Every day along with my daily writing prompts I get interesting or inspirational quotes from established writers. Sometimes these are good, sometimes they’re predictable and some days they just Do Not Compute. Take today’s, from A S Byatt:
‘Don’t start writing until you know where you’re going.’
Immediately I thought, ‘well, that wouldn’t work for me at all because I never know where I’m going; not until I get there, and sometimes not even then.’ Some of the best stuff I’ve done has been written completely cluelessly with no plan, no concept and no destination. If I’d planned a novel and knew each chapter in detail I’d be so bored I wouldn’t want to write the damned thing at all. I can have a vague idea but the thing has to unfold for me just as it does for the reader.
Not that I don’t wish it otherwise. Sometimes I’d give my eye teeth to have a plot idea I could send off to a publisher, like: ‘A Bulgarian milkman moves to Germany after unification and discovers that his father was a war criminal.’ That sort of thing. Instead of which, what have I got? ‘I’m writing a novel based on the Fibonacci sequence and the concept of spirals.’ What? What? So what happens? ‘Well, I don’t know yet. There’s a lot of stuff about Brexit – but I won’t know what happens until it’s finished. Maybe not even then…’ It’s hardly the stuff that gets three-figure advances….
The thing is, most people start with a plot. They sketch it out, then in come some characters and start interacting. A setting suggests itself; then some dialogue. Finally, if at all, comes the philosophy. But me? I get it completely backwards: first the philosophical concept, then the characters and setting and finally – if at all – the plot. Such as it is.
Mind you, I thought I’d come up with a brilliant plot the other day. I rushed in to tell OH about it:
‘How’s this for a short story idea? You have some women who do exactly what men want, who flatter them and obey their every whim – and in the end they turn out to be robots.’ As I was outlining this the smile on OH’s face was becoming more and more fixed. ‘So what do you think?’ I finished up.
Turned out I’d described exactly the plot of The Stepford Wives. (In my defence I haven’t actually seen the film but I should have known all the same.)
Hope you all had a good Easter. Yesterday Daniel and I went to visit my parents’ graves and on the way back we had a Grimbister.
3 thoughts on “Where Was I Again?”
The idea of micro-plotting (or even ‘plotting’) a novel before you begin is very much the day before yesterday’s practice. The conventional wisdom now is that you start with characters, allow them to interact freely, and – bingo! – your plot materialises. As the great F. Scott Fitzgerald once noted in his commonplace book, ‘Action is character.’
That said, the late Ira Levin (author of The Stepford Wives) was a genius at plotting, so much so that Stephen King described him as ‘the Swiss watchmaker of plots’. I’ve seen neither film of Stepford Wives but the book is a superb and unconventional thriller. I think only a male writer could have done justice to the idea: with a female writer, too much outrage would have intruded to distort the story.
Hm. I haven’t read the book, nor did I know that it was by a male author, but I’m sure a woman could have done it justice. Consider The Handmaid’s Tale, written 15 years after and written without any intrusive outrage; or ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, similarly unemotional in tone
I’ve not read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ (because the author’s ‘sassiness upsets me’) but I dislike both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin. Reading them felt a bit like being cudgelled over the head by a truncheon-happy member of the Canadian police force. Atwood’s ‘extreme feminism’ does her few favours and has probably lost her many (not just male) readers.
The interesting thing about The Stepford Wives is that Levin has his main antagonist come clean about why the Stepford men do what they do: they are tired, their egos are frail but they still want their ‘sagging flesh’ to be adored (sic). That said, the book was very much of its time (early 70s) and is now a period piece. The first filmed version (with Katherine Ross) is very good, or was the last time saw it. The remake (with Nicole Kidman) is plain awful, though.