Notes and More Notes

These days the how-to-write gurus like to divide writers into planners and pantsers. Planners, it’s said, outline everything in advance, then stick to the outline. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They don’t know how the story is going to end until they get there. They make it up as they go along.

Either/or doesn’t work for me. Meticulous outlines make sense for some, but for me they suck the point out of writing. Writing is a journey of discovery. If I know in advance what I’m going to discover, why make the trip? I’m just a sightseer gazing through the windows of a tour bus.

Nevertheless, a story needs forward motion. To maintain forward motion, some sort of structure is required; otherwise you’ve got waves breaking on the shoreline, getting no higher than the high-water mark before they fall back, momentum spent. Last year I set a project aside because it had a surfeit of subplots, characters galore — and no forward motion whatsoever. I kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing did. What it lacked was structure.

Think of structure as the frame of a building or a road through previously untracked wilderness. Either way, your job is to build it. My first novel, The Mud of the Place, started with a character and a problem. I wrote it scene by scene. But though I never made an outline, I scribbled notes here there and everywhere. Years after I finished the final draft, I was still finding yellow pads with notes on them: notes about characters, notes about plot, notes about how I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

I’m doing the same thing with Wolfie, the novel in progress. Ideas and insights and solutions to plot problems often come to me while I’m walking or kneading bread or falling asleep, but to really explore and develop them I have to keep my hand moving across the page. This time I’m keeping the notes in one place, and in chronological order. When I’m stuck or drifting or just need a jump start, I dip back into them. My old ideas keep giving me new ideas.

Here’s a sample of what they look like and what I use them for.

In early November I was trying to corral some emerging themes, subplots, and images. I was auditioning names for one character (Javier? Rafael? Rafe? Ralph?) and social media handles for another (for the moment she’s settled on Quinta Wolf). Note also the ink scribbles at the top and the liquid splotch (probably tea, maybe beer) at right. The red notes were added later.

20141107 notes

Here the author is trying to figure out what the hell happens next. She does this a lot.

20141121 notes 1

Toward the bottom of the same page, the pen offers an answer — and starts speculating about a possible plot development further down the road. I haven’t got there yet, so I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Note the scribbles. Note taking often involves scribbles.

20141121 notes 2

By late February, I had started draft 2, even though I hadn’t finished draft 1. My main plot threads were clear and becoming clearer. I had to build them a trellis to climb on. On March 24, I listed the characters driving each of the threads. “The Wall” is a mural that protagonist Shannon is painting on her living room wall. It has, as these supposedly inanimate objects sometimes do, taken on a life of its own. Amira wandered in from the set-aside novel, where she plays a major role. Her role in Wolfie isn’t settled yet, but it’s definitely important.

At the bottom of the page I’m brainstorming names for my villain. He started off as Bruce McManus, which didn’t feel right. “Bruce” has stuck, but “McManus” is gone. I didn’t want a name with obvious ethnic associations. I did want a name that suggested that what this guy does, though terrible, can be and often is done by ordinary, unexceptional men. His surname is now Smith.

20150324 notes

Here — not even three weeks ago! — I’m looking ahead to what follows a key scene (“selectmen’s meeting”). The scene itself is being lifted wholesale from draft 1, but when I first wrote it I hadn’t thought much about what its repercussions and aftershocks might look like. I’m also working out some character motivation: “Why is Shannon getting uneasy?” She is uneasy, and with good reason, but neither she nor I are quite sure why. The tricky thing is that it can’t be too obvious. One of the questions that’s driving this novel for me is “What do you do when you suspect something is very wrong, but you can’t be sure and the stakes are too high to allow for mistakes?” The jury’s still out on that one.

20150628 notes

And finally, here’s the sketch for a plot break-through scene. Bruce, an outwardly rational lawyer who weighs the consequences of (almost) everything he contemplates doing, has to make a move that isn’t all that well thought out. He has to be, in other words, on the brink of panic. What would do it? Well, if he realized that Shannon, whom his 11-year-old stepdaughter, Glory, idolizes, knows Amira, who counseled Glory four years earlier when she was in trouble at school, that would do it. How to bring that about? I mulled that over on several walks, then a possibility popped into my head. On July 8, I sketched it out and decided, Yeah, that’ll work. Let’s try it.

