Running behind today, folks, sorry -- the winners of VW#2 giveaway are:
Winners, please send your full name and ship-to address to LynnViehl@aol.com, and I'll get these goodies out to you. On to the workshop:
I. Reasoning Plot
I never plot without a purpose in mind, even when I'm just writing something for the blog. You may remember that back when I first introduced John and Marcia, my novel crash test dummies, I told everyone up front that John, our hero, was half-demon. Considering how honest I was from the very beginning, the fact that John also turned out to be the diamond-thieving demon shouldn't have been a surprise, but it was.
Nothing happens in a story without a reason, even if that reason is known only by the writer. This is why purpose plays such a huge part in plotting a novel.
II. The Purpose Driven Plot
You want to tell a love story, but you're not sure why. Maybe because romance pays so well, or you don't feel like writing a mystery. You pick an ex-Navy Seal as your protagonist because, well, it worked for Linda Howard and Suzanne Brockman, didn't it? Ex-Navy dude shall rescue a virginal librarian from a Fate Worse than an IRS audit -- not sure what that is, exactly, or why, but those are bridges you'll cross when you get to them. So these two will wander around the story and a lot of stuff you'll think up later will happen, until they fall in love, get married and live happily ever after, because . . . that's what happens.
This is typical plotting without purpose. You have a plot, sort of, and an idea of what to write, kinda. Essentially you're going to make it up as you go along. And while a few pansters out there are fabulous spontaneous plotters, and don't have to worry about planning anything in advance, most of you are likely going to stall at some point and/or have to rewrite significant portions of this story.
Let's try this again, shall we?
You choose to tell a love story because you have something to say about men, women, love and relationships. How love redeems us is the theme you choose to bring to the story. You select an ex-Navy Seal not only because he's single, physically fit, trained to take out terrorists and a hunk, but because he's emotionally damaged by his experiences and finds life after the military empty and lonely. His quest, whether he realizes it or not, is to redeem himself.
Redemption comes in the form of a timid librarian who has buried her life in her books. She is in her own way as damaged by her solitary life experiences as the ex-Seal is by his. They bump into each other repeatedly as the ex-Seal hides out in the library to avoid his well-meaning aunt, who wants to marry him off to any cute single woman she can get him to blind date.
Meanwhile, a rare book collector, who has become obsessed with obtaining a book he needs to complete a set he's been slowly acquiring all his life, discovers that the librarian owns the only known copy of it in the world. At first he approaches her about purchasing the book. As the book is the only thing the librarian has left that belonged to her anti-war protester father, who wrote odd numeric codes in the margins, she refuses to sell it. This refusal unbalances the collector, who proceeds to stalk, harass, burglarize and finally attempts to murder the librarian.
I could outline the rest of the novel, but by now I'm sure you get the idea. This is a plot with purpose: one that clearly maps out the story so you know not only what you're writing, but why.
III. Purpose Points
Every choice I made in outlining the example novel had some point of purpose, as follows:
A. Main conflict: whatever you choose to make your main conflict, it has to have a purpose and a catalyst, or something to set events into motion that will eventually resolve the conflict.
In the case of my example story, the main conflict centers on the romantic relationship between the ex-Seal and the librarian. Both are going to have to work together and face their past in order to move on with their lives and have a chance at a happier future (which in my book may or may not involve marriage.) This conflict is symbolized by the rare book the librarian owns -- the book in some way symbolically embodies all of the characters' pasts. The conflict catalyst is the attempt by the book collector to purchase it: As the book is the only thing the librarian has left that belonged to her anti-war protester father, who wrote odd numeric codes in the margins, she refuses to sell it.
B. Characters: Character choices shouldn't be accidental. I prefer main characters who oppose each other in a definitive way while still sharing some common underlying principal; your mileage may vary.
My obvious choice of heroine for an ex-Seal was the daughter of an anti-war protester. If the main conflict revolves around a book, the story needs someone who wants that book, hence the rare book collector. The ex-Seal's aunt can provide a little comic relief as she tries to fix up her nephew with the ladies in town, and she is also the reason the ex-Seal and the librarian initially come together.
C. Subplots: The ex-Seal's past comes into play as he becomes the librarian's voluntary bodyguard; I'd definitely work a subplot where at some time during his military career he failed to save an innocent. This subplot can tie in with the main conflict, or merely provide a little extra motivation for the ex-Seal.
The same goes for the librarian's relationship with her anti-war protester father -- secretly she resented the time her father spent protesting the war rather than being a better parent to her. Her father's beliefs resulted in her being made into the town outcast, too.
The aunt could have once been in love with the librarian's father, and only ended the relationship because he began protesting the war -- justifying her resentment of the librarian.
