Friday, July 1, 2011

Is Kvetching Absolutely Necessary?

Yay! We have a winner!!! Marian, choose one of the books listed below. I'm looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks to all for your comments.

Thanks so much for taking time during your Independence Weekend celebration to drop by Novel Matters. You deserve a special treat. If you comment today, I'll enter you in a drawing for one of the four books I mentioned on Wednesday in our roundtable discussion, your choice--Home, Mudbound, Half Broke Horses, or The Book Thief. Yes, it will have been gently read, by me, but books shared among friends are the best.

So, here we are for our book chat of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. We're focusing on the chapter, "Plot Treatment" today. Remember, reading the chapter isn't a prerequisite for participation. Yammer away with me!

Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Just to summarize:

Lamott spent two-plus years writing a beautiful story where nothing happens. Her editor refuses the manuscript, and, after a period of depondency, she gathers herself to try again. She rearranges pages, paragraphs, and scenes on the floor of her apartment. Satisfied that she has a string of story pearls, she travels from San Francisco to New York to discover she'd only managed to make the story prettier. The story brimmed with witty writing, stunning imagery, and well-developed characters doing absolutely nothing.

You've read novels like that. You wait and wait for the story to start, all the while marveling at the clever use of language and the fresh description. Within pages of the end, if you get that far, you're still wondering when the story will begin, which means there are wants and conflict to care about. Evidently, Lamott is lucky to have an editor who pushes her to "build" a story with sound internal logic before actually publishing it.

Here's a bit of wisdom from Lamott's story: Lamott went back to her editor, head in hands, and asked for help. He tells her to write a plot treatment for her story, which turns out to be a chapter-by-chapter super-charged synopsis. (Side note: A synopsis is a great way to discover holes, gaping or otherwise, in your plot.)

After the plot treatment, she says, "The book moved along like the alphabet, like a vivid and continuous dream."

I'm such a Girl Scout--be prepared and all that. Lamott's process of writing a complete manuscript, three times, sounds like pure torture to me. Perhaps you see her experience as a glorious, organic process you hope to emulate. Go for it. Absolutely, go for it.

Not me. I do tons of thinking about structure and plot before I start a novel--and I'm doing more now than ever. That doesn't mean I don't tweak, delete, and augment along the way, that the muse doesn't whisper in my ear, that I don't hit a wall at 30,000 words. I do, I do. I've been asked by editors to shore up a sagging middle and strengthen an ending, but, egads, rewrite a manuscript three times? Lamott has persistence. Perhaps that is the true wisdom of this chapter--listen to your mentor and keep trying until you get it right.

But let's go back to plot and structure. (I'm reading two books on the topic right now: Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and The Anatomy of Story by John Truby.) Notice Lamott didn't discuss the how-to of plot and structure in this chapter, only that the struggle for plot and structure is worth the prize. I expected her to recommend a plot treatment or other such tool, but she didn't. I find that curious, especially since she experienced success once she'd had a plan.

I'm learning that plot and structure is so much more than deciding to write by the seat of your pants or to outline every scene and sneeze. Plot and structure is the logic, the motivations, the reader's satisfaction, the author's world view...sadly, it's too big of a topic to develop here. Sorry.

I hope what you'll take from this chapter of Lamott's book is that plot and structure make beautiful writing entertaining. It's worth all the agony and kvetching. Whether you work a plan or rewrite to strengthen plot and structure, it's hard work. No way around it.

Do you consider plot and structure before you start writing? Where have you learned the most about plot and structure? Do you have a story like Lamott? Have you done complete rewrites to bolster plot and structure? What kept you sane? Motivated? Do you outline? Write a synopsis? A plot treatment? Do you believe plot and structure can happen organically as you write? I'm so curious about this topic. Tell me everything!


Anonymous said...

Currently, I am on the 6th rewrite of my novel. Insane. Totally. It's my first born novel, so, you know, I have to "do" everything right with it. I'm glad I allowed so many rewrites, however crazy that may be. I can't even tell you how vastly different each version has been. And how much improved as I went.

What motivated me? Well, I really want to write. It isn't for the fame or money. It isn't really even about the publishing. It's about using my voice and having readers.

I have difficulty when I structure too much before the actual writing. The writing feels constricted. Many times, the first draft turns into my outline, just more fleshed out. Then I allow myself the flexibility on other drafts to change everything or nothing. Does that make any sense?

Happy Independence Day, all my Novel Matters Gal Pals!

Anonymous said...

As today is July 1st and the beginning of ACFW's NovelTrack, I am about to launch into the writing of my 2nd novel.

