Action is Plot and Plot is Action

Fraser River - Bruce Witzel photo

A great story is life with the dull parts taken out – Alfred Hitchcock.

Morning grey on the Fraser River – day two of our fall trip. Nothing dull about that pic. In novel writing, we want no dull characters, no dull situations, no dull settings. But, let’s be clear on what constitutes dull. The definition, in terms of writing, is unique. Any action that doesn’t move the story forward is dull. If teeth brushing is integral to the movement of your story, then teeth brushing is not dull. Maybe your character is brushing her teeth and as she spits blood into the sink, she decides once and for all to leave the brute who smashed her in the face that morning. Definitely not dull.

On the other hand, the photo below, is vibrant with fall colours. It is no dull grey expose but what does it have to do with the story? The colours may pop but if they aren’t moving the story forward, dull, dull, dull.

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Action is plot and plot is action. I’ve read that genre novels are action driven. Lots of things happen to the character. Literary novels are more about the interior life of the characters. It could be said that the character happens to the plot. In each case, the story must find a way to move. It seems to me that most good novels are a combination of the two.

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A plot without good character development is all action and no bonding. The reader can’t get invested. On the other hand, character development without a plot is like being all dressed up and having no where to go. And by the way – have you ever heard of a Turban squash. I hadn’t until we stopped at the Marisposa Organic Fruit Stand outside Keremeos.

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At its most basic, plot is how a character deals with challenge. And it’s all about movement. Want something, go somewhere, learn something, come out the other end changed. There you have it. Bare bones, but if you can’t see down to the skeleton, you can’t write a decent novel.

The photo below is Sunset in Osoyoos, the end of day two of our fall trip. The bulrush chimes near the art gallery. I hadn’t been back to Osoyoos since selling my dad’s house in 2010. He’d died late the previous year. I wasn’t expecting the return to bring back such powerful, overwhelming memories. Death changes everything.

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Tipping Over …

Giving up the Fight (2)

Today marks an important transition: the day I tipped over from note taking to writing book five in the Crater Lake series. Word count – 1500. A modest start, you say. True … but I am thrilled. My dormer desk is working like an early spring tonic. The chance to focus and let my thoughts roam free is invigorating and productive. Even just a couple of hours at the keyboard in this new setting, when combined with my daily walk on the lake trails, has the creative pump gushing ideas all day long.

Not all is easy breezy, though. There is the early stage of idea overwhelm to deal with. I have been here before but that doesn’t seem to help. It goes something like this – I get one scene roughed out. I’m comfy in the heads of a couple of characters. Then, before I can stop myself, I’m thinking of all the other characters who are literally clamouring for attention and I start to panic. Can one brain hold so many storylines?

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When it starts, I tell myself – that’s what paper is for. Get it down, one section at a time and move on.

Prior to getting my cherished 1500 words today, I had combined all my notes into one Word doc. I set up the handy-dandy navigation tool in order to quickly move between sections.

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I recall blogging about this feature when working on my last book. First, choose a heading under styles for your chapter and section titles. Generate a table of contents and then with a simple click, turn on the navigation pane (under view) and quickly move to any section. At this stage of writing, I make my chapter and section titles super descriptive.

The Word doc I’m describing is now my prelim, prelim, prelim first draft. And that is one exciting statement! Next, I begin roughing in each section of the first four chapters. These I’ve already outlined in some detail. Once that is done, all my characters will be on the playing board ready to rock and roll. If experience is any guide, I won’t need to do much outlining after that – the characters will take over the story. I will simply be the scribe.

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I wonder what the cover number five will look like? Too soon to even guess.

Searching for the Perfect Writing Spot

Emma at the desk

There is no such thing as the perfect writing spot. We all know that. Though, I must say, granddaughter Emma looks almost perfect right where she sits at my desk. And my son, Doug, looks pretty productive, too.

Doug at my desk

There are simply writers who sit down and write. Wait around for the perfect spot and you won’t be writing much. And yet … periodically, I disrupt our whole house as I attempt to fulfill this most illusory need.

Our cabin is somewhat unconventional. Right angles and doors are rare. Open concept is taken to the limit. Finding my perfect writing space has been a challenge that is as much about my personality as it is about the house. I like a change now and then. Over the years, I have had my desks in at least eight areas of this small cabin. I’m sorry to tell you that the first few set-ups predated our time with digital cameras, so words must suffice.

Rake window - uppermost loft

I started with a small desk in the uppermost loft. We had to hoist the desk over the railing from one loft to the other since it wouldn’t go up the narrow stairs. It was years before we had installed a rake window looking out over the garden in that area. Maybe I would have stayed put if I had waited for that window. Who knows?

