How do you Plot?

notquietThere are as many ways to plot as there are writers. However, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you have an idea where you’re going, it can save you from having to do massive revisions. This is not to say you have to know every detail. Sometimes knowing too much can keep you from writing the story–you feel as if it’s already been told.

A balance between too much and too little is my happy spot. I want to know the big moments in every act. I want to know the character arc I’m building–and I want that arc to be the story arc. That’s where I see a lot of writers get into trouble–they build an action arc instead.

Now action can be great–in a mystery, or SF, or a Western. It’s not so good in a romance, which has to be character based. And character-based stories are what I prefer. But character-based stories need to be plotted from the character (not the action). This idea is what led me to my Plotting from Character workshop, which I’m teaching this September for the Contemporary Romance Writers.

handsThe idea behind the workshop is that if you plot from trying to think up actions to happen, you’re more than likely going to end up pushing your characters around as if they are paper dolls. The characters are going to come across as one-dimensional and not well motivated to take the actions demanded by the plot (because the plot is being pushed onto them, not pulled from who these characters are). The other problem is the plot is going to seem contrived–the author will have to manipulate the characters to make these actions happen. That’s going to strain the reader’s ability to believe in these characters (and their situations).

How do you avoid this? Well, that’s the point of the four-week workshop. But there are some tips:

  1. Create one main character–this is your protagonist. I know this seems obvious, but it is amazing how many writers write as if they are really unsure who is the protagonist. This is not the narrator. This is the character who changes the most in the story (and who faces the most problems).
  2. Create an external goal for the main character that is tangible, so the reader knows if the character gets it or not. (There should be consequences for failing to achieve the goal. Failure should be personally costly to the main character. And those consequences are the motivation for wanting this goal.) This will drive your action and needs to be known to the reader as soon as possible (in the first ten pages is best).
  3. Figure out the main characters’ person’s core internal need. This should be something in conflict with that character’s goal so you get automatic conflict for that character between what that person wants and needs.
  4. Make sure you have strong motivations (the why) for a character’s core need. Discard the first three or four ideas (those will be clichés).
  5. Internal motivations are strongest if tied to a specific event in the character’s formative years—create these scenes (you may use them in the story).
  6. WHY is the most important question to keep asking and answering–why would this person act this way? Why do they want that thing? Why must they do this now? Never stop asking this question.
  7. Have a theme in mind–it will help you enormously as you shape all your characters and the story. Theme helps you figure what to put in and what to leave out.
  8. Create secondary characters around the main one, with clear needs, goals and motivations for every character–and with more and more conflict.
  9. Layer in strengths and weaknesses for all your characters–develop them so characters do more than show up to advance a plot.
  10. Leave room for your characters to surprise you.

Obviously, there is more to the art of plotting from characters. But if you keep the story focused on your characters–and keep asking would this person really do this?–then your stories are going to become much stronger.

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Rushing the Story

stophurryingI’ve seen a new habit cropping up with a lot of beginning writers–they’re all rushing the story. It’s like these writers are so afraid of a slow pace that the story takes off the other direction, meaning too fast for the reader to start to care about the action and way too fast to establish the scene and the characters.

Visual media–movies and TV–have it lucky. A thirty second shot can do a lot to establish place, time and even give you a good bit of information on a character. But in any written media, all of that needs far more than a sentence or two on the page.

Now I’m not saying you have to drag the story out, or load on the details until it is overwhelming. I’m talking a balance between too much and too little. Too much information can indeed slow a story down and leave the reader turning pages to jump ahead to where there is some action and the story starts. But too little information can leave a reader confused, and leaves the setting unclear and will not help the reader into the story with vivid details.

The opening of a story–or every scene in the story–is also a vital place to set the reader into the world, the moment, and is a place to establish the tone of the story. Yes, an action packed story should start off with action. But a historical romance can slow down the pace. A cozy mystery doesn’t have to have the same grit as a police procedural. Writers need to think about the type of story being produced. And have confidence in their own skills. A writer who will take time to set up the story and the scene will better hook me because I can see at once that this writer will deliver on the promise in those opening pages. I trust this writer knows how to TELL A STORY.

And I think that is where a lot of young writers fall down. Yes, you need to know the technical stuff–how to write a sentence or craft a paragraph so it won’t trip the reader. Even more important is how to tell a story, and that means all parts of the story. This means you want to know how to craft every scene so it has an arc–a beginning, middle and end. You want to know how to weave in conflict and tension, but how to do so with also weaving in vital details.

A writer needs to use all the senses to bring the reader into the world–to make the reader smell the air, feel the chill or warmth, hear the crunch of frost or gravel. It’s about more than throwing in just a few crumbs of details–the writing must have enough brush strokes to realize the world. And that means the writer has to see, hear, smell and think about all these details.

