Tuesday, August 31, 2010

So What Exactly is a Plot?

You write, you read the title of this post and you laugh.  Everybody knows what a plot is!  ...Don't they?

Well, here's the thing.  Many new writers, and even some old pros, fall into traps.  They either never established in their own thoughts exactly what a plot - their plot - is, or they don't quite get it.  Or maybe they just get off track.

For starters I can tell you what a plot isn't.  Mom and Dad pack up the kids, Bobby and Susan, for a trip to Grandma's house.  The drive is pleasant and uneventful. They have a picnic in the back yard.  Grandma's made lemonade and serves it in her antique Victorian pitcher. The kids play.  Neighbors come to chat over the fence.  It's a beautiful day, they love each other and have a great time together.  Then they go home.  Grandma waves goodbye.

That's nice, but there's no plot, not now and nothing to hint there will be a plot. Well, maybe the Victorian pitcher.

Now, to create a plot, the writer needs to create tension, to add conflict. Seeds must be planted and it has to link together.

Add a few elements and you might get:  Dad is in a detached mood and the kids are fighting like siblings will on the drive to Grandma's.  There's the picnic in her great back yard, but the neighbors are snotty about the 'noisy grandkids' who are actually playing together - grudgingly - at last.   Susan disappears around a corner of the house, Mom's glance following her when Grandma, having just sipped the lemonade of her own making, collapses on the lawn.  Mom runs to Grandma, calling for Susan.  Where's Susan?  No answer.  Dad doesn't seem to be interested and the grumpy neighbor is bellowing again.  

What's going on?  

This could well be a horror tale in the making, a thriller, a mystery or even an alien invasion. 

It may well not be the best plot cooked up in 30 seconds flat, but you can readily see the difference between the two scenarios. 

The second at least gets the reader's interest.  The first, well,who cares?

Think about plot and what it takes to make your story come to life. Tension and conflict drive plot. And plot is the heart of your story. Read or reread stories you like; look for the conflict and tension.  Draw the curtain aside and you'll see the bare bones of tension and conflict. 

Write it, or edit down to it and you'll create a memorable tale.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Writers Websites Wednesday - the Story Starter

The Story Starter is a very simple site. Stuck in your writing?  Don't have a clue where to begin?  Here you'll find the 'starter sentence'.  Just click on the bar for any random story starter sentence.  Don't like that one? Then click again and get a new sentence.  There are links here to an additional "story starter for kids" and more.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Who Are You Writing For?

                                                                                                Photo by Donna Weedon

There's so  much information on writing out there, so many helpful tips that it's hard for the new writer to come to grips with what he or she actually needs to do to communicate with their reading audience and create a really engaging, begging-to-be-read novel.

There's no magic answer, no 'simple fix' direction that will get you there if you're in this boat. Should there be a lot of dialog or a little?  Should you write in first person or third person?  Should you introduce a lot of background information immediately or spread it out throughout the length of the book - or both?  Formal language or relaxed?

One of the first major steps to take as a writer is to define for yourself who you're writing the novel, article, script or other work for. In the case of a novel it may well depend on what genre you're writing for. 

You write for a different audience if you write romance rather than western, thriller rather than science fiction, fantasy rather than mainstream.  For an article it makes a difference if you're writing for a woman's magazine, an in-flight magazine or perhaps a kid's magazine. A script?  Well, you're writing for the 'reader' as well as for the agent or studio head who could well get the thing produced.

For purposes of this post let's stick with writing a novel. Whatever you're writing, pause for a moment - maybe two - and think about who's going to be reading your finished work. Do you see your readers as predominantly male or female? Rabid fan of one genre or another, or a reader out there just looking for something interesting who moves between genres? Or is your reader someone who seeks out only tales of adventure or fine literature? 

Do you perceive your reader as older, younger? Try to form an image of your 'average reader' in you head. This is your audience. This is who you're writing for and simply knowing who your reader is should give you a leg up on what you write and how you're writing it.

It will influence the words you choose and how you deliver them. Most of said influence will be unconscious, your inner writer picking up on the signals you're sending to it.  Some will be conscious decisions on how to present your story based on your understanding of who your reader is.

Every writer's style is different and really no one can tell you as the writer how to develop your style. That will come with writing and time, and, I believe, knowing your reader.

