Tag Archives: plot structure

Friday Links for Writers: 05.01.15

 

c Elissa Field

c Elissa Field

I am writing this while looking out the window at nodding daffodils after a week spent appreciating the season of spring blooms, driving through 10 east coast states. Apple blossoms, weeping cherries, dogwoods, azaleas, forsythia, Bradford pears, redbud, wild wisteria, and the last bedraggled heads of tulips.

10634351_10100112304388454_1141723537_nNo small deal to me, as this was my first spring back in the northeast after years in South Florida’s tropics.

It’s also been a great week for writing. Two new business writing clients. Writing academic curriculum. Analyzing the structure of recent breakout novels. Celebrating the creativity of my clients and my writing community (including Wordsmith Studio’s continuing anniversary celebrations). And — no offense to all of that, but — most overjoyed by work on my novel. Revision to this story is like discovering hidden doors. This story — the one coming vivid, the writing on a roll, where it dragged when I knew the story was not yet ready — is the one I knew was there all along, so I couldn’t be happier.

My current challenge... or threat.

My current challenge… or threat.

That said, this post marks a return of Friday Links for Writers, which was on hiatus during my winter masters work. This week shares some of my favorite recent reads on process, form, inspiration and publication. As always, let me know in the comments what resounds with you, or what you are currently trying to learn more about. Feel free to share your own links. Have a great writing week!

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Tips for Non-converging Parallel Plot Lines

In a recent workshop, when trying to simplify my narrative to a logline to practice pitching with workshop peers, I realized that one of the complications I was working on is that my novel unfolds in nonlinear, parallel, converging plot lines. While conventional advice tends to steer toward linear lines, there are several different forms for parallel plot lines, in linear and nonlinear forms. This piece takes on one of the more interesting: non-converging (two stories that don’t cross). I share it as much for that discussion as the additional links on other structures.

 496 Words on Writing Flash Prose

Some of my writing friends are kings and queens of writing flash prose, and I can’t help envy them. Envy the crossing of all those finish lines, all those publications come to light. It’s therefore no surprise that I loved this short piece by Rebecca Meacham on Ploughshares’ blog about how she yields flash prose from her novel scraps.

The One Word You Should Probably Add to Twitter Searches

This was one of my favorite pieces on research this week, as Daniel Victor shares some common sense but not obvious advice for honing in on first person sources. The trick isn’t just the word to include, but the simple logic behind it. This was frequently shared by my journo friends.

Done is Better than Perfect

I am sure I’m not alone in appreciating this piece, in which Nanea Hoffman confesses how a need for perfection in her writing has held her back. It’s a great tonic if you need permission to let go and just get something submitted.

Matthew Weiner’s Reassuring Life Advice for Struggling Artists

Close on the heels of that theme, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner reassures emerging artists by pulling back the veil that implies real genius is effortless. The Fast Company essay suggests all masterpieces involved false starts, deletions and revision, saying that “hiding brushstrokes” does a disservice to emerging artists.

Her Stinging Critiques Propel Young Adult Best Sellers

To be on the receiving end of an editorial letter from Julie Strauss-Gabel may sting, but I can’t help think how empowering it would be to work with an editor with such vision. You might know her as the Dutton editor for John Green, whose experiences working with her are shared. In retracing the arc of her career, this is also a fascinating glimpse into the growth of young adult fiction.

This Week in Fiction: Colm Tóibín

I usually try to end with the perspective of one writer. Here, it’s interesting to read Colm Toibin’s observations and creative process as he discusses writing his story, “Sleep” with Deborah Treisman, in the New Yorker.

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How About You?

I love this sign from Atlantic Center for the Arts, which comes on the heels of a sign asking the public not to venture beyond a point where the center is reserved for artists. c Elissa Field

I love this sign from Atlantic Center for the Arts, which comes on the heels of a sign asking the public not to venture beyond a point where the center is reserved for artists. c Elissa Field

What challenges are you working on in your writing this week, or what resources have helped you find clarity toward your goals? We’d love to hear from you — share your thoughts or links in the comments.

Better yet… Have you read my posts for Wordsmith Studio’s 3rd Anniversary Blog Hops? Whether you are a member of the group or not: share your current writing process by responding to interview questions in this week’s blog hop post. Here are links:

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If you like the idea of more blog hops, let me know, as I may host them in the future on this site.

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Writing in Process: Using Alternative Voice to Understand Internal Conflict

Running manOne of the great things about my online writing community is the way we keep each other motivated, often in ways we don’t expect.  Last week, I shared how it had motivated me to re-set my 2014 goals after I shared a brief excerpt of Wake and gotten feedback that pushed me to think, to have confidence and above all, “Keep going.”

My 500 wordsToday’s post is sort of Jeff Goins’ fault, as the day 19 prompt at his 500 words challenge was to write in another voice. So it is I spent the day evaluating a process I have been going through in deepening internal motivation of a novel character.

This post serves as follow up to several novel revision articles posted over the past year. I’ll include the relevant links to individual revision steps for anyone looking for more on the revision process.

