The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot. ----E. M. Forster
Years ago, while in high school, I decided to learn to crochet. How hard could it be, I figured.
I bought supplies at Woolworth’s—yarn, needles (or were they called hooks?), an instruction book. My yarn was beautiful pastel blue. I envisioned a beautiful shawl, maybe even an afghan.
I hunkered down on the floor in my bedroom. Supplies ready. Adventure on the horizon.
Basic crocheting was pretty easy. Fun. It was the other techniques I couldn’t get the hang of—edges, corners, the critical steps needed to make an actual design.
I just kept going forward, no corners, no turns. Eventually I used up the yarn and had nothing to show for it but a forty-foot-by-six-inch mammoth wool boa constrictor. Discouraged by this monstrosity that I couldn’t even give away as a Christmas present, I never crocheted again.
Believe it not, I have a point to make by sharing my arts and crafts fiasco.
And the point is…
I found writing is pretty much the same as crocheting. One can be a skilled writer, one can be an eloquent writer. But, as Donna Tartt said, Storytelling and elegant style don’t alwaysgo hand in hand. And I can tell you, this is true.
First of all, I’m not knocking my writing. My prose has its strengths. I’ve been told my characters have good, strong voice, they are vibrant. Reviewers have commented that I get a lot of bang for the buck with my choice of words—simple but strong. And, no, I’m not boasting. As a writer, I must recognize the good stuff as well as the bad stuff. Those strengths are foundations for story building, and it’s not vain to want to insure your good, strong bricks are in place.
One strength I do NOT have is plotting.
I remember my very first adult attempt at writing.
It was to be the story of Sam and…oh, hell, I don’t even remember the heroine’s name, she was that forgettable. The story was titled Letters to Lola.
It began with words spouting from my mind, not much rhyme or reason, just a vague setting with even vaguer characters.
Reminiscing over Letters to Lola, I realized the damn story had reached seventy-six chapters when I’d finally abandoned it.
SEVENTY-SIX CHAPTERS! What? How? Why?
Was my writing also destined to be a wooly forty foot muffler?
The story—although it had its merits, it had some potential—had no plot or logic. I was just…writing. Going nowhere. There was a beginning but—like my ill-fated pastel blue shawl—there was no middle, no direction, no end. No course plotted whatsoever. It was one little emotional scenario after another, but no reasoning to any of it. It would have made a wonderful soap opera—a million pages of little unconnected vignettes with no apparent resolution in sight. But, then, I ask: if there is no plot, how COULD there ever be a solution?
At least my first published novella, Candy G, consisted of a beginning, a middle and an end. I cringe at times, even with this book, to see its weaknesses, the holes. Somestimes I re-read some of the scenes and wince, thinking how silly it seems for my character to do this or that. But at least I DID plot a course for it and finished it. It was a struggle, but I did it.
A writer may walk into this craft with natural talent, it may be their destiny, their calling. It can be a gift like drawing or painting. But even drawing and painting have rules. Who knew?
So does writing. I didn’t know that when I began. I honestly thought it was merely a matter of having a talent at word crafting and just….well…writing. Put the pen to the paper and the words would come.
There is the matter of plotting. Fleshing of characters. The prose itself—passive verbs, redundancy, effective description. Hooks. What is a hook? That certain something that draws the reader in from the beginning, that keeps them interested in the story.
This issue came to my attention recently when I became discouraged with my writing. I felt lazy. I could begin a story, I couldn’t finish one. I’d look around me to see my peers announcing new book releases every month, and I became disheartened, glaring at my one lone book on the shelf.
I had to take a close look at WHY I couldn’t finish. And, during a discussion on my authors’ forum, some harsh realities hit me.
A fellow author, upon some brainstorming about an idea I had for my story, analyzed a part of my plot in these words (piecing together fragments from their conversation: I think you're actually creating two big problems for yourself: characters planting a legal briar patch for no logical reason and stacked coincidences…. More problematic is the number of "just so happens" you employ in order to make this unlikely showdown occur……. It starts to look like a hat on a hat on a hat on a hat. Genre fiction can sustain coincidences, but this explosive sleepover has more to do with you wanting drama (as an author) than the way people would act in the situation.
They were right. I was aiming for drama, but—repeating my crocheting catastrophe—I still needed more insight into the complexity of writing, of plotting, of storytelling, of logic.
I came across this quote (author unknown), and it…well, it was me: One bright day in the middle of night two dead boys rose to fight. Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot one another. A deaf policeman heard the noise, and saved the lives of the two dead boys. If you don't believe this lie is true, ask the blind man, he saw it too.
In that one silly little ditty was my writing experience in a nutshell.
Part of me is discouraged. I can’t plot. I can’t crochet. But the other part of me—the part who yearns to write, who doesn’t want to repeat the afghan that ate Tokyo—is ecstatic because this obstacle standing in my way of creating a complete story is learnable. It is not out of reach. It is only a matter of desire to make the hurdle. And I have the desire. I’m going to do it.
But do not ask me to crochet you for an afghan for Christmas.