Monday, June 22, 2015

On Plot Structuring

Cross-posted to Finding Wonderland.

I'm finally back to having time to devote to my WIP--or I should perhaps say, I have seized time back from the ravening bitch-goddess that is unexpected work. Not to mention the slightly less ravening bitch-goddess that is EXPECTED work. And what I realized was that my WIP has the extreme need for some attention devoted to structure. (And also that I wanted to change the title again.)

I've been spending a lot of productive time lately looking at screenwriting books, or at least books written with screenwriters in mind but which are also quite helpful for us novel writers. I've gotten a huge amount of thoughtful and practical advice from Story by Robert McKee and The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler, even though I haven't finished reading them yet. But possibly the most directly useful book has been Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, which was recommended by fellow author and member of our writing group Sara Lewis Holmes (of the lovely and poetic blog Read Write Believe). Snyder uses a method called the "beat sheet" to lay out plot structure in chunks--or maybe a better word than structure is "dynamics," because it isn't so much a matter of specific THINGS that have to happen at certain times, it's the rhythm of the thing.

I had done a beat sheet for this project last year, but that was before I decided to split it into two books, so it was long overdue for me to try to revisit my "outline" (or what passes for one) instead of just working on individual chapters and going into denial about major stuff like the book as a whole. I kind of like the beat sheet because it gives some structure to the story beyond just outlining the scenes or chapters. But I was starting to feel overwhelmed because what I have is this old, bloated beat sheet from before; a partially-rewritten manuscript with a bunch of scenes and changes not included in the old beat sheet; and a stack of index cards with plot points on them that I'd been attempting to shuffle around. What I decided to do, with the help of the Save the Cat Beat Sheet for Novels Spreadsheet that I found on Jami Gold's website, was create a set of Beat Sheet Cards, one for each beat listing the name of the beat and a short description (cut and pasted from the spreadsheet) and an approximate page count goal.


I did this by printing them onto big Avery shipping labels and slapping those onto the index cards. (I love office supplies.) Then I spread those out on my living room floor and aligned my plot points underneath them--reshuffling in a couple of cases, and inserting a couple of new ones as I found out there was kind of a gaping hole in the plot. Once I had it all laid out, I then went in and rewrote the beat sheet.

And changed the title again. *Shakes fist* TITLES!!!

Anyway, this was a helpful exercise. I was having trouble visualizing everything because of the fact that there are two POV characters that alternate, and because a third character is taking on a bit more of a role in this rewrite. This made it easy for me to pinpoint where I still needed to add in that third character's arc. It also made me realize I really need to do something about the ending....

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Three Breaths

I've spent more time than I care to admit reading inspirational articles on sites like Zen Habits and Tiny Buddha; neurotically perusing stress reduction techniques and "how to know if you're burned out" checklists on WebMD and HelpGuide and Psychology Today. I've read books on mindfulness and wistfully wished I could go to UMass for the mindfulness-based stress reduction program. I've read and re-read books by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

I haven't always been great at implementing the techniques in any sort of regular fashion, though I know I would be healthier if I did. The excuses are increasingly ridiculous: "Who has time to lie down for a 30-minute body scan?" turns into the ludicrous "Who's got time for the Three-Minute Breathing Space?"

Evidently there is a very persuasive part of me that thinks I can't simply sit there for three minutes, never mind the fact that I may spend thirty or forty minutes reading internet articles about sitting meditation or stress or whatever. This makes no sense.

BUT. I came up with a nearly foolproof (the fool being me) method of centering myself and slowing myself down, of stopping the mean mental voice that likes to castigate me for every little thing. I can't really take credit for this, since it's basically distilled from all that reading I just talked about. But here it is.

Three breaths.

You really can't rationalize away the time it takes to breathe in, breathe out; breathe in, breathe out; breathe in, breathe out. Because look! It's already done. Sometimes it actually IS challenging to sit in mindfulness and serenity for three minutes. Or there's some external situational reason that makes it difficult to do. But surely I can do it for three breaths. Surely I can stop that inner mean voice for the space of three breaths. Surely I can follow my breath in and out, slowly, without criticism, three measly times.

Sometimes that's enough.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour – a Self-Interview

I was invited to do this writing process blog tour by a couple of different people over the past few weeks, but because I was traveling, I was only able to say yes just recently. I was invited by Paula Treick DeBoard (see her process post here), a fellow writer living here in Modesto, and author of The Mourning Hours (a thoughtful, gripping mystery, non-YA but with a young protagonist) and the upcoming The Fragile World.

