Cara Langston


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How to draft a scene in 5 easy steps

 

HowtoDraftaScene

Lack of inspiration. Every writer struggles with it. If you’re like me and trying to write an 80,000+ word novel, you’ve probably struggled with it more than once.

Let’s face it–some scenes are simply easier to write than others. The ones with dramatic shouting matches are my favorite. I can sit down at my laptop and, without distractions, crank that baby out in a few hours. But out of hundreds of scenes in my book, only three involve shouting.

The most difficult part of creating a first draft is getting words on paper. Once the words are there, you can edit them to your heart’s content. But what happens when the cursor is blinking on a new page? When you have no idea how to begin?

I like to take a step-by-step approach, creating a base and then building onto it, as I’ll illustrate below.

Step 1: Add dialogue

I’ve found this to be the easiest way to put words on the page. We engage in dialogue every day. Dialogue is casual. You can write in incomplete sentences and use simple words. Don’t worry about tags yet. Just write the dialogue.

Here’s a very short scene I created with only dialogue:

“I thought you wouldn’t make it.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
“Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

Step 2: Identify the characters

Your reader needs to know who is speaking. This can be done through dialogue tags or adjacent character actions. As a reader myself, I’ve found the best scenes employ both types, but sparingly.

“I thought you wouldn’t make it,” Alexa said, her voice tight.
Her husband shrugged. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
“Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

Step 3: Describe physical actions

The next layer involves physical descriptions, beyond what you might have added in Step 2 to identify the characters. This is when I pretend my scene is being played out on film. I can see that Character A reaches out her hand. I can see that Character B frowns in displeasure. This is where the scene starts to come to life.

He tossed his laptop bag into the corner of the booth, no concern for the equipment inside.
“I thought you wouldn’t make it,” Alexa said, her voice tight. She put down her book and managed a smile.
Her husband shrugged. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
He reached for her hand. “Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

Step 4: Depict the setting

Now that we’ve focused on our characters, let’s step back and figure out where we are. Assuming this is a new setting, we need to add some description of the environment. This where you can start using the five senses. If our characters are in a diner, do they smell bacon? Did they see the waitress spill the coffee on her apron in the corner? Can they hear the cash register dinging? Maybe the booth is a little bit sticky from syrup, and the coffee is bitter.

 A baby shrieked from across the diner, and Alexa flipped the page of the novel she was failing to read.
He tossed his laptop bag into the corner of the booth, no concern for the equipment inside.
“I thought you wouldn’t make it,” Alexa said, her voice tight. She put down her book and managed a smile.
Her husband shrugged. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
He reached for her hand. “Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

*I admit to being a little lazy with the setting in this example . . .

Step 5: Narrate any internal emotions

I find this part to be the most difficult, so I often leave it for last. If you’re writing in first person or deep third person POV, your main character likely has thoughts or feelings they might want to convey to the reader. This is a great way of incorporating background info, past histories, etc.

 A baby shrieked from across the diner, and Alexa flipped the page of the novel she was failing to read. What kind of mother brought an infant into a diner at eleven o’clock at night? If it was her child, it’d be sleeping peacefully inside its crib, the one made from polished acacia, the one that cost two grand, the one that sat in the empty room upstairs.

 Jason arrived. He tossed his laptop bag into the corner of the booth, no concern for the equipment inside. Typical.

“I thought you wouldn’t make it,” Alexa said, her voice tight. She put down her book and managed a smile.

Her husband shrugged. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Don’t sound so excited.”

He reached for her hand. His palms were warm and rough, a reminder of the days he used to spend in the field. “Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

Now, I wouldn’t call that great writing by any means, but at least it’s a starting point. The scene began with four lines of generic dialogue and has grown to become an introduction into a childless married couple who, for some reason, are meeting at a diner late at night.

From here it can be culled or fleshed out.

From here–hopefully–your writing muse will find you again.

At least . . . this is what I do.


