Friday, September 30, 2011

“Building Better Plots”, part 29 by Robert Kernen

In chapter 9, Kernen gets into the nitty gritty of using the 3 x 5 index cards to complete my plot outline. He seems to expect that once I write out all my plot points, major and minor, and include blank cards for spots that I know need tweaking, I’ll be able to see and solve plot problems. He talks about writing the plot as fully as I can in outline format on a bunch of index cards then laying them out to study how the plot threads interact.

Well, okay, but I am not going to be able to fine tune my plot at that stage. I consider the nature of an outline to be an abbreviated form; therefore, I’m not going to see everything that needs tweaking or tossing until I flesh out each scene.

But that doesn’t mean using index cards is nonproductive. I cobbled together an outline on the computer, including spots where I’m unsure how to handle a scene, and adjusted the margins so I could fit individual plot points onto 3 x 5 cards. I haven’t printed them onto the cards yet because as I continue to read the book, I get possible ideas for spots where I’m stuck.

I do think that even without fine tuning my plot in outline form, being able to physically see what I do have all laid out in front of me will be helpful. I’ll get a good sense of how the major points fit together, and where subplots would be effective. I have enough of the plot to know that some areas are still weak.

Kernen suggests something to help in finding hidden connections: once you have the index cards printed out and in the order you think they should go, number them, then shuffle them like a deck of cards. Lay them out one at a time and see if any adjacent cards trigger new themes or make connections clear.

Yeah, I’m gonna pass on that, at least for now. I’ve already moved stuff around to the point of knowing which major points need to stay together and which are subject to being moved again. But I’ll keep the technique in mind in case I get stymied along the way.

In chapter 10, Kernen talks about the movie Rain Man and how the physical road traveled by the brothers is a metaphor for several things, as well as a simple and effective way to physically move the characters. This is encouraging. In my own story, Neal travels roads of various lengths which mirror his personal development. He eventually journeys around the world and always comes home to the same city, but a different neighborhood than where he grew up. Psychologically, he becomes more of a well-rounded person though he still has tendencies that make him wonder how much he’s really changed.

Kernen’s certainly right that having unifying elements throughout a story help give it depth and power. He refers to how James Michener uses places essentially as characters in his novels, and how that enriches the entire tale. Okay, I don’t expect that I’m going to write something that will be compared to Michener, but it’s a good point.

In a more distant way, Los Angeles might be seen as a character in Street Glass, or maybe several characters. Some neighborhoods shape the lives of residents and hold them there, while other areas encourage freedom. Neal’s basic personality was formed in the barrio—once he gets out of that stagnant atmosphere, how much is he able to change himself, and change society?

This is fun! I like thinking about broad themes. It gives me a sense of direction not just for the characters, but the story as a whole.

Next post: breaking down the usual ways to work a plot. Part 30 is the penultimate segment in this series!

Friday, September 23, 2011

“Building Better Plots” by Robert Kernen, part 28

Kernen’s idea for using 3x5 cards to list scenes and plot points seems to be a good idea. Since I’m well along in the plot process though, I’ll have to tweak his method. He says not to worry if you feel that some scenes or plot points need to be connected but you don’t know how yet; just put in one or more blank cards as placeholders.

He has a series of questions to help you decide if something’s missing in your plot. For example, how’s the level of tension; are major plot points spaced properly; and is something needed to keep or perfect the overall story’s pacing.

These and the other questions are not ones I feel capable of answering. If I knew those things, I wouldn’t need help with plotting. But then, I’ve never worked with an editor or agent, so maybe once that happens I’ll gain new skills that will allow me to see those issues myself. I’ll keep my fingers crossed J

As I create more scenes for major plot points, I’ll become aware of the story’s rhythm? Well, Robert, I’m not so sure, because I’ve worked through dozens of complete scenes since beginning this adventure, and I haven’t any idea of how the pacing or the rhythm are. The more I read about “how to write”, the more I feel that some of the things I’m “supposed to” be aware of are things that my subconscious may know, but my conscious brain just doesn’t have the room.

I think I understand what Kernen means by plot points being spaced properly. Major scenes shouldn’t happen too close together or too far apart because that will feel stilted and unnatural.

I guess what I’m having the biggest problem with as I go through this book is that it’s aimed at a huge group of writers (as in, anybody who buys the book). The best thing about having a teacher or editor work with you is that they focus on your story. They give advice for your issues. So, I’m very much looking forward to the new online writing course I’ve started.

