It’s been a rollercoaster of a week. I’ve been trying to write-by-speaking, and accordingly have been testing various set-ups in my car to take dictation. The phone with voice recorder app failed. Too much road noise. Mom, who I have offered to hire to transcribe, reported back that the recording was very difficult to understand. I’ll type that up myself, since I know more or less what I was thinking, and the dictation should prompt me enough to write it out. I haven’t had time during the week because… well, I’m not getting into details. Suffice it to say there was family stuff, which had priority, and work spilled past the usual boundaries and it got messy here at the Nut House. Read more
Posts tagged ‘plotting’
It seems like a trite observation, but if you think about it, there’s a lot of truth to it, as there is with so many sayings we dismiss as ‘trite’ or ‘overused’ or ‘cliche.’ Think about it both in terms of storytelling as a writer, and in terms of business as a writer.
Remember Dumbo’s magic feather? There are a lot of things you can say about Disney, but one thing you can’t say negative – the man knew how to tell a story. That ‘magic’ feather gave the baby elephant the first successful flight, but once he had that success firmly grasped, he discovered he could succeed over and over without the ‘magical’ assistance. I know I’ve seen this same trope used in other stories, and we accept it to some extent, and why?
Because we know it works. Look, I used to get myself motivated on days when I didn’t just have a to-do list, I had a list of my lists. That gets daunting, fast, especially when some of those action items are small, wriggly, and fuss when they don’t get fed (and oh, by the way, feeding station is attached to me). Challenging, and there were days I felt like I just. Couldn’t. Even. So I’d play a game with myself. I’d pick something to lead off the list that I knew I could do. Even on the worst of days, I could do this one thing. Because I knew that if I did that one thing, I could do another, and another, and I wouldn’t go to bed at night feeling like I’d gotten absolutely nothing done that day. I knew from painful experience that waking up feeling like I was worthless and useless would only send me further and further down the rabbit-hole.
Reality is that we’re not always going to succeed. However, if we can succeed in a little thing, we can persist and build that into a big success. If we’re writing a space opera, the kid that succeeds in scraping a job on the spaceship, even as a cabin boy, can build that success to becoming captain, and then admiral, and then Master of the Universe!!! Muahahah… ahem.
You see how you can use a small success to build a story. It’s sort of the opposite of the try-fail sequence. Someone who is so low and broken, they can’t even afford a lime slurpee, how are they going to become the Beautiful But Evil Space Princess (sorry, Sarah, I couldn’t resist)? By succeeding in something. Maybe that first one is rehabilitating the Grand Dark Duke’s orphaned kitten with the broken leg. It takes a lot of work to hand-feed a kitten, I’ll have you know, and keeping one still with a broken leg? Wow… might seem silly, but you can play that for laughs and show the character’s determination and ability to persevere in the face of the near-impossible.
How about you as a writer? I know a lot of people who want to be a writer, and they have reams and reams of half-finished stories. So for them, that first success is going to look like finishing something. Even a piece of flash fiction. I started out thinking I couldn’t possibly write more than 5K words. Just couldn’t do it. Now? I know I can do that, and I can wrap up a 300K+ word trilogy with fans asking more, more? That’s a boost to my authorial ego, and it’s one I can use to build into another successful book finished. I started that out by finishing just one story. Getting just one story (a tiny one, only about 600 words long) published. Finding out I could succeed as an Indie author/publisher.
So how do you start succeeding? As an author, you can start writing every day – or at least on a schedule. Right now, with my full-time job taking a lot of my time and energy, I’ve been surprised to discover I can fit in writing time on the weekdays, but the weekend? Forgetaboutit. That’s family time and I just can’t pry loose the time and mental energy to put words on the screen (at least, not fiction). So pick what works with your schedule, if that’s every day, 5 days a week, 3 days… I wouldn’t go with less than three days. Treat it like exercise. Schedule it, and do it. Set small goals at first. If you fail, you’ll find it that much harder to succeed: but be persistent. Just like your hero has to face-plant a few times before you let him win, you’re going to go through the same cycle.
Once you have gotten that daily writing habit, work on finishing something. A story, then a novel – it’s a snowball that will eventually get out of your control, and then you start on other snowballs. Like publishing, and marketing, and so on and so forth. In time, if we follow that snowball’s trail, we’re finding you the Queen of Ice Fort reigning supreme over your snowy castle. Which is a successful independent publishing house, with residual income from backlist, and side-income of associate ads, and other stuff. Or maybe that’s just me. I don’t expect this to make me into a millionaire. I do expect it to be a profitable hobby until I’m ready to retire (again) and make it even more successful. Trust me, if I can do this, you can, too. I think I don’t need to get into my background again, but I will if I have to *waves fist* don’t say you can’t! I know better. You can. And if you can do the little thing, you can step up on it and do the bigger things.
