Week 85

85 Now, I've read a fair few books on writing, and this was to be my last one before knuckling down to the hard work of outlining, but even I was put off slightly when Martha Anderson in her book The Plot Whisperer wrote:

Eager to support [my dogs'] healing, I visited an alternative veterinarian. She taught me how to channel and use energy to heal others. That is when I first learned of the veil and what is on the other side.

Oh god. What book have I picked up (Foyles, break between meeting friends, trying to impress a man in the poetry section)?

It wasn't all bad, In fact, I found it extremely useful. Some books just clinch the deal, and this is one of them. She goes on to explain the four main "energetic points" you should structure a story around, and then that's it from energy (and dogs).

The book had just the right tools I needed: a plot planner, which helps you identify the intensity, mix and pace of your story as well as its progress by visualising it on a wall, and a scene tracker, a spreadsheet (YES!) that lets you outline each scene and chapter.

helps coral your ideas around key "energy points" and differentiates between the kind of scenes I find easy - thoughtful, inward, unconnected - and difficult, those that show action.

And it's not just the story that gets this treatment. It's you (okay, here's where the dogs and crystals come in). Anderson encourages you to identify some of the obstacles keeping you from writing, and compare them with those that hold your character back.

Growing up is a series of increasingly avoidance behaviour, avoiding conflict, choosing the sensible option, staying out of it. That's my instinct, and a great deal of writers too, unless you're Hunter S Thompson or Byron. Most people seek to avoid conflict and nurture relationships. And what did you do then? Well, I left the room. And then? I made some toast. Loudly. And then? Homes Under the Hammer was on and I sort of forgot about it.

And for fiction that just won't do - you need to push characters into extremis and see how they squirm. The joy of reading is in part voyeuristic, making us utter "there but for the grace of God go I".

Real life doesn't live up to what we read in books. That's the point. What's the point? Exactly.

Word count this week: 0 First draft: 128,661

Week 84

You only have to take a look at a writer's book shelves to know their weak spot: some will have brightly coloured paperbacks on how to bring characters to life, some will be stacked with grey, austere spines promising the lowdown on grammar and sentence construction, and some (mine) are full of books on plot. 84

Over the past few weeks I've been working hard on plot, trying different methods to come up with ideas, laying them out in spreadsheets, picking up my favourite books and looking at how plot develops.

All this planning makes me worry I'm avoiding the matter in hand - writing - and inventing new forms of procrastination for myself, ones that require Excel so must be doing something. I sometimes think an amnesty and display of abandoned spreadsheets would provide such pathos - so many plans, so many budgets, half-thought, then left. (Hey, maybe I should write a novel using spreadsheets.)

Anyway. In actual fact these last few weeks of planning have been surprisingly generative: writing almost seeps out at the seams, little ideas, scenes, confrontations, lines of dialogue.

My job now is to bring structure to it all. My first draft was too associative, all over the place and directionless. I'm as big a fan of Virginia Woolf as anyone, but I knew my writing could do with a bit of cause and effect, or causality as E.M. Forster put it:

Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story.  “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.  The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.

Supposedly there are two types of writers: planners, and the so-tweely-named-it-actually-pains-me-to-use-it 'pantsers'. They write by the seat of their pants, you see? Plot and causality comes to them more easily, as they move from scene to scene asking, what next? What would happen after that?

I fall somewhere in between: I can see the wider picture of my story, but not the detail, or, more specifically, not the detail that matters. I can write a hundred details that indicate a particular feeling, or a frustration, but nothing that transforms those feelings into action and provides motivation. Motivation I thought would come from character. But characters that seemed strong and archetypal were fuzzy and out-of-focus up close. I realised they would only come into focus when given a particular situation, and those only arise when you think of why they're in that situation and what they're going to do... or, plot.

I remember reading Aristotle's maxim that "character is action" - probably about the time I read Hamlet and saw how the thought skewered him - and finding it rather glib. Turns out that an ancient philosopher whose thought and influence echoes through the centuries knows a little bit more about it than me. He was right. Character needs the nudge of external events, and external events have to be carefully chosen to produce the required effect in a character. You can't do one then the other - they have to be thought about at the same time.

