connect with the community of the story that it is always a risk to mess with that. But without risk, staleness can be a short step away. So even though the second season opened with such a giant side step, I was immediately hooked because I had a good sense of where the story was going.

The third season, however, went back to the world of the first season. In theory, this should have been a great move because its taking the audience back to what they first loved about the series. But I have to tell you, it was about five episodes of watching disparate story threads and plot lines and having no idea where they would intersect. It was frustrating and if I hadn’t already invested two seasons worth of my time, I might have given up.

Lastly, I’ve been reading a book that I’m really enjoying, but the first 60 pages are all backstory. And you know what? It totally works. Part of that is because this is a masterful storyteller, but also it seemed necessary to me because without this information, the rest of the story wouldn’t have been a story. Let me see if I can explain that.

Conventional wisdom says that we should start where the trouble starts. But I tend to balk at that because I think it’s better to get a sense of the character first and show their emotional wound or scar so the reader can bond with them. The other piece of it, the piece that this book drove home, is that trouble isn’t Trouble without context.

A parent dying isn’t necessarily where the trouble starts, unless that death propels the character into something else: sets them free, or casts them adrift. And as a reader, unless I’ve witnessed at least some of that relationship, I won’t recognize that it is, indeed, Trouble.

Which is a long way of saying that I am constantly surprised by how much time I have to spend unlearning the rules. How much time I spend telling the Rule Monitor in my head to shut up. The problem is, I was an obedient child and a good girl. Breaking rules feels so, wow, I’m searching for the right word here. Reckless. Daring. No, more irresponsible than that. Maybe that’s the word: irresponsible.

But lately I’ve been trying to think of Writing Rules as Training Wheels.

When we’re first starting out, we absolutely need them or our writing would be an unformed, sloppy mess and never achieve the proper momentum. But once we have achieved that momentum, a certain level of efficiency, then those training wheels simply get in our way. They keep us from daring to try new things or execute amazing feats; popping a wheelie or a radical slide.

But in order for us to become better writers, we have to ditch the training wheels. Not with wild abandon, but in those moments when we know, deep in our heart, that the story needs it, and we also know we’re ready to try it. That’s when those training wheels need to come off.

I know, I know. I go away for weeks on end, then when I return I write a ridiculously long entry. Sorry about that. You can read it in installments if you’d like. ☺

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Checking In

Well, the book is finally zooming along, although I use that term loosely. I am producing six pages a day, but they are good, solid pages that I am polishing as I go. An entirely new experience for me, but it seems to be working. I am also keeping a list of the things I know I’ll need to go in and fix at the end, or details I’ll need to add, threads I think I’ve dropped for too many pages, that sort of thing. By the time I finish this draft, it will be the equivalent of a third draft when compared to my usual process. I am constantly surprised by how truly flexible my process can be, bless its heart.

Another tool I’m relying heavily on is scene designing, making a list of the main beats of action that will need to happen in the scene, then researching or collecting all the information I’ll need to be able to write it, then writing it. Part of the need for this stems from having so many of the scenes take place against the ancient monuments of Luxor/Thebes, which is not a setting I carry in my head. It has to be researched and I have to feel myself in it before I can write it. Also, I usually discover something about the scene that ties in to the plot or the solution of plot issue. It’s akin to outlining a scene, I guess, but less about the plot and more of a set design, so that I have all the tools nearby, kind of thing.

I’ve been treating myself rather like a brood mare these past few weeks, my only responsibility/goal is to give birth to this story. I’ve cut most social commitments to nil, write in the morning, then exercise or do physical chores in the middle of the day. I’m always surprised at how much my subconscious likes for my body to be busy so it can cook up things unobserved. Then I design the scene for the next day and do research in the afternoon. It is pretty much an ideal schedule.

One thing I’ve noticed is that by cutting my online time so sharply, I have tons more time in real life. So while this is a rather intense writing schedule, it doesn’t feel like it so much because I’ve cut out a lot of my online commitments. I am surprised at how much that simple step quiets the chatter in my head. All those conversations I’m not paying attention to, all that information I don’t have to process or make a decision about, all that news about the business side of the industry; gone. And wow, is that ever good for creativity!

Or mine, at least. Your mileage may vary. You might need all that stuff to feed your process. But for me, I’m realizing I might need to become the cyber version of bi-coastal; spending some months of the year with an online presence, then other parts of the year with none.

Something to think about anyway.

Monday, January 18, 2010

And The Winner Is . . .

Gah! I SO meant to get to this on Friday!

