Friday, January 23, 2009

Of Plot Threads and Sub Plots

Now that I’m diving into revisions for Theo 3, I’ve been thinking a lot about subplots. I tend to have a lot of them in the Theodosia books. Actually, what I have in the Theodosia books aren’t so much subplots as they are plot threads, which may be a distinction only I get, but it’s important to me.

I think of subplots as plots that are totally separate from the protagonist—say a love story involving the best friend, or a sibling dealing with a bully at school.

A plot thread, on the other hand, is simply another area of the protagonist’s life that the main plot affects. So using Theo as an example, the main plot is her dealing with some horribly cursed artifact. However, her actions in dealing with that impact her relationship with her parents, the other curators, her brother, and her grandmother, ergo plot threads rather than subplots.

For a really specific example, in Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris, Theo’s dealings with the Arcane Order of the Black Sun is a plot thread because it is a consequence of Theo’s primary actions in dealing with the story problem. The governesses aren’t a subplot either because their appearance in her life is caused by Theo’s behavior as she tries to cope with the story problem. In fact, the only true subplot in that book is Will and the Grim Nipper, because that dynamic is entirely separate from Theo’s actions. However, like all subplots should, it does intersect the main plot at the end. This is probably a fairly fine distinction, but one that feels important to me.

In Werewolf Rising, the Luna and Ranger relationship is a subplot and truthfully, probably doesn’t intersect back with the main plot as solidly as it should. It was, however, an effective way to show the social constraints of living in a wolf pack, rather than just tell of the rules, so in that way I think it worked as an echo of the themes Luc was dealing with; would he submit to blind obedience like Luna, the most extreme example of what that total submission could cost an individual?

It seems to me that good subplots should foreshadow the protagonist’s struggle, act as an echo of the themes the protagonist is dealing with, set up a foil, or illustrate the road not taken.

In Theo 3 I have five (okay, five and a half) plot threads. However, because of the greater amount of character development in these books, one of the plot threads has almost turned into a subplot: Stilton and his relationship with the Black Sun. Initially, it was a plot thread because Theo came under their attention due to her curse-removing actions, but the more time we’ve spent with Stilton, the more he’s developed as a character in his own right, and now has his own arc which, again, echoes some of the themes Theo is dealing with, and intersects with the main plot at the end.

One of the reasons this distinction is important to me is because I don’t think all books need subplots—a second plot line separate from the protagonist’s—but I do think most books need plot threads. The story needs to show us how the main story problem affects the characters in all aspects of their lives. Because the truth is, if something happens in our life that is momentous enough to cause us to change, that change is going to reverberate throughout all facets of our lives. You know how it is. When something happens to you, an accident, you lose your job, you have a major fight with your best friend, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You still have to relate to your parents or your spouse or your children, you still have to show up at work, do you chores, get to school every day. And because we’re human, the emotional tension and ripples caused by the main problem are felt in the other areas of our lives. And I think by pulling this into the story, it gives a more richly textured plot AND character—those plot threads SHOW the character in the act of changing and dealing with the main problem.

It also helps with causality. Often the characters own actions are what make her situation worse (because really, aren’t we all our own worst enemy?) So by making sure the plot affects all areas of a character’s life, you give yourself lots of opportunity for the character to make things worse for herself.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Reading Fool

I haven't been on a reading bender like this in years. Love. It. It reminds me of summer vacation when I was a kid and the minute school's out you know there's nothing between you and all those lovely books you can't wait to read.

I've been reading a lot of YA, which isn't surprising since I have a YA in the mental hopper at the moment. And a lot of fae stories, which is a bit of a surprise. My guess is that I have one of those gestating down in my subconscious' depths.

Sadly, there have been a handful of books I've put down about 25% of the way in. I'm hoping once this initial reading frenzy has subsided, I'll be able to enjoy more leisurely reads. The problem I run into with each of these books that I've put down is that there is no escalation in tension, which is the third scenario I referred to in last week's post.

I have discovered that I read first for voice, then character, then plot, but really I need all three to keep going. Even if the voice is there and I love the characters, chances are if I don't get a sense of forward movement or tightening tension by about the quarter way mark, I'll put the book down. Not always, but often. Yes, I realize this reflects poorly on me as a reader. However, I'm trying to turn it into a lesson I can take back to my own writing. :-)

The thing is,it doesn't have to be bang up action, but some sort of tension, a sense that things are about to get worse for the characters, that forces are gathering just outside their vision, that they're about to walk into a trap, that something is going to happen and it's going to make things worse in some way--it can be either emotional or physical. Some forward momentum. The funny thing is, even if a book stars with a bang or tense action scene, it still has to escalate to keep my attention; it can't be a one note drum beat of the same level of tension throughout, even if you start out high, you need to leave yourself someplace to go.

So now that I've figured that out, I need to go see how it applies to my own works in progress.

And in very happy news, I finally heard back from one of my beta readers on Theo 3. It doesn't' suck! Yeay!

Friday, January 16, 2009

fAiRy gOdSisTeRs, iNk 2nd Annual SCBWI Summer Conference Scholarship!

fAiRy gOdSisTeRs, iNk announces its 2nd Annual SCBWI Summer Conference Scholarship!

