Basic Plotting. Part 2

Rules-header.
A blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

• See previous post • See first blog


Plotting (Part 2): Plot ahead.

To reit: Can one begin a novel with an incomplete plot in mind? Absolutely. However, the sooner you understand the direction of your novel (its purpose, its story line, its various, integral nuances) the better your ability to create and cohesively complete an intelligent tale.

One suggestion, before (or as you begin) a novel: Consider drafting an outline/timeline.

The process of outlining doesn’t work for all writers (it’s often tedious) but if you’re contemplating your first novel, or if you’ve started a few times and have never been able to write more than a few pages or chapters, an outline/timeline may provide you with the appropriate impetus and excitement to continue. Think of an outline as the basic, skeletal framework of an otherwise unwieldy beast. Even the mightiest of lions, without a backbone, is pretty much a slug. And nobody wants to write a slug.

An outline need be nothing more than a few brief notes you jot as a reminder: What info do I need to impart in this chapter? Who’s included in this segment? What keys fit what locks to forward the overall plot? Lacking an outline, some writers tend to get caught in aggressive wanderlust—on a momentary whim, veering away from an established plot (or idea) into uncharted waters, sooner or later completely unsure of any credible direction.

Some writers, of course, relish this sort of unfettered and unrestricted approach—although I suspect those writers, knowingly or not, have the ability to construct a rough mental map of their whereabouts. For many of us who can’t play chess—or outline novels—in our heads, the fewer false starts and wrong turns, the easier (and far more enjoyable) the eventual process of creative writing.

For instance, an outline can be as simple as:

Chapter 17. The Volvo’s radiator shot, Johnny finds himself stranded in a small, nameless town, somewhere in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Across the crumbling two-lane highway, in the diner, a few townspeople (whom he’ll soon meet) regard him suspiciously as he walks toward the dreary looking post-office/sheriff’s office and—as Johnny discovers—a three-room fleabag hotel. Except for the gas-station/diner across the street, and a distant scattering of drab trailer homes, he sees no other structures. Yet inside the $20/night hotel room, Johnny discovers [INSERT A TWIST HERE.] And the discovery boggles him!

So while the chapter itself may eventually fill 20-30 or more pages and contain several conversations and introduce multiple new characters, even a significant plot twist or two—the gist of choreographing this, or any, chapter is simply to remind you what should or must happen here, at this moment. Perhaps Johnny’s unexpected discovery drives the entire story forward. Or maybe he finds a friend, a useful device—through dialog, for instance—to more deeply delve into Johnny’s motivation for, well… [INSERT MOTIVATION HERE]. Drafting an outline may not immediately supply an author with necessary answers, but it prompts us to think about our plot structure, and all those potential “what if?!” possibilities. It prompts us to ask new questions. An outline should force a writer to create, to improvise, and to improve our original concept. An outline need not contain minutia—only the necessary basics. For some writers, the bare bones of the chapter might be as simple as:

Chapter 17: Johnny gets stuck in Bumfuk. He meets a mysterious stranger. The stranger tells Johnny a secret.

Remember, outlining isn’t a first draft. It’s simply a useful tool.

An admission: Outlining isn’t my favorite part of novel writing, but I typically discover new ideas and characters, and unexpected plot twists, waiting to emerge. So it’s become an integral part of my own personal process. I audition each and every new thought. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But if a notion doesn’t make the cut, I’ve saved myself a lot of time and heartache dumping it quickly, rather than trying to puzzle-piece a square peg into a round hole.

I found an early outline/timeline that I created for my crime novel On The Edge. I’m including a random snippet below, to better illuminate the intent of the outline; that is to function as a convenient shorthand, reminding the writer: where, what, who, when and how. BTW, the text shown in red indicates incomplete thoughts that I’ll tackle later. Note that the italicized words are in-place chapter openings that allow me, with a quick glance, to more easily reacquaint myself with exactly where I am in the novel.

Thus:

(Page) 112
He sat on an aluminum chair in a small room…
Bobby’s questioned by the two cops (Scaggs and Ramona)
who are suspicious of his alibi. Bobby suspects Peter Dumas
is the killer but the detectives don’t share that assumption.                THURS AM

119
Two weeks before Dumas pointed a gun at Elliot…
Elliot and Peter Dumas talk
about the hacked Intek secrets.
Dumas believes the data
is highly confidential, perhaps even
military secrets. He
tells Elliot to drop the matter. Too dangerous
for them
to pursue. Elliot reluctantly agrees—but end the scene
with
Elliot grinning mischievously when Dumas’s back is turned.         Backstory

Segue back to present. Bobby and Niki scene (who’s POV?)
—but conversation probably about Dumas. Did he or not kill
Elliot? Motives??                                                                 THU PM or FRI AM?

