Three-legged stool

Writing fiction professionally is a three-legged stool. It’s an art. It’s a craft. It’s a business.

Like all three-legged stools, it is most stable and comfortable when all three of the legs are the same length; that is, when each area receives an appropriate amount of attention. What is appropriate depends on what the writer is trying to achieve and how, and rarely does one find a writer who routinely gives equal attention to each one of the three legs. Still, established professional writers have generally found a balance that works for them.

Writers who aren’t yet in business (i.e., those who haven’t published yet) frequently pay too much attention to one or two legs, and not enough to the third. And when you’re looking at a three-legged stool, having uneven legs means an uncomfortable seat, at best; at worst, you go past the tipping point where the “seat” is too tilted to sit on, and you slide off in a heap, wondering why you can’t seem to get your writing career stabilized. Note that it doesn’t matter which of the legs is too short or too long; the end result will be the same.

Unfortunately, it is a bit difficult to talk about all three legs at the same time. Most writers and would-be writers seem to emphasize one leg at a time when they are talking or blogging about writing. Furthermore, observation and experience indicate that the fashion in what to emphasize most changes, depending on what is going on in the publishing industry and/or which part of it someone is writing for.

There’s always been something of a divide between writers who consider Art of primary importance and those who give Craft or Commerce pride of place. Dickens and Conan Doyle, for example, got little respect in their day because they wrote for a mass audience. The argument got louder with the rise of mass market publishing and category fiction, which expanded the market for written fiction and thus meant that a lot more people could make a living writing…and that meant that you had a lot more people talking actively about the Craft aspects and the business aspects than there used to be. And now we have a fast-growing group of writers who are self-publishing their work in ebook form and who focus intensely on the Business/Publicity leg out of the need to attract readers, as well as a subgroup of writers for whom their ebooks are simply an adjunct to their marketing campaign for some other product or service they’re selling.

Each of those shifts in emphasis came because the context in which fiction writing is done had changed. If your stool is sitting on an uneven floor, and you can’t level the floor out, one way to make it steady and level the seat is to make one of the legs longer or shorter, to compensate for the unevenness in the surface the stool is standing on. The thing is, if you don’t realize that you’re just compensating for the floor, you’re likely to position the stool wrong if you have to move it to a different place with a different kind of unevenness in the floor. And then you slide off and wonder what happened.

The other thing about a three-legged stool is that you can’t eliminate one of the legs and still have it stand up on its own. You also can’t make a fake leg out of something flimsy and end up with a stool you can sit on (though if you are trying to dump someone onto the floor, that could work very well). All three legs are important. Getting would-be writers to recognize that and act on it is a whole ‘nother matter.

Obviously, everybody has things they are good at and things they aren’t, as well as things they like and things they dislike. Having talked to large numbers of would-be writers both on and offline, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of them really, really want to believe that the particular thing they are best at and/or love and/or enjoy doing the most is the one thing that’s vital to a writing career, and the thing they hate, loathe, and despise doing is unnecessary. And no matter which leg of the stool they don’t want to deal with, they hate being told that one way or another, they’re going to have to in order to do what they claim they want (successfully write and publish fiction).

People have endless discussions on all three of these basic topics as they relate to writing fiction. In a fit of insanity, I’m going to tackle each in turn, starting next week.

[NB: Disregard the byline the software slaps on this post. It was written by Patricia Wrede. (CS merely posted it.)]

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Doing one thing at a time

Points of Departure is now for sale!

As you can see, we have made the leap to a new host for the web site. There are still a few problems shaking out, so new posts may suffer from odd timing for a few weeks, but I am hopeful that everything will be sorted out soon. Next comes the web site redesign.

As I mentioned ages ago before the move, writing generally requires doing many things at the same time. Still, there are times when any writer may decide to focus on one particular aspect of writing above all the others. Maybe they want to learn a new technique, like writing flashbacks or doing stream-of-consciousness. Other times, they’re trying to correct a problem with their process, as when they decide their Internal Editor’s constant criticism is slowing down their production. Still other times, the writer has a known weakness in one particular area (dialog, action, characterization, description…) that they have determined needs bringing up to the same level as the rest of their skills.

