When I first started writing my manuscript I was rubbish at plotting. Like really, utterly rubbish. Not only was I rubbish at it, I completely failed to recognise its importance, even as smart people kept trying to explain it to me. ‘Yes, nice way with words, interesting characters, but what’s happening? Nothing’s happening. What’s the point of this scene? How does your story end? You’ve got no ending, everything just peters out. Where’s your story? What’s the point?’
More than one person tried to explain it to me, but I just didn’t get it. A story needs a story (unless you’re a genre-busting genius, which I am not). It sounds so simple. Now.
I would guess that my plotting shitness meant it took me twice as long to finish the manuscript as it needed to. At least. Possibly three times as long. Perhaps four. And yes, I know that it needed to take me that amount of time because that’s the time I needed to take, and where I am is where I am and etceterar etceterar etceteteraggh, but I really don’t want to go through all that again if I don’t have to. So I’m going to spend a bit of time reflecting on what I have learnt (should that be learned? I’ve never really known).
I think perhaps one of my first mistakes was to forget that I was writing fiction. I worried that because some people might recognise a particular time and a particular place, then I owed those people a faithful recounting of events. I worried that people might say ‘but that didn’t really happen, there was nothing like that, who told you that, where did you get that from?’.
During this time, I did a lot of research. Like, a lot. I read theses and political memoirs. I listened to oral histories. I scoured Hansard. I spent hours and hours on the newspaper readers in the State Library. I spent not insubstantial amounts of money on printing out articles, all the while shoving sultanas at a baby and not fully appreciating how rare is a toddler who will sit and read Maisy and Wheels on the Bus on their own for hours on end while you check just one more issue. I even did an old-fashioned content analysis (I’m assuming it’s old-fashioned because it was the theoretical basis of my thesis which, I note was a fair while ago) of every ‘relevant’ article of every issue ever published. EVER. Like, I have looked at over one hundred years of newspapers – and at some points there was more than one local newspaper. And, just to be thorough, I looked through the papers of a few related towns. Just in case. And then, because I might be missing some vital fact, I researched towns in America with similar experiences. You see? We are talking no stone unturned. Next week, I will be going back to Adelaide to finish packing up my house and putting everything in storage, and we will need an extra shipping container to hold all my photocopying and highlighted theses and the pages where I played around with the index terms I was going to use for my content analysis. That’s how much research I did.
Do you know what I say to ‘write what you know’? Bugger off.
Anyhoo, having done the research, I started to write. And I think that it must be around this time that I began to confuse a sequence of events with a plot. A plot is not simply a sequence of events. What? You already knew that? So did lots of people. But for some reason, I did not and so I blundered on, without this useful – vital – understanding.
During this time, I wrote a lot of words. Like really, a lot. Like thousands and thousands of words. Like I could buy one of those fancy tetrabyte hard drives and not all my first draft would fit on it. Now, I do believe that there is something to be said for writing it out. THere is definitely a time for just sitting there and punching through the words. You can’t get to your third draft without first writing a first draft. And so on. But I remember those times as draining and dispiriting, because even as I wrote, I knew those words were not taking me anywhere.
Then, I did a really dumb thing, and I started using my research. Well, it helped me get my word count up, writing about Italian migrants and miners’ strikes and Italian migrants going on strike. Oh, and not forgetting Italian migrants out hunting for sparrows to put in their stews. There’s a useful 1500 words right there. On and on and on it went. Word after word after word.
It wasn’t working. I stopped.
I don’t know exactly what changed, but maybe I had just enough instinct to know that I needed to stop and that I needed to find what it was inside me that was driving me to tell my story. It wasn’t the Italian migrants and their rumoured sparrow stew I can tell you that.
So, I went back to my original idea which wasn’t really about events at all, it was about two women. Two women whose characters were fully formed even if I did not know their biographies. In fact, all I really knew was that one was young, had a baby, and she had not seen her mother since she was eight years old; and that the other was older, had always been stronger, but was dealing with some sort of grief. I felt these women in the pit of my stomach. I saw things through their eyes. I knew they had things to say if only I would let them say them. They were not miners, they were not Italian migrants, they had never been on strike and as far as I knew they did not cook sparrow stew. But they were the people whose story I wanted to tell.
