Friday, 19 April 2013

Silence for Structure, Music for Mood

Both my regular readers will know I’ve not just been making a meal of plotting the second Highlions book; I’ve been making a seasonal dietary planner complete with handy wipe-clean recipe cards. It’s been going on forever and I just can’t get it right. I’ve bored you about it here – though this version was screwed up after a fortnight’s work, then blabbed about it here – though this too no longer exists, and to cap it all, blogged about binning it all here too.

So getting close to desperate, I decided to clear the desk, forget all the setbacks and give it another damn go. Plotting and planning are not like ordinary work, it seems to me. There’s two phases. One’s pull-your-eyes-out hard, the other’s a joy.

The hard bit first. For me, plotting-part-one requires a special set of circumstances. Here’s what you need to do:

1.Find a still, quiet place where you can achieve high levels of intense concentration during which you feel like you’re doing the mental equivalent of a Rubik’s cube with numb and clumsy fingers – or solving a sodoku with no numbers in at all.

2.Gather paper and pen to write, cross-out, ridicule, question, re-scribble and finally, as it all falls into place, underline with a big ‘YES!’  

3.Set up a discussion with a critical friend that begins with a garbled energy and enthusiasm (I usually start with – ‘you’re gonna love this!’ just for good measure) then watch as your pitch becomes speedily derailed, usually with a very straightforward observation: ‘I don’t get it. Why would they do that at that point?’ Get angry for no reason. Cut short the discussion.

4.Realise critical friend is right, usually during commute to and/or from work the following day.

5.Return to step one and continue until borderline insane.

It’s such tough work. I marvel at people who can breeze through this initial planning. I’m the foaming-at-the-mouth green-eyed monster when I hear about people (yes Ian Rankin, I mean you) who don’t even bother, and claim to essentially ‘discover’ plot as they write. For me, silence and solitude are key here; it’s brain-work that will take all your concentration.

But then there’s another kind of plotting; a second stage. And this is blissful. You’ve battled to get your shape in place; now it’s time to add mood and colour. You don’t want silence here; you want input, inspiration, energy – in short, you want music. Music and, if you’re lucky, bourbon. Because here’s where you need to submerge yourself in the world and just channel it all. I listened to one track for close to an hour on a loop yesterday. It’s the Main Theme from a pretty damn splendid game called Dishonored, and it’s two minutes long, so I figure I must have heard it maybe thirty times; but by this point plotting is an otherworldly, transformative borderline mystical experience (I know, I know – sounds stupid…) during which you’re barely even awake.

But stage two sends your plot crazy-shaped if you haven’t done stage one properly. All your splashes of inspiration and colour leak out of the cracks and you end up with a shapeless and senseless puddle; something I’ve done too many times to mention. That there’s the reason why I had to do 50,000 words worth of re-writes on Poison Boy.

Hence my new mantra; silence for structure, music for mood. Hey - it’s worth a try, right?


  1. Hi Fetcher
    tired to comment the other day but one of the mysteries of the internet whisked my comment away somewhere.
    I've had a breakthrough about plotting and it's definitely START AT THE END
    I've been visualising my finale for my WIP. I written each bit of the finale on a card and then on a card of a diff colour writing what needs to be shown/ happen for that to work and that process has shown me very clearly what i don't need in the story.
    Does that make sense - I don't have your cv this method is very untested but it feels so much clearer than starting at the beginning.

  2. Jan - what an interesting approach! I'll have a go at that tonight. Must confess I'm doing it the other way round at the moment so I've no idea what the ending might be. A refreshing suggestion - thanks!