Friday, 9 September 2011

One Bright Day in the Middle of the Night...

The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.
 ----E. M. Forster

Years ago, while in high school, I decided to learn to crochet. How hard could it be, I figured.

I bought supplies at Woolworth’s—yarn, needles (or were they called hooks?), an instruction book. My yarn was beautiful pastel blue. I envisioned a beautiful shawl, maybe even an afghan.

I hunkered down on the floor in my bedroom. Supplies ready. Adventure on the horizon.

Basic crocheting was pretty easy. Fun. It was the other techniques I couldn’t get the hang of—edges, corners, the critical steps needed to make an actual design.

I just kept going forward, no corners, no turns. Eventually I used up the yarn and had nothing to show for it but a forty-foot-by-six-inch mammoth wool boa constrictor. Discouraged by this monstrosity that I couldn’t even give away as a Christmas present, I never crocheted again.

Believe it not, I have a point to make by sharing my arts and crafts fiasco.

And the point is…

I found writing is pretty much the same as crocheting. One can be a skilled writer, one can be an eloquent writer. But, as Donna Tartt said, Storytelling and elegant style don’t always go hand in hand. And I can tell you, this is true.

First of all, I’m not knocking my writing. My prose has its strengths. I’ve been told my characters have good, strong voice, they are vibrant. Reviewers have commented that I get a lot of bang for the buck with my choice of words—simple but strong. And, no, I’m not boasting. As a writer, I must recognize the good stuff as well as the bad stuff. Those strengths are foundations for story building, and it’s not vain to want to insure your good, strong bricks are in place.

One strength I do NOT have is plotting.

I remember my very first adult attempt at writing.

It was to be the story of Sam and…oh, hell, I don’t even remember the heroine’s name, she was that forgettable. The story was titled Letters to Lola.

It began with words spouting from my mind, not much rhyme or reason, just a vague setting with even vaguer characters.

Reminiscing over Letters to Lola, I realized the damn story had reached seventy-six chapters when I’d finally abandoned it.


Was my writing also destined to be a wooly forty foot muffler?

The story—although it had its merits, it had some potential—had no plot or logic. I was just…writing. Going nowhere. There was a beginning but—like my ill-fated pastel blue shawl—there was no middle, no direction, no end. No course plotted whatsoever. It was one little emotional scenario after another, but no reasoning to any of it. It would have made a wonderful soap opera—a million pages of little unconnected vignettes with no apparent resolution in sight. But, then, I ask: if there is no plot, how COULD there ever be a solution?

At least my first published novella, Candy G, consisted of a beginning, a middle and an end. I cringe at times, even with this book, to see its weaknesses, the holes. Somestimes I re-read some of the scenes and wince, thinking how silly it seems for my character to do this or that. But at least I DID plot a course for it and finished it. It was a struggle, but I did it.

A writer may walk into this craft with natural talent, it may be their destiny, their calling. It can be a gift like drawing or painting. But even drawing and painting have rules. Who knew?

So does writing. I didn’t know that when I began. I honestly thought it was merely a matter of having a talent at word crafting and just….well…writing. Put the pen to the paper and the words would come.

There is the matter of plotting. Fleshing of characters. The prose itself—passive verbs, redundancy, effective description. Hooks. What is a hook? That certain something that draws the reader in from the beginning, that keeps them interested in the story.

This issue came to my attention recently when I became discouraged with my writing. I felt lazy. I could begin a story, I couldn’t finish one. I’d look around me to see my peers announcing new book releases every month, and I became disheartened, glaring at my one lone book on the shelf.

I had to take a close look at WHY I couldn’t finish. And, during a discussion on my authors’ forum, some harsh realities hit me.

A fellow author, upon some brainstorming about an idea I had for my story, analyzed a part of my plot in these words (piecing together fragments from their conversation: I think you're actually creating two big problems for yourself: characters planting a legal briar patch for no logical reason and stacked coincidences…. More problematic is the number of "just so happens" you employ in order to make this unlikely showdown occur……. It starts to look like a hat on a hat on a hat on a hat. Genre fiction can sustain coincidences, but this explosive sleepover has more to do with you wanting drama (as an author) than the way people would act in the situation.

They were right. I was aiming for drama, but—repeating my crocheting catastrophe—I still needed more insight into the complexity of writing, of plotting, of storytelling, of logic.

I came across this quote (author unknown), and it…well, it was me: One bright day in the middle of night two dead boys rose to fight. Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot one another. A deaf policeman heard the noise, and saved the lives of the two dead boys. If you don't believe this lie is true, ask the blind man, he saw it too.