I’m on the road traveling today. I’m writing this from a Waffle House in Georgetown, KY. We’re sitting down to a hearty breakfast after about two hours of driving. We have about another ninety minutes ahead of us, so this seemed to be a good place to stop and rest a bit.
I always wind up driving on these trips, partly because it puts me on the side of my husband’s good ear, so we can talk without me having to shout. It works well, because while we travel, we talk. And he plots at me. Well, his nickname is the Evil Muse for a reason! I tell him where I’m stuck on the work in progress, and we talk it through until he Sparks enough ideas off my work for me to catch fire on the work again. Of course, I’m driving and can’t start writing immediately, so that’s a little frustrating, but it helps!
There’s something about being stuck in the car for hours that feeds the creative brain. At least that’s how it works for me!
I’m going to have breakfast, and throw open the comments for you all to chat, I’ll try to check in later when I’m not visitin’ and answer any questions.
There is always more than one twist.
In order to make a strong thread, you have to make many, many twists. In order to sew pieces together, you need a thread run through them.
When I was a much younger woman, I spent a couple of years serving as an apprentice shepherdess. In practice, this meant I helped move sheep, feed sheep, clean fleeces, pitch hay and in general do scutwork. But I didn’t mind, because sheep are amiable companions when they aren’t being rockheaded dolts, and best of all, it was mostly outdoor work. One of the things I learned while I was doing this was how to spin a fleece into thread, and then the many ways a thread can be made into something else entirely, be that a garment, a blanket, or macramé. I never did learn how to knit, and I’m a clumsy spinner (not enough practice) but I can clean a fleece pretty darn quick and I know the basics of natural dyes and mordants. I do know how to crochet, and weave, but mostly I lack the patience to do that as anything but a whimsical amigurumi from time to time.
I’m talking about fleeces, but really I’m talking about writing, because what I learned about spinning forms a metaphor for creating a plot that runs through the disparate pieces of a book and ties them all together into a unified whole. Just like sewing up a garment, you take bits and scraps of cloth, and make them into something beautiful and richly colored. It’s not easy, by any means. For one thing, while I have done quilting, I ran around the Grange Hall as a tiny girl while the women sat and stitched, and I know how incredible the work can be when done by a master. My patchwork attempts are passable, but could be better. I’ll keep practicing.
A fleece from a sheep is, in essence, a lot of soft, fluffy hair. It’s hair, not fur: it will keep growing and growing until it’s cut. If you don’t shear a sheep every so often, it’ll die. Now, obviously this isn’t biologically premium, but a modern sheep is bred to hold onto it’s hair and not shed it, which is what wild-type sheep (and some goats) do. Once upon a time, gathering fleece to spin was a laborious process of gathering clumps of shed hair off bushes and thorny weeds, then cleaning it and carding it. Carding is the process of combing the hairs until they are all running in one direction. They still, if you take a clump and pull in opposite directions with both hands, will come apart. You’ll wind up with a tuft in each hand. But if you take that bit of fleece, and give it a twist, it’s harder to pull apart. Give it more twists, and suddenly you have yarn. Twist it tighter, with less fleece strands going into the spin, and you have thread.
Linen is a similar process, but the prep to yield strands is a lot more labor intensive. I’m not getting into that – I’ve never done it, although I’m familiar with the theory. And I’ve gotten sidetracked already from my thought.
A good plot has some twists in it. Readers who find the path smooth and easy to follow from opening to conclusion might bother to walk all the way to the end, or they may get bored and wander off, to leave the book unfinished forever. Throw in a few left turns, and suddenly they are wondering what will come next, and they will keep reading, compelled to find out what happens. In thread, the idea is to be as smooth and even as possible. In writing, you want slubs. Slubs are the funny little bumps and clumps that give raw silk, for instance, it’s characteristic ‘nubbly’ look. In a book, you want that sort of unpredictable thing in the plot. It’s still got the strong thread, but there are unique elements readers will only find in this story – it’s the slubs that will make your work memorable.
The more twists, the stronger the plot thread. But watch out! If you overspin thread, it starts to coild back up on itself – in DNA, that’s called supercoiling, and it’s part of how 6 meters of DNA can be packed into every single nucleated cell in your body (not every single cell – red blood cells have enucleated, and don’t have DNA) but it is considered less than ideal in spinning thread. It’s less than ideal in a book, too. Once that path has become so convoluted the reader loses track of what is happening, why, and to who, they start getting a headache and vowing to never read another of your books. I have a few authors I avoid for just this reason, personally. I’m sure some of you do, too.
