Robert Gryphon blogs on learning the novelist's craft to pay for better quality cat food. All writing-related conversation welcome.
In my last entry I brought up the problem I’m faced with now, which is mid-level plotting. Let’s continue down that path now, starting with some context.
They say that a good story, especially genre (as opposed to literary) fiction, is plot-driven. Events are set in motion at the mid-level, meaning the small-group or individual level, and each scene in a given plot (main or sub-) needs to follow from the previous one. Some stories have the macro level drive events at the mid-level, such as a crew of varied personality types walking through the steps of a prophecy, or orders sent down from a king or general (and his same-level enemy) guiding the actions and tribulations of a group of soldiers. Another way to go is to have a protagonist with his own goal fighting through a stressful, barely manageable, but logical set of obstacles that suit the story and that keep him from his goal.
It’s much harder to tell a compelling tale about a wanderer who runs across somewhat random problems until he comes upon something major that focuses him. And that’s how I’d approached the first half of the book initially: expecting to enhance the plot dimension along the way. So of course it’s become a longstanding problem that I’ve got no choice now but to face head-on.
The issue came to a head recently when I spent a few days on writing a reasonably interesting pair of scenes, and then tuning them up, only to realize that they’re not sufficiently driven by prior events to give as much of a sense of cohesion as I want in the final product. When I found myself tacking them into a framework of cause and effect that came to mind, I realized my real problem, which was the lack of a scene-spanning, event-connecting infrastructure.
A major reason for blogging, for me at least, is to think these things out a little better as I write about them, and I do seem to be gaining a few insights as I write this entry. For example, I need to choose an overall structure for the plot first and foremost.
Many writers start with that, but I’m not them; I’ve generally espoused the school of thought where you write your way into and out of issues. That approach seems to be working for me at the macro and micro levels, but at the mid-level it’s not. So I need to bite the bullet and outline the plot part by part, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, stage by stage.
I hate doing that. But I have to. Or I have to give up. And that’s not gonna happen.
So, I’m looking for two things here: motivation and advantages. Motivation isn’t really something I can predict, so I’ll just try to rest a bit to think and then bull through as always, As for advantages, well, tools would be one thing to look for. I don’t know if they’ll help or hinder me, but I’ve never felt it a bad thing to have them on hand.
Scrivener is what I’ve been using to pour the text of the book into, and it’s worked out pretty well. But Scrivener is weak for story development—it offers an outliner, an index card view, the ability to create document templates like the character sheet and other forms I’ve mentioned, and that’s about it.
Before I ever started this project I had spent the money to buy Dramatica Pro, in the hope of helping with this very class of issues. Then Apple immediately dropped support for 32-bit apps and I was never able to actually use it. Write Brothers never bothered to update DP to the new generation OS either. But recently I learned they’re offering a product called Dramatica Story Expert which they assure me is a superset of DP. (At this writing both products are on sale for $99 each, which is odd if one is more full-featured than the other, but I guess you have to look at DP as their Windows product and DSE as their Mac product at this point). Anyway, I got an upgrade and will be looking into using it for the planning process.
Or maybe I’ll use notepads and miss the trash can with a lot of crumpled-up pieces of paper.
Either way, I need to invest the time and pain to plot this out and get going.
Sorry I haven’t been around for a while. I mean I’ve been here every day plugging along on the project, but haven’t had, or really, haven’t taken, the time to work on the blog. I’ve been clearing a big backlog of links to interesting blogs and resources in the meantime, but that’s not the main point of this blog. The main point is to document the half-practical, half-emotional journey of working on a novel.
A couple of weeks ago I realized that while the writing itself has been going well enough, there are other aspects of the project that need attention. Certain characters need some changes, but overall I’m not too concerned about characterization. Symbolism, which I’ve heard some people tend to tack on as an afterthought, isn’t a big problem for me since this particular story/story world was designed with heavy symbolism built in at several levels from the beginning. I’m not worried about settings either, really, though that starts to get into the meat of the problem. The areas that I need to back up and spend some time on, as far as I can tell, are plotting and world-building, in that order.
World-building for me, on this project at least, is more a question of taking a bunch of ideas I’ve accumulated over time and fleshing them out, and then working them into the action. There’s a certain amount of window-dressing, but I don’t like pretty things for their own sake, so I’m trying to take the time to make sure they’re important to the story in some way. At the very least, the conditions in the story world need to contribute to the feel of the book, the mood of a given scene or set of scenes. Desperation or determination, hopelessness or hope, mystical beauty or eldritch (thanks, HPL) horror. And a certain amount of symbolism as well, though it’s easy to overdo it in this area (red sky means blood was spilled this night? Legolas, seriously…). So there’s work to be done that I dread somewhat, and I don’t have everything in place (or in mind) that I want, but I’m pretty confident about it.
Plotting is a different story.
For me, plotting is not a natural thing, like putting words together for emotional effect is (more so, anyway). Early on I didn’t worry about this at all, and found that things tended to work themselves out at certain levels. For example, at the macroscopic level - the overall mythos, the prevailing conditions in the world that drive large-scale events in a partially guided fashion - that seems to have come together pretty well, and will be refined in the iterative drafting process. And at the micro level, the stimulus-response transactions, the actions of a character within dialogue or an action sequence: I’m pretty okay with things at that level. But like the story of the kleptomaniac little blonde girl and the three large furred omnivores (who for some reason live in a house despite the dander issues and a huge tolerance for cold), it’s the thing in the middle that matters.
I spoke with a friend recently who expressed interest in attending a writer’s workshop. I have recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, so I shopped the Internet with this friend a few moments and noticed that the terminology regarding workshops is quite limited, and seems unnecessarily baffling. So I attempt to clarify the various uses of the same word used to refer to different things. You must mind the usage to know the physical event described, or the verb intended, all this brought to you by the people who have made teaching writing an industry.
Consider the following legal, understandable, writerly sentence:
I hope I get accepted to Squaw Valley Workshop because Tori Patterson is leading a workshop and I would love to work with her again on a novel I workshopped in her group at Antioch last residency.
Oddly enough, this is somewhat a personally true statement, but I digress. I will discuss residency later. Again with asterisks:
I hope I get accepted to Squaw Valley Workshop* because Tori Patterson is leading a workshop** and I would love to work with her again on a novel I workshopped*** in her group at Antioch last residency.
As we can see, the term workshop is used in more than one way:
Workshops** can and do exist outside the Workshop* event. Many writers form a writer’s group and do this with a selection of friends or fellow writers whose work and feedback they respect. A word to the uninitiated- it can be brutal, just because your work is often so personal. Hopefully, your workshop** group, or leader, will have some parameters by which feedback can remain constructive, with “this chapter sucks” being replaced with “I became disinterested in this chapter on page 17, when the main character left the room. The dialog shifted from following the storyline, to the sidekick’s observation on life, and I didn’t feel it kept me connected to the story. I got bored.” Specific, objective comments about the work on the page, not the writer, are the kinds of feedback that are useful. In addition, after a few of these workshops*, you can parade your unfinished work in public with much less trepidation. It is a paragraph you wrote, after all, not your actual soul on the page. This activity helped me separate my written words from my perception of myself (that wrote them), and that was very liberating.
When investigating workshops, other terms come up that we need to understand as well.
Festivals, Residencies, Retreats, and Conferences - these terms are used almost interchangeably with Workshop*. I’ll mention two programs that these terms pertain to here, and leave the million others for the reader to investigate:
Here is a site that catalogs many of these Workshop* thingies: http://writing.shawguides.com
Hope this helps! - Vanessa Franking