Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How to plot a novel

Part of my job is helping writers find plot; the other part of it is creating one myself. Since finishing my own novel this year I have had many conversations about choosing and building plots that work, and while I claim no absolutes, I thought some readers of this blog might find the bare bones of this conversation helpful.

1. Start with story arc. Aristotle says you need a beginning, middle, and end. He even gives us a helpful arc to visualize the escalation of events through those three phases to a climax. (And if you are wondering what the little boxes are, we'll cover that in Step 5.)

2. Decide on your theme. A professor once pointed out that Aristotle's arc looks like the top of a fish; the fish's back should represent what happens, and its belly should represent theme. Theme is not a synonym for moral. It's more like an open question. It evolves in parallel to the plot, under the surface of the story. The beginning events introduce the idea. The middle tests the idea in multiple ways. The end should demonstrate the idea's truth or falseness.

3. Get ready for an art project. OK great. Get your materials. Butcher paper, pen, marker, index cards or stickies.

4. Draw the fish on the butcher paper. Divide it in three and label it, as in the picture. You should have a big empty length of paper that looks like the image in Step 2.

5. Gather your scenes. If you've been wondering what the little boxes were in the first two pictures, they're your scenes. Whether you're starting the novel from scratch or revising what you already have, you need a way to see what you've got (if you are a visual thinker like me). On your index cards or stickies, write down every scene you have, need, or think you need to show a logical escalation of events. All the events should be relevant to your theme.

6. Organize your scenes. When you have all your cards, start organizing them along an escalating series of causes and effects. Start thinking about what might fall into a chapter together. Think of chapters as mini-arcs, each with a beginning, middle, and end. Your butcher paper will be covered in cards and very messy, but it will slowly start to look like this.

7. Expect to think hard. Expect your head to hurt. Expect this to take a few weeks. Be logical and patient, even if you are temperamental and emotional at heart, like me. Trust that when you finish organizing all the cards, you will have planned a whole NOVEL. When you're done, the plot will look like this. (The green stickies are chapter summaries. The blue stickies are the spots I know are still a little problematic, but I'll solve them either while I'm writing the synopsis, or when I am actually writing the novel.)

8. Synopsis first, novel second. If you're wondering if you read that correctly, you did: Write the synopsis before you write the novel. Translate your work into narrative--about 10 pages double-spaced explaining what happens. You should start to feel the energy of story as you write; related events progress, and in doing so, indicate the theme. It should feel interesting and engaging, like a little story unto itself. Again, take your time. Work on it every day for a week or two. Share it with a trusted reader when you're done, invite his or her questions, and revise for clarity.

9. Begin. Open a blank Word document. Start writing your novel. Work on it every day.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Writing and books in 2009

I am cat-sitting for a friend. Today, when the litter box was scooped and the water replaced and the kibble dispensed, as is my wont, I inspected the bookshelf. I am always curious what books people buy and keep. On this particular Ikea BILLY system there were bike maintenance guides, a guide for homeopathic medicine, a guide for feeding your pet a natural diet, and a guide, even, for getting it on--next to a guide for healing a broken heart. The collection reminded me of my penchant, when I am in an especially bleak mood, for Googling "why am i here?" Somewhere among those 330,000,000 hits there ought to be an answer.

As I scanned the titles, I looked for the novels. Which stories were worth keeping, dog-earing, sharing, re-reading? I have so many fond piles around my office--Alice Munro, Philip Pullman, Ursula Le Guin, Madeleine L'Engle, John Irving--most of which I have not read for years but cannot bear to resell. Most of my friends keep similar piles. But for whatever reason, I discovered that my cat-owning friend buys only nonfiction. How-to books. That makes her a pretty good representative of the average bookbuyer, and the publishing industry's buying trend.

After all, nonfiction is easier to sell than fiction. You buy it, knowing what you need and what you're getting. Novels, however, ask the reader to make an uncomfortable first step--onto an invisible bridge over a chasm. The bridge crosses into an unknown place, where single words can yawn with mystery. The road leads you through familiar cities that are suddenly strange, and you find yourself wearing a stranger's skin as easily as your own. If you are a publisher, it's difficult to trust a busy, over-scheduled, fatigued, generally worried population of book-buyers to go cavorting around in somebody else's skin at the end of a long day. But there will always be many among them who need a book about plumbing repair, about naturopathy, about bike maintenance, about getting it on.

Since October, book professionals have seen too much bad news: the firing and departure of senior editors, acquisition freezes, bookstore closures, and a cascade of other losses. This news falls on top of more of the same; a dwindling number of book reviews in newspapers, an industry model that does not encourage writers' creative risk, ingenuity, or long-term success. So. If you are a practical writer, you will now sweep your novel-in-progress off to a corner of your hard drive and start afresh, "writing what you know," literally, and as instructively as possible. Slap "How to" in front of your subject matter, and dash off a proposal to your agent. How expedient of you.

How depressing. I'll make you a deal. If you keep writing your novel, I will keep working on mine.

The good news for both of us is: you are. Last year was the busiest year of my editing business, and I read e-mails from clients every day who are finishing novels and beginning new ones, and who can recommend a dozen brilliant novels for me as fast as I can say "Roget's." You all inspire me. You remind me every day that we are human and that good stories feed us, and that good food is abundant. So, in 2009, let's step onto that invisible bridge and do cartwheels on it.

And on my friend's kitchen counter, where I will leave her key and a welcome-home note this afternoon, I will also leave a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita--the best cat novel I own.