Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Plot Magic for Wildly Disorganised People.

I write things out of order, not always, short pieces of writing in particular I sometimes write from beginning to end, but Bloody Mary, for example, was written out of order. Seriously, it's five hundred words long (almost exactly) and I wrote the first paragraph and a bit and then the last and then worked from both ends towards the middle, It's hard for me to tell so soon after I wrote it, but I think it's ended up more or less coherent (I hope). What's more, I plan out of order as well, both in the sense that I mix planning in with actual writing and in the sense that I'll plan whatever section kind of looks like it needs more planning and I have some ideas for, whether that's a scene or a plot arc or some world-building or whatever, there's not even any kind of plan to my planning.

 I know, I know it sounds like a recipe for complete and utter chaos, and quite frankly it is, but it's chaos that seems to work for me. At least it works when I'm writing short stories, until today I wasn't convinced it was going to work out for my novel length work in progress. Today, as I was staring at the screen trying to convince myself to actually write, my mind wandered off for a moment and came back with about ninety percent of the connections that were missing from my antagonists plot arc, I don't mean I fixed a plot hole, I mean my muse tiptoed up behind me and said 'Honey, you know how you have this antagonist here and that one over there and that event that doesn't seem to be linked to anything and that really awesome line that you liked but didn't know what it was about and you were going to chuck it because that character is supposed to always be right? Well, if you twist it this way and kinda squint it looks like a really awesome, rock solid character arc, that echos that arc over there and resonates with that theme and that other thing as well. Go on, rewrite it that way, everyone will think you planned it like that all along.' it's moments like this that prove that letting my mind wander is not necessarily a bad thing... and that my muse is a tad overconfident about what I'm actually capable of writing, but that's a different problem.

So, riding high on the wave of ego-affirming plot fix, I thought I'd share some thoughts about how I create stories, and particularly how I weld the plot together as I go along, in the vague hope that they might be useful to someone, or at least interesting, or good for a laugh... or.... I seem to be waffling a fair bit, and I think that's because I don't know exactly how I generate those leaps of intuition except that it's a process analogous to looking at a cloud or a pile of washing and thinking that it looks kind of like a rabbit or a swamp-monster or something, and then taking a picture of it and using photo-shop to make it look more like a rabbit or a swamp monster.

In this metaphor, my first draft isn't the picture, it's the clouds (or the washing I suppose, but I like the cloud thing better), I'll maybe start by knowing a couple of the characters, though maybe not how they know each other, and I'll have some vague ideas about the plot that probably won't survive the process of writing the first draft and some other odds and ends of ideas that don't look like they really belong, but I like them so I figure I'll find a place for them somewhere and I just start writing things that seem interesting and that seem to belong in the same kind of story space until I run into a place where I realize I can't write the next bit (not necessarily next in the story) because there's something I don't know yet, or things seem too muddled and I want to do some organizing and then I'll brainstorm a bit to figure a few things out, and then carry on with the writing as soon as I know what else I can write about, and so on.

I'm not describing this well, I think I need an example, hmm... Okay, in my w.i.p. there is an emotionally damaged character who for reasons to do with his back story (and how he wound up emotionally damaged) is missing three fingers on his left hand, there's also aliens and magic (and aliens that do magic). At some point around the twenty or thirty thousand word mark I decided I wanted to figure out what my magic system was. By then I had three or four magic users of varying species that I had a more or less clear ideas of what they could do and in some cases very clear ideas of what they couldn't do and I decided that I wanted my magic system to be in a form something like a cross between an artist's colour wheel and a sundial, which is to say that I wanted different abilities to be 'close' to other abilities and opposite to others but also with some bits linked to conceptual times of noon, midnight, dusk and dawn. Deciding what to put where and how to get the overlaps right was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle and the resulting wheel is a little odd in places (thought manipulation overlaps with earth control for example) but that oddness sort of has interesting knock on effects when it means that it effects the way magic users view the world, which I find far cooler than if I'd started out with a nice neat system and given the magic users their powers based on it. Anyway, a day or two later I was doodling a picture of an alien (not any specific character, just a generic member of the alien race I was creating... having just decided to go the whole hog on the mysteriously androgynous aliens trope and make them hermaphroditic) and because they're magic users, and kind of inspired by that da vinci man picture I ended up putting that picture over my rough sketch of my magic wheel and realized that, among other things,  the left hand lined up with emotion based magic, I was looking at this through the lens of the plot problem I was sorting out at the time so it was only much, much later when the penny dropped and I looked back at this character I mentioned and realized that the injury he'd had all along lined up perfectly with the magic system I'd created to satisfy completely different criteria, it was a happy moment. That's the kind of patterns in the cloud thing I'm talking about.

Both the examples I've mentioned here (one in very vague terms I admit) happened accidentally, but it's also part of my process to go looking for happy accidents, or when necessary to make them up. What I do is I take a bunch of unrelated things that I kind of like about my story but that don't really quite fit and instead of assuming that they don't belong and throwing them out like conventional wisdom says I'm supposed to, I arbitrarily decide that they actually form the basis of a hitherto unnoticed but extremely important subplot and go looking for what that subplot is, it's extraordinary how often I actually find it, in fact it's so frequent (and the results so satisfying) that I've concluded that my liking something for reasons I can't quite put my finger on is my subconscious's way of telling me that it's worked out a new story solution and also that my subconsciousness writes way better stories than I do, lucky for me there's only one person it can tell them to.

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