writer seeking a plot spot

In ALL, WRITING EXERCISES by Stephanie Klein22 Comments

Colin Harrison was one of my writing professors at Columbia University. He’d held me after class one day and told me that I “had the sauce,” but that I “just need to learn how to spread it.” Not only was he spot on, but he spoke to me in a language I could digest: food. One of my strengths as a writer—I don’t know how to finish that. I used to know. For a long time I believed it was my ability to tap into the smaller truths, to which we can all relate, even if our lives are poles apart. But is that a writing skill or just a personal trait you’d see listed in a book of astrology? “Perceptive and insightful, this sun sign…” Whatever those writing strengths may be, I for certain know what they are not: structure.

Knowing that I struggle with the anatomy of a story, I study it. I listen for plot twists in audiobooks as I clean the kitchen. When I watch films, I know the exact moment we launch into Act II. I’ve learned the “formula,” but applying it to memoir writing doesn’t come easily. Even without “truth” as a restriction, even if I gave myself the freedom to fictionalize, I’d still struggle with setting specific, true, plot points. Or at least struggle to make the ride fresh and exciting despite knowing all the formulaic story points. Can’t someone do it for me? That’s the question I’d pose to a writing coach. Can’t someone else guide me in terms of how to structure my material?

“Chronologically” makes the most obvious answer, without any confused flashbacks. Or put a stake in a timeline and say, “this is where we begin, writing from this exact date.” Say, the story begins when I decide to become a leader in the Girl Scouts, when my kids are toddlers, and we’re living in Texas. I meet the girls, take all the necessary training and explore all the insights I have, include all the obscene irresponsible mistakes I make, and how I eventually thrive, but then… then something major and unexpected… like for example, having to leave Texas and move to the New York suburb of Florida. See, that’s a true plot point, a turn no one is expecting that changes everything. But in a movie, you can’t really do this because the audience is already invested in this world and these characters. So what’s the true plot point? Do you see how it’s not about fictionalizing but about how to structure your true story and true events? It’s all about how you spread the sauce!

See, it’s not the actual writing that holds me back—okay, that’s a total lie most days—it’s how I write myself into corners, with sharp, yet interesting diversions. One writing teacher told me that my tangents were sometimes as compelling, if not more so, than the main passage, and that I should get in the habit of copying, cutting, and pasting them into a second document. Here’s an example of writing that I’ve recently copy, cut, paste:

When I walked across a friendship bridge and turned my trefoil pin upside-down, signifying my graduation from Brownie to Girl Scout, my mother brought her camera and wore a skirt. It was an event worthy of balloons and light refreshments. All to honor our eventual emergence from scouting as young girls of the three C’s. “Building girls of Courage, Confidence, and Character, who make the world a better place.” It’s the mission of all Girl Scouts. But after hopscotching my way through college, career, and a cushion-cut diamond ring, my girly C’s matured into something, someone, new: a close-minded, compulsively judgmental cow, allergic to the phrase, “I can do it.” To my credit, at least I know how I got there.

By airplane. My decision to book a one-way ticket from New York to the foreign country my friends called “Texass” wasn’t fueled by my childlike spirit for adventure but by my insatiable need for more. More space and more house. With more room for entertaining, I’d have more friends, and with warmer weather, I’d be more fit, so I could wear far less, which would result in far more sex. And this all would’ve been true, had I not been married.

It’s all summary. I need a plot spot, someone who can look at a pile of index cards, each listing a story or major scene, perhaps with each one sighting the insight or emotion or “reason for committing it to the page” or what the wisdom learned is, and organize them in a way that won’t confuse the reader in terms of timelines. The problem, I’m finding, is that once I start a story thread, like driving myself to the hospital in labor, is that you cannot tell that heavy story all in one shot. You break it down into scenes to keep the reader in a heightened state of suspense, but while keeping that suspense, by spreading the story up across several chapters all in flashback, you probably shouldn’t reveal in the interwoven “present storyline” that you have kids, that they were, indeed born. Step-by-step, the scenes can be broken down to create cliffhangers between chapters:

  1. Driving myself to hospital, getting lost unable to find the hospital, being scared but mostly excited, unaware of the real implications of pre-term labor.
  2. Finally arriving at the hospital, my reactions, the facts, what was actually happening, was I truly in labor or was it a false alarm?
  3. The actual delivery, will they live, wait, it’s a boy and a girl?
  4. Life as a mother to a NICU child. The nurses are better than I’ll ever be, life in the lactation room with other NICU moms. And just when we think it’s all over, and we’re finally all happy at home, Lucas needs emergency brain surgery… and so the suspense continues.

And then Phil’s heart, nurses crying, then Phil’s stroke. All of these monumental moments, dealing with big questions and hard truths, all while ordinary life is happening, the culture shock of a move, a tarantula on my window, scorpions in my closet, fights over my homemade tomato sauce (but really his being utilitarian and my being experiential), trying to make new friends, going on friend set-ups and to nude-beaches. Leading a troop of Girl Scouts, baking a cake in a cardboard box. Fleshing out the dynamics of my marriage. What goes where? Not to mention wanting to include stories from Florida and from now, living back in New York!

