Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Idea Farming - growing your plot #5 - The South Forty - The Novel

Idea Farming—growing your plot #5—The South Forty – The Novel
This is the next in the series of blogs on story farming. In this one, I’ll discuss the third farming method—The South Forty (the novel).

For decades, comedians, cartoonists, and comedy writers have included jokes about “writing the great American novel” in their material. The truth is that a many people do have such a desire lurking within them. Of the many with that desire, only a few ever act upon it—and even fewer complete a manuscript that might legitimately qualify as a novel.

Assuming you are among the small percentage of those in the final category, what does it take to get more than the cows out of the south forty?

At the most basic level, writing a novel is an expansion of the process required to write a short story. An author must have an idea, a willingness to edit judiciously, and be committed to investing the time required to finalize a manuscript of 80,000 to 100,000+ words. However, the process for developing and writing a novel has many, many more levels than even the most tightly written short story.

We’ll look at plowing, planting, irrigating, fertilizing, getting rid of pests, and harvesting as steps in growing your novel.

Plowing. It’s a good idea before starting your novel to have the field plowed—what concept was there before put out of sight and mind. Most likely, your idea for a book has been around a while. You’ve come and gone from thinking about the idea over months or years. While this may have provided a well-focused view into the idea, it also allowed the ground itself to compact.

You need to plow the old idea under in your brain’s field so the necessary light, air, and water won’t simply run off the surface. You want light to be able to access all parts of the idea, allowing you to seriously evaluate what’s there. Air is required for the idea to develop into a full-fledged storyline—loose soil gives live to nuances of the idea. Even the best-turned soil in a brightly lit field will produce no crop without water—your sweat and tears during this entire process. And water must be available to all parts of the back forty to produce a maximum crop—so plow all the way to the corners!

Planting. Once your field is ready, it’s time to get started. I’ve mentioned a variety of strategies in earlier blogs. For a novel, however, you must develop a detailed outline before you get too far into your story.

I don’t know a single farmer who plants only one plant in a field, expecting to get a significant harvest. Think of each of the points and sub-points of your outline as individual plants in the South Forty. Without a filed filled with viable seeds, crop yield is negligible. Without an outline, your novel will be no more than a field where random ideas grow unchecked.

A non-farming way to look at this step is: If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there? 
Planting is impossible without a plan.

Irrigating. Once the South Forty is planted, a farmer has to water the seeds to cause germination. Once you have an outline with an endpoint, you begin the work of writing. In some climates, irrigation is not normally needed—rainfall is frequent and abundant enough that no outside water source is required. Chances are that your brain is not such a paradise—you need to plan on irrigating. Think of words as water to the storyline.

Remember the air from above? If a plant is go grow, the carbon dioxide in that air must combine with water to produce sugar. That sugar is the basis for all plant growth and development. You have to combine your words and your ideas into a viable manuscript in much the same way a plant combines elements from air and water to make sugar.

Fertilizing. Next time you buy a bag of fertilizer, check the label. You’ll see three numbers—like 10-20-10—on that label. Those numbers refer to the amount of three essential nutrients that are required for healthy plant growth found in the product.

The first number is the amount of nitrogen (N), the second number is the amount of phosphate (P2O5) and the third number is the amount of potash (K2O). These three numbers represent the primary nutrients (nitrogen (N) - phosphorus (P) – potassium/potash (K)). 
Nitrogen. This nutrient is mandatory for making chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is responsible for capturing the energy stored during photosynthesis during sugar production—it also is the green color in plants. Healthy plants have adequate supplies of nitrogen. You must add believability to every aspect of your plot or your story will die—in the same way that an inadequate supply of nitrogen leads to plant death. Even in science fiction—where things that just can’t happen do happen—requires a preponderance of believable parts. Without a basis of belief, your reader will be unwilling to suspend that believability when necessary in a sci-fi novel—your novel will die before producing fruit.
Phosphate. While also critical for photosynthesis, without phosphorus, plant root growth is inadequate to support a growing plant. And, blooms formed in low phosphorus conditions are small and dull. You as a writer want “flowers by phosphate” moments throughout your story—times when your plot points stand out, are thought-provoking, or provide insight or a clue. On the other hand, when you provide backstory or hint at times not described in detail in your book, those are “roots by phosphate” moments.
Potash. Potassium is essential for fruit production. Without fruit, plants can still be functional—but not usually on the back forty. The back forty is for cash crops. While there are markets for some root or stem plants, most money crops—corn, wheat, cotton and the like—produce seeds and fruit. You need to make sure your story bears fruit—resolution to issues and an ending that people are willing to pay for!

