Thursday, January 08, 2009

Establishing Structure

Question of the day: I'm wondering how to structure chapters. I DID start from the beginning and kept writing and writing and it's like one long stream of consciousness, sort of like Stephen King's Delores Claiborne. How do you go about structuring that first chapter and the rest to follow?

This is a great question because I think this is very much a learned skill, at least it was for me.

I think it is very, very common for first-time writers (and I say that with no condescension, because, as I said, I dealt with this very situation) to have more stream of consciousness writing than is necessary. In fact, exposition - too much of it - is a big reason why early manuscript go awry. Again, I speak from experience. Good fiction writing really minimizes exposition: you don't tell readers what you're trying to convey; you put your characters in situations in which they're conveying it for you. By considering this every time you write a scene, your chapters and how they unfold start to happen naturally. Let me explain.

I have a few rules when I'm writing a new scene or chapter: every scene has to move the plot forward. I seriously stop and think about this each scene (and long afterward when I consider whether or not I want to keep what I just wrote): are my characters advancing the plot, are they creating new conflict for themselves and others (this is a good thing), are they offering readers information that readers didn't have before? Every single scene you have should meet these criteria; if not, they're filler - think of when you're watching a TV show and thinking, "Ugh, what's the point of this scene, I'm so bored." That's what happens when you plop in those unnecessary moments in a book too: readers get bored.

Another rule is that I try not to have a scene address a stand-alone conflict. What I mean by this is that, even if it's a very small thing, I try to throw in two issues into one scene. This really gives the plot a sense of momentum and keeps the smoking-fast pace because there's never a down moment. For example, I wrote a scene today in Happiest Days in which my character assesses how to cope with the fact that her husband might want to move out of their small town. In mulling over the repercussions with her best friend, I worked in a quick bite about her friend's own marriage - the friend (who is separated) makes a quick comment about something that happened the previous night with her estranged husband. I don't linger over it, there's no need to, but it reminds readers as to what's going on with that plot line, moves the plot line forward, AND is pertinent to my heroine's own situation. Do you see what I mean? Keep as many things in the mix as possible, and your plot will fly by.

Another rule is that I try not to delve into a more than a paragraph or two consecutive of my character's inner-thoughts. This isn't hard and fast rule because sometimes, it's necessary to convey what she's thinking, things that simply CAN'T be conveyed via action - like when she's mulling over a memory and what it means to her - but these inner-thoughts have a way of veering into exposition territory, into telling-not-showing territory, and that's when - BAM -you lose readers because you're not offering any action.

I know that this sounds like a lot. But it does become second nature the more fiction you write.

So how does all of this lead to chapter structure? (I didn't forget your original question?) Well, for me at least, it leads to chapter structure because I'm always considering what action my characters now need to take - how can I keep the conflict going and the momentum moving forward? What's the next situation that they'd find themselves in to resolve their current conflict? It helps, sometimes, if I have sort of a running rotation of plot lines that I need to move forward. If you read TOML, you'll see that I'll address a work conflict, then a conflict with her mother, then a conflict with her boyfriend, etc, and then return to the work situation. (This doesn't happen on an exact rotation, but I never drop one ball for too long because not only will readers think, "Huh? I can't remember what happened so many pages ago!," but juggling these various plots keeps these scenes humming quickly forward.)

I know this was a lot of info, and I hope it makes sense! I think the key is to creating as much action and conflict as possible...and then your characters naturally place themselves in situations to get themselves to a different place...which, voila, is your next chapter.

Does this make sense to anyone??? Or have I confused you even further? I'm sure that others out there map out their chapters in a much more exacting way - care to share?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

New Toys!

Sorry the blog is late going up today...I got a new computer last night and have spent the better part of the evening and the morning getting adjusted. I made the switch from PC to Mac, on the recommendation of so many writer friends, and so far, there are some kinks to work out, but mostly, it's not such a big leap.

But it did get me writers, our computers are really our lifelines. Almost literally. I mean, I spend probably 6 hours a day sitting in front of mine, and I have an entire community of friends and places that I pass those hours with. Writing can be a lonely existence but it doesn't have to be thanks to the internet.

So anyway, I started thinking about what tools and software I can't live without, since I am so tied to this beast. Obviously, Microsoft Word - goes without saying. Ditto my email, since I'm much likelier to email someone these days than actually pick up the phone and chat. (In fact, even though I have an office line, it almost never rings.) Beyond that, I love my Sony digital recorder, which I use for my phone interviews, and I will never be able to live without Napster. As some folks mentioned yesterday, I really try to delve into the heads of my characters...I start to think like them...and music is a BIG way that I do this. I absolutely adore Napster to Go, which gives me the ability to test-drive any and all songs that strike my fancy. (In fact, I didn't realize that I wouldn't be able to use Napster - or upload my Sony files - on a Mac, so I'm installing Parallels, which mimics the Windows application, precisely to have access to these applications. That's how much I love them.)

Other than that? Well, those are probably my can't-live-withouts on a day-to-day basis. But I'm sure that I'm missing out on some really awesome programs or I'd love to hear what yours are to maybe make my day pass a little quicker! (And to have more ways to procrastinate.) :) Any super-fun or handy app suggestions?

Monday, January 05, 2009

Bringing Your Characters to Life

Question of the day: Though I've taken classes with several authors in the past, I'm still learning the finer points of fiction and have a big gap in my knowledge when it comes to creating full, robust characters. How did you go about setting up your characters from the beginning? Did you figure out all of their attributes ahead of time, or did you let them form while you were writing the book?

Great question and particularly applicable to me right now, as I'm on about page 50 of The Happiest Days of My Life and am really focused on making these characters as three-dimensional as possible. I think I develop my characters in two parts: the first is before I put a word on page. Although this book, as well as Time of My Life, are very concept-driven - as in: BIG PLOT - a lot of the plot development, when I conceive the nugget of an idea - revolves around the primary characters. So, for example, when I came up with the idea for TOML, I also obviously had to come up with the character of Jillian, as everything about the book centers around her. Ditto the concept for Happiest Days. It revolves around a woman who might be a little too contended in her life, and without her, the book isn't possible.

So, I start with that skeleton. In the case of Tilly (the protagonist in Happiest Days), I considered her occupation, her marital status, her siblings, how her parents (and their history) shaped her, what her hobbies might be, what her emotional limitations might be, what her weaknesses (and strengths) are. So, that sounds like a lot.

But, I inevitably find as I'm writing that the characters still need to become more full-bodied. The little nuances about people that you really don't understand until you see them in action, if that makes sense. Sort of like if you see all the facets of a blind date on paper, but there are smaller things - but just as important things - that you can't pick up until you meet them out on a date. How they carry themselves, how they react to situations that might surprise you, personal tics that only come out through their story.

I dunno, at the risk of sounding totally lame, the characters, like us, are always a work in progress, and there are always going to be some critics who read the book and think that you didn't do enough with them...but, rest assured, I tried to breathe as much life into them as I could think of. The process becomes easier with every book because I understand how important the small quirks are. If you're stuck, I think it can be really helpful to look around at your friends and family (not that you base characters on them, but still), and consider their tics, their subtleties, and ensure that your characters have them as well.

Just my two cents. How do you guys go about and develop your characters? I'd love to hear!