Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Online Resources for Writers; Tips for Plotting and Planning a Novel
I don't know if I've mentioned this much but I am an editor as well as a writer. More specifically, I'm a reader. I read manuscripts. These days mostly contracted ones - which means ones that are almost certainly going to be published - but for a few years I read all of Allen & Unwin's unsolicited manuscripts, the thousands of manuscripts sent in each year by writers (some of them who have been published previously but most of them newbies). I'm kind of like a novel doctor, I poke around in the guts and diagnose problems and suggest ways to fix them. When I'm working on a manuscript I'm as close to it as I am to my own novels. I get pulled into the world and I think about the logic of it, I live there for a while, I walk around in the characters' skins (lucky real doctors don't do THAT, eh?). Anyway, I think one of the main things writers struggle with is STRUCTURING a novel and creating a plot (which aren't actually the same thing but they kind of are too).
The snowflake method for writing a novel is a planning technique which I am currently using for Rise. I wouldn't use this as a complete starting point, because I think it's more important to capture the voice first - the most elusive and most important ingredient of any writing...capturing it is the closest thing to true magic any writer does. In fact, I would say what separates writers from non-writers is voice, I know a page in if a manuscript is going to be completely unpublishable and that's because of the lack of distinctive voice - I'd say this is true for 99/100 manuscripts that land on an editor's desk. Distinctive voice isn't everything, but if you've got it, youll probably be a writer, if you've got the work ethic and the drive and you're not better at being an accountant which pays a great deal more money and has better hours. But once you have the voice (maybe you've written a few chapters, in my case I'd written seventeen but ten of them weren't working - groan), then this is a great way to unblock yourself, to cure yourself of a bad case of the meandering nowheres.
This book is great if you're stuck: 20 Master Plots. It gives you twenty basic plot structures, such as Quest (classic LOTR type stuff, and actually most stories fit into this category to a degree, because most stories are based around characters who develop and learn from their experiences), Pursuit, Rescue etc. Actually you can read some of the book here, but you really need the book to follow it properly.
This website which is dedicated to this book called The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler is a great resource - if you own one book about plot and structure this would be a good one. Like I said before, most stories follow to some degree at least one major character who grows and learns as the result of his or her experiences (in my books Undine does this in both, but Breathe is really more Trout's journey than Undine's).
I don't use any of these as a hard formula for writing (I like to trust my intuition, to write organically). But it can be a useful way to unstick, and with the small amounts of time available to me for thinking I need to be as efficient as possible! I love that in The Writer's Journey, Vogler gives case studies of how several well-known films (blockbusters like Titanic, independent films lke The Full Monty, and a more fractured post modern narrative form in Pulp Fiction) follow the structure he outlines, so that you can see how although it might seem formulaic it actually produces an infinite variety of stories.

Some things to think about when plotting:
1. Does your main character grow and change as a result of their experiences? Do other significant characters also develop? What do they know about themselves at the end of the novel that they didn't at the beginning? (Some writers get stroppy about this "golden rule" of fiction writing, but really, why do I want to read a 200 page novel about a whingy self-indulgent teen only to get to the end and find they're still whingy and self-indulgent? In this big ole place called the universe it's nice to think things happen, if not for a reason then with at least with an outcome.)
2. What's at stake? Not just for your main character but for all your characters? What do they have to lose? To gain? To propel action it has to be something substantial and meaningful, even if it's just to your main character (for Lost fans think about the lengths Kate goes to just to get a small model plane)
3. Where does the tension come from? Tension is very important, it's the thing that keeps us turning the pages, that keeps us engaged. A number of television series make the mistake (in my opinion) of relying far too heavily on sexual tension between two characters. Unfortunately it's ultimately unsustainable - you have to bring your characters in increasingly tighter circles until inevitably they kiss (thus deflating the sexual tension), pull away (quick, get that tension back), sleep together (deflate), pull away (oh dear our once very tense rubber band is now a big loose and floppy and dragging on the ground) and suddenly you just don't care anymore - they're your boring friends who you wish would just break up because you're sick of analysing their relationship. She's pregnant? Good grief. He's leaving? Hurrah! Let him go. In a good story the tension will come from more than one place. It will come from the conflicting goals of different characters, from the relationships they forge, from external factors (such as a bomb ticking or an imminent factory foreclosure or an island forming consciousness and eating its inhabitants) and from the characters own self-doubts or past experiences.
4. For me it's important to think about the physicality of the climax. Where does it take place? Who is there? In Undine the climax, which was the height of Undine's magical ability, was in the Bay. In Breathe, there were two climaxes - a physical one that brought all the threads of the story together, and this took place under the sea, a very alien landscape to me. The emotional climax though takes place in the very impersonal though highly charged, compartmentalised space of a hospital. In both books the main magical events happened outside, in expansive, forgiving landscapes. In Rise I am thinking about setting the climax (again, a magical one) in a tight, almost claustrophobic city-bound space because it will lend a different kind of tension to the magic and I'm interested to see how that will work.

Writing is like any artform, there are many established techniques, styles, modes of thinking and narrative forms. Though stories reflect and relate to each other, there will always be fresh ways of writing about the world we live in (or worlds, if you believe that the multiplicity of experience means that each of us perceive our own world, unique to us). But there is a universal, collectively conscious quality to the practice of storytelling, and it's always useful to see how others communicate their ideas in order to hone your own skills.


  1. What a great blog entry - lots of good information and ideas, thought-provoking, good to read. I've only recently discovered your blog and am enjoying each visit. It's an excellent cake! Thank you.

  2. Ahh, much food for thought, thankfully without the calories! Though a little dizzy-ing at times.

  3. Anonymous11:43 AM

    Hi. I was stuck in the early phases of my novel too, which led me to your blog. Thanks. I'm not quite un-stuck yet, but this blog was helpful. Thanks!

    RE de Leon