Writing from the middle

Karalee’s Post #57

In our society the middle point of almost everything seems to be envisioned like a bell curve. We strive to reach the pinnacle and then it’s all downhill, which by the way is perceived as negative.

Emotions go along for the ride too:

  • the initial struggle to “get there”
  • euphoria or great happiness at “making it to the top”
  • and then the inevitable “let down” when the best is perceived as being over and we slide back down to our regular grind.

From the Merriam Dictionary, the word struggle means: to try very hard to do, achieve, or deal with something that is difficult or that causes problems; to move with difficulty or with great effort; to try to move yourself, an object, etc., by making a lot of effort.

Our society seems to make us want to believe that our lives in general are meant to be a struggle. For example:

  • The Work Week. We struggle out of bed on Monday to make it to Wednesday (like today) which we call the “Hump Day.”
  • Work Projects. Again there’s a planning and hard working stage that rises to the success of the project. The success is enjoyed for a time, but then it’s over and no longer so important. Another project is started, etc. etc.
  • The 3 Act Structure in Writing. The beginning where the action mounts to wards the middle where there can be mini-climaxes that keep mounting to the major climax (the bell curve can be a bit wobbly here) and then the denouement and the story is done.
  • Life. From babies to middle age is a huge learning curve and struggle to find out who we are and what we want to achieve. Then, middle age hits and we enjoy it for a bit before the downhill slide to life’s end.
  • The beginning, middle and end of almost everything in our lives.

Now, I have to admit that almost everything has a beginning,a middle and an end. On the other hand I do want to challenge our culture’s perception of a huge struggle to get to the top, and that once we are there, the value of our success seems to diminish on the downhill slide to an end that inevitably seems a negative place to be.

Do we have to keep struggling for more successes until the last big downhill to our graves? Surely that isn’t really what life is all about?

Maybe I’m questioning life today because it’s my birthday and I’m in the middle of my lifespan, seeing myself standing on the top of the bell curve and saying “what the ****, I’m not heading down yet!

What is bothering me is the perception of the uphill struggle to success. Absolutely I struggled in a big way, from surviving a traumatic childhood to pushing for higher education, then starting a business and my own family.

I struggled so much I didn’t enjoy the journey.

Why isn’t the concept of enjoying the journey one that we embrace onward straight from childhood? Why do we struggle instead of enjoying the uphill journey to success? Learning and having new experiences need not be something to fear or shy away from, so why has our school system become something onerous for our children in the First World while going to school is a sought after privilege in the Third World? 

Maybe it’s the word struggle that is misused. Even as writers we are perceived to be struggling until we are published, and then we struggle some more to get another book written, etc. No doubt writers work extremely hard for their successes, but if the work truly was a struggle, how many of us would really persist?

There must be a large fun factor woven throughout each manuscript. There is for me. There’s excitement at my initial idea and I love the brainstorming it jump starts. Getting the story to flow takes work, but I love figuring out puzzles so there is fun there too. And, of course, the euphoria at the climax and the denouement that brings all the loose ends together.

So what are we really calling the struggle? Is it the sense of not being good enough? Is it our sense of self-worth and our egos that get in the way? Is it an overriding fear of failure? Maybe it’s that our society doesn’t perceive that enjoying the journey has value?

In my uphill journey I have experienced all of the above, but in retrospect it didn’t have to be quite so much of a struggle. I definitely could have let myself enjoy university more, as well as running my own business and raising my children. I imagine most of us could have taken a few moments to enjoy our life’s path more too.

So now, standing on the top of my life’s bell curve, I have a more realistic perspective and the path down is my choice. I really don’t like heights so I won’t take the cliff route, rather I see rolling hills and peaks and valleys.

Challenges.

Challenges that I will allow myself to enjoy rather than fear and I will gladly leave most of the struggling to the characters in my stories where it belongs!

