Tag Archives: structure

When a protagonist goes missing…

Evidence of Things Not SeenThis month I read a YA novel that defies literary convention. It’s a mystery, but not a mystery. There’s a protagonist, but he goes missing. Scraps of paper found near the spot where he was last seen refer to particle physics and time travel. Characters hint at one possibility after another, and in the end… no, no, no, I can’t reveal the ending!

When I asked the author to tell me about her writing process, she mentioned a number of people who helped her along the way—a testament to the strength of her writing community. The author is Lindsey Lane, the book is her YA debut, Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar Straus Giroux 2014), and today I’m thrilled to feature her on my blog.

A.B. Westrick: Lindsey, I’m so glad I caught up with you to talk about this story.

Lindsey Lane: Thanks for tracking me down!

ABW: I love the way you open this novel with a missing teen. Then you go into a series of vignettes, each with different characters, and the story arrested me. The structure brought to mind Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge, and I wondered if that book influenced you. Could you talk a bit about how you conceived of this story?

LL: Elizabeth Strout?!?! Really? What a huge compliment. But no, no influence whatsoever. Continue reading

Make Your Protagonist Accountable

Kathy Steffen

Kathy Steffen

In this post by author Kathy Steffen, she talks about “giving your characters accountability.” I thought that was an odd phrase, and my first reaction was, whaaat? What does she mean?

As I read through her post, I got it. For me, the click came when I phrased her words differently. I’d say it like this: make your protagonist accountable to someone or accountable for something.

Accountability engenders sympathy. Steffen is saying that if you want to ensure that your readers will care about your protagonist—will sympathize with her and commit to turning hundreds of pages to find out how she fares—one way to do it is to craft scenes depicting her as accountable. Make other characters depend on her. Connect the protagonist’s actions to the welfare of others. Read More

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

Ruta Sepetys on Multiple Points of View

 

 

This month, I caught up with Ruta Sepetys, recently home from a two-month book tour for her latest historical YA, Salt to the Sea. It’s a gripping World War II story of a group of teenagers running for safety while the Russian army marches toward Germany and American bombers fly overhead. Set in 1945 in what is now Poland, the story leads up to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea, the greatest tragedy in maritime history.

 

 

In this video clip on Ruta’s website, we learn a bit about the family history that inspired Ruta to set her novel during WWII. Watching this clip is well worth four minutes of your time:

Ruta notes that “empathy is one of the greatest and most beautiful contributions that we can achieve through writing.” Empathy. Yes! So necessary when it comes to crafting a character, and especially when writing multiple characters and multiple points of view. I’m thrilled to have Ruta here to tell us how she did it.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Ruta. So glad you could share your thoughts about craft and process.

Ruta Sepetys: Thank you so much for having me!

ABW: Let’s start with that awful Alfred character—awful and oddly funny. The story is tense and Alfred provides a lot of comic relief in circumstances that are otherwise bleak. Was Alfred part of your early drafts, or did you weave him into the story later when you realized the need to lighten things up? How did you go about crafting him? To what extent is he based on someone you know? 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

Don’t Shy Away from Conflict

If you read only one book this summer, make it Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County. Part memoir, part journalistic exposé, this sensitive and compelling book explores the history of a Southern town where local history wasn’t taught even though a suit filed on behalf of black students in the county was one of the five consolidated into Brown vs. Board of Education. Author Kristen Green alternates between memories of growing up there, enjoying time with her family’s black housekeeper, extensive research and interviews, and dreams for her own children, who are multi-racial.

I couldn’t put it down.

It struck me that in terms of craft, journalists can teach novelists a lot. So I caught up with Kristen (she lives in Richmond, VA—lucky me!) to get her insights into writing about tough topics.

 

A.B. Westrick: Kristen, welcome! And thank you for doing this blog interview. Your book has so many layers—such complexity distilled down to about 300 pages—that we can’t do it justice here. But we sure can talk craft…

You tell us how University of Mary Washington professor Steve Watkins (who happens to be a novelist now, just sayin’) helped you hone your journalistic grit. After you got “worked over” by a “nice” administrator, “‘The hell with nice!’ Watkins snapped. ‘Nice doesn’t mean good!’” (pg. 90). In another anecdote, you tell us that your former history teacher shut down your interview with the message “loud and clear: She’s done talking about this, and she thinks [you] should stop, too” (pg. 198).

So let’s discuss the born-to-be-nice problem. How do you handle tough moments like that? When an interview gets uncomfortable, what do you do?

Kristen Green: I think it’s like writing. Don’t give up too quickly. It’s tempting, when things start getting interesting, to pack up and say you’ve got enough information. But that is the time to push a little bit harder. I’ve been a journalist for a long time and confrontation is just part of who I am. I do not shy away from conflict.