There are two main ways to approach this problem, each of which has advantages and disadvantages. First, you can find or come up with specific exercises that give you focused practice doing whatever-it-is: write three pages in nothing but dialog; or write a car chase, a brawl in a bar, and a battle scene, one after another; or fill three pages every morning as fast as possible without stopping or editing. Second, you can deliberately select a writing project that will force you to address the thing you want to work on a lot more frequently than whatever you normally write.

One advantage of finding or coming up with exercises is that they are focused, frequently extremely focused. For instance, I’ve seen quite a few dialog exercises that want the writer to write two or three pages of talking heads – nothing but dialog and the occasional speech tag. This provides lots of practice with the problem area in a relatively short time. And that’s the other advantage of exercises: they are generally short, usually no more than three pages (and sometimes only a paragraph). As a result, the author can tackle the same problem from three or four different angles over a couple of days, writing two pages of dialog between an old woman and a young boy, then two pages between a medieval king and his squire, then three pages of random strangers in a bar talking, then a romantic dinner conversation, and so on. It’s very difficult to find a piece of pay copy that will allow one to cover that much variety in a couple of days, unless you’re the sort of burst writer who can put in 16 hours a day for a week and end up with 40,000 good words at the end of it.

The main disadvantage of exercises, in my experience, is that they are focused. That is, they can help one figure out how to produce a particular kind of thing, but they don’t necessarily help with integrating that thing into all the other things that need to be there in the finished piece. Consequently, there is sometimes a tendency for new writers who’ve done a lot of exercises to simply string them together: first, there’s a lump of narrative characterization, then there’s two pages of dialog with maybe a couple of speech tags, then there’s another lump of description, then a bit of action. It reads like driving over a corduroy road, even when each bit is, taken alone, well done.

One way to fix this problem (which is for some their regular working method) is layering: starting with one very specific thing (often dialog) and then making additional passes to add description, body language, internal dialog, action, and so on. This can work quite well if one has a good idea of how many additional layers are needed and what they are; it doesn’t even matter if one misses something, as long as it isn’t the same thing missing in every scene. Few writers are as conscious and analytical as is needed to make this work as their standard process, but it can be really useful in itself as an exercise for integrating all the various things that need to be in a scene.

Unfortunately, there are some things for which writing a two-page exercise is not much help. Macro-level stuff like pacing, character growth, and plot is hard to address outside of an actual story. And sometimes the problem with one’s dialog or action or description turns out not to be with doing the thing itself – the writer has no trouble doing a page of realistic-sounding dialog or a lovely paragraph of description – but with integrating it into the rest of the story.

For this kind of thing, the second method (come up with a project that requires you to do lots of whatever-it-is) is the most logical approach. It’s on-the-job training, and it can be extremely effective. It’s ideal for those of us who are chronically impatient to get down to the real work. One can learn any writing skill one needs to know by using it, with the added bonus of ending up (theoretically) with a saleable story at the end. And one can also be pretty sure that one will be able to integrate that skill in future works, because that’s how one learned to do it in the first place.

The first catch is that working this way does not guarantee that one will end up with a saleable finished product. Most writers are perfectly OK with writing a two-page exercise that they know isn’t ever going to be anything but an exercise. They’re a lot less OK with writing a twenty page short story or a 300-page novel that turns out to be seriously flawed, even if improves a specific skill. And if the writer’s problem is with something at the macro level, it is entirely possible that writing one novel isn’t going to teach them enough to get that skill up to an acceptable level.

Which is the other catch: writing a whole novel, or even a couple of short stories, usually takes a lot longer than doing a couple of focused exercises. Novels not only take a lot of time, they involve a lot of different skills, and it is easy for the writer to get distracted. The story that was planned as a way to learn to really dig into characterization and growth slips gradually into the kind of action-adventure that the writer is already familiar with and comfortable doing (or vice versa). Furthermore, because there are a lot of different skills in play, the writer doesn’t get as much practice at any one of them, so the learning curve seems a lot longer and more time-consuming than it ought to be.

A mixed approach seems to work best for most writers, especially at the start of their careers, but it really, really depends on temperament and personal style. I loathe most writing exercises, and for the first twenty years of my career I didn’t use them at all because “write a scene that meets these requirements” was something that I felt I could just as well do in pay copy. It worked for me…but looking back, I’d have gotten a handle on some things a lot faster if I’d had the patience to do a few of those annoying exercises.