Understand from the beginning that not every writer can appeal to every reader. We'd all like to believe our creations will be universally read and loved by all who read them. Untrue. But, we can understand who our readers are and by knowing that, craft our writing to be the very best our readers expect of us.

So think about your story, the mechanics of writing it, the planning and plotting, what you love to write - but don't forget to think about who your readers are and invite them along for the ride.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Writers Websites Wednesday - Holt Uncensored

Patricial Holt is not a manic poster to her blog, but when she does post she tells it exactly like she sees it.  Holt Uncensored is the blog to go to for an outspoken advocate for writers in the publishing industry. You may not always agree, but you'll definitely find it interesting and thought provoking.  She hasn't posted since May of this year so hopefully she's about due to regale us with more publishing/writing rants soon.

Monday, August 16, 2010

When Is Playing God in your Novel a Plotting Mistake?

You are the god of your book, you've created a world and you control the occupants therein, but you can't let your readers know that. It's sort of like the guy behind the curtain in Wizard of Oz - nobody wants to see him. And, in fact, you as the writer really don't want to expose him.

So what am I talking about here? Simple, what I'm saying is, even though you control everything that happens in your novel you don't want to risk alienating your reader; luring that reader in, capturing him or her in your web, then destroying that carefully cultivated reader's trance, causing them to feel betrayed by your obvious solution to a plot tangle or problem. When/if this happens you lose the reader - and then the reader's only hope for revenge upon you the dastardly writer is to close the book, permanently and revile your name.

So to avoid all that you must avoid taking short cuts and introducing the coincidence or handy solution, artificial device or simply injecting god.

Here's an old example:  small troop of cavalry is trapped by Indians. they're insanely outnumbered. The situation is hopeless. The hero is also the Captain of the troop, can't let him die!  So, over the hill with no plausible reason for their presence, rides an entire legion of cavalry to the rescue.

Or another:

The hero is tied to a pier support in the water, left to die with the incoming tide. Water is risiing up past his chin, slapping him in the mouth.  Along comes a boat that's just happened to snap it's moorings, swings around and it's propeller slashes the ropes freeing the hero.  Unless you're writing a parody or emulating Hitchhiker's Guide you simply can't get away with that.

So what do you do to avoid having that suspension of disbelief collapse entirely and have your reading audience slam that book shut? 

Think about your plot and what that plot is. Your plot need to emerge from the motive of your characters, what their goals and desires are, and what stands between them and their ultimate goal. What do the characters in your story have to do to overcome those obstacles and reach their goals or have their desires fulfilled? Your characters are engaged in a struggle and your readers are wrapped up in that struggle.  They aren't going to tolerate some implausible, coincidental force bursting onto the scene to save the day and accomplish what the main character couldn't on his or her own. The main character must win or lose based on the tools you the 'god' of the  novel have already provided.

You must plant the seeds to make the story plausible and hopefully meaningful. No last second cavalry to the rescue.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Writer Websites Wednesday - Publishing Law Center

Now this may seem a bit dry to many, but the info is extensive and necessary.  Publishing Law Center offers quality legal information for the publishing community with articles, copyright info, publishing links and moreEven a free newsletter of you care to subscribe.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rumination: Should Writers Write For Free?

Okay, so today is a day for a bit of writer rumination. So many of us do what we do and go through each day, writing, without thinking much about it, but every once in a while, what we're doing, where we're going, is deserving of some focused consideration.

While considering, it's only logical to ask this question of ourselves, those of us who write, would we write if we didn't get paid?  Are some of us, in fact, writing without pay?

This almost always becomes a touchy subject with some saying we 'have to pay our dues' and writing for free is one of those.  Don't agree with that one  myself - lower pay scale for the beginner, but for free?  Do you know any apprentice electricians or bricklayers who work for free to 'pay their due'? Burger flipper? Doctor? That said, your skill as a writer is a unique one. There might be a time or times when you want to help someone out or dedicate your skills to some charity. And of course it wouldn't look bad on your resume. That's a different ball of wax from simply 'writing for free'.

Now of course for the freelance novelists among us, there's no guarantee you'll be paid for what you're writing. You might. You might even make a whole ton of money along with the other bestsellers. Then again, you may never see publication or a dime. Or you could land somewhere in between those exptremes. That, however, is more a roll of the dice than a conscious decision to write for free. It applies to non-fiction freelancers as well. You may write a fantastic proposal but never see it get picked up so your project dies a quiet death, never getting written beyond the proposal. Article writers, ditto.

