Category Archives: Writing

View to A Kill: Finding the Best Point-of-View

Sometimes you start a novel and the voice is so clear you don’t have to think about the point-of-view. And sometimes it’s a struggle to figure out how the story should be told, by whom. From the detective’s point-of-view? From the killer’s? Over the victim’s shoulder?

I’ve changed the point-of-view (POV) no less than five times in my current manuscript: first I wrote it in 1st person, then 3rd person, then 1st person, 3rd person, 1st person.  So much switching back and forth, it begs the question of whether the novel works at all. But in the process, I’ve learned a lot about what the different points-of-view can and can’t do.

No, I’m not offering a how-to on choosing the right point-of-view for your work. There are too many factors, most of them dependent on what you want—for the story, for your readers, for yourself.

Instead, I want to share what I’ve learned about point-of-view—what each type gives and what it takes away—in the hope that it will help you if you ever get stuck the way I was.

1st PERSON

 

Authors often divide up between those who prefer writing in 1st person, and those who do best with 3rd person.  Personally, I like 1st person, not just because it’s closer to how people think and talk, but also because it gives me a chance to exercise the frustrated actor inside me. (The one that keeps wanting to do long monologues.)

Use 1st person POV if:

 

  • You need a more dynamic voice. If you’re a good actor, or just have a great ear for the way people speak, narrating your story from the point-of-view of a character can lead you to a richer, more convincing voice.
  • You want sharper descriptions and impressions. In 1st person POV the narrator is a character (maybe unseen, but still a character). That means everything is seen through her/his perspective, and this provides a ready framework for relating scenes, characters, thoughts, emotions. After all, a ball-turret gunner’s description of the ground will be very different from a ballet dancer’s.
  • You need more play or tension. Who or what the narrator is matters in 1st person POV.  He/she can be reliable or unreliable, alive or dead, part of the story or outside the story. It could be a dog or a dragon, a word, even a singularity before the Big Bang. These choices often can turn a familiar story into something original and powerful.

Avoid 1st person POV if:

 

  • You have trouble with a limited perspective. The reader can only see and hear what the narrator sees and hears. If the narrator wasn’t part of an important scene, then you have to find a way to get that information to him/her. Some authors enjoy the challenge. Some hate it.
  • Your main character is too limited. In 1st person POV, if your main character is narrating and he/she is not particularly eloquent, smart or insightful, then your story is going to suffer. Choose your narrator wisely, find ways to make the narrator’s limitations add to the story, or just use a different POV.
  • Your character tends toward suffering and self-examination. Even the worst suffering can sound whiny and annoying when recounted by the sufferer him/herself (as most therapists would tell you, if they could). The challenge is to find ways for the narrator to tell his/her story without sounding too self-absorbed. It’s a tight line, and if you’re having a lot of trouble already, 1st person is not going to make it better.

2nd PERSON

 

WARNING: If you choose this POV, expect agents to reply with “Hey guess what? The 80s called. Jay McInerney wants his novel back.”  Yes, Mr. McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is the most famous example of a novel written in 2nd person—so famous that it’s almost impossible to use this POV anymore. That being said, there are some distinct advantages to the 2nd person POV.

Use 2nd person if:

  • You need a sense of alienation or detachment. Nothing says emotional distance like a character talking about himself as if he’s another person. It could be a serious mental health issue or just someone who’s overly introspective. Either way, 2nd person delivers.
  • You want a wry, witty tone. If the narrator is talking about himself, the 2nd person POV encourages a lot of self-deprecating humor. If the narrator is talking to/about someone else, the POV gives an immediate sense of familiarity—“I know you…”—and all the humor and contempt that comes with that familiarity.
  • You want your character under the microscope. It’s almost a given that beginning a sentence with you means critical observations are about to follow. A good author can use the 2nd person POV to delve deeper into a character’s problems than is possible with a 1st person POV.

