Thursday Thoughts on Writing: Pesky Plot Holes

It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

        I recently re-read The Hobbit and was relieved that I enjoyed it as much as I did in my last reading. I feel like if you read and write fantasy and haven’t read The Lord of the Rings trilogy eight hundred times and can’t spout off sizable snippets of The Silmarillion then you’re to be instantly shunned. Which is no fun for anyone. But that’s not the point of this little post, for which I’m sure you’re all most magnanimously thankful. There is a point, I assure you, and it goes back to the little matter of a live dragon. We will be delving into the realm of extended metaphor so strap on your reading glasses and get yourself a comfortable cushion. Tolkien is, of course, quite correct in suggesting that you make sure to include a dragon in any calculations should one be nearby. Which is something with which our little Hobbit and crew of Dwarves certainly struggled. They knew there was a dragon guarding the treasure, and they knew they would have to get rid of him, but no one quite planned how.

       Which brings us to plot holes. You know, those buzzing, biting, little gnats–or, occasionally, fully fledged dragons roaring and spewing smoke–of story that just don’t quite fit. Sometimes it’s an element or a character that you have in your head and want to bring to life. And maybe he’s wonderful–but maybe your over-sized, drunk, pirate’s first mate doesn’t have any business wandering around your Young Adult paranormal romance set in Kentucky. Or maybe one of your characters has a leopard cub for no real reason other than George R.R. Martin already has the monopoly on direwolves and you wanted him to have a cool beast companion. Unfortunately, readers will notice plot holes–whether your character somehow made it across an entire country on horseback in several hours or ridiculous events occur just to get all of your characters in one place so that you can stop being A.D.D. and switching from character to character (guilty).

        I’ve learned some new terms about the way certain people write from the blog community. A plotter is someone who outlines and outlines and takes notes and outlines and plans and plots and schemes (Oh, but plots and schemes are the same thing, aren’t they?) A pantser is someone who does everything by the seat of their pants–no outlining, no planning, just fingers to the keyboard and ready, aim, write. I am definitely a pantser. Outlining sucks the life out of the story IF I do it before I begin writing. I’m a pantser until I get stuck, toes on the edge of a massive plot hole that I can’t seem to fill. Then, I become a plotter–purely out of sheer desperation. As anyone will tell you, it doesn’t really matter which way you write–everyone works differently. However, and I say this with gritted teeth, at some point you need to have a rough idea of where the story is going.

        Most of the time, plot holes can be filled by–you guessed it–editing. First drafts are full of holes, you have to go back and make the Swiss Cheese make sense. But, I’m beginning to learn that you can save some time and sanity by trying to check for holes as you go, even if you just outline the next step. Knowing point A and Z are all well and good, but there are 24 other letters in the alphabet that you have to figure out. I guess it all comes down to being able to edit yourself as you go–not every little sentence–but recognize that certain characters and scenarios, while fabulous, may be stowing away in a story where they don’t belong. You never know when a bit character that was fighting you in one piece will end up as the leading man or leading lady in your next work of brilliance.

        So learn to recognize the plot holes before you fall in them and know that they have to be filled in–and preventing them is easier than going back and rearranging your whole narrative around them. If you forget to calculate for the dragon, you could find that he is lurking around a corner waiting to light you on fire and send you tumbling down into a bottomless plot hole. And plot holes, unlike rabbit holes, are not something into which you want to fall.

An Exercise in Flash Fiction: Writing Tip Wednesday

For those of you that are unaware, Flash Fiction is a genre of writing where the word count is v e r y limited. Often exactly 100 words. Sometimes six. Now, if you write (or are an avid reader) the thought of only 100 words (or less!) may make you scoff: “That isn’t fiction,” or “That isn’t a story.” No? I suggest you go read the Six Word Stories linked above and tell me again. This is coming from a reformed Flash Fiction Denounce-r. I’ve mentioned before (probably ad nauseum) that I tend to write longer pieces. It has taken me years to realize that in some ways this has become a crutch. My method is often “why use one really good word when you can use four pretty good words to describe a color, or a tree, or a sunset.” See Mark Twain: “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

A friend who writes poetry suggested a literary magazine contest to me that was accepting Flash Fiction of 1,000 words or less. When I came to a stopping point for the piece I wanted to submit, I had about 2,000 written and the thought of paring that down to 1,000 was agony. However, it forced me to take a look at my writing with the air of someone performing a dissection. This was true Frankensteining. And it was difficult. Almost impossibly so. I was so attached to words and sentences and descriptions that I didn’t realize they were weighing down the piece. I’ve been taught over and over about “tight writing” and even shown what that looks like. I have even managed to write it (according to a professor) and that piece was one that got me into graduate school, so perhaps he was right. So why is it so difficult to recognize the eight extra pairs of socks and two superfluous pair of pants, and the three t-shirts I don’t need that I cram into the story suitcase? Can you tell I am a chronic over-packer?