I'm always interested in other writers' processes and their day-to-day coping mechanisms, because writing is often an isolated, isolating activity, and that tends to make us writers feel like we're weirdos alone in our self-imposed struggles—but when I read about others' writing processes, I'm reminded that we all share many of the same struggles, regardless of genre, audience, or subjectively perceived weirdness. So here's hoping I can contribute to that sense of sharing in the joys and tribulations of this whole writing endeavor—and maybe lessen someone else's feelings of uncertainty and disconnectedness. Warning: wordy...

1. WHAT AM I WORKING ON?
Now that I have already-published novels out there in the world, I've realized that being a writer entails some serious multitasking: revision on one book while you're drafting another; publicizing your new book while trying to rewrite the next project. That's where I'm at now. With Underneath feeling like it just came out, even though it was a year ago, and with The Truth Against the World literally having just come out a week ago, a lot of my attention is focused on trying to spread the word about my books that are already out there.

You probably want to know what I'm actually WRITING, though, right? Well, having been informed by reliable sources that Dystopia Is Dead, I'm planning a major recasting of my work-in-progress, which isn't really all that dystopian but does have some pseudo-dystopian elements. Essentially, this entails changing the story from a supposedly real-world, hundreds-of-years-in-the-future post-post-apocalyptic setting to a fantasy/imaginary world. So…now it's a fantasy! But without magic.

Currently titled Fuel to the Fire, it's the story of what happens when a seemingly innocuous piece of new technology falls into the hands of uncompromising social revolutionaries—and what happens to the unsuspecting inventor of that technology. It's also a story of socioeconomic class turmoil, from the alternating perspectives of a girl who "has it all" but is still stuck in her predetermined role, and a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who ends up mired in the heart of the social revolution. Something like that, anyway...

2. HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?
One thing I've heard from others here and there is the observation that all three of my published books have been distinctly different from one another. Though they're all YA, none of them fall neatly within a genre, and they aren't similar to each other, either. In a publishing world that seems to deal more effectively with writers whose books tend to occupy the same genre, I'm not sure if this is good or bad. Reviewers have noted, accurately, that all three books (despite their differences) have strong themes of identity and family, and I guess that's the thread that ties my work together thus far.

Two of my books specifically have mixed-race/multicultural protagonists, and all three talk about themes of cultural identity as well, and how to reconcile various aspects of identity. Books about kids of mixed ethnicity are just now becoming more visible and accessible, and I like to think that The Latte Rebellion, my first novel, published in 2011, was an early example. And I do plan to write more novels that feature mixed-race characters, because that is, quite simply, the world I live in.

3. WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?
This ties in rather neatly with my answer to the previous question! I write lots of mixed-race characters because that is the world I live in—a diverse one in which very few people are truly "just one thing." And to claim otherwise is to deny the whole fascinating world that lies within and behind each individual. I don't sit there and consciously decide to "write what I know," but the world I live in and grew up in insinuates itself into my writing no matter what. Is the answer as simple as "I write what I do because of who I am?" I don't know. Maybe.

As far as why I write YA novels, there are a number of reasons. I never completely stopped reading YA books even as I grew into adulthood. (If you know me, you know I have never lost touch with my inner teenager, either.) Also, the YA genre really started to blossom in the mid-late 80s/early 90s when I was a tween/teen and had a profound effect on my reading habits. Beyond that, I think that the teen years are a time when many people either stop reading or are cemented for life as readers, and it feels like a privilege and a mission to try to engage readers and keep them reading. And there is a truly exciting range and quality of stories being produced for a YA audience, stories that sometimes take more risks, written for an audience that clamors for honesty and a lack of bullshit yet is still willing to believe in just a little magic. And do coming-of-age stories ever go out of style? I don't think they do, because I don't think we ever stop learning and growing as humans, and that's what coming of age is about.

4. HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK?
Somewhat inefficiently. The fickle nature of inspiration constantly reminds me that at the heart of successful writing is the ability to plonk your behind down in your desk chair and just WORK. That's why NaNoWriMo has been so helpful for me, because I'm really good at overthinking everything to the point where I paralyze myself.

One process tool I find really helpful is drawing a chart of my storyline(s). I don't work all that well with a straight outline, but being able to visualize what is happening helps me out a lot. Often it looks a bit like a flow chart that I fill in as I write, with parallel tracks for subplots, lines connecting events that happen simultaneously, blobs for critical themes or character emotions, and so forth. As an artist I tend to be a visual thinker, so being able to look at the plot helps me write.

I do have written notes, though. I usually have a general summary of the plot arc written out (what I've figured out so far, anyway) and those notes get more detailed as I write along and things get clarified in my mind. Usually when I'm writing, when I get to that day's stopping point, I jot down notes for any upcoming scenes that I've figured out. I put these directly into the Word document, right after that day's writing, so all I have to do the next time I sit down is read over the scenes I last wrote and then refer to my notes to get going. Big-picture notes get added to the flow chart, or sometimes a master document I use for the purpose of general notes.

