Friday, July 29, 2011

Come bloom with us

Okay, I admit it: I live in Buffalo, New York. Yeah, okay, it gets cold here sometimes (but we hit 95 degrees F last week). Yeah, the local economy has been depressed since well before the recent national financial woes. But you know what we do have, that other people wish they had? Garden Walk Buffalo.

The 17th annual walk is this weekend. It's not the only garden walk in our town, but it's the largest and best attended. According to this article in The Buffalo News, people not just from coast to coast are saying the garden walk is fabulous, people come here from other countries to see our gardens. The part I love best, maybe, is that organizers in Cleveland were so impressed that they modeled their own garden walk after ours.

Ha! Take that, Clevelanders.

Seriously, the event is something that people have begun to plan their vacations around. Many of the gardens are in historic neighborhoods with beautiful old homes, but many are also part of smaller properties. The vast majority of participants do not use professional landscaping services. All that blooming beauty comes about because the homeowners love to garden.

That, friends, is more than 350 gardeners who invite literally thousands of people to view their handiwork. Some folks offer cold drinks to the walkers (for a small fee). Check out the official Garden Walk website.

Hey, next year, swing by yourself! I guarantee you, you haven't seen anything quite like it. "Screamin' color" is an apt description. If you wear a CC t-shirt, wave at anybody who looks owly, and maybe I'll wave back :)

Friday, July 22, 2011

What's this post about?

I’m halfway along my month-long course through WriterU on Yahoo! groups. The course is called “Laws of Motion: Plotting the Compelling Story” and the instructor is Laura Baker.

Maybe I really am a character in somebody else’s story. If stories are about characters going through struggles and learning something, I sure am struggling, so the learning part must be around the corner!

I’m having trouble with describing Neal’s basic nature, and with pinning down what my story is about (and what it’s *really* about, Laura makes a distinction).

One of the reasons it’s hard is that I’m not sure what aspects of someone’s personality make up their basic nature. To me, at this point in my WIP’s development, at the start of it all Neal *wants* a better life but feels helpless to go after it. He says it’s because life conspires to keep him in the barrio, but secretly he’s afraid that he’s really just a gangbanger at heart, nothing more.

I could say that my story is about discovering that while none of us is perfect, we all deserve a life worth living. Or, as Neal puts it, “Live like you mean it.” Or maybe the story’s about:
  • The way we grew up doesn’t have to pigeonhole us for our entire lives (or, as Lola puts it, “You are more than where you came from”)
  • Finding inner strength when we think we’re least able to find it.
  • The blooms of friendship and love make their thorns worthwhile.
See, most stories are “about” more than one thing. That’s why reading is so wonderful. I think my story Street Glass is about certain things, but readers may think it’s about other things – and they’d be right. Good stories are about lots of things, minor and major.

Laura says that your story is about what your main characters has to *do*, his struggle. What it’s *really* about is the personal discovery that character makes because of the struggle. I think I’ve got that right.

So, my WIP could be about a young man (if you hear a sound at this point, it’s Neal. He always laughs when I refer to him as a “young man”) struggling with wanting a better life but feeling that fate has decreed he can never be anything but a street thug.

And the story could *really* be about any of those things listed above.

This is why some people pay fat bucks for an editor: personalized attention, narrow focus on *your* story. *sigh* I miss the days when somebody in the biz would spot potential in a writer and help them develop that into a successful first novel. It just figures that that blew over before I got serious about being published.

Am I gonna give up? No. Why not? Because Neal has important things to say, and I’m the only one who can help him with that. I’m glad he picked me J

Sunday, July 17, 2011


A big welcome to Sunburstcp! I'm so glad you joined our little group, and hope to see a comment or two from ya.

I have the feeling I've forgotten to say Hi to somebody else, so if that's you, please know I didn't mean to overlook you. As the Rolling Stones so aptly put it, "What a drag it is getting old!"

