Archive for February 2011
Pretty much any resource on writing fiction will tell you that there needs to be a natural arc to the story that you tell. If you’re writing for theater, it’s in three acts:
- Introduce the characters and the dilemma.
- Bring the characters and dilemma to a crisis.
- Solve the crisis.
For fiction, it works roughly the same as for theater, whether it’s a novel or shorter fiction. In a novel, you might have a long drawn out arc that parallels the three acts, and in each chapter you’ll have shorter versions.
Rules are made to be broken, though, right? I mean, how many murder mysteries have you read where the chapters are only a page or two long. Each chapter is basically a “scene,” driving toward a satisfying point along the arc, but not having much of an arc itself. You can almost imagine the writers’ work ethic: One chapter a day. Or one page a day.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but obviously, you can’t break the rules endlessly or people will grow tired of plot points without any connection to one another. And there’s the reverse, where the whole story is one long stream of consciousness, unbroken into digestible chunks. There may be an arc, but it’s darned hard to ferret it out.
I have a dilemma, as I sit facing the first round of revisions on my freshly finished (or nearly finished) historical novel. You see, real lives don’t necessarily come with a nice story arc. There’s a fair amount of dishwashing and planting the crops and such that don’t warrant coverage. In a novel where everything is fictional, you can design the characters’ lives around nice plot arcs, but it’s not so for fiction based on real people. Especially if a lot of people know a lot about your central character.
In my first draft, I peppered a fairly factual account of a famous person’s life with little vignettes that revealed how life was in the 12th century and the skeptical attitudes of contemporaneous people toward the famous person who later became fairly universally revered. Some of the little vignettes felt contrived as I wrote them. Tales at the end of the book felt particularly contrived as I headed toward the end of the lives of my stars. Like I was filling in the space between accomplishments.
I think what I’ll do as part of my revision process is something I’m always telling technical writers and editors to do:
I’m going to pull an outline out of the work.
Chapter by chapter, I’m going to make an outline so that I can see where I do and don’t have arcs. Maybe there are some plot points that are pathways rather than arcs, but I don’t want any true side trips and I want to make sure that everything drives toward the same end point.
I’ll let you know how that goes.
I’m writing Chapter 19 of a 20-chapter novel. It’s a historical novel, so we all know that everyone dies in the end. I admit that I’ve tossed in a few vignettes here and there to kind of while away a year or four and reveal a bit more about the time and place. But what on earth am I going to write when the final breath has floated out into the chill morning air?
I hadn’t really thought about the ending until now, when it is a matter of grinding through the last few events to get to the end of the central character’s life. In a way, I have a certain license—I didn’t chronicle the famous person’s life exactly, I chronicled the life of her rival. Everything my protagonist does is in context of the famous woman. So I suppose I can kill my protagonist off in much the same way as the famous person.
But is that worth waiting for? Will that lead my readers to the point of closing the book with satisfaction and wondering what happens to the surviving characters? Or rather, will it leave them with a feeling of plodding through a laundry list of events?
Okay, so perhaps I can end the rivalry, have a letter sent from the famous one that says something like “I always admired you.” Or the unfamous one can have a moment of clarity and realize that the other woman never knew that there was a competition and she’d been in it alone all along. Or maybe her last words are of bitter remorse or maybe more rivalry. Or maybe she has a humiliating death and her last thoughts are on the order of “sheesh.”
Or maybe the famous one’s last gesture is one that ultimately causes the death of the other—one final fit of apoplexy.
It never occurred to me when I started writing the book that there would be any difficulty here. I mean, I knew that everyone dies in the end, even my narrator has to go sooner or later (it ends in 1179). You (my reader here) even know that everyone is dead at the end and you haven’t read any of it.
I had trouble in the middle, when it switched from setting everything in motion to plodding through the “this happens and then that happens” that provides the bulk of the middle. It was hard to get a good subplot going that would maintain the forward thrust of the novel but allow a little respite from straight historical narration.
Then I had trouble when the narrator goes to see a play written by the famous person. It’s a pivotal play—it changed the nature of theater in one sense, but also, it reveals oodles about the character of the famous person and her rival, and the times in which they lived. The narrator has to narrate the play while interjecting her own thoughts about it. I started by paraphrasing the play, but that was four pages of text that didn’t move the plot of my novel along. Then I tried synopsizing the play with a few quotations and some whispered thoughts, and then cut cut cut, but in the end, well, I’m not happy with that chapter yet.
