Having Problems with Your Plot?

question marks man in circlePlot problems?

Here is a tool that may prove helpful. Steven James presented this material at an intensive novel writing retreat I attended.

Whether you’re an outliner or an organic author, these simple yet intriguing questions will get your creative juices flowing.

The questions open doors into areas of our story we may not have explored before and will lead us to more compelling stories.

What would this character naturally do in this situation?

Believability is the first priority. If our character does something he would not naturally do, it will the strain the reader’s investment in him and in our story.

For example, say our character is an inspector with the National Transportation Safety Board. What’s the first thing he would do at the scene of a plane crash? Would he ask where is the nearest Starbucks? Or would he ask if the black box has been found or if there are any survivors?

Or, he’s an ER doctor and the paramedics have brought in a victim of a gunshot wound. Would he ask when the next available tee time is? Or, would he assess the patient’s need for immediate surgery?

If the reader notices our character is acting unbelievably, another character must also notice it and comment on it. Otherwise, our story loses credibility.

How can I make things worse?writer's block 2

Escalate the tension by throwing more obstacles at our character. Increase the tension to keep the reader interested. It has to be believable.

Say my story involves terrorists taking over a nuclear power plant and holding the staff hostage. How can I make things worse? Here are some examples:

They strap bombs to the core.

There is a group of school kids there on a field trip.

They start killing the hostages.

The daughter of the chief government negotiator works at the plant.

She’s aiding the terrorists.

The key is to avoid coincidence because this will destroy believability. Everything must build on something that happened before.

ShockHow can I end this in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable?

Readers don’t want endings to come out of nowhere. The ending needs to be natural and inherent to the story. We want the reader to be surprised and satisfied.

In my novel, Journey to Riverbend, I established throughout the novel that my protagonist believed he killed his father and that he would never kill again. At the end of the story, I put him in the position where, to save someone, he has to kill the villain. The ending was inevitable yet surprising and satisfying to the readers. It was also believable because of the foreshadowing I layered in.

Steven James writes, “The first question will help focus your believability. The second will keep it escalating toward an unforgettable climax. The third will help build your story, scene by twisting, turning scene.”

What are some techniques you use to make sure your reader is engaged in your plot?

5 Writing Rules I’ve Learned from Pixar

file0001212587536My family adores Pixar movies. Every year, we look forward to their latest release, impatiently marking time until we can immerse ourselves in whatever new world they’ve created. We’re such fans of the studio that we even have their Digital Shorts collections.

As a mom of youngsters, I’ve spent countless hours in theaters watching duds [I’m not naming names, but I just saw a new movie from another animation studio, and it was a real turkey. BTW, whoever brought the disaster called Gnomeo and Juliet onto the big screen–I want those two hours of my life back. And my money, preferably with interest.]

However, I almost always enjoy Pixar flicks. The minds that dreamed up Monsters, Inc. and Cars inspire me. Because I have the privilege of teaching writing to aspiring authors, I’ve begun to study Pixar’s methods in order to share them with my students. What have I learned?

1) Story is king.

The Pixar folks spend years perfecting the story of their movies before they ever move on to the animating process. Wow.

In my own writing journey, I’ve learned not to “tell” (relate things that happened so readers can understand how that situation changed me) and instead  “show” (include dialogue, characters, and movement). No matter what genre you write in, good storytelling is essential. Today’s art consumers are savvy, busy, and distracted. I know, because I am one. We want to be swept away by a immersive tale, not be told what we should learn from a situation.

2) Be tenacious.

Wall-E and Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton admits that in the early years, Pixar employees created mostly by instinct and made a lot of mistakes. However, they wouldn’t give up or give in to the pressure to do what had been done before.

They also work like fiends to get the characters and settings right. I found a few stats which blew my mind. There were:

  • 3,473,271 individually animated hairs on the Lots-o-Huggin Bear from Toy Story 3
  • 2,320,413 individually animated hairs on Sully in Monsters, Inc. (It took 11 to 12 hours to animate a single frame featuring Sully!)
  • 1,150,000 individual hairs rendered on Ratatouille’s hero, Remy.

