Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Plot Crap

If you ever watch a movie with my husband and I, you're very likely, if it's not a great movie and sometimes even if it is, to hear me exclaim at some point, "OK, this is total plot crap, right?"

What do I mean by plot crap?  And does it apply to books?

Are you calling this plot crap?
Plot crap does not mean crappy plot.  In fact, it can often have nothing to do with how well a story is plotted.  A great example of plot crap is the movie Gladiator.  Now, I love this movie.  I love the story, the incredibly orchestrated battle scenes, even the soundtrack.  But the historical facts framing the film?  Total plot crap.  Sure, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus existed...but there are a lot of factual missteps.  There's no evidence that Marcus Aurelius ever wanted to restore the Republic, therefore the basis of the film's struggle is historical plot crap.  (Commodus also didn't die in the arena, but was strangled in his bath.  Sometimes truth really is more interesting than fiction.)

However, most people except for die-hard classical historians will say that, as a movie, Gladiator worked.  We can suspend our disbelief over some facts in order to enjoy a good story.  And really, for many genres, some plot crap is pretty much required.  Science fiction might be based in science, but we stretch the existing facts a little to create an intriguing future world.  Fantasy exists outside of the facts of our world.  Even historical fiction might need a little push to flesh out missing details or make a story flow better.  Sometimes the truth needs a little plus.

You wouldn't guess it was
chockablock full of plot crap from the
poster, would you?
Why, then, do we let some plot crap slide, while other plot crap has us rolling our eyes?  Gladiator worked.  Now try watching The Beginning of the End. This is a science fiction/horror movie from the late 1950s about giant grasshoppers.  Pretty implausible giant grasshoppers, really--at least to my judgement.  They're the accidental byproduct of an agricultural experiment gone awry.  In a lot of ways, there's no more bending of the facts than there was in Gladiator--the writers picked one idea (that you could produce giant plants and bugs with radiation) and ran with it, much like the writers behind Gladiator ran with the idea that an emperor wanted to restore the Republic. But the grasshoppers ring hollow.  Why?

For one, there's a lack of consistency.  If an experiment accidentally created giant grasshoppers, why not giant ants and giant ladybugs, too?  Wouldn't there be other radiation-induced issued to worry about?

Second, the writers asked us to stretch too much.  We're supposed to believe that a large-scale, radioactive agriculture experiment is being carried out in boondock nowhere Illinois...by two "scientists" in a pole barn?  Yeah, I expected at least some barbed wire and some lackeys in lab coats.

Third, the plot crap feels way too convenient.  If you have somewhere you want to get in a story, don't solve the problem with plot crap.  Start with facts, research, and real solutions--and if you need to bridge a gap with plot crap, bridge away.  Just don't make the solution too convenient, or the audience starts to get a little suspicious.

Finally, in Gladiator, the plot crap was nestled among believable, documentable facts.  You wouldn't have thought to question the plot crap unless you knew better or really thought about it.  In badly done plot crap, the writer relies only on plot crap--not real research.


What do you think--is plot crap excusable?  When does it cross a line?  Should authors try to avoid bending the facts at all costs, or can we expect the audience to suspend disbelief sometimes?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What First? Writing and Editing

So I'm working on newish projects--projects that haven't yet been revised or edited.  In fact, they're still incomplete drafts.  And I ask--when is it best to start revising and/or editing?

Sometimes it's pretty clear when to do what. I crack the eggs BEFORE putting them in the cookie batter.I cut fabric AFTER I take measurements. I lather, rinse, THEN repeat.
And of course, first pants, THEN shoes.

But when it comes to the writing process, it's not so cut and dried. The posters in my elementary school classrooms would beg to differ--they say you "prewrite" (which inevitably involved bubbles and arrows in my grammar school days), write a rough draft, revise it, which produces another draft, which you edit and polish into a final draft.

Anyone else feel like it's not so simple?  At least not for writing novels?

Now, I know writers who do keep it simple--they butt-in-chair, hands-on-keyboard plow through a full first draft before going back to tinker with it. They draft by Just Writing.

Other writers make their daily cycle editing the previous day's work, then writing new material. Or writing first thing in the morning, then editing in the afternoon.

Some writers write half of their first draft, then reevaluate it and revise it before moving on. Some folks write the end first, and then string together other scenes, then revise to smooth out the bumps.

Some writers make each chapter perfect before moving on to the next chapter.

Me? I have no idea when the best time to start revising is.  There are drawbacks to each--a finish the draft, then revise method will probably mean a messier draft and more time revising.  Spending time on editing before a draft is complete might mean deleting scenes you spent time revising--when you could have been writing or polishing material that would actually stay in the draft.