I’ve interrupted my process with Kernen’s book because this online course came up. It’s called “Laws of Motion: Plotting the Compelling Story” and it’s through Writer U on Yahoo! groups. The instructor is Laura Baker. So far, I like the course because Laura is forcing the students to focus on what’s really important for our plots. Unpublished and therefore inexperienced writers (like me) have a tendency to think everything should be included in our plots. But like Kernen says, not every idea needs to go in. We need help deciding exactly what it is we’re trying to say, and the best way to say it.

An interesting idea that Baker puts forward is that the main character’s basic nature drives his choice of actions, which drive the plot. She forced me to pin down one protagonist; it was easy enough to say that Neal goes through the biggest changes and causes the most important plot points to happen. What’s harder is identifying his basic nature. Baker suggested that it could be he fears being vulnerable. While that’s true, I do feel that alone doesn’t adequately describe his basic nature. Like people in real life, Neal is complex and he sometimes acts in contradictory ways. But I’m far from done with the course!

In my next post on “Building Better Plots”, James Michener makes an appearance, in a sense!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Robert Kernen’s “Building Better Plots”, part 27

Well, regardless of who’s right about the definition of “interpolation”, Kernen says something pretty helpful about how to solve plot gaps. He says to put plot points on an arc, wherever you think it makes the most sense for each scene to fall. If you have two scenes that you don’t know how to bridge, consider the plot arc they form. What characters are necessary to move the plot to that empty place? You want to raise the tension a little from the previous scene, but not so much that readers are jarred.

If you have a blank space following two scenes, think about those two scenes. Look at the plot arc. What elements do you need to build tension and drama that will reach the next scene? What will raise the tension a bit from the last scene? What subplot needs development?

These are all great hints to help me get past that block of “what happens during these world tours.”

Kernen suggests using 3 x 5 index cards to write your plot points, because the cards are small enough to move around very easily yet are roomy enough to write a fair amount of scene information. He says the biggest problem he’s found with computer outline programs is that he can’t see the whole plot on a single screen, and that’s something I’ve thought about before.

If you aren’t bothered by how much you can see on a computer screen, and you find a program that lets you move plot information around to your satisfaction, run wild. I love computers (though I do wish programs were more customizable and I wish “in the background” online stuff really would be in the *background*), but for fiction writing, I need to see the whole picture as well as the parts. Currently my outline is just a straight listing of events in a word processing document because that’s a simple format I can manipulate, but it does have that visual limitation.

You guys born and raised in the digital age, don’t knock pen and paper! There was even a time when people didn’t leave the house with a phone. The authors of classic fiction from the 1800s wrote their drafts either in longhand or on a manual typewriter. The simplicity of paper has advantages. And besides, if you never hold a brand-new *book* in your hands, you miss that unique and special scent that whispers, “Fresh paper, just feel how soft I am, ahhh, a new story!”

Of course, one could argue that paper books are not ecologically sound, but that’s beyond my little blog. Which, ironically, is totally digital.

Anyway: Remember that writing advice is just that: guidance, suggestions. If you find a way of doing any part of the process that gets you to the end product better, go with that. No two writers work exactly alike. I am finding a bunch of advice that does work well for me, however, so it makes sense to start with that and adapt as you find necessary. Chances are you already have occasional “writer’s block” or “dry spells” or whatever, so don’t add to your stress by thinking that this or that method is the only way.

Having done a first draft, and therefore collected a large number of scenes big and small, I’ll need to adapt Kernen’s suggestions for working with a 3 x 5 card system. But, I’ll read through the section on using the cards and I’ll get back to you with thoughts on how I (and maybe you) can use the system.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Robert Kernen’s “Building Better Plots”, part 26

I’m a little annoyed with Kernen’s chapter on constructing an outline. Funny, that’s what I’ve been waiting for, and he starts out telling me some things he’s already mentioned, and telling me other things too cryptic to be of use.

He says that to build an outline, I should decide how the story ends and start there. Well, he’s previously given exercises on plots, so by now I have a bunch of plot points that span the novel. He tells me to focus on the climax scene and list all the elements that need to converge in that moment: which characters need to be present (I’ve done that) and which points need to be cemented in that scene. Well, but I won’t know *all* of them until I know how the story plays out. Unexpected themes and plot twists happen while I’m capturing scenes, so I can’t project that far ahead.

I suspect there’s a boatload of themes, metaphors and motifs in Street Glass, because they intertwine and some are subtle. Aren’t those terms synonymous in this context? I know many of the themes I want to explore, but as I see it after having done a first draft, some of them are *felt* rather than *heard* in the climax, to use a music comparison/metaphor/trope/thing.

