Friday, June 5, 2009

Driving out Plot and Getting Into the Zone

by Edward C. Patterson

Authors are a sharing lot. They want to reach out and touch someone, specifically a reader. However, if you ask any author how they do that, you will get a variation on a theme — some responses filled with passion, while others chock full of hooey. They will disagree on basic aspects. Some feel that novels should be plot driven, while others favor characters. Some like spare writing, while others favor a detailed revelation of their research. Sometimes the genre dictates the approach. Sometimes not. In any event, there are as many approaches as there are reader preferences. Once an author settles into a style, that style can develop into a brand that permeates a bookshelf at a hundred yards.

I am not peculiar in this respect. I have been writing for over fifty years and authoring for over forty. Through trial and error and exposure to the masters and the wannabees (editors, agents and publicists), I have developed a flexible style in creating a story that reaches out to touch someone. I believe a story sits at the base of a novel and is developed, not plotted. In fact, the word plot is a misnomer. It emerges when an author builds a strict set of tracks for the readers, the characters and the story to follow. This comes from outlining, and in many cases, over development. Plot is a misnomer because overdevelopment of plot usually underdevelops a novel. Characters are constrained or forced to arc by the author’s command rather than by their natural inclination. Readers are constrained, their imaginations dampened by the one-way street of plotting instead of the two-way street of creativity. Dialog forwards plot and not character. Description is anchored to one or two senses (usually sight, and occasionally touch) instead of the five that make the story vibrant. Narrative becomes a matter of point A to B, instead of an opportunity to engage the reader with humor and irony. Story is the product of character, settings and events, and all the interaction between these. The author is a conductor, waving a baton over a score of knowledge and sturdy craft, orchestrating that time frame when the elements come together and resonate into a story. The finished product is the sum of that time frame (the Zone) and several revisions whereby the author polishes the whole with a gemologist’s skill.

The final result — the part that reaches out and touches the reader, is an amalgamation of draft, revision and refinement. If the reader is lucky, much of the draft — the heart and soul of the work, will remain and not be whittled away by the necessary cuts, the logical balance, the thematic implantation and the grammatical corsetry that revision and refinement entail. The draft is born in the Zone, and if some of the Zone touches the reader, there will be a heightened sense of allegiance to the work. However, and this is unfortunate, no matter how hard authors try, the reader can never experience the Zone.

The Zone is a place where true authors dwell. Getting there is a journey. It is where the story world becomes so real that the characters write their own dialog and rain can be felt and the sea can drown you. There is an accentuation — a narcotic, if you will, that allows the mind, heart and soul to unite and slay page after page with the rich cream of virtual reality. In fact, virtual reality is the closest I can think of to describe the feeling. Authors use different methods to get into the Zone (and we don’t always get there in every writing session). Stephen King uses heavy metal music. Jane Austen used isolation. Hemmingway used hard alcohol. I use classical music, isolation and . . . well, no alcohol, but cookies, preferably Veronas (Apricot) and Milanos. Most authors that I know prefer isolation or a special place. I can write anywhere, and have gotten into the Zone without the music or the Milanos, but the experience is different, akin to being on the edge of the forest, peeking in rather than frolicking with the flora and fauna. A good sign that an author is in the Zone is that we speak in the voices of our characters. Dickens did a mean Sarah Gamp. I do a wonderful drag queen.

So if you should pass by my window while I’m in the Zone, don’t report me as being some Son of Sam crazy, who hears voices commanding me to write novels. It’s just a symptom of the art and thankfully, it’s incurable. However, as much as I try to reach out and touch readers, I, like my fellow authors, jealousy guard the gates to the forest, where our children are born and the stories gush from the rocks and rills without plot. We are not gods and goddesses after all, but mere artists high on music and chocolate covered cookies.

Edward C. Patterson

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