Week two, the demons came out to play. I spent most of the week sick with some kind of virus, unable to focus enough to write much, and on the remaining days I had to pound out the word count to stay on track and try and build up a little buffer for birthday/Thanksgiving, when I really want to spend my time with the people I love. And when you have to work fast, you tend to stick to what you know. So my subconscious, in looking for complications for my main character, started pulling out some of the darker chapters of my life, and when I realized this, I realized that in order to make it believable and keep my main character sympathetic, I had to show what was so appealing about that situation, why a reasonable person would stay when they were that unhappy. Trying to balance between those two points authentically, showing the problems and building the tension while still showing the appeal, made for some very dark days.
And now, going into week three, I have the opposite problem. My character has earned herself a respite where she gets to try building something healthy (which will then be threatened by the situation she’s running from), and I don’t know what that looks like for her. I have to show her succeeding at things I’m still struggling with, and I’m not entirely sure how to do that authentically. I’m really curious to see what emerges.
1. Even writing non-stop for two days to catch up, it is freaking hard to keep on top of my word count quota.
2. The book is complete crap, the characters have no personalities, and no one is going to want to read it. Ever.
3. I don’t care, I love it, and I’m going to finish it anyway.
4. I am a natural novelist, and a lot of the problems I’ve had with my writing for the last fifteen years have been because I’ve been forcing myself to write short stories.
5. I am still capable of everything I have ever been proud of doing, and by doing this project, I am learning to do it so much better.
I’m driving to Starbucks to grab some breakfast and work on my novel, and I keep going over it in my head: is my plot strong enough to keep a reader’s interest? Is it building to a climax, steadily ratcheting up tension?
I start thinking about the classic Algis Budrys seven-point plot, the symmetrical upside-down V of Shakespeare’s plays and the slanted, upside-down V of Cinderella that diagram that classic understanding of plot:
1. A person
2. In a place
3. Has a problem.
4. They try to solve their problem
5. And fail
7. Until they finally succeed or fail beyond recovery.
But then I start thinking about how I tried to find another fairy tale to plug into that model when I taught it to a class. I had a hard time figuring out how to grid “The King of Cats” or “Sleeping Beauty.” Who is the protagonist trying and failing to reach their goal in “Beauty and the Beast?” What do you do with a story like “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” which changes goals partway through? How about Ender’s Game, where a major point is that the protagonist’s stated goal turns out not to be the actual goal? What about the branching plotlines and protagonists of Lord of the Rings?
Maybe that classic V isn’t the only shape to show the structure of a plot. Maybe you need nesting dolls to diagram 1001 Nights, or a firework exploding and converging for Lord of the Rings. An Escher drawing for Rashomon. A hedge maze. An ouroboros.
I’m not the first to think this way. Some of this is coming from musings by Cory Doctorow I’d forgotten for ages, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first, either. But right now, when I’m trying to write this novel, it’s helpful for me to recognize that while it’s important that my plot keep moving, it doesn’t necessarily have to keep pushing forward in a straight line.