Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, May 31, 2012

Let’s see…what’s great out there today?

  • There are lots of articles and posts about finding ways to generate story ideas, most of them emphasizing fast-fast-fast. Ed Cyzewski (@edcyzewski) takes a “slow down” approach in 6 Ways to Never Run Out of Ideas on Rachelle Gardner’s (@RachelleGardner) blog.
  • Nathan Bransford (@nathanbransford) sort of follows that theme, in There’s Always More You Can Do, but when he asked his readers for their ideas, many wrote back, in essence, “work harder.” A few tried, “work smarter.”  Fewer still suggested slowing down to get more done. Says something about our culture, doesn’t it?
  • Speaking of slowing down, take 20 minutes–right now–go ahead, I’ll wait–and pop on over to Write to Done for the video of Neil Gaiman’s commencement address (@neilhimself) at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, complete with Neil’s wry British humor.
  • Kill Zone contributor Jordan Dane (@jordandane) begins a series today on what she’s learned/is learning as she becomes a self-published author. While today’s first, introductory post, An Indie Author’s Checklist – A Look Behind the Curtain of OZ, is pretty long, the series has the potential to be practical and valuable, without the anger and angst too much of the traditional vs. self-publishing conversation has degenerated into. Here’s hoping.
  • Along those same lines, since I listed DIY MFA’s (@DIYMFA) other Top 10 lists (and got a thank-you from Becca for doing so), guess I’d better include today’s Top 10 Book Picks, hadn’t I? 🙂 OK–done!
  • And finally from the blogosphere, this doesn’t happen very often, but Kristin Nelson announces (tongue-in-cheek, I’m afraid) on her Pub Rants blog, Here’s a Genre I Didn’t Think Of! OK, so it’s really a fun way of reminding us of certain basics.
  • And finally-finally, not from the blogosphere but from the PBS NewsHour last week, and not about writing but the result of writing, an interview with Stephen Greenblatt, author of the book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, the story of the man who found what may have been the last surviving copy of a book of poetry by the Roman writer Lucretius called “De Rerum Natura,” “On the Nature of Things,” and how that discovery spread around and changed the Western world. There’s also a second short video in which Greenblatt reads from the book.

What great stuff have you found today?

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Critique Technique, part 22—Overly Complex Plot

Tangled rope

Photo credit: Boaz Yiftach via freedigitalphotos.net

In a way it’s hard to say that a story’s plot is overly complex. Many stories have multiple plot lines, each with their own subplots, and yet the story “works”: the reader can understand what’s going on, the plot lines all make sense (eventually, anyway), and things come together at the end. Maybe the conclusion doesn’t tie everything together in a pretty bow, but the story doesn’t end in a Gordian knot, either.

So the question isn’t whether a story’s plot is too complex, but whether it’s too complex for the space allotted to it. Is there time and length for the various plot elements to be explored in enough depth and detail for them to all make sense?

If you’re reviewing a stand-alone piece—a short story or non-fiction article, for example—and you’ve got the whole thing in front of you, that’s easy enough to judge. If the plot is too complex, the piece will:

  • Feel rushed, as if the author was hurrying to get to the end; and/or
  • Leave you wanting to know more, with the sense that the author perhaps knew things she didn’t tell; and/or
  • Leave you confused, not having gotten information you needed to make sense of what you had.

Those latter two points can be techniques literary-fiction writers use—leaving out key details which the reader is then supposed to pull out of the subtext or context—but that’s not what I’m talking about here. You, the reviewer, also need to know what genre a fiction story is a part of.

Creative non-fiction can use these techniques, too, but only with caution.

If you’re reviewing part of a longer piece, such as a single chapter, or even a group of chapters, of a novel, judging whether a plot is too complex for the space allotted to it is much more difficult. Each chapter has its own plot elements, of course, but they won’t necessarily be linked together yet. They might be occurring at the same time, or be linked in some logical way. If you have an outline or synopsis of the entire book, you have a tool you can use to evaluate a chapter’s complexity. If you’ve seen—and can remember the details of—previous chapters, that can also help.

