Beats

The month of May I took a sabbatical to Seattle, where my friend and playwright/screenwriter (the indomitable Katherine Gee Perrone!) helped me plot my latest novel. Because when you’re stuck, ask for help! Writing doesn’t always have to be a completely solitary vocation. But I digress. The most helpful part of our plotting session was learning some good screenwriting terminology that helped me cement in my mind how I like plots to be constructed, both as a reader and as a writer.

“Beats lead to beats!” she’d say every time I got stuck. And isn’t that the true essence of plot–more so than, say, “stuff happens” or “the characters did stuff”?

Just to make the terminology clear, in screenwriting, a beat “refers to an event, decision, or discovery that alters the way the protagonist pursues his or her goal” (via Dr. Wikipedia). Even if your character goes to the store to pick up a gallon of milk, how does that affect the story? (Granted, some readers like books where Stuff Happens that isn’t obviously moving the plot forward, so YMMV).

Speaking to the zeitgeist, I see two different ways this is employed in storytelling. One is the Outlander model, more episodic than any novel I’ve read. Each chapter of Outlander feels self-contained, so while some beats lead to the next beat within the chapter, many of the events of each chapter only yield consequences further down the line. The advantage of episodic storytelling is to give the reader time and space to feel immersed in the world–and the Highlands of 1743 is a world I don’t mind being a tourist in. Still, as I’m reading I can see that something that Claire and Jamie do or say will affect the plot later in the novel, so I’m never disoriented by having lost the “thread” of the plot.
The second method is the style of storytelling employed by Mad Max: Fury Road. The pace is breakneck. Each character’s decision leads to immediate and forceful consequences. What with the action scenes and blocking, the plot of MM:FR feels like a Rube Goldberg machine–in some action scenes, I mean this statement literally. The advantage in this method (manifold) is that your reader feels a sense of danger and urgency but also continuity. It’s not hard to keep track of where each character is in their arc, because the story doesn’t give you time to forget. The character Nux is the best example of this, since his arc is the most dramatic, (SPOILER AHEAD) going from being a minion of the villain to an ally of the protagonists. The scene where he “turns” from one side to the other makes sense, even given how short it is and with such little dialogue, because we’ve JUST seen him mess something up (END SPOILER)…no time is wasted with the dialogue remind the audience of what Nux has already been through and where his head is at.

A nice thing about plotting with a “beat leads to beat” style is that you can get a nice mix of character-driven and event-driven plot (internal forces vs external forces driving the story forward), because a beat can be decisions that come straight from the characters and also external events and circumstances. However, for me, the advantage of keeping this phrase in mind while plotting is that the plot feels like there is a continuous thread tying it all together. That sense of continuity is ubiquitous in Western storytelling, and your readers are probably looking for that.

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Brainstorming

Brainstorming is my favorite part of story writing. I think it’s possible, if you are the outlining kind of writer, to create a pretty strong story before you start writing by simply asking the right questions.

You know when you go see a big sci fi or fantasy epic at the movie theater and (occasionally) you spend the whole time punching holes in the plot? “Why didn’t they just call the eagles to take them to the Lonely Mountain?” “If she can blast people with her magic, why did she spend so long running away from the other witch?” So when you’re brainstorming ask yourself thorough questions. Rather than impeding creativity, I find it boosts mine because problem solving is a creative exercise. ‘What if’ is fun, and a great place to begin brainstorming, but don’t neglect ‘why,’ and ‘how.’

what-if-by-fly-you-fools-gandalf-was-really-telling-them-to-use-eagles-to-fly-to-mordor

What if, indeed.

Another brainstorming method I’ve used effectively is to take a notebook (the catnip of writers), open it to a blank page, and do a free write where you list every cool or inspiring thing that comes to you. Sometimes by combining story elements you think are awesome, you arrive at new ideas and characters and plots.

favorite

List a few of your favorite things until you come up with a story about a whiskered unicorn who can blast snowflakes from its eyes.

If you use this method, I’d suggest you spend some time towards the end using with the first method I discussed. Ask yourself as many questions as possible. Explore all possible ramifications of the story you’ve come up with. Or don’t. Maybe you’ve written enough to realize that you like exploring your plot tangles while writing the first draft, i.e., a gardener or discovery writer. That’s cool too.

Screw-up Characters and Admirability

An easy way to make a character likeable is to make them competent at their jobs/hobbies/anything really. The common wisdom is that we like characters who are talented.

katnissnewhunting

Katniss is a pretty obvious example. She’s not warm and cuddly, but she slays, literally, with her bow.

Of course, being competent isn’t the only way to make a character likeable. One of my favorite character types is the screw-up, i.e., the opposite of the competent character. I especially love screw up characters in comedies.

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Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids can’t catch a break. She had my sympathy.

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Community: a whole cast of screw-up characters

Why do I like them. Whether they’re loveable losers, too dumb to live, or can’t catch a break…I want to hug them all, or laugh if not at then with them.

