Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It's All About the Story

Hi. My name is Sally, (Hi, Sally) and I’m addicted to playing with words. I’m addicted to letting my ability to turn a phrase distract me from crafting deep, heart-felt conflicts.

That’s why craft Tuesdays scare me. The niggling weasel of self-doubt always perches on my shoulder and hisses in my ear, “What do you know about craft? You’re not published, and you started your first serious novel over ten years ago. . .” And the hateful little beggar just keeps going and going like a twisted, sadistic, incredibly ugly Energizer bunny. Well, this morning I gathered my thumb and forefinger together and gave him a solid thump to parts unknown because, as it turns out, I do know a little something about craft:

It’s all about the story.

That’s my great realization for 2009: it’s all about the story. I think a lot of writers are in the same boat I am, a veritable Titanic of belief in the beauty of well-crafted sentences, gorgeous metaphors, and grammatical perfection. I’ve never doubted my ability to write, and that’s been a large part of the problem all these years. I grew too confident in college, bolstered by the admiration of professors who complimented my writing and sometimes gave me higher marks than I deserved because I wrote so well about a probably nonexistent connection between Thomas Malthus and Charles Darwin. For several years, I told myself I was a shoo-in because I could craft sentences and paragraphs and sprinkle in transcendent description.

As it turns out, I was dead wrong.

In the realm of commercial fiction it’s what you say, not how you say it. (See yesterday’s beautifully crafted AND highly poignant post from Michelle.) As I’ve progressed from “Your-story’s-so-bad-it-doesn’t-even-merit-a-response” to a terse “Not for us” to a more optimistic request for a full to a rejection letter that mentions my babies by name and compliments my voice and writing skills, I’ve learned a few things. It’s all about the story. I can’t just sit down and start to write, losing myself in my own little world. I can’t let my muse guide me through sunlit fields to make daisy chain tangents. No, I have to think the story out from start to finish, focusing on who my characters are, why they act the way they do, and making sure that their actions organically evolve from who they are. I have to do crazy things like put up poster board and sticky notes in the hallway leading from the garage so that my husband and kids think I have officially lost my mind.

The craziest thing? Plotting is fun, and writing is easy and exciting when I know where I'm going. All these years I thought outlines and plotting would rob the process of its mystique, but I was so wrong. So, from now on I’m going to focus on the story before I start writing. I need to know where I’m going and harness the words instead of letting them drag me to parts unknown.

So, what have you learned about craft this year? Any great revelations? Anyone else out there who’s brave enough to join me in Word Lovers’ Anonymous?


Cyrano said...

Hi my name is Tamara (Hi Tamara) and I'm a word lover too.
Problem is I'm also a procrastinator, a self-doubter and a worry wart.
These things keep me from crafting to begin with.
For those of you out there who know me and my insecurities, I'm sure this is beginning to get old. Yah, yah, Tamara is unsure of herself, Tamara isn't writing because she has a dibilitating fear of failure, Tamara is this, Tamara is that.
I know, I know, Tamara has to get over it already.
Believe me, I'm sick of hearing (or living) it too.
So I guess you can say I've learned these things about myself over the years.
But I've also learned alot about the craft of writing as well.
I've learned that you really need to know your characters, their hopes and fears, wants, needs. You need to know their deepest darkest secrets, their flaws and their back story.
I've learned that motivation drives them forward, but conflict can and should skew them in different directions.
I've learned that writing (the dreaded)synopsis first, before ever writing chapter one, is a huge help.
I've learned about Dominant Impression (your character's world view)in Deb Dixon's class.
I found out that each scene must work hard to give your character a turning point and that goals must be actionable -taking the character somewhere and forcing them to do something about it.
I've actually learned a lot this year, but what I haven't quite grasped yet is that a coward must face what they fear most in order to move forward. Deb Dixon said this in her recent class. She was talking about characterization. I wrote the phrase down in my notes, but didn't realize until this moment that those words not only apply to the craft of writing, but to me personally.
So I guess even now I'm learning.
And hopefully I'll continue to learn and maybe one day (soon) it will all sink in.
Sorry about another long Tamara comment. You guys always inspire me to blab away.
Wonderful post Sally.
Have a gorgeous Tuesday,

Tami Brothers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tami Brothers said...

Hey Guys,

I agree with both of you. I started out as a pantser. There is nothing like the feeling of writing that first book. 60,000 words in 2 months during my baby's naps and playtimes. I was SOOOO proud of that accomplishment.

What I didn't see was the holes that I left in the story. So many holes that it was beyond editing.

Same thing happened with 2, 3 and (I can finally admit this after many deep breaths) 4 (man was that one hard....). After everything I've read and heard, I'm taking a different approach this time. I'm putting up those poster boards in the hallway (great idea, Sally.... I hadn't thought about how useful that spot can be!!!) and like Tamara, I'm working on knowing my characters better before I write their story.

Maybe, just maybe, this will be the key... We can only hope!!!

Have a great day.


Debbie Kaufman said...

Sally, love the visual of the stickies on the wall! Me, I use official foam board, but that's just because the walls are too broken up!

