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.

The Snowflake Method – Step 3 (Names of Characters)

Step 1 of Step 3 of the Snowflake Methodology. This part defines the characters, and asks for particulars about each one. You can define as many characters as you  like, even the minor ones. I have defined my three main characters so far: Luke, Kate and Abby.

Each defined character has the following criteria: Name, ambition, story goal, conflict, epiphany, one sentence summary and one paragraph summary.

Let’s start with names, and how we pick them. Here are some of the don’t do’s:

  • Don’t name a character some really common name (e.g. Tom Jones) unless there is a good reason to do it.
  • Don’t name any of the characters the same first name because that’s confusing, unless there is a good reason to do it.
  • Don’t name characters names that sound alike or start with the same letter, like Jen and Joan and John, unless there is a good reason to do it.
  • Don’t name characters something really fake-sounding. Have you ever been reading a novel and thought, that is a such dumb sounding name, no one has a name like that. Example: Amber Summerfield. Too nice, too beautiful, too cutesy. But again, unless there is a good reason to do it. And my apologies to anyone named Amber Summerfield out there. Your name is pretty, but probably not going to show up in my novel.

I like names that are semi-common but not “John Smith” common.

Certain names conjure up personality types for me. It may be because of people I’ve met in my life who have certain traits. So I might use the name because that’s the way whats-his-face was and that’s the way I want my character to be. Or the fact that I don’t know anyone with that particular name works too because then it isn’t tarnished by anything that I might associate with the name and I can make him have whichever traits and characteristics I want.

Luke Koslov. Luke makes me think of the strong, silent type. Of a sensual, yet subtle male. Probably tallish, probably not dark, probably not handsome in the traditional way. I chose this name because I think a man named Luke could be capable of what I intend to put him through. I chose Koslov because I intend to go a little bit into the fact that his father’s family was originally from Russia. I perceive Russian men as strong, silent, a bit on the chauvinist side, but I could be entirely wrong about that. Luke’s father is though.

Kathleen Willoughby Koslov. I think of Kate as the strong, take-charge type. Someone who wants things her way and does what it takes to get there. A self-starter, an A-type. And Kate will be all this, and more, and probably not a likeable character. Which brings up an interesting topic, of characters and their likeability. I’ve had the criticism that my female characters are “mean”. I never meant that they should be that, just that they might want things other than what has been pre-programmed for them, and that they do what needs to be done, in order to get off the hamster wheel. Kate is going to be, well, a little nasty actually.

Abigail Pentergast Dorchester. The Pentergast part will become clear. And she couldn’t help the Dorchester part, when she married John Dorchester, widower, with two insufferable daughters. She took his name, maybe to get rid of Pentergast. I don’t think I know anyone named Abby, but I like the name, so she can be whatever I want her to be. I think she must be a convincingly nice person, forgiving, and loving, and deep, and somewhat spiritual. Not so much in an organized religious way, but grateful for life, and nature, and dedicated to preserving it, life and nature, that is. An organic woman, a gardener, a recycler, pure but not simple, used to being “second best” and longing to be someone’s first choice for once.

Ambition. Coming soon.

The Almost Perigee Moon and Inspirations for New Writings

We’ve been hearing about the perigee moon for the last week, when we weren’t hearing about what’s happening in Japan and Libya. I haven’t paid too much attention to this phenomenon in the past, but now that I’m interested in all things lunar, I am learning all I can about it.

The moon hasn’t been this close to the earth in eighteen years, and it will be eighteen more until it happens again. I caught the one-month-prior-to-perigee, last month in Clearwater, Florida. At least I think that’s how it works. Seems like it would be a gradual progression for nine years to the blue moon, or apogee, moon, and then back for the next nine, and in 2029, we’re scheduled to see the Super Moon again.

For the last several months, I’ve started to plot my next book. The first chapter is the night of the perigee moon. Actually, it’s the month before, the February Moon. I like that much better than March Moon, and I don’t want the title to be Perigee Moon since some readers might not know what that is. I like January Moon too, but think I’ll go for February. Last time I had the book, but not the title, this time I have the title, but not the book. At least, not yet.

Chapter One:

Our hero, as yet unnamed but let’s call him Luke, wakes to see it, moonlight so bright it streams into the room. Luke is interested in astrology, the stars, and the moon, and he stumbles around, finding his camera, turning on the light, to find his clothes so he can go out to take a picture of it. He is also an avid photo-taker.

He wakes his wife, and tells her to look at the moon. She mumbles at him and calls him an expletive. She has to work in the morning, she says, he should leave her alone. He goes outside and takes his pictures, but after he’s done that, he sits down on the patio and contemplates what just happened.

