Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Writers Corner: Good to the Last Page - A Crash Course in Finishing your Novel or Narrative Nonfiction

On April 25th, I was honored by the opportunity to share about constructing a book in general, and finishing it in particular, at my very favorite place in Memphis - the Dixon Gallery & Gardens. Between the art (lovely!) the grounds (peaceful!) and the programming (fascinating!) it has brought so much joy to my life, so it was lovely to get to participate in one of their weekly lunchtime lectures ("Munch and Learn," every Wednesday at noon).

Anywho, I got to pare down quite a lot of fiction theory into an afternoon chat and was asked (rightfully so) to post the slides on my website. Theoretically, the video should be available at some point? I will follow up on that. In the meantime, let me walk you through what we covered...

For starters, I think it's important for writers to know that writing isn't just about talent and access to a typewriter in a field of flowers. It's also practice and study and preparation and follow-through, and - at least for me - a lot of old-fashioned stubbornness. But it really is a thing that can be learned and improved upon, so if your first efforts don't read like published passages (passages that have been edited by both the author and professional editors, mind you), don't be discouraged!

Where you start with your book depends on where your brain starts. For me, it's concept - it's a "what if this sort of person did this sort of thing and met this person and wouldn't that be interesting?" But that doesn't go much of anywhere unless you figure out who that sort of person is. So let's look at the building blocks.

Goals - What does that character want? In the moment, in the long-term, what do they want from life?

Skills - What does she bring to the table? What makes her special enough to have the story focus on her? Having a skill helps your character to be active - more on that in a minute.

Obstacles - If your character has goals and skills, what's holding her back? Why doesn't she have the things she wants just yet? What flaws and traumas stand in her way?

Altruism - Here is a thing about the brain - we need to see just a teensy bit of altruism for our brain to say "Hey, this character is likeable!" and proceed to care and invest in that character. If you're reading this and you're a Doctor Who fan, think about the introduction of Peter Capaldi's Doctor to the series. I don't know about you, but I had a hard time liking his character for much of that series. And then do you know what they did? His next series out, there was a whole two-part arc about the Doctor having to decide if he was going to save the child version of his mortal enemy, exploring the idea that there was a chance that child wouldn't grow up to be awful. And then he uttered what would become a catchphrase for his character - "I'm the Doctor, and I save people."

That catch phrase popped up over and over for the rest of the series. And that's exactly what our lizard brains needed - we needed to know that he wanted to save people. Tension exists episode to episode over whether he's successful or not, but by resetting his character in that small way, it made a big difference in my response to him. Big enough that I was able to go back and watch the previous season and enjoy it more, having attached to that Doctor as a protagonist.

Fun fact: Blake Snyder wrote about this at length in his book, Save the Cat

Actions - Lastly, interesting stories revolve around the characters, not the other way around. Your characters should be using those goals and skills and making things happen, even if they're the wrong things (because: obstacles). For further reading, check this piece I wrote here.

 Step II - Understand Three-Act Structure.

Here we go! In a nutshell -

Act IAct One has the setup. It's the sharing and showing (rather than telling, mind you) of the setting, the characters, and the stakes, and how those three elements interact with each other. 

Setting? That's the time and place of your book - the more real it is, the more lived-in the story will feel. 

Characters - see above. Although I'll note that having the right ensemble is often really important, having a group of diverse people that you can mix and match into endlessly interesting combinations. Even if it's a book about a family, think about how very different your own family members can be and let your characters reflect that. 

And the stakes - what's at risk? What's the source of tension? Much of that is going to stem from the events created by the...

Inciting Event - It's the thing that happens that sets the plot on its course. It's the thing that, without it, the story doesn't actually happen. It can happen a split second before the start of the book, or two chapters in (note: you've got to be writing striking prose to get away with putting it that late, but it's not at all impossible). Also, just to complicate things, you can even have multiple inciting events, depending on if you're working with interwoven plotlines. 

All that to say, the Inciting Event is the thing that propels your story into...

Act II -  In which everything gets more complicated. Things get tougher and messier as the story develops. Think about Pride and Prejudice - the second act is when Jane and Bingley fall in love, Elizabeth and Darcy keep finding new things to like and dislike each other, and then there's Wickham complicating things for everybody. Every new social engagement deepens the mess, until...

The Halfway Turning Point - in which something - or a couple somethings - happen to propel the action towards the climax. So in Pride , think about when Bingley unexpectedly returns to London - leaving Jane behind without a proposal - and Mr. Collins proposes to Lizzie. Those events propel the actions forward through the rest of the second act. 

The Darkest Moment - Right before - or during - the climax, there must be a moment in which it looks like things are really not going to work out. Wickham and Lydia have run off, and the Bennets may not be able to weather the scandal - certainly not in Merryton. 

The Climax - This is the culmination of all the plot, all of the incendiary pieces lined up and exploding. It's Chekhov's gun firing. Writing is different for everybody, but the climactic set piece is some of the toughest writing in the book. The emotions are high, the action fast, the dialogue short and fraught (yes, you can use a Profound Monologue but for goodness' sake, do so sparingly. Monologues can get pedantic when they're overused) and the main characters will leave changed. 

