Thursday, July 24, 2008

Two books, two concepts for writers

I am deep in the throes of re-examining my writing. After writing nearly non-stop for 4 years and completing 4 novels, 3 short stories, and a few hundred poems in that time, (not to mention blog posts, and virtual classes), it is time to take stock.

Part of what shifted me here was getting a thorough critique on novel number 2. Part was also what I think is the natural progression of learning (at least for me.)

I tend to throw myself into new learning. Case in point: downhill skiing. When I first returned to skiing after more than a decade's hiatus, and an intervening knee surgery, I just rented some skis and went. I didn't take lessons and I spent a fair amount of time on my ass. But I did get to a place where I knew what I needed to learn and *then* enrolled in lessons.

Learning how to program access databases--same thing. I took some basic understanding of how to tell a computer what to do from a misspent youth in a middle school computer club and started to play. When I couldn't do what I needed to do with Access, I bought a few manuals and worked my way through tutorials. But that was only *after* I had experimented and learned by doing.

Recently, I've been pouring over writing books, now that I've learned the basics of how to plan and finish the novel process. Two books I've just finished that I found useful are James Scott Bell's "Plot and Structure" and Orson Scott Cards "How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy."

I know if I had read these book a few years ago, I wouldn't have reached that 'aha' place where what they said had resonance with my experience.

Two concepts, in particular, have been extremely helpful. Bell talks about the LOCK concept for laying out the plot of a story.

L=lead--the main character is compelling, someone we want to watch for the whole story
O=Objective--what is is the lead wants? The lead's want/need drives the plot.
C=Confrontation--who/what gets in the lead's way
K=Knockout--an ending with power

I set up a worksheet and wrote this out for the story I am editing. I did a separate "LOCK" for each of the major plot lines in the novel and discovered that one of the reasons my protagonist's story line wasn't as compelling for the reader is my main character's "LOCK" process wasn't clear enough. In contrast, that process for the secondary story line and secondary protagonist WAS strong, clear, and carried through the whole novel. I had a choice, then. Either I could re-write the story moving the secondary line to primacy, or I had to beef up the primary plot.

The second concept that I found useful from my recent reading was Card's 'MICE' Quotient.

Card proposes that while all stories contain multiple elements, any given story can either be primarily focused on Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event.

Milieu stories are about place--generally seen through the eyes of an outsider. The milieu story begins when the character enters the new place, and ends when he/she returns home. He proposes The Wizard of Oz as an example of a milieu story.

Idea stories are about the process of discovering an answer for a story question. Mysteries are perfect examples of the Idea story. There's a dead body and 'who done it' needs to be answered for the story to end.

Character stories are all about how the individual changes as a result of the events in the story. They start with a catalyzing event and end with the character's transformation.

Event stories deal with something that destabilizes the world of the story and ends with the balance restored. LOTR is a classic example of an event story.

Looking at my story through this lens, it became clear that the book is the story of Isabel's transformation (a character story) as she learns to let go of fear and accept who she is.

I suppose it seems backwards to work on something for a while and then learn about it, but it dovetails with the way my brain seems to work. I'm looking for other recommendations for good craft books. If you got 'em, share 'em.



  1. I know what you mean. I read Bell's book at the beginning of my learning curve and I didn't get much out of it - but I've still got the book. It might be time to pull it out again.

    I hadn't heard about the MICE quotient until you mentioned in your first crit at the Novel Club. But I've got it now :D

    Interesting post.

    One other thought - some of these ideas are just as valid for revising a story, the way you're starting to do with novel #2. So even though they're presented as outlining ideas (iirc) they have just as much validity for the seat-of-the-pants writers among us

  2. I'm the opposite to you. I pick something that I want to learn about, do research, and then do and learn. Once I got past the basics, there were 3 books that I found really helpful. In no particular order:

    Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell. I reviewed it on my blog (after not having read it for a while). I find it really useful to read before I start editing the first the draft. I also read it before I start a new novel-length work (hoping some of it will stay in my subconscious while I write).

    Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell is also a good read. He lists a number of books that didn't make it and should have or did make it and shouldn't have based on writing quality and examines why.

    There's much more than that in there (best writer's block exercise I've ever seen). He is a professor of English as well as a bestselling author so it is interesting to read his thoughts.

    I plan to run a reading challenge for writers, based on the list of books in Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, in 2009. Anyone who is interested, drop me a note.

    Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan has also been a useful book for me. But I have a particular problem with description in my writing.

    I've got a whole shelf of writing books and a few WIPs. I'm just about to start mapping out 2 new ones. Thanks for the workshop.