How do you plot a novel?

March 26, 2009 | 3 Comments

Deborah Bouziden: How do you plot? Use an outline? What are your most common plot problems and how do you handle them? Have you ever had a plot disaster or crisis? How did you handle it? Do you advise outlining? Why or why not?


SW: I plot the way I put together characters, cobbling together shiny bits and pieces that interest me, and assembling them into a story arc. I have the common problem of not thinking things through to their logical conclusion until it’s too late to change. I have a plot disaster or crisis in every effing book! I handle it by swearing!

Outlining can be useful at any stage. It doesn’t need to be elaborate. Just list scenes and incidents and let one step grow out of the previous one. People who don’t outline or put together a synopsis should reconsider. It’s an opportunity to brainstorm and add layers and events.

DB: What advice can you give writers about first drafts?

SW: Write from your heart, every day. Don’t worry about revisions until you have a good chunk to work on. Be fearless.

No wonder I like firefighters.

March 26, 2009 | Leave a comment

Right after I posted the thing about fires yesterday, Anjali sent me to this story:

Fireman dresses as Spiderman to save boy with autism

From AFP:

BANGKOK – A Thai fireman turned superhero when he dressed up as comic-book character Spider-Man to coax a frightened eight-year-old from a balcony, police said March 24.

Teachers at a special needs school in Bangkok alerted authorities on Monday when an autistic pupil, scared of attending his first day at school, sat out on the third-floor ledge and refused to come inside, a police sergeant told AFP.

Despite teachers’ efforts to beckon the boy inside, he refused to budge until his mother mentioned her son’s love of superheroes, prompting fireman Sonchai Yoosabai to take a novel approach to the problem.

The rescuer dashed back to his fire station and made a quick change into a Spider-Man costume before returning to the boy, he said.

“I told him Spider-Man is here to rescue you, no monsters are going to attack you and I told him to walk slowly towards me as running could be dangerous,” Somchai told local television.

The young boy immediately stood up and walked into his rescuer’s arms, police said.

Somchai said he keeps the Spider-Man costume and an outfit of Japanese television character Ultraman at the station in order to liven up school fire drills.

Lakeside Cottage opens with this quote on the epigraph page. I’ve always thought it a fine bit of screenwriting:

“Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And, years later tell how they stood for hours in the cold rain just to catch a glimpse of the one who taught them to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us who keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”

–Spider-Man 2


March 25, 2009 | Leave a comment

Deborah Bouziden: Back in 2000/2001, you wrote a series of books with the Chicago Fire as a backdrop. Now in “Just Breathe,” Will is a fireman who is interested in catching an arsonist. Tell me why you decided to make Will a fireman in this book? (I must admit I was surprised at who the arsonist turned out to be. I was sure it was (SPOILER; ROLL OVER TO SEE THE NAME) Zane. . .

SW: I love to give my characters interesting, exciting jobs, the sort of job I’d like to have. Being a firefighter is one of them. A fire is inherently dramatic and changes things in the blink of an eye, which is really useful for fiction. It’s a metaphor for how quickly everything can change. The identity of the arsonist in “Just Breathe” was meant to be a slowly-unfolding storyline. I used it–and plenty of red herrings–for dramatic tension.

Will, in “Just Breathe,” is a rescuer. It comes from a place deep inside him. The best people and best characters are those who follow their passions, and he’s an example of that. His theme in the book is rescuing people and in the end, realizing he’s worth rescuing, too.

There was a fire in Summer by the Sea and in The Winter Lodge, too. I think I’m seeing a pattern here….

humor in books

March 24, 2009 | 2 Comments

Deborah Bouziden and I have been talking all month! She asks the best questions:

DB: You have such a unique sense of humor and that comes through in your books. It’s a sense of humor that happens in life. Is it written into your books consciously? How difficult is it to get just right? Your characters face difficult times, yet there are still times when they can laugh at themselves? Do you think it’s important for a certain amount of humor to be in all books? Why or why not?

SW: I’m so happy that you asked this question! Many readers tell me my books make them cry–which is fair. Emotional things happen in my books and they wring a tear from me, too. But good fiction, like real life, is multifaceted. We get to have laughter and tears.

The humor in my books is organic, meaning I don’t set up funny situations or laugh lines. They seem to grow out of whatever the characters seem to be doing. Even if a character is grief-stricken, her spirit can shine through. In Fireside (Feb. 2009), there’s a very funny scene with the hero getting a makeover. On the surface, it’s hilarious, showing him getting shined and polished for a photo shoot, but under that is a layer of seriousness and even pain. He has to change his life to fit his new circumstances.