Wow again.

3) Invoke wonder.

Pixar has mastered this. The writers and animators help us feel again what we often felt as children–awe, gratitude, and joy.file0001384956880

Here’s an exercise: Think about the first time you tasted ice cream, if you can remember it. Or the first time you saw something that took your breath away. Now write about it.

Wonder is ineffable, but if we can draw on it and re-create it in a scene, we’ve captured our audience’s attention immediately. They will follow us almost anywhere we lead them.

4) Take risks. A rat learning to be a chef? Preposterous. A film about a robot from the future with no dialogue for 45 minutes? Absurd. Kids’ movies beginning with the death of characters? Totally insane.

But they work. They work because the guys and gals behind those stories make us forget we’re watching animated films. They work because–due to great storytelling–we care about the characters, and we relate to them in some way. Which brings me to my last point.

5) Do your homework.

Too many films are built on flimsy premises. While the finished products might be technically sound, their foundation is cracked, and the outside shiny-ness simply can’t make up for creaky scaffolding, bored talent, and cheap materials. Often, the stories are weak and the jokes seem more important than plot.

Audiences can tell when authors know what they’re doing and when they don’t. We don’t have to write only about what we’ve learned from our experiences, but we have to make time for research, education, and paying our dues. Even after all his success, Stanton told an audience in 2012 that he had recently taken an acting seminar to learn more about what drives characters.

I respect that. I bet you do, too.

Artist Sharpening Artist Series, Part II, Lecrae

Boasting, by Lecrae

LecraeRehab

Listen to the music here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Ec7ofMOqVM

When I first heard the above song on the radio, it got me. I welled up and blamed it on my hormones the first time, but then it happened again. And, again.

I realized I couldn’t keep blaming it all on my hormones, or else my husband would wise up and figure out I use “hormones” as an excuse not to do the laundry and vacuuming, on occasion. I can’t have that now, because those chores suck to the 10th degree and what not.

So, no, it wasn’t the hormones. It was the truth behind the lyrics.

“If this life has anything to gain at all
I count it lost if I can’t hear you, feel you,
’cause I need you. Can’t walk this earth alone.”

Sometimes I ask myself why I strive to gain the things in this world. The question applies whether it’s with my work, my writing, or whatever else I put in my sights. Is it a gain for me and only me? And if so, at what cost? If I let my faith trickle out to garner that success, even if it’s only a slow trickle, what will the win feel like when I’m left empty inside?

empty-inside3

“So in times that are good, in times that are bad,
For any times that I’ve had it all I will be glad.
And I will boast in the cross. I boast in my pains.
I will boast in the sunshine, boast in his reign.
What’s my life if it’s not praising you.
Another dollar in my bank account of vain pursuit.”

I often ask myself, what’s more important? The money and posturing that may go along with doing things the world’s way, or just keeping who I am in check.

“Tomorrow’s never promised, but it is we swear.
Think we holding our own, just a fist full of air.
God has never been obligated to give us life.
If we fought for our rights, we’d be in hell tonight.”

Our lives, our families, and even our talents and desires have been given to us as gifts. It’s easy enough to squander the impact of that premise as we come to feel it, but I fear we often completely forget the entire premise as well. Especially when we strive to have our way with what’s been given to us.

your-unique-gifts-and-talents_t

“So now every morning I open your word and see the Son rise.
I hope in nothin, boast in nothin, only in your suffering.
I live to show your glory, dying to tell your story.”

This is pretty much all that’s needed. Doesn’t seem so hard. Thanks for putting a sweet beat to it, too, Lecrae.

Creating Plots

I recently attended an intensive writing retreat given by Steven James and Robert Dugoni.

Happy PeopleHere are some of the highlights from the session on creating plots.

