Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Reasons I'm A Writer

Y'know... it occurs to me that I should stop making promises about what I'm going to write about on this blog the next week. Because in the moment that I make that promise, it sounds like a super idea, and I'm all pumped and jazzed about it, and then by the time the next week rolls around all I can think is, "Why the hell did I say I was going to write about that? That's BORING." Which is maybe a sign of some idea-commitment problems (the ideas and I are in couples therapy, don't worry), or my constant tendency to interrupt myself (hence the love affair with parentheses. Is anyone else losing track of the subject of this paragraph?) Either way, all I'm doing is making promises and breaking them, which isn't really a great pattern either in writing or in life, so I'm going to stop doing that.

I promise.

Anyway, clearly I'm not going to talk about fleshing the plot skeleton today, no matter what I said last week (although, that is a great title for a future post.) Nope, instead, I'm going to talk about books. As in, other people's books.

Now, I know this may seem odd, because this blog is about getting a look into the process of writing a novel, but believe it or not, reading other people's books is a huge part of this process. In fact, most writers and teachers of writers and books for writers and writers on writers and all-people-even-remotely-writerly will tell you (over and over again, in fact) that you must read if you want to write. For essential lessons, experience, inspiration, and so on.

Well, luckily for me, I'm a huge nerd. I'm not sure if this is because of some inherent genetic make-up, or because my parents fed me books before they gave me solid food, but whatever the reason, I've been a big bookworm my whole life. Which means that I've read a lot of books, of course, but it also means that I've read a lot of books more than once. And I've been spending a lot of time this week thinking about those books. You know, the ones you can't put down; the ones that changed your life; the ones that you revisit, year after year, like old friends. The ones that somehow shaped who you are. I think it's fair to say that I wouldn't be the writer I am, and maybe wouldn't have written Cloudland at all, if I hadn't read these books.

By the way, this isn't my only list of favorite books. I also have lists of Favorite Childhood Books, Books That Got Me Through Puberty Without Committing Heinous Bodily Harm To Myself or Others, Books That Changed The Way I Write, and so on. There's crossover from list to list, of course. But this particular list is of My All-Time Favorite Books, which you might also call The Reasons I'm A Writer.

At any rate, here's my list, in no particular order:

  • The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis (I like the whole series, but for this list, specifically The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
  • Animal Dreams and Prodigal Summer, both by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Hours, by Michael Cunningham
  • Written on the Body and Gut Symmetries, both by Jeanette Winterson 
  • The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula Le Guin (I think the whole Earthsea series is wonderful, but this is the book I keep rereading, the one that touches something in me)
  • The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
  • The Lost Prince and A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett 
  • Angels in America, by Tony Kushner (yes, not technically a book, but so wholly life-changing for me that I can't leave it off of this list)

So, yep, there are quite a few Young Adult books in there, and there's a whole lot of sci-fi and fantasy on that list. And I will never apologize for that, although there's a large faction of people in the writing world (let's call them big old snobs) who look down on so-called genre books. Of course, if you just happen to not like these genres, I have no problem with that (my wife, sadly, doesn't like them, and clearly I still think she's OK.) We all have personal preferences. It's the people who sneer at them as being not real literature who I have issues with.

In fact, although I mostly write what I would call literary fiction (with smaller or larger dollops touches of magical realism, depending on the piece), I would say that science fiction and fantasy might be my favorite genres to read (I did say that I'm a huge nerd.) When they're really well done, they illuminate something for us about what it means to be human on this planet - which really is what good art does, in general. But I think that sci-fi and fantasy can often do it more clearly, with more painful accuracy, because they don't take place on this planet. They're removed enough that they allow us to read the painful truth, or look at the awful reality, without denying it or turning away from it, or collapsing under the weight of it. They give us mental and emotional space. Or at least, they do for me.

I don't always specifically invite comments, 'cause, well, what if no one comments?! Then I'll feel like the kid who threw a big birthday party that no one came to. But this time, I'm going for it. I'm taking the plunge: what are your all-time favorite books? Which ones do you either reread many times, or find yourself often thinking about?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Deep and Plotty Thoughts

Ok, plot: step two! At least, that's what I was planning to write about this week. I kind of ended up with something different. Or not. Never mind, just keep reading - you'll see what I mean.