It’s not enough to say the hallway was black and white marble with a grand staircase. I want to know if that marble is polished to a sheen and is slick to walk on, or is it dusty and cracked. I want to know if the air is stale or fresh with the scent of orange blossoms and roses from a hot house. I want to know if the character standing next to that grand staircase is shivering in the cold of a draft, or sweating from oppressive heat and wishing a window could be opened. I want to see the world through the character’s eyes and have a mood established of foreboding, or joy, or tension, or awe. I want to hear the footsteps crack against that marble, or hear the slam of a distant door and I want to be immersed in that world. All that means the writer must be just as immersed.

It is noted that the great writer Chekhov once wrote to his brother Alexander, that, “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”’

chekhovmoon03This has come to be attributed as: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Which Checkov indeed did in one of his stories:  The dam, flooded with moonlight, showed not a bit of shade; on it, in the middle, the neck of a broken bottle glittered like a star. The two wheels of the mill, half-hidden in the shadow of an ample willow, looked angry, despondent …

So maybe it is a need for these younger writers (and by young, I mean in experience, and not so much in age), to slow down and read their own work aloud. That’s a habit I learned early on. Reading your work aloud is a great way to catch not just the mistakes, but to hear the cadence of the words and to learn where more is needed. It’s rather like having a chef who must takes the food–a lack of tasting leads to not enough of the right spices.

Or maybe it’s just a need to slow down in general. Stop trying to rush to the end. Start letting the reader–and yourself–enjoy more of the process of getting there. Let the story unfold and spend more time with the details. Do multiple drafts and look to improve every single draft with more of the right details and more vivid images and senses. Give the reader a world the reader won’t want to leave.

And think about the overall tone of the story–go for more of what you want to give the reader (more humor, or more romance, or more tension, or more whatever you want to deliver). A writer’s job is to deliver a great story–and that means the writer must first imagine it.

What Are You Showing the Reader?

faces.jpgOne of the most important things to think about when you open any story is—what are you SHOWING the reader about that character? You want to remember that what you TELL the reader doesn’t matter as much as what you SHOW.

That’s right—you can tell the reader, the protagonist is smart, handsome, pretty, kind, and all kinds of wonderful. But if you don’t show the character being those things, the reader won’t believe it.

When you’re showing the character to the reader, you describe the character’s actions and use those actions to reveal emotion and thoughts. This puts the character on the page. And this all takes more words because you have to layer actions that are expressions of emotion (one action does not clearly identify an emotion, as in trembling hands could be anger, fear, or just feeling the cold). And showing is about IMMEDIACY—it’s happening now for the character. This means you do not want lots and lots of backstory in any character’s introduction.

In a lot of manuscripts that I see, the main characters is not shown as someone that the reader can connect with and root for. The characters does things that make the character unlikable right from the start. This is a problem when you have a reader looking to read for fun–it’s like going to a dinner party and finding out there’s  no one you can connect with. You want to leave the party right away.

Showing a character in action always uses more of the five senses: touch, taste, sound, sight, smell. Anytime you want to show more, read your draft and see if you are only describing sights—then weave in as many of the five senses as you can. And think about what you are showing. Are you showing a character who is a coward, who is cold, who is unkind? Is there anything you can show that would better connect the reader to that main character?

If you want a reader to connect with a character, you want several things:

-SHOW the character in action (so the reader gets an immediate sense of who is this person).

-PRESENT the character with something the reader can either admire or understand.

-CONNECT the reader emotionally with the character—meaning it’s not about the action entirely. The reader has to understand the character’s motivations and emotions.

And if you’re writing genre fiction, take a look at Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writers. They’re going to help you get your readers attached to your characters right off.

Horse Sense

Horse Sense for Your Characters-OCCgraphic2I’m teaching a workshop for OCC RWA starting June 1 on Horse Sense, so it made sense to talk a little about my experiences with horses. This blog might also have been called ‘horse mad’ for as the family story goes, when I was two, and before I was doing much walking, I crawled over to my brother’s rocking horse, and Pony Gray instantly became my first horse.

Now, I’ve got the excuse it runs in the blood—my grandmother never forgave, or ever stopped talking about, my grandfather trading her good milk cow for a riding horse. Back then a plough horse was a different thing than a riding horse, so you had to make that distinction. Long after Grandpa Erickson was in his grave, grandma was still bemoaning this loss. It always seemed a good trade to me.

My first memory of being on a horse was somewhere around the age of four or five when we took a trip to visit relatives. My mother rode—she grew up in rural Utah—so she got on a half-broke young Appaloosa just in from winter pasture and we went for a gallop. I do remember loving it. Mother always said I kept saying to make it go faster—that part I don’t remember.