The first one I wrote I did a scene by scene paragraph summary, which did me absolutely no good. It may sound dumb, but I can plot action on paper, but not emotions. And emotions, of course, result in good or bad actions depending. I did use that plot summary as a frame, but I would often have to stop and say "Oh, I didn't stop to think of the emotional consequences of X, now I have to re-write it."

The novel I am beginning today, I have been stewing over in my brain for the last 6-7 years in varying degrees, and as I launch into the writing of it (I wrote part of it a few years back), I will not be working from a plot summary.

It goes about it the wrong way, but I find that I write the first draft THEN go back and construct a scene by scene summary and examine it.

Maybe by the 18th novel I'll have a better system. 8-)

BK Jackson

Patti Hill said...

Susie: Thank you for your transparent look into the process of your firstborn. Persistence IS the key. I love how God uses our personalities, giftings, and uniqueness to express himself through our work. What you said makes complete sense.

I'm curious. Do you answer questions like, "Why is this character in this story? What purpose does s/he serve?" Those are the types of questions that build the internal logic and structure. Maybe you ask subconsciously.

BK: Happy launch day! This is exciting. The point is that you will find YOUR way to deal with plot and structure. You're on your way.

Here are some other questions Truby suggest we address at whatever stage works for you:
What is your premise? This is the inspiration for your story.
What is your designing principle, the internal logic of the story that makes it all hang together?
Develop a sense of the central conflict, who fights whom over what?
Am I wrong? It seems to me that answering questions like this would put wind in the sails of a story.

Nicole said...

Being a SOTP-er I have to develop plot as I go. I begin with character(s) who simply won't go away. Something about them leads to the rest of the story. At some point the plot forms and develops and different scenes come to mind which I make note of for a future place in the story. No real organization. Organically grown.

Anonymous said...

Patti,I usually ask those questions after the 1st draft is complete. Then I cut whoever doesn't make sense. (having a few GREAT readers/editors is a huge plus for this as well).

Sara said...

Plot is my downfall. Continually. I have a setting. I have characters. And I have a plot that seems to morph constantly. I think I have it, and rewrite the first two chapters--and then find that the plot needs yet something *else*. When I figure out where the backbone of the story IS around these people and this place, I'll have it made.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Is it irreverent to say I fly by the seat of God's pants? Verily I say to you, I write what He tells me. I know it is considered bad form to say this, sounds like I'm flying with Isaiah and Moses and all. That's not what I mean. I have no inspired message to convey. Just: most of it I know I could never come up with on my own. My part is finding the words for His ideas. And another thing, He doesn't give the plot to me in chronological order. Planning is toying with the scenes with thousands of sticky notes taped to a board. It is soooooooo much fun! Exhilarating! 'Did our hearts not BURN within us'
Character and plot are equally important to me. Action, Motivation, Emotion. Thanks for this list of questions. I shall apply it. Due to the wonders of Novel Matters I am able to convey God's ideas more sucinctly and colourfully than when I started. Thank you for your part in the journey!

Bonnie Grove said...

The trick of plot (I'm learning) is to understand it's role in story. How a writer arrives at plot isn't important (except to the writer).

Plot is organic. Without plot there is no story. No wheels. No movement. No point.

What happens to writers who outline, is they begin to feel a slavish devotion to the outline they created. This is when the writing goes horribly wrong. If you outline, you need to keep on your toes, and dance around ideas that you once thought would work, but now won't. Outliners need to remember how to dance.

What happens to writers who don't outline is they repeat and repeat and repeat: themes, characters, scenes (different scenes repeating the same information/ideas/etc as before). They are also in danger of over writing--falling so in love with their beautiful descriptions and witty insights into psychology they bog the whole story down. They riff so well, but then find the riff has no organic connection to the story (there is a vast difference between a riff that has similar themes and characters, and a riff that is organic to plot). Non-outliners need to get off the dance floor sometimes and see if their steps are really dancing or just moving their feet around.

Patti Hill said...

Nicole: I'm trying to understand how the SOTP mind works. Maybe I have one and just need to let it out to play. Mind a question? Do you keep goals in mind while you're writing, like to raise the antagonism for your hero? Sorry for being so dull-witted, but this is such a different way of thinking. In truth, I'm a little jealous.

Susie: What would we do without our editors? From my studying, I'm learning that each character has a job to do or they don't belong in the story. I had to cut poor Fred out of my last story, and he was so fun to write, but rewriting the parts where he populated the page was tons of work. What I'm hoping is that I can make those decisions before I start writing. La, la, la.

