“If we had more stories as children, we would need fewer psychiatrists as adults.” – James Hillman
On Saturday, I attended the Spring Spirit Conference of the North/Central region of the SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. This all day event took place in Rocklin, just 20 minutes from home. It featured seminars and critiques by writers, editors and agents, aimed at people who write for children and young adults. I had registered at the end of December, but as the day rolled around, I wasn’t that anxious to go.
Part of it was simple fatigue, the after-effect of this spring’s flu. Part of it was a kind of burnout. Earlier this week, as I was reviewing a manuscript for one of my critique groups, I caught myself writing a comment out of habit – a knee jerk response I was not even sure was true. I’ve found myself doing that several times recently, and as a result, I was feeling an impulse to step away and sort out some ideas that didn’t feel like mine. I wasn’t sure I needed a professional gathering where I was likely to pick up more.
I was pleasantly surprised by the keynote speaker, author and teacher, Bruce Coville. “Take everything the presenters say with a grain of salt,” he said. “Your job is to find your own truth.” Those words turned my day around. They set the tone of the day, as did his later seminar on writing fantasy, a genre he notes is snubbed by some literati as less than properly serious. “Tell that to Homer, to Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare,” Coville said.
“Sometimes I write fairytales because it’s the best way to tell the truth.” – C.S. Lewis
As I went through they day, an ongoing problem that is really mine came into focus. I’ve been stalling out on my current book because several key plot elements need to be re-imagined. Slogging away is not going to do it this time. I’ve known I need to take a break, take a step back, but that isn’t easy for an A-Type, yankee-ingenuity, roll-up-your-sleeves mentality. I needed some kind of plan to make it okay to take a break. And I found one.
When in doubt, read, read, read. That in itself is a great idea, but I find it hard to study really compelling books when the great ones sweep me into the story from the start – I’ll do the objective stuff later, and later never comes. I happened to flip through the first book I ever bought specifically to help with plot and structure, called (would you believe) “Plot and Structure,” by James Scott Bell.
Toward the back of the book, Bell addresses that whole issue in a section called, “How to Improve Your Plotting Exponentially.” It involves getting half a dozen novels, ones you have read or new ones. Read them first for pleasure, then read them again with a stack of 3×5 cards and note the events, characters and purpose of every single scene. Review them when done (like “forming a movie in your head,” says Bell). Finally, lay out the cards and see how the scenes fit into the traditional three-act structure. Where are the key plot points? Where is “the door of no return?” Where is the final battle joined?
This will take eight to twelve weeks, Bell estimates, but because of all that I earlier learned from him, I’m willing to test his estimation that during those weeks “you will jump ahead of 99 percent of all the other aspiring writer out there, most of whom try to find out how to plot by trial and error.” Trial and error has always been iffy for me.
So I’m giving myself permission to take a reading break. I’ve already downloaded three books to my Kindle:
1) The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, an acclaimed, post-apocolyptic story for young adults. I started it yesterday and found to my delight, a YA story I can’t put down – I haven’t come upon too many of those recently.
2) Gone For Good, by Harlan Coben. This violates Bell’s instructions to stick with the type of book I want to write, but I’ve meant to read this ever since I saw Donald Maass praise the story in his Breakout Novel Workbook. Besides, I really enjoy action/adventure and believe the genre contains elements that can improve any sort of writing.
3) Hollowland by Amanda Hocking. About time I read something by her!
From time to time I will report back on how this goes and probably review at least some of the titles, but right now, I have to get back to The Hunger Games!
I found your post intriguing. I find myself in the same position. Looking forward to reading more about your progress!
Every “stuck” situation is different and unfortunately, the solutions never seem to work twice. The general solution seems to be to chew it over in imagination and thought and then let it go – and repeat. One of the famous examples is the early 20th century scientist (I forget his name) who had been trying to work out the structure of certain organic compounds. One day as he was stepping onto a bus, he had a vivid image of a snake biting it’s tail, and that instantly suggested the structure of the carbon ring. Sometimes – and it seems to be this way for me right now, new input is necessary – new books in particular, because there are not any movies right now I want to see. And changes of pace like “at last” being able to putter in the yard!!! Good luck with your own work!
Thank you, Morgan. It’s all about the balance, I think. Too much of being “in my head” requires some physical activity, and ‘puttering’ is perfect for me.
Reading is the best way to learn to write. Nathalie Goldberg talked about this in her wonderful book Writing Down the Bones that I wrote about in my blog post: http://rosihollinbeckthewritestuff.blogspot.com/2011/03/book-for-writers-and-lovers.html. “Writers are great lovers. They fall in love with other writers. That’s how they learn to write. They take on a writer, read everything by him or her, read it over again until they understand how the writer moves, pauses, and sees.” It’s a wonderful gift to give yourself permission to read, read, read. I, too, loved Hunger Games. I doubt I’ll make time to re-read many books, simply because I have soooo many books on my to-read list, but good for you for doing it. I’ll be interested to see how that informs your writing.
I’m far enough in to find “Hunger Games” just stunning, so I know I’ll have more to say about it later. I too have read “Writing Down the Bones,” and gotten a lot out of it.
Hi, I came to your via Rosi’s blog. I really enjoyed your post. I keep hearing snippets from James Scott Bell’s book on plot and structure — one of my weaknesses — so I can see that’s a book I have to get. I also have enjoyed serveeral of Bruce Coville’s books. I’m really sorry to have missed the conference.
I am also sorry you missed the conference. I can recommend Bell’s book without reservation. Not that his or any book can or should answer all of anyone’s questions, but it is one of just a few writing books I refer to repeatedly (I have reviewed the other one’s here, by Swain, Maass, and Fields).
This book has a good section of three act structure, integrating the hero’s journey into that. Some good ideas on scenes and characterization and a lot of writing prompts.
I noticed he’s written another book called, “The Art of War for Writers,” which looks appealing, in the sense of offering ideas for the stuck places and moments of self-doubt. I’m sure I will look at it eventually, though not right now.
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