Monday, May 26, 2008

Components of a Good Story, Part Two

Last week, I took my brain, shook out everything I knew about what goes into a story, and scattered the pieces across the table - quite messy. This week, I want to assemble those pieces, then assess how "good" the finished product is.

So let's put this jigsaw puzzle together, shall we?

How is a story put together?
This, partly, depends on the author and her writing process. I plan out all the pieces ahead of time, assemble them, and then write the story. I usually have to make minor adjustments, but the big pieces remain pretty much the same. But a close friend of mine doesn't do this. She prefers to sit down with a general idea, write whatever pops into her head, then arrange all the pieces after she's done. But in both cases, the act of fitting the pieces together are the same.

First, you must create pieces that fit. For example, you wouldn't create a main character who has never left his hometown in the rural midwest, and then make him an acclaimed expert on dogsledding in the Arctic. Those pieces don't fit. But a rural midwesterner could easily be an expert on crops, specifically corn and soybeans, with a dream of dogsledding in the Artic.

Next, we lay out all the completed pieces and attempt to fit them together. Does the Setting fit the characters? The Theme fit the Plot? The Resolution tie up all loose ends? If you have no trouble answering "yes" to all these questions, then you're doing something right. If you answer "not exactly" or "yes, but..." then perhaps you need to rethink a few pieces.

Finally, we fine tune everything. Do scenes transition smoothly? Is the dialog effective? Is the main character's growth gradual? Do his/her choices make sense? Is that word exactly right for this sentence? If not, then figure out why and fix it.

We, as writers, have to think about the story as a whole, as well as the pieces used to put it together. If the pieces don't fit, get new ones. If one of them is missing, or if half of one is missing, then go on a hunt to find it. If it's elusive, look in places where you never thought to look before. Then lay it all out again and put it together. Lather, rinse, repeat.

How do these assembled pieces equal "Good?"
Well, what's the definition of good? Best-seller, award-winner, critically acclaimed, etc. Sounds right, doesn't it? Hmm, perhaps not. The problem is that all these definitions are subjective. They depend on the opinions of random people, of which you have no control.

The definition of good is much, much simpler. It means, something of high quality. So, who determines whether a story is of high quality?

Easy Answer: everyone. "Whoever reads my work will give an opinion - thumbs up or thumbs down. I have no control over this." Yes, that's true. However...

Difficult Answer: you. You are in control of what you write. You know your story better than anyone who will ever read it, so it is up to you to put it together in the best way possible. If you don't know how, learn. Read similar books and find out how those authors did it. Read books on the craft of writing. Attend writing classes and conferences. Talk to fellow writers. Read agent and editor blogs. Do research on the subject matter in your story. Then, sit down and write. And write. And write. Keep writing until you get it right, no matter how long it takes.

The key to all this is objectivity. Learn how to look at your work as if it's not your own. Honestly assess it, compare it to your favorite published books, and ask yourself if it's up to snuff. If it's not, then figure out where your story is lacking and fix it. If you can't do this on your own, then find a trusted reader who will be constructively honest with you. Once you have this, the writing process will get easier.

Notice I said "easier" and not "easy." Writing is never easy - you will probably want to tear out your hair or throw your computer across the room, on multiple occasions. But objectivity will at least move you forward so you don't make the same mistakes over and over again. :)

In any case, no one can predict if a book will become a bestseller, or a classic, or whatever. All we can do is write what's in our hearts and hope that other people enjoy it. That's my strategy at least, for good or ill. :)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Components of a Good Story, Part One

I was having a discussion with some fellow writers the other day about what makes a good book. What goes into it? Why is it good? Most people talked about their favorite books, and why they're favorites. But that seems like a subjective way to answer this question.

So, I attempted to dissect a story from a technical perspective. What goes into a story? How is it put together? How do all these things equal "Good?" Let's tackle these questions one at a time.

