Thursday, November 14, 2013

"The Story Diamond Won't Work For Me"

I have had the pleasure of working as a story consultant with celebrated historical romance writer TAMERA ALEXANDER over the past few years. She's mentioned in a couple earlier posts.

This week she's going over the galleys to her latest book, A BEAUTY SO RARE, which will come out in April, 2014 from Bethany House Publishers.  Tamera has a couple of book series she writing this decade, turns out about one a year, alternating between Bethany and Zondervan (Harper Collins), both Grand Rapids, MI publishers. ABSR is for Bethany and is book 2 of the Belmont mansion series. Zondervan gets the series about the Belle Meade plantation. Both estates are real places, with real historical people, in postbellum Nashville, which is where Tamera calls home.

In a couple of emails we exchanged over the last 24 hours, and then a telephone conversation, Tamera shared the following:
ABSR was, by far, the hardest book I’ve ever written...Thanks again for the brainstorming we did on the front end. One thing I learned this go round…do not work from the white board (story diamond) when trying to write. The left brain and right brain do not mix. Nearly drove me to drink. Which actually might have helped, come to think of it. : )... I was trying to follow the story diamond, filling it in, trying to figure out the Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 thing, and it did not work for me. Doesn’t mean the story diamond won’t ultimately work for me, but doing that while creating is a killer for me. Just can’t mix the two at all.
Now why would I post this criticism of something I promote—The Story Diamond, pictured at left in its recent permutation. Posts about which can be found HERE, and the actual working tool HERE?

Because Tamera's observation is instructive, and allows me to reinforce why we call writing aids like The Story Diamond an "aid" and not a "rule". Indeed, Chapter 4 of The Moral Premise, "Storytelling's Natural Law and Processes" attempts to explain how every successful writer, while they may end up at the same place, cannot use the same method. Just as every protagonist is different in terms of psychological makeup and action, so is every writer in how they must listen to their muse and get the work done.  I remind writers in my workshops that if they follow my "secrets" and suggested rules of successful writing literally, they will marginalize the story's natural dynamic, and output will be a dud. One of the reasons well-written stories connect with human beings so well is that they are all different—meaning both the stories and the humans. The Story Diamond is meant as an invisible guide, to give the writer an underlying structure, not a step-by-step rule.


Tamera is a pantser. She writes from the seat of her pants. It's like writing with the right brain. Left brain writers are called plotters.  Both methods, in their extreme, have problems. And since most of my material promotes plotting I have to guard against its inherent dangers, of which Tamera has reminded me. On one level, the pantser will write deeply emotionally charged prose—because they are discovering every day, for the first time, what happens to their characters. Now and then Joe reminds his wife,
 "Tammy, they're not real."
But through tears, Tamera can only reply:
"They are to me. And I love them."
I tell the story in workshops about, how a few years back, superwoman literary agent Natasha Kern called one of her clients to see how her latest book was coming, only to find the author a sobbing mess, and unable to talk coherently. All Natasha heard over the phone were cries of woe, gasps for breath, and deep sobs. About that time, the author's husband came into the office to find the wastebasket overflowing with tear-soaked tissue, and said author on the floor curled into a fetal position under her desk, juggling the phone and tissue box. Natasha figured the author's mother had just died, the house had burned down, or the Feds had taken over her home for use as an alien internment camp. No, it was none of that. It took 20 minutes but finally Natasha had figured out that her author, the epitome of pantserdom, had just figured out what happens to her protagonist at the end of the novel.

Yes, pantsers, like Tamera, write great stories. But at times the stories, guided by such deeply felt emotions, need rewriting to be understood as a whole, and it takes time for massive rewrites.


The plotter on the other hand can lose interest in the daily grind of writing if the story is so well known beforehand. The other problem, which the above panicked author's experience alerts us to, is the plotter's lack of emotional involvement in the characters lives by refusing to let the characters "act for themselves." For characters to be "real" they must have the force of "free will" behind the minutia of their motivations. They cannot be robots from Stepford. And a writer who plots too much is going to end up with robot characters without their own force of nature. I suspect this is what Tamera was fighting, and rightfully so.


My advice has been to plot just enough to know where you're going and then write for the fun of it. You'll avoid writer's block and massive rewrites, but your writing will also be full of attitude, vigor and personality — human traits that allow readers to connect with you and your characters, which are extensions of you.  Early in the conception of ABSR I spent hours on the phone with Tamera reviewing character arcs, plots, and various moral premise issues. Tamera writes:
Tamera Alexander
Our work on the plot up front (and the Story Diamond) definitely helped, but then I should have put the “plotting board” aside and just written the story, instead of trying to write toward the climax, or the moment of grace, or whatever. I need to let what I’ve learned from you and others guide my sub-conscience as I write, but I need to write from my gut. So it’s a blend. But it’s not a blend with the story diamond peering over my shoulder. And me turning around to look at the blank spaces and wondering why I don’t know what I’m knowing. When I really do, I think. I just do it intuitively. Though not consistently, I know. But that’s what rewrites are for. : ) Make sense?
Sure does.


