Caroline Carlson

How I Plan a Story

(originally posted at Through the Tollbooth)

I spent the weekend reading Reflections, a collection of essays and talks on writing by the children’s fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones. Diana touches on all sorts of topics in her essays, but my favorite passages are the ones in which she describes her writing process: how she grabs ideas out of thin air, plans them out, and sets about turning them into full-fledged stories. I’ve always loved learning about other writers’ processes, which seem so magical and veiled in mystery even when you are a writer yourself, so with the hope that you also like to learn about other writers’ processes, I thought I’d tell you about how I plan my stories.

I don’t think anyone will ever be able to adequately explain where story ideas come from, but for me, they usually arrive when I’m standing at the kitchen counter eating crackers out of the box and letting my mind wander all over the place. As it wanders, it stumbles over a strange or silly thought, and I sort of laugh to myself and say (with a mouth full of crackers), “That would be a good idea for a story.”

Usually, it is not a good idea for a story. Usually it turns out that I’m just standing in the kitchen talking to myself like someone who really should not be left alone for long periods of time. But sometimes my brain starts to tingle in a particular way, and I abandon the crackers and run to my computer, where I open my file of story ideas. This is a Word document full of phrases and sentences and paragraphs describing every idea I’ve ever had that’s made my brain tingle in that particular way. Moving quickly, before the idea dies, I find a blank space in the document and write it down. I usually don’t write more than a sentence; for my book Magic Marks the Spot, I wrote, “A girl tries to enroll in Piracy but her application is forwarded to Young Ladies’ Finishing School.” (Actually, this is still more or less the elevator pitch I use when people ask me what my book is about.)

Then, once the idea is safely recorded, I forget about it for a very long time.

I think this is the most important part of my process. The idea needs time by itself to ripen, and if I hover over it and poke at it too much, it won’t develop properly. I let the idea sit in my subconscious mind, soaking up everything I read and learn about and experience in the meantime, and every so often I’ll realize that the idea has grown a new sort of tendril (“the pirate girl has an adorable sidekick… maybe a talking parrot? A talking rabbit? A talking… something else?”). I write that tendril down in my story idea file and go back to not thinking about it for a while. Though it’s not always possible, I prefer to let a good story idea ripen for at least a year while I write about something entirely different. I had the idea for Magic Marks the Spot about a year before I started writing the first draft. The idea for my second book was only allowed to ripen for eight months (I was on deadline), and it was still a little green around the edges. And I have another idea that’s going on two years of ripening now, though I haven’t yet started to write it.

An idea is ready to be written about when I know a few crucial things about it. First, I have to know what Diana Wynne Jones describes as “the taste, quality, character—there are no words for it—nature of the book itself, a sort of flavor” (Reflections, 117). This flavor could be the subject of its own blog post, but it usually arrives at the moment of inspiration and grows stronger during the ripening period. Next, I have to know how the story begins. I like to know exactly what happens for at least the first twenty pages, since once I’ve written that down I am firmly in the story, and I’ve given myself enough momentum to keep going. I also need to have some idea of what the story’s climactic scene will be, so I know what I’m aiming for. I will usually know two or three scenes that take place along the way, though that’s not absolutely crucial; they will have popped up during the ripening process, and they may be subject to change if the story takes twists and turns I don’t expect.

Finally, I need to plan out my protagonist’s emotional arc. I’m the sort of writer who gets so caught up in plot that I forget to let my characters feel things, so I plan this emotional arc very consciously and deliberately; if I don’t, I will utterly fail to include it in the story. At this point, I try to ensure that my protagonist’s plot arc and her emotional arc will intersect at the climax of the story—the place that my VCFA advisor Franny Billingsley called the crossroads. Creating this crossroads, where plot and emotion intersect at their peaks, can feel awfully academic, but I’ve found that taking the time to do this solidifies the story’s structure and gives me the freedom to play around with the story without fearing that it will all come toppling down around me.

After that, I start writing. I’m a planner by nature, and it terrifies me not to know what happens next, so I’m often tempted to plot out every scene in advance. To paraphrase Diana Wynne Jones, though, overplanning can kill a story. Since my work in progress is partially a mystery story, I had to plan it in a lot more detail than usual, and I think all that planning made the book much more difficult to write; it squashed some of the spontaneity and playfulness that I’ve come to believe makes for the best writing. I usually do make an outline about halfway through the first draft, when I have a pretty good idea of how the rest of the book will go, but I don’t require myself to stick to it. Not knowing what will happen next may be terrifying, but the scenes that come out of nowhere, unplanned, always turn out to be my favorites.

