Sunday, 13 April 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour: Plotting and the Friday Afternoon Brain Hurricane



Thank you very much to Jen Morgan for passing the Writing Process Blog tour baton on to me. I've known Jen for several years through the SCBWI Cambridge social group and through the wonderful Heffers Children's Book Shop, where she works. Jen is one of those people who does so many things and does them all so brilliantly that you instantly feel overcome with a sense of inadequacy! She writes, teaches creative writing, mentors, edits, works in the book shop, runs the book club, looks after small children . . . I’ve probably missed half a dozen things. And she manages to be warm and friendly and supportive to everyone else at the same time. Keep up the good work, Jen!
Jen’s fascinating blog post about stilling the mind for writing is here:
The format of the post for the Writing Process Blog Tour is to answer three questions and then say something about some aspect of your writing process.

1) What are you working on now?
I am exactly half way through the first draft of the second book in a new Middle Grade series called Secrets of the Tombs. The first book, The Phoenix Code, set in Egypt, will be published by Orion in July. The one I’m working on now is set in China and is called The Dragon Path

Like my previous series Adventure Island, these are mystery-based stories in which young investigators solve puzzling crimes. The new series has an archaeological theme, with both historical and contemporary elements to the mysteries. As well as featuring very different characters and settings these books are a bit fatter and more complex and aimed at the upper end of the Middle Grade age range of about 9+.
2) Why do you write what you do?
I write the kind of books that I loved to read as a child. I devoured any kind of mystery novel – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Adventure series were my favourites.  In my own books I try to capture that magical combination of resourceful independent kids zipping about on bikes with only the minimum of parental involvement, sleuthing and problem solving, getting in and out of scrapes, eating picnics and putting the world to rights. 

3) How does your work differ from others in the genre?
There’s a great tradition of children's mystery stories, of course, with Enid Blyton being the best known. The Adventure Island series pays homage to the past masters, but I hope with an original twist. 


For a start, I try to introduce bucketfuls of humour to offset all the peril and problem-solving.  I also enjoy weaving in snippets of science and history and nature that I find fascinating and just can’t resist sharing. I also love to introduce readers to amazing words they might not have come across before (whenever I use words I think readers might not already know I have fun making sure that the context supports understanding of the word, and I’ll use it a couple more times later on in the book so it becomes familiar.)
The new series also has its roots in a well-established tradition; the archaeological adventure – best known through films such as Indianna Jones and The Mummy. My work differs from many other books in this genre because there there’s no magic or mythical heroes or super-powers involved. There are so many great books out there that do that, I couldn't even start to compete!
Just as with the Adventure Island books, I try to make the characters and situations realistic enough that readers feel ‘this could actually happen to someone just like me.’ That’s how I felt when I read The Famous Five. Although now I think about it I did spend much of my childhood in a state of perpetual disappointment at the distinct lack of kidnappers/smugglers/spies leaving trails of footprints and cigarette ends for me to follow . . .

Plotting and The Friday Afternoon Brain Hurricane
I thought I’d say a bit about my plotting process because that was the part I found most daunting when I started out, but now it hardly scares me at all and I've actually started to really enjoy it. 
 
