James Van Pelt, writing, and the old black and white video of a woman in leotards multi tasking her plates, poles, rope, and exercise ball will forever go together in my mind now. James tells us writing is like keeping a bunch of plates spinning on a pole as you jump rope on a big ball, simultaneously making sure none of the plates stop spinning and fall off the poles. It’s taking all the things you have learned about character building, plot structure, dialogue, and putting each on a plate, then spinning those plates into a story that is worthy of you.
He shared many tips on how to do this in his presentation of “A Unified Field Theory of Nearly Everything to Write Stronger Fiction (and how to avoid editorial rejection)” at the Western Slope Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers event in January.
Start with good writing. Editors don’t throw out bad stories, they throw out writing that isn’t professional.That is probably the most important tip.
Here are some more:
Describe and create action. Don’t do “She stood at the window and looked at the landscape.” Describe the landscape, not just a tree – an aspen. What is she doing, thinking, how is she interacting with the window, the landscape, her thoughts? Where is the action? Action can be both internal and external.
Where is her “pluck”? That essence of a character that makes them fight to the end while being true to themselves is pluck. What makes you want to stand up and cheer her on? What is it about her that keeps you reading? How does she demonstrate this willpower to keep going when the going gets tough? What makes her your hero?Your character is not a wimp. If she is, she’s going to find her core strength. As readers we don’t root for passive people who are boring, do nothing, feel nothing, think nothing, experience nothing and never change. We need to want to tag along for the wild ride that she is going on.
Don’t let your dialogue be numbing. Dialogue is narration. Stuff is said, responded to, commented upon, interruptions happen. A great way to reveal character is for her do or think the opposite of what she is saying. Have her change the subject, or not respond. And remember no one talks in perfect sentences.
Plot is another spinning plate – your plucky character is going to do something, and effects are going to happen, cascades of actions will ripple and have to be reacted to again. The plot is about cause and effect repeating in an upward spiral of tension. With each action/reaction comes conflict. Your character wants something; but of course the story is plotting against her, things stand in her way, she herself stands in her way sometimes, what she wants and what she needs are in conflict. She has to make sacrifices, reach down deep to her center to get to the end of her story.
Remember that your story is also a circle. Your first pages should reflect the end. Wrap up those loose threads. If your character needs a gun to shoot someone, you need to put the gun in the story before it ends up by magic in her hand. If she doesn’t believe in using guns, we need to know why. What happened to change her mind? How does she change after she fired that gun? Show us the conflict she goes through, the highs and the lows she took to get to this point.
At the end of all those conflicts is the epiphany- the moral, the theme, the point where the reader nods and gets it. It was sprinkled and shown throughout the story.
Writers don’t write their first drafts at a professional level. Professionalism happens during the editing portion. This is when you keep all your plates spinning. You’ve tightened up your prose, made sure there is no clichés of characters or situations. The sentence length is varied. None of it is vague or redundant with a bunch of linking verbs. You’ve searched for which plate is empty, and which is overflowing, and adjusted them to make this wonderful story into great writing where the editor and reader says to friends “You just have to read this, its incredible!”