Sunday, June 10, 2012

Turn Up the Background Singers! (a post for writers)

After the request for writing tips from last week's comment section, I went back and reread my Writing Tips posts (mostly found in October 2009) to refresh my memory about what I'd already covered. I wish I had a treasure chest of secrets to share with you because I certainly would, but I can only come up with a couple of things to add to what I already wrote.

Keep in mind I'm the Accidental Writer and may not be the best source for these types of things...but I'll still try to help, and I'll still share what I can.

For starters, it didn't look like I'd addressed theme in the previous Writing Tips posts, and theme is very important. It's like the framework and invisible substrate which is then artfully concealed by the drywall and stucco and architectural detail of your story. For a story--especially a mystery--to hold together, the hidden stuff has to be really strong, and what helps strengthen any story is a defined theme.

I like when I have a theme from the get-go. Something I what to say or explore or present to my reader as food for thought. The theme is what I'm passionate about. It's the purpose for taking a year or more out of my life to tell a story. All my books have a theme. Some are stronger (or more obvious) than others, but they all have one. For example, in Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf, the theme was forgiveness--the power of, the benefit of, and the cost of bitterly resisting.

Now, I've found that the trick to making your theme work powerfully is to give it some backup. Subplots are great for this. (I feel like I've already talked about this, but maybe I've just talked about it at schools during workshop presentations, not here. So I'll just go on like I haven't typed about it. Forgive me if this is a boring redundancy.)

Anyway, subplots. In most Sammy  mysteries you'll find three threads--the mystery, Sammy's home life, and Sammy's school life. Most people say the mystery is the main plot and the other two are subplots, but I sort of view them as all vying for that #1 position.

To me subplots are as important as the main plot. They're like the backup singers who are sometimes better than the star singer. (For example Merry Clayton--whom you've never heard of--kicks Mick Jagger's tush in Gimme Shelter...and Mick lets her, which makes the whole thing work fabulously.) And for the subplots to contribute to their full potential, they must be in harmony with the theme.  So in Runaway Elf, the motivation behind the actions of each subplot's main characters is found within the theme--forgiveness.

Subplots will save you. When you're stuck in your plotting, when you're sagging in your novel's middle, subplots will save you. I believe if your novel is sagging it's because your character needs a job. Or a dog. Or a scary neighbor. Mess with their lives a little more. If your protagonist's life is too linear (or too smooth or becoming boring), add a thread. But then follow that thread through to the end! Don't leave us dangling with your little subplots to nowhere! And ideally, when you tie up all your subplots they should each contribute to the story as a whole...which means that--if at all possible--they should somehow hearken back to the theme.

I wish I had something to show you. Some visual to illustrate my process, but I don't. Partly because I don't think of it as being worthy of sharing. I do what I do, and with each book I'm re-amazed that it all turned out well. It always feels like an accident, even though I know it's not (entirely). I always feel a little like a fraud, even though at nearly 30 books, I know I'm doing something right. And it's somewhat comforting to know that this is apparently universal with writers. I've learned from reading what other writers say about themselves, that we're all a bit bemused by how we do what we do. At least the writers I like are. And I think that's partly because we dive in and hold our breath, hoping, praying we can swim well enough to make it to The End.

It's also because my outlines consist of crude diagrams, random words, and cryptic notes about possible events. Just enough to remind my brain what it was thinking. I don't have a chapter-by-chapter outline. Half the time I don't know who's going to answer the door Sammy's just knocked on. But I do know that whoever answers had better support the theme or I'll slam the door on them and knock again.

Has this been at all helpful? There are probably hundreds of books on writing. Maybe thousands! You can read them all and still feel unprepared. So stop. If you've got the basics of your story down, if you've got a theme, some subplots and an ending in mind, it's time to quit reading books about writing and start writing.


Mark said...

+1, my dear. Bravo!

Kylie said...

This is so helpfull! Thank you! I appreciate it greatly!


Yusa said...

Thanks so much!
There's this book on writing that I LOVE. It's called 'Writing Magic' by Gail Carson Levine and it's really helpful also.


Yusa said...

I looked at the posts in Oct 2009 and realized none of us who comment now commented then, and the people who had commented then have left now...
Also, i just finished my graduation ceremony for 8th grade and everyone was crying cuz they've been to that school for 10 years since pre-school...

How time changes and how people grow up :(


Jessica said...

