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.
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.
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Tagged character, craft, desire, Kurt Vonnegut, motivation, plot, protagonist, revision, structure, The Paris Review, writing
Plots. So hard to conceive. So necessary to craft well. You’ll often hear writers talk about the struggle to tease the plot out of the characters, but when I asked YA author Megan Shepherd about her process, she reflected more on the joy than the struggle. She wrote:
“One of the trickiest parts of writing for me is also one of the most fun: plot twists. I adore books with surprising twists in them, and so I always try to add unexpected turns in my own. However, it’s a fine balance to plant enough clues so that readers don’t feel cheated when the twist hits them, but not too many so that they guess the twist way in advance. My rule of thumb is to set up a situation where there are two possible outcomes, Outcome A or Outcome B, and you try to make readers guess which one it will be, and then bam! You hit them with Outcome C.”
Okay, that paragraph alone made me want to read Megan’s debut, The Madman’s Daughter, just out from Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. Megan made it sound tricky, but … easy… when I know it’s not at all. I turned to another YA writer, Lenore Applehans, and asked about her plot-process. (Lenore’s debut, Level 2, has just been released from Simon & Schuster.) I wanted to know whether her approach was similar to Megan’s. But do any two writers have the same process? Of course not. Lenore told me:
“When I got the idea for Level 2, the main plot twists and characters kinda showed up at the same time. I worked hard with my editor to make sure that the plot made sense within the context of character motivations and choices. While I wrote with a minimal outline, I did have a vision for the story—so that everything I wrote was in service of the ultimate character arcs and I didn’t have to go back and cut a lot of filler. In fact, my first draft was very spare, so revision was about adding instead of subtracting.”
So Megan and Lenore came at their stories from very different angles, but both crafted plots that made sense and didn’t make the reader feel cheated. What I find interesting is the notion that if writers do their jobs well, they become transparent; readers don’t see or feel the writer’s presence on the page. It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? The writer puts in all the work, but in the end, it’s not about the writer. It’s about the story. The characters. The surprising twists. The vicarious experience of another world… And just thinking about it makes me want to curl up in an overstuffed chair with a good book. Okay, I’m done here…
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Tagged books, craft, lenore applehans, level 2, megan shepherd, plot, process, revision, structure, the madman's daughter, writing, YA
Here is yesterday’s fabulous post from io9.com: The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar, written by storyboard artist Emma Coats, with an intro from io9 editor Cyriaque Lamar. This hits so many elements of the craft, I’m posting it on the bulletin board over my writing desk. Thank you, Emma, and thank you to io9.com, a daily publication that covers science, science fiction, and the future. You can see the original article here, but in case it disappears from the cloud, I’ve pasted it below. And how fun—in the moment when I took this screen shot, it captured the fact that two of my Facebook friends also gave this article a thumb’s up. Go Clay and Clete!
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Tagged character, Clay McLeod Chapman, Clete Barrett Smith, craft, creativity, pace, Pixar, plot, process, revision, story, structure, theme, writing
It’s kill my darlings time. Major revisions a-comin’. Seasoned writers talk easily about it—the need to delete descriptions, characters and scenes that served a function during an early draft but later detract from the story as a whole. We wish it weren’t so. Wish that the first draft would work just the way it was. Wish the process weren’t so brutal.
Last week I enjoyed Ron Howard’s movie A Beautiful Mind for the second time, then viewed the deleted scenes with the commentary turned on. Talk about killing your darlings! Howard reflected on the way each cut enhanced the film’s dramatic tension. Some of the cut scenes were especially touching and well-acted, and some shed light on schizophrenia, the protagonist’s illness. But they slowed the pace, so they went. The movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2002.
Dramatic tension. Emotional arc. Pacing. I come back to these elements again and again. From my current work-in-progress, I just slashed an entire section in which a secondary character took center stage. I’m thankful for early-readers who identified problem spots I hadn’t seen. Which darlings will I cut next? Like Howard, I keep them in a “deleted scenes” folder. I fight off the lament—the disappointment—the fear—that I wasted my time writing them in the first place.
Here’s a snapshot of my cut-and-paste work on one section of the muddy middle. (I use Scrivener, but this revision was hard to picture until I laid it out across a bed.) I have to remind myself that writing those now-deleted scenes was a necessary part of the process. Even Ron Howard develops scenes that end up on the cutting room floor. And he blows a lot more time and money in his process than I do! Somehow I find that comforting. The creative process is nonlinear and sometimes maddening and frustrating and seemingly wasteful, but it is what it is. Either you love the process and accept it, or you’re better off doing something other than writing.
In the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, John Stazinski (page 29) bemoans the tendency of MFA programs to concentrate nearly exclusively on the short story at the expense of the novel because it’s too time-consuming to workshop complete novels. Thank goodness Grub Street is now experimenting with a novel-revision class to fill the gap.
Lucky for me, VCFA was not one of those MFA programs. In the first few semesters, there were limits to the number of pages I was allowed to submit for critique/review, but in the final semester, the complete draft of a novel was welcome. It was an intense final semester. My faculty advisor, Kathi Appelt, required multiple re-writes of my novel—never mind line edits. The focus was on structure—on the intersection of the story arc and the emotional arc—on Big Picture elements of the craft.
