Tag Archives: plot

What is your beacon?

author David L. Robbins“What is your beacon? The light your novel will shine into the world?” asked author David L. Robbins when I ran into him at last year’s annual holiday Brew Ho-Ho (books and beer!).

I didn’t have an answer. I could have pretended I hadn’t heard him (after all, the room at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery was cavernous and loud). I could have drifted into the mob. But David looms large both in height (6’5″ I think) and personality, and anyone who knows him knows he’s not the kind of guy you drift away from. David has a presence in Richmond, a drive, a sense of forward momentum, an earnestness that unsettles—he’s a force unto himself—and on that day he was asking me to dig deeper.

“Why does your book matter? Why should anyone read it?”

Oh, my. I’d come for the fun literary scene and the fabulous beer (I love Hardywood’s Bourbon Barrel Sidamo) and hadn’t anticipated this challenge. But there I was with an intense man whose fiction has won awards and been adapted for screen and stage (his website includes excellent advice for writers, by the way), and he’d asked a simple question. I was tongue-tied.

Now, of course, my pause didn’t bother David. He likes an audience and when I failed to respond with a neat soundbite, logline, or elevator pitch for my work-in-progress, he talked about what he was up to (he always has a lot going on, from writing and teaching to sailing inland waterways and planning his next overseas adventure). When others eventually crowded around us and we turned to hear about their latest projects, I continued to mull over his question.

The Call of the WildThis week, nearly a year later, the memory of that afternoon resurfaced when I was in the car, listening to Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. It’s the story of a pampered house dog, kidnapped and forced to work as an Alaskan sled dog, and at its core, it’s an adventure story. But beneath the engaging prose—descriptions of savage injustices and Alaska’s raw beauty—the author clearly had something to say. Consider these lines:

It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feelings; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool.

Was London talking to himself? Was he reflecting on the softness of people born and raised in educated, “civilized” societies? Yes, I believe he was. As his sympathetic protagonist (the dog, Buck) adapts to his circumstances, finding his way by learning to fight and steal food and eventually even kill, readers root for him and “his ability to flee from the defence of a moral consideration and so save his hide.”

The story is more than a great adventure. The Call of the Wild shines a light on what it means to survive—to be alive—and on what’s primal and instinctual in each of us. Has society tamed us into being less than we might otherwise be? If we’ve never been pushed to our limits, how do we know what our limits are?

I love that this book made me fall in love with an Alaskan sled dog while challenging me to think about so much more than Alaska.

What is my beacon? What light will my book shine into the world? While I think David was asking about my particular work-in-progress at that time, today my answer speaks to everything I’m writing. I hope my books, stories, and essays will encourage readers to question their circumstances. Question what they’re taught in schools and in religious institutions. Question remarks made at dinner. Question news feeds and political leaders. Question neighbors. Question God. (God can take it.) And by question, I don’t mean abandon or dismiss what’s taught or overheard or spoken carelessly or intentionally. I mean the opposite. Dig in. Dig deeper. Wrestle with assumptions and prejudices. Engage. Listen. Think.

Kill your Darlings: author interview and book giveaway

Now a Major Motion PictureIs passion just an obsession with something you can’t seem to get better at, or is it the very thing you can get better at?

“Courage is simple. First, be honest. Second, don’t back down.”

These themes are two of many in Cori McCarthy’s latest YA novel, Now a Major Motion Picture, alternately funny, sad, wise, rich, and heartwarming. What a great read. And I’m giving away one copy! Hop to the end of this post. to enter the giveaway, and come back to read my interview with Cori. Deadline to enter: Wednesday, Aug. 22, 11:59 PM.

I met Cori on my first day at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and since then Cori’s writing career has soared. This is their fourth published YA novel, and along with partner Amy Rose Capetta, Cori has two books coming out in 2019 and 2020. Cori also writes poetry, has a picture book hitting shelves in 2021, and is now on the faculty of the MFA program at our alma mater. It’s an honor to interview Cori for my blog.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Cori.

Cori McCarthy: Thank you! It’s my pleasure to be here.

Breaking SkyABW: Let’s talk craft! I just loved Motion Picture, and I want to start with the unique setting. Seventeen year-old Iris is behind the scenes on a movie set where her grandmother’s novels are being adapted for the big screen. How did you come up with this setting? Is this an example of “write what you know”? I’m aware that your novel Breaking Sky is being made into a movie; did you write this novel after glimpsing some of that production? Continue reading

Be Open to Rewriting (& Book Giveaway!)

Lily's MountainThis month I visited Alaska’s Denali National Park—not in person, but in prose—when I read Hannah Moderow‘s debut novel Lily’s Mountain. From grizzly bears to swarms of mosquitoes, frigid streams, rustic outhouses, a run-in with a porcupine, and a deep crevasse in the ice, the story takes readers on Lily’s quest to find her missing mountain-climbing, Scrabble-playing father. It’s a great read!

And today, in honor of bringing Hannah to my blog, I’m doing a BOOK GIVEAWAY! Scroll to the end of this interview for details on winning a copy of Lily’s Mountain and ALSO a book I mentioned in last month’s post: Get a Grip on Your Grammar by Kris Spisak.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Hannah!

Hannah Moderow: Thank you for having me, Anne. I think back so fondly to our days together as students at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

ABW: I loved meeting you at VCFA, and I can’t believe it’s been seven years since we graduated. Feels like yesterday. And look at us now—still geeking out over the craft of writing!

So tell me about the poem by Robert Service that you included in Lily’s Mountain. Talk about grounding readers in the setting! His words really drew me in:

Robert Service poem

What an engaging, lyrical poem. And my question is about your decision to have Lily remember this poem as her dad’s favorite. Did you plan to include the poem from the get-go? Was it in your first draft of the story, or did it emerge in a later draft? Continue reading

Eat Your Vegetables: Write a Synopsis

Stuff I Hate to DoWriting a synopsis sits high on my Stuff I Hate To Do list. It’s up there with writing blurbs for book jackets. Bleh. Ask me to craft a scene that draws a reader in, that sets you on the edge of your chair, that makes you feel something, and I’m in. Love the challenge. But don’t ask me to narrow a plot down to the basics and spoil the ending.

Synopses are spoilers. Nobody wants a spoiler, right?

Wrong. Agents want them. Editors want them. All the publishing pros want them. A synopsis tells them who’s who and what’s going down and whether the protagonist manages to get what she wants, and how she thwarts the antagonist, and… yeah. You have to reveal all of it, including the neat twist you thought up for the ending. Spoil away. Continue reading

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.