Thanks, Wendelin. This helps a ton. I think I'm going to brainstorm a few subplot ideas, and then dive right in (I've got the basics, theme, and ending already). I like the point about dividing the Sammy books into home, school, and mystery. Just those little parts about tying the subplots into the theme and messing with the character's life more have really set the wheels turning!

Norma said...

I laughed a bit when I read that you felt a bit like a fraud. You're anything but! What you've advised about subplots is actually really helpful. How many times have I had a good story chugging away on paper only to find it's flat when I read it through? Adding subplots that come together helps make something one-dimensional into a whole world on paper.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm only 17, and definitely not perfect at writing, but it kind of felt like a blow when one girl LITERALLY told me: "Reading your writing is like running a marathon. You give me NO breaks."
I was like, "Yeah, cool, I know, please shut up." But it actually made me really CONNECT to your post and the comments here.
I know a couple subplot-type ideas ("Marathon-breaks") are like, a side romance (in Sammy Keyes examples: Casey), or family drama (e.g. Lana), or even a short breaks leading to lightbulb-above-head inspirational moments (Hudson, eat your heart out). Seriously, I think you're amazing at subplots. Some authors, take Stephenie Meyer (poor woman, always the victim in my verbal beatings), use subplots as a way to say, "Hey, So-and-So's life has NO meaning whatsoever unless it has to do with [insert Main Idea of novel here]. Bella hanging out with her friends, or even conversing with her dad? Pointless, space-filling, Please-Skip-To-The-Next-Chapter type of subplots, or sub-ideas.
But in Sammy Keyes, one moment I'm into the mystery, and the next minute I'm lost in social-drama-land, but its all perfectly blended.
Plus, I've never read a writing book before because truth be told, they bore me to tears. Tips and feedback just don't work with me. I'm a lost case when it comes to behaving/listening/agreeing/conforming. Especially in writing, which is why I seriously dislike English teachers. The only thing that helps is relating and connecting, which is why I love anthropology and writing. (And I "connected" this post to the Running-a-Marathon comment I got once).
Basically, I now see how I really need to focus on making my writing more like a work-out, not a marathon. In a work-out we pace, do different exercises or machines, take breaks.
This Has Been A Comment.

Gabrielle said...

It's very interesting how subplots work. And I've never really known how a book works,so it's nice knowing a some of the process of how a book works. And you are awsome at making subplots! And you are defenitly not a fraud wendelin. You're an awsome writer.

Optimistic4ever said...

Thanks for the tips! I absolutely love how well you mix the subplots and the main plot together. I can't really tell which ones are the subplots, because like you said, they seem to be equally important. ANd in WC the mystery and Sammy's school life went together.

Gail Carson Levine... I read a book by her once. T'was really good. Something like, "The Tale of Two Castles" I liked it :)

Stephanie Meyer's subplots are pretty sad, agreed. But WVD's subplots are awesome!


Unknown said...

Wow. My mind has been blown. You really are an ACCIDENTAL author? I don't think so...Methinks it was...DESSSTINYYYYY.
Um. Anyways.
This is off-topic, but it would be AMAZING if you could take a look at my friend's blog sometime soon. It's a late birthday present.
Plus, if you comment, she would want to get off the computer and tell somebody. (I think she might be getting carpal-tunnel syndrome.)
You can find her at:

Yusa said...

Yeah, Gail Carson Levine has written 'Ella Enchanted' if you've heard of that. I read 'A Tale of Two Castles'. I think that's her latest book...
She said, in her writing book, to always have your main caracter facing a problem, so that keeps the reader interested. If they solve a problem there always has to be another. They can only solve all of them by the end. She says the more you torture your character the more readers will read to know what happens.

Anonymous said...

I made a Sammy Keyes Master Playlist (Part 1, only 7 songs so far with explanations as to why it fits) on
SO. If anyone (and WVD, coughcough, that would be a delightful HONOR) wants to check out my 7 measley songs I picked out for the MASTER PLAYLIST SAMMY KEYES STYLE so far, I would be delighted.
xoxo Latest post. It's absolute.

Optimistic4ever said...

Going to one week camp 2morrow. Goodbye my darlings! :D

Optimistic4ever said...

Haha ok that was weird. I'm younger than most of you

Yusa said...

Good luck on camping.
I just came back from LA.... Disneyland and Universal = amazing!


Jessica said...

I ran a 4-miler today, and we finished at the Braves' stadium, next to home plate. (Thanks again, Wendelin, for giving running back to me through The Running Dream. Through every set-back, I just remind myself "step-by-step-by-step." And when I run, I tell myself, "Run strong; run smooth. Run strong; run smooth.")