20150708 notes

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Clichés, Ruts & Envelopes

A creative writing teacher at San Jose State used to say about clichés: “Avoid them like the plague.” Then he’d laugh at his own joke. The class laughed along with him, but I always thought clichés got a bum rap. Because, often, they’re dead-on. But the aptness of the clichéd saying is overshadowed by the nature of the saying as a cliché.

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Yes, I thought when I encountered this passage, in part because the cliché Hosseini’s narrator, Amir, was considering is one I find useful: the elephant in the living room, the huge hulking truth that dominates a situation even though, and because, no one in the vicinity acknowledges its existence. When I first heard it, the image was being used to describe the experience of living with an alcoholic. Not only did it ring true to my own experience, it made me think harder about it. Clichés do not make you stop and think. Quite the contrary: they enable you to blow past something without thinking too hard.

My yes was full of admiration, because Hosseini deftly manages to bring the clichéd image back to life by walking around it with a thoughtful eye. So readers will do likewise — or at least this reader did.

Cliché, interestingly enough, comes from the print trade. Originally, says Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, it meant “a stereotype or electrotype; especially :  a single stamp of which a number are joined to form a plate for printing a whole sheet of stamps at once.” It’s come, not surprisingly, to mean a phrase, expression, image, theme, or plot whose power has been diminished by overuse.

But as Hosseini’s narrator reminds us, the phrase must have started off useful. Would have been overused otherwise?

Many clichés are phrases that have fallen into ruts. Several words fuse into one: we hear “liketheplague,” not “like the plague,” and how many of us have firsthand experience with plagues anyway? When phrases come adrift from their original, literal meanings, spelling errors frequently result. If you remember that the “rein” in “free rein” is attached to a horse’s bridle, you won’t write of giving “free reign” to your creativity. Likewise the “bridle” in “unbridled passion” — though “unbridaled passion” might come in handy if you know what you’re doing.

And no, you don’t have to have to have firsthand experience with horses to understand where these phrases come from. My experience with elephants is negligible, and I’ve never seen one in a living room, but could I imagine the elephant as representing a huge hulking entity that no one knows how to deal with? Yeah. No problem.

Related to clichés and ruts are what I call “envelope words.” In order to discuss complex situations, concepts, and ideas, we generalize. We have to. Discussions would bog down pretty quickly if we had to describe each concept in detail every time we introduced it. But generalizations quickly become envelopes, and envelopes are opaque: we can’t see what’s in them, and the complexity of all the myriad pieces within is easily forgotten. We mistake the word or words written on the outside of the envelope for the envelope’s contents.

Here’s where knowing your audience(s) becomes important. If your intended audience can be expected to know what’s in the envelope, you don’t have to explain in detail what a given word or concept means. But the more diverse your intended audience — by sex, race, class, generation, culture, religion, place of residence, or any other factor — the less you can take for granted.

Which brings me around to the novel I quoted from at the beginning of this post. Most of The Kite Runner takes place in Afghanistan. When scenes take place in Pakistan or California, Afghanistan is never far away. Thanks to its tragic and bloody recent history, Afghanistan is much in the news. Many of us have stuffed all the visual images and stories into an envelope and labeled it “Afghanistan.”

But as with most news coverage, those stories and images are heavy on war and politics. When war comes to The Kite Runner, readers have already been introduced to life on the ground, to an array of vividly evoked characters and the messy complexities of their intertwined lives. The “Afghanistan” envelope starts to bulge in the middle and maybe split at the seams.

Good writing can do that. It can show readers overused words and concepts in different lights, from different angles. It can reveal the gaps in what we thought we knew. Often it deepens our understanding of the general by focusing on the particular.

 

Word Count: Zero

If you’re currently in the throes of NaNoWriMo, you might want to put off reading this post till the middle of next month. If you aren’t, or if you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, read on.

OTOH, if you are in the throes of NaNoWriMo, what are you doing here in the first place? Maybe you should stick around.

Here’s the shocking truth: I didn’t write any words this morning. Well, OK, I scribbled some words on pages of notes that had already been scribbled on, but really — I didn’t write any words this morning.

My chair

I’ve blogged about how I don’t measure my progress or a day’s success by the number of words I’ve written. This is true. All the same, writing no words is a little scary, especially when I want to have a few pages to take to my writers’ group meeting on Sunday night. Right now I’ve got nothing.