What goes into a story?
Well, a story has Opening Lines, Characters, Setting, Theme, Plot (Beginning, Middle, End), Resolution, Voice, and Good Writing.

Opening Lines
This is the hook that grabs the reader and makes him want to keep reading. The hook doesn't have to be dramatic or shocking, it just needs to provoke a question. For example, Charlotte's Web by E. B. White: "Where's Papa going with that ax?" The reader immediately asks himself 1) Where is Papa going with that ax? and 2) Why the heck does he need an ax? We keep reading to find out the answers.

The characters are the people in the story, and they need to be strong. This doesn't mean the main character needs to be a go-get-em hero type. It means he needs to be authentic, believable, well-rounded, and sympathetic. We need to relate to him, so we'll want to follow him to the end of the story. And, the main character needs realistic supporting characters and antagonistic characters, or the reader will simply put the book back on the shelf.

The setting is where it all takes place. It needs to be vivid and capture not only the physical details, but the flavor of the place. The reader needs to feel like he's there, hearing the breeze rustle the leaves on the trees, feeling the roughness of the worn fabric on the arms of the sofa, or tasting that deep dish pizza at the cheese oozes over his tongue.

The theme is the main message the story conveys. This is the heart of the story, what the author really wants to say, and one of the main reasons it was written. And it must be subtle, almost to the point of unnoticeable. Readers don't like to be hit over the head with morals or lessons. They just want to enjoy a great story.

Plot (Beginning, Middle, End)
The plot is how the story moves along, and contains the conflict that makes it interesting. Simply put, the plot should have the reader asking himself "What's going to happen next? I have to turn the page!" It doesn't have to be an exhausting adventure of non-stop action. Just a well-paced story that interests the reader. "That's all?" you say? Well, not really. It's extremely difficult to create an engaging plot, but it's possible to learn how through writing classes, critique groups, books on the craft of writing, etc.

This is the very end of the story where the main character achieves his goal(s) and all loose ends are wrapped up. It should be unexpected yet logical, satisfying yet leaves a bit to the imagination, and complete. If any one of these elements is missing, you risk losing readers of future books. I, for one, feel as though I've wasted my precious time if the resolution isn't satisfying. And I'm less likely to pick up another book by that author.

This is kind of a nebulous aspect of writing. It's where the reader keeps reading, but doesn't really know why. I suppose you could say that Voice is similar to the flavor of the story, the nuances of the main character, the subleties of the time period, etc. It's hard to define, hard to teach, and therefore hard to master. Some might argue that you either have it or you don't, but I, personally, don't believe that. :)

Good writing
This is probably the hardest component to get "right." The writing needs to put the reader into the story (show not tell, authentic dialog, appropriate descriptions, etc). Truly great writing is transparent - the reader doesn't read a sentence and then think "wait, I didn't get that; let me read it again. Or even "wow, that was a beautiful and elegant choice of words." Instead, the reader should be so absorbed in the story that he takes your choice of words for granted. I, personally, take that as the highest compliment, ever.

That's my take on what goes into a story. Anyone have anything to add?

That leaves us with the remaining two questions: How is a story put together, and What makes it good? I'll tackle those in my next post.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Chat with Harold Underdown!

The Institutue of Children's Literature is hosting a live chat with children's editor, fountain of knowledge, and author of The Completel Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books, Harold Underdown!

Next thursday, May 22nd, at 7pm, CST, get ready to pick Harold's brain on all things related to the publishing path. For more information, go to

See you there!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The White Darkness and Library Addictions

In an attempt to put a love of books into my sons' lives, I've created a saturday morning tradition of visiting our local library. Let me tell ya, it's working! They eagerly climb into the car, clutching last week's books in their little hands, and bouncing in their seats until we pull into the library parking lot. They run inside, drop their books into the return slot, then run into the children's section to pull more books off the shelf. My five year old is addicted to the Magic School Bus series right now, and my three year old wants any book that has to do with trains. It's so funny to watch them perusing the books, being careful to whisper - because we have to be quiet in libraries, of course - and carefully choosing the ones they want to bring home. Makes a mom proud. :)

