At a Crossroads: Contrived Plots vs Quiet Stories

IntersectionDuring our lives, we occasionally have periods of lethargy, of standing still, as if on a four-way street corner wondering whether to cross the street, turn left or right, or go back home. And it’s fine when we come to these places, if we stop and ponder what to do next. If we really think about it, rather than just plod on doing what we’ve been doing because that’s what we do.

I’ve been writing for several years now, and I love to write, although I haven’t been commercially successful with it. In fact, the ink is red when looking at income versus expenditures. I’ve thought about quitting, about reentering the work force, about volunteering.

I am confused about all of it. I haven’t worked on a novel in nearly a year now, because I made the decision that I’d market what I have first. It makes it harder to get going in the morning, when faced with marketing. I’d much rather sit down and reread what I wrote the day before, and tweak it, which is how I work.

Marketing is just a swirling mass of stuff. It’s easy to get a book out there, in either print or electronic form, or both, and there are so many good writers and so many good books, that it must be like Halloween to a five-year-old. Where should I go first? Which should I choose? Which is better, best? Which is funnier or more haunting or has the best characters or the best plot or the best action?

With so much competition, and much of it so good, and dare I say, better than my own,  it’s no wonder it’s hard to get books in front of readers.

Sad 3D Man FreeDigital Photos Dot NetFor several months,  I’ve been waking up in the morning with a bad feeling. I’m not moving towards a goal. I’m like a fly at a picnic, I don’t know where to go next. What’s the best way to spend my time?

I think it’s because I’m not working on a novel. I’ve been thinking about another book, but the ideas have been coming slower than usual. I can’t seem to get it going.

The new one will be different from my other novels.

This might be the one. If I can pull this off, and can say to myself that this is the best I have ever written, then I can be satisfied I will have accomplished what I have set out to do.

Okay. So that’s decided.

Meanwhile, I saw a tweet (Twitter must work) from a woman from whom I have taken several classes. And they were mostly good classes — I learned a lot. This class is in story structure, which I thought I could benefit from. My novels are so character-oriented that this time, I want more.

After reading the description of the course, I decided to do it. It lasts for one month, the month of April. Online, very convenient, work at your own pace, and at your preferred level of involvement. Perfect.

Three published authors were mentioned in the synopsis who will contribute to the lectures.  These authors must have great story structures, right? Since they are offering up their expertise?

A good thing to do, thought I, in preparation for this course would be read a book by all of these authors, and dissect the stories and see how each story fits into the structure.

Doesn’t that make perfect sense?

By not mentioning the name of the course or the authors or titles of the books, I can protect their anonymity since I don’t intend to write reviews of either the course or the novels.

Book #1 was the best written of the three. It was funny, sarcastic, cleverly written. Wow, I thought to myself, I am really going to enjoy this book because I love the writing. Even though this is not my usual genre, I am going to really like this a lot. And I will learn so much from it because it will have great writing and I like the main character and the plot will be, like, totally cew-ell. About half way through things started to get confusing. Everyone double-crossed everyone else. There was so much double-crossing going on I was bleary eyed and found myself shaking my head and saying “wha-att?” In the end, there were five murders, IRS agents who were really assassins, an ex-girlfriend who was really a murderer,  murderers murdering other murderers, and the grand finale, the final double-cross by the hero. There was one character who turned out to be a double-crosser and ultimately a murder victim, which still makes no sense to me. It seemed to serve no purpose other than to get the hero (who was a nearly good guy) off the guilt hook.

Book #2 wasn’t so well-written. It started with one murder and one disappearance.  The alleged perpetrator was a character who was written as hugely malign. There wasn’t one shred of decency in this horrible man. Bad to the bone. Nasty, mean, vicious. Accused of the crimes, shipped off to jail. Years later, it was determined that Mr. Bad Guy didn’t really do it. Even though he was 100% evil, he did not commit the murders. So who did? Two murders later, we find out. What a contrived story that was. And the son of the wrongly-accused-yet-horrible-man alleged murderer and the daughter of the wonderful father never-did-no-wrong-to-anybody murdered guy, end up together in the end. Okay! Whatever.

