Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Writer's Crucible

Finding a Good Reason

Years ago I was reading a How To book on writing and I came across an excellent lesson on character motivation and believable plotting. It had to do with the plot's crucible. In a nutshell, a plot crucible is the reason why characters must continue toiling away, staying together, and not fleeing or simply saying, "Screw this, I'm outta here."

It was a revelation for me and has helped me plot every single book since then. Sometimes I read a novel and I think, Why doesn't she ask him if that woman is his girlfriend? Or I will wonder, Why are they staying together if they're both so miserable right now? There has to be a good, sound reason for people to remain shackled to a situation or premise or idea. If not, they just look stupid.

In real life we all have a fight or flight response. Flight is easiest. Things become too messy, too dramatic, too stressful, and we take a powder. Easy. Fight is much more difficult and usually we resort to fighting when we feel we can't run away. Something is holding us in place. Running away would cost us too dearly.

For example, in the first question above, why the heroine doesn't ask a simple question of the hero to clear up a huge misunderstanding. This is a weak plot device and most readers will roll their eyes and think the heroine is as dumb as a stump or -- worse! -- a doormat. If she goes around upset because she believes another woman owns the hero's heart, but can't bring herself to ask him about it outright, can we really admire her and want to be like her?

The crucible here is nonexistent. There is no good reason why she is hanging around. Now, if the other woman told her that the hero is betrothed to her and that her family is depending on the marriage (and the hero's money) to save them from being thrown out in the street as paupers and that the woman's father is gravely ill, this might give the heroine pause to think that she should step back and not become the reason a family is tossed out of their home and responsible for an old man's death. But then you have to find a good reason why she wouldn't discuss this with the hero. I mean, wouldn't it be logical for her to ask him about it? So, then you have to decide how he's going to answer and how this will either strengthen or weaken the crucible. See? Sometimes you have to just abandon a plot or plot line and start all over.

But that, my friends, is plotting.

So, when I plot, the first order of business is the crucible -- the trap from which the protagonists can't escape because escape would be far worse than sticking it out. It has to be a solid trap -- not some flimsy thing that wouldn't hold a butterfly prisoner. Sometimes, it's a fight over a place (land, house, business) and sometimes it's a fight for a person (a child, a parent, a first love), and sometimes it's a fight for a thing (inheritance, honor, revenge). Whatever the focus, it must be clear and sharp and the reader must buy into it totally. If they pause to wonder why the protagonist doesn't just throw in the towel and be done with it, you've lost your battle and your war.

When you have a crucible that is a fortress from which your characters dare not leave, you have a formidable plot and iron-clad character motivation.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Queen of the Rewrite

Once Again With Feeling . . .

So, I've finished my next book-- the first in a trilogy -- and now I'm rewriting it after I've had a writer friend/editor read it and tell me where I've gone off the rails. This is actually the fun part. I think writing is pretty darn difficult. I'm like Carrie Fisher, who once said she doesn't actually enjoy writing as much as she enjoys "having written." Yeah, I can understand that.

Don't get me wrong. It's not easy sitting beside your editor/writer/friend and hearing that she doesn't understand or particularly like my heroine. Nope. That's no fun. Or that she thinks my hero is "too girlie" in certain parts of the books. Ooops! You never want that to happen! But I know myself and I know that, while the initial consultation stings and sometimes cuts to the bone, if I give myself time to lick my wounds, I will agree with about 95 percent of what she's telling and showing me. I also know that this isn't easy for her either!

You might think that most editors have feelings coated with stainless steel, but I think you'd be wrong about that. Having known a few professional editors, I can remember how they agonized over having to call a writer to discuss a major rewrite or even a rejection. They weren't cackling as they rubbed their hands together in glee. They were dreading it and going over and over in their heads how they were going to handle it.

My friend has told me that it hurts her when I argue or challenge her during these sessions, so I try to keep my mouth shut. Later, I tell myself. Later, after you give yourself time to think instead of defending yourself and your writing. I know that I can be rational after I "sleep on it."

I'm deeply into the rewrite now and my friend/writer/editor told me yesterday that she's really enjoying the newest version and that she can hardly believe it was written by the same person. Oh! Okay! I'm the Rewrite Queen! All bow down and show me some respect!

Patting myself on the back, I coo to my writer's ego . . . "There, there. It's all better now, isn't it?"