When my son was young, I heard a child-development professional talk about kids who are “slow to warm up.” I can’t even come close to remembering her exact words, but the gist of what she was saying was that, basically, some kids have to master a skill or task before they can attempt it.
Yeah. Not exactly an easy thing to do. But as both my son and I got older, I think I reached a different understanding of what “mastering” means. It doesn’t, for a child, mean they have to somehow be perfect at a very specific task before they can take it on. It means, I think, that they have to build up to that task, by taking on smaller bits and pieces of it. Or by doing something similar, but, somehow, easier. They need to have some experience they can refer back to, a path they can follow to move forward–at least a partial path. Something that helps them believe they can take on what’s coming.
I think this is what plot does for me. Okay, I know, plot as a path: obvious. Bit it’s more of that master-before-you-do thing. I have talked here before about my inability to write without an idea of what I need to be writing about. I’ve gotten impatient with how long it takes to plot, and I’ve given up and just “had at it.” I’ve watched friends, of whom I’m terribly jealous, write random scenes as those scenes occur to them, or just start writing at “Once Upon a Time,” and speed through to the Living Happily After, all without putting a single point of an outline onto paper. And I’ve though, “Surely I can do this, too.” Nope. Every time I’ve tried, I’ve ended up flailing around like someone who doesn’t even know how to tread water, let alone swim.
I think I need to know my story before I write it. Yeah, Duh! moment. Do I stick to the plot I write. Well, in the past couple of weeks, I have turned seven plotted scenes into three written ones. I have opened the binder in which I keep my scene notes, but half the time I’ve forgotten to even read those notes before opening up the new file and writing dialogue, action, setting. Just today, I wrote a scene, realized I’d pretty much left one character out of it, came up with her goal, and wove her and her problem into the already-drafted pages. All without looking back at my notes to see if the new goal matched the one I gave her while plotting. (Just took a peek: I didn’t even HAVE a goal for this character in my notes. Got one now!)
So, no, I don’t follow the plot, not step-by-step for sure, and sometimes, not at all. BUT…I apparently need it.
For me, when I plot and then sit down to write, the story is already part of me, the same way–I think–that a child who has gone to a birthday party and spent the whole time on its mother’s lap has still, in some way, incorporated birthday party into their being. The next time, they may get through the party by simply holding Mom’s hand, and the time after that, they will let go and clap while the other kids play Pin the Tail on the Donkey. The next time, they’ll close their eyes and pin on their own tail and then, finally, they’ll wear the blindfold and do the whole thing. They’ll even laugh when their tail lands on top of the donkey’s ear.
Was I a slow-to-warm-up kid? Let me take a few minutes to laugh hysterically at the question, and then I’ll give you my mom’s telephone number so you can call and hear her sigh. Oh, yeah. Beyond slow.
I like to think I’ve gotten a little more speedy. Yes, the plot took me For.Ever. to get onto paper. But I worked on it steadily and with determination. Why? Because I’ve plotted before, and it’s worked. These scenes I’ve written in the past couple of weeks? They’re flowing out of me like seriously watered-down ketchup. Are they good? Who knows? Will I revise them? More hysterical laughter. Oh, yeah. But I can write them, I can write each one and know that when I’ve finished it, I’ll be able to write the next one. Because, even if I haven’t mastered either plotting or writing, I’ve succeeded at both. And I can do it again.
So much better than flailing.