If not, you’re going to have to fall back on your own writer’s sense of what works. You can:

  • Discuss the story with the author;
  • Make notes to help keep track of the various plot lines;
  • Flag events and details that don’t make sense or seem out of place at the moment to see if they’re justified, explained, or resolved later.

There’s one other factor to consider, irrespective of story length or type: whether one or more plot lines are necessary to the story at all. This is a question that can generate a lot of angst and consternation in the writer because he may well consider every piece critical.

Tough noogies.

You’re doing the author a big favor if you can demonstrate that the story will be better—tighter, clearer, more focused—if certain material is taken out. The thing is, you’ll need to be able to see the whole story, more than likely, to be able to make a strong case for this position.

So, here are some questions to ask yourself as you consider a piece’s plot complexity:

  • Does each plot line and subplot contribute to the overall story?
  • Does the story, or the part I can see, feel rushed, as if too much is happening at once or without sufficient development or explanation?
  • Presuming you can see the whole story:
    • Can a plot line or subplot be removed from the story without damage? Might doing so make the story better?
    • Are the relationships and connections among the plot lines clear, or made clear at appropriate times?
    • By the end of the story, do I feel I knew enough to make sense of it and its plot lines? Was information left out that left me confused when this wasn’t the author’s intent?

What do you use to evaluate whether a story’s plot is too complex or not?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, May 30, 2012

Boy, spend a day “out of the office,” even for business, and look what piles up in the reader list! OK, then. No whining–two days’ worth of goodies, instead.

  • Every not-yet-published author wants to know What Does a Publishing Contract Cover? Happily for us, Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) provides the answer, including 25 typical items and, interesting to note, the nearly half of that list (11) she finds herself negotiating on most often. (Note: this is strictly about traditional-publishing contracts, NOT self-publishing ones.)
  • We’ve all faced this situation: someone asks us to do something and we don’t think (or know!) we can’t, and yet we have a hard time saying no. Michael Hyatt (@michaelhyatt) offers a technique for How To Say No When You Feel Pressured to Say Yes.
  • I’m not always a fan of “Top X” lists. “Top 47,386 Ways to…”? Not goin’ there. But DIY MFA (@DIYMFA) has a 12-entry Top 10 Website Picks list that’s worth a look, given the range of topics the sites cover: writing prompts to writing processes to agent blogs to querying. I’m pleased to note that some of the blogs I review here are on that list. Then, in a second (next day) post, Gabriela adds her Top 10 Twitter Feed picks.

That’s all for Monday and Tuesday. What have you found on writers’ blogs that was great?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, May 28, 2012

Here’s the really stand-out stuff from over the weekend, with the bar set extra high to keep this post’s length reasonable:

  • Today is Memorial Day in the United States, the day we remember and honor (or so we claim, between professional sports extravaganzas, beer, and picnics) the men and women who have risked and lost their lives or limbs or health or sanity for the rest of us. I feel an essay coming on, but this post isn’t the place for it. Instead, for now, I’ll point you to James Scott Bell’s (@jamesscottbell) Please Remember on The Kill Zone and Rachelle Gardner’s (@RachelleGardner) Memorial Day.
  • Rosanne Bane (@RosanneBane) asks Do Your Word Counts Measure Up? on Write to Done, but the post is really about when to be concerned about things like a daily word-production goal and when not to. I would pick one nit with her and note that when you’re revising (part of her Stage 5, when she counts words/day), the standard ought to change, because there’s a big difference between creating new words and revising those already written. What does a word count mean during revision?
  • I was at a writer’s conference this weekend (the Pima Writer’s Workshop in Tucson) and of course one of the presenters discussed shameless eavesdropping as a way to develop an ear for written dialog. Well, Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) proposes an inverse to that (originally from David Mamet) in Prompt: The Opposite of Eavesdropping on DIY MFA. I like it!
  • Starting tomorrow (Tuesday) Gabriela and Becca (is that Becca Puglisi from The Bookshelf Muse???) will start a 3-part series of “Top 10” resources for writers on DIY MFA: web sites (Tuesday), Twitter feeds (Wednesday), books (Thursday), all leading to a “blog party” starting Friday.

