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Posts Tagged ‘plot’

(or at the risk of being politically incorrect, moron being a novelist – that’s what I feel like at the moment, floundering around and trying to make it work)

I’ve been through the flames of hell since my last post on this topic, which was apparently less than a month ago, although it feels like much longer.

I really thought I was on the right track, off and running, heading for the finish line. Then I went to Caerleon and discovered I was happily jogging across the grass towards the refreshment tent. And then I went to Lumb Bank, where I worked out vaguely which direction the track was in, and even managed to catch a glimpse of it every now and then.

On ignoring advice

Not a good idea, it turns out. Even though it’s often contradictory, a lot of it makes sense, and there are many points everyone agrees on. For instance, Jane Pollard pointed out in no uncertain terms that she didn’t like my main character. I knew the character, so I liked her, but on re-reading what I’d written, I could see Jane’s point. She came across as a totally miserable cow, and not at all likeable. So why would anyone want to read a whole book about her?

If I’d taken the trouble to read a book that’s been on my shelf for a year now – Writing a Novel and Getting Published for Dummies – I might have come across the following:

If your characters badger and lecture the reader, or annoying, tedious, disgusting, boring, or boorish, your reader isn’t going to want to continue reading about them unless you provide a very good reason.

and you never know, I might have taken that on board before writing 23,000 words about a miserable cow!

So part of my writing routine is now going to be spending an hour a day reading a Useful Tome. After all, Authors of Useful Tomes usually do it because they have some Useful Information to impart… and a whole lot more experience than I have.

A stitch in time saves nine

A Darning Mushroom

A Darning Mushroom

My plot had many holes. I blithely assumed they could be patched up as I wrote. Both Jane Pollard and Bill Broady pointed out that some of the holes were too fundamental, and I would be unable to avoid putting tension on critical threads as I wrote, thus enlarging the holes beyond the limits of patchability. So I dug out my grandmother’s old darning mushroom and got stitching.

Now I have a plot that is almost but not totally unlike the plot I started with. Many of the elements are still there, but some of them aren’t, and most of them are in different places. And I’m really pleased with it. It hangs together without any currently visible holes. I’m reasonably convinced that any loose threads that come to light will be repairable (and if they’re not, there’s always quantum flux – thanks Adrian!).

Give the characters a bit of character

I gleaned many tips and techniques from Caerleon to help me sort my characters out.

I’ve written a lot about their histories and relationships with each other, the reasons why they behave as they do, their secret fears and dreams and shames. I’ve constructed a timeline and identified additional relationships that I didn’t know existed – Billy was obviously one of Henry’s best friends, how could I not have seen that before? It explains his behaviour and gives me a whole new subplot to work with…

I’ve started to interview them (think Tony Hill in Wire in the Blood), which is an intense process and knackers me out, so I’m only doing one character every couple of days. It’s a wonderful technique to establish a voice for each character though. One thing I noticed about some of the writing I’d done was that several of the characters sounded indistinguishable… another technique that also helped with that problem was to put them in a room together and get them talking to each other. They soon developed their own voices.

And I’ve persuaded my main character that she needs to suck up to the reader. She’s not too keen, but I think that’s because there’s still too much of me in her.

Just F***ing Do It…

… but make sure you’re doing the right thing!

I stand by the JFDI piece of advice, with the qualification that there’s no point just f***ing doing stuff at random and hoping it’ll all turn out in the end. I think I’m back on track now, but I need to keep looking up every now and then, just to make sure I’m not about to run slap bang into a carrot cake.

What I’ve achieved over the past month

Words written: 23,000
Current word count: 0
Confidence level: +73
Darning skill level: +29

The ridiculously large amount of money I spent on the Caerleon Writers Holiday and the Arvon course (given that I’m a student with massive outgoings and no income) was well worth it. I now feel like I might actually produce a novel worth reading.

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Novel Writing day 2

Jane Pollard continued her excellent course on novel writing in the morning. She played a rather neat trick on us – gave us 15 minutes to ‘storyboard’ a scene and write a page of dialogue for it, then after we’d read out our work she said, ‘Just look what you can get done in fifteen minutes. You have no excuse for not finding time to write.’ Which was a fair point, I thought!

