My go-to writing book
I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if you’ve never heard of Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen; there are many books on writing that get much more attention. I’ve gotten a lot out of reading Sol Stein’s and Stephen King’s ideas on craft; I spend more time re-reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces than any other ten books. I coach writers all the time, of course, and recommend those and other books on a regular basis, particularly when I’m working with a writer whose story structure has a problem. But when I feel at sea with a plot, I reach for Building Better Plots.
It may be that one of the reasons this book doesn’t get passed from writer to writer is that one really must have mastered plot pretty thoroughly before this book becomes a truly useful tool. It doesn’t set out to teach a writer how plots are constructed or how they function; what it does is provide a sort of virtual coaching, by making the writer who sits with it and gives it her full attention birth thoughts she might not otherwise have.
That’s what I’ve needed lately, as I resume what I believe will be the final retooling of the novel I’ll be bringing to press next spring, The Shadow of the Sun.
I wrote the first draft of The Shadow of the Sun more than a decade ago. It was really too much for me at that stage of the development of my craft, but the series of which it became the eventual opening just wouldn’t let me go. I wrote drafts of four novels that were way too long for a first-time novelist to sell; spent a couple years figuring out how to break those four too-long and yet underdeveloped novels into more, richer volumes; workshopped a second draft of Shadow at Viable Paradise; took Jim Kelly‘s admonishments about treating even the darkest, most transgressionist elements with respect to heart; took Jim Macdonald’s advice and spent close to a year developing better worldbuilding–then set it aside for almost two years when life intervened, picked it back up again and was blown away by how much difference worldbuilding and the sheer act of wearing out keyboards* can make in a work; completely redeveloped the plot and wrote about a third of it; and nearly succumbed to despair when my writing computer, AKA HAL, woke up one day and decided to reallocate the partition on which all my fiction was stored to swap space.
(It was a new computer, and I had been blithely optimistic. I had not done a backup in months. May you benefit from my pain.)
Aaaanyway…it’s been a long strange trip for this novel. I’ve spent the past few months reconstructing the bits I had written and then lost–and I remembered the important elements of the plot I had developed before HAL got all megolomaniacal. But I really needed to go back to the planning stage with the plot, flesh in all the lost elements and subplot pieces, and bring all my thoughts and ideas together in a coherent whole. And that is where Building Better Plots shines.
I spent about three days with the book this time. I did all the exercises, according to my own lights: Kernen is a fan of 3×5 cards, and I write in Power Writer, which has ways of handling structural elements that better suit the workings of my particular brain. By the end of those three days I had developed, not a perfect reconstruction of the plot I’d planned last time I was immersed in this novel, but something better. Because, of course, I have become a better writer in the interim. I am once again fired up to work on this novel: I feel grounded in my plans and yet not over-planned. I know every scene will still surprise me as I write, and yet I will not forget key elements of subplots because I forgot to think about them.
If you need to learn about the mechanics of plot, Building Better Plots is not the book for you. I could give you a whole list of books to read and study for that purpose. But once you’ve done the work and mastered plot, Kernen’s book can provide a reasonable substitute for a good coach when it comes time to develop or refine a plot.
*You really can wear out keyboards. I have done it a number of times. By the time I’m through with a keyboard most of the labels have been worn off. The first time I had to replace a keyboard, I rushed to Staples (yes, rushed; I was halfway through a scene when the damn thing died) and discovered, there on the box, the phrase that explained all:
GOOD FOR UP TO A MILLION KEYSTROKES
Ooooohhhhhhhh, I thought, and took it to the checkout.