Posts Tagged ‘plot’

In the book about plot I’m reading (20 Master Plots, by Ronald Tobias), Mr. Tobias talks about how plot and structure in fiction differ from real life. In real life, he says, there are not the same links of causation. Life is chaotic and sometimes (even often), things occur because of chance and wild coincidence (whereas in fiction, it’s really hard to get away with coincidence and generally denotes sloppy plotting). Some loose ends never get wrapped up in real life, we never know the true “ending”, and much of what happens seems to be without meaning and never gets explained. The Absurdists try to reflect this random reality in their literature: Camus and Kafka are two well-known writers who do this well. (And incidentally, you know who else identifies as an Absurdist? Joss Whedon. An explanation for Puppet Angel, perhaps.)

From the TV show Angel

Theodora Goss, who has a beautiful blog, has a slightly different view: “Happiness is the ability to create satisfying stories about reality. To find the stories that fulfill you, that allow you to achieve what you desire. That fill you with joy. Because reality is, to a certain extent, our perception of it. Achieving what you desire may also involve altering reality itself, changing your circumstance.”

I’m inclined to agree with her. The power of storytelling is making order from chaos and meaning from seemingly unrelated events. But stories don’t merely reside in our books and entertainments. We are constantly telling ourselves our own stories, and in so doing, we are cementing certain events into memory and into part of who we are. By doing this, we construct a reality that no longer appears quite so random and out of control.

We are in the continuous process of creating ourselves. “I’m the person who did xyz. I’m the person to whom this happened. I’m the person who spends my time in this way. This is what is important to me.” That’s why I’m always harping about the importance of priorities. Because priorities are a way of expressing deep truths about ourselves and making our most important desires into reality.

Humans as a species are fascinated by the quest for meaning. This desire for meaning is reflected in many aspects of our culture: in our art, our religions, the Enlightenment and our fervor for science, and our ease of slipping into diametric thinking (black and white, good and evil). We spend our lives trying to make sense of our childhoods, the people around us, and the huge life-altering events that intrude into our sense of order (war, natural disaster, illness and death, wide-scale oppression and resistance). We ask, why are things the way they are? How does the universe work? In what direction is human civilization heading? Or, more personally, why doesn’t So-and-so like me? What is my purpose in life? What will make me happy?

We have to be very careful with the stories we tell ourselves, the movies in our minds. (You can thank Miss Saigon for that pretty turn of phrase.) If we tell ourselves negative stories or harshly self-critical stories, these stories will eventually manifest themselves, often in self-limiting behaviors and self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and unhappiness. If, on the other hand, we tell ourselves that we’re geniuses who can do no wrong, we can become out of touch with the humanity around us and struggle to find compassion for others.

On their own, our lives do not fit together neatly into a perfect puzzle of reality. We create the frame of reference from which we can understand ourselves and the world around us. We make our own explanations and our own meaning. What this means, I believe, is that ultimately we choose the slant of our lives until we die. Are we empowered? Can we make change? Or are we victims or characters in a tragedy, or are we taking an active role in life? Can we find the good in our situation and encourage it to grow? Or is everything about life difficult and glaring and out to get us?

In the movie Holiday, the old screenwriter Arthur tells his friend Iris that she should be “the leading lady” of her own life, but for some reason she is behaving “like the best friend.” We each have that choice in the stories we tell ourselves. Are we the hero of our tale, or are we relegating ourselves to a supporting role?

Be the hero. Be the protagonist. Be the person who acts instead of the person who is acted upon. We are all leading ladies and men. And we each get the privilege of creating the stories of our lives.

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“Anyone can write popular fiction… You just tell a story that everyone likes.”

Does this quote make anyone else’s blood boil? This type of talk makes me want to be alternately scathing, snarky, and pitying. I got it from an essay by Kat Howard, about her chance parking lot encounter with some fellow who made light of her post doc position in medieval and speculative literature.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, and that most (if not all) of my readers understand how truly challenging and difficult it is to write a novel, whether it be mainstream or genre, adult or children’s, an epic tome or a light-hearted romp. And I don’t want to get into the genre/literary question, so let’s please not go there.

Instead, I’m going to break down this statement. Anyone can write popular fiction, can they? Let’s take a look.

