Two months ago, I started work on a short story. Being, as I thought, hopeless at making up plots, I decided to call in a specialist. I hauled down my old copy of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale, wound my way through his detailed analysis of 600 Russian fairy tales, and plucked out the elements of a plot. Then I set to work to fill in the outline with a story of my own, about a carnival beset with supernatural difficulties.
The process may be working.
My original two pages of single-spaced blather was what you would get if shooting a writer in the head caused her ideas rather than her brain to splatter over the computer screen. (You can tell I come to this from the mystery genre.) As I said in a blog post at the time, the minute I set pen to paper, marvelous images and ideas proliferated out of all proportion to their usefulness. Booths selling deep-fried Twinkies jostled elderly elephants and juggling dwarfs for the spotlight. My characters wrangled over money, power, the uses of magic and dietary insufficiency.
By the grace of some Muse, I had the idea of searching the jumble for objects and events that would make striking scenes, regardless of logic. The jumble began to separate. In brief summaries, every scene made sense within itself. Some of them actually had an arc to them.
Once I had seven or eight scenes, stretching from start to resolution, I was sorely tempted to start writing. I held off, though. I tinkered. The carnival got realer and realer, but the plot got more tangled. As the scenes grew elaborate, contradictions between them multiplied.
Somehow, having each contradictory element trapped in its own scene made the process manageable. One by one, scrolling up and down, I made the changes needed to untangle them. By the time I had a complete set of scenes, I also had a workable plot.
Better still, as I worked, characters changed their motivations, their functions, their importance. The villain and a minor character swapped places. They all started talking to each other, and I eavesdropped on some quite good dialogue.
At last I started writing, and learned that writing as a plotter feels different from writing as a pantser. Same feeling of flow – complete absorption in the task – but it feels like working with a smaller brush. With a clear picture of what needs to be written right here and now, I find I’m working simultaneously on narrative, images and wording. I can reword a sentence three times in the course of writing one paragraph, without losing focus on the story. It feels tighter, but just as satisfying.
There are still glitches. Seeing each scene in great detail lets details creep in for their own sake. I need to give more thought to the order in which the reader learns things vs. the chronological order of events. Revisions will be needed, but as a plotter, I’m less afraid that they will simply blow the whole thing up.
So here I am, on what I hope is the final substantive rewrite of my first mystery. I pantsed it, and I had a great time. I loved my characters, just set them down on the page and let them romp. Have you ever watched very young children – five or six years old, say – make up a game out of their own heads, coming up with a story and acting out the roles? I had that much fun, I really did.
And now it’s all come home to roost. The bill has come due for all those joyous episodes of ‘Ooh! Wouldn’t it be great if …’ For instance, I have a character who started out a genealogy snob involved in a lawsuit and ended up burying his ancestors (literally) and switching sides on the suit.
Well, no disaster. I can see how that could happen. But as I romped through my game, I just sketched in the change, didn’t take time to act out in my head the character’s inner or outer experiences. Result: a vague and confusing switcheroo at best; at worst, a great, clunky meta-clue to the reader: this character is being manipulated to work a plot. Why, he’s not a real person!
My faithful TNW critics (make that critiquers) pointed out a similar problem with another character. I noticed for myself that the police showed up, getting things wrong, when I needed to spur my amateur detective on to greater effort, but not when the police probably would show up in a real investigation. To crown my shame, one colleague gently pointed out that the pair of cute ferrets I had introduced (to make this work a proper cozy) really ought at least to appear in the closing scenes.
This isn’t one of my usual streams of whining complaint. I really can see how to solve the problems, and I’ve set about it. I’m pulling together separate files of all the passages on each faulty character, each badly constructed plot line. And that job has me wondering: if I had done that work before I started writing, I’d be a plotter, wouldn’t I? It sure sounds more efficient. But would I then lose out on all that five-year-old, cowboys-and-Indians fun?
On a practical note, here is a question for readers: do you use a writing program like Scrivener? If so, is there an easy way to pull characters’ appearances and tease out individual plot threads to be looked at separately? It took hours to use keywords and the ‘Find’ function to do this job for a single character.
At present, I have each scene in a separate file, color-coded by the plot line that the scene mostly serves. But my writing is not so clunky as to confine each scene to actions serving only one plot. In Scrivener (I think – I’m no adept) I would have to put each paragraph in a coded file if I want to pull out individual subplots, and it still wouldn’t be precise. Ideas, anyone?
When last heard from, I was moaning and complaining about my inability to focus in on the important things, in particular, my mystery novel’s plot problems. Since then, I have followed my own advice: “Apply rear end to chair. Write.” Danged if it isn’t working.