Avoid 2nd person if:

  • Your narrator is already unsympathetic. If the narrator sounds too distant and critical, the reader may get turned off. Writing in 2nd person will only make this worse, not better.
  • Your narrator’s humor is off-putting. Wry tone and self-deprecating humor can quickly devolve into annoying sarcasm. Try a different POV if you find yourself falling into this trap.
  • Your narrator is too self-absorbed. A narrator who keeps himself/herself under the microscope will seem self-absorbed. A narrator who keeps someone else under the microscope will sound cruel or obsessed. Either way, you’ve lost your reader. 3rd person is the best remedy for this situation.

3rd PERSON-OMNISCIENT

 

The Victorians loved 3rd person-omniscient! Were they addicted to playing God or just frustrated by the slow progress of voyeuristic technologies like spy-cams and Skype? Who knows. The POV is not as popular now, but it still opens up huge avenues for creativity when it’s done right.

Use 3rd person-omniscient if:

 

  • You need an unlimited perspective. This POV allows you to go inside your characters’ heads, peek into their bedrooms and bathhouses, hover over their dungeons and deathbeds, even lie down in their coffins. And no one will ask how you got there.
  • You want your own voice. This POV allows you to use whatever voice you want. You can sound like someone’s kindly grandmother knitting out a story, you can sound like Henry James dissecting all of society, or you can sound like yourself doing whatever you do.
  • You have a complex chronology. 3rd person-omniscient lets you treat time like a pack of cards. Flip forward, backward, shuffle, spread, deal. You’re not bound by a character’s perspective, and you have the freedom to go back into the past or far ahead into the future—without a souped-up Delorean.

Avoid 3rd person-omniscient if:

 

  • You need more structure and direction. All that freedom in tone, perspective, time, etc. can make it difficult to tell a story. Where do you start? Where do you stop? What kind of voice should you use?  Like the Bound Man, you may find that  too much freedom makes you flop like a fish.
  • You’re easily side-tracked. If you can’t resist a good line or plot twist, this POV could turn your 400 page opus into 20% digression, 30% back-story, 15% sub-sub-plots, and 10% shameless riffing. You can’t just kill all your darlings when writing in 3rd person omniscient. You have to kill their extended families, too.

3rd PERSON-LIMITED

 

The hybrid of the POV world, offering a combination of 1st person structure and 3rd person-omniscient freedom. Hard-core 1st person and 3rd person-omniscient writers will often find the solution to their problems in this POV—maybe because it’s not that big a stretch but different enough that it can transform a story.

Use 3rd person-limited if:

 

  • Your main character feels unsympathetic in 1st or 2nd person. Having someone else relate a character’s troubles to us makes those troubles sound less self-pitying, more genuine. That, in turn, makes the character seem more sympathetic. 3rd person-omniscient will also fix this problem.
  • You want some freedom but not too much. This POV gives you the narrative freedom of 3rd person-omniscient with the guiding limitations of a 1st person perspective. For many writers, it’s a comfortable combination of structure and exploration.
  • You’re a lousy actor but you need a limited POV. A true 1st person narrative requires a good ear for voices. If you don’t have that, but still want a 1st person type perspective, use 3rd person-limited. It’s what it was invented for.

Avoid 3rd person-limited if:

 

  • One of the other POVs works better for you. Sounds obvious, right? But there aren’t any strong reasons to avoid 3rd person-limited. The main question is, Does your novel shine best in this POV, or would 1st, 2nd or 3rd person-omniscient give you the push you need to get beyond adequate?

That’s all I’ve got for now. How about the rest of you?  Got any secrets to share about point-of-view? Which one do you prefer? Which one do you hate?

Originally posted by the author on BeyondTheMargins.com.

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Hunger Games – Victorian Style

I have a confession to make:  I’m addicted to Victorian “hunger games.”  No, I’m not talking about some new infestation of bastardized romance novels, like Pride and Prejudice and Decapitation or Sense and Sensibility and Swordplay. And I’m not referring to little known versions of Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë novels where the heroines are marooned on an island and must eat raw monkey hearts and build canoes out of coconut trees before they can meet the man of their dreams.  (Though that would be a fun read, wouldn’t it?)

I’m talking about the recent wave of Young Adult books featuring Victorian girls and women who live on their own, run their own businesses, disguise themselves as gentlemen or sailors or errand boys, have adventures that would make most Victorian men wet their trousers, and defeat the bad guys time and time again. I’m talking about a particular type of hunger and a particular manner of survival in a time that was far too particular about what women could or could not want.