124
Niki Song took a ticket stub and pulled her Celica….
Niki meets with agent Mitch Raleigh. She confirms
that her undercover status has not been compromised.                     FRI PM

131
Elliot had died for his sins… (Dumas reflects.) Flashback.
Is he frantic here or self-assured? First glimpse of Dumas’s
sociopathic behavior—or save this trait for later?
                            Backstory

135
Dumas pokes through Elliot’s briefcase, looking for info.
Clues of Elliot’s deceit begin to fall into place.                                  FRI PM

141 (Put this here? Or move before pg 135?)
In a sane world, Mitchell Raleigh knew an agent…
Mitch Raleigh reflects. Worries that
he may be putting Niki
in harm’s way.)                                                                                  Backstory

143
Niki drives to Rancho Madera; meets with Dumas to chat.                SAT AM

150
She couldn’t stop thinking about Bobby Leland….
Niki searches for Bobby. She finds him and invites him to spend
the night in her guest room.
(Not a romantic scene. More like
two friends making amends.
Careful. Cautious.)                               SAT PM

And so on…

Note that a timeline can be as basic as the outline itself. Many plots don’t need to choreograph a timeline. In my case (above) I have several sets of characters who will converge at a specific moment in the story. Thus, by creating even a vague timeline, I’m assuring myself that everybody gets there on time.

So, yeah, thinking ahead helps. Outlining can spark a creative energy that pushes your plot forward, catches wrong turns before they happen, and can even offer new ideas, fresh out of nowhere. So, for most of us, it’s a necessary tool. But, again, s’up to you.

.


• See previous post • See first blog
.
.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Basic Plotting. A few thoughts.

Rules-header.
A blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

• See next post • See previous post • See first blog


Plotting (Part 1)

Right Brain (creative thinking) vs. Left Brain (critical thinking). Unfortunately, we need both parts.

The fiction writers I know—we’re all daydreamers at heart. The obstacle confronting us is that, well—we’re all daydreamers at heart. But daydreams don’t magically turn into completed novels. If I had a dollar for every plot idea that wiggled into my head, I’d be driving a Tesla. And I do not drive a Tesla.

The truth is that daydreams—those misty thought-bubbles from which all novels spring—and the reality of churning out a book; e.g.; sitting down to write for months or years, require two completely different facets of a writer’s personality. Our Right Brain—the artsy-fartsy, huggin’ and feelin’ hemisphere—is content to sit on a comfy couch all day, dreaming about pirates or unicorns or maybe what happened that one night at summer camp. Our Left Brain—the logical, mathematical, factual part—pays the bills. For many of us who write (or sing or paint or philosophize), our Left Brain may be underutilized—unpracticed, whiny and suspicious of both hard work and success—and must, at some point, take the cerebral baton from our Right Brain and run with it.

And trust me, that race will be a marathon.

Successfully passing the baton from Right to Left is, IMHO, where a majority of novels stumble and fail. A notion may sprout, may grow a leaf or two, but then the idea withers or stagnates, only to dissolve back into a hazy daydream. And while there’s nothing wrong with that—most novel ideas don’t go the distance—without an eventual, diligent merging of the Right Brain and Left Brain, no novel will ever leave the warm, fertile comfort of your mind. And that would be a shame.

Refer again to Rule #1: Finish the book.

Which of course means starting the book, and then powering through the middle; endless days developing a coherent plot, re-thinking and rewriting scenes, missing more than a few weekends with friends and lovers. And then diving back in, day after day, and always into the deep end, scrubbing every word, sentence and scene until you feel that you’ve “got it right.” No, it’s not an easy task. Oh, but when it’s complete, that’s a feeling unlike any other. I can promise you that.

I’m not certain if anyone can truly explain how an idea, a daydream, a concept, can ultimately transform into a cogent story line. Plot development is in the eye of the beholder. Writing is a solitary journey. Most of us begin with a kernel of an idea; maybe only a wisp of dialog, a half-baked scene that sparks a series of “what if” questions. What if Adolf Hitler had won World War II? Or, What if I found an old suitcase washed up on the beach that contained an enormous diamond, a severed human hand and a mysterious note?

Maybe: What would happen if a small, bespectacled orphan turned out to be a sorcerer with a mysterious past? Or even, What would happen if seven kingdoms vied for power in a medieval fantasy world where dragons once reigned and a frozen wall saved the people from the walking dead?

