The Beautiful Writers Workshop: Novelty #1: Plot

Can you believe I couldn’t think of a more creative title? Me neither. Some days are like that.

Today, is not my normal blogging day, but we’re getting into the meat and potatoes of writing a novel, and this kind of thing needs space. So, without further ado..

What is Plot and Why is it Important?

All right, I get it, it’s a dumb question, we’re all writers and we all KNOW that plot is the basic story of your novel. It is the idea. The “what happened”, and why, and “what’s going to happen next” of any decent story. I’m not trying to dumb it down for you. But the true test of a good plot lies in the simplicity of answering those questions.

Now, you can have books that are character driven (an event happening TO a person, or BECAUSE OF a person). And you can have books that are historical non-fiction, based on one specific moment in time or occurrence. The PLOT of your book expands more than just beyond an event (otherwise The Hunger Games would have been maybe 50 pages long). The plot is the premise or sequence of events. Some novels will follow a very specific order of events that are common to their genre, or as we like to call them tropes. Tropes comes from the Greek Tropos define as “turn, direction, way” and refers to common, recognizable elements or sequences of events.

Many genre specific tropes (I almost prefer ‘formulas’) are embraced by the audience and even expected. Examples include: “the hero’s journey”, “enemies to lovers”, “small towns”, “cold cases”, “missing persons”, “AI gone wrong”, “fairy tale retelling”. But if almost every novel follows a plot formula how is it #1, that readers don’t get bored and #2 that you tell an original story that hasn’t been done before.

It’s an interesting dilemma on the part of a writer. We know which formulas work in fiction and straying from them often makes a plot fall apart or leaves a reader angry or unsatisfied at the end.

(She’s gonna want to talk to your manager)

But how do we follow commonalities in plot structure and still make it a fun, captivating, and surprising journey for our readers? The answer my friends, lies your ability as a writer to do five things: (Fuck Yeah! A bullet list!)

  • Begin with a unique event or crisis. This comes back to the “scan the headlines” exercise I’ve had you do before. A lot of weird shit goes down in the world. A lot of undercover, shady AF stuff too. Use it as a springboard, to your “what happens then/if” story building.
  • Tie the reader to your character (through love or hate) and make their reactions to events unique or contrary to the norm. (ie a cheerleader who fights vampires. A small town farm boy who becomes a powerful Jedi. A teenager who comes into supernatural powers without the maturity to handle them and doesn’t use them to download free porn–come on.) Character building will come later in this series but if you create unique ones, their actions will create new takes on formulas.
  • Use honed writing technique to build tension for climaxes. Yikes, that sounds dirty. Tension is one key to making a story more than just series of events. So much of this depends on your voice and writing style. But the big take away here is about risk. Making the risks personally huge for your character, and even the world at large, will keep the plot fresh and drive it forward.
  • Play with the number and intensity of climaxes (story arcs). I think I’ll start using story arcs (some prefer ‘beats’) because every time I type climaxes I can’t stop giggling. Ok. Story arcs are BIG deals in your plot. Think of these as door ways, crisis-points at the top of your arc, that your character has to move through in order to get closer to what it is they want/need. Once they hit that doorway, or crisis point, they can’t go back. A serious change has occurred either in the setting or with-in the character and they must move forward. Next blog will be all about these arcs so I won’t go into much more detail here.
  • Consider using unexpected but intelligent twists. The best movies and books I can think of that do this are: “The Sixth Sense”, “Fight Club”, “Gone Girl”, “Mind Hunters”. What better way to shake up an audience than by having them accept one reality for the entirety of the story, only to show them the true reality at the end.

All right, so there are some tips for building an effective plot that carries readers throughout the book. My advice to you this week, is to explore various tropes and patterns, especially those in your genre. Turn a piece of paper (landscape-style) and write out the typical pattern of your story, then overlay events and characters of your proposed idea. See how they match up, see if you have enough tension building scenes, just play around with it. I’m not much of a plotter myself, but even I will do a general outline to keep myself on track and make sure I’m building a solid plot.