When I first noticed the growing number of YA novels about young independent women taking on the dinosaurs of the Socio-Mesozoic age, the Inner Pedantic Writer in my head said, “Oh great, just what we need! More romantic fluff for teen and pre-teen girls.” I had to agree.  I mean, isn’t it bad enough that half the YA covers show a girl and boy kissing, or holding hands, or rubbing noses, or, in at least one case, miming a sex act? Have we exhausted the supply of girl-meets-boy stories to the point where we are forced to import them from Victorian England?

After I’d read one or two of these books, though, I realized my Inner Pedantic Writer was wrong. These aren’t bodice-ripper stories for the under-aged. They are serious adventures and mysteries with brave, intelligent heroines. But I did have to wonder: Why were so many writers suddenly eager to plop their heroines down in a time and place where even getting to the scene of a crime takes almost as much imagination and plotting as an entire sci-fi novel?

“Because,” Inner Pedantic Writer answered, “freedom does not make for very exciting stories. If a heroine can be a transgendered bionic clone of Hercule Poirot, have sex wherever and whenever she wants, shoot, stab, karate chop, chainsaw or lightsaber the villains as needed, and even solve crimes in other people’s books—well, what’s left?  Where is the tension going to come from?”

That sounded reasonable. But after a little thought I realized there were two problems with Inner Pedantic Writer’s theory:

1)  It suggested that there are no major obstacles left for women and therefore any story set in modern times has to be dull because all the big issues are gone.  Clearly Pedantic Inner Writer has forgotten The Handmaid’s Tale, Bastard Out of Carolina, Speak, Try to Remember, The Murderer’s Daughters, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and the dozens of other moving, powerful stories about women fighting for life and liberty in modern (or future) times.

2)  It implies that those authors who choose to set their stories in Victorian times are choosing an easy way out. But Inner Pedantic Writer knows that trying to write a mystery—any mystery—is not an easy job. Imagine if you have to figure out how your heroine is going to go out in public alone, how she can take on cases when no one will hire a lady, how she can interview victims and witnesses and criminals when no one will speak to her about such sordid things, and how, once she’s solved the case, she can deliver her findings without anyone knowing what she’s done. It’s like trying to fly a broom through a bonfire.

So, I sent Inner Pedantic Writer off to his room with an armful of books, and while he was gone, I read every Victorian series I could get my hands on.  That’s when I discovered what it is about these books that is so addictive. They aren’t just tales of mystery and romance and adventure. They’re  survival stories. True, the heroine doesn’t have to learn to find food and water on a desert island, or fight for her life in a televised game of kill-or-be-killed. But she has to find a way to be free in a society that does not want her to be free.

This type of “hunger games” has some extra complications: There is no audience or choreography, and there is no final moment of escape or victory. If the heroine fails, she will be raped or killed or, at best, left to die on the streets. If she makes herself too visible, she will be labeled a mad-woman or whore (or both) and locked away or hanged. So all her victories have to be personal and invisible. Her triumphs have to come from being quicker and braver and more cunning than the enemy. And the reward for her heroism is to live one more day as the free and independent spirit she wants to be, rather than the object she’s expected to be.

I can’t think of many stories more inspiring than that.

_______________________________________________

Here are a few of my favorites. Feel free to add to the list, or contribute your own thoughts about the genre.

The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes Mysteries) – Nancy Springer

Enola is the 14-year old sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes.  When their mother vanishes one day, she has two choices:  Enroll in a girl’s boarding school and become a proper lady, as Sherlock and Mycroft want her to do, or run away. She decides to run away and, somewhat by accident, becomes involved in the mystery of a kidnapped boy. Enola not only has to deal with all the usual dangers of Victorian London, she also has to contend with her brilliant brothers, both of whom believe it’s their duty to catch her and send her off to school.

The Ruby in the Smoke (Sally Lockhart Trilogy)  – Philip Pullman

Most people know Philip Pullman for his His Dark Materials series, but before there was The Golden Compass, there was Sally Lockhart—the most realistic of all the Victorian heroines listed here. Sally solves mysteries, but she suffers some very real hardships and tragedies in the process—which only make her triumphs that much more impressive.

