Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Thin Plot Can Be Thickened

I’m happy to announce that I am writing again. Okay, so it’s not “writing,” writing. But I am finally back to working on my current manuscript, which was derailed some months back when I realized I was running in place, going nowhere, and the book was getting downright boring.

The fiction-writing community likes to talk about two camps of writers: outliners and pantsers (i.e., seat-of-the-pants types). I definitely have the personality of an outliner. I’m someone who makes endless lists, plans trips months ahead, and knows what I’m going to make for dinner three days hence.

an example of my organizational tendencies

But when I sat down to write my current book, Such a Smell of Sulfur (the sequel to my first m.s., A Matter of Taste), I was so eager to get going that I started writing before I had a clear plot-line in my head. Sure, I knew “who dunnit,” and why, and even had a list of suspects and red herrings. But the story arc was still a jumble. In other words, I was pantsing it. Bad idea.

It all went well until around chapter five. I’d been sending the chapter drafts to my mom to read, because she’s the one who first got me into mysteries as a teenager, and because the Big Island—where the book takes place—is her favorite place on the planet. She would write back with comments and the occasional insightful criticism, but seemed to be enjoying the story. Until chapter six.

“I love the description,” she commented (it was of a hula performance), “but nothing seems to be happening in this chapter to push the story forward.”

hula can be thrilling,
but it too needs a story arc

Hard words, especially from your mother. But I knew in my heart she was right. I’d been spinning my wheels for the past two chapters, because I had no idea where I was going with any of it. So I decided to take a break from writing to work on the plot.

Easier said than done. On my bike rides and walks with Ziggy, while gardening and cooking, lying in bed at night, I’d try to brainstorm to come up with plot ideas. But it turns out you can’t just hatch a plot from your brain merely by the asking. So I read articles online, which suggesting asking things like “what if?” and “what’s the most expected thing your protagonist could do now? Have her do the opposite.”

But my plot still sat there stagnant, refusing to reveal its potentially thrilling possibilities. Then I saw a notice on the Sisters in Crime website for a class on plotting. Have I talked about Sisters in Crime on this blog? I think I’ve mentioned the organization, but I’d like to extol it to the skies right now.

When I first set out to write crime fiction, I had little idea as to how to actually go about doing it. I’d read lots of mysteries, but writing them—placing clues, having believable suspects, plotting and pacing—these were all new concepts to me. I soon joined Sisters in Crime, and its subgroup the Guppies (for the Great Unpublished), where I met numerous crime writers online who were either in the same boat as I, or had been there earlier in their careers and were eager to share their experiences and insights with the rest of us. They are wonderful groups, and I strongly recommend them to all mystery writers, new and seasoned.

doing research
(photo: Robin McDuff) 

Back to the plotting class. I’m now in the last week of the five-week course (which cost only $60, because the Guppies underwrote part for their members) offered by author and writing instructor Kris Neri. In this online class, we’ve been given “lectures” (in print form) on plotting strategies, and have had weekly homework to post—including a jacket blurb, characters’ backstories, synopsis and story arc—which Kris has critiqued for all the students to read.

I’m not going to give any details as to her plotting techniques, since she makes her living giving out this information. (Click on the link above to find out where you can take one of her classes.) But I will provide one tidbit (and I hope Kris doesn’t mind my doing so): Think about your villain’s story. That’s where many writers go astray, concentrating solely of their protagonist. I know I did.

Kris is a terrific teacher, and the class has been invaluable for me, for I have come out of it with a much clearer idea of what’s going to happen in my book. I don’t yet have a complete outline, for there are still holes to fill in, but I now have enough of a story arc that I feel confident I can start writing again and that each scene and chapter will now propel the story forward. Huzzah!

So, thank you Kris! And thank you Sisters in Crime and Guppies!

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