Three Dirty Birds on Plot and Structure

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Three Dirty Birds are Plotting and Structuring their stories today, as we tackle James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication.

Kate: This was a bit repetitive. I think every book or chapter on plot references Joseph Campbell. Having read Joseph Campbell, it’s not a bad structure ( and his book is pretty interesting, if I remember correctly, and if you have a thing for Roman and Greek mythology). Not so sure how well it applies to the romance genre, unless you’re writing romantic fantasy, or scifi, or maybe a thriller?

Zoe: I did skim the second half of the chapter, where he delved into the Hero’s Journey and other more structured stuff. But I found the first half of the chapter valuable, with his LOCK system, which is you need a Lead (protagonist) in whom the reader has an emotional rooting interest in and who has an inner conflict, and the lead needs an Objective/want that is so crucial to him/her that he must have it or suffer deep loss, and there must be opposition (“Confrontation”) to the lead’s objective, and a Knock-out ending.

Ana: Thanks for summarizing that, I kept getting confused by the letters he kept throwing in in between. (But then, I wasn’t at my most attentive while reading this. It’s not the book, it’s just me. I swear)

(Zoe: Yeah, reading that section, it was more of a LisliOCaK system. Which, it turns out, is fun to say out loud.)

Ana: I liked reading his other book. The ‘write your novel from the middle’ thing. I think that’s about all the plotting advice I can read without zoning out.

Zoe: I very much enjoyed that book. It was short, to the point, and jammed with useful info.

Kate: I’ve got his Plot and Structure book, but I haven’t gotten into it yet. I liked the section in this book about the patterns you can look for in plots. All those different categories. Which is probably just a sign that I need to pay more attention to keeping things organized and pointed in the right direction when I write. But if you have a certain kind of conflict, you need to keep things related to that conflict. (Which I don’t do very well at, at least until draft umpteen million.)

Zoe: That’s what drafts are for! I have to confess that I skimmed the plot patterns section too. “Not my story, not my story, not my…oh look, we’re up to the exercises again already.”

Ana: I thought those plot patterns only get interesting if you mix them up with each other. Like most my romance stories have a good chunk of what he calls the ‘change’ pattern.

Zoe: You did just make them more interesting for me. Thanks!

Kate: I just like to sort things. I’m a sorting kinda gal. “Oh, that’s what it really is!”

Zoe: As for the exercises, I may do number two sometime soon. I’ve always meant to see Sunset Boulevard. Now I have an excuse. (I’m also now eating chocolate. If anyone cares.)

Kate: Did you bring enough for everyone? I’m going to need it while I do exercise #1. (Because I really need to work on the TBR pile.)

Ana: Bad Kate. You’re supposed to reread a favorite, not take something from your TBR!

Zoe: I brought half a bag of Cadbury Christmas mini eggs.

Kate: Woohoo! Cadbury!  Ana, I have to get the TBR mountain down, or I’ll someday be a squashed bird under its weight. (I’m sure that’s a French haute cuisine dish.)

Zoe: lol!

Ana: And right now we’re three writers who can’t come up with a good ending line to this chapter… er… blog post.

Kate: Niiiice, Ana. Just tell on us, why don’t you?

Ana: I’m using self-deprecating humor to make my character more sympathetic.

Zoe: We’re under pressure from this chapter to provide a Knock-Out ending. I can’t work under pressure. Here, have more chocolate before I eat it all.

Kate: I’m done. I have chocolate.

Ana: You’re done? I don’t even get started before chocolate. I fear this is going to be an unsatisfying ending. A cliffhanger, maybe?

Kate: Maybe we’re in the wrong POV…

Ana: That’s foreshadowing! Okay, I can live with that.

Three Dirty Birds on the Philosophy of Writing

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Three Dirty Birds talking about James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication and his chapter on the Philosophy of Writing.

Kate: So much good in this chapter.

Ana: I was kind of so caught up in reading that I sort of forgot to take notes.

Zoe: I was reading this chapter while avoiding my own writing, so I really connected with it. (And then I went and wrote.) (Ana: There should be a Latin saying for that: I came, read, and wrote. Veni, legi, scribi?)

Kate: Lol, Ana. He really had some interesting ideas on how to approach editing. Kind of messed with my preconceived notions of how it should go. (I really don’t’ think I know how to edit, to be honest. Or revise, or whatever. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I do know.)

