February 23, 2010

Subject: How do you balance vacation with writing?

Sorry for the long absence! I lugged my computer along with me for mid-winter break, confident that I would find time to work on my short story, write a few blog posts, and draft my novel synopsis. And as with most other vacations, I managed to do no work at all.

Of course, a vacation is a vacation, right? I’m always encouraging my husband (ok, nagging him) to set email aside when we head out of town, and yet I hold myself to a different standard. I want to continue my work. The dictum “Write every day” haunts me (ok, nags at me). I feel guilty for not working, even though I’m on vacation. (Definition: freedom from occupation.)

I believe that part of this expectation to work is a result of being a mother first and a writer second. I’ve learned to squeeze my work schedule into specific time periods. I adjust my schedule around calls to pick up a sick child or changes in carpool plans. So when a school holiday rolls around, in my mind, I plan to write whenever I have the chance.

It never works that way. The moment I head out of town, my mind turns blank. Sometimes, I never even open my computer. I rarely jot anything down in my notebook. Why can’t I be like those authors who spin their stories out in their minds when away from their writing instruments? Why can’t I be more disciplined, like Charles Darwin, and find inspiration in my surroundings?

It’s as if my mind puts up a little sign: “On vacation.” The premises, for a short time, are as empty as my house. Vacant. Did you know that vacation and vacant share the same root word? According to Wordnik, the Latin word vacare means “to be empty.”

Of course, if you’re empty, then you have plenty of room to fill the well, and while I didn’t write at all on vacation, I read plenty. And more importantly, I spent time with my family, which is truly fulfilling.

What are your feelings about vacation? One advantage of being a writer is the ability to work anywhere. Do you try to write while on vacation? Or do you truly get away? If you do work, how do you balance your time. I'd love to hear your ideas and thoughts.

February 3, 2010

Subject: Plot Maps

Over on StorySleuths today, I wrote about the four plot lines in Marcelo in the Real World, our February book. To prepare for the posting, I made a map of all the scenes in the book using 3x5 cards. On each card, I wrote the chapter, setting, page numbers, scene number and a brief summary of the key action.
Once I had all of the scenes listed, I laid them out on my kitchen table and looked for patterns, logical groupings (scene sequences in film-speak), plot lines and structure.

This photo (sorry for the lack of detail) shows the entire novel, all 53 scenes. The two columns on the left represent the beginning and the column of six cards on the right represent the climax and resolution.

Why do I do this? Having a visual representation of a story’s plot helps me understand how the author composed the book on an abstract level. For instance, when I read Marcelo in the Real World, the pacing at the beginning seemed slow. It took a while for the story to really get going. The cards show why I felt that way: Stork uses the first quarter of the book (those two left-most columns) to set up Marcelo’s current world and his first day at work in the mail room.

Another interesting discovery I made was that Stork introduced the fourth plot line (the mystery about the girl in the photograph) exactly halfway through the book. That plot line carries the book forward and significantly impacts Marcelo’s attempt to do well at work. This is a good example of introducing a plot line to beef up the middle of the work.

Besides looking at how the scenes worked together, I also marked plot lines or layers, to use a Donald Maass term, in different colors. The card shown above is what Maass would call a “node of conjunction,” where several plot layers intersect (see my posting at StorySleuths for more detail on nodes of conjunction).

Marcelo in the Real World is not the first book I’ve mapped in this way. I made several maps when working on critical essays for the Hamline MFA program. A map for The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt revealed how Schmidt wove together a variety of plot layers and subplots in a narrative that spanned an entire school year.

I made another plot map for That Girl Lucy Moon by Amy Timberlake. For that book, I looked at plot layers and nodes of conjunction, just as I did with Marcelo. Chapters in Timberlake's book featured multiple scenes related to different plot layers, all of which I tracked on several pieces of paper taped together.

Again, I used color to track plot layers. This image shows how many chapters incorporated several different plot layers at once.

I put teal squares around the nodes of conjunction, and I also looked for specific places such as the mid-point and turning points. In addition to looking at plot layers, I marked Lucy’s emotional feelings in red.

So how does this help me as a writer? I should note that I don’t make maps like this when I am drafting my story. I don’t always have a clear idea where I’m going, so a detailed map would be impossible for me to draw. It would be useful after a decent draft to identify holes or imbalances in story threads.

And I don’t make a map of every book I read, of course. It takes a few hours to complete. However, making a map is worthwhile when I want to understand how a particular book works. That Girl Lucy Moon teaches me to keep plot layers moving throughout the book and to refer to my character’s emotional state frequently. Marcelo in the Real World shows one way to build up a sagging middle through a new plot line.

Do any of you writers out there map favorite books or dig into their structure? I’m curious to know about other ways to develop a bird’s-eye-view of either a published work or work-in-progress.