We all do some writing to promote our own work, such as blogs like this one, tweets on twitter, facebook, etc. I don't consider any of that as 'free writing' as it has several goals. One is to promote oneself, another is to disseminate information that can be helpful to others.

So where does all this leave us as writers? I advise writers to find more than one venue in which they're comfortable writing. A novelist might do well writing movie reviews for the local paper or ad copy or sales letters for a company. There are also blogs to write for which pay, websites that need content and pay. There are companies and foundations that need newsletters written. As you embark on your writing career you would do well to broaden your horizons, but I've said that before.

So back the original question. Would we write if we didn't get paid. The simple answer for me is, yes, when it comes to novels and screenplays.  I've had a number of novels published and several scripts optioned. But, on the other hand I have a number of scripts which haven't been optioned and novels that haven't found a publisher. Would I write commercially for free, even to 'get credit'? No. Do I take gambles to further my writing career? Yes. Simply writing a novel or script that isn't under contract is a gamble. And, it's your gamble. Writing for someone else, for free who tries to sell you a bill of goods about how it's going to add to your credentials is, in my opinion, cutting your own throat.

You may disagree, and if you do, please feel free to comment, I'd love to hear other takes on the subject.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Writers Websites Wednesday - Script source

Write scripts? Want to read more of them to get a better feel for the craft?  Few sources out there are better than Drew's Script-o-Rama   Screenplays, movie scripts, TV scripts, books on writing, you name it, it's here.  Some you have to pay for - some he'll let you down load free.   
                                                                                photo by Roxana Gonzalez

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Four Writing Tips for Better Dialog

Dialog is a strong and important element in your story telling. It's simply a fact. Dialog helps to move your story along, defines characters, serves in confrontations, and generally adds color and zip to your story.

So, here's the thing, you need strong, tight, and revealing dialog. How to accomplish that?

I'm on a tight schedule today, with a lot to accomplish in addition to this blog post so I'm going to spell it out quickly and tightly; a few tips to get you going.

1. Keep it tight and focused. Hemingway was big on this. He didn't like superfluous chit chat so he got right down to it. Read The Sun Also Rises if you don't believe me. And, as an example:

Jack walked into the room, exhausted, but alert. Plainly something had set him off. He nodded to Helen.
"You want to go for a ride?" he asked.
"No," Helen snapped.
"Why not?"
"Because it would be with you."
"And that's bad because...?"
"It's you."

Okay, tight dialog advances your story and moves it along swiftly. We know here Helen is either angry with Jack who's also ticked off or she just doesn't like him. Jack's maybe trying to score points but to what end? or he's about to kidnap Helen. In this case we see the beginnings of conflict - good! Where it goes depends on your story.

Keep it tight, keep it focused.

2. Speaking of conflict - your dialog can really heat it up. Another example:

Emil vaulted the fence, jogged across the dew-dampened grass and towered over Sam where he lay dazed, sprawled on the ground.
"What the hell did you do to him?"
"Oh, crap," Sam muttered rolling to his knees.
"Tell me! Where is he? You're the only one who would know!"
Sam'd seen Emil going off before, but this was crazy, even by his standards.
"What are you talking about? Who?"

3. When creating scenes with dialog keep your speaker tags to a minimum.

You'll notice in the examples above that there are few 'tags'. There was a 'sam muttered', a 'he asked'. Leave off the more colorful tags unless there is a real hard core reason to use one, or use them very sparingly if you must. Most of the pros usually use simple ones such as 'said, asked, answered' and the like. Your story hinges on the strength of your writing not on multiple, colorful dialog tags.

4. When you create a solid block of dialog that is doing its job you don't need a whole lot of gestures or expressions from your characters. It isn't necessary for them to 'frown,' give an 'amazed stare,' 'pout' or generally gesticulate. Set your scene - you don't need stage direction as in a play - and you're off. Occasionally a bit of 'business' is needed intertwined with the dialog to clarify and move the scene forward, but keep it tight and don't allow the window dressing to overwhelm the exchange between your characters.

That's it for this round - hope you found the tips helpful. Read a few books from the 'greats' in the genre you want to write for. You'll find plenty more examples of what I'm saying here.

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