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Craft--the next Plateau

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Lilli

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My question is how do you best learn craft beyond the basics....how do you get to that next plateau.

At a SCBWI conference, I was told by an editor of a major house that I had the basics down pat, the writing flowed and appeared effortless---but what she wanted was something deeper.  I showed her two samples and she said the weaknesses and strengths were consistent in both.  It's hard for me to put it exactly in a nutshell--but I think it mostly had to deal with structuring the plot to make the reader really care about the character.

However, where do you go for the next step beyond?  Read, read, read?  Books?  I'm going to delve into Elaine Marie Alphin's character book as soon as I get my house a little better set up and my ICL course finished.

Okay i'm really worried about coming across as a snot saying this, but I am wondering what courses or books do you recommend for the next step beyond.  I have not found ICL "deep" or "meaty" enough for me.

I'm thinking of taking the Anastasia Suen ER course after the first of the year.  Right now I'm pretty overwhelmed with setting up my household and getting ready for my steady stream of company over the holidays.

So where do you go and what do you do when you want to get beyond the basics?
#1 - October 13, 2003, 05:51 AM

Caroline

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I hear you, Lill Pickles.  That is exactly where I'm at (though I never followed through on taking the ICL course.. still riding the fence on that one.)  

I feel like I need a 'mentor' to help me find my way to the next level. I suggested it to a published/successful writer at a course she offered.  She did mention that if I could get a group of like-minded people she would offer a novel intensive course, so we'll see if that happens.

I guess the best thing to do is keep asking for what you need. You never know how or where it might get answered.

#2 - October 13, 2003, 07:16 AM

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For me, it takes writing a lot. I haven't found any answers in the craft books. By reading good books, I've seen how other authors do it. Each time I revise a scene, my goal is to take it to the next level, and I always ask myself what do I need to do to take it there.

Recently I looked back at some of my early writing (I've been doing this a long time) and also at some scenes I'd written a year ago. I can see a big difference in the way I used to write and how I write now.

Over the years I've heard advice such as: write 20 or 30 stories then think about submitting, or write 100,000 words. I don't know. I know I've written a whole lot, and I know of writers who have expedited this process by having a mentor or going to the Highlights Foundation workshop.

Robert McKee has a book called "Story" which might be some help, but it's long and it is not aimed at children's writers.

Good question. I look forward to what others have to say about this.
#3 - October 13, 2003, 07:48 AM
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Deetie

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Writing deep. I guess that is the question.

Well, it's a tough question to answer because it's something that comes with time and a lot of writing. Are we talking novels here? Or PB's? I don't know a thing about PB's, but I can add some thoughts on novels.

When we do a first and then a second draft of a novel, we have generally hit all the major points and surface emotions. I find that in the third draft I have to begin to truly form my character and find her deeper emotions and get them on paper. I also find that I have to work hard on
the character arc.  Each step of the way, the character needs to be learning something or opening up to learning something that is going to drive him/her to his/her goal.

Have you thought about doing a character core where you sit down and ask yourself the "why" of the character. Why does your character want what he wants? What in his life led up to this? What happened to get him to where he is? What is his deepest longing and why does that drive him to his goal? What does he fear about not reaching his goal and what is it going to cost him?

What are his dominant emotions? And mostly, what is the character's deepest longing. That longing is what should drive the narrative. And the only way I can find it in my character is to keep asking "why". I ask myself why about every part of my novel. Why do the minor characters do what they do?Why does everything happen?

How do you get to that level in your writing? Well, that's a tough one. I was lucky to have a few writing friends who could point out what didn't work in my novels. I have published friends who took the time to read and comment and show me where/how to deepen. I also hooked up with an editor who was willing to teach me some things.

I don't think it comes from reading how-to books. I think it comes as a result of growing as a writer and reaching the next step, however that may happen in your life. I like to think of characters as people who have multi-faceted lives and I work in my novels to show every facet of their lives.

I don't know that it can be explained. It's just part of learning the craft. I always ask myself if my character is as complicated as I am or my friends are. If she's not as complicated, something is wrong.

The best person to help you when you reach this point in your writing is someone you respect who knows more than you and who can take the time to show you where you are lacking and why. It wouldn't take more than a critique of about 2 chapters to point out the problems. There are many opportunities in a novel to develop the character and many writers miss or don't see those opportunities. Someone who is a better writer will spot those missed opportunities.

Think also about how a novel is about relationships. It's the relationships we care about, not just the plot. Relationships are the magic of life and they have to be fully developed in a novel.

Well, thems my thoughts.  Hope it helps.






#4 - October 13, 2003, 08:26 AM

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Well, thems my thoughts.  Hope it helps.

Wow, Deetie.  "Thems thoughts" of yours really hit the spot with me!  Great info. Thanks!