I went back through the manuscript and took out every single event that had ‘really happened’ and instead I tried to find out what had happened to these entirely fictious women. The manuscript improved. When I left the story to the people (the imagined people) and not to the events, the manuscript did improve. But I still didn’t have a story. All I really had was a string of chapters that had no real purpose other than to pass the time between one chapter and the next.
At around this time, I was starting to send the mansucript out into the world. Competitions, manuscript assessments, masterclass applications that sort of thing. I was getting enough positive feedback that I knew the manuscript had legs, but because it never quite got over the line, I knew there was something wrong. At the same time, my enthusiasm was fading. Not only had I been working on the manuscript for a long time (on and off, but over a number of years), but I was also thinking about what I wanted to do now that my children were getting a bit older (that being a whole nother story, suffice to say, I didn’t feel that I could have a paid job, look after children – however much the mister and I shared it – and write, particularly in light of other family situations which were emerging).
I had to make a decision. Give this manuscript one final push or put it in the bottom drawer and move on. I looked again at the comments and suggestions people had made. This was actually quite a good thing to do, because a number of people had been very generous with their time and made good, constructive comments. And for some reason, this time, my brain actually registered the common theme of the feedback. There’s no story. What’s the point.
The penny dropped. I needed to learn to plot. I went back to all the books on how to write. I’ve got a lot of them. Two shelves full in fact. Carmel Bird, Kate Grenville, Dorothea Brande…and look at that, they’ve all got chapters on plotting. Why hadn’t I noticed them before? I knew the chapters on character and setting and dialogue by heart. And the ones on rewriting and editing and not doing the housework. But I hadn’t even noticed the chapters on plotting. They were undogeared, ununderlined, bereft of marginalia. Hmmm. Similarly, the chapters on conflict looked slightly unread.
Right. I would give it one more try. So, I read everything I could on plotting, and more than once, I ended up at this corner of the web. Hauge’s guide to screenplay structure. I copied it onto a small piece of paper and a large whiteboard. I used 14 point bold to write at the beginning of every chapter ‘what is the purpose of this chapter’. I wrote out rule four of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing short stories “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action” and stuck it above my desk. I also gave Raymond Chandler’s ‘when the plot begins to flag bring in a man with the gun’ its own piece of paper and left it next to my computer (paraphrased, there’s about a zillion variations on the web and I’ve never read it in the original).
Then, using the back of one of Nick Xenophon’s election coreflutes (acquired from a stobie pole by my father, who, being a one-eyed ALP member could not abide the man), I used purple post-its to mark the structure, green post-its to mark particular chapters or scenes, and within a week, I had a plot. There was purpose. A story. A point.
There were still a good few drafts to go, and I had other things I also needed to learn. I still had a bit too much of the ‘show don’t tells’ going on. In fact, I think this is one of the plotting hindrances that I had. I wasn’t telling the reader anything. Not even what was happening. (Kurt Vonnegut again: Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.). But I was on my way.
And that is why, not last week, but the week before, when I felt a familiar stirring of dissatisfaction, when I had got to the end of another long day of sitting in front of my computer doing nothing much, when I looked at my new manuscript of quite a lot of words but no particular point, I smoothed out some of the butcher’s paper that I had asked the removalists to leave behind (ten boxes we sent, six of them books). I raided the boys’ texta draw. Red for structure, green for happenings, blue for purpose and desire. And I reckon I just saved myself about two years.
PS I took my glasses off to take this picture, but there’s still some chance that it’s not blurry to you. If you can read it, don’t steal it, will you? It’s taken me a lot of work to reach this point.
PPS and updated to add: it occurred to me as I was pulling the pumpkin out of the oven that this problem with plotting is probably what has stopped me from being able to write for children – which I have tried many, many times to do. In fact, a children’s writer is what I have always felt I was. Deep in my bones, it is how I have always seen myself. Interesting to me, though probably not of great interest to you.