Thursday, February 24, 2011

shout out

A great big "hi" to Carol.  Didn't want you to think I forgot about you.  I'm tickled that you're following my bumpy but never dull writing journey. =)

“Building Better Plots”, part 6

Chapter 2 of Robert Kernen’s book opens with a discussion of the story arc. What’s the main story arc for my WIP? Questions to help me find out:

What is your protagonist’s goal?

This is the central question and deserves the most time. I’ll focus on Neal. His goal is to get out of the gang, stay alive, and make a life for himself.

That question Art Edwards put to me comes back, cattle-prodding me: What does your character want? I realize now it’s not enough to say that Neal wants out of the gang and to live his own life. Doing what? If he’s thought about getting out, he must have thought about what to do with himself.

He knows he doesn’t have much schooling. Even friends who completed school don’t have especially good jobs, and they still live in the barrio. His friend Chuy got out of another gang and runs a grocery store with his brothers. It won’t make any of them rich, but it’s steady work. Would Neal settle for that? I figure he must have made some halfway realistic plans to support himself in case he ever did get out.

Then, when Neal finds himself in totally different circumstances than he ever expected, it’s understandable when people ask him “What do you want to do for a living?” and he says he doesn’t know.

If he slips out of rehab with his old pal Dario, maybe there’s another grocery store near Dario’s place. Neal might be reminded of his earlier plan to work with Chuy, and maybe now he plans to get a job at the new store. Maybe, though, it’s an Anglo supermarket, not a small Latino place, and they aren’t interested in hiring him. Stuck without a backup plan, he has to reconsider rehab.

That might work. He finishes rehab and then Sandy suggests that he learn to roadie, which is a skill he could use with any band. That gives Neal something to look forward to.

In my next post, I’ll wrestle with the remaining four questions.

P.S.: My crit buddy on Critique Circle gave me a better idea for what job Neal might hope for if he gets out of the gang. Never underestimate the value of a crit buddy!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

CSI:NY rant

To the writers and producers of CSI:NY - Do I look stupid to you?  When the original CSI series started, it was pretty cool.  A look into how crime scene investigators work!  (Well, sort of, anyway.  I know you fudge some stuff and make up other stuff because the shows are fiction, and it's TV rather than a novel.)  I liked how you explained some of the science.  Scenes showing various ways the "perp" may have committed the murder were kinda neat.

On yesterday's episode, "Got Justice", the serial rapist's van was found, and the cops commented that he must have raped his victims there.  You had to show a visual overlay of the attacker on top of a woman inside the van?  What, viewers can't imagine that for themselves?  Trust me, any woman can imagine that, and a lot of guys as well.  Sure, both characters were clothed, but the intent was to depict a rape.  Utterly unnecessary and extremely upsetting to some viewers.

I finally ditched CSI: Miami because I absolutely couldn't stand the way things -- parts of the set, background characters -- continually drift in between the camera and the actors.  Now you're doing it in New York.

I've been uncomfortable with some of the unnecessary depictions of crimes before, but this one combined with the obnoxious "set drift" have turned me off.  I've seen my last episode of any CSI.  Too bad, because as entertainment, all the CSI shows had their good moments.  (But I'm sure a lot of viewers realize that cops in real life don't chase armed (or possibly armed) people without any backup, though your shows are not the only ones to do that.)

I'm pretty annoyed that "Southland" moved to cable.  Ah, well.  The universe must be telling me to get a move on with the two writing projects I'm involved with.  I didn't talk about the second one, did I?  Maybe next time.  I hear characters calling me.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Building Better Plots", by Robert Kernen, part 5

Exercise at the end of chapter one: “Write your story idea on a single 3 x 5 card, paring it down to its most basic elements. Write only the words or phrases that are absolutely critical to your story.”

Okay: Underprivileged Latino teenager leaves street gang and befriends white, over-privileged musicians.

Stripping the story down like this is supposed to help me find the fundamental bits, as well as make it easier to know what to tell, what to skip, and how to tell the story. It does make me focus on the underlying principle. That sentence my story is reduced to is the original, basic idea. Suppose somebody living in the streets--with all that implies--met somebody who’d never broken the law, who felt living a good life wasn’t all that hard but it sure was rewarding?

Actually, previous times when I have been less stuck, I’ve gone back to my original inspiration of “Baba O’Riley” by The Who. Those first lines gripped my muse a mighty long time ago, and it’s still strong. If I may quote without fear of copyright police knocking on my door:

“Out here in the fields / I fight for my meals / I get my back into my living”

There’s my gangbanger, no additional explanation needed.