Bringing character in line with action seems to me where good writing really lies, not in the construction of a well-turned sentence or a vivid description of a tree, but in the blending of form with motivation. It's hard. My main character has changed so much. The entire plot has changed - it's about something else now. When someone asks me what's it about, I can answer.

Linda Aronson makes a distinction in her book the Twenty-First Century Screenplay between the "spark" and the "heat". The spark is the hook, what's interesting about a story, and I have always known what mine is. The heat, on the other hand, is what drives it, makes it boil and simmer.

Word count this week: 0 First draft: 128,661


Week 73

DPP_1303 I've had a sneaking suspicion the whole time I've been writing this draft that my plot wasn't sufficient. That my story, like this bus, wasn't going anywhere.

That's right. Almost 130,000 words into the first draft, just 20,000-odd off the end, over 73 weeks in, I'm still not sure where it's going.

I thought I knew what would happen in the final few chapters of my book (it was about all I knew when I started), but now I have that niggling feeling that your characters have to earn their ending. Have they?

Character - that mantra of storytelling bibles and how-to books - was safer ground. It wasn't easy, but the kind of books I read were steeped in character, and I felt more at home when I was writing dialogue or the sort of detail that gives the reader a sudden insight into the sort of person a character is, or their real feelings. The way they claim something, then flick their hair. The things they notice. Their mannerisms.

I'm not really fussed what colour their hair is or what jacket they're wearing.

Most writing guides recommend character charts, long, detailed descriptions of every character, from birth (or earlier - their parents and ancestors, maybe) to the end of the book, beyond even. These guides do not anticipate that you shall use the fact that they have stamps from Thailand and New York in their passport, or that they are registered with a GP surgery in Islington. Recording these minutiae is meant as an exercise in getting to know your characters. Authors should know everything about their characters, even if only a fraction of that is included or hinted at in the narrative they are composing.

Well, yeah. Sounds admirable.

I got very bored writing character charts. Sometimes ideas for plot came up while I was scratching away about their shoe size, but more often or not, the outcome was narrative noodling of the worst kind, paragraphs of thoughts and sensations and dimly felt emotions. Yawn.

It occurred to me that this kind of narrative onanism is exactly what some of my favourite writers - Henry James, Virginia Woolf - are accused of. Not very much happens in their novels, it's true. But the reason I enjoy them so much is that I suspect, rather than character plans, James and Woolf had plot plans hidden away, where a myriad of possible events were scribbled down, or hidden, or written then elided, to manage the effect of development without plot that they and other writers like them seem to achieve so effortlessly. It's not character development on its own - that's the mistake I'm making - but the knowledge of the different turns in the road Mrs Dalloway could have taken, or the sudden realisation James' characters undergo when they see they have been naive, deceived. They are alternative plots.

I've felt uncomfortable that I haven't developed plot sufficiently, and found it difficult when I've tried to lift my story from its origins of personal experience (again: yawn) into something tangible, propelled by hope and foreboding.

I've tried the snowflake method, writing up "goals", working out the "acts" of my story, attempting short synopses to get at the heart of my story, all the while circling that most difficult of things, and the element of storytelling character-fans and non-genre readers like me get most squeamish about: plot.

I have a card pinned to the wall in front of me with a list of five questions on it, which I ask myself at the start of every new scene (which won't be any surprise to anyone who's read Story by Robert McKee):

  1. What's the lead character's goal
  2. Why?
  3. Who or what stands in their way?
  4. What strengths will help them achieve it?
  5. What weaknesses will hinder them?

Nice, but they didn't help me develop a plot. When I got to the stage of working out chapters, each one contained notes about hazy concepts like scenes (a word more suited to screenplays than novels), or the effects I wanted to achieve (she has reached a turning point, for instance), rather than things that actually happen to develop and frustrate the plot.

Or then there's the three dramatic elements every scene needs according to David Mamet:

  1. Who wants want?
  2. What happens if they don't get it?
  3. Why now?

This is better. This is getting somewhere. The second question in particular was one I hadn't asked myself: what's the peril in this story? Why should I keep reading? What could happen?

