Introduction: The Thirteen Weeks Novel Writing Program
Week 2: First You Catch Your Idea
Week 3: The Plot Wars
Week 4: How to Find the Time for Writing
There is this state you enter in writing that is really hard to explain to anyone who has not entered it. However, I’ve found out that it is something that happens to all creatives, and I’ll try to explain it to you here, in case you’re new to this and have never felt it.
It bears explaining because when it first starts to hit, you might very well feel like you’ve gone around the bend.
As I’ve confessed here, I started out as a very tight plotter. No, not when I first started writing. I know very few authors who are tight plotters when they first start out. You sketch a page, write a beginning, you don’t even have a clue if you’re writing a short story or a novel, and you just keep writing a paragraph after a paragraph, and finally go: “Whoa! I have such and such a length.” At which point you look it up – something that in my day involved, of course, going to the library and consulting the writer’s market, but which can now be done on the net – and decide that you have a short story, a novella, a novelette, or a novel. (Don’t worry too much if you’re concerned about what on Earth all those things mean. They are mostly marketing categories and are passing from this world even as we speak. E-Publishing and print on demand are sweeping all that away.)
What your story was unlikely to have – beyond the words – was a coherent plot. Yes, there are people who are freaks of nature and have read so much that their stories naturally fall into a plot pattern that makes sense.
I wasn’t one of those people, despite having read about six books a day (give or take) between the ages of ten and thirty.
I started with the idea that in a story things happened. So things happened to my character, but they never led anywhere in particular. People got attacked, defeated their attackers, had breakfast, took showers, went shoe shopping, got attacked again…
I didn’t know that wasn’t a plot. It was, after all, a lot like reality, where – regardless of whether you are afraid of being attacked or not – you still have breakfast, shoe shop, take showers, talk to friends, etc.
But plotting is not reality. Reality doesn’t have to be coherent or presented to any purpose – but a story does, because otherwise, what is the point?
So my first flailing attempts at writing novels were sort of like people’s very early efforts at flying where they strapped wings to their back, trying to imitate birds all the while unaware that humans don’t have hollow bones, would require insanely long wing spans…
Of course, this was before the internet, or at least any type of online access by hapless beginner writers. I knew I was doing it wrong, but I had no clue how to do it right.
So I bought a ton of writing books, most of which had a pet theory of how everyone should write.
Nowadays when I’m trying to teach someone, or give them a hint, if I have very little time to explain things to them, or if they’re very young, or if I judge they’re going to resist the idea that they do not in fact have a plot – people resist the most obvious things – I tell them: Things Get Worse. Start from the principle that things get worse.
Now, does this make for a riveting narrative? Depends on how sadistic your readers are, of course, but usually it holds your attention at least to some extent under the same principle that makes people slow down to rubberneck on the highway.
However, as is, “things get worse” is incomplete.
I wrote an entire novel – a very long novel, at that – following this principle. It’s mercifully unpublished. I showed a piece of it to a friend the other day, to illustrate writing progress, and she said: “So, at that time you plotted by dropping walls on your character? Even if there wasn’t a wall nearby? They were walking along and whammo, flattened by the wall?”
That is about the size of it, actually.
If I get a few more minutes to get a word in edgewise, I tell them: “And when things get worse, it’s the character’s fault. His attempts at solving the last situation bring about the next awful one.”
This actually can make an effective short story – or Hamlet! – but it is very depressing. My first published short stories more or less followed this pattern. Which is why I’ll never bring them out again. (Look, I was promised $15 for them and was never paid. Let the poor things lie.)
At some point, though, you get tired of your character walking around like a Merry Melodies cartoon who just got a safe dropped on him. You start wondering if you can’t write a story that ends well.
The formula I came up with was as follows: start at a crisis point, then things get worse until we hit a climax of sorts, when the character acquires knowledge he/she lacked or changed his aim in the story or realized he/she had been mistaken in pursuing this course, then character changes tactics/aim/interest and fights back to win. At which point he either wins or goes down fighting.
To an extent, that is the formula I still use, if viewed from very far away (say the orbit of the moon).
There is a lot more to it, but if you have achieved this type of plot, your story is more or less functional. In terms of flight, you just discovered the hot air balloon, and you’re flying all over the countryside.
It’s not very useful, mind you. There were no mail drops by hot air balloon, and it did not replace any horses or carriages, because once you rose up you were at the mercy of currents of air.
