Showing posts with label plot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label plot. Show all posts

26 May 2018

Top Ten Peeves of Writing Teachers

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl) 

Recently, a jovial colleague asked me if I was a good teacher or an evil one.
I'm definitely on the kind side of the equation.  The last thing I want to be is a Dream Killer.  But even the kindest, most dedicated writing teachers can get frustrated.  So when a colleague suggested I rant on these pages, I gracefully accepted.  (With the sort of grace that might be associated with a herd of stampeding mastodons.)

So here are my top ten peeves as a writing teacher:

THE OBVIOUS

1.  "I don't need no stinkin' genre" - aka Students who turn their noses up at the genres.

In addition to basic and advanced writing skills, I teach the genres in my Crafting a Novel course.  Meaning, we deconstruct each of the main genres of fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, western, literary...) to see what publishers expect.  This is particularly important when it comes to endings.  Mickey Spillane said those famous words:  "Your first page sells this book.  Your last page sells the next."

Most publishers categorize the books they accept into genres.  Most readers stick to a few genres they like best for their reading pleasure.  So it stands to reason that if you can slot your work into an already active genre, you have a better chance of getting published and read.

Many students refuse to classify their work.  They feel it is 'selling out' to do so.  (Yes, I've heard this frequently.)  They don't want to conform or be associated with a genre that has a formula.  (One day, I hope to discover that formula.  I'll be rich.)

So I often start out with half a class that claims to be writing literary fiction,  even though not a single student can name a contemporary literary book they've actually read.  *pass the scotch*

2.  The memoir disguised as fiction.

These students have no interest in writing fiction. They really only want to write one book ever, and that is the story of their life.  (Ironically, many of these students are only twenty years old...sigh.)  But they know that memoirs of unknown people don't sell well, so they're going to write it as a novel.  Because then it will be a bestseller.

Here's what I tell them:  What happens to you in real life - no matter how dramatic and emotional it is for you - usually doesn't make a good novel.  Novels are stories.  Stories have endings, and readers expect satisfactory endings.  Real life rarely gives you those endings, and so you will have to make something up.

If you want to write your life story, go for it.  Take a memoir writing class.

3.  "My editor will fix this" - Students who think grammar and punctuation are not important.

Someone else will fix that.  They even expect me - the teacher - to copy edit their work.  Or at least to ignore all seventeen errors on the first page when I am marking.  *hits head against desk*

I should really put this under the 'baffling' category.  If you are an artist or craftsman, you need to learn the tools of your trade.  Writers deal in words;  our most important tools are grammar, punctuation and diction.  How could you expect to become a writer without mastering the tools of our trade?

4.  The Hunger Games clone.

I can't tell you how many times students in my classes have come determined to rewrite The Hunger Games with different character names on a different planet.  Yes, I'm picking on Hunger Games, because it seems to be an endemic obsession with my younger students.

What I'm really talking about here is  the sheer number of people who want to be writers but really can't come up with a new way to say things.  Yes, you can write a new spin on an old plot.  But it has to be something we haven't seen before.

There are just some plots we are absolutely sick of seeing.  For me, it's the 'harvesting organs' plot.  Almost every class I've taught has someone in it who is writing a story about killing people to sell their organs.  It's been done, I tell them.  I can't think of a new angle that hasn't been done and done well.  Enough, already.  Write something else.  Please, leave the poor organs where they are.

THE BAFFLING

5.  The Preachers:  Students who really want to teach other people lessons.

And that's all they want to do.  Akin to the memoir, these students come to class with a cause, often an environmental one.  They want to write a novel that teaches the rest of us the importance of reuse and recycle.  Or the evils of eating meat.

Recently, I had a woman join my fiction class for the express purpose of teaching people how to manage their finances better.  She thought if she wrote novels about people going down the tubes financially, and they being bailed out by lessons from a friendly banker (like herself) it would get her message across.

All noble.  But the problem is:  people read fiction to be entertained.  They don't want to be lectured.  If your entire goal is to teach people a lesson, probably you should take a nonfiction course.  Maybe a PR one.  Or here's a novel <sic> idea: become a teacher.

6.  Literary Snowflakes - Students who ignore publisher guidelines.

"A typical publisher guideline for novels is 70,000-80,000 words?  Well my book is 150,000, and I don't need to worry about that because they will love it.  Too bad if it doesn't fit their print run and genre guidelines.  They'll make an exception for me."

I don't want to make this a generational thing. Okay, hell yes - maybe I should come clean.  I come from a generation that was booted out of the house at 18 and told to make a living.  'Special' wasn't a concept back when we used slide rules instead of calculators.

