Sunday, February 05, 2006

Plot Twist

Whenever I interview an author, I always ask them how they plot their books. Stuart MacBride uses mindmaps. Laura Lippman belongs to the distant shores camp. Other writers I know prefer to plan meticulously.

And some fly by the seat of their pants.

A few days ago I received a newsletter from an author.* In it, the author talked about having trouble with their last two books, how the usual approach they had to plotting just wasn't working.

"I was so embarrassed about the whole thing, I pretended it just wasn't happening. I was nonchalant when asked about the book, insouciant about its potential delivery date. It was awful. I wasn't sleeping properly, I was avoiding other writers and I felt like a fraud. It was desperation in the end that got me moving. I couldn't go on pretending to write the damn thing forever. I forced myself to my desk and made myself do it."

Now, this is an author with over twenty books to their credit. And here they were, struggling, feeling like a fraud. How could anyone with the sales record and track record for awards and positive reviews that this writer has feel like a fraud?

This writer eventually discovered that what they'd been going through had been a shift in plotting technique, described like this: "Imagine you're setting off at night to drive somewhere. You know where you are heading, you know the way there. But you can only see a small part of the road lit up ahead of you. And as you drive forward, the road reveals itself piece by piece until you finally reach your destination.

And that is the kind of writer I seem to have become. I am now, it appears, a night driver."

I am so touched by the humility I see in authors on a regular basis. Oh, I'm sure there are some who don't want to hear even constructive criticism, who never seem to question their talents.

They just don't seem to be the authors I know. This same author said in the newsletter, "Now, I have always maintained that writing is a process in which we never arrive at the destination. Every book is a challenge to do better or to do different than before. Every book is an opportunity to learn the mistakes of the past (and of other writers!) and to push harder at the limits of one's capabilities."

Indeed, every single thing we write is a new challenge. We can't rest on our past success. We have to keep working at our craft.

It's like muscle development. Use it, or lose it. It's that simple. And if you want the defined six pack, you're going to have to do more than regular sit-ups to get it.

I'm the type of person who wants to go give someone struggling a big hug. I wanted to go over to this writer's house and bring cookies and tea and sit them down on the couch and let them tell me about their problems.

It sounds cheesy, I know. That's just me. I really feel it when an author tells me they're struggling. Like a few months back, I heard that from one of my favourite authors. And he actually posted about it on his website.

Really, it impresses me so much that these authors that I respect, and some of whom I've had the privilege of meeting, share their insecurities. For a novice like me, it makes me realize just how much room there is for growth, but it also gives me hope that it's okay I don't know it all...because there will never be a moment that "I've arrived" as a great writer. There will be moments (I hope) when I achieve more than I have in the past, when I take a big step forward with my abilities.

But the journey is lifelong.

And that shouldn't depress us. It should encourage us. We start with what we know.

And then we strive to do better, and take it from there.

Now tell me. How do you plot your murders? Or are you a crime-of-passion writer?
(ie: how do you plot your work? Meticulous detail with forensic evidence considered, or kill now, figure out how to clean up later?)

And to lighten things up, some oldies, but still funnies:


Take 2 and the rest of the world can go to hell for up to 8 full hours.

Plant extract that treats mom's depression by rendering preschoolers unconscious for up to two days.

Suppository that eliminates melancholy and loneliness by reminding you of how awful they were as teenagers and how you couldn't wait 'til they moved out.

Liquid silicone drink for single women. Two full cups swallowed before an evening out increases breast size, decreases intelligence, and prevents conception.

When taken with Peptobimbo, can cause dangerously low IQ, resulting in enjoyment of country music and pickup trucks.

Increases life expectancy of commuters by controlling road rage and the urge to flip off other drivers.

Potent anti-boy-otic for older women. Increases resistance to such lethal lines as, "You make me want to be a better person. Can we get naked now?"

Injectable stimulant taken prior to shopping Increases potency, duration, and credit limit of spending spree.

Relieves headache caused by a man who can't remember your birthday, anniversary, phone number, or to lift the toilet seat.

A spray carried in a purse or wallet to be used on anyone too eager to share their life stories with total strangers in elevators.

When administered to a boyfriend or husband, provides the same irritation level as nagging him

* I don't know about the etiquette of this. It's a free newsletter, anyone could get it. I just don't know if the author would want to be named here or not... I mean, it isn't like it's a secret. But I also don't know that, for the purpose of this post, it matters if people know who it was or not. So I'll tell anyone who desperately wants to know and emails me - how does that sound?


JamesO said...

There's something very strange going on with your blog, Sandra...

But as far as literary criticism goes (I got the text from the RSS feed), I would say that you should say what you think about someone's writing. That's not to say you shouldn't consider their feelings, but sometimes they might need to be hurt. The skill is in justifying your point of view and being prepared to accept a counter-argument if it's valid. Be positive about your criticism, explain why something doesn't work for you and perhaps suggest alternatives (although this can make you seem a bit arrogant). Just saying 'It's shite,' or 'So and so can't write for toffee,' is, of course, a waste of time and apt to get you punched on the nose.

