Saturday, August 24, 2013

Craft of Writing: PLOT NUTS . . . AND BOLTS!

No doubt you've heard people talk about teaching or learning "the nuts and bolts of writing," right? Some time ago, SF writer Michael Stackpole coined the term "plot bolt," and now I'd like to discuss the concept, along with the nut that sometimes goes with it (and I'm not talking about the writer.)

What, you may ask, is a plot bolt? Just as a bolt fastens objects together by sticking through them and "hanging them from the holes," a plot bolt extends _through_ the plot of a story and helps to hold the parts together. Plot bolts pull a story together by helping the reader to see the connections and how things "all come together as a connected whole." The role can be played by a minor character (a "foil," for you literary types) who flits between the two major characters. Perhaps the nosy neighbor a la Mrs. Kravitz on Bewitched, or a pet bird who flies between the two houses, or a cat like Pyewacket who runs away and has to be rescued; maybe, instead, it's a "maguffin" or semi-valuable object like the Maltese Falcon. These "minor" things are not so minor, and their scenes are not mere incidents, because the items or characters keep reappearing, helping to complete the circle of the story.

In the film Bell, Book, and Candle, remember how the cat familiar Pyewacket goes over to the Jimmy Stewart character's office and causes Jimmy to march over to the Kim Novak character's shop to return him? The cat also causes several other events in the tale connected to reconciliations or another fight. When he runs away, the viewers know that Gillian has lost her powers from being in love. All these functions bolt the story together at places where we'd have no connections (or maybe have to rely on coincidences) otherwise.

Character "business," "tics," or "tags" may also add to the wholeness of the whole. Perhaps a characteristic little bit of action like Shalanna tugging at her earlobe when she's lying can irritate Drynxnyrd at first, until he figures out that she's always fibbing (she wouldn't go further than a compassionate white lie) or telling the incomplete story when she does it, and this can reveal to the hero later that she's not telling him the whole truth about that old boyfriend of hers who shows up later. It is something that starts out as characterization, and then the reader giggles when she sees it, but later she exclaims, "Of course! I should have expected that to be useful."

In Mary Stewart's THE GABRIEL HOUNDS, the narrator always reacts to the presence of a cat, even when she can't see it. This is established in an early chapter, when a kitten spooks her. Later in the book, she realizes that another character, supposedly a relative of hers, is an impostor, because the real relative shares this reaction--but the impostor doesn't even jump when a cat walks into the room. This one's related to all the movie scenes in which a character is "passing" for another character UNTIL the dog growls or snaps at him or her, and people realize that can't be good old Harry. . . .

A plot bolt basically ties one strand of the plot into an entirely different strand. This may be the only thing that makes the subplots related. It's the realization of the reader that the romantic subplot that's been running through the last five chapters has just crossed paths with the minding-the-store thread, and they mesh. The reader doesn't see it coming in advance, but once it's there, it's inevitable. It's the only way things _could_ be. And the book is praised as "tightly plotted."

Okay, now for the PLOT NUT (nope, that's not a fan who has all the plotlines in the old STAR TREK series memorized.) What I'm talking about is a "helper" for your plot bolt. It's a reaction to the plot bolt that strengthens the connection. It's the equal and opposite reaction to whatever it was that prompted the "plot bolt." And it starts an entire string of events by its very presence or existence. This is tough to explain without an example. . . .

Let's take an example from my crazy so-far-unfinished screwball comedy/romance, Love, Brad. Let's say that Christopher and Diane (two City Council members) know that Kimberly (a shrew, and his stalker--um, I mean she has a major jones for him and intends to win his heart however she can, even through blackmail or whatever) is watching them through the surveillance camera at the spa (she got a job there as an aerobics instructor just so she could follow him when he works out, say.) OK, Chris and Di wait for a quiet moment in the hot tub and strip, starting to make out, just when they KNOW Kimmie can't get aloose and come bursting in on them (she's stuck covering the security cameras or something while others are at lunch.) This isn't real attraction, but just X-rated implication to frustrate and torment her. Let's say that, furthermore, they are doing this while they whisper about the conspiracy working against Kim (to reveal her theft from Chris's campaign's money when she was on his staff as treasurer.)

Twist the nut on a little: Kimmie shoves in a blank DVD-R and records the whole "show." Then she mails it to, um, the local TV station--these two are high-profile city council members, let's say, and are assumed not to be involved with each other because of a conflict of interest, not to mention that they are both "taken." Whoa--the plot thickens! The station manager shoves the DVD into his pocket and heads off to blackmail Chris.