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Doing it all at once

Before I begin, let me just mention that Points of Departure, the anthology of Liavek stories Pamela Dean and I did, is going live on May 12, and we just got a very nice starred review http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-62681-555-1 at the Publisher’s Weekly website. This is a very big deal, as PW affects things like library purchases. I’m not sure how this will work for an ebook, but libraries do carry them now and it is also available as a print-on-demand paperback, so I guess we’ll find out.

Also, we are in the process of migrating the website to a new server and new, more mobile-friendly design. I am hoping that we can do it seamlessly, but hope and practice are seldom the same, so if the site goes missing unexpectedly or suddenly becomes illegible, that’s probably what’s going on. I’ll let you know when we’re safely done.

One of the problems with nearly all how-to-write advice, including this blog, is that in order to talk about writing fiction, we inevitably focus on one aspect of it at a time. The more analytical advisors tend to break things down along lines that focus on story: this is how you do characterization, here is some advice about plotting, that is how you do setting or style, dialog or action, pacing or structure; always remember these important things about theme, beginnings, suspense, tension. The more intuitive advisors talk mainly about the writer: this is how you get motivated, cultivate your inner idea-generator, take yourself on “creative dates,” get over your hangups about your unworthiness or lack of skill, let go of your inner critic.

The truth is that when you are writing, you have to do all of that at the same time. You have to be motivated while you are writing the action that shows off the characterization that furthers the plot as you get over your hangups while you continue writing the dialog that goes along with the action to keep the pacing consistent as you invent new ideas and squash your inner critic so that you can keep the suspense up and the middle moving.

This is why writing is hard.

A writer who spends too much time focused on any one aspect of writing, whether it’s something about them and their process or some more analytical thing having to do with the story itself, almost always ends up unbalancing the story. In the worst cases, the whole thing sinks; in less extreme ones, the book ends up full of lumps: here is a page of characterization, then two pages of pure action, followed by three of dialog. It’s like driving over a corduroy road, or like mixing butter, flour, and milk and getting dumplings when what you wanted was a smooth cream sauce.

What advice-givers seldom mention is that all these things – including the writer-specific ones as well as the story-specific ones – are ingredients. You do want to use the best and freshest ingredients possible, but that alone will not guarantee that you end up with cream sauce instead of dumplings. You also have to get the proportions right, and mix them properly, in the right order, and under the right conditions, and then cook the result in the right way for what you are making. You can make a perfectly fine cake batter, but if you try to cook it in boiling water, the way you would make dumplings, well, it is not going to work very well, that’s all.

Unfortunately, nobody has come up with recipes for the novel equivalents of cake vs. dumplings vs. cream sauce. Writing is much more like the kind of recipes my grandmother used: take some leftover mashed potatoes, mix with flour, and roll out; spread with some cut apples and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Roll it up and bake in a hot oven until done. If you’re an experienced cook, you can probably make something edible from that recipe; if you’re not, it will probably take some experimentation, even if you have seen the dish made (or eaten it) and therefore have some idea what you’re going for.

Having some idea what you’re going for is important, because, as with cooking, different end results require starting with different proportions and preparations, and not necessarily all the same ingredients. Cake uses flour, butter, and milk, but also eggs, sugar, and a rising agent; cream sauce is generally just flour, butter, and milk. Dumplings…well, it depends on whether you’re making them to go in chicken soup, or whether you’re putting them in a stewed blueberry dessert, and also on whether you like yours light and fluffy or solid and chewy. Personal taste is an important factor.

What ingredients go into your novel depend, in part, on what kind of thing you want to do, in the most general sense. Fluff or drama? Comedy or tragedy? Specific genre or subgenre, or let’s-just-write-it-and-see? Planner or pantser? Different genres and subgenres require different proportions; a sweet Romance will have a lot more characterization and emotion and a lot less physical action than an action-thriller. A murder mystery pretty much requires a murder, the way stuffed mushrooms pretty much require mushrooms. If you hate the idea of writing a murder the way some people hate mushrooms, best pick a different story.

