Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bumps in the Path

Okay, so now that I warned you all that I'd be disappearing, I've become all chatty. How contrarian of me!

I wanted to talk about a couple of problems I ran into with my recent project, BEASTOLOGIST. For one, it was a chapter book, which is shorter than standard middle grade, coming in at around 15,000 words rather than the 25,000 to 45,000 of standard middle grade (not to mention the whopping 80,000 words the Theo books weigh in at.)

Writing short is hard ::she whined:: I think that’s one of the reasons the scope of chapter book stories tends to be smaller: a contest, a rivalry, a small conflict within the family. But I wanted to write a fantasy-adventure involving a complicated backstory. Not to mention needing to accomplish the basics; dimensional characters, plot layers, etc. Phew. Every word had to carry triple duty. If you think about it, not a bad exercise in seeing just how much you can cut down to the story bones and still have a (hopefully!) compelling tale.

Another issue I bumped into was that of The Withdrawn Protagonist, which is actually something I bump up against fairly often. I am attracted to quiet, reserved, sometimes even withdrawn protagonists. I like to explore the series of conditions and situations that force them out of their shell; that give them the courage to step out of their voluntary shelter and engage with life and begin recognizing their own personal power.

But in order to show this journey, I have to introduce the character while they are still withdrawn and somewhat timid and cautious.

Which also bumps into one of the endless craft questions: how much do we need to know and understand of the character before the main plot really takes off. Some people (with whom I argue much) say the physical action of the main plot needs to start immediately. As in that very first scene. However as a reader, I have found that I like to bond with a character first, to better understand their flaws and strengths and problems in their lives before bounding off on this big adventure.

If I’ve had a chance to bond with the character, I care more about what happens to him (or her.) Otherwise it’s extraordinarily easy for me to put the book down, even with a rollicking plot, because I simply don’t care enough or can’t feel the depth I need for a satisfying story.

As a writer, to overcome this, I find myself using bridge conflicts a lot. Which I’ll have to talk about in my next post because I have to go make dinner...


PJ Hoover said...

Ack. The thought of writing something short seems really hard! But a really good exercise.

Anonymous said...

Robin, your timing is *perfect*! I actually came to your blog to see if you'd posted anything new because I wanted to ask you to post about this very issue. I seem to encounter themes with writers now and then--lots of people struggling with similar issues--and right now it's a question of "how do you let the reader in without getting into too much navel-gazing?"

--Agent E.