She talked a bit more about developing character, mentioned the technique of interviewing each character, then went into how to structure a plot. I’m not sure I agree with her on this bit, but am willing to give it a try… the idea is that, given a 15 chapter book, it is structured as follows:

  • Chapter 1 Setup (snapshot of main character’s life), followed by Inciting Incident (the thing that turns their life into chaos)
  • Chapters 2-13 Rising conflict (main character keeps trying to achieve goal, things get in the way)
  • Chapter 14 Crisis (all seems lost)
  • Chapter 15 Climax (one last effort sorts things out) followed by Resolution (tidy up loose ends)

I don’t have too much of a problem with the structure, but I have an instinctive reaction against its formulaic nature. Anyway, the next job is to ‘storyboard’ the scenes, and Jane gave us a useful outline of what needs to be done for each scene, which I shall definitely try out.

One pertinent piece of information – publishers at the moment won’t consider first novels much above 90,000 words.

Panel session

The afternoon panel session involved Kate Walker, Simon Whaley, Stephen Wade, Jane Wenham-Jones, and Lynne Hackles, all fielding questions from the audience.

The first question was ‘Where do you get inspiration from when ideas aren’t coming?’

  • KW and JWJ immediately responded ‘Alcohol’.
  • JWJ suggested to go and do something else but keep thinking about the subject, let your unconscious sort it out. She also said not to use it as an excuse not to write.
  • KW recommended ironing.
  • SW’s suggestion was to go for a 30 minute walk.

Another question was ‘What is the one piece of advice you’ve always remembered?’

  • JWJ – Write. Every day. Keep doing it.
  • SW – About poetry, ‘the more words, the more lies’ (edit ruthlessly). About writing in general, learn how to be objective and judge your own work.
  • LH – Grow a thick skin, don’t take rejection personally.
  • KW – Any non-form rejection is positive – if they’ve taken the time to respond they think you’re worth bothering with.

Someone asked ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ After a universal groan from panel and audience alike, the following emerged:

  • SW – there are stories all around you. If you’re a writer you need to be receptive to them.
  • KW – eavesdropping and being observant of people and how they behave.
  • LH – thinking ‘I wonder…’ about everything.

There were many more questions and answers, I think these were the most useful though.

Networking

A talk about internet networking this time (not me going and inflicting myself on unsuspecting fellow delegates) by Anita Loughrey. Basically saying that a professional and up-to-date online presence is highly desirable for any writer:

  • Allows you to publicise yourself and your books.
  • Location to direct people to for information about you.
  • Available worldwide, all the time.

Yep. That’s about right. She showed us how to set up a blog, gave a quick rundown of Facebook, and gave us some tips about blogging, one of which I regularly ignore (apparently 250 words is enough for a blog post. I know this. I can’t stop myself though.)

Book buying

It just had to be done. I bought Being a Professional Writer by Stephen Wade and Kate Walker, and Writing from Life – How to Turn Your Personal Experience into Profitable Prose by Lynne Hackles. They’d all had useful things to say at the panel session, friends who’d been on their courses recommended them as Good Eggs, and the books looked vaguely interesting. And there were conference discounts.

I went for dinner congratulating myself on not spending a fortune on books. There are many in the book room I could be interested in.

Lucy Mangan – Problems, Panics and Points to Ponder

The evening talk was wonderful. Lucy is such a lovely person, she takes the art of self-deprecation to extremes but everything she said was fascinating and funny. I’d been cudgelling myself about where I’d heard her name – of course, she’s a Guardian columnist.

She gave lots of interesting hints and tips, e.g.

  • If you get writer’s block, do a sudoku puzzle.
  • Don’t turn down opportunities (she phrased it, ‘don’t be a dick’).
  • Acknowledge some things won’t come naturally to you.
  • Write everything down (ideas, thoughts, observations, etc).

Much of what she said was about how to muster up the confidence to write. I don’t believe she was ever as nervous as she says she was, she carried the whole room with her throughout her talk, and I was lucky to make it back to the book room in time to buy copies of her books before they ran out. Yes, that’s right, I bought two more books. But they were at conference prices.

