Stuck in the middle: Fighting mediocrity with strong plotting

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently I hit the middle of my novel and discovered that it was everything everyone said it would be – brutal, intimidating, a bog of viscosity to rival the pitch drop. You get the idea. Yes, the middle of a novel can be rough – thankfully, there are hundreds of helpful articles and blog posts out there to give advice or just share the pain. Most of them advocate a common panacea – ‘structure’.

I’m a big fan of structuring novels (well, I am now). Gus the plumber opened my eyes up to the simple effectiveness of building a novel from a logline through to a detailed three act summary and the Script Lab helped me to further develop my novel’s structure with the eight sequence synopsis.

I saw these tools as my very own Higgs Bosons – allowing the small seed of my novel idea to gain mass as it waded through each of the higher stages of evolution.  I have separate documents in the research folder of my Elementals scrivener file that document the development of my novel from a logline to a three-sentence summary, to a three-paragraph summary and to an eight-sequence synopsis. I have research documents that articulate the major plot development points of movies and books that have helped me develop a deeper understanding of these structural elements.

Basically, when it came to structure, I thought I had it sorted. But then the middle struck and my awesome structure wasn’t enough to help. I was like Artax in the swamp of sorrow. I had hit the saggy, mushy middle and it was dragging me and my novel down. As Chuck Wendig sagely notes:

The beginning’s easy because it’s like — BOOM, some shit just happened. The ending’s easy because — POW, all the shit that happened just lead to this. The middle is where it gets all gooshy, like wet bread or a sloppy pile of viscera.

Gross, right? That was my middle. Even though I had the basic structure, my middle needed more support than my beginning and end. It needed more detail. Deciding on that detail was a major challenge.

 

Plotting the Second Act – Planning your Road Trip

Plotting a second act is like deciding your route on an epic road trip. You know where you’re starting from and you know where you want to end up. If you have a decent structure, you also know some major pit-stops along the way (the midpoint and lowest point). But even with those basics decided, there are a multitude of routes you can take. Do you go the most direct? The fastest? The most scenic? Do you make sure you pass through all the towns with funky art galleries and quirky historical icons? Do you throw in a random “let’s check out Hobart, even though its nowhere near our general route, because let’s face it – it would be awesome and we’re never heading in this general direction ever again’?

With a road trip, you make these decisions based on non-negotiable and ideal criteria – time, budget, aversion to sea/air travel, penchant for art/history, etc. And that is what was missing from my middle’s plot development and structure – the CRITERIA.

So, what criteria do you need to set for your middle? For me, the answer is found within a solid understanding of your protagonist. What does she need to learn, discover, obtain, let go of, in order to react/respond to a) the midpoint and b) the lowest point, the way you need her to?

For instance, your story may be about a intergalactic guitarist who slays aliens with the wicked chords she strangles from her obsidian axe. The inciting incident is her discovery of a mega-alien that is seemingly immune to her cool, yet deadly, tunes. The first plot point comes when the mega-alien, annoyed at our protagonist and her black guitar, kidnaps her boyfriend. Now the music warrior protag must find a way to defeat this mega alien. As a feel-good novel about how cool music solves all problems, we know our protag will eventually defeat the alien and rescue her boyfriend. The mid-point comes when our hero realises that it is not a perfect technique that will do the ultimate damage, but a riff of unparalleled uniqueness and awesomeness. The lowest point will come when her guitar is smashed under the alien’s foot before she gets a chance to play her riff.

The mid-point sets up a situation where the protagonist needs to LEARN or DISCOVER the true solution to defeating the alien. The lowest point sets up the situation where the protagonist needs to DEVELOP her original musical voice that goes beyond her guitar-playing. Knowing what our hero needs, we can now start plotting out the situations and encounters and near-misses and glimmers of hope that will eventually give her what she needs: guitar battles with the mega-alien’s minions; conscription into a league of awesome guitar player warriors; an encounter with a grumpy, retired guitar warrior; an appreciation for the obscure and alternative musical elements of her world, etc, etc.

That’s what the middle is all about – knowing what the protagonists needs and watching her struggle and fail and almost obtain it – each time learning something or gaining something or developing in some way that will ultimately reward her.

I love thinking about the middle in this way because it also allows me to create an environment in which the bond between my reader and my protagonist will deepen. Making the events of the midpoint and lowest point all the more powerful, poignant, gut-wrenching and all sorts of other high-charged emotions.

Now to writing it… Wish me luck!

