Ansen Dibell’s “Plot”

First, Whoa!

The book’s entitled Plot and it has immediately useful (to me) techniques and examples on

  • Plot (duh!)
  • Story
  • Structure
  • Setting
  • Description
  • POV
  • Exposition
  • Scenes

and it does it all in 170 pages (which includes a seven page index)!

I’m blessed because I purchased most of my writing texts in the 1970s-early 1990s, long before anybody with a mobile could claim expertise and back when people had to demonstrate their abilities repeatedly to make any kind of claim.

One such demonstration was (duh!) getting a book published on a subject in which you demonstrated expertise. Publishing books cost money and took time. Honest-to-god real editors (line, copy, proof, continuity, …) actually read through a manuscript before sending it on to printing. Publishers weren’t going to put money into a project just because someone said they were an expert, that someone had to demonstrate they were an expert. Often.

And let me add, most people didn’t claim themselves to be a guru, maven, jedi, rock star, queen, genius, leader and last but not least, expert. Other people claimed it for someone once said someone proved their guruness, mavenhood, jediability, et cetera.

And usually it took a lot to prove.

How I long for the time when people’s expertise was actual expertise and not a vacuous claim because, by god, they’re going to get their fifteen minutes if it kills them.

But I digress.

Dibell’s Plot is comparable to sitting in a writing intensive. There are examples throughout, and she picks her examples wisely. Each example demonstrates several techniques but she never throws them at you all at once. She starts by demonstrating how someone is a good story/novel opening then cycles back to show how the exposition reinforces the nascent plot elements then cycles back again to demonstrate how the character reveal points to plot elements yet to come.

As I wrote above, Whoa!

Want more? How about Dibell’s explaining alternative plot structures (beyond traditional western 3-act, conflict oriented plot) back in 1988? (I’ll admit I missed these in my first reading.

Plot is one of several Writer’s Digest books I bought way back when. As a working author, they are revealing in so many ways. Most of these authors are recognizable by work if not by name, and all were full-time authors.

What causes a full-time author to write an how-to-write book? All the Writer’s Digest books I’ve read are wonderful learning tools. These authors definitely know their craft and are able to share it.

But writing an how-to-write book took time away from their writing their stories. I know I loathe anything which takes me away from my crafting (save posts such as these, were I relax my authorial muscles, stretch my imagination tendons, and basically take either a necessary or welcomed break from being creative (being creative is work. Ask any woman who’s gotten pregnant and delivered a child).

But writing an how-to-write book is another creative process. What this their relaxation?

Perhaps it was their way of testing their own knowledge? Of encapsulating it? I critique other’s writing and learn as much about my own craft as I do helping them with theirs.

And such musings are largely irrelevant. Plot is an excellent learning tool and strongly recommended.


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William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well”

I feel sorry for fiction writers and author-wannabes who pass by On Writing Well because it’s subtitled “The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.”

Don’t let that fool you. This book is a gem.

It’s not laid out like most books I’ve read on (fiction) writing (the TOC’s chapters include The Transaction, Simplicity, Clutter, Style (okay, I recognize that one), Unity, The Interview, Writing About a Place (Oh, you mean “Setting,” right?), and other obscurities) and readers should expect that; Zinsser’s writing about how to make your writing better, more exact, more succinct, more communicative of what you want to communicate.

He’s writing a book for people who need to have their writing understood by a specific audience.

But…umm…isn’t that what fiction writers want, too?


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Four pieces for a workshop

I’m taking an online writing workshop. For several reasons.

First and foremost, I know I can improve.

Second and notquitemost, I enjoy learning.

One assignment had four parts, shared here (to give folks a break from The Goatmen of Aguirra):

Write a Character Description where the Character isn’t happy with their appearance
Mary said yes.
Yes!
I can’t believe she said yes.
To me!
Why me? My god, does skype show all those wrinkles? Or the gray? How come I didn’t trim my beard today?
And I smiled a lot. I should have spent that extra $100 for the whitener the dentist suggested.
But she said yes!
My eyes are bloodshot. I can’t believe my eyes are bloodshot.
At least she couldn’t smell my breath over Skype.
Or can she?
Maybe that’s why she was smiling so much. Her pretty, whimsical smile. All teeth and curls.
She wasn’t smiling at saying yes, she was smiling because she could smell my breath, knew I just woke up, hadn’t even had a coffee yet, hadn’t brushed my teeth, combed my hair…
Why did I take that fucking call?

