Monday, May 2, 2011

Holding the Lantern

Special Announcement! We will give away a copy of our ultra-cool Novel Tips on Rice: What To Cook When You'd Rather Be Writing cookbook to someone who comments today! And we'll mail it to you -- or to your mother -- just in time for Mother's Day. (What? You want a copy for Mother's Day? Just contact and she'll mail one out to you TODAY for your PayPal payment of $12.99 plus priority mail postage!) Now back to our regularly scheduled wonderfulness by Patti.)

Welcome to our book talk about Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. We're talking about her chapter on plot today. Even if you haven't read it, please feel free to add to the conversation. We're all teachers here!

We aren't going to learn all we need to know about plotting from the "Plot" chapter in Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird. She says as much when she suggests books by E. M. Forster and John Gardner. But she reminded me of things I definitely needed to hear.
"That's what plot is: what people will up and do in spite of everything that tells them they shouldn't..."
Stories are about what people will DO to get what they WANT even if what they're willing to do is a little--or a lot--crazy. I've read some wonderful stories over the last few years, but The Help stands out for its inconspicuous yet charging plot. Every character wants something worth dying for. Talk about tension on every page. And what do the maids want? They want to tell their stories. They want a voice. They want the world to see that the babies they loved and raised hate them beyond reason. As for Skeeter, she wants purpose--a bit of irony there but completely believable. Carrying her typewriter to the colored section of town was pure foolishness, unless you want to rise above your legacy, and Skeeter did.
"I'm the designated typist, and I'm also the person whose job it is to hold the lantern while the kid does the digging. What is the kid digging for? The stuff. Details and clues and images, invention, fresh ideas, an intuitive understanding of people. I tell you, the holder of the lantern doesn't even know what the kid is digging for half the time--but she knows gold when she sees it."
Once I know my character very well and have a handle on what she wants (this will change many times), that's the time to lean in with the lantern. For me, this isn't sit-in-the-chair work. It's my hands-are-wet-and-I-don't-have-a-thing-to-write-with work. I daydream freely about my character--what she will do when she sees her world tilting and spinning away, how she will show the reader where her passion resides, and what she will do when she is pressed to the wall with a knife to her throat, metaphorically speaking.

The smart thing to do is dry my hands and write it all down--or the dreams evaporate, not that the dream stuff is always used, but it's all foundational, very important stuff to know about the character and how she moves through her story world.
"The climax is that major event, usually toward the end, that brings all the tunes you have been playing so far into one major chord, after which at least on of your people is profoundly changed. If someone isn't changed, then what is the point of your story."
While home sick from work a couple weeks ago, I watched lots and lots of movies. (I don't sleep well when I can't breathe.) Since we don't subscribe to premium channels, I did some pay-per-view selections from our cable company. I watched Black Swan and right after that, Country Strong. SPOILER ALERT: I'm going to talk about the endings of these pictures. In Black Swan, Nina, the ballerina who must play the dual parts of the white and black swan in Swan Lake, struggles to express the wildness, the wantonness of the black swan. As a psychological thriller, it's not always easy to know what is reality and what is mindscape, but Nina dances the opposing parts with perfection on opening night. And then she dies, probably by her own hand. In Country Strong, an alcoholic country star is prematurely taken out of rehab for a comeback tour through Texas. She botches her first performance, misses her second, but nails the third in Dallas, even though she is back on pills and booze. After her stellar performance, she locks herself in her dressing room and overdoses.

The endings/climaxes left me cold. The characters fight for change but find the change unsustainable, and so they destroy themselves. Perhaps the changes were unsustainable, but an option would be to redirect the protagonists' desires. That would have worked better in these movies, but I'm a hopeful person. Dead is a big change for a protag, but not a very satisfying one. Keep that in mind when writing your climax. I do not want to revisit the pessimism of the 60s and 70s again. Please!

Let's talk! What was the last book you read that had you sitting on the edge of your chair, saying, "Don't go in there," but you loved the story and couldn't stop reading? What does holding the lantern look like for you? Do you have your climax in mind when you start a story? Have you ever been surprised by your climax? What struggles do you have with plot? What resources have helped you?

We'll be talking about dialogue on May 18th.


Footprints From the Bible by Cynthia Davis said...

