Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Plots and subplots

On October 5, 2014, unsocialized homeschooler wrote, I'm on the fifth draft of my novel (oh the joy of calling my work a novel!) and I think I've lost my way. Originally the story was simple--boy likes girl, boy writes anonymous letters to girl, girl gets in trouble because of boy, girl hates boy, boy saves girl. Okay, so maybe not that simple, but now it's really complicated. There are multiple perspectives, half a dozen more important characters, and another subplot. With all this extra stuff, the stuff that made up my first draft now only takes up a quarter of the novel. Part of me thinks that all the extra characters, subplots, points-of-view, and stuff should all go, but the other part of me really really really likes all the characters I've added. 

So do I cut out all the stuff in an attempt to recapture the original magic of my story? Or do I leave it all in and re-write the story from scratch for the third time and embrace the new magic of my story? Any suggestions?

Most stories follow one or two MCs, who have goals, who face problems, who overcome for a happy ending or fail for a tragic one. But exceptions abound. An example that leaps to mind is the novel (high school and above, I think) Exodus by Leon Uris, which I read decades ago, and which follows multiple characters. The problem of the story, the founding of Israel, doesn’t belong to just one or two MCs, but the struggle unites the narrative.

So that’s one way, a connecting thread. If we look over our story with its octopus tentacles of plot and POV, can we find or devise a problem that unifies everything? Suppose that overarching issue is the romance, and let’s call unsocialized homeschooler’s boy Rafe, and girl Stella. Our other POV characters are Stella’s sister, Pauline; Rafe’s best friend, Tom; Stella’s ex-boyfriend, Oscar; the principal of their high school, Ms. Quincy; and–oh, let’s mix it up–Mellie, Rafe’s cat, who, unbeknownst to everyone, has recently achieved human intelligence due to a freak accident with lightning one night when she got out of the house to go prowling.

Since our unifying problem is the romance, each character has to be invested in its success or failure. Let’s say Mellie, who used to have a happy social life with other cats, now finds her former friends dull. She’s miserable and wants to spread it around, so she’s trying to sabotage the romance. The reader is interested in how she goes about this, and also in whether or not she’s going to remain super-intelligent and whether Rafe is going to figure out her transformation.

Say Oscar, Stella’s ex, wants the relationship to succeed. He’s mad at Stella for their break-up and he thinks (rightly or wrongly) that she and Rafe will be wretched together. He’s moved on, but his new relationship is troubled. If he gets to a better place, he may be kinder to Stella, so the reader is caught up in his story, too.

You get the idea. The lives of these other characters work because of the bearing they have on the main event, and also because we’ve, naturally, made their personalities and their stories compelling.

Now I’m thinking of the novel, Hawaii by James Michener (again, high school and up), another book that I read as a young adult. It proceeds chronologically and tells the story of the islands, starting with the geological events that created them. The six sections are separated by time gaps. One is about the Chinese immigration, another about the influx from Japan, and I don’t remember what else. Each part, as I recall, is long enough to be a novella and to be satisfying, and each stands alone. I don’t think characters appear in more time period.

So that’s another approach, a chronological ordering. We can start our story in the past. Rafe and Stella can be the patriarch and matriarch, from whom everyone else descends. Their romance can be successful, but there’s a problem that succeeding generations have to work out.

A third way might be through theme. Now I’m thinking about Little Women. The MCs are sisters, which makes their coexistence in a story natural, but each has her own narrative arc. One chapter belongs to one, another to another.  They come together in the theme, which is growing up.

Love can be our theme in this example. The cat Mellie may find a turtle who was similarly storm-struck and whose intelligence was also enhanced. The two bond, and the reader experiences inter-species affection. Ms. Quincy becomes increasingly engaged with her job. She embraces the challenge of running a successful school (falling in love with her work). Oscar could be the failure. His new relationship founders, and his subplot is of love gone awry.

Writing in third-person can provide unity of voice, too. All of the books I mentioned are in third-person, but I don’t think that’s a necessity. Variety is fun for the reader, in my opinion.