Friday, July 15, 2011

Bob Kernen's "Building Better Plots", part 22

In discussing how to construct an effective climax in chapter 5, Kernen says that when many authors reach that point in their stories, they’re tempted to throw in every additional problem they’ve thought of (and maybe couldn’t work in earlier).  They think that tossing in new stuff heightens the drama.  All that manages to happen is that the moment they’ve spent 75% of the novel building up to becomes muddy with so much happening, and readers trying to figure out where all this new stuff came from.

Sometimes writers will find new connections to earlier plot points when they’re working through the climax. Then, they put things in because it seems to add dimension to the climax. Usually that just results in the same confusion.

I need to sit with my outline and pinpoint the climax, because right now it could be either of these moments:

  • Neal and his mother have a conversation about their lives
  • Sandy and friends break Neal out of the place he’s locked up in and Neal tries to kill his father

Either could have enough emotional drama to be the climax.  I’m tending toward the second scene, however. But again, more stuff happens after that, and it’s absolutely critical to Neal’s character development. I am waffling over whether or not to include the scene where Neal confronts the mayor and shames him into agreeing to tour some of the barrios still scarred from  rioting. If I show some of the actual touring, that will illuminate the social theme of the novel as well as show the kind of man Neal’s grown into.

Decisions, decisions. What is the point of highest emotion? Where do the threads come together? I have to laugh. Kernen says that “not every idea, not even every good one, has a place in a given story”. Do I have to throw out some of my plot? I’m between a rock and a particularly hard place here, because this is my first effort at publication. If I had at least one successful thing out there, I would have a bit more leeway with how long the novel is. I could work on getting something else published first, but that would take additional months (if not years). The longer the themes in “Street Glass” go without light shed on them, the less interested people may be. 

Mainly though, I’ve spent the past two years on this project, and while I don’t feel that would become wasted time if I moved to something else, I have the momentum to keep going.

In order to sort this out, I’ve written a summary of the scene involving Neal and his parents, starting when Neal’s swept up in the L.A. rioting and ending at LaGuardia airport in New York City . In that short summary, I can easily sense rising tension, a climax, then a wrap-up. That’s disappointing, because so much could happen after that! Well, how necessary is that stuff?

I’ll adjourn here to hash this out on my own time. I *will* resolve the issue before the next post in this series. J

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Building Better Plots" by Robert Kernen, pt 21

Kernen compares writing to music, which really resonates with me. I’ve realized that point before. Each has its own sort of rhythm and guidelines; each requires its artists to tune in to their own creative process. Just as some musical effects are meant to be felt rather than heard, some writing effects are meant to impact readers subconsciously.

There’s “sledgehammer” writing and there’s metal music. There are stories you could describe as love songs, and there are ballads in music. Lots of similarities. As I’ve paid close attention to some songs with lyrics I particularly admire, I’ve come to realize how hard it must be to write a few lines that can only fill a 2 to 4 minute slot, leave room for music, yet impact listeners deeply. (Okay party songs are probably easier as far as lyrics, but then you’ve got to come up with punchy, edgy, or danceable music.) You think writing 70,000 coherent and striking words, put together in a unique way, is tough? Try to create a tiny story using form guidelines that fits into a 2 to 4 minute timeframe, has music with a strong hook, and present that in a unique way. And rhyme it, too! I’ve written things I think of as lyrics, though I’ve never written music, and I can tell you—sometimes (like fiction writing) it flows out of you already put together, other times you have to rehash and put everything back in the blender. Fiction writers haven’t cornered the market on doing something difficult with words.

I just needed to say that. It helps me feel connected to writers of various kinds. A lot of people have published books, some that might have benefited from further editing that became big sellers anyway, and a lot of people have written songs that don’t especially move me but get bunches of people up and dancing. If they can succeed, I can too. I’m putting effort into succeeding.

Anyway. Kernen says that just as musicians learn the time signature of a piece of music, writers can learn to “hear” the rhythm of their own stories. Finding that rhythm helps you to keep things moving forward and does help you find the best places to put plot points. I worried about having Neal at home for six months without the band, because I was afraid I didn’t have compelling enough plot points to carry that much time. I was afraid of breaking the rhythm by not having him continue to interact with the other major characters.

