Saturday, August 27, 2011

Some help from "The Farmer's Daughter"

Hot damn. I downloaded Fleetwood Mac’s 1980 “Live” album; I bought the LP when it first came out so I knew what it's like. But I haven’t heard any of the tracks in several years and I’d forgotten what a tight, top-notch, truly professional band those guys were. Because this is my blog, I’m going to rave about it. --A little, and then I’ll connect it to writing. Really!

You’d think a live “Rhiannon” when Stevie Nicks’ vocal prowess was at its peak would be the point at which I lost awareness of the room and whatever I was doing. No, it was the two-and-a-half-minute rendition of “The Farmer’s Daughter”. It’s a simple, rhythm-laden version with vocal harmonies so flawless and sweet that I’m quite sure my eyes glazed over. I’ve always thought that song was something special, but since delving much more deeply into music when I got serious about writing my novel, I’ve become more acoustically sensitive, or something. I hear instruments I never knew were there, I feel things in songs that my ears don’t pick up (which I understand is what a lot of music producers intended), and generally enjoy what I listen to a whole lot more.

(And I know that plenty of people already appreciate music this way. I don’t mean to imply that I’ve acquired some special power, here.)

Find that song online, put on a kick-ass headset, and just listen. Guitar and bass whup up and down like rubber bands the size of the Earth. There’s a shaker hissing in there and Mick manages to thump the drums gently. I think it’s Lindsey, Stevie, and Christine singing. No one voice stands out. They blend so very perfectly it sounds like totally different people (at least to me). I put this on repeat and trance out. The overall tone is soft and breezy with a bit of wickedness from the rhythm section. It beats in my ears and my gut like my own heart.

Now, this sort of examination helps in my WIP, because I’m writing about musicians. There are times when the storytelling segues into “music telling”. I’d love to have readers click a button in the e-reader version of my book and hear the music as they read about it, but that probably ain’t gonna happen. Therefore, I have to write as clearly as I can especially about those parts so readers can hear something in their heads.

You can benefit from that sort of observing. Pay attention to how different people speak; you’ll hear different accents and cadences. This is endlessly helpful for tips on how to make your characters sound different from each other. Think about how you’d write out slangy speech, for example, and how much or little to change it so readers consider it unique but not annoying. Think about tone and timbre of voice.

An easier one is to study how people dress. Practice describing them. What is it about one person that draws your eye but not somebody else? Does one person seem to stand taller, move more confidently, project an air of meaning business? How detailed can you get describing that person? How much can you then cut out but still get across a basic of sense of the person?

Sharpen your ability to see unexpected connections between things. Study everything, no matter how small. The process as I describe it does rely on eyesight, but I am confident that sight-impaired people are just as capable of “looking at” things in unique ways. As a writer, you have a superpower—a potent imagination that can turn you into a fly on any wall.

I’ve never been backstage at a rock show. I’ve done some research, but it’s not easy for me to find out the sort of details that would make it sound like I hang around backstage all the time. So, I have to work harder. As I do research reading, I picture things in as much detail as I can. I grab everything I read and drop it into my muse’s Magickal Crockpot. It simmers together continuously underneath my conscious mind. When I sit down to write, stuff pops out of that Crockpot.

Music has a way of freeing our emotions and our minds. The next time you find you’re really stuck on a scene or on characterization, get out your i-pod or other portable music, queue up your favorites, and go people-watch. Become a sponge. Be alert to the interesting, the thought-provoking, the different, the beautiful. Feel impressions sink down into you. Eat, nap, repeat. You’ll know when your cauldron of impressions has a batch of “alphabet soup” ready to go!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What! I have to meet your eyes when I crit your piece?

I joined a local writers’ group! A physical, face-to-face group, not another online one. I plan to stay active on Critique Circle, because I get some good feedback and I enjoy that particular online community. But let me say a few words about the value of live interaction.

Those of you born into the electronic age, for whom social networks have become the main way of keeping in touch, allow me to say that you’re missing out. When all you have is text, you don’t get facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. It’s the reason that some innocent posts are misinterpreted and start a flame war. When you have to look somebody in the eyes and say what you think of their writing—that very personal part of themselves—it’s different than hiding behind your laptop.

No more grimacing and eye rolling but then saying, “I loved your piece”. Of course not everybody is going to be totally honest in this context, but then humans are like that. I just think the interaction encourages a sense of togetherness and empathy that you don’t feel when texting and posting.

This local group meets in a coffee house. The ambiance, for me, is similar to that of an old, beautiful library. We sit around a real wooden table with our favorite drinks, maybe a snack, and dig into some writing. We’re surrounded by beautiful wall art, classy light fixtures, windows looking out at a busy intersection. Last time, we critted a short poem, and some members said they thought the single punctuation—a period at the end of the last line—should be deleted, and others said they thought it could stay but commas could be added elsewhere. Someone said that the lone period seemed to enhance the poem’s feeling of alone-ness. We looked to the author for clarification, and he shrugged and said “It’s just a period.”

How cool is it that one period can cause so many different opinions? Writing is so wonderful because the same thing can have as many meanings as there are readers. Sculpture, music, painting, and other forms are the same way. Art truly lifts us above the mundane.

I’m not sure that interaction would’ve happened the same way online. Face-to-face, you get lightning conversation. When everybody is respectful, you see a lot of light bulbs go off, one after the other and sometimes all at once. Trust me, it’s faster than texting.