In that one silly little ditty was my writing experience in a nutshell.

Part of me is discouraged. I can’t plot. I can’t crochet. But the other part of me—the part who yearns to write, who doesn’t want to repeat the afghan that ate Tokyo—is ecstatic because this obstacle standing in my way of creating a complete story is learnable. It is not out of reach. It is only a matter of desire to make the hurdle. And I have the desire. I’m going to do it.

But do not ask me to crochet you for an afghan for Christmas.


Unknown said...

funny! well said. I tend to write characters first, then the story flows from them. keep up the great work. this is a BEAUTIFUL site, btw.

elizabeth noble said...

The afghan that ate Tokyo. LOL! That's great. What a great article.

I personally start with a "what if" sort of plot idea or a scene idea. Then before I start I know how it ends and write to get to that end.

Backasswards much? Yeah, probably, but it works for me.


LaviniaLewis said...

Great post Carol! I have to say, I can see a lot of myself in those words. I've been writing my entire life but only finished something for the first time just last year. And the first thing I finished, I published. That is very frustrating in a way because I feel I could have been making a living from writing for all these years had I learned the skill of plotting.

My laptop and bookshelves are littered with manuscripts I started but never finished because I ran out of steam, and the reason for that? I had no clear goal in sight, no plot.

I guess what I'm trying to say is you are not alone. I think you'll find that many of us writers have the same problem, but I'm learning how to overcome it and so will you.

What seems to work for me now when I get an idea for a new novel, is to sit down and write the blurb before I do anything else, just as if I were sending it to a publisher for a completed novel. That way, before you even start writing you know the lead characters names, their goals, their motivations and you have your hook. We already know that there is going to be a HEA or HFN so we know, roughly how the story is going to end. When you have all that in place, then you start writing.

I know that writing long outlines and planning each chapter and each scene in detail works for some authors, but I tried that once and it didn't work for me. I couldn't stick to it. As I wrote, my story veered off in a different direction than I'd planned. But it might be worth a try for you.

The important thing I feel, is to try as many different ways of plotting and planning your novel as you can until you find out what exactly does work for you.

And don't beat yourself up over it, plotting, like the writing itself is a craft and the more you do it the better you'll get. Then you'll be turning out a novel every couple of months like everyone else. :)

Karenna Colcroft said...

I tend to have plots before characters (though sometimes the characters show up first--like Kyle Slidell, who continues to try to boss me around...), but plotting definitely isn't easy. Even when I have the basic gist of the plot in mind, sometimes getting from beginning to end leaves me with holes and loose ends. To use an analogy similar to Carol's, it looks like the scarf I tried to knit my boyfriend for Christmas when I was 13.

Fortunately, stories are easier to revise than scarves...

Carol, I read Candy G, and I think you did a wonderful job with the plotting. And I'm sure that you will only continue to improve as you go.

Toni V.S. said...

Great post! I've fallen into that same trap many a time and twice had to abandon my project as a novel, and revise it into a short story. As for the afghan, I solved that problem by crocheting several lengthy strips and sewing them together. It made the prettiest comforter you ever saw!

Want to say your title for this piece was what caught my eye. I haven't heard that little ditty in years!

LJ Garland said...

What a wonderful and honest post. You are an awesome author and you pen gorgeous prose. I'd love to see that forty-foot You still got it?
You've proven you can create a story without it becoming a forty-foot boa. You made the turns and created a beautiful afghan of prose that readers want to sunggle up with. Check out how you constructed the last one and grab more yarn!
HUGS! :0)

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

You've nailed it! And like any captivated writer, you'll write and write and write and grow a little each time. That's what is so exciting. Who knows where the love of writing will take you.

Another very excellent post!

Sarah Ballance said...

LMAO! I don't think you give yourself enough plotting credit. If anything, you're OVERLY ambitious! It's just a matter of honing those skills you already have, and you definitely HAVE them. ;c)

C. Zampa said...

Welcome and thank you, Liz! I, too, start with the characters and then it seems to flow. It just works best for me that way, to envision them before anything else.

But then they take off and forget they don't have a strong plot! LOL....

C. Zampa said...

Welcome, Elizabeth! You know, I've known many writers who start with an ending and go backwards. And I SO can see the logic in that!

I've never actually written the end first, but it is such a good idea, I'd like to try it!

C. Zampa said...

OMG, you are just like me! Exactly! I, too, had been writing long before I ever submitted anything. And, I, too, have all those manuscripts unfinished.

But, hey, at least we DO have lots of stories laying around which we just might turn into published works one day.

So good to see you!