Now I can’t read a novel without marveling at and dissecting its structure. Of course writers need to learn how to craft engaging characters and settings with mesmerizing descriptive details. But plot matters! A well-conceived story arc is just as necessary as beautiful prose.
Take John Green’s Looking for Alaska, for example. He intentionally deviates from the classic climax-and-denouement structure with brilliant results. Early chapters are labeled “before” and later chapters “after” and the life-changing moment occurs in the middle, leading to a denouement that at first glance appears too long. But no. The climax is not that moment-in-the-middle, but comes when the protagonist realizes he can’t live fully if he remains stuck on life “before Alaska” and “after Alaska.” The structure Green has given to his novel is the very structure the protagonist is struggling to escape.
Or take Uma Krishnaswami’s delightful The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. Her theme involves life’s coincidences, and she presents the story from the points of view (close-third person in alternating chapters) of one protagonist and multiple secondary characters. Readers glimpse a postal carrier here and a Bollywood movie star there, and in the end, of course, the characters’ lives intersect. But it’s the structure of the novel in multiple POVs that makes the intersection work.
It’s one thing to know the story you want to tell, and another to figure out how best to tell it. Such is my current quandary. Last week I completed the draft of a novel, and I’m now letting it rest so that I can return later with fresh eyes to ask: what structure—what sequence of scenes—will provide maximum dramatic tension for my readers? Right now I’ve got one viewpoint in part one and another in part two. But will alternating the points of view (the way Uma did) serve this story better? Hmm. Thank goodness I have early-level reader-friends willing to critique an entire novel, not simply ten or twenty pages at a time.
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Tagged arc, books, craft, critique, Grub Street, john green, kathi appelt, Looking for alaska, manuscript, MFA, novel, plot, Poets & Writers, revision, story, structure, Uma Krishnaswami, VCFA, writing
For a few years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a primary-level reader/judge for James River Writers’ Best Unpublished Novel Contest. We hold a large, quiet party. Readers pull blind manuscripts from a pile and stretch out across sofas and chairs to score them while nibbling on sandwiches, sipping coffee… It goes on all day and sometimes more than a day, depending on how many writers enter the contest.
Every year without fail, the manuscripts that don’t score well are those that begin with back-story rather than in scene. Back-story is the history a writer needs to know to create characters who ring true. But readers only need to know that today, now, in this opening scene, the character feels and wants something. The emotion hooks the reader, giving the author time to supply back-story later.
The challenge is to figure out which details are absolutely necessary for the reader to know, and when and how to bring them in. Richmond writer Dennis Danvers gave me a great tip in this area: introduce back-story as the protagonist needs to think about it, or as the past occurs to the protagonist, not as the writer thinks she needs to educate the reader. In other words, back-story is relevant only if it matters to the character.
Early drafts will run heavy with back-story, and so they should. But in the revision process, as the right structure for a novel emerges, writers who focus on present-action scenes rather than back-story have the greatest potential to hook their readers and keep them turning pages.
In mid-March, as I staffed the James River Writers (JRW) table at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, it occurred to me that the JRW Conference differs from the VA Festival in the way an MFA differs from an MA or PhD. The VA Festival is all about books and the JRW Conference, about the craft of writing. Of course, there’s an overlap. But it comes down to the difference between content and process, between analyzing literature and writing it.
I particularly enjoyed hearing Kekla Magoon talk about molding historical facts to heighten her protagonist’s struggle in The Rock and the River. But if Kekla were to speak at the JRW Conference, she might go into more depth about the challenges of the craft. She might note how she picked up the narrative pace in the fourth chapter by manipulating readers’ sympathies (her policemen characters beat up a boy, then charge the boy with resisting arrest). She might tell us how she wove setting into plot. She might talk about scenes added or deleted to enhance the story’s emotional arc.
It’s one thing to have a story to tell, and another to tell it well—to show up at the page every day in order to wrestle with the tense and pace and voice while developing characters and searching for the right structure. It’s one thing to love reading, and another to embrace the art and process of writing.
The VA Festival may not have showered me with tips on craft, but it drenched me in warm fuzzies. I staffed the JRW table with Meg Medina and caught up with writers who have spoken at the JRW Conference over the years—Clifford Garstang, Charles J. Shields, Bill Glose, Michele Young-Stone, Irene Ziegler. JRW members Linda Dini Jenkins, Kristi Austin, Beth Rogers and Judy Witt were there, as were conference-regulars Becky Mushko, Stephanie McPherson and Michelle Ehrich. I saw SCBWI colleagues Ellen Braaf, Kathryn Erskine, Valerie O. Patterson and Anne Marie Pace, and Vermont College alums Kekla Magoon, Tami Lewis Brown, Maha Addasi, Louise Simone and Winifred Conkling. JRW shared a table with Rose Esber, and Lee Knapp sold her fun, grammatically-correct ceramics. I’m already looking forward to VA Festival 2012.
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Tagged arc, books, conference, craft, historical, literature, pace, plot, process, scenes, structure, voice, writing