Pest removal. Pests can be animal, plant, fungus, bacteria, or virus. Regardless of the type of infestation, good farmers need to rid the field of the problem before the crop is ruined. This isn’t a forum for chemical vs. “organic” pest control. What pest removal means to a writer is the excision of material that doesn’t belong in the crop. That means editing with an eye for “keeping the story moving forward,” not simply satisfying your love of detail.

You may need to call in an expert in pest control. In fact, if this is your first venture into writing and publishing, you need to have a professional editor look at your manuscript after your second serious edit is complete. There are many services out there that will do this. I have a strong recommendation. Her name is Shelley Greene. She provides feedback (good/bad) and suggestions as well as helping with wording, grammar, and typos. Shelley’s email is: evergreene91@gmail.com. She is also on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/shelley.greene.566. She doesn’t work for free, but her rates are VERY competitive. You will be glad you contacted her. Amazon offers editing as option for a fee as well.

Pray for bees! I know this isn’t in the list above, but the idea just kind of flitted into my brain. (Thanks go to Sherry Frazier, my publicist, who wanted to be called an immune pest—an idea I’m still considering.) After you’ve done all you can to get the crop growing, you still need to pollinate those flowers to get fruit. While many flowers are wind-pollinated, that’s a hit/miss chance for your fruit—you want more than chance to determine your final product.

Bees are very specific pollinators. They search out flowers that have what they need and want. Once they find a field of flowers that fit their need, they spread the word—dancing their way into the GPS systems of all the other bees in the hive.
Think of your pre-readers as bees—looking for ideas they like based on past experience. Have your manuscript pre-read by someone(s) who like and know your genre—they provide specific feedback on how your book fits the model. But also pray for “new-bees” who generally steer away from your genre—those bees provide a much better eye on the storyline because that’s all they really care about.

Harvesting. When the crop is ready, you need to get it in—and quickly. True stories abound of farmers who waited a day too long and had their crops ruined or the field made impassible by torrential rain. On the other hand, harvesting before the peak of crop development cuts the yield significantly. Read your story again after letting it “grow” a week or so without any involvement by you, the author. Have someone else read the story—but ask for specific places of like or dislike. Better yet, provide a list of places you’d like feedback. A review who says, “I really liked it,” or “It’s kind of dry,” is not of any value—except, perhaps, to your ego in the first case.

At some point, you have to stop writing and publish, or it’s not a novel. Robert Heinlein, a sci-fi writer of considerable renown had five rules he followed. While they aren’t a “hand in glove” fit in this analogy, they are excellent to keep in mind as you work.
Of course, even if you carefully follow all the above steps, your crop might not sell. But, if you do take the time and effort to grow your novel; and if you are willing listen to critique and act to correct legitimate problems, you should harvest a novel to be proud of—one that others like enough to purchase.

So, what happens after someone reads your novel and likes it asks, “When’s the next book with this main character coming out?”