Just thoughts. Daydreams strung together and eventually made real by the diligence of a single writer, by the power of the written word. ‘Cuz that’s how all novels begin.

If you’re new to the idea of writing a novel, new to the concept of formulating a plot, I have a few ideas. If you’ve never written a novel (but you’re excited to try) sit down and attempt to write a short story—3 or 5 or 10 pages. Short story plots are relatively simple, or else the sliver of a complex issue, but simply told. (AKA: A slice of life.) And if those few pages result in a definitive conclusion, give yourself a high-five, write ‘THE END’ and relax. Then (after the hangover subsides) start another story. Many budding fiction writers find themselves to be highly-efficient short story writers, first and foremost. (And short story collections do have a place in today’s market.)

As you write, however, you may discover new thoughts crowding into consciousness, vying for consideration. You might discover that a few short stories feel suspiciously like chapters in a book—and with a little extra cogitating, your collection can become a novel.

Or perhaps your idea begins with grandiose underpinnings. What if I traced the life of a small street urchin who battled an evil witch and ultimately became the queen of a magical fantasy realm… 2000 pages hence. It all begins with a simple “what if?” scenario that takes hold and won’t let go.

If you discover yourself in such a predicament; that is, ready, willing but paradoxically uncertain, just begin writing. Certainly don’t ponder too far ahead at this point—and certainly don’t fret about finishing, or even worry about the uncertain vastness between now and then… simply start. The only way to succeed is to concentrate on one page at a time.

Refer again, should you desire, to Where To Start. Also see Focus on the Now.
.


 • See next post • See previous post • See first blog

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Author and Visual Artist, Stephen T. Vessels, Releases New Collection of Stories published by Muse Harbor Publishing


 

“A unique collection of 11 short stories and a novella ranging in genre from science fiction and dark fantasy to amalgams hard to label.”

 

The-Mountain-The-Vortex-and-Other-Tales-Front-Image-620x264

Los Angeles, CA, 2016-Aug-04 — /EPR Network/ — Muse Harbor Publishing has released The Mountain & the Vortex and Other Tales, a collection of stories by author and artist, Stephen T. Vessels. The collection of 11 short stories and one novella is a blend of science fiction, dark fantasy, and cross-genre stories with illustrations. The book is now available for purchase through Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com.

“Originally the book was not going to be a collection,” says Vessels. “We were only going to publish the novella. But the publishers said, ‘The more the merrier,’ and let me do whatever I wanted, and paid for illustrations, and were wonderful, and it became this marvelous reality. I’m amazed by how my stories talk back and forth to each other across the pages. It’s like getting to step back from my own mind and watch it work.”

Included in Vessels’ collection are the short story “Doloroso,” a Thriller Award finalist, and “Lighter Than Air,” which received the Best Fiction Award from the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. All of the stories in The Mountain & The Vortex and Other Tales are accompanied with illustrations by Jean “Mœbius” Giraurd, Alan M. Clark, Steven C. Gilberts, Cheryl Owen-Wilson and the author himself. Vessels is also a visual artist whose latest solo art exhibition, which features a collection of his ballpoint pen drawings, will run from August 4, 2016 through August 27, 2016 at the Andre Zarre Gallery in New York City (www.andrezarre.com).

Stephen T. Vessels is a Thriller Award nominated author of science fiction, dark fantasy and cross-genre fiction. His stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and collections from Grey Matter Press and ShadowSpinners. He has written art and music reviews for the Santa Barbara Independent and is also a poet, whose poems have been published in journals and a chapbook from Slack Buddha Press. He writes all of his drafts longhand.

To learn more about Stephen T. Vessels, The Mountain & The Vortex and Other Tales (Muse Harbor Publishing, 2016, ISBN: 978-1-61264-240-6, $17.99, www.stephentvessels.com), or Vessels’ ballpoint pen drawings, please visit www.stephentvessels.com.

To learn more about Muse Harbor Publishing, please visit www.museharbor.com.

###

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Finding Your Voice (Part 3)

Rules-header.
A blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

• See next post • See previous post • See first blog
.


Part 3. Point of View: Narrative vs. Authorial Voice

AKA: First Person vs. Third Person. (It’s a bigger issue than me or him.)

Note: Various writing teachers/critics refer to narrative and authorial voice as an author’s Point of View (POV). However, as not to confuse an author’s own voice with the author’s characters’ voices, I shall refrain here from using POV, and simply refer to narrative or authorial voices as first person or third person, respectively.

