On Story Questions and Traveling Home

After a month-long writing retreat in France, I am home! The trip back was even more chaotic than the journey there, but we made it. So here I am at home in Portland, smack in the middle of chaos.  While I was gone, my daughter and her family moved in (that includes two small boys). We are putting on an addition to make room for everyone to live together but until that happens we are all crammed in together. Boxes are piled everywhere. Their dog terrorizes our cats, who spend most of their time down the basement now. My computer sits atop a table covered with paper and markers.

And in the midst of all this, I am pondering story questions. Allow me to elaborate. I’m reading Still Me, the third book in the series about Louisa Clark by Jojo Moyes. I’m not that far in and I’m enjoying it immensely. Louisa is a charming character who does funny things and dresses outlandishly. But I bought the book on the strength of having read the first two, and I don’t know that much about it. Since I hurriedly downloaded it for my Kindle before I left, I haven’t read the front flap or back cover copy. Usually that would give me a clue.

This morning I realized that I have no idea what the book’s story question is, based on my reading so far.  What do I mean when I say story question? I define it as the motor that keeps the reader turning pages, because she wants an answer to that question. She wants to know what will happen.

In a way, it’s the point of a book. In a romance, the story question is, will the woman get her man (or vice-versa)? In a mystery, it is, who is the killer? In a thriller, the story question is, will the protagonist escape/outwit/best the villain?  Of course, in genre fiction, we pretty much know what the answer will be, but the question is always in our mind as we read.

And here’s a real-life explanation. Earlier this week, as I made my way home from France, all kinds of snafus occurred, as mentioned above.  After leaving our small town in the south, Debbie and I planned to spend three nights in Lyon, then take a train early Tuesday morning directly to Charles De Gaulle airport and connect with our noon flight.  But Tuesday happened to be the first day of a planned nation-wide rail strike, and we were advised to take an earlier train. Which meant leaving a day early, finding a hotel to stay at in Paris, and several trips to the train station to see about changing our tickets to Monday.

Turned out exchanging tickets was not so easy.  The bored clerk offered us only the opportunity to spend 273 Euros each for standing room only on a train that might or might not actually depart.  And so, because we had to make that flight, we rented a car and drove to Paris.

If you were writing about this adventure, the story question would be, will they make their flight? Will they ever get back home? Believe me, there were many times this was in doubt. One way to look at it is the simplest construct in all writing. Our goal/desire was to make it to the airport. All the snafus were the obstacles in the way that made the question arise: will they make it?

So back to Still Me. 

The story is about Louisa’s year in New York City, working as a companion for a very wealthy family. The story begins as she arrives in the states from the UK.  The idea is that she’s spreading her wings and trying new things in homage to her late employer/boyfriend, Will Traynor, who we met in the first book.

So at first I thought maybe the story question would center around her employment. But no, at least not entirely. There are some quirks there, but that doesn’t seem to be it. So maybe there’s drama in what she left behind in England? No, her family seems happy and she has a new boyfriend she loves with home she Skypes often. In my reading session last night, a new character was introduced, a man who reminds Louisa of her beloved Will. I suspect he has a lot to do with the story question. Will Louisa develop a relationship with him? Will she then stay in New York or go back to England? What is her true place in life?

Me not knowing the story question has not put me off this particular book. I trust this author and I love the characters she develops. But if I were reading a book by an unknown author not quite as adept at craft, I may have been tempted to set it aside.

Readers these days more and more often won’t have front flap or back cover copy to guide them–only description on a website, a sample from Kindle, or a “look inside the book” preview. So I think it behooves us to be aware of our story questions and make them clear from the beginning.

Of course, that assumes that we know the story question. Which can be difficult! But that is a topic for another time…..

Have you ever read a book where you were confused about the story question? Leave a comment or head on over to the Facebook page to discuss.

