Art, Journaling, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life

Level Thinking – What Older Creatives Need

The late Dr. Gene Cohen is one of my heroes because he was part of a movement that’s redefining aging in a positive light.

A year before he died, I had the pleasure of watching a video feed of Dr. Cohen, then Director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University speak at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. His talk was part of the cathedral’s Sunday Forum series. These talks are archived, so you’re interested learning more about Dr. Cohen or in seeing this feed yourself, given below are two links.

Dr. Cohen proposed that, from about our forties to the end of our lives, four things happen to make us view the world differently.  During his talk, I had one of those wonderful ah-ha moments when the world suddenly made more sense.

Mid-Live Reevaluation

The first phase he described was mid-life reevaluation, which starts in our forties and lasts, more or less until our mid-sixties. And boy, has this time of life gotten a bad rap, under the header mid-life crisis. Think of all the jokes about men with red sports cars and hair transplants, or women with plastic surgery and toy-boys. Sisters, that ain’t what it’s about at all.

As creative people, we’re familiar with the right-brain, left-brain idea, the notion that most of us have a dominant hemisphere. When younger people do activities that stimulate whichever side of their brain is dominant, they feel more in their comfort zone. But, according to recent neurological research, what begins in our forties is that both hemispheres begin to, literally, think together.

New brain cells are created. Existing brain cells develop more synapses—imagine all those people milling about independently in Times Square on New Years Eve suddenly holding hands. And those synapses, in large numbers, begin to connect the right and left sides of our brain. We are on our way to becoming whole-brain thinkers.

This is where I had my ah-ha moment.

How many times have you heard someone say, “The older I get, the more time it takes me to do something?” This statement, inevitably, has a negative connotation. Getting older. Slowing down. Decreasing mental and physical faculties. The inevitable winding down of the car engine or the clock, to use two physical objects used as metaphors for aging.

Yes, there is a physical component to aging and, as a society, we have thankfully crossed beyond that mental barrier that once said all older people will inevitably grow physically weaker until they can no longer manage even simple tasks. So we’re out there pounding the pavement, or taking aerobics classes, or doing Pilates and yoga, etc. And still it takes us longer to do things as we get older.

It takes us longer to do things because, beginning in our forties and lasting the rest of our lives, our brains come to tasks working in a way that is more holistic, more whole-brain, more multi-focused. And, like baking multi-grain bread, which takes longer to bake than white bread, that way is healthier, more artistic, and more satisfying. In a world where nano-seconds are considered a reasonable measure of time, taking longer has a bad, bad reputation.

Liberation

The second phase that Dr. Cohen described was liberation. It begins in the mid-fifties and goes to somewhere in the mid-seventies, though for all of these phases, there is no hard and fast end point.

Liberation is a change in consciousness: “If not now, when?” “What can they do to me?” Raise your hands, all of you who—like me—took up serious something sometime after you qualified for the “Over 55” menu at Denny’s. For me it was serious writing and art.

Summing Up

The third phase was summing up, and it comes to the forefront in the mid-sixties to mid-seventies. People become more interested in philanthropy, in volunteerism, and in conflict resolution. This is the time many of us think about writing memoirs, or taking that special trip back to a place that marks a significant event in our lives.

Encore

The final phase is éncore, in the French sense, so let’s use the French spelling, as in pas éncore (not yet), or éncore un peu (just a little more, just a little longer), or Quoi éncore? (What else?) It’s the grown-up equivalent of “Can’t I play just a few minutes more?”

Dr. Cohen finished by saying that for most of our lives, we were nudged along. Parents expected children to do better. Peers influenced teen-agers in ways that parents and teachers could only dream of. We nagged our spouses, “It’s for your own good, dear.”

The older we get, the less people nudge us. Too old, they think. Slowing down. Takes them longer to do things. Not interested in new things. Not really keeping up. Living in a shrinking world. So sad, so why remind them of their frailties. Stop trying to nudge them along.

I think that you and I, as writers, as creative people, and as friends, have this absolutely sacred task not only to develop our own creativity, but to continue to nudge one another along in all creative areas. Forever. Éncore un peu.

“I attended a major retrospective exhibit of fifty years of folk art. Of the 20 artists featured in the catalogue, 12 of them, 60%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of sixty-five; and 6 of them, 30%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of eighty-five.” ~Dr. Gene Cohen (1944-2009), gerontologist, teacher, author

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Write the Novel – The Second Draft

Here we are, standing at the beginning of the second draft. What I call the draft zero — the unfinished manuscript — magically turned into the first draft the moment we wrote The End.

That first draft is a skeleton, a clanky bunch of bones, which at least has the merit of hanging together, and gives us a structure on which to drape the second draft. The key to writing a great second draft is to add both physical and emotional muscles to the story.

The difference between a completed first draft and a completed second draft is the difference between a newborn baby and a two-year-old. At least with a newborn, she stayed where we lay her. So, for the most part, do first drafts.

Two year olds are highly mobile, learning to coordinate their actions, speaking for themselves, developing new interests, and learning impulse control.

For them, experimenting with art materials is far more important than the end result. Coloring outside of the lines may result in interesting results on tables, walls, and themselves.

