Smooth sailing

Before the post, this news: On Saturday, February 21st at 1:00 PM, there will be a virtual launch party for Writer to Writer, which will run for an hour on Woozworld. HarperCollins has set this up and I’ve never done it before, but I’ll be there answering questions. I’m a newbie, so I don’t know what it will be like. There’s an avatar who sort of looks like me in a funhouse mirror kind of way (minus the wrinkles). It may be a bit young for many of you, but if you’re interested in ways that publishers promote books these days, this will be an example. I’m hoping that we can interact a bit and meet in this strange way. I’ll post details about how you can participate if you’re interested as soon as I get them, which may be between this post and the next, so stay tuned.

On August 19, 2014, Kenzi Anne wrote, Does anybody else have issues where their writing doesn’t flow–it comes out choppy and episodic? I want my stories’ events to lead into each other, like a domino effect where each event affects the next (like real life), which is much more fun to read and makes the story have a flow to it (in my opinion), but I just have THE HARDEST TIME IN THE WORLD with it! How do you all work with that?

The trouble may come from related problems with plot and character, which have to mesh. If they don’t, the reader has a bumpy ride. Suppose our MC, Vincia, has run away from her menial job in the laundry room of the king’s castle, where the chief laundress is a bully and where the lye that Vincia has to use to make the soap causes her hands to crack and bleed. And suppose we have in mind a series of plot points:

• Vincia overhears the king’s evil minister planning to assassinate the queen.

• Vincia’s brother has been captured by a brigand. She knows he’s in danger because her magic marble has turned a muddy brown.

• An injured troll lies along the road that leads from the castle, the road Vincia travels.

• Enemy forces allied with the evil minister are mustering at the border.

• In the battle that comes, Vincia  discovers in herself unexpected sword-wielding skills.

We have an ending in mind: Vincia replaces the evil minister and becomes the closest adviser to the king and queen. Her brother becomes the emperor’s adviser in the neighboring kingdom. Peace reigns.

The trouble is that we don’t know Vincia’s character and what she wants, besides quitting the laundry. And if we don’t know, she’s just a chess piece that we move from event to event, and of course the action feels episodic, so we have to craft a personality for her in order to create continuity.

We cast our eyes over our plot points and look for a possible person to go with them. If we make a Mary Sue out of Vincia, then her overall goal will be to save the kingdom. She’ll naturally want to thwart the evil minister, save her brother, defeat the enemy, and her amazing fencing will come as no surprise to us or our readers. The story will still feel episodic because Vincia won’t be real.

But there are other possibilities. Here are a few:

• Vincia can be so downtrodden by her laundry experience that she doesn’t think she can help the queen. She hears the plotting, feels bad, but continues with her escape.

• Vincia and her brother don’t get along. She thinks he’s an obnoxious know-it-all and a stint in captivity will do him good. Besides, the very word brigand tingles with romance for her. She’s intrigued rather than outraged.

• Vincia shares the common revulsion for trolls. She doesn’t even look closely enough at this one to realize he’s wounded. Instead, she detours as far as she can from him and keeps going.

• Vincia isn’t sure which side in the upcoming battle has her sympathy. After all, the chief laundress is a loyal subject of the king and queen.

• Vincia hates violence. When her sword arm seems to act on its own, she exerts her will to put down the weapon.

We probably don’t want all of these. Each one makes our ending harder to achieve. But one or two will create tension, will make our readers turn pages breathlessly, and will help our story feel seamless. They’ll also bring Vincia to life.

As for what Vincia wants, there are lots of possibilities. Here are a few:

• A plot of land far from any castles, where she can herd goats in peace.

• To clear her family name. She’s a laundry wench because her mother was accused and convicted of stealing a historic and enormous diamond from the treasury. Otherwise, Vincia would be the daughter of a duchess.

• To become a skilled musician; to learn to play the lyre well enough to make her listeners feel whatever she decides they need to feel.

• She may not be aware of her deepest desire, which is to become someone who can deal with a bully (and not by becoming a bully, too).

If the reader knows what she wants or needs, he’ll measure everything that happens in terms of how it moves her closer or farther from her goal, which will give our story a sense of flow.

Continuity is most easily achieved from a single POV, whether in first person or third, but it can be done from multiple POVs or from an omniscient narrator, who jumps around from one group of characters to another. At the moment, I’m reading Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett (love it!), which is told in third-person omniscient. It’s held together by an overarching problem: One of the characters is building a glass clock, which will stop time, end history, and destroy life. The story moves here and there–scenes with the clockmaker, the monks of time, DEATH and DEATH OF RATS, the granddaughter of DEATH, the “auditor” who hired the clockmaker–but it coheres because of the overarching problem. We can do that too. If the trouble is significant enough and the events move the story back and forth from danger to relief, the reader won’t feel that anything is choppy.

