Tag Archives: plot

Automatic or Manual Transmission: which drives your writing?

Twenty-five years ago, I learned how to drive a stick shift. In fact, it was in my then-boyfriend-now-husband’s Camaro that I got pulled over by a cop for speeding. It was the second time I’d driven a car with a manual transmission. I batted my baby blues and said I was just learning how to drive.

“Looks like you’re learning some bad habits,” he said and handed me back my temporary, paper license. Yeah, I was that fresh to driving period.

He let me go with a warning, and I vowed that I would work on my driving skillz. You see, driving a stick shift is soooo much more difficult than driving an automatic. Hills suck. Hills in winter doubly suck. Starting smoothly takes practice and shifting gears can be tricky–especially with a tight shift pattern. Unintentionally killing the engine is a symptom of novice drivers.

But, oh can you have fun when you’re fully in charge of the power!

Writing comes in two varieties: manual and automatic. The latter is nearly a no-brainer. Sure, you have to watch for the other vehicles and obey traffic signs, but after a few years, it becomes as unconscious as breathing. You just do it, because the car novel nearly drives itself.

Manual transmission is a whole ‘nother story. It takes practice and skill and finessing. It’s a completely conscious way of driving your story forward. It adds an element of power and control–or the lack thereof for the newbie behind the wheel–and nothing is more freeing than learning how to slam shift a car to maximize the energy purring under the hood.

This isn’t about pantsing or plotting. It’s about being conscious of the story as you write. It’s about having one hand on the wheel and the other on the gear shift. It’s about listening to the story’s RPM’s and deliberately acting upon the natural rhythms, not just sitting back and letting the cruise control handle it all.

What kind of writer are you?

Curious minds want to know.

Up the Conflict Meter: Assume

You know what the say about assumptions.  They can get you into a lot of trouble.

This past weekend, DH and I attended Middle Son’s basketball games.  Friends of ours needed to finish a bit of last-minute shopping for a vacation, so we took their boys after the game.  In tow, we had four boys and one girl (5, 7, 9, 10 and 15), all blonde.

We took our crew out to eat on the way home.  When we finished our meal, the waitress–bless her poor heart–asked, “Will this be one or two checks?”

I suppose we looked very much like a family in the process of blending.  Masses of kids, close in age.  I’m sure it didn’t help that DH had his hand on my knee throughout lunch, or that neither of us wore wedding bands (his lost, mine getting fixed after knocking two diamonds loose).  Throw in the fact that the boys called us by first name a time or two and I’m quite certain the waitress felt confident in her assumption.

In life, these assumptions can be embarrassing.  In writing, they can be a gold mine of novel fodder.

What if I had been a jealous wife who thought my Hubby was cheating on me?  Imagine the scene this could have caused if I would have confonted him right there.

While in public, I try very hard to keep my what ifs to myself.  Yet, this doesn’t stop me from letting my imagination run wild on the page.  By letting my characters make assumptions based on limited facts, I often infuse my stories with unexpected conflict.

What off-track assumptions have you made in life?  Have you written any into your novels?

Curious minds want to know!

 

 

Plot is Exactly Like a Hail Storm

Yesterday’s plot weather stats.

  • 7:46 Temperature: 56 degrees, drizzly and windy.  Drop Littles off at school.
  • 11:25 Temperature: 71 degrees, sunny, mild breeze.  Watched boys play at recess in shorts and t-shirts.
  • 2:39 Temperature: 73 degrees, sunny and still.  Checked mail.
  • 2:57 Temperature: 66 degrees, thunder, gray.  Peeked out window after finishing a chapter.
  • 3:12 Temperature: 60 degrees, rain.  Got ready to pick up boys from school.
  • 3:17 Temperature: 54 degrees, hail.  Watched it accumulate.
  • 3:27 Temperature: 56 degrees, cloudy with a few sprinkles.  Picked up boys.
  • 3:45 Temperature:  67 degrees, sunny.  Watched boys play with hail in shorts and t-shirts.  And bare feet.