So, it's ironic: I chose to talk about plot last week using Chuck Wendig's excellent definition, which says (in essence) that plot comes directly from the characters. And I meant that. I really did. It's just that when it was time for me to figure out what the hell was actually going to happen in Cloudland, I got a little bit lost.

Ok, fine. I got a lot lost. Like, wandering aimlessly around the woods on a cloudy, moonless night with no compass or map, lost (and I should point out here that I am really terrible at directions, even when I DO have a map. I'm the person who has to turn maps around so that they face the way I'm heading, because otherwise I can't read them.)

Yeah, I knew who my characters were, and I knew what they wanted, but I didn't know how to turn that into real, actual events. So, my plot didn't so much come from my least not directly. As I said last week, I asked for help from a dead guy. And it was the best thing I could have done.

No, I didn't learn how to commune with ghosts (although that would have been a lot cooler); I started re-reading Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth.

For those who aren't familiar with his work, Joseph Campbell was "an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion" (thanks, Wikipedia). He developed the theory that myths from all around the world share the same basic structure, which he called the monomyth, or the Hero's Journey. In his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell lays out the structure of this monomyth, and illustrates how a vast majority of ancient and modern stories fit this structure. It's way too much to lay out in this post, but suffice it to say that if you were to look at Campbell's structure, and compare it to a hell of a lot of books, movies, and myths, you'd be able to see that they pretty much follow it, with a few changes here and there. The most commonly cited example of this is Star Wars, but there are a ton more.

Before I continue, I should note that there are some people out there who don't like Joseph Campbell or his theories very much. Since I'm not writing a blog about comparative mythology or Mr. Campbell, I'm not going to delve too much into the criticism; if you're interested, you can check out a summary of it here. Essentially, the critiques say that making myths 'universal' destroys the uniqueness and the intended lessons of each myth; that defining and following a specified structure leads to way too many predictable, cookie-cutter books and movies (see: all blockbuster Hollywood movies and the three-act structure); and so on.

I don't disagree with any of this. I just think it all misses the central message and value of Campbell's work, which is why I ignored the criticism and used the Hero's Journey as a jumping-off point when I was trying to come up with a structure for Cloudland.

Yep, I used it, because I love it. I'll just admit that outright. I love Joseph Campbell, and I'm inspired by him, because he lays bare this essential commonality in the human unconscious: for reasons we don't know, and can't explain, there are motifs, symbols, and metaphors that appear over and over again in myths from all over the world. The people creating these myths didn't collaborate with each other, or read up on each other's Creation Myths, before making their own. They stumbled, seemingly by chance, on themes that are universal, that access something buried deeply within all of us. And that's freaking amazing. I love that. So I wanted to think about and find and access those common unconscious associations - I was writing a book about death, after all, and what is more universally human than the struggle to comprehend death?

Notice that I said I used his theories "as a jumping-off point". I was lost in the woods without a map (see? Human metaphors from the collective unconscious. Oh yeah, that's how I roll), and I needed a refresher on basic story structures, so I re-read some of Campbell's work and took off from there. Am I indebted to and inspired by his work? Absolutely. Did I follow the structure of the Hero's Journey to the letter, and use it as the exact skeleton for my book? Nope, not at all.

I studied the structure - which you can see all laid out and summed up here - and I thought about what it was accomplishing, and why it was used, and then I took the bits I liked and got rid of the ones I didn't, or that I didn't think would serve my story, and made up my own version of it. And then bam, just like that, I had the skeleton for my book.

The problem with skeletons, of course, is that they're made of bones. No muscle, no nerve, no skin; nothing meaty to sink your teeth into, and enjoy (unless you like bones without anything on them, in which case, have at it. I'll be over by the deli and salad bars, trying to find some real food).

What I'm saying is that plot isn't just structure; it's also the all of the details of that structure. Adding flesh to the skeleton, if you will.