When I was seven, my parents deemed me old—and tall—enough to take riding lessons, so the weekly trips to the stables started up. I learned on a wonderful, patient old fellow named Sunny who had two speeds—stop and walk. I have vague memories of getting him up to a slow trot at one point, but I’ve always had a “slow” seat for horses, so Sunny mostly just helped me into the saddle.

drakeAll this means horses have always been part of my life. My aunt—also a horsewoman—taught me to ride side saddle. I went to England to get my riding instructor’s certificate and learned to drive carriage horses—and I got to hunt (meaning vast amounts of time standing about, then galloping to a new cover and more standing about, but it’s all on horseback, so not a bad time at all). I’ve shown hunters, jumpers, dressage, three-day, and did a year of western riding, and now only ride the trail for fun—my show days are behind me.

woodyI’ve also been bucked off, rubbed off on a tree, had a horse fall with me, dealt with barn sour, rearing horses, dirty stoppers, and a load of other problem horses. I’ve galloped race horses (and you really do have to get up all too early for that), and then I’ve had wonderful horses who would do anything for me–including the splendid Drake shown in the photo above (who hated to be left out and insisted on always having his stall door open so he could join in the fun), and the handsome Woody (the photo on the left) who was a perfect hunter, but never got the hang of fast turns in jumper classes.

But I finally have my ranch in New Mexico and horses in my backyard—my earliest dream come true. And I’m going to be teaching a workshop on horses for writers because these days most folks are more familiar with their automobile. The lack of a horse in your life to me is a terrible thing—I’ve always ridden, even if I had to beg or borrow the horse.

Now the subject of horses is a big one, going back thousands of years. But let’s hit a few highlights from the workshop:

Common Myths and Mistakes

  • Side saddles are uncomfortable and insecure so any woman would rather ride astride. Wrong. If you know how to ride aside, it’s comfortable and the preferred choice. I adore my grandmother’s western side saddle, and would rather have that for a day in the saddle any day.
  • It’s easy and safe ride double on a horse and the horse won’t care. Nope. Most horses have no ribs over the loins, meaning someone sitting there is not comfortable. The only way to really ride double is with two kids (or really skinny people), or on a really big horse.
  • A six foot tall man can ride an Arabian stallion. This one is a laughable mistake—picture his feet dragging the ground and you start to get the picture. This has ruined more stories for me.
  • A rider can grab an unsuspecting person on the ground and drag them up to be carried off. If you really, really practice this a lot, you can do this with someone who is ready and willing to be grabbed. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up on the ground yourself.
  • You can tie a horse by the reins to a stationary object. Some horses are taught to ground tie—you just drop the reins. Some horses will stand if you loop the reins over something—you’ll see this in Western movies all the time. However, most horses, if you give them the chance, will get themselves into trouble—meaning tug back on the reins, break them, get loose and wander off.
  • Stallions are the most dramatic and dangerous of all horses. Well, they are pretty, but you want tough and mean, pick a mare that has a bone to pick with you.
  • An experienced rider isn’t able to stop a runaway horse. Been there, done that. You put them in a circle and make them keep galloping. Do that once or twice and they stop running away with you. The only runaway that’s tough is the habitual one, who also will usually try to scrape you off under a tree.
  • You can kiss another rider while on horseback. There are a lot of You Tube videos of the ‘romantic’ wedding with the bride and groom on horseback—a sure recipe for trouble if these horses have not been through rehearsal about a thousand times. If the veil doesn’t spook the horse, something else will. And if that’s not enough, lean in for that kiss is an invitation for the horse to step the other way, leaving you dangling. Even Roy Rogers and Trigger didn’t go for this one—but Roy did let Trigger kiss him!
  • You can ride a horse and not come away smelling of eau de equine. If anyone’s ever managed this, I’d like to learn their secret.

And there is another of my favorite mistakes, the obvious one that horses aren’t cars. You can’t really park them and expect them to stay put—they tend to see grass and go for it. You can’t park them—again, they have their own mind about things and a bored horse is one looking for food. And you can’t drive them 24/7—they need food, water and rest, just like the rest of us.

For more horse tales, come and take the workshop. Or get yourself to a local stable and start having some horse fun for yourself.

Separated by a Common Language

The quote is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw that England and America are two countries separated by a common language–but that’s not quite right.

It’s Oscar Wilde who first brings this up and one of his quips in The Canterville Ghost:

“…we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”

Which is, of course, a delight to me. Most writers I know get drunk on words–it’s our vice of choice, and the differences in English and English are fun. It’s a way of looking at words. Some of my favorites include:

Braces (suspenders to us Yanks)
Cot (not crib)
Crisps (instead of chips)
Dustbin (not garbage can)
Garden (instead of lawn)
Ground floor (what we in the states call the first floor)
Jelly babies (Jelly beans)
Trainers (sneakers)
Trolley (otherwise known as a shopping cart)
Vest (an undershirt–what we Yanks call a vest is a waistcoat)

The list is just about endless, and can get an American in trouble (do not be asking to borrow anyone’s pants–they are trousers). Or a Brit in trouble in the States (yeah, you just try to ask to borrow a fag here–better make that a cig or a smoke).