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Sub-plot, or The Other Thing

The other night, my husband and I watched an episode of Scorpion, which I’d only see bits and pieces of before and ended up thoroughly enjoying.  The show is about a band of misfit computer experts led by Katherine McPhee, who is their interface and explainer of the real world.  In this episode, a helicopter carrying a doctor had crashed into a parking garage in high winds.  The helicopter was stable, as were its passengers, but the doctor had to be extracted immediately because she was the only doctor who could perform a certain kind of surgery and she had a dying patient awaiting her. (Hence why she was being flown in.) So the gang had to figure out how to perform a very risk rescue.

It was all very exciting, but what struck me was how the writers made great use of sub-plots. One involved the meteorological expert’s budding ardor for a chemist who works nearby and also the trials of a couple who were dealing with infertility. (I know, I know, sounds like a lot to pack into one episode, but it worked.) The sub-plots gave what otherwise could have been a routine action show a good dose of human pathos, especially because of the way the writers worked them in around the ongoing drama.

And that made me ponder sub-plots. When I first started writing fiction back when we all lived in caves, I was intimidated by sub-plots.  They sounded complicated and complex to try to fit in.  I mean, it is hard enough to figure out one plot from start to finish, right? And then you’re supposed to add in others? And make them relate to the main plot?

But then I realized that I was over-thinking the whole sub-plot thing.  They can be as simple as a few brief mentions of a minor character’s arc or some silly joke that carries through the plot.

You can think of them as, simply, another thing.  A thing that will take the pressure off your main character and your main story, thus giving it, your readers, and you, some time to breathe.  Often a story feels a little bare until you add in this other thing.

Ways to add in more things

Add another aspect to your main character.

Think, for example, of your own life.  You wear many hats, right? You’re a writer, but you’re also perhaps a parent or an aunt or an uncle, a friend, and likely you work at some kind of job. Then there are your hobbies and activities–maybe you run every day after work, or spend the evening in front of the TV knitting. Or perhaps you bake amazing sweets.  Or raise turtles. Or like to flip houses.

But if you were writing yourself as a character and focused solely on one of those things, the story would soon get a little stale. What if we only saw your character watching TV? Or running? Or tending the turtles?  That would not be a developed picture of you at all.  And that’s one way to add a sub-plot: add another element to the character.  I remember one from a novel that I read long ago in which the main character was constipated the entire novel. At one point, he finally was able to go. I know, I know. But it could be thought of as another thing.

Add a love interest.

Boo-yah.  Done and done.  If you’re writing a mystery or thriller or literary fiction, a love interest adds a human element readers love.

Create a habit for your character.

This can be either one she is trying to acquire or one she is trying to break. As a running line throughout the story, it can add depth and maybe even some humor.

Use a minor character for a sub-plot.

In my novel, Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior, I gave her assistant an arc that became a sub-plot. She started out completely against romance and ended up madly in love.

Give your character something to master.

Maybe your character takes up jewelry-making to find a way to relax from the stress of her job.   Or decides to plant a garden.  Showing a character mastering something new is satisfying for the reader.

Give your character a hobby.

I love to knit. While most of the time I do this at home, I also attend knit nights at local knitting stores and the monthly meeting of my knitting guild.  Something like this gives your character more dimension and also gives you more fodder for the plot.

How to use sub-plots

  • Only add in one or two! Too many will overload your story.
  • Remember that sub-plots will be introduced and completed before the start and finish of your story.  Save the beginning and end for the main plot
  • Sub-plots are very handy for pacing. You can have one sub-plot hanging out there, then introduce another one and meanwhile be moving along the main elements of the plot.  Open plot lines are a great way to keep the reader interested.
  • Keep your sub-plots organic to the story. Does it feel forced? Don’t use it. For instance, it is probably not going to feel natural for a business executive living in Manhattan to start raising chickens.
  • Similar to above, be sure to find a way to connect or relate your sub-plot to the story.

How do you use sub-plots in your stories? Do any of these ideas resonate? Leave a comment–or come over to the Facebook page to share.