Which I'll talk about.... next week.

Also next week - a few brief notes on what it means to be a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer, and why those writers probably think I'm completely out of my mind (which I might be).

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Plot, And Other Four-Letter Words

I have a new favorite blog. Now, before you click the link, just be warned that it is NSFW. At all. And if you're offended by curse words, you should skip it. And if you don't like fantasy or sci-fi (and if you don't, why not??), you should perhaps avoid it. It's called Terrible Minds, and it's by rather prolific author Chuck Wendig, who does not at all need my help to market him because his blog is hopping with comments, but I don't care, because it's a great resource for writers, and it's hilarious, and thought-provoking, and well-written.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I'm supposed to be writing a blog that gives you an inside look into the process of writing a novel (I am, really; it says so in big bold letters at the top of the page!!!), and I have yet to even bring up that huge, nasty, complicated four-letter word. Oh yes, that's right: PLOT. Before I can talk about the complex process of creating it, I need to talk about what it is. In a blog post yesterday about stakes, Chuck has this to say about plot:

"Plot is people. Or, more specifically, plot is the result of characters making choices and acting on those choices. Or, even more specifically, plot is the expression of characters aware of the stakes and who form goals in response to those stakes (correctly or incorrectly) and who attempt to overcome conflicts in service to those goals." 

This is a fantastic way to define that nasty four-letter word. I like it because it puts characters front and center, instead of somewhere off to the side, which is something I've been harping on about for a while. The action in the story should directly come from who the characters are: what makes them tick, what drives them batty, and what they really, really want. In fact, one of the well-known ways to come up with a story idea in the first place is to think of a character, figure out what he wants most in life, and then prevent him from having it. Voila - conflict, tension, high stakes. There's the beginning of your story.

It's also, however, an extremely writer-ly way to define it, so for the sake of clarity I'll just quote Wikipedia, here, and say that plot "is a literary term defined as the events that make up a story". In other words, it's what happens in your story.

It's also way, way, way harder to create than it sounds like it should be.

Let's go back in time, shall we? I'm working on Cloudland. I have a seed, and I've tortured myself into developing it and fleshing it out. I have some non-robotic, seriously psychoanalyzed, lengthily discussed characters. So, ummm... now what?

Now, of course, they DO STUFF! Really interesting, compelling, conflict-filled STUFF! And all that stuff happens in a well-conceived order, with carefully crafted building of tension, until we hit a thrilling, nail-biting climax that leads us right into a satisfying, moving, perhaps even thought-provoking resolution. And it all gets created in one lovely blue-y purple-y poof of MAGIC!



Even though characters, seed, and theme are essential, they don't create your plot for you, alas. I think I spent more time working on the plot than on anything else in the whole long brainstorming process, and that was a loooooong time. I had a few things to start with (after a great deal of brainstorming): 1) Jake and Sara were the main characters, and they were both going to lose a parent; 2) They were going to end up looking for their lost parents in a magical land in the clouds; and 3) They were going to have to confront, and deal with, the reality of their losses before the story could be resolved.

Awesome. So once again, now what? Besides extreme procrastination, of course. That's a given.

First: answer some questions.

1) Which parents, and how do they die?
- Jake's mom, and she dies in a car accident on a bridge over the Charles River, so that her body ends up in the water and is never recovered. This was important, because Jake is six, and therefore extremely literal. If there's no body, how can she be dead? And if she isn't dead, where is she, and how does he go about finding her? That's the entire impetus for the book - the inciting incident, if you want to use the technical term.
- Sara's dad, who dies after a battle with brain cancer that Sara's parents hid from her until about two weeks before his death. I came up with this specific death because I wanted a few things: a death very different from Jake's mom's (so no more accidents or sudden violence); a death that was sudden and unexpected enough that Sara would still have to deal with shock and denial; and finally, a death that involved some inherent tension and conflict with Sara's parents, because, well, honestly, because that would set her off and make a more interesting story.