For example, by the time I get to the scene with Neal and his mother Lola where they talk about his past and his future, readers should realize that Neal feels his past is smothering him without my having to be blatant about it. It’s a gradual build-up.

Neal struggled to make a good life once he got away from the gang. Attempts on his life were made. He overcame racial and social prejudice. He gave up a safe, private life to co-run a public, non-profit group that works to prevent kids from turning to drugs and gangs. He thought that at long last, his past no longer had a hold on him.

But then he’s caught in a riot and picked up by cops who think he’s just another troublemaker because he looks the part. He’s tossed in a holding cell with gangbangers and miscellaneous rabble-rousers. That’s bad enough. Then his biological father Tony (whom Neal hates) shows up. A brawl breaks out in the holding cell, and Neal is handcuffed, his ankles are chained together and he’s tossed onto a plane. He winds up clear across the country, where he doesn’t know anybody. He’s now battered and at the mercy of a father who has already made it clear that his only interest in Neal is to get money from him.

Locked in a lightless room, Lola visits him, the mother who abandoned him as a child. By this point, readers should realize that when I say he finds it hard to get enough air, it’s not just because there are no windows. Realizing that Lola is the only person who can free him makes everything worse. When Neal gets his hands on Tony and nearly strangles him, readers should understand why.

So I guess I’ve already got the bones of the climax scene. I know generally what leads up to it.

This is kind of funny: Kernen says that one way to bridge the gap between the inciting incident and the climax is through interpolation, which he defines as “predicting the location of something by knowing two points, one on either side of it.” But the dictionary in my word processor defines it as to “insert something into something else: to add one thing, often an unnecessary item, between the existing parts of something else.”

Contradictory information even at the most basic level! I’ll say it yet again people wonder why writers drink!

Coming up: the physical side of outlines, and I don’t mean the “word” part.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Bob Kernen's "Building Better Plots", part 25

This comment scares me. A “vast, complete knowledge of the world in which you are working will help you to avoid making poor decisions or untenable leaps of logic.” I get the point that the more the writer knows about the universe she/he is writing in, the better the story will be, but I’ve also read comments from published authors who say that a particular plot point or theme didn’t appear until the story was being written.

As in most (if not all) writing advice, I guess it depends on the specifics of your story and maybe somewhat on your way of working. All this “it depends” can get annoying. After all, why read advice if it can’t help you with specifics? It does, but you have to think about it. I’ve signed up for my third writing course so I do believe in getting advice. I’ll have to look at what I’m being told and see how it applies to my situation. Yes, sigh all you want, learning how to write well is cerebral and usually not quick.

I’ve discovered that just because most of the characters in my WIP have been in my head for a few decades, I didn’t necessarily *know* them. When I wrote out exploratory scenes and filled out character profiles, I discovered things I had no idea about. I knew Sandy liked his Ferrari, but I didn’t realize that when he got his first one, he went tearing all over the county and wound up in the Angeles Forest where he smashed into a guard rail. Despite his main quirk of being na├»ve, this also shows he does sometimes take chances. So, it is in fact realistic that he wants to take a chance on helping Neal.

My only concern is the idea that getting to know characters can be done in a few writing sessions. Maybe some people can work that way, but I think what worked for me are the dozens of scenes I wrote over a few years. Every new situation I explored showed more of each character’s personality. The characters evolved one way, but I realized that wasn’t realistic, and so I had to change things up. The guys in the band, originally, were too nice to each other. Sure, they’re friends, but they spend so much time together that it’s natural for nerves to fray and arguments to explode.

At first, it felt wrong to introduce a bunch of changes. I didn’t want to change characters’ fundamental natures. Now that I’ve had time to adjust to that idea, I see that I’ve simply enhanced their personalities. I always knew that Eric came from a religious family that he felt was too restrictive, and then I discovered that his family ran a mission/soup kitchen in the Denver area. He saw a lot of the dark side of life there. Being front man for the band is how he distances himself from his past. Of the band members, he reacts the strongest to Neal showing up at the band’s house because of his own background.

I discovered Sandy had a relative who resented his success because she couldn’t seem to get her life together; he felt tremendous guilt when she died an alcoholic. That makes him more than just a nice guy trying to do a good deed for Neal, it gives him an emotional connection to Neal. Those are concepts a lot of people can relate to.

So don’t be afraid to change your characters to bring out drama and realism. Delve deep and see what happened in their childhood, teen years, and early working life. Take a seed idea, plant in a big pot, water with “what if”, and then let the result break out of the pot. Climb that beanstalk and see where you wind up. I’ll bet you have great fun!

When my series resumes, I’ll touch on themes and the climax.