Archive | March 2013

The Iceberg

Nothing slows down the plot more quickly than the information dump. Did you ever find yourself in a conversation with someone when you suddenly realize you have no idea what he just said and you find that you no longer even care? He just dumped a whole lot of meaningless information on you as you waited patiently for him to get to the point. A friend of mine would say, in this situation, “Could you please just land the plane.” What he wants is something to keep him interested, something to make him want to keep listening.
This is a typical mistake new writers make according to James Scott Bell, when beginning their novels.
To avoid boring the readers with too much exposition, and losing their interest in the novel- especially in the beginning of the story where it is vital to “hook the reader”, Mr. Bell suggests to “do the iceberg”. He tells us “Don’t tell us everything about the character’s past history or current situation. Give us the 10 percent above the surface that is necessary to understand what’s going on, and leave 90 percent hidden and mysterious below the surface. Later in the story, you can reveal more of that information. Until the right time, however; withhold it.”
This is only one of several rules he has, however; this one stood out to me as a rule I would use both in my writing and in my daily life. As a reader, wondering why a character feels the way she does or acts the way she acts is a big part of what compels me to keep reading. As the author drops one piece of information at a time that slowly paints a picture of the character’s motivations, we can not help but yearn to see the finished product at the end. What caused this character to carry so much guilt? What makes her want to move away from her family and friends? What happened that made him pick up the gun and shoot his best friend? These answers lie beneath the surface of the story, beneath the water- too deep for us to see anything yet. All we can see so far is the tip of the iceberg, until little by little the sea level subsides revealing a larger piece of the ice as it does.
If the reader is given too much information too soon, what reason would she have to continue reading. In Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s “The Language of Flowers” we are introduced to the protagonist Victoria when she is 18 years old. Immediately, on the first page she alludes to something that happened when she was 10 years old, something bad. But we are not told what it was until much later in the story when we are so hooked that nothing or no one can pry us away from the book. And when we are finally let in on the big secret after having been fed little bits and pieces along the way like bread crumbs along a trail, we are so emotionally connected to the story and the character that we could never imagine anyone landing that plane even a second sooner.
By revealing only the tip of the iceberg until the time is right, we keep our readers in suspense wondering about the hidden part below the surface. And then once they’ve been prepared enough, we hit them with the other 90% that they could not see – knocking them over with its full strength.

We all have a quest…

“The quest may be the oldest plot pattern of all” says James Scott Bell in his wonderfully written book ” Plot & Structure- Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish”. He explains that in a “quest plot” story a hero goes out into a dark world and searches for something; a sacred item, a person, knowledge or some sort of inner peace.
This is evident when Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye searches for a reason to live in a world “of phony people”. Similarly, in life , we are all searching for something; a reason to live in a world of something we do not like, something that makes life difficult. And along the way, like Holden, we face a series of encounters -suffering setbacks as we move another step closer to our own objectives.

Many times our quest does not go well as we struggle to overcome those setbacks yet we carry on in perpetual search anyway. As our hero Holden begins his series of encounters with different people in the city we watch him fail in each connection. We see Holden get drunk after his date with Sally ends badly and we watch him freeze in Central Park at night where he thinks he will die of pneumonia.

Finally,when Holden sees his sister Phoebe, she asks him what he wants to be one day and he says ” a catcher in the rye” – someone who saves children from falling off a cliff. This statement reveals Holden’s uncertainty about his place in the world and makes us wonder if he even makes it in the end. Causing us to think , Salinger’s plot touches us -just as the author had hoped it would do.

“The quest mirrors our own journey through life”- James Scott Bell tells us. Like Holden, we also face different challenges in life and suffer setbacks (and even enjoy victories), and we strive to carry on ahead despite it all. So in life, just as Mr. Bell tells us in his book, we all have our own quest- whether we recognize it or not.