That’s all for today. What have you found that’s great?

 

Critique Technique, part 21–unclear plot

Today we start a 3-part series on critiquing a story’s plot, or the lack thereof.

The basic concept of plot is simple: it’s the series of events that the characters experience and are involved in. Every story–fiction or non-fiction–has one. In a so-called “literary” story, most of the “action” may be internal to the characters (emotional and/or psychological) rather than external, so it may seem like there isn’t much plot, but there has to be some. A perfect example is Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Not much happens in this story: two couples sit around a kitchen table drinking gin and talking/half-arguing about and around life and love. On the other hand, pick up any Tom Clancy novel and there’s tons of external activity–chases, explosions, spycraft, you name it.

But the point of this post isn’t to examine how much plot there is, or how little, but whether what is going on makes sense. Plot events build on each other, doing those things I’ve written about before, providing conflict, creating tension, putting obstacles in the characters’ ways. Every scene has its own set of plot points (the very briefest may have just one) that, if done right, build to a high point, then fall away to leave the reader wanting to know more. The same is true of each chapter, and of course of the entire story. These are the scene, chapter, and story arcs.

An unclear plot will fail to build that arc in one or more ways. Plot and characters are inseparable, so if the plot events seem unrelated to the characters’ goals, needs, desires, or conflicts, that’s a problem. Even in experimental fiction, events don’t happen at random or for no reason. It’s true that the connection between a plot event and a character’s motivations may not be apparent right away, especially early in the story, but the author must eventually make that connection. It may be hard, even impossible, for you to see it if the motivation isn’t revealed in the part of a longer piece you’re reading. In that case, your discussion about the event with the author should reveal the link.

Similarly, there might be no clear connection between events. Now, if the story contains several parallel plot lines, events on the different lines might never be connected, or the connection might not be apparent until later in the story. That’s fine. But within a plot line, unconnected, disjointed events will just confuse the reader. In a case like this, the author may know what the connection is but has failed to show it on the page. Sometimes this is a good thing, because the way it surprises the reader can increase her tension and curiosity about the story, but now we’re back to the point I made a few lines above about saving the connection for later.

Irrelevant events fall into the same category. If, for example, in the middle of a spy thriller, the protagonist waxes poetic about his Aunt Tillie’s prize-winning mac-and-cheese recipe, there’d better be a darn good reason for that. If there isn’t (and the excuse is likely to be, “it’s character development”), you need to flag it so it can be deleted.

Also, plot events need to fall in some kind of logical order, but I’m going to save that discussion for Part 23.

The thing about an unclear plot is that it doesn’t build tension or move the story forward. A flashback can do that if it adds a new wrinkle to the story or demonstrates a bit of a character’s motivation. But anything that stops or retards that forward motion, takes the story off on a tangent, or leaves it wandering is something you need to call to the author’s attention.

Here are some questions for you to ask about the plot as you read a piece:

  • Do the plot events relate to the characters’ goals, needs, desires, or conflicts?
  • As best I can tell, are the plot events relevant to the story?
  • Can I see the connections between the plot’s events? If not, can the author explain their connections to me, or how those connections will be revealed later?
  • Do the plot events continue to make life more difficult for the characters in believable ways? (Note: it’s OK for problems the characters face to be resolved before the climax if doing so creates opportunities for new problems to arise.)
  • Do the plot events make sense, or do they leave me wondering, in a bad way, what the hell is going on?
  • Do the plot events continue to pique my interest and keep me reading?

