Monday, June 24, 2013

Story Decisions: Structure and Point of View

Recently I read two manuscripts with compelling plots that were hurt by the writer’s decisions concerning structure and point-of-view. While plot is king in commercial fiction, the novel’s structure must augment it. Similarly, the question of “whose story is this?” is a vital one when it comes to determining point-of-view.

Structure refers to the timeline of events in your novel. The first aspect to determine is where the story starts. Often answering this question is where some writers get into trouble. The story does not start when the protagonist is born or first notices boys. In screenwriting, the plot point which kicks off the story is called “the inciting incident.” Novels also have an inciting incident, but sometimes it can be buried in a pile of character description and other details. Sometimes it’s buried so deep the writer herself doesn’t know what it is.

Ask yourself, “What is this story about,” and give yourself only a sentence to answer. From a strict plot perspective, the answer should be constructed as such: it’s about a PROTAGONIST who wants to do X, but she keeps getting stopped by Y. The inciting incident is what happened to make her want to do X. So if the story’s about a woman trying to find her kidnapped daughter, the inciting incident is, yes, the daughter getting kidnapped. Start the story a few pages before that happens. Give the reader enough time to get to know the protagonist and her daughter, but not too much time, or the opening will drag.

A surprising number of new writers will start the story way too early. Maybe when the protagonist meets her husband, then there’s the wedding, the wonderful news of the pregnancy, the daughter’s early years, etc. These are all lovely details but they really have nothing to do with the story. What’s worse, they force the writer into trying to find ways to describe the passing of months, seasons, years. And while Five for Fighting did a wonderful job singing about it in “A Hundred Years to Live,” that song lasts only about three minutes. There are just no intriguing ways to describe the routine passage of time.

But wait! What if important details happen in those years? What if the kidnapper were there all along? Well, that’s why flashbacks were invented.

Know your story. Know when it starts. Know when it ends. And know whose story it is.

As for our mom with the kidnapped daughter, is this her story? Maybe she’s spending all her time at home crying while her daughter is doing ingenious things to try to escape. In that case, it’s really more the daughter’s story, and should be told from her point-of-view. Or perhaps the mother is just as compelling – it’s her story and her daughter’s, and the writer can choose to tell both those stories. And even the kidnapper’s, too. Just remember that when choosing to show that character’s point of view; even if he’s the kidnapper, he becomes the protagonist in that section. He has goals, thoughts and feelings, and they are valid to him, even if they are creepy to the rest of us.

The point-of-view character should be the one whose actions drive the plot. This seems like fairly obvious advice, but writing from the POV of the best friend/observer seems to be a trap that many new writers fall into. It may have worked for F. Scott Fitzgerald in creating Nick Carraway, but generally readers want to follow the person driving the car, not the passenger. Imagine if the Harry Potter series had been written from the point of view of Ron or Hermione. I know a lot of people love those characters, and Harry certainly couldn’t have defeated Voldemort without them, but the series is his story.

Decisions about structure and point of view should be made during the planning portion of the novel. While some “panters” writers may object to having to plan anything before sitting down to create, knowing what the story is and whose story it is are fundamental questions that cannot wait until a third or fourth draft to answer.

Monday, June 17, 2013

For the Love of a Book

I remember the first time I fell in love with a book. I was in the second grade, and Lori Russo and I were in the media center together. She passed me a tape cassette and said, “Listen to this one. It’s good.” It was E. L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” I thought she was wrong; the title was weird, so how could the story be good? But she was. I put on the headphones and was immediately enthralled by Claudia’s desire to take her younger brother Jamie and run away to New York. The library period ended way before the book did, and I had to put the tape recorder away in a hurry. I immediately forgot the title, and spent many weeks in mourning for it, until it finally occurred to me to describe the plot to the librarian. She pulled the book out for me and I checked it out, delighted.

Even today, having not read the book in over 30 years, I remember the details that captured me: How Claudia had fished a free ride to the city out of her father’s wastebasket. How they hid out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How Claudia instructed Jamie to hide in the bathroom at closing time by keeping the stall unlatched and standing on the toilet seat. How they slept on a giant poster bed in the middle of an exhibit on Elizabethan England, and bathed and fished coins out of a fountain. How Claudia realized the statue was carved by Michelangelo by seeing that the carpet underneath it was “crushed up.”

