Friday, October 28, 2011

Reason vs justification

I want to say a few words on the idea that writers should be sure everything they include in their fiction is necessary, whether it's purpose is to move the plot forward or for  characterization.

It's related to my opinion that many unpublished writers don't have a lot of confidence in their ability. We don't have an automatic filter that lets us know what can stay and what doesn't need to be there. Most of us don't know anybody with editor training who can walk us through the process. Basically, we have to guess.

That leads us to worrying that we aren't explaining the characters clearly enough. We add on. We get sucked into that ubiquitous quicksand of characters and plot. We tell ourselves the MC's flashback to the time his sick puppy was kicked by the mailman is necessary to show why the MC is a twisted adult. It's showing, to boot, so of course the flashback is necessary.

Well, maybe, and maybe not. It's perilously easy to cross the line between what's necessary and what's justification.

My crit buddy told me that the fight scene between Razor and Coyote in my current draft of chapter one doesn't need to be that long. I have reasons why it's written that way, but his reaction makes me question whether those reasons are in fact justification.

Do I need to make the point that scene is there for? How would the story change if I did shorten it, or remove it? Is all that detail there because the truth is I think I did a great job on it?

I'll add that my local writers' group liked the fight, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't benefit from tweaking.

It's good to have self-confidence in what we write. It's even necessary in my opinion. It's got to stay manageable though. It's hard to write something we love (a phrase or a chapter) and then hear that people are not getting out of it what we intended. Really listen to yourself and your inner editor. If you find yourself offering reason after reason why you've included something, consider that maybe it needs to be changed. Ouch, I know.

Robert Kernen said that not every idea, not even every good one, needs to be included. I'd rather take out some stuff I like and have most people tell me they really enjoyed the whole work, than keep stuff I like and have readers point out bunches of stuff that didn't work for them.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Getting out of the "character comfort zone"

Sometimes I get so immersed in chapters of my WIP, and my main characters as they are in those chapters, that I have trouble remembering the characters are supposed to grow and change as the story progresses. When I think about the arc for each MC, I can see that change, but when I’m down in the trenches from chapter to chapter, it’s easy to get a handle on someone’s personality and then not want to struggle with changing it.

Of course, protagonists must have some degree of change. And for Street Glass, personality change for both Neal and Sandy is a major part of the plot. One way to keep from getting too comfortable with someone’s personality at any point in time is to jump ahead.

What I do for writing fun is think of an interaction I’ve never written out before; recently, it was events on the morning of Sandy’s wedding, and now I’m playing around with the evening of Neal’s first live show as second drummer. Neither of these may ever make it into any part of the novel. Critters may never see any version of them. But I write them mostly stream-of-consciousness style, with little thought to word choice, pacing, or those other things that tend to slow writers down. I just turn the characters loose and see what happens.

Not only is it incredibly fun (because there’s no pressure), scenes like that remind me of how the characters’ personalities change over time. Neal gets to a point where he eases from slangy English to grammatically correct English to slangy Spanish and back again, all in one paragraph, and Sandy has no trouble following his meaning. They’ve been through so much together that Sandy hardly even notices Neal’s language changes. However, in order for that to be plausible even in my own head, I have to show those changes happening gradually.

That keeps me focused on the chapters I know will be included in the novel. I tell myself that I’ll never be comfortable with those scenes that take place in the future if I don’t set them up right in the first place. Because I tend to be pretty literal and linear-minded, this works well for me.

By the time readers get to the end of your story, they should sense that your MC is not the same person he or she started out as. If you’re not sure that’s happening, or if critters are telling you they don’t think your major players have been affected by the big happenings, consider bouncing ahead several years. It make take you a few scenes to get the feel of how your character should have changed, but see what develops.

Don’t be afraid to get carried away. If you write enough future scenes that can be strung together, you might  do half the work for a sequel!

Friday, October 14, 2011

“Building Better Plots” by Robert Kernen, part 31

We’ve arrived at the final post in this series!

Kernen ends his book by giving a short rundown on non-traditional plots. He has concentrated on the usual ways plots are constructed—and published—and those probably do garner the most attention and sales. It makes sense, though, to at least be familiar with other ways of working. The best writing often uses bits of this and some of that in striking ways. You can’t do that if you only know one way to do it.

The epistolary novel and different ways of manipulating time are the two ideas he spends a fair amount of time on. As usual, he offers examples of works that have used each method. He suggests trying various twists on traditional plot construction to see if a stronger story emerges and just to improve your writing chops. He also suggested, earlier, to take all the index cards you’ve written your plot on, mix them up, then lay them out to see what you get. For some people, that’s going to be pretty tough to do. Mess with my plot? How dare you!