Thing is, these students don't believe me.  They simply don't believe that they can't write exactly what they want and not get published.  And I'm breaking their hearts when I tell them this:  Publishers buy what readers want to read.  Not what writers want to write.

7.  Students who set out to deliberately break the rules in order to become famous.

There are many ways to tell a story.  We have some rules on viewpoint, and we discuss what they are, the reasons for them, and why you don't want to break them.  The we discuss why you might WANT to break them.  Apparently this isn't enough.  *sobs into sleeve*

I have some students who set out to break every rule they can think of because they want to be different.  "To hell with the readers.  I'll head-hop if I want.  And if Gone Girl has two first person viewpoints, my book is going to have seventeen!  No one will have seen anything like it before.  They will think I'm brilliant."

Never mind that the prose is unreadable.  Or that we don't have a clear protagonist, and thus don't know whom to root for.  e.e.cummings did it.  Why can't they?

8.  Students who come to class every week but don't write anything.

They love the class.  Never miss a week.  But struggle to complete one chapter by the end of term.  Not only that, this isn't the first fiction writing class they've taken. They specialize in writers' workshops and retreats.

It seems baffling, but some people like to hobby as aspiring writers.  They learn all about writing but never actually write.  Of course, we veterans can get that part.  Writing is work - hard work.  Writing is done alone in a room.  In contrast, learning about writing can be fun.  Especially when done in a social environment with other people.

THE 'I COULDN'T MAKE THIS UP'

9.  Other writing teachers who take our classes to steal material for their own classes and workshops. *removes gun from stocking*

Not kidding.  I actually had an adult student come clean about this.  By class seven, he hadn't done any of the assignments and admitted he was collecting material to use for the high school creative writing class he taught.  I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

10.  Students who don't read.

This is the one that gets me the most.  Last term I did a survey.  I asked each student to write the number of books they had read last year on a small piece of paper and hand it in.  I begged them to be honest.  They didn't have to write their names on the paper, so I would never know who had written what total.  Here's the tally of number of books read:

Highest number by one person:  26

Lowest number by one person:  0-1

Average:  7

Yup, I'm still shaking my head over that low.  He couldn't remember if he'd actually read a book or not.  (How can you not KNOW?)

And these people want to be writers.  *collective groan*

To be clear here:  I read 101 novels last year.  I read for one hour every night before bed and have done so for years.  That's seven hours a week, assuming I don't sneak other time to read.  Two books a week.  And that doesn't include the hours I spend reading student manuscripts over three terms.


If reading isn't your hobby, how can you possibly think you can write?  Why would you want to??


FINAL THOUGHTS

Here's what I've learned:  Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college credit course.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that escape, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  When I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.

There is no greater high.

Melodie Campbell writes capers in between marking assignments.  Or maybe to avoid marking.
The B-Team is her latest.  You can get it at all the usual suspects.

on AMAZON





16 April 2018

Two (Or Three, Or Four) Trains Running

by Steve Liskow

Back when I started reading grown-up mysteries like Ed McBain and Rex Stout, their books weren't much longer than the Hardy Boys books I'd recently left behind. If I pick up one of those books now, they feel very linear. We go from point A to point B, C, D and so on and eventually we can predict the next bead on the string. Maybe that's why some of the heroes of mystery who started in pulp could churn them out so quickly. Even if they offered surprises along the way, they built the stories on one logical progression.

Today's stories, especially bestsellers and blockbuster thrillers, are much longer, and new writers often complain to me that they can't come up with enough events to go on that long.

Use subplots.

Subplots spread the workload among characters and help with pacing by changing the point of view. They can help you hide information, too. One character discovers something, but he can't tell someone else right away. This builds tension because the reader knows something the Good Guy doesn't.
 
Subplots work best if they connect to the main theme of your novel. That helps you create a unified story instead of a bunch of different strands the don't have much to do with each other. Random stuff risks ending up like Boccaccio's Decameron, a hundred stories you can put in any order and they won't affect anything else.

In The Whammer Jammers, I focused on subplots because all my research on roller derby (My daughter
was Captain of the Queen City Cherry Bombs in New Hampshire) showed me there was more to the sport than chicks on wheels. When I started my interviews, I had no plot idea, but talking with a squadron of intelligent, funny, and very together women inspired several characters who demanded stage time.