 

Two Aspects of Story Writing

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Hilda?

Here, for your consideration, two aspects of storytelling.

1. Parsing the story.  This is, of course, most often the purview of the rough draft, or shitty first draft, or discovery draft, or whatever you want to call it.  Hilda would do.  (I think I'll start giving my drafts names.  Why not?) Although it must be said that story often reveals itself more fully on the second, third, or tenth drafts, too.

The point is that you have to figure out the story for yourself.  Yeah, you get a brilliant idea for a novel and set out writing it, but honestly?  There's a crap-ton of stuff that goes into a novel.  A lot has to happen.  Like, a lot lot.  And you have to uncover all this stuff, because it doesn't come downloaded with the idea.  (Or maybe it does for you.  If so, please email me.  I want to steal all your secrets.)  Which is why you launch in and write a rough draft, whether you are a plotter or a pantser.

And then when you are done with that, there's:

2. Deciding the best way to tell the story.  Your story might have come out in a strict chronology, but when you look at it, that's not the best way to build suspense.  (And all stories, not just mysteries and thrillers, need suspense.)  Or maybe it came to you in fragments and now you need to order them.   It is at this stage that you need to take a big, deep breath and figure out how to present the story.  Maybe the last chapter should come first, or vice-versa.  Maybe the character you thought should tell the story needs to be replaced with someone else.  Maybe you need to switch from first to third.  Who knows?  Only you, the author. Just don't make the mistake of assuming that the way the story came out of your brain is the only way it can be told.  

And also, please don't make the mistake of confusing these two aspects.  They each have their time, okay?  When you're writing first draft, your main job is to get the story down on paper. After you have finished a full and complete draft, beginning to end, you can make decisions about how best to present it.

Which is your favorite aspect of story writing?

Photo by ConceptJunkie.

The New Short Story Market

I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because even though I'm a writer, I don't always get my grammar correct!

I am submitting a short story to Amazon Kindle Singles sometime this weekend, after I get the query letter perfected and go through it one more time.   It's a story I originally wrote when I was working on my MFA, one I've always liked, but was never quite sure what to do with.  It's over 7,000 words long, longish for many journals, and it seems to be a cross between literary and popular fiction (like much of my work).  I pulled it out, updated it, and have been playing with rewriting it for the last couple of months.  I'm much happier with it now than I was when I first wrote it.  And I'm pleased to at long last have a place to submit it.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Amazon Kindle Single program, here's a blurb from their Submissions Policy:

Anyone can submit original work to Kindle Singles. We've showcased writing from both new and established voices–from bestselling novelists to previously unpublished writers.


We're looking for compelling ideas expressed at their natural
length–writing that doesn't easily fall into the conventional space
limitations of magazines or print books. Kindle Singles are typically
between 5,000 and 30,000 words.


A Kindle Single can be on any topic. So far we've posted fiction,
essays, memoirs, reporting, personal narratives, and profiles, and we're
expanding our selection every week. We're looking for high-quality
writing, fresh and original ideas, and well-executed stories in all
genres and subjects.

I'm excited about this program.  I love the idea that Amazon is publishing short stories, articles, and novellas, and allowing the authors of these shorter pieces to actually make money on them.  When I wrote my MFA lecture years ago, my topic was the linked short-story and one of the ideas into which I delved was, why aren't short stories more popular?  You would think they might be the perfect reading material for our crazy-busy, over-booked age.  They are short (duh), and you can read one or two while on the treadmill at the gym or taking light rail home from work. But short stories have recently been notoriously unpopular and published mostly in literary journals, many of them obscure (and God love 'em, I mean no disrespect).  Now, thanks to Amazon, they seem actually to be selling and selling well.

I've been interested in this program for awhile now, and done some research on it.  Here are some links that explain more about it and the thinking behind it:

A profile of Singles editor David Blum that gives insight into Amazon's strategies

How Much Do Kindle Singles Authors Make?

