Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Beginning, Middle, and Advanced

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.


Jenny said...

It is precisely because you and Alicia discuss so many subtle technique issues that go way beyond the introductory level that I love this blog.

Keep at it!

--Jenny Brown Ruhl

Edittorrent said...

Thanks, Jenny. That's comforting.


Sylvia said...

I have found the Johnny and Drago exercise very enlightening. I can see *directly* how it ties into my story and how I could heighten the tension right now.

I am sure it's possible to lose yourself in detail forever :) But even for someone struggling with the techniques, the exercises as you offer them are useful, I think.

Anyway, I mainly wanted to say that this specific set of examples has had a positive effect on my novel.

Leona said...

Yes, please continue as you have gone on. Thank you. You're blog has been exceedingly helpful to me as I have had to "re-learn".

One, because it's been years since my college level coursed and even longer since my advancec college level English in highschool.

Two, I've had Thyroid cancer and it took them seven years to figure it out. In the meantime, the worst side effect that affected me was the memory loss and lower brain functions. I've had to work very hard at teaching myself HOW to learn.

This blog has helped to fire up my synapsis to a level that I can live with and build on. I used to be at the top of my class (not very top, I was too into Christmas and Halloween to do my homework all the time:) and now I'm struggling.

You and Alicia have made me see it's possible to get back up to that level of sophistication again. It's due to your approach at helping us at all levels. I am that person. I am at all levels. Some things have been retained, when other, simpler stuff, has been lost.

Thanks again for your helpful hints and exercises, but more than that, thanks for making us all feel free to ask a question that someone else is sure to already know and allowing us all to help each other.

Murphy, Jami G., Babs, and Mystery Robin, etc. (and Wes and Dave, I don't mean to leave the boys out, they just haven't found the courage to sass me yet LOL)

Everyone here is great at helping each other and I think that is the gem you have created here.

Can we get a cheers before this gets anymore sappy?

Jami Gold said...


Yes, I want to second Jenny's comment. I love how I can learn things on so many different levels. You and Alicia are the closest I can get to inserting myself into the Matrix and learning everything instantly. *big grin*

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Jami, we are the Borg, not the Matrix. :)

Leona said...

Ooooh, the Borg... yes I like that. The collective that pulls you in and never lets go....

Resistance is futile

Edittorrent said...

Aww. *blush* You guys are so sweet! I admit, I was second guessing whether we ought to stick with the basics, but as long as Team Comments is happy, we're happy. :) So I guess we'll keep soldiering on.

Leona, I had undiagnosed thyroid problems for about ten years before they correctly diagnosed me. Mine wasn't cancer, but I totally get where you're coming from. That short-term memory issue is frustrating. I'm obsessive about lists and writing things down -- it's the best way I know to get around the brainwall.

Or maybe we should just let the Borg remember all the important stuff.


Courtney Milan said...

I completely agree with this. In my first rambling pretense of a romance novel, I vaguely figured out what conflict was and how to construct a scene.

It wasn't until much, much later that I realized I didn't know how to use scenery to move story and characterization forward, and once I nailed that in place, I sold. But it was, for me, the last breakthrough I needed to sell, not the first.

Riley Murphy said...

Aww...and here I was totally depressed thinking you guys were breaking up with us. So glad to know that's not true.

Hi Leona! I've missed you! Are you still up for DD for the courgars? I'm getting the red pumps out as I type this. (hehehe)

Murphy :D

Jami Gold said...


Ahh, Borg. My mistake. :) I shall not resist.


Careful about letting the Borg remember things for you. :) When I was having memory issues, I organized everything into my computer. Then my hard drive failed. One near-miss with a nervous breakdown later, I now run RAID (I have two hard drives mirrored) with additional daily backups. :) Overkill is good for the nerves.

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Paper, Jami. It never crashes. :)

Hi, Courtney! Nice to see you here!


Jami Gold said...

Teresa said:
Paper, Jami. It never crashes. :)

I'm afraid I have to disagree with you. You haven't seen my desk. :) Paper not only crashes, but it slides, slithers, and otherwise slips off my desk in an avalanche to end up in an unorganized pile on the floor. *sigh*

Jami G.
(Who never has to dust her desk because not a single square inch of it is visible. LOL!)

Leona said...

Hi Murphy! and yes, stil ready for the cougar watch :)

I'm with Jami on the paper crash thing, but, writing it down, typing it, any form of repetition is helpful to the memory.

Trick is remembering where you put it, what you filed it under, what you decided was a safe place to not lose it, etc. lol

My desk never needed much dusting either. Just a can of forced air for my keyboard :D

And please, everyone, read Jami's post. The nervous breakdown thing is serious. My computer crashed with all of my stories on it. I had most printed out at a previous stage, but that takes ambition and also you lose any changes that weren't on the printout.

back up electronically and hard copy. well, at least the good stuff :P

Dave Shaw said...

Paper burns. Paper gets ratty. Paper makes clutter which irritates wife. Paper gets used for notes by daughter. Paper gets recycled without regard for what's on it.

I prefer to keep copies on laptop hard drive, desktop hard drive, monthly DVD backup of desktop, memory stick, and employer's document server (shhh!) which is RAIDed AND backed up to tape daily. Plus yWriter makes backups whenever I write, making it harder for me to lose major amounts to any ID10T errors I might make.

Leona, it's not a lack of courage that keeps Wes and me from sassing you - it's a lack of motive and opportunity. Work with us here. ;-)

Jami Gold said...


I see I'm not the only one who believes that overkill is good for the nerves. :)

Jami G.

Merc said...

I'm a new reader to the blog, but I must say I love that you tackle all range of learning points and levels and blog about all sorts of topics. :) It's been a great resource.