Monday, June 28, 2010

How much plot does a book need?

A writer e-mailed me to ask, "How much of a plot do you need to write a book?"

As writers, we tend to put books in one of two categories - plot driven or character driven. We consider books like The Da Vinci Code to be plot driven. I'm totally blanking on a character driven book as well known as The Da Vinci Code. Sarah Dessen's books are character driven. I'm sure there's some really great, obvious example that I'm blanking out in my pregnant state.

Likewise, writers tend to either be "plot first" writers or "character first" writers. Neither is bad, it's just what you are. I'm "character first." My story ideas come to me as characters. Like when I first thought of The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt books, the idea was Skylar. A girl who's beautiful, who knows she's beautiful, and is now trying to figure out how to make her insides beautiful. The rest of it got pieced together as I thought through what was going to make Skylar need to change. I played the what if game. What if she suddenly realized that partying wasn't as harmless as she'd thought? What if something came between her and her best friend? What if she wound up falling for a guy who was absolutely perfect for her, and he happened to be the first guy who had zero interest in her?

Stories - good ones, anyway - are about characters. The ones we read and love, we read and love because of the characters. But who wants to read page after page of a character's inner monologue as they sit and drink tea? Not me. We need to write active characters. Things need to happen that challenge our character and force them to change. And for the "character first" writer, that's often how you end up creating your plot, just by thinking through what it is that's going to force their transformation.

The best books are a balance of both worlds. Like Gone with the Wind, which pairs a dynamite character like Scarlett O'Hara with a plot winding us through the Civil War. Or The Princess Diaries, which is a wonderful concept matched with Mia's quirky, insecure voice.

Hopefully this answers your question. Let me know if it doesn't.

Have a writing question? E-mail me here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Moral of the story is...

I watch a lot of shows geared toward kids these days. As an adult, it feels like they're beating you over the head with the message. Sharing. Team Work. How to be a good friend. Don't hit, use your words. And so on.

Your book should have a message too, but unless your audience is 2, you're gonna lose them if you're more message driven than story driven.

So how do you get your point across without lecturing?

Trust your reader to get it.
One of the trademarks of lousy books is when an author says something multiple times and leaves you feeling like, "Yeah, I get it. You've said it 3 times in this chapter alone." So say your theme is trust. You don't need to point out your character's trust issues every time they come up. Actually, if you're doing your job well, you shouldn't ever have to state, "Maggie has trust issues." (See the post on Showing vs. Telling for clarification on this.)

Give us a Reason
Think about the issues you have. You have them for a reason, right? I didn't pop out of the womb with a hatred for public bathrooms. That hatred is linked to something specific - a faulty lock on a bathroom door at a bay area Starbucks. Make sure you're weaving your theme into your character's background.

Make it Matter
I read a book last year that not only lectured like crazy, but it also had about 50 social issues it was attempting to address within the same story. Everything from HIV to ethical journalism to the education system here in America. And I didn't really see how any of it was relevant to the actual story. So make sure your theme actually matches your story. And that you don't have a thousand points you're trying to make. Otherwise your readers (or at least this reader) will wind up chucking your book across the room.

Practice Equality
Say your message is that divorce is wrong. Maggie doesn't want to be married to her husband anymore, but she feels divorce is wrong, and so she's staying in her marriage. To avoid lecturing your reader, you're going to need to show us a little equality. We need to see why divorce could work out to her benefit. Maybe you've shown us examples of couples who stuck with their marriage and 30 years later are happier than ever. Now show us a couple who stuck with it and are now miserable bags of bones. If you showed couples who divorced and are upset with themselves for it, now show us couples who divorced and feel it was the best decision they ever made. That not only keeps you from lecturing, it makes your story unpredictable.

Stories need themes. They enrich your plot and your characters. And sometimes they even enrich your readers' lives.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Making Time for Writing

A writer e-mailed me to ask, "How do you make time for writing with such a busy schedule?"

I have yet to come across a writer for whom this isn't an issue. And that includes professional writers as well. So whatever fantasies you may have about, "As soon as I graduate..." or "As soon as I sell my first novel..." Banish them now. Those thoughts will only make you crazy. I've often thought to myself, "Once my kids are in school, then I'll really be able to buckle down and crank out some books."

