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.
I like my cozies cozy. We’re talking mystery novels here, of course. The base-case definition of “cozy” is “no overt sex or messy violence onstage.” For me, there’s one more requirement: the story has to happen in a place and/or a social setting made so vivid by the author that living in it for the length of a book is worth the price of admission. Cozy, after all, is a matter of one’s surroundings. Solving a murder? Not so important. It’s local color that makes me part with my cash in the bookstore.
Currently, I’m reviewing the presence of the great state of New Hampshire in the umpteenth draft of my novel. It’s a wonderful place, no question. I notice, though, that my local color focuses only on the nice stuff. Autumn-leaves-sort-of-thing. This is the “place” equivalent of the sweet and comforting cat owned by so many mystery protagonists. Said cat never ignores her owner, gores the vet or vomits on important people. Autumn color on the Kancamagus Highway is New Hampshire’s version of that cat.
So I’m hunting around for aspects of the New Hampshire life that will take readers into the real place, including the unsweet parts, which they will nonetheless want to explore with me. Here’s where that effort took me.
The Kancamagus, narrowly defined, is 37 unspoiled miles of two-lane road through the White Moutains, no turnoffs (except for trailheads), no gas stations, no food outlets, no nothing. On the other hand, it starts in Lincoln, New Hampshire, home to the Loon Mountain ski resort and a stretch of random and ramshackle shops whose only purpose is to extract dollars from skiers and leafpeepers. You can eat a gyro, spend more on a mountain bike than the annual household income in Rwanda, or get your nails painted blue with little sparkles on. Every tourist trap in the country could boast the same. So how is this New Hampshire?
I find a possible connection: a little strip-mall shop that sells very upscale foodstuffs, organic of course, plus Luna bars, sandwiches, and elaborate chocolate pastries clearly made by machines in a factory somewhere well to the south. But one of the sandwiches is a lobster roll better than anything I’ve tasted on the coast of Maine. Why make that a specialty? Because this is northern New England, mountains or no mountains, and the lobster is one of our totem animals. (So is the moose, but you don’t want moose on a bun.) Serving bad lobster is done in New Hampshire, yes, but it is nevertheless Not Done in New Hampshire.
Winter is another New Hampshire specialty. I do let my heroine enjoy the first pristine snow of the season. This brook isn’t just down the road from my house, but its twin brother is.
Where I have to be stern with myself is on the downside of all this loveliness. Hence :
We aren’t the rural state we once were, either. In the southern tier, New Hampshire is becoming downright post-industrial. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is no longer the economic engine of the area. It’s more a blight on the sea coast. Good place for a thrilling climactic chase scene, though.
So one way or another, I imagine I’ll give my readers a place more interesting than some non-denominational Heaven. If I get really desperate, I still have one lead to follow:
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?
I’ve spent this week altering plot points in an important scene in my mystery novel. Since first I wrote it, the characters have evolved, their motivations have changed, and clues have moved, both geographically and logically. But when I surfaced from the job, I found that I had written almost nothing but plot. The reader was getting far too little help visualizing the scene precisely, getting the details that make places and events real and memorable.
Back to my trusty pocket notebook. It contains much plotless writing about things that have seized my eyes and my mind for reasons I wouldn’t even try to explain. None of them are directly relevant to my book. Still, reading these passages fills my mind with the experience of just noticing, of Being There. Maybe they’ll inspire me to find the details that will make my not-too-bad scene really good.
Here are a few of my pocket-notebook inspirations. I’d love to read some of yours.
At a meeting of our local weekly discussion group:
V_____ (a husband) talking, making sense, but pretty platitudinous. J____ (his wife) listening with unchanged expression and posture, but the hand holding her off-V_____ elbow was massaging it, tightening and loosening regularly.
G___ (a husband) discussing photos of galaxies in a book he owned, which he had already discussed with R______ (his wife.) He was addressing the rest of the group with the same arguments he and she had already gone over, but his eyes were usually on her, reliving their own discussion. A committed couple.
At a writing conference:
Up on stage, an author on a panel yaws his orange, desk-style chair rapidly left and right in a short arc. The other authors, in identical chairs, are perfectly still.