Next time, more on story arc, how to climax well (*snork*), and end satisfied (*hahahahaha). Until Thursday, happy writing.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop #30: The Dirty Thirty

Okay. That title doesn’t have anything to do with short stories and how we write them (unless you’re on the right route to submit for Letters to Penthouse…does that still exist anymore?)

What do you mean you haven’t seen this movie!?I’m kind of surprised my mom let me watch it. I’m still mildly obsessed with angels…

I just wanted to mark the occasion of your thirtieth lesson in writing. And drum up interest for our last foray into the short story.

First–How did last week go? Were you able to come up with some ideas for future short stories? Did you write any? Did you revisit some of your favorites from the past? No? Come on…I can’t do it all for you!

If you have managed to draft up a couple of ideas and maybe even pursue them, and you’d like to have a second set of eyes, I’d love to take a look. As you may have seen, I updated my submissions guidelines on Tuesday for anyone looking to start building their platform as well as finding a place for their work (without the work of having to start and maintain a blog…gosh, I’m doing EVERY THING for you!)

So, last bit of short story advice is this. Once you have your strong (loved or hated character) and you’ve thrown them into a bus crash on their way up to hike Machu Pichu, what do you do with it?

Well, as in Poetry and Flash Fiction, if you you believe in this work and you want to see if it’s worth the reading for the general public; you submit it for consideration.

After a very thorough round of editing (or six), conformance (sure that’s a word?) to industry standard word counts, and all of your I’s dotted, you embark on the great internet search to find the perfect journals/mags/online forums to submit to. You find out the editor’s name, and use it to craft a beautiful query letter, follow each publication’s guidelines to the letter, and submit your work (while recording who and where and when you sent it to because you’re not a disorganized slob like me). Then you sit back and wait for the magic to happen.

Except you should never just sit back and wait as a writer.

Once that beautiful piece of literature, sure to torture high-school student’s someday with its dissection, is out in the hands of hard-eyed editors, you go back to that booklet of ideas and begin again.

The secret to a good writer, is that they don’t throw all of their hope into one basket and hurl it into the universe. They churn out the baskets, in a timely manner and with enough care that they aren’t just filled with shit. And they keep plugging away at it. And the first stories might actually be baskets of shit. But it gets better, they get better, you get better, until soon, you know what works and what doesn’t by the frequency of rejection notices.

I think I just summed up my writing existence in one paragraph. You’re welcome.

Normally, I would leave you with a list of publications that are accepting short stories. But…I think it might be time for me to kick you out of the proverbial nest on this one.

Go online–resist the urge to search cute kitten videos or Henry Cavill shirtless…holding kittens–and search for places now accepting submissions for short stories. If you can be specific in your search to the content of your story. Narrowing your search engine will save you time and weed out the journals that aren’t interesting in what you’ve written.

My general rule of thumb is collecting a list of 15 to 20 potential publications (yes, there are that many) and submitting my story(s) to 3 or 4 of them a week.

*Disclaimer–some publications will NOT ACCEPT simultaneous submissions so either submit different pieces or wait to submit until your current work is rejected (I’m not saying it will be…I’m just–*sigh*–saying that the odds are such).

Boom.

Mic Drop

That’s it. Go write something. Go submit something. Go watch “Barbarella” then write something. Come see me next week and yell at me for breaking your brain with Jane Fonda breaking ‘The Machine’. Next week’s topic is a surprise. (I say that because I don’t even know what I’m writing about next week)

Happy Writing!

The Beautiful Writers Workshop #29: The Short Story

Hello! Welcome back to The Beautiful Stuff and todays’ introduction to the well-known and prolific format we all suffered through in high school English.

Ladies and Gents: The Short Story

Don’t get me wrong, I say ‘suffered’ now because everything when you’re a teenager that entails any sort of responsibility not of your choosing is, to some degree, “suffering”. I mean, I could write for hours, holed up in my room, gladly passing the day. But ask me to read a short tome by O. Henry and I’d give you an eye roll and heavy sigh that would have rivaled the most put-upon martyr. Looking back, I actually really liked those stories. I remember dissecting them, studying the elements, and learning what made them so powerful.

