Thursday, May 12, 2011

What I Learned from the Muse (Part 1)

Thanks for hanging in there everybody. Life and farm sort of got in the way this week. But perhaps that's a good thing, because I think I've finally gotten enough distance/perspective to put together a sort of Muse and the Marketplace recap.

First off, I want to thank Grub Street Writers for putting together an awesome conference. The thing that distinguishes "the Muse" is the combination of craft (muse) and publishing stuff (marketplace) and also the quality of the presenters and participants. And I got to hang out here:

This time around (my 3rd) I wanted to focus on plot (my big struggle) and revision. So I signed up for 3 plot related seminars and 3 revision/critique related events. I also attended an agents' Q&A panel and a face to face meeting with an agent, met a bunch of old friends and a few new ones and totally (totally!) exhausted myself because really I am sort of an introvert and schmoozing is HARD work.

So, where to begin?

With plot, I guess.

I attended Lynne Barrett's "Understanding Plot: The Fundamentals." Lynne was wonderful. I'd met her at Saturday's breakfast, and despite all my first day jitters, I think I managed to be coherent. Lynne talked about plot in context, using Cinderella as a model because, as she said, fairy tales are narrative in their most basic form.

We graphed the action in the familiar story and among other things, assessed when the "situation" became a plot and which characters acted on the plot. Expendable characters were those who did not "plot" or act to influence the events of the story. (An interesting aside: In some versions of the story, Cinderella has a father. But because he never "plots" he is expendable and dropped from most versions)

This was a great first dip into the intricacies of plot (Thanks, Lynne!)

I also attended Hallie Ephron's "Plotting a Page Turner." At first, I felt like I might be in the wrong class for this one, because we kept talking about "The DaVinci Code" and "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (my novels are more literary-ish).

But although Ms Ephron IS a suspense writer, she used these books as examples because most of the audience had read them. The class was not about a certain genre so much as using good plot technique to keep your readers engaged. We reviewed Aristotle's three act structure

and how it might apply to our own work.

Ms Ephron talked about "penny drop" moments when reader sort of get a small surprise or thickening of plot and how scattering these moments throughout the story makes it more engaging.

One of the practical things suggested in this seminar was to revise/assess plot by highlighting action in green, exposition in red and building suspense in yellow. You should have more green as the story progresses and more red in the beginning. (I'm going to have to give this a try!)

I also attended Micah Nathan's "The Essentials of Plot." Now, I must confess that when Mr. Nathan pulled out his own fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, I gave a little inward groan, expecting the same sort of information as in Lynne Barrett's seminar (Which had been wonderful; I just didn't want the same info twice). When he started talking about the three act structure like Hallie Ephron, my groan may have become audible.

But then Mr. Nathan did something awesome: he talked about the way plot and character are linked and that really we can't talk about one without the other. (I really needed to hear that I think, because I approach writing in just this way and I'd begun to get the sense that I was just plain wrong.)

Instead of recapping "Hansel and Gretel", we developed it-- asking ourselves a series of what ifs and why ifs and connecting the actions to "conflicts of noble ideals" and bigger moments of decision. In our Hansel and Gretel, for example, the children were abandoned by their father during a famine. (Backstory: Their mother was hung for stealing food while the father did nothing and is now wracked with guilt. He believes they have a better chance with the old lady in the forest.) But although Hansel is happy to live in the forest with the nice old lady, adolescent Gretel doesn't trust the old woman who she believes may be a witch and she conspires to trap the old lady in the basement and escape, only things go horribly wrong and... etc etc. You get the idea.

What was so cool about this plot stuff was that it was, as Mr Nathan said, "like playing in the sandbox." I can't tell you how freeing it felt to just try stuff out and see where it might take me. Usually, once I establish my characters, it's hard for me to see anything else but my original plot idea.
I spent the last session of that day playing in the sandbox, building (and wrecking) castles of what ifs.

Here are a few more random gleanings from the seminars on plot:

Micah Nathan said that basically stories are about getting your characters stuck in a tree (a metaphorical tree, of course) and throwing stones at them. This image has helped me think about how all the little twists and troubles (the metaphorical stones) help the narrative.

Lynne Barrett talked about how all fiction is "contrived" but that readers hunger for interesting contrivance and are willing to suspend disbelief for it.

Ms Ephron talked about how each scene contains its own story arc. Even at the scene level, characters move from one state to another, never staying static.

In a discussion of outlining. Mr Nathan talked about how outlining the major events of plot shouldn't stifle creativity. He talked about the plot as being like a road map for a cross-country trip.
It doesn't describe the sights along the way, the conversations and music, cool diners and seedy motels. It just keeps you from getting lost. There's lots of room for creativity and you can always choose a new route when necessary. I found this really helpful as I am trying to evolve from being a "pantser" to a more careful plotter.

Okay-- Whew!There's lots more I could say, but this is probably already a bit much. I will talk about the revision stuff next and then the "Marketplace stuff" which was.... wow, intense!


Misty Provencher said...

I loved the recap! Sounds like you had a wonderful conference. Thanks for sharing!

Marewolf said...

Thank you so much for the information!

I love writers conferences, you learn so much :)

Wanton Redhead Writing said...

Sounds like a wonderful conference. I love those, wouldn't it be lovely if they were free?

Thanks for finding my blog and introducing yourself.

FranceRants said...

Perri - Thanks for sharing this wonderful information! I definitely picked up a few tidbits!!

A.M. Swan said...

I can't wait to read part II! I wish I'd been able to go to some more of the the plotting seminars, but I read a book last Monday about plot and structure that covered much of the same. I'll bring the title to writing group.

Girl Friday said...

Great post, sounds like a brilliant conference! Especially liked the 'stuck in a tree' analogy and pic :D as well as the road trip map idea, that's exactly how I see plotting too - just a loose outline to keep you from getting lost, but you can always veer off suddenly if you so desire!

Laura M. Campbell said...

The information you learned from your conference sounds very familiar to the information I learned over the weekend at the Pennwriters Conference in Pittsburgh.

My brain is teeming with new knowledge and techniques I want to try to improve my writing. Thanks for sharing the idea of plotting is like playing in the sandbox. It's a great analogy to how a writer needs to work every angle until the find the one that works perfectly for their story and characters.

I feel I am going in the opposite direction regarding plotting. Plotting the novel made it feel like I was trapped in a room with only one way out, and I'm now rewriting the entire story. I chose a few plot points I would like my character to reach in the story, but I plan to let her lead the way and tell me where and what is going to happen. It feels more natural for me.

It's amazing how many different ways one can write a story. Good luck with using your new techniques. I hope to read something you've written in the future.

Kelly Garriott Waite said...

Sounds like a terrific conference. I went to a conference a few years ago and stood by the wall watching other writers push their work. I promised myself the next time I go to a conference, I'm going to push myself from the wall...and try to push my work.

shelly said...

Thanks for sharing!