5. AND THE OTHER PART OF THIS QUESTION, HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS NOT WORK?
Explicit chapter/scene outlines don't really work well for me. They just don't. Even though I like the idea in theory, in actual fact they make me twitchy.

When my brain is too packed with other things, my writing process really does not work. Writing, like any other art, does require time and attention, even if it doesn't necessarily demand constant light-bulb inspiration. I need head space in order to do effective writing. I'm still trying to figure that one out—how to allow myself time for my creative work.

As I mentioned before, overthinking myself to the point of paralysis is a huge problem for me. "Just write the damn book and fix it later," I try to tell myself. Perfectionism is a surefire road to writer's block, but lifelong habits are hard to break. So I try to remind myself of what my college Ceramics professor, Richard Shaw, used to say when our projects got to a certain point of doneness, but we beginning students were still fussing over them—"It's close enough for art."

PASSING THE TORCH, OR WHO’S NEXT:

Rachel Leibrock is a good friend from the Mills College MFA program—she is an impressively multitalented writer who, as a journalist, has worked for the Sacramento Bee and the Sacramento News & Review. Oh, and she writes poetry, prose, and YA too.

Colleen Mondor blogs at Chasing Ray, and is a longtime blogging friend both online and offline. She's a reviewer for Booklist, head honcho at Guys Lit Wire (a group blog focusing on literature for teen guys) and an aviation journalist, as well as the author of a fascinating memoir about flying in Alaska, The Map of My Dead Pilots.

Annie Choi, who blogs at Annietown, is a friend from the wayback days of undergrad yore at UC Berkeley, at which time I'm pretty sure neither of us guessed we'd BOTH end up writers umpteen years later. She is the author of two hilarious collections of personal essays, Happy Birthday or Whatever and Shut Up, You're Welcome.

Can't wait to read what you guys post!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Fun Facts About Vienna




* This city is shockingly clean.

* Topfelstrudel with vanilla sauce is the pastry of heaven.

* Egon Schiele was just as amazing a painter of houses as he was of people (see above). Also, he died tragically young (which I knew) of Spanish flu (which I didn't).

* There is great food everywhere in Vienna. So far, anyway. Breakfast was a slab of toast slathered in butter, a layer of chives, and a sunny-side-up egg, plus coffee.

* It is surprisingly hot here and I brought far too few short-sleeved shirts.

* Gustav Klimt was kind of a man-ho. Womanizer. Whatever. The ladies, he liked 'em.

* Mmm...schnitzel.

* Nothing--NOTHING--is open before 9 am on a Sunday.

* The Venus of Willendorf is AMAZING. Photos don't do her justice.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On Meaning and Goals

As I mentioned in my latest post on Finding Wonderland, I'm reading The Van Gogh Blues by Eric Maisel. One of the things the book encourages the reader to do is think about what creates meaning in one's life, and so I tried to be game and did a bit of writing/thinking about it. I discovered that I make some interesting assumptions about meaning that I don't always examine closely enough:
I seem to associate meaning with things happening outside of myself. If that were true, I'd have no control over making anything meaningful. And maybe that is my big fear, the fear that making meaning is not under my control. Or maybe I'm afraid that if I acknowledge making meaning IS under my control, I will have to admit that I'm bad at it. That I've been doing a poor job.

I'm getting hung up again on the idea that others are the arbiters of what is ultimately meaningful, whether my accomplishments are meaningful. Deconstructing that, I notice there's an implicit assumption that I need to have accomplished things in order for meaning to be a consideration.

If there's anything I should have learned from being in the arts, it's the importance of process, just as much as product. Perhaps in some cases more so than product, because we learn from process.

I zeroed in on a few ideas that I feel are important to me: Learning. Process. Progress. And I started to think about how being goal-oriented is sometimes an obstacle to appreciating process.
A goal, an end result, should be an image that inspires, encourages, invigorates. It should spur more joy in the process and the act. It should not discourage, dishearten, inspire fear or anxiety, cause despair. I constantly confuse goals with chores.

If a goal does that, then perhaps it is not a goal as I want to define it. What is it, then? And how can I reformulate it so it's the "right" kind of goal?

I have too many chores and not enough goals.

Maybe goal is the wrong word. Dream. Objective. Aim. Wish. Inspiration. Goal is too simple. It is a source as well as a goal, a beginning and an end point. It's the motivational starting point as well as the dream at the end. It gives meaning to the process.
I'm starting to think the mistake is in thinking of "goal" and "process" as two separate, separable things. Anyway, some Points to Ponder.