Friday, July 29, 2022

B.A. Shapiro--Metroplis

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I love the writing community. The friends you make in this business are many, and are one of the best parts of getting to make up stories for a living. Today it's my very great pleasure to introduce one of my earliest writer friends, B.A. Shapiro. In our newbie writer days we, along with our friend Steven Womack, organized a couple of book tours together. (We even had t-shirts printed!) 

I was in awe of Barbara's plotting skills, and that certainly hasn't changed! Her newest novel, METROPOLIS, is an absolute can't-put-down-page-turner. How does she do it? you ask. Her answer might surprise you!



WRITING A  NOVEL WITH STATISTICS

B.A. Shapiro

My latest novel, Metropolis, is set in Metropolis, a nineteenth-century self-storage facility in a five-story brick monstrosity resembling a medieval castle—including turrets—that sits across the street from MIT. There are six viewpoint characters who have nothing in common but their connection to this building. The six couldn’t be more different from one another, on completely different paths in life, each with their own separate struggles and secrets. Black, brown and white. Christian, Jew and atheist. Gay and straight. Rich, poor and in the middle. 

So how the hell does one go about writing a novel with such a large unconnected cast and so many intertwining plots? How about Excel spreadsheets, bar graphs, bubble maps, pie charts and scattergrams? Not to mention intersecting and overlapping normal curves. Granted, one of my areas of specialization in graduate school was statistics, and everyone knows that being able to invert a matrix is a prerequisite for a successful literary career. Or not.

The bubble maps came first. Which of the characters know each other? Which don’t? And how does this change over time? Bubble Map 1 shows there’s hardly any interaction between them, but by Map 8, almost everyone knows each other. By the end of the book, some have crushes, some are in love, some are helpers and some are friends. And there are those who knowingly cause the downfall of others. 

Obviously, each person is the hero of their own story, but who are these people? What are their dreams, hopes, problems, backstories? You may not be aware of this—because I made it up—but every plot can be mapped on a normal curve. This is true of all character arcs and subplots, and is exactly what I needed to get Metropolis to work. 

I graphed out each character’s normal curve: their story, with all its obstacles and conflicts and major plot points. Then I did the same for each subplot, along with the overarching plot that ties it all together. When each of these was complete, I combined them into a single graph, with time running across the X axis, the one on the bottom, and the progression of events on the Y axis, along the left. 

How to organize this into a cohesive novel? I used a very sophisticated statistical method: multi-colored file cards. Each character, sub-plot and plot gets a color, and each card represents an individual’s plot point. Rose had about twenty plot points, Jason seventeen and Serge eleven, so I had twenty green cards, seventeen red ones, eleven blue ones, and on and on for each plot and character. 

Then I took all the cards—almost 100 of them—and laid them out on my dining room table. I moved them around for days until I created a structure that had a beginning, a middle and an end. When that was complete, I formed the cards into sequential scenes based on a four-act structure. Then I began to write.

But writing wasn’t the end of statistics and charts. Far from it. Throughout the process, I kept a tension chart for every chapter. The chart includes when, where and who is narrating each scene, but most important is the “tension coefficient” I assigned to each. My coefficients ran from 0.25 through 1.0, reflecting the amount of emotion the events created. 

Obviously, you can’t have a scene with no tension because that would be totally boring, but sometimes you have to do a bit of backstory or buildup or just need to give the reader a break after a high-tension chapter. This type of scene got a tension coefficient of 0.25. It was 0.50 for those with a cliff hanger, 0.75 for those where three or four different colored file cards intersect, and the big 1.0 for the really, really big ones. 

When I finished the first draft, I plotted theses coefficients on graph paper. If there were too many low numbers in a row, I knew I needed to add something to keep the reader reading. And if there were too many high numbers clustered together, then it was clear the reader needed some breathing room. 

But this all this provided just the skeleton. For me, the magic is in the revisions. Where my imagination adds the muscles and skin and faces to the characters, where the themes and plots are deepened, where true connections emerge. This is when my story becomes different from every other story. The right brain and the left brain working together. 

In the case of Metropolis, through eight drafts, almost four years, and many iterations of normal curves, bubble maps and scattergrams. Not to mention those many, many boxes of multi-colored file cards. 