FGI is offering a $1500 scholarship for a SCBWI member to attend the August 2009 conference in Los Angeles. The 2008 scholarship to Linda Lodding of the Netherlands.

To apply for the 2009 scholarship, submit a 250-word, double-spaced essay describing what you hope to accomplish by attending this year's summer conference. Send your essay to:

The application deadline is April 15th, 2009. The winner will be notified May 15th, 2009.

fAiRy gOdSiStErS, iNk. is a small, benevolent squadron of Santa Barbara children's book authors who believe in the magic of passing forward lucky breaks, bounty, and beneficence, as so many have done for us. We are: Thalia Chaltas, Mary Hershey, Valerie Hobbs, Robin LaFevers and Lee Wardlaw.

If you would like to share some fairy dust of your own to help send a writer to the 2009 Summer Conference, FGI welcomes your donations!

For more information about the grant and/or making a donation, please visit the FGI website at

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Weak Spots in the Story Fabric

So clearly one of the things my muse* is wanting to do this week is READ! And not much else. And I'm very much okay with that because I feel like I only read three books last year that weren't for research. Also, when I'm in the throes of writing a book I become the finickiest reader on the planet. If a book doesn't feed my current project, my muse wants nothing to do with it. I can't tell you how many times I've tried to pick up a book four different times, unable to get into it, then the fifth time I picked it up, devoured it in one sitting. (And I have to say, it's highly annoying not to be able to trust your own taste sometimes.) But I digress.

One of the truly great things about immersing myself in (other people's) fiction is that certain patterns begin to emerge and it makes it easier to get a handle on some things. One thing I've been noticing a ton in the last week is certain times that are automatically structural weak spots in a book, places where it is oh-so-easy to break that fine thread that connects the reader to the story: POV shifts and jumping around in time. (There is actually a third scenario where the connection lags, but I'll talk about that in a separate post.)

This is something I've know on an academic level, but because I've been on a reading binge, it is so obvious to me where my attention starts to wander. Time shifts seem especially lethal, especially when those shifts are not in a linear fashion. The truth is, in spite of the brilliance that was The Time Traveller's Wife, for most of us, time is linear and it becomes very difficult to track with constant flashbacks and visits back in time. Those are the moments I'm most likely to set the book aside.

So this has me thinking a lot about the craft choices we make. How each thing we use gains us something, but also brings it's own set of negatives along with it, and for me at least, one of the tricks of writing is analyzing if what I gain is worth what I've lost. And I have to say that for me, I am not seeing that many scenarios where time shifts add enough to the book to make up for the connection lost. For that's what's at stake; the reader's connection to the story, to that character and that conflict and that build in dramatic tension. And if you jump back three years, all of a sudden you've broken that connection, that anchor line, and now the reader is floundering.

There are two exceptions to the above. The first, and most commonly used and easily tolerated, is having the book open at a dramatic point in time, then moving forward a few years, such as in a prologue. That most often totally works for me. The second exception is if the author has raised such a compelling dramatic question about the character's past, that the reader is salivating to know what happened. I think then, since the author is answering a question the reader wants desperately to know, it can work without losing that connection. An example of this is BROKEN FOR YOU, which I blogged about a few days ago. We are so curious about these womens' past lives, that when the author breaks away to fill us in, it is a relief.

Now POV shifts are harder. Many many books have multiple POVs, and when they're done right, having those different viewpoints adds so much to a book. But time after time I see POV shifts that just annoy the ever-loving spit out of me because they are tearing me away from the character I'm totally absorbed in and plopping me down in another person's head, for whom I have no connection at the moment.

Again, I think the answer here is to build to it. While we're in Character A's POV, have the action of the book and the dramatic tension build in such a way that the reader is dying to see what Character B is thinking/feeling. That way when the switch is made, it's satisfying a reader's desire to know more, rather than pulling them away from what they're absorbed in.

Of course, all this is based on my own reader taste and preferences. I'd love to hear anyone else's thoughts on this subject.

*I want you all to know that I use the term Muse with my tongue firmly in my cheek. It's just that I am fascinated by how my subconscious works, and it amuses me to think of it as separate from me, even though I know that it is not.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Still restlessly moving about the house, waiting for my muses to settle on what they want to work on next. The good part about this is that I have tons of reading time.

I just last night finished HOW I LIVE NOW. Oh my god. What an amazing book. Incredible voice, story, everything.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


I'm officially done with Beastologist Two. Yeay! And it's not even due until Thursday! I was very lucky and the book was a dream to write.

However, I am now somewhat at odds with myself. I won't have revisions back on my pending mss for another couple of weeks, so I'm sort of floundering as to what to work on next. I know my muse will come up with something soon, it just be at a bit of a loss. Usually my writing time is pretty well scheduled.

But mostly, it's always a hugely satisfying feeling to finish a manuscript.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Book Recommendation- BROKEN FOR YOU

I don't normally recommend adult books here, but I have just finished the most amazing book, BROKEN FOR YOU, by Stephanie Kallos. OMG. Loved. It. Just when I despair that I am a slothful, shallow reader who isn't able to stick with literary books, I find this book and devour it, making me believe that I'm not a deficient reader, but rather a highly selective one. This book is that fabulous.

