Formula One?

Before beginning the post itself, I’m happy to report that my piece on agreeing to disagree on matters of faith is in the July/August issue of Spirituality & Health, hot off the presses!  As I write this, the piece isn’t yet online, but I hope it shows up there soon.  Otherwise, you can look for it the old-fashioned print way.

Here’s the post:

Saved cats.
Two pillars.
Four themes.
Three juggling balls.
Eight points.
A snowflake.

No, it’s not a found poem, though it could be.  What these six items have in common?

They’re all formulas for story structure.  I put out a call yesterday at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, where I have an office, for advice on what to do.  I’m stuck.  Stuck.  Stuck.  Stuck.

Plot-structure-wise.

I’ve revised my novel (not for the first time) and have about 75 pages go to.  I’ve written those pages already, but I know they’re not working.  I need to think outside what’s already written.  I need to try big changes.  I need a formula.  As wary as I am of reductive  formulas, I’ve decided one or two might help.

I’ve tried outlines and timelines and index cards and flowcharts.  Now I envision scattering them in the air, like playing cards in a game of 52-Pickup or Smoke, Smoke, Fire.  Seeing where things land, seeing if new connections form.  Does the queen have to follow the jack?  What does she look like next to the 2?

I’m holding my deck, ready to fire. My Grotto colleagues have come forth with quite a few good recommendations—the Plot Whisperer, Robert McKee’s book on screenwriting, Blake Snyder’s book on screenwriting, and others.

I’m not starting from scratch. I’ve got my story, my conflict, my characters, my anguished question (what all successful fiction starts with, Wallace Stegner reportedly said).  What I don’t have—yet—is a clear, compelling climax and resolution. I’ve got several ideas for one, and it’s hard to see past them to something new and clarifying.

Part of the problem is that I’ve got more than one protagonist.  I’ve got four characters with “death stakes,” four characters with their own discoveries to make.  Yes, they’re interrelated, but still.  Every see a ball of tangled yarn?

But here’s the thing:  I’m convinced that the solution lies in that tangled yarn.  That the cat’s cradle of Eileen & Jeremy & Chris & Naomi will, once I find the pattern, knit together the right ending.  So I’m looking at pattern books.

I’d love to hear what’s worked—or not—for you.

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About lindseycrittenden

Lindsey Crittenden is the author of two published books: THE WATER WILL HOLD YOU: A SKEPTIC LEARNS TO PRAY (Harmony Books, 2007) and THE VIEW FROM BELOW, a collection of short stories (Midlist Press, 1999). Her personal essays and articles – on topics such as prayer, the pitfalls of too much California sunshine, and visiting a group of lifers at San Quentin – have appeared in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Image, Real Simple, Bon Appétit, East Bay Express, Health, and Best American Spiritual Writing. Her fiction has won national awards and has appeared in Glimmer Train, Bellingham Review, Quarterly West, and other publications. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she graduated from UC Berkeley, moved to New York City as soon as she could, and returned to California for grad school. While in the graduate creative writing program at UC Davis, she discovered (much to her surprise) the fun of teaching. She lives in San Francisco and teaches at UC Berkeley Extension. She has completed a novel, and is writing new short stories and a (very early stages) nonfiction exploration of spirituality & sex.
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