The Craft: Theseus in the Labyrinth

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

The young king staggered back and stood alone in the darkness. The great beast’s chest heaved one last time and stopped forever. He wiped the bloody sword blade on the hem of his tunic and grabbed a torch from the wall. And in that moment, gazing down at his vanquished enemy, he realized that the real Minotaur, the real man killer of Crete, was not the beast itself, but the labyrinth. The beast that he must slay was not the dead creature on the ground, but the tons of mute rock and wall surrounding him.

Minotaur

The young king walked to the edge of the room, grabbed the rope he had laid on the stone floor, pulled it until it was taut and began to gather it up in his hand…


And cue: today’s hackneyed metaphor…I think writers, like Theseus, have to tread carefully in the labyrinths of their own works. Unless you take the requisite precautions, you run the danger of getting lost and tripped up by your own plot. And perishing deep in a labyrinth of your own making.

Unless you’re one of those lucky few (the “Pantsers”) who can sit down and write a whole work by just “seeing” where it starts, where it ends and some vague scene in the middle, you’re best plotting out your work. (I leave it to you to determine if you’re one of the Elect Pantsers). How do I know this? I’ve learned by bitter experience. I have forged ahead into the heart of labyrinth many times, slayed the beast and then thought…Wait! How the hell do I get out of here!!!??? But it was too late! I had written myself into a corner where only a lame contrivance or a Deus Ex Machina could get me out. And you don’t want to do that!

So…To avoid this situation I always bring a rope (metaphor continuing now!) with me on my writing expeditions. Something I can tug on, in case I get lost deep in the labyrinth. It’s what I call my outline (actually I call it my CSP + K outline). Now, my outline (like the U.S. constitution) is a living document. It’s not written in stone. I can modify at any time, given new developments in the story. And, VERY IMPORTANT POINT: I don’t have to follow what is says at all costs. If a character decides to do something different than I intended (as long as it’s in character), I let them do it! If a relationship between characters matures or develops in unexpected ways as I write—I let them do it. If a scene falls flat, I let it fall flat and think about axing it later. BUT BUT BUT…I always take a few minutes AFTER I’m done writing the scene to see how it affects the outline and where I intend the piece to go. And what I’ve discovered is that these “living changes” tend to have little or no effect on where the piece is headed.

So, along I go through the labyrinth I’m constructing with my outline to guide me…And around each turn and down each corridor I’m picking up the rope, seeing where it came from, and more importantly, where it’s headed. I can’t see too far ahead in the darkness though, so I drop the rope and walk a few more paces on. I pick up the rope again, look up and down the corridor. Yep. Everything looks good. I drop the rope. Walk on again. Pick it up again. No, this is a little off, there’s a turn coming up, so I need to tweak this…and this… and this. OK…Done. I drop the rope and move on…

Got it? The outline lets me see ahead a little and back a little. I use it as guide to where I want to drive the story. It’s not a strict guide—I have to let the characters live and breathe—they drive the action. But the outline lets me make sure the story doesn’t go completely off the rails.

One final note: an outline, paradoxically, is more necessary for a short story than a long piece. I know that sounds crazy! And I do use outlines for both. BUT…A short story is so dense, so quick. You have to know where you’re headed in the first 100 words. You have to bake the plot, character and setting into those first 100. There’s no time to waste! So you need to know where you’re going right out of the gate. I notice that now, when I write a short story, I move quickly from scribbled-down idea to outline to a first draft.  So, if you’re trying to write short stories—don’t skip the outline!

At least, that’s what has worked for me. I’m not saying it will work for you, but still something to consider as you get ready to write or pre-write your next piece.

Good luck and until next time.

Keep reading, keep writing!

,Darius


Apparently, in one variation of the labyrinth myth, Theseus does not even have his sword. He only has his rope/twine. He strangles the beast (though whether he uses the rope/twine to do so is unclear). A very interesting variation of the story!

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Another Writing Tweak: The Refresher

Like most fiction writers these days, I also have a day job. You know, the one you where you go to a central location for 40+ hours a week? But when I’m able to break for lunch or get in early before the boss, my thoughts turn to my trusty side hustle: writing fiction. Well, there’s one little tweak (besides listening to music) I adopted last year for my fiction-writing sessions. I’m going to call it “The Refresher.”

