Thursday, January 27, 2011

Plot Regurgitation: Some Notes On Pacing

First I'd like to apologize for such a late post. Currently Comcast has been dragging their feet in fixing our apartment's internet connection, so I've started writing this at work.

That aside, a recent conversation with a coworker about his book brought up an issue I've noticed before in workshops I've attended. Heck, I openly admit that I have been guilty of doing this, myself.

So you've created this great character with a complex and intriguing background, or this well thought out history or mythology to the world you've made up. Basically, in other words, you've done your pre-writing homework. Now you actually need to write the story. You may think: "Oh, well I need to immerse my reader into the world by detailing the political or religious history so they will understand the feelings and context this world is in!" or: "I need to detail everything that has happened up to this point in the plot in exposition and then I can start the current story!" or even: "I've introduced this character, now I must tell his entire back story for the reader to fully understand him!".


I remember the time when my previous boyfriend and I had borrowed a friend's copy of M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water. We didn't get past the first two minutes of it because we felt the prologue alone told us the entire rest of the movie, and there was no point in watching the remaining 118 minutes.

See what I mean? Sometimes introducing the world's mythology at the beginning of the story can be effective, but notice how I use the world "introduce" in this statement. What most often happens when you announce every detail of background for a plot point or a character, whatever you write will more than likely read like the following:
A. A book synopsis
B. A role-playing game character profile
C. A text book

Are any of those stories or novels? Only partially, and I will tell you why. A book should not be a departure and an arrival, it is a journey.

No! Not that kind of journey!
 The reader does not want to know everything up front because it deprives him or her the joy of discovering it on the way. You will actually find that by regurgitating the why and what of a person, place, or thing before the reader has even had a chance to digest the fact that a story has begun at all, you will be limited in writing beyond it and in reaching out to your readers because like in Lady in the Water, learning the "how" is no longer as interesting.

So what about the brilliant ideas you came up with? Should you just hide them in a drawer for only the code-breaking metaphor hounds to find out? Not quite. While you don't want to give away the mystery as quickly as a drunk cheerleader on prom night, you probably won't want it as cryptic and impenetrable as a Virginia Woolf novel. Relax, take a deep breath, and take a look at some of these strategies you can use to make your plot flow a little more naturally:

-Find opportunities to provoke conversation or memories in the characters involved. These memories, comments, or asides can be revealed by anything from an off-hand comment another character makes, to the appearance of a painting of some historical event.

-Dreams are a powerful thing, they don't necessarily have to be a reliving of an event, but could also be a symbolic reflection of previous choices.

-Different characters often have differing opinions on everything. Create arguments, actions, and reactions to whatever is in question. Does this character have a reputation of being a liar and a theif? How do the people around him react to his presence? Was there a war five years ago between bordering countries? Build your environment around the situation with consideration to how your history shaped the place and people.

- Does your short story sound like a plot synopsis before the final scene? Either break it up throughout the scene, or turn it into the novel it wants to be by making each notable past event a scene in the book.

-Put yourself in the mind of whoever has the point of view. Do they know every detail of what preceded this moment? Probably not. Have them discover it along the way.

-Still want to introduce the past at the beginning? You still can, but like I said, introduce it. Give the bare bones, or even tell the commonly known version and use the following story to either reveal how there is either much more to it, or how it may be covering up what really happened.

There are certainly more ways to reveal a background, and you will probably discover them by slowing down and telling the story as it happens. I have said this before, and I will continue to say this in pretty much every post: pay attention to your story. If you become a reader of your writing, you will find yourself enjoying the journey as much as they are.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Writing Lessons Learned From My Cat

My cat, Schrodinger, has often been patient with my nasty writing habit and how it has deprived him of play and head scratches. He "helps" me by using my keyboard or wrist as a pillow:

I'm helping mama write!

