Tuesday, July 16, 2013
It’s not that I don’t understand plot. I totally “get” character arc. In my mind’s eye, I see turning points and crescendo. I’ve plotted a hero’s journey before starting a book. I’ve mapped out a “beat sheet” based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. I have made detailed time lines based exclusively on the historical facts of a story.
And then it all falls apart when I sit down to write.
I am ashamed to admit it, but back in November of 2012, I sent something to my editor that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a book. It was supposed to be the third and final installment of my Tudor court series. I couldn’t call it a first draft. More like a zero. I could barely call it a draft. The characters were amorphous, the plot nonexistent. There was no character arc. No story arc. There were scenes and thoughts and half-finished ideas. A bunch of history. And not much else. Eighty thousand words and no story to show for it.
As I said, this was not my first book. I’ve been in the trenches for a while. I’ve read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and Robert McKee’s Story and Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel and Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve taken classes and been to workshops. I even did a six-week plotting course two years ago. This mess of a draft wasn’t because I didn’t understand what I was doing.
In my defense, a huge part of my problem was that I was going through a difficult time emotionally and personally at the same time I was going through a massive crisis of confidence. So I just wrote whatever, hoping something would come of it. Just to go through the motions.
I am here today to tell you that going through the motions does not write a book. At least not one anyone would want to read.
So in January, when my editor handed it back to me, I had to face the fact that I needed to write a book. One with a plot and character arcs. One that had distinctive settings and a sympathetic yet flawed protagonist. One that told a story. One that made sense.
That crisis of confidence came back and hit me upside the head. It told me, you don’t know how. It told me, Gilt and Tarnish were just flukes. It told me, you have no idea what you’re doing.
I went back to the drawing board. I went farther back than that. I reread my craft books and my notes from the plotting course. I figured out what my issues were:
1. My protagonist had no motivation. What does she want?
2. I had no antagonist. Who or what is working against her?
3. I had no crisis. What is the midpoint of the novel?
4. I had no climax. What is the worst that can happen and how does she get out of it?
5. I had no resolution. What can bring this story to a close?
6. History was getting in my way. My story world presented obstacles that seemed insurmountable, yet couldn’t be changed.
All basic stuff, right? I learned this a long time ago. So I sat down with pen and paper, with notes and books and Post-Its. Determined to get it right this time. The biggest issue was my main character.
What does she want?
I had no clue. I agonized over this for three days. I wrote character studies and memories from her childhood. I made a timeline of the history. I looked at where she went after the story ends and puzzled out how she got there.
I still couldn’t open a new document. I couldn’t answer that one, basic question.
So I sent an e-mail to my editor, saying maybe I should just dump the whole thing. Start over. Choose a different character, perhaps a different time period altogether.
Less than a minute later, I got a phone call—the kind that goes out to someone standing at the edge of a cliff. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?” were her first words. Together, my editor and I batted ideas back and forth. We puzzled over the important events in the story. And she asked me, “What is your biggest concern?” I told her about rereading craft books, about agonizing over plot exercises, about how I couldn’t answer basic questions.
She said, “Those exercises are great. Answering those questions can really focus your plot. But maybe that’s what’s holding you back.”
I remembered a workshop I’d been to in 2011. The Story Masters, hosted by Free Expressions. James Scott Bell, author of Plot and Structure, had told us that crafting a novel is like playing golf. You learn, you practice, you get advice from the pros.
“But when you swing,” he said, “you have to let all of that go. You can’t think too much, or you’ll get in your own way. You have to believe that the knowledge is there.”
The thing is, that’s what got me into trouble in the first place. I figured the knowledge couldn’t be there, because it would have shown up in what I’d written before. Wouldn’t it? I looked back over my mess of a manuscript. It still had no plot, no arc, little setting and hardly any character development. But it had seeds. Hidden deep within those pages was my character’s motivation. Hidden between the lines were her strengths and flaws. There were glimmers of subplots and secondary characters. All I had to do was apply it. I had a whole “draft” full of clay to work with. It just needed shape.
So I opened a new document and started over, taking these treasures with me. The story and characters took shape, the setting became more vivid. It came to life, molded by the structure and breathed into by the laissez faire of creativity.
I certainly don’t advocate this process as the way to go about writing a book. It’s long and arduous and painful. It’s time-consuming. It expends a lot of energy and uses a lot of words. (I ended up cutting about 45k of that original manuscript and went on to add another 60k, so really, I wrote two books).
But I learned from it. And these are the things I pass on to you.
1. Know your craft. And know when to let it go.
2. Apply your craft. And believe you are, even when it doesn’t feel like it.
3. Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.
4. Write. Don’t let your doubt stop you.
5. Let go. If you’ve been working on something, agonizing over it, belaboring it, give it a chance to breathe. You may need to go for a walk or a run. You may need to talk it through with another writer. Or you may need to give it away for a month or two. When you come back, that spark will be there.
I’m approaching my next project in a completely different way. The characters are already in my head—living, breathing, flawed, voracious. Scenes are coming to light like movie teasers. So I’m going with it. Each scene goes up on my story board in the approximate place I think it will end up—I’m writing completely, randomly out of order. I’m still pantsing, but not in the sprawling, explosive, frantic way I wrote Book 3. I’m trusting myself. Trusting my characters. And trusting my craft.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
About the Author
Katherine Longshore is the author of GILT, a story of friendship and betrayal set in the court of Henry VIII and TARNISH, the story of a young Anne Boleyn. They are part of a series of novels about three different girls as they navigate the halls and pitfalls of Henry's palaces, facing love, popularity, lies and execution. Because in the Tudor Court, a single step can lead to celebrity or death.
She has also written the forthcoming MANOR OF SECRETS, the "Downtonesque" story of two girls leading very different lives within the same Edwardian country house—and what happens when those worlds collide.
Katherine grew up on the northern California coast. At university, she created her own major in Cross-Cultural Studies and Communications, planning to travel and write. Forever. Four years, six continents and countless pairs of shoes later, she went to England for two weeks, stayed five years and discovered history. She now lives in California with her husband, two children and a sun-worshiping dog.
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About the Book
Anne Boleyn is the odd girl out. Newly arrived to the court of King Henry VIII, everything about her seems wrong, from her clothes to her manners to her witty but sharp tongue. So when the dashing poet Thomas Wyatt offers to coach her on how to shine at court—and to convince the whole court they're lovers—she accepts. Before long, Anne's popularity has soared, and even the charismatic and irresistible king takes notice. More than popularity, Anne wants a voice—but she also wants love. What began as a game becomes high stakes as Anne finds herself forced to make an impossible choice between her heart's desire and the chance to make history.
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Great post: Plotting, Pantsing, and Knowing When To Let Go by Katherine LongshoreTweet this! Posted by Jan Lewis at 7:00 AM