Thursday, 20 December 2012

A plot for Christmas - Lily Hyde


The e-mails are flying thick and fast. Initially gentle message headers like ‘Prezzie?’ Or ‘Anything you’d like?’ have now evolved into shouty ‘WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR XMAS?’, as we all leave it to the last minute as usual.

What I really want for Christmas is a plot.

I don’t mean the kind you can build a shed and grow cabbages on, although that would be nice too. I mean a plot for my story.

Or rather, not for my story, because if it hasn’t got a plot then it isn’t story yet, is it. It’s a… a situation. A potential. A seed. A torment. A promise.

This… situation (let’s go with that word) I’ve come up with is great. Everyone who knows about it loves it. It’s funny and sad, it’s gothic, it’s inventive, it’s original. I can tell you how marvellous it is without feeling like an arrogant smug git, because however funny and inventive and bla bla bla it may be, without a plot, it’s actually – nothing.

I’ve never had this problem before. All my books so far have started the same way, with a situation, but as it developed in my imagination the plot came too, as intrinsic as bones under the skin, as the trunk growing branches, sprouting leaves. I wouldn’t say that any of my books have tidy plots, because I like loose ends and suggestions of characters and events continuing beyond the book pages. I definitely wouldn’t say plot is one of my strong points as a writer. But I have always had a sense of a framework and a narrative moving things along, giving shape and purpose and sense. Making a story.

Not with this new situation. I can’t make anything happen. It won’t budge, it won’t grow, it won’t turn into a narrative that can be brought to resolution.

How do you kick-start a plot, people? I’ve been visiting vaguely relevant places, going for walks (when I get my best thinking done), collecting snippets of related information, pictures, articles from newspapers. I’ve been being distracted by all the other unrelated things in the newspapers and on my walks; I see the homeless people, the Christmas decorations, the payday loan ads, the sunsets; I read about dead children and how to make trifle and missile strikes. I can’t make sense of any of this. I can’t find a plot or a resolution.       

You see what I’m doing here, of course. I’m turning my situation into a metaphor. I can’t make a story out of life, with all its awfulness and beauty. So why on earth should I be able to force a plot onto a potential book idea, so that it makes sense?

Except that’s what books are for, isn’t it? We need stories to make sense of who we are and what we do and why we do it. We can use them to escape, and we can use them to engage. To justify appalling behaviour, but also to nudge us towards behaving better.  

Oh, here’s another e-mail in. ‘LAST CHANCE, OR YOU WON’T GET ANYTHING!!!’ People are getting desperate.

I’ll send this blog post in reply, I guess. Maybe I’ll get a flat-pack shed and a packet of cabbage seeds for Christmas. Maybe I’ll be able to make a plot out of them.   



18 comments:

Mystica said...

I asked for cauliflower seeds and red cabbage seeds from a friend in australia! cant get them here or rather what you do get is not quite right!!!!

catdownunder said...

I can send seeds if you would like me to - but I don't think it will solve the problem. Would it be any use/help suggesting you leave the situation to deal with itself until after Christmas - just ignore it for being so difficult? It might start clamouring for attention that way.

Odette said...

I love your paragraph on what books are for. "We need stories to make sense of who we are.."

Susan Price said...

Shove your characters into a corner and ask them, 'What do you want in the next ten minutes? - What do you want a month from now? - What do you want out of your life?'
Do it for all of them. That might shake something loose.

Stroppy Author said...

I know how you feel. My book is doing much the same. I've decided to ignore it for a while and see if it composts successfully when I'm not looking. Good luck!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
maya said...

For the book I'm writing at the moment, I had some idea about characters, world (it's a fantasy), etc, and I got my plot by writing down what I knew about the story so far. After that, the rest just came, really. Don't know if this helps... :)

Lily said...

Thanks for all for your tips! I've tried bullying, although maybe not all characters equally ruthlessly - will try again. I've tried writing everything I can think of but it just meanders along and doesn't get anywhere. I think I do just have to leave it for a bit - clearly whatever kind of seed this book idea is, it hasn't found the right soil/weather conditions yet (maybe Australia is the answer...)

adele said...

I do sympathize! Plots are not my strong point either. Just read an excellent article by Lee Child on how to create suspense and the answer seems to be good for finding plots too; ASK A QUESTION at the beginning and PUT OFF ANSWERING IT as long as you possibly can! If you put Lee Child + How to create suspense into Google you may find the whole thing which is terrific.

adele said...

If you put "A simple way to create suspense" + Lee Child into google, the fourth item you'll see is his very good article in the New York Times Opinionator column. Do have a look..it's memorable!

Lily said...

hmmm, Adele, I definitely see his point - and he makes it very well - but I still think it's a bit reductive. If the question isn't interesting or clear enough, no one is going to stick around for the answer, considering that our whole lives are now lived with the equivalent of a remote control in hand... Still, its a good way of thinking about it. Thanks for the link.

Liz Kessler said...

Have a look at a blog I wrote, based on some wonderfully wise advice from lovely children's author Jen Alexander. It's called 'Trusting the Seasons of Writing.' This link should take you there. (Copy and paste if it doesn't work as a link). Her advice helped me look at this kind of situation completely differently. Hope it does the same for you too!

http://lizkessler.blogspot.com.es/2011/03/trusting-seasons-of-writing.html

Andrew Strong said...

I find writing is a constant struggle to unlock the part of my brain that allows ideas to flow. When nothing comes, I give up and listen to music. Today it's William Byrd's Mass for Five Voices, and it's a wonderful, haunting soul balm.

Lily said...

Thanks Liz - I do agree with your friend. the problem is that this particular idea has been frozen in winter for about two years. At least I've written another novel in the meantime...

Andrew, I used to play William Byrd on the piano back in the days when I had a piano. In fact, I found piano-playing to be really excellent for getting the mind unstuck. Damn, of course, I need to get a piano again!

Bery C.P said...

Thanks Liz - I do agree with your friend. the problem is that this particular idea has been frozen in winter for about two years. At least I've written another novel in the meantime... I got my plot by writing down what I knew about the story so far. After that, the rest just came, really. Don't know if this helps... :)

Katherine Langrish said...

If something doesn't work - for me - I generally, eventually, find out there's something intrinsically wrong with some part of it. A character is the wrong age, or the wrong sex, or has the wrong past life, or the wrong ambitions. Try changing one of them, or getting rid of one of them, and see what happens to the dynamic if you do...

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