Sara: All novels morph, so relax and surrender. Sometimes they morph before we start writing and sometimes after. That's part of the process, the part that requires persistence as the first qualification as a novelist. Don't give up!

Henrietta, we're happy to be traveling with you as we learn and grow in the craft. I do believe that the Holy Spirit is my muse. And no, he doesn't give me the plot in chronological order, either. I'm never far away from a pad of paper or my laptop for that very reason. I wrote notes while lying in bed--in total darkness out of respect for my husband--the other night. They even made sense in the morning. That's a miracle!

Patti Hill said...

Bonnie, I was hoping you would jump in here. Thanks for bringing your knowledge and wisdom to the discussion.

Nicole said...

Patti, if anybody's "dull-witted" around here, it would be me. I can assure you there's nothing to be jealous about in SOTP writing methodology. It's a wiring mechanism just like your approach to it all.

No: never consider the actual mechanics of writing a story when writing the story. I guess it's a case of figuring if I can't write a story that appeals to me--contains the elements I feel are necessary--from what I've absorbed for many years through reading fiction and, yes, a FEW instruction books (Bird by Bird, Writing the Breakout Novel, On Writing, etc.)then I'm just not gonna get it. Besides, stories that stick to strict structural formulas can bore me to blindness. Sorry--that wasn't nice.

You write the way the Lord wired you. Tell the stories of your heart. Don't let anything get in your way. K?

Carstore said...

I am a wanna-be author just reading what I can right now to understand the process of the author. Thanks for this blog.

Megan Sayer said...

This is so interesting.
I've always been a seat-of-my-pantser in pretty much everything I do, including writing, and most of the time things work really well - and get done quickly.

I've given it up this last 12 months though to go back and learn the traditional theories of plot and structure.
It's been an incredibly valuable experience, and one I'm sure will have a big impact on the speed of my future writing.

The funny thing I've found though, the thing that surprised me, is that all that outline-planning has only taken me so far. As I've sat down to rewrite it again I've found that the constrictions of "this is the first plot point" and "this has to happen before the climax" is too hard to work inside of, and I'm pantsing it in.

I'm sure I'll find at the end that what I've written does actually conform to the plan I made, but trying to actually use the plan to do the work is too constricting.

Patti Hill said...

Thanks, Nicole, you're absolutely right. I can only write the way I'm wired. I do most of my nonlinear thinking before I start but not all. I think I'm jealous about the speed at which most SOTP writers can produce a first draft. Some of that is the way I'm wired and some is my inability to sit and type for long swaths of time.

Carstore: So glad you dropped by today. Make yourself at home.

Megan: As with any new construct, you pluck what you can use and build a process that works for you. I'm very confident you'll do that very well. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Patti, if there's a particular character that doesn't work in a piece, I save him/her for another project. They might just end up being a main character for something else!

Marian said...

So, the message I'm getting is that plot is very important, yet the author should allow the characters to mess up the plot. As in life, things don't usually end up the way a person plans.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Patti- I'm thrilled to hear you write in the dark and carry notepaper. Have you written on receipts too? Children's homework? The steam on the shower door? Doesn't that feel like a pantster kind of thing to do?
By the way, Happy Canada Day Everybody.

Patti Hill said...

Susie: You make a good point. Never throw anything away. I create a file for each WIP. When I have to cut something, I put it in a file like this: Like a Watered Garden Wonderful Words to Save. I started doing this when I found it painful to cut my pretty words. Saving the passages seemed to give me the boldness to do what was needed--cut, cut, cut. Fred may have his day yet.

Marian: Yes, plot is important. Plot is what happens in a story. You must have things happen. Structure is the scaffolding of a story. It's the logic, characterization, conflict, and so much more. Your characters will act contrary to the plot, but--and Bonnie may have to correct me--the structure is like the underlying truth of the story. We're definitely going to have to spend time on this topic soon.

Henrietta: I've written on all of those things, plus my hand. If I don't write it down, I WILL forget the idea.

Lori Benton said...

"Do you consider plot and structure before you start writing?"

I do now. For my WIP I worked out a more detailed outline than ever before, but I still find that I don't see certain... not holes, but thin spots in the plot, where motivation needs to be strengthened, until I'm there on the day writing those scenes. Or even a little ways AFTER I've written those scenes. Sometimes my brain needs to hover over the story waters for an extended period before the light dawns, and I've never found a way to rush that process. But because I have a strong outline, I have faith that I'll shore up those thin spots eventually. I'm not afraid to write past them now, letting my subconscious wrestle with the problem, and go back and fix them after I've woken up in the middle of the night with a sudden "ahah" answer.

