I’ve been bad with the fan mail lately. Here’s one from a young writer:
Hi Mr. Preller,
I hope you remember me. You wrote a message in one of my jigsaw Jones books saying that I have talent and that I should keep writing. Well I have been writing a lot since you taught me “show, don’t tell” in fifth grade at Hamagrael. Can you please give me some advice on how to be a better writer? I am writing a novella, an anthology, and I am not sure if I am ready to start a novel draft. How can I make a plot more interesting? What can you tell me about the editing and revising process?
To my surprise, I replied at some length:
It’s nice to hear from you again. Yes, I remember.
The only difference between a novella and a novel is length — and length is largely determined by story. Some stories take more time to tell. At some point, either in writing this novella or another story, you’ll find that the telling of it requires more words. The story will naturally grow longer, because there’s simply more to be said.
It’s a funny about plots, I always come back to a very simple idea:
Make something up!
Really, in some ways, it’s that simple. If you find the story drags, or if you sense that you are getting bored, it might be time to insert some new element into the story. A new conflict, a new obstacle, something. Or it might be the opposite — time to take something out, to cut the fat, eliminate (cautionary note: don’t worry too much about cutting early in the process; first you build, later you can trim). As a writer, I worry an awful lot about pacing, the speed of the story, how quickly the plot moves along. I learned some of those lessons while writing the Jigsaw Jones series, where I balanced the elements of the traditional mystery (problem, clue, clue, clue, solution: fence-post scenes that gave me a powerful through-line for the narrative), with all the little asides and explorations I like to include to provide depth.
Am I confusing you? I don’t mean to, but I remember you as being pretty smart, so I’m keeping my answer at a high level, writer to writer.
Sticking with Jigsaw, you can look at those stories as containing two separate strands: 1) The mystery, the propelling force that pushes plot forward to its conclusion, like an arrow shooting through the pages of the book; and 2) All the other stuff — the character development, small moments at the dinner table, or the classroom — that tend to deepen the story without particularly driving it forward.
So “story” usually runs in two basic directions: Forward or Down. Of course, the two can work together, and a specific comment about, say, a character’s fear of snakes will later have huge implications on plot. It’s not either/or. Remember Indiana Jones: “I hate snakes.” He says it early in the movie, almost as a throwaway line; later on, the seed planted, it grows into a pivotal scene in the film.
(And if you haven’t seen that movie yet, it’s time you did. Fabulous storytelling.)
As a writer, you should always try to be aware of what’s happening in your story. Ask yourself, What is the purpose of this scene? What is its function? What am I trying to do here? And then you write with that intention very much in mind; you have to know what you are trying to accomplish with each sentence. It could be that two people are great friends, it could be that Aunt Rosie has a cruel streak, or that Rachel is really lonely. But with each scene you write, you need to understand what you are doing and how it pushes along or deepens plot.
I’m not a great one for advice. I don’t like giving it, to be honest. Writers have to discover these things for themselves. But here’s a link to two recent blog posts by Lois Lowry that I found instructive. She’s a smart writer, highly aware of her craft.
Lois Lowry: thinking in scenes, etc.
Lois Lowry on character description: some details, but not too much.
Likewise, if you look at my blog, you’ll find a sidebar to the right. Under the heading CATEGORIES, you’ll find “The Writing Process.” It brings together dozens of blog entries that concern my experience as a writer. I don’t have the answers for you; every writer has to go down that road alone. But I do try to share my own experiences, the things I’ve learned about writing over the years. You might wish to randomly explore the links at your leisure.
Advice? Keep on writing, keep on reading — and pay attention to the world and the people around you. Value your individuality, the things inside you that no one else in the world can offer. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. There’s a lot of subtle forces in the world, peer pressure and societal expectations (and writing teachers included!), that will try to mold and shape you into something that conforms with everyone else. Resist that, especially with your writing. When you write, that’s where you should be most free, most truly Peggy.
Have a great summer and stay in touch.
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