It is perfectly possible to cook/write something that you dislike yourself, but that people who do like that sort of thing really love. It takes a lot of motivation, though, because it’s usually not much fun, and usually quite a bit of experience, because if you don’t like it, you don’t know a good-tasting one from a bad-tasting one. I don’t make coffee for my guests because I hate the stuff and have no idea how to tell good from bad. On the other hand, my sister, who hates ginger but who is a very good cook, made some fabulous sweet-and-savory ginger not-quite-cookies for the three of us who came for lunch last weekend, because she knows we all love ginger…but she made us take the leftovers away. (It was a sacrifice, but somehow we managed.) I don’t think she’d have done that for very many other people.

So if you like light, fluffy fiction that’s heavy on characterization, you perhaps ought not to start off trying to write a gritty, action-packed dystopian novel. And when you are frustrated over your inability to shoehorn in more action or characterization, perhaps you should stop and think. Maybe your cream sauce isn’t supposed to have sugar in it.

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Organizing the process

A couple of years ago, I was at a seminar on getting organized (I am a sucker for that kind of thing), and the presenter asked for examples of our current projects-in-process. Naturally, the example I came up with was the book I was working on at the time. Equally naturally, the presenter latched onto it as an interesting and unusual example, and proceeded to lay out the steps that would get me to “finish the project.” It went something like this:

  • Finish the scene
  • Finish the chapter
  • Repeat 1 and 2 until rough draft is complete
  • Revise and edit
  • Mail to agent
  • Sell to editor
  • Publish book

I started to object, and the presenter explained that the project wasn’t finished until it was finished, all the way through to publication, and part of his point was that we needed to figure out where the “real” endpoints were. And everybody else in the seminar nodded sagely.

I sat there trying to figure out how to explain what was wrong with his list, and just how many additional steps were missing in between “Sell to editor” and “Publish book,” and why “publish book” wasn’t actually the ending point he thought it was, but after a minute I realized that as far as the seminar was concerned, it didn’t matter. That list is pretty much how most non-writers and pre-published writers see the process. Since all the other seminar participants were not writers, all of them got the presenter’s point. Heck, even I got the point, in spite of the fact that the way he was applying the principle was, in this specific case, oversimplified to the point of unworkability.

The problem, from my perspective, was that he’d taken several related projects, at different levels of detail, and jumbled them all together as if they were one project. (That, and he didn’t have a clue about the actual publishing process or where I was in it; for instance, “sell to editor” was irrelevant, as I’d sold the book as part of a contract signed several years before.)

When I think about the process of writing and publishing a book, it looks more like this:

  1. Finish rough draft
  2. Revise and edit rough draft
  3. Email (or mail) final manuscript to editor and agent
  4. Do editorial revisions
  5. Do my part of pre-publication production work (e.g., copyedit, page proofs)
  6. Do whatever publicity stuff I’ve committed to

Each of those numbered items above, I think of as a separate project that depends on finishing the previous project, the way decorating the living room depends on having first built the house. I think of them this way because each of them requires me to be in a different mental space. Writing the manuscript (#1) is totally different from revising and editing it (#2). Getting the final ms. formatted and mailed off to my editor (#3) is a purely administrative task I can do when I’m nearly brain-dead. Editorial revisions are a moveable feast; sometimes they’re big and take months, other times there are only a few and I can knock them off in a couple of days. Copyedit and page proofs (#5) are a different sort of administrative task, and publicity (#6) is like nothing else anywhere on the list. Lumping all of them together as one giant meta-project is discouraging.

It’s already going to take me a year or more to get the book written; adding a couple of months for revising and polishing and mailing off to the editor might be OK, but tacking on six more months of waiting for and doing editorial revisions and another year or so spent mostly waiting for the copyedit and page proofs, and then another year of pre-and-post-publication publicity, and it becomes soul-killing.

I may not be “done with the book” when I write “The End” at the bottom of the last page for the first time, but I absolutely am “done with the first draft,” and I want to check it off, secure in the knowledge that I am done with something, even if there’s still a lot left to do.

On the other hand, I have to admit that from another angle, the guy was right: there is a meta-project involving getting from a blank page all the way to a book that’s available and selling, and being aware of that ultimate end result can keep people from neglecting the later projects. Of course, if one’s ambition is to be the next Emily Dickenson, one can stop at project #2 and stick the final revised ms. in a drawer somewhere for one’s heirs to find and deal with later. It depends on what one’s meta-project is.

