Less is Way Too Much: A Lesson on Specificity in Plotting

When my American Literature professor assigned us our final paper, her advice was to make our argument as specific as possible. For an 8-page paper.  I thought this woman was completely out of touch of the undergraduate reality because there was no way a narrow argument would fill up that many pages.

Not that what I thought mattered because this paper had to be written come hell or high water, and as the deadline loomed, the water was rising up around my shoulders.  So, okay. Let’s try the out of touch professor’s advice. For grins and giggles.  Picture me then, a college student delirious with panic because this 8-page paper had to magically appear by the next morning. 

In a fit of indignant pique, I made the following argument (in the spirit of being as specific as it was possible for me to be in my panic-fueled state):

Despite the criticisms that this novel is disorganized and meaningless, the analysis of the episode of the mutiny onboard the Grampus leads to an interpretation that suggests that the seeming madness of the story can actually be understood as a repressed fear of slave rebellions in the American South, and this interpretation leads to a unification of the piece as a whole.

(I was writing about The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe, if you were wondering.  It’s an extremely weird and chaotic book that I had to argue was actually a work of genius.)

Okay, now what? The 8-page quota loomed ever larger, like a demon growing stronger the more it feeds on my panic.

What happened still amazes me to this day.

The thesis is essentially three claims, each of which I had to set up and defend: 1) criticisms of disorganization and lack of meaning, 2) the interpretation of the mutiny, 3) how the interpretation fits the novel as a whole.

Having actually read the book (God help me), I started to realize how long it would take to set up and defend these points. Suddenly 8 pages had shrunk to maybe not being enough?

Who’d have thought specificity would strengthen my argument? Not I, that’s for damn sure.  After five hours in the library, my 7-page long paper was concise and well-structured. And I got that paper back with a beautiful red “A” on it.

part ii.

Okay, confession: I sprawl. I’m a sprawler. I lounge languorously from page 1 until I run out of steam and collapse, exhausted, around halfway through the manuscript because my arms just can’t juggle that many subplots and extraneous “character building” scenes anymore.

I wasn’t pleased with my external plot of my current manuscript because of this reason. It lacked cohesiveness. I was throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it was done and it all ended up at my feet in a soupy, gloopy mess.

Enter specificity in the form of a mentor from my MFA program.

Explaining my problem to him, he nodded, his mouth scrunched, disappearing into his beard as he thought a moment. Then, “Why don’t you do [insert very simplistic but brilliant idea for external plot here]?” he says, very nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t just possibly fixed a problem I’ve been having with this book for years.

WHY DON’T I JUST, SIR? WHY DON’T I JUST.

In the space of, oh, two seconds, I had a single cohesive line of thought that I could hook into my internal plot and instead of my characters wandering around like lost little lambs whose shepherd was directionally challenged, they were charging like Braveheart warriors in a straight line right towards an end goal that actually made sense.

Specificity, my friends. Specificity is where it’s at.

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The Practicality and Morality of Being a Magpie

I advise you to keep your writer’s notebook handy when you’re reading, because you want it right there when inspiration strikes, and if you’re a writer and a reader, odds are you’re most likely to be the receiver of the inspiration fairy when you’re reading.

Some people are probably feeling some low level panic right now. “But I don’t want to steal someone’s ideas! I don’t wanna be a copy cat!”

Okay, I hear you.  I used to worry about the exact same thing.  I’d worry about “stealing” ideas or of being “too influenced” by a particular author or book.

My short response, dear hearts, is this: don’t worry about it.

There are two aspects to this pressing concern: the practical side and the intellectual/moral side.

On the practical side, ideas change so much from conception to final product that the original idea will most likely be unrecognizable.  I, for one, find it highly unlikely that you’ll be able to recognizably replicate the book that inspired you.

On the moral side, I find it admirable that you place emphasis on originality and responsibility for your own ideas.  As writers, we’re bred to seek after the previously unexplored.  We’re expected to unearth the buried.

On the practical side, this expectation of Absolute Originality is unreasonable, because even in Biblical times, there wasn’t anything new under the sun.  And, paradoxically, anything you generate will be original anyway (at the very least in execution) because it came from you and not anyone else.

On the moral side, I think the emphasis ought to be placed on authenticity.  Instead of the aesthetic details of your world or your characters or your magical system, consider them vessels for your personal meaning.  Because without something Deeper, the aesthetic will be empty and essentially meaningless.