What I did this morning was sit in my writing chair for an hour and a quarter. To my right, three candles were burning. (Usually it’s just two. This morning I needed all three.) To my left, eight pens were at the ready. My laptop was on the floor, still asleep.

A few days ago, Wolfie, my novel in progress, came to a crossroad. Shannon, my protagonist, had just made a big decision — the one it took lots of red ink to get to. She had no idea what happened next.

Neither did I. This was a problem.

Since I’ve got some experience in community theater, when writing fiction I tend to see myself as the stage manager. My characters move around on the stage. I write down what they do and say. Once in a while, I need to prompt one actor, or summon another who’s lollygagging backstage. Then they take over and I go back to transcribing.

Not this time. This time they were standing around waiting for me to tell them what to do.

I have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen. What I didn’t know was how to get my cast of characters moving in a direction that would bring it — or something like it — to pass. I was staring at a big logjam on the river. Nothing was moving.

Little heap of wood

Little heap of wood

I sat in my chair, reread my notes, scribbled some words here and there.

The logjam in my head morphed into a big pile of cut and split logs, like the ones the wood guy would dump in my yard during the years I was heating with a wood stove.

Being a writer and thus wise in the ways of procrastination, I got it. Anne Lamott nailed it in her classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. How do you accomplish a huge project whose boundaries you can’t see, whose completion you can’t imagine? Bird by bird. Word by word. Or, in my case, log by log.

Once I realized that I had to start somewhere, it didn’t really matter where I started. Pick a log, any log.

Turned out I’d known all along what log to start with. After the events that had transpired in the previous twenty-four hours (novel time), the next move was clearly Shannon’s. Well, now it was clearly Shannon’s move. I’d known all along that Shannon had to make a couple of phone calls, but the Internal Editor assured me that this wasn’t enough. How could a couple of phone calls break up that humongous logjam?

Travvy on a mission

Travvy on a mission

By this time it was 8:30 a.m. Time to get out of the chair and go walking with Travvy, my canine companion, on whom Wolfie is based. As I pulled on my socks and hiking shoes, donned vest and cap, and put Travvy’s walking harness on, Shannon was making her phone calls — and lo, the rest of her day lay like a path in front of me, leading toward the plotwise thicket that I knew was up ahead.

Word count: zero, but a breakthrough day nonetheless.

Counting words obviously works for some writers, at least some of the time. For me, the secret is usually to sit down for at least an hour and don’t fidget. I’m writing even if I’m not writing, as long as I’m not balancing my checkbook, answering email, playing on Facebook, or brushing the dog.

Go to the chair. Sit. Rustle papers, scribble words, focus on the work. If the path doesn’t open up today, do the same thing tomorrow.

 

20141121 woodpile 1

 

Whatever Works

Are you a “plotter” or a “pantser”? For many writers this is a far hotter topic than liberals versus conservatives, dogs versus cats, or Macs versus PCs. Plotters work it all out in advance. Pantsers — you’re way ahead of me here — fly by the seat of their pants.

The other day I learned about “swoopers” and “bashers.” Swoopers dive in and write write write till they run out of steam. Bashers knock each sentence into shape before they move on to the next. Their first drafts are polished and almost ready to go.

Some how-to guides emphasize planning. If you fly by the seat of your pants, they warn, it’ll take a lot longer. You may never finish at all.

If you’re writing to a deadline, whether imposed from without — say there’s a contract involved — or within — say you’re participating in NaNoWriMo and trying to write a novel this month, time is of the essence and “longer” is a liability.

I’m not writing to a deadline, beyond producing a few new pages for each week’s meeting of my writers’ group, but there’s no question in my mind: planning has its uses. Last spring my novel-in-progress (working title: The Squatters’ Speakeasy) ran out of steam. It was all sprawl and no trail. I pushed it to one side and went to work on Wolfie, the current project. Eventually I diagnosed the Squatters problem as a “surfeit of subplots.” There wasn’t a main plot in sight.

Some planning is clearly called for.

At the same time — Wolfie started as one of those multitudinous subplots. It appeared when I was flying by the seat of my pants. It’s taken on a life of its own.

Planning has its uses. So does flying by the seat of your pants. So do swooping and bashing. Whatever works — and when it stops working, try something else.

steering coverAs usual, Ursula K. Le Guin got there long before me. Her Steering the Craft (Portland, OR: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998) is my favorite how-to book. Sometimes I open to a page at random, as if I were casting the I Ching or laying out tarot cards. The other day I was flipping through looking for advice on plot. This is what I found:

“Somebody asked Willie Nelson where he got his songs, and he said, ‘The air’s full of melodies, you just reach
out. . . .’ The world’s full of stories, you just reach out.

