Writing While Naked

Following up on yesterday’s struggle to figure out where my unpublished novels have gone wrong, I re-read chapters 8 through 13 of Scott Meredith’s Writing to Sell. This book was first published in 1950, and my copy seems to have arrived on my shelf no later than 1980. Parts of it are very outdated, but the advice on how to do a plot is just as vital as it ever was.

Here is Meredith’s description of the plot skeleton. Note: I didn’t say, “a plot skeleton.” I said, “the plot skeleton.” There’s only one.

A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain that the lead character is kaput, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.

That’s it. He goes on to explain that this is only a skeleton. It can be fleshed out in an infinite variety of ways. But if you don’t have the bones, your novel is going to be weak and flabby. It may ooze across the floor quite fetchingly, but it will never rise and walk.

I’m not going to reiterate everything in Meredith’s chapters. If you don’t own the book already, go buy it. It’s still available used. The point I want to make today is that your plot needs to take clear aim at a climax — a point at which your lead character finally achieves her goal through her own efforts. If you’re not aiming at that climax from the start, how are you going to get there? How will you even know you’ve gotten there, if you don’t know what the climax is going to look like?

There is a tendency, among would-be writers of fiction and those who converse with them about the craft, to be courteous to authors who write “by the seat of their pants.” These hopeless scribblers spew out one chapter after another without knowing ahead of time where their story will go. People who practice this dreadful perversion are known as “pantsers.” But it strikes me that if you don’t know where your story is headed, you’re not even wearing any pants. You’re writing while naked.

Scott Meredith will be happy to tell you how to gird your loins.

A plot outline is not a Procrustean bed. You can change it as you go along, in order to spice up the story with improvements or repair defects that you have belatedly discovered in your original conception. But you must work from an outline. And don’t whine about it, because I’m not going to listen.

There are so many ways to write a bad book, even if you’re writing from an outline. I’ve done it myself, several times. So now I’m going back through my unpublished work to try to discern where I strayed from Meredith’s plot skeleton. Annika is not entirely a sympathetic character. Henry McAllister has no clear or compelling goal. John Gordon faces no significant obstacles. And so on. You don’t know these people, and you’ll never meet them unless I can see how to fix the books they’re in.

Right now in a critique group I’m reading a mystery in which the lead character faces no significant obstacles. The author has made everything much too easy for her amateur sleuth. Clues all but literally fall into the sleuth’s lap. Between that defect and the all too common tendency among cozy authors to dally in the quotidian rather than ramp up the action, the book is just plain dull. Chapter after chapter, and nothing much is happening.

If you want a quick tip on how to write strong plotted fiction, here’s my modest contribution to the annals of authorial punditry:

Jam your lead character’s ass into a meat grinder. And then keep turning the crank.

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