As for the rare book collector who snaps when the librarian refuses to sell him her book, I'd probably go for a backstory subplot of what sets him on this greedy, self-destructive path. Obsessional collectors are usually loners who try to make up for childhood deprivations and enforce a sense of superiority to others by collecting rarities. Perhaps our collector grew up poor in wretched circumstances, and had to do terrible things to fight his way out. Despite his wealth, the collector has never felt adequate as a person. His rare book collection makes him important in the way nothing else can. To fail to complete that collection makes it worthless in his eyes, therefore he must have that book.
D. Setting Small town U.S.A. would be the setting I'd pick for this novel, as you have more shared history in that sort of setting versus a big anonymous city, but an old ethnic neighborhood in a city would work as well. The setting you choose should be purposeful and logical, not only to your characters, but to the other elements of the plot. Small towns have smaller police forces, which would not have the manpower to guard the librarian (compelling the ex-Seal to watch over her himself.) A rare book collector might be a long-time resident, or an outsider who has come to town not to become a resident, but to pretend to while he stalks the librarian.
IV. A Readable Feast
Let's move out of the writing space and into the kitchen for a minute.
When I put together a meal, I consider my family's likes and dislikes with food. I read recipes to find one I think they'll enjoy most, prepare and measure my ingredients, set out what tools I need and take the time to figure out when to start cooking every component of the meal, so that it will all be ready at the same time to serve. I also look at my food choices to see that they complement each other. I may taste what I cook as I'm preparing it, to see if it needs a little more spice or something. But I know that if I follow the recipe, use the ingredients it calls for, and time it correctly, I'll end up serving an enjoyable meal.
I could go into the kitchen and just throw whatever appeals to me into a pot and see what happens. The family may or may not like it, but this is all about being a creative cook, not what they like or will eat. I'm not a naturally gifted spontaneous cook, though, and I'll probably end up throwing out two or three batches of glop before I find the right combination of stuff to make an edible dish. Certainly it's more creative and fun to mess around in the kitchen like that, but I'd rather not waste my time or supplies, or risk making something that will make my family go euwwww.
I know that plotting is a lot of work, and for some people it sucks all the fun out of writing. The main difference between a plotter and the pantser, however, is that expectation of fun.
From the way it's been described to me, the pantser is all about the joy of spontaneity and puttering around the novel kitchen. Writing is art, and you can't plan great art -- you have to be free to create and explore and toss out five or six different batches of novel glop before you hit on the right story. Personally I may not be able to do that, but I do get it.
I know some of you pantsers out there are marvelous spontaneous plotters, too, so don't consider this workshop a criticism of your methods or reasoning. You do get the job done; I just can't figure out how.
I have fun when I write, but I don't write to have fun. I think the main reason to cook is to feed people, and I apply the same philosophy to writing. I write books for people to read them. For me this means turning out a quality product on schedule, without wasting time or resources. Because I know that the hungry family in the next room wants to be fed, and if a satisfying meal doesn't hit the table on a regular basis. they're going to order out for pizza.
For a chance to win one of today's two Left Behind and Loving It goodie bags, in comments to this post ask a question or share your view on plotting, or just throw your name into the hat by midnight EST on Saturday, July 14, 2007. I will draw two names at random from everyone who participates and send the winners a tote filled with a signed copy of my novel Bio Rescue (paperback), as well as unsigned copies of The Spooky Art ~ Some Thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer (hardcover), Don't Look Down by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer (paperback), After Dark by Donna Hill (paperback), Emperor ~ The Gods of War by Conn Iggulden (paperback), When I Fall in Love by Lynn Kurland (paperback), Tied to the Tracks by Rosina Lippi (trade paperback), Wabi Sabi for Writers by Richard R. Powell (trade paperback), the August 2007 issue of Psychology Today magazine (this one has a great article on rebounding from rejection)and some surprises. This giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.
Other sources on plotting:
Plotting the Novel: Otherwise Known as The Real Reason Writers are Neurotic by Lisa Gardner (.pdf file format)
Randy Ingermanson's How to Write a Novel using the Snowflake Method
Holly Lisle's two workshops on plot: Beyond the Basics: Creating the Professional Plot Outline and Notecarding: Plotting Under Pressure
Writing a Novel - Plotting by Joanne Reid
Other virtual workshops now in progress:
Joely Sue Burkhart's Do You Know the Secret?
Gabriele Campbell's How to Make a Battle Come Alive on the Page, Part 1 and Part 2
LJ Cohen's Organize your Novel with a WIKI
Rosina Lippi's Workshop Day 1: The Story Machine, Workshop Day 2: Ask Your Characters, and Workshop Day 3: Rev Your Engines
Jordan Summers talks about writing outside the traditional boundaries of romance, and her own trials and triumphs as an example of what roads are available and how to avoid some of the potholes
Shiloh Walker's Heat with Heart Day 1, finding that missing emotion, Exploring that Backstory (where she briefly grills me)