Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Too Much Plot! by Susie Day

Reader, I have a problem.

I’m addicted to plot. I might start a new 9-12 book with all good intentions of a strong, clear A thread (sparky 11-year-old Billie wants to find out more about her mum, who died when she was five, and discovers more than she planned) and a fun B plot (she’s starting at secondary school). But then I go and give her brothers. Three big taking-up-space brothers. One’s getting married and wants her to be bridesmaid, so she decides to be their wedding planner. One’s having an existential crisis about packing lettuces in a Tesco warehouse (his first of six jobs, all of which he gets fired from). One’s struggling with being the school rugby star and all the girls who want to nibble his ear on the bus, when actually he’s not all that fussed.

Then there are her three new school friends: the one who can’t work out how to fit in at Big School either, the desperately anxious one, and the one who is apparently intent on making Billie’s life miserable (though , of course, it turns out she might be quite miserable too). And then there’s funny, self-sacrificing Dad who runs a greasy spoon... and lovely Miss Eagle at school whose Hero project sets Billie off on the quest to find out about her mum... and Dr Paget and Dr Skidelsky who live over the road...

It’s a lovely book, I think. It’s funny and serious, heartfelt and bittersweet and ultimately very kind - like the Pea’s Book series it spins off from. But it's a bit full. Pleasantly stuffed, but perhaps better if it didn't have that fifth roast potato. Too long to be class readers, except for an extremely patient class (and teacher!).

Could we pare it down next time, perhaps? asks my editor, gently, every time. I definitely will! I say gamely. And then I write the next one about two families blending together, and not just one family secret but a whole Year Seven classful of them, and a school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that needs to be saved, and one entrepreneurial mum who runs her own company called Fairy Dusters, and one who might be a witch with magic powers (at least her daughter hopes so)...

The trouble is, I always write about big families; the sort of comfy, mildly chaotic collectives of that I grew up reading about. Noel Streatfeild’s Gemma books, with the effortlessly musical Robinsons. Arthur Ransome’s Swallows, and Amazons, and Ds. Enough ordinariness for there to be one character I could decide was like me, with all the oddball quirks and special talents to be just that little bit better.

But I never want to short-change any one character. Sketched-in background adults who occasionally mumble, ‘You’ll be late for school,’ are not for me. Same for siblings, and friends. I want there to be something for everyone to be doing, not just the protagonist. And that means an A plot, and a B plot, and then the entire alphabet.

I suspect, in part, it’s because I’m not all that fussed on heroes. Buffy’s great - but I care a lot more about Willow and the rest of the Scoobies. I always preferred Sally to Darrell in Malory Towers. I grew up shy; I think as I always saw myself as a sidekick - useful, even necessary, but never in the uncomfortable spotlight.

But I’ve resolved - since this is a New Year - to knock this nonsense on the head. Next, I’m writing a picture book, and there is no room in my 500ish words to cram in dozens of sub-plots. It’s the perfect creative exercise for me to learn how to trim. I’m starting with a cat, and the little girl who chooses him as a kitten to take home. With her brother and sister. And Mum. And Granny and Grandad.

Reader, I still have a problem...

Susie Day - books for kids about families, friendship, feelings and funny stuff
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Lynne Benton said...

Lovely post, Susie! I entirely sympathise, as I always want to put in everyone else's stories too, but annoyingly have to end up being selective. (I loved Noel Streatfeild too, with all the big families, each member of which was important!) Good luck with the picture book, anyway.

Maya Alexander said...

Thanks for the post. Very lovely reading.

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