“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!