When they've picked out their books, we meander over to the YA section so I can choose some reading material. Last week, I brought home The White Darkness and Wildwood Dancing. I only made it through The White Darkness - partly because it was a busy week, but also because the story was so unpredictable that my head felt like it was spinning. :) The story starts out with the main character, Sym, gushing over her Uncle Victor as they prepare for a weekend trip to Paris. Sly Uncle Victor turns the Paris trip into Sym's dream vacation - three weeks in Antartica! I don't want to give away the ending, or the many twists that kept me glued to the pages, but let's just say that Uncle Victor remains sly throughout the story...and some of it rubs off on Sym. Very well done.

I read a few pages of Wildwood Dancing last night, and so far it's amazing. I shouldn't have any trouble finishing it before our next beloved library trip. At this rate, I'll have finished the library's YA section in no time - not because I'm a fast reader, but because it's kind of small. My library has picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels in spades. Zillions, tons, scads of those books crowd the shelves. But, for some reason, the YA section is only a few shelves. It holds the most popular bestsellers, the award winners, and a few local authors. That's it. Kind of makes me sad...even makes me want to buy a bunch that I know to be great, then donate them. Hmm, I think I just might do this, little by little, book by book. :)

What about the rest of you? What does your library have to offer? Have you donated books to beef up a skimpy section?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Are You Hooked?

Authoress Anonymous is having another contest! This time, she's posting Blurb submissions - the short summary you'd read on the jacket flap of a book. Submissions will be anonymously posted to the blog, and any and all are welcome to comment on how effectively it "hooks" the reader. So if you'd like some feedback on your blurb, then head on over and submit your stuff! I've submitted mine, so feel free to add your comments on how effective/ridiculous it is. :)

Submissions are due by 9am, EST, on Thursday, May 8.

Friday, May 02, 2008


ac·ci·dent [ak-si-duhnt] –noun
1. an undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally and usually results in harm, injury, damage, or loss; casualty; mishap: automobile accidents.
2. Law. such a happening resulting in injury that is in no way the fault of the injured person for which compensation or indemnity is legally sought.
3. any event that happens unexpectedly, without a deliberate plan or cause.
4. chance; fortune; luck: I was there by accident.
5. a fortuitous circumstance, quality, or characteristic: an accident of birth.
6. Philosophy. any entity or event contingent upon the existence of something else.
7. Geology. a surface irregularity, usually on a small scale, the reason for which is not apparent.

Geez, how can one word have so many different meanings??

I was in a car accident last week. My first ever. Well, the first where I was driving. It involved me and the treads on a construction vehicle, so you can guess who won. :)

I was driving on a four lane, busy road. A treaded excavator was sitting on a flatbed truck, parked along side the road to my right. A delivery truck was to my left, slowly veering toward my lane. I'm not claustrophobic, but with the treads on one side and the truck on the other...let's just say I was fighting panic. The next thing I knew, the treads on the excavator had shredded the right side of my car, as well as the front tire. There was damage to the back of my car as well, which didn't come from the treads, and I have NO idea what happened there. My husband thinks someone hit me, knocking me into the treads. But, honestly, it all happened too fast for my poor little brain.

Fortunately, I was fine - just sore from getting tossed against my seat belt - and my kids were not in the car. But it left me wondering about the sheer number of things that can change on a dime, the snap of your fingers, the blink of an eye.

This resulted in a weird, depressed funk that I just couldn't shake. I felt like I should be more grateful that no one was hurt and my kids didn't witness the event. Essentially, I was denying myself the right to freak out over the fact that I'd been in a car accident. It took me forever to figure it out, and I only sorted it out with the help of some writer friends (thanks, guys!). One also pointed out the silver lining in all this: if any of my characters are in a car accident, I'll be able to accurately write the scene. :)