For one, it pulls me in as a reader and gets past all my writer sensors, that in itself is a huge accomplishment. But another thing that it does is break rules, and I love rule breaking when it's done well. Sure, one has to understand gravity before one can learn to fly, but then, such flight!

And lastly, the book turns my whole writing world on its head in the way it approaches the story: it breaks my writing world wide open, showing me possibilities and approaches I'd never even considered. Sort of a, You can do that? moment. A few other books have done this, Tolkien when I was fourteen, OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon, WAR FOR THE OAKS by Emma Bull, amd KUSHIEL'S DART by Jacqueline Carey, to name a few.

I love it when that happens. It's like looking through a kaleidoscope, then having someone twist it and voila! everything lines up in a thoroughly different, but none the less beautiful, way. It's even given me the courage to tackle a couple of stories that I put on the back burner for not thinking I was allowed to write those kind of stories. (I know, I know--I have no idea where I think all these story police are lurking--I never said I was rational!)

Anyway, when you're in the mood for a rich, funny, tender, emotional story of redemption, read this book. You won't be disappointed!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Of Characters and Breadcrumbs

So, I found the answer to my first act problem, and as usual the answer lay in two things: the character and breadcrumbs.

The first thing I did after isolating the problem was to do some character journaling, to peel back the layers of the onion and really get a handle on Nate's emotional wounds and scars. And lo and behold, there they were; his timidity, his fearfulness, his conflicting goals of wanting to be safe and wanting to win the respect and love of his only remaining relative. Once I had those firmly in mind, I simply had to brainstorm how those scars and conflicts would manifest themselves into action. It didn't have to be big, sweeping, plot altering action--but it had to be dramatic enough to create tension in the scene.

Which is where the breadcrumbs came in. As usual, the Girls in the Basement left me plenty of breadcrumbs to lead me to a solution. Little hints and clues as to how those character traits could end up creating trouble for the protaganist--he tries this, but it makes things worse because...And the answers were right there, waiting for me to trip across them.

Today's lesson? (Of which I've been reminded about 327 times now) Trust your subconscience. It knows things. Important things about your story.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Revision Blues

So, I'm up to my elbows in revisions for Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist: The Basilisk's Lair. The good news, the second and third act are solid with plenty of conflict and dramatic tension. The bad news, the first act is a bit...flat. And actually, the first half of the first act is solid, there are just about three chapters that feel flat to me. Gah! The problem is, I need them there because the protagonist travels from point A to B, and it's the first time he's seen Africa--so it's a significant event in his life. But right now it's reading like a travelogue, so I need to find some sort of dramatic tension or push/pull dynamic to insert in there.

This is, however, the reason it is so helpful to write in acts. I can evaluate each act and clearly see where I have the problem and what significant event (turning point) I'm building to.

Now I'll write down a brief description of each scene and (1) identify the purpose of the scene--why it's necessary to move the plot forward; (2) the protgaonist's goal or desire in the scene--if any (and I think it's that if any part that's my problem); and (3) what the source of conflict or dramatic tension is. For those scenes that are lacking any of those three elements, I'll have to rewrite so that all three are in there.

My fail safe test for whether a scene is where it needs to be is the value test. The value test comes from Robert McKee's STORY, wherein he talks about a scene needing to "turn a human value" meaning, take the character on a bit of an emotional journey of some sort; from happy to sad, from hopeful to despairing, from trusting to suspicious. If the character makes that sort of change during the scene, then I'm usually satisfied that there's enough happening that it can stay.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

New Year - New Look!

Ta da! I bet you didn't recognize me, did you? I decided I needed to spruce the place up a bit, give it a look and feel that was more in line with my books. After searching high and lo, I found the perfect template. And it was easy-squeezy to do!

Of course, as per usual, one of my new year's resolutions is to blog more regularly over here. I'm hoping a pretty new face lift will help inspire me.

Also in this new year, I want to read a book a week. It feels like my recreational reading has gone the way of the dodo, so I want to commit to making room in my life for that again. A book a week; fifty books in 2009. I’m off to a good start. I just finished THE CHINA GARDEN by Liz Barry, which was very good. Four stars, I think. I also gobbled up THE BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS by Shannon Hale in one day. Loved it. The ending in particular really nailed the book for me.

I also managed to read an adult historical fantasy that I was hugely excited about. It was okay. It would have been great but it was waaay too long and overwritten. I get that they were going for an old, Jane Austen/Bronte sort of language style, but it made the book a slog.

Both boys are back to school now, and I've quit my part time job. I am planning a lovely two and a half months in my writing cave. It’s been a while since I’ve just been able to just focus on my writing and filling my well, so that has me very excited. I have one mss due to my editor in mid January, then it’s Revision City until March 1, but I’m hoping to outline and maybe rough in the next books in the series and get ahead in my writing schedule. If I do that, then I can get to some of my other, non-contracted projects even sooner! No that I don't adore my contracted projects. I do! It's just my muse had a bad case of ADD.