One way to look at plot is to ask: What’s a story? It’s the protagonist’s journey. There has to be movement on some level—we don’t want to confine the character. The journey can be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Or all three. As long as we keep the protagonist moving.

What motivates the character to start the journey? The motivation can be simple: love, justice, hate, revenge, power, greed, fear, or adventure.

Here’s a five-question exercise for brainstorming a story, given by Robert Dugoni:

  • Who is my protagonist?
  • What is my protagonist? (accountant, police detective, stayquestion marks man in circle-at-home mom, lawyer, etc.)
  • Where is my protagonist? The setting for the story.
  • What does my protagonist want?
  • What stands in the way of achieving it?

Also, when you’ve answered all these questions, you have the basics of your elevator pitch.

The basic elements of plot are the beginning, the middle, and the end.

In the beginning we establish the tone and the genre. And we introduce who we are going to be traveling with on the story journey—the protagonist.

Also, at the start of the story, we want to create empathy for our hero. One way we can do this is to give the character a wound we all share and a goal we can identify with.

We also want to hook the reader by asking a question or introducing a problem that launches the protagonist into the story.

In the middle, the story continues to develop as we take the protagonist deeper into the story question or problem. And we add twists and surprises.

StrivingWe also add escalating obstacles that make the situation worse. These obstacles must serve one of two purposes: they must move the story forward by raising the tension, or they must further develop a character trait, or both. If they do neither, they need to be cut. Otherwise, the dreaded sagging middle will occur.

The obstacles lead us to the climax where the protagonist either achieves his quest or doesn’t.

The end of the story answers the story questions. It must be satisfying to the reader and it needs to show the protagonist changed by what he experienced in the story.

Here are two excellent resources for plotting. There are many others but I find these very helpful:

  • Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
  • Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke.

Hooptedoodle and You

You know the thing about writing styles, right? How they’re like our beloveds’ beauty in the beholderfaces. Beauty in the eye of the beholder and all that other pomp and parade. The skinny guy loves the fat chick, but no one knows why, except them. And that’s all that matters. The same goes for writing styles. Some styles click for readers and others repulse them.

And while styles range from aristocratic splendor to colloquialisms at the john, I’ve learned that the only authentic way to find out who I am as a writer was to first discover who I wasn’t.

Consider the following nugget of prose:

“The sun rose like a uniformed officer in full salute, beckoning me to face the day with equal vigor.”

Yes, many authors are entitled to write like this, and do a splendid job at it. I commend them. It’s not me, though. I tried to make it me, but failed. I’d probably write it like this: “Ah, cripes. The sun’s up. Shoot it or me. You decide.”

Not to mention that if one of my characters was privy to someone regaling in the sun in the same manner as in the first scenario, they’d push said regaler to the ground and rob them of loose change to buy a pumpkin spice latte. Not looking back at the sun, no, not even once. walkingawayfromthesun

My style, of course, doesn’t resonate with everyone, and for that, hoorah. Because if it did, then there’d be a whole lot more people doing a whole lot more shoving and robbing for pocket change. And, that’s just bad business for us as a society, don’t you think?

(I kid. Reserve the hate mail for when I talk politics or let my kids run wild at the mall.)

It’s important to dip your toes into the styles of others. Not to emulate, per se, but to see what hits home with you and what simply slaps you ugly.

You never know, the constant searching might help you find your anthem, as I’ve found mine. You see, when people criticize me for having too minimalistic of a style, I can now tell them to take their hooptedoodle out for a nice steak dinner and smooch it.

That’s right. Hooptedoodle. Courtesy of the one and only Steinbeck.

“Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. The guy’s writing it, give him a chance to do a little hooptedoodle. Spin up some pretty words maybe, or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up in the story. So if the guy that’s writing it wants hooptedoodle, he ought to put it right at first. Then I can skip it if I want to, or maybe go back to it after I know how the story come out.”

Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck  sweet thursday

What I learned from Leo Kottke

GuitaristLast month, my husband and I enjoyed an evening concert at Big Top Chautauqua outside Bayfield, Wisconsin. Leo Kottke was the featured performer, and while I wasn’t particularly familiar with him and his music, he has long been a favorite of my husband’s. The concert took place under a big tent on a beautiful September night, very near the shore of Lake Superior, and Kottke did not disappoint, either as a guitarist or an entertainer. I came away a fan…and with a new perspective on what I do when I give a book talk.

I realized that the key word is entertain.

While the need to entertain my audience remains uppermost in my mind when I write, I haven’t always kept that focus during speaking engagements. Sometimes, I get too bogged down in the details of crafting a narrative when I talk with writers’ groups, or my presentation begins to sound stale when I answer the same questions over and over from audiences of readers. If I’m getting bored with repeating the same “this is my book, why I write, how I write,” then I expect my listeners are getting bored with the same old book talk they hear from every writer.

Enjoying Kottke’s performing style convinced me I needed to think of myself as a featured entertainer when I speak, not as the featured author. Yes, the man could play amazing guitar pieces, but it was his in-between chatter that tied it all together into a neat package of entertainment. Too much chatter and it would not have whetted my appetite for his music; too much music and I wouldn’t have formed a connection to the man. Instead, he balanced the two pieces and sold me on his entertainment value – which is exactly what I need to do to find new fans of my books.

After our evening at Big Top Chautauqua, I revamped the way I approach and present a book talk.

Instead of focusing on what goes into the book when I speak to groups, I now read short selections from several of the books – selections that are particularly meaningful or funny for me – and explain where in my own life those passages came from (and I always tell it with humor!). The result has been increased active engagement with my listeners, and they become more intrigued with the books, which results in more sales after the presentation concludes. I’m getting more comments about how enjoyable/entertaining the talk was, which not only makes it fun for everyone, but also leads to a greater number of speaking referrals for me! After all, if you’ve enjoyed an event, you’re likely to come back for more – whether it’s another book by the same author, or a CD recording of a musician – because you want to tap in again to that source that gave you an entertaining experience.

Authors need to think of themselves as entertainers – both in print and in person – and then present themselves that way, too.

How do you craft your talks for entertainment?

Takeaways fom the Writer’s Digest Convention West 2013

I just attended my first writers convention, which turned out to be among the most interesting and informative experiences of my life. Never before have I received so many insights into the craft of writing. The Writer’s Digest Conference West in Los Angeles took place at the end of September. During that time, I was able to meet people I never would have otherwise, such as journalists who have been working in the writing field for ages. There was so much great information it was hard to capture it all, but here are a few points that that definitely resonated:

1) Writing, editing and marketing are totally different competencies, so bucket them, don’t batch them. In a discussion led by Ivory Madison, CEO of redroom.com writers community, writers were advised to keep those activities separate, as they engage different parts of the brain. I’ve been trying out the Red Room Method and can see a positive difference in my writing. It staves off the frustration of trying to do everything at once, and only producing one paragraph an hour. She suggested not to combine the three buckets of writing, editing and marketing. In this way, you end up not only being nice to yourself, but also more efficient as well. Writing is about your relationship with yourself. Marketing is an expression of everybody else. Take one book, make it as great as you can, and then worry about marketing. Don’t wear multiple hats at the same time.

WDCW132) Read your work aloud. You will find a great deal of errors that you might not have otherwise by reading aloud. When you do write, be authentic. Your readers want to be able to get to know you and trust you. Find great people to make your book as good as it can be. Don’t jump the gun just because you want to get it out there. Make your book easy to find and as accessible as possible.

3) Growing scope of the literary agents. Gordon Warnock, Founding Partner of Foreward Literary, has a vision of literary agents taking on a similar role as the agents of actors and songwriters. The future literary agents, he thinks, will manage the author’s entire career. The job scope would become more like an umbrella for their representation overall. This would include creative directing over the author’s website, branding, image, et al.

And above all else – write an outstanding book.