Threading the Plot Needle

First, here’s a link to an interview with me: On the site you’ll find interviews with other authors and lots more for us bookish types.

And I heard something horrifying (in a writerly sense) on the radio in an interview with Patricia T. O’Conner, whose books Woe Is I and Woe Is I Jr. I keep recommending. She said that a question came in on her blog,, a fascinating site, about the meaning of head nodding and head shaking. The questioner wrote that she’d (I think it was a she) had always thought a nod meant yes and a shake meant no, but lately she’d come across instances of the reverse. Pat looked into it and discovered that the meaning had shifted somewhat and the questioner was correct; sometimes a nod means no and a shake means yes. Aaa! Talk about shaking. My world is shook, rattled, and rolled. I’ve always used head nods for yes and shakes for no. Have I confused my readers? Have these neat, quick, formerly unambiguous gestures been taken away from me? And from you, too?

I don’t know what I’m going to do from now on, maybe ignore this bulletin from the front-lines of English usage and assume that most readers will understand my meaning. Or maybe make each nod and shake so clear no one can be mistaken, but, ugh, that will require extra words I didn’t need before. Anyway, I wanted to share the news with you because confusion loves company.

The interview moved on to naming places where a nod always means no and a shake always means yes, like Bulgaria and India, which is interesting, but not particularly worrisome.

Now on to this weeks question. On June 24, 2011, maybeawriter wrote, What’s driving me nutty is that I barely have any scenes for my main story, and the one or two I have are no longer completely relevant to my story. I think my problem is that my storyline keeps changing in notes, conversations and deep thoughts. Not that a changing storyline is a problem, but it’s almost changing too fast. And now I had this new, completely story-changing idea. And now my story is shattered and I have no idea how to put it back together and make something from it, something that makes sense and somehow involves my oldest ideas. Maybe I just have trouble letting go of my old storyline. And maybe I fear the blank nothingness of the unknown, of the ever-changing story where nothing is sure, nothing set in stone, nothing to keep this story, well, this story. If I change too much, is it still the same story, or something new and unfamiliar?

I love to get together with writer friends and talk about current projects because the discussion is almost always reassuring. I’m making up names here, not using real friends: Annabelle says she’s trashing her novel and starting over; she had to write the wrong book so now she can write the right one; this has happened to her before.  Randy says he hadn’t been able to write anything for two months but he wrote three pages last week and hopes he can keep going. Inga says she doesn’t know what her book is about fundamentally, which is making the going rough for her. I say I’ve started my novel over five times, once after writing 260 pages.

Nobody I know ever ever ever says, I sit down at the computer every morning without fail and pop out seven glorious pages. Isn’t writing the merriest occupation going?

No, writing is strange and inexplicably hard. It all comes out of our heads. Our materials are ideas, so why can’t we shape them easily? Why don’t they just chink into place?

They don’t, and that’s why it’s delightful to be with other writers, the only people who really understand. Maybeawriter, I don’t have a solution for you. What you’re going through is, in my experience, the writer’s lot. But I have a suggestion, which you may do already: when you’re most miserable, talk to other writers or read writers’ blogs or books about writing. I love the name you’ve given yourself: maybeawriter. That uncertainty is wonderfully honest about the writer’s state.

I glean two questions from you, one about scenes and the other about story direction. Scenes first.

Suppose we have a character, Mallory, who is starting a new school, say it’s magic sculpture school. Graduates create manikins that assist people in subtle ways, physically and emotionally. Mallory’s problems are that she’s brutally honest and has trouble taking criticism. Her strengths are her creativity and her sympathy. The major conflict in this story will revolve around these traits.

We need scenes to show Mallory in action. Where to set them? With which characters? Do we start by getting her in trouble in a small way and build or do we make it bad right away?

This is where I would begin to wander if I were taking this on, because I don’t know how to answer my own questions. Maybe I’ll write a scene with Mallory and her mother. Mallory has insulted her cousin, and her mother is taking her to task for it, and Mallory isn’t responding well.

But the action isn’t going to take place at home, so that scene won’t advance the plot. Probably I won’t use it. Still, I’ve seen Mallory in her home environment, which is informative. Now let me try one at the new school. In this scene we’ll see her creativity and her touchiness and we’ll introduce a character or two who may be important later on.

With luck this second scene moves us into the story and suggests scenes that can follow. Mallory antagonizes one of her teachers but interests another. A fellow student hates her; another falls in love with her. How will the teacher she antagonized react? How will the others? We temporarily forget our thematic ideas in the excitement of the detailed moment-to-moment writing.

Then we stop writing for the day. We walk the dog and ruminate about plot direction. Ideally our ideas support the direction we’ve started in, and sometimes this actually happens to me. But sometimes I anticipate problems based on what I’ve written. I think I need to go back to establish a new path ahead or I see a different route entirely, and I know that’s the way I have to go.

In an earlier version of Beloved Elodie, which finally is moving along, I had madness descend on Elodie’s island of Lahnt. Elodie’s mother is possessed by greed. She imagines herself as King Midas and has no regrets about turning her daughter to gold. It’s a disturbing and powerful scene, and I still love it for its power. I mourn giving it up, which I had to do to take my story in a viable direction. My tale isn’t what I started with, but now it’s one I can write. Maybe someday I can use the ideas in the mother-Midas scene and maybe not.

We have to go with what we can do. I’ve said before that I’m an unconscious writer. This is the way I see it: Our selves below the surface guide what we write. There are layers to that hidden self, which is why we veer this way and that, why the road through a story takes many detours. Although I’m often not happy about how long I need to meander to follow my story thread, I believe the added complexity serves our art. Maybeawriter, “the blank nothingness of the unknown” is where writers operate and where we shape our magic sculptures.

Here are three prompts about Mallory:

∙    Mallory is assigned to create a sculpture that will help a depressed eight-year-old boy. Write the scene in which she meets the boy for the first time.

∙    Write the scene I mentioned above in which Mallory alienates one teacher and interests another, causes a student to hate her and another to fall in love with her.

∙    Write a scene in which Mallory begins to create the sculpture for the boy.

Have fun and save what you write!