But I thought the end would be easy. I know how and when the famous person dies. The rivalry doesn’t have to die with her—my character has been alone in the rivalry for nearly 60 years by that time, and she can easily maintain her peevishness if I want. Or not.
I thought about letting my protagonist die before the famous person, but the mythology that arose from the famous person’s death seems like a good thing to toss into the craw of my jealous character.
If I provide a nice fit of apoplexy for my protagonist, what of my narrator? How does she close the book? Do we just watch the protagonist die, shrug, and say something profound? Or trite?
What do you think?
In my last post, I talked about what writing groups are and why you want to find one. In this post, I’ll talk about your responsibilities as a member.
In my writing group, submissions are sent as attachments to emails. We are expected to send a “got it!” response, and sometimes there are formatting issues to iron out. The submissions can arrive anytime from immediately following the meeting to the weekend prior to the next meeting.
We are expected to know things like proper formatting for the type of work we submit (it’s different for non-fiction and fiction books, different again for contest and magazine submissions, and different again for cover letters and synopses).
Pretty much anything is fair game for a submission, including cover letters and such (presuming that we’ve all read the work described), and one of our number has occasionally woven together several of his NTEs (see Writing Groups: What They Are and How They Work). No one is obligated to submit each month, and those who have just completed a long haul (first or second drafts, or publication, for instance) don’t need to feel obligated to submit anything as long as they contribute feedback.
Reviewing the work is the core objective of the gathering. I find that I have to read each submission more than once to give each submission a decent review. I mark the passages that I like as I go, do line edits because I can’t help myself, and make marginal comments in my nearly illegible purple pen scrawling. Some people do these things on the computer, some do one pass on the computer and another by hand. Some people write up separate comments and notes, others write on the back of the last page. It’s all good.
The important thing is to carefully consider what has been written and to make thoughtful comments. Look for things like:
- Continuity: Did you say he had on a black jacket and now it’s green?
- Character: Would the character, as you’ve come to understand him, behave this way? (This comes up a lot in mystery fiction, especially where there is a policeman involved.)
- Grammar, word choices, punctuation: We mostly screen for basic knowledge of these things before we let you join us, but we have had a couple of participants from the UK whose choices are often different for cultural reasons. It’s important to know the difference.
- Plot: Are you following along? Did the writer just kill off your favorite character? Are plot points tossed in as straw men to hide the fact that the outcome is obvious?
- Distractions: Has the writer wandered off the plot points? Is needing to know the answer to something keeping you from paying attention? Is a description missing and driving you crazy?
- Length: Are you taking forever to get to the point? Conversely, does it feel like a haiku?
- Questions: Do you wonder what happened, how it happened, or why it happened, and do you feel that this will be resolved at some point?
I’ll admit that there are some writers in the group who have me so absorbed by the plot that I forget to look for anything to comment about. That’s the main reason I give it at least two reads. Yes, things jump out at the first reading—these are drafts, after all—but some things become clear in ensuing readings because you know how things work out and you can help the writer focus when you reread.
I was lucky. Someone I knew invited me to an existing group, and I was exactly ready to ramp up my efforts on my travel guide. And the group was exactly what I was looking for in terms of skills and submissions from the others.
I’ve seen ads on Craigslist (and other similar places) and there are organizations you can join, too. In my area (San Francisco), there are several companies that specialize in monitored writing. They have a place that you show up at the same time as the usual crowd, like a class. Only instead of having a teacher or any sharing, everyone sits there and writes for the allotted time. Some people are really helped by the community of it, even if there isn’t anyone reading what you’ve written.
Classes are a good place to get feedback. You can take them at the local university or junior college, and adult education or continuing education often offer courses under the heading of “creative writing.” As I mentioned in the first blog about writers’ groups, you are likely to find inexperienced writers if you do that, but perhaps that is appropriate for you, and better, you will connect with people who share your interest and can form your own group.
I have one friend who just wants to exchange chapters. She needs a deadline and some sort of penalty (embarrassment, I guess) if she doesn’t deliver. She’s interested in feedback, but she’s more interested in just getting the words on the page and has trouble motivating herself to do that without a deadline imposed by someone other than herself. She’s not in a position to commit to a weekday evening every week, so she drops things in my email. I like to read them, but I don’t always give her feedback. It depends on whether I think it’ll fire her up or grind her to a halt.
I have another friend who posts to her blog (she writes mostly poetry), which is great for getting feedback from the general public, rather than a set of known contributors. It’s a one-way street, though. You never know what she does with the feedback.