“I don’t need to fight / To prove I’m right / I don’t need to be forgiven”

There’s the voice in the ivory tower, showing off what a good life he’s led. (Cool bits of lyric writing, I might add.) Everything else took off from there. What would happen if these two met? Not just met, lived in the same house? From there, I realized that the issues those characters deal with are real-life ones. I could shed some light on those issues by giving them faces.

I see Kerner’s point here. I may print out that sentence I came up in response to his exercise question, along with those few lyrics, and keep them on my laptop, affectionately known as Lance. Ooo! Lance has pre-loaded sticky notes! (Post-It used to have a free version of their downloadable sticky note program, but I don’t know if they still do.)

There. Now I have a purple sticky with my one-sentence basic plot, and the lyrics in two different fonts to simulate character voices. I think that’ll help.

Chapter two of Kerner’s book gets into plot structure, so I won’t tack comments about those sorts of details onto a post about generalities. I’ll ask readers to try to boil down your current WIP into one or two sentences. What is your story idea, in its most simple form?

If you’re having any plot issues, I think the exercise will help focus you. If you’re not having trouble, try it anyway. It’s good practice for learning how to say important things in as few words as possible, which is more or less how you should be writing your novel. Less experienced writers (and that includes me) always think that whenever we’re talking about our WIPs, we have to mention this, this, this, and that, because it’s all important. I still think there are important elements of my story that the single sentence doesn’t cover, but I’m comfortable with what it does say.

If you guys want to leave your reduced plot ideas as comments here, I’d love to see what you come up with. You can keep it to yourself, of course. How easy or hard was it? Maybe take some published stories, and try it with them. Happy trimming!

Next time, approaching the story arc.

Friday, February 11, 2011

shout out x 3!

Big "hiyas" to Summer, Stephanie, and Carol.  It's so nice to have you ladies along.  I've embarked on a twisting - and maybe twisted! - road here, and it feels good to know I've got some company!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Building Better Plots", part 4

Under “what to leave out or withhold” in chapter one, Robert Kernan says: “…the simple act of including something in your plot you are saying to your readers that this is an important piece of information that is worthy of their time and consideration. While the occasional red herring…can be a useful device, if you cry wolf too often, your audience will quickly lose faith in your perspective.” [my emphasis]

Especially for new writers (but for all of us), I think that issue can’t be overstated. When you offer a written work up to the public, you’re promising to give readers something valuable in return for their time and attention. The sad fact is, readers are not going to be as enamored of our plots and our characters as we, the writers, are. We have a much more intimate connection with our creations than our readers ever will. We have to work at presenting our novels in ways that not just promise an exciting ride, but deliver one.

With my own novel, I want readers to come away with a sense of having peeked into parts of society they wouldn’t otherwise see. I want them to learn some things, but I don’t necessarily want them to realize that, at least not right away. I’d rather the learning happen just below the surface.

Deciding what information not to include is tricky. I plan on sometimes using Neal’s point of view, sometimes Sandy’s. Each character may know or learn things that maybe should be kept from the other character; is it still okay for readers to know? Of course I won’t know the answer until I get to those details, but it’s an important question to keep in mind.

One specific issue that comes to mind is that of Neal’s biological father. Neal has known for years that somebody besides his mother’s husband is his real father, but doesn’t know anything else about the guy. Currently, in an early chapter, his mother tries to visit him while he’s in rehab but he’s not allowed visitors, so she leaves him a short note and his birth certificate. Since he hasn’t seen or heard from his mother in years, he wonders if the visitor was in fact her. Seeing that the birth certificate names another man as his father convinces Neal that the paper is genuine and his visitor must have been his mother.

But that isn’t something he shares with Sandy. I planted it there, so readers would feel suspense when his father finally shows up. I also hoped that by letting readers know right away that Neal is illegitimate I would avoid having it look like a tired cliché when other characters find out. That may not be the most effective way to reveal the information, though. Taking Kernen’s example of Star Wars, the fact that Darth Vader is Luke’s real father was revealed at a moment that was already highly charged, ramping it up even more.

Maybe what I’ll do is make a list of things that are sensitive and dramatic, so I can keep in mind the right time to reveal them as I work on plotting. There shouldn’t be many. I think a great plot needs a few big surprises, but too many weakens all of them.

I’ll close with Kernen’s description of what a plot is: “A plot isn’t merely a string of occurrences; it is a carefully orchestrated telling of events that might include breaking up their temporal order, taking out certain pieces or emphasizing other pieces. It is in that manipulation that a simple story becomes a plot.”

That makes so much sense, doesn’t it? Newspapers are for flatly told tales. I remember the time when, reading one of Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni stories, one of the main characters got seriously injured. Because I was so invested in that character, and what might happen to the others if this guy died, I dropped the book in shock. That’s the kind of emotion I’m after.

Next time, back to basics.