Thanks, also, for bringing up this topic, Pickles.
#5 - October 13, 2003, 08:37 AM
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Jaina

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What a terrific topic!  I  :love this place!  Thanks, Pickles!

I have been kinda  :banghead: over this too, but only a little.  Because I know it's really a matter of time and write-write-writing!  I know that logically, anyway.  In my heart I want to be there now!

My critiques at the conference (okay, other than the "she thought" thing) were all about structuring and character growth.  I have a blind spot when it comes to character growth, it seems, and I know after a while I'll get a better handle on the fine line between subtle and "HUH?"  I've only been at this a year, after all.  I need to relax and enjoy my nice long apprenticeship!

As for "deep"--the MG I am working on, that I brought to the crit., isn't very deep.  I can totally see it as a fun mass-market MG with a funny cover that will make girls think "Wow, she looks like she got in a big mess . . . I want to read this!"  It ain't exactly Newbery material!   ;)  I wonder if I'll just end up stuffing it in a drawer as "practice" and then write the "real book" next.  BUT, but, but . . . I won't get there unless I take this one seriously and TRY to make it something, too.  I'll try to put in those moments of real emotion.  Not that it's mass-market, but I find "The Watsons Go to Birmingham" hilarious (and much of it is silly/anecdotal).  And then you get down to that last chapter, when they're back at home, and I've cried every time I've read it.

When I think about my non-deep MG, I sometimes wonder if I'd want something that mass-market to be my "first book."  Wouldn't I rather only submit literary work?  But then, I think... hey, everyone's entitled to their "Green Kangaroo."  Have you ever read Judy Blume's "The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo"?  I just got a nicely-bound edition our library was giving away!  I liked this book as a kid.  Now when I read it, it does seem like it was written homework for a class (and I believe it was!).

I've never considered ICL.  Too expensive (yes, even with payment plans!), though I have enjoyed their transcripts on the website.  I just applied for a scholarship to Chautauqua for next summer.  Hope I get it!  :jump  <--that's me, wishing.  Green with envy of others who have gone, I guess!  I'll only be able to go with the scholarship, so cross your fingers, hold your thumbs, whatever!   ;D
#6 - October 13, 2003, 09:08 AM

Deetie

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 8)

Character arc.  Hmmmm.

Well, I have to admit that character arc is my weakness. I still struggle with it. In fact, in my wip, I am struggling with it now. But I'll try to share what I do know about it.

A well-published writer told me a few years ago that the MC has to learn something in every chapter. They are, after all, on a journey and there are things to be discovered about themselves and others. And their world.

With each decision a character makes, there is something to be learned. I like to think of chapters (or scenes) as little places where a character makes a decision (good or bad) and then learns something about life or herself as a result.

It's what Swain calls Scene and Sequel. In one scene (or chapter) a character does something that creates a kind of action/reaction thing so that in the next chapter they have to deal with what they've done. What they do generally complicates the story, or atleast gunks it up a little for the character.

While working on my character arc, I like to think of my character's growth as this up and down line that takes them to their ultimate realization. Well, if the beginning of the story is Point A and the end is Point Z, then there have to be other points along the way. Generally the plot will somewhat dictate what happens at say, point D, because something will happen that will cause the MC to do, think, or say something. And the reaction to that will lead to Point E and that will lead to Point F. I hope this makes sense.

So, as you work on your character arc ask yourself these questions:

What reaction does my character have in this scene? Why does she/he react that way? What will it cost her down the road? (The more the better.)

Sometimes the arc is more organic. I've found with my WIP that there are opportunities to be grabbed for the MC and they are just sitting there waiting for me to see them. You really have to dig deep to see what can be gained or lost by what a MC does or doesn't do.

In my WIP, for example, the MC works selling trailers and she has this very odd boss, a really scuzzy salesman she works with, and an odd bookkeeper who doesn't particularly like her.  There are limitless possibilities for her to react to any of these three people and complicate her life. But after she does that, she has to see what she's done and then correct her path, or maybe mess it up more. It's your choice how you build this arc.  YOu can have them mess up real bad and then slowly redeem themselves. You can have them mess up slowly. I tend to like to build the tension up and then let it down. Just when the reader thinks they can relax, I like to take it back uphill again so the tension builds. And then I bring it down again. I probably do that 8 or more times in a story. (Well, I'd have to count because I'm not sure.)

I think of the character arc as kind of like the melody in music.  I play classical music and within all that music is (bass, treble, chords, etc.) there is an overlying or an underlying melody that pulls the music along. The character and his/her arc are very similar to that. If that makes sense.

I am really no good at explaining this stuff. I do it all by instinct and feel. I'm an instinctual writer and I feel my way rather than plan. I have found that once I get a good draft that I have always left myself room to develop all the possibilities of the story.