Now, part of the sinister counter argument to this discussion is that the added knowledge Tamera has developed about plotting has allowed her stories to become more sophisticated, with more subplots, more characters, and a thicker real-world fabric. There's a debate about whether or not the kind of novel she's been writing lately will still attract her audience who publishers believe want shorter books. Time will tell, but after reading a Tamera Alexander novel my wife and I DON'T WANT IT TO END, and I've read similar comments from other readers.

This reminds me that movies that win BEST PICTURE Oscars are not the 90-110 page scripts that Hollywood agents are always requesting. The best movies average somewhere in the 135-165 page length, although there is the occasional 110 page winner. Why is this? Because deeper, well-developed, connectable characters require time and pages to develop. Audiences and readers love to identify with characters and participate in their lives. It takes time and higher than normal page counts to do that.  Tamera's publishers are hoping for novels that are 120,000 to 130,000 words max. But To Whisper Her Name came in at 170K and ABSR is estimated to be about 174K. These are too long to fit the normal business model for Bethany and Zondervan, Tamera says.  I reminded her, however, that Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth is about 350K, Susan Howatch's Absolute Truths is 212K, and Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger is about 234K. Tamera is pithy.  QED!

ABSR was so hard to write, I believe, because Tamera had the added confidence of plotting so that she could indulge her love of reality and thus involve more historical figures, and more cultures into her normal postbellum North vs South mix. In ABSR, in addition to the true story lines of the rich white mansion owners, and the poor black former slaves of Nashville, Tamera has tightly interwoven political and romantic intrigue from the European House of Hapsburg, the historic breakthrough discoverys of botanist Luther Burbank of Boston, the activism of nursing pioneer Dorothea Dix, and Gregor Johann Mendel, a European scientist and Augustinian friar who is credited with founding the science of genetics.

And while her books may at first appear to be too long for the publishers, there's an evident upside given voice to by the decisions of her editors: The multiple storylines of the characters are so interwoven and engaging that you can't take even one out (to make the books shorter) without destroying the novel's magic. And so, bless their corporate souls, the books Tamera writes are not chopped up by the editors and ruined, but are left as is, and sent to press.

Exactly. Love it. Can't wait.

P.S. I  have a confession. I have conspired to coach Tamera the way I do for the sake of a few more evenings of reading enjoyment... and my wife is happier, too. We enjoy reading Tamera's books, and this way the reading lasts longer. 

A full explanation of the Story Diamond is presented in my On-Line Storycraft Training series.

Update to 13 Beat Story Structure Post

I have just revised a post that I often refer writers to study is titled Story Structure Basics - 13 Major Beats and is listed and linked at the topic of the Topics & Labels listing in the right column.

I've been meaning to do this for over a year and have grimaced each time I'm asked a question that was semantically confusing in the former post. (Not that any revision isn't also going to cause questions and a grimace.) I've also updated the diagram that goes along with the post which is here.

CLICK IMAGE to Enlarge

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Teen Community of Filmmakers

Nikita (L) & sister Monica (R)
Over the past few years I've taught a Story Symposium for a group of teens, and later helped them produce a short movie. One of my students is Nikita Mungarwadi, of whom I've written before about. The picture at right I took at her older sister's high school graduation dinner. Nikita's on the left, in dresses they purchased on a recent trip to their parent's cities in Southern India.

She asked my opinion of several of her college application essays. The one below was priceless and thought it applied to stories of all kinds. It tells one.

The application prompt is followed by her essay:

Essay #1 (Required for all applicants. Approximately 250 words) Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.

We are a community of filmmaking teens.  A community of all Caucasians and one Indian.  A community of devout Catholics and one devout Hindu. I am the latter, yet I belong with the former. 
When I attended my first Story Symposium workshop freshman year, I was mildly surprised to find that I would be the brown sesame seed among the pot of white rice.  I was already accustomed to be the minority.  In school, I was one among the two Indians in my grade; in ballet I was the one Indian. 

I wasn’t expecting hostility, but I braced myself for the discreetness that was sure to exist.  Strangely… I got neither.  The rest of the teens completely ignored the fact that my external features were incompatible with theirs, and adopted me within their circle.

Soon, we became a cult, enthusiastically learning the craft of a perfect screenplay.  We contributed recommendations on others’ screenplay ideas while absorbing advice for our own. 

We all shared a mutual desire to become part of the channel through which we could manipulate human emotions, sending the audience into a sea of startling tears or a death of interminable laughter.  We realized that films were the illusion meant to distract people’s attention from the real world, yet offered universal principles that can be applied to reality.  The irony of filmmaking and the longing to be a part of it was what brought us together.

Even though our complexions clashed and our religious devotions disagreed, they considered me to be synonymous with themselves­­–a united community of teens indulged in fascination for the art of storytelling.