 

(Featured Image courtesy of id-iom, via Flickr Creative Commons)

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Stuck in the middle: Fighting mediocrity with strong plotting

Breaking the Patriarchy

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Did you know that Bilbo Baggins was a girl?

Neither did I, but it appears that Michelle Nijhuis’ daughter insists on it. In Michelle’s great post, she at first resists her daughter’s remonstrations before finally capitulating…and the result surprises her:

What the hell, it’s just a pronoun. My daughter wants Bilbo to be a girl, so a girl she will be.

And you know what? The switch was easy. Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

The post goes on to explain that female characters are still under-represented in children’s literature, a situation reflected in other story media such as cinema, in which studies have shown a gender imbalance of 2.5 males to 1 female in speaking parts across 500 of the top grossing fictional films of the last decade.

Some might argue that the gender imbalance isn’t as important if the story presents the female character as lead and protagonist. But isn’t there an issue if a female exists isolated in a story, surrounded by males and demonstrating her agency only within a male-dominated world?

This issue is somewhat considered in the Bechdel Test, which gives a movie a pass or fail depending on whether it contains at least two female characters AND those female characters have a conversation amongst themselves AND the  conversation is on a subject other than men.

The Bechdel Test aims to identify stories where female characters are simply token gestures or, worse, simple props for the development of their male counterparts. If the Bechdel Test can go some way into identifying the problem, then I think the simplified Bilbo Baggins gender reversal (replacing the male pronoun with the female) is part of the solution. I love this technique, because it enables me to uncover and consider gender assumptions and bias in both reading AND writing. I also like that it effectively deals with the issue of the “strong female” character.

Sophia McDougall caused quite a stir with her insightful article on why she hates  strong female characters – it appears she is not alone. There is some great thinking and great responses out there on the internet that a simple google search will uncover (my favourite is from the Librarian who doesn’t say shhh!) and most of them agree with a simple premise – A character who is only strong is still a one-dimensional character.

Female characters and, more particularly, female protagonists, are capable of character traits beyond “strength” (Laura Bogart does a great job of identifying and discussing this in her article on Stephen King’s Carrie). They can be vulnerable, arrogant, undecided, quick-tempered, loyal, exasperating and ambitious. They can be tough, resourceful, humble, funny and wise – just like our female Bilbo Baggins.

WIth all of this in mind, I am setting three tests for the development of my Elementals novel:

1. Is there a realistic gender balance?

2. Does it pass the Bechdel Test?

3. Are ALL of my main characters multi-dimensional and free from gender assumptions and bias?

Breaking the Patriarchy

Failing NaNoWriMo

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I had the best plans to really put some stream of consciousness writing down on my Elementals novel during NaNoWriMo. Instead, I found myself doing more thinking than writing. About a quarter of the way through November, I realised that I was falling into the same trap I had with other (unfinished, half-loved) novels that I had started before.

I love my novel concept and I think I will love my characters (once I give myself a chance to fully develop them and get to know them), but I found that I didn’t love the canvas on which I was presenting these two components.

As with other novels I have attempted to write, I was getting the feeling of 0.99c mediocrity (you know, that feeling that just because you can write, doesn’t mean you can write well or a write a great novel – despite almost unlimited opportunity to draft, publish and sell your novel at the perfect ‘let’s just have a look’ price point of 0.99c. Almost a literary version of Idol – you have a nice voice and can belt out a tune in the shower or in front of appreciative family and friends, but can you captivate an audience with a song that will transform their experience? Should you really be putting it out there on the international stage with just a ‘yeah, I can sing’ mentality? The number of 99c ebooks I have bought that suffer from this kind of purple prose, poor development and suffocating superficiality… A kind of paint by numbers approach – that’s what I mean by 0.99c mediocrity).

Now, I know this screams of that self-doubt that I have written about before – and flies in the face of the wisdom that advises one to just get the words on a page and refine later. But I think this is deeper. This is about ensuring you work with the best materials to begin with – akin to “don’t cook with wine you wouldn’t drink” or “poor data in, means poor analysis out” or “prepare your canvas!“.

So, as indicated above, I spent the rest of NaNoWriMo learning about good writing – rather than indulging in bad writing. I learned from the masters – both classic and contemporary – by reading good books and watching good television. I fed myself with great stories and, in digesting them, came to a new (albeit, still undeveloped) understanding about what makes them good.