Writing Fiction — Lifestyle — What It Takes

1. Hours upon hours of sitting by yourself doing the writing. Not to mention the research. Not to mention the revisions. Not to mention the nit-picky copy editing.
2. Avoiding the lure of Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Farmville, MMORPGs, Solitaire, Minesweeper, etc. so you can actually do said writing.
3. Carving the time out of your already busy life, in which you’re also expected to have a day job, take care of your family, clean and do chores, and deal with life’s multiple disasters and time sinks.
4. Smiling and nodding when people say patronizing things to you. Explaining kindly and gently that building a writing career takes a long time, and no, it won’t make you rich. Alternately, getting into a lot of arguments.
5. Thinking about your story in the shower, while walking the dog, while doing the above-mentioned cooking and cleaning, while driving from point A to point B, and while you should be sleeping.
6. In your copious spare time (ha!), reading tons and tons of books, both in and out of your genre. Not to mention your nonfiction research materials.
7. Dealing on a daily basis with rejection and maintaining a positive upbeat attitude, a can-do spirit, and continued forward thinking to the next project.
8. Reading unpublished work from other writers of roughly your same level (at least in theory), learning how to both give and receive critiques

Writing Fiction — Craft — Required Understanding

1. Characters. This includes understanding every character in your book, knowing their back story, knowing their mannerisms and how they speak (word choice, etc.), knowing what they would know, knowing their motivations (what they want) and making sure you’re consistent about it. You need to keep your POV consistent over the course of the book, whatever you decide (first, close third, omniscient, etc.) Your protagonist needs to be sympathetic in some way. He/she/it needs to be a driving force in the novel, not a passive character who is only acted upon. Also your protagonist and probably other characters as well need a moving and well executed character arc, in which they grow and change and react to events and are different by the end of the novel.
2. Plot. This includes knowing how to structure a novel, making sure there is interesting conflict, making sure the stakes are periodically raised and the conflict builds over the course of the novel, knowing what your main narrative engine is, as well as keeping track of subplots and planning the correct number of them. Also the plot needs to hold together and make sense (no plot holes, please), you need to know the purpose of and conflict in each scene. You’ve got to keep the pace up (make stuff explode or whatever) or it will get too boring. This would also include making sure the continuity is sound and that the scenes happen in the correct order. You must make sure you create a hook at the beginning to draw the reader into the novel, and you aim for achieving emotional resonance and a certain closure at the end of the novel (unless it’s in a series, in which case you’re busy thinking about the overall series arc as well as the novel arc as well as deciding whether the novel needs to stand on its own or not).
3. World building. This is understanding how your world works. This includes the magic system, which needs to have rules and costs; geography, especially of a secondary world or another planet; economy; political system; social structure and mores; religion; technology level as well as any invented tech; magical creatures and/or aliens and how they differ from humans; and various existing infrastructure. Then once you’ve created your world, you have to get it across in the novel without over-utilizing info dumps or slowing down the pace.
4. Prose. This is being able to use the English language passably well, which is surprisingly difficult, even for native speakers. This includes knowing as many grammar rules as you can cram into your brain and then knowing when to break them. Points to remember include the following: eschew adverbs and speech tags other than “said” and “asked” and minimize speech tags in general. Vary sentence structure. Try really, really hard not to overwrite or use too many adjectives for your really shiny setting. Remember that you do have to say something about the setting, though. Try not to overuse words such as “that” or “really” or the “to be” verb. Use active verbs, but not too many weird verbs or it’s distracting. Spelling skills also help as spellcheck won’t catch all your mistakes.

Writing Popular Fiction that Everyone Likes — Good luck.

1. In order to make your fiction popular, you have to sell it. Unfortunately, being able to sell something is not necessarily the same skill set as being able to create something.
2. Ability to write and deliver pitches, queries, synopses, and basic summaries of your book that will make random people on the street want to read it instead of getting on with their lives. Also organizational ability to keep track of it all, including short story submissions, workshop/conference deadlines, and market research.
3. Social media and promotion! Blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, keeping up-to-date on the latest trends, recording a podcast. Being interviewed for blogs, radio programs, and podcasts. Writing guest posts, being active on forums, making a book trailer, always presenting your best possible face to the public. School visits, public readings, convention and conference appearances.
4. Being lucky enough to write in line with the current zeitgeist and have your novel come out before it ends.
5. Having your publisher decide that your novel is SO AWESOME that they’re going to pour big marketing dollars into its production and promotion. Getting good bookstore placement. Getting into many bookstores at all. Having your cover not suck. Getting big names to blurb the novel. (Please note that many of these things are outside the writer’s control.)

What did I miss? Feel free to kvetch below. Even being incomplete, I think my list makes it clear that writing a novel is never easy, and writing a really good novel is even harder than that. I rest my case.

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