Great plot is exactly like this magical reprieve in the middle of an otherwise warm, fall day.

Don’t believe me?  Try this.  Your story is a single day.

Beginning.  Middle.  End.

Dawn kicks off our stories with an inciting incident.  It introduces us to our characters and provides the backdrop for which our story takes place.  It’s the drizzly morning that prepares us for the rest of the day.

Dusk brings our stories full circle.  Conflicts have been resolved and a certain satisfaction sets in as we crawl into bed.  We’ve accomplished much in the hours between rising and resting.  Every story must end, just as the sun dips below the horizon every day.  Guaranteed.

But the magic is in the middle.  Winds gust, temperatures fluctuate–sometimes wildly–and the skies darken and shine as our characters encounter and overcome conflicts.

With great plot, unexpected twists rain down on our characters.  These twists delight and excite readers.  They drive the action and change the course of the story.  They can also make or break a novel depending on how they are handled.

How do you increase tension in your writing?  Are you deliberate about it, or do an unexpected plot twist sneak up on as well as your MC?  Do you feel it’s important to foreshadow major turning points in  your manuscript?  If so, why and how do you do this?  If not, what is the value of blindsiding your readers?

Curious minds want to know.

Forced Schedules: Writing Pitfall #27

As many of you know, we own an eccentric puppy.  To her, socks = crack.  When she eats too many she gets a tummy ache.  Being a highly vocal dog, she moans–yes, sick dogs moan just like sick husbands–and rolls around in her kennel, milking her discomfort for all it’s worth.

She’s also not housebroken yet.  I am.

Sock Dog is a finished hunting dog.   This means she came to us fully trained.  She brought all her year-old quirks with her as well.  The most frustrating is her complete lack of bathroom etiquette.  Having been kenneled outside throughout her short life, she could stop mid-anything to go potty.  She never learned that front yard grass is more appropriate to piddle on than a white living room carpet.

So, I get up from my writing at various intervals throughout the day to let her outside.  I stand in the yard and croon to her, begging her to please quit chasing ladybugs so we can go back inside.  And when she’s done, my “such-a-good-girl-go-potty” praises can be heard blocks away.

We tromp back in where she plops down on the carpet, curls her lips at me in contentment and heaves a huge sigh.  “Such-a-good-owner-I-got-you-trained.”

And she does.  I hate cleaning up piddle spots and she knows it.  I’ve created a schedule for her based on when I think she should go potty.  I’d love to hear her take on this, though I can guess based on the smug smirk she gives me as she dilly-dallies around and my muse begins to wander. 

Writers are also guilty of this forced scheduling.  We don’t want too many messes to clean up, so we direct our characters’ actions.  We steer them to perform the way we want them to in an attempt to tidy up all the loose ends and resolve the conflict.  We write what’s convenient, rather than allowing ourselves to be interrupted.

In other words, we intrude on the story and feed our characters the right info at the right time and unleash them outside when we deem they are ready–when it works for the plot.  Chapter 7, Chapter 16 and Chapter 23.

Sadly, we fall victim to Writing Pitfall #27.  The one where we are housebroken, not our manuscripts.  The one where we force the writing to perform on our timeframe rather than allow it to unfold naturally. 

Personally, I would prefer if Sock Dog whined to be let out instead of piddling on the floor minutes after I let her back in.  In this same way, I prefer to let my characters take the lead in the story.  I want an organic feel to my manuscripts.  Too often, I read stories that feel forced.  As if things happen because the author needs them to happen. 

I try really hard to practice what I preach.  At one point in my YA, my MC acted on her own behalf and dragged another character out the door with her. 

“Noooo!  What are you doing?” I shouted at her–I guess I’m vocal too.  I had no place for the drunk girl in my manuscript and I considered taking her out of the apartment altogether.

It wasn’t until after I let her stay that I realized my MC had remained true to her character.  She acted on her natural impulse rather than let me direct her actions via the delete key.  My story is much stronger because of it. 