Going in a different direction, however, we can decide that some of our subplots, new characters, and POVs deserve their own stories. We can split them off and give them their day in the sun. If we do, we may be able to be more expansive with them and not have to cram their problems into a story that belongs primarily to others (Rafe and Stella).

I’m painfully aware that I sometimes over-complicate my plots, and the result is that the tension flags. Then I have to slash and burn to get things rocketing along again. Many of us may struggle with this.If this is happening in your story or in unsocialized homeschooler's, simplifying may be the only answer.

To go back to unsocialized homeschooler’s question: I can’t say whether she should cut back, embark on draft number six, or find some middle. Here on this blog we don’t mind writing again and again to get it right. The point is to create a sense of continuity.

Here are four prompts:

Little Women is old enough to be in the public domain, which means you can fool around with it and not worry about copyright infringement. It’s possible that there’s more to Jo’s story than Louisa May Alcott was able to cram in with all the demands of the other sisters. Write a story about Jo that isn’t in the book. You can even make her an only child if you like. Then go on and write separate stories about each sister. You can also write one about Laurie. If you’re inspired, each one can be a novel, and the result can be a series.

Write a story about Rafe and Stella and the others with the overarching problem being their romance. Add or subtract characters at will. Try it in third person and then in first from more than one POV.

Write a story about them using the chronological approach. Rafe and Stella are the founders of the family, and they set up a mystery that succeeding generations have to resolve. Each secondary character can be the MC of a generation, or two of them can exist at the same time. Don’t forget Mellie the cat!

Treat these characters thematically. Their stories are united by a common theme, which can be love or anything else.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Known quantities

Just curious: Did anyone join in the Woozworld event? I found it strange and didn’t feel as if I met anyone, really. If you were there, what was your experience?

Here’s a link to an interesting article in The New York Times about the cheerful bias in journalism and, by extension I guess, in humanity: I think it’s something to keep in mind as we write stories.

On September 18th or later, writeforfun wrote, I’ve been meaning to start writing the third book in my trilogy for months now, but I’m stuck, and a big part of it, I think, is that I can’t seem to keep my characters interesting enough for a third book. Perhaps that doesn’t make sense. You see, in book one, my MC, Ben gets kidnapped by the five others, grows to accept them, and then gets rescued by them – and he ends up marrying one of them. In book two, all six of them are the MC’s, and they all go on a top-secret mission with a couple of CIA agents to save the world, and learn how awesome they can be. In book three, all six of the MC’s have to track down a mysterious criminal who is trying to capture Ben and his wife’s daughter. This’s where I run into trouble. Half of the book is about Ben’s daughter (that half comes with its own set of problems). The other half is about the six of them trying to catch the stalker, but the whole thing just doesn’t seem new and interesting enough. I mean, we’ve already learned about these characters and seen them reacting in regular life, and we’ve seen them in action and being awesome. What now? I know my characters and I love them like they’re my family, and it’s not that I’m really bored with them; but I can’t think of anything that will really keep me, or the reader, motivated to keep watching them. Is there any way to keep well-known, previously established characters interesting and surprising?

Michelle Dyck responded: First idea off the top of my head is: if you're getting bored with the characters, maybe they're getting bored with each other. It sounds as if they've been together for a long time. Even if they're close, so much time together can give rise to conflicts (petty or otherwise). Just think of sibling rivalry.

And Deborah O'Carroll sympathized: I'm having a similar problem with a trilogy of mine... I'm trying to write the second book, but in the first one I already had monsters and trying-to-save-the-world, so going down a step to minor mysteries seems like an anticlimax, and I'm worried about the third as well... PLUS all the characters know each other now, and them not being sure about one of the characters the first time around was the other main source of tension... I'm trying to add some excitement, and keep a little leftover tension between the characters, plus I have some pretty big surprises the character has been keeping from the others, one for this book and another for the third.

And Elisa suggested: Maybe you could add a new member to the group, one that not everyone knows or completely trusts. Perhaps a former criminal who worked with the "mysterious criminal" in your book. S/he could end up being either good or bad, but it would help up the tension whichever way you go.