On the topic of writing, I read an interview with Kathy Reichs in which she explained how she got the idea for Virals: her dog was infected with parvovirus (he survived), and she and her son wondered, "What would happen if people could get parvovirus?" And so it never occurred to her to ask, "Is this the most appropriate virus to use in this story?" because she's not a virologist. Whereas when I have a story idea involving infectious diseases, since I know so much about them, I pick one based on what I want it to do in the story -- similar to the way that Kathy Reichs picks certain skeletal anomalies for her corpses depending on what she wants them to do in her stories.

I guess it shows that "write what you know" and "write what you want to write" need to intersect -- but the second is more important (because you can always get to know something). Of course, once you get to know something better, it can reveal plot holes in your idea, so getting to know it should come pretty early in the process (e.g., Kathy Reichs found out there are parvoviruses that can infect people, so there was no plot hole -- but there could have been!).

Steph, I liked your playlist. I don't know if the song or the video for "Laces Out" is weirder, but it is catchy. How about "Kiss Off" by the Violent Femmes? And Pavement's "Date with Ikea" is a perfect Lady Lana song.

Anonymous said...

HAHA, "Date With Ikea" = WIN.
"Laces Out" is just...fabulous. It makes me feel like hipster when I'm driving around singing at the top of my lungs, "WERE MY LACES OUT? I DON'T KNOW. WERE MY LACES OUT?"
Sammy, at the end of a long, bad-guy escaping day: "Were my laces out?"

And about Kathy Reichs. I mean, she's a forensic anthropologist, so it's kind of a moot point. Honestly my major is cultural anthropology, because I'm bad at all types of sciences and I'm right-brained. But you seem like awesome and completely superior in knowing all this parvo, etc. Where did you find that interview? I'm curious to read it now.
Plus, you're right--it's OBVIOUS Kathy Reichs wrote based on what she wanted. It's what she's good at. Which is why I'd never write a book like that, even though the whole parvo thing and forensic anthropology interests me, I would never write it.
You know that series Maximum Ride by James Patterson, the main character who is very similar to Sammy AND Tory? It's a good series, but James Patterson needs to do his research. I'm not amazing at biology but honestly, James Patterson, stop saying DNA. They're DNA did not change, their RNA did. So on, so forth. He writes well, but he writes as if 5th graders who don't even know what DNA stands for (deoxyribonucleic acid, DUH, but I'm not sure if I split up the whole word in the proper fragments lol).
Its obvious Kathy wants to write for the science more than the action, which is fine.
And James wants to write for the action, not the science, which is fine too, I guess.
And Wendelin Van Draanen over here, writing for the suspense. YOU GO WENDELIN, YOU GO GIRL.
(Mean Girls reference!, You go Glen Coco!)
Another Sammy Playlist Song: "Second Chance" by Shinedown.
OH, and I haven't read the Running Dream yet, NO idea what possessed me to not buy it yet? Pure forgetfulness? But I've been getting into running (ran 2 miles yesterday) and I'm running a marathon tomorrow with my friend Maria. She's a health and exercise freak, so it's rubbing off, her running. Usually I get my Daily Exersice from playing volleyball or soccer for hours straight at this park specifically for sports freaks.
But yeah, my friend was like, "Steph, get ready to wake up early in the morning in the heat and RUN!"
Oh, goody. Also, in the 4-mile run there are going to be obstacles, which is why we're going. Who doesn't like sweatinh, running, dying in heat, and jumping over hurdles!?

Jessica said...

I actually don't even try to write science-y stories because it's really, really hard to talk about it in a way that my mom can understand, while still being accurate. I really admire Robin Cook, Kathy Reichs, and Richard Preston, who are each very knowledgeable in their respective fields, for how well they make it accessible and interesting to the average person. Or even Wendelin, with all the technical info in The Running Dream. (Okay, I have tried to write science into stories and failed miserably -- my explanations were too long and boring, and still don't make sense to my mom or sister.)

If I ran the world, I'd make The Running Dream required reading for everyone. (Yet no one I've recommended it to has bothered to read it yet.) Even if you don't run, if you've ever faced any kind of setback, it will cheer you up and make you feel like you can conquer the world. I cried the whole way through it (I've dealt with recurring knee injuries and multiple surgeries that ended my competitive running career in high school), but it left me feeling "so proud, so strong... so... tall. I shall live forever and ever!... I'm well!" (I hope someone recognizes that quote.) Anyway, yeah. Run -- do not walk -- to your nearest bookstore and read The Running Dream already.