Word by Word

Life gets overwhelming. Always so much to get done, commitments to fulfill, work to get done, chores to do, errands to run, children to raise, goals to reach…. Stories to write. In Anne Lamott’s bestseller “Bird by Bird”, she tells this story that relates to all of our lives, whether we are writers or not: “thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobolized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

I love that story and often think of it when a task that I know I must perform, one that I dread doing, looks too overwhelming to accomplish. Sometimes it could be cleaning my house before company is scheduled to come over, or perhaps a task like the project that I took on last spring: painting every single room in my house. Now that was a huge job since I had tons of “clutter: oversized furniture, book shelves loaded with books and photo albums, cherished collectibles, and so much more to move first. Thinking of going through every room, moving every single item, stripping outdated wallpaper left there by the former homeowners, and painting walls that stretched higher than a normal ladder could reach was actually making me feel ill. But I had been putting it off for too long and I was deteremined to finally get it done.

This is how it sometimes feels when a writer sets out to write the book of his dreams. As we open up our word document program on the laptop -or Ipad in my case, we stare at the blank page and wait for the words to just spill out onto the paper. But it doesn’t happen that way and it becomes just like the house that needs to be painted- too overwhelming to ever accomplish in this lifetime. As much as we long to write, we NEED to write, we feel a little like Anne Lamott’s 10 year old brother and just want to give up the idea and cry.

To write one word at a time, word by word, the story will eventually get written. In one of my writing groups, a few of the writers have written this way- taken one scene that appealed to them and just wrote that one chapter without knowing where it would fall in the book. Instead of agonizing over how to get from chapter one to chapter two, they write out scenes as they unfold in their minds, chapter by chapter. One of these writers, who is very talented and is ready to pitch his story to an agent as I write this, did just that. He wrote one scene at a time, one chapter at a time and later when he had a bunch of chapters written, he laid them all out and found a way to string them all together like beads on a string into his finished story. And it is a great story at that!

Instead of worrying about the entire stretch of road from start to finish, dreading each painful step we have to take along the way before we have even begun, we must-instead- focus on only the individual step as we take it. Put the rest of the road out of our minds and just keep going one step at a time and eventually, as long as we keep moving forward and refuse to give up, we WILL reach the finish line.

So next time you are overwhelmed with your task, whether it be writing a novel, or painting a house, remember to take a deep breath and write one word at a time, word by word. Paint one room at a time- or as Anne Lamott’s father told her brother all those years ago- “just take it bird by bird” and eventually you will find yourself admiring the bright colors that have transformed your entire home and you will find that you can’t recall why you had ever hesitated to begin with.

Writing by the seat of your pants

Whenever I read advice from a seasoned writer about whether to outline or write organically with no map as a guide, I secretly hope to find a “step by step” lesson on which is best and then I want the recipe for making it work. Must I write out a detailed plot outline, complete with each pre-determined scene, every conflict and resolution figured out right up to the conclusion. Or is it possible for me to just open my mind and let the story pour out onto the paper as its happening in my mind; write by the seat of my pants?

In Stephen King’s ” On Writing”, he writes ” Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s first choice.” Comparing stories to fossils that we, as the writers, uncover as we go, he encourages us to let the story unfold as it flows through us. By outlining ahead, we risk crippling ourselves, limiting the potential for our characters to act more believably as they dig along with us. After all, if our goal is for the characaters to explore answers to their questions, to defeat the demons inside their minds as they move forward through the story, then we must dig along side them for answers as we write. If the writer has all of the answers ahead of time and each layover in the journey of our characaters is laid out already, the writer stops digging, “even though there might be a lot more of that dinosaur to uncover”, as Steven James says in his Writers Digest article “Go Organic.”

Steven James tells us to ” let the characters respond naturally to what’s happening, write a scene that fulfills a promise you made earlier in the book, or work on a scene you know readers will expect based on your genre and the story you have told so far. … Move into and out of the story, big picture, small picture, focusing one day on the forest and the next day on the trees.” He tells us to follow these ideas, and the stories will unfold before us.

After seeking the answer to my question whether to write an outline or not- through the advice of the experts, I as the reader, have defeated my own demons and subsequently, I am ready do something outside of my box as a writer and perhaps, even as a human being; I am ready to write by the seat of my pants and see where this takes me and the readers who have chosen to ride along with me.