Monday, October 24, 2011

Big Sprawling Plots

By Joan
I love reading books with big sprawling plots. Books with secrets and teases, dropped-in trinkets that ultimately lead to clever endings. And if they feature paintings and jewelry and headstones, all the better. Stories that lure you into the past, drop you in the present, and tug you back again. Take any Kate Morton novel, for example. Not only is she a master of plot, but there are little gems like scarves and storybooks and brooches that appear at the beginning, go missing, and end up on different continents perhaps decades later. It’s no secret that I’ve pulled apart her books, mapped her chapters by character and setting. Because I write what I like to read, and why not learn from a master?

I’m writing my fourth manuscript. Which by now should make me an expert. But, of course, I’m not. Confession: I’m feeling like this needs to be “the one.” Not that I would give up if it weren’t—I love writing too much—but it’s time. Julie’s success is surely motivation for all of us, but it’s more than that. I’ve worked it, really worked it. Revised, edited, put it out there for critique, revised, and edited again. I’ve backloaded sentences, cut extra words, freshened my dialogue, twisted clichés, moved chapters forward and back. But is it ready?

Keeping track of the details can be difficult. Not only the little trinkets—where is that Wexford Cutty clay pipe or the key to the mantle clock?—but also the characters. Did Luca know Janey’s name in Chapter 5 or Chapter 8? In this last round of revisions, I found ways to heighten the tension, add unique details, turn two characters into one (Hello, Simon! I knew you were a rat, but I only just realized you were other things, too!), change a scene from sneaky to emotional. (Thank you, Kim, for the advice on what to do with those hand bones!)

Have I manipulated it too much? Now that I’ve started, I can’t stop. I’ve been writing notes on slips of paper to remind myself of my genius ideas. Of course the ghost would react when her relative shows up. Hello, I need a wrap-up scene for her, too. Charles Dickens just happened to write an article about the Great Exhibition, which features prominently in The Architect at Highgate. But if anyone can tell me what “only from walls” or “reflect—Luca seemed like museum” means, I’ll send you big thanks.

At some point my big sprawling manuscript must be launched. Am I hesitating because I don’t want to make the mistakes I made with the earlier books, by sending them out too soon? Or in the wrong publishing climate? Or both? Maybe I’m afraid this won’t be the one. What then?


  1. I keep a notebook with all my little notes and pieces of genius or not so genius ideas. In the manuscript itself I type in red all the things that I have to check or are suspicious. I do not allow myself to call the book finished until I have blacked out all the red and crossed out everything in the notebook. Then, when I think it is really perfect, I trust my editor to catch all the really stupid continuity problems.

  2. Thanks for the tips, Christina. I should use red--I typically highlight sentences or words I want to check, but sometimes I make notes in CAPS. That didn't work so well last time I sent the mss to a beta reader and missed a note! How embarrassing!

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  4. You're welcome, Joan! And can I just say that I LOVE that cemetery photo you included. You and I need to take some sort of cemetery tour sometime. There are some cool ones near Madonna's home town. Road trip? Can I call it research?

  5. Kim--I'm up for a cemetery road trip any time! We will both call it research and deduct the trip on our tax returns.

  6. I'm behind on my blog reading! I just read this one today and I'm so glad I did. I'm a big fan of details in my writing as well. During the outlining stage, I color-code my scene summaries that will feature specific details, so I can easily see if I've abandoned or neglected one for too long.

  7. Hi Lynette--welcome back to the blog world. My outline is also color-coded, mostly to distinguish characters and timelines. But why not details? Makes you wonder what Dickens and others did to keep track!


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