Monday, November 21, 2011

Bird by Bird - FAQ


Darla asks: "In Bird By Bird, Anne has a chapter titled Plot Treatment . . .  I read it and thought "OMG that is me right now" (minus the editor, advance and potential for being published.. LOL). Anyway, from what you've written before it seems like you don't run into this because you are very linear in your writing, but do you address this type of confusion in your classes? And/or have you run into it yourself? Color me curious!"
Bird by Bird is an excellent book. In the chapter Darla mentions, Lamott tells of sending a novel to her editor only to have it rejected because, in spite of beautiful writing and fascinating character, there was no structure. He suggested she abandon the book and write something else but Lamott was determined to make it work. She wrote out a detailed plot treatment -- 500 to 1,000 words for each chapter, describing what was happening in each chapter -- where it began, where it ended, and what had to happen to get from beginning to end, as well as how the ending of each chapter would flow into the beginning of the next.

With this road map (it ran to forty pages) in hand, Lamott says that rewriting the book -- shifting and adding scenes -- went smoothly and the book was one of her most successful. 
  
In my classes, I haven't yet dealt with an entire novel -- only 20 to 40 pages. But I do recommend that the students think about what their protagonist wants to achieve; what obstacles stand between the protag and success; and how will those obstacles be overcome. That's a very bare-bones plot line. I also ask my students to come up with a brief (under a minute) coherent  answer to the question "What's your book about?" 

As for me: I tend to start with an inciting incident and a plan for an outcome and just a vague idea of how I'm getting there. About halfway through the book, I'll know more of what needs to go in the rest of the chapters and start doing a somewhat abbreviated chapter treatment.  The one time I did a very complete chapter treatment before beginniong the book, as I wrote I kept feeling I'd already done this and it was a little boring. On the other hand, I didn't waste a lot of time wandering in the wilderness.

What works for one writer may not work for another. But if you have written a lot of    wonderful scenes but suspect you don't actually have a plot, Lamott's chapter treatment method may be just what you need to help your novel soar.

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10 comments:

Ms. A said...

It's a darn good thing I'm not a writer, because I would get so obsessed with the plan, I'd never make it to the writing.

Martin said...

Interesting, Vicki, further underlining the fact that nailing a 'one size, fits all' guidance for writers is very near impossible. At some point, the writer just has to find his or her own way.

Brian Miller said...

nice...first, i love bird by bird...like your thoughts too, i would say i fit more toward your style...

Darla said...

Thank you for addressing my question, Vicki. I'm glad you shared your one experience of starting from a plot treatment; I don't think that would work very well for me either, at least not doing it at the *very* beginning. But who knows? For all three of my pieces, I did create a very skeletal outline once the initial idea came to me, but this is the first manuscript that I am taking the next step with into the revision process--and it's now a mess! LOL So I'm trying to figure out how to incorporate the first draft with what the 'real story' has now revealed itself to be. I may be better off just writing it all from scratch again...

Anyway, thanks again for blogging on this, Vicki. And I do appreciate how you and most of the other authors I've read continue to reinforce what Martin above said...to find our own way. :-)

Star said...

Very interesting. I always learn a lot from what you write. I did a similar thing myself recently, just before I came over in fact. I wrote a list of my characters and the reason for each one being in the story at all! I love my characters, but I have to remember that my readers do not know them as well as I do and I have to make them clear in their minds in order for them to feel engaged. Each of the characters is there to move the story forward. I mustn't get caught up in their own lives or problems too much.
Please write more as the fancy takes you.

I Wonder Wye said...

That Lamott book is a keeper -- jump starts me every time I pick it up...

Vicki Lane said...

It really is an excellent book -- I'm rereading it now. Thanks, Darla, for reminding me.

NCmountainwoman said...

I often wonder just what it is that makes a writer so appealing to me. I think it is a combination of all you said. Whatever it is, if I don't find it in the first fifty pages, then I toss the book aside. Life is too short to spend time with a book whose characters don't engage me. They don't have to be good or bad, but I have to have a vested interest in them.

Brenda said...

Bird by Bird...had not heard of this one. I'll add it to my list right behind Stephen King's book on writing. I've heard that one is really good. I've got so many I'd like to read! I'd actually do better WRITING at this point however, than reading about writing...

Vicki Lane said...

BIRD BY BIRD and King's ON WRITING are two really excellent books. Put 'em on your list, Brenda!

And yes, having the reader interested in the protagonist to the point of wanting to spend time with him/her and being eager to know the outcome is absolutely crucial. Life's too short to read about boring people.