Thursday, March 11, 2010

So Is Starting School Like Dying?

I'm going to admit that I sometimes have trouble grasping what's really going on in books. Sometimes I think too much while I'm reading. Sometimes I don't think enough.

I think I get Garmann's Summer by Stian Hole. I think it's about fear--everybody's scared. I was just left feeling, Well, okay. And?

Garmann is a six-year-old boy who will be starting school soon. The coming event frightens him. Three extremely elderly aunts, who, as illustrated, would probably be his great-great aunts, come to visit. Garmann asks them if they're afraid of anything. He also asks his parents. Each adult is afraid of something. Grown-ups, too, feel fear, and I guess that's supposed to be comforting.

But one of the aunts, it turns out, is afraid of dying, and Mom is afraid Garmann will be hit by a car while crossing the road. And, you know, those fears just aren't on the same level with being afraid of starting school. Okay, maybe I'm not taking Garmann's fears seriously enough. But I think a fear is serious even if it isn't as big a fear as the fear of death. It doesn't have to be on a par with death to be important.

For a much more positive response, check out Fuse #8's review.

I'm guessing the plot for this book began with premise--the idea of a child fearing the unknown of starting school.

Labels: , ,

More On Evil Plots

I found a transcript of an interview on plot at Oz and Ends. Deborah Lynn Jacobs is the author being interviewed. It's a long transcript, and if you skim, you'll need to do a lot of it. But Jacobs talks about starting her books with a premise and then coming up with a character.

In an earlier post I told about Cynthia Lord's workshop presentation in which she gave a talk on a classic plot structure involving giving a character something he or she wants and then creating obstacles to that character getting it. Jacobs' description of starting with a premise involves the question "What if?". She appears to keep asking it throughout the plotting process. "What if?" is another classic method for creating plots. It's probably closer to what I do.

Earlier this month, I considered doing a self-study program here at O.C. that would involve creating scene cards for books I was reading. Yeah. Like that's going to happen. Plus, it would be giving away too much of other writers' work. But what I may try to do here is determine how the plots of books I'm reading are created--do they have plots that are driven by a character's wants and inability to get them or did they begin with a premise?

So you can look forward to that.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 08, 2010

Desire Is The Source Of All Unhappiness And, Possibly, The Source Of All Plots

Cynthia Lord's plot talk on Saturday involved what might be called the classic structure of giving characters something they want and then throwing obstacles in the way of them getting it. The characters overcome the obstacles and, voila, you have a plot and a book. I've heard elementary school teachers talk about a variation of this, advising students to give characters a problem and then give them obstacles to solving the problem.

While I have been trying to generate plot ideas by working out character desires for my recent books, I've always felt uncomfortable with the Wants/Obstacles/Resolution writing plan. I used to think it was formulaic, that you'd end up with one of those inspirational overcoming-adversity things that are all so much alike. But that's not fair because this kind of plot structure would also work for thrillers and mysteries ("I want to find the murderer"), survival stories ("I want to live"), romances ("I want to love somebody"), journey stories ("I want to go home"), and any number of other types of books, depending on the characters' wants. Any plot structure can probably be described as a formula. One person's structure is another person's formula.

A more reasonable reason for being uncomfortable with this plot creating format is the fact that it still doesn't help you come up with the various plot points. What will my character want? What will the obstacles be? Come on. We're still talking about pulling those out of thin air.

On top of that, for some of us a story begins not with a character but with a scene or situation. We may not even know who in that scene is the main character, forget about what he or she may want. I'm into ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Coming up with a desire for those ordinary people may not be easy because they are in situations they've never been in before. All of a sudden they're supposed to want something?

I am giving this a great deal of thought, and you can be sure I'll be getting back to you on it.


Sunday, March 07, 2010

Retreat News

Yesterday's retreat at Whispering Pines was not as retreaty as the one I do each January. There was no snowshoeing, yoga, or reading in front of a window while night falls over a mountain meadow. But I did get lunch and a thirty-minute walk, so I can't complain.

Cynthia Lord was the author/mentor and the reason I went because she was giving a talk on plotting, which is hell on earth for many writers, myself included. Now, Cynthia Lord has only written three books, and two of them are just coming out this year. Yet she's a very popular speaker at both schools and literary events. Some jaded types might say that happens when your one novel is a Newbery Honor book. I think it's more likely due to the fact that she is a very fine speaker. She was remarkable with both content and presentation. She also made the best use of PowerPoint of anyone I've ever seen. I'm talking both in terms of slides supporting content and ability to use the program.