So, dear friends, how do you write?  Do you follow a strict guideline to make sure you input all the proper info at exactly the right time, or do you allow the story to control the timing?  What are the pros and cons to each of these types of writing?  Is housebreaking a manuscript even a good thing or are we better off minimizing the chaos by adhering to a more structured form of writing?

Curious minds want to know.

Cracked: When Science and Writing Meet

I love writing query letters.  I love boiling down the entire story into its necessary components and then weaving them together with voice and intrigue.  I want you to love writing queries as much as I do, and I think you can if you bear with me.

Often, writers look at a query letter as a formula that must be followed.  Add two milliliters of character to one liter of plot, sprinkle a hook on top and heat to the boiling point.  But I encourage you to look at the science of query writing in a very different way. By nature, no one story is exactly the same.  Therefore, it stands that every query must be slightly different.  If you open your mind to the experimentation part, you may discover that query writing can be fun and the results unexpectedly amazing.

Last night Dear Daughter announced her newest science assignment.  “I have to drop an egg from two stories high onto concrete.  And not have it break.”

While not all sciency myself, I do love a good brain teaser.  This definitely qualified as one.

“And I have thirty seconds to get it into the container and thirty seconds to get it back out.  Without breaking it.”

Add the time crunch and my adrenaline kicked in.  So did hers.

“Oh yeah,” she says as we start brainstorming things like containers within padding within boxes, “the size and weight of our container affects our grade.”

But of course. 

If this was a MG adventure query it would look something like this: 

When Evil Science Teacher devises a plan to single-handedly wipe out the small town of Grade A, Freshie Freshman must overcome her aversion to science or lose her breakfast. 

The only science Freshie enjoys is maintaining the perfect balance of salt and Tabasco on her scrambled eggs.  Yet when her EST begins chucking oversized ova from the roof of Midwest High, Freshie accepts the challenge to devise a fail-safe capsule for her precious egg.

 With no super human powers to speak of, Freshie must best EST at her own game with little more than her wits, a soda pop bottle and thirty seconds.  If she fails, her beloved egg will be nothing more than a bad grade on the concrete steps.

 Okay, that was way more fun than it had a right to be, but you can clearly see the bones of a query letter even though this is my first draft and I didn’t write with any of the necessary components in mind.

 We have a protagonist, an antagonist, an inciting incident, clearly defined stakes and a time constraint that heightens the tension of the initial conflict.  We also have voice and just enough of the story left unsaid to leave us wondering who wins and how. 

Query writing does not have to be painful and formulaic.  Rather, it is an invitation to set your story free through experimentation.  Hook doesn’t work?  Try another from a different angle.  When you set aside all the rules and let your manuscript speak to you, the query should write itself.

Does this quirky query seem contrary to the business aspect we are taught to write?  If so, chew on this: what better way to sell your manuscript than let your manuscript sell itself? 

And it’s not like the professionalism won’t be there.  That’s what your greeting and closing paragraphs are for.

 ~cat

P.S. Behind the scenes, we also had a decent story arc where our MC tried and failed several times before achieving her end goal.  As the night wore on—and we ruthlessly murdered three eggs, a stuffed frog, a tennis ball and a Tupperware container—my DD’s determination grew and she became more creative in her possible solutions.  Plot doesn’t get any better than that.

Dare To Be Different: writing lessons from a tree

I have a tree in my front yard.  Its green leaves haven’t begun to turn.  I also have a cranberry bush on the north side of my house that has sported green leaves all summer long. 

Both these plants each boast one branch of red leaves.  A single branch of all red in the midst of velvety green.  It’s a crazy anomaly and one I can’t help but applaud. 

Dare to be different.  Even nature knows that sometimes a splash of unusual is preferable to uniformity.