With mystery books plot is crucial, of course. There’s a pretty clear expectation that something bad/secret has happened and the investigators have to solve puzzles and follow clues to find out who did it and why. So the start of the process is to figure out what The Big Bad Thing is.
With Adventure Island, the options are constrained by two main factors: (1) things that could semi-plausibly happen on a small Cornish island and (2) dastardly deeds that would interest an 8-12 year old readership, without being  (a) sordid and seedy or (b) dull and depressing. That rules out about 99% of real life crime!
In my new series. Secrets of the Tombs, the location changes with each book, so I start with a marathon reading session, looking for fascinating archaeological sites and intriguing historical events. I read like crazy, both fiction and non-fiction, and conduct long rambling internet searches, jotting down fascinating facts. I visit lots of museums and I even go and see the place in person (by clever alignment of family holidays!) And it all counts as work! This is fun!
Gradually I start to turn pages of scribbled notes into a plot outline. I always give it the heading Outline but in fact it could be anything up to 10,000 words long. It’s a bit like calling War and Peace a novella. I’m wondering whether I should call this document my First Draft in future. It would make me feel like the work was almost done before I even started!
I have no special formula for writing this rambling plot outline. I just start knitting all the pieces together. I've slowly built up a sense how much action and sleuthing fits into, say, a 30,000 word Adventure Island book and how to distribute the noisy peril scenes and the quieter problem-solving scenes along the way. Although even after fourteen books I was still trying to cram too much in every time. And when I started Secrets of the Tombs and moved up to about double the length I got totally carried away. Not having enough to say is never a problem!.
This long outline will include snatches of dialogue/jokes/connections to subplots – anything I want to remember, as I have an atrociously poor memory. My next job is to distil it down to the bare bones again. Often I’ll end up with a series of ever-shorter documents  ending with a bullet point version that makes it easier to see the series of events; perhaps not at a glance, but at least in under a week or two.
The reason that the plot outline is so long – apart from my pathological inability to get to the point – is that a crime mystery essentially involves coming up with two plots for one book. The first is the Bottom Story – not, I hasten to add, because it is about bottoms, or at least, not as a rule - but because it is the story that lies beneath. It’s the story of what the baddies actually got up to. This often involves going back many years before the book starts. The repercussions of past events come back to motivate recent misdeeds (for example, a tragedy concerning a 1980s rock band leads to the body in the sea in The Mystery of the Drowning Man; the wreck of a ship carrying soldiers back from the Boer War leads to the discovery of a long lost treasure map in The Mystery of the Hidden Gold.)  Although much of the detail of this story won’t emerge until the denouement (“oh, that’s why they did it!”) it all needs to be worked out in advance. 
Then there is the Top Story:  this is the investigators’ journey from coming across a clue or hearing of an odd occurrence to figuring out the entire Bottom Story. I think of  the relationship between the top and bottom stories as looking at a scene on stage (bottom story) through a tattered curtain (top story). The holes in the curtains are the clues that allow the investigators to peep through and glimpse the reality beneath – solving the crime involves joining those holes together.
Bottom Story

Top  Story

Once I finally have my plot outline I stick to it quite closely. I print it out and take with me everywhere through the next couple of months as I write the first draft. Themes and motifs and jokes start to develop and I’ll go back and weave those in. This means that the plot outline gets additional comments scribbled all over it.

I love finding connections and themes and quirks as I go along.  These just sort of evolve. I like to have ripples and echoes running through to give the book a feeling of roundedness. That probably sounds a bit pretentious for a detective story but it’s one of the things I enjoy most about writing.
But before I get to the point where I have the final version of my plot outline that accompanies me through the first draft there is one more important part of the process –  in fact, the most important part of the process: the Friday Afternoon Brain Hurricane (I told you it took me a long time to get to the point!)
I’ve been lucky enough to work with my wonderful editor Amber Caravéo on twenty books now and we've always ironed out the plot the same way.  I send Amber my outline and we then spend a Friday afternoon on the phone pulling it to pieces and putting it back together again. It’s like a brainstorm, only more. It’s Force 12 on the Beaufort Scale of brainstorms; hence the brain hurricane.
Every writer needs a brilliant editor!

This is how it works. At around two o'clock I shut myself in my office. This is the sign to my family that I am Not To Be Disturbed. The door is open at all other times. I don’t like being in rooms with closed doors and my office is tiny and also has to accommodate two large border collies who like to sleep, one under my desk, one across the doorway, to protect me in case of ambush by a pack of wolves.