They have difficulty with choices. They imitate life through dramatic play, relying on facial expression, gestures, and body movement to aid communication. They dawdle on a walk and pick up little things. They have a great command of the words “No!” and “Mine!”

Here are five things two year olds can teach us about writing second drafts

  1. Learn to speak for ourselves — the second draft is where we strengthen and enhance our writer’s voice. “You can always fix plot—you can’t fix voice.” ~ Barbara Peters, editor, Poisoned Pen Press
  2. Experiment, experiment, experiment — the second draft is where I always write some scenes I know will never make it into the finished book. The first draft freed me from being bound by “what happens next.” I know what happens next, at least one version of it. That means that I can explore more character dimensions. If real estate is location, location, location writing is emotion, emotion, emotion. Yes, this happened, but what does it mean to the character?
  3. Coordinate, coordinate, coordinate — If you’ve never done it before, bake a loaf of bread. Seriously. As writers we need to literally feel the difference that kneading makes. “Beginning with a lump of dough not entirely of a piece, somewhat raged and limply-lying, commence kneading.” ~ Edward Espe Brown, The Tassajara Bread Book. That line has stayed with me for forty-four years. It is a perfect, succinct description of writing.
  4. Make hard choices — resist no and mine. Sorry, ducks, but Philamenia may be our favorite character, but she’s not working in this story. No way, no how. We’ve got to put her aside. Yes, it’s going to be tons harder to write Walter’s confrontation his boss instead of having Walter describe it to Cecily in the coffee shop, but it’s also going to be tons more interesting. Trust me, the reader has gotten the bit about Cecily and the lottery ticket by the end of the second chapter. Take out the other five times she retells the story.
  5. Dawdle. Pick up things along the way — If we’re writing a series, begin to lay down seeds that will sprout in subsequent books.

In the next few weeks, we’re going to explore voice, building a story’s emotional muscle, kneading the story into shape, hard choices, and dawdling.

One, final thing. It takes a village to raise a two-year-old. It takes a village to raise a writer, too. If we’re committed enough to this story to be into the second draft, it’s time to find other trusted people with whom we share. If we don’t have them already, the second draft is a perfect time to find a critique group or individuals who will read what we’re writing and give us honest feedback.

Next week, October 7th, we’re looking at Second Draft — Strengthening Our Voice.

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Write the Novel – Clean the Slate

I can’t promise this week’s blog is going to be fun. In the writing process, there is occasional scut work that is just plain boring, but still needs to be done.

But first, congratulations. We’ve finished our first complete draft. That makes us 1 in a 1,000. Out of every 100 people who say they want to write a novel, only one starts. Out of every 100 who start, only 1 finished a complete draft. So what we have to do first of all is rest, recover, and reacquaint ourselves with our family and friends, sometimes with ourselves. Take time for that and have a great time celebrating.

Do not, absolutely do not, immediately jump into the rewrite, also known as the second draft. This thing, whatever it is becoming, needs time to sit for a while without our attention. The words need a break as much as we do. About three weeks should do it.

I hate to mention this, but there is a lot of housecleaning to be done, and I don’t mean those dishes and laundry that accumulated while we were in the final push to finish the first draft. By this time, we have a much clearer idea of what this story is all about than we did when we started. Some things we thought were going to be important turned out to be either minor, or a bad idea after all. Some things we had no idea would work now make up a major part of the story.

But before we touch anything, make a backup of the entire work. Every single thing related to this project. Make at least two copies on DVDs, what I call my away copies. One of them goes to a friend here in town. The other one goes to a friend in a different city. The in-town copy is for that frantic reboot when my entire system crashes. The out-of-town copy is for that natural disaster when I have to evacuate without my computer.

As a final safeguard, compile a complete copy of the first draft in .doc format, stick it on a thumb drive, and take it to a copy shop to have it commercially printed. I’m always a little dismayed at how small the file is. All that work and it fits on something I can hold in my hand, with lots of room left over.

After the backups, start with a good office cleaning. For those of us who write in coffee shops or other places, also need to clean out our purses, brief cases, laptop cases, etc. Wherever we store background material, whether electronically, or hard copy, or both, make sure we can find the important stuff that we’re going to need in the second draft. Put everything else in a folder or the back of a filing box, and let it go, for now.

Check for updates on all the writing-related programs we use. Update/upgrade the software, if needed. Run a maintenance program like TechTools or OnyX. Verify and repair permissions. Empty the temporary download folders. Maybe even clean the mouse and keyboard. In short, make neat.

If we didn’t start one for our first draft, now is the time to set up glossary and style sheet files. See my Glossary and Style Sheet blog for more details.

Finally, if people read and commented on any of the first draft, set up a single comment file so that all comments are in the same place. Word allows us to import multiple files, with comments, into one file, which is a great and handy thing to have.

That’s it. We’re rested. Our office is clean. Backups are safely tucked away, and the gerbils inside our computer have been dusted and polished. We’re ready for the next great adventure — the second draft.

Next Tuesday, September 30 Write the Novel — Let the Emotions take over. The second draft is all about buiding emotional complexity.

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Level thinking – Habits for a Project’s End

“–30–. Slug it.”

I love old black-and-white movies about newspaper reporters, the guys with hats tipped back on their heads, and cigarettes dangling from their mouths, who grab candlestick phones and say, “Give me copy.”