That 4-miler sounds crazy-fun. Good luck with it.

P.S. I don't think I'm superior just because I'm an "infectious disease freak" the way Tory is an "anthropology freak" or you seem to be really musically knowledgeable. Different strokes for different folks and all that. I know my interest is weird (but if you're at all interested, I recommend Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, though his attitude towards other races will probably make you cringe given your background in cultural anthropology since it was written in the 1920's; still, the Louis Pasteur chapter alone is worth it -- I swear Dumbledore is based off Pasteur).

Jessica said...

Doh! I forgot to link the interview:

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't call myself musically knowledgeable... everyone is musically knowledgeable in their own ways. I don't judge people by their music preferences. Alex William Gaskarth so radically stated, "Music is a matter of taste. Saying you hate a certain type of music is like saying you hate broccoli and cheese".
(Alex Gaskarth, lead singer of All Time Low).
But yeah, I go through phases. Some music phases come and go and some are always here like my '60s, '70s and '80s music obsession. It got started when I played Cindy Whitmam, a hippie living on Haight-Ashbury, in a class debate. Ever since that debate I was like, "HOW DOES IT FEEL? TO GO WITHOUT A HOME, LIKE A ROLLING STONE".
I used that in my debate's intro speech, I was such a convincing hippie. My conservative '60s father (who was debating me) was not amused.
But yeah, I loveee reading Confessions of a Serial Kisser. The music Evangeline listens to is GOLDEN.
Everytime I read "Ziggy Stardust" I have a spasm attack of I NEED DAVID BOWIE-NESS!!!
And "Space Oddity", omg.
AND MR. CASEY ACOSTA, you beautiful man--I mean boy--has a wonferfully spectacular musical taste.
I had a hardcore screamo phase. Not like Slipknot or Marilyn Manson (puh-leeasse, I have more class than that).
Just kidding, I didn't. Think Bring Me the Horizon and Sleeping With Sirens (part rock).
I wonder what Sammy's music taste is? I've assumed Darren Cole was kind of like Tom Petty (and LOL not because of their groups' names). Would Sammy listen to mellow rock? Maybe. Probably? Not pop. I only like SOME pop artists, like Katy Perry is a doll, she's such a feminist plus she kissed a girl and she liked it. That was a joke, ha-ha.
Sammy would listen to...Green Day. I can imagine her listening to "Time of Your Life" or even "Platypus I Hate You". Or, LOL, "Know Your Enemy"
Green Day: Do you know your enemy?
Sammy: Yes. Heather
Green Day: Well ya gotta know your enemy
Sammy: ....I do.
Maybe she'd listen to My Chemical Romance. "Teenagers" should so go on my Master SK Playlist. And "The Only Hope For Me is You".
Some people like Justin Bieber.
(Well, I kinda think he's adorable, he looks like Paul Wesley nowadays!)
And some people like, I dunno, Flyleaf. (Theyre OK..)
So yeah, its all a matter of taste. It bothers me when people are like, "I don't know anything about music, I only listen to KIIS-FM. "
Well, then you know about Lil Wayne and Kanye and Nicki Minaj. I don't know ANYTHING about those people, except for when Nicki Minaj raps in this deep voice, "Lets go to the BEACH, BEACH". That was just weird.
Ooh, Sammy might like Falling in Reverse! Ronnie Radke is a music LEGEND and he went to jail for NO reason. Max Green the drugged up ex-lead for Escape the Fate killed someone and it was blamed on Ronnie, Ronnie went to prison for it, years later got proven innocent and now he formed this semi-new band Falking in Reverse. In "Tragic Magic" at the beginning he's like, "I'm baaaaaaack!" in this condescending voice. SAY YES TO PAYBACK. "I'm the king if the music scene". Yeah Ronnie, you da man you da mannnn. Sammy would TOTALLY admire his ability to bounce back after being crapped on a million times, his ability to gain so much respect. He and Sammy are kinda similar, I've watched interviews of his.
Yup. Music is a matter of taste. Broccoli and cheese.
Or in CASEY's case (lol Casey's CASE), Mac and salsa.

Anonymous said...

*FALLING in Reverse, not FALKING in Reverse. Omg... iPhone autocorrections suck. First world problems.

Optimistic4ever said...

Wasn't there an Sk fanfic based on Green Day's Know Your Enemy? I think it was even named that. Anyways, off in an hour :)

I'm going through my 60's 70's 80's 90's phase right now. :D