The Keyboard Is My FuckMonkey:
Let's talk Plotting.
I know: the wits'n'wags out there are already festering-up (or at least anticipating) a bad joke about moustachioed villains and Trying To Rule The World. Obviously I'm referring to the other kind — that icky, painful, unpleasant grope towards a workable Story Structure one's obliged to overcome before even beginning to "write" (at least, before beginning to write in the acceptable, familiar, Making Actual Words sense). The strange truth is that it's really not all that different from the first kind: megalomaniacal, finger-steepling, Guy Fawkesy, bwah-ha-haing and all. Both are regarded as necessary evils in the pursuit of cultural progress, but are generally omitted from the "how I achieved success" retrospectives later on. Both require a knack for distancing oneself from the petty details at stake (be they writing-styles, fluffy descriptive adjectives, or irksome peasants arrayed between you and your oscillating sonic doomsday jellyfish-fortress). Aaaand both involve ragingly ambitious sociopaths desperately manipulating packets of information (cf: "people") towards a state of perfect, domino-stacking readiness. In both cases the goal of said Plotting is to prepare circumstances in such a way that, when the time comes, the desired result can be achieved with the least effort and obstruction.
So. With free license to twiddle our waxy facial topiary to our hearts' content, let us ponder the irrefutable essence of Plotting as it relates to The Writer. Namely: It's strange. It's mysterious. It's fucked-up and hard and frankly rather worrying — like [insert obvious metaphor here] — and it's all too often overlooked as part of The Creative Process.
(Here's a spiky tangent: I fucking Hate the phrase "The Creative Process". It deftly homogenises a billion brain-bleeding, inspiration-hunting, self-hating, criticism-crippling, psychedelic-mugging, distraction-hungry and often downright Bollocksed variations on something which is — by its very nature — Indefinable, into a neat and tidy trundlefuck along the conveyor-belt of Routine in the factory of Big Sweaty Bollocks.
Creation, listen, is not a Process. It's a torturous fucking phenomenon which — like a cockroach in the hotel-room of the psyche — scuttles into a secret hole the instant you flick-on the lights and try to get a look. "The Creative Higgs-Bosun" would be more accurate.)
ANYway. Writers of all stripes frequently crow about how many pages, words or scenes they've snotted-out on any given day. In certain places, where Creative Types gather — Twitter, I'm looking at you — this can reach an almost competitive pitch, in which we thin-skinned wurdjockeys jostle without dignity to impress… well, someone (certainly not each other) with "average scores" of our ongoing productivity. "2000 words before breakfast!" one declares. "12 pages of comics in two hours," another ejaculates from the sidelines. A third draws breath and reaches for the keyboard with a determined scowl: going for The Big One. "Knocked out a screenplay before the sleep-boogers were even out of my eyes," he hammers, "composed a couple of sonnets over breakfast, wrestled a dragon about 11am, forged two chapters of Pulitzer-worthy prose between courses at the Society Luncheon (I was the keynote, natch), then took it easy this afternoon with a gentle game of nuclear cricket, 80 pages of comicbook brilliance (script and art, obv), and a light spot of supermodel buggery before dinner. Might spend this evening inventing a new form of grammar — if I'm not too busy Acing my PhD. Toodles.x"
Sometimes it's a good thing Twitter stops you at 140 digits.
ANYANYway, it's my suspicion that the vast majority of us writerly types conveniently forget to include the dismal process of Plotting in our estimations, purely because — if we did — our Boastful Bollocks wouldn't be anywhere near as impressive. "Wrote ten pages of comic today," simpers one, "and all it took to prepare was three days lying in the bath, wanksobbing over copies of New Scientist and cutting my forearms with a sharpened pair of tweezers. I'm on fire!"
About all that can be said about Plotting is that, really, we all do it. Like farting-at-urinals or accidentally spitting on someone's face mid-sentence, the unwritten social Rule assumes we all accept It Happens, but that to describe, discuss or examine it would be to somehow undermine the perfect fractal beauty of God's Creation. It's impolite.
Lucky for you, gentle reader, I couldn't give a figgy fuck for manners; and will happily whinge, bitch and piss about How Hard My Working Life Is 'til the heifers hove homeward. Sadly (albeit Lucky for the mystery) there's not much more to say Anyway. See, just as you slap into the brick-wall marked "Taboo" you also hit the point at which All Similarities End.
