Saturday, August 9, 2008

I Am the Girl You Wanted to Get to Know in Chemistry Class . . .

Why?? Because I am an obsessive note-taker. And, I frantically covered every moment of the recent SCBWI Conference with court reporter accuracy. But, alas, I have discovered that I am not the only one. So . . . I'm going to hit some of my favorite sessions here, and for a more complete rundown of the entire conference, check out Alice Pope's CWIM blog and Paula Yoo's blog.

Here goes . . . .

Bruce Coville
Plotting: The Architecture of Story

When plot and character are done right, they are inextricably intertwined--so there's no either/or-- and neither is more important. A good story is well-told and expresses the basic desire of the human heart.

What is scary? When a character you love and with whom you identify gets into trouble.

Plot imposes discipline on the disorder of life, and good plot brings closure. The perfect ending is both a surprise and inevitable. The very best endings turn on a moral choice--this choice can be between two mutually exclusive goods or between two bad things (choosing the lesser of two evils). The choice is the crux of emotional plot.

What is a good story?
1) Ha! It makes you laugh--not a joke, but a down deep belly laugh rising from the story itself
2) Wah! It makes you cry--these can be tears of joy or relief, can be when things are so right that you cry anyway
3) Yikes! Surprise the reader

"EW" Catastrophe: this is an explosion of good writing. Things like a giant plot twist--think "Luke, I am your father." This twist must be carefully seeded so that your mind goes back over the entire story and makes it more true than its ever been.

Plot reveals who the characters are. How can you care about what happens if you don't care who it's happening to???

Character has to solve the problem by himself--the writing comes in choosing the right details. Think about when you have a conversation with a toddler. She will ask "why, why, why" after everything you say. Ask yourself this when you write--constantly.

Bruce introduced a story of a boy dropping a book in a puddle. How do you kick this up a notch??
*Give the book emotional appeal--what kind of book is it? Mother's high school yearbook full of signatures. Show mother reading back through the book--sentimentality. Crank up the emotional volume--mother says that two people who signed it have died. Mom notices that her son's high school principal is pictured in the yearbook wearing goofy shorts.
*Kid asks mom if he can take the book to school and she says "no"--too special. Kid has bragged to his friend about the picture of the principal. He disobeys and takes it anyway.
*Have child listening to rain on the roof (detail which prepares the reader for the puddle that the book will be dropped into). Plus, this makes the reader feel like he is in the room with the child.
*Don't just say there's a puddle in the road. Have a car drive through the puddle and describe the splash.
*How rotten can you make life for this kid? He drops the book in the puddle--what's the one thing he doesn't want? He doesn't want to see his mother. So, make her drive up. Describe her through the child's eyes. She's happy to see him. She doesn't know about the book.
*Tough moral choice--The kid could stand up and get in the car without his mother ever knowing about the book, but the yearbook would be ruined forever. OR, he could confess and they could run home and try to save what is left of the yearbook. Does he save his book or his butt???
*Kick up the stakes--how does the kid make the moral choice if his father is abusive? Think of all possibilities and explore them.

Plot is not incident, not complication, not idea. Plot happens when you work with the idea and mold it and explore it. If it becomes part of a larger story, it is plot, not incident.

Always be afraid of losing a kid's attention. Something must be at stake. "Who wants what and why can't he have it?"

Plot is a series of actions in the the thread of a story in a nonrandom way that is emotionally satisfying. Coincidence can happen to start a story, but it can't be used at the end. Fiction is held to a higher standard of believability than real life.

Plot is what happens when desire meets obstacle--the character must use the most conservative method to overcome it (don't use a pistol to kill a fly).

Drive your characters to desperate extremes so that they have to make choices under pressure. If there are no consequences, it wasn't really a choice. Be sure to think through every implication of the character's choice.

Plot Tricks:
1) Drive character to a moral choice--at the heart of a great story lies a great human action
2) Up the ante--make whatever is weighing on the choice have a broader impact, think through what would happen if the character fails
3) Ticking Clock--Must tick in the reader's mind. Use devices like carving a notch in a stick to show the ticking down of time--have the reader sense that time is closing in
4) Twist or reversal--The world tips on its head but still makes sense. A straight line story offers no surprise or intrigue
5) Subplots--Add texture and emotional resonance by indicating and building disruptiveness of truth
6) Braided plots--Two or more characters that have adventures that spiral around each other and come together at the end. We get to experience the characters through other characters
7) Plot loops--Side plot, not a subplot. This is only useful if you need to make a book longer or need to take care of something (give info)
8) Set ups and Pay offs--No pay off that isn't set up and vice versa. The reader pays attention to everything that's put in (if there's a gun on the wall, somebody better shoot it). When you have a pay off, go back in your story and write the set up. Can do things like cumulative humiliation where each put-down gets worse and then the character finally strikes back. When you put stuff in the subconscious, it sits and waits to come out.

Outlining: Important part of plotting (plus it keeps you from not finishing books--even though they rarely end the way you planned!) Outline is simply a guide that keeps you on the path.

Writing energy:
Male energy--action adventure
Female energy--relationship, interaction, character
The best stories partake equally of both types.

***Stay tuned.... my next post will feature the brilliant advice of Sara Pennypacker.


Tyler said...

Thank you SOO much, you are awesome! Can't wait to see the notes on Sara Pennypacker's session. By the time I got in that room, it wasn't even standing room, so I regrettably didn't stay. Keep posting these notes!

Katie said...

Aahhh... This is why I love you SF!

I was actually sitting in this talk and didn't catch all of the great advice that you've presented here. I almost need to print your post and hang it in my office :-)

Can't wait to see what's next!!

Christy Raedeke said...

Holy Cliffs Notes, woman! You're good. I'm so happy now that I never saw you in any of the sessions I sat through-once you post all your notes I'll have the knowledge from every session and then, at last, I CAN TAKE OVER THE WORLD!

Hardygirl said...

Aw shucks!

I'm actually reinforcing everything I learned at the conference by transcribing all these notes.

Can't wait to join you in TAKING OVER THE WORLD!

Disco Mermaids said...

WOW, SF...I love you!

I am also an obsessive note-taker, and have gone to many of BC's speeches. But in looking back on old notebooks from conferences, I've never been this thorough. You are the BEST.

Should we be paying you or something?

Can't wait to see you guys next year. Here's to contracts all around by then!


Mac McCool said...

I'm echoing Eve here! MEGA THANKS! Those notes are great, and I couldn't make it to some of those presentations. So thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!!

Our Motto

Our Motto