A Spy in the House (The Agency Series) – Y.S. Lee

Mary Quinn, a 12 year old orphan and thief, is about to be hanged when a stranger saves her and brings her to a private academy for girls. When Mary turns 17, the headmistresses of the school recruit her for their all female spy group, The Agency, and send her off on her first case: to spy on a wealthy businessman suspected of smuggling. In the process, she enters into a very complicated romantic relationship, and discovers some long-hidden secrets from her past.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce Series) – Alan Bradley

12-year old Flavia de Luce is not technically a Victorian heroine, since she lives in post-WWII rural England. However, her family is landed gentry, and though they’ve fallen on hard times, their lifestyle and attitudes are nearly the same as their Victorian ancestors’, complete with manor house, cook and driver. Also, Flavia’s favorite “playroom” is a perfectly preserved Victorian chemistry lab left behind by her great Uncle Tar.

The Diamond of Drury Lane (Cat Royal Series) – Julia Golding

Also not technically Victorian, as it takes place in the 1790s. But Georgian England had many of the same constrictions as 19th century England, and the dangers the main character faces are nearly identical. An orphan living in a theater in London, Cat Royal accidentally stumbles onto a plot involving a stolen gem, a runaway slave, a political outlaw, and a very nasty boss of the streets.

Sorcery & Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot  – Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Authors Wrede and Stevermer married fantasy to Victorian society to create a nobility based as much on magical prowess as on inheritance. The two cousins, Kate and Cecelia, write to each other about everything from romance to court intrigue, but are eventually caught up in a plot involving a twisted Marquis and an enchanted chocolate pot. Full of humor as well as adventure.

A Great and Terrible Beauty (The Gemma Doyle Trilogy) – Libba Bray

Another marriage of fantasy and Victorian society, but with a touch of horror and the supernatural thrown in.  When 16 year old Gemma’s vision of her mother’s death comes true, she is sent to a girls boarding school with a mysterious burned out wing. At first, she’s snubbed by all the girls, but eventually she forces her way into a clique. As her visions continue, she discovers that she and the other members of her clique can enter a secret realm through her visons.


(This post first appeared on BeyondTheMargins.com)

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The Dead Writer Interviews: Fyodor Dostoevsky

(This post originally appeared on the site, Tagged & Towed.)

At Tagged & Towed, we’re not above chasing down an author or two for some juicy Q&A.  Now, in our continuing effort to push the envelope, think outside the box, and grab any idea that comes our way, we are proud to introduce a new feature:  The Dead Writer Interviews.

Up-close, personal, in-depth, with the kind of perspective you can only get from writers who have passed away, The Dead Writer Interviews will finally bridge that gap between the writing life and the afterlife.  Join us as we unearth vast treasure troves of experience and summon the great mentors of the past.

Today, we are proud to present one of Russia’s greatest writers, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, author of Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and many other thick Penguin Classics.

T&T:  Thank you for speaking with us today, Mr. Dostoevsky.

FD:  Please.  Call me Fyodor.

T&T:  You wrote some of the great masterpieces of Russian literature.  But when did you first realize you wanted to write?

FD:  Da. Is good question.  I have always interests in writing.  At Military Engineering Academy, in St. Petersburg, they give us much study of the mathematics, you know? But—ptui! I spit on mathematics.  It is language of the mind, not the soul.  At academy, I write plays, like Schiller.  You know Friedrich Schiller?  Everyone love Schiller at academy.  But now, not so much.

T&T: Your father was killed by serfs when you were 18, you were sentenced to death for seditious activities when you were 28, you did 4 years hard labor in a penal colony in Siberia, you suffered from epilepsy, you were poor most of your adult life, and your gambling addiction got so bad in later years, your wife had to sell her clothes.  Which of these tragedies would you say influenced your writing the most?

FD:  The wedgies.

T&T:  Wedgies?

FD:  Da.  In penal colony, I am—how you say?—RichieRichovich.  The other prisoners, they are peasants, yes?  So every day, they are giving me the wedgies.  The underpants, they are wool, so there is much chafing.  Now I cannot wear underpants, and in Siberia, no underpants means frostbite.  So when I am writing, is very painful.

