Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The plot against the plot (and how it must be stopped)

Justin Cartwright writes in The Guardian:

One of the television scenes I love most is Alan Partridge trying to sell some ideas to a TV commissioner: his most desperate is monkey tennis. Sometimes when I write a proposal for a book I feel I am offering monkey tennis, because a novel can really only be described in terms of plot, and plot, in the TV sense, is very low down on my list of considerations. Occasionally I imagine Jeffrey Archer or Wilbur Smith making a detailed plan: villain seen in red sports car in Antibes; briefcase switched in the Ritz-Carlton by beautiful girl in hotpants whose uncle is the deposed president of Nicaragua, car chase, mercenary in prison escape, etc, until the resolution: sun going down over villa, champagne flowing like water ... happiness guaranteed.
OK, a couple of comments:
  1. Plot does not preclude characterisation.

  2. Plot does not have to come out of a detailed plan.

  3. There is a thing up there we call "imagination". This is what we use to come up with plots which do not involve red sports cars, hotels on the French Riviera, and deposed South American presidents.
  4. The best kind of plot is barely perceptible. Maybe this is what "literary novelists" are aiming for, though they don't know it.

  5. Jeffrey Archer... Why Jeffrey Archer? Does anyone actually read Jeffrey Archer? Do we know he's as shite as everyone implies? It seems to be an unspoken truth that everyone in the whole world is a better writer than Jeffrey Archer. If a sheep stands up on his back hooves and yells: "Jeffrey Archer? Pfft, what an asshole. I'm a hundred times the writer he is. I'll kick his fucking literary ass..." he's going to be on safe ground, and no one is going to argue... because everyone knows Archer is a bad, bad writer. But who knows for sure? The people (for there must be some) who buy his books and read them cover-to-cover? Are they gonna call him out? Are they really? I think not. I propose that the Jeff-knockers (me included) are talking out of their collective anus - BECAUSE WE HAVEN'T READ HIM. All we know is he's a corrupt ex-Tory MP who got above himself. Way above himself. How dare he, eh? How dare an Englishman do that? But I digress slightly...

  6. What the fuck is plot "in the TV sense"? You mean the red sports car thing, right? So when you think "plot" you think "TV"? What?

Ah, why am I bothering? People who consider themselves "literary novelists" will always consider craft to be a minor thing, and that it's all about wrenching some obscure, inchoate, authentic material from your soupy subconscious and shaping it into something that looks vaguely artistic. Hey, I'm a wrencher myself. I wrench with the best of them. I don't know what I'd do without my soupy subconscious. But I put wrenching side by side with the craft. And the plot, to me, is a part of the wrenching. Plot can say as much about your unique self as dreary prattling about the daily minutiae of caring for a sick old mum. You're ploughing on with a plot and it's decision time: Do you go this way or thataway? Maybe you go somewhere else entirely. You can go anywhere, man. The plot is there to be used. And trust me - you don't have to get an off-the-shelf one with red sports cars. Look for one in your own brain soup. You'd be surprised how it raises your game.

I freely, openly admit that I'm not exactly an authority on the art of writing. But who is? Don't tell me some professor, reviewer, or "name" novelist. All I know is what I like to read (and a novelist who consciously eschews plot is not likely to be that).


Jim Winter said...

Want to make a literary writer squirm? Point out that Philip Roth buries a plot in most of his work.

Oh, yeah. There's a point A to point B to point C structure buried under all that stream of consciousness stuff he writes.

Tell them. Watch them squirm. It's fun!

Ray said...

I can't plot for shit. And I tried outlining, made me feel like I was doing homework when it came down to writing the book. Now I just hammer out a couple of scenes I want to write, string a plot between it, destroy the book, try again, cry for a bit, play Halo 2, check blogs, read email, eat some fudge and have a nap...

Maybe I'll learn one day.

As for not being a writing guru - fuck it, if Winter and I can yabber on about writing, you most definitely can.

Oh, and I have read Cain And Abel. And I can honestly say that the rumour is true, Jeffrey Archer is rubbish. Shite. Turd-on-a-stick.

Charlie Williams said...

Jim - I will tell them that, and watch them squirm. And then I'll kick their legs from under them.

Ray - your writing method sounds much like mine (except I play Solitaire or something instead of Halo 2) (and it's Tortilla chips, not fudge) (and there's always beer or whiskey - I have to get into character) (and I tend to get up and do a bit of shadow boxing now and then) but that doesn't preclude plotting. It just means we can't be arsed to do an outline.

J.Archer - fair enough. I knew I was on shaky ground there.

Jim Winter said...

Outlining and plotting are not the same thing, Ray. And what's an outline but the short, short version sans all the angst and swearing and screwing and stuff anyway?

(Take that back. Both outlines I've finished have had whole scenes summarized by "Kepler and [female character fuck."]

Charlie Williams said...

"Kepler and female character fuck."

You know, that scene would have a certain stark beauty if you just left it like that.

Bill Peschel said...

Archer may be shite, but people do read him, and there's a lesson there. At some point, he connects with the reader, and it's worth figuring out how he does it. Maybe it's a plot that vrooms, maybe he conveys an inside glimpse of power, maybe it's hot sex (I haven't read him either), but he's got some mojo working for him. It may not be your mojo, and that's fine, too. Dismiss him as not to your taste, of course, but don't dismiss him completely.

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