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The Fiction Writing Workshop: Plot (Keep Your Eye on the Ball)

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe
Growing up, our family played a lot of backyard baseball. My mom was usually the pitcher. “Keep your eye on the Kristin Bair O'Keeffeball,” she’d say before unleashing a pitch. When I followed her instruction, I usually hit a line drive or on a good day, a homerun (sending my sisters into a wild scramble in the outfield); when I didn’t, I either missed the ball completely or hit an embarrassingly lame foul tip.
Throughout the years, I’ve discovered that in this particular way, writing fiction is not so different from hitting a baseball. If I follow my mom’s instruction when writing-keep your eye on the ball-I am able to create a compelling plot in a story.
Take, for example, Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife. In it, the plot (the ball on which you must keep your eye) is “time-traveling man falls in love and wants to stay put in the present with his woman.”
In the book, all action and events speak to this plot in some way. As the story moves forward, Niffenegger keeps her eye on the ball. If she didn’t, the story would wander, and readers would get frustrated, give up, and move on to another book.
As you can see, plot is not a list of events in a story. Plot is the purest description of a story.
Another good example is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Of Love and Other Demons. Here the plot (ball) is “rabid dog bites girl; girl may have rabies.”
And again, throughout the book, Marquez keeps his eye on the ball. Never do you, the reader, lose sight of “rabid dog bites girl; girl may have rabies.”
When broken down this way, plot is a pretty simple concept, but, of course, writers love to complicate it. When someone asks, “What is your story about?” a writer will take a deep breath, say “Weeelll,” then launch into a play-by-play account of the entire tale. “It’s about a woman who buys a dog for her son even though he doesn’t like dogs, and when the dog runs away on a Sunday with the neighbor’s favorite dress…”
Whoa! Hold on! Remember, the purest description…
“Oh, yeah. Got it. Man gets dog; man learns to love.”
See? Simple.
When I was little, it took a while (and many strikeouts) to figure out that when my mom said “Keep your eye on the ball” she meant just that-“Kristin, look at the ball. Don’t look at my eyes, my hands, the outfielders, the squawking bird on the fence.”
In the same way, it took me a while (and many, many stories) to understand that when I’m writing, I have to do the same thing. Now it’s your turn. This month, pretend your book just got published and you’re being interviewed. The interviewer asks, “What is your novel about?” What do you say?
Once you’ve got that answered, look at your story. Do all actions and events speak to this plot? Is your eye on the ball?
If not, time to get back to work.

October 2007 Family Fun MagazineKristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel, Thirsty, will be published by Swallow Press in 2009. Since moving to Shanghai, China, in 2006, Kristin has been chronicling her adventures (and misadventures) in her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse.” Her essays and articles have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Baltimore Review, San Diego Family Magazine, and The Gettysburg Review. She teaches fiction and nonfiction writing and is the curator of Out Loud! The Shanghai Writers Literary Salon. To learn more, visit

The Fiction-Writing Workshop: Creating Three-Dimensional Characters

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

You know a well-developed character when you read one, don’t you? It’s the one that you chatter on about to your friends as if she were a living, breathing human being. The one about whom you find yourself saying things like, “Oh my, is she nuts? I can’t believe ______ did that. What’s going to happen to her now?” The one you obsess about at the office, longing for the workday to end so you can curl up on a subway seat and get back to the book. A character like Liesel in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, who haunts you so much that in the middle of the night you pull out the book, click on your Itty Bitty Book light, and read until dawn.

How do you create a character that sticks with readers and makes them want to keep coming back for more?

1.    Start with who you know (but good gracious, don’t get stuck there), Lots of writers base characters on people they know, and why not? We’re surrounded by quirky, lovely, interesting people whose personalities and habits are ripe for the picking. So, yes, use the folks in your life to get started on characters, but allow yourself to veer away from the real-life models when it feels right to do so. (For example, if you base a character on Uncle Ted with the kooky hair and the tendency to scratch his chin when he senses trouble, endow your character with those qualities and move on. As your mother would say, one Uncle Ted is enough.)