Thank you, Joyce for “The Most Dangerous Game” and mining deep into the dark hearts of men. Hats off to the master of short story, E.A. Poe and his “Tell-Tale Heart” among at least a dozen others that gave me a healthy love of the spine-shiver. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was my first taste of apocalyptic fiction. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences and I urge you to go back over those old favorites and see what you notice at a different age/stage of life.

The Short Story is actually lumped in with Flash Fiction and Micro fiction and is defined by a word count of 5,000 to 10,000. Some even dip down to the 1,000 range, occasionally they’ll touch 15,000. But in general, anything above that (30,000-60,000) is considered a novella. I’m giving it its own blog because the short story is a beautiful place to start if you are just beginning your path in writing. It’s not overwhelming but it will allow you to practice a lot of the bigger elements of story-telling. It requires a certain amount of frugality with words and demands a tight story arc which are good practices to hone before embarking on a novel-length piece.

What’s the difference from flash fiction? Well, in flash fiction you are looking at a snap shot of a moment; a defining moment, a quirky flash in the pan. In a short story you have more wiggle room for character development and the ability to tell a complete story.

Why’s that important you ask? Wow, you always come up with so many good questions!

Character development is important in short stories, because often it is the character that drives these stories. That doesn’t mean you get to expunge for 3,000 words on the finer details of Joe Doe’s eleventh grade algebra class. It means you have the opportunity to create a connection to the reader by showing who Joe is using his reactions to the situations presented.

How do you do this most effectively?

Photo by moein moradi on Pexels.com

Well, as in novels, you have to know your character. I once wrote a short story about a woman who’s husband left her on her 50th birthday for a younger woman. I got to know Jane Pearce so well, that I often think there’s a little bit of herself still residing in me. The part that snaps out of her doting-housewife haze and burns the mother-fu$^ing house to the ground, collects the insurance money, and retires to Italy under a new name. The point is, if you don’t know what drives your character then you risk wasting time and words on a vignette that should be tight.

What else do we need to know?

Death follows a Terrier on a Mission.
Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels.com

Well, you need an extraordinary event. A divorce out of the blue. A airship landing in the parking lot of the 7-11. A dog running down the street with a human leg in its mouth. A car crash, a panic attack, an island event where humans are hunted, a lottery to see who’ll be stoned to death. A body buried beneath the floorboards…something. Something that forces our beloved (or be-hated? is that a word? why isn’t it?) character into some tough decisions that make them CHANGE AND GROW. Yes. This can be done in the short span of 7,000 words.

You may, if you’re so plottingly inclined (in my head that sounded very judgmental, I apologize to all of my plotters out there), outline your short story to arrange it with the proper story beats, valleys and arcs necessary. Or, if you’re a slob like me, you can just start with the event and your character and see what madness ensues. Just be conscious this is a finite clip, not the 6-hour extended director’s cut.

I could, literally, go on for thousands of more words about the art of the short story, but I know you have some kitten videos to watch and probably a pants-less Zoom call to get on, so… I’m going to end this first blog (there will be others) with a good starting point for my beautiful writers out there.

The hardest part of the short story, for myself and other writer’s I’ve talked to, is finding a smashing good idea to write about. For this week, I’d like you to try one or both of these exercises and come up with, at minimum, 10 potential short story ideas. If you have the time, pick one or two and try your hand at a short story.

For the first exercise, I would like you to pick up a copy of your local newspaper (or scroll through it online) and seek out interesting or strange headlines that deserve a bigger story. The body pulled out of the river with no fingers. The discovery of pesticide residue in kindergarten playgrounds. Whatever catches your eye. Find a notebook, write down one or two lines on each and keep going. Don’t stop to write the story just yet. Let your beautiful brain simmer.