On the way, the station manager has a fender-bender with a little old lady (in her car, not as a pedestrian!) as he's headed for the council meeting to confront Chris. He throws off his overcoat (which lands somewhere on the hood of his car) to change her tire and then to help the man hook up the tow truck for his Ferrari (these things are expensive, you know--you can't have Just Anyone touching the axle, or whatever.) The homebrew DVD (you saw this coming, but you were giddy for it to happen, weren't you?) slides out of his pocket onto the pavement, of course. The tow truck guy picks it up to hold it for him and forgets to give it back. Guess what is in the pocket of the tow trucker's coat when the trucker gets back to pick up his wife, who runs the city's biggest day care place . . . and the owner's bratty kids pull it out, thinking it is their Rainbow Frog DVD he promised to rent for them. Suddenly, on the screens of the kids' day care room, there is a suggestive picture that does not go unnoticed. . . .

As someone said, imagine those smart missiles aimed at various Middle Eastern targets (sent by other Middle Eastern targets) suddenly showing DEBBIE DOES DJIBOUTI. And trying to find THAT target. (Not to worry: nothing graphic is going on at the beginning of the video, at least not YET.) It's not a pretty sight, all those caregivers and women screaming and dashing for the DVD. The one who ultimately snatches the DVD out is the best friend of Chris's long-time girlfriend, a woman who has long hoped to "wake up" her friend and make her dump Chris because of what she feels are his Unethical Practices. She'd love to get him off the city's power base. Now she has the ammo!

I'd say that the video is a little more than a maguffin, perhaps a Plot Nut that holds that Plot Bolt (which was the intersection between the Kimmie-is-stalking-Christopher thread and the City-Council-Scandal thread) firmly on. It helps to make the coincidences and implausibilities in the plot seem a lot less so.

I've used this technique to connect two wildly varying plotlines: subplot 1, the girlfriend who wants Chris and her friend to break up (hey--possibly so that SHE can snag Chris for herself, or so she can snag her girlfriend for her homely brother Gus who is in place to console her . . .) and subplot 2, the mayoral race in which Chris hopes to be a candidate, and which would be lost for him if he were caught fooling around with Diane, who is the wife of the current mayor. (This book is major screwball comedy.) Tensions heighten and the audience squirms in delicious anticipation of the blow-up that is sure to come.

Let's try something more subtle. Henry does not talk about his family, ever. In this mystery, the prologue and some scenes from the (unnamed) murderer's POV have established that he's doing it to protect a secret in his family. Every time anyone asks about Henry's holidays, relatives, etc., he quickly deflects the question, never having to answer. (There's the plot bolt.) Everyone suspects Henry, of course. (A nice diversion.)

Late in the book, Theo (our sleuth) is at a party where the punch is spiked and also (unknown to any of the party-goers) doped with a fashionable party drug. Theo (our heroine) is the only one besides Henry (and the real killer) who does not drink the Mickey Finn punch, leaving her the only one to deal with the killer who drugged the punch. Naturally, she's now convinced Henry didn't drink it because he spiked it, and therefore the killer blindsides her when he takes Henry hostage. The hero arrives, and the two of them play out the final confrontation with the killer, who now has Henry as a hostage. (Here comes the plot nut.) The reason Henry never spoke of his family is because he's ashamed: his father, who's all the family he has, has been jailed for (hot checks?) drunk driving (and has dodged the bullet once with a vehicular manslaughter charge) and is an alcoholic. And that's why he didn't drink the punch: he saw the gin being surreptitiously added, and he won't touch alcohol. The suspicion (a bolt throughout the book) is answered and ties right into why he's the only other one left on his feet for the confrontation, forming a plot nut.

Naturally, MOST of the best plot bolt and nut combinations are serendipity. Usually, when you were writing the first scene, you didn't realize why you were putting in that part about the alcoholic daddy until it came time that the later scene was flowing from your fingertips. And then people ask how you come up with these tight plots. Only another writer could understand the unexpected thrill of that plot nut screwing into place!

You can, of course, plan a connection between your subplots from the very beginning. That's why the subplots are there--to enrich the main story--and thus they need to be related. If you can come up with something that really sets up conflicts between major characters, such as his being a pilot and her being totally petrified of any thought of heights or flying, so much the better. Then she'll HAVE to get in the plane with him, barfbagging it or cowering on the floor of the light plane while they do the dogfight, or whatever. Conversely, maybe she turns out to be right about heights when he realizes the plane will NOT get off the ground in the shape that it's in, and then they jump out and let the criminals steal it and crash it into the stand of trees just across the road from the airstrip.

. . . this is called "setting up your crisis early" with things that your critique group tries to get you to cut, claiming you don't need these little hints that are obviously in there only for characterization. NOT!

The heck with them, say I. Plan your plot bolts, and place them throughout your book to strengthen and tighten it. And if you find a nut for one of them, twist it down tight!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

More from that interview

Remember that interview with me . . . where they couldn't use ALL the questions we talked about? Well, here's another snippet from the leftovers.

