Tag Archives: plot

Get a flow going

Last month I posted about endings, then tried my own suggestion: I wrote a possible final chapter. Once I had it, of course I had to write the scene that would come immediately before it. Then I wrote the scene before that one, and on back, scene by scene, until my ending scenes connected with the chapters I’d written from the beginning.

I had a complete first draft. Finally!

And it was fun to write the story backwards. It was freeing. It was crazy, loose writing—a lot of dialogue—and I admit that the manuscript is now a mess. But a first draft is done. The story now has a shape (an emotional arc) and the characters have come alive, and I can begin to dig deeper into scenes and add sensory details and check for continuity, etc.

The best part is that along the way, I had fun! I got a flow going. I gave myself permission to let go. To relax.  Continue reading

Know your Ending

Once when I was young and read a novel with a fabulous twist at the end (I’ve forgotten the book, but I recall its effect), it hit me that the writer had to have known the ending all along. He’d planted clues throughout, but as a reader, I hadn’t put two and two together until the end, and when I did, wow. The story blew me away. Remembering the title would be a bonus here, but my point is that on that day, although I was only in elementary school, my wow moment had to do with craft.

Shortly after recovering from that wonderful wow, I recall that I felt sorry for the author. Poor thing. When you know your ending up front, doesn’t it spoil the story? Doesn’t it ruin the enjoyment of reading it? Of writing it? And when I realized that all authors would have to know their endings while writing their beginnings, I felt sad for them. Why would anyone want to become a writer? Continue reading

Editing for Emotional Impact

This week’s Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact,” presented by James River Writers, was like a cornucopia of craft tips, everything overflowing, spilling out, and the crowd eagerly eating it all up. I had a great time. Here are my favorite take-aways from the evening:

Sadeqa Johnson urged us to listen to our characters. Really listen. Be open to what they have to say. While writing a scene, she’ll pause to ask a character, “What’s up?” Time and again she finds herself surprised by her characters’ answers. She tries to figure out what makes each one feel vulnerable.

Anne Blankman stressed the value of understanding what the protagonist wants, then taking that thing away, or at the very least, threatening its safety. She told us to think of a novel like an amusement park ride; readers have bought tickets and will feel cheated if the ride doesn’t carry them up and down and make their hearts pound. Continue reading

Salivation and Satisfaction

When I was a student in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I heard Jane Kurtz, the author of more than thirty books for young readers, give a fabulous lecture called “Salivation and Satisfaction.” The gist of her talk was that for a novel to work well, the reader must salivate (must care about the protagonist and hunger for more), and must feel satisfied at the end. The sense of satisfaction comes when there’s a match-up between what the writer sets up for the character and what the character gets. The protagonist won’t necessarily get what he or she wanted, but the questions the author has raised at the start need to be answered by the end.

This wisdom was on my mind one morning this past month, a morning when I woke feeling heavy. You know… it’s great when you feel rested first thing in the morning. It’s great to slip into your desk chair, take a sip from a steaming mug of coffee, and start writing, writing, writing. But I didn’t feel rested that morning. I had the whole dang plot of my novel sloshing through my head.

From years spent writing, I’ve learned that when I wake thinking about a particular scene, something is wrong. Continue reading

Structuring a Story

For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.

Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.

Arndt on Beginning a Story

But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.

Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.

Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt

But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.

And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3

Storytelling and Mythic Structure

Today’s post is for every fiction writer with a manuscript (like mine) that isn’t quite working. I’ve hit the two-year mark on this baby, including multiple (too many to count) rewrites of the opening five chapters, and a second draft of the complete novel, now told in alternating points of view (four different POV characters). The verdict is just in from two early readers: the manuscript still isn’t ready for my publisher’s eyes. Ugh.

But a comment from one reader has energized me. She said, “It’s one thing to be a good writer and it’s another to be a storyteller.”

Hmmmm. Read that line again. Mull it over. Let it sink in.

Both readers said my manuscript flowed easily—the writing was good—but the plot arc and emotional arc didn’t line up, and one reader found a secondary character more compelling than the protagonist (haha—that’s what I get for crafting new points of view). So I’m back to work, but I’m not writing, not yet. Instead, I’m analyzing this story. I’ve charted my characters’ desires (what my protagonist thinks he wants, what he really wants, what he needs, what he gets), and I’m rethinking the very essence of story.

