Write a Book – #4 Just what is plot, anyway?

15 Apr

To prepare yourself for doing something constructive for your completed manuscript – and you WILL do something with it, will you not? – here are several easy exercises that will also help you develop your story. This column will be mostly about fiction. Non-fiction will be next month’s installment of the Write a Book series.

Last month, we talked about creating characters. Now comes plot, perhaps the third most important element of your book. First and foremost, of course, is the writing. If it isn’t done well enough to engage the reader, keeping and holding his or her attention, characters and plot will be of little help to you.

Plot is a very misunderstood part of the work that goes into producing a book. But really, it’s quite simple. First of all, the plot determines exactly what kind of book you are writing. So, it’s very important for you to have a good grip on your plot, right from the beginning.

Almost every work of fiction falls into either of two categories: literary or genre.  Literary fiction is a catch-all category, that was once the only sort of fiction published. With the rise of genre fiction during the 20th Century, there is now a noticeable distinction between the two categories. True literary fiction is allowed to ignore any ‘rules’ established by the various genres. The main consideration is that it doesn’t really have to have a specific plot or even an ‘ending’.

Genre fiction is much more strict, although with the advent of e-books, there are a good many books with plot mish-moshes possible – and available. If you can think of it, someone has probably already written it! The mash-up that is, not your own story.

In a romance, the two main protagonists who have been sparring throughout the entire book, will have at least established their relationship as a ‘happy ever after’ or a ‘firmly committed to each other’ finish. In a mystery, the criminal must be either eliminated or brought to justice. Each genre has its own rules, and you ignore them at your peril. Quite simply, you won’t be published by any publisher who specializes in that genre.

So, now then – do you know when the action described in your story took place? It’s especially important to have any historical data be as accurate as possible. If you’re not doing that, then re-think your genre. Maybe it’s really alternate universe or fantasy, or maybe even steam-punk?

There is a wonderful resource book, titled What Happened When. I bought a used copy at a library book sale some years ago, and find it invaluable. Of course, you can also find such information on the web, but do be sure of the validity of the research before you quote it, or build your story around it. Some sites are not overly careful of the accuracy of their content. This book itemizes not only by year (from about 1000 AD to the present) but by categories of events: medicine, military, political, religion, music, etc.

Plot. What is plot? It’s what happens when and how and why, and usually to whom!  And then – what happens next?

There are a few rather simplistic definitions of this. For example, the long-time romance novel plot was: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl. In this case, the ‘get’ meant a marriage was on the very near horizon. In the last few years, however, that ‘get’ has found another meaning. The couple doesn’t necessarily have to be heading for a wedding, but they will definitely be making a commitment to each other. And no, in this case ‘wedding’ and ‘commitment’ are not synonyms.

In a mystery, someone does something they shouldn’t have done, but they will get caught, and they had better suffer punishment for their dirty deed.  And of course, the detective—whether professional or amateur—will seriously consider those three indicators of guilt: motive, means and opportunity.

I’m not overly sure about science fiction or fantasy, but I think perhaps the plot for these books depend almost entirely on the writer’s imagination. More so than the other genres, that is.

All that means is—there is more than one way to write a book. You won’t know what your best way is, until you try. You might make a list of things you mean to incorporate into your story, and then sit down to write it. In my mind, characters are more important than plot, because if you don’t know your characters all that well, they may well refuse to do what you think they should. If that happens, you could all too easily end up with an incomplete book taking up space in your computer or your desk drawer. It might take years for you to figure out the right solution, but I’ll bet you’d give in before your characters do!

If you want to be really sure of your plot, here’s that dandy exercise mentioned at the beginning of this post. First, explain the plot of your story in ONE sentence! Yes, one only. Next, enlarge that sentence to a paragraph, and then to a full page. By the time you have completed all three descriptions, you should have a pretty good idea of who’s who, and how they figure into the plot. Combine with the characters from the last blog, and away you go!

Happy writing!  If you have comments or questions, please write to me:  bookmechanicATgmail.com

Creating life-like characters –

31 Mar

If you have a problem with characters in your books, here’s an idea that might be of help to you. Investigate the various astrological signs. Really! Start with your own, of course, as that’s the one with which you should be most familiar. A friend wrote to me last month after the passing of the wonderful actor/writer, etc., Leonard Nimoy, forever known to posterity as Spock, and I recalled that he and I shared the same birthdate, although in different years.