–30– means the end of a story and a slug was a line of hot metal linotype. To slug a story was to send it to the linotyper to be set. If you ever have a chance to watch Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu, don’t miss it. Sorry, no link. It was on YouTube in the past, but it seems to have been removed. This documentary tells the story of the last day the New York Times printed on hot type and the first day it printed with computer-generated type.

In any case, we’re done. Deadline met. Story/article/book winging its way, probably electronically, to its destination. Now what? In this third blog about building habits, I’m writing about the down time a writer needs after finishing a huge project.

We are in shock. Not “shock” neatly enclosed in quotation marks as in, sort of like shock. We are in real shock. Run through this list: anxiety or agitation/restlessness; confusion; disorientation; dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness; pale, cool, clammy skin; sweating, moist skin; rapid pulse, and shallow breathing. Yep, that pretty much the way I feel on Deadline Day +1.

We’re not leaking blood. At least I hope we’re not. I assume we already poured all we could spare into those final pages. But other shock biochemical reactions such as not enough oxygen in our cells, lactic acid accumulation, changes in blood pH, electrolyte imbalance, catecholamine depletion, and disturbances in blood circulation actually exist after several days/weeks of intense periods of pressure, sitting, creating at a computer. If we’ve been consuming prodigious amounts of caffeinated drinks and less than the recommended quota of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, add caffein overload and constipation to the list.

Way back in nursing school [Florence Nightingale was in the class just ahead of me] the watchwords for treating shock were quiet and warm. Maintain a quiet environment and keep the patient, er writer, warm. Recent research coming out of Texas is now indicating that if someone is in shock in a hot environment, it’s more beneficial to cool them rather than warm them. See, nothing stays the same.

So, Deadline Day +1(the ideal): breathe, sip water, take a walk, stay quiet, and cool down if it’s hot; stay warm if it’s cold.

Deadline Day +1 (the actual): attend an all-morning meeting for our day job; bake 3 dozen cupcakes for the class Halloween party; wash seven loads of laundry; go grocery shopping, cook a real meal instead of ordering pizza again; clear the e-mail backlog (home and day-job); take the dog to the vet, and the kids to soccer practice.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Guilt. My boss has been so understanding about me needing to meet this deadline. Ditto my significant other. Ditto my kids. Ditto my friends. They have ALLOWED me to be a writer. I OWE them. I can’t BE PERMITTED to take one minute more than that needed to meet the deadline because if I do I will be A BAD PERSON. After all, it’s not like writing is a REAL THING, or a writer is a person with REAL NEEDS.

Can we rethink that?

Remember last week when I suggested lying in our voice mail message about when our real deadline is. It’s really October 22, but we say it’s the 31st. We need to realize that Deadline Day isn’t the day we hit send or frantically rush to catch the last Purolator pick-up. Real Deadline Day is that day plus at least three days. If we can swing it, plus seven days.

If we’ve got a day job, don’t rush back to work. Use vacation time, or flex days, or mental health days. In the grand scheme of things it will not matter if we miss one important presentation, no matter what our boss says to the contrary. If we’re not fortunate enough to have any of those options, call in sick, because if we aren’t now, and we race back to work, we will be sick within a week. “Life isn’t fair. I finished this horrendous deadline last week, and now I have a terrible cold.” Duh!

Deadline Day +1: breathe, sip water, take a walk (maybe take two walks), and stay quiet. Cool down if it’s hot; stay warm if it’s cold.

Deadline Day +2: take another walk, pick one undone task we really like to do. Since I love playing in warm, soapy water, my thing is usually to do the dishes. Also, pick one thing that’s fun. This might be a good day to take the kids to something you all enjoy, or cook supper for the sig other.

Deadline Day +3: start easing back into a regular schedule. If three days are all we can manage, regretfully so be it, but at least we’ve had three days.

Deadline Day +4 to +7: if we’re fortunate to have this kind of time, go for it. Build ourself a recuperate and recover ramp back into real life. We’ve worked hard. We deserve it.

“A big piece of writing is a little like a big storm. It leaves you shaken and disoriented and things need time to settle down. You don’t want to talk with your friends and sound like  you just went through an alien abductions. … You don’t want to reenter the world until the world has more in it than you and your capital-A Art. I like [a few days transition] to let the dust settle.”

~Julia Cameron, Walking in This World

That’s my –30– for today.

I hope to see you on Tuesday, September 23 for another look at finishing a project — Congratulations, you’ve finished your first draft. Now what?

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Write the Novel – Flash Symbols

We select ties, scarves, jewelry, shoes, and socks or stockings to bring clothes together into a look. We need to do the same thing with flash symbols, also called associative devices. These are micro-details that reinforce theme, plot, character, or other major story elements. They may appear as props, analogues, parallels, reversals, setting reuse, and sense of time.

Flash symbols should appear early in the story—bonus points if we get one into the first paragraph—and reappear frequently.

Don’t worry too much about flash symbols in our first, unfinished draft. The first complete rewrite is a good place to add them.

Props

Physical objects to which the characters relate in a special way. Cliches: coffee machine used as comic relief; junker cars that break down at the crucial moment. Ditto: electrical devices that aren’t charged and unlovable animals taken home by the protagonist, with which they form a love-hate relationship.

