Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Lost The Plot? I Never Had One Karen Ball


I have a guilty secret. I’m not sure I know how to plot. Oh yes, I know all about peaks and troughs, cliffhangers, release of tension, resolution. In my day job as an editor, I liaise with writers about how to negotiate all of these. But when it comes to my own writing? I know there are books you can buy on plotting and graphs you can draw. I meet people who talk in low, reverent tones about the ‘three act structure’. I know all the theory. I know, I know, I know! And yet, I don’t. I struggle to storyline a manuscript before I begin writing. I enjoy the ‘eureka!’ moments of hitting on a solution whilst cleaning my teeth, the slow development of an idea from rough outline to sharply focussed manuscript. But the fact still remains that I have two unanswered questions in my life: When will I feel like a grown-up? and Will I ever know how to plot?
We all know the fear of a publishers’ party – surrounded by other, more glamorous creatures who brim with confidence, beauty and the satisfaction of a successful career. I hover on the outskirts, wondering if these people… Well. Where did they buy their accessories and do they know how to plot?
I tell myself I should stop worrying; that plotting is a process, just like all the other processes I don’t analyse. Characterisation, setting, narrative tone, word counts... And yet it all comes back to plot, doesn’t it? If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.
I’ve started to see plot as a question. The constant question: Why? Every time I hit a stumbling point I hear a voice in my head. ‘Why?’ It’s a really good test of how to move forward. If I find myself saying, in manner of harassed parent, ‘Because I said so!’ – something is wrong. Seriously wrong. There’s no room for harassed parents when it comes to plotting. Plot is logic. Quick logic. It’s getting from A to B to C in the most interesting but logical way possible. I’m sure it’s lots of other things, too, but I’m still learning. I know it’s about keeping readers with me and I know that it’s probably not about them pausing and asking, ‘Erm. Why?’
Perhaps when I discover the secret to plotting, I’ll finally feel like a grown-up. And then I might stop taking silly pictures of myself.
Any other guilty secrets out there? Or advice about plotting?
Visit my website at www.karen-ball.com.

12 comments:

Nicola Morgan said...

I have no advice because I am completely with you! Plotting for me involves lurching haphazardly towards desired scenes. The route of the lurch usually comes to me while walking the dog - though cleaning my teeth is another fruitful source. I have no idea whatsoever of how i'm going to get from A to B, only that eventually I will. It's very scary and unpleasant but the only time I tried fiddling about with story boards and sticky notes I never followed the plan so there wasn't any point.

Good post!

Charlie Butler said...

Another lurcher here. Plotting is overrated: look where it got Guy Fawkes!

Catherine Johnson said...

When I just started out the small publishers I was with sent me on a week long one to one class with Berniece Ruebens who terrified me. I had two under 5s and was a bit weepy about leaving them and would turn up every morning with stuff for her to look at. I said - weepily 'I'm sorry but I really have no idea what's going to happen next'
She said 'Of course you don't, none of us do! That's why we write, to find out!'

bookwitch said...

You don't need a plot! Just write.

Brian Keaney said...

Plotting is just like making a shopping list before you go to the supermarket. It makes the job easier and it means you don't forget anything important.

Katherine Roberts said...

"Plot is a bad writer's first resort and a good writer's last resort..."

(Does anyone know who said that? I always remember these clever little sayings, but not who first said them!)

Nick Green said...

Are we confusing plotting with planning here? There are writers who don't plan in advance and yet have very well-structured plots.

I think a good guideline for plotting is 'controlled instability'. Bear with me, that sounds pretentious, but... Plot is about forward movement, right? Forward movement without losing balance and falling over.

So it's like walking. Human beings walk forward by losing their balance, over and over again. One foot in front of t'other. Perfect stability is no good - you'd be standing still. With each step we introduce a little instability, and then correct it before we actually fall over... and we move forward.

So I think creating a plot is just like walking forward. And like walking it is harder than it looks...

steeleweed said...

"When will I feel like a grown-up?"
- I'm 72 and still pondering the same question.

"Will I ever know how to plot?"
- Agree with Charlie - plotting is overrated. I put characters in scenes and they react appropriately, which leads ever onward. If the scenes and characters are interesting, what more to you need?

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

What a relief! I thought I was the only one out there who felt inadequate about plotting.I'd rather write and try to work it all out afterwards. Often impossible!

Stroppy Author said...

I think feeling like a grown-up would awful, and as for plotting... nah. I spent all last week thinking 'why can't I sketch out a decent plot in advance?' and came to the conclusion that as long as the plot gets in there somehow, it doesn't really matter at which point it arrives, surely?

Lee said...

Why do I always misread plotting for plodding?

fionadunbar said...

Nick, what a brilliant analysis! I think we are all lurchers. Katherine's quote is clever but it clouds the issue; character may rightly be the primary force in your story, but you still NEED plot. Keep on lurching, Karen; you're not doing anything wrong!