LESSONS FROM A TREE

  • It’s okay to be a tree.  We don’t have to reinvent a new plant every time we write a book.  At the heart of it all, each book has a trunk (MC), branches (plot, story arc) and leaves (conflict and resolution told in a thousand tiny details.)  It’s the texture of the bark, the reach of the branches and the shape and color of the leaves that creates something new and exciting, not the tree itself.  Don’t go too far out on a limb with your project or you’ll have agents, editors and readers too afraid to plant your manuscript in their yards. 
  • It’s okay to be different.  We don’t need a new topic to write a good story, just a new twist.  A red branch, if you will.  Something that sets our manuscripts apart from the other trees in the forest.  After all, blending in completely won’t do us an favors on the book shelf.  Nor will a regurgitation of Twilight or Pirates of the Caribbean catch us the attention of an agent or editor.
  • It’s okay to bend a bit.  When the wind blows, my tree sways.  It may lose a leaf or two, but in the end, it still stands proudly as the center point in my front yard.  When we receive constructive feedback from our critters, we need to be open to a new perspective on our writing.  Bending without breaking can be the difference between a good manuscript and a great manuscript.  It can determine who is left standing in the literary world after the storm passes.
  • It’s okay to need nurturing.  Mother Nature generally waters my trees.  However sometimes she needs a helping hand.  When the skies clear and things heat up, I’ve been known to turn the hose on.  If you ever feel isolated as a writer, don’t.  Communities abound where people understand what aspiring writers need.  Your significant other may not always be able to provide enough nurturing.  Your writing community can.  Use it.  Plant your roots, because if the drought goes on too long, the damage can be irreparable.
  • It’s okay to be different.  Yeah, I know I already said that, but it’s worth repeating for another reason.  Every tree in my yard has a unique shape.  Some are bold, with a few strong branches.  Others gracefully reach to the sky with delicate limbs.  Some stand tall while others sprawl.  Accept who you are as a writer and a person.  Don’t prune your branches too look like everyone else.  Embrace  your uniqueness and share your shade whenever you get the chance!

Are you okay to be a tree?  What lessons from a tree are hard for you to accept?  Which ones feel natural? 

Anonymous Book Rants

I finished a YA novel about a month ago that I was less than thrilled about.  While reading it, I chatted with a few great friends about this book and how I love, love, loved the author’s blog and purchased the book out of a sense of loyalty and excitement.

I did not, however, love, love, love the book.  To the contrary, it took me well over 100 pages to even like the female MC a little bit.  I never cared about her before she turned bad, then she was so bad only to suddenly turn so lovable-ish.  To her male counterpart, anyway.  To me, she seemed like the poster child for Manic Depression. 

As a whole, I struggled to read the book, even though the writing was good and the premise was better.  My stumbling point?  The character execution.  Even at the very end, I never really cared about the female protag and all my emotions were wrapped up in the male’s suffering and conflict.

In addition, it was written in first person present from two points of view.  Every character switch took some time for me to get back in sync and heightened the disconnect.

That said, I read the book in about 24 hours.  Which was certainly better than another book I tried to read last month and have yet to get past page 17. 

That snooze book was a prequel to two books DD and I read in a past lifetime.  When the first book of the series came out, DD and I devoured it.  The second book she loved.  I was luke warm about it, but still read it and enjoyed it on several levels.  Yet after much begging and pleading, DD refused to read past the first chapter of book three. 

It took me several years after her bad review to even give it a try.  I picked it up last month for something to do while on the stairmaster.  I got as far as page 17, and only because I have to read while working out and nothing else was in my reach.  My beef: the third book looped back to the beginning.  Long before First Book ever took place.  Long, long before.  Star Wars it was not.

Then there was the book right after the 17 page disaster.  While I greatly enjoyed the book as a whole, I hated the ending.  It was so in-your-face not-finished that I could barely gag down the last few chapters. 

Intuitively I knew I was in for a non-complete ending.  You know the ones that say, “Well, we got some of this wrapped up, now go back to the bookstore in six months and you can buy the rest of the story.”?  Fingernails on a chalkboard annoying.

So there you have it.  Three things I hate in books.