T&T:  Well, aside from the wedgies, which event would you say influenced your work most?

FD:  There are two, I think.  First, death of my father.  He was wonderful man!  Okay, so he does not like noise. And when he comes home, he makes us to stand silent and brush flies off of him while he sleeps.  And he drinks too much vodka and becomes angry and violent. But is vodka, you know?  You give vodka to Jesus, and He will turn Last Supper into—how you say?—Last Smackdown.  So, the serfs kill my father, which is very upsetting to me.  Then I write books like The Brothers Karamazov.  Is good book, no?

T&T:  Yes.  Definitely.  I mean, I never actually finished it, but the first hundred pages were great.  But you said there were two events?

FD:  Da. First, father.  Second, putting 1,000 rubles on red instead of black.

T&T:  Really?

FD:  No, no!  I am joking!  Second event is getting—how you say—shot.

T&T:  You mean, when you were in the Petrashevsky Circle.

FD:  Petrashevsky Circle.  Bah!  Is fancy name for stupid twenty-years old drinking expensive wine and talking about utopias. You Americans with all the Emersons and Alcotts and the Fruitlands, you are talking utopias all the time.  But in Tsarist Russia, utopia is living to 30 without getting sent to Siberia.  So ptui!  I spit on utopias.

T&T:  Okay.  So they shot you?

FD:  No, is exaggeration. Tsarist police arrest us, and the Tsar give us sentence to death.  So we are standing in snow, waiting to be shot, and I am thinking, “Blindfold or no blindfold?  How many cigarettes?”  Then a troyka comes thundering into square, and messenger jumps out and shouts, “Stop the shootings!”  He has paper saying we are to be sent to Siberia instead.  So we are saved!  Hooray!  Except you know, is a con, as you Americans say.  Tsar never wants us shot.  Only wants to make us wet our pants and cry like babies so we will never talk utopias again.  Even today, word utopia makes me have to go to bathroom.  (Where?  Down hall to left? Spasibo.)

[Pause]

T&T:  Most of your novels end with the main character embracing Christianity.  Do you consider yourself a Christian writer?

FD [laughing]:  Christian?!  I am sleeping with married womans and secretary and pawning wife’s clothes to do the gamblings.  I am drinking like fish.  I am having characters chop landlady with axe and fall in love with underage prostitute and murder fathers, and you are saying I am Christian writer?  No, no, no!  As I told Lev Nikolaevich [Tolstoy], is only because I have—how you say?—painted myself into corner. In Russia, there are only three fates for troubled peoples:  suicide, murder, and religious salvation.  (Except, you know, in Crime and Punishment—Is good book, no?—prostitute saves Raskolnikov.  But publisher is telling me put in religious savings, too, because—how you say?—focus group is “mixed” about prostitutes.)

Anyway, all my works have “dysfunctional” protagonists.  But American 12-Steps programs and culture of therapy not invented yet, so . . .

T&T:  What advice would you give today’s writers?

FD:  Give up.

T&T:  That doesn’t sound very helpful.

FD:  Oh, I see. Mr. Tags and Tows wants me to be cheerful and supportive and say to Amerikantsy writers on the Twitters and Facebooks and Internets, “Yes, you are special!  Keep writing!  Work and believe in yourselves and the fames and fortunes will fall in your lap.”  I  am supposed to say, “Yes, be family person.  Deal with issues and childhoods, take the medications, see the therapists, do the Downward Dogs; it will all be good.”  No!  It is not all good.  It is all very, very bad.

So this is what I say:  You want to write?  Get shot.  Go to prison. Have large angry peasants give you wedgies every morning.  Drink and gamble and say things on the Internets you will have to apologize for later. Suffer!  Then you will have something to write about.

T&T:  Isn’t that a little bit of a clichée—suffering for your art?

FD:  Is very big clichée.  So is wanting to be writer.  So is having sex and babies and hating telemarketers.  Look, I am dead 130 years and you are digging me up to ask questions, and you are not happy with what I am saying?  You want exciting new things?   Okay, here I give you quote for your Tags & Tows bumper-sticker:  “Writing is like a box of poisoned chocolates.  Without the poison, it is just dessert.”

