Thursday, March 09, 2006

Unconquered Plot

I don't really think I conquered plot in class last night. I started to, but I don't think I had enough caffeine in my system to do it justice. (I'm not sure I do now, for that matter.)

What do I want to say about plot? Plot is the action of your story. It's the stuff that happens – although not always the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, whiz-bang moments, but also the revelations, the emotional high points or lows, and the internal reflections of your main character. (Given, of course, that these other things reveal or reflect on "the story.") Plot answers the question what happens next?

Plot is difficult to teach, because in so many ways plotting is instinctual to storytelling. If people tell you don't have a strong plot, it may be because you haven't come to terms with the story you really want to tell. Strong plotters are often people who have taken some time outside of actual writing to consider the questions of: what's at stake here? Whose story am I telling? What do I want to _say_? What is this story about, really?

I think once you know those things, plot happens fairly organically. Provided, of course, you stay true to the character's motivations. I say this, clearly, being a character-driven plot writer. (I teach my classes about idea-driven stories, but really I don't know that much about them. My friend and fellow writer Kelly McCullough is much more skilled with that sort of story than I will ever be.)

That reminds me of something else entirely...

I've been a paperback reader and writer my whole life, so I've been known to get into arguments with certain writers about plot. I believe everything should be in service to plot. In fact, at one point I joked to Walter Hunt at MarsCON that I have "in service to plot" tattooed over my heart. I don't, but I could, because I believe it that strongly.

Don't waste my time wandering down a dark alley unless the scene tells me something fundamentally important about the character. I'm not a big fan of mood, unless it tells me something about the characters or the situation. Travelogueing your way through some crunchy scenery is vaguely annoying to me, unless, again, it tells me something important about the characters or society your building (as it reflect on the story).

Serve the story! Serve it up HOT!

If a scene has nothing to do with the story, why is there? If it has no purpose, cut it.

Okay. Those are my thoughts for today. Off to find caffeine.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Grammar Geekfest or On Having an Omniscient Aneurysm

First of all, I have to totally disagree with Bob when he suggests that there is no authority on _how_ to write. I'm so sorry, but this is one of my biggest bugaboos. I actually got myself kicked out of a writer's critique group for insisting that a sentence is comprised of a subject and a fucking verb. (Not just any verb, mind you, but a fucking one.)

LISTEN: writing is the act of making order out of chaos. I am the Word, ya dig? Order needs laws. Laws must be obeyed – (mostly.)

Traffic laws exist so that people don't ram into each other at seventy-five miles an hour most of the time (people still do, even when they're obeying the law). I will concede that it is possible that without any laws of any kind the universe might not descend into utter chaos. But why ask for trouble?

Bob, I applaud your efforts in taking on Strunk & White (E.B. White, btw, author of Charlotte's Web and the Stuart Little books), but if someone is setting out on the writing journey for the first time, Strunk & White's Elements of Style makes an excellent road map. I never really understood the concept of passive voice until I read Elements. Plus, their examples are funny, not punitive -- unlike, say, most English grammar textbooks. I found them eminently readable. For this alone, I think they are laudable. They made, for me, at least, relearning basic English grammar tolerable, if not actually sort of amusing.

Granted, I still don't understand how to use commas. And anyone looking at my writing as it appears here (and in my professional work) could rightly quibble about my actual grasp on the English language. Clearly, I love the parenthetical phrase over much. However, I try to – at least in my professional writing – write in a way that is understandable to the vast majority of my readers. In order to do that, I use sentence structures that include a subject and (when writing fiction particularly) an active (fucking!) verb. I use omniscient point of view in the way it is most easily understood, which is with an outside narrator who is acting the part of the god's eye view, who is telling a story with insider knowledge, like you might in a fairy tale or a myth. I use words in their form most recognized by the largest percentage of readers -- which is to say I'd prefer to say "ominous" over "portentous" given that most readers recognize the first over the second, unless the plot or style requires one word over the other.

The goal here for me is to be read and understood. And preferably, I'd like to be read by the largest number of readers. Let's just say millions – hell, go all Dan Brown and say tens of millions.

Tens of millions of people aren't going to "get" me if I go all kung fu stylistic on them. If I decide not to use commas most editors are going to assume I'm stupid, not artistic. If I tell them I think Strunk & White is full of crap and I'm going to write however I want, they're likely to say, "Great, except no one understands a flaming word you've written."

I want to be understood. I think great writing is all _about_ being understood. If I can make you, who is so very different than me, understand who I am and where I'm coming from (or even just what I experienced yesterday), then I've performed the miracle of great writing.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

"Plot, What Plot?" or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Outline

The only stories (including novels) that I have ever been able to finish are the ones where I already know the ending.

I don't have to know, chapter by chapter, what's going to happen, but I do need a sense of where I'm going. Science fiction author Joan Vinge once told me in an interview I did with her that the way she conceptulizes the process of novel writing is with the metaphor of a road trip. For her, novel writing is like knowing that you want to go to California with a bunch of friends. You don't know exactly where you're going (San Diego? Sacramento? Oakland?) or what's going to befall you on the trip (flat tire? in-car romances? too much drinking in Alberquerue that ends with a night in the poky?), but you've got your eyes set on California. Thus, there's plenty of wiggle room for that "magic" a lot of writers talk about where their characters do things the author isn't expecting them to, but you still have a goal, an end, in sight. This is exactly how I write.

I find, in fact, the more I've planned out my "trip," if you will, the tighter I write. I'm not a big fan of that bizarro advice often told to novice novel writers which involves colored index cards and a ridiculous amount of time spent organizing and brainstorming. But lately I've written to proposal, which is basically a synopsis of a book not written yet. A good synopsis is a sketch of the important emotional and action highlights, and knowing what those are going to be before I write saves me a lot of useless meandering down the backroads, if you know what I mean. I think of my synopsis as a kind of map to get me where I'm going faster and more efficiently.

Not everybody writes like me, though.

My bottom line feeling about outlines (and index cards for that matter) is that if you're having trouble writing, see if it helps. If you find the process a hinderance, stop. Anything that keeps you from writing is evil. This extends to index cards.

Monday, March 06, 2006

MarsCON: One Fan's Report

MarsCON was held last weekend at the Holiday Inn Select in Bloomington, Minnesota. This year's theme was "Things That Go Bump In the Night." There were a couple of media guests of honor that I should have known, but didn't, and the literary and artist guests of honor were both friends mine, respectively: Walter Hunt (literary GoH) and Beth Hanson (artist GoH).

I went.

Okay, I'm terribly tempted to leave the post like that, but I should probably say something more.

I had a good time, generally.

I was on a BUNCH of panels, probably the best of which was "Van Helsing's Heirs." I got... really rowdy, and ended up leaping up out of my chair at one juncture to make my point.

I blame Walter Hunt. He gave me drugs.

Okay, so the drug in question was caffiene, but still...

I think the best thing about science fiction conventions for me is that they give me a chance to be, in public, really as nerdy and geeky (and as ethusiastically nerdy and geeky) as I am deep in the bowels of my heart of hearts. I mean, if it were more socially acceptable in other venues I have no doubt that I would leap up out of my chair and scream, "You know what drives me crazy about that vampire myth? Huh? Do ya, punk!?" much more often. But, really, SF conventions are the best place to do that because it's at least moderately acceptable, if not somewhat expected.

I'm really bummed I had to miss Sunday morning because Stone Soup Films was screening their full-length vampire film, "Pray for Daylight." I can't say anything about the film, but the screenwriter and the vampire-actor-dude (both of whom I met), were really cool. If you're curious (and I certainly am), check out their teaser page.