I noticed a couple of mechanical things Terry Pratchett does to sustain the continuity. Scene switches are separated by the italicized word Tick, which reminds the reader what’s at stake. And Pratchett ends one particular scene with the question: Who is this boy? The next scene begins with Who is this girl? And I shake my head in admiration.

Here are four prompts based on Vincia and her story:

• List three more possible over-arching goals for Vincia.

• Write a beginning scene between Vincia and the bullying laundress. Next, write a scene involving the brother and the brigands, and find a way to link the two, which can be subtle (as little as a hint) or obvious.

• Continue, and bring the evil prime minister into the story, as well as the king and queen.

• Keep going, and don’t forget the troll.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I've never heard of Woozworld. Time to check it out!

    Terry Pratchett is one of my top favorite writers. He's brilliant, funny, and a gentleman. Right now I'm reading his "A Slip of the Keyboard," which is a collection of essays he's written over the years about things like writing, conventions, and, unfortunately, Alzheimer's. I'm still on the writing + conventions part, and it's full of interesting insights. Goes great in combination with Gail's books for sparking the "writer brain."

  2. Oh! That reminds me- Last night I realized that not all parts of "A Slip of the Keyboard" may be appropriate for all ages. I hit a bit of "adult language and themes" last night. Of course, I err on the side or prudish, but I thought I should mention it.

  3. I appreciate when people err on the side of prudish! I suspect I do myself- and then I think about how jarring it can be to come across a theme or word you're not expecting, and how it can make you dislike an entire book or even mistrust the author, if the shock was bad enough. (Not mistrust as in actually suspect of something; more of making a mental note to check his or her books out of the library before buying them in the future.)

  4. Does anyone have the same problem where you start a story (with a good plot and characters that are ready to go) and you write one or two chapters, but then the story doesn't sound that fun or interesting, so you don't want to finish it.

    Am I the only one with that problem? How can I stop that?

    • NO! I totally have the exact same problem ALL THE TIME. Sometimes I don't know how to make my writing FUN–both the actual process of doing it and the writing itself. I'm glad you asked that question, 'cause I was going to ask the same thing. 🙂

    • Writing a story is like falling in love. It's fun in the beginning, but then the honeymoon's over, and you just have to push through until things get fun again. Happy Valentine's Day, by the way. When I'm bogged down, it's usually because I have it outlined too well and there's no wiggle room. So I change something up. Make a new character walk in the room, have a fight scene end with a compromise instead of an easy victory, let some fun, far-off event happen earlier than I planned.

    • I've found the easiest way to stay on track with writing a story is to get a friend who is willing to read it as you write it. If you feel like you have an audience it tends to bring out the motivation for writing SOMETHING because you have people waiting on you.

    • Hah, I have the very same problem a good deal of the time. When that happens I usually either 1. Start working on one of my three "Main" stories, or 2. Work on the geography of the story (I LOVE geography, I also LOVE drawing maps, I would like to become a cartographer someday). Drawing out my maps helps. I get to decide where the mountains are, what the boundaries are, deciding where the towns are, drawing mountains (I totally recommend drawing mountain ranges. It is calming), drawing rivers and deltas, etc. etc. Once I do that, I frame the map (if it's the right size) or I roll it up and tie it with hemp string (because I think it looks more interesting and story-ish than yarn, although some maps I use color coded yarn ties, to keep track of which are for where.) Then, once tat is done, I pull the map out again and use any of my various fun paperweights and place armies strategically with chess pieces, or I decide where my characters go, or stay. I make lots of possibilities and when I find an interesting placement of armies/characters, I form the story around it. I know it's kinda odd, but it helps me, so I decided to throw out the idea, in case someone else might find it helpful.

      P.S. I also listen to music without words and then come up with lyrics and weave them into the story. That's also kinda weird I guess.

  5. I have that problem with books AND short stories. My hard drive is full of opening scenes. Sometimes I can combine a couple to make something new. Sometimes I leave them for a while and come back to find the spark reignited. Sometimes they just sit and get dusty. 🙂

  6. I'm having trouble figuring out who the story I'm telling is really about. (Gail, it's the version of Sleeping Beauty that I told you about at the book festival.) It's not the title character. I thought it was the Eldest Fairy's story, but then the Youngest Fairy started to come to the forefront.
    The usual "Who has the most to lose?" trick isn't working, because there are different ways to "lose."
    Any suggestions for figuring out whose story this is? Thanks!

    • Whose story is the most interesting/exciting? (I guess that's pretty similar to the "Who has the most to lose?" question.) Whose personality or voice grabs you the most?
      Just a random thought: could you compromise and pick a few POV characters? Or do something like the movie HOODWINKED, in which the same story was told multiple times from multiple points of view, and each one fleshed out the tale a little more. That might be cumbersome in book form (or might be better suited to a series rather than a single book). But maybe that idea could be modified.
      I don't know! Hope this was a wee bit helpful!

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