I’m once again participating in Camp NaNoWriMo. Camp is different than the full-fledged National Novel Writing Month in that the word count goal is set by each participant, folks frequently use camp to edit an existing work rather than write new, and the camp website supports small private chat groups called “cabins.” The best part of either project, IMHO, is having a mechanism to publish your daily word count totals, and have friends to encourage you.
At least those are good things for me. I am more productive when there are people I have promised certain things (completed stories, word counts, edits, et cetera). I’m also someone who loves getting in a race with someone on word count, if they’re into that. That doesn’t always work for everyone.
But writing buddies and cabin mates are a good way to have folks to consult with or just get encouragement from or give it to. That’s another thing I find that motivates me: getting to encourage other people and congratulate them on milestones improves my mood considerably. And sometimes when you’re trapped deep in seemingly irresolvable plotholes, anything to perk my mood up is great!
So, that’s what is happening here. If you’re doing Camp NaNoWriMo, especially if you’re interested in joining my Cabin, leave a comment here, or send me a message on twitter, or send me an email with the Contact Me page here—or if you already have another way to ping me use that.
Let’s get writing!
Then I read the story aloud to my monthly writers’ group.
I honestly don’t remember much of the critique I got from the group that night. And truth be told, I didn’t read everything I’d written. I only read the opening scene, and by the time I reached the end of the scene, I already knew that the story was a disaster. Part of it was the nonverbal reaction of the group, yes, but that wasn’t what killed the story for me. No, just hearing it aloud in my own voice revealed that it was an awful opening to an unpleasant story.
The character was in a very unpleasant situation, but that’s not what I mean when I say it was an unpleasant story. I mean that it was unpleasant to read the scene that I’d written. And I knew the rest of them suffered the same problem. I had picked the wrong place to start the story, and I was fairly certain that while my new character was interesting, she shouldn’t be the viewpoint character for this particular story. She might still be the protagonist, but she wasn’t the person who should narrate this particular tale.
And I learned all of that before any of the other writers in the group said a word. Just from the act of reading it aloud.
It’s advice I have received for as long as I can remember. Back when I was a grade-school student haunting the library’s magazine collection reading back issues of The Writer and Writer’s Digest I saw the advice again and again: read the story aloud to yourself before you show it to other people. It’s advice I’ve given many times. But I don’t always follow it. That particular story I really should have.
Reading it aloud, either to yourself or an audience, will expose awkward sentences at a minimum. There are all sorts of sentences you can write that make perfect sense, follow the rules of grammar and so forth, but when you try to say them out loud, your tongue trips on them. That’s why I always have a pencil or other writing implement in my hand when I read aloud, so I can circle the places I stumble over awkward phrasing.
But that isn’t the only thing you learn reading it aloud. There are numerous studies that show, for instance, the act of simply speaking about a problem you’ve been worrying about makes you think of it in a new light. Neurologically, they say, that’s because different parts of the brain interact differently. It’s not just the act of putting a problem into words, it appears to also be the fact that as you listen to yourself speak, different areas of the brain react differently than when you contemplate a problem in silence.
That process doesn’t just apply to solving real world problems, obviously. Listening to your story aloud makes you process it differently than reading it silently.
Reading it aloud to someone else brings in a different level of information, much of it non-verbal as I alluded to above. Your listeners may fidget, or become distracted, for instance. You’re not holding their attention. You’ll get other cues, as well.
That particular tale was re-written substantially several times, though I didn’t bring each draft back to the group. I tried telling the story from the points of view of three different supporting characters before I found the right viewpoint character and the right starting point. The fourth version, when it was read, got very positive responses. And eventually was published, and I got a few compliments from readers of the ‘zine.
The key to realizing my approach was wrong was to simply read the opening scene aloud–advice I have tried to follow much more faithfully ever since.
So I write it down (or as much as I can) and see if I can keep the conversation going. If I don’t know who some or all of the characters are, I try to figure out who they are. I ask myself why they are talking about this interesting thing? What is at stake? Why does each person in this conversation care?
Notice that I haven’t yet asked ‘What happens next?’ Some people operate under the mistaken notion that the plot of a story (play, movie, series, whatever form your story takes) is what happens—this happens, then this, and then this guy does that, then she does this, then another thing happens, et cetera.