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Last plot post for a while, I promise

A few more words about plot before I move on to something else for a while:

First off, dozens of people besides Heinlein have come up with different sets of basic plots; he’s not the last word on the subject. Most of them have a lot more than three, which makes them far more difficult to analyze in a brief post; they are also all a lot less basic, as you might expect from the fact that there are ten or twelve or thirty-seven of them.

Second, plots can happen on different levels in any and every story. Some stories are mostly on one level – the James Bond books cited in comments earlier are primarily physical action, i.e. “The Little Tailor,” with no other levels to the plot. Other stories operate on multiple levels at once – Lois Bujold’s Memory is both a “Little Tailor” plot and a “Man Learns Lesson” plot; her A Civil Campaign later in the same series has all three levels of plot for the main storyline, and multiple levels for most of the secondary storylines/subplots as well.

The most common levels for plot to operate on are physical, emotional, and/or intellectual. It’s usually fairly easy to classify a story with a central plot that is all one level. If you want to write a classic sword-and-sorcery Conan the Barbarian type of plot, you don’t have to think very hard to figure out that what you’ve got is Little Tailor action-adventure and not much else. As with the James Bond books, there’s sometimes a bit of romance decorating the main storyline, but it rarely has enough attention paid to it to qualify even as a subplot, and sword-and-sorcery heroes seldom learn anything new about themselves or the world in the course of their adventures (except maybe the location of the nearest bar or brothel).

As soon as you start looking at complex stories with multiple levels, things get harder to classify. What is the central plotline in Bujold’s Memory – the intellectual “whodunnit and how” puzzle, the action/adventure thriller, or the vital lessons the main character has to learn about himself? The three plot levels are so closely entwined that they’re difficult to untangle.

And this is where a lot of folks go heading off in the wrong direction. They have a central plotline that requires some action, so they immediately think in terms of an action plot, when really what they have is an emotional family drama or a romance that involves some action at various points. Or they have a romance but one of the characters ends up dead, so they think it has to be an action plot. (About that – Romeo and Juliet. ‘Nuff said.)

Having mis-identified the type of story they want to write, they proceed to “develop their plot” in that direction, and the more details they make up, the less satisfied they are. Eventually, they abandon the story (sometimes many chapters in, which is exceedingly discouraging).

The thing one has to look at is: what is the bit that, if you took it out or changed it, you wouldn’t still have the story you wanted to write? If you want to write Georgette Heyer’s Frederica, you can do without the hot-air balloon chase (the action part, which would be a shame to lose…but the main storyline would survive), but you cannot do without the relationship between the two main characters and their families, because that’s what the story is about. If you want to write a James Bond book, you can do without the Bond girl-of-the-week, but you can’t do without the car chases, fights, and megalomaniacal villains.

It can be a lot harder to pin down that essential center when all you have is an idea-seed, and not the whole story. A lot of writers do it by feel, meaning that when they start to develop an idea-seed, they let go of the stuff that doesn’t “feel right” as quickly as possible. Sometimes, this means a quick rejection; other times, they try on the not-quite-satisfactory idea for a couple of days or even weeks. This can be extremely frustrating for the friends and family who are trying to be supportive, and who really like the not-quite-right idea that the writer is abandoning.

It is also frustrating for writers who, having started off in the wrong direction (say, trying to think up an action plot for what ought to be a Man Learns Lesson story), keep getting suggestions from their helpful beta readers for the thing they’ve rejected (i.e., more action plot possibilities when they need an emotional plot or a puzzle or a lesson plot). There is not much to be done about this; once you have got people looking in the wrong direction, it is very hard to get them to switch. About all I can think of is to announce that you have to go think for a while and do not want any more suggestions for a couple of months, and then stick to it while you consider alternatives, no matter how much you want to talk about it. Once the wrong-possible-plot-direction has faded a bit from everyone’s memory, you can go back with a new plot-direction and hopefully get some useful suggestions.