Thinking about this the other day, I wondered how well screw-up characters work outside of comedy. Spoiler: they can work in any genre.

harry potter exam takers

A compare and contrast in character competency.

Harry Potter, with the notable exception of DADA, isn’t particularly talented at school or magic. However, Harry is courageous, loyal, and good. Oh, and Ron too. Ron’s humor makes him pretty damn likeable.

What I realized, unsurprisingly, was that even though these characters weren’t competent at their “job” there was some big trait to admire. So if I can’t admire a character’s competency, then I admire another trait: their humor, their bravery, the way they’ve overcome their past, etc. Harry Potter serves as a great example of that. Somehow, in thinking about how to write a screw-up character whose shoes a reader may still want to fill, that’s the realization I came to.

However nebulous “likeability” really is, in fiction “likeable” characters are characters we can admire.

Self-care for Writers

I was hanging out with Tricia on Saturday, thinking/complaining about how I’m so inconsistent with how I write. First, I don’t do it often enough. Second, as soon as something’s not fun anymore I give up on it. Third, I don’t even revise what I finish or let me friends comment on it.

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And as any writer will tell you, a writer writes. So that makes me not a real writer…right?

But, here’s the thing. Don’t delude yourself, but don’t be too hard on yourself either. There are always extenuating circumstances, and you need to take a deep breath and decide whether to suck it up and stop making excuses for yourself OR if you need to get help and take care of yourself. You know, mentally.

My happiest writing memory, by far, is sitting at the junior high where I worked a couple of years ago, subbing a teacher’s classes while the students watched a mockumentary about dragons, and working on a brand new novel. It was four hours of fun. Four hours that I hold on to like I’m hanging on to the edge of a cliff. Because beyond those few hours, writing has never been fun for me. It’s a painful, abusive hobby. The only reason I still want to do it is because I have too many characters running around in my head. I want to give them life, but actually doing it feels like rubbing my face against a cheese grater. (If you’re a perfectionist to the extent that I am, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.)

Those Platonic hours were the easiest, sunniest writing hours of my life for virtue of the fact that I was in the best place mentally that I’d been in years, and have been in years.

So if anyone is beating themselves up because their dream is to be a writer/artist/whatever, but they just can’t seem to get it together, you have all my commiseration. Rather than repeat over and over that writers write, let’s focus our energies on taking care of ourselves. With that in mind, I’ve created a self-care list for writers.

JK Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech is still one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever heard.

Learn to recognize shame in order to eliminate it from your thoughts:

Laughter is the best medicine and I don’t care how hackneyed that phrase is, it’s true.


Laugh and cry with Allie Brosh?

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Click on the pic to follow the link

And remember

The Latest Drama

Twitter has been a non-stop drama lately.

drama llama

Drama Llama, anyone?

Calling it drama llama  makes it sound like it’s not a serious subject, and frankly I find that to be a silencing tactic for issues that are important and serious. However, I really like llamas, and so do Sarah and Tricia.

What drama am I talking about? Sexism. (Anyone familiar with the latest drama in the YA community is cringing right now, I bet. Just hold on).

I’m late to the game on this, and I doubt anybody needs yet another opinion, but the Andrew Smith sexism “debate” struck a chord with me. I’m not going to rehash the particulars. A simple google search could do that for you. Or read this link and this one.

The thing about it that really gets my dander up is that it’s so hard for women to talk about sexism, and yes, point out specific examples in our communities and by our peers, without being called mobs or bullies or harpies. More problematic than Smith’s original comment and the reaction to the comment is the outraged backlash to the outrage that essentially created a rubbernecking situation. People, like me, who aren’t even players in the publishing community (yet) are weighing in and arguing and magnifying a situation that got heated too fast and needlessly so. It’s my opinion that the women who reacted (some calmly, some not calmly, as is their right) did not create the so-called mobs, but rather the reaction to the reactions did.

Because, you see, women don’t want or need men to flagellate themselves when accused of sexism. We just want men to realize the unintentional negative effect of their words. Like so:

How many times do we need to reiterate that criticizing someone’s words is not criticizing their character or worth?

There’s also the refrain that a true discussion means allowing for differing opinions on whether or not Smith’s statement was sexist.

I also struggle with how I feel about this idea. I don’t personally feel that the statement in question could be construed as not sexist, meaning it seems pretty clearly sexist to me. But when I say sexist, I understand that sexism plays out on a spectrum. Some examples of sexist behavior are appalling, some egregious, some tiny little papercuts.

But you know what they say about papercuts:

http://www.slideshare.net/jonathandavis1466/a-thousand-paper-cuts-presentation

And that’s the real issue. Smith’s statement is just too similar to so many other lazy and/or sexist justifications for failing to include more female representation in media. It’s not like this statement is only one papercut. It’s one of a thousand. Same goes, perhaps more so, for other diverse representations.

There were also criticisms leveled at the way the women were sharing their criticisms. Also known as tone policing.  Too strident, too mean, too over the top, as if tone could negate the content of the criticism. There’s also the companion complaint that our tone pushes allies away.  Well, that’s hogwash. It’s never a woman’s job to make a man feel better about sexism.

