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Blogging By the Sea
Saturday, June 19 2021

Our June Round Robin Blog is digging into - How authors recognize and overcome plot problems or failures?

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The first thing that occurs to me is that the answer to this question might be very different for Plotters vs Pantsers. So, since I’m a pantser, I’ll answer from my point of view and let the plotters in our group share their methods.

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Since the bulk of my books begin with a germ of an idea that I nurture with detailed character dossiers and a well-considered Goal/Motivation/Conflict chart for each, my writing is basically an adventure that I am on as much as my readers. I have no idea what’s going to happen next. With one main exception – I always know how the story will end. In fact, I’ve often written the final scene or chapter before I start the book because I can see it so clearly in my head. But once I’ve got my characters who I know as well as I know myself, I plop them into the inciting incident and let them run with the ball, so to speak.

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The first inkling I might have that there is a plot problem or failure is that my characters seem to have wandered into a blind alley and are left with nowhere to go. Clearly, they’re in enemy territory and need a road map to get themselves out of trouble. As one of my brainstorming buddies calls it, they went down a rabbit hole.  Now I have to stop and ask myself why they chose that alley? Why did I write that scene? Who is this new character that walked on stage and redirected the action? I consider all the options, jotting down thoughts as they come to me. Sometimes I might even write whole scenes that seem to be out of place/sync which I end up filing in a “Bits and Pieces” file I have for all my books where I save clips, thoughts, scenes and parts of scenes I might include somewhere else.

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I’m one of a small group of authors that meet regularly and we call ourselves the Sandy Scribblers (a nod to all the gorgeous beaches in our town.) Our meetings cover all aspects of the writing life, but often, I get to present my plot dilemmas when they leave me floundering, and it’s the whole issue of seeing the forest for the trees. One or another of my group immediately latches onto the very heart of where I went wrong. Then they all chime in with ideas on fixing it, or eliminating the out of place scene. Presenting my confused characters with a road map or sending in the Marines to rescue them.

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Another huge and glaring proof that I’ve got a plot problem is that dreaded “Sagging Middle” that all writers hate. This is likely the same for plotters, as well. We started out with a bang and ran 80 yards for a touchdown, rebuffed the opposing team’s efforts to catch up and had a sterling second quarter. Then abruptly things fall apart. A key player is sidelined with an injury, the defense is MIA and the quarterback has been sacked. Some authors excel at getting out of these tight spots – call them the Tom Bradys of the writing world. If you’ve ever seen that man play, you’ll know he can seem totally overwhelmed, the score heavily lopsided in his opponent’s favor, unable to connect with his best receivers, and is scrambling just to keep from losing the ball. Yet somehow, he comes back in the fourth quarter and pulls a rabbit out of a hat.

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But Brady’s comeback didn’t happen by chance. There was some serious soul searching going on during that last break in the locker room that breathed new life into his team. This is what an author needs to do. Have a heart to heart with each of the major characters. Ask them how they feel about where they are, how they got there, what they plan to do about it. Maybe even threaten them to pull themselves together and get back on track.

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My brother used to amuse our family with a completely unrehearsed discussion between a Scotsman and an Englishman, complete with accents that had us in stitches. His repartee hopped back and forth between the two and that verbal jousting was as realistic as if two entirely different people were having the discussion. This is often a tool a writer equally gifted might use all by themselves. But another way to get this pep talk under way is to bounce it around with a couple other writers. Every mind works differently so looking at your cul de sac with a trusted group of writers can produce remarkable breakthroughs.

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The other major way we see or find plot problems is to engage beta readers once our first drafts are complete. This is a fresh set of eyes, or two or three sets of fresh eyes, reading, not to find all the copy edits and misspellings, but to get a sense of how the story flows. If there are potholes, your beta readers will drive right into them and immediately realize there is a problem. Sometimes it’s as simple as you knowing your character so well that you have her making choices and reacting to the events without actually considering why she is doing so. But the reader does not know the character as well as you do so they are suddenly left scratching their head wondering why. If they come back to you with a comment like, “I’ve no idea why Susan walked out like that.” Or “There’s just no way John would have done what you have him doing.” Clearly you’ve left some important information out, so you need to go back and add the emotions and thoughts of your characters that answer your beta readers’ questions. If your beta reader says that Jack had the patience of a saint in this confrontational scene, but his character up to that point wasn’t that of a patient person, you perhaps need to let the reader in on what was going through Jack’s head that kept him from reacting as the reader would have expected him to act.

