Shaking It Up: Part 18

This week finds me still off the Truby wagon and on the writing wagon. I added 500 words or so on the first chapter, but focused my efforts more on research, including an interview with Joe Davis, who will be a character in the book. But before we get to research, I want to take a detour into breaking the narrative into bite-sized chunks.

The basic building block of a novel is the scene, which has a very basic structure: beginning, middle, and end. The beginning establishes the setting (time and place), the characters in the scene, and their motivations. The middle is the conflict, the clashing of motivations through narrative, dialog, and action. The ending reveals the change in stakes or circumstances for the characters.

The ability to write a solid scene is table stakes for writing a novel. You must understand how to write a scene that pulls the reader in, keeps them turning pages to see what happens. There’s no point in attempting to write 80,000+ words if you don’t understand how to write a scene.

Right about now you might be thinking, “What the heck? This is Part 18. Why didn’t you mention this in Part 1?” Good question. All I can say is sometimes you have to write for a while before you notice what you left out.

A scene can range from a few hundred to a few thousand words. A novel can have 60 to 100+ scenes. depending on length and genre. There’s no set length for a scene. It takes as many words as required to create a compelling beginning, middle, and end. But one thing is for sure: if you can’t write a decent scene, don’t bother to power through writing a novel. You can’t fix a bad scene by writing 100 more bad scenes. You will lose your reader long before the end. You live or die scene by scene.

If you’re not solid on scene structure, google it. There are lots of resources out there to help you write a good scene.

So, assuming you can write a scene, the next question is when to make a chapter break. In the Fred books and the Berf and Jake stories, I tried to break the story into easily digestible, bite-size chapters of around 2,500 to 3,00 words containing as many or few scenes as fit. In my next novel, Muffin Man, I divided the novel into 14 days, one chapter per day, some of them rather long. In the Fletcher Books, I divided the novels into sections, one per day, with multiple chapters per day, using the bite-sized chapter approach.

I am partial to the one-day, one-section structure. It gives the reader a solid grounding in the timeline of the story and works especially well for fast-paced, action-driven narratives. So I’m using that organizing principle for this novel as well.

All that to say, for the past few weeks I’ve been working on Day 1. As you may recall from Part 16, I’m using the day-based structure. Most likely I will have multiple chapters per day, but I will worry about that later.

You may have noticed that in the earlier parts of this exercise, I have made notes to myself about things I need to research, such as the homeless issue, tiny house construction issues, the intersection of zen philosophy and the criminal justice system, Austin’s CodeNext regulations, and the like. I have done extensive reading on these topics, but this week I did my first interview.

Friday I picked up a couple of sandwiches from Schlotzsky’s and met Joe Davis for lunch on the campus of the Wizard Academy (ham and cheese for him, the original for me) . I interrogated him for a few hours and got some insight into the tiny house market. Information that will force me to go back to the drawing board for the third scene and an aspect of Jack’s character arc.

This week I will be interviewing Mike Hilbelink of the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center. This issue plays a major part of in the story, so it’s a big deal. Also, he might be able to give me a contact with some Buddhist monks who could answer some more questions.

The point of all this is to lend an air of verisimilitude to the story, to provide a sense of authenticity that draws the reader deeper into the story. Because for the story to work, it has to feel real.

Bottom line, writing a novel involves a lot of work, which reminds me of the best quote about writing I have ever seen from a gardener.

“If you can’t enjoy weeding, you won’t be a happy gardener.” -Timothy Tilghman, head gardener, Untermyer Park and Gardens, Yonkers, NY