Monday, February 22, 2016

Plotting and Plodding Sound an Awful Lot Alike

Dear Kim,

Thank you for the William Joyce recap. I really enjoyed his talk and more so was impressed with the way he kicked off the #NY16SCBWI conference. There was a certain amount of: MAKE IT WORK air to this year's conference. Don't you agree?

It seemed to pulse with themes like HARD WORK, WRITE...NOW, and DO THE WORK. All themes that I can get behind. I was also pleasantly surprised with the level of guidance in each breakout session this year, at least the sessions that I was able to attend. It is difficult to fit lecture, writing exercises, and leave time for questions when only given one hour per breakout session. Alvina Ling's session on plot gave me a bucket full of strategies (and tangible models from Alvina's rockstar editorial perspective), all crammed into a single hour.

Alvina began her session with a show of hands. How many start with character? Setting? A single scene? And how may start with plot? In the room of one hundred or so folks the fewest hands went up with plot. Maybe that had something to do with the crew that was in her session? Another show of hands revealed that the majority of the room was filled with Young Adult writers. Or maybe we just hadn't heard Alvina's plot lecture yet and thereby hadn't been turned into the plotters we are today.

As an aside, I was dealing with a bit of a head cold at the conference and at first I thought Alvina asked, "How many of you are plodders?" Furthermore, I thought her follow up question was, "How many of you plod everything out at the beginning?" People were nodding around me. Yes, it seemed they were saying, we plod along.

Needless to say, after ingesting my eighth Ricola of the day, I decoded her next round of questioning and was able to raise my hand to: "How many of you start writing, make sure you have something, and then outline your PLOT?"

In order of Alvia's questions:
I start with a single scene.
I write Young Adult.
I get a good 10,000 words on the page before I outline my story.
This isn't to say I don't have an idea of where the story is headed. I do. It is a foggy idea at best and my characters, well, I don't know them very well at all in the beginning. That is the beauty of giving myself those 10,000 words. I find out so much about them. I find out if they are ready to take on a big messy messed-up journey with me for an additional 50,000 words or so. And then I plod. Alvina said this strategy reminded her of a hike. Get down the path far enough to be sure it is a nice hike, a worthy hike. She cautioned to plan the descent before you are on the other side of the mountain or you are liable to slide down the other side on your butt, or worse, just fall off the cliff into NOTHING.

Alvina gave some plotting strategies, not plodding, definitely not plodding. She cited Chuck Wendig's post "25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story." The reverse outline seemed popular. Alvina said, "Find out what your character's goal is and put it at the end, then place obstacles in the way until you get to the beginning." She also mentioned that the Zero Draft (affectionately known as the "Vomit Draft") can be a freeing exercise, though Alvina pointed out, even in this barf-fest, there must be some nod to the plot, even if your intent is to clean everything up in the drafts to come.
Alvina shared with us the way one of her authors, Libba Bray, plots, or well, in Alvina's words, "plots-hahahahahahahaha". It seems that Libba uses "tent pole moments" according to Alvina. She writes a mess of big moments--spectacular scenes, really, and then weaves them together to form the plot. Have you read The Diviners? One, you should if you haven't. And two, I can totally see this plot "structure" in the book now that Ms. Ling pointed it out. 
I wonder if Bone Gap was written in a similar manner? Not a Libba Bray book, or edited by Alvina Ling, but one I just wonder how the hell that plot was built.
Seriously, Laura Ruby, how the hell did you plot this book?

Anyway, Alvina's session ended, as it began, with a series of questions. Only this time the audience supplied the questions and Alvina was gracious enough to answer all of them. Throughout the Q/A session Alvina shared that she needs believability in plot, and furthermore, that all books should have a plot. One audience member asked, "Even a picture book for the very young?" 

"Yes," Alvina said. "Even a picture book for the very young should have a plot." 

Alvina also shared that she looks for emotional impact in all of the projects that she takes on and we can see examples of that BANG in Alvina's books like Where the Mountain Meets the Moon; I Hunt Killers; Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock; Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, and many, many more. Alvina said that she is always on the lookout for diverse characters and tends more toward literary fiction with commercial appeal. (AKA, The Hole Grail)

Kim, I think you will agree, Alvina Ling is THE HOLY GRAIL of editors. We should all be so lucky to have someone like her in our corner. Her contributions to the conference, including her PLOT session, were highlights of #NY16SCBWI.

Should we talk about our Rainbow next time?
I think we should.
Much Love,
Alison