LEAD Processor

Since I have a day job, I usually have about a week between my writing sessions (which I do every Sunday). With life intervening in the mean time, I’m liable to forget important plot details, nuances of setting or who said what when. Sometimes, I even forget where the story was at ENTIRELY. ENTIRELY! Which is not surprising when you have lots of other things on your mind. I regularly found myself having to dive back into a piece, remind myself where the plot was at and then move forward. It was like having to warm back up and then dive into the writing from scratch. It was a cold start every time.

So, I knew I had to remedy this situation. Lately, I’ve taken to opening and re-reading the last chapter (or section or paragraph) of my work to see where I’m at on SATURDAY night (or day). That way, I know where I left off when I sit down to write on SUNDAY…On those Saturday nights, I start ruminating on where I’m headed next and what needs to happen next and, more importantly, what has to happen to close off the next chapter or section. Then, I put away the manuscript and forget about it. I let it sink back into the subconscious without fretting about the characters or where they are at or where they will happen. I meet even have a glass of wine or watch a movie. I trust my subconscious to assist with any smoothing out of plot or character that needs to happen the next day.

That way, when I grab that nice, hot cup of Joe the next afternoon and sit down to write, I have a good idea of where the action is and again, most importantly, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. It’s what I call “The Refresher.”

It’s just another little tweak, another little tool, I have added to my writing belt recently. And, so far, it’s passing the only true test of all new writing tools: it’s keep me writing and keeping my word count heading in the right direction (up).

I hope you other Day-Job Writers out there find this little tip useful. If you have any tips or tools you use to become more productive, I’d love to hear about them in the Comments section!

Until next time.

Keep reading, Keep writing,

Darius

The Craft: Plot, Plot, Plot

Lately, all I’ve been thinking about is plot. That’s right, that little thing that makes a big difference in your story. And like anything we obsess over it’s been invading my subconscious starting with my dreams.

Can’t get Plot out of my head…

So, there I was a couple of nights ago, just enjoying my sleep, minding my own business when I had this dream, which I jotted down as soon as I woke up:

Suddenly, I was reading pulp fiction. A big, long book—400 pages or more. Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, Kresley Cole or something like that…I read and read and read, faster and faster. I understood where the plot was going, where the characters were headed, how the conflict was moving ahead…I was looking down on the words from above.

Suddenly, I turned the next page and realized it was the end of the chapter.  The author wrapped it all up perfectly. The tension reached a climax and—bam! That last sentence was dynamite. It propelled everything forward, but put in that last bit of mystery and fricking INTRODUCED a new, unanswered question.

“Damn! I thought! This guy/girl is good.” I put in my bookmark and thought—I can’t wait for tomorrow night when I can pick this up again and FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. That guy/girl is a CRAFTY author.

And that was it. That was all. But it was enough. It’s exactly what I’m trying to do subconsciously when I write. My conscious brain is too overloaded with dialogue, scene-setting, action, etc., etc, etc., when I’m actually writing to worry much about plot. But that (from the dream above) is exactly what I’m aiming at. So now, the subconscious sleeping Darius and the subconscious awake (and writing) Darius are in synch. United and working on the same problem: How to build tension slowly, all while turning up the heat bit by bit. It’s something I’ve screwed up massively in the past and I really want to get this right this time.

It’s great place to be with the writing for now, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Until next time…

Keep Reading, Keep Writing,

Darius

The Craft: Are You a “Plotter” or a “Pantser”?

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

I’ve been thinking a lot about something that came up at RavenCon earlier this year. It’s a question of primary importance to all writers: Are you Plotter or a Pantser?

First, a word of explanation. What is a Plotter? And what a Pantser?indexing plot

A Plotter
A Plotter is someone who who has to plan out each story, scene by scene, before they dive in. The most characteristic element of this way of storytelling is having a detailed outline of every plot point before you sit down to write. This is often done by writing each chapter (or scene) down on an index card and then shuffling or rearranging the cards until they have a consistent, logical flow. This often means the first cards set up a conflict, the middles cards describe rising tension and the final cards give us the climax and resolution. (See the photo for an example of this.)