As an unpublished author, I'm often starved of decent criticism, and yet without it, improving my writing is very difficult. The old adage 'if you can't say something nice, say nothing at all,' does not apply in literary criticism. But you can say something that isn't nice without being nasty.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Hmmm, this sounds more like a comment for the previous post. Something strange indeed!

It depends on the context of those comments - as came out more in the comments yesterday, I was referencing people who go around trashing books and authors on forums. Not constructive criticism, just trashing.

Unfortunately, when it comes to critiquing, it is hard to find good people to do it. I'm scared to death of doing a critique for someone I don't know - I've thrown out the odd comment that was meant to be helpful (and believe me, I'm trying to be encouraging and not rude at all) and had my head torn off...

Vincent said...

After figuring out that all the blank space on your blog (still screwed up as I write this) was in fact yellow text on a yellow background, so highlighting it with the mouse allowed me to read it (though I now have yellow bands strobing in front of my eyes).

Anyway, I think the need for plotting depends on the style of story. In a road movie, it's a lot easier to discover the plot as you go along, as could also be the case with a tale about a tangle of relationships, but I think pre-plotting becomes very useful when there is a complex set of events bound by cause and effect that need to be kept track of. If the plotting isn't done beforehand, I find it has to be afterwards in the re-write.

My best experience of plotting came after discussing a short film idea with a friend. Riding the tube back to the hotel afterwards I played out the scenes from the film in my head and once in my room hurriedly wrote down a one sentence summary of each of those scenes, in order. A week later I wrote the script, which, aside from a new detail that came out spontaneously in the writing, exactly matched the film I'd pictured and I was suitably pleased with the result.

Unfortunately, I haven't managed to replicate that success with my book-plotting yet.

On the subject of criticism, when I used to do a lot on American Zoetrope I always played it safe. I'd find one part of the script I liked, praise that, then pick apart everything I didn't like by suggesting alternatives that might work better, before finishing off by saying that the work definitely had potential.

And I do like offering alternatives, albeit prefaced by 'this may not be very good' simply to point that the writer could have done things differently. Besides, the hardest sort of criticism to respond goes "I didn't like your story, I don't know why and I don't know what you could do to improve it."

Though on seconds thoughts, maybe that criticism is very easy to respond provided you have a pitchfork handy.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I think suggestions and alternatives can be really helpful.

Unless, of course, someone reads the first 3000 words of your ms and suggests changes that would ruin the whole plot because "that person dies in the next chapter".

I had that happen once, rather forcefully, and it has made me far more cautious about letting anybody read anything. I want a good critiquing partner to turn to for advice, but its a problem for me when I say, "I can't do that, because..." and the person just says I'm being a stubborn prima donna and too arrogant to know they're right.

How can somebody know that without reading the whole ms? Or even the first 10,000 words?

This all means that I have to listen to James, though. Since he's read it all. And has years more of experience than I.

(I think your critiquing style, Vincent, would be very similar to mine)

M. G. Tarquini said...

heheh. Critiquing murder mysteries, thrillers would be very hard without looking at it all, for just that reason, Sandra. The most I could do would be to hit on hooks or sentence structure or whatever early on.

I write a beginning - obviously, see today's blog post - and I think about that beginning and have some vague notion how I want it to end. Sometimes my notion for the end solidifies and I get a better notion about how I want it to end.

Then there's just the vast wasteland of the middle to deal with.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, and we should have a discussion about beginnings, oh you of the no re-writes and me of the 10,000 ways to start a story!

Erik Ivan James said...

A solid informational post for a "wannabe" like me, Sandra. Thank you for the effort.

Your "millions" may come from the opening of your own brand of drug store. Funny drugs here.

Sandra Ruttan said...

You aren't a wannabe Erik. You just get over that idea right now!

I think my millions will come from doing therapy for writers. "So tell me about the voices in your head. Are they still arguing with you?"

And then I'll steal all their ideas.

(just kidding!)

OMG - does this mean I fixed my blog?

M. G. Tarquini said...

I rewrite. Just I do it continuously. takes me longer to get to the end, but when I do, the beginning and middle go with it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

That doesn't sound so different from me. I start. Then, every day, I go back over what I did the day before. At various points (necessitated by a development or just every so many words or pages) I'll go back to square one. And tighten and fix. And then keep writing.

But I've still written several intros to TOR and, for what its worth, there's huge debate between the last two. Well, you know that mg!

This is why I pray for not only a publishing deal, but a good editor.

JamesO said...

Yup, that earlier comment should definitely have been in the last post.