To me life should be experienced more like a slide than a bell curve; an exhilarating ride down that makes one want to rush up to the top again simply to enjoy another ride!

Here’s to middle age!

Happy writing!

Why do we torture our heroes?

Happy Canada Day! Now that the 5 writers have reported on our big critique adventure on Whistler Mountain, we thought we’d use the summer to blog about some of the things we learned, observed or discussed in a collaborative way. The idea is to open each week with a topic of interest (a provocative one is always fun), and then each of the 5 writers will in turn add their thoughts about it … or maybe take it in some new direction. We’ll see! We also welcome readers’ thoughts in the comments section, so jump in anytime. Since it is vacation season, after all, we hope readers will forgive us if some of us play hooky occasionally over the summer. And now, on to our first topic …

perils-of-pauline

Silk’s Post #42 — We all got the memo. You get your hero up a tree. You throw rocks at him. And then you get him down.

This writing adage about the three-act structure did have an origin, but tracking it down is not so easy. According to Barry Popik on his very cool blog, The Big Apple:

“It has been cited in print since at least 1897 and has been credited to French writers of farce. George Abbott (1887-1995), who wrote the books for the Broadway musicals Damn Yankees and Fiorello!, often used the saying, crediting it to the American playwright Augustus Thomas (1857-1934). Thomas credits French playwrights in his 1916 book.”

All I know for sure is that when I googled this well-worn novel/script/screenplay bromide, I decided to stop trying to find its genesis when I got to the 25th page of citations.

No matter. It’s received wisdom that has stood the test of time. Why?

If you’ve ever read a book on writing or sat through a workshop at a writers conference, you will be familiar with the constant exhortation to create conflict and tension on every page by giving your protagonist troubles. And then more troubles. In other words, getting him up a tree then throwing rocks at him.

Good advice, as far as it goes. But I think it’s smart to remember that this adage is shorthand for a much more nuanced principle of drama. Blind adherence to the dictum can result in “Perils of Pauline” melodrama, or produce a protagonist so hopelessly beleaguered that the hero comes across as a hapless victim.

There are three big problems with a hapless victim as protagonist.

Problem #1: Repetitive Agonizing
Over-tortured, victimized characters tend to express their constant frustration. After all, the author has to give these poor sods something to say, and when a character with a life-threatening disease, whose true love recently dumped him just after his dog was run over by a car, falls off a cliff and into a gigantic waterfall after being chased by evil aliens … well, let’s just assume the first words out of his mouth after he hits the water will not be, “Wow! What a beautiful waterfall.” How many readers want to spend a whole book with a constantly anguished or angry protagonist? We all want someone to root for, not just feel sorry for.

Problem #2: Boredom
Being in a pickle is not inherently exciting. Giving a protagonist a ton of problems to worry about and suffer from does not automatically create conflict and tension. A guy sitting in solitary confinement in a prison cell has big trouble, but watching him pace the floor and mark the days off on the wall is not interesting. Or even tense (for the reader, at least). Why? He can’t solve his problem. All he can do is be miserable. And misery without conflict, action or interaction is kinda boring. (In case Papillon comes to mind as an exception, that was Henri Charriere’s memoir and, arguably, the exciting parts were the escapes, not the scenes where he spit out his rotting teeth in a filthy cell.)

Problem #3: Miraculous Victory
“The Perils of Pauline” told classic damsel-in-distress stories. Sending in some outside force to rescue the protagonist is one way to get him, or her, down from the tree. But if you’re not (intentionally) writing melodrama, you have to figure out a way to have your hero find his own way down from the tree. If you’ve beset your protagonist with continuously mounting (and unsolved) troubles through the whole book – your character is going to have to morph from hapless victim to unstoppable Superman in the last act to get out of the mess by himself. (Okay, Papillon is certainly a breathtaking example of this … but if it hadn’t been an autobiography, who would have believed it?)