There are as many different methods of Plotting as there are stories to be plotted. I've seen walls covered in paper sheets and spidery diagrams in 7 dimensions. I've listened to gimlet-eyed novelists describe gorgeous mental structures of crystalline brilliance, which inform and control every line, scene and chapter they write. I've seen frenetic screenwriters hurling Beat Cards onto the floor — to be shuffled and reshuffled, at random, into their most glorious sequence — like narrative Tarots in the divine crotch of Jane Seymour. I've seen purists spend weeks without writing a line: eyes shut, brains aching, teeth clenched; only to rise like Siddhartha below a Bodhi tree to seize a pen and write three magical sentences marked "Beginning", "Middle", and "End". I've seen 50-page treatments groaning with such detail that one simply need inject a few lines of dialogue to complete the work in question, and I've seen supposedly "final" outlines murdered by crossings-out and resurrected daily — like some looping Teutonic season-myth — by the neurotic scribblings of the Never Satisfied.
To complicate matters further, it's not as though a particular writer will stick to one specific technique come hell or high water: different projects, different media, different genres; all demand different approaches to the hateful grind. But, at its most hideously generalised, there are two Extremes to the Plotters' spectrum.
At one end: The Potter. He's been given a lump of clay and instructed to make a Vase. His preparation is a Spiritual act. He takes his time: reminding himself of the principals of concavity over weeks of artistic meditation, and restricts himself to drawing a small diagram demonstrating the goal of his project — a vague "U" shape with a wavy line to indicate Water Not Leaking Out. To him what matters is not planning something detailed, but to chase the concept of Pottishness — the essence of Pottosity. He likes to use the word "discover" in pub conversations, and will happily keep on moulding, bending, squidging and un-self-consciously Starting From Scratch until he's "unlocked" the Ultimate Pot (which was — he insists — inherent in the clay from the beginning).
A lot of screenwriters favour this end of the plottage chart, principally because the whole industry is saturated by the notion that no screenplay is ever truly "finished" — there'll always be some other chalk-snocking exec along shortly to meddle — and the idea of working towards something fundamentally complex from the getgo is therefore A Bit Silly. This style of preparation is also the plaything of writers who value character and truth above all else, and aren't going to complain too much if things take a different course to the one they were expecting. "You lead me," is their whispered chant.
At the opposite end is The Architect. He's a neurotic, exacting fucker. He knows that sooner or later he's got to turn-over his blueprint to the tea-guzzling, ciggy-suckling, Honest But Simple bricklayer of his alter-ego — the part of him that'll be churning through this stuff in a kaleidoscope of varying moods, states of sobriety and levels of exhaustion over the next however-many-months. He can't countenance the notion of letting things change as time goes on, understanding all too well that to tweak the size of the walls is to fuckerise the design of the roof — so he makes it his business to plan everything to the most ludicrous level of detail. When the cement-slapping fuckers of his Daily-Grind Self show up to work on the first day, they'll barely need to be conscious, let alone creative.
This type of plotting tends to favour the more Involved genres. Try writing an elegantly-complex murder mystery without knowing exactly what happens to whom, and where, and when… and you're fucked.
Obviously no writer is all of one or the other. We calculate the apportioning of creativity across a billion shades of grey. That's what plotting really is, in truth: the trade-off between injecting our stash of inventive energy into the Planning Stage, against the daily chance to Make Shit Up Along The Way. It's the hunt for an elegant structure against the quest for something far more esoteric than mere Story.
At either extreme it requires a weird, counterintuitive commitment to not writing; which, ironically, is the one thing most Wannabe Writers are plain fucking terrible at. We all, after all, want to get started, to Go With The Flow; rarely pausing to realise that that, dear reader — to bring us full circle — is exactly the sort of rookie error which may well allow you to boast on fucking Twitter about how many dozens of pages you wrote on any one day… but will almost certainly also oblige you to guiltily omit the Nonplotter's Affix:
"…then I read it all back, realised it was directionless gash, and had to start again."
(This blog was meant to be a short anecdote about how I recently submitted a hideously complicated structural spreadsheet to my somewhat unnerved editor, to prove I could juggle all the balls required of the ensemble epic urban weirdfest Monster I'm writing right now. As you can see it rather went astray; resulting in — well — directionless gash. Which is frankly a perfect note to bring us to the proverbial Money Shot of a Moral Lesson:
Plot With Care.)
BrainFart: (or Kultcha, If You Like)
"It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate him or despise him." — George Bernard Shaw.
Always struck me as being a little limited in scope, that.
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