Nope. Plot is a problem, obstacle, or riddle that confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end of the story, and forms the connection between all of the events in between. Plot can be described as the blow-by-blow style of the action of the story, but getting all those actions in order generally follows long after figuring out the central conflict.
So at this stage, I’m trying to find that problem or conflict that will drive the story. That means I’m also still trying to figure out who’s my protagonist(s). You might think that as soon as I figure out one, I’ll know the other, and generally that’s true, but a single problem/obstacle/mystery can confront mulitple people, who all have to deal with it. So finding the right protagonist for your tale among the involved characters can be a challenge.
One of my favorite examples of a conflict that can have more than one protagonist is illustrated wonderfully in two middle-grade books by Mary Stolz: A Dog on Barkham Street and The Bully of Barkham Street. In the first book, the protagonist, Edward, would love to be free of the constant bullying of Martin, another boy who lives on his street. Edward also would really love to have a dog of his own, and is a bit jealous that other boys who have dogs. The second book happens at exactly the same time, and for the most part involves the same series of events, but Martin is the progagonist who has no friends and constantly tried to prove that this doesn’t bother him by picking on others.
Some times it takes a really long time for me to sort out the plot and protagonist. Years ago I had an idea for a story set in the sci fi shared universe of the Tai-Pan Literary & Arts Project. I knew who all the involved characters were and I knew what the problem was. And I thought I knew who the protagonist was. So I wrote about half of the story and read what I had at the monthly writers’ meeting. I wasn’t even halfway through the opening scene before I knew I had it all wrong. Reading the scene aloud for the first time told me that I was approaching it wrong, but also feeling the energy in the room, as some people fidgeting and others started scribbling down critiques made it clear this wasn’t the compelling story I thought it was.
I tried starting the story at a slightly different place. But when I read that over to myself, I knew it was still wrong. So I set the story aside for a few months and worked on other stories, instead. Some time later I tried writing it from a different character’s viewpoint. Things seemed to be moving along a lot better, but when I shared it with the writers’ group it was clear, once again, that I hadn’t had it right. Once again, the story went onto a back burner and I worked on other things for many more months.
Sometimes you do have to set a story aside for a long time, let it percolate in your subconscious while you work on (and complete) other stories. It may take a long time.
I tried to tell this storfy from two other characters’ points of view, but it still didn’t work. Finally, I used a modified version of an exercise from Jesse Lee Kercheval’s excellent book, Building Fiction:
For every character in the story I wrote out the answers to these questions:
- What does this character want immediately/externally?
- What does this character want on a deeper, emotional level?
- What is preventing this character from getting the external thing they want?
- What is preventing the character from getting the internal thing they want?
- What is the moment in the story when the character believes that they will not get what they want?
- What is the character thinking and feeling at that point?
I did it for every character that I thought had any role at all in the story. And once I had those things written out, I realized that one problem was that the character whose viewpoint I tried at the beginning believes she will never get what she wants, so her reaction at the crisis point of the story is to shrug and cynically say, “I knew it!” And one of the other characters never, ever believes that he can’t get what he wants, because he sees several ways to get it at every point.
Finally I saw that one of the characters I had been thinking all along as a supporting character was the person who thinks she can solve the puzzle, then learns that the problem is different than she thought, then sees everything fall apart, and then could have an epiphany and turn the situation around. Suddenly, everything clicked. I was up late a couple of nights in a row getting the story through to the end, but this time I was sure I was correct. And the writers’ group confirmed it, not by saying, “You got it!” No, instead, everyone’s critiques were about little quibbles of grammar and the like.
The events that all of the failed versions of my story covered were the same, in the abstract, as what happens in the final version that worked and was eventually published. What was different was I found the character for whom those events represented something that could be lost, but still fought for, and for whom overcoming the issue required her growing or changing.
Figuring that out is where plots come from!
The thing is that I’ve been sick nearly continuously since the end of December, and so have a lot of people I know. We’ll be really sick with a certain constellation of symptoms for a few days, start to get better for a few days. Then we’ll have a couple days where we don’t feel completely, 100% healthy, but definitely nearly well. And then a slightly different constellation of symptoms will hit is full bore, and the cycle will begin again.
So, when I was up all night with symptoms that you do not want me to describe Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, I felt an awful lot like that bowl of flowers in the Hitchhiker’s Guide books: “Oh, no. Not again!”… Read More…