So, what does the “up a tree” dictum really tell us to do? This is something we discussed at length in Whistler, and my own personal epiphany was about the purpose of giving your protagonist troubles. It’s not to make him a miserable, complaining victim. It’s to give him something heroic to do. To put him in action. Only by the protagonist’s reaction to his troubles can we get to know what he’s made of.

Ding … the lightbulb went on for me. Give your hero problems he actually can do something about. Then let him show his stuff. Do we really care about a hero who sits up in that tree kvetching and waiting for miracle? No, we want him to be visibly overcoming his fear of heights, planning his escape, throwing apples at the baying dogs below, weaving a rope out of twigs or something … anything! The tougher the problem, the bigger the hero. But if the protagonist is not well matched with the problems to be solved, the writer may have to cheat and resort to miracles or magic, and that could actually diminish the hero.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

Complicated plots

Kathmandu wires in Nepal. Photo by David Greer

Kathmandu wires in Nepal. Photo by David Greer

Karalee’s Post #14 — Does your plot-line ever feel like this? Red herrings running out of control, sub-plots taking over, minor characters trying to bully their way into the limelight?

This picture shows a typical power pole in the city of Kathmandu, Nepal. My husband and I (with over a dozen other friends) went trekking in Nepal last year and when I saw this tangled infrastructure in the capital city, I was amazed that any electricity got directed to where it was supposed to go to.  Can you imagine if you were the actual electrician trying to figure out this mess? It appears that whoever shows up to try and fix someone’s electrical problem simply strings another line.

Never did I think I would use this picture to depict writing, but it does illustrate how we need to weave story lines together and then separate them as characters come and go and our timeline marches forward. What it also shows is the mess that can happen if no outlining is done (not even in the author’s head) or the writer allows the story to take on a life of its own.

Oh, it can be fun to let minor characters speak and become larger than intended, but how does the protagonist maintain his or her status? And how does a sub-plot remain in its place and not become the main plot? And if things get too tangled, how does the reader know what is happening?

For this project and others that I’ve done, I outline the main story line and what happens at the end of each of my three main acts. Some sub-plot ideas come to light during this process and I jot them down. After I’ve finished my outline in Scrivener (that is in table form and scene-by-scene as much as I know it at the time), I then unroll a large section of children’s play paper and stick it onto my wall right in front of where I write.

The paper is where my potential tangled mess of scenes and sub-plots get sorted. I draw a large bubble-type map of my characters and their inter-relationships with all the other characters, as well as writing down the time-line for my major climaxes since in mystery thrillers the timing is everything in many cases.

My bubble map expands. Character’s pictures get posted around the perimeter along with important research information I need to refer to regularly. Yellow post-it notes go up here and there and may move around. Lines are drawn between characters and notes made along the lines.

It can look quite complicated.

Of course, if something doesn’t work and needs to be changed, the bubble map is drawn in pencil. Much easier to change than those tangled wires in Kathmandu. But everything is there for a reason, each character has his/her role to play at the proper time and place. And like a game of chess,  it all makes sense.

More Kathmandu wires. Photo by David Greer

More Kathmandu wires. Photo by David Greer

It’s comforting too, having my story diagrammed in front of me and my characters doing what they need to do when it’s needed, and nothing or no one getting left out. Almost like an extended family.

I’m enjoying spending my days looking at my bubble map and putting the pictorial view into written words, making sense out of my potentially tangled world. To me, the time put into organizing my story is well worth it.

It  keeps me on track, and like the wires in Kathmandu, when the tangled mess is straightened out there are still many wires, but they are all headed in the same direction.

In story terms this is towards ‘The End.’

As for my progress, I am still on track to finish Act Two by January first.

Happy writing.

Tick… Tick… Tick…

Paula’s Post #4 — I’m writing this post on October 6th, 2012. Why is this date important? Because this date marks exactly one month and a day since we, the 5writers, rashly set out to complete our epic writing challenge.

One month behind us, four months to go!

OMG!

