Monday, January 31, 2011

"Building Better Plots", part 3

In chapter one, Robert Kernen discusses narrative and targeting a story’s focus. He says that deciding on your tale’s perspective is not a simple decision. Every story, whether in print or on film (or digital), is told through the filter of its author. Everybody reading my blog could take my story idea, and all of us would tell it differently. The first thing to think about is what to include in your story.

Kernen uses the example of World War II. Just sticking to books, several dozen have been written that, in one way or another, include the war. But they have different perspectives from each other, because there’s no point in using the same details. As I see it, an issue as huge as a world war *has* to focus on one or a few people to give readers something to grasp. My WIP, using the working title “Street Glass”, in a broad sense is about class and race differences in the U.S. If I spread the story from one coast to the other and pull in a representative character from every level of society that impacts the story, readers are going to find it hard to focus on things.

Instead, I’m going to keep my spotlight on two characters, from opposite sides. Readers get a look at Neal’s life in a street gang up close. Things like violence, the loss of one’s individuality, and general hopelessness are the obvious things that he puts a face on. I throw in a love interest because that rounds out his character and provides opportunities for plot twists. Readers are brought face to face with a snarling gangbanger who’s ready to slit somebody’s throat. I aim to show that he treats people the way he gets treated, because that’s what most of us do. How much is he to blame for his actions?

On the other side, musician Sandy has lost a family member to drinking and a good friend to drugs. I take readers through Sandy’s memory of his last encounter with his cousin and show his guilt at his part in her downward spiral. I haven’t decided where to work in the mention of his friend Greg’s drug addiction but I do think it should come out sooner rather than later. These points humanize Sandy, who would otherwise stay part of a rarified group that most readers couldn’t relate to.

Neal’s part Latino and part Anglo or white, though he identifies much more with Latinos. Sandy’s the privileged white guy.

So far, so good. I have a basic idea. I believe alternating between the points of view of both characters will draw readers into the human side of the general conflict, and make it real for them. Now I have to decide what details to include, which to leave out, and in what order to tell things. Ha! Simple, right?

Next post, I muse about leaving in or tossing out information.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Building Better Plots", part 2

Here we are with the rest of chapter one’s questions, from Robert Kernen’s book.

7. Does my concept provide any realistic hooks that will make it easy for the audience to relate to?
Readers are given a look at how hard life is for 18-year-old Neal as a member of a street gang, before he meets Sandy. Readers are also shown how Sandy lost a family member to alcohol and a close friend to drug use.

8. What elements will they relate to? Even if you are writing fantasy or science fiction, you will want to give your audience some element to which they can connect their sympathy.
Neal’s feeling of being stuck in a lifestyle he realizes doesn’t have many options; his difficulties with trying to change, and to fit in among new people; and difficulties with accepting himself as he is. Readers should also relate to Neal’s lashing out when life continues to treat him cruelly. Readers should be able to relate to Sandy’s feeling of helplessness over the losses of his relative and of his friend; his attempt at righting those wrongful deaths through helping Neal; his fear of losing other people important to him if he doesn’t have some control over them.

9. Does my concept provide enough tension to hold the audience’s interest?
The $64 million question! It doesn’t have *enough*, yet. The initial tension of Neal wanting to get out of his hopeless lifestyle, but not knowing how, should be enough to start sympathy for him. Seeing how Sandy was affected by the losses of his relative and of his friend should be enough for readers to understand his desire to help Neal. After that, I need to have enough difficulties for both characters for readers to feel their time with the story is well spent.

10. What are those sources of tension?
So far, I have:
  • Neal gets out of the gang but knows they’ll kill him if they can;
  • Sandy appears to Neal to have offered to help only to ease his guilt over losing loved ones, and Sandy risks making Neal feel marginalized again, just like his cousin felt before she died;
  • Neal agrees to do rehab, then decides he can’t hack it and splits, then realizes he has to do it no matter how hard it is;
  • an under-educated Latino teenager from society’s lowest class tries to fit in with upper-class, white over-achievers;
  • Sandy’s ideas of how far personal responsibility should go are challenged;
and I think Sandy’s part in the story needs more tension.

