Working out how to re-plot Not Even Myself has not been easy. I've been hoping a flash of inspiration might happen if I spent time on other things. I painted a picture of Bath Abbey, I polished a couple of short stories, entering one in the Mslexia competition and two in the Bristol Prize. I even resorted to distracting myself with sorting the rubble mound that was once our dilapidated garage. But still no flash moment has occurred. I've felt a bit uninspired, lost.
Enter Laura from my writing group. She suggested I try looking at Save the Cat. Save the Cat? Turns out, it's not a book for firefighters but for screen-writers. There's a plan that lays out the basic format of a screen story but it would equally apply to short stories and novels. I've never looked at a 'how to' before, gaining understanding about writing along my tortuous way instead. It should be instinctive, shouldn't it? But as I've been foundering on the plot rocks, I decided I would give this method a go.
After sitting at a screen trying to fill in the Book Map for Golden Egg, I knew I had to be more physical with the plot board so I created my own large version using post-it notes. Already I'm clearer on the order of events in my novel. I'm also clearer on when those key scenes need to occur. This has been a big problem for me, the pace. The crisis point, where there's no going back, has been clear from fairly early on but the rest of it has felt like a jumble of scenes with no definitive direction. The plot board is allowing me to make sense of my plot (which is there just in that slightly tentative, wishy-washy way) and how to make the reader want to continue reading. As for worrying that I might be using a system that will make my writing formulaic, I came across this quote from Delacroix.
“First learn to be a craftsman; it won’t keep you from being a genius.”
Which is, after all, what all artists have to do: learn the basics of drawing, the rules of tone, of perspective. Only then can you break them. So this plot board is me, understanding the rules. Yes, most of it's instinctive, but being consciously aware is a revelation.
I'll never be a planner but maybe, once a free-flowing first draft is written, I can use the plot board to tighten up and clarify the story, the themes, the crisis point before I move onto the next draft. I wonder whether this is the final element I needed to understand to become a writer. But I've a feeling there's still more to learn!
Fresh from a meeting with editor Imogen Cooper from The Golden Egg Academy, and hot on the heels of the tip Tony Bradman gave on Twitter # GEAQA, I thought writing a blog about plot might help get my own thoughts into order and be helpful to other writers struggling with plot. So here it is...
To be honest, I didn't know I had a problem with plot. I've rewritten and edited my story so may times, I thought the plot was as tight as could be expected in a story that is about emotion and strongly character driven. Plot needs careful attention in adventure stories, stories about good versus evil, surely not so essential and 'in-your-face' in more literary fiction. But a clear plot is essential in all stories. A goal your protagonist is striving toward needs to be explicit not implicit. And this was my oversight. I've written my story like a watercolour painting, thin, subtle layers of plot, the goal not really obvious until several layers (chapters) have established. Possibly this may work for adult fiction, where an adult reader may not mind the not-knowing where the story is heading because they'll stick with it. For Young Adults and teens, though, it's important they get a handle on where the story is going, or they can speculate on where the story may be going. Early in the story (by the end of the first chapter) the goal of the main character needs to be clearly established for the reader to understand what the protagonist is up against - even if that goal isn't precisely the end-goal of the whole story.
The first chapter, unlike my current one with its two or three thin layers of plot foreshadowing, needs to be a block of grounding, like an oil painting. The grounding of an oil painting is the colour that influences and comes through the whole of the painting. The grounding of plot in writing needs to be obvious, direct - dramatic.
Drama is a key ingredient. Without regular conflict, the story can stagnate. Each scene doesn't need drama (regular lulls of reflection time are as important) but every scene must move the plot on in same way. It may be a conversation that pushes it on, or a dramatic confrontation between two characters.
Thinking of plot in terms of tension and drama, especially in a character-led story, is really helpful to me. Where I've washed an emotion I need to more clearly define it. Each incident, like each patch of colour, needs to let the reader anticipate the next before leading them on to the next incident, the next patch of colour.
So, yes, more rewriting...