No, I won't.

So first, recognize this is a struggle that will be with you for as long as you're committed to writing.

We all have things that pull at our schedule. The writer who asked the question specified that she works three jobs. Um, yikes. That's a full load. I have a 2 1/2 year old, and sometime in the next month I'll be adding a newborn to my "must take care of" list. I have a husband who likes spending time with me. I have a house that doesn't clean itself. (Oh, for the days I lived at home and clean laundry magically appeared in my drawers...)

It's important for us to have lives outside of writing. And something we can do during our time-away-from-storyworld to maximize our time-in-storyworld is think about your story. Sometimes it comes naturally to me to think about my characters and plot away from my computer, and other times it doesn't. When it doesn't, force yourself. Think through different possibilities of what could happen next, of what kinds of surprises you can throw at your unsuspecting narrator. This way, when you're finally able to return to storyworld, you won't feel as removed from it. You won't be doing the whole, "Wait, so where was I going with this...?" thing.

Learn to use even the smallest amounts of time. By which I mean, if you've got 5 minutes, use it to write. I would love to have huge blocks of time to write. Sometimes I'm able to schedule these for myself. When I'm not, I use the time I have. Waiting in the doctor's office? Use it write. You're dressed and ready to go, but having to wait on the others in your house? Write. Or take care of something that will mean more writing time for you later. When I'm waiting 2 minutes for water to boil in the microwave, I unload whatever I can from the dishwasher. Or peek in the fridge to see if there's anything that needs throwing out.

Cut, cut, and cut some more. I feel I've been called to both be at home with my daughter and to write. I gotta tell ya - these two things don't leave many extra hours in the day. And I'm a girl who needs her down time, so going, going, going does not work for me.

So I cut things. I used to be in charge of a book club, and I really enjoyed it. But it took up lots of time. I used to be in a writing group, or "crit" group as we call them. Again, it took up lots of my time, and I found I didn't need a crit group and an agent and two editors giving me feedback on everything I wrote. So it had to go.

You may not be at this place yet, where your writing is that important to you. But I learned quickly that if I wanted this to be my career, I would have to make it the priority.

The last tip I have at the moment is leave your characters hanging. When I'm wrapping up writing time, I try very hard to not to end at the close of a scene or chapter. I like to leave my characters mid-conversation, mid-catastrophe, mid-thought. I've found it's way easier for me to jump back in the next day.

On the occasions that I do have to stop at a nice-and-neat point of the story, I take a few minutes to jot down thoughts about the next scene (Anna gets ride home from Dallas - he tells her his dad has bought the building) so that I can get back into storyworld much easier.

So those are the few tips I have for making time for your writing, or making the most of your writing time. Anyone have any other nuggets to share?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Let Yourself Write a Bad First Draft

If you're anything like me, this doesn't come naturally. And it became especially difficult once I started learning writing rules because I didn't want to break a single one of them. I wanted to be perfect from the get-go so editing would be a breeze.

A nice idea, but it never works out that way. Regardless of how long I spend on my first drafts, editing - or editing well, anyway - always takes a long time.

The first time I heard about writing lousy first drafts was in my high school English class when we read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. She says, "In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really [bad] first drafts."

And I've found this to be completely true for me as well. Otherwise I sit there and put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to not only write, but to WRITE WELL.

Anne later says, "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something - anything - down on paper."

A few years ago I was writing a first draft, and it wasn't going well. I was totally stuck on something (I don't remember what), and I would just stare at my blinking cursor for what felt like hours. When I complained about this to my husband, he said, "Why don't you try just writing?" To which I gave him a you're-an-engineer-and-can't-possibly-know-what-you're-talking-about look and said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "You know. Just get the ball rolling, and you'll figure it out as you go."

I'd forgotten it was okay to write a horrible first draft, and because of that, I'd been stuck for days. I followed my husband's advice and had a finished draft in a matter of weeks.