I think the biggest thing I've learned this year is story structure. Attending Diana Love and Mary Buckham's Break Into Fiction (with you!), really helped me see the big picture.

Barbara Monajem said...

Argh. Me, too, on having to learn to plot and plan ahead of time. Pantsing has its place--in fact, I still believe I should pants the first few chapters to get a feel for the characters--but plotting is so much more efficient. Gack! Efficiency smacks of being in the office! (Not that I'm efficient there either...)

I think (at least this week!) that what works best for me is a combo of the two. It's one of those chicken and egg things - write the story to know the characters, know the characters to write the story.

Cyrano said...

I love the chicken and egg analogy Barbara. That's so true.
I'm a huge panster myself. Even though I wrote the synopsis first for my most recent novel. I'm also an incredibly linnear writer. I've tried to vere off that path and write chapters out of sequence, doesn't work. My head nearly explodes if I do that.
I wish I could have attended Diana Love's class. I was out of town and missed it. I heard it was great.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sally :-D What a great post--I identified with a lot of it! Yeah, it can be a rude awakening to go from a college prof who thinks you're brilliant to a New York editor who...doesn't.

The more contests I judge, the more I realize that some people who are great writers aren't necessarily great storytellers and vice versa. In this business, it helps to be both. I still struggle with that, but I think struggling (as long as we don't let it paralyze us) is how we grow and improve our craft. You'll get there!!!

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Thanks for all of the comments, guys!

Tamara--thanks for joining me. Maybe we should hold official meetings. Seriously, it took a lot of bravery to put yourself out there like that. You go, girl!

Tami--you, too, on the bravery part. It's just as hard to be honest about our manuscripts' shortcomings as it is to be about our children's. I've finally designated some of mine as official doorstops/kindling.

Debbie--thanks for being my BIF buddy. You're so efficient with your foamboard.

Barbara--thanks for that insightful comment! I should have mentioned that I, too, write the first chapter or two and then stop and plot. For what it's worth.

Sally Kilpatrick said...


Thanks for stopping by! As someone who has read several of your books, you would be someone I would point to who has both awesome writing skills and a great instinct for crafting story. I just finished Baggage Claim, and my husband even remarked at one point, "Oh, that's okay. Obviously, I don't hold the appeal of Tanya Michna!" Apparently, I was so engrossed that I wasn't answering his questions. Fabulous book on both counts, BTW!


The Writers Canvas said...

Great post, Sally!

Guess I'm a reformed pantser. I do plan out character GMC and story points ahead of time, but then (as Nora Roberts would say) vomit out a first draft until something vaguely resembles a story. Then go back and polish it several times.

One thing I'm learning with my current work in progress is to not write in such a linear way. I think that's been my problem before, when at heart I'm a "quilter" as Deb Dixon would put it. Writing various scenes and trying to splice them together. Yes, it's scaring me. Yes, it's taking longer than usual. But I think it's working.

Keep up the great blog, guys!


Sally Kilpatrick said...

Good points, Elaine. I'm more linear except for that point just past the middle. At that point, I have been known to skip ahead and write the end then fill in the section in-between the black moment and the resolution.

As for vomiting the first draft, I can't argue with Nora.

Michelle said...

Great post Sally. I'm a word lover as well and I get even worse with that and get lost in making every line like a line of poetry. Sheesh. What I learned this year is that the Hero's Journey is a great fit for how I write a story. No other plot device or storytelling arc ever made sense to me until that one. Now my WIP is making much more sense to me.

Anna Steffl said...

I think some of the problem arises out of our culture's art/science boxing match. Art is spontaneous and free. Science is plodding and methodical. How do we picture an artist? A depressed young man with scraggly hair dressed in black. A scientist? White coat and glasses. Many of us aspiring writers buy right into that notion that we just have to let the right words bubble up and we have art.

Uh huh. That works for, oh, one or two people a century.

For most of history, writing was viewed as a craft through which inspiration was harnessed. I think that changed in the romantic period when form and structure fell out of favor for the emphasis on feeling. Lots of our "literary" novels still cling to that notion. Commercial fiction, however, never forgot form. But we have to learn craft in secret, from groups like GRW and passed around dog-eared writing books. They sure don't teach it in university writing classes--which is sad because the very best novels are testaments to craftsmanship AND character.

J Perry Stone said...

I learned the same exact thing, Sally! Scary.

But then I got a rejection last week stating that said agent loved my story but didn't connect to my characters as much as she wanted to. Now I'm left wondering if I've skimped too much on character development for the sake of plot.

I'm so lost.

CiCi Barnes said...

Great food for thought, Sally.

Alas, I am a pantser, and can't seem to get out of that mold. I try to plan, plot, write synopses before story, but when I start writing, my characters run rampant and kick my outlines, etc. to the curb. One day, I'm going to corral my hero and heroine, but I'm still swinging the lasso in the air right now.


Sandy Elzie said...

I saw myself in some of CiCi's comments. I'm a pantser, liniar writer. I don't write the synopsis first...unless I have to for an editor to see my projected story line for books 2,3 & 4 in a series, but I do write the blurb first and keep it in front of me as I write.

