Write it now: how to make readers feel what you do when writing

I’ve posted in the last week about ways of preparing to write a novel – let’s say a 50,000 word NaNoWriMo entry – and getting it finished in thirty days. It’s do-able. I also think it’s do-able with quality. After all, Jack Kerouac blew On The Road through his typewriter in three weeks, and it’s one of the best novels ever written.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 - on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.
My Adler Gabrielle 25 – on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

Kerouac showed that, with experience, it’s possible to preserve the freshness of ‘seat-of-the-pants’ writing without losing the structure needed to bring quality to a novel. The secret is blending the immediacy of ‘pantsing’ the words with broad-scale planning. Even Kerouac planned his masterpiece before he sat down.

The way to do this is by starting with the logline, then defining the characters and their arcs – and only then going on to the actual narrative plot. Of course it all interlinks, but that’s the ideal order to plan things, because it helps control the way the components interlink. Today I’m going to explain why, because understanding why is the secret to being able to then write quickly and well.

One of the biggest problems  writers often have is that they tend to write as consumers, not creators. Consumers – that is, the readers of a novel, or for that matter the viewers of a movie or TV show – are receiving the material. They receive it as a series of delivered experiences that take them on an emotional journey, one usually associated with the events in the scene. Creating something superficially similar usually repeats that emotional response (this is why fan fiction gets written, incidentally).

The point is that the narrative scene, inevitably, is simply the vehicle for expressing deeper themes and ideas associated with the character arc. If properly done, this is how we get to share the emotional journey, and the problem comes when a writer conceives of a story – first – as a series of scenes, as if receiving them. We all do, of course, we’re conditioned to it, and we get a neat idea as a series of conceptual pictures, maybe, or as a cool scene we want to include. Which is great, and often creative in very original ways. But it’s often viewed from the ‘receiving’ end, which means that the devices and mechanisms that cause the emotional response are often masked by the superficial artifice of the narrative.

The writer has to work from the ‘delivery’ viewpoint – the other end of the chain. Obviously we have to bear in mind how whatever we do will be received; but it’s often a long and complex process to reverse-engineer that emotional response from the receiving point. Better to know how to generate it from the other end, and organise a scene to suit.

And sure, you can include that cool idea or scene…if it fits when it’s looked at from that viewpoint.

How to do it? Try asking these questions:

1. In what way does this scene extend the character arc – meet the need of the character, show (not tell) one of the characteristics you have in mind to deepen the reader experience of that character, and simultaneously move the story along in the intended direction?
2. What emotional response is all this likely to generate in a reader?
3. How does it fit with the suspension of disbelief and consistency of the story?
4. How does it fit with the over-arching plan you made earlier?

More soon on the actual mechanics of how to go about the novel –and how to start cranking out words…and keep cranking them out.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Sixty second writing tips, more NaNo tips, more ‘Write It Now’ – an ongoing exploration of all things writing – some fun science geekery; a bit of literary fan-boy cheering, and, well… more.


12 thoughts on “Write it now: how to make readers feel what you do when writing

  1. I’m thoroughly enjoying these posts of yours and am seriously considering participating in NaNoWriMo to kickstart my writing back into action thanks to you. I do have a question, though. How does this character-centric planning apply if the story has multiple protagonists? Do you create a separate logline for each? And what about sub-plots and secondary characters? Would you incorporate them into the planning somehow or work them in as you’re writing? If you’re still getting to that I’ll wait patiently😉

    1. Thanks! Glad you like the posts. A novel should have only the one logline, but it might refer to a group – ‘Four hobbits have to find the courage within themselves to join a dangerous quest to destroy a magical ring, and so save the world from doom’. The individual character arcs can be plotted out within that, separately – though it’s often tricky to produce an ‘ensemble cast’ novel; there is a risk of diffusing the drama and tension. Worth a crack though, as we say in NZ. I’d certainly recommend NaNoWriMo as a way of getting rolling on a novel. I’d do it myself, but my contract delivery times always seem to be in November and it’s no different this year. Maybe next year…🙂

  2. As I have said before, your NaNoWriMo posts are among the finest on the blogosphere as are your general writing posts. This particular post is simply brilliant! I am not participating this year, although I am toying with the idea of joining some NaNoWriMo “rebels” who are for one reason or another not shooting for 50,000 words in November. My project is putting together a collection of essays, most of which are written or being revised. It has taken some time for me to decide on the structure of the book as the essays are related but I have a strategy I want to try. Perhaps providing a 30 day window for a completed first draft might be a productive goal.

    Thanks, Matthew, for all of this important information on writing from a professional. Your generosity is much appreciated.
    Karen

    1. Thank you! I’m trying to present writing as I see and do it (and have done it for years) – which isn’t the often prescriptive way that writing is usually taught. I’ve occasionally read books that have been very obviously written in those terms – via the “technique” that can be picked up from the “how to” manuals. They’re good; those techniques aren’t to be sneezed at and, indeed, are very important. But the stories still tend to be a little mechanical. I’m hoping that by delving into the ‘why’ as opposed to the ‘what’, I can help illuminate those techniques from another angle.

      1. I agree. As a writer it can be difficult to know if what we are saying in the written word, has the meaning we want it to. That’s why it’s good to get one or more people to proofread our work.

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