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Beta readers are not family and friends (although they can be if they approach the project objectively) Beta readers are not reading your book to give you glowing feedback and tell you it’s the best thing they’ve ever read etc. They are reading to tell you where they found problems: unexplained actions or reactions, unrealistic description, deviations from expected character behavior, outcomes that simply don’t make sense or resolutions that never happen. Sometimes, as I suggested before, overcoming these failures might just be a matter of information you skimped on, but other times it’s a huge black hole that needs to be illuminated, a pot hole in need of a road crew to fill it in or an entire plot line that needs reworking. Having good, honest beta readers can be an author’s best friend. If you are traditionally published it’s often your content editor who will point all these things out, but for both traditionally and independently published writers, having a reliable beta reader is your best hedge against plot failures. Beta readers along with brainstorming partners are your best resource for fixing botched plot lines.

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After all the fixing is done, send the book out again, perhaps to the same beta reader that gave you the feedback to see if they feel the problem has been fixed. You might also ask an entirely new beta reader who has not read this manuscript before. This is the best way to know if you’ve fixed all the problems, if your story makes sense and if the characters come across as real. Some authors I know also like to read their book out loud (to themselves.) That discipline of reading aloud can also reveal the places where there are problems.

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So, now that you’ve seen how an author who writes by the seat of her pants finds and fixes plot problems, check out some of these other authors and learn how Plotters fix problems (although I suspect most of them find their problems before they begin the writing process because they’ve already plotted the story out and likely they save themselves a lot of time and grief.)

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Marci Baun 

Connie Vines 

Diane Bator 

Beverley Bateman 

Judith Copek 

Dr. Bob Rich 

Rhobin L Courtright 

Posted by: Skye Taylor AT 12:02 am   |  Permalink   |  4 Comments  |  Email
Saturday, May 22 2021

Our May Round Robin Blog Hop asks the question, Does writing change the author? Do you think your writing has changed you in any significant way?

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Writing almost has to change the author for so many reasons. The most obvious would be when your first book, poem, short story or essay is published. That sense of achievement changes us. It gives us confidence to sit down and write the next one. When we enter our work in a contest and it places or wins it’s another shot in the arm that changes how we see ourselves and our work. But beyond that is how we change just from the writing itself.

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Many of our inspirations come the world around us. Things that happen not just to us, but to those we know, work with, live with and even just those we share a moment in line at the grocery store chatting with. And those events change us. Not just the events themselves, but the impact they have on us and others, and the reactions and attitudes of those affected. And some of those changes become a part of who we are, therefore they seep into our writing and change not just ourselves but our writing as well. As a glaring example, consider the events of 9/11. Events like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the assassination of President Kennedy and a terrorist attack in the heart of New York City rob us of a sense of security – it’s a shared and horrified loss of innocence. And it changes us. The reactions of those dealing with the results change us as well.

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When we incorporate these shared events, both joyous or horrific into our stories, all authors end up doing some level of research to better understand all the aspects of the event in order to get our stories right, and to add authenticity.  And that research broadens our personal understanding – so how can it NOT change us?

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Speaking of research, for authors especially, the digging into details, historical or factual about places, times, events and places adds to our understanding of the world, and that again changes who we are and how we think about ourselves. If you need to incorporate a gun into your story but you’ve never shot one, or even held one, you have to do a little research and learning about firearms impacts your understanding of how they are used, or misused. You’re writing a historical set in Victorian times and you dig into women’s garments at the time so you can dress your characters properly. And suddenly knowing how many pieces of clothing a woman had to don every day gives you a whole new appreciation of how good you’ve got it when you can slip into a pair of yoga pants and a T-shirt and call it done. So, no matter what detail you are looking into, it has to change your appreciation for what you already know.

