How to Structure a Novel

Finished the first shaggy draft of my current WIP at the end of November. Set it aside for the holidays and a sweet trip with my husband to our Florida home. I have a writing group in St. Pete, and we do weekly prompts, so I was still writing while the novel rested.

Back home in Detroit, a few months later, I read the pages I’d dashed off as 2018 concluded. They were not good. They were worse than usual. I conferred with my Michigan writing group and we brainstormed ways to improve the draft. In my writing room, I began blocking out every scene, writing a one or two sentence summary for each scene into an outline. Yes! I outline, but only after I have written the first draft.

As has been the case for awhile now, my keyboard was not cooperating, so somewhere in there I got a Mac Magic Keyboard and it’s working out just fine. This is a digression, but digressions happen all the time, taking writers out of the books they’re working on. Apple is correcting keyboard problems like mine for free right now, but I can’t let go of my machine while I’m working on this book. Thus the magic keyboard. It works just fine.

My revision is all over the place. I like to start revising at the beginning, because I’m linear that way. But once a month I had to go to the middle to grab a chapter for my critique group. Naturally I had to revise the hell out of that before I’d show it to them or they’d shred me like paper. And now I’ve got another group, and have to go back to the first chapter for them. Revision three of the first chapter. Revision zero for the second half of the book. That’s where I’m at.

So, yes, my revision is all over the place. I don’t do well with chaos for long. I like to bring it to order, sharpish. So when a writing friend told me about Jane Cleland’s Suspense, Structure and Plot the word structure made my hopes soar. When I found “Jane’s Plotting Road Map” on page 38 I knew I was on my way to getting this book into shape. The one page diagram about how to structure plot will save me so many steps.

I particularly like how Jane lays out the plot and subplots and gives you an approximate page number of where they should show up for maximum readability. It’s kind of like when I used to write romances and knew the consummation scene needed to be around page 100. First I needed to figure out my subplots. That was easy. I’d already written them. They’d been scattershot through the book with no regard to pacing or maximizing impact.

This isn’t the first time a book or a blog about plotting and structure has come to my rescue. I’ve used many through the years, but Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt served me well through several revisions. “Writing/Romance” Jennifer Crusie’s blog, written in 2015-2016, reads like a short course in writing and structuring a novel. She also answers writing questions on her Argh Ink blog on Mondays.

Just reading Jenny helps with the panic. And the truly Magic keyboard came to my rescue. And Jane’s road map. I was beginning to despair (because I’m a drama queen deep inside) but I just might finish this book by my December deadline after all.

Writing Description

The murder victim in my current WIP is an artist. And his art leads to the capture of his killer. So, art is key. My longtime critique group (not my new mystery group, or my Florida group) had a difficult time with a critical passage of mine last time we met. They couldn’t understand what I was describing, which was a simple thing, like a badly painted still life. This is not what I described but for example it could have been a blue bowl on a yellow table holding red apples. Maybe a slice of sunlight beamed across the table. The object was that simple. And it was an important clue. I was quite frustrated. The most straightforward words about an uncomplicated object and the way I described it seemed obscure to them.

They must have quizzed me for fifteen minutes on that paragraph. It was distressing to me that they could not picture what I had described. Reading this, you may form the idea, and you would be correct, that it still bothers me. What was so unclear to them about my straightforward and simple description? I had no idea how else to describe it. And I thought I’d done a good job. I still think that.

My best friend is a painter. In fact, several of my friends are painters. One of them bought me a watercolor set for my birthday. I’ve always wanted to try watercolors, but I’m a writer. I paint pictures with words. Or I try to. Somehow, with my recent work, I’d not been able to convey through words a picture so clear in my mind. It bothered me for weeks. It still bothers me.

A new idea began to take shape about a week ago. Not about the paragraph that stymied my writing group. I’m leaving that alone for now. But slowly my mind has turned to the other descriptions of art in the book. I describe this artist’s work several times. I wanted to open those watercolors and paint the life’s work of my doomed artist. For my book, for my own reference. Maybe it would help to put everything I see in my mind’s eye down onto paper. The watercolors were just sitting there. So was the art paper.

After a few crucial tips from my artist friend, I began by sketching and then watercoloring. The hours flew by. Nobody will ever see this watercolor. Nobody will have to try to understand it. Nobody will have any opinion on it. It need not be critiqued. It is just for me.

So, did I solve my description problem? Maybe not. But I feel better just for having, for once, taken what is in my head and put it to paper without words. It is exactly as I imagined it.

Join A Critique Group

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Calling all Michigan Mystery Writers! Michigan Sisters in Crime has started a new critique group. It’s for mystery writers, and you need to be a member to participate. We meet once a month for two hours at a restaurant in Troy close to I-75. There were four of us at the first meeting. We came from Ann Arbor, Lake Orion, Clarkston and Washington Twp. It was a great success.

Critique groups are great motivators. I’m on fire to write the best pages of my life for this group. Any member of Michigan Sisters in Crime is welcome to attend. You don’t have to be there for every meeting. Summer is busy time. Still, if you’re writing a mystery novel, even a short story, even if it’s your first one, the critique group is a free perk of membership.

The critique group was just one of the many ideas for our chapter cooked up by Super President and founder, Jan Rydzon. I used to teach creative writing, so I offered to help Jan with this group. My role will be to lead the newer writers or writers who are new to crime writing. We’ll talk about craft as well as critiquing pages. If there are enough newbies, we’ll form our own group so everyone gets a turn to share their work.

