Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Clarity, Contest and a Concert

This is a three-part post today, none of the three parts connected but I wanted all of this out here anyway. We'll see how it goes.

Part 1: Clarity

I've been working on revisions to my novel, which an agent would like to submit for publication if I ever send him back the revised ms. Soon, Jeff, I promise. The biggest piece of advice I can give you about revisions at this point? Put down the pen (or step away from the keyboard) until you can answer the following questions, in one sentence each:

What does my protagonist want?
Why does he want it?
Who is stopping him from having that?
What does that person want?
What are the consequences of the protagonist getting/not getting what he wants?

They seem like simple, obvious questions, but I really think that most of us can't--at first, anyway--give simple, clear answers to these questions. And that means that our stories themselves lack clarity. Oh, heck, let's not say "lack clarity;" let's go ahead and say that our stories tend to be vague when it comes to characters and motivations and theme, because we ourselves are vague about it. If someone tries to pin us down about what our characters are like, we wriggle around and claim that we can't explain our protagonists, because they're complicated, well-rounded characters. Which is just bosh. We can't explain them when we don't know them. So spend as long as you need to figure out who your characters are. When you do know, the story itself (in my experience) becomes crystal clear and you see immediately what parts of your plot or prose work and what parts don't, and you'll be able to tell the story with narrative clarity for which your agent and editor and readers will all thank you.

Part 2: Contest

Barbara Kingsolver, author of "The Poisonwood Bible" among other very good books, is having a contest for unpublished novelists. The Bellwether Prize for fiction consists of a $25,000USD cash payment to the author of the winning manuscript as well as guaranteed publication. The works must address social justice, which does not mean it has to be literary fiction; I believe genre fiction is also allowed. After all, Ursula K. LeGuin has been a past judge for the prize, and we all know about her. So check it out, socially-conscious authors!

Part 3: Concert

This isn't writing-related at all, but accordion virtuoso Maggie Kim has liver cancer and needs a transplant. She also needs the money for the transplant, so some of her friends are having a benefit concert. If you're in Seattle or thereabouts, come down for it:


  1. Thank you so much, Scott, for the post on Clarity and the questions. I've been trying to answer those for months. While hiking this morning, I think I finally figured it out. We shall see. One thing I realized was the wants/needs of my antagonist are of equal import as those of the protagonist because this is what creates believable tension. And I love that you said once we can answer the questions the story becomes clear. I'm already seeing the fog lift.
    Part II--A friend of mine, Gayle Brandeis, won Kingsolver's prize in the past for "The Book of Dead Birds." Shameless shout out from me to read her book.

  2. great post. excellent and true advice.

  3. Thanks, Scott! I just spent the past two days mapping out my character's motivations. And oh wow... everything has come together like never before. I thought I knew what these people wanted until I sat down to write it out.

    I would add one more question to your list - What does your character need to do to get what he wants?

    I would also suggest doing this for every main character in the story. Heck, I even did it for my secondary characters, and that helped too.

    This is part of "mapping" in my opinion - it's helping us see the story from further away, bringing it more into focus.

  4. Tricia: That's a good point about asking what the antagonist wants, even if the antagonist isn't a person (it could be a government, a system, a creature, or a conflicting impulse in the protagonist, even. Maybe).

    Good on Gayle. I've heard of her book; I'll have to go find it now.

    Kelly: Thanks! The more we know, the better we can tell the story.

    Martin: One other thing I try to remember to ask is about each scene. "What does this scene have to do with the ending of the book?" If I've got no answer, why do I have the scene?

    Michelle: I think that's a good additional question, but I might break it into two parts:

    1. What does your protagonist need to do to accomplish his goals?

    2. What does your protagonist actually do to accomplish his goals?

    It's fun when they aren't the same answer during Act 2!

  5. good post, Scott.

    So, i've noticed that instead of growing in a linear fashion (as a writer, i suppose i should add), i seem to be growing recursively, spiraling upward (i hope, anyway)...

    I say this because I keep revisiting all of these same issues, just at deeper, more complex levels (or higher, as the case may be).

    How many times do I have to revisit characterization, motivation, etc? As many times as it takes, I guess...but each time I do, it seems another layer of understanding or shading or something is added that heightens my awareness in some undefinable way.

    i'm not say thing that's a bad thing -- but it's frustrating sometimes to feel like i've simply made a loop.

  6. Alex: That's a good point, and very true. I think that artists can never lose sight of the basic components of their craft. Musicians practice scales, arpeggios and etudes every day. Dancers warm up with the basic positions every day. Even though our foundational skills eventually become unconscious, we can't ignore them. Not that the analogy is perfect, and not that we can't find new ways of looking at our craft. Still, every time I sit down to write, I revisit all of the same issues of craft. I just hope that some day I'll deal with most of these issues in the first draft instead of the subsequent ones. Stories are just immense, complex things and I can't keep the whole thing in my head at one time.

  7. Scott, good point. You should add those on there for future reference. It's all about figuring out where the tension is and how to manipulate it to the story's advantage.

  8. Those are very good questions to ask yourself. I may have to tape them to my computer for future reference.

  9. Hey Scott,
    Your list brought up a lot of gross feeling in my belly. It took me years to really be able to pin down what my protag Bao wanted. I always had that vague notion, but couldn't come out and say it. I feel like I can now, and it made the writing so much easier. I wish I could go to Seattle Sunday. That would be fantab.

  10. Great post. Your list completely identified why I am often stuck, which I have ironically come to realize lately. I have a general idea of something I want to write about, but usually I don't have the whole picture. This post has really helped me solidify the idea that I need to have at least some framework, even if I don't map out the whole thing in intricate detail (at first anyway).


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