Monday, May 15, 2006

Plotting By Throwing A Stone Into Water

Today turned out to be a productive day--about time, since my recent house woes had knocked me way off schedule.

I'm in the process of putting together a proposal request for a New York publishing house. The first third of the proposal finally got a blessing from my agent this morning. Finally, because I was late in sending it, not because she was late in blessing it. Energized by her whole-hearted approval, I blasted my way through the second third today (Jacky had already seen this piece and had given me a list of editing suggestions to consider). My plan is to ship this reworked second third off to her again tomorrow, freeing me to concentrate on the final third. I'd love to have the whole proposal out of my house by Thursday night. Thursday, because that would free me up to enjoy The DaVinci Code opening on Friday.

Two things came together in my mind this weekend and, as often happens, I suddenly saw a parallel to the writing process. One was the cascading effect of the flood in my house nearly a month ago. When I say "cascading effect," I mean the way every action provokes a reaction, which--in turn--results in another action and another reaction and so forth. As an example, Texas had a thunderstorm, which prompted my power to go out and (we think) prompted my water heater to blow. The water heater blowing created a flood. The installer for the new water heater then tightened a bolt so tightly, he created a crack in an old pipe, which--in turn--resulted in a second flood. All the flooding freaked out my oldest cat, throwing her off her schedule AND leading to her urinating inappropriately in the house. Now she's locked in the guest bathroom, relearning proper litter box etiquette, which is freaking my kitten out.

See what I mean about cascading effect? It goes back to that nursery rhyme we all learned in grammar school:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Over the weekend, I was so in need of R&R that I spent an entire afternoon reading Janet Evanovich's last Stephanie Plum story (Eleven On Top). If you haven't read the book yet, be forewarned. The next paragraph will be filled with spoilers. Sorry, but I want to use that book as an example of the cascading effect in plotting.

Stephanie Plum is a bond enforcement agent (read here: bounty hunter). She may be the worst bounty hunter in the history of the world. Book #11 starts with Stephanie deciding it's time for her to hang up her bounty hunter hat. This means she needs another job. As always with Evanovich, there are two parallel subplots. The first is Stephanie's search for a new job. The second is the series of attempts on her life by an anonymous stalker. You know, from the first page, that those two subplots will come together at some point, separate and then come together again in the last quarter of the book.

Stephanie starts out looking for a new job. She obtains a position at the local button factory (action). Because she shows up several hours late the first morning, she is immediately fired (reaction). Back in the ranks of the unemployed, she takes a job at a local dry cleaner (new action). Accused of giving discounts to her friends, she is fired again (new reaction). Desperate for a job, she takes a position at a fast food chicken place (action), where her stalker throws what appears to be a bomb through the take-out window (NOTE: second subplot touching on first subplot). A terrified employee throws the package in a fry basket, causing a fire and burning the place down (reaction).

I'll stop there. You can see what I mean. The book is a perfect example of the cascading effect. It's as if Evanovich dropped a stone in the water and watched the ripples spread out wider and wider from that original point of impact. Her books are intended to be humorous mysteries (blue collar chick lit). I've come to think of her plotting as an "H" where each leg represents a subplot and the joining arm is where the two plots come together mid-book. Of course, the "H" turns into a "U" at the end when the two subplots merge into one.

You can, of course, create a book with a linear plot line (the letter "I") but, if you do, you need to speed up your action so that the conflicts come fast and furiously. I find books with several subplots in which the action is woven together more interesting (and less stressful to write).

Think about the plot progression the next time you read (or write) a book.

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