After I read the library book, I got my mother to buy me my own copy. That’s how I decided which books to buy when I was a child: I’d only buy books I’d previously read and loved. In fact, I wouldn’t think of buying a book if I hadn’t already read it. My books were my best friends, and how could I read a book, love it, and not want to own it? Similarly, why would I invite a book into my room if I didn’t know it?

As a child, I read my favorite books again and again and again. Along with “From the Mixed-Up Files,” those included the Little House books, mysteries about the Three Investigators, “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” “Charlotte’s Web,” The Beezus books (Whenever I hear the National Anthem, I think about The Danzer Lee Light), Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” Encyclopedia Brown, “Caddie Woodlawn,” and the Brain, just for starters. And I didn’t just read them. I carted them to school with me. I slept with them, along with my stuffed animals. I didn’t have security blankets; I had security books.

The characters in those books sometimes seemed more real to me than the kids in my neighborhood; the ones I went to school with. They kept me company; inspired me; entertained me. And they were often the ones I was paying attention to rather than the teacher. I always had a book in my lap or hidden in a textbook. And of course I was one of those kids who stayed up way past her bedtime, unable to put down that book. Just one more chapter. Just one more…

At some point – I think I was in middle school – I began to see the wisdom of buying books I hadn’t already read. And before that I stopped sleeping with books … although a few stuffed animals still made their way into my bed, including a teddy bear I had in college. And then I was required to read “Bleak House.”

As an adult, the closest I’ve gotten to that early love is in series genre fiction. There was a vampire hunter who actually had me buying books I’d checked out of the library – and re-reading them a few times – until the author got lost in a sea of sex and fur. And mysteries with a strong female protagonist are always in my TBR pile.

For both children and adults, the best books are those that introduce strong characters in new worlds. Sometimes that world is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and sometimes that world is one where vampires run for elected office.

What are some books you’ve read as an adult that you’ve loved enough to read more than once?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Beyond The Beach Read -- Books for Not-So-Pleasant Locales

It’s summer, which means that every newspaper or magazine feels obligated to publish a list of “beach reads.” Typically a beach book is seen as lighter fare than what serious readers ordinarily might read; it has a romantic plot or subplot, sometimes a tropical location, it’s not all that intellectually challenging, and it’s not exactly that hefty. In short, it’s something to keep you occupied in between dips in the ocean.

I’m not sure why beach reads need to have a specific plot. Length, especially, seems unimportant in this day of e-readers. Your e-reader weighs the same whether it’s full of gigantic historical biographies or a collection of Jennifer Weiner novels. More broadly, though – hey, you’re at the beach. You’re probably on vacation. You’re lying out in the sun, with sand in between your feet, the coconutty smell of suntan location saturating the air. You’re not going anywhere. Does it really matter exactly what type of book you’re reading? No.

On the other hand, there are certain locations and situations in life where a book is a necessary, vital distraction, and the type of book it is does make a difference. These locations would not include pools or beaches, which are yummy wonderful places whose inhabitants are already in a bliss coma. But they would include:

The gym. I spent a lot of time at the gym and I pretty much hate every second of it. Three times a week, I’m on the treadmill for an hour. Keying in “55” when the machine asks for the number of minutes (it adds five on itself as a “cool down”) is really one of the most depressing parts of my day. Thank goodness for my Kindle, which would equally appreciated on a stationary bike but probably no good on the elliptical, which requires both hands. The treadmill requires a gripping, juicy mystery with plenty of plot twists. Any book that has me dying to know what’s going to happen next will make me forget I’m stuck on a machine at a five percent incline going 3.5 miles an hour. And believe me, there’s nothing I want more than to forget. Hugh Howey’s Wool series is good treadmill company.