Energy and passion are the words most often associated with Aries. True, and it gets us into trouble more often than not. It brought to mind some other big names I knew from past years, that would not resonate with others as much as Spock did. I have to say I didn’t know he was green! When Star Trek was first broadcast, we didn’t have a TV at all, and I think it was 1976 when we were able to get our first color set. But by that time, I was usually upstairs with my little portable B&W set watching PBS while I was sewing.

At any rate, I was thrilled to learn that basketball star and Hall of Fame-er Wayne Embry was born near Dayton on this same date.  Also, from my years of ushering at Severance Hall I discovered Pierre Boulez, who is a HUGE name in classical music was also born the same day, and turned 90 last week! He was here one year on our birthday, and I ran into him in the hallway. Not on purpose, either! However, I did have a program in my hand, and after I wished him Happy Birthday (in English) I blurted out that it was also my birthday. He returned the greeting in French! (Joyeux Anniversaire!) I asked him if he would autograph my program for me, and he did, a huge smile on his face. It was in French, of course, and so tiny as to be indecipherable, but still . . .

A few famous women who share the date are Sandra Day O’Connor, and Nancy Pelosi. Not to ignore Diana Ross in 1944 (who grew up not too far from where I lived while attending high school). Among the writers are Erica Jong, Tennessee Williams and Robert Frost. It’s a very popular date for determined, creative people!

So then I went looking for who else might have been born on my day. I found these sites, which mostly list the same people, but the first one here is unreal. If you read the paragraphs about Aries people, and you know me, you’ll have to agree they must have had me in mind when writing these descriptions. There’s just no other possibility. These are me. Warts and all.




So, if you need a character who is stubborn, and opinionated and bull-headed, you can’t go wrong by creating an Aries persona. If you study the traits of the various signs, your imagination will have an immense amount of information available to help you create real and diverse characters.

If you’d like to see who else shares your birthday, go to the first of the three links above, and enter your birthday in the search box. Happy searching!

Questions?  Comments?  Send me an e-mail!  bookmechanicATgmail.com

What’s now has been and gone.

17 Mar

I spent most of the weekend playing with a neat little gizmo that converts photographic slides and negatives to digital, for easier storage on the computer. Consequently, I spent hours looking at my life from the summer of 1979 when I acquired my first SLR 35 mm. camera. It was a mostly automatic Pentax ME, and I loved it so much I promptly went out and bought another one – but this one was manual from the get-go – a Pentax MX. To go a step farther, I acquired several additional and interchangeable lenses and a motor winder for it. I was almost never without this camera, which took absolutely beautiful photographs.

Having no projector I was seldom able to partake of the fruits of my new toy on a large screen. But, I dutifully put them in plastic pages in a notebook which was always at the ready for any adventure. It would be very easy for anyone who only knows me now to extrapolate what I was most interested in back then, as my trusty digital camera photo collection mirrors that older one almost exactly.

Water, water, everywhere! Living in the Great Lakes area, and surrounded by water, that’s not a big surprise, although the variety of those scenes is endless. Lake Superior is really huge! However, it was a pussycat that day in the summer of 1979 when my then-husband and I accompanied my Dad and step-mother to the upper peninsula to see Tahquamenon Falls. The water tumbling over this cliff is intermittently gold in color because of the copper content in the ground upstream of the falls. Twenty-six years later, I used one of the photos on the cover of my novel Windsong. https://www.createspace.com/4468771   (And then I re-did it in 2013, using the same photo, although somewhat differently.)

When we came back towards home again, we stopped for the afternoon at Mackinac Island, during the filming of the fabulous movie ‘Somewhere in Time’. We didn’t see any of that activity – as I recall, they were taking a day off – but we did take a horse-and-buggy trip around the Island. Although I visited again twelve years later, I used the former trip as initial background information for Secret Shores, https://www.createspace.com/3462382  the companion book to Windsong, which was first published in 1991.  (The original Windsong was published in 1993.)