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Why I’m writing under a pen name

PenNames

The above photo is a modification of this work

If you read Freakonomics back in the day (because 2005 was ten years ago and at the threshold for being considered “back in the day”), you’ll remember there was a chapter on nominative determinism–that is (quoting Wikipedia), “the theory that a person’s name can have a significant role in determining key aspects of job, profession, or even character.” The study focused mainly on racial and socioeconomic factors, but at an aggregate level, it succeeded in highlighting the importance of a person’s name. People judge us based on what we are called–employers, colleagues, readers.

Our legal names are generally chosen by our parents. Mine was a last-minute choice after I was born, because the doctors assured my parents that they were going to have a baby boy. I guess they could’ve jumped onto the androgynous name train and called me Craig (I’m personally glad they didn’t).

But whereas my parents had the responsibility of choosing my legal name, I had the sole responsibility of choosing my pen name. Cara Langston is not my real name. It’s a pen name I chose to use for my writing endeavors.

Why did I choose to use a pen name? And out of all the names in the universe, how did I pick this one? Everyone has their own reasons, but I’ll share mine.

Part I:  Do you need a pen name?

Short answer: Of course you don’t need one. You don’t need to do anything you don’t want to do.

However, here are the reasons I chose to use a pen name:

1. I have a successful career outside of my writing — I pay the bills working as a senior strategy analyst at a large healthcare organization. I doubt I’ll be able to quit that career for a writing career anytime soon, so in the interim, I’d rather not have my name associated with my writing while I’m still climbing the corporate ladder. For example, I don’t want potential employers to be concerned that I may be writing on company time (of which I’m . . . ahem . . . guilty).

2. Everyone misspells my name — Both first and last names. Coworkers, friends, family members. Maybe (hopefully!) it’s their spell check, but every time someone spells my name incorrectly, I think, “Seriously? The correct spelling was in my email address just above this greeting.” And if by chance I’m one day successful enough that someone is actively looking for my books, I’d rather they be able to spell it correctly in Google or Amazon searches. On the flip side, there are plenty of successful authors with crazy last names–Chuck Palahniuk, anyone? So it could be a differentiating factor.

3. It’s a cushion for failure — I almost didn’t include this, but it’s the ugly truth. There’s some relief in knowing that if I’m really bad at writing or have some kind of terrible experience, I can shed the name and put it all behind me. That’s a really pessimistic view, but it’s always in the back of my mind.

Part II: How do you pick a pen name?

Now once you’ve decided that a pen name is for you, you can go through the process of picking your name. There’s so much riding on this decision! Your pen name will be emblazoned on the cover of that bestseller you’ll eventually write, so choose wisely. 🙂

If you do a quick Google search on this process, you’ll find plenty of articles about strategic positioning on bookshelves, the use of acronyms if you’re a woman trying to cater toward a male audience (*rolls eyes that it needs to be a consideration at all*), and fashioning a name to match your genre.

I disregarded those opinions. Instead, I based my name choice on the following:

1. Availability of website & social media handles — It’s so much easier if http://www.yourchosenpenname.com or @yourchosenpenname is available. Unless you absolutely have your heart set on a specific name, you may want to do a search to see if anyone else already owns the website address and Twitter handle. Checking to see if your pen name is already claimed by a semi-famous author or other celebrity falls into this category as well.

2. Ability to write the name — Think of those future book signings! Unless your real name is Elizabeth Jingleheimer Schmidt and you’re already used to writing it, it might be long name to jot down over and over again. I chose “Cara” because I can get away with a “C” and a short squiggle. Yes, I’m lazy.

3. Association to your real name / heritage — The initials I was born with are CL, so I came up with a name that had those same initials. My maiden name is Italian, so I chose a slightly Italian first name. I picked my last name from the “L” last names on my Ancestry.com family tree. “Langston” was my third choice, as the first two were already widely used by two authors.

So there it is. Why I chose to write under a pen name and how I chose the one I have. Mom, I hope this answers all the questions you’ve been asked by friends and family. Thanks for fielding those questions for me!