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Revision in Process: Internal Motivation of a Main Character

Throughout my series of posts on Novel Revision last summer (this link takes you to all posts on Novel Revision, or find links to individual skills within this post), I revealed how deeply I felt the need to push my main character, Carinne (Revising a Flat Character).

Motivation for the male protagonist, Michael Roonan, was clear from the get-go. He’s killed people; guilt and loss compel his self-castigation. But, in early versions, Carinne’s written motivation was only that she was getting out of a bad marriage and she fell in love with Roonan.

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Truth: as I wrote about in Can Literary Fiction Be Hot, the romantic element is often the most compelling and memorable aspect of fiction that sticks with us.  Still… My gut told me there had to be more to her motivation than “failed marriage” and “he’s hot.”  Kind of lame motivation, right?  Too thin, too predictable, too linear.

Many of my novel revision posts have shared the ways I’ve challenged my own understanding of Carinne and character motivation because, one way or another, my gut told me that I knew something more about her than I had written.  (Did you pick up on that when I distinguished her “written” motivation, above?)  But I needed to go deep to put it into words, and part of that included distancing the character from my own experience.

copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

The eye-opener was in an exercise I completed (October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation), where I kept assessing and re-assessing stakes for the internal conflict of the main characters.  For Carinne, the written stakes were only whether she raised her son alone or if she could get her lover back with her. Then I realized it wasn’t her own stakes that drove her, but those of the little boy, Liam, she had conceived with Roonan.  The driving motivation to go find Roonan had to come from a place beyond romance — she was off to find him so that her son would not grow up without a father.

Along the same time, I wrote last summer that I had come to understand a crucial backstory for Carinne that distances her from myself.

This is something I have not written about, but have felt deeply in the year and a half since a young photojournalist went missing on assignment.  His last tweet — from a birthday celebration with friends — and the pride in photographs he shared in his online portfolio — have stuck with me as an eerie, disembodied voice over the months his parents and sister worked through international channels to discover what happened to him.  As much as the news speaks of military or civilian losses, lost journalists has been a major piece in international affairs of the past 20 years.

The thing with this novel I am writing is, it has to do with why people get involved in violent international affairs. Roonan became a murderer while doing everything he could to avoid involvement in paramilitary activity in his family’s Irish border town. Carinne meets him years after the violence, finding the ghost of the man. A failed marriage is not her motivation; I quickly wrote that out of the early draft.  Carinne came to life for me last summer when I stopped apologizing and making excuses for her and let her behavior be entirely contrary — then let the missing reporter be the loss that drove her chaotic behavior.

True Revision Can be Messy

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

I began last summer’s revision-series with a post titled Work is Messy, Book May Bite.

What a mess new motivation makes of a draft, but slowly the 2 internal storylines have been laying themselves out clearly in parallel to one another, as the external conflict brings the story to resolution that genuinely resounds with meaning, as Carinne unites father and son.  Yeah, okay: it can be romantically hot, too, but the resolution now resounds on a more universal level.

I once watched my stepmother unravel a month’s worth of knitting to correct a missed stitch in a complicated fisherman-knit afghan, and I couldn’t believe the patience and insistence on perfection it took for her to do that.  Taking apart this main character, Carinne, has felt like all that unraveling — pulling the whole novel apart and putting it back together.  But I knew in my gut that it wasn’t “there” yet.  I love the characters and their story, but I just knew that the resolution of an international conflict could not be just romantic happily-ever-after. The little boy was symbolic of something in the opening, and he had to be the core of the resolution, as symbol of something greater for the novel to resound.

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The Work in Process

That’s a lot of thinking out loud.  How does it play out?  One approach that brought me closer to understanding the mother’s motivation was to write scenes from the child’s perspective.

In final revisions, I’ll be deciding between a close-omniscient or alternating third person narrative structure, which means I am not yet sure if I will keep the boy’s voice or just let it inform the mother’s perspective.  But, for the sake of sharing a piece of the writing process, here is the scene I shared at Gae Polisner’s Friday Feedback last week.

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Excerpt from Work in Progress, Where the Wolves Find Us (nicknamed Wake)

Context:  This excerpt is from a rough draft rethinking an opening scene from the son, Liam’s, perspective. The novel opens with the mother (Carinne) finding her son burying something in the back yard. As Carinne is in the process of washing mud from his hands, he asks, essentially for the first time, if his father is dead.  This becomes the inciting event; by the end of the chapter, Carinne is searching for the missing father.  The drafted scene below is from a long riff that came out when I took time to see “life with his mother” from Liam’s perspective. What would he see, hear or feel, growing up with a mother isolated and obsessed with missing people?

His mother’s shoulder was warm against Liam’s back, the water glittering beneath the sink-light as she sudsed his hands. He clapped his hands so bubbles sprayed and he tracked them, her voice murmuring in his ear as each iridescent orb floated up and sideways and down, each at its own rate so that his eyes measured them as if racers toward a finish line. Plik! Hope. Plik! Each popped, no matter he’d resisted the urge to touch them. Each, in its own path, flicked a mini explosion of its membrane and ceased to exist in the vacant spans of light.

