Why is the left brain as important as the right brain in writing a novel?
When I first received the request to comment about applying both sides of the brain to writing a novel, I thought it was a case of excessive introspection. Of course, I knew that the right side of the brain is tuned in to matters of creativity and imagination, while the left side of the brain applies itself to such assignments as logic and analysis. The problem is that while the foregoing describes the results of research on the brain, it is foreign to the way an author applies himself or herself to the writing process, at least in a formal sense.
The fact is that both sides of the brain have to be engaged at the same time, during both the creative writing phase and the revision phase. I find that to be particularly true in my own case, because I don’t separate those two aspects of writing. I revise as I write. People have asked me how many drafts I generate before I consider a book to be finished, but I give them a blank stare because I have only one computer file draft which I continuously update.
From the very beginning of tackling the writing of a novel, both subjective and objective aspects of writing are required. Rule Number One is to start off with an opening that grabs the attention of a browsing reader and makes him or her want to read more. No matter how wonderfully creative your book’s concept is (right side of brain), it will not have much impact unless you frame the opening sentence or paragraph in a way that causes the reader to want to learn more. This requires analysis and experimentation to generate that perfect opening (left side of brain). In practice, the writer doesn’t separate the two efforts, but rather meshes them together as in the gear train of a mechanism. Continuous application of both creativity and analysis is required, or you have half a gear train that doesn’t mesh with anything.
Per the title question, I agree that logic and analysis are very important to novel writing. There are many specific tools and techniques that simplify the process and help you to generate an enthralling story while avoiding making mistakes that will be obvious to the careful reader. I discuss more than one hundred of these in one of my presentations, “The Mystery Writer’s Toolbox.”
Without getting into individual techniques here, I’ll emphasize the two analytical principles that will lead to good writing, regardless of the subject matter or length. If your work has unity and coherence, it will stand a better chance of success. Unity requires that you have a total story without any unanswered questions or loose ends. All questions introduced during your opening chapters should have been answered or deemed unanswerable (perhaps until the next volume in your series) by the end of your book. Coherence requires that you keep track of all the details of your characters, settings, and events to make sure that they are consistent throughout the book. Examples of inconsistencies are changes in the names of siblings or the spelling of those names and variations in the ages of characters. The revision phase is appropriate for testing for unity and coherence, but those two criteria should be in your mind throughout the writing process.
Yes, the right side of the brain is as important as the left side to the creation of a successful novel; but no, you don’t have to think about your brain’s structure and assigned responsibilities at all. Come up with a good concept. Develop it creatively. Use your dictionary (online or printed). Test for unity and coherence during an intensive revision phase of your effort. Most of all, enjoy being a writer. Writing is fun, and you are doing it to entertain your reader.
I have been writing for a lot of years and am fortunate enough to have had quite a few books published. I started out writing standalones, but over the years have graduated into nearly all series books.
Why? Because they're fun to write, and to read. Because I get to come up with a background theme and some characters and story lines and incorporate them into more than one book. I start with one as a basis, then do more. Hopefully, a lot more.
There are many kinds of series, of course. I write three different sorts: cozy mysteries and two mini-series in romance lines: paranormal and romantic suspense. Are they the same? Sometimes. But in other ways they're very dissimilar.
These days, the underlying theme in nearly everything I write includes dogs--although not in all my Harlequin books... yet. Otherwise, each series is quite distinctive.
For example, my upcoming UNLUCKY CHARMS is the third in my Superstition Mysteries, one of two cozy mystery series I currently write for Midnight Ink. Its background is, unsurprisingly, superstitions. My protagonist, Rory Chasen, goes to the fictional town of Destiny, California, which is all about superstitions to learn more about whether the reason her fiancé died after walking under a ladder really was a result of a superstition coming true. She brings her dog Pluckie with her, and learns that black and white dogs are lucky after Pluckie saves the life of the local pet boutique owner. That was memorialized in the first book, LOST UNDER A LADDER. Rory stays in Destiny to manage the pet boutique and remains a superstition agnostic, although superstitions do seem involved in solving the murder in book two, KNOCK ON WOOD... and also in book three, UNLUCKY CHARMS, which will be an October release.
So what's the same in this series? The theme: superstitions. The location: Destiny. The characters: Rory and Pluckie and others, some of whom are also introduced in the first book including Justin Halbertson, the local police chief and Rory's love interest.
And what else makes it a series? Someone gets murdered in each story and Rory has to solve it, no matter what Justin tells her. There's always a resolution to the mystery, though not always to the budding romance.
Since I write multiple series at the same time, I've developed ways of keeping track of pertinent details in computer files, such as characters and their looks and traits, locations, and in this case the superstitions I've used. I do the same kind of thing, as appropriate, for each of the other series as well.