2.    Wreak havoc and see how your characters react. Yup, havoc. Let it roar. A flood? Great. A job loss? Terrific. The death of a secret lover? Oooh, tantalizing. There’s no better way to find out what your characters are made of than by throwing them into a stressful situation in which something dear is at risk and seeing how they react. (Take a look at Trudy Liang’s responses when the Japanese invade Hong Kong in Janice Y. K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher.)

3.    Create human beings (not robots). I don’t know about you, but all the human beings I know are complicated, emotional, multi-faceted, and somewhat flawed in both charming and not-so-charming ways, and when I read a character in a book that is as complex as one of these living, breathing human beings, I feel deeply connected to the story. David Crouse, author of two short story collections-Copy Cats and The Man Back There-is a master of creating three-dimensional characters so real you feel like you met them at a party last Friday. Check out Anthony in “Kopy Cats” (the title story in Copy Cats); you’ll see what I mean.

With all this information about creating lively characters fresh in your brain, set to work on your own characters. Are they well rounded? Will they make readers feel something? Will they make readers come back for more?

The Fiction Writing Workshop: Let Your Characters Speak

Kristin Bair O'KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe



“Do characters have to talk?”

“Yes, unless, of course, your character is a true mute or her mouth is bound shut with duct tape.”

Silence. And then the sound of nails drumming on a wooden desk.




“For a lot of reasons, but three pretty important ones.”

“Such as?”

“Well, first, dialogue helps readers get to know your characters. Look how much you learn about the narrator’s dad in Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Penguin Books, 2006) when on page five he gives his opinion about people writing their life stories:

‘Unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, Matisse, Churchill, Che Guevara or Bond-James Bond-you best spend your free time finger painting or playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your flabby-armed mother with stiff hair and a mashed-potato way of looking at you, will want to hear the particulars of your pitiable existence, which doubtlessly will end as it began-with a wheeze.’

“Ooh, that guy’s got some attitude, huh?”

“Exactly. And you know it both from what he says AND how he says it.”

“Okay, I get that. But why else should I use dialogue?”

“Ever get stalled in the forward motion of a story?”

“Oh, yeah. All the time.”

“Well, dialogue helps you figure out what happens next.”

“It does?”

“Yep, on page fifteen of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Vintage, 2003), the first-person narrator says to a girl he meets, ‘I’m looking for my cat…’ Simple sentence. Simple introduction of a problem via dialogue. And so begins a relationship and a journey that takes you places you never thought you’d go.”

“Wow, that’s pretty cool.”

“Told ya.”

“But you said there were three reasons, didn’t you?”

“I did, and the last one is the simplest. Dialogue is interesting to read. Readers love it. In fact, I had a friend in college who only read the dialogue in books. She skipped all the narrative. She said dialogue was all she needed to get a full story. A little extreme, but telling.”

“Any examples of dialogue readers love?”

“Actually that’s a great assignment for you. Grab your favorite book. Study the dialogue. Look at it for characterization, story movement, and entertainment value. Then write your own.”

“Hhhmm, me and my big mouth.”

The Fiction Writing Workshop: The Anatomy of a Scene

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe
By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

What is a scene?

Pushed to put this seemingly abstract concept into words, scene can be hard to define. But, if we leave the written word for a moment and jump to the stage, the answer comes a little more easily.

So go ahead, leave the written word. Jump to the stage. And think again.

What is a scene? Ah, yes. A scene is a period of time during which characters are talking, something is happening, and both are unfolding in a place.

Take Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for instance, when Romeo climbs up onto Juliet’s balcony and she professes great love for him, and the two of them coo at each other until they must part. Right there you’ve got a spectacular (and rather famous) scene: action, dialogue, and definitely a place.

You use the same three elements to create scenes in novels and short stories.

But why are scenes important? A numbers of reasons.

First, scenes give your readers something to see, and readers love to have something to see. (Think about how many times while reading certain passages in your favorite novel, you say, “Oh, I can just see it!”)

Second, scenes perform the all-important task of moving your story forward.

Third, scenes allow your readers to get to know your characters (and once your readers know your characters, they will keep on reading).

