bookmark_borderMore comparisons, music to fiction

One of my more recent large projects is revising a 3DayNovel from a year and a half ago, and, at the same time, revising the sequel that I wrote last NaNoWriMo.

These are very plot oriented stories, mysteries, action stories to some extent, and so there is a very definite structure, key points, key activities, key discussions that have to take place. And because of that I notice that I’m really short on character, internal dialogue, and setting, other than the bits that are key to the structure of the plot.

I had a writing instructor who insisted that there are plot writers and there are character writers, like there are boys and there are girls. Not her metaphor; mine, but she was almost that definite. But for me it depends on the writing situation. When I don’t know the plot at all, such as with writing exercises, I happily write building on what I’ve got in front of me, expanding the character, filling out the scenery, plot-less. The difference in this writing is that time progresses much more slowly and the world is filled out much more substantially. I listen to what I’m writing and pick up threads and ideas the same way that I do when I’m improvising jazz well; listening, building on ideas and interesting material, generating something that’s coherent and musical and says something.

The difficulty is how to get that depth of writing in when I’m focused on the plot. When I know I’m here and I know what’s next, how do I not go straight there?

I still remember in high school, Earth Sciences 11, my teacher gave me back my one page report with the grade of B, saying “I’ve never given that high a grade for so little writing.” He went on to add, “You have a talent for saying a lot with a few words.” Maybe I should have been an ad writer, but this still remains a tendency of mine; when I know the points that I want to reach, I focus on them and I get there right away.

And, going back to some things that I said in the previous post, I don’t listen to the story well when I review. I see the skeleton, the framework, I see what it means and how it relates to what has come before and to where I know I’m going,  and I don’t see the missing flesh. It’s like writing a piece of music that consists of only the lead lines and no harmonized or thickened or textured lines, no music for the violas or second clarinet or French horns to play, all first violin and trumpet and one percussionist and maybe double bass or tuba. That’s fine if you’re sketching a lead sheet for a jazz quintet or pop band and you let the other musicians make up their own parts, but not so good when you write for 20 piece jazz band or orchestra. And yet I’ve done the composing and arranging for large ensembles, as well as the MIDI composition where I have to create the bass and drum and piano parts myself. I need to be able to transfer that skill over to writing larger works of fiction.

bookmark_borderThe plot is taking over the novel!

As I write, we’re at day 14 of NaNoWriMo. My pace is fine, but there has been quite a bit of frustration for me.

This is a sequel, and, if I had to force it into a genre, it’s strongest fit would be as a mystery. When I wrote the first one, I had no plans for sequel; though one of my readers wanted one I had no idea what it could be about. Then I added some sections to fill out some characterizations, and from one of the additions, a followup storyline was hatched.

With a little bit of plotting, I thought that I was all set for November, but about a week into it, I was getting bogged down. There were secondary and minor plot points that I had not detailed in my planning and I needed to nail those down. They weren’t obvious, and the characters weren’t leading me to them. Quite the opposite; the characters seemed to be waiting for me to give them direction. It was as if I were head of a project and was assigned a batch of actor/employees. Each of the employees had a specific set of skills and a temperment and it was my job to assign to them a job; you, the double agent, here’s your sides and your thoughts about them, you, the journalist, here’s your clues, get to work, you, the tech guy, here’s the problem for you to solve.

But once each character is given their job/role, they jump right into it and the writing flows.

The other strange part for me is the plot itself. It’s a mystery, as I mentioned, and is a sequel. In the first story there are some loose ends as well as a few intentional hints, but to plot the sequel I have to unravel the mystery. It’s like trying to solve a mystery from the clues, but in this case the mystery was not created by some evil genius; the mystery was created by me. I feel as if all the answers to the plot questions that I have are buried in the first novel and in what I have so far in the second. But how can they be buried there, when I wrote all of that? Shouldn’t I know what I buried? What the answers are?

It’s as if I’m having to psychoanalyze myself, figure out why I did the things that I did, as if part of me has the reasons and answers, but my conscious mind was kept out of the planning. And it’s a heck of a strange experience.

I know that I write more often as a plot writer than as a character writer, though I have done both. But this is extreme for me. The plot seems to be everything, and nothing happens without it. Something else is in control of this novel, and it isn’t my conscious mind.
















bookmark_borderPlotting: “Bad Teacher”

Not long ago I watched the movie Bad Teacher. What interested me most, beyond that particular striking wide-eyed attractiveness that is the Cameron Diaz from Something About Mary and Charlie’s Angels, was the plotting.

The two central story lines are:

  • Explicit goal or holy grail: in this case it’s money for a breast augmentation operation, which in turn she believes will enable her to marry rich, and,
  • Growth of the protagonist.

Both of these stories are common fare; at this point we could be talking about Jane Austen’s Emma as much as Bad Teacher. But take a look at all the other story lines and threads that are taking place:

  • Love triangle; her misplaced interest in one teacher, his interest in another female teacher.
  • Jealousy; the other female character becomes Diaz’s rival and prime antagonist.
  • Possible true love; a second male teacher who sees her more closely for who she really is and who she is becoming.
  • The reformation of the protagonist as a teacher. This is presented as an incidental change that happens as the protagonist chases the explicit goal of money (contest for highest student marks), but of course it plays a crucial part in the growth of the protagonist.
  • Drugs, which are part of the “bad teacher” personality but which has it’s own thread in the story.
  • Food and drink, which appear a number of times and are part of the “bad teacher” personality, from rejected gifts from students to a poisoned a apple (the “bad” protagonist as the evil witch and the “good” antagonist as Snow White) and poisoned wine.
  • The dumpy single teacher friend story, which allows the shallow romantic skills and attitudes of the protagonist to be exposed, and for the protagonist’s growth in this area by the end of the movie to be reflected.

If, as a writer, one takes the basic story elements and then considers all these smaller story lines one can see how the secondary threads expose the primary characters, allow them to interact, and how these stories reappear for strength and continuity and development, and how the threads relate to each other and weave the fabric of the story into a coherent whole. This is not a random hodge-podge of scenes designed to take the pulchritudinous Cameron Diaz and retell an essence of the Emma story.

I’ve skimmed some reviews on various movie review sites and I find it interesting to note some of the positive reviews for Diaz, bad reviews for the story, reviews that see other things like sad representations of the public school system. I guess that, as a writer, I see plot structure.