I guess I need to take the advise I’ve strung up in this post? To begin by naming all the moments I want to include, each on an index card, and see which events can be summarized (told) vs. which should be shown (creating a scene with dialogue, in the moment).  Then figuring out where a true plot point exists.

I’m officially asking for suggestions of either other movies or books that skillfully tackle the lighter funny moments while also dealing with the heavier moments… all with a long ass timeline and across several different states? Anyone? It’s hard! Especially when you think of it as a film.

The audience invests time in getting to really know, let’s say, the main characters, the girls and other leaders in a troop. And then, what? You up and move and we never see them again? See why that doesn’t work? And how would I include stories from now, like Phil’s stroke? Have an author’s note stating that timelines have been compressed, and have the stroke happen in Texas?

Must include why Texas of all places? The hilarious culture shock moments, which eventually lead to my missing NY. Trying harder than ever to make friends. Awful friend dates, not bonding with anyone. But then, when I least expected it, I made a new friend, and I love her. And another friend, love, love. Then you introduce them to each other and it all goes to hell. But you learn to take it in stride. But when all this is happening, you’re a new mother arguing with your husband about differing parenting styles and division of labor. So where do the NICU pre-term labor stories go?

Must also include why I join the Girl Scouts, what was the catalyst? The doubts, then meeting the girls and attending leader meetings and training! The absurdities of camping and what I learn about my marriage and parenting skills as a result. How are the stakes raised, making quitting scouting more appealing than ever? And why do I stick with it? But then what’s the next plot point? I’m finally thriving, no longer the naive newcomer, and then THIS HAPPENS, changing everything. That’s a plot point. That’s what I need a plot spot for!

As confusing and tangential as this post is, all over the place, a sloppy mess, that’s where I am in this process. Universe, please send me some answers, or a tribe member who’s fcuking rockstar at plot and structure.

Writing Exercise from the book 642 Things To Write About Me
“Write a letter to the teacher (or coach) who made a difference in your life, asking him or her for help. What are you asking for? Why?”

Comments

  1. Can you break it up into shorter books? Like a series? Having read what I have, I’m interested in all of it, but as a readeer/fan/email friend, I want to know it all. Like with SUAD, the reason I contacted you after reading it was because it wasn’t even enough. B and I still had SO MANY QUESTIONS. We wanted the down and dirty epilogue. And you hadn’t even gotten THAT far out of it yet at that time.

    It’s like our parallel of living so man different LIVES in a short time. I wouldn’t have any idea how to condense it to book form – book form as in the technical formula for how to tell a story. Because there is just so much, so many different/separate experiences worth telling. You have all these sections that are books within books. Not just chapters within a book. The book would have to be war and peace. And while I’m not so into the birth/NICU part, I have friends who would feel like that’s the most important, most interesting part. Yet I want to know all about the austin girl scouting without having a scout yourself, the women, the differences, etc. Then I want to know all about florida, those people, because I can relate- knowing the demographic well. I want to know everything about fitting in, sort of being familiar or thinking it would be a piece of cake there because it’s all NY transplants and NY attitude but then it not being what you thought or wanted. Finally, back to NY, why you ended up where you did and your whole scene there. And how you want to infuse some of Austin into your NY life because Austin did change you a bit and it’s all come full circle.

    So I think it can be broken up into shorter “books” that are a series. I’d read that shit in a heartbeat. And look forward to every part. But I feel like you have too much to stuff into one book. It won’t be nearly as satisfying. Unless you want more emails with more questions. Not that I won’t have them anyway, but you know what i mean.

    1. Author

      This is all invaluable to me. In Moose, we’re launched back to my years in fat camp by my pre-term labor specialist who told me I’d need to gain 50 lbs for the health of my unborn twins. The Girl Scouts is basically that same launchpad. I think it really helps to hear that people don’t want to hear about the NICU. I want to know what else people don’t want to hear about. I think one of the most compelling things to write about is my relationship with Phil. That and the motherfucking bitches.

    2. Author

      And also, “And how you want to infuse some of Austin into your NY life because Austin did change you” so so so on the money.

  2. Time to wrap this shit up. Even ” mom of three teens” peaced out.

  3. I think what might help is finding a common thread among all the stories. From what I’m reading here, I can find a few possibilities. One is that we are constantly evolving, and we never really get that moment where we have arrived and feel totally comfortable with all aspects of life. Like, real life isn’t the end of Sex and the City 2, where all questionable plot lines are wrapped up neatly so we all go out to dinner. That’s not realistic. There is always some part of life going to hell.

    Anyway, once you find the common thread, I think it would help to sort which stories illustrate that common thread, and in what ways. I’m really excited to read you are writing again! Always loved your work.

  4. What if you do more of a short story/essay format? That way you can talk about Texas, Florida, New York, babies, scouts and you don’t have to string them together? They’d be like blog posts almost.

    Or don’t write a memoir and create a story from fiction. Get out of your own head.

