The Scene-ic Route

Before I start, you may not know this but June is National Audio Book Month. It’s also forty-two Other-Things Month, like Accordion Awareness, Turkey Lovers, Papaya (also September – greedy papaya people), Dairy, and, weirdly, Dairy Alternative. My favorite is Bathroom Reading. Really! Here’s the link: http://womeninbusiness.about.com/od/diversityeventcalendars/a/nat-month-june.htm. See for yourself.

Back to National Audio Book Month, Random House is releasing a CD audio book of Dave at Night, and I was interviewed to promote the release. If you go to my website and click on videos, you can watch it. I like the interview and I’m thrilled about the release. Dave at Night is probably my least known novel and possibly my favorite. The reading is also my favorite of all my book recordings, so I hope the audio book finds lots of listeners.

Also, I missed an opportunity in last week’s post. I made up this passage: Marisette gizoxed down the previo at zyonga speed. If the ashymi didn’t boosheg, she’d find herself and the precious kizage in the boiling svik and all would be owped. But I didn’t think of mentioning “Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s amazing nonsense poem from Through the Looking Glass. The poem is full of action that’s understandable and exciting and words that either have no meaning or an elusive meaning that we can almost grasp but not quite. If you don’t know the poem, I recommend it and recommend that you read it aloud after you’ve read it to yourself a few times. Here’s the second stanza:

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Now for the main post. On April 1, 2011, bluekiwii wrote, …I don’t have a problem with linking a few scenes together, but instead, have a problem with how the scenes fit in the grand scheme of things–in the overall storyline. I would have no problem linking two scenes together, but linking 4 or more scenes together that are very different from each other to form a cohesive story–an overall theme–is far more difficult. Still the entry gave me some food for thought. Should writers have a clear picture of what the story will be about or should you flesh out each scene, edit them to form a cohesive whole, and think of possibilities as it goes along? Personally, I want to have a good picture of what type of story I want to create, instead of spontaneously making random scenes with the same characters.

No two writers write alike, and the only wrong way to write is not to write.

I write consecutively for the most part, start to finish. Occasionally I’ll see a scene glimmering in the near distance and write it. But even though I write in order, I don’t have a clear picture of the story as a whole. In the case of the mystery I’m struggling through right now, I know the it will be solved but have no clue as to how, nor have I figured out who the villain is. But I have a detailed image of a moment at the end that will put the source of the story problem away forever.

Does this murkiness make me worry? Yes.

Some of my books have been easier to steer through than others, but my process is generally to hack my way across a plot jungle. Occasionally I climb to higher ground, but – murdering the metaphor – usually I can’t see the forest for the trees.

Meanwhile, I’m writing tons of notes, asking myself plot questions, sometimes confusing myself even more, sometimes gaining understanding.

I’ve recently been able to frame the new mystery, Beloved Elodie (although this no longer seems a fitting title), in my mind as a quest, a simple story shape that I’ve used many times and that I’m hoping will help me now. Elodie’s quest is to discover a thief, and my job alternates between throwing up obstacles and helping her out.

If you can see your story this way, as a quest, my strategy may help you too. You may not know what the obstacles will be, but you don’t have to, you only have to know that you’ll need to create them and then solve them.

I read somewhere that if you can’t express your plot in a few sentences it’s not working. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m sure that a simple story shape is easier to work with. I love simple story shapes, which may be why I go to fairytales for inspiration. The charm of a simple plot is that you can fool around, embroider, have a great time, and still rely on a straight course from start to finish. The occasions when I’ve understood the simplicity of my form have been my happiest writing experiences.

A quest is simple. Here’s another simple idea: Two characters hate each other, and the story is about their enmity and each one’s attempts to destroy the other. Maybe one character is bad and the other good, or maybe they’re both good or bad, or they’re both an ordinary complicated assortment of qualities. Three possibilities suggest themselves: one will defeat the other (a suspense story); both will be vanquished (a tragedy); they’ll come together and both triumph (a love story). Maybe this is a quest tale too, a double quest, one for each protagonist.

See if you can come up with simple story shapes you can use. Think of books you love and search for the simplicity. Hamlet can be seen as a quest for understanding, Pride and Prejudice a quest for balance. You can take these frameworks and adapt them. Probably you won’t have your hero addressed by his father’s ghost, but he could receive a mysterious communication about the death of a loved one. You can bring in false friends and true and a dastardly deed by characters who seem above reproach.

However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the scene approach bluekiwii asks about. I like books of linked short stories, the same characters, more or less, appearing in each story. Some characters grow and change, some remain the same. There’s no overall climax but there’s drama in each story. I come to care about the important characters. The end doesn’t have to nail everything down, just has to make me feel I’ve traveled with these people and we’ve had an interesting time together.

There may be another way to look at your scenes, other than as linked short stories. If you have a bunch of scenes that don’t line up, hunt for common themes. See if the conflicts repeat. Consider what your characters want. Is there conflict in their desires? If Quinn gets what he wants, will Wendy lose out? Who from all the scenes can be your main characters?

Try writing a short summary of each scene on an index card then spread them out somewhere. Move them around. Do they fall into a natural order? Does one suggest itself as a beginning? One as the end or, if not the absolute end, as coming late in the overall story? When you think about the characters, do you see threads? Can you find a simple story shape?