2) and 3) What is the land in the clouds, what happens there, and how do Jake and Sara end up confronting the reality of their losses?
- If you think these three questions are enormous ones, you'd be right. The first question was a lot easier to answer. I spent quite a bit of time spinning my wheels and pulling at my hair as I tried to answer them, and in the end I wound up having to ask for help, from a very smart, fascinating, wise dead guy.

And you know what? He really helped me. I wouldn't have a plot if he hadn't.

More on week.

(see: cliffhangers and other manipulative plot devices)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

We Interrupt This Program To EMBARRASS THE HECK OUT OF ME

Hi, folks. I'm sorry about the unannounced radio silence last week. I fully intended to put up a blog post, but my birthday happened, and then my wife and I took off for heretofore unexplored regions of Western Massachusetts, where, it turns out, there are gorgeous views to look at and bountiful waterfalls and rivers to swim in and Bridges of Flowers (which, by the way, was a hell of a lot cooler and more lovely than it sounds) to cross, and very little in the way of cell phone or Internet service. So, I took a week off. Without really meaning to. Whoops.

But I'm back! And I am, as promised going to talk about plot this week - except - well, actually - if you don't mind -

I'm really not going to at all.

Nope. Sorry. Why? Because my editor has been tearing through great gobby sections of my manuscript with  unrestrained glee, and thanks to my unplanned week off, I'm now fighting to come up for air from beneath piles of marked-up pages and poor, dead, murdered paragraphs. Yes, that's right, it's time once again for small children and psychopathic criminals and abandoned puppies (look here for a key to that last sentence).


So, I'm once again wading like a lunatic through the seemingly endless pages of Cloudland, scythe in hand, slashing and burning and generally having a grand old time. Today, because I can't think about anything else at the moment, I'm going to treat you to an inside look at Liz's Bad Writing Habits, a.k.a. Stuff My Editor Is Constantly Cutting, a.k.a. Willing and Conscious Self-Humiliation In Seven Parts:

1. I've already mentioned one of them: a tendency to bash my readers over the head with over-explanation. Repeatedly. Ad nauseum. Just like I'm doing here. Oh boy.

2. I like the words 'long' and 'slow'. A lot. A whole, whole lot. I also really like them together, as in a 'long, slow moment'. There are (or rather, there were, before my editor's pen went hog-wild) a large number of 'long, slow moments' in my manuscript. I also really like it when people do things that are 'long' and/or 'slow': 'a long silence', 'a slow nod', 'a long, slow smile'. This is problematic, because, funny enough, readers seem to get bored with LONG, SLOW BOOKS.

3. One of my main characters, Sara, seems to like to avoid declarative sentences. For an example, see the sentence I just wrote. Does she seem to like to avoid them, or does she, in fact, just like to avoid them? As Shakespeare has Hamlet point out, '"Seems," madam? Nay, it is; I know not "seems."' 

4. I have a problem with pairing actions and body parts. Before your imagination runs wild, let me explain: I like to point out that characters nod their heads, and cross their arms over their chests. Because, you know, why just say that someone nodded, without saying what they nodded? I mean, that could be chaos! What body part did they nod?? There are so many choices! How will we ever know if I don't say it?!

5. I am a specific word addict. Once I find a word I like, I use it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And then I use it some more. My editor and I are compiling a growing list of Words I Am No Longer Allowed To Use in Cloudland. They include: fierce, wild, shift/shifting, murmur, quiver/quivering, long, and slow (see #2 above).

6. Emotions don't just happen; they happen in specific body parts. Or at least, they do when I write about them. I have a whole lot of instances of guilt rising in throats, and anger surging in stomachs, and grief filling lungs. I think at some point, someone told me that emotions should be visceral for the reader, and I, erm, took them rather seriously.

7. I love words. I really do. I love the way they taste, sound, look, smell, and feel (and yes, some words do have smells). This is not a bad thing, actually; it's just part of who I am, and a large part of why I love to read and write. The problem comes when I love them so much that I just keep piling 'em on. Hence, the collections of mass graves for my poor dead paragraphs.

I'm sure there are more Bad Habits I could name, but if you'll excuse me, I really need to get back to excising mine from my manuscript now.

Plot next week!! No, really!