T&T:  That doesn’t make any sense. No one wants poison.  And everyone likes dessert.

FD: Oh God! Somebody please save me from this product of a decadent American educational system! It’s a metaphor, you idiot! A metaphor!

T&T: Thank you for your time, Mr. Dostoevsky.
______________________________________________

Illustration: Woodcut for “The Idiot” – by Fritz Eichenberg

(This post originally appeared on Beyond The Margins.)

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Book Review: The Murderer’s Daughters

I admit it: When it comes to books, I’m a twelve year old at heart.  Thirteen, max.  So most of what I read comes off the Middle Grade and YA shelves.  Randy Susan Meyers‘ novel, The Murderer’s Daughters, isn’t a YA title, and it’s not likely to end up on the YA shelves anytime soon.  But I wanted to review it anyway.  Why?  Because it’s that good.

Like all smart writers, Meyers has the “gun on the mantle” go off in the first act.  Ten year old Lulu’s father talks her into letting him in the apartment, then murders her mother and tries to kill her six year old sister, Merry.  Daddy goes to jail, Merry recovers, and she and her older sister, unwanted by everyone except one ailing grandmother, eventually end up in an orphanage.

If this were your typical childhood trauma story, Meyers would anchor the girls’ lives in this one event, then link unhappy result after unhappy result until she’d created the traditional Great Chain of Misery.  And sure, there has to be some of that in The Murderer’s Daughters, because what happens is traumatic.  But what raises The Murderer’s Daughters head and shoulders above the pack is that it’s not about how one horrible event ruined the girls’ lives.  It’s about how having parents, family, and home ripped away has set the two sisters on opposite sides of a chasm, and how each, in her own way, is trying to get back to the other.

Lulu ignores the chasm, hoping she can make it disappear.  She won’t visit their father in jail, won’t tell anyone what happened.  She just wants to move on.  Merry sits at the edge of the chasm, helpless.  She visits their father religiously, does whatever it takes to stay close to her sister.  But she’s going nowhere.

Meyers knows a lot about this situation.  As a child, her father did try to kill her mother.  He didn’t succeed, luckily, but his violence left an indelible mark on her and her sister.  Years as a domestic violence counselor also gave her insight into the heart of the chasm:  How a loving father can become a murderer.  The result is a novel with a seamless understanding of everyone involved in the tragedy, and empathy for even the worst of the human heart.

But The Murderer’s Daughters is no slow ride to the bottom.  Meyers, like any great storyteller, knows that if a gun goes off in the first act, there has to be a second one hidden away for the last act.  Hers goes off with a bang (figuratively speaking), and though the scene may feel a little too rushed for some, it worked brilliantly for me.  As the climax of the novel, it did exactly what a climax is supposed to do:  throw up the lights, illuminate everything the characters have been avoiding, and make them choose.

Meyers’ spare but musical prose, her incredible attention to detail and her talent for bringing all five senses to bear in every scene make it hard to believe The Murderer’s Daughters is her first published novel.  What’s even harder to believe is that it took publishers this long to discover her.  If women’s fiction is what’s keeping the publishing world alive these days, The Murderer’s Daughters is one miraculous shot in the arm.

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It Was Fresh When I Started: The Sell-By Date on Inspiration

Many years ago, while driving down Charles Street, in Boston, I had what I call a “speculative vision.” It had rained during the night, and the morning sun glaring off the puddles was casting weak, golden halos around everything. Two men in long woolen coats suddenly passed in front of me, and in the strange morning light, they looked like hunched, wingless birds. That’s when the vision struck: Beacon Hill transformed into a ghetto of crumbled buildings and flooded streets, miles of barbed wire holding in a population of cold, dying bird-people.

Who were these people? How could Beacon Hill become a ghetto? Who would be on the inside and who would be on the outside? Why? These were the questions I had to answer, and since I was writing not long after the Reagan era (yes, I’m that old), the story I created—“Mercy Street”—reflected many of the issues of the time: AIDS, gay rights, religious extremism, conservative activism.