Carinne’s voice reached a pitch – Liam’s feet had kicked dishes stacked in the sink – then went silent, replaced by the constant curt voice of men and women from the television playing in the next room. News. Always the news, and he hated it.

He patted suds onto her cheek. She took it as a joke, laughing, her eyes smiling at his.  He hit her again,  harder, wanting it to stop: the man chopping news into his head.  An airport. A warning. A plane stopped along a runway. Heads talking. The plane. More heads. A fire truck.  She would look: study the stream of words at the bottom. Flip three channels forward, pausing on each. Each, more news. Then back.  Even she didn’t care, he could tell. She took in what was happening the same way she studied the noise of trash men arriving for the blue bins or the neighbor’s garage door motor starting: look to the noise, see it for what it was, and disregard it as not affecting them.  But most hours of the day, he could not make her change the channel.  “Just let me see what’s happening overseas,” she would tell him, “Then we’ll change it.”

She corrects him now, “We don’t hit!” gripping his hands together in her own as if for prayer. He twists his head away and pulls his hands. “Hands are not for hitting,” she recites.

He says very quietly, as if to an unseeable friend, “I hate the news.”

She lets go, relieved. The smack makes sense, as it hadn’t a second ago. He leans into her shoulder, his dried hand reaching along the back of her neck to where her hair is softest, her baby again. “I hate it, too,” she says.

She will change the channel, this time, but he doesn’t believe she hates it. The firemen spraying foam on the plane by the runway did not interest her, but other times she has watched the same repeating footage, over and over.  A black uniformed policeman being interviewed in a mist of rain, dark clouds rising behind him.  A white SUV driving between sand-colored buildings in a cloud of dust behind a reporter cloaked with a checkered scarf. Over and over, she might watch these. Study the images to the corners of the screen. Study faces blurred in the background. Over and over. Then flip channels in hope to see the same scene from another angle.  Not notice the stack he’d made of his cars: three tall, now four, his eyes widening, willing them not to topple.  His mother frozen silent, remote clenched in her hand. Sometimes tears. He hated it as she did not. So easily, she could have flipped to another channel. Thomas the Train. Even Dora.

“I hate the men,” he said once.

She had turned away from him like she did when he broke something and she was mad even though she said she wasn’t.  “Never hate the men,” she said.  She left the room, crying and trying to hide it from him, as if these men were her own friends, her family, as the empty house of the two of them showed no sign of.

Have Feedback?

Of course this piece is in draft form and out of context, but constructive feedback is welcome.  I am on the fence whether it is helpful to actually use the child’s voice, as I think it would be tough for a toddler to carry the opening voice of an adult novel. Would you try to use his voice, or just let his insight inform the mother’s POV?  Hmm.

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What About You?

Are you revising fiction this week?  What challenges do you run into or what has worked well for you? If you’ve also been sharing your work or revision strategies, feel free to add your links or comments below.

Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?

For more posts on this site related to character development:

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

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c. Elissa Field

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Friday Links 01.18.13

Welcome to Friday Links for the third week of January. For me, it has been a week busy with the beginning of a new semester, including getting to work on production of my students’ annual literary magazine. I’ve also been thrilled with some of the work coming out on my novel draft, Wake (shared last Saturday, here).

Writing mornings include reading, and here are some of the links I’ve found worth sharing!

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George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year

Deputy Editor of the New York Times Book Review, Joel Lovell, writes a fascinating discussion with George Saunders (“more or less universally regarded as a genius”), which opens with an amazing reflection on the awareness that comes from a recent proximity to death — and wouldn’t it be amazing if we could walk around with that kind of awareness all the time.

Writing About What Haunts Us

Thanks to Gerry Wilson for sharing the link to this New York Times essay by Peter Orner — whose images of confession and truth and ensuing emotion really do haunt. Together with the Saunders interview, these two articles made for a great reading morning.

Breaking Down Story Structure: MORNING GLORY Act One

Thanks go to Sarah Turnbull for sharing this link.  As I drafted Wake, through much of 2012 the posts I shared had to do with developing character. But, at some point, as your novel draft takes shape, what you are looking for is an understanding of the story line, and talk turns to analyzing plot. This link is to Lydia Sharp’s post which demonstrates story structure by breaking the first act of a movie into opening, inciting incident, catalyst, etc. The expression “instinctively preserves her self-concept” perfectly triggered my morning writing, as I closed a gap in understanding of my character’s early motivation.

Creative Writing: A Master Class

Gee, you know what I just did? Subscribed to a series of free masterclasses with Toni Morrison, Nora Ephron, Rita Dove and more, via iTunes! The Creative Writing: A Master Class link takes you to the full list of courses offered via iTunes Academy of Achievement. Each “course” is an audio or video podcast on craft from some of the masters of fiction, poetry and memoir. For me, these are a welcome download for listening in the car or when too tired for reading before sleep, or as a morning warm-up. For a more complete summary: I first read about this in Fordham MFA candidate Josh Jones’ post on Open Culture.

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Going on this month:

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