I’d planned spend the 3rd week of November talking about plot and conflict. Or plot and meaning. Or plot and purpose. But definitely plot. And then two things happened: one of my students wanted to quit and I had to abandon over 50,000 words of a passion project. My student wasn’t having any fun with NaNoWriMo, her manuscript didn’t make any sense, and it all seems pointless. For me, other than the grief over lost material, the shift away from it allowed everything else to come into focus. The shift wasn’t easy but after a lot of back-and-forth and writing this way and that, it was the right thing to do. At this point in my career, I know to listen when my inner writer has different ideas than the woman doing the typing. I know to listen, and yet I didn’t. And not listening meant I went via the scenic route to nowhere. It happens. Bummer.

Given that, I certainly wasn’t going to tell my student she had to keep going at all costs. Instead, I asked if she wanted to shift goals. What if the point of the month-long challenge wasn’t to finish the novel, but to practice writing in a way that would allow her to develop skills? Skills that included listening to her own inner writer. She agreed to try, and I agreed to stop sobbing about the 50k+ words in my manuscript that will now gather dust.

Now, on to plot.

I am not a plot-driven reader or writer. And that means plot as a tool in the writing craft is not my default as a teacher. I have an incredibly brilliant friend with a PhD who has written many a poem to make your heart stop. She also teaches and starts every creative writing class with a discussion on plot and conflict. I remember the first time I saw her syllabus, I thought, huh, that’s odd. And forget a plot that you can describe in an elevator pitch. I’m one of those people who thinks that if you can talk about a book in the elevator, I don’t want to read it.

But one of the ways that my writing has changed since writing about dragons in Vienna, is that I have become more story driven. If you find yourself stuck and it’s not because you are chasing 50,000 words in the wrong direction, look at your plot with these questions.

What is the conflict at the heart of the scene (yes, my friend was right. She is brilliant for a reason)?

What is the purpose each character has in the scene?

How does this scene move into the next?

Lastly, if everything is feeling futile, go and re-read The Second Coming. It will put NaNoWriMo, your wasted time, your work, and the world into perspective.

When I was young, my father used to say that the Devil is in the details. I went to college in North Carolina, where the expression was that God is in the details.  Whoever is in there, details are important.  Why else would supernatural beings reside in them?

But which details, why, when to use them, and how?  Too much bogs you down in another writer’s minutia (hello, Caleb Carr), and too few fail to do the job.

1) Before you open up your WIP, ask yourself, what 3 things matter most to the main characters.  You can practice by asking yourself what 3 things you (not your characters) would grab if the house was on fire (for me, it’s dog, cat, laptop).

2) As you work this week, experiment and practice with detail; it will become your strongest tool in bringing elements of fiction to life.  Questions posed to writers help us to leave our non-writing lives behind.  We start with what if and then have to get down to brass tacks.  Let details be what brings you to the heart of your writing.

3) How to describe the place around the action?  I am working on a scene in the front yard of a house near the woods.  I know what the road running by the yard looks like, the exact green of the woods, and that the house’s big front door is not only heavy but painted black.

4) Is it true that clothes make the man?   My glamorous sister proves the answer is yes even in her comfy PJs (they have a distinct insouciance to them).  Even I, in my decades old skirt from the GAP, answer in the affirmative.  So, as you get your mind into your manuscript, ask yourself, who wears what?  How do they feel about it?  There is a reason I read Lisa Kleypas’ descriptions of clothes more avidly than her sex scenes.  The dresses, with their underskirts, flounces, bodices, and lace cuffs, show me more about romance than the throbbing does.

5) Details about Food.  I remember how in City Hall (a movie written by Nora Ephron’s husband) Bridget Fonda’s character ordered a burger and a coke.  And, I was like, there is no way that Fonda drinks coke (or eats a burger).  Compare Fonda’s meal to the special orders Meg Ryan has in Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally.  Or look no further than Louise Penny’s mystery novels.  They don’t simply reveal who murdered whom, they lovingly linger over meals with warm bread, butter, and rich coffee.  Food matters, so don’t gloss over it.

What 3 things would your characters leave in a fire?  For me, it would be the junk drawer, the flameless candles I bought on impulse, and the postcards I’ve saved over the years.

The poem for week two is Hurry by Marie Howe.  Howe reminds us of how little is needed to build a narrative, but also how much a story can break your heart.

Even if you are using this month to revise a finished draft, you can’t go wrong by starting with point of view.  As you sit down to write over the next few days, ask yourself:

Day One:  Who is telling this story?  

Day Two:  Why are they telling it?  

Day Three:  When are they telling it?   

The best example I can give about point of view (and why it is worth three days of questions) is Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird.   The narrator is a grown-up Scout talking over the head of young Scout right to the reader.  People like to say that if it were published today, Mockingbird would be published as a young adult.  I do not agree.  The narrator in Harper Lee’s novel is an adult woman capturing what it was like to be young through the eyes of both grown up Scout and the reader.  The reader and older Scout make a contract to understand why young Scout, whom the book is (in theory) about, can’t yet grasp.  

That’s why if you read the book in the seventh grade (as I did for the first time), you sort of miss the point.

Day Four:  What is the story behind the main character’s name?   When your full name is Rhodita Garret Michaela (and one of your sister’s is Lydia Alexandra Helene), you will believe that names have stories. But even Jane has a story behind it.  Is it from Jane Eyre, Jane Banks of Mary Poppins, Lady Jane Grey, or simply your aunt’s middle name?  Whatever it is, you know the story of your name. Your characters should as well.  

Day Five:  How much does a location dictate the story that your POV narrator tells?  I am thinking of Peter Behren’s Law of Dreams, a 3rd person tale of a young boy in the wake of the potato famine in Ireland. Clearly location has everything to do with the story even more than telling it from Fergus O’Brien’s viewpoint.  

Day Six:   A word on word count. Graham Greene wrote 350 words a day, no more and no less.  Edith Wahrton stayed in bed for two hours after breakfast and wrote during that time without ever counting her words. The romance novelist Sierra Simone swears by 2000 words a day.  There are plenty of charts and graphs telling you what you have to do during NaNoWriMo, but I say, be your own guide.  I have not weighed myself since high school and I wear the same dress size that I did then. I don’t count my words and I still manage to write books.   Sometimes numbers don’t mean anything.  

Day Seven:  A poem for your journey by the late, great Wislawa Szymborska.  

  

WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA

{Top photo by Jan Kahanek, Bottom one in public domain}