Now the group critique I took part in during the afternoon was very interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I have to say that the material I heard yesterday was much better than I expected. I was a member of a writers' group for a few years earlier in this decade. That group was made up primarily of unpublished writers, which I suspect was the case yesterday, too. The quality of what I was hearing yesterday was better than what I often heard in my old group. I don't know if this was because there are many more options for beginning writers to learn craft now and I'd see that in any group critique situation or if these were all SCBWI members and, as such, were more likely to avail themselves of such opportunities. Second, these people were also very sophisticated readers and could express themselves confidently. (Probably more so than I did.) I know that at least three of the people there were members of writers' groups and were experienced at giving feedback.

As a result of the discussion of my offering--a few pages from the 365 Story Project--I am going to make some significant changes on Day One, which shouldn't be too difficult to do. I'm also going to change the name from Middle Ridge Road to A Year on Middle Ridge Road. So it was a productive day for me.

Labels: ,

Thursday, March 04, 2010

This Speaks To Me

Strong Writers Do This at Writer's First Aid could have had my name on it. In it Kristi Holl talks about self-study programs, an idea she says comes from a book called The Art of War for Writers. I've done self-study programs in the past, and I can totally get behind the idea of writers as warriors.

In the comments to this blog post, someone talks about creating scene cards for novels you're reading, not writing. I've read about that. It's supposed to help writers develop a sense of how plots work. (Hmmm. A little muscle memory for plot, since we were talking about warriors in the last para?) I was going to do it a while back. I was going to use a notebook, had it next to my bed so I could make scene notes while I read. And that's as far as I got with that particular self-study program.

Hmmm. Maybe I'll try doing this particular self-study program here at Original Content. I could try working out the plot points in some books I'm reading, trying to develop some plotting muscle memory.

I found Writer's First Aid by way of Cynsations.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

But Development Is Hard. And Vast.

Editor A.Victoria Mixon guest blogs for Nathan Bransford with a post called Everything You Need To Know About Writing a Novel, in 1000 Words. She begins with a discussion of plot, I'm assuming because plot is so gawdawful.

Labels: , ,

Friday, March 13, 2009

Adult Books For YA Readers: Plot And Summing Up

We do love plot. A cliche regarding plot goes that genre fiction is plot driven while so-called literary or mainstream fiction (which some people now contend is a genre, itself) is character driven. In the Gauthier world view, all the traditional elements of fiction (plot, character, point of view, setting, and theme) should be balanced. Integrated even.

Easier said than done, of course. But what isn't?

An important point to remember about plot: There should be a cause and effect relationship between each plot point. A causes B to happen and B causes C, etc. so that once the climactic moment arrives, readers feel that, of course! What else could have happened! If there is no causal relationship between events, you don't have a plot. You have a list of random things happening.

Plot thoughts about this week's study subjects:

Toward the middle of The Dead Father's Club I felt things had slowed down a bit. I'm not talking obvious gaps or leaps in logic. I just felt, Kill him or don't, kid. But by the end of the book, I was sneaking time from work to keep reading.

I think this was a case of the plot, as well as character, supporting one of the book's themes--determining a correct course of action. A character contemplating murder should linger over the decision.

You have to read fifty pages of The Beekeeper's Apprentice before Sherlock Holmes and his young partner, Mary Russell, take on their first case. That seems like a long time for a "plot" to get going in a traditional mystery. And right in the midst of the book's most serious case, the main characters take a detour to Palestine. What? They're going to Palestine now? I thought. Or at all, for that matter, since it seemed totally unrelated to what was going on in that plot.

But The Beekeeper's Apprentice has a great deal to do with character. Those first fifty pages are all about creating Holmes and Russell. As for the trip to Palestine, that's all about defining Russell both as a young Jewish woman and as a woman who is committed to memory. While leaving Jerusalem she recites part of Psalm 137, including the lines, "If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither, May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you." This book is supposed to be an account by an elderly woman who does, indeed, remember not only Jerusalem but the companion/father/partner of her youth.

Some of my commenters have suggested that they associate strong plot with kids' fiction. That could very well be why adult mysteries often serve as gateway books for teenagers moving on to adult books. Plot is important to mystery. Neither The Dead Father's Club nor The Beekeeper's Apprentice are slaves to plot. But plot is woven in with other fictional elements, particularly theme and point of view, which should help young readers dipping their toes into adult works appreciate their balance.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, April 02, 2007

One Of These People Is Having The Best Day Ever

That would be me. I had one of my best work days ever. It began with me reading The Essentials of Plot at Talking Books, editor Cheryl Klein's website. (I found this site because Roger Sutton has spoken of Cheryl a few times.) This write-up of a speech Cheryl gave is fantastic. I've been anxious about the plot for a new project, and reading this speech got my day off to a great start. I finally finished the first chapter, with an ending different and better than I had expected. In fact, I didn't expect that ending until it happened.

I'm hopeful that I can forget about the plot and just work on the story in the future, as Cheryl suggests. I have a great deal of trouble moving ahead in a project until I have a first chapter I'm happy with. It's a foundation thing.