And thems my thoughts on that.
#7 - October 13, 2003, 10:19 AM

Jaina

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Thanks!  Thems good thoughts!  

I have an article taken from Jack Bickham (I think that's the spelling)'s book "Scene and Sequel"--one of those Writer's Digest basics books.  I also like "Beginnings, Middles, and Ends" by Nancy Kress.  I know some people don't like "how to" books at all, but I find some of them helpful and fun to read when I'm not writing.  They make me think about the instinctual process (I feel the same way about it) in a way I never have.  My college creative writing classes seemed to be all about what "sounds good" and "show, not tell" without a lot of in-depth advice on plot structure.

If you look up "Scene and Sequel" on Amazon, as well as other books like the Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, you see this funny debate between people who HATE those books and think those methods produce terrible formulaic writing, and people who LOVE those books, as they used them to create their work.  I don't have such strong feelings either way, but I think they can make an okay jumping-off point.  

After all, it's really hard to teach kids to write an essay without teaching them that boring "five paragraph" structure first.  Once they've gotten that down, they can go beyond it and write some great essays.  If they've never gotten that down, their essays are extremely muddled!
#8 - October 13, 2003, 10:34 AM

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After all, it's really hard to teach kids to write an essay without teaching them that boring "five paragraph" structure first.  Once they've gotten that down, they can go beyond it and write some great essays.  If they've never gotten that down, their essays are extremely muddled!

WAIT A MINUTE HERE!  What "five paragraph structure?"  I never heard of a "five paragraph structure."   You're holding out on us.  :x   SHARE. :! Dag nab it. :! SHARE, Jaina! :!
#9 - October 13, 2003, 10:40 AM
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Jaina

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The Five Paragraph Essay is something they teach in school these days (okay, they did ten years ago, but who knows if they still do!), Verla, to help kids organize their thoughts.  It's like this:

You come up with a thesis statement and three points you'd like to say about the topic.  Your opening paragraph starts out general, and then gets specific and ends with your thesis statement, which has your three points in it.

The next three paragraphs are about the three points.  One point each (duh).

The closing paragraph is where you rehash the above, again ending with a more general statement.

Hastily-written example:

Most people who write for children these days enjoy using the internet in their work.  They may look all over, researching publishers and other books, and even the actual topic of their book.  On Verla Kay's website, writers can find it all with live chat, message boards, and great links.

Live chat on Verla's board is like a big party.  But it's a party where you learn about writing . . . (paragraph about chat here).

Verla Kay's message boards are a friendly place to get information or just hang out . . . (paragraph about message boards here).

The great links on Verla's site will lead you to all the places you should go as a children's writer . . . (paragraph about great links here).

The live chat, message board, and great link make Verla Kay's site the best on the web.  Writers can hang out, make new friends and learn a lot, too.  People who write for children would be insane not to use this resource.

**
It's very very very basic and limiting, but it teaches younger writers how to organize their thoughts.  Otherwise, they might wander around in their writing without realizing they're supposed to even make a point.

I saw a very funny example of this in our local paper once, from an elementary student.  He'd written an "essay" for the kids page.  It went something like:

There are lots of things in the world to love.  Lots of people love lots of things.  I love my cat, my Mom, and eating at the China Palace restaurant.

I love my cat because he is furry...   ETC.

#10 - October 13, 2003, 10:59 AM

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OH, I get it.  Thanks!  It's like the basics of writing good non-fiction:

Tell the people what you are going to tell them.

Tell them.

Tell the people what you told them.
#11 - October 13, 2003, 11:05 AM
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Cindy

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I use these questions in character development (from the Snowflake plotting method):

The character's motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?)

The character's goal (what does he/she want concretely?)

The character's conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?)

The character's epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?)  

By forcing myself to write a sentence, then a paragraph for each of these questions for each of the major characters in the story, I get to know them very well, and it shows me how each one brings wants and needs into the story that will end up affecting the others.  

As a reader, I bond quickly and well with a relatable, somewhat (or very) likeable MC.  To me, that means the MC has strengths and flaws, vulnerabilities, times when he/she makes good and bad choices, and has things he/she cares deeply about.  

I think depth comes with time and simmering, and from adding in emotional complexity.  Most important decisions are complicated, and even good things have a flip side.  Riding a bike for the first time, for example. There's a mixture of emotion there:  fear, excitement, pride, dread, other people's expectations, etc.  The more complex the characters and situations, the richer the reading experience I find.  

Also, if there's a big picture question under the surface plot questions.  What issues do all roads lead back to?  Belonging?  Friendship?  Reinventing yourself?  etc.  It's those complexities and connections and layers that create depth, I think.  

I really believe it's OK to write a book that merely entertains.  But to do both: entertain and leave a reader feeling moved by your characters and story is a huge accomplishment.