A poorly constructed plot leaves the reader at sea without a paddle or sail. Writers don’t let writers plot badly.

What do you look for when evaluating a plot for clarity?

 

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, May 24, 2012

I was starting the post in a bad mood after having spent 80+ minutes on a webinar (which I won’t identify) that delivered 30 minutes of value. Good thing it didn’t cost any money, but that loss of 50 minutes of my life I’ll never get back stinks. Then I read:

  • Jordan Dane’s (@jordandane) First Page Critique: Shopping Can Be Deadly (& Fun) on The Kill Zone and my mood improved. The author’s submission is fun, even if flawed, and Jordan’s comments are on point. Now I can go back to those posts I passed on. Maybe there was something great there, after all.
  • Nathan Bransford (@nathanbransford) provides a little sanity in what has become too much of a flame war when he writes Traditional vs. Self-publishing is a False Dichotomy. I know this yet-to-be-published novelist appreciates having the option of self-publishing, which I didn’t when I started my novel-writing adventure. Options are good things.

That’s it? Maybe that webinar set my greatness filter to too high a setting. There were a few posts that just missed the cut. Well, better luck tomorrow.

Speaking of tomorrow, and Saturday and Sunday, I’ll be attending a writers’ conference the next three days, with 90 minute drives to and from (hmmm, money value of time???), so these posts may be light or non-existent until Monday. Hope you don’t mind.

Meanwhile, did you find anything great in the writers’ blogs today?

 

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, May 23, 2012

They’re GRRRRR… Oh, wait. Can’t use that: copyright infringement! But anyway, the posts below are.

  • Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) pulls back the publishing house curtain to answer the question What Does the Editing Process Look Like? Nothing really surprising here but great info for those who haven’t had the privilege yet.
  • After the editing comes the marketing (if not also before, in terms of platform building), and that may include advertising. Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) begs, Please Do Not Pay Money for an Online Ad Until You Read This. OK, maybe “begs” isn’t the right word. Warns, perhaps? Anyway, the lists are well worth the visit.
  • Nancy J. Cohen (@nancyjcohen) takes on an unusual topic for The Kill Zone in DOG: First Page Critique. She’s right on target, though: the author gets us engaged with the protagonist right away. Want to find out how? Go take a look.
  • Speaking of engaging, on WordServe Water Cooler, Sharon A. Lavy takes a quote from Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing and turns it into an interesting exercise to help not just Find Your Writing Passion but express it in a powerful and succinct way. Good stuff!
  • Back to the topics of character and engaging, K. M. Weiland (@KMWeiland) dares ( ! ) to critique Cecil B. DeMille’s classic movie, The Ten Commandments, on WORDplay. Why? How? To make this point: Don’t Betray Your Character in Your Climax. “[C]haracter is the heart of your story…no matter how big the events surrounding the protagonist” are.
  • Lori Handeland’s (@nightcreatures) wry list of 10 Writing Myths (the truths follow in parentheses) and the 10 things that make the myths irrelevant, all on the Guide To Literary Agents blog.

That’s it for the great stuff, but I want to take a minute to comment on some really-not-great stuff. A couple of the blogs I follow are written by “big name” people, neither of whom I’m going to identify beyond this: one a science fiction author whose fiction I appreciate and enjoy; the other a novelist and big, or at least loud, voice in the current self- versus traditional publishing kerfuffle. So far, so good.

BUT.

Time after time, I see the advice to keep blog posts short and on-point. Alas, these two authors seem to have missed that e-mail. Author #2’s latest massive missive clocked in at over 4,800 words. Author #1’s non-fiction latest: almost 3,400.

Sorry, I don’t have the time.

Which is a shame, because I’ll bet I could learn a lot from both of them. But there’s this little thing called respecting your reader’s time.

I hope I’m respecting yours.

Now, what great stuff did you find on the blogosphere today?