So I was surprised when sitting down to write this week for the first time in a while, and googling "plot outlines" and "how writers plot their novels" for some inspiration (hey, it takes me a while to settle down, okay? I can only go offline in stages, babysteps), to find one of the first results was actually quite useful.

Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps (yes, I know) is the first guide I've come across that suggests thinking about things in terms of plot.

First: the goal. Not character goal; story goal. More often than not it's the same as your man protagonist's goal, but it's also a goal that affects your other characters as well.

The flip to the goal is consequence, ie what happens if the goal is not achieved, or what your protagonist is afraid of. It's still thinking from the point of view of character, but in terms of outcomes and events.

The following six elements work in pairs just as the goal/consequence do, from requirements (what the character needs to do to achieve the goal) and forewarnings (the things that happen that suggest they won't manage it), to dividend (the unexpected return to seeking this goal, or what the character learns) and cost (what they have to sacrifice in order to achieve it), and, the smallest plot elements of all, prerequisites (the things that need to be in place for requirements to happen) and preconditions (the rules that make those things difficult). Oscillating between these pairs is what keeps the suspense high - will they, won't they - and your readers turning pages.

Taking some time out to list a few of each of these helped me see the events in my story much more clearly. It might not seem quite right to you (there are so many guides out there, it's inevitable), but it nudged me in the right direction when I needed to bolster and clarify my plot.

I've said it before and been wrong, but I now have an outline that feels like a story that develops and antagonises in equal part. It's a long way away from what I thought it would be when I started this process. It's a lot creepier, too: my main character especially. Something tells me I would never have got to this development in her with character charts.

Word count this week: 849 First draft: 128,661

Week 22

Getting back into writing has been daunting, not least because I'm still feeling the after-effects of jetlag (it's been more than 10 days! Enough already!). I gave myself a day of acclimatisation, which involved opening the 20,000-odd word document (I think the largest I’ve ever written – my university dissertations were maximum 15,000) and staring at it.

Four hours later I'd not written a word, but instead worked on characterisation. Not necessarily characters who already existed, but a list of possible characters based on the setting. That sounds a bit odd, but when I tell people what my novel's about, they're really interested: in what I got up to, the sorts of people I knew. As it's based on my own experiences, however, it's difficult for me to see what's interesting and what's run-of-the-mill.

I was a fan, but what other fans were out there? How were they different to me? How did their fandom compare with mine, and what light does that shed on my main character?

This feels the wrong way round - McKee said taking characteristics first and applying universal themes second was a recipe for stereotype, after all - but has nevertheless been really helpful in working out how multiple characters work towards and not against a unified story. I fleshed out a list of characters based not on people in my story, but people I met, knew of, made up the fan world I lived in. Taking each in turn, I thought about their motivations, and what's stopping them getting what they want. They might not make it to my story; most won't, and some might, but not for long. But thinking about extra, possibly unseen characters helps me discover more sides to my main characters.

This has a big impact not just on characterisation, but plot too. After I'd thought about characters, I wrote a list of events that make up my plot from memory, without looking at the list of scenes I'd written months ago when I was first planning my novel. It's a useful backbone, but unlike last time when I tried to list every scene that happened one by one as per the Snowflake method, this time I just wrote significant moments, and hope to fill in the stuff in between as I go.

I realised when reading on holiday that the story in the kind of novel I want to write is episodic; not everything leads up to a final crescendo. It requires multiple characters, and sometimes scenes work just because they are interesting in and of themselves, not because they lead into another scene, or set up a conflict or situation that needs to be resolved later.

The problem with so-called story theory, or writers like Robert McKee, is that novels don’t follow a single story that rises and falls according to a single character’s actions. That is much more appropriate for drama or screenplays.

They are messy, exploratory things, which delay gratification and take readers on detours, disappoint and surprise in equal measure, satisfy our yearning for a broad sense of completion, and delight with a single phrase. Every page should be fun to write, and not full of anxieties about where this is all going, who I'm writing for, and am I setting this situation up right. There should be hundreds of stories within a novel, and a hundred ways of telling it.

Well, that's what I'm telling myself next time I open that 20,000 word document anyway.

Word count this week: 2,339 Running total: 37,230 First draft: 20,237