Book #3 was worst of all. Interesting, that I read them in the sequence I did. What starts out as an accidental death on a park trail, (woman pushes man, man falls over cliff and dies) ends up with woman covering up the death because they were arguing at the time about whether to keep a sack of diamonds  which was found on another dead body they happened to encounter along the trail. The evil woman wants to keep the diamonds, the good husband (who recently found Jesus) says no way. This book contained no profanity (“he called me a name you would call a mean woman”) and interspersed throughout were Bible verses and references to being saved. Gulp. Okay, last chapter. The body of the husband was deliberately switched at the morgue with a John Doe. But wait! He wasn’t really dead! He was in a coma. Thankfully, he came out of it on the last page but that’s where the story ended. Oh, and the coma guy’s sister and the coma guy’s best friend got together. Ah.

It’s clear I can’t compete with this kind of stuff. Nor would I want to. I will continue with the class, but comparing my plot with some of the other students’ plots? No way. Let’s just say  — No puedo hacer eso.

I can’t do it. I’m sticking to my Quiet Stories.

3D Man photos courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.

20 thoughts on “At a Crossroads: Contrived Plots vs Quiet Stories

  1. “But wait! He wasn’t really dead! He was in a coma.” Um, yeah, that might be pushing it a bit. 😉

    I get what you’re saying about the marketing thing. In fact, I’m thinking of writing a blog post about at what point does an author back off from marketing his/her book and really dive into the next one. I’m thinking that time has come and gone for me, so I best get busy. As for quiet books, nothing wrong with that. Though the ones I read are often ‘loud,’ I enjoy the ‘quiet’ from time to time, too.

    • Yeah, the coma. Really? The author should have left it where it was, it just seemed to make the story more contrived than ever.

      The one good thing that could possibly happen, is that one book becomes a hit (or at least well-received) and the author gains readers and those readers say, hey, think I’ll check out the other books this author has written. I think I’m going to continue my marketing effort for the rest of this month, finish the course, and bag it. Come May, I’m back to writing full time.

      • I think I should do the same, but I know I have to keep some marketing up as part of my publishing contract. It’s just so hard to back away from blogging. Feel guilty.

  2. Lynne
    I couldn’t agree more! When I started writing novels certain stories and characters just came to me, a storyline and then the characters or vice versa. I find I write the story but it often takes twists that I’m not expecting – the characters seem to behave as they want to, rather than as I had originally thought. I find there are no bad people, no good people, just human people with flaws, like the rest of us, people made up of the sum of their experiences. Fine, so I write my books, even sell a few, but as part of my research I do a lot of reading, especially in the genre I am writing in which seems to be women’s fiction, very often baby boomer. And what do I find – incredibly contrived plots, cardboard characters – I really get the impression that most of the writers (not by any means all – there are some wonderful writers out there!) seem to learn their craft from watching television, where it’s just not possible to develop characters in 90 minutes interspersed with commericals.
    Like you I enjoy writing but hate marketing! I don’t believe the sort of person who enjoys writing (almost by definition as introvert) is the sort of person who enjoys marketing. Every now and then I think I’ll just give it all up, but then out of the blue a new story jumps into my head and I find I’m in my element again. I have now decided that if I had taken up painting as a retirement hobby (I did try but got frustrated when the result wasn’t as it was in my head) I would be spending far more then I do on writing, and wouldn’t really expect to sell my work. I would be doing it for the love of it. So I intend to bumble on, writing when I get the a story that inspires me, offering them on Amazon, but if only a few sell so what? It’s the journey that counts, not the arriving.

    • Jenny, I’m glad to hear I am not alone. Gah, marketing, I never thought of it the way you said it here, that writers are by nature introverts. Certainly true in my case. Recently, someone suggested book clubs. “Going before a book club” either in person, or by Skype or phone and answering questions. I would have a hard time with that. Book signings or going on radio shows? Wow. I’d have to have a really good reason to do any of that. My worst nightmare would be getting in front of a bunch of people and speaking. But I can’t just sit back and wait for readers to find me.

      Maybe we introvert writers need to acknowledge that we simply love writing and if it works out well (that our books are widely read), then that’s great but perfecting the writing craft is the main objective.

      I love it when people say they agree with me! I’m not the only one.

  3. Maybe you could do both – write a quiet story that is ‘just enough’ contrived to hit a sweet spot between the two? : )

    • Raegan, that’s what I’m attempting to do. Which is why I took the class. I think I will be able to get enough out of it to come up with a better story, but still by the standards of the teacher and the rest of the students, it may not be enough.