I’ve said this before: We tend to be a little over-critical of our work, and I wonder if this is the problem now, because when I love a series I don’t mind that the characters are known quantities. In fact, their familiarity is part of what I enjoy, spending more time in their delightful company. For example, I adore the characters in the Discworld series: all the witches, Sam Vines and the others on the City Watch, DEATH. How can I love DEATH? But I do, and I wouldn’t change a bone in his skull!

Or take Sherlock Holmes, who is reliably brilliant, enigmatic, and difficult. If I knew him in real life, I might tire of his unexplained pronouncements, his certainty that what he’s involved with is more important than anything in my life, and his reliance on unhealthy substances. But in fiction? Never!

I’ve now written two, albeit short, series: the three Disney Fairies books and the two books about Elodie and the dragon Meenore, A Tale of Two Castles and Stolen Magic. I don’t count The Princess Tales because only Ethelinda appears in two books or Fairest, because Areida is just a minor character. Part of the fun of reading a series is seeing how beloved characters will be themselves in new situations. Same goes for writing a series. In Stolen Magic, I use Elodie’s mansioning skill to actually save lives; Meenore practices ITs reasoning powers in a different setting, and I discover IT likes to sing limericks; and the ogre, Count Jonty Um, behaves nobly as usual but is appreciated as never before. Returning to them was part of the fun of the writing.

Assuming, though, that Elisa isn’t just being over self-critical, let’s explore some possibilities to create freshness.

I like Michelle Dyck’s idea of sowing dissension in the ranks of our heroes. Think of rock bands and how often they break up once they’ve achieved success. Think of anybody’s family cooped up together on a long car trip. Charming traits start to irritate, and annoying ones become character flaws as deep as the Grand Canyon. People try to behave and be their best selves, but sometimes-- sometimes often--someone erupts. Regrettable words are spoken, and rifts form that take a while to heal.

We can disable one or two or all of them or make some of them unavailable. Can be simple things. Zeke might have broken his leg. Yolanda may be babysitting her niece while her sister and brother-in-law are on vacation. Wayne is studying for exams in particle physics. Vera is in a running argument with her cousin and can think of nothing else. Uli is on an expedition to Antarctica. Tess is in a long-running chess competition. Whatever. Their attention is divided; they can’t always be there for each other. The problem needs their complete concentration, but they can't give it.

Our characters don’t have to stay the same forever. They can develop and change in good ways and bad, and they can do it in the course of the new book. We can watch in horrified fascination as Yolanda loses herself to the world of video games, where she can save universes without ever leaving her chair. Uli can achieve a higher state of consciousness through meditation, which changes his perspective on threats. In the end this higher state may contribute to the stalker’s defeat, but in the meanwhile he may seem lost to his friends. Tess can fall in love.

Are our MCs, individually or as a group, invincible? If they’ve already saved the world, is a stalker enough of a challenge? Can we introduce some new Achilles’ heels for each of them so that the threat intensifies?

We make the stalker the perfect villain for our MCs. He knows how to turn their goodness against them. He uses their own strengths to their disadvantage. This may call for more scenes for him and possibly more character development. We show how he thinks; we lay out the resources he has at his disposal; we reveal his despicable plan for Ben’s wife’s daughter. We demonstrate how he spies on our heroes, and the reader squirms as he gathers his data. In both my Fairies books and the mysteries, the excitement comes from the fresh danger, and maybe this is what we need to do here.

As Elisa suggests, we can introduce another new character, or more than one. The stalker can have allies, and there can be other characters who are trying to bring him to justice. We can have fun developing all of the newbies. The reader will be interested in how we bring them into our plot.

Here are three prompts:

Remember the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz and how she watches Dorothy and her friends in her crystal ball? The stalker has this actual ball, which he got on a trip to Oz. Write a scene in which he’s observing one or more of our heroes. You can use any of them, from Zeke to Tess, in any of the scenarios I laid out, or make up some of your own. Include his thoughts and his plans as he spies.