How changed? Take a look at the character elements above. How have their goals changed over the course of the story? What about their skills, or obstacles? How have their perspectives shifted? An unchanged, static character is one that ultimately feels like a waste. It's like loading your readers onto a flight that promises a trip to Paris but actually takes them straight back to the original airport. So remember as you're crafting your character, give them space to grow. If they're near perfect at the beginning, it's less compelling. We see those character changes in...

Act III - which features the denoument, or "tying up" of the plot. The action isn't at the same high, but we're still working to see things resolve. Look at it as finding out where the pieces fall after things the explosion. However, know that not every plotline has to be resolved tidily. Even if you're writing a Happily Ever After book, you may still have an element that isn't lovingly tied up.

In my second book, Simply Sara, there remains a rift between Sara and one of her parents. And yes, I got reader mail about it. But I didn't want to tie that piece up - I didn't ignore it, but I didn't resolve it. And it's up to you, what gets tied and not. For me, I didn't feel like the estranged parent would be someone whose mind would be easily altered, that a change of heart at the end would read trite. So while that situation isn't dropped or ignored, it's also not given a HEA ending, not yet.

What else?

The graph at the top - that's a suggestion. The inciting incident can happen before the first page, and the climax can hit at the very end and leave you with a short third act. And then you can pull a Steven Spielberg and have a third act that really kinda morphs into a fourth act. For myself, I like a longer third act that doesn't drag, because I need the exhale time. I have my coping mechanisms if it's short (reading it three times over), but for an ending to feel satisfying, I need a bit more of an end and an emotional high after the worst is over. 

So yes - three act structure. Y'all still with me? Honestly, there are books and books and books about this, but as mentioned above, this is a crash course to point you in the right direction. 

Another way to think of story structure is like a house - the first act is the foundation, the second is the walls, and the third is the roof. I think a lot about how the first act is a foundation, because sooooo many first act issues come from a foundation that isn't sturdy enough. 

So basically, if you're stuck in the beginning, double check your elements. But also - and I TOTALLY FORGOT TO PUT THIS ON THE SLIDE - a lot of the time, if you're stuck in the first act, it can be a time management issue. So make sure you've got the time you need to really think through everything in the first act, because it really is the foundation for the entire story. 

I know I'm harping on stakes a lot, but they matter! I have a hard time setting the stakes high enough because I don't want to be mean to my characters (who, for the record, don't actually exist). But without stakes, there's no tension and no momentum. 

An example of this that I go back to a lot is the character of Margot in Jane of Austin. I was thinking I'd be clever and minimalist by paring down some of Austen's cast from Sense and Sensibility, but when it came down to it, there was no glue to hold them together. The fact that they were dedicated to sticking together, moving across the country together as grown adults didn't make sense. It didn't make sense, and I was plowing through the second act even while the story wasn't quite holding up.

So I did what I learned to do time and time again - go back to the text. And the youngest sister, Margaret, was right there, saying the wrong things and being hopeful and despondent by turns. In my version, adding Margot turned out to be key. Not only were Jane and Celia co-owners of their business, but they were their sister's guardian after their father's business disgrace (I kinda pulled from Persuasion in the setup, you'll have to actually read it to see how that worked out). But as guardians of a teenager, they had  to stick together to work things out. I didn't start writing Margot until I was nearly halfway through the story, but she ended up being the emotional core of the book. 

Ending books can be hard, especially if you've really worked at creating lots of tension along the way. At a certain point, you can feel like you're holding a soda can that's fizzing out and the top and wondering What on earth do I do next

So that's when I go back to the planning. Look at the threads that need tying, and look at how they can be tied and resolved together. Think about the ways the characters have grown and changed and how that affects their actions. Plan ahead, but follow the story and see where it takes you. 

You wouldn't build a house without blueprints, and I wouldn't recommend writing a book without a synopsis. Not if you're wanting to finish in any reasonable amount of time. It's funny - if you get a bunch of authors together and bring up synopses, you'll see a few full-body winces. But other author friends and I have compared notes, and all of us have come around to them. The fact of the matter is that when you're writing on deadline, synopses are necessary. I can keep yammering here about them, but I've already yammered at length about them, and you can read that here.

The time factor for writing is real. Time you're writing is time you're not working on other tasks or, you know, sleeping. So if you're wanting to write and your schedule is packed full, take a hard look at your calendar and look at what to swap out.

And last - everything you write, every word, can be edited. So don't start off pressuring yourself to write with excellence. Don't even pressure yourself to write well. Because sometimes you need to trick your brain to write at all, and you do that by being fully content to write badly. There's no pressure in that, right? Better to write reams of terrible prose than none at all, because here's the thing - you can't edit what doesn't exist.

Does there come a time when you have to back away from the editing and let a professional take over? Absolutely. But when you're working at getting those early drafts out, whatever you need to do to trick your brain into playing ball? Do that.

That brings us to the end of the material I prepared for the Dixon - when I presented there, I fielded a bunch of questions on a number of topics. If you've got any questions, share in the comments below!

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