Zoe: Me too. I’ve come a long way from “Fixing the typos and making the sentences flow a little better,” but I’m probably still going to be learning how to edit for years to come.

Kate: I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s a lot like learning any subject or skill. You start with the more obvious, straightforward stuff, like making sentences flow and dealing with typos and word-choice, then move on to more demanding skills as the first ones become just a part of your workflow.

Zoe: I saw a tweet today that said something like “Revision and editing IS creative work,” and I think more and more I come to feel that way.

Ana: It totally is! At least, it is at my desk… I tell myself I’m /just going to fix minor things/ and bam, I’m rewriting again.

Kate: But, dear heaven, why did he have to bring up Proust? *shudders* I’m still scarred. I dropped that course. I may never read this chapter again.

Zoe: I was also tired when I was reading this, and the Proust anecdote spans two pages, and I got confused and had to scroll back up to verify that it wasn’t Marcel Marceau. I was disappointed! (Boy, it’s bad when you’d rather see a mime.)

Kate: Proust drove me crazy. I literally quit the course over having to read that book. Other than that, though, I really liked this chapter. That freeze–I think that’s an issue that perfectionists run into in their writing. I’ll get stuck, and I know I’m a perfectionist, simply because I can’t see exactly where I need to go next with this scene. I know where it has to get to, but I can’t find just the right way to get there. So, frozen, and not the kind with the funny snowman and the generic princess.

Zoe: I liked that he talked about causes of the freeze, because recognizing what the monster of the moment is can be much more useful than reading a bunch of tips to get around the symptoms.

Ana: That’s true. There’s a lot of reasons why people get blocked, and they don’t all require the same cure.

Kate: I can’t work past something I can’t diagnose. Wish I could.

Zoe: Sometimes naming the monster IS the cure.

Kate: It’s worked for me in the past. And still works for me, though I don’t always recognize it until I’ve figured out the solution. That naked feeling is a very good reason to have a pen name. My family and co-workers know I write, but I won’t give out my pen name because I get too self-conscious.

Ana: I still get that naked feeling sometimes, which is why I couldn’t replace my current alpha reader if she quit. It says ‘most trusted person’ in the job description.

Zoe: I am, thankfully, mostly immune to the naked feeling—and a good thing, too, because my mother in law is reading Suckers right now, which doesn’t bother me a bit, but every evening Mr. Rider brings up a new thing he imagines she’ll think. I just roll my eyes. “So what.”

Ana: I’m not completely immune, but at this point, I’m using it to my advantage. Kind of like a way to gauge whether a scene is working. If I’m not feeling at least a little exposed, there’s probably nothing deep in there. (And not every scene needs that, but some do.)

Kate: He had some good ideas for picking story ideas to work on. I really like the one about writing the back cover copy first, which is what I did for Kev ‘n Mo, and it helped a lot. I could tell right away where I hadn’t yet fleshed out the idea enough.

Ana: For me, picking an idea has never been so much of an issue. I know a lot of writers have a ton of ideas and first chapters written, but the only time I start a story is when I feel like I have to write it, and then it’s never been such a big problem to be committed. Maybe because I don’t get plot bunnies all the time. Less distraction. (Or because I’m too lazy to try out every idea I get. Entirely possible.)

Kate: Me, I have a backlog of about thirty story ideas that I really want to work on, but only so many brain cells to go around. So I do have to fiddle once I get to the point of being able to move on to a new idea, to see which one has the most structure already put together in the back of my mind.

Ana: I’d be horrible with that. I’d just write what I most felt like writing at the time.

Kate: Sometimes I do, but they aren’t always the ones that are ready to be written. I need to be able to plot out the backbone of it in my head, have several scenes ready to go, before I can start.

Zoe: No matter which one I pick to write, I will spend most of my time wishing I’d picked a different one. (This is also how I read.)

Ana: Right now you’re reminding me of the rabbit in Winnie the Pooh. But yeah, the honey moon phase only lasts so long…

Zoe: Fortunately it comes back near the end.

I like how he makes a good book seem so simple! Concept + Characters x Conflict = Novel. Done! *sigh*

Kate: Yeah. I wish it was that easy. And it is, but it isn’t. That darn Wall…

Ana: Walls were made to be broken. Or something.

Zoe: He offers a bunch of questions you can ask yourself at any point in the story, in this section, and I am totally going to take those over to my laptop later and cling to them like a piece of driftwood in the sea, in hopes that they can keep my middle afloat long enough for the Coast Guard to show up with my ending.

