Sunday, March 30, 2008

on plot points

One of the ways in which we divvy up styles is by designating a given fiction either plot-driven or character-driven. The plot-driven piece follows a series of specific action points—places in which particular things happen to drive the story forward. The degree to which this aligns with an actual formula—say, rom-com, thriller, or heroic journey—varies.

When it comes to writing my own fiction, I've always taken my cues from the characters themselves. Though I've tried outlining plot, it pretty much falls by the wayside once the folks in my story start doing stuff. Events follow the interactions of my characters rather than the plot informing what the characters do.

What a writer gives up by writing a character-driven novel is the cruise control expectation many readers have grown accustomed to. Not all readers want to be drawn in to the ruminations, wrong turns and epiphanies experienced by characters—they'd rather see things happen to them without having to invest in the big voice—the unresolved issues—the pain. When literature explores the big questions, readers cannot blithely turn from their own knock-about concerns—instead, they have to stare them in the face. Not everyone wants to feel when they read. Mostly, they want to escape.

That's not to say that the character-driven novel shouldn't work towards climax, or have tension or include lots of action. The best novels I've read lately do both. Take Tom Perrotta's Little Children for instance. I can't think of a novel that handles multiple points of view, culmination of event and eerie tension better than that book. When the shit hits the fan the reader is absorbed, but also led to question his stance on morality, humanity and wrath.

I guess what I want from my own book is what I look for in the work of others: things that happen to characters I'm invested in, as well as an invitation to ponder the larger story, one that connects me to realities I would otherwise not embrace.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Here we are on yet another ski trip. Life is tough.

Rachel and her son Alex are actually the leap off characters of "The Secret," in that it was their Rhode Island summer home we visited when the kernel for the novel took form. I'm sitting here the day after the glorious day of skiing, in the woodsy vacation home Rachel rented, and it's snowing out the window. It's the type of day where everyone is curled up with an activity, and the occasional blanket fort gets built. A pan of brownies is cooling on the stove. The little terrier is lying under the coffee table. Kirk is helping the boys write backwards and every few minutes they leap up to check their efforts in the mirror.

I'm trying to gear up to write the next scene in my novel, which will be the opposite of this comfy idyll. Instead of hunkered down and phlegmatic, the scene needs to be energized and contentious. I'm almost loath to introduce the psychic energy of a family in maximum entropy. Couldn't I write a sex scene instead? There hasn't been a lot of sex in the book thus far, and if I ever want it to sell, that needs to be corrected. Certainly introducing THAT energy into the book wouldn't mess with the "chi" of my vacation…

Sunday, March 23, 2008

asking for help

I've started the second act of The Secret of Love!

Aside from the excitement of that, I must report that I just had a brain-storming session with my wonderful boyfriend. Who, it turns out, is a great collaborator. What every writer should have in a partner is someone who asks questions, offers solutions, and doesn't get mad if you completely blow off their wonderful suggestions.

Here we are in this lodge up on Mt. Hood. It's the Mazama Lodge--shrine to mountain climbing expeditions and all things rugged and green. NOBODY IS HERE!!! It's sort of creepy, like The Shining--120 feet of snow, caretakers, and us: Kirk, Carson and me. And that goat with the scrotum growing under its chin. But I digress.

Nothing evokes failure of spirit like having to come up with yet another beginning. Act one is over, and I have to traipse across the country, introduce new characters, and evolve the plot line enough to get readers engaged, not lost, and intrigued. So I asked Kirk to help me set this all up. He sat with me on one of the seventeen couches in this expansive venue, and rapid fired several potential scenarios. One or two sounded plausibly, so I dug in while he took the 8-yr old down for a robust game of foosball (is there anything better than a boyfriend who will actually play with your kid while you write?)

Meanwhile, I plunked myself down with some general direction, and usurped some details from a feng shui gathering I recently attended, co-opted a possible scenario from the boyfriend chat, and plunged into part two.

Okay, all you novelists and first-timers: I'm here to invite you to seek assistance. Call on your significant other to get the wheels turning. Bend your boyfriend's ear. Get the conversation started and forge ahead.

The night is young.

Friday, March 21, 2008

show and tell

Last night before workshop I was giving the elevator speech on why I ended the first act with a denouement scene instead of an oh-my-god scene and the conversation ended up the way so many conversations about writing do—character development vs action. Being a chick, and given my predilection towards relationships, I'm drawn to scenes that offer glimpses into "THE BROKEN HEART."

I realize not everyone has that preference though.

"Give your character a piece of physical business." That's quite often the prime directive. If you want to engage, say my workshop cronies, don't just have a bunch of folks in the room sitting around the table navel-gazing and lamenting.

Interestingly enough, there's been a shift around OUR table lately. Several workshopees have been exploring graphic novels. One is writing/drawing one, one is using elements of cartoon in his work and another has been asked to write an introduction to a comic book. While the invitation in a graphic novel is to show stuff happening, more often than not characters are alone with their thought bubbles. But because of the visual medium, the audience is "shown" instead of "told" the state of a character. Facial expressions, physical business, activity—these are all implicit in the form. The image is supplied, and therefore does not have to be described.

In lieu of providing a sketch, writers need to impart physical activity without interrupting the tone of the story. It's one of those horizontal/vertical balance conundrums. You describe the activity and advance the plot (e.g. moving characters from a to b, setting up the scene), while deepening the character by moving her into (emotional) danger and creating, in the reader, a desire to give a shit.

The last scene of my first act is all about making a case for the reader to care about Fifi, at the expense, I suppose, of drawing the reader into a cliffhanging situation. I'm not sure it works, but I truly won't know until I get to the end of the first draft.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

first act in the can

I finally finished a first draft on the first third of my novel. I think. 82 pages of set-up, drama and cliff-hanging.

My new solution to the problem of word count generation is to get up with Kirk. (insert a smacking palm to the forehead.) That's the guaranteed hour: 5:30 - 6:30. Before client e-mails and Carson's needs and even before the dog and cat have the right to demand to be fed.

Of course I'm going to be derailed immediately as next week is spring break and the occasion for slothful mornings and recreation-filled afternoons and over-indulging evenings full of whiskey and hot tubs. Oh yeah, and I'll still have to work. Why did God invent wi-fi, anyway?


Saturday, March 08, 2008

back in love with the secret to love

After a hiatus from The Secret to Love, in which I wrote three drafts of a short story for a local anthology, I'm back to Fifi and the gang. The respite freed me up, but also confounded me, in that I forgot some of the reasons why I'd started to love my narrator. Absence, when it comes to narrative development, does NOT make the heart grow fonder. It makes the heart indifferent. Sigh.

Anyway, at workshop I read a rewrite I'd rewritten over a month ago. Actually, two months ago. The good news is, I was distant enough from its creation that I was taking the pages in like a reader as I shared them. I was reading as one of the others at the table—and therefore much more available to the critique. In fact, the misgivings I felt upon reading the piece were similar to those voiced—but, since I still had the relationship of creator, I was able to see how something that didn't work COULD, in fact, work if I wove some stuff in earlier.

I'm peppering the broth with a new layer of "secret" and I'm hoping that will add some dimension to the girls' (Fifi and Ursula) relationship.

I'm committed to full reengagement with the project now. Which means daily attention. Watch the word count. It's gonna go up!