  1. Unsympathetic characters.  Ones I never connect with and therefore don’t give a rat’s patooty what happens to them.  It makes for unsatisfactory reading.  I want to love the characters I’m ignoring my family for. 
  2. Books that are tacked on.  Those 17 pages felt like tedious backstory to a story I already read.  Oh wait, that’s exactly what it was.  You can’t hook me with a good story and then expect me to remain faithful when the last book is a moral lesson on how the first two books came about.  Along similar lines are the middle books of a trilogy.  For some reason, many of them feel like a rope bridge between a great start and a great finish.  It’s like the trilogy should really only have two books because that’s where everything good happens, but the author/editor/marketing department wouldn’t know what to call it if they did.  A literary duet, maybe?  A bilogy? 
  3. Lastly, books that are so obviously part of a trilogy or series they feel unfinished.  I hate to be swindled, and I feel like this is the biggest con game around.  Give me a book that is done.  Make me love the characters so much I have to read more.  Want to.  Love to.  Will be heartbroken if I can’t.  Do not–I repeat–do not force me to buy the next book with a cute little ploy just to get the rest of the first story.  That’s the fastest way for an author to get on my list.

That said, very few authors make my list.  I like to give them each two shots.  The first book I’ll buy.  If it falls on my naughty list, I’ll beg, borrow or steal the second one, but not buy.  If both titles leave me flat, I file the author’s name away for good.  This may not be fair, but life is short and if I never added another book to my TBR list, it’s still too long for me to finish in this lifetime.

Now that you know my novel pet peeves, what are yours?  Without  naming names, of course.  What book traits put an author on your banned list?  Once there, is it possible for them to get switched to your TBR pile in the future?  If so, how?

When Rabbits Grow

When rabbits grow, they multiply.  And not like 7 x 6 = 42. 

More like 1 x 1 = a litter.

My back yard is full of bunnies.  They eat my lilacs, poop on my sidewalk, and chomp away all the buds from my perennials.  They are a royal pain in my back side. 

Which reminds me of a WIP that is quietly hanging out in the TBRevised pile. 

Sometimes we get carried away with story lines and we let those plot bunnies multiply.  We think it adds tension and drama and depth.  And to a certain extent they do.

But sometimes, we end up with a whole litter of them and they run out of control.  They take over the main conflict, nibble at the important story lines and out number the MC. 

I should have let DH shoot them when he had the chance.  But no, I’m a sucker for those fuzzy little ears and milky white paws.  And their noses….  Be still my heart when a baby bunny twitches his little nose my way.  I’m a sucker for bunnies.

Sadly, my TBR manuscript shows it.  One agent suggested it might be too issue heavy.  What I think she meant was prolific. 

I’m going to don my farmer’s overalls and chase down my plot bunnies.  And the next time two of them shack up under my shed, I’m going to let DH give them the boot. 

One plot bunny is nice.  I think I’ll keep it that way.

Do you have a problem with runaway plot bunnies?  How do you balance the population in your manuscripts?  And how do you decide which plot threads add to your manuscript and which ones eat away at the gist of your story?

Too Much Noise

This morning we set out to participate in a fundraising walk for Cystic Fibrosis.  As a group of about 75 adults and kids milled around before the shotgun start, the sky darkened and the wind picked up.

A quarter mile into the walk, thunder rumbled and lightning streaked across the sky.  We returned to the park shelter just as the rain began. 

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a park shelter during a hail storm, but I can tell you it is way over stimulating.  Rain drops pounded on the roof, the wind howled at about 35 miles per hour and nickel sized hail pelted trees, cars and the tin walls.  Trapped inside the confines of the shelter, all 75 people waited out the storm by shouting to each other. 

It was utter chaos.

Like some books I’ve read.

The characters shout over each other to be heard.  Plot lines howl, side by side, competing with each other.  And on top of it all, we are pelted with thinly disguised “messages”. 

I just finished such a book.  Ironically, I started it on the way to the CF walk and finished it on the return trip home.  It was loud, obnoxious and chaotic.  I can honestly say I was glad when it was over.