A Pantser
A Pantser is someone who dives in before knowing how the story will develop. To borrow an old phrase, they’re “flying by the seats of their pants.” A good example of this, I’ve heard, was E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. A vision of a character at the Barabar Caves came to him and he just started writing from there without much of a plot in his head. (I could be wrong about this, so apologies to any Forster fans out there!) Somehow, with the way he was wired that was all he needed and the plot just sort of fell into place from there.

I’ve asked a lot of other writers what the best approach is. And most people seem to say: “You have to find out which one you are.” And there’s only one way to do that: trial and error. Eventually you’ll find out.

Am I a Plotter or a Pantser?
So, I’ve written lots of different stuff at this point. Novels, novellas, short stories. And what have I found? Well, I’m still working it out. But with each story, I’m leaning more and more toward being a Plotter.

Take my latest short story, “P” (I have not added a working title yet, as draft 1 is not done). The story started out as many do: just a character in a situation. And then…Bam! Something happens to this character. Action! But then what happens next? You see, it starts as just a scene, not a story. There’s no backstory to this character.  There’s no ongoing conflict. So, your subconscious starts building it out, starts fleshing out this character and their world. But there’s no order to it. No structure. Your mind starts filling in more and more. And that’s good and well, but it can lead you down blind alleys or to dead ends.

I’ve found that it’s best to stop a moment and do what I call the “CSP+K” prewrite. That is a template for a short story in which I list:

  • C: The Characters
  • S: The Setting
  • P: The Plot
  • +K: The Knowledge I need to write the story. 

In the CSP+K, I used to describe just the basic plot, but increasingly I write the whole plot structure down, point by point. I didn’t use that blown-out approach when I began writing “P.” I wrote the first chapter or two and realized I was headed in the wrong direction. So, I completely stopped the writing process that day and dove into my plot.  I switched chapters, added in small chapters to create bridges and deleted other chapters that did not move forward the plot. I basically took the time to make sure everybody involved—meaning the characters—knew  exactly what was going on and where we’re headed.

With that done, I copied  the basic chapter outlines over into my manuscript. As I write in the manuscript, I delete these short explanations of the action and fill them in with real action and dialogue. If that’s not being a Plotter, I don’t know what is.

I’ve also noticed I’ve done this in other works. Some say it ruins spontaneity.  But so far, I haven’t found that to be the case. I actually write MORE freely because I’m not worried about my story going off the rails. The plot points serve as guide to make sure I don’t go too nuts. But then again, I’m not a Pantser. And what might work for them, would never work for me.

Find What Works for You
At the end of the day, don’t take any of this too seriously…in the sense that this is a system I’ve found that works for me. You might be a Pantser and this would be horrible advice to follow for you. Or you might be a different kind of Plotter, in which case this system wouldn’t work for you either.

My advice? As always: Get Black on White. Find what works for you through trial and  error. Write and keep writing. That’s the only way to find a system that works for you. It might not be easy, but it’s the only way to find your voice and write what you want to write.

Good Luck and until next time…

Keep reading, keep writing,

Darius

Works in Progress–New Horror Story Takes Shape

All,

An update on my writing projects…


TMWSE—First, “Ta-da!” This now has a working title and it’s acronym is TMWSE. (I will reference it this way going forward).Slush

It’s a new, straight-up horror short story and it’s shaping up nicely. I’ve written three of five acts in it so far. I think it’s at about 3,500 words right now.  So, if I add another two short chapters, I should get  to about  6,000 words or so—just the right word count for a short.

Writing this was another lesson in plotting out your SHORT pieces before you sit down to write. I was midway through Chapter 2  and I just didn’t know where I wanted this to go. So, I backed up. Stopped completely. I thought about it, wrote down an actual plot (stealing the 5-Act arch from playwriting) and started Chapter 2 from scratch. I liked the new chapter so much, I junked the old Chapter 2 and moved on. Now, I’ve done Chapter 3 and I’m ready for 4 and 5 this weekend. We’ll see how it goes… 

I will return in a later post to why I don’t plot out novels before I write them.