Fourth, without scenes, your story will be just plain B-O-R-I-N-G.

Consider Sherman Alexie’s poignant, hilarious, and spot-on novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown and Company, 2007). In the third chapter entitled “Revenge Is My Middle Name,” the narrator (a Spokane Indian kid named Junior who lives on a reservation) goes to a powwow with his best friend Rowdy. Now Alexie could have described Rowdy’s angry, aggressive behaviors to readers in straight narrative, but instead he puts the two boys into a situation where they talk, go somewhere, and get involved with some seedy characters. We get it all: action, dialogue, and place, and by the end of the powwow scene, we GET Rowdy. We know his role in Junior’s life. We understand why Junior loves him so much. And we suspect that eventually, there may be a bit of friction in this friendship. Most importantly, we want to keep reading. (Let me point out that although this novel’s primary audience is young readers, this is some sophisticated scene construction. It’s worth reading for both story and writerly techniques.)

With all this churning about in your noggin, try your hand at a couple of scenes this month. Use characters from a piece you’ve been working on or create some new ones in a completely new setting.

In addition, reread one of your favorite stories. Pay close attention to the scenes in the story. Where does one scene begin and end? What does the scene accomplish? How does the scene move the story forward? The more aware you become of scene construction in what you read, the more easily and artfully you’ll use it in your own work.

The Fiction Writing Workshop: The “S” Word

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Every story needs a setting. A place where characters can hunker down, figure out what’s bugging them, and struggle their way to resolution. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife wouldn’t be the love story it is if Clare and Henry didn’t hang out at the Aragon in Chicago.

And Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage would be flat and lifeless if the Burmese jail cell in which Teza is imprisoned wasn’t described in such intimate, excruciating detail.

Yet whenever I ask students to write a scene from a story, their first drafts often feature characters floating around in a strange, airy vacuum.

The problem?

No setting. The characters may be talking, walking around, having great sex, drinking beer, and throwing vases at their mothers. They may even be having the most kick-ass, fur-flying tussle in literary history, but they’re not doing it in a place. People in the “real world” live, work, get screwed up, get unscrewed up, walk dogs, buy groceries, and go to school, in PLACES.

So do people in stories.

When I point this out, I usually get one of two reactions: 1) “Ooohhhh, I see” (and suddenly characters are traveling to Winnipeg in an ’82 Nissan 280ZX or eating dumplings in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco), or 2) “I don’t know where it takes place.”

But you do know. Really, you do. The thing is, before you even write the first draft, you see in your own beautiful, imaginative noggin where a story takes place. Maybe your first sight of the story-what I call the dominant image-is not a place, but a conversation between a couple about to break up and the thing that grabs you is the way the man’s lips quiver as his girlfriend puts the kibosh on their engagement. But wait! If you sit with that image, and look a little longer, you’ll see that the couple is in a booth in a coffee shop. And if you look even longer, letting things come into focus, you’ll discover that the coffee shop is in a small college town in Illinois. Setting grows from there.

See what I mean? Writing a story is your chance to travel anywhere in the world. Grab that opportunity, and whether your setting is a bathroom in a Phoenix gas station or a steamy kitchen in Tokyo, make it your own.

The Fiction Writing Workshop: Beginnings

Kristin Bair O'KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Welcome to The Fiction Workshop. Each month in 2009, I will offer strategies and exercises for writers working on novels and short stories.

Whenever my students start a new fiction project-whether it’s a short story or a novel-they ask, “Where do I start? Where do I begin?” Usually the shiny nub of an idea has been taking shape in their heads for a while, but as the potential of the story swells before them, they get overwhelmed even before they get one word on the page.

“Start in the middle of something,” I say.

Inevitably they tilt their heads, narrow their eyes, and raise their eyebrows as if to say, “You’ve got to be kidding.” This is not what they expect to hear. They expect to hear, “Start at the beginning.” And many want to hear this. After all, the urge to start a story at the “true beginning” (you know, the day the main character is born even though the book is about a murder that takes place when she’s fifty and has nothing whatsoever to do with her birth) is great, but I suggest restraint. Instead, grab and hold your reader’s interest by dropping them into the middle of something.