The Author's Guild weighs in (positively)

Amazon's Kindle Singles Submission Page

Bear in mind, you can also put your own short works up through the Kindle Direct program.  I thought I'd try the submission route first, just for fun.  I'll keep you posted on the process!

What do you think about writing shorter pieces?  Are you on board with this new publishing opportunity?  Leave a comment and let's discuss.

Rules for Storytelling

Do you have rules for storytelling?

I'm not really sure I do.  When I think about it, the words of advice I regularly dispense–make your character want something, add more conflict than you think you need, have at least a general notion of where you're going next–echo in my brain, but I'm not sure they add up to rules.

(An old writing buddy of mine who I've since lost touch with felt that men like to create and follow rules, whereas women are more freeform.  Perhaps that is why.)

But still and all, I'm always looking for any rule or guideline or even vague idea that will help me with my writing.  And I often tell anyone who will listen students, clients and readers that screenwriters come up with lots of helpful bits to apply to story.

So I was interested to find this link, to an infographic on Pixar's 22 Rules to Phenomenal Storytelling. These rules were developed by Brave artist Emma Coats and are the lessons she's learned working at Pixar.   The list has some good stuff in it.  Here's the infographic:

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The really cool thing is that you can buy this as a print on Etsy.  Follow this link to learn more.  Wouldn't it make a wonderful Christmas present for your favorite writer?  Like, maybe, yourself?

So, what of it–do you have rules for storytelling?  Which of these rules resonate with you?

There’s Power in Conflict

I volunteer with an organization called Step It Up, which connects high school students with experts in their chosen careers, and offers advice and support around jobs.  Over the last couple of months, I've done a couple of writing workshops for them, with a co-leader who is a teacher.

The last two days we've been working with the kids on writing cover letters and thank yous.  Specifically, my task was to help them find ways to get stories into their cover letters (and job interviews) to make them come alive.

As my co-leader Christine and I planned how we would do this last week, I told her it was very simple.  That there was one thing that every single story from the beginning of time had in common.

"What is that?" she asked.

I'm sure all of you reading know the answer, so say it with me:

CONFLICT.

The bedrock, bottom-line, starting point of all story.  Conflict.  Stories don't exist without it.

And yet, my co-leader, an educated woman with a master's degree who had taken tons of English classes and participated on the debate team, had never heard this simple fact.  Which doesn't actually surprise me because I've run into plenty of grown-ups who haven't either.

The cool thing is that Christine went off and put her new knowledge into place.  Yesterday she stopped me after the workshop and said, "Thank you.  This whole story thing has totally blown my mind and changed the way I look at everything."

Turns out she had spent the weekend with a group of girlfriends, and every time it was her turn to talk or tell a story, she found herself rearranging it a bit mentally so that she started with a bit of conflict.  And now she's thinking about how she can put conflict into her cover letter stories and jazz them up.

Its the power of conflict, baby.  Use it whenever you can, in the stories you tell, the letters you write, the books you are committing to paper.   Your writing and your story telling will be richer and more compelling for it.  Put the conflict on the page and keep it out of your life, is my motto.

For the record, when I asked the teenagers in the workshops what the basic element of story was, most of them answered, "conflict."  So there's hope for future writers.

How do you develop conflict in your writing?

**If you want to know how to develop conflict in your book proposal, consider taking my book proposal teleclass.  It begins June 7th, and the early-bird pricing is still on.  Check it out here.

How Do You Become Heroic?

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I have a friend who sets up mini-challenges for herself.  She's a pro at navigating through LA traffic to get somewhere on time when it looks impossible.  She not only zips from lane to lane and takes clever alternative routes, she projects thoughts to ease her journey.

When she succeeds, as she usually does, it becomes a story she loves to tell.  Why? Because she has become the hero of her story.  She has become heroic to herself.