I’ve turned to a book that’s sat on my shelf for years: Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which is something of a Bible for Hollywood screenwriters. I recall that when I first read it, back at a time when I didn’t have a complete manuscript and was considering Vogler’s ideas in the abstract, I felt disappointed with Hollywood for producing formulaic movies. Granted, these patterns are based on the work of Carl Jung and mythic archetypes, and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is great. But still… you can sometimes detect the formula in a film, leaving you wishing you’d waited to watch it on Netflix.

This month as I re-read Vogler, I see my manuscript anew. I’ve spent two years getting to know a setting and a set of characters, and now each of Vogler’s chapters is providing insights: oh, so that character is the mentor… oh, so he’s the shapeshifter… oh, so a “refusal of the call” establishes a deeper commitment to the journey… oh, oh, oh…! My manuscript has elements that make for a good story, but in some cases they’re out of order, and in others they’re under-developed.

I’m about to launch into yet another complete revision, and this time I’m so excited I feel guilty that this is my job. It’s too fun. I’m going to keep mythic structures and archetypes in mind as I rewrite scenes and restructure the plot, not trying to force it into a formula, but using these insights about storytelling to align the protagonist’s desire with his journey—no small task. If I kill off a character or shred a few plot points en route, well, hey, it’s okay. It’s all in service to the story.

I’m reminded that early-on in my process on this particular novel, I blogged about writing in service to the story, about appreciating characters that take a story where it needs to go, and killing them off once they’ve served their purpose. When I look at this manuscript as it stood back then, and this manuscript today… wow. There is no comparison. The story has come a long way.

And it still has a long way to go.

 

P.S. – As I was about to go live with this post, I got an email from James River Writers promoting their upcoming Writing Show on… how coincidental is this?… Plotting the Hero’s Journey, a discussion of Jung’s mythic archetypes. I had no idea this would be the February topic! The folks at JRW and I are thinking alike. I will be there…


Plotting the Hero’s Journey
Wednesday, February 25, 2015

6:00 p.m.
Firehouse Theater, Richmond, VA.

#MyWritingProcess

When I was a kid, I wrote letters. Real letters. By hand. Sometimes chain letters. Who has time for that anymore? (Besides the fact that stamps now cost 49 cents. Ouch.) I’ll still send an occasional handwritten thank-you, but I stopped saying yes to every chain that came along… until Marci Rich tapped me to participate in this Writing Process one. An invitation to talk craft? Yes, ma’am!

Marci writes the award-winning Midlife Second Wife blog, which has gotten over 70,000 hits since she launched it in August 2011. So well-written, some of her posts have been picked up by The Huffington Post. (Here’s her reflection on the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.) So I’m honored Marci tapped me for this chain. And I’m thrilled to tap three more writers to keep the chain going: Mindy McGinnis, M.A. Hoak, and Laurie Morrison. Scroll down for more information about them and their writing!

And now… for the chain… here we go with the 4 questions:

(A) What am I working on?

I’m scrambling to complete the first draft of a new novel, scrambling because I promised my agent something in early April before I quite realized just how soon April would arrive. I made that promise three weeks ago when it was snowing in Virginia… again… and spring seemed unbelievably far away. At that point, I’d written thirty-seven chapters (well, fifty-something if you count the ones I’d scrapped), so you’d think I could wrap it up by April, right? But after I made the promise, it hit me that I didn’t yet have a novel, and I kind-of freaked out. I had characters and a setting and a lot of stuff going on, but no unifying emotional arc that would hold it all together. Thinking about my promise made me break out in a pinkish rash. It itched. I did yoga to make myself chill out.

I went into step-back-and-mull-it-over mode. What desire was strong enough to drive the wayward plot? I’d already revised chapter one multiple times, and it wasn’t working. It didn’t set up the trajectory of the story—a tale about a group of boys at a summer program for gifted musicians. During my freak-out, I questioned the whole thing and feared I’d have to tell my agent, sorry, no can do.

Then I scrambled, and you know what? Deadlines are good. I’d started this novel last year, but when Brotherhood came out in the fall, I couldn’t keep up my regular writing schedule. I was too busy with book release hoopla, then school visits. The April deadline helped me re-focus, turn down a few invitations, and postpone requests for editing services. Over the past month, the novel has started to come together. I think. Maybe. I might even make my arbitrary deadline. Not tomorrow (which—eeh gads—is April already), but soon.

(B) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Broadly, my genre is YA, and within that, my current work-in-progress falls into the sub-genre of LGBT literature. In many LGBT stories, the protagonist comes to terms with his or her sexual identity or gender orientation, but my novel will differ in that my straight character will struggle with his homophobia. My first novel, Brotherhood, differed from others of its genre (Civil War historical fiction) by focusing on the aftermath of the war (period of Reconstruction) rather than the war, itself, and doing so not from the viewpoint of the Union, but from that of the defeated South.