C. Zampa said...

Hi, Karenna!
So you've had the story of a knitting project gone wrong, too! LOL...

I wish I could think of a plot first. Well, actually, I DO try that every time, but...well, you know my story. LOL...

And thank you for your kind words about Candy G.

C. Zampa said...

Toni! Hello and welcome!

Where, oh, where were you when I was crocheting? You could have told me about the sewing the stips together! You were thinking, I wasn't! LOL...

And thank you for sharing, for me to know I'm not alone in this frustrating plot issue.

C. Zampa said...

Oh, Laura, I want to print out your words and hang them above my desk.
Thank you so much, my friend. For your tremendous help--always--and for your continued faith in me.
They are both PRICELESS and so are you, lady! Hugs!

C. Zampa said...

Oh, Joylene!
You were one of the first persons to ever read my early work. And you know exactly what I'm talking about! LOL...
But you were also one of the very first to steer me into the beginning, middle and end of a story, and their extreme importance.
I'll always appreciate that, more than you can ever know.

C. Zampa said...

Sarah B., you know very well about my lament! LOL...You have to hear me whine enough!

You even told me that I DO have plots, I have them coming out my ears! And I said, yes, but I try to put them all in one story! LOL...

I'm getting there...sigh!


Anonymous said...

Great post ---loved the honesty in this! And LOL on the learning to crochet! I was bed-ridden for 33 days in a hospital and thought Id try my hand at crocheting too. Like you, the basic steps were easy. But the scary product I produced after hours of trying wasnt something that Id willingly give to anyone! LOL!

Anyhoo! Enjoyed your post and wishing you future success!

hugs, Kari Thomas,

C. Zampa said...

Welcome, Kari!
Oh, you, too, with the crochet experience! LOL.

Thirty-three days! OMG...well, at least, even if the crocheting wasn't successful, it kept your hands and mind busy!

Thank you for visiting!

Cassie Exline said...

Well I was going to ask you to crochet an afghan, but I won't. lol Great post. You've got it going on, Carol, very much so. I need to learn from you and work on that word count every day. Hugs

C. Zampa said...

You mean wordage from me, Casssie, as in my 76 chapter novel? LOL.

Daily word cound is hard, isn't it? Grrr...

Hugs to you, too, and so good to see you!

Sarah J. McNeal said...

I loved the way you put humor into a serious topic. A very interesting subject.
I'm a plotter. I start with a story concept (a what if scenerio)and write the theme such as "love conquers all" or "good vs evil." I write the synopsis first. Mostly because I hate to write a synopsis but the synopsis IS the plot or the outline. Doing the plot first helps me work out the kinks in the story line and give the story strength. It also helps me keep on track when I start to veer off on some tangent. If I change something in the story, I change it on the synopsis. It certainly makes life easier when I submit.
I have had episodes of writer's block. It was never about the lack of a story idea or plot but more about the lack of my self-confidence.
My only crochet project was a pair of bedroom slippers. One was twice as big as the other.
I wish you the very best. Great blog.

C. Zampa said...

How nice to meet you, Sarah M!
I LOVE, LOVE your idea of doing the synopsis first. I'd heard one other person say that before, and thought at the time what a fantastic idea that was!

And how hilarious about the slippers! I do not feels so bad now!

Again, nice to meet you and thank you for visiting!

Unknown said...

I suck at plotting, which is one reason I took years to try to write crime fiction. Even now, with my latest WIP I started out with nothing but asset of characters from a previous historical that my agent now wanted a sequel to. I knew they had gone west at the end of book one but then what. Well west in the late 1800s meant cowboys and into early 1900 Hollywood. Hollywood has always had a love affair with cowboys so bingo, my main character is going to become a cowboy star.
But none of that is a plot. I'm afraid my solution to that is sit down and start writing. The story changes constantly, like a snake in a maze until even I don't always know where it's going but somehow I always seem to get there. :-)

Damon Suede said...

Heeeyyy. :) I think I recognize something there. LOLOL

Great post, C. And I LOVE the crochet analogy.

C. Zampa said...

Pat Brown, in a million years, I would never dream that you have trouble plotting! But it encourages me in the oddest know you do because your plots are perfection. They are so well put together, they seem flawless and, above all, effortless.

Thank you for sharing that.

C. Zampa said...

Uh-oh, Damon Suede, I'm busted..LOL!

But you just never know when your words are going to have that needed impact on someone who needs to hear exactly what you have to say.

Do you know that I saved your comments and have used them constantly as a valuable reminder of consciousness of where I'm going with my story telling. Your words were priceless and have gotten much mileage with me.

Thanks for them!