It can be easy to think to yourself that no "real" writer writes bad first drafts. That's just not true.

Anne Lamott says, "I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her."

Don't be afraid to let that first draft be bad.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What makes a book good?

I think this is a tougher question than meets the eye. We can talk a lot about stellar writing and larger than life characters and interesting plot. But sometimes it's hard to express in words what makes a story work.

This has been on my mind a lot because I just finished reading a vampire book that I'm not going to name because I'm not going to speak in a very complimentary way about it. The only vampire book experience I'd previously had was the Twilight saga.

Here's the thing - I love Twilight. It's the only series I've taken time to reread. When I'm reading them, I become completely obsessed, can't put them down, and can hardly think about anything else. And even though it's been months since I touched them, I still find my mind wandering to my favorite scenes.

But I don't know why. It's not that it's a genre I generally like, because I don't. It isn't that Edward Cullen is "the perfect man," like I hear some girls talk about. It isn't that the writing sparkles. I honestly have no idea what it is. But Stephenie Meyer has really hit on something with those books.

I picked up this other vampire book mostly because I have a connection to the author. Plus it hit the NY Times Bestseller list before it even released. I figured there had to be something to that.

The book was better written than the Twilight series. It had big twists, an intriguing plot, and interesting characters.

And yet, I was left with the feeling of, "This isn't that great." I didn't particularly care about having time to read it, or what happened to the main character, of if The Couple wound up together. It was good enough that I wanted to finish reading it, but I was already trying to figure out what I wanted to read next. Not a good sign.

What do you think makes a book good? What is it about the books you reread over and over that makes you want to do that?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Favorite Writing Books

Some writers appear to be completely addicted to craft books. There's nothing wrong with that, but I often find myself reading the same advice over and over. A craft book has to really say something special to me, has to really motivate, for me to buy it and keep it on the shelf next to my desk. Here's the books that have accomplished that over the 9 years that I've been pursuing the novelist's life:

This was actually assigned reading senior year in my AP English class. I think I was the only "writer" in the class (though many were far better than me!) but all of us really enjoyed the book. It helps that Anne Lamott is just plain hilarious.

My parents gave this to me for Christmas in 2001. I loooooove this book. It's about time for me to reread it.

Reading these and doing the exercises really took my writing to another level. As did taking an all-day seminar from him last September. Fabulous stuff.

Okay, it's been years since I read this book, but it's on my shelf so I thought I'd mention it anyway. I think this was the first writing book he came out with, and when I ordered it back in 2007, it seems like I had to order it used off Amazon or something. I would probably get more out of it now that I actually am a novelist by trade, but apparently I liked it enough to put it on my shelf.

This is my favorite part of the writing process, and I think this book breaks it down in a very manageable way.

A Christmas gift from my brother-in-law (who had some help from my wish list.) This is my new favorite writing book. I've quoted it on here a bunch, and I'll quote it on here a lot more. I loved everything about this book, down to the layout and chapter sizes.

So those are my favorite craft books. There are tons and tons out there, most of which I haven't read. These are definitely worth your time and money.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

How do you choose character names?

Instead of doing my usual Tuesday thing, which is to address a question from one of you guys, today I'm asking the question. How do you choose character names?

For me, character names are just kind of a feel, and I use all kinds of methods. Even within the same books.

Like in Me, Just Different.

Skylar is a name I've loved for so long that I'm not even sure where I first heard it. Her full name is Skylar Lynn Hoyt because when I first came up with it (6th grade?) my initials were also SLH, and Skylar was my "me" character in stories. So it's a little funny to me that she ended up being my polar opposite in my debut series.

I wasn't having much luck coming up with a name for Skylar's guy. I finally found Connor's name while driving on I-70. I got stuck behind a semi that said something like Connor Trucking. As soon as I saw it, I was like, "That's it! That's the name!" (Though now that I'm about to have a son named Connor, I need to come up with a better story than that.)

Jodi was my best friend in middle school, and we actually found ourselves in a similar predicament as Skylar and book-Jodi. Especially when it became clear to me that the Jodi character was my villain, I planned to find Jodi a new name. But real-life-Jodi was totally excited about having her name in the book and asked me to keep it.