I tend to keep asking questions, to follow a natural succession, to want to go deeper with each question. People expect writers to ask the hard questions, so my advice is just go for it. Assume that whomever you’re interviewing wants to talk about the tough stuff or is at least expecting you to ask about it. If you do it respectfully, and if you’re patient, you can get really good information you never expected to get. But don’t be in a hurry. And keep going back to the person over and over to ask follow up questions. New information will be revealed. One really great trick is to just be quiet at various points in the interview. Leave some space for the person you’re interviewing to fill—sometimes the interviewee will be so uncomfortable that they just talk to avoid silence. Continue reading

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.

Kelly O’Connor McNees on Writing

When James River Writers (JRW) invited me to interview some 2014 conference speakers, I looked over the impressive list of who’s coming and jumped at the chance to interview Kelly O’Connor McNees. I love the fact that she’d founded Word Bird Editorial Services. When she’s not writing her own fiction, she’s editing other people’s novels, so I figured she’d be perfect for my blog—as much in love with the process of writing as I am. And I was right!

Kelly will be speaking on panels during the JRW conference, October 18-19, 2014, in Richmond, VA, and on Friday, October 17, will lead a master class on “Point of View: Who’s Telling and Who’s Listening?” You can find more information on the JRW website.

Kelly’s third novel, The Island of Doves, came out earlier this year from Berkley/Penguin. She’s also the author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, and In Need of a Good Wife, which was a finalist for the WILLA Literary Award. I’m thrilled to share with you her wisdom on the writing process…

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kelly! I’ve just finished reading The Island of Doves, a beautiful novel set in Buffalo, Detroit, and the wilds of the Michigan Territory in the early 1800s, and I’d love to hear your comments on a few craft points.

Kelly McNees: Thank you for that very kind introduction! I am thrilled to be coming to Richmond for the conference and look forward to meeting lots of new friends and fellow writing geeks.

ABW: And they’re looking forward to meeting you! So let’s talk craft. I want to start at the beginning; usually I hate prologues, but yours drew me right in. You wrote it in scene, and I didn’t even notice that it was a prologue until five pages later when I hit the words, chapter one. At that point, the story had already hooked me. Very nice. Can you say a little about your decision to make that opening a prologue, rather than calling it a chapter?

KM: I think of a prologue as a snapshot of an event that came before the main action of the story, which is why it works to set it apart that way rather than write it as a chapter. But I agree with youtypically I do not like prologues. They can feel tacked on and melodramatic. Sometimes they make a big promise that the novel can’t live up to. I added this one in a later draft, after I had tried and failed many times to communicate the events it describes (in much more elaborate ways) through flashback in other parts of the novel. Eventually I realized that we didn’t need to know the entire history of this family up front. We just needed to know about this one very important event, the death of the youngest sister, Josette, because it sets everything else into motion. Continue reading

Read Your Draft Out Loud

I emailed a new novel to my agent two days ago. Done! Finished. At least for now. If she deems it saleable (with this one, at times I’ve wondered), she’ll want revisions, and so will my editor. All good. It’s part of the process. But for now that baby is off my plate. In their ballpark. I’m doing the happy dance, enjoying the luxury of every long exhale. Pfew.

The last thing I did before I hit SEND was read it out loud. A whole 300+ pages worth. It took days. My mouth went dry. I thought the exercise would be fairly quick and would result in a tweak here or there. But…

Wait. That line didn’t say what I wanted it to say. Wait, the cadence stopped flowing there. Too clunky. Wait, that paragraph didn’t follow from the one before it. Wait. I just used that word, so I can’t repeat it. Wait. If I were browsing books at my local indie, I wouldn’t keep turning these pages. Ahhhhh!

Reading the manuscript out loud was exactly what the draft needed. I ended up restructuring the whole novel. I now have a different opening scene (easy to do in Scrivener, just saying), but the new opener caused other chapters to fall away. It also meant my ending needed work because the new opener set up the protagonist’s conflict with his dad in a way that the previous one hadn’t. What began as a quick read-through of a manuscript I’d thought was finished turned into three weeks of revision.

It’s amazing what you hear when you read a manuscript out loud.

How can a piece sound so different out loud? Why doesn’t my brain pick up on the flaws during SSR (silent, sustained reading)? Years ago my nephew was diagnosed with an auditory processing problem, a diagnosis that helped my sister understand his style of learning (or his struggle to learn). Spoken language is just so different from the written word. Our brains process sound differently from the ways our eyes process text.

We all get the value of reading poetry out loud, but writers of novels don’t necessarily appreciate that prose can come across differently when spoken. I’m no expert in why there’s a difference. But I’m glad that I used my ears to detect what my eyes couldn’t. So much for rushing the manuscript to my agent. So much for rushing at all.

I’ve heard that J.K. Rowling apologized to her readers, saying she hadn’t been able to shorten the last few books in the Harry Potter series because she didn’t have time to edit them. The market was calling, and what the market wanted, the market got. Oh, to have Rowling’s problems, right? But for the rest of us—those with no pressure from the market—slowing down enough to read a manuscript out loud, start to finish, matters. Promise. (Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.) Read your manuscript out loud and you will hear it anew.