The main plot follows Tracy "Trash" Hendrix, suspended from the Hartford Police Department after shooting a suspect. He's hired to do security for a roller derby team. He didn't even know the sport still existed (I didn't either), but he admires the women's supporting each other to do more and better. That came from my research, where several women told me they were more self-confident and assertive at work because of the encouragement and affirmations they gained from hanging with strong friends.
My subplots all involve female empowerment. Annie Rogers, AKA "Annabelle Lector," is trying to break up with an abusive boyfriend, and two other skaters, divorce lawyer "Roxie Heartless" and social worker "Tina G. Wasteland," help her file a restraining order to break the cycle of abuse. Danny Keogh, a local contractor, sponsors the team and helps organize a fund-raiser for a local women's shelter. He's also romancing a skater who works at a bank. Bad guys plan to stage a riot at the derby event to distract police while they rob that same bank. Even though the separate threads involve different characters, they have a common denominator and resolve together at the end of the book.



Who Wrote the Book of Death? uses connected subplots, too. Zach Barnes agrees to protect Beth Shepard from death threats. He soon learns that Beth is the stand-in for a man who writes bodice-ripper romances under the pseudonym "Taliesyn Holroyd," and she appears at events because people expect a romance writer to be female. Both Beth and Barnes are recovering from trauma: Beth was raped in college and never reported it, and Barnes was a police officer whose pregnant wife died in his arms after a traffic accident.
He started drinking and lost his badge. Beth and the male writer bring up identity issues, and the stalker targeting Beth seems to use disguises, too. Barnes and Beth become lovers, as do Svetlana (Barnes's associate) and Jim Leslie, the real writer.

Simple, huh?

Seriously, plotting takes me a long time because I try to work subplots with supporting characters into the mix, but it deepens those characters. Now I carry certain issues along with each series. Zach and Beth have appeared in five books so far, and now they own a house together. Trash Hendrix and his partner Jimmy Byrne ("Trash & Byrne") now appear in two roller derby novels and are supporting characters in several Barnes books. They also appear in the fourth Chris "Woody" Guthrie novel. Woody and his companion Megan Traine are divorced 40-somethings who play music and are trying to find variations on their previous Bad Love Blues.

Some concerns recur as subplots in several of my stories. I don't know if that's because of my own personal peccadilloes or whether I hardwired them into the characters. Probably some of both.

How do you use subplots?

24 February 2018

How long should we write?
Bad Girl confronts the hard question

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Is there an age at which we should stop writing novels? Philip Roth thought so. In his late seventies, he stopped writing because he felt his best books were behind him, and any future writing would be inferior. (His word.)

A colleague, Barbara Fradkin, brought this to my attention the other day, and it started a heated discussion.

Many authors have written past their prime. I can name two (P.D. James and Mary Stewart) who were favourites of mine. But their last few books weren’t all that good, in my opinion. Perhaps too long, too ponderous; plots convoluted and not as well conceived…they lacked the magic I associated with those writers. I was disappointed. And somewhat embarrassed.

What an odd reaction. I was embarrassed for my literary heroes, that they had written past their best days. And I don’t want that to happen to me.

The thing is, how will we know?

One might argue that it’s easier to know in these days with the Internet. Amazon reviewers will tell us when our work isn’t up to par. Oh boy, will they tell us.

But I want to know before that last book is released. How will I tell?

The Idea-Well

I’ve had 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories and 14 books published. I’m working on number 15. That’s 55 fiction plots already used up. A lot more, if you count the comedy. How many original plot ideas can I hope to have in my lifetime? Some might argue that there are no original plot ideas, but I look at it differently. In the case of authors who are getting published in the traditional markets, every story we manage to sell is one the publisher hasn’t seen before, in that it takes a different spin. It may be we are reusing themes, but the route an author takes to send us on that journey – the roadmap – will be different.

One day, I expect my idea-well will dry up.

The Chess Game You Can’t Win

I’m paraphrasing my colleague here, but writing a mystery is particularly complex. It usually is a matter of extreme planning. Suspects, motives, red herrings, multiple clues…a good mystery novel is perhaps the most difficult type of book to write. I liken it to a chess game. You have so many pieces on the board, they all do different things, and you have to keep track of all of them.

It gets harder as you get older. I am not yet a senior citizen, but already I am finding the demands of my current book (a detective mystery) enormous. Usually I write capers, which are shorter but equally meticulously plotted. You just don’t sit down and write these things. You plan them for weeks, and re-examine them as you go. You need to be sharp. Your memory needs to be first-rate.

My memory needs a grade A mechanic and a complete overhaul.

The Pain, the Pain

Ouch. My back hurts. I’ve been here four hours with two breaks. Not sure how I’m going to get up. It will require two hands on the desk, and legs far apart. Then a brief stretch before I can loosen the back so as not to walk like an injured chimp.

My wrists are starting to act up. Decades at the computer have given me weird repetitive stress injuries. Not just the common ones. My eyes are blurry. And then there’s my neck.

