Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Authors in the Corner: Jody Gehrman

Today's Authors in the Corner features a guest blog from Jody Gehrman.

Jody Gehrman is the author of four novels and numerous plays. Confessions of a Triple Shot Betty is her first Young Adult novel and is published by Penguin's Dial books. Her adult fiction includes Notes from the Backseat, Tart, and Summer in the Land of Skin. Tart was a Booksense notable in 2005, won an RT Bookclub critics' award, and has recently been optioned for film. Her plays have been produced in Ashland, New York, San Francisco and L.A. She and her partner David Wolf recently won the New Generation Playwrights Award for their one-act, Jake Savage, Jungle P.I. She is a professor of English at Mendocino College.


The Novel: Grappling with the Big Picture

“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
~W. Somerset Maugham

“Writing a novel is like driving across country at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way.”
~E.L. Doctorow

The biggest challenge in writing a novel is dealing with the scope of it; most writers start in shorter forms (i.e. short stories or poems) so the idea of churning out 300-or-so pages is often daunting. Most of us who attempt the novel find we get lost at some point in the process, feeling aimless and unsure of how to proceed.

The thing to keep in mind is you have a story to tell, and as long as you can keep the heart of that story within your sites, you’ll be fine.

This, of course, is easier said than done.

Here are some tools that may help you navigate the vast wilderness of your story:

Create an Outline: Some writers eschew outlines for a more organic, build-as-you-go technique. I’ve found an outline to be helpful, as long as I’m spontaneous enough to alter it when needed.

Different types of outlines:

§ Try a 3x5 card for each chapter. This way, you can throw out ideas that aren’t working without having to start from scratch.

§ Timelines: I sometimes use one timeline of major events within the novel, and another for events in the main characters’ lives that preceded the novel.

§ One page synopsis: Really forces you to focus in on the essentials. Also a useful tool later when courting agents/publishers.

§ 5-page synopsis: Lets you expand to cover major plot points. Also a useful marketing tool with agents/publishers.

§ Messy notes outline: If bullet points aren’t your style, a useful compromise is to brainstorm freely about your characters, their needs and desires, plot possibilities, etc.

§ Plot Map: For the more visually inclined, try boxes, bubbles, arrows, etc. to create a blueprint of major events.

Use a Logline: Screenwriters are fond of saying, “If you can’t tell your story in a few sentences, you don’t know what it is.” Hence, the birth of the logline, a 1-3 sentence TV-Guide style summary of your story emphasizing the character’s primary conflict.

Try a Collage: Cut out pictures of your characters, the rooms and landscapes they inhabit, their favorite objects, or just images that evoke the mood you’re trying to convey. Place it near where you write for inspiration.

Get Feedback: Have a trusted friend (or writing group) read your latest draft, and don’t give them too many hints beforehand about plot, themes, etc.; listen carefully to their feedback. Then, if they haven’t already volunteered it, ask them what they think your novel is about.

Consider the Dramatic Structure: Aristotle insisted that every story have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Thinking of your novel in these terms can help. What’s the climax of your story? What’s the resolution? How does each event build toward that climax? Another way of asking this: What’s your main character’s problem, how does that problem become increasingly intense, and how does the problem explode, then resolve?

For me, boiling it down to these three steps is extremely helpful:

Beginning (Act I): Set up the conflict
Middle (Act II): Complications ensue, tensions rise
End (Act III): Turn (climax) and resolution

As Somerset Maugham noted, no one knows the three definitive rules for writing a novel. With this in mind, I hope these suggestions will help you in your courageous undertaking.

Thanks so much, Jody!

You can look for Jody at her website and her myspace.

Readers, what are some of your tips to writing a novel?


Lenore said...

Great tips from Jody! I just reviewed Confessions of a TSB on my blog and I am a huge fan :)

Lenore said...

Oh and congrats on winning The Adoration of Jenna Fox over on Teen Book Review!

Liviania said...

Outlines defy me. I try using them and then they beat me up.