On the practical side, you are a human being, which means you are graced with the remarkable ability to discern minuscule details from one another.  So consider this difference:

  • I like this idea of two mismatched eyes, one totally black, the other normal, and how it signifies they have blood magic that can transport them between worlds.
  • I like this idea of wands.  I’ll do something with wands.

I’ll bet–and I’m confident that I’ll win this bet–that you are able to discern the degree to which these two thought processes are different.  The first example is very specific to the world and plot of the story from which it came (A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab).  The second example, however, is a general concept that could apply to any number of stories, including my current WiP.

I would personally consider the first example worrisome and yes, edging too close to the idea of “copying.”  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the second example, though, because it leaves the limitless question of, “What about wands?” hanging in the air, leaving you to answer it however you please.

On the moral side, you probably want to continue to grow as a writer and a creator.  So I urge you to ask yourself this question when you come across something shiny that catches your eye:  “What more can I do with this?  What else is there to explore with this idea?”

On the practical side, writing down the spinoff inspired by the story you’re reading in no way commits you to doing anything with that idea.  You’re a writer.  Like magpies and ravens, we collect shiny things to add to our hoards.  It’s a Thing.

I’ll leave you with this.

I’ve found that the more confident I became in my own writing and storytelling abilities, the less I coveted the ideas I found in published works.  This tells me that the problem does not lie in the copying itself, but of the lack of confidence that causes it.  Instead of worrying about being a copy cat, consider instead your confidence in yourself.  The more confident you become in yourself, the less demand you will feel to claim someone else’s work as your own.

Drawing up Battle Plans: Weekly Update

It’s not that I have a million things that need doing this month, but the items on my to-do list feel so big and insurmountable that it feels like there’s an army of to-do soldiers charging at me.  (Something akin to Mulan facing down the Hun army on the mountain.)

First step to dealing with stress:

The space around you is your first line of defense.  Armor up.

The first thing I do when I’m getting ready for battle to write is clean up my space.  Doing this on the front side minimizes the occurrence of “Well, I can’t think of what to write next, but look, that pile of papers could use a sort-through, that’s very doable.”

It also makes me feel more prepared.  Exercising control over my environment makes me feel more in control of myself.  Which is a good feeling to have when sitting down to write IMHO.

Desk clean, I get into it.

Current battle: the dreaded synopsis

Now there are those of you out there who love writing synopses.  You’re all freaks.  That’s fine, but it isn’t my thing.  Especially when I have to write a 2-5 synopsis for a story I haven’t outlined yet.

This is the to-do item that has taken on Godzilla-like proportions, and of course it’s making a feast of my fear.  Thing is, I’ve never written a synopsis before.  And whenever I approach something I’ve never done before, there’s the possibility hanging over me that I won’t be good at it.  Fortunately, I’ve gotten to the point in the last few years that I acknowledge I’m scared but do it anyway.  In this case, the only thing getting my butt in the chair is the fact that I have to do this.

(Which was the main appeal of doing an MFA, not gonna lie.  I need the damp breath of a drill sergeant on the back of my neck to get me to do things I don’t want to do–like write 25 pages a month and figure out a synopsis for a story I haven’t planned out yet.)

The Battle Plan

Obviously, I’m a list person.  So when I’m panicking about getting stuff done, I make a to-do list.  Only this time, that wasn’t enough.  I needed a comprehensive approach to exactly how I was going to tackle this Godzilla problem.

Fortunately, I know that when I’m stuck like this, the thing to do is bring in outside help.  So I’ve recruited one of the girls I work with, who has no previous knowledge of my story, to sit down with me next week and help me brainstorm the rest of this novel.  A fresh pair of eyes is just what this novel needs.

My goal is to make a first attempt at it myself by this Saturday.  And then work with my friend next week to see what we can come up with.

And of course, this isn’t the only major thing I have to do this month.  I have to write 25 new pages (versus my critique partners, who are working on revising their first 50 pages).  I have to read a craft book (Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig) and write a 700-word response to it.  And write a 700-word self assessment.  The 700-word responses induce only nominal stress.  The 25 new pages and the 2-5 page synopsis are the things that get me.

That’s just for my writing course.  I also have to read two novels this month and write essays for each for my reading course.

Until next week!


Currently playing: Side Effects (feat. Emily Warren) by The Chainsmokers

Currently reading: The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch