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-

First Crush

Infatuation...

Many, many moons ago, while the Earth was still cooling, I got my first genuine crush on a girl in school.

Before Shelly, there were girls who had crushes on me, but I never felt the same.  My dad used to call me Archie Andrews, what with girls always trying to get next to me and stuff.  Being in the fifth grade, and none too savvy with girls – they didn’t become interesting until later for me – I generally tried to ditch them and dodge their affections.  (Later I came to regret this, but retrospectively, there isn’t anything I could’ve done different.)

But Shelly snuck in there while I was in early eighth grade and snatched my heart away.  It was just a short-lived crush, not some epic love which lasted through the ages.  That came later with Jennifer.  Shelly was only a crush, a tiny bit of infatuation, and I shed no tears when I woke up one day and realized I hadn’t exchanged words with her in a couple of years.  I didn’t pine for her when I left her three thousand miles behind me, and the letters were the first time I even breached the subject of a crush.  I figured, at the time, in my this-makes-sense-to-an-eighth-grader way, the distance made it safe to be open and honest about my feelings with her.  Turns out I was right.

Shelly was all freckles, knobby knees and feathered haircut.  She had a great smile, and I guess she would be considered cute enough.  At least, at that time.  Back then, girls didn’t mature and develop as quickly as they do now.  Their bodies were still more homogenous with boys than distinctively feminine a lot of the time.  There were exceptions, of course, but for the most part, they were still sticks wearing training bras.  Her green eyes twinkled under the big, fluffy haircut and bangs, her smile innocent and charming.

I wrote to Shelly for a long time after we moved away.  A long time for an eighth-grader, anyway.  My mom had my brother and me back in our old Catholic school, the one we attended for a year before our family moved to Georgia.  We lived with my maternal grandmother on the San Francisco peninsula.  My dad worked across the bay and through the tunnel, an hour from grandma’s and about a half-hour’s commute from the school.  So for me, it was getting up when he did, getting ready for school, driving the hour to drop my dad off at work, then get some breakfast at Jack-in-the-Box and eat it in the car while we waited for the school to open so we could go in.  Long days, when sitting in the parking lot waiting for my father to finish his day so we could all wade through the dense, slow traffic back to grandma’s became a way of life.  Homework in the back seat of a ‘70 Olds Cutlass.  Getting home in time to spend a few minutes to myself before being shuffled off to bed.  Mornings came early then.

Shelly and I exchanged letters for a while.  I developed my crush while I still lived there and she was a classmate.  I kept it for about another year, maybe.  Then it languished in a quiet, unseen, unnoticed way and passed on without fanfare.

Sometimes, my writing feels like Shelly.  I know it’s true love, I know it’s genuine and real and won’t pass away quietly, without fuss, without a fight.  But sometimes, I feel like it’s Shelly and the exchange of writing is infrequent at best, fading into not writing anymore, not being there anymore.  I’m afraid sometimes I’ll wake up and say “Oh, wow!  I forgot about writing!”  Years will slip away between us and I won’t remember the address anymore or have any of the old letters to remind me how wonderful it was.

Academically, I know this isn’t going to happen.  I love writing.  I’m doing it even when I’m not sitting at a keyboard or in front of a pad with pen in hand.  It’s happening in my head, in my heart, every moment of my day.  Even blogging is writing in a way.  But sometimes – just sometimes – I wonder if I’ll let the flame die if I’m not more careful.

Are you nurturing and cherishing your first love, your passion, your burning interest?  What keeps you in love with it?  What tips and tricks can you give to someone trying to fan the old flame into a roaring fire again?

Sound off, y’all.  Show me how it’s done.

-JDT-

All original content © 2009 DarcKnyt
ALL rights reserved.

What If …?

On Writing
Image via Wikipedia

A lot of writers like to play “what if?” when they’re coming up with something.  Struggling an idea into fruition is a strange and unique process for each individual.  Stephen King, in his masterpiece On Writing, tells the reader his creative process is a lot of “what if?” questioning as he hammers the idea out in his head.  I’m sure there are a lot of writers who do something like that to formulate their plot skeletons.

King, while asking those questions, also describes stories not as created things we fashion in our minds, but as artifacts we discover like artistic archeologists.  We plum the depths of the earth beneath our mental feet until we find a tidbit, a nugget, and we unearth it with spades, pickaxes, trowels, dusting brushes and finally toothbrushes, careful to remove every available scrap of the recoverable discovery until we at last have the skeleton complete and whole before us.  There’s something to that, really; this explains the way a story will run away with the writer and become a thing of its own, taking on new dimensions and aspects or directions never conceived of in the mind behind the keyboard or pen.  At the same time … that’s a load of crap.

We’re writers.  We come up with ideas.  We create.  We labor.  I know it’s a cool analogy and I like that it shows how a story can take a writer places the author never thought the story would go, because he couldn’t see the entirety of the piece lying beneath the “earth” of the dig site, but it’s … no.  Not really.  That removes the creative gift God gave us to be unique and to display His glory through our ability to utilize and nurture those gifts.  I don’t think I’m unclear on where I stand with this.

But that doesn’t deny divine intervention and guidance in writing either.  I know for a fact I’ve been stumped or plodding in my stories and had a sudden idea, a revelation if you will, that steps the story forward in a way I didn’t anticipate but is much better than what I would’ve done on my own.  Still, I am the brain with the imagination seated in it, I am the fingers behind the keyboard, and I am the vessel containing the words which spill out into the manuscript as it forms.

And while I myself never asked “what if?” to start a story rolling on its merry way, to start the pulse, I have had images, snapshots and snippets of larger pictures that came clear when I started to transcribe them.  I’m one of the writers who believes I watch movies in my mind and simply jot down what I see, what I hear, the scenery and characters and dialog all there if I can just type fast enough.  Sometimes my mental remote allows for a pause or rewind button, but sometimes it doesn’t, either.  I just go as best I can and capture what I can while I can.

If you’re a writer, what do you do to start the creative process rolling?  What games do you play with your own mind, what things spark the growth of that living organism in you that becomes a work of art, an idea which erupts forth and blooms like a sapling rushing for the sunlight before the canopy of life can choke out the warmth and rays?

Sound off, y’all.

-JDT-

All original content copyright DarcKnyt, 2009
ALL rights reserved.