What is going down on paper – into electrons, I should say – is not fluent prose but brief sentences in an Excel worksheet. It’s my fourth attempt to organize this monster in Excel. Fourth time’s the charm.
My earlier worksheets were chimaeras. Along the horizontal axis were the four murders I had concocted. Each column was meant to state, in chronological order, “what happened.” The difficulty was that everybody’s “what happened” was different from everybody else’s.
I don’t mean just the characters, though each of them had his or her own body of knowledge about who was where, when and why, and above all, who hated whom. I also had to keep track of what happened as far as the reader knew. And of things that had happened all right, but that were supposed to make no sense until the big reveal at the end. And of the little event-clouds that shroud those baffling happenings in ordinariness for the time being.
Since my mystery is a cozy, my detective is an amateur. Her personal life impinges deeply on her need to solve the mystery. Her biggest personal problem (illness) needs to be consistent with the action. Even more, it needs to cast light on her actions, and outside events have to feed back into her situation. I added another column.
Her biggest challenge in outward life (a lawsuit) demanded a similar treatment. Add another column.
Then there were the police. They had to be hunting in all the wrong places. Their errors needed to ratchet up the dangers for the detective. Another column.
On top of that, mere order of events wasn’t enough. I needed specific dates for every event. Can’t have people building snowmen in May (actually, you can do that sometimes here in New Hampshire) or going on a shopping binge on Christmas Day.
You can imagine what a ragbag my worksheet became. Columns could be plot threads, themes, or characters. I found myself copying and pasting the contents of one box into three more, where they were just as relevant. Excel can be an excellent disordering technique.
Now I think I’ve got it. In the new worksheet, each column represents a single character and its contents are single-minded: what does this person want right now, and how does s/he go about getting it? No date column yet, but I think I’ll be able to stagger each character’s moves with the others – and possibly get them into a tighter, tenser order. That’s to say nothing of the way the author’s errors light up. I wasn’t half-way through entering my data before I found the murderer acting directly against his own interests. Duh.
I’ve been whining about all this in my writing group for so long that our moderator came up with an exercise for all of us to work on. He went to http://writingexercises.co.uk and used their “random plot generator.” Out popped the following:
Main Character: An optimistic 23-year-old woman
Secondary Character: A rebellious 60-year-old woman
Setting: The story begins on a cliff
Situation: A robbery goes badly wrong
Theme: It’s a story about risk-taking
Character action: Your character sets out on a rescue mission
Our assignment is not to write the story, but to come up with the outline of a coherent plot using these elements. I hope to make this a dry run in miniature of my big Excel project.
(By the way, writingexercises.co.uk also provides other sorts of prompts and helps you work on other tasks, e.g., “generate a fictitious ‘English-sounding’ town name.” Check it out.)
So what about it, campers? How do you keep your plot threads untangled? All tips welcome. Or try your hand at the exercise, and let us know how you did.
Inspiration…..waiting…..waiting…..when are you going to swoop down and write my blog post for me? That is what usually happens when it’s my turn but this time not so much. Oh, yesterday I wrote enough words to comprise a post. But they weren’t anything I would reread in a few months and wonder if I had actually written them or if my name were mistakenly attached to someone else’s writing.
Yet it’s been hammered into my head that I shouldn’t wait for inspiration. I need to be disciplined, sit down at the same time every day and write. Treat it as though it were a job–unpaid, but a job nevertheless. And some of the members of my writing group do that. They are the ones who produce, who eagerly volunteer to submit their writings for next week’s critiquing by the group.
Where would I be without my writing group? We celebrated our sixth anniversary at last week’s meeting. Six years!! Of the seven attendees, five are charter members and two are “newcomers” We toasted with port, indulged in a multitude of desserts and snacks, and reminisced. I left feeling reinvigorated, ready to tackle (and finish!!) “Claire.” Again.
The next day the four ladies of the group met for our usual Friday lunch. Heidi provided me with an idea for “Claire” that I absolutely will use. It’s a tweak to the story line that started the wheels in my mind turning and whirring.
Three full days later and I haven’t written a word. But I will.
In addition, the three ladies listened patiently as I outlined, off the cuff, my concept for the upcoming NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November. I know what you’re thinking: 1) it’s only September and she’s already started her plot for NaNoWriMo? and 2) she’s going to attempt NaNoWriMo again? She doesn’t need a new writing project, she needs to finish something she’s already started. What is she thinking??
The answer is, for me writing isn’t about thinking. It’s about feeling. That’s what makes me a better pantser than a plotter.
Also, I mentioned in a previous post that without agreeing to submit to my writing group and posting to this blog, I wouldn’t write. I neglected to include committing to NaNoWriMo. It’s potentially 50,000 words that I otherwise would not write.