He compares his life with his wife (for now let’s call her Kate), which started when they were children, to a football game.

The home team never quite lives up to the expectations set for it each year, but still the fans are hopeful, so hopeful. This could be the game. This could be it. It’s a home game, and the weather sucks and the home team is used to that, and none of the players have been hurt so far this year, and the QB is in great shape, completely recovered from the shoulder injury he suffered last season. It’s a very important game. Win it, and the home team still has a shot at getting into the playoffs. Lose and it’s a no go.

At halftime, the home team is down by two touchdowns and hope is waning a little, but there’s still plenty of time. It’s only half time after all, and maybe the coach will pull off a miracle in the locker room, and the team will come back rejuvenated, competent and confident. Evidently, the opposing team coach did the same thing because no points are scored until about a minute before the third quarter ends, and the home team makes a field goal. Hope returns. Now they are only eleven points down. Two scores could win it, or a field goal and a score with a two-point conversion could tie it up, and after that it’s a new game. Overtime. Yes, there’s still time. The fans are on the edges of their seats.

The fourth quarter is agonizing, offense sucks, defense is good, lots of football players ending up in big piles. At the two-minute mark, our team is still eleven points behind, but there’s still time. A miracle could happen. One of those games maybe, that’s talked about for years after. Fourth down, got to go for it, the QB falls back and it look like it’s sack time, and he wings it. It’s a high flyer, a regular Hail Mary, the crowd holds its collective breath, and moves as one as each pair of eyes follows the ball.

It’s intercepted.

And at that point, everyone in the stadium knows what the outcome will be. Hope is gone. There’s no way for a recovery after this. It won’t happen. It’s not possible. The fans start to leave, so they can get out quickly, to avoid the parking lot snarl, get to the bars and restaurants sooner.

Luke thinks about his relationship with Kate, and the February Moon was the interception. All the past hurts he’s built up, and stored away, weren’t enough to do it, but the February Moon was the tipping point. It pushes him over the edge. There’s no hope left.

He remembers the time they hosted a Fourth of July party, and he’d come into the kitchen where Kate and other women were gathered, and when she saw him she said to her friends, “Don’t you think my husband is cute, in a duh kind of way?” The women laughed, and Luke stared at his wife, hoping to convey to her that he was mad, hurt, upset. She laughed at him. He figures that was about halftime.

He thinks about a glass with water dripping into it, drop by drop. There’s plenty of room, plenty of room, and finally the water reaches the top and the drops keep coming, and it seems as if the liquid bubbles up over the rim of the glass while it hugs the sides, hanging on, straining, until the last drop falls, the one that causes the contents to spill over. The February Moon.

Realistic and Believable Characters

Characters evolve. They might start out with one characteristic, a flaw, a problem, something that will be important to the story. I had a vision of one of my main characters, let’s call him Leo.

Leo should be moody, depressed maybe so that his depression can be the cause of a breakup, or a problem. I didn’t want him to be depressed all the time, but wanted him to go through periods of it, so he could be un-depressed and normal sometimes. I didn’t want him to be bipolar, because I didn’t think I could research that enough to make it seem realistic, and anyway, I didn’t want him manic when he wasn’t down, I just wanted him to have a period of depression once in awhile. Basically a normal guy, but…

Okay, then, Leo gets depressed occasionally. I researched the types of depression, and it can happen, there are disorders like that. He needs another flaw, or quirky thing about him. He sometimes has difficulty talking about certain issues, certainly about his depressed periods, and other things, like, uh, sex. He just doesn’t feel comfortable discussing it. But he wants it, as much as anyone. Let’s throw in another issue. He believes very strongly in his Catholic values, that he would wait until marriage and that marriage is forever. He’s a bit of an unusual character. I’m starting to like him now. And since he’s not all that easy to understand, and he’s not a real straight-forward kind of guy, I’ll bet he could get involved in one huge misunderstanding.

Once he has a few things established about him, I start thinking about things he would do and things he wouldn’t do, things he’d say and things he wouldn’t say. He would think it wrong for, say, politicians to have affairs. If he thought it were funny, joked about it, that wouldn’t really ring true, because he’s just not made that way. And he’d get together with his friends in a bar, and swear a little, and drink beer, though not to excess. He would do these things though, because he’s a normal guy, with a few unordinary traits.

And after thinking about him for a few months, and tweaking him just a bit, until becoming satisfied that he is a believable character, I’m satisfied with him. He becomes a real person to me, it’s as if he lives in my head. So when I write scenes he takes part in, I know how he’ll react, what will make him unhappy, or disgusted, or feel good. And if I write something, and reread it, I might say to myself, “Leo would never say that.” It’s out.

I kind of miss Leo, now that he isn’t around in my head so much. I liked him.