Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Magical Middle

I'm still drafting my new novel and am currently in the throngs of my happy place--the middle of the story. For many (I'd dare to say most) writers I've talked to, the "muddling middle" is the most frustrating part of their novel. The excitement of establishing their premise and their characters has worn off, and they feel overwhelmed with this massive sea they need to travel to reach the end of their story. So as I've been writing, I've paid close attention to why I love this section, and I thought I'd share with you what I've observed. And don't worry, if you're not converted to the Cult of Magical Middles when I'm finished, I'll still be your friend. Perhaps you can help me enjoy beginnings and endings more. :-)

1. It's play time! For me, the beginning of a novel is more technical. So many things need to be established to get the beginning right. I'm constantly playing a game of plunging full-steam into story vs. the exposition necessary before I get too carried away. With middles, the stage it set, the inciting incident has happened, I am now in the full-blown story where anything can happen. I embrace that liberating feeling!

2. The characters take the reigns. Their flaws, conflict and goals have been established. All I have to do is stick them in the same confined space with an initial nudge of direction, and they go at it. For the middle of the story to work for me, ALL of my characters have to have opposing goals--even people in love, even best friends. That conflict drives the story forward, creates complications, weaves in surprising twists and turns. With the story I have on submission right now, The Rowaness of Shalott, all of the plot twists (besides one) came by my giving more control to the characters--letting them tell their stories to me. I didn't "pants" my way through Rowaness. I knew the ending, I knew the big important events along the way, but my favorite parts of that novel are the layers my characters seemed to create on their own.

3. There's still structure to fall back on. The middle isn't just an abyss between the inciting incident and climax of the story. There are landmarks along the way to help you not get lost in the darkness. As dynamic as your characters may be, they still need some focus. They are the actors in your play of a novel, and they need some direction so they don't derail you into the land of indulgent writing. I'd highly recommend studying structure in novels. I think a lot of writers spend their time studying the craft of writing on the line level, but they don't study the art of plotting--of actual storytelling. Two fabulous books I've read in recent months are Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder.

From Plot & Structure, I've learned if you're middle is muddling (or even if it's not) you should:
  • Raise the stakes (a character should suffer tremendous loss if she doesn't achieve her goal, and you should amp up that up even more in the middle)
  • Strengthen the adhesive (the strong relationship or circumstance that holds opposing people together)
  • Add another level of complication to your plot (usually comes from my #2 above)
  • Add another character (this is about to happen in my WIP)
  • Add another subplot (use this one with care; you want to keep focused on your main plot)
Save the Cat! includes a "beat sheet" (or road map) of important plot events that should happen (and more importantly, when they should happen) in your novel. I tried using this beat sheet (available online) before reading the book, and it didn't work. You need to read the book! I won't go into all the details of the beats, but my favorite by far is the midpoint of the novel. This should literally be smack in the middle, and, to quote from Snyder, it is "either an 'up' where the hero seemingly peaks (though it is a false peak) or a 'down' where the world collapses all around the hero (though it is a false collapse), and it can only get better from here on out." That midpoint is a lighthouse in the darkness between your beginning and end. It helps your story from that derailing I warned you about earlier.

Now before I pop in a DVD, I check it's running time and calculate when the exact middle will be. When that time comes around, I pay close attention to the story. What is happening--false hope or false failure? How does that color the characters and the remaining plot? I do the same thing when I read a book. For example, I recently finished Shadow & Bone by Leigh Bardugo. When something CRAZY happened in the story, I stopped, stuck my finger in the page, and closed the book. Yep, this jaw-dropper happened in the perfect middle of the novel. I love the midpoint beat!

Here's hoping you and your middle become better friends. And if you're already on good terms, I'd love to hear your own tips on how you navigate the great divide between beginning and end.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Spoiler-Free Review: SHADOW & BONE

This is the first book review I've done on this blog. I never intended to do any (I have a strong opinion that writers, for the most part, should not be public reviewers), but Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo was so fabulous, I couldn't resist!

Honestly, like Veronica Roth's blurb says on the cover, I've never read anything quite like this before. A Twitter friend asked me for some recommendations in a similar vein and it took me a long time to think of any--and still they're only kinda-sorta like this book.

Here's why I loved Shadow and Bone:

Leigh Bardugo trusted the reader. She threw a ton at us in the first few chapters: a large cast of characters, an impressive vocabulary of foreign words we needed to understand, a new world, and many factions of the Grisha--the magically elite members of the Second Army and masters of the Small Science. I'll admit I was a little dizzy at times trying to absorb it all, and I questioned more than once the rate the author expected the reader to keep up. But when I really needed to understand the importance of a new term, place, or character, I did. The story kept barreling forward past all the initial setup, and in act two I was able to breathe, dig in, and feel comfortably familiar with the world. After having read the whole novel, I wouldn't change a thing the author did to get this premise-heavy story started. And she did all of this while keeping me grounded in caring about the character. A huge feat!

The prologue worked. One of the most gorgeously written sections of this novel was the prologue. And it wasn't a lazy work of convenience to drop in all the worldbuilding. In fact, the prologue didn't focus on the worldbuilding; it focused on story, character, and setting the mood for this dark and poignant novel. And the prologue tied in perfectly with the last chapter, giving the story a resonant and full-circle resolution that made me sigh with the pleasure of my reading time well spent.

The plot kept me guessing. About halfway through the novel, my jaw dropped on the floor and remained there until the end. I didn't predict any of the plot twists, but when they happened, I could see they were inevitable--which is exactly what an author should strive to do!