Much like the storm.

Usually I love a good thunderstorm and find them soothing.  The pattering of rain and the rumble of thunder calm me.  In fact, before kids, DH and I used to pop in a thunderstorm CD before bed every night and crank it up.  Sleep was never so magical.

Some authors are masterful at weaving together complicated plots and introducing seemingly unrelated characters.  They are natural story tellers.  Their writing crescendos as a storm peaks and tapers off to leave the reader satisfied and oddly comforted.

Lesson learned.  Pay attention to the overall rythm of our writing.  A thunderstorm is soothing.  A hailstorm is anything but.

What books have you read that fall in the thunderstorm category?  Which ones mimic the chaos of a hail storm?  Which type of story do you prefer?

Connected

“Can you hear me now?”

Cell phones could possibly be the most annoying aspect of our mobile society.  What with their dropped calls, pockets of poor reception and unbreakable contracts.  Every time we leave our home and head north, we cross the ridge.  Inevitably this is about the length of time it takes for DH or me to think of something we NEED to talk to somebody about.

Inevitably poor reception ensues and the calls are dropped after a series of crackly, “Can you hear me now”s.

Sometimes when I pick up a book, my connection is similar.  The characters are crackly, the plot drops away altogether or the contract (my hard earned B&N gift certificate) is too expensive to walk away from it.  Even if the connection is so painful I would rather pluck my armpit hair out with a tweezers than keep reading.

As writers, it is our duty to provide good service.  While we can’t be responsible for all mismatched reception, we still need to strive to make the connections between our words and our readers as strong as possible.  To do anything less is to risk losing our readers–forever.

My DD started reading a book last night, The Splendor Falls by Rosemary Clement-Moore.  She picked it out at the book store over the very busy weekend and didn’t start reading until we were on our way home.  I can tell that Ms. Moore mastered the connection because DD hasn’t put the book down.  She brought it to breakfast this morning and even read it on the five minute ride to school.  That says a lot.

I can’t wait for my turn, when I will have the opportunity to learn what grabbed DD.  Was it the characters, the plot, the romance, the mystery?  What did Moore do to connect with her readers and her story?

While I almost hate to admit it, I’m a shameless reader.  I read virtually anything.  Mystery rocks my socks off, but a bad mystery where the pieces are forced to come together with the antag spilling his guts to the tied-up protag makes me want to rip my toenails out with a plyers. 

Romance is good.  Slutty scenes for the sake of padding a word count make me a little anxious, and I actually skip over the throbbing members to get back to the good stuff.  Too many gratuitious scenes in a row and the connection is irrevocably lost.

Another thing that makes me disconnect is language usage.  It gets tiring to read the firetruck word every other sentence.  To me, this is a big turn off and makes me think the writer is Lazy.  Yep, with a capital L.

So when is the connection strong?  Characters I can relate to.  I don’t like perfect size sixes with gorgeous tresses and curvy curves sans saddle bags.  That’s my biggest curve and I like others to share my pain sometimes.

Characters with a strong voice.  Not loud, but strong.  Ones who experience a wide range of emotions and react realistically to their situations.  I love humor (that’s the main reason I married DH–okay, that and his good looks) and find myself drawn to MC’s who share my sense of the absurd.  Wit and charm go a long way in my book. 

Plot is less important, as I’m as likely to read a chick lit, a western or a techno-thriller as a picture book–and love them all equally.  As long as there is some semblence of realism and continuity.  I just finished a book that was written in the MC’s POV all the way through–except the one small section where the MC was knocked out cold and the details needed to be filled in.  There was a quick POV switch, then back to the MC when he regained his consciousness.  I felt like I had multiple personalities and it made my love for the book drop about three stars.

To all my readers: what types of things make a strong connection between you and the books you read?  What breaks those connections?

To my writers: how do you create a strong connection with your readers?  What types of elements are important to you in creating your fiction?  What do you concentrate on so you’re not constantly wondering “Can you hear me now?”