November 15, 2011

Guest Post: C. Alexander London and Turning Idea Into Plot

Today I have the honor of welcoming C. Alexander London author of the Accidental Adventure series. The first book, We are Not Eaten By Yaks,  and being published this week, We Dine With Cannibals.  I'll be reviewing We Are Not Eaten later today.  It was fantastic! 

Today he is sharing with us something I always want to know and something I'm always emphasizing to my students - how to structure and idea into a plot!
If you've ever wondered how authors work you must read on!!

Welcome C. Alexander London!

When I was young, I loved the movie The Secret of NIMH (an adaption of the Robert C O’Brien book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM). I was terrified of one particular scene where Mrs. Brisby goes to see the great Owl, whose eyes are aglow and whose voice crackles with danger. The image of that owl is forever burned into my brain. Needless to say, I hope this visit to The O.W.L. won’t be so terrifying. I’m glad to be here in fact!

My name is C. Alexander London (the C stands for Charles…shhh), and I’m the writer of the Accidental Adventures series. This week, the 2nd book in the series, We Dine With Cannibals, is being published and I’m excited to share it with you.

I promise not to include any spoilers, but in this adventure, Oliver and Celia Navel—the TV obsessed heroes of We Are Not Eaten By Yaks—are back and this time they are forced to trek through the Amazon Jungle for a reality TV show, survive deadly booby traps, angry fire ants, vicious thugs, raging river rapids and the worst thing I could possibly imagine: 6th Grade Dodgeball. I had a lot of fun writing it and I hope you’ll like reading it.

I’m often asked how I go from a bunch of random ideas, like deadly booby traps, angry fire ants, vicious thugs, raging river rapids and 6th Grade Dodgeball into complete books that keep readers wanting to turn the pages. I thought I’d tell you how I do it.

The first and most important thing is that I write. I know that sounds a little silly, but writers write. Every day, I sit down in my chair write at least 1,000 words (okay, I confess, I give myself weekends off, usually). I write my thousand words whether I feel like it or not, whether I think what I’m writing is good or whether it’s terrible, I get those words down on the page.

I know writers who make 500 words a day their goal and writers who make 3,000 words a day their goal. The point is that when you write a bit every day, it adds up and before you know it, you have a first draft. It won’t be perfect and you’ll need to rewrite it and fix it and revise it in further drafts, but it’s there and you did it by sitting down and doing the work every day. This also helps, because then I don’t have to write a whole book at once. I just write my daily word goals. It is much less intimidating that way!

The other key to turning my ideas into a complete story is structure. Structure is the spine of storytelling; it is how plots are built. From the earliest tales we hear (Once upon a time…) to mind-bending epics with dozens of characters and countless plots and subplots, structure organizes the ideas and builds suspense. There are as many ways of structuring a story as there are stories to tell, but there are some basic elements that work for me. I’m going to let you in on how I make my outlines and design the structure of my plots to keep them fast-paced and exciting.

The structure I use is based on something that was taught to me by James V Hart, a screenwriter and novelist who has written some great movies (Hook and Dracula are two of my personal favorites, and his book, Capt. Hook, Adventures of a Notorious Youth is a riot).[1]

Before I write anything, I make notes on each of the “signposts” he taught me. That way, as I’m writing, if I get lost or don’t know how to move the action along, I can look at my notes and see where I want to go. Every novel I write has these elements as the backbone of their structure.

So here you go, check out these signposts and see if they work for you!

Set The World: What are your characters doing the day the story starts? What’s their world like? This is a chance to get to know the people we’ll be following throughout the story.

New Opportunity: This is it! Something comes into the story that sets everything in motion. Anything goes here, a mystery, a monster, even a little brother.  What your character(s) do with this new thing in their lives will drive the story forward.

The Goal: The New Opportunity has set events in motion and your characters are going to have a goal in mind because it. Solve the mystery, beat the monster, keep the little brother from getting their room…ask yourself: What does my character want?

Progress and Setbacks: As your characters strive for their goal, they make some progress, but they also face obstacles. Things get in the way. This is the drama, this is the action, this is where they grow. If you were drawing a picture of this part of your story it would like the mountains rising and falling.

The top of the Mountain: This is the big moment, their highest point, the closest your characters have gotten to their goal. The view is pretty great from up here. They feel good about getting what they want, but nothing can last, otherwise, the story would be over…

The Plan Falls Apart:  Suddenly, things change. They slide down the mountain. Everything goes wrong. The clues were tricks, the monster’s still alive, little brother is smarter than he looks! All is lost. Or is it?

The Aha! Moment: Your characters have hope! The situation seems impossible, the bullies are too big, the monsters too monstrous, your little brother has already stolen your room, but there’s a new idea and it just might save the day!

The Showdown: This is where it’s all been leading. Will your character get what they want? How? Will they get something else instead? Win or lose? What will they learn? What won’t they learn?  This is where they face their biggest obstacle and (hopefully) beat it for good (or maybe they don’t? Maybe there’s a sequel…)

The Aftermath: After the showdown, what happens? How does your character react? Did they win? Did they lose? And what does that mean for the world they started in? How have they changed?

That’s it! By making notes on each of those, I know I can sit down and write a story that will have action and conflict and that will move forward with a strong beginning, middle and end. Even if the final story is different from the notes I made, these signposts help me make sure I never get too lost.

I wish I could say the same for my main characters, but I write these stories so that Oliver and Celia get very lost. I put them in grave danger to see if they can get out of it. I put obstacles in their way to see how they react. The more trouble I can throw at them, the more fun the books become. I hope you enjoy reading their adventures as much as I enjoy writing them!

Thank you so much for sharing all this with us! I'm not looking at the stories I've written to see if I've followed any of this. 

Stick around for my review of We Are Not Eaten by Yaks
And pssssst I'll be sharing a Kindle giveaway if you're willing to share your accidental adventure!

[1] This structure is copyright James V Hart. It cannot be published without his permission.

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