I have now subscribed to her blog on the Guardian website, and will likely be awake all night reading My Family and Other Disasters and Hopscotch and Handbags.

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Would you believe me if I told you I was the first person to discover the underlying principles of story-writing and how it all fits together?

No?

Fair enough. You’re almost certainly right. After all, I’m just starting on this writing journey, and finer minds than mine have been wrestling with issues such as ‘what is story?’ and ‘character vs plot’ for yonks without coming to any agreement.

But I’m beginning to come to an understanding in my own mind of what story-writing means to me, how I do it, which bits I’m feeblest at… and as I’m thinking about it a lot as I read Weighty Tomes about the Craft of Writing and listen to Wise Words from Master Crafts(wo)men, I’ll update my theories and see if I get anywhere near something coherent in the end.

And if not, I’ll have fun doing it.

Constructing a story

This all started with the distinction between story, plot and structure described by our Writing for Radio teacher. Then we had the playwriting session with Kevin Fegan, and he gave us a fab way to generate a plot. Basically, you decide how many characters you want, who they are, then draw a character map…

Example Character Map

Example Character Map

… which gives you lots of ideas for what the situation is, where the plot might take the characters, how the characters interact … and if you combine this with a theme (which for this example could be infidelity, or need) you’ve got a very good starting point.

Anyway, while Kevin was nattering about this, I found myself drawing a diagram something like:

Grand Unified Theory version 1

Grand Unified Theory version 1

It had a bit less detail and a lot more scribbling out, but that was basically it, and even though I’ve been thinking about it for nearly a week it still makes sense. Note that this is very much the first version and I’m still thinking about it a lot, so there will doubtless be further elaboration and modification.

I’d better elaborate on what I mean by all the terms, I guess…

Theme – what the piece is about. Not the surface text, what the characters say and do, but the message you want to give to your audience that is revealed in the subtext. You need to know what this is. It may not emerge until you’ve written a first draft, or it may be the starting point for the whole exercise, but if you can’t state your theme in a sentence by the time you’ve finished, you haven’t done your job.

Characters – the people that inhabit your world. You need to know something about their background (not an exhaustive study, IMO), and, more importantly (again, IMO) you need to understand their motivations (hopes, fears, desires) and relationships with each other. Usually, one character will be the ‘main’ character.

Situation – what is happening that makes the journey necessary? What triggered the actions and conflict and change and chaos? What are the factors that limit the characters’ actions? Where is the story set, what is the social context?

Journey – what are the changes that happen in the main character’s life? Are these changes made by the character, or changes that happen to him/her? What are the start and end points of the journey?

I think all the above are vital elements that form the basis of the story, and they are likely to be in your head before you start trying to turn them into a coherent tale. They are by no means fixed, I’d be surprised if I wrote a piece and didn’t have to make substantial changes to at least two or three of these elements during the process. But they will always form the core of the story.

Story – this is the (explicit or implicit) summation of the four preceding elements, combined to make a coherent world. It includes backstory and other ‘off-stage; action that the audience may not be aware of.

Plot – the window on the world of the story that you plan to let your audience look through. This will usually be implicit, but it is important for you to be clear which parts of your world it is necessary or desirable for the audience to see.

Beginning – the state of the world at the start of the plot, before the onset of conflict that necessitates the journey.

Middle – the journey itself.

End – the resolution, the return to a stable state (unlikely to be the same as the beginning), the end of the journey.

Structure – the actual skeleton of the piece – a series of paragraphs or scenes to be fleshed out with words. This isn’t necessarily the same as beginning-middle-end, flashbacks and foreshadowing can be used to good effect.

Comments please!

Well, that’s the starting point. I’d be really interested to hear what anyone thinks about this. It is very much a work in progress, and I’m coming across relevant ideas and commentaries all the time. I’ve already got loads of things to follow up and elaborate on.

For example, one obvious drawback is the assumption of an Aristotelian structure of beginning/middle/end. I need to think about that one a bit more, I might just accept it as a limitation of the theory for now and see what happens…

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