In real life, I laugh a lot and people tell me I say funny things, so maybe some of that sneaks into the books. It’s so very subjective. Sometimes I think humor comes from the reader.

List some funny books in the Comments! Christopher Moore makes me laugh. So does Stephen King. In romance: Sheila Roberts, Suzanne Brockmann, Teresa Weir, Laura London, Catherine Coulter, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Robyn Carr…yikes, I could go on all night.

further thoughts on series books

March 23, 2009 | 5 Comments

So Deborah asked, “When a series is finished, how do you pull yourself away from the set of characters? Is it difficult?”

work work work
work work work


It’s not hard to turn away from a series of characters provided I have a new story on the horizon. I do still think about past characters, though, thanks to my readers. It’s the readers who remind me about intriguing secondary characters in past books. “What about Rory and Belinda in the Calhoun Chronicles?” they ask. “And Phoebe Palmer of the Chicago Fire series?” A lot of people want a sequel to The You I Never Knew or Home Before Dark.

I think my most-requested sequel might be a followup for my last three hardcovers–Just Breathe, The Ocean Between Us or Table for Five. This makes sense, since these are mainstream books with a sizeable cast of secondary characters and storylines. Readers tend to get involved and invested in the story, and it seems natural for them to want to see things play out. I love that about readers. Now I’ve wandered away from the question. Sorry.

I’m trying to think of a series of books I loved that had a great photo-finish and left me completely satisfied. Hmmm. Anyone?

learning from myself

March 22, 2009 | 4 Comments

meeting with the mentor
meeting with the mentor

So I’m struggling through the story synopsis on the next book, know up until now as “Lakeshore #7.” I have a title I love–The Summer Hideaway–and a fascinating cast of characters (including some long-lost Bellamys) but there are some missing elements. I decided to dig deep into the setting to make sure the setting–a summer on the lake, deep in the Catskills Wilderness–had a psychology of place. I went to some of my favorite texts on writing to remind myself a writer’s techniques in this regard. As always, Janet Burroway illuminated something for me in Writing Fiction, and E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel had a nugget or two. Then I checked the Writing the Breakout Novel workbook by Donald Maass…the index sent me to pp. 178-179. And there was an excerpt–and little writing lesson–from The You I Never Knew, a novel by my favorite writer. Me!

I need to learn to trust myself more. In writing, as in life, you know more than you think you know.

the crazy quilt method

March 21, 2009 | Leave a comment

So in our interview, Deborah Bouziden asked a key question. My answer is short, because it’s not going to work for every writer.

DB: When creating your characters, how do you choose traits, personality, etc.? Are your characters given your traits, friends, relatives, or are they formed from observation? What traits must main characters have?

Crazy Quilt Rendered by harlotte Winter, c. 1938 from National Gallery of Art
Crazy Quilt Rendered by Charlotte Winter, c. 1938 from National Gallery of Art


My characters come together like pieces of a crazy quilt. I pull together colorful bits and pieces (traits, issues, background) and assemble them into a person-like creation. The bits and pieces come from people I know, but once they’re assembled, they’re an original creation. At the outset, I focus a lot on the character’s history and the defining moments in her past that motivate her emotions and actions in the story. There are no consistent “must-have” traits for me other than being fascinating! I love the endless variety in people–and in characters.

Who are some of your favorite, most unforgettable characters in fiction?

series or single title?

March 20, 2009 | 3 Comments

neverending story
neverending story

From the Deborah Bouziden interview: How is writing a series different from writing a single title? Which do you prefer and why?

SW: I love both, and continue to do both. The actual everyday work of writing the books is not so different. I live deeply inside the story, whether or not it’s part of a series. However, with the series books, I’m very aware that every character is fair game. A walk-on in one book might become the protagonist in another. In writing the Lakeshore Chronicles books–an open-ended series about a small town in the Catskills–I never planned to write a book about Daisy, the troubled teen. But she has inspired a record amount of reader mail, and she is so multilayered, that she’ll get her book one day.

What do readers prefer? Books in a series, or single titles?

The book brahmin has spoken.

March 20, 2009 | 5 Comments

I’ve always wanted to be some kind of Brahmin except maybe not the bovine kind. Remember all those novels about “Boston Brahmins?” Did they just feel special? Anyway, head on over to Shelf Awareness (my favorite online newsletter dedicated to books) and click the “Book Brahmin” link to see what’s on my nightstand, on my mind, and deep in the twisted reaches of my subconscious.  

I would love to see your book brahmin answers! Add a comment!