As our loyal followers will have discerned from our collective blog posts, none of us have actually started writing yet, (well, except for maybe Joe – you can never tell what Joe is up to, he’s the strong silent type).

But I’m pretty sure the rest of us are still researching, outlining, creating memorable characters and ‘world building’. We’re also worrying about story arcs and the ‘Three Act Structure’.

And, as literary agent and writing guru Donald Maass  has so often exhorted us to do, we’re attempting to craft storylines that create ‘conflict on every page’. (As a sidebar, if you haven’t heard of Donald Maass, you may want to check out his excellent Writing the Breakout Novel, and the companion Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook).

But, once again I digress. Suffice it to say that with all that plotting and planning and worrying about my plot lines, today, with one month down, I have yet to set pen to paper to write the second most exciting of all phrases “Chapter One“. (I say second most, because anyone who has ever actually finished a novel knows that the most exciting of all phrases is “The End“).

So, four months to go. No big deal. Plenty of time, right? Except of course for the ever present distractions of real life that so frequently seem to intervene. And of course Silk’s ‘Arithmetic.  But I’ve already written about distractions, and Silk’s already written about arithmetic, so instead I’m going to share some of the things I find most pleasurable about writing.

For me, writing is an avocation that provides infinite pleasure to the person so engaged. Note that I chose the word ‘avocation’. I did so judiciously, for I feel that until one is a published author, writing is my avocation. In other words, no matter how hard I work to accomplish the goal of becoming a published author, I am still engaged in this activity as a ‘supplement’ to the many demands of my every day life: family, professional obligations and, of course, the myriad other responsibilities and chores that occupy so much of one’s time.

Time away from the world of writing.

Some may disagree with my word choice. Some may feel that writing is already their ‘vocation’. If you feel this way that’s great and I’m happy for you.  But for me, I still consider writing an ‘avocation’ though, as I started out to say, one I find most pleasurable.

At least most of the time.

At least when I’m not caught firmly within the grasp of the writer’s omnipresent trinity of fear, panic and ‘looming deadlines’.

But despite the tick…tick…tick of the clock, I’m still finding pleasure during these tension filled days of this 5writers challenge. Pleasure in the process of writing. Oh heck, let’s be honest, at this point, the proper verb isn’t writing, the proper word is planning.

Like Joe and Silk and Karalee and Helga, right now I’m engaged in planning. I’m engaged in research. I’m engaged in ‘world building’. Pleasurable, nevertheless, but not really writing. Not yet.

Part of the world I’m ‘building’ is somewhat familiar, but other parts are completely foreign to me, though no less pleasurable to research, no less pleasurable to construct.

The Familiar:

You may have already guessed from my last post that at least part of the setting of my novel will be San Diego, a city that I not only love but also have more than a passing familiarity with. I studied law for a year at the University of San Diego and returned a few years later, staying for three months to study for the California Bar. Somehow, although I love San Diego, I ended up back in Vancouver.  But I still love San Diego, and, as we’ve heard so many times in our writing classes: ‘write what you know’.

So far so good. I like San Diego. I know San Diego. It’s a fabulous place and a safe and familiar setting for my novel. I’ve travelled from one end of the county to the other: boogie boarding in the waters off Solana and Pacific Beach; savouring the excellent restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy and Old Town; wandering the upscale neighbourhoods of La Jolla, Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe. All familiar and pleasurable territory. So I’m finding my research, both online and in person, infinitely pleasurable.

The Unfamiliar:

On the other hand, the subject matter of my novel is not so safe and familiar. I’m not going to share with you, (at least not quite yet) what my novel is about, but let’s just say I’ve been doing a lot of research. Research on subjects totally foreign to me: the military, medical science and, most frightening of all: teenagers.