Almost as soon as I finished the story, the ground started to shift under my feet. The Boston Garden, a crumpled heap in my dystopian vision, got turned into the sparkly Fleet Center (now TD Banknorth Garden—yuck). The 93 overpass, meant to sag into the water, got cut up and trucked away during the Big Dig. And the Charles Street Jail, a granite hulk in my story, is now the luxurious Liberty Hotel. The only detail that has stayed faithful to my vision is the flooding of Storrow Drive. But it’s not nearly as often or as deep as I’d like.

The thematic aspects of my story suffered, too. Federal funding for HIV research, better treatment and higher survival rates all made my vision of the future seem more paranoid than speculative. And the shift in the national dialogue on gay and lesbian rights, inching away from “Who cares about a disease that kills gays?” to “Should we allow same sex couples to marry?” has had the same effect on my story as leaving the cap off a bottle of seltzer. Flat. Flavorless. Dead.

Which brings me to my question: What do you do with a story that’s past its expiration date? Can you change the details and recycle the main ingredients? Can you substitute fresh problems for old ones without turning the whole thing into an indigestible mess?

Conventional wisdom says true art is timeless, and I guess that’s mostly true. The Iliad and The Odyssey haven’t lost much of their appeal, despite the fact that no one (except maybe Rick Riordan) has sacrificed anything to a Greek god in over a thousand years. And Jane Austen doesn’t seem to be losing fans, despite the disappearance of nearly all Victorian sense and sensibility.

But what about during the writing process itself? If the shadows of totalitarianism had begun to fade before George Orwell finished 1984, would he have kept going? If the civil rights successes of the 50’s and 60’s had taken place in the 30’s instead, would Richard Wright have kept working on Native Son? Would he have believed Bigger Thomas’s fate was as inevitable as ever? Or would he have begun to doubt the mechanistic vision of racism, poverty, and injustice that drives the novel?

Okay, it’s pretty hard to second-guess the literary greats. And since they are literary greats, we know their ideas passed the “sniff test” right up to the moment of publication, and beyond. But you and I, racing to preserve what we know in a world where everything sprouts and dies faster than the vine over Jonah’s head—we’ve got our work cut out for us.

So it’s worth repeating the question: What do you do with an idea that’s gone past its expiration date? Do you toss it aside and start something new, the way you’d pour old milk down the drain and open a new carton? Or do you do what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years—open that story up now and then, see if there’s a way to turn vinegar back to wine?

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Pumping Up the Plot (Part 2): Plot Sprints & Other Exercises

Yeah, we’ve all done plot exercises, either at workshops or by ourselves.  But what makes these exercises a little different is they’re meant to be done in your head, not on paper.  That’s where your ideas come from, after all, and the more you can work out a story in your head, the stronger your instincts will be when you sit down to write.

Do these exercises with at least one other person (or two, or three, or four, if you got ’em), and don’t spend a lot of time on the details.  Just try to come up with the essential elements.  If you tend towards a particular kind of plot, try to vary your ideas: realistic plots instead of sci-fi; a survival story or quest instead of a love triangle.

1)  PLOT SPRINTS

Start w/ 3 elements:  a character, an object, and a setting.  Come up with the best plot you can using all those elements.

Examples:

Elements: Nun, toaster, airport security.

No plot: Nun going on a trip w/ her favorite toaster.

Okay plot: TSA agent, seeing nun clutching toaster, suspects she is going to blow up plane.

Better plot: Nun bringing toaster for sister’s wedding. In security line, she obsesses to off-duty cop about how awful groom is, how he hits sister, etc. Cop starts to suspect she’s going to kill the groom—with the toaster. But how?

2)  MY BORING DAY

Take the most boring moment of the day. Try to make it exciting or intriguing by adding 1 or 2 sentences.

Examples:

Boring:    I got up, took a shower, clipped my toenails.

Plot 1: I got up, took a shower and was clipping my toenails when it finally hit me:  my daughter is never coming back.

Plot 2:      I got up, took a shower and clipped my toenails. I scooped up the last clumps of hair and my toenail clippings, and put them all in an envelope. “To: My Asshole Ex-Husband.  From: Your Dying Ex-Wife.”

