Saturday, November 22, 2014

[link] Larry Brooks on Story Structure and "Going With the Flow"

Larry Brooks has one of the clearest explanations of story structure I've read. He calls it "story physics" -- the basic underlying rules for generating a satisfying reading experience, no matter what the genre. In general, he's not an advocate of "pantsing," that is, writing whatever pops into your mind without any idea where your story is going. I began writing that way, and had to learn to revise and revise and revise. Then I learned to use story structure principles as a diagnostic for where my story wasn't working. The more experienced I become, the earlier in the process I reach for those analytical, structural tools.

Brooks says, 

Organic storytelling — pantsing — is certainly a viable way to find your story, and to get it into play in a story development sense. But be clear, that’s all it is. If you stamp “Final Draft” onto a manuscript that hasn’t, in fact, landed on the optimal structure for the story you are telling, then you are putting your dream in jeopardy.

I like that he recognizes that some of us need that seat-of-the-pants experience. He talks in terms of finding the story, but it can also be crucial to the joy of writing and therefore to the nurture of our creative muses. But we also want the thrill of "nailing" the story exactly right, and to do that, we need more than very cool ideas. We need to understand how to put them together, how to present them, in the way that enhances and makes them all work together -- the "flow."

One of the things that delights me about this concept is that it seems to rely not on some artificial set of rules, but on an understanding of how the human psyche works. The Greek playwrights understood this. So did Shakespeare. So did Jane Austen.

So can you.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Winter Reading, part 1

As the end of the year approaches, my stack of to-be-reviewed books grows ever taller. I realized to my horror that I am rapidly approaching the point of not being able to remember what I liked or disliked about each story. So here are reviews of varying lengths for your amusement – and hopefully a few will pique your interest enough to check out the books themselves.

Tin Star by Cecil Castelluchi (Roaring Brook Press, 2014). First, a disclaimer. I met (and instantly adored) Cecil (a she-Cecil, not a he-Cecil, sometimes known as Miss SeaSkull) at Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in 2011. This story, she says, was inspired by all the space science we learned together. I got to be one of her early readers, so I had seen a rough draft of this story before. But one of the cool things about the passage of time is the sense of reading the story for the first time, maybe a story a friend told you about so you have some idea what to expect, only what is there is so very much better than what you r/e/m/e/m/b/e/r/e/d expected. Tin Star delighted and absorbed me at every turn, and I honestly can’t say whether any of my comments had anything to do with the marvelous finished product. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all Cecil’s doing! So here’s the skinny: Tula Bane, a young colonist from Earth, is left for dead on a space station, home to a host of alien races. As she learns to survive without friends or resources except her own wits, she plots revenge on the colonist leader who betrayed her and blew up the ship carrying her family. With deceptive simple language, Castelluchi takes us on a journey of growing up and learning what it is to be human. Highly recommended for adults as well as teens.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013). I was a little behind the curve in checking out the Collaborators, as Deborah Wheeler, in which humans make contact with a gender-fluid alien race), I was particularly curious about how Leckie handled the topic. Her alien race is binary gendered, but gender is not important or even a thing to be noticed; hence, the universal use of the feminine pronoun, leaving it to the reader or members of other races to guess who is which. I can see why readers got excited about this novel; it’s a very, very competent debut novel. It certainly grabbed and held my attention. The one thing I felt uneasy about was that the sense of a moral center was very slow in development, and on the way, there were too many times when I just couldn’t connect with any of the characters. Leckie pulled it together at the end and it might not bother other readers, so this is a highly personal quibble. I will look for her future work, but probably not set in this world. Well worth checking out, especially if you like military science fiction.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Midwifing A Story: The Trusted Reader

Some writers do all their work in isolation. They are the creative hermits of the literary world.  When they get an idea for a story, they tell no one. This isn’t always the misplaced fear that the other person will “steal” their idea. Few ideas are so strikingly original that they have not already been told in a myriad variations. Even if the other person were to write a story on the same idea, the stories would have different executions. Knowing this doesn’t seem to make a difference. Some folks just work better alone. I’ve heard some of them say that if they discuss a work in progress, the very act of telling it aloud dissipates the creative energy: they’ve told the story, so there’s no reward for writing it. Some of them never improve as writers, but others seem able to teach themselves and to produce work of quality.

I’m not one of them.

First of all, I am, as the French say, “très sociable.” I flourish with regular chats with other writers. More importantly, I learned early on in this business that if I am left to my own devices, I will come up with the most dreadful poppycock and think it’s great. My stories will have plot holes you could ride a tyrannosaur through. And let’s not mention grammatical atrocities, inconsistent characterizations…you know the drill. Fortunately, my second and third drafts are a whole lot better than the drivel I throw together as a rough draft. I revise a couple of times, just to get the words on the page into some correlation to the story in my head, before I let anyone else see it.

At some point, however, I need feedback. I need an ally. Better yet, several. I benefit from having a “story midwife” to help me with the process of pushing and squeezing and ruthlessly pruning a story into the form that is most true to my creative vision.

A “story midwife” is someone whose insightful feedback helps me to make the story more fully what I intended it to be. It is not a person who rewrites my work to their own agenda, sabotages my writing efforts in order to make themselves feel good, or who goes about claiming credit for having salvaged or inspired my work. These things happen (and they’ve happened to me), but they’re not only not helpful, they’re potentially devastating. All these things happen because the person reading the story has motives other than being of help to the writer. These folks are often unsuccessful writers themselves.