Next week, if I can get enough data crunched (Since as you read this I am flying from Ohio to Oregon to move kids back and forth between Mom’s house and mine) I will be presenting a summary of a guided promo push I’m doing with a free book, and 6 paid outlets for book promotion (Fussy Librarian, Ebookhounds, and more). It should generate some interesting results. On the first day alone, featured in Fussy Librarian, I gave away
about 350 730 copies, and on the second day, a whopping 2600. The idea is to break into some new market areas by giving away the first book of a series. If you want to get in on the action, Pixie Noir is free from Aug. 3-7!
Spring is springing, and my thoughts inevitably turn to gardens. I’m not planning on putting one in this year, instead I have assigned the design and creation of a garden to my daughter as a school project. I’ll give her guidance of course. But most of it is going to be up to her. I’ll give her the information she needs, but the execution of knowledge is more important than simply knowing something. It’s not possible in this era of information overload for her to know everything starting out. She has to learn by doing, making mistakes, and correcting course.
It has gotten me thinking, along with having written a garden onto a spaceship in my latest book, about gardening in general. But that’s not what I came here to talk about today. Rather, it’s a comment one of my alpha readers made while I was working on Tanager’s Fledglings and she was reading along.
I wrote a scene with the main character lamenting his limited potable water supply and how he’d have to wait on a long shower until he reached a station or planet. My alpha reader inserted a comment that it would be very simple to turn his shipboard garden into a giant water filter. I replied that “I know that, and you know that, and he doesn’t know that… Yet.”
It’s hard, as an author, to know all the things, but withhold that from the story until the time is right. In this case, my character has access to the information on how to build what he needs, but it’s never occurred to him to do it that way. It will take an outside influence in the form of another character for him to have that forehead slapping d’uh! Moment.
Because life is like that. To create a believable character, you can’t have them knowing everything. We all have those sudden eureka moments as we figure something out, usually something that should have been blindingly obvious to us in the first place. Now, you don’t want your character to be an idiot about it, either. As I said, it’s hard.
Sometimes we just have to figure things out the hard way. For instance, every writer is different. Some need a secluded room in the house, no interruptions, just a blank desk, a pencil, and a piece of paper. That would drive me nuts, and I know it. So when we moved, a few months back, I set up my big desk and main computer in the common household area. I thought the background noise of kids and the dog playing, easy access to the kitchen while I was cooking, that would help me work.
It turned out I was wrong. I’ve done my best, most prolific days at a table in my bedroom, typing on my laptop, with the door firmly closed between me and my family. I can still hear them, but they aren’t tapping me on the shoulder, wanting to play on my computer, and so forth. This does have some serious drawbacks. It means that I can’t hear the oven timer, and the kids can’t access me instantly which makes them pout.
On the other hand, it’s possible the next book will insist on a different layout. But I don’t think so. I just need to get into the groove. I’ve been cultivating words, researching, thinking about character motivation, trying to decide what’s the overall arc of this book, within the series it is set in… Just like a garden, it’s all about the soil. Build up a great soil, full of rich humus and a bit of sand for drainage…
Which brings me back to the gardens on a ship. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a ripe tomato warm from the sun, or the first strawberry of spring, will wonder about the quality of such raised in space, with no sun, and possibly no soil. Does that gardener know what they are missing? They may know in theory that microbes in the soil contribute far more to successfully gardening than we realize, now (but are starting to learn). They might even have the technology to inoculate their soil with a suite of beneficial microbes, fungus, and invertebrates. But just like in the human body, under the right circumstances those benefits can become opportunistic pathogens, and wreak havoc.
Why yes, I am planning a story where gardening gone awry threatens life itself…
There are many ways to create conflict in a story. In life, we tend to avoid conflict as much as possible, if we aren’t looking for trouble with a chip on our shoulder. But as an author, we know that if our story is to be interesting, stuff has to happen. A story in which there is no conflict is not a story. Yes, I know someone can likely name a book in which there is no conflict, but I stand by my assertion – I wouldn’t want to read it!
Now, the conflict doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t start out with “and then, she had to save the universe.” No, you reach that through the gentle art of escalation. My common shorthand for plotting is ‘chase your hero up a tree, and then throw rocks at him.’ Being me, I also let him figure out how to get back down and save the day, but I’m not a horror or Literary writer.