In Metropolis we encounter six unforgettable characters who never would have met if not for their connection to the Metropolis Storage Warehouse. When a harrowing accident—or is it an accident?—occurs in the building, each person is forced to reconsider their life circumstances.
The characters have different backgrounds: they’re white, brown and Black; they’re Christian, Jewish and atheist; they’re gay and straight; they’re young, and they’re not so young; they’re rich, poor, and somewhere in the middle. As they dip in and out of each other’s stories and struggle to salvage their own lives—as well as discover the truth behind the incident—Metropolis traces how their interlocking narratives connect them and tear them apart. B.A. Shapiro has wrapped an ensemble cast around a mystery that thematically explores the myth of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” in current day America.



B.A. Shapiro is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of nine novels, including Metropolis (May, 2022), The Collector’s Apprentice, The Muralist and The Art Forger, which won the New England Book Award for Fiction, among other honors. Her books have been selected as Community Reads throughout the country and have been translated into over a dozen languages. She holds a PhD in sociology and has directed research projects for a residential substance abuse facility, worked as a systems analyst/statistician, headed the Boston office of a software development firm, and served as an adjunct professor teaching sociology at Tufts University and creative writing at Northeastern University. She likes writing novels the best. Barbara splits her time between Boston and Naples, Florida.

DEBS: Are you in awe yet?? I have seen Barb's multi-colored index card covered walls and they are a marvel--as are her books. If you want to write novels (or improve you craft) and you ever have the opportunity to take a plotting masterclass from her, jump on it. 

(I'm not going to be graphing normal curves any time soon, but I am definitely trying the bubble maps.)

REDS and readers, Barbara will be stopping in to chat, so get your plot questions ready!


64 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your new book, Barbara. Your process is amazing!
    Do the spreadsheets, graphs, and what-not always work the way you expect them to when you start a new book?

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    1. Thanks, Joan. No, they don't--the final book is usually very different from my first cards. But that's all right as I just need to know I have a beginning and middle and end.

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  2. I think my brain hurts just from reading that, much less trying to make it work. But it sounds like it was exactly what you needed. Congrats on your new release.

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    1. Thanks Mark. So sorry to hurt your brain. Can. you only imagine my constant headache? Best, Barbara

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  3. I didn't understand a word of this. I had to look up most of the terms. But then, I have never understood Excel, either. Congratulations (I think), not only to Barbara on the publication of the book, but to anyone who understood today's blog.

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    1. As I said earlier, it's not necessary to know what's inside the sausage--and sometimes it's better not to. Best, Barbara

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  4. Barbara, welcome to JRW and wow, your process is amazing! Hopefully, readers don't need to make their own graphs to keep up. I am truly fascinated by how you made this work and am putting Metropolis on my TBR list!

    Barbara, I have two cousins who are profs at Northeastern. Are you still connected to that school?

    Now I have a question for Debs. Over the course of several books, you kept a story rolling through the background, tying them all together. The Garden of Lamentations ended that theme and finally tied up all the mysteries you had left hanging. How did you keep track?

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    1. With great difficulty, Judy:-) But I did actually have plot points written out for all the story lines.

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    2. Thanks Judy. Thrilled to be here. I'm not at Northeastern any more, but it was great teaching there. Hope you enjoy Metropolis. Best, Barbara

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  5. Wow, Barbara. Add me to the group of people whose brain hurts from trying to comprehend what you do. Me, I'll stick with the magic side, well, plus bubble maps. I like tiptoeing through my unplotted story, pulling aside the gauzy curtains as I go.

    That said, the new book sounds fabulous and I look forward to reading it!

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    1. Hey Edith. There are so many ways to write a novel--and even more how to start it. I think we all have to figure out the way that works the best for us. I'm too cowardly to just dive in like you do--I'm impressed with your courage. xoxo

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  6. Raising hand with aching brain! Wow Barb, that may be the most complicated system I've ever heard of. The great thing is, at the end of the process you have an amazing book. Congrats on all your success!