Fuelled only by a cup of tea, and with only the occasional interlude to let cats  (Amber) or dogs (me) in or out,or say hello the postman/window cleaner or shout instructions to a teenager (me) about where to find their Jimi Hendrix t-shirt (the words Have you looked in the airing cupboard? will be engraved on my headstone)* we set to work.
(*Yes, I know. I just said that my family recognise The Closed Door as a sign that they shouldn’t disturb me. What this means, is that they now only alert me in the case of a truly life-or-death airing cupboard malfunction or epic someone’s-had-the-last-pack-of-tortilla-chips-out-of-the-pantry disaster.)
Amber can spot a plot hole at three hundred paces. Politely and precisely she will ask the killer questions. Why, for example, would the old pilchard fisher want to steal the priceless tiara to frame the man who stole his son’s prize chinchilla, if he knew that the said chinchilla-napper was in prison at the time and so couldn’t have done it?**
(** However thrilling a pilchard fishing and chinchilla themed mystery may sound this is for illustrative purposes only and not a genuine plot from one of my books (yet!).)
‘Because he  . . .er . . .yeah . . . good point.’ My entire plot is unravelling before my eyes.
‘Ok, maybe chinchilla guy’s not in prison?’ Amber suggests. ‘He’s just gone on a cycling holiday to Tenerife.’
‘Yes,’ I agree. But then I realise that won’t work. ‘But he needs to be in prison to overhear his cellmate plotting to blow up the old tin mine.’
‘Ooh! Ooh!  I know, what if . . .’ At this point Amber comes up with a brilliant idea that totally solves the problem. And, it now occurs to me, leads to another interesting plot twist that would work perfectly. ‘Ooh! Ooh! I know, what if . . .’
If the Friday Afternnoon Brain Hurricane had a catchphrase, this would be it: Ooh! Ooh! I know, what if.
We are usually done within three hours, although some particularly thorny plot issues in The Mystery of the Missing Masterpiece took us, I remember, nearer to four.
Somehow we always arrive at a point where the story seems to work. The chinchilla is back with its rightful owner and the tin mine disaster has been averted at the very last second. Hooray!
I hang up and look down at the detailed notes that I have been writing all through the phone call. To my horror the pages appear to be covered in (a) random fragments of nonsense and (b) exclamation marks.
He’s not really a newt trainer!!!
Because it was FRIDAY –dahlias??? - yes!
Wrong kind of omelettes!!!
She comes back – ALONE!!!!
Dazed, confused, drained, I stare at the page. Does any of this make an iota of sense? No, it does not.  Even the bits that have been circled three times and underlined.  I start to feel immensely sorry for myself. I have literally and metaphorically lost the plot.
At this point I give myself a talking to. Pull yourself together woman!  Remember the guy who had to cut off his own arm to escape from that mountain (actually I don’t remember it very well as I have a phobia of sharp objects and so spent most of the film with my hands over my eyes). Remember Joe Simpson in Touching the Void. He survived a fall into a crevasse and dragged himself back to camp, half dead and with a broken leg and with Boney M’s Brown Girl in the Ring stuck in his head the entire time!*** You only have to type up a plot! 

(***I’m not making this up. If you’ve not read Touching the Void, do. I know it sounds like I’ve just ruined the plot for you but you’d have guessed he made it out alive anyway; he lives to tell the tale.)
My pep talk does the trick. I’m now ready to climb a mountain with nothing but a tweed skirt, a thermos flask and a stout pair of walking shoes.
I take a deep breath and hammer away at my computer keyboard, deciphering the coded fragments in my notebook into the changes and additions and deletions to the plot that they represent, working as quickly as I can because if I stop I might just drop the whole fragile spun-sugar-and-bone-china construction that I’m balancing in my brain and it will shatter into a million pieces.
At last I stagger from my office - tired but happy in best mystery-solving fashion –and crawl to the fridge for a very large glass of cold white wine. It is Friday evening, after all, and thanks to Amber, editor extraordinaire, another plot has been well and truly hatched.
All I have to do now is write the book.
Just as soon as I’ve got to the bottom of tortilla-chip-gate and found the Jimi Hendrix t-shirt, that is.


Now I’m delighted to hand on the baton to the lovely and super-talented Robin Stevens. Robin not only works full time at Orion Children’s Books, but is also about to publish her debut novel, Murder Most Unladylike. I was lucky enough to win an advance copy in the Authors for the Philippines auction, and I can tell you that it is utterly wonderful. 

Robin’s blog post will appear on Monday 21st April. Here is the link to her blog. http://robin-stevens.co.uk/