I had a classic case happen in my life yesterday, which led me to thinking about this, as I’m also working on scaling up the final conflict and climax in my work in progress. Picture this: our character has a job interview. And a dinner party later in the day, which she is hostessing. No problem, there is plenty of time for both. She can’t find her suit slacks, as her daughter’s wear the same size she does, but again, rolling with it and heading out the door. Finding the location of the building, buzzing in and obtaining a badge, goes smooth. Eventually someone comes out to greet her, our character remembers her name, follows her around the corner and…
Into a room where two other people are sitting. Unprepared for a committee interview, this is the first step in escalation. They sit, she sits, and looks down at the table. There’s a sheet with a familiar math problem on it. The first step of the interview is for our character to do math, with three strangers staring. She chokes.
Escalation is intended to put our hero in a book into positions where he can dig himself a hole, and try to get back out of it. The classic try-fail sequence is usually repeated in three’s, allowing for the final triumph to have that much more impact as he finally learns, grows a strength he didn’t know he had, and wins the day.
The math? Well, telling funny stories, getting it about half right even without a scientific calculator to use (classic double take and lifted eyebrow made the whole team bust up) and going on to geek out the quiet member of the team talking instrumentation and accuracy may have won the day. It certainly made our example of escalation feel better on leaving the building.
Giving the character in our book the false feeling of confidence is a great way to set up a secondary conflict, as he trips gaily along the path to home and dinner, having escaped the tree with the rock-thrower (who probably got bored and wandered off), and steps right into a pit in the middle of the path. Oh, Hero! Why don’t you look where you are going?
Real life? Leave the interview feeling like it was good in the end, run through the grocery, get home, pull into the driveway… And get a phone call. It’s a recruiter for a different job, could you please email me… Cooking, emails, phone calls. Dear sweet fuzzy Lord above, why the he*% am I getting four calls from different recruiters about the same job in one hour?!
A great way to escalate conflict in a book is to make one conflict into two, oh, wait no, it’s three now… Suddenly our hero is juggling a fall into a pit, the previous occupant being a hungry tiger, and his wife is home in their boma slapping a cooking pot against her palm suggestively while food is getting cold.
And then, in the real world, just when you have the bread sticks final rising, the phone rings again. It’s the first recruiter. Do you have time for a short phone interview? Oh, sure, why not, company isn’t due until 7 and it’s not 5 yet. As our character is hanging up the phone and printing out paperwork, there’s a knock…
Our hero in the tiger pit has to claw, bite, and scratch his own way out. If that is through a superhuman burst of strength and ability due to his love and respect for the woman tapping her toe impatiently next to her ruined dinner, all well and good. But having someone else happen along and scoop him out is never a satisfactory ending. The cake has to be real, not a phantom lure which vaporized when your reader reaches it.
The dinner was good, the cake was real, and our hero was forgiven when he arrived with a new tigerskin rug.
Go see how you can practice the gentle art of escalation in your stories. Remember, dropping a mountain on your hero right out of the box just breaks the poor unsuspecting souls. Build up to it, and you’ll have something worth reading.
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
— Robbie Burns, To a Mouse
I had a very busy day yesterday, little of it related to writing, and something happened in the morning that got me thinking about plotting. So this morning I’m trying to compile my thoughts into a useful form, typoing in the dark (not an actual typo) and taking a page from Dave Freer’s book by using a bit of poetry. It’s a well-known bit there in the middle of the first stanza I’ve quoted. (That’s by no means all of the poem, and if you can read dialect you should enjoy the whole thing.)
What happened in the morning, you’re wondering, and am I ever coming back to it? Yes, I am! The strange thing that happened started in the bathroom, where my First Reader gave the dog a bath. Now, the door to the backyard where the Beast hangs out is reachable through the kitchen, so the first I knew of it, was a wet dog running into the kitchen where I was making lists for the day of cooking and canning.
Now you’re wondering what this can possibly have to do with plotting. Is it the surprise element? The sudden violent death of a community of fleas happily living on their doggy planet?
No, this is about cascades and consequences. You see, I try to keep the kitchen floor reasonably clean, but between Miss MuddyPaws (yes, the dog has a lot of names. Officially, she only has one, Tricksy. It’s descriptive of her) coming in and out the back door, and three child-things who are using the same door, the kitchen floor suffers. This is, sort of, like your protagonist’s life. It’s not perfect, It’s old, beat-up linoleum, but he’s content with it the way he has it, and he’ll straighten it out when he has the time.