I think it comes down, not to efficiency, but to outlook.  How can you tackle the project best?  How does your brain work?  If it needs the entire draft before it can see the holes, write the whole draft.  If it's going to drive you bonkers to have an inconsistent character issue from chapters 1-3, go fix it and move on.

For my own writing, it's fairly constant. I write a sentence, I change a couple words, I keep going, I hit a stride, I'm still on a pattern of type-type-type-delete-delete-retype. And then as I read through scenes to get me in the right frame of mind for writing on, I'm still swapping and changing and adding and deleting, both on a micro and macro level.  It's easier for me to move the scene that needs to go earlier now than it is to wait until the draft is finished.  It's part of a pretty organic process for me--it makes first drafts take a while, but the revision stage is--at least has been thus far--easier. Revision ends up being more about big-picture issues than individual scene or language troubles. Which has its own set of drawbacks: Sometimes I delete well-polished material.

But that works for me.

So all I can really say, when it comes to writing and editing, is, essentially, Pants First, THEN Shoes: Words First, THEN Edit. It doesn't matter when, or how many words, or how long between writing them and starting to tinker with them. Just write them. Then make them better.

What's your writing-editing-lather-rinse-repeat process?

*An earlier version of this post appeared on my old blog--do not adjust your screen, do not seek deja-vu-counseling* 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

How Stripping Wallpaper is like Revising

Stick with me long enough, and you'll discover I like odd comparisons, a la "How is a Raven like a Writing Desk."  (I also love Alice in Wonderland, but that's another point entirely.)

Because I like odd comparisons, I find myself making them to writing while doing otherwise unrelated things.

Like stripping wallpaper.

My husband and I just bought a Rather Old House and my latest adventure is ridding it of some unfortunate decorating choices.  First up is the laundry/utility area upstairs, which was papered c.1977 with mildly dizzying brown, gold, and orange flowered stuff.  The homeowners managed to find matching fabric for curtains, too.  Pristine vintage, except it's horrifyingly ugly.

Can you even *buy* matching paper and fabric anymore?
So as I spent hours tearing a harvest gold meadow from hell off the walls, I found myself comparing the process to revision.

After all, redecorating and revising share some similarities--the basic structure is already there, but you're changing how it looks and polishing it up and perhaps moving some major things around.  Wallpaper lessons that apply to both:

1) It's going to take some time.  There is no method to stripping wallpaper that's going to let you breeze through it, and no method to revision that's going to be a cakewalk, either.  You have to commit some serious time to it.  Sure, timesaving methods exist (thank you, Paper Tiger for wallpaper and colored pens when I'm revising) but they're still not snap-your-fingers done.

2) You don't need anything fancy.  I discovered via the interwebs a low-cost, low-chemical helper for peeling off wallpaper--fabric softener.  Cheaper than the made-for-wallpaper stuff, works just fine, and you might already have it lying around.  Same goes with revising.  Yes, there are guidebooks and professional editors and lots of other tools out there at your disposal.  And none of them are, in and of themselves, a bad thing.  You might find yourself needing some outside help eventually.  But for the first pass, all you really need is your rear in the chair and your document either open or printed in front of you.

3) If it's not coming off, you're probably not tugging at the right place.  This happened time and time again as I worked the wallpaper off--I would be fighting it from one end as it shredded and I had to pick the shards of sticky paper off, then I would find another angle and the whole piece would come off like one big scab.  (Yes, stripping wallpaper is kind of like picking a scab...)  With revision, if all you're doing is poking a couple words around, it's probably because you're not getting at the right angle.  Maybe you're wordsmithing when what really needs to be done is move the scene into a different POV.  Maybe you're nitpicking dialogue when you really need to be asking if the conversation should be included to begin with.  Regardless--revision is hard, but if it's *too* hard, it's probably because you're not finding the real issue.

4) Welcome disasters as potential happy accidents.  So I decided to run a load of laundry while stripping paper, only to discover that the dryer doesn't actually vent anywhere.  The room turned into a steambath.  This will, of course, need to be fixed--but you would not believe how easily that wallpaper came off after a full-immersion steaming.  Sometimes you discover a major issue with your manuscript--a plot hole, a character who's totally inconsistent.  Yet, as you work on that problem, you find that a whole mess of issues you either couldn't identify before or didn't know how to fix stem directly from that problem.  You can strip off big swaths of crap writing and get back to the good bones of your work.

Ahhh...one wall done and a pile of wallpaper on the floor.  That feels better.
So, time-consuming, not easy, and potentially frustrating--but in both cases, the final result is so much better than what you started with!