 

Railing that overlooks the main floor

Next, I got a larger desk and moved to the big loft, against the railing that looks down into the living room. This railing  just got a major facelift so I decided to include a photo, though my desk in that location is long gone. I was near that railing for a while. I loved the vantage point but hated how the whole mess of computer cords and the piles of books on my desk looked from below.

Soon enough, I was on the move again. We converted the dining room section of our open concept main floor into a full-fledged office with built-in bookshelves that surrounded my desk. I do wish I had a photo of that set-up for you. It was really neat. I wrote many academic papers in that space. I was productive and for me and Bruce, the loss of the dining room was no big deal. We still had our kitchen eating space. But the repurposing brought multiple complaints from all visitors who had fond memories of the large table that previously occupied the dining room and could seat a dozen in a pinch.

We reclaimed the dining room as dining room, though in the photo below, we had long since lost that huge table.

Table in dining area

Upstairs, we had knocked a door through the middle loft, so all three lofts were connected. The area on the main floor that contained a closet and the narrow staircase to the highest loft became redundant. We created a library/office space for Bruce and removed all the desks and built-in shelving from the dining room to that area. Below, you can see this is a wonderful cosy spot.

Library office

Meanwhile, I moved down to Victoria for several years to attend university. In my apartment, I had the entire dining room converted to an office. I think we ate at a small table in the living room. A lot can be deduced about an individual from the amount of space they are willing to allocate to desks.

desks in victoria

I had satellite desks at the cabin for holidays and the summer months.

desk upstairs near big window     Desk in entry

When I returned full-time to the cabin, Bruce designed a built-in desk for me in the sloping corner of the big loft. I was upstairs again! I distinctly remember writing my methodology paper for my unfinished dissertation there. But after a while, looking into a dark corner made me feel stifled. Okay for research methodology but it wouldn’t work for novel writing. Time to move again.

upstairs corner desk     Upstairs desk

I couldn’t exactly haul the built-in desk around, so I simply moved my laptop to the kitchen. The table proved to be the most fruitful writing space I have ever had. I was so productive that more and more stuff followed me down to the table and before long we barely had a spot to eat. Well, over time, that became untenable.

working at the kitchen table

I moved to the dining room again … completely central to the rest of the cabin.

2 desks sticking into the living room

A space begging for interruption. I pined for the wide-open view of the lake from the kitchen table. Thus, the era of trying to have it all began. I moved one desk up to the kitchen.

Table and 1 desk

Again, much work occurred in front of that view of lake but there were downsides. I had become a two-desk person and one of them had to stay in the dining room. I felt fractured.

Fractured - 1 desk in living room

One day, Bruce said, “Why not take over the whole kitchen eating area for your office. We’ll move the table to the dining room.” I was in heaven. I had both my desks, huge windows, an easy chair. Perfection at last. And close to the coffee pot. What more could a writer ask?

Kitchen office

The howls from visitors began anew and my guilt at commandeering such a big slice of our square footage grew. When we had guests, we had to haul all the food for every meal down to the dining room and people missed eating up in the kitchen with those wonderful views. Compromise was called for. Back to only one desk in the kitchen plus table.

Fractured again, I tried both desks plus the table. Unbelievably crowded and even I was howling.

Table and 2 desks    Crowded kitchen

Through all our back and forth with desks from dining room to kitchen, we had kept our china cabinet in the dining area. The next move saw us drag that cabinet up to the kitchen and that meant both my desks could tuck into the dining room space much more effectively and the whole open concept main floor looked cozy and sleek. We loved having the spacious kitchen back and having the china cabinet where it should have been all along. Hopefully, we told ourselves, this was the end of moving desks.

Kitchen with table & china cabinet

But not so fast. The dining room is still central – it feels like grand central to me.

Latest office

I bemoaned the fact that I had neither walls nor door and considered the solution of Les Nessman from that old sit com, WKRP in Cincinnati. Maybe I could draw where the walls should go on the floor and chalk in the door. But in my heart I knew, that would not stop distraction. Then it came to me – like a bolt of lightning – we have an underutilized space with a door. Our dormer room upstairs – the middle loft. One of the few places in this cabin I have never attempted to work. The kids use it as a playroom when they visit. There are big windows and an interesting view.

I was resolved that this would be a different sort of move for me. I had no intention of converting the dormer to an office. I love my office space right where it is. What I envisioned was a work area only big enough for my laptop. Whenever I felt the need for isolation, I could cart my laptop to the dormer, shut the door and stay put in front of the keyboard. No interruptions and no distractions.