Secondly, I would like you to take a prolific historical/fictional or not character and ask “what if”. What if Henry Melville had been a modern day fisherman. What if Lizzy Borden had been a nursing home attendant? What if Buddy Holly had survived the plane crash? What if Donald Trump was really an alien? (ok, that one’s not so far of a reach)

Get freaky with it, twist history a little and see what interesting plot ensues. Thanks for playing today. Share your results and ideas, if you like and we’ll be back next week with more on the Short Story!

Happy Writing.

Can I Get a Prompt?

Pssst….

Hey there kid, want to do something different?

Well, if you read this blog I’m willing to bet that part of your time is spent on creative endeavors of some kind. And I thought it might be a good time to remind you about improvisation exercises as a healthy and fun part of your writing routine.

Whether you are a novelist, a poet, a technical writer, historical non-fiction guru or children’s phenom, everyone’s creativity waxes and wanes with the progression of our career and lives. It is, therefore, important that we spend some time practicing in different ways to jog the old idea factory into an efficient, work-producing machine.

This particular exercise is about improvising (on the fly you might say) with one sentence prompts. You may have had to do this at conferences or class and present your material after the allotted time. As an introvert it might have be akin to a claustrophobic getting stuck in the kiddie tube slide at the park (Breath, Sarah…breath…just keep squirming.)

So, in defense of all of those out there not wanting to share their words yet but in need of something that boosts their creativity, I’m going to give you some pointers on prompts and let you go to proverbial town on them.

The important things to remember with these kinds of exercises are:

  1. DO NOT (repeated it after me) DO NOT, censor yourself or edit. Let yourself run with the idea, no matter how stupid or silly.
  2. Stay true to the character you’re given to work with or the situation, this is not about what you’d do, it’s about what they do. And they’re crazy bastards. So let their freak flag fly.
  3. The funnier the better. The sadder the better. The more horrific, the better. Improvisation should be a lot of things but none of those is BORING. Make it snappy, or if it must be reserved, do it to build tension for a whiz bang ending.
  4. Emotion is important. The only time to pause in writing for a prompt is to ask yourself, what’s the most intense thing this person feels in this moment and how does that look on the outside. How do I make my reader jump into the character’s skin and feel that intensity?
  5. Challenge yourself with prompts that may not seem interesting or your ‘type’ of writing. You will surprise yourself at what comes out from behind those locked doors.

 

I’m going to give you three prompts. I could give you a length requirement, but we’re not middle schoolers here (though my humor sometimes digresses to such a level). Get dark, get dirty, get freaky, get sweet. Make it something that shocks you. Share it in the comments if you want to or in a private message to me.

At the end of this article I’ll link some really amazing references for doing more of these kinds of exercises on your own. If you are gripping your computer screen, shouting at me with spittle flying, that you “DON’T HAVE THAT KIND OF TIME!!” calm your tits…this will take five minutes tops. You can do it while you wait at the doctor’s office for your appointment for excessive salivation. You can do it in the car while you wait for your kids to get out of school. You can do it over your first cup of coffee…

Think of it as the second-most-fun form of “quickie” you get in life.

(Come on…I warned you about the seventh-grade humor, don’t look shocked.)

Ok…. Here’s your prompts. Pick one, or two, or make it a trifecta. In a perfect world, quickies are not limited. (And, yes, I mean that in all the ways)

  1. A rancher comes across a mutilated cow in her field, and all of the organs have been replaced by…
  2. A man is dared by his friends to ask the next woman who walks through the bar’s door to marry him. The next woman who walks through the door is…
  3. A child finds an ordinary rock on the playground that begins to make his wishes, big and small, come true. He brings it home and his mom finds it in the wash and puts it in her pocket without thinking…

 

Go play.

Here’s some books you should read or apps (for you tech savvy geniuses) you can download to help bring a little fun and playfulness to your art.

 

“A Writer’s Book of Days” by Judy Reeves

“Pocket Muse” (1 and 2) by Monica Wood

“The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice” Kelli Russell Agodon

Apps:

Prompts for Writing

The Brainstormer

WordPallette