When we first moved to New Jersey, we were lucky to meet a few local writers. One of them was Caroline Leavitt. We kept running into her at writers conferences and book festivals, and we became huge fans of her and her books. She is the quintessential writer’s writer. When we found out about her new book, Cruel Beautiful World, we picked her brain on the state of writing, publishing, and how the heck she got Scott Simon to interview her on National Public Radio.
TBD: David was coming of age in that strange period between the ‘60s and the ‘70s, when America went from being obsessed with flower power and the Grateful Dead to disco and cocaine. What draws you to this strange crossroads in American history?
CL: Oh, I was coming of age then, too. I wanted to go out to San Francisco and wear flowers in my hair and “meet some gentle people” but I was too young. So I hung out at the Love-Ins in Boston with my older sister. There was such profound hope in the ‘60s, a sense that we really could change the world for the better. And then the ‘70s hit. And Nixon invaded Cambodia. And Kent State happened. And the Mansons. What happens when dreams turn into a reality you didn’t expect? Can you still find meaning in your life? That’s what really interested me.
TBD: We work with so many writers who have a bizarre conception of what it is to be a writer: you’re suddenly filled with inspiration, you dash off your opus, and then you sit in your cabin by the lake while the royalty checks roll in. Of course, anyone who’s written a book knows it’s mostly sitting by yourself in a room, slogging away and trying to chisel out a work of art and commerce from a lump of clay you have to create with your imagination. As authors who’ve been writing for decades, we have to ask, why the heckfire do you do it?
CL: I firmly believe if I didn’t do it, I would be insane. And also because I love the whole sensation of being in another world, of creating characters. Maybe I am a bit of a masochist, but I love the hard, hard work.
CL: I’m writing the first chapter of my new book, and I’m too superstitious to say anything about it. I’m reading Shelter in Place by Alexander Maksik, which is fabulous, and I have this book Idaho by Emily Ruskovich.
TBD: We hate to have to ask you this, but we do. What advice do you have for writers?
CL: Never ever ever ever give up. Never. Someone says, “no”? The next person might say, “yes.” And do not write to the marketplace. Write the book that speaks to you, that is going to change YOUR life. If your book can do that, well then, it will change the lives of others, too.Caroline Leavitt is the author of the Indie Next Pick Cruel Beautiful World, and the New York Times Bestsellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. She reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe and People, and she teaches novel writing online at UCLA Writers Program Extension and Stanford, as well as working with private clients. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.
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A while ago, we interviewed one of our favorite writers, Caroline Leavitt, The New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and nine other books. Not only is she an amazing novelist, she’s also a brilliant teacher. After reading an interview we did with Caroline, Katharine Herndon, a member of James River Writers, asked a very simple question: She wanted to know what Caroline meant by “mapping a story by moral wants and needs.” We asked Caroline and her response was nothing short of game-changing in terms of storytelling. It made us think about constructing a plot in a whole new way. Here is what she said:
I always feel that you want to figure out: What is the specific long-standing thing your protagonist has gotten wrong about herself or himself and the world that the plot will force him or her to overcome in order to have a shot at what she or he wants? For example, take Kramer vs. Kramer. Kramer’s wrong about (and he doesn’t even know it yet) that the purpose of his life is to have a high-powered job in NYC, work 16 hours a day, neglect his wife and little boy. He thinks he’s doing the right thing because he’s providing for them, and he equates that with love. His boy doesn’t know him and his wife leaves him–with the kid. So the plot forces him to be the one thing he is not–a father. And through that experience, he comes to realize that what he wanted–to be the CEO–is not what he NEEDS. What he NEEDS is to be a loving father, which allows him to be a loving friend, and then possibly, in the future, a loving partner to someone.
I call this the Rolling Stone method of plotting. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try–sometimes–you can be lucky enough to get what you need, which is usually the opposite of what you want.
-So I start out asking, what is it the character wants and why?
-What’s at stake if he (or she) doesn’t get it?
-What is the character wrong about that he doesn’t even realize yet but is holding him back?
-What is the character ghost–the thing from his (or her) past that haunts him and keeps him from moving on that he must heal?
-What is the inciting action–this is something that pushes the protagonist into an inner and outer struggle with his misbelief. (Like Kramer who has to work less–the thing he believes he has to do more of!)
All the protagonist’s plans fail and fail until what I call the Big Doom moment, when he realizes all is lost. The girl or guy will never be won. The job is finished. The funds are gone. And then, in that moment, the character has a self-revelation. He realizes the misconception he had. For Kramer, it was when his wife comes back and wants the child –the one thing he thought he wanted at the beginning of the novel. Only now he loves his child, adores being a father, and he needs to keep him and fight for him. The protagonist fights for this new idea.
The last part is the New Equilibrium, where we get to see the character acting differently now that this misconception has been cleared up. Kramer is a dad with a ho-hum job, but he doesn’t care about the job or prestige anymore. He cares about being a father.
If you give your character lots of moral choices until he becomes who he should become, you get a deeper novel. A moral choice, by the way, is being stuck between two terrible choices, like, I can rob the store to get the medicine my dying wife needs and go to jail, or I can be a good citizen, and stay out of jail so at least I can be with my wife when she dies. Both are terrible! But humans show us their best selves when they are at their worst.
Writers: Please take this most excellent advice and run with it!