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    1. Thanks Roberta. Fingers crossed that you're right. xoxo

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  7. Wow, that’s impressive Barb, like the others I didn’t get it all, but I did get the file card reference and I love them for plotting. In fact, I think I’ll just pop out to my local dollar store for a minute, excuse me! Thanks for such a detailed post. Joyce W. :-)

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    1. Thanks. Maybe I should start investing in file cards. Best, Barbara

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  8. B.A.: Your writing process is fascinating, and certainly works for you! I have seen other authors use vision boards and multi-coloured cards to plot their story but you're the first author I know who uses quantitative values, too.

    Have you used this plotting process for all your books?
    And how did you decide to include art as a central part of the story in your earlier books?

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    1. Thanks Grace. Yeah, it's a pretty crazy process. I've used it for my last seven or eight novels, but it's always in process--probably getting more and more OCD with every book. And, when I was a little girl I wanted to be an artist, but when it turned out I had not talent, I became an art appreciator--and decided to use it as a basis for many of my novels. Best, Barbara

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  9. I am in awe of your process! Knowing how you organize your plot/characters I can't wait to read your new book!

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    1. Thanks for commenting. I hope you enjoy it. Best, Barbara

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  10. I am completely in awe! Amazing way to use your academic chops to produce a work of art. I would love to see some of your graphs and color-coded cards and will be very interested to read the book.

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    1. Thanks, Gillian. If you really do want to see some, contact me at barbara@bashapirobooks.com and I'll send you a few photos. Best, Barbara

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  11. This is cool. A productive intersection of art and techne that ends with art. My husband, a mathematician by training and trade, would find this exciting. (An inverted matrix, yum.) He wouldn't develop plots though. He'd write algorithms. Statistics almost killed me, but I have always liked the power of good Venn diagram.

    Congratulations on the book!

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    1. Thanks for commenting. You've got me thinking that Venn diagrams might be useful for the book I'm struggling through now. Hmmmm. Best, Barbara

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  12. With six main characters, each doing their own thing, and each having their own viewpoint? Wow. No wonder you need such a system, Barbara. I do have a question: How much editing does your book need after you submit it to the publisher? Probably not much.

    Even with this, do you ever find that you--or your editor--misses something? I know from experience that even lots of eyes on a manuscript can still leave artifacts, either of the typo variety, or a factual one.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Karen. And as much as I'd love to tell you my editor doesn't do a lot of editing, it isn't true. Amy Gash, at Algonquin, is very hands on and we go through usually 2 to 3 drafts before it's ready to go into production. And yes, even with all this, a few errors still get through. Sigh... Best, Barbara

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  13. Barbara, you are hilarious. Reds, she is a big joker, so I have to figure that this is all MADE UP and she's just a pantser. Because my brain just exploded, and I will never be able to look at a note card the same way. WOW WOW WOW. (I was hoping to see a photo...) Congratulations...and that cover is just as fabulous as the book!

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    1. Finally! Something that makes sense!

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    2. Ha, ha, hah! What a fantastic fun post today!

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    3. Sorry Hank, it's all too true. xoxo

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  14. Having never taken stats, all of that was Greek to me. But congratulations on the book - it sounds awesome!

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    1. Thanks, Liz. It's fine not to know the ingredients of the sausage are--and sometimes it better. Best, Barbara

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  15. I am fascinated! And with a master's degree in economics, I followed every word. In fact, I was taken aback to find so many comments about not understanding it. The book sounds wonderful, and in the end that is the thing that matters. But please know that your method does speak to some of us.

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    1. As a biology major I did take statistics, so most of it makes sense to me, too. My little color-coded story lines pale in comparison to Barb's index cards.

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    2. That's because I'm way more OCD than you are.

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    3. Good to hear, Susan. Always nice to know there are compatible souls out there. Best, B Barbara

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    4. I’m an attorney, who started out as a software engineer. Your system is completely comprehensible to me. Since this complex systems works for you great! Have you ever tried writing with a scaled down model of your complex system?

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  16. The book is amazing. You learn a little more about each character in every viewpoint scene, and you cannot wait to find out more. And the whole concept of people living and/or working out of the storage unit is so bizarre and wonderful. I'd like to know how Barb came up with that!

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    1. I was looking for a setting for a novel with a number of characters who would never cross paths in everyday life but were connected to each other through a location or event--I drove past Metropolitan Storage Warehouse (aka Metropolis) one day and there it was.

