Monday, March 24, 2008

Keeping the Possums Out of the Persimmon Patch (or: The Plot Thickens)

This is the book that belongs on every writer's shelf, or, in my case, in my laptop bag (we are having shelving issues at my house, but that is entirely beside the point).

I first checked this book out of the library, when I went searching for the drool-worthy titled book, The First Five Pages, and instead found this one. I sat to read it like I've read other writing books but quickly found myself reaching for a pen ("I've got to write this down! Oooh! This too!")

In no short time I was bent over my table, book in one hand and pen in the other, taking notes like the studious college kid I was. Pages later, I decided, I need to buy this book. If it tells you anything at all, I actually went to a real bookstore and paid retail for it. It's that good.

I thought about going through the book and summarizing it, but I'm short on time, and if you pick up the book at your local library, perusing the table of contents and the subtitles in the chapters will actually give you a great overview. In fact, it is so practically and logically laid out, you can really use it as a resource book instead of just reading through it, flipping here and there to find the specific help you need.

I will highlight for you the greatest insights I gained, though.

The first few chapters of the book focus on characterization, which seem to bump against the title of plot, but which is the perfect way to start, since, in my mind, characters really drive the plot.

Noah Lukeman spills a plethora of questions onto the table, mostly as a series of checklists of things you should know about your character. Looks: height? hair and eye color? scars? age? clothing and accessories? He recommends you take a look at this character through the eyes of a doctor, a police sketch artist, someone setting their friend up on a blind date with the character. What you end up with is a complete picture that also tells something about who your character is (she wears designer label pant suits and a rolex. without another word we know she is concerned with looks and cares, at least modestly, about opinions, likes quality things, and probably has some money).

Also asked: what is the character's medical background? their family background? where does he live? what pets does he own? what would a psychologist say about him? a banker? an ex-girlfriend?

As I read through this book it was so hard not to go back and fix the things in my first novel that could have been fixed. I understood Stephen King's statement that the first draft we write for ourselves, then we cut most of it out. On my first novel I included so many details about my character that probably didn't need to be told. This time around, I started by doing this character exercise with each of the main character. I wrote a one-page bio about each one. Before I even started my writing, I had a fantastic concept of who my people are, where they come from and what they want out of life; how their past influences who they are and how they react in crisis. And now, as I write, I can let their reactions and their words come from that knowledge, without having to create that knowledge on the page for the reader.

Yeah, it help me to know that my matriarch main character was the first born in a family of five, and that she dyes her hair because she doesn't want anyone to know she's starting to gray just a little, but will I put that in my book? Probably not. But it definitely influences how she runs her family and relates to her friends.

(As an aside, I totally get the whole gay Dumbledore thing from this perspective. I don't want Dumbledore to be gay, and when I read Harry Potter, I never got that from the writing. But, now that I know Rowling had that in her head, I can see how she created his choices out of that knowledge. We as a reader didn't need to know why he wasn't married, or why he dressed eccentrically, even by wizard standards, but by Rowling knowing it, it helped her to capture the nuances of his character better.)

This book also covers a great deal in how to build suspense and create good conflict, not just in the outer actions that may drive the plot, but in the development of the characters and the internal journey they take. He makes a great point that in good books, the character at the end of the book is not the same as the one at the beginning. He must change because of what ensues over all those pages.

I could keep writing, but in essence, go get the book. You won't be sorry.

As for me, I have now started actually writing my own novel, and so my blogs will probably lessen in frequency, and certainly in substance (if that's possible). It's back to the grindstone!

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