He's doing this right now, mind you. So out of either curiosity, distraction, or boredom (more likely the first two), I started to wonder that if he could speak English, what advice would he offer me for writing my book. Here's a few off the top of my head:

1. Chase the dangling string.
If you are writing along and some detail, subplot, or character comes wandering along and dangles itself in front of you (I'm sorry, I really can't think of a way to not make this sound dirty), don't ignore it! Chase after it! You never know what exciting places it will lead you! Just remember to integrate it into your story, rather than abandon the latter for the excitement of the string.

2. Get the ball rolling.
You can imagine what your story will be from start to finish, you can think up entertaining characters and exotic locations galore. But unless you actually start writing, it never going to what you imagined it to do. The ball will just sit there, being a ball. Get it rolling, bouncing, and flying--it's only fun that way.

3. Go where you're not supposed to go.
Remember those annoying messages your literary minded creative writing professor told you? No science fiction, fantasy, or horror? No character deaths? No cliches? Sneak around them and jump on the proverbial counter! Find a way to use these things in a way that's innovative and never done before and no red pens, shaker cans filled with pennies, or strips of double-sided tape will stop you!

4. If it's crap, then bury it.
Sometimes no matter what we do to a certain story, nothing can breathe life into it. The characters are boring and unsympathetic, the plot refuses to budge from its banal course, and the language causes rolling eyes rather than raised eyebrows. When a thousand rewrites make it even worse than when you started, when you have fallen out of love with your story and it sort of sits there and rots, eating your time and stinking up your inspiration like a deadbeat ex-boyfriend, let it go. Some crap will not become anything more crap and keeping it around will only be toxic to you. Bury it and get working on something fresher that inspires you.

That's all I can think of for today and I will certainly bring the cat back in another post if the mood strikes me. Also I need to get the ball back rolling on my own book.
Happy writing!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On Writing Oneself Into A Corner

We've all been in this situation before. You're writing away at a fast, action-packed, suspense-filled scene. Your characters are all in place, you see the end of the chapter in sight. Then all of a sudden you realize you're standing at the edge of a proverbial cliff in your plot line and you have no idea how to build a bridge across it.

"Make something up!" You say, which is the obvious, but often misleading answer on how easy it is to build a strong, seamless connection from that point to where you planned on being. You, bold and intrepid writer, have written yourself into a corner.

Because all the good pictures cost money...pic by Thristian

Traditional advice for writer's block often results in cliches (ex: make something explode), or steeping one in further confusion as to where to go because the advice only applies for the destination rather than the journey(ex: killing a character). Unfortunately, such advice may either discourage you with how it does not apply to your conundrum, or cause you to believe that the solution will just hit you randomly as you're out picking up some Mountain Dew from the 7-11 in the middle of the night.  Before you place that manuscript aside for inspiration to strike you, keep in mind that a high frequency of epiphanies only occur in movies for the sake of keeping a plot within 120 minutes. More than likely if you table that book, you'll either forget about it, or scrap it for the excitement gained in starting a new one. Thus you need to find another strategy to get on with the most important thing, the story.

Here are a few strategies that may help you get out of that corner.

-Research some aspect of what just happened in the plot, or even some object of significance. Or even do some research on a plot point you are planning on bringing up later. Sometimes you'll find a cool fact or addition that fits perfectly into your story.

-Read a book! Read several books! I don't mean books on writing, I mean some of your favorite books or books within the setting or genre you are writing. See if there are any situations similar to your own and analyze what the author does with them. I'm not telling you to plagiarize another person's work, but you'd be surprised how learning to pay attention to what you read will make you notice possible pathways out of a roadblock that you may never have thought of taking--whether they are a new take on a previously written idea, or something entirely your own.

-Look at what's available to your characters and MacGuyver it. Was there anything in the setting you described that could be used to solve their problem or to segue you to the next plot point? Think of a creative way to use it to your advantage--combine it with something else until you have a working Rubes Goldsberg machine of plot!