In the current draft, Sandy believes Neal has a lot of potential and helps him realize some of it. In the process they become good friends. That means Sandy’s afraid to let him do his own thing because Neal’s life hasn’t settled down and Sandy might lose him too if he doesn’t keep a close eye on him. Neal starts to resent Sandy for trying to control him.

That’s fine, but as it stands, that’s not enough to sustain reader interest. Those themes have to play out against compelling action.

Currently, I have six months where the band tours and Neal remains in the house. The most compelling thing that happens to him is that his ex-gang rakes the mansion with automatic rifle fire. He starts drum lessons too, which is important for down the road, but that’s not going to keep anybody on the edge of a seat. This is the most serious problem so far, and now I’ve got a “tension” headache ;)

Next time, I discuss the issue of story perspective.

Monday, January 24, 2011

shout out

Hi Stephanie!   It's great to have you along.  You bring my total followers to an even dozen - how exciting!  =) I'm going to have another post in my series on Kernen's book later today or tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

“Building Better Plots” by Robert Kernen - Part 1

Because plotting is the thing I’m having trouble with, I’m going to take my time with this book. I’m going to do the exercises and think about things when the author suggests I pause to do so. You guys get to watch my progress. I’m not the only one with plot issues, so come along. And hey, if anybody gets a plot idea they think may fit in my story, do share. I’m not shy about thanking people where it counts ;)

These are the exercise questions from chapter one.

1. Does my concept create obstacles that effectively challenge the characters? 
     Well, yeah.

2. If so, which specific elements will be the source of that challenge?
     Class conflict—lower vs. upper, minimal education vs. higher education; racial conflicts.

3. Does my concept provide a strong backdrop for exploring the strengths, limitations, and psychology of my characters?
    I believe so.

4. What specific elements does the plot have that provide vivid comparisons and contrasts that will delineate my character in intriguing ways?
     A low-class, minimally educated young Latino man (Neal) befriends a white, upper-class musician (Sandy) and becomes part of his society. They both learn things about certain segments of society that challenge their preconceived ideas about themselves and others. Neal faces the fact that his biological father is the sort of man he hates. Being caught in the L.A. class/race riots of 1992 force him to realize what’s really important to him. Sandy lost a relative to alcohol and a good friend to drugs, and he now sees a chance for redemption in saving Neal.

5. Does my concept provide a strong environment for the messages and themes I want to explore?
     Neal directly confronts personal demons as he tries to fit into a society he previously saw as ignorant and even abusive. These confrontations allow him to learn to trust others, and to find his own strengths. Sandy deals with similar demons from a different angle.

6. What metaphors and motifs grown naturally out of that environment will illuminate those themes and messages?
     Uh, in English please? I show how different elements of American society, as personified by Neal and Sandy, can work together for the betterment of all sides. As Neal lets go of his prejudices and fears, he grows into a self-confident mover and shaker, bridging the gaps of class and race. Sandy discovers that preparing the soil and planting seeds is sometimes as far as one should go; taking charge sometimes means letting go.

Here I’ll stop to let you guys consider how these questions can help in your own work. Next post will finish the questions and spend a few minutes on the issue of tension. I’ve discovered a new meaning for “tension headache”!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Echo Park by Michael Connelly (2006)

An inauspicious opening sentence from a “New York Times bestselling author”:

“It was the car they had been looking for.”

For me, that one falls flat. It’s from the prologue. By chapter four, I decided that Connelly’s standards slipped while writing this one, his editor’s standards slipped, or conventions have changed since this book was published in 2006. He uses the “was -ing” construction too often for my taste, in places where I feel it weakens the impact of the sentences. He describes how the protagonist, Harry Bosch, is obsessed with a murder he couldn’t solve for thirteen years, painting a picture of why and how the obsession continues. Then he drops, “He would not give up.”

Really? You didn’t make that clear enough after saying that Bosch kept requesting the murder file, and re-interviewing persons of interest several times?

Now here’s one I like. Bosch has just called his old partner and indicated that the two of them may have missed a clue years ago that might have not only caught a woman’s murderer, but if he’d been caught, other women might not have been killed. How does Bosch’s partner respond?

“The background sound of television went quiet and he then spoke in the weak voice of a child asking what his punishment will be.”