Okay, I’ll stop now. If you look at my photo, you’ll see a smiling perky gal with still-thick auburn hair. That photo lies. I may *look* like that, but…

You get the picture <sic>.

Writing is work – hard work, mentally and physically. I’m getting ready to face the day when it becomes too much work. Maybe, as I find novels more difficult to write, I’ll switch back to shorter fiction, my original love. If these short stories continue to be published by the big magazines (how I love AHMM) then I assume the great abyss is still some steps away.

But it’s getting closer.

How about you? Do you plan to write until you reach that big computer room in the sky?



Just launched! The B-Team 

They do wrong for all the right reasons, and sometimes it even works!
Available at Chapters, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and all the usual online suspects.

15 February 2017

Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing


by Robert Lopresti

I'm not sure this title fits the subject matter, but it's a pretty song.

As you are probably sick of being told, I review a short story every week.  I try to be a fair judge, treating every candidate equally but I admit that sometimes I will find myself rooting for a story to succeed because of a wonderful opening line, beautiful writing, or a great concept.  It's yours to lose.  Don't blow it!

And sometimes they succeed. But sometimes they blow it.

Recently I read a story with a great premise, one I loved so much I read a few key lines out loud to my wife.  I kept rolling along, having a great time, for the first three quarters of the narrative.  Then all four tires slowly deflated.

I'm not going to get specific because I don't say bad things about individual stories.  (There's a reason I review the best story each week.)  But vaguely, here's the plot:

The author establishes the great premise and deals with it, apparently resolving it.  Then a character is murdered.  The hero, call him Sam Sleuth, starts to investigate.  The character closest to him, call him X, is the Most Likely Suspect.

All of which is great.  Still rolling merrily.  But we are at the three-quarter point.

Sleuth begins to suspect that X really is  the killer.  He digs more, and finds evidence pointing in that direction.  He confronts X who more or less admits his guilt, but not in a way that would hold up in court.  And Sleuth vows to find a way to prove it.  The end.

That's no ending, says me.  Not a good  ending, anyway.  Our hero has been treading water for the last quarter.

So here are some suggestions as to how the author might have created a better conclusion, one which might have made my Best of the Week, if I liked the writing, and was in the right mood, and Saturn was on the cusp of Capricorn.

Good for the Soul.  Sleuth could have tricked/guilted X into a confession that would have held up in court.

In the Pudding.  Sleuth discovers proof that X did the killing.

Had it coming. X reveals (this requires a ton of foreshadowing) that the victim was such a horrible person that he deserved what he got.  Sleuth is convinced and tells him to go and sin no more.

Surprise Party.  It wasn't X at all!  Turns out it was Y, that dirty devil!

Reverse Surprise.  If our author really wants to end with Sleuth vowing to catch X, then Sleuth needs to think it is Y until - Boom - the Big Reveal.

Immune to Murder.  Sleuth is sure that X is guilty but he can never be convicted because he is the nephew of the President/Mafia Chief/Billionaire, or is the Ambassador from Barataria.  Much noirish brooding in bourbon follows.

Any of those had a chance to be better than what I got. But on the bright side, I got a blog out of it didn't I?  Now, back to a hunt for the Best.



13 February 2016

Downton Abbey--Story, Plot, Mystery

by B.K. Stevens

I love Downton Abbey. I've watched every episode, and I'll keep watching till the end. I own the DVD sets for two seasons. I also own The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook, and I use it often. I've made one dish so many times, in fact, that I decided to include a version of it in my next story, which will appear in the April Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook calls the dish Noisette Potatoes. My story calls it Spudballs.)

Downton Abbey season 1.jpg
So I think I qualify as a loyal fan. When I criticize the show, I do so in a spirit of love, as a regretful witness to the elegant decline of something that was once more than elegant. I don't think Downton Abbey is very good this season, and I don't think it was very good last season, either. Judging from comments I see on Facebook, a lot of other loyal fans feel the same way. As I was watching the show last Sunday, some comments E.M. Forster makes in Aspects of the Novel came to mind. They helped me focus more sharply on some crucial elements Downton Abbey now lacks--elements that are crucial to mysteries, too.

Forster's distinction between story and plot is justly famous. A story, Forster says, is "a narrative of events in their time sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. `The king died and then the queen died" is a story. `The king died, and then the queen died of grief' is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it." A story appeals to our curiosity, Forster says. Like cave-dwellers sitting around the fire or the sultan listening to Scheherazade's tales, we want to know what happens next. But curiosity, according to Forster, "is one of the lowest of the human faculties." And ultimately, a story that appeals only to our curiosity doesn't satisfy us.