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Learning how others live, the mores and expectations of societies, both ancient, historical and current changes who we are as people. I spent two years in the Peace Corps in a very conservative Christian country. I was 56 when I left so my morals and expectations, what I was used to was very much a part of who I was as a mature adult and yet . . . .  By the time I came home from Tonga, I felt a little shocked by the extreme lack of clothing when I saw a woman in a bikini. While I was there, a cruise ship came into our harbor and many of those aboard came ashore. I was told they were instructed to be modest in dress because Tongans are always modestly dressed, but when I saw some of these vacationers wandering down our streets even I was offended, in spite of whatever efforts they might have made. The first time I went shopping after returning home, I was totally overwhelmed with the variety and volume of options available. I’d forgotten what it was like to plop down to watch TV in the evening or toss my laundry into a machine instead of doing it by hand. And all this in just two years of living in another culture different from my own. As authors, when we write about places and times different from our own, we do our research and it might not change us as much as my two years in Tonga changed me, but it still effects how we look at people and places and it changes us.

      

And that’s just the research part of our writing.

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There is also the character arcs and story arcs we create. Most of us grow WITH our characters. Things our characters are learning are things we are learning while we write their stories. Years ago, when I was pretty young and thought I knew it all, a man far wiser than I said something that struck me as profound, and his words have stayed with me. I can almost hear his voice even all these years later saying, “The day we stop growing is the day we start dying.” Growing means change. Always. From the inches a child gains as they move from childhood into adulthood to the thoughts, emotions and maturity of our being for our entire life.

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I think one of the biggest things we gain as writers is empathy. If all our characters were just like us we might not learn much, but our books would be boring indeed. So, we branch out. We find out what it’s like to grow up with an alcoholic father, or live with prejudice, what it’s like to be a battered wife, or a geek – brilliant but different from our peers. Of course, we draw on what we know and incorporate much of that into our writing, but we also look around us and pay closer attention to what it might be like to be the mentally challenged bagger at the grocery store. We hear how one cop commits a horrific act and suddenly we have to consider what it must be like to be a good, dedicated cop with a target on your back as soon as you put on your uniform. As difficult and painful as it is to have a doctor bring us bad news about ourselves or a loved one, what must it be like to be the bearer of that kind of news – over and over again? Or the ER nurse or doctor who fights with everything they have to save a life and then have to call it and admit defeat? Or even the mundane – what must it be like to be a hard-working, loyal employee who never gets the promotion or the atta-boy for a job well done?

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Writers do a lot of people watching. We see the strain on the faces of those who work in difficult jobs, or the soldiers, dressed in their formal uniforms to tell a family member their loved one is never coming home again. We watch with appreciation the amazing patience of an airline clerk being screamed at by irate travelers over a delayed plane. We watch a harried mother coping with a tantrum in the middle of a grocery store, or a father consoling his son after he struck out with the bases loaded, and we learn a lot about people that way. People who handle things differently than we might. It changes us and our appreciation for others and the gifts they bring to the world.

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I’m not the sort of person who has ever spent a lot of time soul searching my strengths and weaknesses or laboring over my failings, but every now and then I see bits of myself in my characters. Usually less pleasant bits of myself and I’m shocked. OMG – That’s me! And that sudden realization has often forced me to change – to become someone I like a whole lot better. So, with my wise friend Harvey’s advice in my head, I have refused to start dying, which means I must continue to grow and my writing has been a part of that growing and changing. I pray God it will continue to be a part of me until the day I leave this earthly self for something even better.  

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Hop on over and see how these other authors view how writing has changed them:  

Anne Stenhouse 

Marci Baun 

Diane Bator 

Connie Vines 

Dr. Bob Rich 

Fiona McGier 

Judith Copek 

Helena Fairfax 

Beverley Bateman 

Rhobin L Courtright 

Posted by: Skye Taylor AT 12:02 am   |  Permalink   |  9 Comments  |  Email
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    Skye Taylor
    St Augustine, Florida
    skye@skye-writer.com

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