Q. What’s your attitude toward the standard advice: write what you know?

A. I would say that you'd better know what you're talking about, because readers will call you on any mistake or typo! But I also say, "Don't be boring." That is rule one. If your work becomes boring and mundane and repetitive (notice how this sentence is an example of what it describes), readers will begin skimming, then skipping, then quitting.

I believe that a book set in an unusual place or with a protagonist who has an uncommon profession will appeal more to readers who are sick and tired of the usual tropes. For instance, I can't stand one more mystery/suspense tale in which the heroine is a recent widow, starts going out with the detective immediately, and holds all her scenes in the car on the cell phone or in some boring coffee shop. People like to learn something when they're reading, so why not do some research and set your next book in the Grand Canyon or on a hot-air balloon--or at least something different from the usual fare? I have found that if I call just about ANYONE and tell them I'm a novelist and need their expertise on Amtrak trains, automobile engines, ham radios, or cave exploring--take your pick--those people are eager to tell me all about what they do and how it's done. I usually pick up some fun factoid or two that'll fascinate the experts and make them think I've actually done whatever it is I have my characters doing. I've even called the local police to ask them about police procedure . . . I'm probably listed as a "person of interest" by now. (LOL)

You're competing with hundreds and hundreds of FREE and cheap Kindle books and with authors who give away dozens of copies of their books in blog contests. What makes your book catch a potential reader's eye? What makes it different? Haven't we all read so MANY books that are "eh," that don't have huge flaws, but are just the same old boring tropes? Wouldn't you rather read something with a few scenes set in a lumber mill or a hot-air balloon or just anywhere except the car and the cell phone?

What I see over and over is the mystery that starts with the "alpha" protagonist waking up, stretching, showering, feeding the dog and cat, thinking about whatever it is in the backstory that the author wants you to know, getting to work, discovering a body, being questioned, going to a restaurant with gay best friend or other sidekick to grouse about the questioning, beginning to sleuth by making dozens of phone calls and going to mundane locations such as more restaurants or offices (instead of someplace interesting that could be fun for readers to learn about), making several stupid mistakes that are not to be questioned (because they'll bring on a turning point) even though we are constantly told how smart the sleuth is and how she went to Harvard and so forth, starting a romance with the detective while still being told "stay out of it" and "don't leave town because you're still a suspect," sleuthing a bit more with disastrous results, having a confrontation with the perp in which he/she spills his or her guts while holding a gun on the sleuth . . . and then the door behind the perp slams open into him/her and knocks him/her out, and we're rescued. The End. Wake up, reader . . . it's the end!

Make yours different. NICE WORK takes my naïve Snoop Sisters into a convoluted maze of BDSM clubs and hangouts and requires them to navigate the hidden Internet sites these groups communicate in as well as to commit burglary. MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS takes my sleuth (and later her reluctant sister) to mysterious Marfa, Texas, where she must handle the eccentric residents as well as the Marfa Mystery Lights themselves, while she investigates an algorithm for encryption that everyone seems to want (software weenie stuff). LITTLE RITUALS explores the superstitions and rituals that just about everyone uses to structure their lives, and asks the questions, "Is there really such a thing as luck, and if so, can we affect our luck, or are we powerless against Fate's forces? What is right action and how should we live? What are we meant to do, and do we have a mission in life?"

In other words, they're not stuffed with the same old scenes in coffee shops. They're different. If you have a strong voice and your hero/heroine does too, then your book is going to be different. I think that's a Good Thing.

I write books. It is only in recent years that authors have had to create a "brand" and stick with one genre or subgenre. Once upon a time, Twain or Dickens could write what I call a BOOK book that wouldn't be categorized except as literature. You didn't get the "this is a mystery, this is young adult," labeling. Anyone who picks up a book should be ready for an adventure without worrying so much about what the genre is. But that's just my take on things.

Love to hear from you in the comments!

Friday, August 2, 2013

What do they MEEEEAN dept., BOOKS div.

Often when people talk about a book that we've both read (and sometimes that we've both reviewed), I marvel that we could both have read the same text and have gotten such different mileage out of it. Readers are constantly amazing me as far as what they come away from my stories with. I often think I am telling a tale of redemption, and they come away with a completely different take on it, all about revenge and payback time. It's always illuminating to hear about this, because I can often go back and find the clues they found (even though I meant them to mean something else, at least on the conscious level.)

But the way I, a baby boomer, read appears to differ from the way most Gen X/Gen Y/Millenial readers read. We are apparently looking to get different things out of our reading. While storytelling is archetypal, the way in which our culture has traditionally handed down stories to its children is changing. Readers have very little patience now, and I think that's a shame, because sometimes it's good to take your time.