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When it IS a plot

The reason I started the last post with a bunch of examples of what plot is not was twofold: first, as I said, lots of people’s plot-problems seem to happen because they are starting from something that sort of looks like a plot, but actually isn’t one, and second, because it’s a lot easier to pick out what plot isn’t than to clearly define what it is.

For this post, I wanted to come up with some examples of story-seed-ideas that are plots. It took me a while, because…well, I’m a natural novelist; my idea of explaining the plot tends to run to 80,000 words, rather than to the one-line elevator pitch. What I ended up doing was going back to Heinlein’s three plots: Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and Man Learns Lesson.

As stated, none of those are actually plots, but they aren’t intended as such. Those are the names of plots; the shorthand Heinlein used for the actual plot-patterns he was talking about. “Boy Meets Girl,” for instance, is short for “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” and its many variation. “The Little Tailor” is the title of the fairy tale, in which the tailor sets off into the world, repeatedly gets into more trouble than he ought to be able to handle, and successfully overcomes all obstacles. “Man Learns Lesson” sums up the journey in which somebody believes one thing, seriously examines that belief for some reason, and comes to believe something truer and better.

In short, plots have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And in the process of getting from start to finish, something changes.

One of the reasons those not-quite-plot story seeds in the last post aren’t plots is that they don’t have that movement. One of the reasons they look as if they do is that human beings are very good at finding patterns, even when they aren’t there, and “beginning, middle, end” is such a common, natural progression that many people automatically assume the missing bits without thinking about it too much…until time comes to turn the idea into a story and they can’t figure out what’s wrong.

Implication is the first dicey part about looking at “not quite plot” things, especially events and incidents. “Perseus rescues Andromeda from a sea monster” is an event, like “bandits attack the caravan” or “George apologizes to Carol.” An event has an implied beginning and an implied end: first the caravan is not being attacked, then bandits attack, then the attack is over and the bandits flee. First Andromeda is tied up to be sacrificed, then Perseus comes in and kills the sea monster, and then Andromeda is free and safe. First George thinks he’s right, then he changes his mind and apologizes, then he and Carol are friends again.

But “Andromeda is free and safe,” “the attack is over,” and “George and Carol are friends again” are none of them actually stated in the not-plot idea. The end of the event could just as easily be “Andromeda is now Perseus’ slave,” “the bandits take everyone hostage,” and “Carol rejects George’s apology.” The initial idea doesn’t actually include the end point, the place the plot would be trying to get to.

It also doesn’t necessarily include the beginning. Andromeda may have chosen to be sacrificed to a sea monster in preference to an unwanted husband, the caravan may be an elaborate decoy, George may have decided to lie and make an insincere apology instead of actually changing his mind. The plot depends on where the characters start and where they end up, physically, emotionally, and mentally, and “Andromeda is being sacrificed, Perseus rescues her, Andromeda is free” is a totally different story from “Andromeda is willing to be eaten rather than marry, Perseus rescues her, Andromeda is now Perseus’ slave.” The plot is different, even though the event is the same.

The above examples presume the event is the middle of the plot, which, again, is common for this kind of not-plot-idea, because it is a lot easier to assume an implicit beginning and ending (which is one step back and one step forward, so to speak) than it is to extend the idea forward or backward two steps in the same direction. But “Perseus rescues Andromeda” could very easily function as a dramatic “Boy meets girl” beginning, leaving “boy loses girl, boy gets girl” to become the rest of the plot. It could be an equally dramatic “boy gets girl” ending. Furthermore, it could be the beginning, middle, or end of a Little Tailor plot or a (Wo)man Learns Lesson plot – it depends on the author’s assumptions and on which direction he/she chooses to develop the story.

If what you have is an actual plot story-seed, it doesn’t need that kind of development. You can’t move it from beginning incident to ending incident or from “boy meets girl” plot to “Woman learns lesson” plot without completely changing the essence of the idea. (Which, of course, is sometimes exactly what you want to do, but if that’s the case, you are not usually fussing over whether it’s a plot – you’re usually fussing about whether it’s the right plot.)

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Andromeda Redux: Starting points

One of the things that seems to confuse a lot of people about plot, especially at the start of a story, is that they’re misidentifying what they have to hand, what they want to do, and how to get from one to another. What they have is an idea, a story-seed, not a complete story (much less a complete plot).