The doctor’s office. Your appointment was for three o’clock, but it’s almost four and the doctor is nowhere in sight. Your mind is racing about every disease those symptoms could possibly mean. You might have been tempted to bring with you the latest biography of someone who succumbed to a horrible deadly disease, but this is the worst type of book in this situation. Yes, you are going to die. This is a hundred percent true. I don’t need to be a doctor to tell you that. But don’t dwell on the inevitable now. This is the perfect time for something rip-roaring funny. Maybe a book of hysterical essays by a former New Yorker writer or some hysterical chick lit. Put down that copy of Tuesdays with Morrie right now.

The airport/airplane. You probably know that this is not the place you want to bring your non-fiction tome on how terrorists are everywhere and they are thinking of new ways to kill you right now. And you also probably know that you don’t want to be reading about any plane crashes or similar disasters. (I really loved Tracey Garvis Graves’ On the Island, but do not read it while on a plane!) I’m a huge Kindle fan but this is one place where I always want a real paperback book. Real books do not come with on/off switches. Apparently my lightweight innocent little Kindle turns into a weapon of mass destruction if I happen to be reading it while the captain has the seatbelt sign on. It takes forever to taxi, take off, and reach cruising altitude, and so does entire landing process. Forever is a very long time to go without reading, but you’ll be forced to if your novel of choice is in your Kindle, which is now taunting you from the seat pocket in front of you. Take a paperback. Preferably not Arthur Hailey’s Airport.

Your child’s school. You’ve been duly summoned from work to meet with your child’s teacher/principal/guidance counselor because your child is lazy/disobedient/a bully. You’re probably way too keyed up to actually read something, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have book in hand. The point of this hardcover is to send a subtle message that whatever problem Michael or Melissa is having is quite minor and probably the fault of the school system, anyway. Anything with a name like Teaching Your Gifted Child or What’s Wrong with America’s Schools Today will let the bureaucrats realize who they are dealing with. Anything by Malcolm Gladwell is also a good choice.

At home. It’s been a long day and all your spouse wants to do is curl up with the TV. The game is on and it’s boring. Get your point across without saying a word by pulling out 50 Shades of Grey or any romance novel with a slightly pornographic cover. If he’s still so engrossed that he doesn’t even notice what you’re reading, open your laptop and the book at the same time. If he still doesn’t notice, there’s not a book in the world that can fix your problem, except maybe Divorce for Dummies.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Writing by the Numbers

I often say that one of the reasons I became a writer is because I don’t do math. Numbers have never had the hold over me that letters do… in fact, it was when numbers and letters started hanging out together with the equal sign that I gave up on any idea that a math-based career was in my future.

However, I do find numbers useful when it comes to keeping myself on track and accountable. The best way for me to stick to a diet isn’t by cutting out certain foods or only eating others, but by coming up with a calorie limit and writing down everything I eat and how many calories the meal contains.

Recently I discovered that writing down my writing goal is a good incentive to keep me writing. I joined an online group in which members report their progress for the week. My goal is 5000 words a week; 1250 words Monday through Thursday. (Strangely enough, my calorie goal is also about 1250.) This was always my mental goal but many days I fell short. Then I started to do a little chart. Here’s my chart from last week:

Week of May 27, 2013. Goal: 87,627

Monday start: 82,627

Monday finish: 83,880

Tuesday start: 83,880

Tuesday stop: 85,290

Wednesday start: 85,290

Wednesday finish: 86,724

Thursday start: 86,724

Thursday finish: 88,201

For some reason, the brain rewards the body with a shot of dopamine when there’s a ritual associated with completing a task. The ritual can be as small as crossing off an item on the to-do list when it’s finished. Getting to cross off a line on a piece of paper can actually be motivating enough to get you to complete the task.

In copying and pasting the chart above, I just realized it would be even more motivating to write down the daily numeric goal. Each day I do find myself going beyond my 1250 goal; albeit by only a few dozen words or so. Even so, those numbers add up. I finished last week 574 words ahead of myself.

This particular book is a first draft, obviously, and I’ll soon be done and in the editing phase. I suppose then I’ll require myself to get through a certain number of pages per day. I’ll have to think about that.

Time to get started on my 1250 for the day. But after I post this, I can cross off “blog post” from my to-do list!