May 14, 2015
It’s chilly and rainy. Two teenagers are under the bus stop, both with ear buds plugged into the same iPod. Girl sings snatches of what they’re listening to in a decent voice. Boy too. They’re so young they may not know they’re in love.
Long pause as they listen intently, spying on each other, waiting, then they both gasp in awe and start dancing. They catch me grinning, laugh.
Barth: What is it?
Boy: [pulling out ear bud] What?
Barth: What song?
Kristen Lamb’s blog is an excellent resource for beginning writers and writers dedicated to craft. https://wordpress.com/read/post/id/8132324/17236/
In this post she talks about structure, which is near and dear to my heart right now. Go read it. I’d only add this:
See if you can hone your lead’s primary objective into a single word. SURVIVAL. LOVE. Sure, your hero is more complicated than a single objective can encompass, but the exercise will sharpen your focus and tighten up your tension in a sprawling or diffuse plot. Have characters in the story voice this primary objective as observation, exhortation, or comments of disbelief.
My hunch is that the Ghost of Hamlet’s Dad was a late-draft addition to Hamlet, when Shakespeare realized he had a nattering, complacent do-nothing for a main character who’s primary objection wasn’t clear to the Bard. Shakepeasre wisely put the motivation for his main character (“REVENGE”) in the form of a murdered and unredeemed spirit from beyond beseeching his son to take action.
If you can’t boil your main character’s motivation down to a single word, your hero might need a “Hamlet’s Dad’s Ghost.”
Whether we are traditionally published, indie published or self-published, we must connect with readers and tell a great story. Structure is the “delivery system” for our story, so it’s wise to make it as solid as possible.
Welcome to Part IV of my Structure Series—Testing the Idea
I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60-100,000 words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task.
That said, all novels begin with an idea. But how do we know if our idea has what it takes to make a great novel?
Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then…
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[Bus stop at the corner of Franklin and Hennepin. Insanely cold. Dark. Exhaust freezing midair in car headlights.]
Guy 1: Anyone lose a sock?
[None of the ten people waiting answers him.]
Guy 1: There’s a sock right there. In the ice. Anyone lose this sock?
[Everyone pretends this isn’t happening.]
Guy 1: [digs sock out of the solid ice on the sidewalk, holds it up: A stiff, cardboard cut-out of a sock. It’s gaudily striped in 7 seven different colors.] Anyone?
Guy 2: Holy shit.
Guy 1: What?
Guy 2: That’s MY sock.
Guy 1: Yeah? It was right here.
Guy 2: Let me look at it. [Takes frozen sock.] Yep. [Rolls up one leg of his snow pants to reveal he is wearing an identical sock, same gaudily-colored stripes.] I lost it like a month ago.
Guy 3: NO. WAY.
Guy 2: [putting frozen sock in his backpack] I must have dropped it on the way to the laundry down the street there. That was like a month ago.
Guy 3: NO. FUCKING. WAY. THAT’S *YOUR* SOCK??
Guy 1: Well, there it is. That’s why I was meant to go in to treatment today. To find your sock for you, brother.
[Guy 1 and Guy 2 give each other a hardy, backslapping bro hug.]
GUY 3: THIS MAKES NO GODDAMN FUCKING SENSE! NO WAY. HE JUST WALKED UP HERE AND *FOUND* YOUR SOCK?
May 8, 2015
Teenager Next to Me: [talking on phone] To the mall. With the guy. The guy. It’s all he wants to do. Hours at the Mall of America arcade. His mom makes me spend my money because she can’t afford it. Four hours last Friday. I’m working later. Took leftover quesadillas from work and ate them last night after work and gave them to abuela and we both vomited before bed. So we need a better something. I mean better food. Because we don’t need school we need money. Made her sick. You’re not listening to what I say. You don’t really even listen. You’re working, yeah, but I could say anything to you. It’s me. I got it. Leon says hi. Trey says hi. They miss you. [Very long pause] Mom, it’s just what they said.
Attractive African-American Woman at the front of the bus is about to exit at the light-rail stop on Franklin, but pauses and asks the bus driver something. Then she turns to address all the bus passengers.
AAAW: Any y’all know where the American Indian building is?
Three African-American guys burst from their seats to answer her.
3AA Guys: It’s up that way a block. No, go up the steps! Yeah, up the steps and cross the tracks!
AAAW: [taken aback by all the of voices at once] What now?
3AA Guys: Up that way! Up the steps and across the light-rail tracks! You’ll see it!
AAAW: [smiling back at the three fetchingly] Up the steps?
3AA Guys: It’s on the corner up there! Just walk up the sidewalk, you’ll see it. Oh, he don’t know! Go up these steps! No, just go up the steps! No, the steps are so steep. The sidewalk is easier!
AAAW: [flipping back her hand, pointing back over her shoulder, in a “little ol’ me” sorta way; still smiling] Way up on the corner?
3AA Guys: You can’t miss it! It’s just right up there! Don’t worry, you’ll see it. Just walk right over the light-rail tracks when you get up there!
The woman thanks them, exits the bus, and walks up the steps in a deliberate sashay.
Oldest of the African-American Guys watches her as the bus pulls from the curb.
Last Guy: [to himself in a quiet rumble] I don’t know where you going and I don’t care where you been…
I had to make a big decision on the structure of The Mad Queen’s Game that cuts out a major plot line. It adds up to removing half the book.
This cut is a good decision — the two narratives don’t actually fit together, but I thought I could do it with sheer will power and creative force. Silly me. It turns out what I suspected from the beginning is correct, that the second narrative is actually redundant thematically. I pout in shame for not listening to that.
Of course, the material would make a terrific book in itself, a parallel story that’s more swashbuckling and adventurous in the same world. So it’s not lost time, really. I think the way to avoid this in the future is to:
Keep it Simpler, Anderson. Repetition without advancement of theme or mood might mean something needs to be cut. Watch for that early on next time.
2) Outline to Streamline
When in doubt, put the most effort into streamlining the plot. You’re just fine at complicating things later. No need to put more effort into that than you need to early on, Barth.
3) Breaking New Ground is Always Best
Sniff out the fun and new. That’ll allow you to see the plot more clearly earlier.
In other developments, I found a GIF of my main character from a 2001 Spanish movie called Juana la Loca.
My book, The Mad Queen’s Game, is about Juana of Castile (Spain) who is slapping her incredible prick of a hubby in this GIF. Yay!
My Juana is very different than the Juana in this movie but it’s still fun to see how she’s presented, especially in her homeland. My Juana is not a basket case for a man, as she turns out to be in this flick: My Juana is mentally ill (and in my opinion she suffered from severe depression if not something stronger) but she had to suffer a mind-blowing Greek Tragedy-level of grief that didn’t have much to do with this dweeb in the GIF.
That said, there’s a lot behind this slap. He deserves a hot one across the chops, and after two years of research, I wanna slap this incredible prick, too.