Sitting up in the dormer, Bruce and I threw some ideas around. We have a set of built-in shelves under the window, and we decided that something designed to fit on the shelf and jut into the room slightly would suffice. Bruce rounded up a package of leftover hardwood pine flooring that had been given to us by friends after they redid their bedroom floor. He constructed this lovely little work surface with a back that holds it tightly in place under the upper shelf.

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So now, here I sit. I am writing undisturbed, enjoying the sound of the rain on the dormer roof outside the window and loving the view of the trees, multiple shades of green all around me. It’s a bit like sitting in a tree fort.

New work surface in the dormer

Hopefully, all is well that ends well. I can never say this will be my last move, but I sure enjoy the way things are now. In closing, I dedicate this post to the one who has cheerfully, (for the most part) hauled my many desks from place to place. Thank you, Bruce. As always, your support is greatly appreciated. Here’s a great photo of what Bruce was up to the other day – time to clean out that composting toilet. I bet hauling around my desks is way more fun.

Compost Toilet Haul

When Research Meets Pleasure–an ongoing relationship with Jack Reacher.

Lee Child books

Being the author of an ongoing series, I am fascinated by how authors keep their characters fresh and their readers wanting more. My son suggested Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels as an interesting case study. After reading the first three books, I was hooked. Research quickly gave way to pleasure as I read every single book. The feature on Kindle that directs me to purchase the next book in the series as soon as I have finished the previous one is extremely helpful – translation – irresistible.

With my research hat on, I asked myself, what makes Jack Reacher a hero who bears up through so many novels? Well … he’s quirky. His constant pursuit of coffee made me love him. Black, steaming hot and out of a thick white mug. Reacher is all about his coffee.

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Then there is his abhorrence for personal possessions – exempting his signature folding toothbrush – this leads to any number of odd and humorous situations. Buying new clothes every three days just adds to Reacher’s quirky mystique. When he remarked that he was amazed to discover second-hand janitorial wear, I cringed and said to myself – Oh my God, Jack – no.

Don’t let Hollywood fool you. Tom Cruise is not Jack Reacher. He is as far from Jack Reacher as anyone could get. Just my opinion. Reacher has hands like pancakes, mussed up hair, cheap, baggy clothing and enough scars to make you cringe, he’s no Don Juan. And he knows it. He’s self-deprecating to a fault.

As the authors of serial fiction, what can we glean from Lee Child’s success? First, we shouldn’t be afraid to create a quirky character. Readers end up loving the eccentricities. One caveat – there must be a reason for the character’s quirkiness. Random weirdness is not what we are after.

The Littlest Hobo - google images

Lee has created a wonderful Littlest Hobo persona for his main character. Jack Reacher roams from town to town making things right.

There’s a voice that keeps on calling me
Down the road is where I’ll always be

Every stop I make, I’ll make a new friend
Can’t stay for long, just turn around and I’m gone again.

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll want to settle down,
Until tomorrow, I’ll just keep moving on.

Down this road, that never seems to end,
Where new adventure, lies just around the bend. (Maybe Tomorrow – Terry Bush – Theme song from the Littlest Hobo)

Reacher’s sense of justice is unfailing. He can always be counted on to handle anything thrown at him in terms of physical demands, he always ends up with some girl – though not always the glamour girl. He is more a man who falls into various situations when it comes to women. Some of his relationships last over a couple of books. Some he returns to books later, but Jack is the quintessential wanderer and the beauty of him is that he won’t settle down. Down the road is where he’ll always be.

The movement around the United States is another fascinating aspect of the Jack Reacher novels. In each state and city Reacher finds himself, Child lavishes on location details – streets, landmarks, climate and local customs. It’s like being on a road trip.

Another gleaning – locations rich in detail work well to move characters and books along. Discovering a new city through the eyes of a well-known character is a reader’s delight.

Lee Child does an excellent job at doling out Reacher’s history. Whole books are devoted to his time in the army as an MP and these additions to the series answers the questions that pop up for readers who follow Reacher from town to town and wonder what can possibly motivate him to act as he does.

Our final gleaning is to create a character with a past complicated enough to keep his or her internal struggles going strong book after book. Jack Reacher’s past will take him the rest of his life to work out and that serves Lee Child well. And another caveat – that internal struggle must lead, though it may be halting and awkward at times, to ongoing character development. No reader will put up with being stuck with a character on a long-term basis who isn’t learning and changing.

There you have it. Recipe for a hit series. Makes you want to start doodling around with some character profile cards, doesn’t it? Meanwhile, here’s me thinking I might re-read the whole series.

Street Sculpture - Ottawa

Issues of Plot

Chemanius murals - Guenette photo

I’ve been pondering issues of plot. I often describe my novels as character driven rather than plot driven. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to say my books have no plot.

