Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Don't Get Off the Boat

Books are about feelings. We introduce the readers to certain characters and situations to make them feel a certain way. Different kinds of books give different feelings, which is good, because everyone has a slightly different taste in feelings. This is why different people like different genres.

One of my very favorite feelings to get from books is a boat feeling. I love those books where the plot happens in a confined space far, far away from civilization. I love the delicate balance of authority the captain has. I love the potential for mutiny, whether we're on the captain's side or whether he's the villain. I love the feeling that the entire world that matters is as small as a boat. So, when I randomly pulled a book off of the public library shelf--on the grounds that it had a dragon on the cover--and turned to the first page, I was delighted to find that it was a boat book. I checked it out and hurriedly finished the book I was currently reading so I could start this one. But after about twenty pages, I was much less interested. Where the book started as a boat book, it became quite apparent that it was not going to continue as such. As soon as the main character gets to land, he's going to start a new life training a newly hatched dragon.

I am now deeply disappointed. Not that there's anything wrong with dragon-training stories. Dragon-training stories have fantastic feelings. But if I'd known I was picking up a dragon-training story, I would have thought about it a little differently. And now I'm not sure whether or not I can trust this author, since she switched the story type on me like that. It's good, so I'll still read it. I'm just not so excited about it.

I was thinking about my sudden lack of interest in the book, and I realized that this has happened before. A book starts out as a boat book and a little while in, the characters get off the boat and start having the plot on land. And I always either stop reading or end up disappointed in some way.

When you start a story, you're setting a tone. The first page should give you the same kind of feelings that the book gives you overall. The first scene of a story should have something to do with the main theme. The first hundred pages should be consistent with the second hundred pages. We don't put corn flakes in cans and label them green beans. When you package your story as something it's not, your audience can't find you. If I had happened to hate boat books, but love dragon-training books, I might have put this one down after the first page.

If you start with an intense magical battle, don't give me a story about elementary school kids. If you spend half a book in an entirely realistic world, don't have the martians land or the neighbors turn out to be vampires. And if you're going start in the middle of the ocean with nothing between you and the waves but a few planks of wood, by all means, don't get off the boat.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Write Space

I'm reading, "Imagine: How Creativity Works," by Jonah Lehrer. One of the key ingredients in creativity, according to him, is being part of a creative community. Pixar movies are awesome not just because of the talent at their studio, but because of the way they encourage their employees to work together. On the ground floor they have a huge open lobby with a breakfast cereal bar, an espresso bar, and I think I remember a video game room and a ping-pong table (my brother works there, I've had a tour). In spite of all these cushy amenities, the Pixar team works very, very hard and they've produced some of the best animated pictures of the last two decades. According to this book I'm reading, that's because people get their best ideas, and the impetus to make those ideas into reality, when hanging out with other creative people.

So now I'm envisioning my perfect writing space. It is no longer an isolated nook cut off from the rest of the world. No, it's a teeming hive of writing activity. I'd find dozens of dedicated writers from all sorts of genres to come and join me. We would each have a comfy little office with a nice computer and a window. The central lobby becomes our hang-out area with couches, tables, chairs, a big-screen TV, and lots of snacks and drinks. The walls are covered with art, especially book cover art, and white-boards. Plenty of white-boards. Everyone is encouraged to come out of their cubicle whenever they need a break and bounce ideas off anyone else who happens to be there.We'd hold workshops and classes right there in our own space, invite other writers we admire to come hang out with us, and go on field trips to crazy places just to get the creativity flowing.

We would write some of the most awesome books in the world.

Who's with me?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

I *Love* Outlining

In my early days of writing, stories were unintentional things. I would hear characters chatting in my head until something they said intrigued me, and then I would build a scene around it. Why did they say that? Where are they? How did they get there? Who is that anyway? Slowly, the scenes that cloaked these bits of internal dialog would string themselves together into a sort of sequence. The missing scenes would begin to fill themselves in. At last I would have something that vaguely resembled... well, a... um...

Okay, this turned out, for me, NOT to be a great way to construct the kind of intricate, tight-meshed, all-the-gears-ticking-perfectly plot I like best.

When I complained about this problem, my husband suggested that rather than trying to use the random things my brain burbles up and make them fit into a story, I should make the story first. When my internal characters play out random scenes, then I could decide whether or not it fits and where it should go. The story was a blueprint, a plan, a scaffold, an armature. The scenes were lumps of clay that could be molded onto that armature, creating not some kind of free-form blob, but something intentional.

But that was called outlining. Ugh. It sounded like too much work and not much fun. Outline a story? When I could be drafting scenes?

I decided to try it anyways.

First I picked a story template. The one I like to use is from a lecture given by Dan Wells, the Seven Point Story Structure, which I've already blogged about here. Another popular one is Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet from the "Save the Cat" website. Once I had chosen my template, I decided on two main plots and three subplots. Then I made a five-by-seven table in my word processor and started filling in the empty squares with the major points in each of the plots. Usually I do this after I write the first draft, but it was surprisingly fun to do it BEFORE.

Once I had all the plot points in place, I began to create scenes. I tried to make sure that each scene contained a major point in at least one of the plot lines. More than one was better. I didn't do this all in one sitting, but instead spent a couple of weeks on it. As I worked, I began to see better ways to order the scenes. There were even a few scenes that I could combine with others, or completely cut out! And the beautiful thing was, there was no prose to sacrifice. It was completely painless to say, "Eh, don't need that. Out it goes."

So now I have all my scenes planned out, and all I have left to do, as my daughter says, is to "illustrate the scenes with words." Will the story be stronger this time? The burning need to know the answer to that question should keep me typing to the last. I'll let you know how it goes.