Back to the photos: Lots and lots of flowers, from teeny little mini-things to great blowsy roses or dahlias and other such gaudy blooms. Trees, of every kind and nearly every position possible for a tree to be in, as well as every location and season. Sometimes trees are swings or an anchor for a hammock. And living creatures: by far the largest category was butterflies, toads, spiders and turtles. Next was birds and ducks, and a dog or two. (Sorry, no cats. I’m allergic.) Hey! At that time, we lived out in the country. What can I say?  Now I live in the city, but I still take pictures of visiting deer and other wild creatures.

And mechanical things – one of my great loves. Bridges, boats (big and small) cannons, engines, trucks, heavy equipment, race cars  – all sort of things that make lots of noise. That’s me in a nutshell.

Yes, I had great fun doing this, and finding all the memories I’d forgotten, or thought were lost. But the biggest surprise of all is the number of new ideas – for books or stories – that sprang out of this hidden cache – (they’d been living in boxes on the shelf in my bedroom closet.) Honestly, though, ideas are everywhere! They don’t have to be inspired by a trip to your past, or your future. Just open your mind, and let them in.

Questions?  Comments?  Please write to me at bookmechanicATgmail.com

More about getting started —

4 Mar

It’s amazing to me how many questions people have about wanting to write a book. I love getting these questions, though, so if you have one, please do send it along!

How much time should I write each day?

How will I know when the book is finished?

When is the best time of the day to write?

How many pages will my book have?

Do I have to write it like it’ll look when it’s published?

I have a favorite answer (sort of snarky, but not necessarily) to those questions for which there is no particular right answer. I shrug my shoulders and say ‘How long is a piece of string?’  There is no right or wrong answer to these, they’re very personal questions, and what’s right for one may be totally wrong for another.

How much time should I write each day?

How soon do you want to finish your book? Or maybe a better answer is: How much time can you devote to it each day. There are probably as many answers to this question as there are  already published authors, and those who aspire to that category.  It is best if you can set aside a certain amount of time for each day, at a time when your mind is free of other details, and you can relax and concentrate on the task at hand.  That is your best time to be writing.

For instance: I am NOT a morning person. I tell people that no matter what time I get out of bed, I wake up at 10 am. I might be able to find the keyboard before then, and actually even write something, but will it make any sense? Most likely – not. So, I would not be a person who would write twenty pages before breakfast. Or at least my morning coffee!

On the other hand, I’ve discovered that my best and most creative time of day is after dinner, before bedtime. There’s a good solid chunk of 3-4 hours in which I can (if motivated and have a viable idea on which to expound) produce between three and four thousand words! Yes, I said 4000 words! At that rate, if I did that every night, I could end up with a 70,000 word book within a month. I know this is possible for me to do, as I’ve done it twice. Actually, they were both 70,000 word books, but they were both done in three weeks’ time!  Yes, you read that right. Three weeks!  Granted, I was not a very nice person to be around at the end of that time, but I couldn’t help it. I was driven.

I’ve also done two 110,000 word books in about three months’ time — each. I didn’t necessarily plan for those word counts, but that is the answer to question number two at the top of this post. I wrote until the story ended. I had little pre-conceived idea about book length, but for whatever reasons, they came out exactly as they were supposed to!  Also, I was working at the time of writing these books. But they just tumbled out of the computer. It was an amazing experience for me.

But there were times when it didn’t work that way for me, and there will, no doubt, be times like that for you. If you’ve planned your book so you know where it’s going, just hop back in the chair in front of your desk and get back to it. Write something. Write anything. Sooner or later, it’ll start to make sense, and you can continue with the writing. Always write forward – aim toward the end of the story.

How many pages will your book have?

Believe it or not, before computers, books were almost always of a particular number of pages.

Specifically, these were 184, 224, 256, 312. All of these numbers are divisible by 4, which is the number of pages in a folio. Several folios would be bound together and then comprise a ‘signature’. This is not necessarily a standard number, but the number of pages in any book would be divisible by 4. Slight tweaks could be made by changing the style or size of the font.  It wasn’t long before word counts were standardized according to the accustomed page size and style from a given publisher.

You’ll be happy to know that with the advent of Print On Demand, these numbers are no longer the main factor when determining the length of a book. It can be whatever size it needs to be in order to be complete.

