October 25, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: Jack McDevitt 5: Driving the Narrative, or "Lost in the B Plot"

(The Twelve Blunders are used with permission of Jack McDevitt, from his webpage: http://jackmcdevitt.com/Writers.aspx)

I read about writing a lot.

I'm also an extremist -- ask my wife and kids.

So when I get hold of an idea, I focus on it almost to the exclusion of everything else. Maybe that's why I haven't been able to give away my writing for the past four years. (And, "no", I don't consider blogging "real" writing. It IS on a technicality -- but I see it more like wishful thinking on the part of the great, unpublished masses (I include myself in that number lately)).

I remember one of the first ideas was "Write like a shark", which meant that I should just bull my way through the story and polish it later. That's the philosophy of National Novel Writing Month (which I joined this year). You write and don't look back until you're done. I did that with great gusto and verve -- and the result was very little success.

Then it was The First Five Pages and how everything had to be on those first five pages because that's what the reader and agents wanted to see. That methodology was the object of my writing focus for several months with no notable success.

After that, I read Donald Maass' book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and I distilled that book to its essentials and made up an anagram which I slavishly followed for two years. And the result was very little success.

Following on the heels of Maass, I began the practice of writing short articles on a blog (I called them flashicles at first...ouch) and as you can see, I've continued that process. I currently get about 100 hits per article and 25 hits per story flash -- so that's been a GOOD thing for me.

Then it was the Bransford Plot. Agent Nathan Bransford wrote about plotting novels and stories and gave some sterling advice (which I wrote about here in "A First Report on the Flash Fiction Experiment" on October 28, 2008).

Now I abruptly realize my problem -- I've ignored the root of story for all the shiny flowers and leaves of the writing tree. The root of story is what McDevitt is talking about in this writing blunder. I haven't written about "what's important".

Comparing my published work: "Mystery on Space Station Courage", "Pig Tales", "Dear Hunter" and the others, I see now that when I wrote them, I had a "message" -- there was a purpose. I was trying to "say something" important. Propaganda is ALSO writing that is trying to "say something" but it tends to be heavy-handed and not very interesting. (Every good story is well-written propaganda though, putting across the writer's ideals and ideas...) McDevitt points out: "...we have to get the reader on board, enlist their sympathies in the pursuit of whatever objective the protagonist hopes to achieve." I have to ask myself WHY is my story important? What do I want the reader to take away? I have to examine the work of other writers -- if only from my own perspective. I have to ask: What stories have stayed with me through the years? I can think of several and all of them precipitated a sense of my emotional involvement in the story line. In fact, as I think back to my own writing, I was emotionally involved with the stories of mine that were published...

Hmmm...WITHOUT becoming an extremist, maybe I've learned something here!


Luc Reid said...

Great post, Guy! My sense of purpose is almost always clear to me when I'm writing non-fiction, but I think about it much less with fiction, and I wonder if the focus on that might do me good. Something to think about over my next few stories ...

Vidad said...

The problem I have is avoiding being too didactic when I present my worldview. I just re-wrote a couple of tales to make them more subtle, knowing that the markets I'm trying to sell into wouldn't appreciate my fundamentalist/libertarian/anarcho-capitalist mindset.