You can even bring in scenes from some of your other stories that haven’t worked out but seem like they might connect thematically to the new one. Edgar in your old story can turn into Quinn with a few personality adjustments.

Not that I’ve tried it, but this seems like a wonderful way to write a book.

Some prompts courtesy of Lewis Carroll:

∙    Alice In Wonderland is beloved by many but not me, and if you adore it this prompt may not be for you. In my opinion, Alice’s actions are random. She’s curious but never concerned. She has no skin in the game, which I believe makes it a book with plot problems. So write a scene for Alice, could be a new beginning for the novel or come from a later point, that gives her a problem and a reason to do what she does. Or choose another character and make him or her the main character of a story or a novel.

∙    Reread “Jabberwocky.” There’s a simple story shape if I’ve ever seen one. Flesh it out with detail. What’s the relationship between the narrator and his (her?) son? What’s at stake in the battle? Develop other characters. Turn it into a novel if you like.

∙    From last week, incorporate nonsense words into a paragraph or a poem. Max out on the made-up words while still letting the reader gain a sense of what’s going on. If you try a poem, remember that rhyming is a snap with nonsense words. Then, if you feel like it, post your results here. I’d love to see them.

Have fun and save what you write!

Both Feet in the Story Door

On January 13, 2010 Maybe a Writer definitely wrote, What I can’t seem to get, is what happens right after my beginning.  I sometimes don’t even know where I’m taking the story, but I have a tiny idea for a plot. The story I’m working on is the most well-planed out I have, but I’m still on page three. Any ideas?

Alas, I’m having the same problem right now, and this will be my twenty-first book, counting just the published ones!  I’m on page thirty-one, not three, but I haven’t figured out how to move further into my story.  What I think I’m working on is a fantasy mystery sequel to an old Gothic story that involves embodiments of the south wind and the king of a river.  The issue may be that I haven’t made either of them real in my mind yet, so they’re not working as characters.  So far I haven’t even introduced them into the story.

I haven’t run into this particular problem before, although I’ve written about all sorts of creatures.  I don’t believe in fairies, but I’ve had no trouble making them come alive on the page.  I’m writing notes to figure out how I’m stuck and where I can go next.

For you, Maybe a Writer and anyone else who shares our predicament, there may be something inside your story that’s stopping you.  In 1993 I wanted to write a novel based on Cinderella, but the fairytale itself got in my way.  Cinderella is so disgustingly good and so incomprehensibly obedient that I didn’t know what to make of her, and I didn’t like her.  I couldn’t get started until I thought of the curse of obedience.  When I had that, I understood her and I was able to write about her.

If your trouble is inside your story, try my method and write notes about it.  But notes don’t work for everybody, and they don’t always work for anyone.  You can talk to a friend or relative about the way your story might go.  You can even talk out loud to yourself about it.  It may also help to look at my post of October 28, 2009 about writer’s block.

This prompt comes from a writing book called What If?, which is full of terrific prompts.  (Kid alert:  Most of this book is fine for writers and readers of any age, but some chapters are for high school and above.  Check with a parent or a librarian.)  The prompt comes from the book’s title.  Take whatever you’ve got as a beginning and ask yourself “What if?” about what might happen next.  Ask this repeatedly and write down the possibilities, whatever ideas come to you no matter how crazy they are.  As in, What if the girl in the green dress who is all alone at a party sees a framed photo on the mantelpiece and recognizes one of the people in it as her sister.  Or what if she starts writing on a wall of the living room where the party is happening.  Or what if she interrupts two dancers and starts dancing with them.  And so on.

Write ten what-ifs before looking them over.  Try the one that appeals to you the most and see where it takes you.

This is a variant on another prompt in What If?:  Write ten beginning scenes without thinking about what might come next, and make the scenes at least three pages long.  The purpose is to get away from anxiety and think only about what will grab a reader. 

When you’re finished, pick five and write another scene for each.  Next, pick three out of the five and write another scene for each of them.  Then see if you want to continue with any one of them.

I generally write in order, but you don’t have to.  You might try taking the characters from your first scene, those three pages, and write another scene for them, out of sequence.  If there are no characters yet, this is a good time to invent some and take the pressure off plot.  The new scene could be something you have in mind to happen later in the story, or it could be something that went before.  Or it could simply be an exploration of the characters’ relationships with one another.  Write the scene in the world of the story.  If the story takes place in the kingdom of Wohadfub, keep it there.  If the story is set in your home town, keep it there, too.

If you’re a kid, under twenty-one, say, I don’t think you need to worry about finishing stories.  The problem will take care of itself if you keep writing.  You will eventually start a story that you can finish.

If you’re over twenty-one, you probably shouldn’t worry either, because worrying does no good.  But for me there is always some gritting of teeth to get myself to the end of a book.  And stubbornness.  I’m utterly unwilling for a book to get the better of me.

I’ve mentioned that I’m writing poetry for adults, and I’m unpublished as a poet.  While I would very very, as many verys as can be, like to be published, there is freedom in not being.  Nobody cares what my poems are like, because nobody (except a few other aspiring poets) is reading them.  Little is at stake.  I can take chances and be outrageous.  If you aren’t published, I hope you will use your freedom.  And I hope you’ll have publishing success too.  But for now, experiment!  Have fun! And save whatever you come up with!