Monday, February 8, 2010

Four plots, one story

It's been a bumper week of writing for me this week- the drought has finally broken! In just two days, I cranked out 5150 words of BETWEEN THE LINES, plus precisely 1998 words of A Kill in Time. All up, that's just over 7000 words of writing in a week. That's peak production. That's awesome!

There are a number of factors behind why I've managed to write this week when I've failed to do so for so many weeks of the last two years.

The major one is that, as previously mentioned, I succeeded in fulfilling my number one New Year's resolution very early in the year, and my daughter is now going to bed at a suitable time, in her own bed, and sleeping (mostly) through the night. The haze of exhaustion that has followed me everywhere for the last year is starting to lift, and my brain is actually working again.

Also, as bad as a two year break from the story sounds, it has come with benefits. The biggest of these has been perspective.

When I finished my first draft, I let it sit for about eight long weeks before attempting a revision. I thought that was enough. But I really hadn't been able to stop thinking about it in the meantime, and my perspective hadn't changed at all. I wasn't seeing things with greater clarity or more objectivity. I was just as mired in the middle of my plot problems and twisty character conundrums as I had been to start with.

Two years is a much bigger break than I wanted, but with it has certainly come that objectivity. I've been able to see that some of the things I was clinging to just don't fit in the story. I'm killing my darlings in unprecedented quantities.

My greatest revelation has been about my major plot, and my subplots. BETWEEN THE LINES is a pretty complex story, with four story threads running through it. From the first moment I started writing the story, I knew what was going to happen (linear writer, remember), but I was always trying to organise it as one story in the "present" (WWII) with three subplots in the past. I was going to flash back and forth from the present to the past to tell the whole story- and I'm still going to, but it's the way in which I'm going to write all these scenes that has changed.

This is how BETWEEN THE LINES was originally conceived:

An Australian veteran of WWI travels to Blitz London to seek answers about the disappearance of his son. As he searches, he gets help from his son's fiance and her eccentric sister, and in the process we come to learn about the events of his life that led him to this place and time- his enlistment in WWI, the tragic deaths of his best friend, brother and fiance, his struggle to raise his son as a single father while dealing with post-traumatic stress, and his determination to make things right, just as it might be too late.

When I plotted it out, I sat down with note-cards (a topic for another post). I had the storylines for each subplot written out on those cards, one scene on each. And I would sit down and lay them all out the way they'd appear in the final story. You saw me talking about this not quite a month ago, here, where I gave an example of the way the story jumps back and forth in time.

I was also talking there about how I wasn't feeling very inspired by the linear approach- when linear meant following the story as it was going to appear in the book.

I felt like I had to write it the way it would be read in order for me to keep track of what present scenes related to what past, etc. But instead all I managed to do was confuse myself, repeatedly.

What I've discovered is that if I take each of the four separate plots, work them out from beginning to end, and then concentrate on each one like a mini-novel, I'm completely inspired again. I have a direction. I know exactly what's coming next, how it links into the scenes before and after it, and what contribution it makes to the overall arc.

I think this is what I was missing a few weeks ago- the sense of purpose that for me comes with knowing where I'm going. All I have to figure out then is what route to take on my way.

Here are the four major plots in BETWEEN THE LINES. Like I said, these will be chopped and spliced together so that the story weaves back and forth through time. The last one is the "main" plot, and the first three will be woven through it. But for now, I'm writing each one from start to finish. I've already knocked off three chapters of the first one.

1. Bill, 1914- 1920

Young Australian farmer Bill has everything going for him in 1914- he's helping to run the wildly successful family sheep and wheat farm, and his girlfriend Kit has agreed to marry him. Then war breaks out a world away, and Bill's life is forever changed by his decision *not* to go fight. After his best friend is killed at Gallipoli and his brother is seriously injured, Bill is forced to change his stance and does sign up to fight- but by the time makes it out of the killing fields of Europe in 1918, he and his world have changed forever after his brother is killed in front of him, and Kit dies suddenly in his absence.

2. Bill and Jared, 1920- 1939

Bill comes home to find himself a single father to a son, Jared. The two struggle to keep the farm running through the drought and depression, all the while battling Bill's post-traumatic stress. Jared grows into a young man and eventually hears rumours that Bill may not be his father after all.

3. Jared, 1939- 1940

Jared joins the RAAF and goes to England at the outbreak of WWII. There he meets the girl of his dreams, Laura- who in breaking plot news is unfortunately the wife of his commanding officer. A passionate affair ensues, sending Jared spiralling out of control, with the end result that he goes mysteriously missing in action during the Battle of Britain.

4. Bill, 1940

Bill travels to London with a mission- he wants to rescue a pregnant Laura and bring her home to Australia. But Laura won't budge, and Bill instead finds himself seeking answers about Jared's disappearance with Laura's eccentric sister Meredith. The quest itself initially seems pointless, but Bill soon finds himself getting closer to the truth of Jared's disappearance, and in the meanwhile discovers a new lease on the life he'd given up on as he begins to fall for Meredith.

So tell me, how do you keep your plots and subplots in order? If you're writing a tale that jumps back and forth in time, how are you approaching that? Do you write in chronological order, or in the way your story will appear in the book, or are you a chunkster and you just know it's all going to come together in the end?


  1. Hi Claire! Glad to see that the writing is picking up :-)

    Well, as a chunk writer I only have a rough idea of the plot ("psychic girl in a war") and subplots ("psychic girl meets boy") to start off with. And I have only a vague idea of where any given scene fits in the timeline (early/late/somewhere in the middle). So basically I figure I'll work it out once I get closer to finishing, when there's a lot more plot to play with.

    For when I do get that far (this year, I hope!) - what is your notecard method? I think something like that could be very useful for when I try to put a whole bunch of scenes into some sort of coherent order!

  2. Claire - super excellent that the writing is back with a vengeance! Keep it rolling!

    As for tales with plots set in different times ... SEPULCHRE by Kate Mosse is a good example, with one plot set in the nineteenth century and the other set in the 1990s. In an interview, she said the only way she was able to write the book was to write each plot from start to finish, then go back and weave the two together. It was a great read, so that approach obviously worked for her ...

  3. I'm glad to hear you're writing again Claire! I miss Bill when he's not around :-)
    I wing it all - I write in chunks and figure the fact that the motivations and themes are all in my head will help the plots hang together. Soemday I'd like to try my hand at a mystery and see if I can pull it through - or will my chunk writing tie me in knots?

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