I am a member of the group too. I brought my first page in for critique just like everyone else. If I can pull it off, the feedback I received will take my opening from not terrible to great. I find first pages the most difficult. All that info to convey about the character plus hook the reader and set up the mystery in about 250 words. Not easy. But a critique group can help you find that extra bit of special to take your writing to the next level.

Contact me at cindy@cynthiaharrison.com if you are interested. Title your subject line MiSinC Critique Group. You want to write or make your writing better? Join us in July. If you’re not a member, it’s easy to join. We are open to all, not just women. Men too. We call them “Misters” 🙂 Not just experienced writers. Even if you have not yet written a word, you can join the chapter and the critique group. Just go to our website for details.

Until then, happy writing!

I Quit Sugar!

Larson’s Bakery, just down the block from where we stayed in Seattle, is full of fresh, sweet treats. Cookies, cakes, donuts, tarts, the delish local Norwegian pastries. We stopped by every day; it was hard to chose just one treat, so lots of times I’d get two. Or three. Yummiest vacation ever.

I’d already bought clothes in a larger size for the trip. Most of my jeans were in a pile headed for a donation box, and many of my cute tops were on the way to the same pile. I kept my rings on the entire vacation, as they were hard to pull off my puffy fingers. I thought I’d need to get them re-sized soon.

None of this bothered me. I’m 64. I’m not going to worry about dieting at my age. My grandkids love me just the way I am. They’re still too young to attach labels to people based on looks. My husband, too, loves me for me. He still sees the slim young woman he married, or at least he’s never mentioned my weight or made me feel ashamed of it.

On the long flight home to Detroit, we bought sandwiches for the plane and chocolate too. After I ate my Snickers bar, I craved some of those M&Ms Al wasn’t eating. Al loves sweets, but he’s not addicted. When I asked, he handed me the M&Ms. He wasn’t happy about it, as he knew I had a bad sugar habit, but he indulged me. Then we got home and I looked at my calendar, just to get my bearings. What did I have going on in June besides Al’s birthday?

There it was, at the end of the month. An appointment with the doctor to test my blood sugar. I flashed to what she’d said two months before: if my numbers didn’t go down, she’d be putting me on medicine to control my blood sugar, and probably something for cholesterol, too. I had been in denial for the past two months. Maybe I subconsciously believed that having to take meds would be the thing that finally made me quit sugar. But now that the reality of sugar addiction was looking me in the face, I wanted to fix it.

I’d gone off sugar before. I’d done no carb, even. Those were the happiest numbers my doctor ever saw. She said “I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep it up.” That was about ten years ago. I was afraid to tell her I was doing South Beach. It could not be healthy to consume that much meat and dairy. Plus I was so sick of eggs and bacon for breakfast! Over the next several years, I tried to eat more healthfully, became vegetarian and then vegan. My sugar numbers slowly but surely crept up again.

My solution to all problems is to read up on it. I needed a book that would help me quit sugar. I found Sarah Wilson’s “I Quit Sugar” and read a lot of things I already knew. Like that processed foods contain sugar. And I learned some new things. Like that a whole wheat hamburger bun has more sugar in it than a candy bar. Or maybe that was from “Wheat Belly” the next book I read.

Ten years ago, I didn’t have the health problems I am now confronting. Insomnia. Excema. Lactose intolerance. Caffeine sensitivity. The inability to eat a healthy vegan diet because beans and legumes made my stomach churn and worse. Pretty much, I had IBS. And it is not pleasant. The last thing on the list of food items that are thought to cause IBS is wheat. And I had saved that as the last thing to eliminate from my diet, because I just didn’t want to know.

Then one day after my morning cereal, I made the familiar rush to the bathroom. No doubt about it, on top of being addicted to sugar, I had a problem digesting wheat. However, the two books had shown me a path forward without sugar or wheat. So two weeks ago, I decided to try to quit sugar. I cleaned out my pantry, getting rid of most of the offending foods. Both books had simple recipes. Sarah’s even has a shopping list.

My new diet is part South Beach, part vegan/vegetarian. Veggies are of primary importance, so those years as a vegetarian and vegan were not a total waste. It’s not a weight loss diet. It’s a diet that breaks sugar addiction, including the sugar in our modern genetically modified wheat. It might be too late to impact my sugar numbers this round of blood tests, but I will continue to eat this way anyway. If I do have to go on medication, I will soon be able to get off of it if I don’t eat sugar or wheat.

I’ll let you know how this latest diet goes after I hear from my doctor. Meanwhile, I’ve not had any wheat or sugar for two weeks. The IBS that started five years ago and has progressively gotten worse is gone. My bloated wheat belly has settled down into a regular pudgy tummy. Most of my jeans zip again. The rings on my fingers slide easily on and off. Best of all, I have no sugar cravings. None.

Spring Cleaning for Writers

My kitchen counters are cluttered with the contents of my pantry. This is good news for a couple reasons. One ~ If I’m cleaning, I must be over the flu that hit our house just before the holiday weekend. Two ~ If I’m ready to tackle my pantry, my WIP revision will be a piece of cake.

Not that I’m eating cake. The flu helped me get through a week without sugar. I must continue to resist sweets if I want my blood sugar results to come back clean at end of June. I want to stay off diabetes medication. I fear it may be too little too late, nevertheless I will abide by these new rules my body demands. I need to be healthy as possible to write this book.

I had flu, but I wrote anyway. It feels as if I am rewriting the book from scratch, that’s how much this second draft is changing. But in truth, I’m only rearranging the words on the pages like food on my pantry shelves. I’m getting rid of expired items and building a new and better structure to support the parts I keep.

My house, my health and my book are coming together. It’s springtime and my worlds, both fictive and real, are beginning to bloom.