Yeah, guys, that’s the idea. It’s surprisingly simple to work yourself into writer’s blocks just because you think various things have to happen in certain ways. Writing is a creative process, so get creative!

Kernen then gathers all the exercises and quizzes together at the end, so you can have the tools all in one place as you go through your projects. I find that helpful. After that, he includes a glossary which is equally helpful. Things like “allegory”, “catharsis”, and “resonance” are briefly explained, as well as concepts like “conflict” and “raising the stakes”. If you’re going to talk about how to do anything, you ought to be sure everybody means the same thing when they use various terms.

In all, this is a darn useful book. The novel I’m working on is not really traditional, but I’ve gained a lot from Kernen’s methods. I’ve come back to the original idea that Neal’s and Sandy’s growth are the main focus. In other words, the rock-n-roll part of the story is part of the framework, not the plot itself. It’s a part that readers can see sometimes, but the details don’t matter as much as how the characters react.

I’m convinced that because all writers have trouble with various parts of their projects from time to time, that writers of any level will benefit from this book.

I recently got two books for research and started reading one, Street Wars by Tom Hayden. I’ll post a review of that at some point, plus I plan to read one of the rock lit novels out there and review that. Also, a member of my local writers’ group showed me a book on “creating original characters” that looks intriguing, so that may be on my “to review” list.

Thanks for coming along with me and Bob Kernen on the safari through plotting my novel! The process has to be internalized now. Feel free to add insights, tips on what works for you, or comments on failed efforts. We learn even when something bombs!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

pt 30 of Robert Kernen's "Building Better Plots"

Plot devices! Kernen says these are ways to focus the plot on the most important parts of characters’ lives, to clarify the context, or sharpen the story so that its fundamental meaning is well-defined—I like that. I think that’s just what I need to tackle the murky issue of Neal’s life during months-long tours.

The framing device. This is pretty much what it sounds like: circumstances and interactions happen at the start that we don’t fully understand, a narrator takes us back to where everything started and shows us how we got to that opening scene, and now we understand the connections and happenings. Kernen uses the example of the movie The Usual Suspects as one effective way the framing device has been used. I can see how some stories would gain excitement and tension from this device, but I don’t think it’s what my story needs.

The episodic plot. Kernen doesn’t really define this one, but says that this device is often used badly because the episodes are not well connected. He refers to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Each story is almost completely unrelated to the others. I personally think that something like the Tales remains popular partly because the society they show us is so different from what modern readers know. I do show glimpses of closed societies in Street Glass, but the differences are not as dramatic. Anyway, I don’t think an episodic form will work for my novel either.

The flashback. Yes, it’s true, the flashback is often a cliché. But the device can still have value if you use it right. Don’t stick one in just because you’ve thought of a clever way to ease into and out of it. The information you offer has to be important, and preferably, the flashback should be the best way to get that info out. Kernen relies on two movies for examples of this device, but I think that’s a failing. We’re talking about writing flashbacks so I’d much rather have an example of a book where that’s done well. I do have one flashback in an early chapter but I’m going to stop there. I think telling this story in a linear way will help readers experience the changes along with the characters.

Parallel stories. Kernen says you need balance and timing to pull this off. I can see how it could be tricky. You don’t want to confuse readers but parallel stories can add depth and tension. I could say that Sandy’s changes parallel Neal’s as the story progresses, though both characters change because of their interaction with each other. There’s no separation in time or location. I’m sure that many fiction pieces use more than one of these plot devices.

It occurs to me that my original pile of individual scenes could be considered an episodic plot form. As Kernen mentions can happen, they were too loosely connected in that form to make a coherent story.

Kernen points out that the way to use any plot device successfully is to let it happen. Trying to force something onto the characters never works. For example, the first couple of times I posted early chapters of Street Glass to Critique Circle, readers complained that Sandy seemed too nice. Why did he offer to help Neal, who had nearly killed him? Sandy only had one dimension and it wasn’t even an appropriate one for the situation.

In Art Edwards’ Rock And Roll Writing course through Basement Writing, we were challenged to get to know our characters better. I combined this with an exercise designed to help us create compelling characters. We were told to write about an alcoholic coming home for Thanksgiving. I discovered that Sandy had a cousin who resented his success and blamed him for her life falling apart; when she died, he shouldered the blame. With Neal, Sandy sees another young person whose life is out of control. By helping Neal, Sandy hopes to right a wrong and maybe put his cousin’s memory to rest. Now Sandy isn’t just Mr. Nice Guy, he has a personal reason for helping Neal. That background info comes out in a flashback.

Next post in this series is the last! I discuss the final sections of the book and wrap up my impressions of the whole work, and add some comments on other stuff coming down the pike for me.