One of the best examples of this is the opening chapter of Kiran Desai’s brilliantly crafted novel The Inheritance of Loss that won the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

“All day,” the first chapter begins.

Those two simple words-all day-deposit us quite neatly into a specific day during which many things have obviously already been unfolding.

And then there’s Jonathan Safran Foer’s ground-shuddering novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close that begins, “What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me?”

The first time I read this book (and I’ve read it at least three times since), I couldn’t wait to find out more. “Who the heck is speaking?” I asked myself. “And what kind of questions are these about talking teakettles? And if the narrator is the kind of person to ask about talking teakettles, where exactly is he taking us?”

With this unusual line of questioning and a very intriguing narrator’s voice, Foer plops us into a story we want to know more about, a story we want to keep reading.

And that’s the goal, after all, to create a story readers want to keep reading. So in the next few weeks, take a look at the opening of that novel or short story you’ve been toiling over. Where does it begin? In the middle of something or way back before something interesting is actually unfolding? What happens if you change the beginning? Try it. See what happens.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe a Contributor to the 2009 Bylines Calendar

2009 Bylines CalendarNot your ordinary daytimer, Bylines 2009 Calendar is chock full of inspiration, humor and passion. Just the sort of thing aspiring and working writers need to read on a daily basis to keep the creative juices flowing and the angst at bay.

This year there are writers featured from 29 states and 5 foreign countries. The calendar is $13.95.

Top 10 Reasons to BUY the BYLINES CALENDAR!

1. It’s the perfect gift for any writer! Give a Bylines Calendar for Christmas, birthdays, or for any occasion at all, and rack up the brownie points. (You’ll need them later, when they’re famous and you’re trying to bargain your way out of having your youthful indiscretions included in their memoirs.)

2. It’s a writing motivator. Stop listening to inner doubts, and reinforce the positive muse inside. Read a story each week, which gives tips on how other writers have overcome obstacles and achieved success. Look through their eyes into the daily happenings in a writer’s life.

3. It makes a great writing log. Jot down your writing-related accomplishments each day, such as: “finished chapter four”; “sent out query on toy museum to XYZ magazine”; “wrote poem about eyelashes”; “installed new computer printer,” etc. When you flip back through the pages later, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ve accomplished during the year.

4. Celebrate! Use Bylines to find writing-related holidays, such as Biographer’s Day, National Columnist’s Day, Young People’s Poetry Week, or even Be Kind to Editors and Writers Month (shouldn’t that be every month?). Look up the date of your next writer’s group meeting, and find a literary reason to celebrate, such as a famous author’s birthday.

5. Keep Track of Deadlines. Use Bylines to write down your DEADLINES, in capital letters, in Red Ink!

6. Keep focused on the goal. Do you want to finish your book this year? Send out 100 queries? Write one magazine article per month? Start a weekly column? Research 15 new markets for your poems? Enter 10 contests? Jot down your writing goals for the year in Bylines, on the page provided. Then do something daily, weekly, and monthly to achieve them.

7. When the IRS comes knocking. Show them your Bylines calendar, where you’ve written your daily log, as evidence to show that yes, you are a real writer, and absolutely, you really do write regularly.

8. Jog that Memory. Went to a conference, but forgot the name of that great speaker? Or met a writer at the conference with the same interests as you, but misplaced her email address? Use the conference pages in Bylines to jot down highlights of the weekend, such as new places to query, great new websites, and contact names and addresses. Later, you’ll always know where to find them.

9. Expand your horizons. Learn about 52 hard-working writers who overcame obstacles, gave up procrastination, and kept their rears in their chairs and fingers on their keyboards. Read about their resulting successes in many fields of writing. We provide their email addresses and link to their websites, so you can buy their books, read their articles, contact them to be speakers at meetings and follow their careers.

10. Hey, I’m a writer, too! Support the 53rd writer in the calendar, too, the one “behind the scenes.” (O.K., you may not think much of this reason. But look at the other nine.)

Here’s the website for ordering:

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