Next blog: Idea Farming—growing your plot #last Mega Farming (the book series)
Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CRDowningAuthor

My website is: www.crdowning.com

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Idea Farming—growing your plot #4—The Backyard Garden (Part II)

Idea Farming—growing your plot #4—The Backyard Garden (Part II)
This is the fourth of six, now seven, blogs on story farming. In this one, I’ll finish the discussion of the second farming method—The Backyard Garden (anthologies and/or novella-length pieces).
A good backyard garden might have different areas of plantings—like an anthology. But it might also have a focus that must be a single unit to be properly appreciated—like a novella.
The anthology approach to a back yard garden is like a buffet with stations. Each planted area makes a statement on it’s own. You might have roses, ground cover, annual color, and a perennial shrub border. Then again, you might have none of that—and still have a very nice backyard garden.
The novella approach to a back yard garden is like a meeting where lunch is catered and consists of ONLY one specific portion for each guest. No matter where you look, it’s evident that this backyard is a rose garden, a vegetable garden, or whatever the focus is.
ANTHOLOGIES used to be common forms of book publication. I’ve got shelves of them.

As you can see, some are collections from one author: John W. Campbell, Lester del Rey, and Cordwainer Smith. Other are anthologies of “the best” of something.
Both single and multiple author collections glean the best of the genre. My collection dates from the Golden Age of Sci-Fi when there was a plethora of science fiction magazines hungry for short stories to fill their pages. Anthologies still exist, but they are much less prevalent.
Since I like both reading and writing short stories, I needed a venue. I chose to use a Harmonic Overlapping of Time Location (HOT L) as the common thread in all eight stories in Traveler’s HOT L – The Time Traveler’s Resort and the seven stories in Traveler’s HOT L Volume Two – More Tales from the Time Traveler’s Resort.
In both books, each story shares common characters: Chronos and Eternity, proprietors of the HOT L, and Tempus and Epoch, time synchronizers. However, each and every story stands alone—that’s the emphasis in an anthology.
If you have several short stories that are connected by a theme—place, time, characters—you should consider publishing an anthology.
NOVELLA is defined by Merriam-Webster as: (1) a story with a compact and pointed plot; or (2) a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel. Whether you choose the first or second definition, the process of growing a novella is similar.
In definition (1), the plot itself is emphasized. In definition (2), the length is the focus. Some definitions include the idea of “morality tale” in them. A novella is more commonly associated with the novel than the short story, however, in some anthologies, novellas are included—generally in a segregated section of the book.
If you have a point you are trying to make, I recommend the novella over the short story. The reason is because writing shorter forces you to FOCUS on where you’re going. If you ramble in a novella, it’s a lot like wandering through a back yard that’s just had plants stuck in where there is space. Over time—or pages in a novella—the garden gets so overgrown that finding any specific plant—or idea in a novella—is nearly impossible. When any plot becomes so convoluted or obscure that your reader can’t follow it, they will stop reading.
I’ll close with the most important lessons in writing for the backyard garden.
1.    Prune the plants. Edit judiciously. Remember the goal is completeness, not length.
2.   Keep it weed-free. Edit judiciously. Remember the focus of your story.
3.   Fertilize when needed. Edit judiciously. Remember to flesh out plot points as needed to move the story forward.
4.   Remove dead plants. Edit judiciously. Remember that even the best plot point in the wrong story is an impediment.
Next blog: Idea Farming—growing your plot #5—The South Forty – The Novel
Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CRDowningAuthor
My website is: www.crdowning.com

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Idea Farming—growing your plot #3—The Backyard Garden

