Friday, August 20, 2010

Keep it Simple, Stupid

I recently read a great middle grade novel, NATURE GIRL by Jane Kelly. It's a classic fish-out-of-water tail about a New York City girl named Megan who gets lost in the woods and decides to hike the Appalachian trail. The voice is authentic and snarky--I fell in love with the main character. It is a great book.
While I was reading this, I kept thinking about a novel that I wrote several years ago--a similar story of displacement which was written in first person. The story is about Katherine who makes a connection with a wonderfully wacky art teacher whom she unexpectedly finds in a small Southern town. The art teacher has Katherine turn everything upside down that she has ever learned about art and technique--frustrating her and making her grow at the same time.

This novel has been sitting untouched for a LONG time, and I was eager to reread it and see if I could do anything with it.

Well, it's terrible. The language is overly descriptive and flowery, not at all the way a thirteen year old would speak. The book is episodic and full of flat characters. But worst of all? There is no action plot. None.

My book is all about the emotional plot, and that doesn't fly in children's books (I think adult writers can get away with it--think Eat, Pray, Love . . . no action plot at all, purely about Elizabeth Gilbert's emotional angst and growth). So, when I kept asking myself "What is the main character's goal? What does she really want? What stands in her way?" I couldn't come up with anything concrete--just a bunch of touchy, feely words like "she just wants to be happier."

We're all familiar with these plot diagrams. But, here's the deal--you need a diagram like this for BOTH the emotional plot and the action plot, and it's best for the emotional plot to resolve just before the action plot resolves.

In NATURE GIRL, there is an intense emotional plot in the book. The Megan's best friend's mother has cancer, and her friend has been pushing her away. Megan's also miserable about being out in the country and about having to deal with her older sister and her boyfriend. So, when she gets lost in the woods, she decides to go on a quest to reach a certain mountain where her best friend is staying for the summer. Throughout the book, the reader is pulling for Megan to reach the mountain despite all of her obstacles--both physical and emotional.

Simple, right? She wants to reach something that is real and tangible. She wants to climb a mountain. The other emotional stuff resolves as she makes her journey.

I've been listening to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in the car as I sit in carpool lines. JK Rowling does the same thing--she has a very simple action plot that threads it's way throughout the entire novel. Harry is preparing for and competing in a wizarding tournament, and the reader really wants him to win (or at the very least, survive). There is plenty of emotional plot going on as well--Harry's longing for a parent, Harry being ousted by his best friend, Harry being misunderstood . . . but without the wizarding tournament to pull the reader through the book, it would be pretty boring. A school tournament--simple.

Sooooo . . . with my novel, I have come up with something to pull the reader through--an art contest that the main character desperately wants to win so that she can go to a summer art camp in New York. The book has got to be COMPLETELY rewritten, but I think it could work this way. When I think about it now, it just seems so simple . . .



Caroline Starr Rose said...

This is one I've been meaning to read. I love survivial stories (thanks for introducing me to ALABAMA MOON a few months ago).

Katie said...

Great post SF! I love the comparison to Harry Potter and it's so true. It's just a simple tournament that carries the reader through the book.


Kristi Valiant said...

Great reminder! I've forwarded this link on my critique group too.

Tere Kirkland said...

Aazing what some time and critical thinking can do for a trunked manuscript. I know you can do it!

It's all about the stakes, I've learned.

Matthew Rush said...

I don't think there is anything wrong with an emotional growth journey being the main plot in a children's book, I certainly went through one of my own when I was a young adult, but I agree with you completely that there needs to be some kind of action plot to help the reader through. It's a little like the current of a river. Sure a slow, drifting wide river is going to take you merrily along, but one with a few rapids and rocks here and there is going to be much more fun.

Thanks for sharing this Sarah, and for making me think!

Today's guest blogger is Renae Mercado!

Solvang Sherrie said...

Isn't it funny how it makes sense in your head until you try to get it down on paper?

Anonymous said...

Hey, I read and reviewed this book too. It's a good one.

Gail said...

Don't you just love that you can go back to a previously written piece and realize how crappy it is?! Just seeing the problem shows your growth as a writer. Now that fact that you can envision a way to use the basic shell and include an action plot line....well, that makes you King-um Queen of the mountain in writing growth!!!

Lisa and Laura said...

Plot is so freaking important. You don't realize how important until you read a book that doesn't have one. Good luck revising! Sounds like you've got the start of something fab!

storyqueen said...

Yeah, I've done this (written a plotless book). But what I haven't done is taken the Plotless Drawer Novel out of the Drawer and tried to make it work.

I will be cheering for you!


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