The thing that resonated for me in Lamott's 'Plot' chapter was "Over and over I feel as if my characters know who they are, and what happens to them, and where they have been and where they will go, and what they are capable of doing, but they need me to write it down for them because their handwriting is so bad." When the character starts 'talking' to me and explaining what's her world is like, I know I'm on the right track.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I'm reading The Outside Boy and I have to say it has one of the best first chapters I've read in a long time.

A horse is in labor, but there's a major twist and it ties in with a big character reveal.

I can't stop thinking about it.
~ Wendy

Patti Hill said...

Cynthia: Yes! We have to be good listeners to know our characters and to trust them with the story. I'm sad they have such bad handwriting though. This from a teacher.

Wendy: Uh-oh, another book on my nightstand. Thanks? Thanks!!!

Unknown said...

WOW ! I just found this website this morning and already I am excited! My daughter-in-law is a prolific reader and I cannot WAIT to get her one of these books for Mother's Day...what a Blessing your site is, and I havent event discovered everything on here yet!!

Patti Hill said...

Lisa: Welcome! We love having you here. Hope you'll visit us often. We put up new posts every MWF. Good luck in the contest!

Linda D'Amico said...

I've not been to this website before and it looks very intriguing! We love Latayne and her wonderful gift as a writer! It will be fun to get to know all the writers through this website! Thank you, Latayne, for posting this link for the cookbook prize!

Bonnie Grove said...

Linda, then we have much in common! We love Latayne too, and are in awe of her gift and humility.

Baxter said...

Ok, I'm in. :) I have two daughters who are both interested in writing and need to cook. Lori M.

Patti Hill said...

Linda: You're in good company if you love Latayne. She makes the rest of us look good. So glad you're here.

Baxter: Send your daughters on over. We love to encourage and share our accumulated knowledge about the craft and business. And we like to cook fast. You'll love the cookbook.

Deb said...

I'm new here too and excited at the wealth of advice and knowledge that's now available to me.

Lamott's Bird by Bird is my all time favorite book about writing. I've learned so much from her. Has anyone read her novels? I've read a couple and find them brimming with life and quirky (yet believable)characters.

Latayne C Scott said...

Okay! I just ran the names of you six (non-NovelMatters) commenters through, and Deb, you are the winner of the cookbook! Let me know asap by writing me at latayne at Latayne dot com (you know, as a web address) the mailing address where I can send your cookbook!

Anonymous said...

Love having all the new visitors here today! We appreciate your comments and hope you'll make this one of your favorite spots to visit. Congratulations, Deb. You're going to love our Novel Tips on Rice!

Marian said...

I'm a first-time novel writer and I have much to learn. I plotted out my whole book. Now my characters are religiously following the plot I laid out for them. I'll admit the whole thing is somewhat wooden. Have you ever written a book, plot first? Can this work?

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

"Dead is a big change for a protag, but not a very satisfying one." LOL!! So funny. I loved "Black Swan" for the most part - psychological thrillers are my favourite - but like you, it left me felling a bit icky. Very dark. I usually like dark (to a point). But I'm increasingly drawn to art that shows the light at the end of the tunnel.

With regard to your question, I always know the climax first. With both books I've written/ am writing, I've actually written the climactic scene first. It came to me so vividly that I had to capture it, and then everything else in the story was written with the end in mind.

My biggest plotting problem is knowing where to start. I'm really struggling with this in my current WIP. I'm terrified of wasting months of effort and then being told it's all wrong.

Heather Marsten said...

Indivisible by Kristen Heitzman, a great mystery. I had to put it down midway through last chapter and couldn't wait to get home so I could finish. The ending took me by surprise. What impressed me is that the author did not hide facts and then expose them at the end. She was fair.

What I find hard is in first person figuring out how to hold the lantern - in the memoir I'm writing I write about the abuse from a child's point of view, now as a young adult I am "seeing" a therapist and the therapist is able to ask me questions to expose some of the facts I couldn't know as a child. It is hard to keep the balance.

Deb said...

Not sure where to leave this comment, so this will have to do.

I just received the copy of the cookbook I won in a contest, and can't thank you enough for your generosity.

I didn't expect it to be peppered with writing quotes: what a wonderful bonus!

Mary Kate Leahy said...

I'm currently reading Game of Thrones and it is pretty unputdownable. Because of how he does the POV you know when ppl are making mistakes (I don't want to gave away anything here) but you just want to see it play out. It's really good :)