“I say this in an attempt to unhook people from the idea that they have to make an elaborate plan of a tight plot before they’re allowed to write a story. If that’s the way you like to write, write that way, of course. But if it isn’t, if you aren’t a planner or a plotter, don’t worry. The world’s full of stories. . . . All you need may be a character or two, or a conversation, or a situation, or a place, and you’ll find the story there. You think about it, you work it out at least partly before you start writing, so that you know in a general way where you’re going, but the rest works itself out in the telling.”

About her “steering the craft” image, which organizes the book (and which I love), she adds: “The story boat is a magic one. It knows its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it find its own way to wherever it’s going.”

In Wolfie the other day, my main character, Shannon, was sailing along on course. She knew where she was heading. Then two things happen, boom, boom, one right after the other. The first shakes her certainty; the second tells her she’s heading in the wrong direction. She’s got to do something, but she doesn’t know what.

I generally depend on my characters to tell me what’s what. I was no help — but I’m at the helm and lingering in irons in the middle of the bay is not an option.

So I picked out a pen that hadn’t seen much use lately and filled it with red ink. (For days I’d been cruising in more somber colors — gray, brown, black cherry. Red woke me up.) With a sheaf of my new blank paper in my lap, I slipped into Shannon’s head and we wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Now she knows what she’s going to do, and I’ve got a pretty good idea. We’re back on course.

Red ink collage

Red ink collage

Plotting

I just discovered this in From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, my blog about living year-round on Martha’s Vineyard. When I blogged it, in June 2013, I wasn’t even thinking of starting a writing-and-editing blog. Or maybe I was. I’ve updated it a bit, but not much.

Plotting fiction is like making rock candy. Left to itself, boiled sugar water just sits there. Nothing happens. Well, yes, things happen, but they take so long that it’s a rare soul who’ll just sit there and watch.

For me "how-to-write" books are mostly a procrastination technique, but this is one I actually find useful.

For me “how-to-write” books are mostly a procrastination technique, but this is one I actually find useful.

Not the stuff of plot.

Day-to-day life on Martha’s Vineyard is like boiled sugar water. Things happen, but most of them unfold
s-l-o-w-l-y. Even when the results are noteworthy, the steps taken to get there are mundane, quotidian, dull. Follow the newspapers for a few months if you don’t believe me.

No surprise, then, that most novels written about Martha’s Vineyard are murder mysteries. Killing someone off is like dropping a string in the sugar water. Formless liquid crystallizes around the string. Murder shakes people out of their day-to-day routines. They say and do things they wouldn’t do otherwise.

Homicides are rare here. Fiction writers are all in the alternate-reality business, especially if we write about real places, but though I’m happy to read about alternate Martha’s Vineyards where murder happens several times a year, I don’t want to create one. As a plot device, murder makes me just a little bit queasy. My fictional alternate reality is a sort of psychic map of Martha’s Vineyard. I want it to mesh with the Vineyard (I think) I live on.

Dramatic events do happen, of course. Once in a while a quiet undercurrent will explode into a headline. A loose dog jumps a fence and chases down and kills a miniature horse. An on-leave police officer obstructs the firefighters who shows up to extinguish a fire at her home. Such incidents are like strings in the sugar water, good grist for plot, but they have their own challenges. Have you ever really listened to how we recount such incidents for someone who wasn’t there?

“So Jane parked in front of her sister’s house — you know her sister, right? You met her at Cynthia’s Groundhog Day party — no, that’s her older sister; this was the younger one, Margaret — no, you don’t want to call her Peggy, that’s their mother’s name and the two of them barely speak — Is that what happened? I hadn’t heard that — this sister lives in Edgartown, back behind the gas station — yeah, there’s been some trouble there, I’m getting to that — Jane just sat in the car because there was a young guy standing there with a wool cap on even though it’s August — isn’t this heat outrageous? Yeah, I know it’s how they dress, but Jane never saw him before and he had a skateboard under one arm — really, I almost hit one last year when he came shooting into Five Corners from the post office . . .”

Every little thing that happens has at least half a dozen stories feeding into it. Trying to prune and shape these into a plot that readers can follow is, to put it mildly, a challenge.

When I started Mud of the Place, my first and so far only novel, I couldn’t plot my way out of a paper bag. I learned by trial and error, and with the help of a couple of books: Plot, pictured above, and Beginnings, Middles & Ends, by sf writer Nancy Kress.

I didn’t kill anyone off in Mud, but the string I dropped into the sugar water involved a shooting that could have got someone killed. All sorts of interesting stuff crystallized around that shooting.

Wolfie, the canine protagonist of my novel in progress, comes close to killing some sheep. He’s suspected of killing several chickens. Several citizens of his town — which bears the same name as my town — wouldn’t mind taking a shot at him. Some plot has coalesced around that.

There’s also a human character in this novel that I wouldn’t mind taking a shot at, but I haven’t.

Yet.

Murder, They Write — and Write, and Write

I’m probably going to get into big trouble here. Quite a few of my friends and acquaintances write murder mysteries. A vast number of my friends and acquaintances read murder mysteries.

Still, I’ve gotta say it: Something bugs me about murder mysteries.

The other day lonelyboy1977, a blogger I follow, blogged about “the one trope I love to hate.” The trope he loves to hate is the love triangle. It’s not the trope itself he hates. It’s the way writers who use it tend to fall into ruts. Rather than develop their characters and plots, they let the trope do the work.

In real life, murder is a crime. In fiction, it’s a trope. In murder mysteries, it’s a sine qua non. Without a murder, it’s not a murder mystery.

Aside: OK, now I’m curious. Are there any murder mysteries out there in which murder doesn’t happen? Recommendations welcome.

No, I don’t for a minute believe that writing and reading murder mysteries makes a person insensitive to murder. I get the distinction between fiction and real life. Even when it’s set in a real place, fiction creates an alternate reality. My friend Cynthia Riggs writes murder mysteries about Martha’s Vineyard, the place where we both live. They’re fun, they’re well-written, they’re true to the place in almost every detail . . .

body outlineExcept for the dead bodies that keep turning up. Homicide is very rare on Martha’s Vineyard. If murders happened on the Vineyard as often as they do in Cynthia’s books, the Vineyard would be a very different place. More of us would lock our doors. Fewer of us would go for long walks in the woods alone. Every time someone was murdered, we’d be surreptitiously studying our friends and neighbors for clues: Did you do it?

And perhaps wondering ourselves: Who out there is itching to kill me?

Why is the murder trope so popular with writers? Well, duh, writers write murder mysteries because there’s an apparently insatiable market out there for them. But how about from a strictly writing point of view?

fingerprintToss a murder into the meandering stream of daily life and plot happens. I’ve blogged before about how I’m plot-impaired. The number of online how-to-plot guides out there tells me I’m not alone. I’d probably be better at plotting if I were better at killing characters off.

The task I’ve set myself, though, pretty much precludes that option. In my fiction, I’m exploring Martha’s Vineyard. In creating my alternate-reality Vineyard, I’ve limited myself to the materials lying around in the actual place. At present I’ve got a loose dog, a child trapped in a bad family situation, and a protagonist who gets sucked into trying to rescue both of them. The dog almost gets shot and there’s one character I wouldn’t mind killing off, but so far no one’s died or committed murder.

What I’m curious about is how the murder trope influences the writer’s imagination. Murder is such a sure-fire way to get a plot going — does it push other possibilities out of the picture? The same goes for other tried-and-true tropes, like the love triangle. If something works once, we’ll usually do it again — and again and again and again.

Till it stops working.

Which isn’t likely to happen in our lifetimes.

Here I’m going to take a giant step backwards. As the late Grace Paley said, and I’m forever quoting, “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

My feet aren’t in the mud of murder mysteries, and I’ve already said enough. But I’m curious. And I hope some of you murder mystery writers and avid readers out there will weigh in.

Murder weapons

Murder weapons in waiting

It’s Your Call

In creative writing classes, students often study exemplary essays, stories, poems, and novels. Learn from the masters — makes sense, doesn’t it?

It does indeed. Nevertheless, much can be learned from flawed works as well.

Does that sound paradoxical?

Think about it. A top-notch work seems inevitable. There’s no trace of the earlier drafts, the ones where sentences and whole paragraphs have been deleted or moved around. There’s no hint of all the back-and-forth second-guessing the author did before settling on that word that strikes you as exactly right. A major character may have dwindled draft by draft and finally disappeared entirely. A bit player in the first draft may have wound up the star of the show.

