I didn’t get in to University. I didn’t study literature or language. It didn’t occur to me that I could. The last seven years have been spent as an apprentice, working from home. In between dishes, meals and laundry I have been learning how to write from the writers I have met along the way.
First of all, I was sent on a Work in Progress writers retreat to Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands. Peter Urpeth from HI-Arts (now Emergents) and Maggie Manvell conspired together to introduce me to other writers and learn a bit. It was the first time I had left my daughter for any period of time. I was nervous. I got a bus from Portree on the Isle of Skye, where I live and I went to stay in a house in the middle of nowhere, somewhere near Inverness. There was a log fire burning in the grate as I walked in. Folk sat around a table. I sat in amongst the group and sweated.
I have always been quite sweaty. It stopped bothering me when I had a small baby to care for. I was constantly covered in baby pooh, puke and breast milk. Sweat was inconsequential. But the other women there looked so fine and fancy and clean. They smelled lovely. I introduced myself with apology, saying I was just a single mother on benefits and had been sent there by mistake, that it was someone else’s smart idea and last ditch attempt to make me in some way useful to society.
They found me amusing albeit a little strange. They were published authors, creative writing teachers, even a ghost writer. It was in Moniack Mhor, in the hands of these fine folk that I first heard of the seven plots that make up all the stories. I was incredulous. It had not previously occurred to me that an author would sit down before writing a word of her novel and decide plot lines. In that moment the switch was turned to on.
I studied the seven major plots. I wrote stories accordingly. One week I chose Love Story, the next Mission/Quest/ Journey. Then, Stranger In Town. Then; Disaster. And so on. I made a sign from a cereal box and stuck it to my bathroom door. ‘The more plot lines the better – the more plots, the more questions.’
I pondered Plots for years. I also tried out Voice, but that’s a whole other story. Several years later I found myself in the company of an author I really admired, Kevin MacNeil. I was dispatched to another course (the HI-Arts Writers Masterclass), had read Kevin’s debut novel The Stornoway Way and had been blown away by it. I questioned him. I cross-examined him. He wholeheartedly disabused the rules I had been coming to terms with. Instead, he actively encouraged the breakdown of all plots and sub-plots concluding that movement in each scene creates plot.
It took a while for this poor simple brain to fathom the sheer brilliance. I stared at him. He had a flip chart on a stand beside him. He took a black marker and drew a pair of matchstick people in the bottom left hand corner of the page. He gave them character. As he described them they came alive in my head. He drew an arc one third of the way up the page. He drew a box at the end of the arc. Another arc, another box, ‘til he had three. Each box is an obstacle, each arc a scenario. He intimated possible scenes. A story line emerged. He drew the figures in the top right hand corner of the page and asked ‘how have they changed from one corner of the page to the other? Did they get what they wanted? Did they find out what it was they wanted?’
Try it. Take a piece of paper and draw your characters. Don’t be kind to them. Find out what they are wearing, how they are feeling, where they are and why they are. Give them pals. Part them from their pals. Give them love, take it away. Give them riches, take it away. Give them hope, give them despair. Make them humble and human, then arrogant, then lost. Then give them hope again. Write it all down. When there is no more room on the page, save the top right hand corner, draw them again and look at what they did and how they changed. It’s movement. Scene by scene and frame by frame. Sentence following sentence, stories combine to make a world. There is no one plot true to my novel, there are only outcomes from actions. It’s what Supernanny teaches us to teach our children; that there are consequences to our actions.
It’s how I now sit down to plan a chapter. I sit and draw and talk to myself. Thanks a million Kevin.
Kevin MacNeil’s website http://kevinmacneil.com/
(c) Orla Broderick