Last night a friend and I debated about yesterday's post, and she raised some very good points worth sharing here.**
When Alicia and I were first brewing up this blog, we talked quite a lot about how there was a good amount of beginner information available to writers, but that advanced techniques and topics were harder to come by. That material is out there. It can be found. It's just not as prevalent as the other stuff. And so we wanted to include a fair dose of more advanced writing discussion because we saw a need for it.
As this blog evolved, we found ourselves talking frequently about topics on all points of the learning pyramid. For newbies, we've addressed danglers, beats, and the problem of the proboscis. We've hit the vast middle, too, with posts about reversals, backstory, and loads and loads of discussion on verbs. We've touched the peak briefly with ancient Greek theories of drama, reflections on pov in Ulysses, and transitioning to interior monologue when in a subjective pov.
In other words, we try to mix it up a bit. Not all posts will be useful to all people at all stages of their careers. But then, we're not providing one-on-one coaching through this blog, either. Do as the title suggests, and grab bits of the torrent which interest you most.
My friend emailed me with a grave concern about yesterday's post. She was worried that I strayed so deeply into detail that I had overlooked the importance of moving the plot forward. "Who cares about the carpet and the menu? The characters need to do something already." That about sums up her entire concern.
But here's the thing. When you're first starting out, you're learning how to control a plot. You might not know how to move it forward consistently, how to keep tension high, or how to manipulate pacing. You might become entranced with the sheer possibilities in creating entire worlds out of words. You might get seduced by the lure of all that creative energy, a siren's song. and spend so many pages describing wallpaper than you lose the actors on the set.
That's a beginner's problem. When intermediate and advanced writers fall into the detail trap, they do it with a foundational understanding about the importance of plot. And they usually understand that the lovely twenty page description they wrote about the park at the end of Filbert Street was a useful exercise, but it must get cut from the manuscript.
What happens when you're a solid plotter, then, and you're looking for ways to level up? Your manuscripts land in the "almost, but not quite" pile on editors' desks. You get great personal rejection letters with lots of helpful advice. You might have even published a book or two to lukewarm reviews and indifferent sales. You know your plots are solid and your characters are competent. You just want something more. You want to find a way to break out.
That's when you think about Drago and Johnny, core conflicts and resonant detail. Or maybe you need to improve your scene transitions, use jump cuts, strengthen your secondaries, enlarge your reversals, develop your pov -- the list of possibilities is long. The point is that after you master the basics, there are entire oceans of techniques that might help you raise your game.
I started the Johnny post series with three goals: to introduce the concept of core conflicts, to explore ways to leverage core conflicts between characters, and to show ways that detail can tie into core conflicts. These are complex, interrelated topics that I knew would require several posts to explore. We took it in stages, and we covered a lot of ground. I tried to do it in a way that would allow all types of writers to follow along. I think we achieved these goals.
*After* you know what happens in the scene, and *after* you know that the action moves the plot forward, *then* you get to play with core conflicts and resonant detail. These are not the plot. The plot is the plot. (sigh -- did I really just write that sentence? lol) If you liken writing a novel to building a house, first you pour the foundation and frame the walls, and *then* you pick the paint color for the window trim. Do you get to ignore the foundation and walls? No. Of course not. Can you build an entire serviceable house and use only plain white for the paint? Yes. Of course you can. But at some point, you might also think about where your house should be plain and where it can get colorful. The judicious use of detail is what can set your house apart from every other 3-bedroom ranch on the block.
It doesn't hurts to expose newbies to these techniques. They're probably going to want to learn most of it eventually, anyway. Will they understand it all? Will they use it properly? Maybe not, but so what? They've got a long learning curve before they get to publication. There will be much trying and failing along the way. Nothing wrong with that, really, as long as they keep learning.
Keep learning. That's the real message here. Yes, action and plot are important in a foundational sense. But at some point, you have to grow beyond that.
** My friend did give me permission to quote her email, but not to name her. I mention this because it lets me reiterate that we avoid treating people as blog fodder. It's worth restating: we usually make up our own examples. Anything we see at work, whether from slush or from interaction with our authors, we use as a springboard to create examples of our own. We think that's better than making examples out of the people we interact with. In some cases, when we pull something from the comments (which you all can see, anyway) or get permission from the source (as in this post), we might use direct statements. But those are exceptions to the general rule.