A Thing to Hang My Plot On
The other day, while I was listening to Jennifer Laughran’s Writer’s Digest webinar about middle-grade fiction, something sparked for me. This, I swear, is the best reason to take webinars, go to workshops, attend conferences. Sure, yes, you hear lots of wonderful, practical information–just like I did from Jenn that day–but also because of the sparks. The thing someone says that….ZING! shoots you right back into your WIP and makes you think, “Wow! What if I….” You never know when the spark will come, but I don’t think I’ve ever attended a conference where I didn’t get at least one.
And, you know what, they pretty much all pay off.
This spark was about the plot for my middle-grade WIP. I had some plot, already; I had a definite sense of some of the big scenes and what various characters were doing. And it was enough to be going on with, especially since I’ve recommitted to the shitty-first-draft process, which means a lot of scene writing just to get something on the page.
BUT…this was new. I stared at it for a while before I pulled myself back into what Jenn was saying, and it stayed in the back of my brain for the rest of my webinar. It came home with me from Ashland, Oregon, (yes, I signed into the webinar from my hostel room at the Shakespeare Festival–how awesome is technology today?), and it stayed with me while I did one more picture-book revision. It’s still with me, and it’s weaving itself nicely into the plotting and scenes I already had.
You know what this Thing is? Well, no, obviously I’m not going to tell you. But I’ll describe what I think is the important part.
This Thing is concrete. It’s real and solid and it will be a Thing in my MC’s life. It’s something he can actually touch and do things with and create problems (for others and himself) with. I had problems before, sure, but they were feeling (to me, at least) all nebulous and vaguey and loosely thematic before.
I had a Thing in the first MG I wrote and finished. The book was a mystery, and the mystery was the Thing. Finding stolen stuff. Figuring out the bad guy. Catching the bad guy. When I felt stuck about what was supposed to come next, I could always come back to a mystery-solving act that my hero could do: he could ask some questions, or follow a suspect, or break into a house. (Hey, he was investigating!) I’m not saying I did this perfectly. I’m not saying I did it well enough–I’ve had enough really good critiques on that manuscript to know that, while the plot might have worked out well and I wouldn’t call it a completely plot-driven story, I did come up short on the character stuff. And I know I need to be watching for that on this book–I may have a physical Thing, and I even have my character’s emotional Thing, but I need to make sure they weave together tightly and work together to build suspense and change. Nobody said this would be easy, right?
But I’ve been missing this Thing. I did not have a thing in the YA historical. That book was, and still is–where it sits tucked away in its cozy, little drawer–totally character-driven. I had dreams and problems, I had events, I had historical locations and sources, I had personalities, and I had plot points. And I had big, saggy lengths of pages where nothing held together, nothing provided any kind of structure for me (or my MC) to move from scene to scene to scene. Picture a laundry line with just-wrung-out clothing hanging damply from it. Blah. I was constantly struggling to think about what Caro might/could/should do next…and why. Plot without character; character without plot…not enough.
I don’t know whether it’s a matter of skill/experience or a matter of style. I don’t know whether it’s that I’m not good enough yet to write a character-driven novel, whether I haven’t found the one that races through my veins and sends lightning bolts of structure to my brain, or whether I’m just not that “kind” of writer. Right now, honestly, I don’t care. Because I’ve got one more element that–as I plot into the middle–I can turn to when I get stuck. I can look around and say, hey, he hasn’t done something with that Thing for a while. Maybe he could lose the Thing, or throw the Thing away, or fight with so-and-so over the Thing. Or, you know, whatever with the Thing.
Yes, I know. I’m simplifying. Maybe the whole Thing idea is simplifying. But I’m telling you, if it gets me through this first draft more happily, I will get down on my knees and kiss the feet of the Thing. For today, at least, I’m a Thing-happy writer.