There have been a bunch of TV and movie spinoffs based on Sherlock Holmes. Why shouldn’t we join the fun? Holmes is presented with the problem of a missing heiress and a threat against the life of the chief of chief constable in the English town of Chipping Norton. Write the story and be sure to include Dr. Watson and arch-villain Moriarty. At least at the beginning of your story, keep them as their old selves. If you change them, make sure the reader sees the transformation take place.

The stalker is after Yolanda, who is addicted to video games. Her friends, our heroes, try one way after another to try to get her back. Following Michelle Dyck’s idea, they start to argue over their friend. Write a scene in which words are spoken that aren’t easy to take back. The band of six is disbanding. Make it happen. You decide whether or not to reunite them.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Pain! Agony!

First off: a reminder about my appearance on Woozworld on February 21st from 1:00 to 2:00 PM. I’ll be there in the form of an avatar (with gray hair and gray-green eyes--and the resemblance ends there), answering advance questions and questions that crop up at the time. If you participate, I’ll meet you through your avatar, but we probably won’t recognize each other in the actual universe. My hesitations about the event are that it may be too young for many of you, and (the more serious hesitation) that you have to join Woozworld to participate. Please discuss this with your parents before you plunge in. For the adults who read the blog--for me, if I were a follower–the attraction would be to see this method publishers are using to promote books to kids in the tween (middle-grade) age group. If you decide to attend, go to and look for the HarperCollins Bookz Lounge.

Second off: The blog recently achieved a milestone and crossed over the 500 follower mark after hovering at 497 for many months. I'm not sure what benefits there are for being a follower (please say if you know), but I love to see the numbers tick up.

And on another subject, my last post was written while on vacation in Hawaii. If you want to share in the beauty we enjoyed, click over to my husband’s photographic website on the right. Alas, the photos won’t waft in the delicious warm air...

Now for today’s topic. On September 18, 2014, Deborah O'Carroll wrote, In the latest book that I finished writing, there was a very tense and awful scene for the climax, and I piled on as much hurt as I could handle doing to the characters, but I held back a bit. Even that was awful and I almost couldn't. But I found that a couple months later, when I was editing, that since I had read the scene over several times, I was used to it. So I was able to add in some more problems to draw out the peril and seriousness of the situation even more. In that case, if I had tried to do it all at once, I wouldn't have been able to handle it (even if my characters could!).

One thing I've been worrying about lately is high stakes and peril and stuff. I have a hard time making it so that we're actually WORRIED about my characters. I think mostly I let them off too easy, and that's something I'm struggling with...

Deborah partially answered her own question at the beginning of her comment. If we let time go by before revising, we can see everything more clearly. Our characters aren’t quite as precious to us as they were during the writing, so we can torment them some more.

What can we do, though, to make the misery tolerable while we’re writing?

If we’re not writing tragedy and our MC is going to be okay in the end, and probably even better than she was at the beginning because her trials have made her grow, we can remind ourselves of that as we devise torture for her. We can even write an ending scene in which she’s fine. This may not be what we actually write when we get there, but it may make us feel better, and we can read it whenever we need courage.

We can write comforting lines to ourselves right in our manuscript, like, Remember, Gail, she’s going to survive. Then we can cut these editorial remarks when we revise, and be careful to remove all of them before submitting our story to a publisher.

We can entertain ourselves by writing on the side a monologue for our villain, in which he rejoices in every terrible thing that happens to our MC. He can even help us come up with more disasters for her. He can say, The only thing that would be better would be if... And we can put in whatever he suggests. If we don’t have a human villain, we can write in the voice of someone who doesn’t like our MC. If necessary, we can imagine such a character. The comfort in this comes from the humor.

Going the other way, we can deliberately think about how much we love our MC and how much we admire her. We can think about what a privilege it is to watch her figure things out and overcome obstacles–and then we can turn the screws on her extra hard. We remind ourselves that we don’t want her to have an easy time winning her victories, because then we won’t admire her so much. Plus, we want to tailor the obstacles so she struggles, because if success is easy, what’s to admire?

Of course we can remember that we’ll have a good story only if we make the going rough. When we spare ourselves by sparing her, we don’t wind up with much to interest our readers.

Back to my penultimate point, reader worry will intensify if the problems we’ve made for our MC push her buttons. In my novel, Ever, one of the MCs, Olus, the god of the winds, can’t tolerate being cooped up. Naturally, I confine him, and I make it a test. If he can’t cope, he loses his love.

In The Lord of the Rings, many characters, some of them beloved, like Bilbo and Frodo and even Sam, have to face their desire for power. In my opinion, it’s the central problem of the books. Some face down the temptation, but others succumb. In Anne of Green Gables, to take another example, Anne has to contend with her impulsiveness, her temper, and her unwillingness to forgive, and L. M. Montgomery keeps challenging her. One more instance: the sad core of Peter Pan is brave Peter’s cowardice about growing up.

A fun thing to do to is to think of a challenge for our MC, one we can’t figure out how to beat. Maybe we put her in a chest at the bottom of the ocean a la Houdini or we present her with a riddle that the greatest genius in world history has been unable to solve, and the consequences of failure are severe. Or we tempt her with a desire she knows is wrong.

Having said all this, I have to confess my fundamental wimpiness. I may write children’s books because there are limits to my making trouble. I create suffering for my MCs, but I doubt I’ll ever write a complete tragedy. I can’t tolerate reading tragedies or seeing them on stage or screen. To my discredit, I’ve stopped reading two beloved novelists for adults, Larry McMurtry and Mary Gordon, because their books make me too sad. I refuse to see or read King Lear (after the first time) for the same reason.

Here are three prompts of misery and suffering:

Your MC, kind and generous as he is, cannot resist pointing people’s mistakes out to them. Put him in a situation where the consequence of speaking out will be dire, and have him do it anyway. Write the scene and delay getting him out of trouble for at least five pages.

Last week the journalist Bob Simon died tragically in a car crash. The next day I heard a rebroadcast of a radio interview with him. One of the topics discussed was his forty day imprisonment in Iraq. He said that a hardship he and his companions endured was the constant cold. I confess that my mind wandered at that moment, because I can barely tolerate being cold for five minutes. If I were made to be cold all the time, I don’t know what I’d do. I might confess to anything in exchange for a warm room, a blanket, and a cup of hot chocolate. Give your MC a condition that she cannot abide and then inflict it on her. Write the scene and decide what she does.

Oh! I can barely write this prompt! If you can’t stand to do it, I’ll understand. Your MC’s parents take in their evil niece when her parents vanish mysteriously. Your MC loves animals and the niece loves to torture them and gets double pleasure out of causing her cousin misery. The family has at least one beloved pet. Write a scene or the entire story from the niece’s POV, and delay the MC’s eventual triumph for at least five pages.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Smooth sailing

Before the post, this news: On Saturday, February 21st at 1:00 PM, there will be a virtual launch party for Writer to Writer, which will run for an hour on Woozworld. HarperCollins has set this up and I've never done it before, but I'll be there answering questions. I'm a newbie, so I don't know what it will be like. There's an avatar who sort of looks like me in a funhouse mirror kind of way (minus the wrinkles). It may be a bit young for many of you, but if you're interested in ways that publishers promote books these days, this will be an example. I'm hoping that we can interact a bit and meet in this strange way. I'll post details about how you can participate if you're interested as soon as I get them, which may be between this post and the next, so stay tuned.

On August 19, 2014, Kenzi Anne wrote, Does anybody else have issues where their writing doesn't flow--it comes out choppy and episodic? I want my stories' events to lead into each other, like a domino effect where each event affects the next (like real life), which is much more fun to read and makes the story have a flow to it (in my opinion), but I just have THE HARDEST TIME IN THE WORLD with it! How do you all work with that?

The trouble may come from related problems with plot and character, which have to mesh. If they don’t, the reader has a bumpy ride. Suppose our MC, Vincia, has run away from her menial job in the laundry room of the king’s castle, where the chief laundress is a bully and where the lye that Vincia has to use to make the soap causes her hands to crack and bleed. And suppose we have in mind a series of plot points:

Vincia overhears the king’s evil minister planning to assassinate the queen.