For a list of props that can be used in new ways, see Donald Maass. The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great.

Analogues

Analogues are stand-ins. In their most basic form they become cliches. Hot red sports cars stand in for sex. A chocolate malt stands in for innocence. When their meanings are woven deeper into the story, they become more effective.

In Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway uses geography. Mountain are pure, clean, affirming places; plains and valleys are the struggle of being human. Whenever Frederic and Catherine are in mountains, good things happen to them. When they descend into valleys, bad things.

Parallels and Reversals

Parallels are the symbol equivalent of sub-plots, running alongside the main plot. They often involve secondary characters, and contain reversals. One couple gets engaged; another couple breaks up.

Major events at the climax should be woven in, in microcosm throughout the novel. Parallels and reversals need to be used to preview the climax. There’s a fine line between previewing the climax and telegraphing the ending.

Slapstick comedy telegraphs. As soon as the huge, cream-covered birthday cake appears, the audience knows someone is either going to fall into it, or throw it at someone.

Setting Reuse

Avoid settings there for the writer’s convenience. The most over-used settings are people sitting at a table talking and/or eating and the protagonist alone in a car, in the shower, in bed, etc. Settings like these are boring, made doubly so by the character lapsing into internal musings.

Revisit the same places throughout the book and twist the setting each time so that it means something different. This is particularly important for the place where our climax takes place. The climax isn’t just the big thing. It’s also small things that will never be the same again.

In the final scene there should be a memorable object. Plant the same object or its analog at least twice elsewhere in the novel. If twice is good, how many more times could we plant it? Give its meaning a slightly different twist each time? Allow the protagonist to see something in that final setting that others miss. He or she alone — and the reader, of course — recognize the significance.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, doesn’t just draw the mountain, he sculpts it in mashed potatoes. At the movie’s climax, it’s essential that he knows the mountain in three dimensions.

Sense of time

Do characters in historical books have values and behave consistently with how people believed and acted in their particular time? It’s critical that they do. Time periods that a reader knows or is interested in attract them. They will know when we get it wrong and it will turn them off. Fortunately, many writers chose time settings that they lived through or know well. If that’s not the case, the solution is research, research, research.

When writing in another era, it’s far more important to know how people thought or acted than it is to know product brand names or television shows. Use primary sources whenever possible. A primary source is one written, filmed, or made by people living at a certain time. They include diaries, works published at the time, scrapbooks, postcards, photographs, films, and physical objects. Interviewing people who lived through the time is also good, but be sure to allow for memory distortion.

In the same way, once we’ve written a good character introduction, determined theme, or tuned into what props, analogs, and settings work for this book, we’ve set ourselves on a path. We know that it’s highly likely we’re going to stray from this path as the book unfolds, but at least we’ve taken the first step out of the door.

For further exploration

I’d love to write about black moments and managing micro-tension next. Learning about them moved my writing to a new level. However, all of my notes come straight from a Donald Maass workshop, and I’d rather you let him explain it to you. Once more, I recommend  The Fire in Fiction.

Hope to see you back on Thursday, September 18, for the third part of our habits’ discussion — Habits for Ending: we’ve finished a huge project. Celebrate, celebrate, dance to the music!

Strangely enough, next Tuesday, September 23, there is a companion blog We’ve Finished Draft Zero — Now what? How to tidy up and get ready for the next draft.

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Level Thinking – Habits for meeting deadlines

Last week I wrote about habits we need to build and use each time we start major projects. This week I’m looking at the other end, habits we need to use as a major project draws to a close. That’s a fancy way of saying, surviving deadlines.

“I am so grateful to my husband/wife/spouse/partner/kids for learning to survive on cold pizza/respecting my closed office door/being able to amuse themselves when I was on a deadline.”

In one form or another, I’ve seen this sentence in dozens of book acknowledgments.

Deadline.

That word has a wonderful way of concentrating the attention. We know it’s coming; in many cases we know the exact date it’s coming. Here’s what we need to do to get ready.

Once more, get enough sleep

Just like last week, the first thing we need is enough sleep. Those of us who have faced deadlines are now rolling on the floor laughing because we know that sleep is the first deadline casualty. Just let us survive on three hours of sleep a night for the next two week’s and then, I’ll go to bed and sleep for a week.

The body doesn’t work like that. Research has shown that we can’t recover lost sleep, but we can put deposits into a sleep bank by pre-sleeping. So if we know or even have an inkling that a deadline looms in a couple of weeks, we need to go to bed an hour early or get up an hour later, or take a nap during the day. Every extra hour of sleep that we rack up goes into the sleep bank for withdrawal at deadline time.

Pre-everything

Deadline preparation includes pre-everything. Pre-shop for personal items we don’t want to run out of at ten o’clock at night. Pre-cook and freeze meals. Pre-make a list of no-cook/little cook meals and post it on the refrigerator door. Most of all, prepare our friends.

Good, healthy relationships are ones we can take to the bank

Good people, in healthy relationships, love to help. Good people in healthy relationships may have no clue how to really be helpful, so we might have to prime their pumps.

Who do we know who is a good person, with whom we have a healthy relationship? ” Be honest. If we love our sister dearly, but there are issues, deadline time is not the time to rely on her for support. If we have a friend who resembles a remora (a sharksucker fish with an appendage to take a firm hold against the skin of larger marine animals), a voicemail message a la Jim Rockford, may be in our best interests.

“Hi, it’s Sharon. The Wicked Witch of the West and I are on a horrendous deadline until the end of October. Call the witch’s castle after Halloween and we’ll do coffee.” Tip: set our available date a week later than we think it will be. Maybe my deadline is really October 22, but I don’t have to tell anyone that. And I know I will want to use the extra time to decompress.

When we’ve whittled the list down our list to a three to five good, healthy people, ask each of them for one specific thing. “I’m heading for this horrendous deadline. Could you

  • bake me one of your wonderful apple pies?”
  • call me once a day for the next two weeks and leave an encouraging message on my voice mail?”
  • go to the library for me once a week and leave the trashiest romance novels you can find in my mailbox?”
  • come to my house Tuesday at 12:30 and force me to go with you for a quick lunch at Gobbles?”
  • go walking with me for a half-hour every afternoon at 5:00 o’clock?”

The big five for working under pressure

Excuse me for a minute, while I take off my writer’s hat and put on my nursing cap. Yes, I still have one. It makes me look like a sailor on shore leave. Here’s the straight gen on five healthy deadline habits

  • For every cup of coffee or tea we drink, drink one cup of water, too. At the very least, this forces us to take bathroom breaks more often. Also, even 2% dehydration, an amount too small to make us thirsty, decreases our ability to concentrate and be creative.
  • Every hour, work for 50 minutes, and then get up and move for 10. Set a timer if necessary as a reminder.
  • Nibble on raw vegetables, whole grain crackers, fruit, and nuts. If allergies are a concern, find healthy alternatives that provide fibre and, above all, complex carbohydrates, the kind that metabolize slowly. 30 minutes of brain activity lowers brain glucose level by 2 to 5 grams, which we need to replace every 30 minutes. And, no, we can’t save it up by working 6 hours without nourishment, and then eating a few cookies. Energy in has to balance energy out.
  • Some people write with music in the background, some people don’t. In any case, listen to music every day. This does not mean blaring rock. Go for something soothing, inspirational, maybe even mystic.
  • Turn off the television. Really off. Leave it off.

“Background TV is an ever-changing audiovisual distractor that disrupts a child’s ability to sustain various types of play. [It] is potentially a chronic environmental risk factor affecting most American children.” ~Marie Evans Schmidt, research associate, Center on Media and Child Health. Boston’s Children’s Hospital, July 2008. If television is bad for children, it’s gotta be bad for the creative child in all of us.

Above all, remember that deadlines are temporary phenomena, like tornadoes and strobe lighting. We will get by with a little help from our friends.

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” ~Douglas Adams, English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 – 2001)

I  hope you’ll be back next week, Tuesday, September 16, for Write the Novel — Flash Symbols, micro-details that, like tertiary plots, add zest and sparkle to a story.

Next Thursday, September 18, we’ll finish up the habits series with Habits for Ending. Far too many of us celebrate far too little when we finish a major project.

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Write the Novel – Secondary/Tertiary Plots – Part 2

Last week I wrote about how many primary, secondary, and tertiary plots are needed for a book. The short answer is start with one of each, and see how it goes.

In genre fiction, the primary plot is a given

  • Adventure — salvation quest
  • Mystery — solving a crime, usually murder
  • Romance — overcome obstacles to love
  • Science fiction/fantasy — ramifications of asking “What if…?”
  • Thriller — save the world, or some portion of it
  • Western — land, water, and a chance to start over

Primary plots are always about opposition

  • Adventure — think Samwise Gamgee taking one more step away from the Shire than he’s ever taken before
  • Mystery — good versus evil
  • Romance — love versus obstacles
  • Science fiction/fantasy — keeping the status quo versus, sometimes literally, reaching for the stars
  • Thriller — destruction versus salvation
  • Western — ranchers versus farmers, water versus drought, order versus chaos

—-

Do we really need a secondary plot?

In most cases, yes. A primary plot sets up two dimensions, something versus something else. The next step is to turn that into three dimensions, by adding depth. That’s were secondary plots come in. These are some ways that secondary plots add depth to a story.

Explore the primary problem from a different angle, with a different outcome

Our story is about familiar abduction: relatives who haven’t been awarded custody or have been prevented by the court from seeing a child kidnap that child. Our secondary plot is that the protagonist’s best friend confesses she was kidnapped as a child. This might be used to give more depth to the search for the missing child. Or it might be used for humor, the best friend was kidnapped by a free-spirited relative. Her stories about her and her aunt on the run become funnier and more bizarre as the book progresses.

Avoid mismatching tones of primary and secondary plots. If this is a dark story with significant danger, even the possibility of death, for the kidnapped child, matching it with the zany aunt on the run won’t do either plot any good.

Link two stories, separated by geography or time

Vicki Lane is absolutely wonderful in doing this with her Elizabeth Goodweather series. One plot line is current day, one is in the past, and what links them is the geography. Both stories happen in the same place.

The trick here is that the secondary plot can’t be all back story, one person telling other people about what happened. We have to actually take the reader to the different location and/or the different time. This usually involves having more than one point of view character.

In a series, bring forward a tertiary plot

Our story is about being killed for not paying gambling debts. During the series, one of the background characters is known to have a gambling problem. This is the book where he gets a larger role, so that by the end of the book, he’s admitted he has a problem and is seeking help.

——

Tertiary plots fill in holes

While secondary plots are almost always needed, tertiary plots are optional. They add a bit of sparkle. In quilting, this is known as a zest strip, which is a thin line of cloth, often no wider than 1/2 inch, which picks up one of the colors in other fabrics and adds zest or pop to the quilt. Uses for tertiary plots include

Thread a background plot forward through a series

This is the gambler above. His problem gets to hover in the background until we need it.

Thread the source of a vital piece of information through the book so it doesn’t appear out of nowhere

In the last episode of Magnum, the primary plot is Magnum reuniting with his daughter, Lilly. The secondary plot is Rick getting married. Akin to the secondary plot is Magnum, a member of the wedding party, missing every fitting appointment for his wedding clothes.

Viewers assumed this was a comic tertiary plot, and that Magnum would get to the last fitting with seconds to spare; that Higgings would produce a perfectly fitting tuxedo out of thin air; or that Magnum would show up for the formal wedding dressed in his usual Hawaiian shirt, cut-offs, and flip-flops. Just in case there is a single person on the planet who hasn’t seen this episode and still plans to, I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say that what he shows up wearing is a total surprise, which carried the final episode to a new level.

Increase the word count

We’ve written a great book, but our editor says it’s 5,000 words too short. In all likelihood, we’ve said what needs to be said about our primary and secondary plots. Rather than try to pad, throw in a small, third-level plot.

——–

How much is enough?

I’m wearing my personal opinion hat. These figures aren’t scientific. This is my best educated guess, honed over a decade and a half of serious writing. Feel free to debate with me.

  • The primary plot needs to be in every chapter. Period. If it’s not there, what is that chapter doing in the book?
  • The secondary plot should not be more than 1/5 to 1/4 of the book; for a 330 page book, that’s 66 to 82 pages. Any longer than that and it threatens to overwhelm the primary plot.
  • The tertiary plot should not be more than 1/10 of the book; even 1/20 may be enough. For the same size book, that 16 to 33 pages.

How do we know how much secondary and tertiary plot we’ve written?

We count the number of pages. That’s not as onerous as it sounds. First, we skip counting occasional two or three lines of dialog. So if our Magnum episode were a book, an exchange like this wouldn’t need to be counted.

“You missed another appointment with the tailor.”

“I know, I know. Later, Rick.”

Count no earlier than the second draft; third draft might be even better. I’m assuming we’re working in either Word or Scrivener.

  • Pick two bright highlight colors, one for the secondary plot, one for the tertiary plot. Let’s say blue for secondary; and yellow for tertiary.
  • Scroll through the document, looking for secondary and tertiary scenes. Highlight the first and last lines of those scene.
  • Once we’ve been through the entire document, set the view so multiple pages are seen at one time. The blue and yellow lines will stick out. Estimate the number of pages for each scene.
  • Look at not only the number of pages, but spacing as well. Do the blue and yellow colors pop up with some regularity, or does the tertiary plot disappear for 200 pages, then suddenly reappear. Not good; needs fixing.

I  hope you’ll be back next week, Tuesday, September 9, for Write the Novel — Flash Symbols, micro-details that, like tertiary plots, add zest and sparkle to a story.

Thursday, September 4th, because we’re all trying to get back in the school year habits, Level Thinking will discuss forming new habits.

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Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Secondary/Tertiary Plots – Part 1

I am so red-faced. This ended up in draft status last week, instead of queueing for posting. My sincere apologies.

Last week I wrote about the primary plot, the thing that drives a story. Secondary plots are smaller threads that weave themselves through and around the primary plot. Tertiary plots are grace notes, which pick up highlights, the way beading picks up highlights in embroidery.

Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.

Consider an imaginary mystery, Devil at the Dinner Table. The theme is how a couple in their fifties cope with major changes.

Minette and Dougie Shaw live in Drumheller, Alberta. Dougie owns a feed-and-hardware store. Minette is assistant manager at a local grocery.

Primary Plots

  • The RCMP arrest Dougie for a banker’s murder, so to clear her husband, Minette solves the murder.

Secondary and Tertiary Plots

  • Minette discovers that the feed-and-hardware store is almost bankrupt, and in addition to working at the grocery, she starts her own business to support her family.
  • Stress jeopardize Minette and Dougie’s marriage.
  • Dougie covers up that he has diabetes and that his poor health contributed to his business failure.
  • Minette’s cousin-from-heck, Eustacia, arrives for the Christmas holidays, and since Minette is desperate for money to start her business, she begs Eustacia to be her partner.
  • When their daughter, Jade, comes home from university on Christmas break, Minette tells her there’s no more money for tuition.
  • It’s a combination Christmas story/family reunion.

Consider this

Gone with the Wind had one primary plot and one secondary plot.

  • Primary plot: Scarlet O’Hara learns that men are real people, not toys.
  • Secondary plot: She survives the American Civil War and Reconstruction.
  • Everything in the book’s 1,024 pages relates to those two plots.

In contrast, Devil at the Dinner Table has so many primary plots, secondary, and tertiary plots that it’s unlikely any author could finish writing it or any reader would want to read it.

As I wrote last week, the primary plot in any mystery novel is solve the murder. We’ve got that, so we’re okay there.

At first glance, it appears that there are a walloping six secondary and tertiary plots. Look again. See how many sentences have and, so, but, because, in addition to or semi-colons? Keep in mind one simple sentence equals one plot. Every time one of those conjunction words or punctuation marks appear, we’ve slid into another plot.

Breaking down our original list

  • Minette discovers that the feed-and-hardware store is almost bankrupt.
  • She starts her own business to support her family.
  • Stress jeopardize Minette and Dougie’s marriage.
  • Dougie covers up that he has diabetes.
  • Poor health contributed to his business failure.
  • Minette’s cousin-from-heck, Eustacia, arrives for the Christmas holidays.
  • Minette begs Eustacia to be her business partner.
  • Their daughter, Jade, comes home from university on Christmas break.
  • Jade discovers there is no money for tuition.
  • It’s a Christmas story.
  • It’s a family reunion story.

Trust me, eleven subplots are too many. Ways to winnow down subplots include determining the difference between an incident and a subplot; refusing to two-step in plot development, and focusing only on the subplots that relate directly to the main plots.

An incident is one emotionally-charged event, which may be crucial to the story, but the reader doesn’t follow it as a thread throughout the book. In Gone with the Wind, Bonnie Blue Butler’s death was an incident, not a subplot. Incidents both turn the current plot, and sow seeds for future books.

Jade learning there is no money her tuition is an incident, rather than a secondary plot. Jade can either be emotionally supportive to her parents, or flounce out in heated anger. In either case, in a series, no resolution is needed in this book. Let the unanswered question of what will Jade do now hang there, and pick it up in the next book.

On the other hand, a good secondary plot runs through not only a single book, but the entire series, like a ripple of pink fabric running through an otherwise blue-and-green quilt.

Two-stepping belongs on the dance floor, not in subplots. Minette learns that Dougie’s business is failing, and convinces Eustacia to be her partner, and founds her own business is not only two-stepping, it’s three-stepping. Each element could be the focus of one book. It’s important to bring series characters along using baby steps. Finding out the business is in trouble is enough for one book. Stay there. Dive deep into all the implications of a fifty-something wife, learning her financial security just disappeared. Look at it from different angles. Wring it out for all it is worth. Let it fill the entire book.

Finally, focus only on secondary and tertiary plots that relate directly to the main plot. How much does Dougie’s diabetes contribute to the story? More important, how much of the book’s word budget will the author spend on visits to the doctor, Minette learning to cook diabetic meals, conflicts between Minette and Dougie about is he or isn’t he doing what the doctor said, and the inevitable diabetic reaction at the book’s climax? The likely return on investment won’t be worth it.

Books set in December can’t help but be holiday stories, but adding a family reunion to everything else pushes the book over the top.

A revised, and manageable, plot list for Devil at the Dinner Table might look like this.

Primary Plot

  • When the RCMP arrest Dougie for a banker’s murder, Minette clear her husband by solving the murder.

Secondary Plot

  • Minette discovers her financial security has disappeared.

Tertiary Plot

  • Eustacia, Minette’s cousin-from-heck, arrives unexpectedly to spend Christmas.

Next Tuesday, September 9, I hope you’ll be back for Secondary and Tertiary Plots – Part 2. We’ll look at how to recognize secondary and tertiary plots and how much of a book should be devoted to each plot.

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My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Things I learned at When Words Collide

I’m fortunate to have attended all four When Words Collide. This is a genre writers conference, held each August in Calgary, Alberta. If you’re a writer, and there is any chance you’ll be in Calgary 2015 August 14 to 16, I urge you to sign up for the WWC newsletter  and consider attending.

Here are six things I didn’t know before I attended this year’s conference

Branding develops a consistent image that links us, as human beings, to our books

“A brand positions an author so that she is unique. Our brand must be a subset of our personal self that best relates to our fiction.” ~ Kate Larking,  fiction marketing expert

Brand wasn’t new to me. I developed a brand several years ago. Here’s my core message.

Strong women enjoy adventure, but everything comes at a price. The past overtakes everyone, but it doesn’t have to overwhelm everyone. Transformation comes through courage, strength, and honourable relationships; healing comes through reflection and honesty. There’s strength in adventure and adventure in strength. To those who fight for it, life has a flavor the protected never know.

The real eye-opener was realizing that I haven’t taken full advantage of that brand in what I include on my web site. I need far, far more links and material about adventurous women there. That’s going to guide my next web site renovation.

It’s no longer a question if to self-publish, but when

Knowing how to self-publish has become as essential a tool in our writers’ workbox as being able to create characters, plot, and use serial commas correctly. Everyone from first-time published writers, to writers multi-published by large, traditional houses said that self-publishing is now a part of every writer’s career path.

Word length no longer matters

This is directly tied to self-publishing. Word counts were artificial limits imposed by the needs of producing books of such and such a size and so many pages in order to fit printing presses. Because of self-publication and the multiplicity of devices now available, both the short story and the novella are making come-backs, as well as forms that we don’t have names for yet.

What we publish between books is as important as the books themselves

Appetite for content is insatiable. Readers are no longer content with even a book a year. They expect short stories, novellas, character interviews, and additional material to be published on the author’s web site. We have to feed the pipeline constantly.

Time lines for traditionally published books to be successful have become impossibly, unbelievably short

“Most new books from traditional publishers are released on Tuesdays. Because gathering on-line of statistics is instantaneous, authors now have 48 hours for their books to be successful. If sales numbers aren’t good by the end of Thursday, there won’t be a contract for a second book.” ~ Dr. Robert Runté, teacher and editor

“Book sales for traditional publishers are so much more front-loaded now. You hear about a book that interests you. A couple of weeks later you tell your mom about it. A couple of  months later she goes looking for a copy to give you for the holidays. She’s likely to discover that it’s no longer in stores. Bottom line, if you see a book you think you might like, buy it. Right then.” ~ Ian Alexander Martin, publisher

“Kindle tracks not only what books are sold, but what books readers read or don’t finish. A book’s sales may be high, but if the percentage actually read is low or the percentage not finished is high, that book is dead.” ~ Hayden Trenholm, writer, playwright, and managing editor

New resources

Next Tuesday, August 26, I continue Write the Novel with a look at secondary and tertiary plots. Hope to see you then.

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Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Primary Plot

In any book, the primary plot is where the heavy lifting gets done. It’s what the book is about. Those of us who write genre fiction know there are both restrictions and freedoms. Genre stories are always about a single theme.

  • Adventure — salvation quest
  • Romance — overcome obstacles to find love
  • Science fiction/fantasy — ramifications of asking “What if…?”
  • Western — land, water, and a chance to start over

For mystery novels, it’s solving murder. Period. No, it wasn’t always like that, and there may come a future time when it’s different again, but for right now, it’s murder. There is a little more leeway in mystery short stories. Some are about revenge, theft, or uncovering secrets. For thrillers, it’s how much damage will be done, and to whom, before threat is quelled.

Here’s the primary plot of any mystery novel

  • Someone dies.
  • Someone investigates.
  • A limited number of suspects are identified.
  • Clues, red herrings, and obstructions confuse the issue.
  • Likely, a second person dies. This death strikes the investigator closer to home than the first one.
  • Danger rises; prices are paid. There may be additional deaths.
  • The final clue is uncovered.
  • There is a show down between good and evil.
  • The characters resume changed lives.

Keeping all those balls in the air is a lot of work. It’s what we writers lose sleep over, discuss endlessly, and buy writing software programs to help us do. Learning how to do manage our primary plot is what our lifetime commitment to writing is all about. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet. If there were, I’d put it in this blog and we could all meet on some restaurant patio to eat nachos and the adult beverages of our choice. Instead of the magic bullet, here are two thoughts I had recently while attending a great writers’ convention.

To plot or not to plot

Each writer has a different take on how much of the book to plot out in advance. I once met a writer who claimed to have a 150 page outline for a 300 page book. That seemed excessive.

The shortest premise for a book was, “I met someone who has an idea for a mystery about a dinosaur detective in Los Angeles. He doesn’t quite know where it’s going yet.”

At first I thought she meant the protagonist was an old-styled, cigar-smoking, hard-drinking LAPD detective. No, she meant he was a Velociraptor named Vincent, and that idea evolved into Anonymous Rex and two other books by Eric Garcia.

Is it better to plot extensively or not? This question surfaced once again at that writers’ convention. My take on this we need to learn to do both. It’s like having different tools in a tool box. Sometimes we need a hammer; sometimes we need a screwdriver. The two are not interchangeable. Plotting and not plotting are not interchangeable. At some point in the story we need to be able to plot down to minute details. At other points, we need the confidence to wing it and trust that the writing gods will smile on us.

Plotting has nothing to do with what comes next

At the writers’ conference, I had lunch with a fellow writer. In answer to the question, “What are you’re working on?” I received a long list of “and thens.” . . . “and then she decides she has to go back to Vancouver . . . and then she runs into an old school friend . . . and then they try to find out why Harold divorced his wife . . . and then . . .”

I found it hard to care, and then, going home I tried to decide why. It was because after the entire recitation I had no clue what was happening inside the character. What motivated her? What internal struggles did she face? How had she grown because of the experience?

“What are you working on?”

  • Answer #1 starts: “University student Jo Fleming survives by driving a cab at night.”
  • Answer #2 starts: “Every night, Jo Fleming cruises downtown Toronto stalking the person who ruined her mother’s life.”
  • Which one grabs you? #2 would certainly grab me more. In fact, it might evolve into an entire book blurb.

A Week to Kill

Every night, Jo Fleming cruises downtown Toronto stalking the person who ruined her mother’s life. When she finally meets the man of her nightmares, they are both a long way from the corner of Bloor and Dundas. With a week to kill in a posh resort where three Canadians have already died, Jo revels in the opportunity to plan a perfect murder. But, she, not her quarry, may be the fourth Canadian tourist to die. Desperately running from an attack, she is horrified to realize the only person who can save her is the man she hates enough to kill.

The primary plot is about what challenges the protagonist, and how her life unravels. Stop plotting what comes next, and try working on how life gets worse and worse for the characters. It’s a great way to approach our primary plots.

There’s more. I hope to see you back on August 26th for secondary and tertiary plots.

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