Idea Farming—growing your plot #3—The Backyard Garden
This is the third of six blogs on story farming. In this one, I’ll talk about the second farming method—The Backyard Garden (anthologies and/or novella-length pieces).
November 12, 2014
The results of the 2014 USA Best Book Awards have been announced.
Your book has been honored as a "Winner" in the "Fiction: Science Fiction" category:
Traveler's HOT L: The Time Travelers Resort by C.R. Downing
Koehler Books - 978-1-938467-89-9
Winner: Fiction: Science Fiction
I am very proud, honored, and excited by this! Try it… You’ll like it!
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…
To segue from containers (short stories) to home gardens (novellas and anthologies), let’s look at one method of plant are classification and how that method fits into the writing analogy. There are many ways to classify plants. One of the most common is herbaceous (soft stems) vs. woody (hard stems).
Herbaceous plants are most common as seasonal color and are heavily represented in color pots and hanging containers. They have a short life—usually one or two years. Their purpose is to project a specific feel in a very defined space. They never get very tall because their stems cannot add additional “wood” to their stems as they grow. Think petunias and green beans.
Woody stems are associated with perennial plants—those that live over two years. These plants do have wood-producing cells in their interiors and are capable, in some species, of growing to considerable height and circumference. Think rose bushes and oak trees.
Herbaceous plants are the short stories of the botanical world. Not from the life span, but because they are limited in size. As a writer of short stories, you learn to “stop when the story is done.” Overwriting in a short story causes the entire plant/story to suffer and ultimately collapse under its own weight.
Some plants present an illusion of herbaceousness. Bonsai specimens are woody plants that have been carefully and judiciously pruned over an extended time to present a miniature version of the plant. This type of short story is ripe for converting into a full-sized version of itself—expanding a short story into a longer piece.
Traveler’s HOT L The Time Traveler’s Resort is filled with examples of short stories, all around or significantly less than 5000 words long, that were bonsai versions of longer stories. Combining the increased length—used to back fill some storyline and expand characterization—with a common theme—time travel in from a unique establishment—provided a perfect storm of stories in the anthology.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: Not all short stories are bonsai. The vast majority of them are herbaceous plants. If you try to expand a short story that lacks the woody tissue needed to support the added verbiage, your story will never be what you want it to be, or even what it was before you bloated it.
Oh, my! I got a bit sidetracked—in a good way, I hope—in this blog. Only the paragraph about the development of Traveler’s HOT L addresses the backyard garden portion of the analogy specifically. So…
Instead of heading out to the South Forty in the next blog, I’ll spend time talking about layout, design, and plant selection in your backyard garden.
Next blog: Idea Farming—growing your plot #4—The Backyard Garden (Part II)
Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CRDowningAuthor
My website is: www.crdowning.com

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Idea Farming—growing your plot #2—Container Gardening

Idea Farming—growing your plot #2—Container Gardening
This is the second of six blogs on story farming. In this one, I’ll talk about the first farming method—Container Gardening (short stories).
Given a choice, I’d write almost exclusively short stories. There’s something satisfying in planting and growing a tale in just a few hundred to a couple thousand word container (analogous to a pot or raised bed garden) as opposed to tens of thousands of words in gardens of larger size.
Once you have a seed in mind, it’s imperative to prepare the soil. In a short story, I’m much less worried about an outline than in longer pieces. I’ve found critical, but not always essential, to have an end in mind when I begin a short story. However, at no time should you progress longer than a fraction of the growing season without knowing what you hope to harvest from your container.
As I described in my blog titled, “Idea Mining—where to get ideas for your story,” when teaching high school, I would allow students to select three plot points and two characters to include in my story based on the science topic they also selected. This process, while it does provide sufficient structure to write a story, leaves much to be desired in terms of what might best fit the science topic.
I suggest you start with a premise. In Traveler’s HOT L Volume TwoNew Tales from the Time Traveler’s Resort, the final tale Reverse Image, began with the idea of an antiparallel universe—my short story soil.
Since I have four recurring characters in the Traveler’s HOT L universe, I had a built in cast to work with. I needed a female protagonist, her male companion, and an antagonist—the seeds of the story.
Initial plot points—the LAW for the seeds—were fairly easy to determine. I needed an entry point into the antiparallel universe; a reason to want to enter—or be forced into—the entry point; a crisis—an event leading to a rescue attempt or an heroic journey by the character trapped in the antiparallel universe; and some resolution—escape or rescue.
Because I wanted this book to end with a cliffhanger, I only need to cultivate enough to get my seeds into nearly mature plants and not all the way to harvest. What I ended with was my protagonist and her companion trapped inside the universe along with one of the Time Synchronizers common to all stories. However, whether they are trapped or being held by an antagonist found within the universe remains a mystery to the readers. Of course, I know what fruit I will get from these seeds and my cultivation—if you don’t know what your end product will be when you write, how will know when your finished?
Specifically, cultivation of my container gardens involves a rough outline, minimal character sketches, and some plans for what I will need my characters to discuss in dialog format—a pretty clear idea of what the pecking order among characters looks like.
If you have never written a short story, or only written a few, I encourage you to take some time and grow one soon. You’ll find out that writing shorter is more challenging in most regards than writing longer. And, it’s excellent practice in honing your storytelling skill.
Next week: Idea Farming—growing your plot #3—The Backyard Garden
Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CRDowningAuthor
My website is: www.crdowning.com