That, in exhausting detail, is how I’ve planned the stories I’ve written so far, though I can’t guarantee it’s how I’ll write the next one. I’d love to hear about your planning process, too—just accost me at a cocktail party or, failing that, drop a note in the comments.

What I’ve Been Up To

If you were an alien reading my blog, you might think that December is the month that comes right after August. IMPORTANT NEWS FLASH FOR ALIENS: This is not the case. What is the case, however, is that I’ve spent the past few months doing a lot of things and blogging about none of them, so I figured I owed you guys (humans and aliens alike) a little update.

Here’s what I’ve been doing for the past four months:

1. Writing a new book. It’s the second book in the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy, and I’ve actually been working on it since June. A lot of authors will tell you that writing a second book is difficult, and I’m not going to be the one to tell you any different. On one hand, I’ve gotten to return to the characters and places I wrote about in Magic Marks the Spot, and it’s been so much fun to visit with them again and watch them buckle their swashes as they set out on the High Seas once more. On the other hand… writing a second book is tough. You want it to be even better than the first one, or at least just as good. You want it to be similar to the first book, but you don’t want to write the same book twice. You don’t want to disappoint your agent or your editor or (even worse!) your future readers. And so, if you’re me, you rewrite the same scene seven times in a row, delete it entirely, put it back, and realize that actually the first version of the scene was best all along. Then you continue to do this for nearly 300 pages. After over six months of writing and revising and eating plenty of cookies, I’m really pleased with how this second book is going, but I know I still have a lot of work to do (and will therefore have to eat more cookies in 2013).

2. Writing in strange places with strange people. Actually, both the places and the people have been lovely. I’ve written parts of this new book at a writing retreat with some friends in western Massachusetts, and I’ve revised parts of the book at a writing retreat with some other friends in upstate New York. Spending time with writers is wonderful; we’re all used to spending our days alone, so socializing is sort of a novelty for us. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t get a whole lot of actual writing done on writing retreats, but I love spending time with friends and chatting about writing, the publishing industry, and other important topics like the best kind of cheese or whether we should stop working and jump in the pool.

3. Heading through the tollbooth. I’m honored and excited to be the newest member of Through the Tollbooth, a blog about the craft of writing manned (or womanned, really) by several wonderful VCFA alums. You’ll be able to find me over there occasionally, beginning in January.

4. Sending my pirates to Europe. OK, I truthfully had nothing to do with this, but my lovely foreign rights team has found homes for The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates in three new countries: Germany, France, and Spain. I haven’t been lucky enough to travel to any of those countries (yet), but I’m so pleased that my pirates will get to visit in my stead. Their ship probably won’t get to Europe until 2014 at the earliest, and I apologize in advance for their thoroughly American accents.

5. Reading. Of course. And baking things, as usual. And trying to remember how to knit. Not to mention taking unintentional naps.

With any luck, I’ll be back with another blog post before too many more months have passed. ‘Til then, I hope your holidays are wonderful, however you celebrate them.

How to Make Hardtack

(Cross-posted on Friday the Thirteeners; be sure to check them out!)

In an effort to prove my boldness and daring to the members of Friday the Thirteeners, I’ve decided to cook a favorite recipe from my forthcoming middle grade novel, MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT. You might remember that a few months ago, my fellow debut author Elle Cosimano performed this dare by sharing her recipe for a delicious-looking chicken stew. That’s nice and all, Elle, but let’s be frank: Anyone can cook chicken stew. It takes a truly talented chef, however, to prepare the recipe I’m sharing with you today: hardtack, the tooth-breakingly tough flour-and-water biscuit that my pirate characters spend most of their time eating in my novel. Mmm!

For this post, I’m using the hardtack recipe developed by the thoughtful scallywags at WikiHow. And to help you follow along, I’ll be showing you step-by-step photos in the style of my favorite food blogger, the Pioneer Woman. You might even call me the Buccaneer Woman.

On second thought, please don’t ever call me that.

Anyway, the first thing you’ll want to do is preheat your oven to 375 degrees F. Then collect your ingredients: flour, water, and salt. (Sea salt is best–this is a pirate recipe, after all.) If you are lucky enough to have a pirate acquaintance, you should probably ask him to help.

In a large bowl, combine a cup and a half of flour, a cup of water, and a teaspoon of salt.

Then use a wooden spoon to stir it all together.

You want the dough to be thick enough that it’s hard to stir, so you’ll probably need to add more flour. When the dough is ready, it should be able to hold up a sword without much trouble.