I got to take this ride with some awesome characters. Alina Starkhov begins the story as a weak character in many ways, but she could never be brushed off as passive. She's scrawny, but feisty. She speaks her mind, even when it puts her foot in her mouth with higher ranking individuals. She's strong and stubborn, but seeking for a place to belong. And this novel is about that in so many ways--how far someone will go to belong to someone or something, especially when they never had a home to begin with. I made the same choices along the way with Alina, felt just as justified as she did with her actions, and then I was horrified and felt just as stupid and shamed to have made the same mistakes. Reading this novel really was a roller coaster of emotions for me. Other fabulous characters were Mal, Alina's best friend and the orphan she was raised with, and the Darkling--one of my favorite characters of all time. He was subtle and sexy and primal and awe-inspiring and mysterious...and I could go on and on. All I have to say is, the author is brilliant!

This book made me think. Yes, it was page-turning and tense and conflict-ridden and commercial, but the themes behind it all were so interesting and universal and executed in a fresh way. I'm still whirling with the intellectual journey this book took me on.

That's about all I can say without spoiling this read for you. I can't recommend Shadow and Bone highly enough! It's possibly my favorite book ever. Plus, I got to meet Leigh Bardugo on the Fierce Reads tour, and she was such a genuine and kind and down-to-earth person. I loved reading this story and thinking of the author who wrote it, whose imagination stretched so deeply and whose soul lay so bare on the pages.

What are some favorite books you've read lately?

Monday, July 9, 2012

A New Story is Born

I'm thirty-something pages into my brand new non-Rowaness related story. I feel shy of sharing too much about it right now, like it's a delicate bird that hasn't taken flight. But I love the promise of this story, of everything it can be. I feel overwhelmed to be it's "mother" and hope I can do it justice.

Here are some visual hints and inspiration for the story so far...

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Tricks for Writing a Killer Beginning

After weeks of research and letting the idea simmer in my brain, I've officially begun writing a new novel. This is an exciting--and terrifying--time! And it's gotten me thinking a lot about the pesky business of beginning a novel.

Here are some tips I try to follow:

Make me care about the character. It won't matter to me if a character is in life-or-death peril if I don't care about her yet. If I invest my time in a story--if I keep turning pages--it's because I connect with the character, THEN through her the story and the world. Warning: this doesn't mean claustrophobic pages of internal monologue, because you must...

Start with story; start in-scene. Don't write about what has happened. Write about what's happening NOW. Nix those prologues, chunks of backstory, or lengthy interiority. Stick in the now.

Give a little framework before jumping into dialogue. Even a couple sentences will suffice. Give those talking heads some setting or sensory detail to help ground the reader.

Sprinkle in worldbuilding. I don't want to be inundated with the details of your world. I want just enough to ground me and intrigue me, but the story must keep moving forward. Remember when you're writing in-scene, beats must happen in real time. Narrative summary, lengthy descriptions, or lengthy interior reflection shouldn't break up in-scene moments unless there is enough "real time" allotted for it. Save narrative summary for transitions between scenes, if possible. Trust that the reader will catch on, BUT don't be overly coy, thinking that will add suspense. (It won't; it will only add frustration.) Deciding when to write in-scene vs. narrative summary is tricky, but you can do it!

Incite me. There needs to be an inciting incident by the end of chapter one (especially if you're writing YA). This doesn't have to be the doorway between acts one and two, but something BIG needs to happen that's life-changing for your character, that incites her into some kind of action. In other words, get your story wheels turning ASAP and make me NEED to read chapter two!

Begin on the day something different happens. Carol Lynch Williams gave this awesome advice at the WIFYR conference I just attended. Yes, you need to ground the reader in the "normal life" of your main character, but your story should start on the day life changes for her. For example, my story, The Rowaness of Shalott, begins when King Arthur comes to Guinevere's island after a five-year absence.

Conflict. Just because the main plot of your story hasn't kicked into full gear doesn't mean there should be no conflict at the beginning. There has to be conflict! Your main character must want something right from the get-go, and something/someone must be standing in her way; furthermore, there must be stakes if she doesn't succeed. (Hint: conflict/yearning is a key ingredient to making me care about your character.)

Don't forget the details. It's your job as a writer to not only engage me in your character (and his/her story), but also let me know his/her age, gender, physical appearance, and other important details ASAP. Age and gender, especially, must be indicated in some manner on page one.

Make a promise. Your reader should understand the kind of novel they're reading from the first page. If the book is a fantasy, something must strongly hint of that fantasy in the beginning. If you're writing horror, scare me. If your novel is a mystery, give me something to puzzle over--again, on page one!

Shake hands with your ending. Your beginning and ending should be fun house mirror reflections of each other. They need to resonate and come full circle. In order to know where to begin your story, think of where you will end it and let that spark some ideas. This is something that can be finessed with revisions, but I strongly believe you should know how your story will end before you begin it.

That about covers it. Easy, schmeezy, right? (WRONG!) And here comes my final piece of advice for writing story beginnings...

RELAX! Try not to panic over all the rules. Know them. Read and study them. But then turn a blind eye, let go, and have fun! Don't worry, those rules are probably lingering in the back of your brain and keeping you fairly on track. (And they'll be waiting with a vengeance when it's time for revisions!) But while drafting, let yourself fall in love with the seed of a story and the birth of a character. Don't judge them just yet. :-)

What are your favorite tips for writing beginnings?