Eli is just a name I've always loved. I actually had a Jack Russell Terrier named Eli. Who's also has a "I'll do whatever I want, and just try to stop me," kind of personality, so it works out well. Oddly, I once got teased for this name. Back in 2007 at a conference, an acquisitions editor was like, "Where did you get the name Eli from? It sounds Amish or something." In 2009, a month before Me, Just Different released, Sarah Dessen released Along for the Ride. Main guy's name? Eli. Take that Acquisitions Editor!

These days, when I start a new book, I spend a lot of time on I'm apparently not the only writer who does this, because they now have an article on their site with tips for writers.

So. How do you name your characters?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Showing vs. Telling

Little annoys me more in a book than authors who tell me something they could easily show me. Or possibly worse is telling me alongside showing me.

This is a silly example, but it's the book I've read most recently, and it'll work.

In - er - Curious George Bakes a Cake the author says:

"What was that strange looking gadget? George was curious."

Wow. Obnoxious.

We don't need to be told that George was curious because the author already showed us when George wondered what the strange looking gadget was. And which is more interesting to read? George's actual thoughts about the gadget, or the statement that he's curious? (Although if you've read the book a thousand times to your toddler, none of it feels very interesting anymore.)

Don't tell me your character is angry - show me.

Don't tell me your character is jealous - show me.

Telling - When she spotted Jenny flirting with her boyfriend, Katie felt angry.
Showing - How dare Jenny flirt with her boyfriend! Hadn't they vowed back in seventh grade to never let a boy come between them?

Telling - Katie often felt jealous of Jenny.
Showing - As Katie observed the bounce of Jenny's glossy, blond ringlets, her chest tightened with an all-too-familiar feeling . She smoothed her frizzy red locks and reminded herself that it was a person's heart that mattered, not their hair.

And this goes for deeper issues too. In newbie manuscripts (and, sadly, some published books) I often read paragraphs like this:

Katie and Jenny were really good friends, even though Jenny drove Katie crazy sometimes. Even though Jenny had a bad habit of ditching Katie whenever cute guys were around, Katie would always be there for her. No one understood why Katie felt this way, but they didn't know what kind of childhood Jenny had.

If you find chunks like this in your manuscript - cut them!

These are just details of one of your plot lines. The reader doesn't need this spelled out for them. Over the course of the story, you can show them that Jenny drives Katie crazy. You can have scenes where Jenny ditches Katie for cute guys. You can then show a situation where Katie's been treated horribly, but comes to Jenny's rescue anyway. You can have friends say to Katie, "Why do you put up with Jenny?"

Trust your reader to be smart enough to not have everything laid out for them in black and white.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Can you be too educated?

While in a conversation with a GTW writer, I told them how awesome it was that they were taking classes in fiction writing. They said, "I wonder sometimes if all these courses might be stopping the 'natural flow' of my books, making them sound stiff, if you know what I mean," which I'm using as a springboard for today's question: is it possible to be too educated?

In short, no.

New writers have a tendency to balk at writing rules. Especially the ones that don't seem to come naturally to anyone, like POV. When I first started learning all these rules, I was worried that I'd lose my "voice." That I wouldn't sound unique anymore.

It's a lie. If you're feeling that way, tell that voice, "Shut up - you're wrong," and get back to studying the craft.

All those rules (One POV character per scene, write in nouns and verbs, drop us into the action early, use only "said") actually help your voice to shine. Your reader doesn't get bogged down thinking things like, "Wait, who thought that? Him or her?" Your writing is tighter without all those adverbs. Your plot is more intriguing with all the back story cut. Your dialogue works harder now that you're not relying on words like "shouted" or "inquired."

But until the rules become second-nature, yeah, it's possible your writing will feel stiff for a bit. That's okay. Once you no longer have to stop and think through the rules, you'll discover how much clearer, how much "voice-ier," your writing is.

So don't be afraid to learn more and try new techniques. The authors I gravitate towards are the ones who keep pushing themselves to improve, to learn more about their craft, and to grow as artists.