Clean off your sword and turn out the dough onto a floured surface. By this point, you will most likely be covered in flour, but don’t dismay–a little flour is hardly enough to make a true pirate tremble in his boots. Roll out the ball of dough until it’s not quite as thick as it was before. (The recipe says it should be half an inch thick, but do you know a pirate who keeps a ruler in his kitchen? I don’t. Just roll it out until you get bored and feel like stopping.)

Next, use your sword to cut the dough into four equal pieces. I trimmed the edges of the dough here, too, since pirates like to keep things tidy.

Now you’ll need to poke holes in the hardtack to make it look more authentic and piratical. I used a chopstick to make four rows of four holes in each biscuit.

But if you don’t have a chopstick, you can always use your peg leg.

Okay, now your hardtack is ready to bake! Climb out of the dough and wipe off your leg. Then put the biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet and pop ’em in the oven for about 30 minutes. (It’s ok if they look a little weird.)

While you’re waiting for the hardtack to cook, you’ll probably want to clean up the huge, floury mess you’ve made all over the kitchen. You can leave out a bowl of salt water to keep your pirate friend occupied while he waits for you to finish.

When the hardtack is golden brown, take it out of the oven and remove your pirate from his mixing bowl. Wait at least 30 more minutes for the biscuits to cool. According to the recipe, you’re supposed to let your hardtack rest for a month so it’ll get good and hard, but I’m pretty sure most pirates aren’t that patient. Besides, I have a dentist’s appointment tomorrow, and I don’t want to break my teeth.

When the biscuits are cool, take a bite!

Delicious!

Big Stories from Small Spaces

(Originally published at The Lucky 13s.)

If you walked into my house and took a look around the living room, one of the first pieces of furniture you’d see would be the IKEA sofa.

You know the one. You probably own it. Everyone seems to own it. It’s small; it’s squat; it’s most politely described as “functional.” It has a wrinkled, stained slipcover hastily disguised with throw pillows and a big, rainbow-colored afghan. In short, this sofa is twentysomething furniture at its finest.

I’m telling you about this sofa because it also happens to be the place where my first book was born. When I wrote the first draft of Magic Marks the Spot, my husband and I were living in a loft apartment just big enough for two grad students and a few standard pieces of IKEA furniture. The room upstairs was my husband’s workspace; the room downstairs (which was office, living room, kitchen, dining room, and entryway all in one) was my writing space. I had a tiny desk, but I hated it, so I mostly worked from the sofa. If I sat at one end, I could look out the window at the convenience store across the street; if I sat at the other end, I could glare at the dirty dishes in the sink.

Honestly, I wasn’t crazy about this writing space. Because the sofa was not only my writing space but also my dinner-eating space, TV-watching space, and afternoon-napping space, sometimes I wouldn’t move from it for weeks at a time. It wasn’t exactly ergonomic, and my back hurt. I indulged in long, lazy daydreams about a writing room of my very own, with a big window and a big desk and a door I could close while I wrote. I told myself that no one could possibly write an entire book while sitting on an IKEA sofa. It was distracting; it was uncomfortable; it was (I suspected) not where Jonathan Franzen would sit if given the choice.

But I wrote the entire first draft of Magic Marks the Spot on that sofa, and I’m pretty sure you can’t even tell.

About a month after I finished that first draft, my husband and I packed up our tiny apartment and moved to a new city and a new house. We bought a big, beautiful sofa that’s truly comfortable. At last, we had a separate kitchen, dining room and living room, and we began to declare victory over our twenties. For me, the biggest victory was my new office: an entire room where I can read and write and imagine to my heart’s content. It has a big window that looks out on a lawn populated by animals who’ve hopped straight out of a Beatrix Potter book. It has a big desk that used to serve as our kitchen table in our tiny old apartment. It has bulletin boards and calendars and bookshelves. I have a new ergonomically friendly chair, and my back no longer hurts. I can walk inside my office, close the door, and write. Maybe it’s not quite my dream writing space–the door doesn’t close all the way, and the carpet smells a little weird from previous generations of renters–but for now, it’s pretty much bliss.

We parted with a lot of our old furniture when we moved, but I have to admit that we kept the IKEA sofa. It sits in our living room, far enough away from the newer, nicer sofa to keep it from feeling embarrassed. It gets great sun, especially in the mornings, and a few days ago I had to laugh at myself when I found myself curled up on it as I drafted my next book. Old habits die hard, I guess, and it doesn’t really matter where you write; that sofa can transport you into the world of your story just as smoothly as your dream office can. Stories can come from anywhere, and they can be written nearly anywhere, too. The size of your apartment in no way limits the size of your imagination.

