Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Advanced Plotting": All You Need to Know and More

Not long ago fellow kidlit author Chris Eboch invited a bunch of us to submit articles for an ebook she wanted to produce: Advanced Plotting. The book is now available for download, and, what's more, she's given us permission to offer it *for a limited time* for free. (Not to worry...if you read this article too late for the promo, you can buy the ebook for an easy-on-the-pocketbook price of $0.99. See below for the promo.)

Chris is author of the blog Write Like a Pro! and often has valuable tips and topics, so I would urge you to trot on over and have a look.

I've struggled with plot quite a bit - it doesn't come easily to me - and as a result have found myself reading mountains of books that have helped me through the thicket. In my contribution to Advanced Plotting I outlined what I consider to be the crucial plot turning points. Here's some of what I wrote:

Traditional plots contain turning points, or transition points – points in the plot at which your protagonist’s problem-solving action turns in a new direction. Turning points are important because they serve to increase tension and thus reader interest.

Put it this way: turning points are the significant moments of change in your story.

Beginning with Aristotle, who defined three-act structure, a number of writers and critics have identified these points and where they usually occur in the plot and given them names and relative value. There are seven especially important turning points. In order of appearance they are: the inciting incident; plot point one; pinch one; midpoint; crisis; plot point two; climax.

Before I discuss where these turning points occur in the plot, I’d like to explain what I mean by how the protagonist’s action “turns.” Your protagonist has an identifiable goal and must surmount a number of increasingly difficult obstacles. Each time she thinks she’s closing in on her goal, some new obstacle arises and forces her to “turn” to a new method of solving her problem. Until the climax of the story, she is unable to resolve the problem, and with each turn the stakes are raised.

In the article that follows this intro I outline each turning point, noting where it should fall (roughly) in the plot, and giving an example to demonstrate.

Here's how I close:

When I finish my first drafts I use a plot chart to see whether I’ve placed these seven turning points roughly where they should be according to page count. (Let me emphasize the word “roughly”. A plot template should be used to help guide you, not constrain you.) I divide my manuscript into the three acts and then note where the turning points should be by page count. I also note whether their relative values are correct – if plot point two has higher tension and drama than my climax, I’d better revise.

The thing to keep in mind is that all major points in your plot should be characterized by change. Change in your protagonist is what generates tension and thus holds reader interest. And engaging reader interest is your first goal, always.

There are tons of great articles in Chris's book, and until September 3, you can download a copy for free! Go to this url and enter the promotional code PS76M. I hope Advanced Plotting advances your work in every respect.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Shifting Gears: The Pause that Refreshes

For about eight months solid, I've been working on my next YA novel Moll (out in early 2013.) That's a bunch of drafts, spelled only by various working trips. I finally got it to a place where I thought my editor could look at it, and when we spoke by phone she had exactly the same issues as had been mentioned by my brilliant new critique group.

I feel good, because they are issues I can easily tackle, especially if I give myself a little distance.

So I'm giving the novel a rest. Taking a break. But as anyone who knows me can tell you, that doesn't mean I'm not writing. I'm kind of obsessive that way.

Ann Patchett and friend
I write every day. Maybe not for long, maybe not much that's any good, but I do write every day. If I get two pages done that I'm reasonably happy with, I feel good. Ten pages and I feel like a winner. And for me, I like to shift gears completely, and work on something totally new.

Not long ago I saw a quote from Ann Patchett, who says she only works on one project at a time, not heeding the siren song ("Write me! Write me! I'm going to be so much easier to write than that piece of you-know-what you're working on now!") of a new idea until she's finished her current project...and then thinks the new project through for months, even years. I adore Ann Patchett's work. But that's just not my style, which I think is just fine.

So for the next few weeks, until I get written comments, I'm working on a middle grade fantasy that couldn't be more different than my historical YAs. Think angels and imps, talking animals and monsters. I'm having so much fun, and I know all my work will be better for this shift in my POV.

Maybe you're like Ann Patchett and must be immersed in your current story until it's done. But maybe you're a shift-gears kind of person, too. I think it's fine to discover your best way to work - which also may evolve over time or change with each project.

Give yourself permission to play, to break the mold, to try new approaches.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What Makes a Successful Book Event?

In the past six months I’ve met lots of wonderful indie bookstore owners (yay, indies!) who have been generous with their time and support of me and my books. A number of these events were well attended by tweens and teens and I had such fun meeting them.

Daughters of the mother/daughter book club event at Booktowne in Manasquan,  NJ
But at some of these events the bookstore owner couldn’t get teens to commit their time to come in for a discussion, reading…even free food. In this post I’d like to offer a few ideas that bookstore owners and other writers have shared that have led to successful events, and then invite your comments and suggestions.

Teen readers – please add your thoughts. We’d all love to hear from you. What would you like to see at your local indie bookstore?