My proposed story for NaNoWriMo has a personal foundation going back to my grandmother in Germany. Unfortunately, she’s not alive so I will have to rely on the memory of my eighty-seven year old mother to provide the background for my NaNoWriMo novel. In addition, it will involve research about World War II, something I can do in advance of November 1. “Can” doesn’t necessarily translate into “will” I have found.
Linda, Heidi, and Eleanor were supportive of my concept. And of my writing ability. What a wonderful feeling to enjoy a cup of clam chowder with people who have become good friends, talk about writing–and leave with my ego pumped up just a bit.
The September 2015 issue of the “Harvard Business Review” (creativity section) included an Interview with Salman Rushdie by Alison Beard. Thank you to Heidi, who admits to being obsessed with Rushdie, for sharing this inspiring article.
This is how I interpreted some of the interview in relation to how I write (I know, how arrogant to compare myself to a writing giant such as Rushdie):
Rushdie states that he evolved from a plotter to a pantser. He appears to write in a linear fashion, composing only 400 to 500 words a day—mostly complete scenes, requiring minimal, if any, revision. It’s perfect the first time.
I have never succeeded as a plotter. I attempted to outline my current novel, “Claire,” using a storyboard and post-its. Instead of sticking to my outline I ended up writing an island for our most recent writing group and then I determined where it would fit in the plot. (I was told that’s the definition of an island!) I was surprised to find that it closely matched an existing post-it. However, it was neither perfect nor the next unwritten scene.
Rushdie does not share his writing until it is finished. That is hard to pull off in a writing group as the expectation is that you will submit your work on a regular basis. And since I tend not to finish anything—you can see where this is headed!
Undisciplined: me. Disciplined: Salman Rushdie. He treats his writing as though it were a job with a regular schedule—no waiting for inspiration to strike.
I am nowhere near that point in my writing progression. I write when I have committed to submit to my writing group and when it is my turn to post on our blog. That’s not much. Heidi (who else) has suggested that we resurrect our group writing project centered on a bridal shop. Why not? At least I’d have a third reason for writing.
Would Rushdie ever delay publication of one of his works because he had to paint a bedroom to match a quilt? Or even just not write for the same excuse—I mean reason? Certainly not. For one thing, he most likely hires out his painting. Does he realize he’s missing out on the pleasure of a sore back, of putting on the same smelly painting tee shirt every time he paints, of putting Vaseline on his elbow where he scrubbed too hard with a pumice stone to remove stuck-on paint?
Yet I am a day late with this blog post so that I could assist my husband with just such a task. Further proof that I am not Salman Rushdie. As though any further proof were needed….
I’ve hit the wall, thrown in the towel, given up on my Camp NaNoWriMo project. Oh, I still plan on completing my novel “Claire”—just not in July. If I believed in writer’s block, I’d have to say this is what I am experiencing. But I know deep down I’m just being plain lazy. And that I set too ambitious a goal.
After all, it is summer and we did just buy a Jeep. A toy that we have gotten maximum pleasure out of in the few weeks that we have owned it, tooling around the scenic roads of Vermont and New Hampshire every available evening, anxious to stumble upon some wildlife, or, absent that, feel the freedom of the wind blow through our (my) hair, removed from the necessities of mowing the lawn and painting the trim on the house. And working on “Claire.”
John, our group’s facilitator, has requested (“suggested”—too passive) that I bring in an outline of the book to the next writing group meeting in two weeks. I readily agreed. Deadlines are my allies. And the outline is half-written anyway. Which may be my source of writer’s block. Assuming I believed in it.
I am a “pantser.” I start writing with a germ of an idea for my work of fiction and then I write. I usually don’t have an outline when I start—that would make me a “plotter.” I prefer for my plot to evolve organically. (I just learned that there are also “plantsers.”)
I’m not alone in this approach. But the plotters will tell you that this only makes more work for us pantsers in the long run, that I’ll need to write a few rough drafts to be where they are after their first rough draft.
Hang in there—I’m getting to my point….
Which is that for Camp NaNoWriMo I decided to write more like a plotter than a pantser, outlining before adding to the 10,000 plus words I had already written for “Claire.” Seemed like more than a good idea. More like a necessity. After all, this is the first book in a trilogy and a thriller. That worked. For a while.
Now that I have a half-finished outline, I’m unable to get back to the story and write. Or even finish the outline. So I’m stuck. Writer’s block. Lesson learned: I am definitely a pantser. What I really want to do is just write the damn book.
I’m relying on my writing group to jump-start my writing. Bring it on!!
Meanwhile, I’m waiting for July 31 so that I officially can announce that I did not win Camp NaNoWriMo 2015.