Sometimes I think the downfall in being a writer is this weird amalgamation of pride and insecurity. It’s a two-headed monster or a double-edged sword, or whatever name you want to call it. Because oftentimes the inability to trim away the gristle is the refusal to admit that something could have traveled from your head to your fingertips that isn’t mahhhhvelous. That’s where the pride comes in. Then, there’s that part of you that knows you can write flowing, intricately wrought imagery but your dialogue is a pile of garbage, so you hide it behind the distraction of your pretty pictures. But that’s like putting brick or stucco on the outside of a port-o-potty. It still reeks. While this may seem like I’m beating the dead horse of the need to edit, it’s an element of writing that needs to be revisited and revisited and revisited. It’s part of the process. The mass amounts of words you put on paper…er…word document…is all part of the process, too. You may need to write about your character’s backstory from birth, but that doesn’t mean your audience needs to read it.

So, if you write or perhaps would just like to try your hand at writing, try some Flash Fiction. I think it may be my new personal way of breaking through the giant wall of writer’s block with which I have been struggling. Writing, like any other skill, takes practice, even if you just write 100 words. Or six. It’s almost like Tetris, in a way. You have to rearrange words and find new words and try to find ways of expressing yourself so that everything fits and makes sense. Another great thing about Flash Fiction is that it always packs a punch. I will be uploading my 100 word stories here. So check back from time to time!

Writing Tip Thursday: “Money is in the Rewrite”

I’m trying to blog with some consistency (again) and I think I may try to do a sort of Writer’s Tip Thursday. Mostly it will be things I have learned or am still learning from my own personal writing experience.

If you have been following my blog/ever personally speak to me, you probably know that back in December I concluded my undergraduate studies and applied for Graduate School. An MFA in Creative Writing no less. Three rejection letters in, I finally got some good news. At last, the first phrase was “Congratulations on your acceptance!” and not “Thank you for your interest…but no thanks.”

In my last post, I discussed the importance of words and how the meaning behind them can have all the difference in the world. It’s funny how a little compliment can linger in our mind, bringing a smile to our lips days later or how a sharp word can cling, constantly pricking and poking us like a splinter we cannot seem to remove. Oftentimes, we have no idea the impact our words can have. I have been upset to realize that something callous I said has deeply hurt someone, when I had no idea of it being taken in such a way. I have also been overjoyed/embarrassed to discover that something I said was a source of encouragement or inspiration when I felt like I was speaking to the empty air.

Once words are spoken, we cannot have them back again. As much as I rehearse arguments or discussions ahead of time, in the heat of the moment, all of that disappears and I my carefully conceived speech becomes an incoherent jumble. However, most of the time, your spoken words will eventually fade or become blunted by time and age.The written word is a tricky thing. While it can be manipulated and prodded and shaped and re-shaped and torn apart and sewn back together–once it is printed or sent out into cyberspace, it is imprinted forever.. Surely we have realized by now that nothing published online truly disappears. But this wasn’t mean to be a post on kindness or tact or internet common sense.

I think that as writers, although perhaps this is only true for young writers, we often think our words are set in stone. Or perhaps this is just a personal struggle. I don’t know why, but I have always had difficulty with the concept of a “draft.” Maybe it’s narcissism. Maybe it’s sheer pigheadedness, of which I have often been accused. I will write out one copy and consider it complete, when it is far from. I have difficulty editing myself; I either think a story is wonderful the way it is (10% of the time) or it’s as good as it’s going to get (70%) OR it’s complete garbage (20%). (Math again, guys. This is big.) Unfortunately…none of these  opinions are true.

As my creative writing professor would often say: “The money is in the re-write.”

I’m going to take that as both literal and metaphorical. Literally, if you revise enough and get to a point where your writing is publishable, you can (in theory) make money. Metaphorically, the only way you can get down to the flesh and blood and beating heart of your story and what you want to say comes from editing and trimming away the fat and the fluff.

A fellow blogger, Pen, gave me permission to steal her term “Frankensteining” (in reference to editing) yesterday. Obviously, everyone knows the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. If you didn’t know that the monster’s name is NOT Frankenstein…congratulations, you learned something new today! This term is appealing due to the allusion and the mental image it creates. Sometimes, we writers spend our time hunched over our notebooks or laptops crafting together bits and pieces of things and waiting for the bolt of inspiration to strike, bringing our story to life. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten that turns into a great, big shambling monster that staggers around and grunts instead of speaking with the poise and precision and brilliance we envisioned. So then it’s back to the drawing board/cutting room/laboratory.

One of the things that I find most difficult about editing is letting things go. I say, “But this sentence…it’s a work of literary genius!” Maybe it is (it isn’t.) But maybe it would fit better in another story. Maybe that line of dialogue I wrote could crop up in another scene or another piece all together. It’s all about getting down to the heart and soul of your piece. Because that’s when Frankenstein’s “monster,” became truly terrifying and marvelous, when he transformed into an intelligent and articulate creature, capable of wreaking havoc upon the world around him.

So, if you write, learn (as I need to do) to pick up the pen as though it were a scalpel and cut away everything that is unneeded and everything that drags your writing down. Get down to the heart of the matter and begin there. It doesn’t matter how pretty the binding is or how supple the flesh, because if what is beneath the skin is a jumbled, rotting mess, then what’s the point?

What do you think?