We editors are lucky: we’re continually immersed in works that aren’t done yet. Copyeditors focus primarily on words and sentences. Substantive editors focus on structure. We develop a knack for identifying, diagnosing, and recommending fixes for whatever problems arise. (For a quickie rundown on the various levels of editing, see “Editing? What’s Editing?”) Sometimes the problem is simply an error that needs to be corrected. Other times it’s that something just doesn’t work.

On a recent job, a novel, I was supposed to be focusing on words and sentences, but before long I was acutely aware that the manuscript needed big-picture help. The novel’s title character — let’s call her Renée — has interesting adventures. She’s a spy behind enemy lines in wartime. But the author has chosen to use a first-person narrator for the entire novel — and this narrator has no contact with Renée while she’s having her interesting adventures. As a result, neither does the reader. The most interesting stuff happens off-stage.

Interesting choices open up possibilities. Not-so-interesting choices choke them off.

Travvy, whom these days I frequently call Wolfie.

Travvy, whom these days I frequently call Wolfie.

Recently, after forging bravely ahead in Wolfie, my novel in progress, I reached a crossroads — a point where choices have to be made. Wolfie, the title character, is an Alaskan malamute who’s been saved from probable death by Shannon, who already has one dog and does not want another. (See this excerpt in the Writers and Other Animals blog.)

What was Shannon most afraid of?

That Wolfie would get loose again. Wolfie’s life and Shannon’s credibility are on the line.

Well, that made it a no-brainer: Wolfie was going to get loose again. The big question was, What then?

Out walking one morning with Travvy, Wolfie’s inspiration and alter ego, I played with possible choices:

  • Wolfie is shot and killed by a farmer.
  • Wolfie is shot and disappears into the woods.

I don’t want to kill Wolfie off. He’s my title character, my wild card, and the first draft of the novel isn’t half done yet. He’s not going to die. Shannon’s going to find him first. The question is how. Shannon can’t run nearly as fast as Wolfie, so these were the obvious options:

  • The leash he’s trailing snags on a tree and he can’t get loose.
  • Wolfie finds Shannon before she finds him.

The second choice startled me: Wolfie comes back of his own accord? I ran with it. It startles Shannon too. It opens up possibilities — the sure sign of a good choice.

The rougher road often makes the more interesting choice.

The rougher road often makes the more interesting choice.

Often it’s not till the second or third draft that you recognize that more interesting choices are possible. What if the author of my recent job had thought, “Aha! If I made Renée a point-of-view character, or even a narrator, her wartime experiences would be so much more immediate and vivid”?

It would have been a much more interesting novel.

When you’re first-drafting and you reach a crossroads, ask yourself: What’s the most interesting choice I could make? What do I want to learn about my characters?

Your readers probably want to learn it too.

When you’re revising and a scene falls flat, ask yourself: What am I missing here? Where’s the conflict? Who’s the wild card? How do I make things happen?

You’re in the driver’s seat. It’s your call.

 

A Surfeit of Subplots

While procrastinating thinking about doing research on plot the other day, I came upon the Writers’ Workshop website. They’re in Oxford, England. They offer a variety of editorial services for pay. There’s also a lot of great free stuff on their website. I landed on this particular page.

Under the heading “What Does a Perfect Plot Look Like?” it outlines the plot and subplots of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. (They spelled Lizzie Bennet’s surname with two t‘s — Jane Austen didn’t — but let this be a lesson to you: solid work can survive one copyeditorial goof, or even two or three.)

Squatters’ Speakeasy, the novel I set aside, is all sprawl and no momentum. It’s the ocean with no trace of a Gulf Stream. I took out my Squatters notebook, grabbed a pen, and tried to outline its plot.

Subplots

Subplots

What I discovered was that Squatters’ Speakeasy has no fewer than seven subplots but no sign of a main plot anywhere. It’s drowning in subplots. Maybe one of the subplots is really the main plot, but at the moment none of them is jumping up and down and yelling “Me, me, me!”

Wolfie, in marked contrast, has three plot threads going, and I’m engrossed in all of them:

  • Shannon tries to find a new home for a dog in trouble, assisted by Glory, an 11-year-old neighbor.
  • Glory is being sexually abused by her stepfather.
  • Glory’s biological father is using social media to make contact with her.