Breakpoint—This story keeps up chalking up rejections. It just got its third. This time the rejection letter had some comments, which I’m taking as a good sign. The editor said that the exposition distracted from the story. I think this is a nice way of saying: “You need to show more, tell  less.” It’s a point well-taken and just when I think I’ve finally started to make some progress on the whole “Show, don’t tell” dictum, this shows I still have a long, long way to go.

Anyhow, I’ll be firing it off to a new magazine soon.  I think the story is solid as it stands, but I will definitely try to cut out the exposition as I write in the future.  

AFTA—I’ve decided to send this manuscript on to some more publishing houses that accept simultaneous submissions. No bites yet, but I’m hopeful. The last rejection letter said they found a lot to like in the piece, but that it just wasn’t for them. I’ll let you guys know if this one breaks my way.

See you next time,

Darius 

The Craft: It’s a Great Idea, but Does It Have a Plot?

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Man, have I been busy. Life has really been creeping into my writing and blog time. Since I last posted, I’ve moved house, been best man at my brother’s wedding and now I’m prepping beets and onions for the Thanksgiving feast with some Dutch friends. So, today, I’m going to give you a small treat instead of a full meal.

Before we dive into the meat of today’s post, a quick overview of a what a plot is. You’ve probably seen this before, if you’ve ever tried to write fiction. It’s what I like to call the plot arch, but others call “dramatic structure.”

Freytags_pyramid_2

Basically, you have the setup, rising tension/action, the climax and resolution. Wikipedia attributes this to a German guy, Gustav Freytag, but that’s the first time I’ve heard that. Anyway, that’s not the point.

The point I want to make is simple: just because you have a great idea, doesn’t mean you have a great story. I felt my novel, The Library of Lost Books, had a great idea behind it (a library where all the great lost books are gathered), but one thing that I could have done better was the plot. So, now whenever a great idea comes to me, I think about a plot to go with it. Usually, I do this in layers. I start with the idea and I add characters. The key here is to add characters that “burn, burn, burn” like Kerouac said. You add enough of those types of people into the same place (setting) and you’re almost certain to have conflict (plot). Think about every day life: passionate people usually come into conflict with one another. Suddenly, I have all the essentials of a great story: setting, characters, plot and a GREAT IDEA.

One thing I’ve learned lately is to be more patient when it comes ideation. I have the flash of insight, the core idea. I play with it in my head, maybe write it down. Then, I try to think of a plot and characters to present the idea in a compelling manner. Sometimes, that doesn’t come, it’s just a mystery of the subconscious. I capture the idea on my PC and I wait. Sometimes, I try to force it, sometimes I don’t. Usually, I notice that it all comes to me in a rush: how to take that great idea and wrap it up in a compelling plot with unique characters. (It’s usually when I’m occupied with something totally unrelated to writing. The bike at the gym is a great fountain of new ideas, for example.) Once I have the bones of the story, I usually do a formal prewrite, (which I call a CSP+K Prewrite). I keep adding stuff into the CSP+K matrix—bits of dialog, random scenes, character backstories—until I feel I can start the first draft.

It’s not unlike the process of cellaring wine (wine is another obsession of mine). The grapes, the ideas, are ready for harvest according to the dictates of nature, so you harvest when you must. But once the grape juice is inside the cellar, the craft begins. How long do you keep the grape juice in oak? Do you store it in oak at all? Do you blend it with other wines or just use one type of grape? How long do you cellar it in the bottle? That’s the craft of winemaking. It’s not unlike the craft of writing. You have to strike fast to capture the idea. But once you have the idea on paper you have to know when to back off, to let the idea mature and gain complexity by layering it with plot, character and setting. That’s not only the secret to making great wine, it’s the secret to writing a great story.

Speaking of wine, the Riesling is chilling and the Pinot Noir needs to be breathe. I’m off! Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! And feel good about your down time this Holiday, you might just be giving your brain the break it needs to come up with something truly epic.

Until next time. Keep reading, keep writing.


PS…I’ll continue to be very busy this coming week. Look for my next post on Friday, Dec. 6.