    1. Author

      The stories that I have to tell are so much better in real life memoir form. Because you can’t make this shit up. And also because with fiction, I’m not constrained by boundaries, which makes me feel paralyzed by the limitlessness of choice.

      1. But the problem is, with a memoir, your stories may not be that interesting to others, although they are to you. And this is a third memoir. Not even former presidents have that many! I think you’d do an amazing job with a novel, and it’s a different sort of challenge.

  5. Could you focus on writing a series of short stories?
    Once the stories are written, the themes will appear (think Sedaris, but no need to be funny if that’s not your thing). Real life isn’t linear, which is why it’s so hard to write it in a linear way.

  6. I think you have a lot of entertaining/funny/moving stories, but when I try to imagine the bulk of the stories in this post being in a single book it falls apart.

    I would love to read about these experiences in short story form. Think NYT Modern Love when discussing Girl Scouts/Phil’s health/tomato sauce (here I see a thread to be woven and neatly tied at the end). You don’t mention Boca above, but I know those Boca Bitches could inspire a funny story or two.
    As a fellow NICU mom, I think that is a harder sell. At least for me. I think the people most interested in reading about those experiences, have usually had their own. There are SO many blogs, online magazines dedicated to special needs parenting, traumatic birth stories, etc. I think those stories could provide context and texture to other memories, but would be hard to stand on their own.
    I have always seen you more as an essayist/short story writer. Have you tried to have any short works published in magazines and the like?
    Whichever direction you decide to go, you have fans like myself who have followed you for years and are always eager for more. I truly love your writing.
    LS

    1. Author

      This is great advice, and it’s also what my agent says, to not worry about the structure and to just write a series of essays. I still feel like that’s the easy way out, though. And to answer your question, no, I haven’t tried to publish anything, short or long form. I’m trusting that I will find my way through this. Thanks again for your thoughtful response.

  7. A great piece of advice I received on writing is “never put something on the menu that you love to eat.” Meaning – make sure the stories are compelling to more than just you. I think you did this in the first two books – but I would be cautious to be sure that Girl Scouts is a central theme that readers can get excited about. You may want to move away from memoir and truth telling and towards fiction where you have some freedom. You are a fantastic writer – but I think your early content in the blog is endlessly more compelling and captivating than recent years.

    1. Author

      The Girl Scouts is just the table setting. The actual meat is the bulk of the content. Think Private Benjamin and Troop Beverly Hills. The theme is about self-reliance, remembering to be a “me” once you become “we.” I haven’t posted any of the material on my blog, so it will all be new, nothing that I’ve ever shared on this blog.

  8. Author

    Chapters…
    IF A TREE FELL IN THE WOODS, IT’S BECAUSE I KILLED IT
    THE BARE NECESSITIES
    THERE BETTER BE A CORKSCREW ON THAT POCKET KNIFE
    WHERE THERE’S A WILL, THERE’S A WAY TO SCREW IT UP
    FROM LEDGE TO PLEDGE
    MINE’S BROKEN
    ON BELAY?
    ON MY HONOR, I WILL CRY
    THE FRIENDSHIP SQUEEZE
    EMERGENCY CONTACT PERSON
    THIS TOO SHALL PATCH
    P.S. I HATE THIS PLACE
    SILVER AND GOLD
    BE PREPARED

  9. Oh no – I’m not gone. I’m a faithful reader and true fan. Just busy dealing with the darlings’ college graduations, their choices of grad schools, continuing declining parents and the ever-increasing work load of caretaking two sweet, old peeps, a new job that I love more than I’ve ever loved a job, my sweet, darling man – and – frankly – really no good advice on this one.

    I have compiled 20 years of e-mails, blog posts, stories, musings…and every time I open up the file – my stomach hurts – my hands get clammy and I just can’t figure out what the hell to do. Which is odd – I’m not an indecisive person, nor is it laziness – I just don’t know what to do with it all.

    So, Stephanie – I feel your pain – and I’m right here with ya. Happy spring!!

  10. I’d start with how you met Phil and how that changed you. How did you get here?

    How did your dreams of the person you were planning to be before him change? What changed? Who are you now compared to the pre-Phil Stephanie? How do you think meeting him, getting pregnant, and then getting married, change the projection and expectations of your life?

    It’s apparent in the last sentence of your first paragraph that you are a different person than what you expected to be. There is an internal struggle and that’s the obvious “pull” your reader is curious about.

  11. On another thought….I think the theme of the book/story should flow from who you were, how you changed, and how you changed again to find yourself or come to terms with life/marriage/kids/career, etc. This allows you to tie in pre-Phil, the babies, marriage, health scares, moving, moving again, moving AGAIN, and finding balance and finding yourself in all of that.

    It is sloppy, and that’s why your readers will relate. Life is sloppy and it never turns out to be what you expect it be.

    Hope this helps!

  12. I know nothing about plotlines, or message cards or the rest….but I do know this: The title should be Greek Tragedy by Stephanie Klein-Beer….and it needs a chapter of sage advice and wisdom from 3 teens’ mom- I’d buy it!! :)

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