Monday 15 October 2018

Back to Basics, thank goodness - Rowena House

The morphing of Book Two continues apace. From its first iteration as a first person present 12+ adventure set in Paris, with a girl protagonist, it’s now told from a male point-of-view, third person past, a psychological romance set in central France. Still wartime. Still evolving. Zero words written since the last ABBA blog. And that’s fab.

Fab because it’s freeing. Creative. Fun. Energizing.

Going to sleep, I stand in my protagonist’s stiff army boots, midpoint across an old stone bridge, watching the girl - still Manon - throwing sticks for her dog.

The bridge leads from a forest where his unit is camped into the shaded streets of a cobbled country town, with water-stressed plane trees and a shallow, slow river skirting around it. In my story, it is forever summertime.

As yet I don’t know the name of this town nor exactly where it is. Maybe, like the village in The Goose Road, the reader won’t ever know its name. But I will. I must.

The stones on the banks of the river are white, the water is green.
She’s an outsider. He even more so.
It is his problem that intrigues me most, although I am still asking fundamental questions about him, such as how his distress motivates him into action. Is the relationship he is (subconsciously) seeking to escape more important to him than his unfulfilled desire for Manon? Is there something concrete he wants as well? How determined is he to survive the war?

Broadly, I know what forces of antagonism push back against him, but the sequences of events are still fluid and evolving. For example, I had the set up in Act 1 nicely mapped out until a couple of days ago, when a better Inciting Incident popped into being while I was stuck in traffic on the A38. This incident has delicious possibilities for the ‘quest’ at the heart of Act 2 without destroying the essence of the ending in Act 3. So now I’m boiling everything down to the bone again to see what needs fleshing out.

Once that’s done, I’ll try nailing down the opening scene (which for some reason I still have to write first, despite all the mental plotting) and then play with a few later scenes (a night in the wilderness, perhaps) to understand the chemistry between my lovers.

I sort of know the progression of the big reveals as well. Slow. Painful. Shocking reveals. Sooner or later, however, I will need to test whether all these months of dreaming are actually heading towards a workable plot.

For this I have a ready-made American exercise, one I found online years ago. It’s a template for a one-line premise, the sort of thing one needs for an elevator pitch.

To my shame, I failed to take a note of the name of its originator, so if you recognize it, do let me know whose it is. I hate to steal other people’s ideas without giving them credit.

The example they used to illustrate an effective one-sentence premise came from Jaws: “When a man-eating shark menaces a small coastal town dependent on tourism, the cautious, outsider chief of police is forced to team up with a self-obsessed skipper to take on the creature man-to-man.”

Thus the premise line describes the central, character-based conflict that is the ‘spine’ of the plot. The template looks like this:

When Event A provokes the [two adjective] protagonist into action, s/he does B with deliberate intent in order to achieve their goal, until the major force of antagonism within the story forces them to do C, leading to a life-changing choice & final confrontation.

The aim of the exercise is - as far as I remember - to make writers think in terms of a one-sentence pitch from the get-go.

During the development edit of The Goose Road I found it very useful to focus my thinking in this way. The one-line premise became the grit around which I crystalized a binary, yes/no question which I addressed in pretty much every scene.

For The Goose Road this yes/no plot question was: Will Angelique save the farm? Every story event made it more or less likely she would succeed in this (universal) quest to save her home. Character questions then flowed from this plot question, including: What one thing could make Angelique fail in her quest? What single strength will get her through?

Even though I want Book Two to go into far greater depth than my debut in terms of characterization, I think that asking simple, clear questions like these of the plot will (eventually) be a jolly good thing.


PS I’ll be talking books and writing at Waterstones, Argyle St, Glasgow, at 6.30 on Friday Nov 2nd along with fellow debuts Liz Macwhirter and Tracey Mathais, then we'll be at Edinburgh Blackwell’s on the 3rd. Just finalising whether Saturday is a 2 pm or 2.30 pm start. Details on our Twitter feeds. Mine’s @HouseRowena.

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