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Working against the grain

I’ve just finished reading a book. I’m not going to name the book, because we don’t need to get into all of that. But it’s a traditionally published book by a very well known author. Probably one you’ve read yourself.

In my opinion, the book offers an excellent reconstruction of a historical period. The characters are vivid. The book is a thoroughly decent read to anyone who wants their tale of domestic bliss to have a bit of Soviet-era menace.

And the plot? Well.

There is a plot, but it’s thin. Because I’m not naming the book, I won’t tell you the story – but suffice to say, I tried summarising the plot just now and found I could do so, comfortably, in 20 words. That twenty-word summary really left nothing of substance out. Sure, there are further details you could add. (“Jude goes to Gretta’s house, seeking help, but Gretta warns Jude that …”) But honestly? You can summarise the entire plot in twenty words.

By contrast, I don’t think you could summarise one of my plots at the same bare level of detail in fewer than a hundred words. Realistically, you’d need a whole lot more.

What’s more, even if you summarised one of my plots as tautly as you could, you still wouldn’t have everything. My readers want complex mysteries which operate like brain teasers. Ideally, my plot logic should be too large to be seen in one view. If you could comprehend my story in a single glance, I haven’t done my job right.

Now I write the way I do for many reasons, but one of them is a near-panic about the possibility of being boring. I don’t want to bore my readers, ever. The simplest, surest safeguard against being boring is writing characters that people care about in a story that keeps changing.

I don’t know how the author of this book thinks about things, but their priorities are surely different. They’ll happily spend fifteen hundred words having their character travel to a nearby place to bury something. On their way, they’ll think of their family, their life during the war, their times with past partners, and so on. And whereas in one of my books, burying something would unquestionably feature subsequently in the plot, (would they be found, or escape capture, or what?) in this book, the buried item never features again. The whole episode could drop out of the book and the story would be perfectly intact.

Now, this author is commercially and critically successful. They don’t sell in huge volumes, but they sell plenty and critics love what they do. So my strategy works. And so does theirs. And yet in some ways, they’re each other’s opposites.

Their core strategy is “go deep”. Mine is “keep moving”. 

Their readers don’t get bored, because the ‘being there’ experience is rich enough to sustain interest in its own right. My readers don’t get bored because I have characters that readers care about in a story that always moves.

So when I worry about being dull, my thoughts will turn first – usually – to plot. If they have the same worry, I would guess that their thoughts turn first to texture.

Which brings me to the big thought that propelled this email:

I think this book would have been better if the story had contained more bite, more snap. At its heart, there’s a sweet story about a happily married couple being happily married and everything being just fine and no real emotional challenge to their integrity as a couple.

And with my books:

I work tremendously hard to put as much texture in them as I can. Sense of place. Of changing season. Of minor characters. Of office and family dynamics. And I know for a fact that enriching my books in these ways makes them better. (And not just better, as in “more likely to elicit praise from critics.” But also, better as in “more likely to sell.”)

So I want to suggest this:

If you are naturally a plot-led writer, you should put a lot of conscious effort into enriching the texture of your books – anything to deepen that sense of “really being there”.

Equally, if you are naturally a texture-led writer, you should work hard to enrich the plot structure of your books – anything to enhance that sense of “what’s going to happen next?”

By working against your natural grain, you will most likely get the easiest wins, make the biggest difference, and do most for the all-round excellence of your manuscript.

I know for a fact that’s true of my own work. I’m pretty darn sure this other author would have written an even better book if they’d done the same. I’m pretty damn sure the same thing will be true for you too. Do you need to choose between the two? That’s a dumb question. You want both.

Oh yes, and if one piece of presidential-grade, impeachment-proof writing advice isn’t enough for you, here’s one more to complement it:

Keep your processes separate.

If you’re a plot-led writer, you’ll probably finish your first draft with a whole bunch of plot-tangles you need to sort out and a whole load of texture-enrichments you want to work on.

Good. Bravo. I applaud you. But do those two things in separate edits. Do the plot stuff first (because it’s structural.) Focus on the structure. Get that tidy. Then take a second run through the MS and tackle the textural things. That way, you’re looking at one thing, not two (or six). You can also get your head in the right place to tackle the task at hand.