I'm a seat of the pants kind of plotter - I start with an idea and unravel it as I go along. This is probably why I'm still not published and also explains why I end up striking vast swathes of introspection from my manuscripts when I come to rewrite. All that thinking on the part of my protagonists is really me trying to get to grips with certain aspects of the plot, or filling in stuff that should have been better explained earlier on.

On the other hand, the one book I did try to plan meticulously came out rather dull in the first draft. I also found it very difficult to stick to the plan.

Now I'm struggling with the last two books in a four book arc - I want to plot them out to try and avoid all the heartache I've been through rewriting them, but I want to maintain that spontaneity - the unexpected turn of events - that comes from reacting to events as they occur. Stuart's mind-mapping technique is meant to be good for that; you just do another map when you come up against something unexpected. But I'm new to the technique and still finding my way.

As to my murders, I plan them to look like accidents. No-one has discovered my nasty little secret yet;}#

Sandra Ruttan said...

The thought of Stuart guiding us in matters of the mind is kinda funny.

One ms was planned out. But then we moved, a year went by, I finally looked at the first 2 chapters I'd written and decided it wasn't the piece of crap I'd convinced myself it was, but I'd lost the plan.

I had to wing it, because I hadn't a clue who the killer was.

Writing TOR was much like you described. I got Lesley Horton to do a professional critique of the first 5 chapters, which is why much of that writing doesn't exist anymore.

And it was me figuring things out as I went along.

Ashes and Embers was more 'distant shores' - I knew the last scene in the book (usually second only to the beginning in terms of pure hell to write) and it was just connecting the dots.

So I guess I do whatever works. For whatever manuscript.

Bernita said...

These are choice designer drugs.

Vincent said...

First of all, the blog is looking much better. Black text on white in Firefox, though all the text is centre-aligned and there's no sidebar - that content's just been dumped at the end. Same in Internet Explorer.

I've never found detailed plotting hampers my spontaneity. When I'm thinking through a scene, I find it easier to figure out all the different ways I could do it on paper first and pick the one I like best. Then when I actually write the scene, the effort of imagining myself into the scene changes the experience and I can come with all sorts of new stuff.

In that script I mentioned above, it was a slant on the whole Fatal Attraction thing and it worked well in plan-form, but while writing it, out of nowhere came the idea that evil-stalker-woman had a son. It didn't change the fundamental structure, but it did deepen her character and increase the impact of the ending. That's why I don't find plotting in advance spoils the fun of discovering what happens next, because even when I know exactly what's going to happen next, I never know exactly how it'll happen until I write it.

As for critiquing manuscripts in progress, I think it is valid, even if all a reader can say is that this mystery story is being suitably mysterious after six chapters. They won't be able to tell if the plot strands resolve themselves satisfactorily until the end, but those plot strands should at least hold the reader's attention for those chapters they have read. At least that's my rationale for letting people read my book before it's finished and, so far, all the feedback I've had has been very useful.

Erik Ivan James said...

On my novel, I'm just writing as the characters and scenes unfold from my mind. Although I am only about 60,000 words into the first book, I've not gone back at all to look for the "ly's", etc. I am afraid that if I do, I will lose parts of the story I want to tell for the sake of quality in technical correctness, etc.

I do, however, spend a lot of time here, attempting to learn as much as I can so that when I've written THE END I will have the tools to go back to the beginning and start rewrite with correctness as the goal.

Next, as I can afford to do so, I intend on attending seminars, purchasing the best books on how to write, etc.

But for now, I'm trying to tell a story and put it on paper in whatever form it pours out of my gut and in whatever order it comes.

Anonymous said...

Loved the jokes! Some really good ones in there.

As for plotting, I'm suspicious of mapping out everything. For instance, we can't map out our day. People say things we don't expect. Traffic jams pop up. We tear the sole off our shoe in an escalator. To me, writing is like experiencing life. I may be writing a scene and expecting to go in one direction, when it just seems right/more believable to go in another. I need the flexibility to do that. Also, I tend to write different stories than the ones I started off writing. Weird, huh?

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know Jason, I don't think that's weird! I've had characters surprise me partway through a ms. I think its only with sequels, like A&E is the continuation of TOR, that I can actually see further along, because I know the characters already.

"though all the text is centre-aligned and there's no sidebar - that content's just been dumped at the end"

Seriously? Wow. WTF happened there? I didn't even touch that code - I'm assuming you mean all my links and whatnot.

But people on this side of the Atlantic tell me it looks fine. Go figure.

Gabriele C. said...

Sorry, but the blog looks all funny from the German view, too. Centered text, and no sidebar.

Dana Y. T. Lin said...

Ew. I LOVE that picture.

And don't talk to me about writing today - my mind is MUSH. MUSH, I tell you. MUSHMUSHMUSHMUSH.

Okay, I'm glad I got that off my chest.

ymwfpgak - your word v. HATES me.

Sandra Ruttan said...

That's why I turned the damn thing off!

But I started getting spam on the comment threads from a month or so ago. So I turned it back on...