#12 - October 13, 2003, 11:24 AM

lj

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Good stuff!  This is all very helpful info, especially as I revise my current mg.  Thanks to all who posted on this!  :D
#13 - October 13, 2003, 12:45 PM

Deetie

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Cindy: Nice take on all that. I wish I could plan a novel before I write. I just can't. So, I seem to have to do double the work to figure out all this stuff as I go.

But I like the way you organized it in your thoughts.
#14 - October 13, 2003, 01:21 PM

LisaL

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I have learned so much while reading this board.  I love this place  :writing3:
#15 - October 13, 2003, 02:44 PM

Lilli

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Wow, i haven't had time to thoroughly read through all of these, but I'm impressed with the response.  And to think I almost didn't ask the question.

I've been out of the house most of the day.  And now I've got "stuff" to do, PLUS I finally have my files on my new computer.

Yee-haw!
#16 - October 13, 2003, 03:05 PM

KayJ

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Cindy, could you elaborate more on the Snowflake method? ::)
#17 - October 13, 2003, 03:46 PM

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#18 - October 13, 2003, 04:41 PM
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KayJ

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Thanks, ShirleyH ;D
#19 - October 13, 2003, 04:54 PM

Lorraine

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I think of the character arc as kind of like the melody in music.  I play classical music and within all that music is (bass, treble, chords, etc.) there is an overlying or an underlying melody that pulls the music along. The character and his/her arc are very similar to that.

Good analogy, Deetie.  Harmony and tension interweaving, building, diminishing, and building again.   :)

And to add in another musical analogy--writing is like learning to play an instrument.  Practice, practice, practice.  Even if I can play the notes of a piece, only practicing over and over will bring me to the heart of the music.  

When I started writing, I expected two drafts to be plenty.  Heh, heh!  I'm still discovering how many drafts it takes to fully round out the characters, the plots, the subplots, the flow, and whatever other intangibles make a story work.

So now, I write and write and often don't use most of what I produce.  I'm finally learning that no matter how good something sounds, if it doesn't ring true, get rid of it!  And sometimes chopping it out is really hard--aack--that's my baby...but hey, nothing is sacred!

 
#20 - October 13, 2003, 05:05 PM

Deetie

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Yeah, I understand the chopping thing. I'm on a chopping venture right now because I have to kill about 20 pages and some of it is good stuff! But it's not needed.  WAA! :banghead:

But I guess that's life. :smash:
#21 - October 13, 2003, 05:39 PM

KimS

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I can't say I've written much other than PBs to date, although I spend many sleepless nights trying to add levels and depth to an unwritten MG in my head!

 But one thing I keep thinking with all this character development stuff - people in real life are three dimensional - perfect models! I don't mean we need to base a character directly on someone we know. But if we spend a lot of time wondering what makes people we know behave as they do,  it's gotta make character development in our stories more real too.
I guess this is where writing a full characterisation of a character comes into play. Maybe writing a similar rundown of a real person would be helpful in then knowing how to approach a character.

Maybe lots of it comes down to a study of psychology, not just a study of literature.

Lots of maybes? Yeah, well, I warned you - I haven't actually done it myself yet!
#22 - October 13, 2003, 05:58 PM

Cindy

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Deetie, plunging comes more naturally to me, not plotting.  In fact, I have to do the plotting exercises in that Snowflake thingy kicking and screaming.  But truly, that's because writing is so much easier and more enjoyable for me.  

My problem is that my editor has nailed me on my plotting in every editorial letter I've received.  For whatever reason, Snowflake man spoke to me :-)  I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I need a template for plot building, but I do.  And that's why I liked that method so much.  

I do a mix of plunging and plotting now, and that's what seems to work best for me.  I write several chapters to get the feel of the characters and get the problem underway.  Then (about Chapter 3 or 4), I stop and plot.  The plot ebbs and flows away from my plan as I'm actually writing, but it stays focused, because I know what's makes these characters tick and where I want to end up.  

The problem is, if I don't plot *before,* then I have to plot after the first draft is done, and that is infinitely more messy because I will have lots of side roads, etc. to be dealt with and cut and grieved and refocused.

#23 - October 13, 2003, 06:02 PM

Deetie

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Interesting, Cindy.

I plot as I go. I generally have an idea where I'm going and the end result but then I have to find the road as I go.

I have used STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL to plan out one book but I never could write it because it wasn't organic enough for me.

I was joking this morning to some friends about writing the Great American Mess because that's what my novel looks like before I clean it up and fix all the flaws.

Oh, how I wish I could outline.

#24 - October 13, 2003, 06:36 PM

HB

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That snowflake method looks great. Thanks Shirley! A lot of it appears in other sources, but there it is summed up in a 10-step process.
#25 - October 13, 2003, 07:11 PM

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