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Friday, January 23, 2015

Common Plotting Problems and their Solutions

Scenes that just don’t work, uncooperative characters, plots that take a wrong turn...what's a writer to do? Any of these situations is enough to make a writer be tempted to toss their manuscript aside.  Yet, many common plotting problems can be remedied by a little thought and revision.  Here are some suggested solutions.

When The Next Scene Doesn’t Work

Many writers do not know until they begin the actual writing that a certain scene or planned event just isn’t going to work.  The idea for the scene may sound fine in the plot outline, but in the actual writing it may backfire because the author hasn’t thoroughly thought it through. 

For example, Mike sees an employee steal something at work. The employee  begs him not to tell.  What is Mike going to do next?  The plan was to have him turn the employee in, but that seems too simple a resolution.    

 Solution: Try alternatives.  Pull the plot along by making two or three rows of different scenarios.  Each different choice produces a different outcome.  Mike tells the boss, but the employee turns the tables and accuses Mike of the theft; Mike is tempted to blackmail the employee with his knowledge; the employee threatens Mike and says if he tells he’ll get even.

Writers must keep thinking up alternatives until the right one comes along.  When stuck on a particular scene, it sometimes helps the author to take a break or sleep on it. Sometimes the subconscious mind will work overnight and right path will appear clear in the morning.

The Characters Won’t Cooperate

The writer has decided that Joe, a minor character, is going to get into a fatal accident in Chapter 9, but Joe has other plans.  He refuses to die or be written out of the story.     

Solution: An author should always listen to the characters when they speak.  They usually are trying to tell something important.  The subconscious mind often works in strange ways.  When an event feels wrong, the writer shouldn’t be afraid to explore alternatives.  Maybe Joe doesn’t die but everyone thinks he’s dead. An alternate course of action, something unexpected, might deepen the plot.

The Plot Takes a Wrong Turn Somewhere

Many writers think they have their plot pinned down to the last twist and curve, only to find in the actual writing that the entire structure has fallen like a house of cards.  Not only doesn’t the next scene work, the entire book is unsatisfying and doesn’t come to any good conclusion.

Solution:  There is something wrong with the plot structure.  The author must go back and find the place where it went wrong and takes steps to remedy it.  First, the author should take some time off to distance himself from the manuscript.  Identifying the place where the book veers away from its best course is often easier to find after some time has passed.  Reviewing the story's key events can be of help in determining whether the novel has enough goals and conflict, and if they fall in the right place. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Best Known and Most Familiar Quotes about Writing

Write What You Know, Kill your Darlings, are oft-quoted sayings about writing.  But where did these quotes originate and should they actually be applied?  We've gathered up some information about them below. 

Write What You Know

These might be the most quoted, misquoted and misunderstood words ever uttered about writing. Still, Write what you know may well be the first words aspiring authors hear from teachers, friends and other writers.

Who said them first? Who knows?  Though there are similar quotes, the origin of the quote, write what you know in its purest form has been lost.  And it may be a good thing. In the words of P. J. O’Rourke, Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words "Write what you know" is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don't. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad , how much combat do you think he saw?

In any event, write what you know has become a cliché.  It is open to many interpretations.  Some take literally-- to mean that you should not write about things you have not personally experienced.  Others interpret it to mean you should write about what you love, what you care about.  In the words of Valerie Sherwood,  Don’t write what you know—what you know may bore you, and thus bore your readers. Write about what interests you—and interests you deeply—and your readers will catch fire at your words."

Kill your Darlings

This quote is most often attributed to William Faulkner (1897-1962), though it has also been attributed to Mark Twain (1835-1919).  Probably both of them said and practiced it. So what does it mean?  Many misinterpret kill your darlings to mean one should strike out any fine passage.  Kill your darling” doesn’t mean a writer should murder the muse or throw out fine writing.  However, every writer has “darlings”, little anecdotes or bits of wisdom they would like to stuff into their current work even though they know the passage doesn’t quite fit.  If a witty phrase or observation fits, use it, if it doesn’t add to the overall purpose of the novel you are writing, then it should cast aside.  What it means in a nutshell: cut the bull.

The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

This quote is attributed to Mary Heaton Vorse (1874-1966), though there are many variations.  Author Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) said, The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair.  Same difference.  The meaning is perfectly clear.  If a person does not go about the task of writing and do it often, the book will never get written.  (I once heard a variation of this quotation as apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and when you get up twenty years later you’ll be a writer)  As Thomas Edison said, Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

Other Quotes that Commonly Appear in How to Write Books

 Writing is like prostitution.  First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends and then for money.

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.  Anton Chekov  

There are three rules for writing a novel.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
William Somerset Maugham

Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until a drop of blood forms on your forehead.
Douglas Adams

Everything stinks till it's finished.
Dr. Seuss

For more writing tips, check out our book on writing:  Fiction: From Writing to Publication.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Don’t go in the Cellar—Why do Characters take Foolish Risks?

We’ve all read the passage--the heroine is home alone when she hears a strange noise coming from the depths of the house.  What could it be?  The reader holds a breath silently praying, don’t go down there.  So what does our heroine do?  Call 911?  No.  Get help? No.  She heads right for the cellar stairs and goes down, often calling out in a loud and frightened voice, “Is anyone there?”
Does the heroine expect a serial killer/burglar/monster to reply “Just me?”  What would she do if there was an answer from below?
Here are examples of some hare-brained decisions that characters often make in books and movies:
***Go down the cellar steps, or into the basement or out into an empty yard after hearing an ominous noise.
***Walking in the direction from which they just heard a suspicious gunshot.
***Keep on walking after hearing footsteps behind them, dogging their path, when they could easily get to safety.
***Take a bath after receiving a threatening phone call. 
***Find an opportunity to make love while on the run with vampires/ the police/a serial killer in close proximity.
***Keep searching for a serial killer after discovering a fresh corpse or a suspicious-looking bag of bones in a house, park, or other secluded place.
***Enter a cave or other dark place unarmed and alone when there are rumors a killer, monster or vampire is present.
In certain genres, such as suspense, gothic romance, and horror, a little foolish risk-taking is expected.  In my above example, how else is the author going to get the heroine in jeopardy? If she doesn’t go down into the cellar, if she calls the police instead, the story is dead in the water.
When faced with this dilemma, authors should try to make the protagonist’s decision as rational as possible so that a potentially dangerous situation doesn’t leave the reader in stitches.

If the writer can make the reader understand the whys of it, they will be more likely to forgive a character for making an impulsive decision. How can a writer accomplish this?  Maybe the protagonist doesn’t trust the police, maybe their fearlessness is a character flaw that often gets them into trouble. While protagonists must often venture into dark and dangerous places, their actions should be justifiable and make as much sense to the reader as possible.