Monday, November 7, 2011

Finding my Fire

I just finished working through Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction.  This book, like Maas's others, The Breakout Novel and The Breakout Novel Workbook, is intended for for authors who have finished at least their first draft and are in the revision stage.  But I found The Fire in Fiction an ideal brainstorming tool, as well.

Maass starts by asking the question, why is it some books end up on your keeper shelf, while other books by your favourite authors feel like they've let you down?  He then analyses what he considers stand-out fiction and provides excercises for your to produce the same type of effects.

After chats at the 2010 RWNZ conference with really productive authors like Stephanie Laurens, I came to the conclusion that I need to plan my novels, rather than letting them evolve organically on the page.  As a result of using Y-Writer and a few brainstorming tools gleaned through various workshops and on-line classes, I was able to finish the first draft of Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty in six weeks. 

I've now started my new YA Headfirst Down Breakneck Moutain.  At the 2011 RWNZ conference I got myself Karen Weisner's First Draft in 30 Days, thinking her worksheets and her methodical plan would be really useful.  Well, they are.  But I still need something to trigger ideas.  I happened to listen to Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction Part 2 workshop on the DVD of the 2010 RWA conference, and the exercises he suggested got my brain buzzing.  Weisner got put aside the minute The Fire in Fiction came in from the (a life-saving website for NZ writers who don't want to pay NZ prices and all that postage!)

One of the chapters that I found the most useful was "Scenes That Can't Be Cut".  These are the scenes that are supposed to drive your plot forward but somehow fall flat.  Maass talks about finding the emotional turning point in these scenes and building your scene around that.

In fact, one thing I took from the whole book was the importance of emotion in driving an outstanding work of fiction.  Emotion is what makes the hero heroic yet human and the villan frightening (even more so for being human as well.)  The emotion we're talking about here is the internal emotion of the characters themselves -- the passions that drive them.  And Maass suggest finding that by looking inside yourself. 

What are you passionate about?  What do you rant about?  What about the story you're telling makes you angry/excited?  Use one of the characters your story to give those emotions a voice. 

When you're writing a scene, what is the core emotion the POV character feels?  When did you feel that way?  Maass walks you through reliving that emotion and then suggests you use those details to make the emotion real for your character.

Action scenes are also based on emotion, what the characters feel, not what they're doing.  Their actions get filtered through their emotions.  And if it's conflicting emotions, even better.

So I decided to try some of this stuff out in the first chapter of Headfirst Down Breakneck Mountain.  Here's what I discovered:
  • The scene is about winning.  Thinking about when I wanted to win brought me back to my days doing combined driving, the carriage driving equivalent of three-day eventing.  That high when I realized I was going to win...
  • Rikki wants to win.  But she wants to win honestly, not because of an accident.
  • Rikki thinks it's cool to beat her mentor.  It shows how good she's become.  But she doesn't want to lose her mentor's friendship.
Suddenly my first chapter, which was about a mountain bike race, was full of layers, and my heroine, whose motto is "Winning is Everything" is on the way to the first lesson in her character arc.

Thank you, Donald Maass.