Monday, October 20, 2008

Stuff I Still Struggle With... (Or "With Which I Struggle" for you Grammar Meanies)

On Wednesday night, I have to teach a class on how to plot SF/F novels and short stories.

I only wish I had a good answer.

I actually own all the Writer's Digest how-to books (there was a library friends sale where they were all up for cheap!), so technically I could read all of Dibell's PLOT book and probably come up with some kind of lecture. But plot isn't one of my strong suits.

I think I've gotten better at plot. Part of that is due to necessity. Because I write books so quickly for deadline these days, I'm no longer really allowed to meander through plot like I used to do. In the days before deadline (which I can only dimly remember), I tended to prefer to just start writing and see where things went naturally. "Into a corner" was often the result. Although I learned pretty quickly that most of the time you can write your way out of those with a bit of revision. But those kinds of plot tangles *can* slow you down, and for some writers that can mean the kiss of death. (God[dess] knows I have a ton of short story scraps I never finished in my computer files. Almost all of those lost steam because I didn't know where I was going when I started them.)

The biggest trick about plotting that I've learned over the years is just that: know your end before you start. It's the only sure fire way I know to get to that blessed "THE END." Now-a-days, I also always write a kind of an outline so I don't forget -- though mine are in narrative form, in the proposal.

Do any of you have some collective wisdom I can pass on to my students?


Douglas Hulick said...

Beyond knowing where you are going in the end, I also make sure I know where I am going for the next three chapters. This may sound kind of weird (or obvious), but if you work under the premise that things *will* change in the book, and that what you expect to happen may not (or at least, not right away), then knowing where you are shooting for both short and long term help a lot. This allows you to change directions as may be necessary while in the process, but still keep the long view as well. It's easier to to steer three chapters out, even in an unplanned diversion, than it is right in front of your nose. If nothing else, it gives the writer the sense that they still know where they are going, even if it is off-track, which is important.

(Sorry if that's rambly -- it's late. I can try it again tomorrow if this version doesn't make sense.)

Anonymous said...

First, I'd suggest reading Theme and Structure instead of Plot. I found the first more helpful than the second, in spite of their respective names.

Secondly, have them tell the story. I mean, have them tell it in just a couple of sentences, without detail or description, just enough to, well, actually, tell the story. That's the plot. Everything after that is gravy. At least, that's what a writing teacher told me once.

DKoren said...

Something I've found useful is showing students the difference between an idea and a story. Particularly with SF/F because of the whole "cool factor" involved, students I've worked with often get stuck on their idea. Usually once they've figured out that the idea needs a framework to hang on, that it doesn't work just on its own no matter how shiny it is, then the plotting seems to fall in place much more easily.

There's some leading questions I've also used in the past that they can ask themselves to figure out the story (and therefore the plot), but I don't have them here at work with me. Usually of the "who and what's at stake for them" and "who or what is against them and why," with a little "how" and "where" thrown in.

Hope those help!