Now, along comes the author like a wet dog shaking out her (fortunately short) fur all over the place and leaving pawprints. Your protagonist is suddenly in trouble. Not a lot of trouble, just enough to have him reaching for a kitchen rag with a slight feeling of dismay. Wiping down the fridge, our hero looks at his life (the floor) and realizes that the wet pawprints are a little muddy. Good Heavens, that did more damage than he thought. Time to pull out the mop and do a bit more damage control…
As an author, it’s tempting to let the characters we’ve created rest on their laurels. This can lead to what my First Reader calls the Golden Boy syndrome, where no matter what happens in the book, you just know it’s going to be all right. There’s no tension in any crisis, we know the hero will win. In this case, the mop will rub out the pawprints, and the kitchen work can begin anew and…
Nope. You know what’s coming next. Or you think you do. You might not expect that the brand-new sponge mop, still with the sponge wrapped in plastic, would snap in half when the plastic was pulled off. Our hero has completed his first try-fail sequence, and is now standing there with a perfectly good mop-handle, an effective weapon… but not the right tool for the job at hand. Here, we could cast him into despair. He could collapse in tears on the muddy floor, flailing with his rag and making it all worse. But you and I, we like Human Wave stories, so instead he just pulls the sponge off and tosses it, puts the mop handle where it could be used if needed, and pulls another mop out. Our hero is resourceful. He’s got no less than three mops in there with the broom.
At this point in the story it’s time to talk about escalation. That first crisis point wasn’t too bad, really. A quick swipe, and you’d have it all cleaned up, you think. The broken mop, well, that was a minor obstacle. But what you, my dear author, are going to throw at Heroic Mopper next is bigger, more time-consuming, and will take a lot more effort to cope with. He’s got his mop-bucket, a rag mop (not ideal for the job, but less fragile than the sponge) and he’s all ready to go… until he realizes that the floor a lot dirtier than he thought. He stares in dismay at the very muddy water now in the mop bucket, and takes a deep breath. Mentally rolling up his sleeves, he pours some vinegar in the water (because for some reason there is no floor cleaner in the house) and starts to get the whole floor wet, not just where the pawprints were.
Our hero is now stuck into the job, he has to go on, and get it done, there’s no going back. And we’re not going to make it easy on him, as authors. We’re going to force him to adapt, improvise (the vinegar) and overcome. In writing, this will appeal a lot more to readers than the guy who has all his sh*t together, can instantly lay his hands on the right tool, and probably didn’t have a dirty kitchen floor to begin with. However, even with our man making progress, we’re not going to stop throwing things at him. He’s going to get the whole floor damp, and then dump the (dear god where did all that dirt come from?) bucket to start a fresh batch of mop water, because this mess is too much to get in one bucket.
Now here we have a damp floor, the third sponge mop (with a self-wringer, which the rope mop did not have. We’re upgrading our hero’s weapons, since he’s having to fight and earn them), and a bucket full of clean, warm water with some vinegar in it. Our hero is going to triumph, surely! Victory is in sight! Plunge the mop in the bucket, wring it out, and….
Catch the bucket with the corner of the sponge, spilling it over most of the floor. Our hero, so elated a moment ago, stands there jaw dropping as a flood of water rushes across the floor, under the fridge, almost out the door to the front entry. As Authors, this is where we bring our hero to the breaking point. This is the lowest moment. The moment where the hidden dogbunny of dust and dog hair pops out from under the fridge to float defiantly on the cresting wave of defeat that is threatening the rest of his life… He springs into action. This time, he not only wields the mop, herding the water away from the fridge and entryway, he calls for help. With friends (coffkidscoff) at his side, he beats back the enemy, using everything in his armory against them. Mops, dirty towels from the laundry basket (damning that he’d done the laundry and there were only two he could call on), even pushing water out the back door and into the yard, he’s finally got the enemy licked.
And then, the crisis over, our hero can pack up the tools, put the bucket away, hang the towels to dry a bit before returning to the laundry, and look contentedly at his kitchen floor. It’s cleaner than it was, for sure. There’s still some damp patches, but those will dry. You, the author, can foreshadow a lead-in to a new book by inserting a little about the dogbunny cowering under the bed, shaking his wee fist and vowing revenge on his drowned and trashed cousin. But the Heroic Mopper stands triumphant, and then you give the readers their cigarette moment.
What’s that? Well, Dan Hoyt is the man who explained it to me as the moment of satisfaction following the final climax of the book. The hero had triumphed, and now you give him – and your readers – a moment of peace, a glimpse of the rewards he’d fought so hard for. In the Heroic Mopper’s case, that would be making Lego gummy candies, processing twenty pounds of peaches, making peach skin jelly from the peels, making a chocolate mayonnaise cake, and a batch of Old-Fashioned Ice Cream. Then he can stand there smiling while his family feasts, with a clean floor under his feet.