The Narrative Perspective—linguistically speaking, deictic referencing—is a grammatical stew of who, when and where, essential information that will greatly influence the tone and tenor of your novel. Who is telling the story—you, the author, or one or more or your characters speaking through you? Might you also choose to impart an all-knowing, omniscient voice to further describe your characters? And when is your story told? (Now or then?) Where? (Here or there.) All relevant questions to ask yourself before you begin to write.

Your options? A list of common perspectives:

• First person/past tense (e.g.; narrator’s voice): I loved Paris.
• First person/present tense: I love Paris.
• Third person/past tense. (e.g.; authorial voice): She loved Paris.
• Third person/present tense: She loves Paris.
• Third person/omniscient/present conditional): She would one day find love in Paris.

Less relevant and not recommended (except as dialog or inner monologue):

• First person/future tense: I will love Paris.
• Second person/past tense: You loved Paris.
• Second person/present tense: You love Paris.
• Second person/future tense: You will love Paris.

(Jay McInerney wrote the entirely of Bright Lights, Big City in 2nd person. The novel begins: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning…”) This voice can sustain a novel, but not easily and probably not without being regarded by your literary peers as ‘effusive.’ So, no, probably don’t use it.

Finding one’s own narrative perspective—that is writing a novel in first person (1P) vs. third person (3P)—is a bigger issue than simply writing “I am going to town” or “She went to town.” You’ll likely find that your sentence construction, your cadence—possibly your entire plot structure—significantly different, depending on which voice you choose. Visual cues will differ. Character depth will differ. Your character’s thought patterns will differ. Character motivations may differ in terms of your relying on dialog (two characters communicating) versus internal monologue (a character thinking unspoken thoughts to which the reader is privy). You may find your entire writing style shifting to some degree, to accommodate the voice you choose.

Also, when writing in 1P, using a narrative or narrator’s voice, you’re restricted to solely using the “I” character to impart knowledge to the reader. Mary may be thinking about killing me, but I don’t know that for certain. Only your principal character will reveal thoughts to the reader—an attribute that can be both incredibly illuminating and restricting. If you’re writing in 1P, you’re allowing the character to speak directly to the reader. For instance, Barbara Kingsolver begins her novel The Bean Trees:

“I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. I’m not lying. He got stuck up there.”

However, should you, as author, choose to tell your story from your own perspective, you’re speaking in authorial voice. You’re writing in 3P, typically in either past or present tense. In the novel Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver begins:

“Her body moved with the frankness that comes with solitary habits. But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen. All secrets are witnessed.

“If someone in this forest had been watching her—a man with a gun, for instance, hiding inside a copse of leafy beech trees—he would have noticed how quickly she moved up the path and how direly she scowled at the ground ahead of her feet.”

Using authorial voice, you have the added bonus of alternating with—should you choose—an omniscient voice. As omniscient narrator, you’re essentially a puppet-master looking down upon your characters and providing the reader with an objective overview of their lives. Interestingly, in Prodigal Summer (above), Ms. Kingsolver shifts to present tense to reflect her omniscient voice in the second line.

Remember the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town? (It’s been a must-read in every high school for decades.) Mr. Wilder ingeniously offers his omniscient voice a living stage persona, a character unseen and unknown by the other actors. Early in Act I, the Stage Manager states: “Over there is the Congregational Church; across the street’s the Presbyterian. Methodist and Unitarian are over there.” The Stage Manager is not speaking to the actors. He’s speaking to the audience. The actors are oblivious to the Stage Manager’s presence.

Another example—and advantage—of writing in 3P is switching freely between authorial voice (shown in italics below) and omniscient voice (in bold italics):

As Jonathan stumbled through the steaming Manaquirian jungle, he felt a sudden sting on his shoulder. Christ, he hated mosquitoes. He considered them nothing more than tiny, insufferable vampires, sucking the lifeblood from any creature who dared enter their blistering realm. Little did Jonathan know that this insect would infect him with a lethal strain of malaria that would, without an antidote, inexorably dissolve his brain into a soggy beef broth.

It can be a good way to build drama.

