Monday, August 5, 2013

Whose Story is it Anyway?

I'm not just a writer, I'm a mom. And as a mom, I can safely say that  kids are crazy and exhausting unique and challenging. Just like writing. And while the whole "Your book is like your child" analogy is nothing new, the writing process continues to teach us writers, who are supposed to be in charge and in control, a serious thing or two. My latest Duh! moment began with the birth of my first son over 12 years ago. I was teaching English as a Second Language at the college level at the time, and my students bought be a lovely baby book to keep all my child’s milestones and baby memories in. I remember looking through it during the first days of my boy’s life and thinking I’d be working through the book page by page. I’d never babysat as a teenager. I was a first-time mother. I put my trust in the publisher of this expensively bound, glossy-papered keepsake, sure that they had every clue what was supposed to happen consecutively in a child’s life.

I was wrong. I couldn’t first put the picture of my son walking on Page 4 because he was actually stringing words together first, which I had to write on Page 6. He never crawled. He sort of scooted, so I had to cross off and edit that line in the book. And his teeth fell out way earlier than the book hinted they would. I was skipping all over this baby book to fill in my son’s story. Primarily because the book was not the story. He was.

And still, when my second son was born a little over three years later, I trusted again that I would be seeing things in the order his baby book suggested. Hadn’t I learned that every individual is different? I should have, but I figured my oldest son was perhaps a fluke. Unique. Some kind of baby anomaly, and, certainly, my second son would offer proof of this through his very rigid adherence to the “normal” timeline of growth and development. NOPE. He never crawled either. He spoke even earlier than my first son. He lost his teeth WAY later than the book suggested. He, too, was his own person. An individual. Go figure.

Now, I birth characters in my head. I conceive of ideas and attempt to lay them out word for word in some kind of story structure. For years, I’ve been looking for the perfect “baby book template” for my ideas – the ultimate plot outline, the “correct” plot diagram, the magical truth of how many pages in before each twist and turn is supposed to occur in my stories. I’ve spent LOADS of time and money on resource books, classes, conferences, and I’ve worked to try to cram my beautifully flawed and very individual characters into the slots on the “normal” and “correct” story timelines I’m given. Most of the time, it doesn’t work. And I finish feeling unsatisfied…or, worse, I don’t finish at all.   

Since I hadn’t seemed to quite learn the lesson with my children or with the four novels I’ve conceived of and finished so far, while looking for yet another magical template for plot, I came across a resource that told me exactly why my characters weren’t following the perfect story arc. Lisa Cron’s WIRED FOR STORY as well as her online articles started smacking me with some seriously verbal whacks that basically said, “Hey, You Distracted and Misguided Writer! The plot doesn’t dictate the story. The character does.”

That sounds simple. But Cron says this is the reason why so many manuscripts that have come across her editorial desk are not compelling at all. “In fact,” she says, “it’s often why the manuscripts weren’t stories at all. They were just a bunch of things that happened.”* When we sit down to outline, map out and create that path for the brilliant climax, often we, as writers, ignore the screaming needs of the proverbial “square” individuals in our books and try to shove them into the pre-set “round” holes. Yet, the story comes from the internal journey and needs of the characters. In the stories that rivet readers most, the characters move from one point to another because they were compelled to by who they are and what they need. That is the reason why they go from Point A to Point B and, ultimately, all the way to Point C(limax) and Point D(enouement).

“It’s just like in life: we don’t simply want to know what a person does, what we really want to know is why. That’s the arena story lives it,” Cron says*.

So Mary Maincharacter doesn’t go to the creepy warehouse to check out its contents. She goes because she is convinced her grandmother, who she loved more than anyone else in her family, hid her jewelry there before she died. And she doesn’t simply get the jewelry and bring it back to her house. Instead, she risks her life and freedom in exchange for possible imprisonment by breaking in and taking the jewelry back to a hiding spot in her basement because she knows some nasty thugs are looking for it and she wants to get it first and ultimately prove these jewels are rightfully hers. Whew! The point Cron makes: story moves along by way of the internal motivation of the characters as opposed to the writer merely moving characters around on a predetermined story board. And THAT is what the reader expects. Defying the character’s nature for the sake of plot will only lead to the reader putting your manuscript down and never picking it back up.

Lesson learned. Finally.

And because it is an invaluable one, I’m giving away a copy of Lisa Cron’s book, WIRED FOR STORY.
Simply post a message below about your own experience with plotting or a comment about this post. Leave your email address in the post, so I can contact you if you win. The winner will be determined by a random drawing of entrants and notified on Saturday, August 10, 2013.

Good Luck! 


The Winner of the WIRED FOR STORY book giveaway is CARLA LUNA CULLEN. Carla, post or send your email and I will contact you to get you the book. Congratulations!  



Kristin Lenz said...

I can relate! Thanks for sharing a new resource. I just finished a 7 month online writing class, and every critique from my mentor emphasized character motivation.

Lisa Tapp said...

Thanks for the insight, Heather.

Carla Luna Cullen said...

Great article! A friend from my critique group just recommended this book (two days ago) and now that I've read your post, I know this book could help me with my WIP revisions.

Heather Smith Meloche said...

Carla, thanks for posting. You have won the book giveaway for WIRED FOR STORY. Please send me your email in order for me to contact you for a mailing address to get it to you. Congratulations!

Carla Luna Cullen said...

Heather, thanks so much! I was actually going to buy this book based on my friend's recommendation so this giveaway is awesome timing! My email is carlalunacullen (at) gmail (dot) com.