I think that's the problem with Downton Abbey. During the last two seasons, it's become a story. It no longer has a plot. Things keep happening--there are plenty of incidents, some of them dramatic. A child goes missing. A beloved character has a frightening medical crisis at the dinner table. Romantic attractions flare up, little conflicts erupt, secrets nudge toward the surface. Meanwhile, there are many amusing verbal sparring matches and many tender exchanges, and of course there are always beautiful things to look at--rooms, dresses, pastoral landscapes. And since Downton Abbey has wonderfully rich characters we've come to know well and care about deeply, we want to know what will happen to them next, how things will turn out. So we keep watching.

But it's not enough to keep us satisfied, because there's no real plot. We seldom get a sense that one incident has caused another, or that it's likely to have significant consequences. Daisy says imprudent things, Tom comes back from America, Baxter won't have to testify after all--the incidents may be more or less interesting, but they often don't even seem related to each other. And they don't give us much of a basis for trying to figure out what's likely to happen next.
 Image result for downton abbey
A plot does give us such a basis. A plot, Forster says, appeals not only to curiosity but also to "intelligence and memory"--and it does this by introducing the element of "mystery." He offers a further extension of his basic example: "The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is "a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development." It engages our minds far more fully than a mere story could, because now we're using our memories to keep track of what's happening--we know that's important, because we have to remember incidents in order to understand how one might cause another. We're also using our intelligence to grasp each incident's significance and try to figure out what might happen next. "To appreciate a mystery," Forster maintains, "part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on."

I find that last sentence an important key to understanding what's wrong with the current season of Downton Abbey, and an illuminating description of what a satisfying mystery does.If a mystery has a suspenseful, fast-paced plot, our curiosity keeps us turning pages. At the same time, memory and intelligence linger behind, "brooding" about evidence and making predictions. No wonder we love good mysteries so much. They force us to read actively, and we enjoy the workout. Really good mysteries also reward us for our hard work by giving us endings that bring everything together seamlessly. We can see how all the incidents related to each other, how each built on what had happened before, how one incident caused another until the mystery reached a conclusion that feels inevitable. Even if we fail to predict what that conclusion is, we feel satisfied--we blame our own memory and intelligence for our failure, not the author.

So one way of describing the problems with the final seasons of Downton Abbey might be to say they needed more mystery. Not mystery in any narrow, generic sense--heaven knows, nobody wanted to see Bates or Anna accused of murder again. But these last seasons might have been far more satisfying if they had included fewer entertaining little incidents and instead developed two or three plotlines more fully. I wish those plotlines had engaged our memories and intelligence. I wish they'd challenged us to think about what caused an incident and what its effects might be, to debate ethical dilemmas the characters faced, to analyze relationships and feel we have a rational basis for thinking they will or won't succeed.


But none of that happened--at least, not in my opinion. So I'll watch the final episodes, but I don't expect them to give me the sort of satisfaction the ending of a really good mystery does. I imagine the final episodes will give us at least one incident featuring each of our favorite characters. I imagine some characters' stories will end happily, and some will end less happily. And I'd guess decisions about which characters get happy endings and which don't will be based primarily on the producers' guesses about what viewers want, not by any internal necessities created during these last two seasons. ("Will viewers think it's a bit much if both Mary and Edith find true love at last? If neither does, it might seem too bleak. Shall we have things work out for only one of them? Which one? Who has a sixpence we can toss?") We'll get some final witty exchanges between Violet and Isobel, some stunning final interior and exterior shots, and then Downton Abbey will join the assembly of once-great shows that kept going a season or two too long.

Oh, well. I'll still have those two earlier seasons on DVD. And at least getting frustrated with Downton reminded me of what a fascinating little book Aspects of the Novel is. The passages I quoted are from the fifth chapter, "The Plot." Forster has other interesting things to say about mysteries, too. If you're not already familiar with the book, you might want to check it out.


I can't resist the temptation to end with a personal note. When the Agatha nominations were announced not long ago, I was thrilled to see that both a story and a book of mine had made the list. "A Joy Forever" was nominated for Best Short Story, and Fighting Chance was nominated for Best Children's/Young Adult. Since it's unlikely that anything like this will ever happen again for the rest of my life, I decided to go ahead and brag about it. If you'd like to read "A Joy Forever," you can find it at the Malice Domestic website--http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Stevens_Joy.pdf. You can read the first chapter of Fighting Chance on my website, at http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com/book/fighting-chance-a-martial-arts-mystery-for-young-adults/. I'm stunned, delighted, and very grateful.


Image result for b k stevens a joy foreverImage result for b k stevens a joy forever