Is it the Plot or the Story?

My wife said something to me this past weekend which gave me pause. She said I became too interested in moving the PLOT forward and forgot about the STORY.

I’m not sure I know the difference.

For context, we were discussing my first paranormal piece, still titled Ghost Hunters for the moment. As some of you may recall, last year I went on an editing spree, determined to have the story ready for Halloween so I could think about putting it up on Kindle (since I’m almost ready to give up on traditional publishers in favor of self-publishing eBooks a la Joe Konrath). Well, as I dove into the edits for the first time since 2008, I realized I’d grown a lot since I did them the first time through, and I cut a lot deeper than before. To the bone.

What I ended up with was one half of a book, tight and needing some joining scenes. The rest of it was a loose collection of usable scenes, but as they are now, they’re disembodied from the story. I need more than joining scenes to rescue them. I need entire sections of the book re-done. I therefore have two halves of a book. The back half, which it became clear was written strictly in the device of an online serial, didn’t survive the editing process at all.

My wife mentioned the book to me on Sunday. We were discussing whether I’d recovered them from my failed hard drive a few months ago. I told her I had both the final edits – or the bits and parts left over – and the edits which came just prior (much more like copy edits, to be honest, and not very good ones at that).

She told me she felt I went too far. One of the more popular characters (not the apparently unlikable protagonist though) didn’t seem to survive the edits with his vitality and humor intact. I cleaned up his dialog, removed some of his stupidity and thought I made him a less ridiculous character. It appears, however, my loving spouse disagrees. She feels I killed the character and the humor and charm that endeared him to the few readers who followed along.

I argued I’d improved the story. She argued I’d moved the plot forward, but at the expense of the story. Because I cut all the needless scenes, which didn’t contribute to the story, and because I’d cut down the banter and witty repartee they shared with each other, the character toned down so far I could probably do away with him entirely.

Is there a difference between story and plot? What is the difference? Where’s the line?

I never intended to cut the life out of the story, but as a writer, I have to be sure every word, every paragraph, contributes to the story and the progression. If there’s a part which doesn’t seem to do that, no matter how fond we are of it, it  has to be cut out. That’s the saying, right? “Cut your darlings.” Well, I did. I cut the living dog crap out of it. And guess what? It died.

How can  you know when too much is too much? How does a writer know when leaving something apparently useless in will forward the story in the long run? How do you clean up a character’s part in a storyline without removing the things which make the character who it is, the very things which brought it to life?

I thought I was good at this, but apparently, I still have a long, long way to go before I can say I’m good at fiction. (I think non-fiction’s a lot easier at this point. Hm. Maybe I should give up and just stick to that?)

What do you writers think? How can you tell? How can you know when it should stay, when it should go, and when spurious is really spurious?

Sound off and let me know. I’m listenin’.

-JDT-

Copyright 2011 DarcKnyt, All rights reserved

Framework, or Cage?

100_doctors_1I’ve been following a blog by a self-admitted mid-list author offering an ebook on writing (and which mid-list author isn’t offering a how-to book on writing?), in which he asserts story structure is the most important thing in the writing universe.

Now, anyone’s who’s spent a bit of time reading my online (rough-draft) manuscript, Ghost Hunters, knows in-depth plotting and story structure aren’t big strong suits of mine.  My plots (to me) feel very simplistic, straight-forward, lack twists and turns, and seem about as thickly woven with subplot, subtext and theme as a Stephenie Meyer “novel”.  In part, I want to believe this is due to lack of story structure and architecture.  Because that’d mean I can fix it by learning about and practicing those things.

Let me tell you the story of the story.

I started writing manuscript-length works in seventh grade.  Before that, most of my stuff was short.  Vignettes and short fiction seems to be where I excel; with novel-length works, there’s a lot more stuff happening, and a lot more interest-holding has to take place.  I’m on shaky ground there.  Eventually, I started trying longer pieces, but I either lost interest or lost control of them.  In 1992, I finished a manuscript which, being kind about my first effort, sucked like a Hoover.  I stayed away from writing for a long time after that, and focused on art.  In 2004, I finished a (very, very) long manuscript, and when I look back on it now, it’s the most embarrassing thing I’ve written since 1992.

Then, in 2006 or 2007, I started getting serious again.  I began writing my childhood memoirs, and found if I focused and worked at it, I could write something entertaining and fun.  Then I decided to tackle something I found especially troublesome in my writing historically – dialog.  I decided to create a situation in which two very different characters talk to each other with speech patterns so different, speaker tags would be unnecessary.  Then introduce a third character and keep the distinctions going.  Beyond three, I felt, would be way too hard.  I’d have to use speaker tags.

Well, I showed my wife the exercise, and she gushed.  She said she loved it, it was great, write more, please.  Every day she urged me to write more.  Keep going.  Push on, you’ve really got something here.  You know what?  That turned into Ghost Hunters, and I’ve received a lot of compliments on it despite how it’s lousy with adverbs, overwrought descriptions and too-long back-and-forth banter between the characters.

It’s the first time I’ve written something manuscript-length which 1) kept its focus, 2) had a single, unaltered storyline, 3) had scenes which either focused the reader on the story or developed characters, and 4) wasn’t completely lame.  Oh, and I received the most compliments on my dialog, which I always held as my weakest point.  But there wasn’t any real planning in it; because of how organically it grew, it just … happened.

It was easy, and mostly fun, but it feels very simple, basic, uninteresting.  To me.

Part of me thinks it’s because there’s no structure, no architecture, and I’ve long heard how important those are.  Pants-seat writing, I’ve heard (though I can’t tell you where or when if pressed), is bad writing, is strictly luck when it works and flows and has depth, and isn’t something anyone serious about writing should do consistently.  (My wife thinks I’ve over-structured my current WIP, which is why I can’t bust through this wall and write.)

What do you think?  I think for me, I need to have some combination of both.  I need to have flexibility in the structure, but I need the framework to keep me focused (though I did write all 94K words of GH’s first draft by the seat of my pants with no clue about how it’d turn out) and to solve sticky plot issues like I’m facing with my WIP.

If you’re a writer, do you do it with structure, pants-seat, or a combo?  If you’re a reader, how do you read?  Do you look for story structure, plot points, subplots and subtexts, foreshadowing and theme?  Or do you just … read?  Also, anyone have recommended books on plot or structure?  A favorite you have, one you swear by?

Let me know.  Hope you all had a wonderful weekend.

-JDT-