Monday, September 08, 2008

What I Learned

Okay, so you all saw the pics of what I DID in Hawaii, but it's kind of hard to take a picture of what I learned. The whole point of going to Hawaii was to attend the Maui Writers Retreat (and no, it wasn't at Maui, it was at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. It was on the road this year. I am not sure where it will be next year.) The way that it worked is that we had whole group seminars in the mornings and afternoons, but for four hours a day, six days in a row, we met in small groups of 6-9 and had individual workshops with well-established authors. My instructor was the illustrious William (Bill) Bernhardt, thriller-writer extraordinaire!

Now, going into this retreat, I knew I wanted to work on my ghost story that I have been kicking around for a long time. I know at this point most of you are whining, "Oh man! That story again? Aren't you finished with that? We've been hearing about this book for two years!" Well yes, yes you have. And you want to know why? Because this book has a lot of voice and almost no structure. I have a great beginning, a wisp of an idea for the middle, and only a slightly more solid idea for the end. Basically I was wandering all over the place! Not good.

One of the main things that we focused on in Bill's class was structure. *heavenly choirs!! Laaaaa!!* We spent time talking about the Inciting Incident. The inciting incident is something big that happens very early in the book that leads directly, even inevitably to the Climax . . . but we'll get to that later. Ever read a book where you wander around for forty, fifty, even one hundred pages before you get the sense that the story has begun? That's because the inciting incident has been placed far, far too late in the story. So what exactly is an inciting incident? It not just action at the beginning of the story; the inciting incident must point the reader toward whatever is going to happen at the end of the book. If you have a romance where the heroine gets mugged . . . but the rest of the story is about how she's a dentist and meets a mouth fetishist and it's love forever and ever, well, the mugging scene at the beginning may have been big and exciting, but it's not the inciting incident because it has nothing to do with the rest of the story. However, if the beginning of this romance is the woman getting mugged and saved by a ruggedly handsome cop who's passion in life is catching this serial mugger and the two fall madly in love while sleuthing out the criminal, well! There you have an inciting incident! Do you see the difference there?

Sure, sure, you think, but why is that important? Because above all, understanding the inciting incident helps you start your story in the right place. I frequently hear from editors, agents, and other authors about how they read a book or manuscript where the story actually started on page twenty, forty, etc. If authors understood that in their first chapter--two at the most--they needed to have this inciting incident, that MUST point to the end of the book, then a lot more books would start in the right place.

Inciting Incident--very important. Got it? Next!

Now, the storyline that Bill taught us may not be right for every book, but I was amazed how well it worked for mine. Basically, the middle of the book should include two plot points. One 25% into the book, and one 75% into the book. Plot Point One should be a big event that changes the course of the book. Plot Point Two should be another big event that changes the course of the book. Let's go back to our mugger book. Plot Point One could be when the hunky cop realizes that this is not a random mugging--this is the serial mugger who the cop has been chasing for five years who always comes back to kill his victims! That changes everything. The cop cannot look at the woman the same way, he can't look at the case the same way, and the stakes are suddenly higher. So they sleuth around and fall in love throughout the next half of the book. Then we come to Plot Point Two. Beautiful but resourceful heroine is looking through the files and she and hunky cop have been making in-between shag-fests and she suddenly realizes that the mugger/murderer is the cop's partner who he is on a stakeout with! Again, everything changes. The friend is now the enemy, instead of everyone fearing for the heroine's life, now she is fearing for the cop's life, the untrained has to go save the trained, and again, the stakes go up. Got it?

Plot Points. Important. Keeps your readers on their toes which is right where you want them.

Then we come to the aforementioned Climax. This the the highest, most exciting part of the book. Heroine confronts the mugger and there is a huge shootout in which the men go back and forth using her as a body shield!! (Bad boyfriend!) Bullets are fired! Biceps are grazed! (Why is it always the biceps, thus forcing the hero to take off their shirt? . . . Oh, I guess I've answered my own question . . .:)) Bullets rain from the sky killing the bad guy and merely wounding the good guy! The climax. The part where the stakes are the highest and we know as readers that at this point the main character will either achieve their goal, or fail. We all live for the climax. (It's also one of the funnest parts to write!)

If you don't have a climax, you need a major revision. I don't think I know a single exception to this. Don't be fooled into thinking that climax means action though. Some of the most emotional books I've ever read have heart-wrenching climaxes that happen in a deceptively calm conversation. But there Must. Be. A. Climax.

After the climax comes the Denouement and as my college fiction instructor Claire Davis said, "Yes, you must say it with a French accent." :) This is the part that can range from a single word to maybe, MAYBE twenty pages that follows the climax and give the reader their resolution. In our fake book the hero could get out of the hospital and the heroine could toss him roughly into bed and say, "I will kill you if you ever use me for a body shield again." The Hero smiles and says, "Deal." They kiss, the end. Denouement. The main point of the denouement is to provide resolution. If that takes fifteen pages, fine. if you can do it in three words, fine again. This is not the same thing as wrapping everything up in a cute little box, but at the end of the book, your reader should feel satisfied!

So there are all the basic parts of a storyline. on top of that, Bill had us make a sixty-scene outline. And every scene had to be important. It couldn't just be a rundown of a bunch of stuff happening. Every scene should provide some kind of change that continues propelling the plot toward that inevitable climax. So now, guess what!!! I have a sixty-scene outline for my story!! I totally know where it is going and I have sixty little signposts to guide me along!!

It is SO awesome!

Plus I had a major epiphany as I was slaving away at my outline.

There was more to the retreat than structure. We spent two days learning how to pitch and query agents, and I admit I did not pay as much attention those days--I was busy refining my lovely outline.:D But it was a great experience and was particularly helpful to me with THIS book at THIS point in my career, and I love that the stars were so kind as to align so nicely for me.



Anonymous said...

Wow, that sounds so great. It's good to see all the plot elements, and I like how you included percentages through (i.e. 25%, etc). I'll have to look through my story and see how close I've come.

K. M. Walton said...

What a fascinating recipe. I am going to have to put my 2 unpublished YA books to those tests. How lucky you were to NOT have to pay attention to the agent/query portion. Lucky duck.

Chelsea said...

It sounds like you really have something with your detective saga! ;)

Mim said...

Thanks for sharing all this information. I can't wait to read your ghost story. It sounds interesting.

Mary said...

Sounds like a great experience!

And… thanks for sharing all this. You’ve inspired me to write a sixty-scene outline for my WIP. :)

ORION said...

I am a huge retreat fan! I was in Gary Braver's class and we worked on synopses...
I go to the Maui retreat each year and I take away valuable stuff each time.

tomdg said...

What great timing - I just read this - problems with my previous RSS reader :( - and I'm planning on working on my outline for my 2008 NaNoWriMo this evening. Excellent! I can already see I've got the pacing wrong ...

I'm surprised to see you use the phrase "shag-fest". I thought that was just an English expression ... :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, it's really useful!

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