Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Professional Writer (Or Better Sex: Part 2)

Last time I wrote about discovering you want to write a story that's actually worth reading. The next obvious question is: "How the hell do I do that?"

That, my friend, is the right question (I, Robot rules.) Finding the answer--according to Malcolm Gladwell--requires ten thousand hours of study and practice. I'm only a third of the way there, but after assaulting every neuron in my stubborn brain with tips, classes, and books on writing fiction, I've come to view it as a two-part process: What to write, and How to write it.

What to Write:
For me, this is the harder of the two areas.

I've known instinctive writers; perennial best-sellers who can sit down with nothing more than a ball-point pen and a rough idea. Two months later, they've magically produced a taut, engaging plot, complete with unexpected twists and spot-on timing. To me, they're like people who naturally look good on the dance floor; folks who close their eyes, feel the music, swing their hips...and the result is sexily (that's a real word, right?) wonderful.

If you'd seen me trying to 'Do The Hustle' in seventh grade, you'd know that isn't me.

Part of growing older is accepting your limitations. I'm blessed in many ways (thank you, Mr. or Ms. Higher Power, whomever You are.) But I submit that when it was time to hand out the genes for freestyle dancing and seat-of-your-pants writing, I got screwed. So, as much as I resisted at first, I've come to adore the three-act structure.

I don't know whether my favorite authors (Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, and *Steve Ulfelder *literary crush alert) consciously use a template. But when I read their books, I watch for the 'beats' I know are coming: Setup, Catalyst, B-story, Midpoint (stakes are raised), Bad Guys Close In, Dark Moment, Climax, and Conclusion. (Beats condensed/adapted from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat.)

In my genre, Catalyst, Mid-point, and Bad Guys Close In beats generally require dead bodies. Count on someone we care about getting hurt/dying at the Dark Moment, whereas B-story and Climax beats show our protagonist first appearing to win, then actually winning.

The value of a formula for writers like me is this: With (lots of) practice, the moves begin to appear natural. Like dancing in front of a mirror, using the three-act, fifteen-beat structure helps me see where tension dribbles off, where the plot drifts aimlessly from scene to scene with no suspense in sight. There are (strong) suggestions for how long each section should be, and this, too, helps with timing.

Best of all, I don't waste time writing scenes that end up in my computer's recycle bin.

To construct the outline, I write a short synopsis of each chapter (Witness X dies) on an index card and stick it on the cork board on my office wall. Keeping the 'beats' in mind, I shuffle the cards around until I've found where they belong, then note where the story is too short (or long), and whether I need to add to one of the sections. This is usually where I kill someone. (How many jobs allow you to say that and still walk around free?)

Using a template is like checking that funky chicken move in your bathroom mirror before unveiling it on the dance floor at your class reunion. Does it look as good as you think? No? That's how well the flashback-to-childhood scene in the middle of the Climax beat works...which is to say, it doesn't.

But thanks to guys like Blake Snyder (who passed away in 2009) and gals like Alexandra Sokoloff, people like me have the equivalent of plastic footprints stuck to the floor, and even those of us who dance like we're having a grand mal seizure can appear graceful.

Next I'll talk about the part that does come (somewhat) naturally for me: How to Write It.

9 comments:

  1. I keep changing my dance steps. I'll let you know when I figure out a routine. (As if.)

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    1. I had you pegged as a natural.

      Cheers!

      -T

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  2. Awesome. Your process is eerily similar to mine. I too use index cards, but I always start with exactly 60. That way, I automatically use 15 for each quarter between intro, dark moment, climax, etc. A scene is assigned to each card. And then I write. Usually, more cards get added into the mix later, but this forces me to watch my sagging middle. (Which does not, sad to say, involve nearly so many dead bodies! At least not human ones.)

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    1. But you get to write steamy scenes between Dragons, which is waaay fun too! How did the post-Golden-Heart publishing experience go?

      -T

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  3. Thank you for sharing your story board and how-to this afternoon! It's amazing. Now I have a confession: I was so intimidated, I could barely breathe. Oy! That looks like more work than writing the entire book!

    Brainstorming Linda's blurb with everyone was fun, wasn't it? I love seeing how each of our members work!
    Susan

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    1. Honestly, Susan, that may be why I resisted so strongly at first.

      Look at it this way: We'd never start baking cookies (or spinach-tofu lasagne) without first making sure we have the right ingredients in the necessary quantities. This is like that...only funner.

      I say that while humbly acknowledging there are cooks out there (Emma Baisley, bless her soul) who weave culinary masterpieces out of canned beats and sturgeon lips. I'm just not one of them.

      Cheers...and Happy Writing!

      -T

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    2. Wait, wait, wait. We're supposed to make sure we have enough of the right ingredients BEFORE we start cooking/baking?
      WHY DIDN'T SOMEONE TELL ME THAT?

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  4. My my MY, what an interesting development. I showed this post to my wife of 23 years. She rolled her eyes and said the catbox needs cleaning. I can't even make her jealous anymore, dammit.

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    1. Ha! I told my husband I picked up a stalker at the last conference. Actually had him going until I let it slip my flirty friend was an octogenarian. Now, when I try to make him jealous, he says, "AARP member, right?"

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