I also write another cozy mystery series for Midnight Ink, the Barkery & Biscuits Mysteries, in which the protagonist, Carrie Kennersly, a veterinary technician, owns two bakeries--one for humans and one a barkery for healthy dog treats. She, too, solves murders. Again, there's an underlying theme: the bakeries. The location is the fictional town of Knobcone Heights, California. And again, the characters like Carrie, her brother Neal, and her romantic interest Dr. Reed Storme, a veterinarian, show up in each story.
Then there are romance series--well, actually, mini-series since mine are part of a larger group of stories published each month.
My most recent Harlequin Romantic Suspense book, COVERT ALLIANCE, an August release, is somewhat part of a series, too. The series idea began with the introduction of the fictional Identity Division of the U.S. Marshals Service in COVERT ATTRACTION. The ID Division creates new identities for people in trouble who can't participate in witness protection because their knowledge isn't enough for them to testify as a witness against the bad guy--no hard evidence and only hearsay, no eyewitness testimony. The ID Division also sends someone undercover to try to obtain the missing evidence. In both stories, the protected non-witnesses are women who have critical reasons to return to their home towns even though they're under orders not to--and they meet the undercover guys sent there to dig up the evidence. Yes, these are romances, and you can guess that they fall for one another.
The series stuff? A theme: non-witness protection. A romance: they're part of a Harlequin series. But because they're romances, that theme is the driving force for the series; each relationship has to evolve to a happily-ever-after by the end of the book.
I also write another long-existing series for Harlequin, the Alpha Force paranormal romance series for their Nocturne line. Alpha Force, a covert military unit of shapeshifters, is what connects the stories and makes this a series; each involves one or more shapeshifters. And yes, since some of the shifters are werewolves who, as members of the military unit, also have cover dogs, my personal underlying theme of dogs is met here.
I've also written a couple of other cozy mystery series: the Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter Mysteries, in which Kendra, a lawyer, lived in the Hollywood Hills with her tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Lexie. I live in the Hollywood Hills and, at the time, was a practicing attorney--and my older Cavalier, Lexie, is a tricolor. However, I don't pet-sit all kinds of animals, nor do I trip over dead bodies. But you can see some of the theme here. And my next series was the Pet Rescue Mysteries, a spinoff from the Kendra books, where Kendra's wealthy boyfriend Dante funds a wonderful pet shelter in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, and its owner Lauren Vancouver, like Kendra, keeps having mysteries to solve.
So, you get it. As many different kinds of series as there are, they're all similar in some respects like recurring story themes and characters and more. Reading one story in a series will hopefully capture a reader's attention and encourage reading all of them, so readers, too, like series.
Plus, in each case, the writer needs to keep track of all of the appropriate details to try to ensure consistency.
And as a writer? Well, I think you can tell how much this writer enjoys writing series novels!
When Poison Pen, the first book in my Forensic Handwriting series, was published in 2007 I had the great good fortune of being part of a very special critique group. Everyone did their homework on how to promote books and everyone shared what they had learned. Having discovered that even a major publisher like mine (Penguin) did very little to promote a midlist author like me, we each signed up with a popular publicist and set out on our individual book tours around the country (I blogged about the ups and downs of those early experiences: http://mystery-writers.blogspot.com/2007/05/between-lines.html).
Over a period of four years and four book releases, believing I was investing in my writing future, I traveled extensively to appear at numerous conference panels, book signings, and lectures, spending around ten thousand bucks a year. The problem was, while I was writing book four, the super supportive editor I loved left Penguin. Her replacement had no interest in continuing my series. So there I was, $40k invested and no new contract. I had been building a fan base, but with major publishing houses not wanting to pick up a series in the middle, I was, well, screwed.
Fast-forward. After self-publishing What She Saw, a standalone novel of suspense, I finally got my rights reverted and my series was taken on by Suspense Magazine, who is now publishing books, too. By this time, social media had taken off. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc., is a great way to build relationships with readers without having to pour in tons of money. These days I am selective about the conferences I attend, and my lectures tend to be more local (unless the requesting organization is willing to pay). Appearances on panels at libraries and bookstores are usually within reasonable driving distance. I sometimes drive further, such as for a panel at Book Carnival in Orange tomorrow because supporting independent bookstores is well worth the extra effort.
Another marketing tool I’ve found effective is the launch party. It’s also a way of giving back to your local readers. Around 75 people showed up at the event I hosted for the release of book 6, Outside the Lines. The $500 spent on hors d’oeuvres and prizes was far less than a national tour cost, and far more effective. I handed out door prizes, gave a short talk about how the idea for the book came about, and bookseller Debbie Mitsch sold at least as many books as if I had spent thousands on a national tour. Everyone had a great time and I didn’t have to deal with TSA or jet lag—always a plus.
Blogging and guest blogging, like I’m doing here, is also a terrific way to reach new readers. I’ve recently been invited to join the Mysteristas group and will be blogging on the first Tuesday of each month. Doesn’t cost a cent.
That $40k I spent wasn’t wasted. It got my face and my books in front of readers who would not otherwise have known me. I consider it part of my education. But there’s no denying, achieving better results at lower cost makes Sheila a happy author.