As part of the November reading challenge for Goodreads Group, Dystopia Land, I re-read Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451‘. Helpfully, Ray Bradbury himself tells us what makes his novel a great novel. In a discussion on the quality of books, Faber tells Montag:

This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are…The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

Life is hard, tough, overwhelming, underwhelming, transformative, unforgiving, challenging, redeeming, responsive, sublime. To capture this on a page or a collection of pages – that is to write a good book. It is not enough to have an interesting premise and great characters – these two components must be drawn together in a way that tells the story of life. That is what distinguishes between a novel and a fairytale. The relentless push of reality versus the saccharine musings of a dreamer.

Failing NaNoWriMo

‘Mr Miyagi’ your opening scene

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I want to write a great novel. To craft worlds of complexity, develop engaging characters and tell stories that captivate, engage and inspire. I want my first page to grab you in a way that changes your reality and creates a connection that you wouldn’t want to sever, even if you could.

We’ve all heard that the first page is critical. If they read the first page, they’ll read the first scene. If they read the first scene, they’ll read the first chapter. And (if you keep that momentum up), the rest is (successful) history.

No pressure, hey?

Recently I was stuck on writing the first few paragraphs of my new novel, Elementals. Normally, I start my writing process by whatever first line pops into my head and just sort of carry it on from there. But that was always my problem – I would have an awesome premise, great opening scene, but nowhere to go after that. No plan, no roadmap. And, consequently, I have amassed a large file of started (but never finished) novels.

So this time, it was different. I pulled together a cohesive and interesting novel outline full of promise. And then sweated on what opening words would do this story justice; would capture its essence, would capture the voice and tone of this tale that, for now, only exists in my head and on a few index cards in Scrivener.

Again, no pressure, right?

My problem isn’t writer’s block – I have a thousand and one potential opening scenes that flit through my brain. My problem is that I’m looking for the soul mate of opening scenes. The one. The opening scene that you will love and that will slay you simultaneously.

I test all of the potentials out, but they never seem to live up to my ideals – they’re flawed, meh, cliched, juvenile, unoriginal, meaningless, afraid of commitment.

So where do you find ‘the one’? I went where I found all of my fictional true loves – my favourite novels. Revisiting the opening pages of these old friends and classics was (beyond being a no-brainer), a call to arms. Yes, I was inspired, but I was also challenged – in a very real “bring it on” sort of way.

Nietzsche wrote, “One repays a teacher badly, if one always remains nothing but a pupil”. Daniel San lived up to the legacy of Mr Miyagi, Luke became a Jedi Master, Simba became the Lion King, and I want to see my name, like Dostoyevsky, on one of those Penguin Classic books.

So, I checked out some of the best opening lines of literature ever, and responded to the call. It may not go down as the best opening line, but it is a much better one than those that came before.

 

‘Mr Miyagi’ your opening scene

Fiction & Fashion

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
Recently I was browsing through pinterest, looking for images that would help to crystallise my ideas for my main characters and the elemental world they inhabit. About half an hour into this exercise, I realised that I was increasingly drawn to fashion pins – and that got me thinking, how important is fashion to a fictional identity?
In more visual media – television, film, games – fashion is a very distinct and defining feature; think Dean Winchester, Queen Amidala or Lara Croft…. (I really hope you all came back to finish reading this post after feasting on all of that eye candy…) 🙂
But books? How does fashion help to define a character? Aren’t their thoughts and actions and relationships better vehicles for understanding and relating to them?
It may seem easy to pass off fashion as frivolous, but think about how you and your friends, family, neighbours and colleagues dress. Fashion – from the clothes we wear, the jewellery that adorns us and the tattoos that are inked into us – is our primary statement about how we want the world to see us. In any given day, we may speak to a handful of people, we will share our innermost thoughts with even less – but with our fashion choices we speak to everyone who sees us.  Our choices scream our individuality (or lack thereof), our confidence levels, our mood, our personality.
Romance novelists understand this (either that, or just love to express their own fashion fetishes) – and many use it to emphasise particular character elements or create another personality layer. But fashion references (subtle or otherwise) need not be exclusive to one genre – I think it has a lot to offer speculative fiction as well.
Yes, steampunk and cyberpunk come already with their fashion milieu, but utopian and dystopian fiction can also utilise the power of fashion. Both utopian and dystopian worlds are strongly visual in their narrative – particularly in an architectural sense – and I think this opens up an opportunity to extend this design element to fashion. Like landscape description – strategic placement and relevance is key – but done well, fashion could provide another avenue through which we come to know our most loved (and hated) characters…
Fiction & Fashion