Out of Season arrived in the mail today. Do writers ever get used to that? Having a postie knock on the door and hand them a pile of new books? I hope not, because I love the thrill. This short, high-interest novel for middle school readers is all about sea otters, poachers and brave kids. It’s a wild ride. Hope you enjoy kayaking.
I love living in a village. Have I said that before? It’s an addiction, actually. We’ve tried to move away, but it never happens, Cook Street Village has its hooks into us. Take today, for example. When I came home this evening, my son was waiting for me. He wanted to know if we could go into the village so he could get some food that he could cook for dinner. What mother in her right mind would say no to that? So we walked to the butcher and bought some meat, then down to the specialty food store for tomato sauce, then across the street to the baker for some bread. Sure, we could have gone to the grocery store and got it all there, but at the grocery store no one would have greeted us by name or given us samples to try, or asked how we liked the stuff we bought the other day.
My son and I agreed we’d watch a DVD tonight, so we crossed back across the street and ran into the video store. That took a long time, because we chatted with friends also looking for DVDs, then went to the till for a recommendation, then compared a couple of titles to see which we’d prefer.
It was later than we planned by the time we got home, but so what? It’s Friday night, we’ve got a good meal planned and a movie to watch. It’s all so commonplace and simple, I know, but it brings me joy.
If you’ve been reading my posts you know I struggle with plot. Why I struggle so much is a mystery to me; I’ve read a zillion books, all of which have plots. You’d think I’d know enough by now.
But at last I’ve realized that there is always a common thread when I struggle with plot, and it’s that I’ve thought about action as separate from character. When I start to think about plot as something that happens, rather than as something the characters do, then I get into trouble. The action flows, but the story flounders. For example, in the story I’m working on now, I want my main character to find out another character is breaking the law. How will he find out? For a while I thought the police might turn up asking questions, but that seemed to Deus Ex Machina. Then I thought I’d have the law breaker break the law in front of my main character, but that seemed contrived, as well as too convenient to be believable. I wrote and rewrote that section of the book a dozen times, and then I realized I was asking the wrong question. I was asking what was going to happen, when I should have been asking what is my main character going to do? Now I have brought the action back to my main character, so the plot revolves around his needs, his desires, his thoughts and his actions, not those of another person. So far it’s working.
Still struggling with the difference between action and plot. Okay, action is simple. Three kids go surfing. One gets hit on the head and the other two have to rescue him. Action. But, how does this fit with the plot. Maybe the plot of the story is that these three boys find a starving whale and have to figure out why. They discover someone’s dumping chemicals into the bay, and have to stop them. Plot. But that plot needs some action. It takes place in a bay, so how did the boys find the whale? Maybe they were surfing. See what I’m getting at here? Sometimes action has to come in and back fill the plot. Fill it up. Make finding out stuff exciting. So even if the plot’s not about something like finding dying whales, but more like discovering that someone you love is being hurt, something we might not see a lot of, because these things take place behind closed doors, there still has to be action to keep the story active and alive as we uncover the little clues that show us the plot. Am I making any sense here? Does this sound even remotely right? Or have I got it all wrong?
Here’s another example. I’m working on a story in which a 12 year old girl learns about corruption. This is a story that could have many different plots. It’s not an action story; it’s more of a coming of age story. So how to build a plot full of action, so that it’s not a boring snore while we learn what she learns? I’ve decided to set the story within two families, one of which is big and has a lot going on like weddings and birthdays. Lots of possibilities for action. But the plot takes place above all that. It slides into the action obliquely, letting hints fall here and there, until she pulls it all together and understands the big picture.
But then maybe I’m making things more difficult than they should be. Maybe plot and action are the same thing and I’m just making work for myself. Thoughts?
Today I and two of my writer friends got together for a plot clinic. We didn’t know that’s what we were doing; we thought we were just gathering for our usual writing group meeting,but we were all too tired to write, so we decided to help each other out with plot instead, and between the three of us, we solved each of our plot problems.
Each of us had ideas the writer of the story couldn’t see. So good to have three heads instead of one!
A plot strategy that I’ve found useful (and thanks to my friend Alex for this), is a little story that goes like this:
Protagonist gets into a situation
the situation becomes a problem
the problem gets worse
the protagonist almost solves the problem, but not quite
the problem gets worse
the protagonist solves the problem.
When I’m struggling with plot, I always fall back on this. Thanks Alex.
Finally, I got the manuscript finished and sent away. What a great feeling it is to have it done, to feel good about it (I mean it seems active and gripping to me) and to be waiting for a response. Anything is possible now. I love that feeling.