I know of a group that formed at a coffee shop. Several people would sit in there pounding away on their keyboards. They seemed to all be on the same schedule, and someone breached the gap and asked if the others were working on novels. The rest, as they say, is history. I believe that they still meet in the coffee shop, but now they have a writing session and a feedback session every week.
My group is quite varied in its participants. I would say that there are comparable skills all around the table, but our interests are very different. Two are writing mysteries, but one novel is kind of creepy and the other, well, it isn’t exactly cozy, but it’s not a psychological thriller either. One writes about a certain time period in a certain place, all contemporary. There may be some political or social statements being made, but we are swept up in the story and may only see these when it’s over. Another writes about sexual encounters, or near-sexual encounters, but it’s not erotica. It’s story lines with a lot of heavy breathing. I’m writing historical fiction and I previously woodshedded a travel guide with the same group.
We’ve had essayists, travel guides (other than mine), art criticism, self-help books, fantasy novels, and children’s books. We apparently have some proscription against poetry (although I don’t know why or where the sentiment came from—it could just be tradition).
The factor that has been much the same among us all is that we are all actively writing, and for most of us, this is not our first book. A lot is learned by simply writing until it’s finished, and whether you woodshed the drafts or the next revisions or start something completely new, experience is the common thread.
A couple of us write in our day jobs, although the subject matter is very different, and we often talk about how we keep fresh for our personal work. Several of us read about publishing, or take classes on the craft, or attend conferences and workshops. We share what we’ve learned at our meetings, and occasionally lend a book or set up a class. More than one of us is in more than one writing group.
We do spend some time commiserating about getting agents, writing cover letters or synopses, and the minutia of getting published. We do not spend time whining about finding time to write. No apologies are needed if all you do are the NTEs, and if you’ve just finished something, so long as you’re still providing feedback, you’re still welcome.
People do bow out when they stop producing and they don’t see a change in their habits coming soon. Several former members have finished their books and felt burned out, and didn’t want to feel the monthly pressure to contribute, even though we weren’t the ones supplying it. A couple of people found it too intense, another had trouble with travel schedules, and so forth. A couple of people have moved away.
We don’t know what happened to our mythical member who owns the NTE cards.
I hope he writes about his adventures, though.
Everyone who wants to write also wants to join a writing group—or at least they should. If you write without feedback, there’s very little chance that you will foresee all of the issues that your readers will come up with, and of course, an agent, editor, or publisher WILL come up with them and drop your manuscript into the recycling bin.
You can take a class, and you’ll get feedback from only one experienced person (the teacher) and a whole bunch of people with the same limited experience that you have. This is useful, especially when you are just starting out.
Oh, and you could work one-on-one with an editor. It will cost you plenty, but again, you’re only getting one person’s ideas and you’ve got to hope that more than one person reads your work once it’s published.
The best way to become a great writer is to do a lot of writing and to listen to what a lot of people say about your work. You won’t agree with all of it, but it’s useful to hear what others say.
If you join a writing group, everyone will have experience, everyone is prepared to give and receive feedback, and everyone is actively working on the craft of writing. Your work will improve exponentially. It’s not better or worse than a class or an editor; it’s just more like the real world.
Here’s How It Works.
Each person submits something. There might be a schedule, like perhaps only one person submits at a time if the group is looking at longer works. Or perhaps, like the group I’m in, everyone submits a limited amount, perhaps a chapter’s worth, every month, and one person is the designated contributor. That means that the designated contributor (we call it “the des” in my group) gets his work read first, so no matter what, he gets feedback. We read everyone else’s work in the order in which it was received and provide feedback on that too. Sometimes we run out of time and can’t get to all of them.
Let’s Visit, Shall We?
The group I’m in has existed for about 20 years. We have one member who’s been in it for most of that time, and the rest of us have been in for 10 or fewer. I’ve been in for about three years. There are currently five of us, but last summer, we were eight and I think it was about five when I joined. People come and go.
We meet once a month, on the fourth Tuesday. We call ourselves the FWG for Famous Writers Group because someone way back when was optimistic, but it has evolved to stand for Fourth Week Group.
We meet at someone’s house. The location rotates. Two of us have extreme locations, being the furthest afield (about 60 miles distant), so we tend to circulate around the others in the middle. We occasionally meet on a weekend at the extreme locations, and we have met at workplaces that had nice cafeterias and at restaurants with a quiet room for us.