If you are going to publish your book on your own, it can look however you want it to look, but a clean easy-to-read font will be a major help for any first time author. You do want to make it easy for people to read your book! Always remember that. Just because you can use twelve fonts on a page doesn’t mean you should! And in fact, you definitely should not! You might be better advised to hire a book designer for your first attempt. The designer will (or should) listen to what you want and produce something at least close to your wishes. If not, it’s just back to the drawing board again. Make your wishes known as clearly as possible, and eventually, it’ll all come together just the way it should.

But still – the most important thing to remember is – nothing happens until somebody writes something! So, what are you waiting for. Go sit down at the computer and start writing! Thank you.

Comments?  Questions? Please send them along to me at BookmechanicATgmail.com

Dream Big!!

18 Feb

I do love sports – well, most of them, at any rate. I look at ESPN almost as often as I check my e-mail. Even though I don’t read everything, just looking at the headlines will give me all the info I might need to be able to talk somewhat intelligently about this or that game or a totally different part of the story.

It’s pretty hard not to like J. J. Watt and Jimmy Graham, both of whom caused all sorts of havoc on football fields during the recent NFL season.  And, of course, even though I know nothing whatever about pop music, and consequently not Katy Perry, either, you can hardly ignore her super Saturday, when she correctly picked the winner of all eight of the biggest games of the weekend. That’s amazing by anybody’s standards.

So in mid-January, there was a preview of ESPN the Magazine, which was – surprise! – devoted to the Super Bowl.  Great eye-catching cover, too, in my opinion.

ESPN 2-15


ESPN said ‘Katy Perry put on a clinic as a “GameDay” guest picker.’ In one day, she picked: Mississippi State over the Aggies, Ole Miss over the Tide, Auburn over LSU, Ohio State over Maryland, Michigan State over Nebraska, and Rutgers over Michigan, not all of which were sure things.

But that’s not the thrust of the article, after all. No, it’s J. J.’s motto since he was a youngster. We could all take it to heart, and make it ours as well.

 ‘Dream Big, Work Hard’    J. J. Watt

 Dreaming of a goal is not at all a bad thing to do. Especially if it works to give you a nudge in the right direction. Even if life sends you on a detour, and you end up in the totally opposite direction from where you really want to be, hang on to that dream. It may work even better in your new location than it would have in your original place.

Exactly 50 years after I was disabused of my first dream, it came true. I was a junior in high school, and wanted to be a sports writer. I loved sports then, too, as well as writing, so it seemed like a ‘no-brainer’ to me. Except I neglected to consider the time in which I was living.  Our class went on a field trip to the daily paper (Detroit had three of them at that time, and I can’t recall which one we went to – sorry!) and I chose to visit the hockey writer.

He had hysterics laughing at my naïvéte. “Don’t be silly, girl,” he ordered me. “They’ll never let women in the locker rooms and that’s where all the good stories come from, so give it up. Go write about cooking or babies, or something. That’s what girls write about.” I can still hear the derision in his voice as he spit out the word ‘girls’.  I was in tears as I walked out his office.

But then, 20 years later came Title IX. Girls and women everywhere  have definitely benefited from this legislation, which was long overdue, in my opinion.  (And as America goes, so [mostly] goes the rest of the world, it seems. My life proceeded to go in all kinds of different directions, but then, I found myself in Cleveland in 2002, a published author and busy free-lance writer.  Still in love with sports, especially those that welcomed women’s participation. I had joyously become a season-ticket holder of the Cleveland Rockers since the inception of the WNBA five years earlier, in 1997. Those women were fabulous! And then, there appeared a different women’s team – the Cleveland Fusion, who played forceful, jaw-dropping tackle football!

I called to find out more about this new phenomenon, and was invited to ‘try-out’ for the vacant post of Staff Writer.  That position entailed going to all the games – home and away; traveling on the bus with the team, and then writing a game summary and distributing it to the various media outlets. I went to a try-out for potential players, took pictures and wrote it up. And – they chose me!  So when the Fusion’s season came to an end in June, 2003, I was invited to write about the last half of the Rockers season (be still my heart!) for a local jock web-site.  At that time it was known as  SportsTalkCleveland.com but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be under that name anymore.