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Once more with feeling: It’s never a woman’s job to make a man feel better about sexism.

Also the insinuation that this was somehow fun for the women involved when we all know what women on the internet face for opening their mouths:

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IDK, maybe I misunderstood what Asher was implying.

So, you see, this isn’t about Andrew Smith. It’s about sexism.

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I don’t know how he’s handling it or how he’ll choose to respond if at all. For me, it’s about the fact that so many professed allies have shown that they don’t really understand how to be an ally. And I hope for better for all of us.

I think the monster I just wrote can be best summed up with these tweets:

*smallish disclaimer that these opinions are my own and not necessarily shared by the other Plotless bloggers.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

START HERE:

http://www.xojane.com/entertainment/reading-challenge-stop-reading-white-straight-cis-male-authors-for-one-year

I hope you read that article. I’ve been thinking about committing to something along the lines of Bradford’s proposal, and I think she articulates exactly why it’s a good idea.

The reason why I’d been thinking about reading more diversely, long before I’d read the linked article above, was because of this tweet:

Apparently, there’s this old dinosaur of an adage in publishing that diverse books don’t sell. Look, don’t get me wrong, campaigns like #weneeddiversebooks are important, but we’re dealing with publishers, who are businesses. Along with hashtags campaigns, sales will prompt change. It’s the idea of “put your money where your mouth is.” I read almost exclusively female authors, but I was rather dismayed when I looked over my Goodreads books to see that the vast majority of the books I read are written by white authors. That’s not just on the publishers, that’s also on me. No judgments, but maybe we all need more self-awareness when it comes to our diverse reading habits?

If you need ideas on where to start reading outside of white, cis, straight, male, here are a few of my personal favorites:

courtney milan

gentleman

radio silence

It Was a Flying Purple Prose Writer

It was a dark and stormy night when I wearily sat down in front of the electric glow of the LCD monitor that sat on top of my Danish, expensive, mid-century modern desk. Rather than pluck out my pithy article on the keys of my post-WWII typewriter I’d inherited from my grandfather, I’d pragmatically opted for the more bourgeois choice of a Toshiba laptop. I was literally dying to breathe my ideas to life on the page, or screen as it were.

Okay. Obviously that was my attempt to write a Bulwer-Lytton opening paragraph to this post, fittingly, about purple prose. I apologize for any cringing I might have caused.

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He’s coming to eat up all the good writing in your manuscript and replace it with purple prose

I’m reading a book by a local author. The book is a highly anticipated YA debut. I like it, for the record. Out of curiosity I went to Goodreads to see what other people thought of the book—or rather, one specific aspect of the book: its prose.

Most loved it. I’ve seen the prose called lush, rich, evocative, etc. The prose relies pretty heavily on simile and metaphor to make each scene a visceral experience for the reader. Further, I think the figurative language helps the reader understand the supernatural aspects of the story. On one hand, I appreciate it. But there are a few too many metaphors per paragraph that I keep getting pulled out of the story—not necessarily because I’m not enjoying it, but because I can’t help but dissect language as I read. It takes a lot for me to be so engrossed by a book that half of my cognitive function isn’t dedicated to analyzing prose as I go. As I suspected, I didn’t have to look far to find a reviewer who had a major problem with the prose. His review calling the book’s writing “purple prose” is what prompted this post.

Purple prose has several definitions. Most think that purple prose means writing that’s “flowery.” My preferred definition is prose that calls attention to itself in such a way that it pulls you out of the story.

Not surprisingly, for me that means that purple prose isn’t an objective standard at all, but a subjective one.

The Goodreads reviewer had every right to his opinion that the book (notice I’m deliberately keeping this vague because I don’t want my post to constitute a review of the book itself) was full of purple prose. Where I took issue was how he had no problem saying that purple prose is a hallmark of the YA genre, the kind of thing that teenage girls gobble up. He predicted the book would be successful because of the awful writing (his words, not mine). That kind of misogynistic bull crap is a post for another day.

This is my opinion, but I’ll state it strongly. Purple prose is in the eye of the beholder. For some, it means excessive use of adverbs and adjectives—and yet, for me, adverbs can sometimes be done well. JK Rowling, for example, uses adverbs more than is prescribed by modern writing advice. I have no problem with it, as it never pulls me out of the story, but adds a certain flavor to it. For others, cliché writing is purple prose—and yet, I often find that a well-placed cliché functions as vernacular. Because clichés litter our vernacular in real life, reading a cliché seems natural, and therefore doesn’t pull me out of the story. I’m reading another author whose writing could by no stretch of the imagination be called purple. She describes in simple prose what is happening and what the characters say—and yet, the writing seems flat and bland and lacking in personality.

Though I shy away from prescriptive writing advice, I do feel comfortable saying that the key here is moderation. Find the sweet spot where your preferred writing “vice,” be it metaphors, clichés, or adjectives, adds color to your writing but doesn’t overwhelm the story. As a reader, I’m not interested in either extreme.