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 Growing Roar of Approaching Deadlines: Weekly Update

Okay so maybe I haven’t been the most productive I could be.  I don’t have reasons to offer; just excuses.  Well, not even those.  Between you and me, when too much stress piles on, I just shut down.

But when I’m staring that deadline in the face, it’s a defibrillator to the face.

My deadline isn’t so close that I can count the freckles across its pert little nose, but I can hear it coming a mile away like an approaching freight train carrying the weight of my career.*

I have exactly two weeks left.

My existence right now comprises mostly of me alternating between internally screaming and taking yoga breaths.

Since last checking in, I’ve written exactly two more pages.  (IN A WEEK.  TWO PAGES IN SEVEN DAYS WHAT EVEN?–okay, yoga breaths.  Deep breaths.)

Last night, however, I did write the first four (pretty damn decent) pages of the 10-page story I have to submit by November 2 for my next residency (in January, where we’ll sit around in groups and critique these stories.)  It’s about a girl who was drowned in the ocean and became a mermaid and the girl who helps her try to find her murderer.

Tomorrow, the goal is at least three more pages.  Also tomorrow, a dear friend from work is going to help me tackle my plot so I can write the greatest labor ever put on the shoulders of a writer my synopsis.

So here’s my plan for the next week.

Say it with me: manageable tasks.

I’m going to tackle the two 700-word assignments so they are out of the way, not gunking up the works.  With those two out of the way, the only things I have to worry about are the next twenty-five pages of my story and the two to five pages that say what’s going to happen in my story.  That’s it.

And make the conscious decision to write every day, at least a page.

This isn’t about doing battle.  This is about choosing to put another stepping stone in the path to the career I want to have.  No one is forcing me to do anything.

This next week, I’m going to change my vocabulary to replace “I have to” with “I choose to.”  Because I made the choice to get an MFA.  It was an informed choice; it has a clear end goal.  These assignments are a part of that, and I should take advantage of this opportunity to grow while I have it.

In reading news

I finished The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch.  SCARED. THE. CRAP. OUTTA. ME.  I physically cringed several times throughout the book.  If you’re a sci-fi fan who loves time travel and doesn’t mind graphic violence and gore, definitely check this book out.  To me, it was the book version of that long flat note they play in the background of ghost shows.

In other news

I’m trying to learn this Disney medley on the piano.  Just goes to show how long it’s been since I’ve challenged myself on the piano and fallen into the comfortable groove of the styles of just a few (*cough*one*cough*) artists.  It’s taking me forever to get this down.  Which is fine.  There’s no deadline here.  So far, I’m semi-comfortable playing the first section (Go the Distance from Hercules) and today I worked on the next one (Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid).  The part I’m really looking forward to is Zero to Hero from Hercules, about halfway through the song.

How’s your week going?

* alright so it isn’t THAT big a deal, but that doesn’t seem to matter to my stress levels, which are determined to churn out anxiety at the highest rate of production as possible


Currently playing: Beautiful by Bazzi

Currently reading: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

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