Did I mention I know almost nothing at all about teenagers? I’m on the ‘straight-to-grandchildren‘ program. When I got married, my youngest stepchild was already eighteen. That hardly counts as a teenager at all, at least not in YA fiction. Thankfully, I do have my wonderful nephew and niece, but what help are they? At 17 and 20, they’re now, frankly, a mite too old. And though I spent plenty of time with them when they were younger, I’m afraid that, by and large, they were fantastic teenagers! Great students, well adjusted, hard-working … not rebellious at all. (I know if they’re reading this they’ll hate me for saying this, but it’s true).

So I have a dilemma: how am I going to find some authentic teenage angst to observe? Hello! I’m sending a casting call out there: if you’ve got a rebellious teenager, I may need to hear from you. I’m in unchartered waters where teenagers are concerned.

Still, even this unfamiliar territory is fun to explore. I’m checking out pages on facebook, listening to rap music, reading YA fiction –  all in an effort to develop some understanding of the world of today’s teenagers.

Hopefully this will help me develop the main characters in my novel for, as I mentioned in a previous post, I’m writing a YA Thriller. Some may characterize my book as ‘science fiction’ (ooh, more unfamiliar territory) but I like to think of it more as ‘science fact’,  or at least a plausible storyline, based upon the realm of the ‘possible’ in today’s world of science and medicine, though certainly stretched a bit from the ‘probable’ too make the story more exciting.

But since I am immersed in such unfamiliar territory, that means I get to do research. Did I tell you I love research? This is another thing that makes writing so pleasurable for me. Who doesn’t love finding out cool stuff that they know next to nothing about? It feeds the brain: neuroscience, surfing, guns, politics – Whoa! I could research these subjects for hours on end. Did I mention I love the internet?

This weekend is a long weekend in Canada. Our Canadian Thanksgiving.

Lots of time to write. Lots of food to eat. Two things I love best. This afternoon, which is turning out to be an exquisite, early fall day, with the sun shining on my terrace and the sail boats scampering across the mouth of Howe Sound, I’m going to enjoy getting lost in my research.

I’m going to enjoy constructing the outline of several more thrilling scenes for my “Act II” of The Three Act Structure.  I’m even going to listen to a little hip hop and check out some of the many facebook pages aimed mostly at teenagers. And for me, this will all be very pleasurable.

Except for the fact that somewhere, very close to me, I can’t help hearing a very soft but omnipresent sound:

Tick… Tick… Tick…

Paula is Plotting

Paula’s Post #3 – By now, if you’ve read my previous posts, you should all know I’m doing something I’ve never successfully done before.

I’m ‘Outlining’.

That’s right, ‘Outlining’ with a capital ‘O’.

And don’t think I can’t hear all you grammarians gnashing your teeth and wailing away out there. Don’t think I can’t picture the gasps and moans echoing through cyberspace as you shake your finger and point out in a lofty, ‘la-di-dah‘ tone that this is clearly not a word that needs to be capitalized.

Technically, you may be right. The Oxford Online Dictionary ‘Grammar Checker’ (yes, happily there is such thing) describes the ‘Rules for Capital Letters” – darn, I did it again- and as far as I can see The Rules don’t apply to the word Outlining. ‘Outlining’ is not a word that refers to a ‘people’ a ‘place’ or a ‘related word’.

But does that mean I can’t capitalize ‘Outlining’? Because right now the word ‘Outlining’ is really, really Important to me. Not only is it Important. I’m having Fun with my Outlining. So much Fun, it has become a really really Big Deal to me.

Isn’t that enough to earn a ‘Capital Letter’ for the ‘O’ in Outlining? Can’t we all just agree that occasionally it’s okay, (Dare I say Fun) to break all these constricting grammar conventions?

After all, e e cummings apparently used all lower case words to write his name! Or if he didn’t (everyone else did). Why can’t I capitalize all the words that I really like? All the words I want You to know are Important to me?

And right now, as you’ve no doubt gathered, Outlining is Important to me.

Which brings me to the point of this post. My ‘Outlining’ is going Swimmingly. (Oooh. I may have dropped a hint here). And, as a result of my ‘Immersion’ into Chapter 10 of James Scott Bell’s ‘Plot and Structure’, I can Happily report that I have by Now finished Outlining Act One of what I hope will become a Tightly Constructed YA Thriller with a classic Three Act Structure.

Happily, I can also assure you that I am not alone in my love of Capital Letters. At least where the subject of Outlining is concerned. To wit, I give you James Scott Bell’s ‘OP’s’ and “NOP’s”.

I’ve never been an OP before, (well, except maybe when I wore those cute, aqua blue, Hawaiian print, Ocean Pacific (OP) board shorts I bought a few years back when I was really thin and quickly, er, grew out of).

But that isn’t what Mr. Bell is referring to. His “OP’s” are “Outline People” and, as you’ve already guessed,  his “NOP’s” are “No Outline People”.

Now I’m not going to reveal everything in Chapter Ten, (the fact that I’ve even made it as far as Chapter Ten before abandoning my goal of being an OP and reverting to my former, stubborn, galloping NOP ways is, if I do say myself, amazing). That wouldn’t be fair to Mr. Bell. You should Buy His Book! Not have me paraphrase the whole chapter.  And Chapter Ten is a Most Instructive Chapter. Check it out for yourself. And no, I am not getting any royalties for this shameless promotion, I just think his book is really, really helping me with my Plotting.

There. Now I’ve said it. The ‘P’ word. “Plotting.” It’s out in the open.

And by now, I’m guessing that, with each new post,  we’re beginning to drive you crazy. I can almost hear you yelling: ‘enough with the preamble already, just tell us what your damn book’s about‘?

But I can’t.

Not yet.

I truly don’t know. I haven’t finished Outlining yet. I haven’t finished Plotting yet.  But I can tell you I’ve ‘Plotted’ my way through approximately one third of my Draft Outline.  A total of Twenty Two “Scenes” that may or may not become Stand-Alone Chapters in My Novel, once I stop Outlining and start Writing.

Okay, okay, I hear you. Enough with the Capital Letter schtick. But honestly, what’s the harm in a little fun? It’s 1:38 am. The wee hours of the morning are my favourite writing time. I’ve had a glass of wine and I’m having Fun with this post.

And why is that? Didn’t you hear what I said. I’ve got 22 scenes! Yippee! And not only that, I have over 15 character sketchs tucked neatly away in my electronic filing cabinet, StoryMill. Double Yippee!!

Now I can honestly say I’m starting to feel like I’m getting somewhere. That there might be something in this OP thing.  Can I possibly get the next two ‘Acts’ of my outline finished by sometime in mid-October. I should set a goal. If I set a goal, and tell you all about it. I’ll have a deadline to meet. Okay. Here goes:  My Goal is to Finish my Outline before the first day of the Surrey International Writers’ Conference.

After that, I’ll be ready to start writing.

And if I start writing in late October, there’s just a small scintilla of hope I might even be able to get the actual ‘writing’ part of my novel done in the remaining 100 or so days remaining until this writing challenge is over on February 5th.

So that’s my goal, plot outline done by October 19th. After that, 1000 words a day. A 100,000 word novel by February 5th, 2013. Yikes! I better get writing.

But I haven’t answered your questions yet. I haven’t told you anything about my book (though I might have dropped the odd ‘hint’ here and there in this post). But you’ve been such Faithful Followers. We have almost 100 FB likes for our facebook page. At least as many ‘Followers’ on our blog.

You’ve been Very Patient. So I think a few hints about my book are in order. A little peek at some images I’ve been using in My Outline to visualize My Characters and My Plot.

Don’t get too excited, because for now, it’s just an Outline. By tomorrow, the Characters and Plot could change. That’s the Fun of an Outline. That’s the Fun of Plotting. You can throw things in, you an throw things out – the important thing is to keep Plotting away!

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