I recently read a post on Writers Helping Writers that has me thinking – why the emphasis on character over plot? Guest poster Dario Ciriello quotes C.J. Cherryh, a multiple award-winning science fiction and fantasy author, defining plot. “… a webwork of tension-lines between characters and sets of characters. You pull one [line] and one yanks several characters. It’s not events [that drive plot]. It’s tensions.”

Okay – music to the ears of the writer of self-defined character driven novels! The tension between characters drives plot. A character driven novel with enough tension is by it’s very nature developing plot as it goes.

The Writer’s dictionary defines plot as the way an author structures a series of events into a story. Typically, an author works at organizing events in a way that will pique the reader’s interest. Usually events are not resolved until near the end of the story. “A good plot is one that has well-developed characters who are engaging in several conflicts.”

Literary devices website   describes the five main elements of a plot. Before I list their points and add my thoughts, remember that plots are often broken into sub-plots and maybe even sub-sub plots. The whole idea of the web works well for me.

1. The exposition or introduction – characters and settings are established. The conflict or main problem is put on the table. I usually think of getting all the players on the board.

2. Rising action – series of events build tension and increase conflict. Once all my characters are on the playing board, it is inevitable that they interact and create tensions.

3. Climax – main point of the plot. This is where all the tension has been leading. I often envision the climax as a set of waves. I might have three or so climaxes before the main one, each wave crashing on the shore of the story a bit harder than the last.

4. Falling action – the winding up of the story. With a character driven novel that creates tension between sets of characters, this is a challenging stage. All the loose ends need to tie up. Well, except for those I choose to leave open-ended.

5. Resolution – good or bad, up or down, happy or sad. Endings should be satisfying. That doesn’t necessarily mean the reader agrees with how everything went down. It’s more about knowing I did a good job of making the events believable. Given what I described and the characters I let the reader know – the story makes sense.

I’m going to keep considering the idea of plot. But for now, I’m going to keep doing what works for me – multiple characters, multiple points-of-view and character interactions driving untold tensions. Let me know what you think on the issue of plot.

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What Sort of Writer are You?

Little hummer takes a break

Recurring theme – someone asked me a question the other day: What are you working on now? I just stared. With a definite uncomfortable squirm in my chair, I responded, “Nothing.”

In another era, I wanted to be one of those women who had specific days when they did household tasks. You know the type – geez, you might be the type! Bathrooms on Monday, floors on Tuesday, dusting on Wednesday. I was more the madly try to clean up everything on the same day because company was coming woman. I could be seen running around in a state, dusting with one hand and pushing a wet rag with my foot over the dirty floor. Hoping for the best – cleaning with a lick and prayer, so to speak.

When I’m confronted with the question of what I’m currently working on and the answer is – nothing – I get a similar feeling. I want to be one of those writers who writes consistently. Like Stephen Leacock out in his boathouse every single day from eight until noon without fail. But I’m not. I’m the write until I drop and then fall into the doldrums believing that I will never write again type.

At the beginning of my master’s program, I read a book about writing your thesis or dissertation in fifteen minutes a day. It sounded wise but it was something I knew in my heart I could never accomplish.

My grandma used to say – You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. There is truth to the belief that one thing can’t be another no matter the effort put into transformation. I can no more write on a consistent and specific daily schedule than I could clean that way or create a dissertation in fifteen-minute blocks. It simply isn’t me.

When I’m not feeling uncomfortable with this state of affairs, I celebrate it. This is the fallow time. This is the gathering time. This is the time when impressions, ideas and connections incubate and grow until they burst forth in writing fury.

But there is still a part of me that feels like the sow’s ear and not the silk purse. What do you think? How do you manage your writing? Is it a daily, disciplined endeavour or is it an all out writing fury? And let me know how your garden is growing? Ours is doing not too bad Smile 

How is your garden growing

Enjoying the Forest

Spruce Bay old growth forest, April 10, 2010 - bruce witzel photo

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. (Stephen King)

Forest trail - Guenette photo

Stephen King’s words caught my eye this morning. I’m gearing up for life after the completion of my latest novel and I feel plagued by all the emotions that go along with the ending of any major project. I brought a ragtag and often chaotic assortment of threads, ideas and character voices into being through writing, rewriting, editing, proofing and formatting. I produced a book that I feel confident to launch into the world. Finishing such an endeavour is cause for celebration and, at the same time, leaves me feeling at loose ends. It is indeed time to step back from scanning and identifying the trees to look at the forest.

View from the repeater tower (2)- Bruce Witzel photo

Time to enjoy the fruits of my labour, celebrate the accomplishments and move on! Sounds like a plan.

Crater Lake Series promo photo

How do you cope with the ending of a major project? Jubilation, conflicted emotions, uplifted, let down?