Writing Tips

A protagonist must want something to build a plot. Sol Stein writes: "The wants that interest a majority of readers include gaining or losing a love, achieving a lifetime ambition, seeing that justice is done, saving a life, seeking revenge, and accomplishing a task that at first seemed impossible." Stein on Writing

Monday, October 27, 2014

That Little Thing Called Plot


Just the word plot sends shivers up and down a writer's spine. We read about it in writing books, we study it in how-to workbooks, we labor over it in writing classes, but too many of us never feel like we understand it.

Published writers
Have you ever listened to a well-known, well-published author with books on the best selling lists and heard them say something like, "I don't know how the plot twists and turns came to me, they just did." We go away wondering why we didn't get a muse that spits out plot twists and turns that magically become a best seller.

Other writers with similar credits, freely admit they slaved over the plot and revised their book so many times, they were sick of it by the time it made it to an agent. We go away from those admissions wishing we knew how to achieve what we're missing. What questions to ask. What blanks to fill in.

Creative Writing
In my overview creative writing classes, I have the pleasure of working with students at all stages of their writing future. It's amazing to see those that seem to have the least knowledge and the smallest number of words on paper suddenly grasp a new idea and run with it.

Run with your idea
And that's what I think the secret to plot really is: Running with it. It's all about moving ahead and giving it the best we've got. Sometimes, we celebrate success. Sometimes, we get a rejection, but the challenges and the differences in ultimate success merge - like a good plot - from our methodical movement until we hit pay dirt.

It's a unique pleasure to see our words in print, a joy only another writer truly understands and only a writer who keeps at it will ever understand.

But back to that dreaded word PLOT. I'm sharing a few clues to help you move forward in your writing, clues that work for my students and hopefully will work for you.

Enticing Hooks
Not just the opening book hook, but those scene and chapter hooks that keep the reader turning the pages.

A hook doesn’t have to startle the reader but must get their attention, usually through an emotional surprise. Those hooks may be the only chance you get as they scan your book and decide whether to purchase it. Here's a good example of an opening hook from The Book of Bright Ideas by Sandra Kring, which is one of my favorite books.

“I should have known that summer of 1961 was gonna be the biggest summer of our lives. I should have known it the minute I saw Freeda Malone step out of that pickup, her hair lit up in the sun like hot flames. I should have know it, because Uncle Rudy told me what happens when a wildfire comes along."

A plot interwoven with one dysfunctional family after another, this book like so many other best sellers invokes the imagination of readers. Here are a few I feel certain you've probably read.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by  Stieg Larsson

Romeo and Juliet  by Shakespeare

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant  by Ann Tyler

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy

Rebecca by Daphne du Murier

Oedipus by Sophocles

Kramer vs Kramer by Avery Corman

Each of these stories has a plot entirely different from the others, yet the stories are filled with intrigue and tantalizing tidbits about the human condition - that thing all humans like to explore to find out if we are "normal" or "abnormal."

Some of these books open quietly, but all of them introduce the characters and give at a minimum a strong hint that something is not quite right and something interesting is on the horizon. Some of them slam readers in the gut with the erratic behavior and insidious personalities hovering on their pages.

A plot is not a template. A plot is a story with a beginning that peaks our curiosity, delivers a delicious middle, and wraps up with an ending that fills our needs, whether emotional, moral, shocking, or logical.

Want to practice how to plot a story? Sit across from a friend or colleague and tell them a good story, complete with an opening to get their attention, grabs them with the ups and downs that make the middle interesting and keeps them from yawning mid story, and wrap it up with a can-you-believe-it or isn't-that-the best-thing-you-ever-heard ending.  That's a plot and you did it!

Let us know what tricks you have up your sleeve when it comes to plot development.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Right brain or left brain

cj Sez: As the year's end races closer and closer, I find that keeping on track with meeting my appointments is getting harder and harder. I could alibi that I've bitten off more than I can chew in terms of volunteering in the midst of necessary stuff, but that'd be an untruth. The truth is, I need to pay better attention and keep a better appointment calendar, as in just one. Right now, I have at least two and occasionally three.

I'll note an appointment (or paperclip a card) on the calendar hanging on the kitchen door and then forget to write it in my planner . . . or vice versa. That wouldn't be much of a problem if I would just check both places every morning . . . which, of course, I don't. The third "occasional calendar" I mentioned is simply the collection of all those little scraps of paper and back-of-business-card notes that I shove into my jeans pockets or bottom of my purse. Who I'm supposed to meet when and where just disappears.

Out of sight, out of mind is the term.

I'm more of a visual person (is that a right brain or a left brain thing?), and that shows up in my writing. Scenes are the least complicated for me to write. I enjoy creating the details that permit my readers to visualize where the characters are and what they are seeing. But I tend to keep my details sparse and incorporated into the flow of the scene's action. I don't tell the reader the office is small and crowded. I like to let my character do that by having her desk chair bump against the wall when she stands up and then walks the five or so steps it takes to open the door for a client to enter her office. This lets the reader imagine the scene as well.

Dealing with personal introspection/emotions/internal dialogue is more difficult for me since I "see" the action in my stories as movies in my head. Narrative without dialogue doesn't exist in movies unless there's a voice-over, so I tend to use very little. I've been told and I do understand I need more narrative in my novels, so I'm working on expanding my use of internal dialogue. I'm sure it'll be sparse, but I'm also sure it will bring more depth and realism to my characters.

Okay, I've confessed. Your turn. What is your writing strength or weakness?

That's all for now. You-all guys keep on keeping on, and I'll try to do the same.

cj . . . sending ghostly, ghastly Halloween vibes your way.

PS: Halloween craft ideas from Facebook