A Session with Molly D. Campbell
I am a writer, but not one who learned anything from writing groups, conferences, or reading what the greats say about writing. I have actually read one book telling people how to write a novel, but it was so intimidating, I erased it from my Kindle after Chapter Two.
I learned to write a book from one of the all-time great mentors, Lou Aronica. Here is what he told me, in a nutshell: Every scene must lead to the next one. All scenes must lead to a climax, containing some sort of revelation, solution to a huge problem, or a resolution of some of the interconnected dilemmas presented in the story.
Right. This sounds like all one might need to write a novel. Think of your book as a movie. I could just stop here. But I won’t.
I am going to step you through the stages I went through while writing Keep the Ends Loose, a humorous, coming-of-age novel. It is about a normal, all-American family that nearly falls apart during an eventful summer when family secrets are revealed. The entire time I wrote, I thought of it as a movie. This made the whole project so much easier for me, as I thought of each chapter as a scene in that movie. So let’s write a mini-movie. Maybe this will end up as a short story. Maybe it will end up in the garbage. Maybe it will be the jump-start to a novel.
1. First, a good book has good characters. I like to assemble a group of them before I even begin to think about a plot. I think characters must have their own look, their own voice, their own quirks, and their own life views. Since I am a character-driven writer, characters come before plot. As a writing exercise, I wrote a character sketch every day for a year. I began with a character name, moved on to what that person might look like, and then wrote a “flash” story, or character sketch, about each. This was terrific writing practice. If you assemble a good cast, then you can write about what happens to them by dropping them into a plot. Here is a short character description of Winnie Heath, the mother of the main character in my novel Keep the Ends Loose:
Winnie crackles. She has enough energy bursting out of her pores to light up a small city. Winnie is totally competent. She could probably change a tire while texting. Sometimes she moves so fast it seems like she can be in two places at once…(she is like) a little pug running down the street with a hot dog in her mouth.
Mom looked nice. I could tell she’d put a lot of thought into her ensemble for tonight. She was wearing brand new pink linen slacks from the old lady store. We call it that because they do a land-office business in caftans and tunics—you know, the kind of store that specializes in garments to hide the hips. On top, she had on a breezy, orange-and-pink flowered tunic top with a hem that was lower over the rear. You get the picture…she looked cute, in her determined way…
Exercise 1 Here are some character names. Write a brief description of them, using colorful language. Remember, no plot to worry about yet. You are just assembling a cast of characters. You may use them all, or you may not. You might have to add one character later, but right now, no worries.
Daniel Plinth. He is a construction worker. He might be married, or he might be gay. But he is a great, big hunk of a guy. Write about him. What does he look like? What does he do after work? Is he a pet-lover? How old is he? Let your imagination run wild.
Angela Krepps. She is a lovely woman. She rescues cats. Last summer, she had thirty. What is her favorite song? Is she divorced? Why? Is she chubby?
Bub Twug. You get the idea, here. Go wild with Bub. He might have slightly evil tendencies, or maybe he is an oenophile.
Margaret Smith. Boring name. But is she? Does she have strange food addictions? Or is she a sex addict? Maybe not. Perhaps she is just the most beautiful woman Bub and Daniel have ever seen. Describe her, but make sure she has at least one surprising quirk.
2. Now you have your cast. It is time to think about plot. There are two ways to go about plotting. One is to sit and think, make an outline, and figure out the story beforehand. I am sure that Gillian Flynn, who is a “knock your socks off” plotter, did this. She may have used some sort of software, or even three-by-five cards. I, on the other hand, assembled the cast in my head and sat down to write about one of them, knowing that eventually, the others would join in. Here is the way I began my book with my cast of characters:
Iris Fletcher is my aunt on my mother’s side. My mother, Winnie, is absolutely nothing like her sister. Here is my mother: busy, bossy, and in everybody’s business. My mother, Winnie Heath is about five foot three and weighs two hundred pounds. She’s chunky. I don’t know why, but even though she has never been thin men love her. It might be because she has bright blue eyes and eyelashes that stick out a mile. But the rest of her is kind of ordinary. She has wiry, dark brown curls that spiral around her face. Plus, she has skin so soft that I like to pet her arms. And her boobs never fell. Winnie is quick to smile, with teeth straight from the braces Grandma insisted on getting for her. Grandma was right: Winnie has a real winner of a smile. She will never need those whitening strips. Winnie has a cheerful face, and her eyes wrinkle when she smiles. All in all, she is satisfactory. But she is a legend in the Heath Family.
3. Here was a suggestion of plot: A woman who is an unlikely man-killer. What might have happened to her in her past? How might this come to haunt her family? Ah, the beginnings of a movie. A woman who looks like a fireplug turns out to be some sort of siren? My movie was going to be about surprises: characters who are surprising because they aren’t as they seem on the outside, revealing things that they did that would surprise and perhaps totally screw up the other members of the cast. Here is how I approached the crux of the plot in my book:
We live in Framington, like I mentioned, which is a medium-sized town. Kind of north of Columbus. In Ohio. Nobody important ever lived or died here. It looks like any other boring town in Ohio: squatty buildings, not much more that a main street and five intersections. One grocery. My dad’s store. And, of course, Walmart is just drooling to buy Jasper Plevins’ farm outside of town and move in. Like I said, typical. We have policemen, but they do things like write tickets. Absolutely nothing exciting ever happens here. So this conversation with my mom was starting to get me nervous. Because I know Winnie Heath. Those blue eyes don’t blaze without a reason.
Something was about to happen, and this “thing” would drive the plot in the rest of the book.
Exercise 2 Build a relationship between your cast members. Are Bub and Angela married? Is Margaret Bub’s sister? Were Bub and Daniel best friends until something happened? Tie them together. As you explore the relationships between your characters, plot lines will suggest themselves.