(C) Why do I write what I do?

My first novel wrestled with racism, and now I’m wrestling with homophobia. The new one (as yet untitled) also addresses issues of faith, and includes characters who run the gamut from fundamentalist Christian to atheist. So to answer this question, I’d say that I love to write about stuff that interests me—stuff I like to talk about! And I especially enjoy writing for teenagers.

I often think about the fact that kids aren’t responsible for their parents’ views or mistakes or successes, or the way their parents sought to raise them. They’re stuck. Or they’re lucky. They’re born or adopted into whatever family they’re in, and they get what they get. Around the time kids hit middle school, they begin to separate from parents, question authority, and contemplate a future that is self-directed rather than parent-directed. And I wonder how they do that. How did I do it? How does a kid raised in, say, a prejudiced home, overcome those prejudices? How does a kid raised to follow his father’s calling come to find his or her own? In some ways, maybe I’m still asking myself these questions, and I guess that’s why I write what I do.

(D) How does your writing process work?

My process is messy, as you might gather from my answers above. I write to figure out my characters and what motivates them. I don’t outline. I do pay attention to the details in a setting because until I have the physical qualities of a place and a sense of the time (year, month, day, hour), I have trouble making my characters take action. Once they’re in a specific place, I listen to them. I watch them. I feel them. I try to inhabit them and experience their world vicariously. I put one character into another character’s face and see what happens. I throw obstacles at them and duck when they throw things back.

In that sense, my writing process is something like method acting, except that I’m not finished when I’ve acted out a moment. I have to write it down. I have to describe the physicality of what just happened. The process is slow and messy and not exactly lucrative. But I love it, and I’d spend even more hours writing each day, if I weren’t hampered by the bother of having to eat, sleep, wash, etc. Once I learned to embrace my messiness (thank you, Uma Krishnaswami, for helping me accept my process for what it is), I came to love it. My best days are the ones when I write for hours… and hours… and hours… uninterrupted.

What are other writers’ processes like? Stay tuned! This blog chain continues one week from today with posts from these awesome writers:

Mindy McGinnis is the author of Not a Drop to Drink and In a Handful of Dust, as well as being a full-time YA librarian. She and I met online last year through the “Lucky 13s,” a group of debut 2013 authors who write for young readers. She blogs at Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire.

 

And talk about librarians! M.A. Hoak is a native Floridian (a relatively unknown species). She works as a Youth Library Assistant and spends most of her time up to her elbows in books, glitter, and glue. Her poetry has been published in The Saw Palm and Cantilevers Literary Magazine. She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts (where she and I met) and her debut novel is forthcoming. She blogs at The Loudmouth Librarian.

 

And talk about Vermont! That’s where I also met the third writer I’m tapping for this blog chain. Laurie Morrison has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and primarily writes contemporary YA fiction. She lives in Philadelphia, where she teaches middle school English, and loves to read and bake. She is represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.

Leave a message to tell me about your writing process, and check out the blogs of these three writers to see how they approach their craft. Happy writing, y’all…

Writing Mysteries

This month I read two awesome mysteries, Mary Miley’s The Impersonator, and Kristen Kittscher’s The Wig in the Window, and found myself in awe of both authors’ mastery of plot. I imagine mysteries to be a tough genre to write, but what do I know? So I asked Mary and Kristen how they went about plotting their stories.

The Impersonator is set during Prohibition (the Roaring Twenties) and geared toward adult readers, and The Wig in the Window is contemporary and written for young readers. As each plot unfolded, I noticed similarities in the structure of these novels, so I just had to know…

A.B. Westrick: Did you outline the book before you began writing? How necessary is an outline when writing a mystery?

Mary Miley: I don’t outline in the high school sense (with Roman numerals and numbers and capital letters), but I am highly organized and I list my chapters or events in order, then decide when and how to work in the subplots before I start writing. As I go along, I make changes, of course, but I’m guided toward an end.

For mysteries, plot rules. Of course, characters are critical too, but the plot is what mystery readers are buying, and it needs to be intricate or surprising or challenging and complicated to succeed. A mystery writer, I think, needs to know the ending or the critical unexpected element before he/she even knows the beginning. For example, in the fourth of my Roaring Twenties series, which I am writing now, I knew the “trick” before I knew anything else—I knew the unusual way the murderer was going to kill his victim and how Jessie would know—and the police wouldn’t—who did it. I had nothing else for plot, just that. I am now in the process of constructing a plot around that critical element.

