1

Plotlines – Mysteries and Miracles!

A Round Robin Post

For the second time, my patient readers, I am participating in a Round Robin blog post. The topic we have been asked to address this time is:

When you are stumped on moving a plot line forward, what do you do to reinvigorate your imagination and get your characters moving?

Now those who also vaguely follow my Twitter rantings will know that I have been laid low for the last few weeks with a horrible (and I mean HORRIBLE) virus type thing. This has involved recurrent fevers, feeling constantly sick and dizzy, a wracking cough and blood pressure descended so low that I blacked out and injured my pelvis in the resultant fall. One result of all this is that I have felt too ill to stand up, yet alone manage any kind of computer work or writing, and the second result is that I got so despondent and sorry for myself that I stopped believing I could write at all.

Thus, I have had a proper mega-crisis about whether I can write the book I am currently in the middle of, which has included me getting all negative about things like my plot and characters.

If I’m honest, I actually quite like my plot and characters. I feel I have a reasonable storyline and some themes that will be fascinating to explore in more detail. My characters wake me at night demanding I write that next scene, but I simply feel too ill to do so. The question I am asking myself, though, is ‘am I playing to my strengths with this book?’.

The trouble I am finding is that I have a wider plot and list of settings than I normally work with, some of which are not that familiar to me and will require a lot of research (which is very interesting so far) or some active visits. I’ve just got to that ‘loss of self-belief’ place about whether I can do this. I look at the book I am trying to find a home for currently (with the help of my wonderful agent) and it seems so simple by comparison – on mainly safe home ground, although clearly I do not have personal experience of being a serial killer!

So what do you do when you get stuck like this?

Well, firstly experience tells me to sit it out. I have written three novels so far and there have always been periods of diminishing self-belief to contend with, and when I simply persevered and put the time in I eventually wrote through the periods and came out feeling all fired up about my book and characters again. The other lesson I learned was that my writing did not differ hugely in quality depending on whether I was simply ‘plodding on’ or feeling all positive and engaged.

Secondly, experience tells me never to make decisions or big changes when you don’t feel well!

I think that my history of learning to deal with plotlines and characters is interesting, though. My first novel had a strongly linear theme (woman coming to terms with the loss of a baby by travelling round Scotland with a complete stranger) which seemed to appeal to the agents I sent it to, but they didn’t ‘engage’ enough with my characters to pick this up. I think this book was very much my learning piece. I plotted it out in such detail in advance that I didn’t give it, or the characters, enough room to breathe. When I started my second novel I probably over-compensated by giving my characters so many experiences and traumas that I lost some of the intensity and descriptive qualities that were good in the first book. Writing this in the first person didn’t help, although it was immensely enjoyable to do. In book three, the one that is being offered out at the moment, I feel that all my learning curves came together and at last I got it right.

So what made it work? Well, I had such a strong idea of the two main characters and what connected them that writing them and their story seemed to almost dictate the plotline and pace, even though I had quite a detailed plotline and overview drawn up in advance. I let the characters breathe.

When I got stuck with the storyline for the book I’m currently working on I went to one of the ‘Summer Taster’ workshops that Nottingham Writers’ Studio was running. The workshop looked at Plot. It seemed an odd thing to do when I already had a lot of ideas down, I just wasn’t sure how to structure them and drive them forward. Although the workshop used a very simple ‘tentpole’ method to look at plotting, it made me really see my story with fresh eyes. In the end I realized that to make it work I had to add a couple of extra ‘flashpoints’ in relation to one of my themes, and also that the character whose story I was most interested in was not the one I expected!

So: perseverance, being willing to revisit the plot and characters you have with fresh eyes, never being afraid to change focus if the characters seem to be demanding it.

Now I just have the less than simple task of finding that elusive ‘self-belief’…

Photograph: One of my many methods of working out a plotline! Flipchart, coloured pens, stick-on events/scenes that can be juggled, strands for each character. This plotline never actually made it into being, but maybe one day…

annedegruchy.co.uk image: flipchart with plot outline

Check here for other people’s takes on how to deal with getting stumped in the middle of your plot:

Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Marie Laval http://marielaval.blogspot.co.uk/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-137
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Heather Haven http://heatherhavenstories.com/blog/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

© Anne de Gruchy

14

Talking about Genre (or: Trying to avoid the ‘L’ Word!)

A Round Robin Post

Hello dear friends and brave blog-readers.

Today I am going on a new adventure – I am trying out a blog-post for a writing-related ‘Round Robin’ that I discovered through a fellow member of the Book Connectors Facebook page. Here’s how it works:

Each month I will receive a new topic that I can choose to write about if it appeals to me. There is a specific date for publication, with other bloggers who are interested also posting on that subject on the same day. At the bottom of our posts we will all provide links to the other blogs that have participated. Thus you can dip into a whole series of alternative views on that topic should you feel like a marathon read.

www.annedegruchy.co.uk image: a shelf of books

Here is the topic I was asked to address today:

Whatever genre you write, do you have a different one that you love to read? What do you think attracts readers to certain genres?