4. You are ready for scene one. It is the set-up for your entire story. Every movie has one inherent problem, mystery, or puzzle. There is something fraught between your characters. Or maybe one of them has a terrible problem, a sickness, a secret, or an undiscovered love. I have read somewhere that there are just a few basic plot lines. It is how the author handles them that makes the difference: you know, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, or somebody dies and everybody else has to learn to cope. It isn’t so much the plot convention you choose, it is the way that your characters sort it all out that counts. For instance, in Keep the Ends Loose, a family secret is revealed that blasts every single character nearly to smithereens. How each one copes becomes the entire “movie.”
Exercise 3 Oh, boy. There is a problem. Either that, or a huge surprise. Maybe somebody is killed. It all happens because of some kind of connection between your characters. Margaret did something awful. Daniel discovers it. Remember, this is writing practice—let yourself go on this. Make it quiver.
5. Now we have the event that everything revolves around in your movie. You have to follow the characters as they deal with it, either in real time, by switching viewpoints, or jumping from the present to the past. Make this easy on yourself. I got a little mixed up in timeframes in the first few drafts of my book, and the rewrites got hairy. This is where an outline or those index cards might come in handy. Remember that you are writing a movie—each scene must lead to the next one.
Exercise 4 Now that your readers know the problem, how are you going to handle it with your characters? Do they all know about it, or is one of them keeping it a secret from the others? Your movie is really about how each character responds to the problem, and how each one either comes to grips with it or is destroyed by it. In my book, the narrator watches as her brother is devastated by a secret revealed, but she herself is able to remain somewhat aloof. This interplay between the two of them lends depth to the story.
It took a minute for the gravity of the situation to sink in. On me. Of course, Adam (Mandy’s brother) and Roy (Mandy’s father) were a little taken aback, but they were not processing this note the way I was. Because I knew immediately that my screwed-up summer at that moment had morphed from shitty to completely fucked-up. Because not only was my brother angry…my father suddenly alone and vulnerable…but now I was the woman of the house. And I had no ideas why there was a “delicate” cycle on the washing machine.
6. Describe each character as he/she learns of the problem. What are their reactions? How do these tie together? Remember, in your movie, each event is viewed through the lens of the characters—and it is the interplay that keeps us interested. What will each character do? How will that impact the others?
7. The sliver of truth. Every movie has that one message: you know, the one that the screenwriter wants us to make sure we see. It might be the long shot of the two old people, walking in the park, holding hands, and we in the audience suddenly get it: love is all there is. Sappy example, I know. I am not a writer of epic themes. But I am fascinated with the idea of forgiveness. What is it? Do only adults have the wisdom to forgive? And I also feel strongly about youth not being as callow as everyone thinks they are. So that was my message, and although I didn’t dwell on it thematically as movie directors like to do with special shots, fadeouts, and flashbacks, it was there, nonetheless.
Exercise 5 What is your sliver of truth? Does Daniel come to peace with his own sexuality, and thus teach us a little lesson about diversity and acceptance? Does Angela learn Bub an important lesson that she isn’t even aware she is teaching? What is your sliver of truth? Decide which character will reveal it and how. Here is one from my book:
Sometimes life grabs you by the balls and squeezes, Pardon my French. There’s nothing you can really do to overpower it. You have to give in to things sometimes, you know? You can’t plan what to do. You can’t control stuff. You have to go with the flow…keep your emotions from exploding…we can try to ease things as best we can. You know, communicate. Forgive.
Put in your sliver of truth. It doesn’t need to be epic. It is better if it can be put into just a few sentences.
Finally, every movie has a resolution. Or not. The audience longs for that neat and tidy ending. How might yours differ? Will some of your characters be happy, but others not? Will you leave the audience hanging, or looking for a sequel? As a writer, you want to avoid the pat ending. Or if you like to tie up the loose ends (pun intended, ha!) then you will want to do it in an original fashion. In my book, the ends would have been better left loose:
What if this was why everybody loved movies? What if those were the only times when the loose ends got tied up right and stuff ended happily? Winnie tried to tie up her loose end and look what happened. A major debacle.
8. Resolution. Every character has to come to grips with the problem, solve it, or not, and then move on, or not. How will your characters deal with the issue? Will Angela smooth things over? Will somebody get married? Will Bub heroically save the day? There has to be a final scene in the movie. Your story has to have finality. How will yours end? Will all of the characters be in it, or will you lose some along the way? Write an ending. Then write another one, and make it sadder. Or happier. Then turn the whole thing into a disaster.
This is just one way to begin telling stories. I am sure there are others, but for me, as a first-time author, framing my novel in movie terms really helped me write something in which the story had a logical progression, the characters related in a logical and natural way, and the beginning, middle, and end seemed to arise one from the other.
One final thought: Begin reading books as a student—looking for and studying the ways that both good writers and bad ones built their “movies.” Take notes. I spent a year reading both good and bad novels, noting what worked and what didn’t, how writers built their plots–all the while continuing with my own character studies and writing practice. When I felt I was ready I wrote Keep the Ends Loose. It was such a huge challenge, such a great learning experience, and so much fun! If you don’t mind failure, and if you love to write, even if it ends up in the trash, then you can write a novel. It takes time. How do they say you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice…
About the Author…
“Quirky, hopeful, and wonderfully original” was what New York Times bestselling author Beth Hoffman said about Molly Campbell’s first novel Keep the Ends Loose. But she could have been saying that about all of Molly Campbell’s writing. A two-time Erma Bombeck Award winner, Campbell writes with humor and great humanity to create unforgettable stories. http://mollydcampbell.com/