  4. I love books where–in MY words–nothing happens. Think Jan Karon, for example. Little stories about real people. I carried a character around in my head for 13 years! Widow, 50-something, contented with her life. But she never had a story, not even a little story, that I wanted to tell. Then last fall she met a man–in my head, of course. So no car chases, explosions, murders, or double crosses–but a few fireworks, a little sexy–their challenges those of their age, including grown children and her uncertainty about change and loss.

    I think this fits into what Raegan was referring to . . . a classic story arc can still be character driven?

    • Like Anne Tyler too. I haven’t read Jan Karon, but going to check her out immediately. Yes, lots of good characterization with a decent story. That’s my goal for the next one. I like your idea, my next one has similar elements, only not sure she’s going to end up with a new man.

  5. I have to say that I really prefer quiet stories to contrived plots. I think there is something in them that can be a reflection of our own lives and that maybe we can see something fresh in a different perspective. Although, I suppose all novel plots are contrived, it’s that the ones that are executed well don’t feel that way. 🙂

    When I was a younger scientist, I used to think that the people that “made it” — endowed chairs in departments, VPs of companies, tons of publications, were better than me. Smarter than me. Over the years, I’ve figured out that yes, some of them are smarter than me. But most of them aren’t. Many of them were in the right place and the right time and took advantage of a good opportunity. A few of them were successful despite themselves. I will keep plugging away and looking for my own successes and trying my best not to judge myself by those that have “made it”.

    • Glad to hear you say this. I like people books better than action books. And I do think that what you say is true. Some people are lucky, or in the right place at the right time, or know someone. I have read books I thought were wonderful which are struggling, and then there are published books I can’t get through. So, this is good advice — Look for your own successes. Thanks, Steve.

  6. In just reading your blog I can tell you for a fact that you are a better writer than 90%+ of the authors out there, my friend. Write what feels good, listen to your incredible instincts, don’t even think about quitting, Lynn – and I mean that. You would be depriving the rest of us of hearing your words. Hang in there with the marketing – there IS an answer and we’re going to figure it out. In the meantime, if you need to write to feel better every day, do it! The world will be a better place because of your words, Lynn.

    • Marsha, you are so good at bolstering up a person’s ego. I am so glad I’ve come to know you. I appreciate the kind words, and of course I’ll continue on, striving to get the word out. I am going to take your advice about blogging, when I get this next one going! Quit with the blogging about writing techniques and blog about my book and characters. Review other books in my genre, that sort of thing.

  7. Forget about the marketplace–especially contrived plots!–and write the kind of book that you feel comfortable writing. If you don’t feel comfortable with your characters and your plot, your readers will sense it. I’ve always believed in what I call “the weight of inevitability,” that if a story is going the way it should be going, it could happen no other way.

  8. I heard the advice ‘Write the book you want to read’. So do not let course instructors or certain bloggers tell you what is market-worthy or a good book, and you might not agree with them anyway. Ha! If you can’t follow your own instincts who else can you listen to while writing the book? Just write, I would say. Of course I can’t look at your purse; you might have to get a half time job somewhere to pay the bills.
    There are just too many styles, genres, instructors, MFA professors etc. out there. I also heard it said that one has to write at least 4 books before anyone will notice. After a serious attempt at marketing I got nowhere. I am just writing now. Who knows what will happen. I might just get a really good book out one day. Or not. My biggest enjoyment is in the writing.
    Keep up the good work. I like your blog and your reviews.

    • This will be my fourth book so maybe someone will notice? That’s encouraging. You are right, and there are plenty of classic writers everyone reads today who had trouble getting published. Was it Jane Austen who only achieved fame after her death? Maybe it was someone else… don’t remember.

  9. That was a good move on your part, Lynn, reading those novels by the authors presenting the course. You have to write what you know. I don’t know how anybody writes murder without deep research into true crime.

    • Right, Sarah. I don’t write about murders but I do enjoy reading a good murder once in a while. I find I am toning down the lessons this course teaches to fit my more minimalist style of writing. So far, it seems to be working.

  10. This was an interesting read for me. I am working on a novel and it too is a quiet story. I found your blog by googling character driven vs plot driven. I was getting worried that maybe my story was too “boring” because it doesn’t have a lot of action and an intricate plot. Maybe I will try for that next time, but I am feeling more confident that there is a place for character driven stories. Some will like it and some won’t like anything.

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