“Andromeda is tied to a rock and a sea monster is coming to eat her!”

This is not a plot. It’s a situation. It’s a dramatic situation with lots of possibilities, but it’s still just a situation.

“I want to write a book about making really bad choices because your family is encouraging/pushing you to do something you don’t want.”

Pretty obviously, this is a thematic idea rather than a plot. At least, it’s obvious to me.

“Andromeda is a smart-mouthed girl from the wrong side of the tracks, with lots of street-smarts but not as much confidence as she sounds like.”

This is a character. Few people mistake this for a plot, unless it’s combined with something else:

“Andromeda is a smart-mouthed girl who was adopted by the King and Queen.”

This is character plus backstory. Still not a plot, though desperate writers often latch onto “adopted by the King and Queen” and try to make that into a plot instead of backstory. Sometimes, this works very well; other times, there’s not enough meat there yet.

“Andromeda is a smart-mouthed girl, adopted by the King, who is tied to a rock with a sea monster coming to eat her.”

Nope, not a plot. Character plus backstory plus situation.

“Andromeda is tied to a rock and Perseus rescues her from being eaten by a sea monster!”

Once again, not a plot. It’s an event or an incident. This is one of the hardest for many people to recognize as not-a-plot, because something is happening — something dramatic and with lots of action. But action alone is not plot. Not even if you make Perseus the main character instead of Andromeda.

Let me repeat that: action alone is not plot. This is hard for some people to remember, because so many movies and TV shows have action-oriented plots, and there are so many action-adventure novels around, that “action” has gotten strongly identified with “plot” in the minds of many people (readers and writers alike).

The thing that makes all of these starting places confusing is that each of these elements could be used in a plot – as the start of a scene, as a set-piece, as a dramatic opening or climax, as background. How they get used will depend on the writer and the kind of story the writer wants to write…and to a lesser extent on which idea-cum-story-seed the writer is starting out with.

Starting with theme or character or a general idea like “I want to retell a famous myth” or “I want to write a particular type of story (e.g., action/adventure or character-centered or murder mystery or family saga) can be a lot more work than starting from a situation or an incident, because you have less to go on to begin with. You have your choice of millions of stories about bad choices or streetwise smartmouths or murders; you have thousands of folk and fairy tales you can pick from. On the other hand, if you have a theme, character, or story type in mind, it can be a lot easier to throw out possibilities and alternatives that don’t work, because you have more to judge by than “that doesn’t feel right.” It can also be easier to take a possibility that looks as if it won’t work, but that really is appealing, and figure out what it needs to make it work.

Starting with a situation or an incident seems to be really common for plot-centered writers, but developing the situation/incident into an actual plot is often not nearly as easy as one might assume. This is especially true when the writer assumes that because they started with the idea “Andromeda is about to be eaten by a sea monster,” that event is perforce the opening of the story. It might be, but usually the super-dramatic rescue scene makes a better climax or mid-story turning point than it does an opening. The rescue will have a lot more emotional impact if the readers have had a chance to get to know Andromeda (or possibly the sea monster) and start to sympathize with her/its situation.

Whether the incident belongs at the beginning of the story, in the middle, or at the end will also depend on the kind of story the writer wants to write. Ideas do not always match up perfectly with a writer’s preferences. When the action-adventure writer’s backbrain presents him/her with a theme or character, or the character-centered writer’s produces an action situation, the writer generally has two choices: either assume that the backbrain has a reason for wanting them to write this type of story, grit their teeth, and write it the way it has presented itself, or else work out a way to develop the intriguing but uncongenial idea into something more like the kind of thing the writer likes writing.

For instance, a writer starts with Andromeda tied to the rock, about to be eaten. That writer wants to write happy-ending action stories with Andromeda as the main character, but Andromeda has no agency in this situation; all she can do is wait to be rescued by Perseus. This makes a terrible match-up if the rescue is the end of the story…but if the writer opens this way, they can make Andromeda’s helplessness in this situation into her motivation for learning swordcraft or magic or Houdini-esque escape techniques (so that she will never, ever be in that situation again), which in turn develops her into the kind of character who, over the rest of the story, can have all sorts of adventures, culminating perhaps in rescuing somebody else from a sea monster.