In context, it has a good impact. Connelly seems to have an inconsistent ability to be compelling.

Having finished the book now, I have to say the author’s word choices don’t strike me as unique or gripping. Yes, *telling* can have a place, and sometimes a writer may actually want a passive phrase. But for most of the book?

On the positive side, he establishes a solid foundation for conflict between the cop Bosch and the criminal Waits. Early on, I assumed Waits was in fact the murderer Bosch has been looking for over thirteen years, but finding if that’s true isn’t the whole issue. It’s *how* we find out. Waits is described as a real loony, somebody who chops up at least some of his victims. Bosch is shown to be pretty practical, and loyal to his badge. Interaction between the two must have some psychological adventure aspect. By the end, Bosch is shown to have at least one major character flaw, which helps make him realistic.

And there are plot twists I didn’t see coming, which fit with groundwork laid previously. Connelly’s plotting is fine, it’s his wordsmithing I’m not fond of. Still, I’d like to read one or two more recent novels of his and see what’s changed, if anything.

First I’m going to tackle “Building Better Plots” by Robert Kernen, which I started several months ago. He’s got exercises in each chapter that look like they might help my plot dam—or damn plot ;)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Writer's Mind: Crafting Fiction by Richard Cohen (1995)

Cohen’s edited, taught, and evaluated written works (and written novels himself) long enough to have clear suggestions for the best ways to go from nebulous plot possibility to finished, polished manuscript. You have to like somebody who says that writing is a matter of the spirit.

One of the reasons I like this book is because Cohen comes up with a sample story idea and shares its progression with readers. He ponders various directions the story or the characters might take at various points. This gives readers a real-world example of how to put his writing suggestions to use.

He says early in the book he wanted to write a book with more technical knowledge than typical writing manuals “to nurture the serious inner development of writers”. He doesn’t rely on rigid formulas to explain how writing “should” be done. He includes practical exercises that make you think and help you write. Toward the end of the book, he does seem to throw a wet blanket on dreams of big-time publishing success, but he also keeps encouraging us to reach for it.

I don’t know about you, but for me, without something to reach for, I can be at loose ends. It makes sense for anybody who wants to get published to stay realistic. I can honestly say that I don’t dream of making a bigger splash than, say, Ms. Rowling. I’d rather have quality admirers of my writing than quantity.

Cohen covers a lot of ground, from why we write to suggestions for getting the best writing out of each of us every day to what it’s like when you finally do get published. For me, who’s decided I need specific help with my WIP, there’s still a lot to learn. I feel encouraged to keep trying, which is perhaps the first step in writing anything.

He does caution that the best ideas may in fact take years to simmer in your muse’s Magickal Crockpot (I added the crockpot reference). Sheesh, I’ve already had the basic idea for over 20 years. I got *serious* about the story only in 2009, so it might take years more?

Even though we’ve all heard this before, it bears repeating: while waiting for that Big Idea, write other things. It keeps your muse fresh and in practice, it helps develop good writing habits that will help when The Idea finally arrives, and you’ll feel like you’re still accomplishing something, because you are. It’s true that you get better at it the more you do it.  Some of us at Critique Circle have decided to create a shared world where we'll write our own stories, using agreed-upon foundations such as politics, religion, magic, and the use (or misuse) of those things.  This gives me a chance to resurrect an idea I've had for a fantasy tale.  Worldbuilding is an involved process that keeps my muse busy, and lets the Crockpot of Neal's story cook as long as it needs to.

Cohen includes lists of books that he feels are great examples of the issues he talks about in each chapter. I’m not totally convinced that books published in the early 1900s are invaluable for somebody who wants to publish in 2011, but at the very least, I’m sure those books offer a starting place.

I did laugh, briefly, at one suggestion. One of the last exercises is to found a literary magazine. Oh yeah, right, me, founding something. A literary magazine! I have no connections, no inkling how founding anything is done. And yet, if we all just gave up without even trying, wouldn’t the world be a very poor place?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Shout out

Hi, Liz.  Sweet of you to come by.  I popped into your blog at Novel Moments, and I get the feeling you're really excited about your Work in Progress.  Awesome!  It's good to have company on this twisted road known as writing.