Kristen Kittscher: I didn’t outline The Wig in the Window up front but instead charged ahead blindly. I made a mess of things, took ages, then wrote an outline after the fact that helped me shape the story. I’ve taken the opposite approach with the sequel because I do think that outlining saves a great deal of headache (and heartache?), even if the story ends up deviating from the original outline. The ripple effect when you try to revise a mystery is extreme; with so many set-ups and pay-offs, it’s easy to get yourself in a tangle! Without some careful advance planning, you can end up with some elements that are almost impossible to change without rewriting the whole book.

ABW: Okay, so plot rules and outlines help. You’ve confirmed my assumptions! A similarity that I noticed in your plot structures was that in both, the protagonist reaches a low point (fairly close to the end) where she’s sure that her efforts have been for naught. To what extent do you consider this down-in-the-dumps moment to be integral to the plot of a mystery? Do you know of any mysteries that do not structure the plot this way? Continue reading

Interviewing Characters

I learn a ton when I interview my characters. Over the years, I’ve compiled a set of questions for them, such as…

What are your parents’ expectations of you?
Where do you belong? Feel most at home?
What do you deserve? What are your inalienable rights?
What makes you feel worthy?
What sorts of circumstances unnerve you? Describe one.
Tell me about a defining moment in your life.

Etc., etc. It goes on for a bit. Author Gigi Amateau told me that she concludes her interviews with, “Hey [character], I’m here for you. What do you want from me? How can I help?”

Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie

Last week I interviewed one of my characters, a teenage boy who has asked other kids at summer music camp to call him Dizzy Gillespie in honor of the great jazz musician. It was an awesome interview. The kid told me how he stands up to bully-types but feels nervous when he does, how his connection with a particular dog makes him think about reincarnation and parallel realities. I won’t necessarily use these tidbits in the novel, but it’s good stuff to know about him. He rambled and I listened, and my fingers flew fast over the keyboard.

When I ended with Gigi’s question, he surprised me. Dizzy said, “You can help by writing me into more scenes. Get me out of the background and onto center stage. I’m the character who’s bringing this story to life. Kids are going to read this book for me, and the sooner you recognize that, the better your book will be.”

Wow. I had to smile. I love this guy! Up until now, Dizzy has been a strong secondary character—a force to reckon with—and his actions have done wonders for moving the plot forward. But he’s not the protagonist. I’ve thought of him as laid back and cool, and haven’t noticed how intensely competitive he is. Now I get that if he doesn’t get his way, he’ll try to steal every scene I put him in. He’s dangerous, and I’m loving it. I’m having a blast writing this novel.

When was the last time you interviewed your characters?

The desire for a glass of water

Last month, a friend entrusted me with the privilege of skimming and commenting on her draft of a novel. Her writing was excellent, the setting unique, and the characters engaging, but there was something not quite right. I paced around my room, tracing the edge of a braided blue rug, mulling over the disconnect, and eventually got to thinking that the protagonist’s desire was not in alignment with the trajectory of the story. The novel drifted like an untethered canoe—one floating past the dock, just beyond reach.

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

As novelists, we learn to figure out what our characters want and send them in search of their desires. We’ve all heard what Kurt Vonnegut had to say on this topic during an interview posted in the spring 1977 issue of The Paris Review: “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

But how dull, right? A glass of water. And what if the character desires something immaterial, such as acceptance or a sense of belonging? It’s hard to communicate ethereal desires in an opening scene and hook the reader there. A novel has to build to them. I suspect Vonnegut would agree, but I think he’d tell writers to give a protagonist an interim motive—something to strive for en route to the climax. Something concrete like thirst. All desires (immaterial or otherwise) lead characters to take action in a world experienced through the senses—taste, touch, sight, sound and smell. Characters do stuff (they’re boring if all they do is sit around and think about meaninglessness or feel despair), and readers connect with them when they do stuff. When a writer describes a scene so well that it pulls readers in, inviting them to experience the world in which the character lives, details as seemingly insignificant as a glass of water matter.

My friend crafted unique and endearing characters and set them in a story that holds tremendous promise. Now her protagonist needs to want that glass of water that is… look… over there… in that glass tumbler on the windowsill… the one with the ribbon of yellow-green pollen dust at the base where the condensation has pooled… the one just out of reach… just past the edge of the bunched-up rug she’ll have to step over when she wants a sip, but she’s not looking down and her heel is going to get caught, and… uh-oh.

Many thanks to The Paris Review for posting the entire 1977 interview with Vonnegut.

Many thanks to The Paris Review for posting the entire 1977 interview with Vonnegut.