All this, for me, is not very theoretical at the moment. I’ve 105,000 words into my first draft of Fiona #7, perhaps just five thousand words from the finish line. I know that there are several quite significant plot strands I need to sort out and I also know that my textural stuff isn’t yet quite solid.

Sense of place is going to be really important to this book and I’ve a feeling I haven’t quite got it nailed down. But my first edit will be for plot alone. The next will be all for texture.

That’s it from me. Go well, sweet people.

Til soon. 

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Comments (25)
  • This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I do get exasperated with novels that offer an abundance of ‘texture’ while conspicuously lacking any kind of plot.

    A lot of the writerly advice I’ve read stresses the importance of having an active protagonist, and yet the last book I read – lavishly praised, included in many end-of-year lists – featured an almost entirely reactive protagonist.

    As someone who enjoys both commercial and literary fiction, I’ve spent quite a bit of time wondering into which of the two camps my WIP novel falls. In truth, I’m trying to hit both marks, although it sometimes feels like a high-stakes gambit, placing me at risk of producing a novel that’s too commercial for the literary market and too literary for the commercial market.

    Thanks for the excellent post.

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    • Love the way you give advice!  It is so wise without seeming so.  

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      • Yeah. I'm pretty sure the stupid jokes stop me seeming wise. If I wanted to write wise, I'd say things, like "... welcoming those nouns freighted with an emphasis that seemed to come from another age, a different past." I'd get literary prizes galore if I wrote like that. :)

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        • words from another age ... "right on!"

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          • I won't begin to try to comprehend that part sentence. Sounds sage advice, possibly, or possibly not? As to stupid jokes, well I learn better that way as a rule. I think it shows you know your onions, too. Like Les Dawson who was a brilliant pianist, and as a result could play badly, brilliantly too! 

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          • I'd be really interested to know how this works with children's fiction up to middle grade level. I write MG and I see such a variance in these books as I read around the current and wide array of awesome stories. One wonders if there are some parameters that have been set in that regard? Maybe this is a subject that could be covered in more depth for us aspiring children's writers? 

            On another tack, a question for you if I may, Harry. 

            A master, national newspaper cryptic crossword setter I know, who has a great interest in such matters, recently pointed me to Benjamin Dreyer's UK style guide. As leading copy-editor at Random House, he has, as you would expect, a seriously interesting take on editing. The book, however, is a witty and entertaining laugh-out-loud guide to grammar and style issues. I've had work edited in the USA and Canada (co-written with US friend), and as a result have a rather dry, huge tome — and totally dull by comparison — copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. The sort of weighty item one may think of trying to a corpse, or manuscript, to send it to the bottom of a lake!

            What is your take on these style guides, and how much should they influence us writers —especially in the early stages/drafts — who intend to publish across borders? I have to put my hand up and say I really struggle with grammar (for personal reasons and a form of grammar dyslexia) and tend to lean on my editors a lot to make good my wrongs, whilst trying to learn in the process. 

            I couldn't let this most excellent post go without asking if you have lost Alphonse? When I commented on the last webinar that we need more cats at Jericho and on webinars, I did not expect yours to vote by disappearing; maybe the current lack of feline fiction was the cause? Or Sarah ushering off her own companion😉. Anyways, as an avid cat writer and reader, I do suggest putting up posters around the Townhouse area, as well as frequent amounts of quality fare, gammon, salmon, chicken and the like. Offering a reward and a better contract including more on-air time — presenting a webinar or two, may help, too. 

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            • Yeah, the whole Alphonse thing was a bit of a cock up. Turns out a guest died - an eminent Franco-Argentine poet, named Alphonse. We always name our cats after poets, so when it was announced that Alphonse had died, we assumed it was our cat who had perished. Bad move: we held a major (and costly) ceremony for a cat who was very much not dead. Meantime, the poet Alphonse was still sprawled out in the billiard room, where it appears he had been battered to death with a large replica vase, now beyond repair. Ah well. We closed the billiard room and told people we were doing plumbing work. As far as I know, Alphonse is still there.

              As for them thah style guides? Nah. Leave them aside when you're writing. They'll only get in the way. There's room for that later. And even then? Create your own style, don't follow someone else's rules. If it sounds right, it is right ...

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              • Another texture-led writer here. Looking at plot and structure drains my energy, hate it! But I know it has to be done. Thanks for reminding me, Harry 😖 

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