I mentally know where my story is going and I jot down notes on how to get it there. Then I start writing. When I'm finished, I rewrite the blurb...sometimes it's necessary because my characters decided their lives would go a different direction than I originally outlined, and then write the synopsis and boldly go forth and mail out three chapters.

We all seem to have different styles, some overlapping, but if it works for you, then it's all good.


Sally Kilpatrick said...

Michelle--I'm having one of those a-ha moments where I'm starting to put it all together. I don't think that GMC, BIF or the hero's journey alone will do it. If you put them all together, though. . .alchemy! For my women's fiction novel, it's hero's journey all the way.

Anna--fascinating look at artist vs. scientist. You're absolutely right that the best works contain science and art. Thanks for that thought.

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Hang in there, J! I've been in that spot, and I'm not quite out, but the BIF workshop where I have Mary Buckham and Dianna Love questioning my character's every move helped me to flesh them out as did Sandy and Pam's critiques where they did the same thing. You'll get there.

CiCi and Sandy--I didn't mean to malign pantsers. I think I should have known that I would never fit in that category since I have some truly scary analytical moments. You ladies keep flying by the seats of your pants. I, however, was suffering from some split seams in embarrassing places when I tried the pantser approach. : )

Marilyn Baron said...

I learned a lot at Deb Dixon's workshop and I plan to apply it to my writing.

Marilyn Baron

Susan May said...

I've found out for me the more work I do ahead of time the more I enjoy writing. My planning doesn't mean I can't move away from what I have down but it sure makes the blank page look wordier when I begin a book. I'm trying to use the Stephanie Bond method this time around. The story is getting better all the time.

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Marilyn--I agree with you. I read Deb Dixon's GMC last summer for the first time, and it was one of those beautiful moments in time--kinda like reading Their Eyes Were Watching God for the first time. I knew it was great, but I couldn't quite my finger on how it all worked yet.

Susan--glad to know I'm not the only one who gets excited about knwoing where I'm going. It's a lot like a trip and getting excited from looking at all of the new places on the map. I'll have to look into the Stephanie Bond way of doing things, though. All I know about is the egg timer.

Thanks for dropping in, ladies!

Nicki Salcedo said...

Sally, we are supposed to be learning stuff? About craft? My name is Nicki (Hi, Nicki) and I'm a recovering plotter who was a recovering pantser. Now I'm a hybrid. Like one of those eco-friendly cars that cost too much money. I love charts and sticky notes, but I also love free-writing (in carpool at my monster's school). This year I've learned not to define myself as anything!

What I've learned from you: You have a gentle spirit and the gentle spirit ones always have a wicked sense of humor. Can I borrow your humor, Sally? Great post.

Mary Marvella said...

Plotter? Pantser? Both, kinda sorta. I know a situation and the characters who would be there and then I send them toward a goal or ending. The characters must be the only people who could or would be in that situation and who can or should meet the goal I have in mind.

The literature teacher in me loves words and perfect phrases and stories about different and unique characters.

Linsey Lanier said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Barbara about the chicken and the egg. Maybe that's what makes synopsis writing so hard. Actually, I think it depends on the type of story. I've been writing a lot of detective/police procedurals that past year or two and that takes a lot of planning. But how can you plan when you don't know what's going to happen?

What I've realized this year is that not only do you have to learn your craft, you have to keep relearning it. Deb Dixon's workshop really hammered home that point. I thought I knew all that stuff and had already applied it to my WIP. Guess what? I hadn't. It's getting better now.

I think I must be a quiltter, because scenes just come to me out of nowhere and I scramble to write down bits of dialog or description (like that darn dream). The hard part is figuring out where to put them, and then, when I need them – finding the darn things. PageFour software has been helping with that.

Great post and a great discussion.


Tammy Schubert said...

Hi Sally,

I want to sign up to be a member of the club you and Tamara have formed. I'm right there with you both.

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Nicki--thanks for being our Prius! I think you're absolutely right about the need to be a hybrid. Knowing me, I'm on a pendulum swing before landing somewhere in the middle. And you may have as much humor as you would like. : )

Mary--I can join you in the land of kinda sorta. As a lit major to a lit teacher, I completely relate. I get excited when I find nice allusions and turns of phrase in commercial romance. Maybe we should all join Michelle's club or set up a Facebook page to bring the literature back to romance!

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Linsey--I know just what you're saying. I think I could sit in on several more workshops on GMC and BIF and still learn something new each time. It's as though it takes a while for things to sink in. Thanks for jumping in, and I'm glad to jumpstart a worthy discussion.

Hi, Tammy--I think Tamara, Nicki, and I will get together and commiserate one of these days over all the beautiful phrases we had to chop. Feel free to join us. Come to think of it, maybe we need a Facebook page for our group, too. Either that or I taught high school entirely too long.

Janette said...

I have been with you since the very beginning, my fellow word lover. And, I have complete faith that the poster boards and sticky notes will work. :)

Maxine Davis said...

Sally, So sorry this is late - visitedto my sister. She doesn't own a computer and does not want one!
I loved, loved your post. It is so true and I think I am a real believer since I heard (read) someone else say plotting is the way to go! Thanks