If you ask me what this book is about, I’ll rattle off something like “Shannon gets pulled into rescuing first a dog and then a girl, and the dog and the girl help rescue each other.” Ask me what Squatters’ Speakeasy is about and I’ll grab hold of one subplot and mumble for 10 minutes. What Squatters does have is plenty of raw material. It’s waiting for me to plot it into some kind of coherent structure.

Travvy looks for a plot

Travvy looks for a plot

Heroes & Villains

I can’t plot my way out of a paper bag.

plot book

By the late Ansen Dibell (aka Nancy Ann Dibble)

Actually this may not be true, since I managed to write a novel that more than one reviewer called “tightly plotted.” Let’s just say that plotting doesn’t come easy. One of the few how-to books I consult from time to time is called, simply, Plot.

My internal editor is forever nixing the kind of scene that makes for an exciting plot. She thinks they’re melodramatic or unbelievable. This is probably because my life has a meandering plot that would be deadly dull in fiction, though it leads through some interesting scenes and encounters some very interesting characters.

Evidently other writers are plot-challenged too. There are at least a gazillion websites out there to teach us how to plot.

Many of them start with protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). The main characters (i.e., the ones you like and want your readers to identify with and care about) want to get somewhere. The antagonist(s) get in their way and have to be overcome or neutralized somehow.

Call them heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys.

I get it, but there’s nothing that turns me off faster than a character whose sole purpose is to mess with the hero’s head and/or life. Why are these characters messing with the hero’s life? Because they’re villains, that’s why. Because they’re evil. Because the author needs a bad guy or two to give the good guys a hard time because otherwise there would be no plot.

Um, no.

“Everyone’s the hero of their own story.” I can’t remember where I picked up this brilliant insight, but it applies both to real life and to writing. It’s especially important when you’re creating (or giving birth to) characters you don’t like who are going to mess with the characters you do like. Nearly all of them have their own stories. Some of their stories are muddled or inchoate or otherwise incomprehensible to a rational person. Some are crystal clear: If you interrupt them in mid-stride, they can tell you exactly where they’re going and what they plan to do when they get there. Sometimes the story is driving the bus and the character is along for the ride, maybe willingly, maybe not.

devil“We are each other’s angels” goes the song. My teeth start itching at any reference to angels. There’s something about the concept that makes smart people start babbling in clichés. But OK, point taken: we are each other’s guides, teachers, helpers, and so on. But if we’re each other’s angels, we’re also each other’s devils, roadblocks, obstacles. When a character is the hero of her own story but the villain in someone else’s — that’s where things get interesting.

And more than a little scary.

When we call someone “evil,” it’s often because we can’t imagine what story they’re the hero of. We don’t want to. The story is probably icky. Maybe we’re so sure we’re on the side of the angels (oops) that we just don’t care why the other guy does what he does.

Writing well means grappling with the icky, in other people and in ourselves. So far all my less-than-heroic or downright nasty characters have been facets of my own self: I understand their impulses, I’ve often thought their thoughts; I just haven’t acted on them either because I haven’t had the opportunity or I didn’t have the nerve. There but for fortune . . .

In Wolfie, my novel in progress, I seem to be walking toward my first real villain, a man I’m sorely tempted to call evil. He’s a successful lawyer, and he sexually abused his stepdaughter over a period of time when she was seven years old. She’s now eleven, and it looks to me as if he’s going to try it again.

At the moment I can’t imagine what story he’s the hero of. Well, no: I know a good chunk of the story. What I don’t know is how sexually molesting a seven-year-old fits into it. What does he see when he looks in the mirror? When he looks at his wife, who is the girl’s biological mother? When he looks at the girl herself? Statistics suggest that he may have been abused himself growing up. Was he? By whom? A family member, a neighbor, a teacher, a priest?

So far I can’t see out of this man’s eyes, but when I’m doing dishes or walking in the woods glimpses of him appear in my peripheral vision. He’s taking shape.

Part of me wants to stuff him back into my imagination, turn the lock, and pile heavy stones on the lid.

In her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” (1973; reprinted in The Language of the Night) Ursula K. Le Guin was writing about fantasy, but much of what she says applies to other writing as well, both fiction and nonfiction. This is how the essay ends:

“A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.

What she said.