For instance . . . when someone says a book is "slow" or "sluggish," I often agree, IF the problem is something like the first three chapters being nothing but a character waking up in the morning, getting dressed, making coffee, thinking about what he's going to do today and what happened yesterday and where he went to college and how he just broke up with his fiancé and yadda yadda yadda. Stephen King and Michael Crichton seem to be able to get away with introducing a character by having her wake up and think about all this rot before a single bit of plot-related action begins, but not too many other authors can do this.

I generally find fault with books that begin with "false" prologues pulled from the middle of the book followed by a first chapter heading reading "Six Months Earlier." They used to do this all the time because they thought there wasn't enough oomph and hooky action in that first chapter. Related to the bit I just mentioned that King gets away with is the opening that freight-trains several overworked introductions of a bunch of characters with stuff like "she took her bachelor's at CalTech and then her Ph.D. at Stanford--she went on her Rhodes scholarship; she married and divorced a Welsh miner; blather blather" as if I am supposed to say, "Oh, boy! This character is my superior! She is superwoman and a size 4 to boot! I must luuurve her!" (I don't.)

What about the "false promises" book that starts off with three polished chapters (probably chapters that have made the rounds of workshops and contests for a while) and then continues in quite a different tone, possibly even another genre? I see this with things that start out like thrillers and then hit the brakes.

Frankly, some authors can make this sort of thing work. Off the top of my head, I can think of a blockbuster book (okay, Michael Crichton's TIMELINE) that has at least two of those faults. And in some contexts, the techniques are not really faults.

But most of the time, everyone will agree that these tricks should be replaced by better storytelling.

On the other hand, I hear people calling a book "too detailed" and saying that they didn't understand why there were details about spiders, earthquakes, or whatever. Well . . . in one of my books, the murder might have been committed by a person who put a rare poisonous spider on the victim while he was passed out after an evening of drinking. Thus my sleuth needs to find out about spiders: who in the area knows about them, who raises them, who might HAVE one. Because most tarantulas and similar spiders are not poisonous. An Australian spider that's venomous gets imported (smuggled in) to North America now and then for fanciers. This sort of "detail" is something the sleuth has to investigate if she's to go to the police with some trumped-up tale about a spider bite. In another book, there's an explanation of the various types of gluons. Why? It has to do with the nefarious mad scientist's plot. The reader needs to know this stuff.

Maybe some readers feel that they don't. If they're not trying to put together the pieces of how the crime could have been committed and follow the trail back to the person who could have done it, I suppose it doesn't matter. If they're happy enough to read a book in which the author seems to have just chosen a murderer at random (with little motivation or reason) and hasn't bothered to follow the rules of fair play, all right. But my books aren't going to be like that. There is going to be enough evidence for a reader to put together a case against at least two suspects, and the red herrings can be interesting sidelines to follow. I don't think that equates to "too much detail."

It all goes back to what a reader expects from a book. If they're expecting a fast parachute jump with shiny distractions in the form of gunfire and explosions, they'll be disappointed in my books. However, I feel there's still an audience for the sorts of books I like to curl up with. They'll be meaty and philosophical and mostly character-driven, and they'll explore at least one question that's similar to "how should we live?" and "what is right action and how can we live morally in a world that has discarded its old moral compasses?"

You'll find a theme in ANY book. I promise you. The theme may be lame or not explored properly, but it's there. You might as well accept that any book with no theme is going to be unsatisfying and leave readers mystified as to why they spent so much time reading an empty shell. So when I read reviews that say a book took itself too seriously, I feel kind of disappointed that the message was transmitted too heavy-handedly. What ever happened to subtlety and subtext? Part of the problem is the disapproval of complex sentence structure. Some concepts just can't be condensed into soundbites.

Soundbites are fun, but remember, they're a "bite" and not a satisfying, nourishing meal.

The next time you start skipping "those boring details" because you feel they have nothing to do with the story, rethink it. Perhaps the author could have done it better, but if it's in the book, he or she thought you needed to know it or would be edified by it. Often an important clue is buried in "meaningless detail," and if you miss it, you might miss part of the experience of a good story.

The thing that bugs me the most is when a reviewer comes back saying that he or she didn't like encountering words that weren't immediately familiar. I don't just mean when someone complains about a word like "numinous," even though I think you could probably get that one from the context, and what are we doing wiring ourselves up with online dictionaries and encyclopedia when we aren't going to use them? No, I am talking about readers who aren't trying. A reviewer of Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (an incredibly evocative and dense text that tells a terrifying tale) said that he didn't like Bradbury's use of words. "For example, he says that one of the carousel horses had teeth 'the color of panic,' but never explains what that means." Well, DUH. If you don't get an image from that phrase and you want it explained, you are not my kind of reader. Use your imagination and figure things out. And sometimes you don't need to always KNOW EXACTLY WHAT IT MEANS. "A poem should not mean, but be." (Princess points to those who get the reference.)

I don't know. Maybe I'm just a crazy old curmudgeon. Probably.