Saturday, March 03, 2007

Plot and hooks

A writer friend called me this week to say she'd come across a copy of my YA manuscript, which she'd misplaced after I gave it to her for critique a couple of years ago, and had just spent about an hour reading and thinking about it (!). I had included some of the comments I'd gotten about it from other critiquers, and she said the comments I was getting were very similar to comments she and another friend of ours have gotten from editors and agents. And they all boil down to the fact that we can write, but we're not great in the plot department. We get bogged down in feelings instead of showing action, and not enough really happens.

So, she and the other friend dissected some well-plotted books and came up with a basic plot outline, almost a formula--pretty much the basic stuff, such as a problem, obstacles, etc. They plan to apply this outline to their books, to see if they can make their plots flow better, and she invited me to try it, too. I can see how it would fit a simple story, with one main problem and a linear narrative, but I'm not sure how it would fit complex YA stuff, with multiple storylines and problems, or sub-plots, and also not sure how it would accommodate flashbacks or other such deviations. But it probably would fit my midgrade stuff, and definitely the chapter books I want to write, so I ought to give it a serious go, as I really am plot-challenged! Though sometimes, when I outline a story and know exactly where it's going, it's harder for me to actually write it, because the voice isn't necessarily there and it sounds like a forced trip from point A to point B, and/or it feels like I've already written it when I know what's going to happen at each step.

I'm not hot on the whole plot-driven thing, in any case. I do think my novels should have plots, and I know that is their main problem, but the "hook" critiques I saw at an agent's blog yesterday just depressed me. I rarely write stuff with clear "hooks," and that's not really what I read for, either. It's not just what the story is about that draws me in, but the characters, the language, the way the story is told, etc. It's whether it's a world I want to spend time in, or a character I want to spend time with. The concept may get me to open the book, but it's what I see on the page that determines whether I'm going to read the book. I also wince at the idea that every book needs a wildly different plot hook than every other book before it--people don't even know what to do with stories that are too different. Half the movies in Hollywood have predictable plots we've all seen a hundred times, but they keep getting made and people keep buying tickets. If someone likes one kind of story, they usually want more that are like it. That's why series books are popular, or romance novels, or whatever. Not that I want to write stuff that's been done to death--I doubt I'm running that risk with my novel about beets, anyway--but I don't think every novel needs a stunningly new conflict, or extremely high stakes. Maybe it just needs an interesting take on a time-honored concept.

So, I'm grumpy about the hook idea. I'm hoping to sell my books based on the writing, not the concepts, because a concept is worthless to me without good writing to back it up. 20 writers can start with the same interesting concept and come out with 20 exceedingly different novels, and I'm sure not all would end up compelling! But some writers could take a quiet, everyday concept and come up with a brilliant novel about it. On the other hand...I'm probably just protesting too much because plot isn't my strong suit!

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