Ana: Good luck! I’ll be here eating chocolate.

Zoe: I’ll be doing that too.

Kate: Chocolate for everyone!

Three Dirty Birds on Setting

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The Three Dirty Birds are discussing Setting today, with the help of Chuck Wendig’s pithy thought processes.

Zoe: Another reallyreally basic chapter.

Ana: With the novella I’m writing currently, for the first time I’m actually making use of setting. I’m still really bad at it. I don’t know why it’s so hard for me, but it is.

Kate: There is a trick to it, I think, though I’m not sure I can explain it very well. I think you have to use it as almost of mirror of what’s going on in the character’s head, or heart, or to reflect the reality that is coming. You can use it to reflect attitudes.

Ana: You mean like that pro tip where you start your horror novel with rain?

Zoe: Always start your horror novel with rain. A rain of blood.

Kate: Lol. NO!  But cold can be used to infer danger, or lack of support. Placing a story in a happy little town implies one thing, placing it in the middle of a broken down area in a big city implies another. I’m not doing a good job at explaining this, am I? (Paints a giant L on her forehead)

Ana: I know what you’re trying to say. But right now it’s cold in my story because it’s February, and it’s February because that’s entrance exam season, and they’re in Tokyo because that’s the place to go~ I didn’t really make these choices to set the mood.

Zoe: But you can use the cold to set the mood, since it’s there. There are different kinds of cold, different ways to view or react to cold. Some people love winter (Ana: SNOOOOOOW) and it’s joyous and wonderful for them. And then there’s me. I should open all my horror novels in the winter. There are also different kinds of cold days—sunny with the sun glistening off snow, or dark and gray and gloomy and biting.

I once read—and I’m completely paraphrasing here—that Alfred Hitchcock felt suspense should start during the day—it’s sunny out, people are bustling along with their business, things are good, or at least normal. Then the darkness comes.

Kate: True. How can you feel horror if you don’t know how horrible it is?

Ana: I think when this novella is done I’ll edit this with this in mind. I need more practice.

Zoe: I like concentrating on different things in different edits. I can’t juggle everything at once.

Ana: That’s probably the best way to do it. (Unless you just run spell-check)

Zoe: You’re missing out on all the fun if you just run spell check.

Kate: Books are like paintings. Or cakes. It’s all done in layers.

Ana: I think more like onions because cutting them can make you cry.

Zoe: Yes, I often liken writing a novel to doing an oil painting. (Not that I’ve ever done an oil painting, aside from paint-by-numbers.)

Kate: Nothing wrong with paint-by-numbers.

Zoe: You haven’t seen mine.

Kate: Lol. Chuck talks about three details and no more, which–if everyone followed that–would kill off a lot of the info-dumping we see in young writers.

Ana: I once got the advice that with those three details, at least one of them should be something out of the ordinary / something unexpected.

Zoe: I read a blog post the other day that was about “forget thinking outside the box; think what you can do within the box.” The point was that limitation breeds creativity, and I think if you limit yourself to just three details, you’re going to put more thought into crafting them. You’re going to make them work harder. (I could be wrong; people could just start tossing three details in. “One, two, three—that’s done, next!”)

Kate: I’m sure some people would do that, but the ones that are thinking hard about their work would probably rise to the challenge.

Ana: *just sitting here eating chocolate*

Zoe: *sitting here wondering if she has time to run out and buy chocolate and still meet her writing goals*

Kate: *sniffing and wishing she hadn’t eaten all the chocolate last night*

Ana: I could run out and buy chocolate and be back here within fifteen minutes… if it weren’t Sunday.

Zoe: So what you’re saying is that in your setting, you can’t get more chocolate until tomorrow morning, but in mine, I can have chocolate in twenty-five minutes and be chomping it down in the car on my way home. The mood for my setting is much more optimistic.

Ana: You would be right if I weren’t a smart bird. I already have chocolate here. And it’s euro-chocolate.

Zoe: That makes my setting look much more dire.

Kate: I think that’s Setting as Conflict.

Zoe: But I get to listen to Stephen King’s Joyland on the way to the store and back.

Kate: Ah, then it’s Setting as Catalyst.

Zoe: I think I’ll add rum to my chocolate. Setting as Enabler. I really didn’t get a lot out of this chapter. It’s basically: establish your setting early, don’t include too much description, include what’s important or unique, and keep mood and theme in mind.