A writer teaches a class. As he speaks, in time with an upward lilt at the end of each sentence, his face first rises straight up, then straight out, always maintaining its vertical plane. With the adolescent (he’s not one) intonation, the gesture seems to mean, “You do see, don’t you? Am I being clear? Do you agree?” Sweet, if a bit phony. Yet somehow the gesture also seems mildly aggressive, snakelike.
In the room where I write:
A bird flew into the glass of the door to the balcony behind me. There was a softer thump than usual. I hoped that this would be one of the occasions when the bird just flew off with a headache. But when I went to look, he was lying on the balcony floor. I knelt to look, and saw that his eyes were open and unblinking. (At least I thought they were, but what color are a sparrow’s eyelids?) He wasn’t still. He lay on one wing and his little body was rocking quickly on its longest axis, backforth, backforth, backforth. I saw that he was not convulsing. There was no other movement, no movement of any part. Just his whole body, backforth, backforth, backforth. How could he do that without pushing any part of him against the floor? Then I realized that his heartbeat was moving him. In back and forth, I saw systole and diastole. Bismarck (my cat) came to the door and chittered. When I wouldn’t let him through, he sat and watched. I left, and when I returned, the bird was gone.
Months later: I am working at a card table. My elbows are braced on the table, coffee mug between my hands. My knapsack-purse stands across the table. I am motionless, but one strap of the purse, the looser and closer one, trembles. Why? I am seeing systole and diastole, my own.
A fruit fly remains on a piece of white paper where I put some grapes. A single fruit fly casts a shadow, even on an overcast day.
In the summer Music Tent in Aspen:
A description of Finns. I call them Finns because I think they might be, but more because the first of them I saw made me think at once of a Scandinavian gnome. He was an old man of middle height. We were sitting two rows up from him in the Benedict Music Tent, so I couldn’t see whether white hair sprouted from his ears. But his face was such that I was sure of the ear hair. His skin was a dark brown, but it looked weathered rather than tanned. Or perhaps “tanned” in the sense of leather. Large wrinkles divided his face into subsections. His eyebrows were wild, almost long enough to obscure his vision. His nose was large and long and bulbous, three lumps separated by two none-too-narrow narrower places. His mouth was wide, his lips not especially so. He was smiling, nodding, and talking energetically with the people who accompanied him. They were Aspen Standard, as far as I could see. I can’t remember whether I saw that his teeth were scraggly or assumed it. He was wearing standard old-guy-in-Aspen clothes, a vaguely Western sports shirt and slacks.
The woman was sitting in the row behind them. She came in later with other people, but they all seemed to know one another. My first thought was that she was the ugliest woman I had ever seen. But at the same time, her face was welcoming. I had to work not to stare, and then not to be caught staring. She was the man’s age and about the same height. Her skin was almost as brown as his, very smooth but speckled with large age spots. Aside from the old-lady, nose-to-chin wrinkles, she had almost none. In profile, her face made a perfect convex curve. Her chin was well back, but not receding in a slant; it looked firm, and she didn’t have the feeble, chinless look of a Bertie Wooster. Like the man, she had high cheekbones and a very notable nose. Her nose curved like a raptor’s beak, but not like a witch’s: it didn’t curve back in, but ended at its outermost point, with the septum horizontal to the ground. Not small, but neat. Both man and woman had large ears, his relatively larger than hers, but her hair framed her ears and made them stand out. Her hair was long but not full, clipped back with barrettes behind the ears and straggling down her back. From the roots to her shoulders, it was a slightly grayish white. There, in a visible line, it became a faded, reddish light brown, as if some instantaneous shock had flipped a switch in her scalp. She too was smiling and talking, and her expression made me want to know her.
Now, back to my scene. I’m going for three, very short details with the feel of these passages. I suppose “short” will be the hard part.
I think I passed a milestone this week.
It wasn’t literally my first rewrite of a scene. My writing group would never let me get away with that. All kinds of changes have rippled through my manuscript, usually to remedy total howlers in the plot, but also to remove unlikely remarks by a character or make my subplots more like a braid and less like railroad tracks.