The point of all this is – Dream Big, Work Hard – and who knows? Your dream might come true, too. For sure it won’t if you don’t dream it to begin with! Dreams can sometimes come true, if you’re persistent—and you live long enough!

Happy Dreams to you all! And happy writing, as well.

Questions or comments?  Please send them to me at bookmechanicATgmail.com


Part Two — How to Write a Book

4 Feb

Where to start?

To anyone who has ever written a book, the topic of ‘how to write a book’ might seem very simplistic. But consider – what if you don’t even have a typewriter? Much less a computer or tablet of any other electronic device?

I recently had an illuminating conversation with a young woman who is really serious about writing her life story. She didn’t graduate from high school, and has not had a particularly easy life. In fact, it has been relatively tempestuous. Some folks, when hearing scattered bits and pieces of her tale, suggest it would make a great soap opera. True. Still, she has emerged, slightly bloodied but not bowed or bent, with her sanity and native sweetness intact, and is determined to put her life on paper.

She was full of questions, and I am delighted that she asked me, because she made me stop and think before I responded. I would never put down anyone for wanting to achieve something, but sometimes, the notion is a tad presumptuous, and you really wonder if it is indeed possible to achieve a particular goal. In this instance, I believe it is. She has more grit and gumption in her little finger than many of us do in our entire self.

She does read a lot, which is helpful. But her innocent questions really made me think before I opened my mouth to answer them. If she has these questions, then certainly others do as well.

Do I have to have a title for my book before I can start to write it? The simple answer is ‘no.’  You do have to know what you want to write. But you don’t need a title to begin. At some point in the writing, the title may magically appear, and you’ll clap your hands in joy when that happens. As this woman will write in longhand on a legal pad, no doubt, I began to consider her next questions.

Sure enough – Does it have to begin when I was born and go straight through to now? Again, no. To begin writing is easier if you write whatever is most insistent in your mind. It might be something that happened last week. Or last year. Or it might have been twenty years ago because of the importance of the event. What IS important is to date that episode as accurately as possible. Perhaps not the exact date but a year or a month or perhaps by an event that reminds you of it. The only exact dates you might wish to include are birthdays, weddings, graduations, deaths, and similar milestones in your life.

Once you have a good bit of your tale written, it might be time to find a way to get it typed – preferably into a computer or word processor of some sort, so that you have a editable copy of it to work with. In case you can’t afford a computer of your own, nearly all libraries have computer rooms these days, as do other community organizations. Many of these have no fees involved for the user, but they might limit your time to an hour or so, per session. Ask before you begin. Also, you will need to have a jump drive of some sort on which to store your project. Be sure you clearly understand how this works before closing out your computer after each use.

Once into the writing will also be a good time to think of the organization of your book. Certainly you can start with your birth, or the beginning of the tale, but you don’t need to. The fact that you’re alive and writing proves your existence, although I’d be willing to bet your memory of that exact date wouldn’t be as good as that of an older person. Just in case you needed the verification.

An outline might be of help – for non-fiction, while generally a synopsis is required for fiction if you plan to seek an agent or traditional publisher. But, you might find either tactic of great help during the writing process. In case you get stuck, you’ll have something to serve as a guide and get you back on track.

If you are writing a non-fiction book, such as the above-mentioned auto-biography, don’t forget the photos! They add immeasurably to such a story, and it helps to have them sorted out and handy to insert into the text when appropriate. Be sure you do not use any professional photos, unless you secure permission from the copyright holder. If you have such a photo and can’t find the photographer, it is probably best to abandon that particular photo. Better to be safe than sorry in that regard.

How will I know when it’s done?  Obviously, again there are differences between fiction and non-fiction in this regard, as well. If it’s fiction, you should know when you’ve tied up all the loose ends, and have conformed to the ‘rules’ of the fiction genre in which your book falls. For non-fiction, you can end it any old time – whatever suits your fancy. Try to end on a happy note if you can. This will be especially helpful should you decide to write a ‘part two’.

What if I’m not a very good writer? I’m not sure I really understand punctuation or spelling and all those rules for writers. Not to worry. There are editors everywhere, literally, and you should have no trouble when it comes to finding one. The very fact that you know you need additional help is a major plus for you. I say – Go for it!  Don’t wait around. Get started as soon as possible, and happy writing!