3)  KILLER TOMATO

One person names an animal, person, or object. The other has to figure out what that thing/person wants. The goal is to come up with a desire that suggests tension or action of some kind.

Examples:

What: Tomato

Wants:     “I want to grow bite-sized human heads in a garden and put them in my salad.”

Who: Starbucks barista

Wants:     “I want the lady who orders the venti cappuccino every day to notice I always make a heart shape in the foam.”

4)  WHAT IF?

One of the oldest and best tools for finding a plot. Take an event from your own life or someone else’s (or the news), and ask “What if it had turned out differently?”

Examples:

Event 1: Violent father tries to talk daughter into letting him in the house. Mother calls police. Father arrested.

What If: Daughter lets father in the house. Father kills the mother, but the daughter escapes.

Event 2: Nurses mix up babies in maternity ward. Mistake is discovered, babies returned to their mothers.

What If: Mistake is not discovered for 10 years. One child is living with average suburban family. Other is in abusive religious cult.

5)  SEE THAT GUY?

Pick out a stranger, and construct a plot around him/her.

Examples:

On Ferry: Tall bearded man w/ glasses and bloodshot eyes, clutching heavy bag.

Plot: Has just murdered his landlady. Is going to drop bag w/ murder weapon overboard.

In Taxi: Talkative female cabbie driving like madwoman.

Plot: Escapee from local psychiatric hospital. Kidnaps passengers and drives them to abandoned school-building, where she relives her glory days as a high school teacher.

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Pumping Up the Plot (Part 1): 6 Vital Signs of A Healthy Plot

"Elementary, my dear Watson: We want to pump you up!"

So you’re good at coming up with interesting characters. Or maybe you can describe a freshly mowed lawn right down to the chopped up tennis balls and cut-grass-mixed-with-dog-poop smell. But if all your writing mojo turns to Jello as soon as someone mentions the word “plot,” here’s a little something that might help: the 6 most important vital signs for a healthy plot.

Use this list if you’re struggling to come up with a plot and don’t have a clue where to start. Or use it to double-check an idea for a plot, see if it’s likely to go the distance or leave you stranded.

6 Vital Signs of A Healthy Plot

1. WANT / DESIRE: This is the lifeblood of plot. If you can’t identify what your character wants, you have no plot. If you know intellectually what your character wants, but don’t necessarily feel it, then you might have a plot—but probably not the strongest one.

What you want is to feel in your gut the ache or hunger or desire your character has for a particular person, thing, or course of action. Then you’ve got the beginnings of a great plot.

2. OBSTACLES: Figure out who or what stands in the way of what your character wants. If she/he can get what they want easily, you have no plot. If he/she cannot get it easily, but you’re not quite sure what the obstacle is, then you have a plot, but it’s still too vague. Sharpen and refine until you know exactly what the “wall” is.

3. TENSION: Want + Obstacles = Tension. If you can’t feel the tension, then you haven’t fully identified what your characters want or what the obstacles are. Go back and work on Vital Signs 1 and 2.

4. OPPORTUNITY: Your characters have to believe they can get what they want (even if it’s impossible). Otherwise, they have no reason to act. Make sure you give them some chance (real or imagined) to succeed, even if you snatch it away from them in the end.

5. SURPRISES / CHANGES: Only two types of plots are allowed to unfold in a straight line: boring ones and new ones. Since there are no new plots, and you probably don’t want your story to be boring, you should always be looking for twists and turns, unexpected challenges and surprises as you write. These are the touches that differentiate a simple plot from a complex one, and turn an ordinary novel into a page-turner. (Plus, they can make a story or novel a lot more fun to write.)

6. RESOLUTION: You don’t have to know exactly how your story’s going to end before you write it. And you can have whatever resolution you think is best: positive, negative, neutral, ambiguous, etc. But if you don’t have some kind of feeling for where the character’s want is going to lead him/her, what kinds of futures are possible for that character given his/her desires and the obstacles presented, your plot is going to lose direction.  “Starts out strong, but loses steam”—that’s the epitaph for novels written with no resolution in mind.

NEXT WEEK:  Pumping Up the Plot (Part 2) — 5 Exercises to Boost Your Plot-Writing Mojo

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