Vincia’s brother has been captured by a brigand. She knows he’s in danger because her magic marble has turned a muddy brown.

An injured troll lies along the road that leads from the castle, the road Vincia travels.

Enemy forces allied with the evil minister are mustering at the border.

In the battle that comes, Vincia  discovers in herself unexpected sword-wielding skills.

We have an ending in mind: Vincia replaces the evil minister and becomes the closest adviser to the king and queen. Her brother becomes the emperor’s adviser in the neighboring kingdom. Peace reigns.

The trouble is that we don’t know Vincia’s character and what she wants, besides quitting the laundry. And if we don’t know, she’s just a chess piece that we move from event to event, and of course the action feels episodic, so we have to craft a personality for her in order to create continuity.

We cast our eyes over our plot points and look for a possible person to go with them. If we make a Mary Sue out of Vincia, then her overall goal will be to save the kingdom. She’ll naturally want to thwart the evil minister, save her brother, defeat the enemy, and her amazing fencing will come as no surprise to us or our readers. The story will still feel episodic because Vincia won't be real.

But there are other possibilities. Here are a few:

Vincia can be so downtrodden by her laundry experience that she doesn’t think she can help the queen. She hears the plotting, feels bad, but continues with her escape.

Vincia and her brother don’t get along. She thinks he’s an obnoxious know-it-all and a stint in captivity will do him good. Besides, the very word brigand tingles with romance for her. She’s intrigued rather than outraged.

Vincia shares the common revulsion for trolls. She doesn’t even look closely enough at this one to realize he’s wounded. Instead, she detours as far as she can from him and keeps going.

Vincia isn’t sure which side in the upcoming battle has her sympathy. After all, the chief laundress is a loyal subject of the king and queen.

Vincia hates violence. When her sword arm seems to act on its own, she exerts her will to put down the weapon.

We probably don’t want all of these. Each one makes our ending harder to achieve. But one or two will create tension, will make our readers turn pages breathlessly, and will help our story feel seamless. They'll also bring Vincia to life.

As for what Vincia wants, there are lots of possibilities. Here are a few:

A plot of land far from any castles, where she can herd goats in peace.

To clear her family name. She’s a laundry wench because her mother was accused and convicted of stealing a historic and enormous diamond from the treasury. Otherwise, Vincia would be the daughter of a duchess.

To become a skilled musician; to learn to play the lyre well enough to make her listeners feel whatever she decides they need to feel.

She may not be aware of her deepest desire, which is to become someone who can deal with a bully (and not by becoming a bully, too).

If the reader knows what she wants or needs, he’ll measure everything that happens in terms of how it moves her closer or farther from her goal, which will give our story a sense of flow.

Continuity is most easily achieved from a single POV, whether in first person or third, but it can be done from multiple POVs or from an omniscient narrator, who jumps around from one group of characters to another. At the moment, I’m reading Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett (love it!), which is told in third-person omniscient. It’s held together by an overarching problem: One of the characters is building a glass clock, which will stop time, end history, and destroy life. The story moves here and there–scenes with the clockmaker, the monks of time, DEATH and DEATH OF RATS, the granddaughter of DEATH, the “auditor” who hired the clockmaker–but it coheres because of the overarching problem. We can do that too. If the trouble is significant enough and the events move the story back and forth from danger to relief, the reader won’t feel that anything is choppy.

I noticed a couple of mechanical things Terry Pratchett does to sustain the continuity. Scene switches are separated by the italicized word Tick, which reminds the reader what’s at stake. And Pratchett ends one particular scene with the question: Who is this boy? The next scene begins with Who is this girl? And I shake my head in admiration.

Here are four prompts based on Vincia and her story:

List three more possible over-arching goals for Vincia.

Write a beginning scene between Vincia and the bullying laundress. Next, write a scene involving the brother and the brigands, and find a way to link the two, which can be subtle (as little as a hint) or obvious.

Continue, and bring the evil prime minister into the story, as well as the king and queen.

Keep going, and don’t forget the troll.

Have fun, and save what you write!