Someone, not the des and not usually the host, is assigned to bring the meal. Some people cook, others stop at nice little ethnic restaurants. I have odd eating habits, so I always bring a salad to ensure that I can eat something, and I bring enough to share no matter whose turn it is to bring the meal. People bring wine or cookies, if they are inclined. The cost of the meal is spread among the attendees. It’s usually around $10 a person for our crowd, sometimes less, sometimes more.
While we eat, we have “writers’ week” which is really writers’ month, where we talk about what we’ve been working on since we last met. Sometimes this blossoms into vacation vignettes or diatribes against a phone carrier, but it’s always fun. We start with the host and go around the table clockwise. We are at very different stages this month—one is shopping his finished novel to agents, several worked on chapters for something ongoing, and one (he knows who he is) worked only on his NTE (more about that in a moment).
Getting Down to It
Once the meal is eaten and the table cleared, we get down to work. One person agrees to moderate each piece, which means forbidding the writer to speak until the review is over, and asking the group the questions that lead the discussion forward.
- What is it? For new pieces, to determine whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, short story, memoir, etc., and to synopsize the plot. For continuing pieces, we skip this.
- Read sentences or phrases that stand out. We shout out bits that we’ve marked for this purpose. We often all shout out the same things. Usually they are things that we really liked, some clever turn of phrase or super clear description. We’ve also had some very entertaining dialog readings.
- What works? We talk about voice, plot, characterization, language, imagery, and length—anything that’s positive about what we’ve read.
- What needs work? We talk about anything that stumped us, made us curious, that didn’t match something we’d read already, and voice, plot, characterization, language, imagery, length, etc.
- Then, if the writer has any questions, explanations, or rebuttal, he is allowed to speak.
We work through the des’ work and then the rest of the submissions in the order they were received. We rarely run out of time before we’re through all of them, but it has been known to happen. This is the really important part of the meeting, and I will discuss preparing for it in the next blog.
When we’ve made it through the submissions, our host puts on tea or coffee and cookies are served. During cookies and coffee, we have a reading of NTEs.
Not To Exceeds
NTEs are Not to Exceeds, which means that they are not to exceed a single page and they are not submitted in advance. They must contain a phrase selected at the previous meeting. We used to get the phrases from a large stack of defunct business cards onto which someone had copied poetic expressions, but these disappeared when one of our members disappeared without a word. We refer to him often as mythical (half of the current group has never met him at this point) and invoke his name if someone has wandered off the path. He is the disciplinarian if we get off topic or too rambunctious. I don’t remember him actually being particularly stern, but at this point he’s fictional anyway and can’t defend himself.
At any rate, now we use a book of poetry, opened at random, and someone blindly points to a line. That line becomes the phrase that needs to be included. Not everyone contributes an NTE, but if you didn’t have a longer submission, you can contribute one of these and keep your status as a “working” writer. After the NTEs are read, we clean up and the evening is over.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it? It is. If you’re writing historical fiction, as I am, it’s a great testing ground to see if people can follow along to 900 years ago without anybody launching into a classroom lecture. I learn more about misconceptions and assumptions from this group than I can get on my own; I’ve spent so long steeped in the Middle Ages that I no longer remember what is common knowledge.
This sort of group works for mystery, fantasy, tour guides, essays, and literary writers too. We’ve had some of each, and we probably will cycle through again.
In the next blog, I’ll talk about preparing for the meeting—what you need to contribute besides your own work. In the blog after that, I’ll write about finding a group and who I’ve found in mine.
It has been a long time—nearly three years—since I blogged. You may have followed me here http://blogs.officezealot.com/spiller/ when I had a regular spot with the nice folks at Office Zealot. I took a break, a hiatus, you might say, while my day job interfered somewhat, because they asked me to write on pretty much the same subject.
I finished that project, and now I feel free to write about writing again. Meanwhile, in my spare time, I have finished a first draft of my Hildegard von Bingen pilgrimage (non-fiction) and 18 chapters of a 20-chapter work of fiction about Hildegard. So this year, 2011, is going to be about finishing the latter and beginning the revision process on both. I hope to start looking for a publisher as well.
This blog will be different from the last. The last one was solely devoted to writing about writing. This one will do that, but will be more personal, as well. I plan to talk about my musical endeavors, my travels, my plans for the next work of fiction, and anything else that strikes my fancy. There will be some major themes.
I want to welcome you back and thank you for your patience, and I want to encourage you to visit the OZ site or my Web page, www.melaniespiller.com, for all those old articles about writing. They are mostly about technical writing—or for technical writers, I should say—but there are a few about fiction, political satire, travelogues, and advertising copy.
As always, I look forward to hearing from you, too.
Keep on Writing!