Without further ado, the winners of The Basilisk’s Lair ARCs are ::drumroll please:: (okay, so maybe a little more ado)

Jen and Jennifer, numbers* 13 and 9!

UPDATE!! Because Jennifer was able to get an ARC at ALA, I've drawn a new number, and that number is . . . 1! ChariDee!

Please email me with your snail mail address and I will get those out to you this week!

*(I assigned numbers as the comments came in, not counting my own replies.)

Friday, January 08, 2010

Fludded With Good News*

So, you know how I mentioned I was holed up in my writing cave for the next few weeks? Well, it's about to get even worse . . . but for very good reasons.

The Publisher's Lunch announcement:

R.L. LaFevers's fourth book in the NATHANIEL FLUDD: BEASTOLOGIST series, set in France, in which Nate, gremlin Greasle, and Aunt Phil close in on adversary Obediah Fludd, news of Nate's parents, and the fate of the last unicorns, again to be illustrated by Kelly Murphy, again to Kate O'Sullivan at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, by Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency (World).

Yeah, how thrilling is THAT?? (Have I mentioned lately how much I adore my publisher?)

The only problem is, it's due about three weeks after Theo Four is due, and no, that's not hyperbole. Really. Three weeks. The good news is, I do have a fairly substantial outline and a couple of chapters. Even so, I think I am going to need to move the Theo Four finish date up a week, just to be sure.

So yeah, I will totally be doubling down in that writing cave for a bit. May be very scarce here for the next few weeks.

And. AND! That's not all. We just found out that Nathaniel Fludd, Book Two, THE BASILISK'S LAIR has also been selected as a Junior Library Guild Selection. I cannot even begin to tell you how thrilled I am about this.

So, in honor of all this good news, I thought I would give away a couple of ARC's of THE BASILISK'S LAIR. If you're interested in putting your name in the hat, simply leave a comment in this thread. (Be sure I have some way of contacting you if your name is drawn!) I'll leave the contest open for a full week because I know some readers stop by weekly rather than daily.

*Okay, I 'fess up. I stole that headline from my agent. Mostly because it was perfect.(And if you haven't checked out her awesome new website, you should!)

Monday, January 04, 2010

New Year, New Process. Gak!

I should have been in here bright and early first thing this morning, with a brilliant post welcoming everyone back from their holidays. Preferably something magnificently motivating. However, my deadline is breathing its hot, heavy, drooling breath down my neck and that takes precedence.

I do have some goals and aspirations for 2010, and as soon as I get a few moments I'll sit down and articulate them. One thing on that list is to do less and enjoy it more. I must confess to feeling a tad scrambled and fragmented last year. As I climb into my writing cave for the next two months, I will be cutting back on some online commitments until I finish this puppy. I'll still blog, but probably only once or twice a week. (Although, having said that, whenever I announce I need to pull back on blogging, I seem to get bitten by the blogging bug, so we'll see...)

This current book has had more fits and starts, epiphanies and dead ends, than any three of my other books combined. Plus, the deadline got moved up on me. But every time I panic and try to power through it or force it, all the fairy dust evaporates and the delicate tight rope of story I am walking disintegrates out from under my feet. I am therefore stepping waaaay out of my comfort zone with my writing process on this novel. Usually I am the Queen of Multiple Drafts, but not for this book. I no longer have the time for that, for one thing.

So I am trying out an entirely new process for the balance of this book. Although, this process has not been chosen at random. No, I think the book has been leaning toward it all along, but it is so foreign to me that I have either feared it or fought it, most likely both. But frankly, I don't have time to fight any more, so I'm embracing this new process and praying my muse knows what she's doing.

I will be writing only three pages a day, polishing as I go, and doing mad research and world building in the afternoon. This will give me a finished manuscript on precisely the day it is due, no time for major revisions. However, I am hoping that, to a certain extent, past is prologue and the first three books have acted as a discovery draft of this one, since the action in it has been determined by what happened in the earlier books. I'm also hoping that all those fits and starts are the equivalent of aborted drafts, ones I was able to jettison as soon as I grasped what I needed to do differently.

Yeah, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year!

Ending the year with a full moon pleases my writerly sense of symbolism to no end--the big, round glowing orb a perfect symbol of the promise of the full, glorious potential of the coming year. It stands before us, whole and untouched by sorrow, disappointment, or failure--a great, shining promise in the sky.

Here's wishing you a glorious 2010! May all your disappointments be small, your failures educational, and your joy luminous!