Sunday, January 8

Reviewing Books to Become a Better Writer, Pt. 2

     


         Part Two


         So far I've covered...
  1. Characters (who does what)
  2. Point of View See this artical if you're interested in a more lengthy discussion of POV
    http://www.brocku.ca/english/courses/2F55/pt_of_view.php
  3. Setting (because characters cannot exist in a vacuum)

    That leaves:
  4. Plot (now that we know Who and Where, What are they going to do?)
  5. Conflict (makes life interesting) 
  6. Theme


I'd like to add writing, the actual nuts and bolts of cobbling a sentence together, to my list, because nobody likes "word salad". (How to make word salad: Toss a bunch of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and articles into a blender, hit frappe, and serve it up on plate with a side of ego...)

Now, my writing style is not your style is not that other guy's style. But style should never be used as an excuse for poor writing skills. We all remember third grade, right? (Or, if you've never diagrammed a sentence, you might want to learn how--not only is it guaranteed to prove endless hours of fun, but you'll learn something in the process). No, of course I didn't like sentence diagramming as a kid, but the point is that third grade English is where we learned the basic concepts of writing. It take it on faith that published authors are aware of those rules, and when we chose to break them it is indeed a choice.

But beyond the basics of good writing, there is something to be said for beautiful writing. (And yes, there are people who disagree with me on that point...but they can tell you about it on their blog. This is my blog and, so I'm going to do it "my way"....) One of the best examples of beautiful prose, in my humble opinion, is Anne Bishop's Black Jewels series. Bishop's writing flows effortless off the page. She conveys ideas and pictures with ease. She is also gifted at creating rich, complex characters. But more about characters in a moment...

It isn't an easy thing to catagorize and quantify "beautiful prose", it's just one of those things that you know when you see it--and you and I may see it differently. What we can do is is to look a the depth, complexity and sophistication of an author's words. Her sentences. Her paragraphs. (Or his, I'm not meaning to imply any gender bias, here.) One thing I'm not talking about is assaulting the reader with string after string of so-called ten and twenty dollar words. Plain language can be quite beautiful. It's all in the way you use it.

Good writers, like good lovers, know that there are more important things than huge size. Some readers--like some lovers--are intimated when things are a little too big and won't enjoy the experience one bit.

Erm.

Right.

Moving on.  ;-)



Plot

"In order to establish significance in narrative there will often be coincidence, parallel or contrasting episodes, repetitions of various sorts, including the repetition of challenges, crises, conciliations, episodes, symbols, motifs. The relationship of events in order to create significance is known as the plot."

(http://www.brocku.ca/english/jlye/criticalreading.php#fplot)


Wow. What a convoluted way to say that plot is what gets us from point A to point B to point C and so on. The plot is simply what happens in a story..."simply?" Well, okay, it's not really simple. Just as I found varying numbers of "elements of fiction", I also found varying numbers of "elements of a plot". Figures.

For me, it stacks up this way (and I'm speaking both as a reader and a writer here):

Set-up. While it's never a good idea to "front load" a story with a bunch of world-building and information at the very beginning, it is a good idea to "ground" the reader in the narrative. (And by the same token, we often read that it's important to "start with a hook" or "grab the reader with the firs sentences". This is absolutely true. Editors get literally dozens of unsolicited manuscripts daily, you need to wow them from word one. Readers can be pretty fickle, too.)  So... set-up... but don't forget that hook. (If writing is starting to sound like hard work, you're right, it is.)

Next, there needs to be some sort of conflict. Just as POV is part of character, conflict is part of plot. Conflict drives the story forward. Someone wants something. In order to get it, they must overcome an obstacle. Sometimes the obstacles are large, other times, they're small.

Conflict sometimes comes from within--we want something but stop ourselves from getting it because we think we can't have it, we don't want to upset someone else, we have baggage that sabotages us, etc. This can come out as angst. Personally, I like angst in my fiction--just not in real life!

The plot is resolved as the characters resolve their conflicts, whether that means sitting down and actually talking to each other, discovering that, oh, that conversation you heard where you thought I was cheating on you? No, I was just getting a quote on auto insurance! Or the conflict can be resolved by blowing up the alien spaceship moments before it destroys the earth.

Additionally, in a longer work, there should be an appropriate number of subplots (the number and complexity will be directly proportionate to the length of the work. I have a couple of fairly well developed subplots in my 89,000 word novel; there are only a few bare hints of subplot running through my 7000 word short story). I think of subplots as "the rest of the story". In real life, you don't just face one crisis at a time. No, you find out you're up for a promotion the same day you discover your spouse wants a divorce and your son just made National Honor Society (or conversely was arrested for smoking pot in the boy's loo) and just about the time you've finished half a bottle of wine because, seriously, you're a wee bit stressed, your best friend calls you to ask if she can crash on your sofa.... and on top of that, you still need to fix dinner, wash dishes, do laundry and oh yeah, hire an attorney to deal with that divorce that started out your day. Where's the second bottle of wine....?

Life happens all at once and it happens... well, at the speed of life. A good story is about characters that feel real, ergo, they have real lives.

The climax of the plot is when the characters come together to hash out their differences, discover they *can* be together (or die in the process of trying, like Romeo and Juliette)--or say screw it all and blow up the spaceship because they're sick of all the angsty crap and want to actually DO something for a change. (Hey, I'm allowed to poke fun at my own angsty characters).

In the final chapter/s of the story, there is some sort of wind-down, or "resolution".

So:
set-up (the who, what, where, and when)
complication (conflict)
climax (when it all comes to a head)
resolution (ideally, short and sweet)

Last but not least: Theme.

Theme is the thing that ties the whole thing together.

I was about half way through the rough draft of Heart's Home when I sussed out the theme: finding home (which is when it got its final title; up until then, I'd gone through several working titles).

Actually, homecoming is a theme I use a lot. I'll admit it; it's something that resonates with me. One of the sequels to Heart's Home, Daemon Heart, is more about honesty (or lack there of). I haven't exactly nailed it yet... like I said, theme is a hard one for me.



Now, back to reading Shira Anthony's Blue Notesthe first book up for "critical" review.  (And I've gotta say, it is REALLY hard not just tearing through it like a kid whose just discovered a gianormeous frigging chocolate Santa in her stocking on Yule morning. I want to rip into it and devour it... which should give you some inclination that it's a darned good book...or that I really like chocolate....)




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