(But please, please, if you possibly can, get yourself an ergonomically friendly chair. You have a long writing career ahead of you, and you really don’t want to mess up your back.)

Howl’s Moving Castle: An Appreciation

I mentioned a while ago that I wanted to write a couple of blog series: one about the books that inspired Magic Marks the Spot, and another about my favorite middle grade novels. Today I’m going to start things off with a bang by writing about a book that is both an all-time favorite and an inspiration: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.

I can’t remember exactly when I started reading Diana Wynne Jones’ books, but I was probably around 8 or 9 years old, and I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that Diana shaped my reading and writing life. Her books transported me; they captivated me; they made me laugh. The endings didn’t always make sense (and sometimes the entire book hardly made sense–it took me many years to wrap my mind around Hexwood and Fire and Hemlock), but it didn’t matter to me. No one could create a wonderfully imagined world and then drag you into it like Diana could, and I was heartbroken when she passed away last year.

I’m not sure if it’s possible for me to pick a favorite Diana Wynne Jones book, but one I love without reservation is Howl’s Moving Castle. The plot treads familiar fairy-tale territory (enchantments, disguises, seven-league boots, and wicked witches), but the wonderful characters and Diana’s trademark humor make the story both classic and fresh, both timeless and utterly new. I could list the specific parts of Howl’s Moving Castle that I love the most–the doorknob that will take you to different cities depending on which way you spin it, the hilarious chapter titles, the John Donne poem, Calcifer the fire demon–but I’d end up spoiling the book for you, and the whole point of this post is to send you off to the library or bookstore to claim a copy for yourself. So I’ll just say that Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the most joyfully written books I’ve ever read. It’s the sort of book that reminds me how much I love to read and how much I love to write.

In fact, Howl’s Moving Castle is indirectly responsible for the very existence of Magic Marks the Spot. In early 2011–a few weeks before Diana Wynne Jones passed away, as it turned out–I was in a writing funk. I had just put aside the draft of a novel I’d spent five years writing; it had deeply entrenched problems that I didn’t know how to solve. At one point, I’d thought it might be my first published book. It was the book I’d spent most of my MFA program writing. But all at once, it was gone, and I needed to start writing something new.

I was miserable, and I didn’t want to write. I hated writing. And I was afraid that I’d never be able to write another book, that I’d never be able to sell a book, that I’d never be able to have the career I’d always dreamed of. But I had an MFA deadline to meet, and if I didn’t write at least 75 pages of something new, I wasn’t going to graduate, so I couldn’t let myself sink into a melodramatic funk (as Howl himself is prone to doing, it turns out). I let myself wallow in despair for a few days, and then, because I knew it was too soon to start writing, I started to read.

I chose Howl’s Moving Castle because it always made me feel good, and I needed a laugh just then. I remember sitting on the deck outside our old apartment in Baltimore; it was unusually warm for February, and I read half the book there in the sunshine. As I read about Sophie, Howl, and Calcifer, I forgot to hate writing. I forgot to feel sorry for myself. I remembered for the thousandth time that I wanted to be a writer of books like these, books that kids would love and laugh with and turn to again and again as they grew up. I wanted to write a joyful book. More specifically, I wanted to write a middle grade book with lots of humor, lots of adventures, and characters you wouldn’t mind sharing your cookies with. I wanted to have fun with my writing.

The next day, I started Magic Marks the Spot, and everything got a whole lot better.

I don’t know if Diana would have liked Magic Marks the Spot, but I hope she would have. I don’t know if it will cling to readers’ hearts the way Howl’s Moving Castle clings to mine, but I hope it will. I know that Calcifer shares a few strands of DNA with my gargoyle. And I know that all the books I write will owe their existence in part to the phenomenal books I read as a kid. Those books are part of my own DNA now. They influence my writing, of course, but they also remind me to follow the writer Jane Yolen’s advice and take joy in my storytelling. When I forget why I write, I read Howl’s Moving Castle, and I remember.


This week on The Lucky 13s blog, some of my writer friends and I are giving away copies of the books that have influenced our writing, and my contribution to the giveaway is Howl’s Moving Castle. Please head over to the blog to enter!

If you don’t win the giveaway and you haven’t read Howl’s Moving Castle, I recommend that you do so as soon as you possibly can. Visit your local library for a copy, or purchase it from Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, IndieBound, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.