If you write in 1P, do realize that we, your readers, won’t know (until Jonathan himself tells us) that his brain is turning to mush. If Jonathan doesn’t know, we don’t know either. However, there exists subtle methods to invoke a similar sort of faux omniscient information. No, you’re not using omniscient voice. You’re cheating by creating a useful backstory. Or hearsay. Or conversations with convenient strangers. Thus:

As I stumbled through the steaming Manaquirian jungle, I felt a sudden sting on my shoulder. Christ, I hated mosquitoes. They’re insufferable buggers, little more than tiny vampires sucking the lifeblood from any creature who dares enter their blistering realm. Years ago, while camped in Tupana, I’d heard horror stories about a rare killer mosquito hiding in this part of the Amazon. It was a new breed of insect whose sting would slowly dissolve a human brain into a soggy beef broth. I hoped to God one of those little lethal bastards wouldn’t find me, as the nearest medical facility, and the nearest antidote, awaited me in Manaus, a good fifty miles away.

Different voice? Sure, and likely a different style, subliminal or not. For instance, I didn’t intend to alter the above translation (3P/1P), but each voice demands nuance and subtlety. It’s not as simple as switching from him to me. Your novel will be quite literally built around the specific voice you use.

So… not sure which voice to use? Might I suggest allowing yourself a few pages to toy with different perspectives? Write a scene in 3P and then rewrite those same pages in 1P. Try past tense. Try present tense. Does a particular voice call to you? Do you feel yourself able to better express yourself more articulately using a particular voice? Personally, I find this exercise to be one of the more enjoyable guilty pleasures of beginning a new book.
.


• See next post • See previous post • See first blog
.
.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Finding Your Voice (Part 2)

Rules-header.
A blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

• See next post • See previous post • See first blog


Part 2: Do your characters speak to you?

This one gets a little deep, so buckle in. To briefly recap: finding your writer’s voice is a combination of discovering your personality as a writer (See: Finding Your Voice. Part 1) and finding your characters’ fictional personalities. And the best way to discover those fictive voices? Listen.

So, basically, Rule #5 is: Shut up and let your characters tell their own stories. (And in doing so, you’ll discover your voice.)

Crazy, right? It’s a little like channeling Elvis.

As a fiction editor, I can discern—usually within a page or two—whether I’m listening to the writer speak or if I’m listening to the characters’ tell their own story. And I don’t want the writer’s version of what’s going down, I want the characters revealing themselves. You? You’re just the conduit.

Not that your characters should completely dominate their own fates. The writer’s job is all about forward momentum. Herd these people inside your head—some who may be obstinate, others cranky, some loving, others lazy—incessantly forward. Push that plot dramatically onward. You’re creating a road map from here-to-there, filled with tension and pathos (or frivolity) and profundity. And each character has an obligation to remain in the confines of the parameters you set.

How do you know that your characters are speaking their minds? Here’s a test. Visualize this hypothetical novel: You’re writing a romantic fable about four people (two couples) each of whom play a role in a poignant tale of finding and sometimes losing love. In the back of your mind, you suspect that one relationship—after proper dramatic throttling—will end well. The other relationship will end badly. There’s no evil in your story, no villains or robots or zombies… just four people hoping to live happy ever after.

It’s what I call The Lobster Bisque Variant. In four separate scenes (or rather, in four versions of the same scene) picture your happy protagonists sitting in a lovely restaurant, enjoying the moment. A waiter comes by and (in turn) accidentally spills a bowl of lobster bisque in each of their laps. John gets the lapful in Version #1, Mary gets souped in Version #2… and so on. Now, describe their reactions.

If your results are:

Version/character 1: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version/character 2: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version/character 3: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version/character 4: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”

…then, guess what? You’re not listening to your characters, to the nuance of their unique personalities. You’re listening to yourself, confined to your own theoretical reaction. Ultimately, your characters will become little more than mini-you’s, clones of your boxed-in subconscious, and cookie-cutters of each other. Most readers will quickly detect such similarity, such ambiguity, and most likely find them (and eventually your story) flat and unappealing.

However, by discovering their various reactions to a wet lap will help you determine each character’s emotional core. If you like what you hear, then continue (metaphorically, of course) to pour bisque in their laps at every turn, careful to interpret and maintain the integrity of their distinct voices. 

When they speak to you, through you (and, believe me, they will) be aware of their cadence and vocabulary and motivation. A great novel, after all, isn’t about plot—it’s about people.

And so… voice? It’s partly your storytelling ability. And partly about each character’s unique emotional energy. Strip away voice and whatever’s left—however realistic, however meticulously constructed—feels dry, lifeless, vacant. He did this, she did that. I went here. I went there. A house on Main Street. It rained. John loved Mary.

Instead, let each character reveal the passion that burns inside their souls. Allow them the room to become real.

Another very important element of a writer’s Voice? See (it’s upcoming!): The Narrator’s Perspective: First Person vs. Third Person.
.


• See next post • See previous post • See first blog
.
.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather