Monday, October 28, 2013

No Plot? No Problem! Chapter 4

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No Plot? No Problem!

By Chris Baty

Chapter 4: Cruising for Characters, Panning for Plots, and the First Exciting Glimpses of the Book Within

It may be counterintuitive, but when it comes to novel writing, more preparation does not necessarily produce a better book. In fact, too much preparation has a way of stopping novel writing altogether.

That having been said, Baty reassures us, some planning is good. So long as you limit yourself to one week of doing so.

Hey, it's the 28th.  Let's call it three days.

Seven days, according to Baty, lets you get a nice goundwork ready, but prevents us from overplanning. You don't want to paralyze yourself with a brilliant concept that your writing can't possibly live up to, you don't want planning to turn into a form of procrastination, and you don't want to suck the elements of fun and surprise out of the actual writing process.

Instead, ask yourself what makes a good novel. I'll start:
  • A plot with momentum
  • Characters I care about
  • Female character who are as developed as the male ones (see also: of color, QUILTBAG, disabled, etc, but since I'm a straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered woman, "female" is first one I notice and therefore the most likely to be a deal-breaker.  Sorry.)
  • A good flow of language
  • Variety of perspectives, whether that's in narration or just well-developed dialogue
  • Aha! moments
  • Reasonable romance: neither fairytale nor melodrama
  • Setting as character
  • An ending that makes me want a sequel, but is not an obvious setup for a sequel
  • Reference to religion, faith, or spirituality (Can be unconventional)
This is my Magna Carta, according to Baty. It lists the things I value as a reader, the things I look for and gravitate to, so in theory they should be the things I'm good at writing (I'll let my workshop buddies comment on that, if any are reading).

How about you?

Now, we make a second list, of things we hate in novels. Be brutal and honest -- if you hate female protagonists, well, I probably won't want to read your book, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't write it!

  • "If only"s
  • Two-dimensional main characters
  • Endings that are ads for the sequel
  • Being expected to root for the jackass
  • Mate as reward, or otherwise primary goal in life
  • Convoluted language designed to weed out the "stupid" people (I'm looking at you, James Joyce)
  • Slurs coming from supposedly sympathetic characters. Learning an Important Lesson doesn't make it OK.
  • Cringeworthy moments used for humor
  • Boogers
  • Hopelessness
  • Present tense narration
  • Explicit porn for no real reason
This is my Marga Carta II. These are things I need to avoid, no matter how much the urge may strike to add them because I'm "supposed to."  Eff that.
If you won't enjoy reading it, you won't enjoy writing it.

Next, we start looking at the elements of the books we're writing this year, starting with characters. Looking at my Magna Carta I, I should seriously consider multiple female characters with varied perspectives, at least one of which has a nuanced-if-unconventional spirituality. Hmm, maybe the brother character I was considering ought to be a sister instead. The important thing is that I (and in your case, you) look forward to getting to know these "people". Even the characters you hate, you should love to hate them, because you're going to be dealing with them for a while.

Yeah, I really need to work on my villains.

So, here are a handful of questions you can ask yourself about your varied characters. I'll take a look at my potential protagonist:
  • How old are they? Roughly my age, maybe a few years younger based on the setting. Same life stage, anyway.
  • What is their gender? Female. Oddly, I usually go male for my protagonists, but this year, I'm passing the Bechdel Test.
  • What do they do for work? Seems to me that in a setting where movable type is standard, someone who can review proofs before the sale copies are printed is vital. 
  • Who are their friends, family, and love interests? Haven't figured out friends yet, but she has a recently widowed mother, a slightly paranoid brother (or sister? see above), a loving husband, and very proper, traditional in-laws who don't always know what to do with her.
  • What is their living space like? Well... take mine and remove the modern technology, really.
  • What are their hobbies? At the moment, solving her father's murder.  Otherwise, embroidery.
  • What were they doing a year ago? Five years ago? A year ago, life was probably pretty much like it was immediately before her father's death. Five years ago, it was wedding planning and in-law wrangling.
  • What are their values and politics? Well, I need to get a better sense of the political structure of the setting before I can tie down her specific politics. Values are going to have a lot to do with family and faith. That's how the sibling is going to convince her to investigate the death -- Dad's soul won't rest if we don't, after all!
Now you do one!

OK, moving on to the plot. Wait, the title of this book is No Plot? No Problem! So we're good, right?

Welllllll... mostly. Characters will do things, other things will happen, and that makes plot. So just integrate the story-oriented items from your Magna Carta I list.  For me, that means keeping things moving, possibly jumping points of view, a good reveal around the climax, and the marriage being a touchstone more than a point of conflict.

Don't worry if the plot that works itself out seems cliched. There aren't any new stories, just new takes on the same old stories.

Now we look at setting.  Since I said above that setting ought to be a character, this is kind of important to me. However, I need to model my setting on real-world versions of my setting.

...I mentioned the setting is Steampunk Imperial Rome, right? Maybe I didn't. All right.

Well, I've been to Rome, and seen both the modern city and the ancient ruins. I saw the ruins at Pompeii. I've lived in major cities my whole life, and New York for almost four years. I took a course in sexuality and gender in the ancient world, which primarily focused on the classical world, and I still have my textbook on women's lives in Greece and Rome.

I think I can fake this convincingly.

If you're writing something modern-day, consider setting it where you live now. If you're creating your world from the whole cloth, consider drawing a rough map. In any event, don't let the minutiae of your setting slow you down; you can research properly in December.

Finally (!!!), this chapter discusses point of view. That is to say, are you writing your story in first person (I did this), second person (you did this), or third person (they did this). Second is pretty rare and hard to do. I'm leaning towards first, myself. This means I won't get to flesh my villains out perfectly... but then, that also means I don't have to.  There are pros and cons, you see.

Baty forbids us, in this book, from using second person.  But if you really want to, I won't tell him.


In the first sidebar of chapter 4, Baty explains The Five-Click Google. Need to research something? Google it.  Click on five promising-looking links.  Trust them.  Then stop researching.

The second sidebar gathers anecdotes from past NaNoWriMo winners on their methods of story research.  The takeaway? Your Mileage May Vary.

The third sidebar talks about finding inspiration in strange places. This is another round of participant anecdotes, which reference nail salons, textbooks, spam email, dog-walkers, and dating profiles.

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