Here are some things I’ve heard or tried lately:

1.    1.  Try a value-added event. For example: add live music. I thought it might be fun to have a “Band (Banned) Book Week” night, with discussions about “banned” books, “band” books (books featuring music), and with a local live band for entertainment.
2.    2. Create a Q&A flyer for mother/daughter, or father/son, book clubs to get discussions started.
3.    3. Pair your book event with another shop in town. For example, for my historical novels I might contact a local vintage shop and see if they would like to feature period clothing and other items, and maybe offer cross-promotional discounts.
4.    4. Find a local charity and offer to support them with a $1.00 donation for each book sold. Pair your event with a fundraising event for the charity.
Multi-author event at Yellow Book Road, San Diego, CA
5.    5. Talk with the local children’s public librarian. Arrange to read at the library just before your event.
6.    6. Multi-author events are terrific, especially if the books cross genres and age groups. Often readers will “discover” your book when they came to visit one of the other authors.
7.    7. A “reader’s theatre” event combines the multi-author approach with entertainment. (In a reader’s theatre, books are condensed into short play form and read/acted by the authors.)

And authors – support both your local indie and your fellow authors by attending their book signings and events. I’ve had great support at mine – thank you, my friends.

Please share your ideas – what’s worked for you? Teens - what would you like to see?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Elaine Alphin

In a terrible coincidence, as I was writing the preceding post about my new critique group, one of my partners, Elaine Alphin, suffered a massive stroke that has her in the ICU attended by her loving husband, Art.

Elaine is a prolific author of more than thirty books for children and young adults, including the award-winning novels The Ghost Cadet, An Unspeakable Crime, The Perfect Shot, Ghost Soldier, and Counterfeit Son.

Elaine Marie Alphin, doing what she loves best, July 27, 2011
More importantly, Elaine is generous, warm, loving, intelligent, a superb critiquer, has a childlike heart, and she's my new friend. We are all thinking of her and praying for her and for Art now.

Monday, August 8, 2011

All For One, And One For All: The Beauty of the Critique Group

I have been blessed with marvelous critique groups. I've had two, one in Texas, and now a new group in my new home in Montana, and both have brought depth to my craft.

Before I introduce you to my partners, I have gathered 10 thoughts about critiquing in general, and should you be thinking about joining or starting a critique group, I hope these comments help.

Me at our recent critique retreat...more about that below.
1. How do you find a critique group? Start with your local SCBWI or other local writer's organization. Go to meetings and conferences. Chat with people. When you find a like-minded person or two, ask if they'd like to partner. (That's how I've found my first group - I met the members at an SCBWI conference and admired their writing.)

2. Don't be afraid to try out the group and decide it's not meshing and won't work. You are all making a great commitment of time and energy, and everyone should be invested equally or it won't fly.

3. Create a regular meeting time/place. Wherever best suits the entire group works. I like to meet at least twice a month for a couple of hours. Less than that and it's hard to make progress with everyone's work.

4. A critique group is an intimate circle, and the relationship is like a marriage. You must be willing to commit your time and energy for the benefit of the group and not just for yourself. Sometimes (as you do with your spouse) you just have to bite your tongue; but most of the time you should be honest, open, and sincere.

5. The best critique groups function symbiotically. No one dominates; no one is allowed to hide. Comments are given free reign to build; often this free-flow conversation generates new ideas and insights for the writer - and the critiquers.

6. Being honest (see #1) does not give you permission to diss another's writing. Ever. If you truly don't like something a partner has written, find a reason for your negative reaction in the context of why it doesn't work - is it the voice, the character, the plot? Or do you just not like the genre (in which case try to divorce yourself from that response and analyze the writing alone.)

7. If you are receiving the critique, other than asking questions, it's best to remain silent. Don't try to defend your work. Trust me, your work is never that perfect.

8. The more you can assess your partners' work in the context of craft, the more you will learn. See the critique you provide as a part of your learning curve. Searching for craft issues or strengths is the best way to see whether you are applying them correctly in your own work.

9. Spend a little time becoming friends. It's okay to stray into conversation about family, life, etc. Just don't let it eat too much into your precious critique time.

Kathy, me, and Shirley
10. Never feel jealous of another's success - there is always more bookshelf space, and your book may be next up. Take pride in the fact that you've helped your partner accomplish her goal.

My two groups? In Texas I was lucky enough to have a group that lasted, if I'm doing the math right, over 8 years. I met Shirley Hoskins and Kathy Whitehead at an SCBWI workshop, and when we shared our work, I was awed by their talent. I sucked in my breath and asked each of them in turn - and they said yes. We met weekly for most of those 8 years, and I'm proud to say that all three of us began as unpublished writers, and now we are all published. I feel that the combination of their wise insights and those weekly deadlines (ten pages each week!) grew me as a writer.

Bailey Jorgensen, Sandra Brug, me, Kiri Jorgensen, Maurene Hinds (Elaine Alphin behind the camera) on our way to our retreat.
When we moved last summer I was at a loss. I almost couldn't function as a writer without my partners. I floundered until last spring, when I was invited to join a group here in Montana. And I couldn't be more thrilled. They are insightful, talented, and motivated. We just came back from a four-day writing retreat (picture: remote mountain cabin with all the amenities; six women spread out in the open spaces; the clicking of keys; coffee brewing; relaxed and delicious meal sharing; laughter; walks; more writing; a couple of hilarious movies. Heaven. Highly recommend.)

Now here's the best part about a critique group that works. When I talked with my editor today about my WIP, my critique partners had already nailed the big issues. I had a handle on what I needed to do to improve my novel, and I had it from their comments.

So, yes, a great critique group is a beautiful thing.