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Idea Farming—growing your plot #1

Idea Farming—growing your plot #1

This is the first of six blogs on story farming. In this one, I’ll talk about what components are required for a healthy plot harvest. In each of the next three, I will describe a farming method—Container (short stories), Backyard (anthologies and/or novella-length pieces),  The South 40 (the book series), and Mega Farming (the book series).
In the last blog of the series, I'll give some pro/con comments on each and my advice on when it might be appropriate to use ideas from each in a type of farming for effective cross-pollination. 

But, because we want a good crop/plot, we'll start with basic needs.
Soil.  While it is possible to produce sizable crops with hydroponics, most plants are grown in soil. Dirt is not soil. Soil contains an abundance of organic and inorganic materials that help nourish the plant and keep the roots anchored.
In your plot garden, soil is your experience as a reader and writer. In the same way that plants grow best is rich soil, without a good grasp of what it takes to make a good story, you’re pretty much doomed as a writer.

Seed. A mature seed contains an embryo plant that’s just waiting for the right conditions to grow into a plant.
Unless the mature idea for your story is present in your plot seed when you start writing, you’ll find that growing a story is impossible. Have a basic outline in mind when you begin.

“The Law”. All plants require Light, Air, and Water (LAW) to grow. When you take away any one of these three requirements, you break the law, and your plant dies.
Plots also die when requirements aren’t met. You need believable characters, reasonable plot points, and realistic dialog to keep your plot plant alive. (Sorry, but BC, RPP, and RD don’t make a cute acronym.)

Cultivation/weeding/pruning.     Gardeners and farmers know that keeping the soil loose, removing weeds, and, if the plant requires it, judicious removal of limbs/shoots that are dying, dead, or growing in the wrong direction are mandatory actions to an abundant harvest.
The plants in your plot gardens must be cultivated—keep your mind’s soil loose and open to new and alternate ideas. Plots must be weeded. You have to be willing to admit that some of what you’ve written is more weed than crop—and you have to be willing to remove those post-haste. Finally, some of the verbiage you write is good, but not in the story you’re writing—that’s where pruning comes in. Cutting good stuff to keep your plot growing (MOVING FORWARD) is essential.

Next week: Idea Farming—growing your plot #2—Container Gardening
Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CRDowningAuthor
My website is: www.crdowning.com

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Idea Mining: where to get ideas for your story