I think next time I’m going to talk more specifically about the process I go through when developing possible plots from one or more of the kinds of story-seeds.

Oh, and Points of Departure, the collection of Liavek stories that Pamela and I are doing as an ebook, is now available for PRE-ORDER. It’s supposed to go live in May; I’ll post a specific date when I have it.

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Here we go again!

The elbow is not completely healed, but it is much better. I’m still not allowed to lift anything heavier than a coffee cup, but typing isn’t about lifting, so that’s all right. However, I’m planning to ease back into things – I’m going to be posting once a week, on Wednesdays, until at least the end of June. After that, we’ll see how it goes.

In other news, the four Enchanted Forest books are being reissued in September with 25th Anniversary introductions…and they will also FINALLY be available as e-books! I just finished proofreading all four of the new editions, and I will blame any remaining errors on the oxycodone they gave me for my broken elbow and the surgery.

On top of that, Pamela Dean and I have a collection of short stories coming out as an e-book – it contains the Liavek stories that we wrote for the five Liavek shared-world anthologies back in the 1980s, plus two new ones (one that didn’t make the cut the first time due to space considerations, and one that we wrote to fill a hole in the joint storyline for this anthology). It is supposed to be out in May, from Diversion Books, and will have a print-on-demand option for people who want paper copies instead of or in addition to the e-book one.

Putting together this collection was a lot more work than I think either of us quite bargained for – after all, the stories were already written; it should have been just a matter of putting them in order and sending the manuscript to the publisher to format…we thought.

Unfortunately, the 1980s were long enough ago that there were a number of problems with this scenario. Some of the stories were not in electronic format (or at least, not in any that we could find. Possibly they dropped out somewhere during the migration from one computer to another over the past thirty years. Or the floppy discs got lost…remember floppy discs?). Other stories were in electronic formats that were unreadable by a modern Windows 8 machine, and neither of us still has a DOS one, let alone the programs we were using back then. Still others had been converted to rich text or some other format that we could read, but the conversion had problems and had to be proofread carefully.

The older “new” story, the one that I wrote for the second Liavek book that was far too long, needed some significant revisions – I basically rewrote the last half so it would make more sense. The new story, which was a joint project, has a deliberately confusing non-linear format that was hard to make work as well as it does (and that will probably not work for everyone, but that’s life). And when we finally got everything in one file, there turned out to be consistency problems with things like capitalization or italicization of certain terms that were unnoticeable when the stories were in different volumes, but had to be dealt with when they were all together in a row. So the whole thing had to be carefully proofread again.

When we finally got it to a publisher, they did a copy-edit, which we had to review, and then sent electronic page proofs. All of which took just as much time as writing a brand-new-original book would have. But they gave us a lovely Liavekan cover – the city skyline silhouetted against a hot desert sky and reflected in the waters of the Sea of Luck. Did I mention that it’s supposed to be out in May? I will post the exact date it goes live when I have it.

That should bring things up to date; next week, I plan to get back to that discussion about creating plots from non-plotty ideas that we were having ages ago when my elbows were both still whole. Unless someone has something they’d rather talk about – it has been a while, and perhaps you’ve all moved on.

Posted in General, Writing | Tagged | 28 Comments

Update Two

So about three and a half weeks ago, I fell and broke my elbow; a week later, I had surgery to repair it. I now have two screws holding the chipped bit in place…and after making bad “I don’t have a screw loose” jokes for the first week or so after surgery, I found it mildly hilarious when it turned out that the thing I have to watch out for is, in fact, one of them working loose (very low probability, I am assured, but I did ask, because I am hoping to be living with them for another thirty years or thereabouts).

Recovery is proceeding very well; I have enough range of motion back to scratch my nose with my right hand, though I can’t quite manage scratching my ear. It is amazing how annoying it is not to be able to reach that far. I am, however, forbidden from lifting anything heavier than a coffee cup for the next month, which annoys the cats, especially Karma (who weighed in at 15 lbs on her last vet visit).

The main problem is that I’m still getting my energy and endurance back, and I need to save it for vital stuff like laundry, proofreading, and trying to get the next chapter finished. I’m guessing that it will be at least another week before I’m up to resuming the blog. Thank you for your patience!

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