Then I realized that he doesn’t just sit there thinking the whole time, he interacts with other people. Plus, the band sort of shows up for radio interviews, then physically shows up when they decide to move to another house. Each appearance is brief but reminds readers what those characters are like.

Kernen suggests some exercises for finding fiction rhythm. Take several short stories, and write down each major plot point and when it occurs. Notice how much distance is between them, and the intensity of the points.

Move on to plays or novels. Make note of each major point, but before you reach the climax, try to predict when it’ll happen.

Take the same novel or play and try to tune in to its rhythm. See if you can figure out how the author controls the rhythm to keep readers on their toes and on the edge of their seats.

I recommend doing that. Having said that, I’m not going to do it right now, because I feel it would throw me off the rhythm of working on my plot. I’m in a groove now and I can sense that too long an interruption will spoil it. But it’s helpful to study successful works. Published authors continue to read, partly for that reason. They know they can always improve.

The rhythm of this blog series continues next time with thoughts on endings—when to apply the brakes to a runaway muse train.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

pt 20 of Robert Kernen's "Building Better Plots"

Who’s seen the Bela Lugosi version of the movie Dracula? I absolutely love it. I’ve seen it a couple dozen times. Even though I know exactly what’s going to happen, I watch anyway, because of the way suspense is handled. Since it’s a visual medium, I feel the creepiness even when none of the characters talk. The physical set, gestures and expressions are exquisite. Lugosi’s “I never drink . . . wine” is in my top 3 list of favorite movie lines.

Way harder to do in a written medium. If we wanted to do something easy, we’d take up flower arranging. Kernen reminds us that suspense is necessary to a great dramatic story, but we have to be very careful with it. Too much suspense and readers feel continually on edge. Too little of course doesn’t work either. If you increase suspense at the wrong time, the natural flow of the story is interrupted and readers may be tossed out of the story. Back to juggling on that tightrope again.

Kernen says a couple very important things about suspense. “Creating suspense is all about revealing part of the picture . . . Knowing a little bit about a situation, an audience will almost always desire to know more . . .”

And: “Suspense is also the clever balance of timing. It is giving the audience a piece of information and then knowing just how long you can keep them waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Ways of doing this are the “time bomb”; the “puzzle”; and “truncating”, where you start a scene after some major event has happened or end the scene before that event occurs. An example of “truncating” is showing a couple in a heated argument and one pulls a gun. Then you cut to another scene where the character who was threatened is noticeably missing. Did the person get killed or not? Imagine the suspense if said character is your MC.

This is something I’ll have to work on a little at a time. I have some plot points that lend themselves to building suspense, but doing so I think isn’t something I can describe beforehand. It’s a very fine line. Some readers will “get it”, some will probably wish I’d hurry up, and some may think I’m going too fast. I won’t have specific examples for using suspense until I get to chapters where it’s relevant.

Kernen does recommend planting the seed of suspense that will carry readers to the climax early, even before the inciting incident. I can do that with Neal thinking about life with Trist outside of the gang, then dismissing the thought because he’ll never be free of the gang. Readers will remember that when Sandy offers to help Neal.

Also, the way I set up Neal’s eventual decision to leave the gang, I include a mention that the gang *will* try to kill him once they realize he’s left, so that bit of suspense always hangs over the characters and the readers.

That’s just one thread of tension. I’ll need to bring others out to keep readers immersed.

Ah, I thought of another example, using the “truncating” technique. I’ve discovered that Neal breaks out of rehab with his friend but then rethinks the move. I plan to drop the scene at that point, then switch to Sandy’s POV where he hears that Neal has returned to rehab.

Awesome. The more I read in Kernen’s book, the stronger my feeling gets that I’m solidly on the right track. But the devil is in the details, so I don’t expect everything to come easy from now on.

Next post, swinging to the rhythm.