Time was, I'd come to a screeching halt until I fixed the problem. That was stressful.

Of course, if I ever have to write to a deadline, I might be singing a very different tune.

Unknown said...

Patti, I'd love to see how you do your plot structure. My process is so different ... but not unusual. I begin with an idea and get my basic notes down, then just dive in, in what Robert Olen Butler calls the dream place, and allow the characters to go where they will. I admit that I have not always been successful at this, and would like to be able to think in a more linear way. But to me that's like computer programming or math and my brain just can't go that way. I'm an INFP on the myers-Briggs and I think all of us INFPs have a problem with structure. Please share one of your sample plot lines with us!

Anonymous said...

I wrote my novel during NaNoWriMo. I went back to it after an extended time away: I found 2 prologues, 2 endings, a weird epilogue-thingie, and if you asked me which scene was the climax, or why the opposition character did what he did, I couldn't tell you!

James Scott Bell's book finally, last month, put together for me all I learned about plot growing up. I'm enjoying my reworking of this novel. But for sure, I'll be doing a full plot treatment before my next one!

But the main thing I've learned is that any story takes both plot and characters. If your outline makes weak characters, yuck. If your pantsing makes weak plot, yuck. We all have to find our own ways of making sure there are both in our stories...without getting ourselves lost in the story.


Bonnie Grove said...

Patti, you're right to separate plot from structure. Plot is events. Structure is the scaffolding on which a writer drapes her story.

I know people say, "I don't plot a story out in advance", but of course they do. No one starts writing a novel without a strong sense of what should happen. They may not write it out first, but every writer has some sense of plot (plot is merely events. This happens, then this, and then this happens). Character driven novels require strong, believable plot.

Structure is where the magic happens. Structure is where the writer designs the story, weaving every element of the story (setting, characters, plot, desire line, symbols, etc.) into a recognizable format that readers will be able to follow, and yet still be entertained and surprised by.

Can this be accomplished by the seat-of-the-pants? Sure. It's the long road to take, and the writer will likely get hammered in editing, but it absolutely can be done and may be the preferred method of some writers.

Can it be accomplished by writers who outline? Yes. As long as they can remain open minded and not get bogged down. It is often the shorter road to take in terms of actual writing (more time taken on the front end translating to being able to write quickly once the writing starts).

And of course, there are writers to fall into the places between the two extremes (like me).

Heather Marsten said...

I'm currently writing a memoir, so the plot flows naturally from that - but still there needs to be a basic focus/plot. I joined a great group called Critique Circle (it's free to join) and by critiquing others and receiving critiques I'm grasping more about plot.

Where I miss the mark is in trying to add extra details to flesh out the story. For example, the chapter I'm working on is a class in witchcraft. I decided to have my roommate and I go to a bar where she taught me to drink tequilas. It really happened in the plot of my life, but doesn't advance the main themes.

I was fortunate to have a person who critiqued me on Critique Circle who actually showed me the plot line of a few of my chapters, pointing out where I missed it. She also told me to scrap the first few chapters and bring the memories in later through therapy sessions. I am thinking on that.

It is hard, but I am now starting a chapter asking myself what I want to get across and using that loosely to guide my writing.

Megan Sayer said...

Bonnie you have no idea how freeing your statement is! I've been berating myself for failure in plotandstructure, but it's not that at all. I've known the plot for a long time, it's only the structure that's been eluding me.
That sense of not knowing stopped me from putting words on paper for a while, waiting till I had it all worked out before I could begin. The amazing thing I'm finding though is that as I write out the words in the chronological order of the plot, the structure reveals itself to me. Yay! Thank you!

Bonnie Grove said...

Well, for sure this post is telling all of us here at Novel Matters, that a master class in plot and structure is in order.

There seems to be confusion between process, plot, method, structure, and emotion vs. action.

You all have been hugely helpful in this discussion, and the six of us are going to put our heads together and see what we come up with on the topic!

Patti Hill said...

Lori: Yes, having that plan does give me courage to keep plugging away, knowing I will come back to shore up a glitch. I just never thought of it that way. Thanks!

Emma: A big part of how we work is definitely linked to our personalities. I can't remember my profile, but I like to considered the deeper questions before slogging onward. I have the outcome in mind. Sometimes I land close to that, sometimes not. Writing is a pure act of courage.

Voni: You say it beautifully--if what your doing doesn't work, try something else. I wish I'd said that.