I kind of laugh at myself, because in general, I don’t prefer groups. I’m waaay more confident when I don’t have to meet somebody’s eyes. But here, among people who share my most basic urge, I’m settling in faster than I would in other places.

Anybody who hasn’t tried being in a writers’ group, do a Google search and see if you can’t find one. You may decide it’s not for you after you go to some meetings. That’s fine. There is, of course, no set-in-stone way to get crits and improve your writing. This is, however, a time-honored way to bounce your ideas off people who share your love of words.

Keep your Facebook account, keep posting in your online crit group, but find some room in your life for live action. The nitty-gritty part of writing does happen alone; even if you do it in a crowded room, you’re the only one in your own head with your characters. I feel I write best when totally alone. Finding what doesn’t work often requires other eyes and that’s where crit groups are invaluable. I love seeing that spark of “I really get what you’re saying!” there on somebody’s face.

I do have one caveat for my comment on art and the mundane. The crazy conglomeration of life-size canoes in front of a local art museum just makes me scratch my head. Oh, and the weird yellow-orange thing that looks for all the world like a giant cheese curl? I much prefer the statue of David.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Building Better Plots" by Robert Kernen, part 24

Still grappling with the issue of those two world tours Neal comes along for, and how they should be represented in my manuscript. I’ve been stuck on the questions “What happens to the main characters during those tours? How can events during the tours advance the plot?” Maybe I’ve been stuck inside that “what happens?” box.

In chapter 7 Kernen says that “creating good plots is distilling a character’s life down to just the good stuff.” Recently, I’ve begun thinking that maybe it’s really not so important to show the details of those tours; maybe what I really need to show are the results, the impact on Neal’s character. Maybe some entries from his journal can be blended with interpersonal scenes that could happen anywhere in the world. That would allow me to focus on what happens between characters without having to fret over what goes on behind the scenes on tours.

“…Pull the noteworthy events together to become the major plot points of the story.” Ha! Really? But that’s sort of what I started out doing: only writing pivotal scenes involving the same set of characters. I didn’t think at all about how to bridge the scenes to make a coherent story.

I have a feeling Kernen is not telling me it’s okay to string together (mostly related) scenes and call it a novel. Darn.

Narrowing the scope of a story is one way to distill events. In my case, I’ve finally decided where the story should end, so where should it begin? I don’t think readers will be able to appreciate Neal’s changes unless they see what his life was like before he met Sandy. That’s not a failing on the readers’ part, it’s simple logic. So I can give a definite start point and end point now — yay!

I’m very interested in Kernen’s example of the movie Two for the Road. He says it’s about the disintegrating marriage of a couple, as shown through the prism of their yearly trip to the south of France. Viewers get to watch the couple without the distractions of friends or family, and they get to see how the couple changes over the course of the annual trip.

That’s a brilliant idea, if you want the focus of the story to be on the couple. I’m pretty much focusing on a couple too. Therefore, I should be able to show that while keeping other parts of their lives in the background. Theoretically, anyway!

I’m still needled by the idea that all of Neal’s experiences once he leaves the gang contribute to his development, and therefore need to be shown. But another little voice whispers that I should remember Kernen’s statement that not every idea, not even every good one, needs to be included. I need to keep the spotlight on what’s *important*.

Geez, this is slow. It’s late June and I’m not done with my plot. Well-crafted stories don’t write themselves! A look at any first draft will confirm that.

Next time — write yourself a beanstalk!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

pt 23 of "Building Better Plots", by Robert Kernen

At the end of Part 22, I said I’d be back with a clearer idea of where to end the story and what to include in what I will call the first book. I’m going to write it with enough stuff hinted at for the future that a second book will be possible.

Ending Book One is a matter of acceptance. My gut is telling me where the climax is. Trying to turn another scene into the climax will only mess things up for the reader. I still have to decide what to include in the resolution, but that can wait. I can live with that.

On to Part Two of Kernen’s book: Building the Plot. Kernen says that, over time, plot archetypes have developed. That makes sense, since there are character archetypes. I think plot archetypes are related to genre. He says that these archetypes help writers, because:

  • they offer a solid foundation with a “sub-frame” on which to build the story (there are some things the writer won’t have to make up or research exhaustively);
  • writers “can assume a certain body of knowledge on the part of the audience” (they’ve probably read similar stories and will be familiar with certain concepts).
Readers benefit from the patterns also because they can “more easily follow the story and understand the underpinnings of it.”

For the purposes of his book, he uses nine types:

The quest

Kernen offers a list of criteria and examples of stories for each archetype, in addition to an in-depth discussion of each type and why they work so well. I like this approach, but I have a problem with some of the examples he uses. Some authors of “how-to” books for writers stress classic novels as resources, but frankly, I don’t think the classics are that much help. I need to know how to apply these lessons with modern writing conventions. I don’t want to hear, “Your writing would fit right in with Shakespeare’s contemporaries. But we don’t publish that.”

Maybe this is why successful authors are often asked “What do you like to read?” The masses of unpublished writers assume that if they want to write kind of like Stephen King, and King likes another particular writer, that writer must “know how to write.” Maybe that person’s style is a bit more accessible to us than King’s.

I started to worry about seeing so many of these archetypes throughout my own WIP, but Kernen seems to imply that’s a good thing. What a relief.

Next installment talks about keeping a spotlight on without using a wash over the whole stage. Now that’s an appropriate metaphor!