In the same way, if you don’t plot any deeper than that, you might find yourself flying over some unknown territory or ending up with a story that you have no idea what it might mean.
But it will fly up and out. It will get somewhere. And it’s unlikely the reader will throw the book against the wall in disgust because your character just decided that, having fought of goblins, he really needs to go shopping for shoes, instead of figuring out who sent the goblins.
The book now will take you on a journey. It just might be a very random journey.
Which means, it’s still falling short of its purpose. You see, a story – unlike reality – is supposed to take you on an emotional journey. You’re supposed to follow these characters (for some reason. No it’s not necessarily that you identify with them. You can want them dead, for instance) through a series of experiences that lead to a point where you get emotional release and, if possible, intellectual satisfaction from the journey.
Take Cinderella (possibly the most used plot in the history of literature. One writer, Patricia Wentworth, made a long and profitable career out of Cinderella stories.) The reader watches in semi-horror as this daughter of a minor nobleman (in the original Cinderella at least) becomes imprisoned by her step mother and cruel step sisters. We appreciate her struggles, empathize with her, and want the mean people’s faces bashed in. So when the prince sweeps in, glass slipper in hand, we cheer the release/revenge. There is satisfaction in seeing order restored to the world.
Eventually – such as when I first got published – I started plotting my books very carefully, chapter by chapter, according to what the character needed and what emotion I wanted to evoke in the reader, pushing that emotion up and up until the mirror moment and the turnaround of fortunes. Around this time I had trouble with the “reward” part of the book, because, well, they’d won, so the emotion was released. (Fortunately my husband would make me go back and give readers what he called a cigarette moment. I refuse to discuss why. Suffice it to say neither of us smokes!)
This produced readable books, if rather structurally simple and sometimes subjected to sudden and calamitous crashes. I’d reached WWI aviation stage. (I wish I’d known that at the time. I would have worn goggles.)
A few years ago this process broke for me. My subconscious gave me bits and pieces that would interfere with my carefully planned – if simplistic – plot machine. It would throw up sudden, funny scenes in the middle of tragedy or amusing side journeys that didn’t seem to mean anything, until I realized they added a much greater depth to the central plot.
I think it is because by then I had integrated the basic structure into my subconscious and could not add to it without destroying it. Consciously I did not know this, but something in me did. And it felt like I was going insane.
Suddenly, I was flying a moon rocket and had no idea how the thing worked, or if I’d come back alive. Only I did. And the books were good. Better than the tightly plotted ones.
Since then I’ve come up with what I call a “hang loose” style of plotting. I’ve reverted to my initial idea of plot, which is only accurate for what I write today if viewed from a very great distance. I have the character and the character’s problem. I know some of the things the character is going to do to solve it because – having the character – I know what his/her personality dictates, i.e., a character who is primarily oriented to care for others and neglect him/herself is not going to come up with the same solutions as a character who is primarily oriented to look after him/herself. This is very basic, and of course there are finer distinctions. Then I have the mirror moment and when it will hit and why. And this more or less dictates the triumph.
I might or might not have other scenes I want to have in the book so the book says what I want it to. Say a scene of carnage from a misguided revolution…
Anyway these days, the beginning of the book is always a little choppy, because even if I’m using a character I used before – as I’m doing in Through Fire – I might not know the character as well as I think I did.
With Zenobia (with the singularly inappropriate nickname of Zen), I knew what type of person she was. I thought. At least I knew of a couple of decisions she made that were original and that I thought gave me an idea of who she was.
But as I wrote past the beginning part, I realized that the character has a past, beyond the past I thought she had. I’ve found that some of her quirks are due to things other than what I thought they were.
Suddenly – yesterday – while out driving, it all came together, and I realized who this character is, and what is pushing her.
Which means suddenly I can see the chapters between here and the mirror moment in glaring detail. These things must happen, because they come directly from character and situation. Anything else would be the wrong plot. And yet, it is a plot with everything functional, leading to that moment when Zen will see herself in the mirror of her actions and realize who she is and what she truly wants, beyond who and what she’s been taught to be and want.
It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s like you’ve been plodding along, and suddenly you’re in the air, and you’re being carried, and you see everything from above and realize it works.
When you hit it, don’t be afraid. You’ve done the work. Now enjoy it.
Hang in there!