Kate: Pretty much. There were a few good tips near the end, but for someone who has a couple of books under their belt, a lot of this will seem very self-evident. Lots of good information, though, if you’re a little unsure of how to handle your setting, and what you can make it do for you.

Three Dirty Birds on Plot

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Three Dirty Birds Plotting with Chuck Wendig…oh, wait, no, that’s Three Dirty Birds talking about what Chuck thinks about Plot.

Ana: Aw, man, I wanted to be plotting.

Zoe: I remember when I was a young writer, reading books about plot, and the concept just seemed really elusive to me. (Some of my reviewers might say it still does.) I often wish Chuck had been around when I was a young’un. But he would have been like fifteen or something, and I’m sure he had better things to do, like experiment with putting gross stuff in socks, at that time.

Ana: I guess I’m lucky I had the internet available with all its resources when I started writing. (seriously, anyway)

Kate: When I first dabbled in it, long before I ever thought of getting published, the only resources were few and far between, and didn’t make any sense to me at the time. I’m glad that there’s people who can put these concepts in plain language for new writers, so they didn’t have the trial-and-error slog I did. I eventually gave up, because I couldn’t figure out where to go for help, and only started writing again about twenty years later.

Ana: I figure before my birth I was probably waiting somewhere up in the ether going ‘Nah, I’m not gonna be born yet. No internet yet. Not worth it.’

Zoe: I think I over-complicated it. I mean, not surprisingly. I had books, entire books, about plot, so it couldn’t possibly be simple and straightforward like I was thinking it was!

Ana: Academia has taught me you can write a lot of pages about very little content….

Kate: Oh, yeah. I remember those days. i liked what he said in tip #5. Things get worse until they get better. That’s a tough one to do sometimes, especially if you want to write a sweet romance.

Ana: Even sweet romance needs conflict to be that much sweeter in the end.

Zoe: I like tip number 7, about what a character wants vs. what he fears. If he has to face what he fears to get what he wants, you get a lot of dynamic. It’s pretty much built in.

Kate: It was nice to be reminded of that. Sometimes you have an instinct about things, but can’t quite articulate it. I think Chuck does a good job of that.

Ana: It’s something to keep in mind. I liked how he said in tip #8: “An artificial plot is something you have to wrestle into place, a structure you have to bend and mutilate and duct tape to get it to work.” Whenever a story starts feeling like that to me I know I have to take a step back.

Kate: That kind of feeds into #9, where he talks about tension and recoil when your characters makes choices, and then suffer the consequences. Since a really good plot tends to be character driven, even when outside forces are acting heavily on it, this is a good thing to keep in mind. No matter what outside forces there are, it’s the character’s choices that drive the direction.

Ana: Yeah, and you have to keep asking yourself if your characters choices are really the choices they would make, or just the choices you want them to make because of your vision of the plot.

Kate: In which case, you either have the wrong characters, or the wrong plot. (I hate it when that happens, even though it usually means I’ve now got two stories for the price of coming up with one.)

Zoe: I really liked #21, where he says that “a big plot is in some ways just a lot of little plots lashed together and moving in a singular direction.” I think I’m going to put that on a sign today when I sit down to write.

Ana: It does seem to fit your Man Made Murder situation rather well.

Zoe: Please, Lord, let it help me get through that book. I hate when you have a story you love and want to tell, and it fights you the whole way.
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Kate: I often feel like there’s some piece I’m missing when a story does that to me. Like my unconscious knows something, but it can’t seem to spit the words out.

Ana: I felt that way about my novella for the past two weeks but now that I’ve figured out what I’m doing I can’t wait to get back to it.

Kate: I’ve been having the same issue with the squirrel. Now that I’ve figured out what was bugging me and not letting me move forward, I’m excited to get back to it. Once I finish Kev ‘n Mo.

I liked what he had to say about plot holes in the first #13, because I hadn’t really thought of it that way. Either you weren’t paying attention, or your plot is way too convoluted. But now that he’s said it, it makes perfect sense.

Ana: I think most of my plot holes are direct results of not sacrificing goats.

Zoe: Ha. Well, the goats are thankful for your plot holes. Mine are all “not paying attention,” but I cut myself slack (and fix the plot holes in future drafts), because you can’t pay attention to everything all at once.

Kate: #22 had a great title: Exposition is Sand in the Story’s Panties. I really don’t think you need to say any more than that.

Ana: I still have some sand in my feathers….