Tuesday, March 3, 2020

What is the book about?

Our question this week is What element of the craft is the one you most need to improve?

Terry Shames:

In answer to the question, I’m actually tempted to say “everything.” But in fact, I think I write pretty good dialogue. Everything else? Description, pacing, setting, plot? I could use some improvement.

Plot is the one I feel shakiest about. Readers often say my plots are great, and I’m always surprised. I feel like when I’m writing a book the plot is either too thin or too convoluted. It takes huge effort to wrestle the plot into some kind of coherent thread. I’ve written entire books that, when I got to the end, I realized the plot made no sense. But why? I think the problem is often that I don’t have a clear idea of the premise of the book. I know the characters and have some vague idea of the beginning, but that’s it.

I admire people whose plots seem convoluted and deep, and yet completely understandable. I always wonder how they got to that point. Did they know before they began writing how the plot was going to unfold (i.e., did they map out the book before they began writing), or did it just “grow.” This is more than an “outline” vs. “free writing” question. It’s about what the writer has in mind before she even begins to outline or to let the characters start to tell their story.

The adage is that plot grows from character, but I think something has to come before the characters are turned loose. And that “something” is premise. I often start with an image or a few characters when I think about a book, and it has taken me a long time to understand that those things aren’t enough. I have to get some sense of what the book is about, before I can let my characters loose on the page. If I don’t, no matter what the characters do seem to be nothing more than flailing around.  I don’t have to know the end, but I do have to know what the characters are going to be grappling with. That’s where I need to improve.

Here are some examples of books I’d like to know how the plot unfolded—whether the writers started with an image, a premise, and/or a plot. I wonder if they knew how the book was going to end before they even started.

Susan Bickford’s Dread of Winter. A Short Time to Die, and “Dread” grows organically from the first. I wonder if she knew from the beginning that she would end up with a harrowing story that seems perfectly suited for the setting and the characters from the first book. Did she have any sense of the end? Did she know she would be writing about the difficulty of extricating yourself from  a pernicious situation when you love your family?
I read her first book,

Laura Lippman, The Lady in the Lake

I can imagine that this story began with an image, because the opening images are so strong. But did Lippman know how the book would unfold from that image? Did she know what the book would be about? Her writing is so sure-footed that I always wonder if she knows from the beginning what she’s setting out to accomplish.

Deborah Crombie’s A Bitter Feast. I know that Crombie works hard at her craft and that it takes several months to write her books. But what I don’t know is how she comes up with her plots. A Bitter Feast is absolutely solid, a plot that stayed with me for months after I read it. Where did she begin? Did she want to write about chefs and cooking? Did she have an image of the countryside in bad weather? Did she have an actual plot that fit into the scenes before she even began?

Thomas Perry. I most recently read The Bomb Maker and The Old Man
Both are tutorials on how to write thrillers. The next time I see Perry I intend to ask him what he starts with—an image, an idea, a plot hook? Does he know the premise—what the book is going to be about?

Other writers that I read everything they write: Catriona McPherson and James Ziskin (two of our 7CM authors).

 I’d love to know how much plot is in their minds when they start their books, and whether they start with a premise, an image, or even a wisp of an idea. 

Rhys Bowen with her Lady Georgie series and her standalones. How does she come up with plot after plot that intrigues and satisfies?

These authors make it look easy, as if their plots are full-blown before they get started. Sometimes I have to write 20,000 words before I know what the book is going to about—and that’s before I even consider what the plot might consist of. Surely there’s an easier way. That’s what I need to learn.

Here's the book that I knew from the beginning what it was about. I can't remember if it was easier to write, but I do know it has remained a favorite:

1 comment:

Dietrich Kalteis said...

An interesting post, Terry. I don't often know where a story is going either when I start writing, but I do feel I know when I've got it right in the end.