If you have questions or comments, please write to me at: bookmechanicATgmail.com


Instruments of Torture –

21 Jan

Instruments of torture –  (Inspired by a note from a multi-published author in the UK. )

“It’s strange, but after reading so many historical novels when I was younger, and then suddenly having my attention riveted by Richard III, I (quite literally) sat down and wrote a book. I had just found my vocation. Looking back, it seems like a split second, and in the grand scheme of things, it really wasn’t much more than that. My father gave me the little portable typewriter, a pile of paper and carbons, and said, “If you can do better, get on and do it.” And that was it. My fingers have rippled over numerous keyboards since then.

“I remember my worst moment was my first full-sized office typewriter, an Olympia, and I battered the poor thing so much that the head of the ‘r’ key flew off. I tried sticking it back on with everything I could think of, to no avail. So I had to go back to my old portable typewriter. Talk about hard work! I eventually managed to get the ‘r’ repaired, but then came my beautiful electric typewriter, another Olympia. After a few years, the time was getting on toward electronic typewriters, then the early computerised one where you could see two lines on a little screen. Sheesh. Instruments of torture. Thank gawd for computers and Word!

“Hey, did you ever do a blog about this? From the old sit-up-and-beg ten-ton manuals that gave you a hernia to move, to the dainty laptops and tablets etc. of today?”

Okay, pal. Thanks for the suggestion and here it is.

It’s amazing to think that one Will Shakespeare wrote (at least) 37 plays, hundreds of poems and sonnets, and who knows what all else – with a feather. Think about that for a moment, then be grateful for your current writing instrument.

Believe it or not, the first typewriter was just invented in the 1860s, so it’s now some 150 years old. They were a rarity then, as now, although in some areas of the world, their popularity has never diminished, and they’re even making a come-back!  The noted QWERTY keyboard layout followed in 1874. There have been other attempts at a keyboard layout, but none of them have lasted.

Typewriters intended for use with languages other than English may use different keyboard layouts, mostly in order to accommodate the use of accent marks, symbols or dipthongs.

Of course, moveable type printing presses date back to even before Shakespeare, and aren’t we happy about that?

There are those of us who remember learning to type in school —  on a machine with no letters on the keys! Eeegads! Indeed, first off we had to learn the placement of the keys in order to be able to type anything other than gibberish. And at speed! How many words one could type in one minute became the standard measurement for a secretarial candidate. Without errors, too! It was a dreadful experience. Heaven forfend one would accidentally start out on the wrong key, and end up with something like this: O vsm yu[r 8- eptfd [rt g,omiyr eoyjpiy s ,odyslr/ (Translation: I can type 80 words per minute without a mistake!) Hah. Not even on my best day!

As time marched along, the big old clunky office models were re-designed for home use, and some of them were really gorgeous. Consider the Olivetti  which earned a place in MOMA. (I’m not real sure of the name of this model, but I did have one in the late 70s. It had a type ball, and rounded off edges and was wonderfully quiet, as I recall.)

After the long lever type letter thingies, (I don’t know what they’re called but they had the letter or number on the end of a 3-4 inch long lever, activated by striking the keys) someone invented the typeballs, with changeable fonts! Oh, my word! Didn’t we all go nuts over that? And not long after that were the daisy wheels which accomplished the same thing. I had several of both kinds.

IBM’s Selectric, Selectric II and Correcting Selectric II changed the face of corporate America’s business letters and other papers. They were an incredible engine of change, doing things never before imagined for an ordinary small office.  Another new option was proportional spacing, so we’d never again have to suffer the boredom of Courier font.

Then came small electronic word processors, with funny type fonts embedded in them. These weren’t very useful for business-type correspondence. Or for serious writers, either with their goofy-looking fonts.

By the end of the 1980s, however, computers were gaining ground and along with them came the evolution in the printing industry. At last, writers were able to make corrections without having to retype umpteen pages in the process!

And thus, the Instruments of Torture, became easier to use, but still frustrating to those of us who don’t necessarily speak computer.

Next time (in two weeks) is another post about getting started on your book. You won’t want to miss it! In the meantime, if you have questions or comments, please write to me at: bookmechanicATgmail.com


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