This week is the first time I forced myself to abandon a scene totally and write another to do the same work in the book, better. Be warned: it hurts.
Two criticisms forced me to it. Our group’s homicide detective told me that interviews of witnesses would never be conducted with other witnesses present. You isolate them and get each one to tell her own story. Even weightier, there was a sad consensus that ‘it all went on too long.’
Even I could feel the latter problem. While I never used the dread locution, ‘and then,’ I might as well have. On plodded the scene, until slept the mind. I resolved on surgery.
I work in the Scrivener writing program. It’s hugely useful, letting you switch from any scene to any other with a single click, showing links to notes, outlines and subplots on the main page. Unhappily, that makes it so easy to tick back into your original draft, to tinker with it instead of starting fresh, to cheat by leaving your new text to lift just one or two sentences – such clever prose! – from the old.
Somehow, this time, I realized that I had to resist. I stayed with the blank white screen of the new version. When I needed to analyze the old scene for necessary information, I did it in longhand on a yellow pad. I changed the location of the scene, narrowed the point of view, pushed beloved characters into the background.
Lo and behold, it worked. When I checked back with my yellow pad, I found that the new scene did all that the old did, more briskly, with more conflict in the present and more tension about what is to come. The new scene is 25% shorter.
The exercise wasn’t without losses. On my yellow pad, I had drawn two columns: Needed and Good. The latter listed five brief passages in the original scene, a few words or a sentence or two at most, which I liked very much. Four of them showed characters acting characteristically. When I had forced my way through the new scene, these vignettes were gone. The course of action just didn’t allow them to happen.
Were they darlings? I still don’t think so. I’ve stored them in a file called ‘fragments’ for possible reinsertion in a final smoothing. Deep in my heart, though, I don’t expect to see them again.
You wouldn’t have thought it would be so hard. The moderator of our writing group suggested, with that air of modest assurance that so becomes him, that I should separate Scene A (in which a ferret scatters tuna fish all over a carpet, with disproportionate results) from Scene B (in which the ferret compounds its alimentary offense with the eliminatory consequence and precipitates a crisis.) He was right: together, the scenes were almost repetitious; separated, they helped create a steadily mounting tension. Scene A needed to move back in time.
It turned out to be a game of jackstraws. I re-dated the tuna scene. How to fill the now gaping void between it and Scene B? As luck would have it, I had a brief new scene already planned that was going to simplify the presentation of later events. It went into the breach. Out came a lot of now misplaced material, before and after. That demanded more of the new scene, to patch up the ragged bits. It became half a chapter. That suggested another move, to slim down a later scene, newly overloaded.
We’re talking three months, here, people! Three months of jury-rigging and jerry-building and tearing down and putting up again from scratch. I think the most painful part was having to re-insert huge chunks of the original text, when repeated efforts proved that they really had to go somewhere. And of course, no person of sensibility can partially edit a text. Time spiraled down the plughole as I inserted commas and corrected diction.
By the time the tuna had settled down, I had been forced to outline that whole section of the book. To my amazement, three of the four subplots were now perfectly in order. (The last one looked like a dog’s lunch, but three out of four ain’t bad.) If I’d done that outline in the first place, I wouldn’t have had to move the tuna at all.
Then came enlightenment. I have always been a devout pantser (i.e., I write by the seat of my pants.) The Exuberant Brethren of the Holy Pants believe that inspiration dies at the sight of an outline. Only by letting the words flow directly from the Muse through the fingers to the keyboard can creation take place. Do not pass brain, do not collect $200. You can clean up any slight problems later. The Severe Order of the Sanctified Plot make up the whole plot in advance. They write it down. They make diagrams. They balance things. Then, scene by scene, they write the first, and practically final, draft. Or so they say. They clean up any slight problems later.
I won’t say I’m ready to join the Sacred Order. Instead, I’m going to copper my theological bets. Four of us Thursday Night Writers have reserved a virtual cabin at Camp NaNoWriMo, an online writing sprint in which we each promise to complete a “writing project” of our choice in the month of July. I’m going to outline a whole second adventure for my amateur sleuth, just to prove I can do it. Who knows? If I ever manage to sell this turkey, I may need a sequel.