Well, my first thought was: don’t get me started!

Genre is one of those things that people often ask about if you tell them that you’re a writer. ‘What kind of books do you write,’ they ask. ‘Literary fiction,’ I reply. Here there is usually a long pause and then, inevitably, the killer question: ‘What’s “literary fiction”?’

This is not something I find easy to answer. I think it’s obvious; other people clearly do not.

I looked up ‘literary’ in the online Oxford Dictionary which came up with the following: ‘Concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form’.

Great, I thought – although it can sound a bit arrogant if you use the ‘quality’ word as it seems to imply that other forms of literature are less than acceptable in this department. Further, the dictionary suggested that, in relation to language, ‘literary’ is associated with writing that has ‘a marked style intended to create a particular emotional effect’.

I’m not sure about that, and it does all seem a little vague. I am definitely a sucker for emotion though, and for anything that moves me or makes me think deeply about things. If I look honestly at my own novels it’s possibly only the most recently finished one that would fully qualify as ‘literary’. The one before might be ‘commercial women’s fiction with a literary bent’, whatever that is – but thereby hangs another tale.

I do have a get-out clause to explain what ‘literary fiction’ is when people ask me: anything that is likely to be entered for the Booker Prize. And, to be honest, this is also my favourite type of thing to read. Give me John Banville or Jon McGregor any day over romance or crime or steampunk (although that is rather fun). My favourite books of all time would include The Bone People by Keri Hulme (yes, it won the Booker) and Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton-Walsh (full of amazing ideas, and yes, a Booker shortlistee).

I find it interesting that I have attracted an agent who does not fully share my overly literary tastes. Her background, workwise, is slightly more commercial and also crime-orientated. When I described my reading tastes to her they included authors that she simply doesn’t get on with – I was reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child at the time. I do find it comforting that when I heard Alan Hollinghurst speak about his writing process it was remarkably similar to my own. Maybe this is an omen that there is hope for me yet in getting that publishing deal!

But I am a wide reader and I always have some non-fiction on the go, too. I am very into philosophy and spiritual writing, and am currently enjoying a brilliant translation of Rilke’s Book of Hours, subtitled Love Poems to God. I love poetry. And I’m not averse to the occasional foray across the fiction genres – for instance I enjoyed Stieg Larssons’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the rest of the Millennium Trilogy (it helped that I also have a dragon tattoo so there was an inbuilt affinity from page one).

So what do I think attracts readers to certain genres?

Well it’s so personal that I find it hard to say. I’m told that, however literary your work, you still need a good plot with a hook and direction and engaging characters, but I could give you examples of books that break that rule and still work. It helps though, whatever the genre, to be carried along with the characters and what they want to achieve; to feel that you are in good hands and will arrive at your destination without disappointment.

Personally, I love language. I love rhythm and metre and the way writing can make you sense and feel the things that the author is describing. I like an emotional journey as well as a practical one. I like ambiguous endings that don’t wrong-foot you at the last minute.

I do find it interesting that many of the writers that I like are men. I think that there can be a divide between the sexes in tastes, and where authors want to appeal across the gender divide they sometimes resort to de-sexing themselves by using initials. Think P D James or J K Rowling. I have not checked this statistically, but I suspect that men are much less likely to buy a book that they know is written by a woman. Women, however, seem to be more willing to cross the divide. (I have just done a little online search on this and discovered a Goodreads survey from a couple of years ago that showed an overwhelming proportion of books read – by both the sexes – were written by authors of the same gender, however the authors had branded themselves. I am always happy to be proved wrong!)

So… Perhaps readers make assumptions about what a book will be like depending on who has written it, and perhaps they have a better chance of liking it if they do! They also make assumptions based on the cover. Look at how standardized the styling of different genres has become, and at the repackaging of books aimed at young people with alternative covers to also appeal to an adult audience. We are a gullible lot, and well led by the media and the publishing industry.

But this cover ‘uniformity’ and branding by genre (dark pictures with big author names in silver letters equals ‘thriller’, etc) reflects what is probably a wider truth – people love the reassurance of what is familiar. They like to dip into a new book knowing that it will ‘fit’ like a comfy pair of old slippers. They stick with what they know. How they decide which genre constitutes a comfy pair of old slippers for them is another story.

Maybe there’s a case for simply going into a bookshop or an online store and choosing the fourth book along, on the third row down, and seeing whether, without prejudice, you might just happen to like it after all…

© Anne de Gruchy

Now check out what some other authors think about the subject of genre…

Skye Taylor http://www.askyetaylor.com/blogging_by_the_sea/view/542
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Heather Haven http://heatherhavenstories.com/blog/
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-11v
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Kay Sisk http://www.kaysisk.com/blog
Rachel Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/