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Describe something from nature
Cool, night air.
The musk of woods swirling about our feet like hungry raccoons pecking at our toes.
Bright, Autumn moonlight leading Orion through the sky, away from dawn.
Wolves howl, owls hoot, loons call.
The gentle touch of my lover’s hand in mine.

Describe someone’s perception of nature
What’s wrong here?
The trees are at their posts, the rivers course on their ways, the clouds dance correctly overhead.
What’s wrong here?
The bees buzz on their flowers, the ants carry leaves to their nests, the spiders sit lazily in their webs.
What’s wrong here?
The snakes slither after toads, the toads snatch hatchlings on the wet, wet bottoms, the salamanders spread their toes like firewalkers on parade.
What’s wong here?

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Show People Realizing they’re not where they should be
I catch my wife’s eye and nod towards the end of the vegetable aisle.
“What’s he doing?”
“I’m not sure, but the two people with him don’t look happy.”
“She’s trying to calm him.”
“That boy’s getting ready to scream.”
“Should we alert the manager? Does this store have security?”
“A place with food this expensive in this neighborhood would have disguised Pinkertons walking the aisles. They’ll act if they have to.”
“Bullshit. Look at the clothes they’re wearing. They’ve got money. Nobody’s going to throw them out.”
“How come everyone’s ignoring them?”
“How come we’re not going up to him, asking him if there’s a problem, asking him if he needs help?”
“Because he’s a fucking lunatic, the way he’s behaving. You want to get near that?”
“I don’t want that boy – “
“Oh, my god! He whacked that boy!”

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World-Building – Belief Systems

Belief systems are part of the anthropologist’s triad – culture, language, myth (belief). These three are so intertwined I can’t imagine studying one without drawing deeply of the others. Our personal library contains ~300 books on different belief/faith/mythological/folkoric systems. If you count ebooks, the number goes over 1,000 volumes (and note my bias there).

But what about using belief/faith/mythological/folkoric systems as part of your world-building?

Margaret Atwood postulates a radical cultural change brought on by an exaggerated belief system in The Handmaid’s Tale, and that culture’s language evolves to sustain the belief system. Probably the best known blend of culture, language, and belief system is in Tolkien’s Trilogy. Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia series does an excellent job of blending these elements, but it’s all predicated on Helliconia’s weather (and perhaps you’ll appreciate how intertwined everything is when one builds a world from scratch).

Create a mythology only if such is necessary to move the story forward or is integral to the plot.

 
But again and to me, it comes down to “create a mythology only if such is necessary to move the story forward or is integral to the plot.”


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World-Building – Weather

I’ve yet to encounter a created world that does not make use of climate and weather directly or indirectly.

That includes this one. Consider the history of earth and the interdependencies between life and climate become obvious (I hope). Read anything by Brian Fagan and you’ll get a taste of those interdependencies beautifully written.

Examples from Fiction
Climate/weather directly affecting the story and and done well, Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia series. Directly and done fairly well, any mythical apocalypse or creation epic. Directly and poorly, Medea: Harlan’s World. The first time I became aware of weather/climate/environment/meteorology as a crucial story element was in H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon; the Selenites’ civilization literally stops due to an eclipse.

Every mythology I’ve read has weather as either a deity or an elemental. Some cultures use climate as one of the “great makers.” Northern aboriginals include Ice as an elemental force. Some eastern cultures include Metal (usually some form of iron) as an elemental force.

All of these can act for or against humans, however, and that’s key. Consider weather/climate as part of a story’s setting and every Man v Nature story takes a bow. The Perfect Storm, White Squall and many of the movies listed here wouldn’t be worth seeing without the weather’s role (many of them aren’t worth seeing, period).

And again, weather/climate isn’t playing an active role in these stories (at least the one’s I’ve seen or read). It is there to help or thwart the protagonist(s) from succeeding.

Specific to weather/climate/environment as a story’s setting, if setting isn’t important – and I can’t imagine it not being important. Perhaps I have a different concept of “setting” – then mention it as little as possible, or only mention the aspects of that setting that are necessary to the story. Katherine Mansfield is a master of putting only the necessary setting elements on stage.


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