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Plots or people?

An autumn afternoon in Ilkley. 15 people, most of them in early or later middle age, are sitting quietly round a table in a cottage. Some are local, Yorkshire folk, others are from Bury and Blackburn, just across the Pennines. A picture placed in front of them for inspiration, they are all writing for 25 minutes – or thinking, or gazing into the foreground, or, occasionally, suppressing a giggle and exchanging a murmured comment with a neighbour.
Amidst the women, a lone man holds his own. Pens move across paper then pause. Tea is swallowed. Shoes squeak on the tiled floor. Outside, the rain falls and the dark stones of the manor house across the courtyard grow darker.
It’s a good place for writers, this Kitchen Table Writers workshop, taking place at one of England’s best-known literary festivals – the Ilkley Literature Festival. Yesterday, Melvyn Bragg spoke on The Book of Books, which he wrote to mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. This evening, there will be performances of the songs, sonnets and sermons of John Donne in the town’s playhouse.
These writers know what they’re about. They’ve been asked by OCA creative writing tutor and workshop leader Nina Milton to decide whether they are plot junkies – obsessed with the tale, with what happens next, with what if? – or characterphiles – preoccupied with people and how they think, look, feel and behave. Knowing which you are as a writer is pretty easy, isn’t it? May be there are writers who fall between the two stools, but I’ve never met one who’s confessed to it.
That’s the easy part. Far harder, of course, is doing what you don’t do best. For plot junkies, that means devising a new character or building up one you’ve already started to create. For characterphiles, the challenge is to think about and impose order on setting and location, themes and symbols, cause and effect, plot twists and dramatic developments.
How typical are these writers? Are the characterphiles struggling to pose the questions that come unbidden to born plotters – the familiar five: what if? Where? When? Why? How? ‘Terry Pratchett asks at the beginning of every book he writes: ‘what if?’. He’s a born plotter,’ Nina tells the Ilkley characterphiles. ‘Think about passion and emotion; take a leaf from the book of the characterphiles and let your writing flow,’ she exhorts the plot junkies.
The 25 minutes are up, and it’s time for the writers to draw a deep breath, read their work aloud if they choose to and critique the work of others around the table. Being constructive, making specific suggestions for improvement, coming up with alternatives, avoiding nitpicking and sarcasm, reaps rewards for ones own work – or that’s the theory. ‘Helping other writers make their work better almost automatically leads you into thinking about how to improve your own,’ says Nina.
What a difference 25 minutes make! Now in the room is the voice of a salmon, leaping in a waterfall and making a bid to be the leader of his fellows. We inhabit a house made empty by the death of a cat, seeing the bare skin on his back leg as the vet shaves him in preparation for the injection that will end his life. Romance bursts into life as a woman of a certain age opens a parcel delivered by the postman and finds in it a dress and a dinner invitation from her husband to celebrate their wedding anniversary. There is laughter as Malcolm and Horace order 591,098 other woodworm to join hands to save the attic they have infested from collapse, spurred on from the window-ledge by a passing bee. In an eloquent monologue, a woman caught in the middle of the Chicago rush hour distils her philosophy of how to live well.
The 15 Ilkley writers have dispersed now, returned to the day-to-day. So I have no opportunity to ask them if the experience of Saturday has settled. I’d like to know whether the plotters embrace character just a little more joyfully the next time they sit down to write, and whether the characterphiles find it in themselves to relish plotting and scheming. And do all of them discover it just that bit easier now to sit back from their drafts and adjust words, amend sentences, shift paragraphs, with the same lack of censure they would apply to the work of other writers?


Posted by author: Elizabeth Underwood
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One thought on “Plots or people?

  • What an interesting post, and on an issue very close to my writing heart.
    I have found over the years that I work most productively, and enjoy my writing the best when I begin with an image and see where it takes me. At some point – probably about the 40k mark in a novel, I will begin to plot in a more calculated way. Until then, I need to get to know my characters. Character interaction produces plot – as soon as I begin to get to know my characters, things start happening. So you might say that the two are symbiotic.
    I am currently doing the Narrative and Dialogue course and have just been re-drafting my outline. Or should I say doing battle! It is certainly an interesting experience so far but I am not yet convinced that knowing the ending before you know your characters is the best way forward for me.
    The question of to plot or not to plot arises every year with gusto during NaNoWriMo, the month-long high-speed novelling event which happens every November. There are two camps, the plotters and the ‘pantsters’ and on the Nanowrimo forums there are plenty of writers who will happily confess to belonging to one or the other camp!

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