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!