Mind you, she's not doing this consciously.  She's not setting out to be heroic.  It's just one of those little subconscious games we all play.

We all have stories that drive us.  And often, we create circumstances that make us the hero or heroine of those stories.  The other day, I started pondering how I make myself heroic.  One way is through meeting deadlines against all odds.  I love to tell the story of how I've written 100-page books in 4 days.  My stories often have to do with extreme bursts of creativity (which, I hasten to add, is not the healthiest way to go about things).

But, here's the deal.  I want to become heroic in new ways now.  I want to become heroic because I've fulfilled long-standing goals, for instance, or because I've not only had a brilliant idea and gotten excited about it, but I've carried through with its promise.  I want to become heroic consciously, and not just by acting out on my subconscious drives.

So, here's my question to you:  how do you become heroic?  Look at:

–the stories you tell about yourself to yourself

–the stories you tell about yourself to others

Deconstruct these stories the way you would deconstruct a novel you were studying or one you are attempting to write.  What do you find?  Are you the hero or heroine of the correct story?  Or are you stuck in a genre you hate?  What are your heroics?  And what do you want them to be?

Feel free to share, or not, as your courage may dictate.

**Photo of Hercules courtesy of Xerones, from Flickr, via Everystockphoto.

It is Always the Story

Copyspace_space_copy_246205_l Yesterday, I wrote about watching the Winter Olympics and how Bode Miller winning gold inspired thoughts about stepping up to the plate.  

Today the subject is story.

My daughter and I were watching the men's ski cross races on Sunday night.  This is a relatively new sport, and, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it is the first time in the Olympics.  It doesn't have a lot of stars that we're yet familiar with and so NBC chose to focus on one of the Canadian men.  (I know, shocking–NBC actually featured an athlete who wasn't from the US!  It was because he grew up in Colorado but had a Canadian father.)

So, here's this new sport, which is mildly interesting, and a bunch of guys participating that nobody's ever heard of. I'm  watching with half an eye, catching up on emails and blog comments at the same time.  But then there's a slow moment in the action and NBC decides to run the pre-taped story about said Canadian, whose name is Chris Del Bosco.

And suddenly I'm paying attention.  Because this guy has a story.  From the time he was a wee boy, he showed a talent for skiing and racing.  But then, as a teen, he started drinking and doing drugs.  And suddenly he wasn't winning races anymore.  Pretty soon he wasn't even racing anymore.  This dark period ended with him so wasted one night that he fell into an ice-cold stream and if a passer-by hadn't found him he would have frozen to death.

He's bombed out of any ability to compete here in the states, but through a synchronicity, he heard that the Canadians were looking for guys to ski on the ski cross team.  And suddenly a new career opens up.  He's getting a second chance to do what he loves. 

And I'm rooting for him.  Suddenly, I'm completely and totally paying attention.  The computer is closed and set aside.  My eyes are glued to the TV.  Del Bosco easily qualifies for the finals.  I so desperately want him to win!  Alas, it is not to be.  Though it looks like he is coming from behind to win a medal, on one of the last bumps (jumps? not sure what they are called in this sport) he overestimates and ends up crashing.  

The point is this: I cared about Chris Del Bosco because NBC told me a story about him. Not only that, but the story they told had all the elements of a classic–amazing talent that, lots of conflict, the opportunity for a second chance.  I was right there with him because of it.

The thing I probably suggest the most when reading a client's manuscript is to take out narrative and put in more scene.  Scenes dramatize your writing and make it come alive.  A scene shows us something, instead of telling.  It presents a story. 

We respond to story because it is hard-wired into us.  From the beginning of human time, we've told stories to each other.  And still we do, whether on TV, a movie, or through reading a book.  The power of story is so powerful that it has become a cliche.

But sometimes cliches are good.  Because, ultimately, it always comes down to story.

What about you?  How do you use the power of story?  What have you gleaned from watching the Olympics? Or have you been ignoring them completely?