-Take a vote! Have a couple of ideas already thought up, but you can't decide which one sounds the most awesome out of them? Bend the ear of a few friends, family members, or your writing peers with your ideas. Oftentimes they can point out any holes in your logic, or any cliches so you can narrow down the list a little.

-Pay attention! Question everything that just happened. Put yourself not only in the point of view of your characters, but the point of view of everything around them. Consider your character's tendencies, emotions, and instincts. Consider the environment and the actions just taken within it. How would anything or anyone respond given what has just happened. Environments and bystanders are never static in real life, so why should they be in books? If you think laterally, you'll find the path really is just the next logical step in action and your characters and your world will write it for you.

Keep in mind that all of these strategies will only work if you are immersing yourself into your story. Relax, stop worrying so much about presenting something new when you already have a rich world with living characters who will react to whatever comes up. If they can't properly jump through the hoop you placed in front of them, realize whatever they do to get around it can be just as interesting--and possibly better for them.

So what do you do to get yourself out of writing into a corner?

Monday, January 17, 2011

First Post, and "Hand Puppet" Characters.

First, I would like to welcome you to my blog on fiction writing. While currently working on my novel, casually searching for an MFA program, and offering advice to other people in my writing group, I've often found myself musing or ranting on certain aspects of writing fiction. This is why I have created this blog--to write down my thoughts and experiences on the subject, and get it in a (somewhat!) organized state to someday teach it.

Today I would like to address the subject of what I call "hand puppet" characters. The hand puppet character is often what happens when the writer gets either lazy or too concerned with moving the plot. The hand puppet is often mistakenly referred to as a "talking head", a character that has no other purpose than provide exposition, or the "mini-me" which is self-explanatory. While all three character types have useful applications which may come up in later posts, they are something you should strive to avoid.

To understand what the hand puppet is, picture yourself putting on a puppet show at the last minute with a three hour long script (which was also written at the last minute). At first the puppets seem interesting--they may have a deep voice, or curly red hair. They may be wearing an antique pocket watch from WWII, or have lit sparklers for eyes (not recommended, by the way). But after awhile, while the characters may have different purposes, or even opinions, they end up all sounding, speaking, and moving the same exact way (especially if you burned your hand on the sparklers). This tendency, my friend, lends itself all to easily to writing.

A mini-me character is often easier to fix than a hand puppet because unlike the mini-me, the hand puppet makes or has different choices and opinions than the writer. A difference in action, however, only makes the character a little less flat and homogeneous than all the others based on their creator. Granted, you don't need to describe the eating or nose-picking habits of every extra on the scene (that's why they're extras), but for anyone who will be making an impression, or even a secondary appearance, it is crucial that you give them at least some semblance of an identity.

Photo by Merwig
One of the easiest methods I've found for solving the hand puppet problem is finding a person you know to base the character off of. I don't mean just making the character look like this person, I mean you need to study this person. One point I will bring up often in this blog is to not skimp out on your research. Think about this person, what gestures does he often use while speaking? What mannerisms does he display when they feel a certain way? What are some phrases he uses often? Does he have an accent and how does it relate to his experience or upbringing? Why do they respond in such manners? Observe and keep questioning. Imagine how a conversation would go with one of your other characters and this person. Are there any disgusting and quirky habits? Take note of these and incorporate them into the actions and dialogue of this character. This is only an exercise and not every character is going to have a perfect match to someone you know (in fact, it's often better that way), but this is only a start.

You can also try going to a bar, a coffee shop, a book store (heck, even the waiting room at the doctor's office) and people watching. Pick out any person or group and create characters in your mind--take note of how they relate to each other, imagine what they are thinking, question why they're doing that weird thing with their ears, create a background based off their appearances. Become an observer in human behavior and the possibilities for fleshed out characters will be endless.

These are only a few suggestions to get started and feel free to comment on these or your own methods. In the meantime, happy writing!