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  17. Sorry, but what is a bubble map?

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    1. That was one of the things I had to Google while reading the blog. When in doubt, Google.

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    2. Thanks for reading, Judi. Ellen is right, Google will answer your question better than I can. Best, Barbara

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  18. OMG: A visual thinker writes a novel! I'm a huge fan of Barbara's work, since the early days when she was so established and one of the first to welcome me to the community of writers.

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    1. Thanks Hallie. The years we were in the same writers group were the best. Miss you. xoxo

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  19. Congratulations on your new release! I'm excited to read it. THE ART FORGER is one of my favorite books. Your plotting method is more complicated than Jeffery Deaver's, which I thought was impossible.

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    1. I've been to one of Jeff's workshops. Mindboggling!

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    2. Thanks for your kind words, Margaret. Crazy, but it works for me. Best, Barbara

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  20. Welcome to JRW!

    Question:
    Do you write in the first person or third person? I noticed that many new novels have Multiple Points of Views with several characters as narrators instead of one narrator. And also dual or three timelines!

    Your books have beautiful covers. That was the firs thing that I noticed about your books in the bookstore.

    Diana

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    1. Thanks. I write in both third and first person (no second) and I also write in both past and present tense. It depends on the book and what I think will be he best way to tell this particular story. Often I change it all around as I rewrite--and then sometimes change it back again. I guess this is why it takes me so damn long to write a book. Best, Barbara

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    2. Barbara, at first I thought you were my Rhetoric Professor from Uni then I saw your photo. You are way too young to be her. I think my former professor would be in her 90s by now. That must be quite challenging for you to write in both third and first person then both past and present tense! It is quite challenging for me as a reader. LOL. I find myself reading the chapters in the same time period with the same characters then going back to the chapters with other characters and other time periods. It is easier for me to read that way.

      Diana

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    3. But that means you're not getting the rhythm of the suspense.

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    4. Once I did succeed in following a novel with TWO narrators and dual timelines and that was THE SIGN FOR HOME by Blair Fell. There was NO need for me to skip chapters.

      Diana

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  21. This novel sounds so complex and multi-layered. You definitely take plotting to a new level, Barbara. I can't wait to read it.

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    1. Thanks Venn I hope you like it Best, Barbara

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  22. Wonderful post Barbara. I think in an often math/science illiterate society people forget that math and science are themselves creative endeavors. Using stats methods for writing - genius.
    My husband did some incredible advanced statistics for his masters thesis at Cornell and created mind-blowing 3D graphs - for mineral uptake in strawberries.
    I myself used Excel (love it) to create a spreadsheet during the years I planned my garden - plant height, plant color, winter interest, fall color, etc. We just had a community tour of the gardens and everyone was appreciative of how all the plants contributed and knitted together into a stunning landscape where they each worked with their neighbors.
    Look forward to reading your book.

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  23. Math is every where and extremely helpful, as you point out, in many non-math arenas. If only people weren't so deathly afraid of it. Thanks for commenting. Best, Barbara

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  24. Your plotting sounds very involved, Barbara! But it obviously works. Congratulations on your latest book!

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  25. Barbara, all I can say is 1) now I'm dying to read METROPOLIS, and 2) you really, really need to offer this plotting method as a seminar! I'd sign up in a hot minute.

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    1. Thanks, Julia. I think I'd have the students running from the room.

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  26. I am exhausted just reading this! I think I'll go take a nap now.

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    1. A writer never wants to put a reader to sleep. Best, Barbara

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  27. Kathy Boone ReelJuly 29, 2022 at 4:21 PM

    Wow! Wow! Your writing process deserves at least two "wows," Barbara. It's a lot. I am in awe of such a meticulous process. As I was reading your description of it, I kept thinking how much work it was, but I also had a little voice telling me that I could get on board with such a process. In my undergraduate English degree and my graduate library science one, I took a rather meticulous approach to providing a skeleton of writing to fill in, too. I like the building upon a frame. Of course, you take it to a genius level of preparation, and now I will have to read Metropolis. Thanks for sharing all of this information with us.

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    1. Thanks Kathy. I think a librarian can understand my craziness. Best, Barbara

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