Idea Mining—where to get ideas for your story
In my last blog I said I was going to discuss “Idea Farming.” However, it dawned on me that you have to have an idea before you can farm it. So, this blog will be on where you might go for overall ideas for stories.
There are three sources for ideas that I use with regularity. First, we’ll look at each as an independent entity.
Real life. Events that really happened are excellent sources for ideas. They nearly always have a ring of truth to them, and they usually provide key plot points you can incorporate.
In one of my upcoming novels, The 5th Page (scheduled for a summer/fall 2015 release), a friend, and former police officer, told his story of why he left the police force and became a pastor. Since the idea of transitioning from police officer to pastor intrigued me in and of itself, and the minimal details he was allowed to provide based on the circumstances of his separation from the force provided significant tension, I thought it was an ideal story idea.
So I wrote a novel about it.
After my friend read the book, he returned it saying, “Thank you.”
“Oh, no,” I replied. “I should be thanking you.”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “Now I know how the story ends.”
That’s what a fiction writer dreams to hear.
However, there are some critical points to keep in mind and essential policies to keep when converting fact to fiction. But more about that in my next blog.
Published material. Since you can’t copyright an idea, existing stories can provide ideas. There is a limited number of plot situations possible. Georges Polti was a 19th century French writer [who] described 36 situations that may be found in many stories, based on the list identified by Goethe who said it was originated by Italian Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806).  From: ttp://www.changingminds.org/disciplines/storytelling/plots/polti_situations/polti_situations.htm
While Polti’s list is extensive, it, like nearly any list, is most probably incomplete. However, when teaching high school biology, after the Advanced Placement Biology Exam, my AP Bio students wrote a science fiction story—after all they had all taken 3-4 years of science and had listened to my stories for at least a year.
To be fair, I also wrote a story while the students were writing one. To even the playing field a bit, since I was writing short stories regularly, I allowed the class to pick three numbers from 1-46. Those were the required plot situations I had to include in my story. In addition they got to select two major characters—ranging from students in the class to Sponge Bob and Chuck Norris (in the same story!). Finally, they were allowed the select the science upon which my story was based.
I will admit that is probably not the best way to mine your story ideas, and many of the stories were cheesy. However I, and some other teachers, have used two or three of those classics to pique interest in a topic for various science classes. The basic outline of one of them is the structure for one of the stories in my Traveler’s HOT L series.
Dreams, etc. Never discount your own brain as a rich source of material. I have learned to get out of bed and write down ideas when I wake up in the middle of the night. Sometimes I read skdf solsnof soo s alsno, or some such iteration of what I was thinking. But, most often enough of the dream is there to allow me to recall my thoughts and use them.
Keep a pencil and paper on your nightstand!
Next Blog: Idea farming—growing your plot
Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CRDowningAuthor
My website is: www.crdowning.com

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The daily schedule

What follows really is "A day in the life..."
Some of you have noticed that this blog post is “a week late.” My wife and I were visiting my son and his family (including my adorable granddaughter) in Wisconsin. Besides not having a lot of time, they live in the far north of the state and Internet access is, well, inconsistent.
But, I’m back in San Diego now.
I have three kinds of “days” in my life.
1.             No writing days. While not common, these do exist. The schedule for these days varies and is unimportant to today’s topic.
2.            Some writing days. On these days, my writing time is restricted to either morning or afternoon. This schedule is always based on other activities: doctors, financial planners, family responsibilities.
On some writing days, I either write in the morning or afternoon. Since the times I do write are structured as on my third type of day, read on for specifics.
3.            Writing days. I try to being writing before 8:00 AM. Since I’m always up before 0600, I have time for walking the dogs, devotions, and breakfast/newspaper before I dive into the process. Regardless of which of the two schedules provided below I’m following, I always take a break around noon to exercise and have a light lunch.
A.   If I’m writing new storyline. New stories kind of come out without much urging or control. So, I might write for an extended time, 2-3 hours, without stopping because I want to get as much as I can down and saved before it evaporates. Eventually, by the end of one of these days, I might have put in 8-10 hours of writing. My best production that I’ve documented is 6000 words on one of these days. I almost always stop by 7:00 PM, but do run as late as 9:30 on occasion—a night owl I am not!
B.   If I’m editing. This is my most highly structured type of day. Editing is a laborious process. I wrote about some of that process in an earlier blog, Quick Tip: Be aware of what one word can help you do, and will expand in a future blog, 10 More Editing Ideas to Make Your Revisions Less Revolting. Suffice it to say that I take more frequent breaks when I’m editing.
                          i.       First reason for more breaks. It’s just hard work. After all, you have to cut off part of yourself when you edit. I mean, you wrote what you wrote and thought it was good enough to keep. And, if you’re working on a second or third revision, you’ve already agonized a lot over the prose before. I get up and wander about once an hour, on final edit days.
                        ii.       Last reason for more breaks. They help keep my outlook fresh. Unless I move around and get the blood flowing through my cerebral cortex, I miss items that should have been edited out or corrected. I’ve never published a “perfect” manuscript, and I doubt I ever will. But my goal is no errors in the published manuscript.
So that’s it. May your writing days be productive ones.

Next Blog: Idea farming—growing your plot
Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CRDowningAuthor
My website is: www.crdowning.com

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