I find you almost have to get into another mindset to cross the pond mentally. It’s a softer approach to the language in England, but it’s also a rapier instead of an ax if you want to insult someone (I do love watching British Parliament–it always starts with Right Honorable or Learned Colleague and heads downhill from there in a scathing words, but said with such polite phrasing).

And, if you’re writing anything set in another place, it’s something to keep in mind. Words influence how we think. They influence how we do certain things, too. I do think if you’re writing anything set in England and you live in the States you have to immerse yourself in tons of BBC American or loads of videos. Or better still lots and lots of period books. It helps if you can spend time with the Brits, of course. You pick up the cadence that way. And the opposite is true–except America is more than happy to unload its culture via a thousand movies, so I must believe it’s easier to pick up on American habits.

But the subtleties are often hard to catch–when do you use the right phrase with the right person, and what about local habits (those are always hard to come by unless you’ve lived in a place).

And now I’m going to toddle off to take a cuppa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Developing an Idea or Characters?

proper-conduct-01I’m in the middle of teaching my “Plotting from Character” workshop and what always happens is that folks get frustrated. Which is actually quite normal. Learning something new is hard, and most people don’t want to really spend the time to break old habits and to the work to learn (or relearn) new ways of doing things. It takes not just persistence but also patience–with yourself and with the process. A lot of times you just have to do something over and over and over again.

I was reminded of this the other day–I’m learning something new. I’m struggling to learn how to play the mandolin. Now, the fingerings are the same as for a violin, which I used to play. But you have double the strings–and you have to pick (not bow). And eight frigging strings means one of them is always going out of tune. Took me an hour to tune it, then I broke an E string and it took me another hour to change it. Patience and persistence got be back to where I could do some chord and scale practice. It’s going to take longer before I don’t suck at it.

And that’s where I think a lot of writers have trouble. It takes patience as well as persistence to develop characters. I’ve had a few characters just show up on the page ready to go. Most of them take time and repeated work to really get them fleshed out and figured out. I had that problem in Proper Conduct–the heroine just took forever to show up. She was a difficult character all the way along, but after 100 pages she finally settled down and I was able to get her onto the page.

That’s where I see writers with less experience struggling–they jump into an idea and develop the heck out of the idea. But the characters don’t get development. It’s too easy to fall in love with an idea and forget the story is really about your characters. A great story won’t carry a book. And that’s where you end up with good writing and weak stories–and I see a lot of that in contests where there is a lot of cleverness but the characters are what my mother used to call ‘unbaked cookie dough.’

Now it is possible to overdevelop the characters–to spend too much time on details and not enough time on the main conflict and story arc. I used to do that and my characters came out flat. I’d written the life out of them. So it does take a balance.

And a lot of patience to go along with the persistence.

What’s Showing and What’s Telling?

cropped-top-bar.jpgI regularly teach Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop and I’m about to start it again, and two things always come up:

1-Folks want just to learn to show more in their stories.

2-Folks don’t really know what is showing and what is telling.

Now both showing and telling have a place in any writer’s toolbox. However, what I’ve noticed is that writers just learning their craft haven’t figured out how to show more, and their telling is just awful–they haven’t learned that good narrative takes a lot of work.

I don’t think any writer is really lazy–the work is just to hard to attract someone who wants to take it easy. But writing is more than hard work. It also needs smart work.

So, quick tips here:

Showing means you SHOW the character in action. Action includes someone who is talking as well as doing things. Any actor knows this–an actor cannot just stand around spouting lines. An actor must express emotions by what they do–and that means they need bits of business. So the writer must become the actor for every character and think up how that character expresses emotion (and not just with cliches of shouting or thumping).

Telling means you TELL the reader what the character is feeling. This can be done with phrases like ‘he felt’ or ‘she was angry’. The trouble with telling the reader this information is the reader doesn’t get a chance to SEE the character–there is no reveal through actions. So the reader tends to feel cheated.

Now the confusion comes in that all of this showing and telling takes description–also, showing and telling are not absolutes. You can blend them. It’s a matter of balance. Too much telling will flatten a scene. Too much showing if you’re trying to do a transition (not a scene with emotion) makes the story drag. So you have to learn when you need to show more and when you need to tell better. And all this takes practice and awareness. It also take reading the work of others with awareness so you start to understand the techniques–if you don’t know your tools it’s hard to use them like a true master craftsman.

And a few acting classes can also help any writer better understand the need to get a character on the page by giving that character more bits of business to reveal the character’s inner nature and emotions.