Writer’s Toolkit: Plot

When I was teaching creative writing for Hull University’s BA degree, I would suggest visualising plots as a washing line to hang scenes on. This might work for some. However, several years later on and into my second novel for Constable/Little Brown, I am revising my ideas.

With my hysterectomy in 2019, and the restrictions of lockdown since March 2020, jigsaw puzzles have come back into my life. I have discovered my husband hates doing them, and I have a knack for them. I am able to see the shape and content of a piece and how it fits into the whole, in a way that he can’t. Only goes to show, all our brains work differently.

Every jigsaw puzzle-ist has their own method. Mine is to do the outside edge first. Then I choose something substantial in the picture and pick out the pieces which appear to belong there. I put them together and work outwards.

As I was doing this one day, it occurred to me that creating a plot has parallels. Rather than working linearly, I create the borders for the story, then I focus on the important incidents, before working out how they link. This concept is helping me wrangle my current plot into some sort of shape, so I thought I would share it, in case it is useful to others.

Just as I was happily working this blog post into being, my dear friend, Jane Poulton, artist and writer Home (janepoulton.co.uk) sent me an email. She knows I enjoy doing collage, she also knew I was wrestling with the plot of my novel. She recommended a free workshop on collage and then said, ‘Writing is a bit like collage, isn’t it? A moveable feast until things fall into place and the whole feels settled, complete and “just right”.’

I realised this is an even more valuable insight than my one about jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaws have only one way in which they can fit together, they have the image on the lid which must be copied. A collage, however, has the same idea of pieces coming together – some large, some small, some (apparently) insignificant – into a whole which is likely to be only moderately pre-destined.

We all find our own ways of writing and thinking about our writing. We will be challenged by some aspects more than others. Sometimes the guidance of others can be supportive. Maybe, if you are finding plotting a trial, these musings on jigsaw puzzles and collages might begin an opening up. Go for what feels like the most substantial aspect and worry about the rest later. With perseverance and a fair wind, we end with the sense of ‘just right’-ness Jane envisages.

Collage by Kate Evans, February 2021, created during an online workshop with Rosie Vohra Rosie Vohra (@rosievohra) • Instagram photos and videos

Guest Author: Anne Goodwin & free e-book

Several years have gone by since I tumbled over Anne Goodwin’s website annegoodwin.weebly.com and her thoughts on how therapy and therapists have been portrayed in fiction. Since I had been in therapy for some time and was training to be a psychotherapeutic counsellor, we had some enjoyable exchanges over fictionalised therapists – the good, the bad, the ugly and the just plain wrong.

 

I also read her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, which I found compelling and thought-provoking. Until the end of February, Anne is offering you a free e-book of Sugar and Snails. It was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize (given for works which best explore the LGBT experience). Just follow the link:

https://www.subscribepage.com/sugar-and-snails-free-e-book

Meanwhile, I am happy to re-post a piece Anne wrote for my blog: ‘Why I’m Thanking My Therapist’ Here it is, Anne Goodwin writes:

About eighteen months into my therapy, the death of a relative almost rent me apart. We were talking about my tendency to prioritise caring for others above caring for myself, when That Woman (as she’s identified in the acknowledgements to my novel) said that I probably didn’t even know what I wanted for myself. In those early days, I was loath to contradict someone who was so unusually attentive to my needs, but this time I did. Yet I think I was as surprised as she was when I proclaimed that I wanted to be a writer, so successfully had I put my whispered youthful ambition out of mind.

AG at jesmond

I’d been scribbling stories on and off all my life, but my professional training and practice as a clinical psychologist had consumed most of my time and creativity. I’d vaguely planned to pick it up again on retirement, but That Woman nudged me to make space for what I wanted there and then. She helped me realise that I didn’t need to justify the time spent writing with prizes and publications (which was fortunate, given that it took much longer than I’d imagined for these to be forthcoming). It was extremely liberating to discover the world wouldn’t come to a halt if I indulged myself.

We didn’t discuss so much what I was writing at first. It was more a matter of tackling the barriers to taking my apprenticeship seriously, being picked up from the knocks and disappointments along the way. But the larger focus of our conversations wasn’t about my writing at all.

One of the themes of my therapy was my traumatic adolescence. I’d gone to That Woman thinking myself lacking for not having put the past behind me (as Diana is urged to do in Sugar and Snails). Now that I recognise the enormity of my experience, I see that as a ridiculous pressure to put upon myself, compounding the original trauma with the blame and shame of being unable to toss it to the side. Not that, outside the therapy room or wrapped in the arms of my husband, I showed any indication of not coping. I kept my wounds hidden from the wider world.

So perhaps it’s inevitable that my first published novel should feature another traumatic adolescence. I’d had other ideas, other novels begun and abandoned, one even getting as far as the second draft, but it was always Sugar and Snails to which I returned. Not that it was easy to write: from inception to publication, this novel consumed seven years of my life. My therapy has been equally epic, the successive transformations of my novel proceeding in parallel with my increasing understanding of myself. While each would feed into the other, That Woman helped me maintain the boundary between my own biography and that of my character. She also provided a container for my frustrations with the publication circus, that Kafka-ish world in which logic seems not to apply, and encouragement to claim my author authority as publication date approached.

I believe that my therapist has been of greater benefit to me as a writer than any of the industry experts I’ve consulted along the way. But, having paid my bills more or less on time, I don’t owe her anything, not even my gratitude. Yet I felt it would be dishonest not to include her in the acknowledgements for my novel, for my sake more than hers. Conscious that some writers are suspicious of therapy, I was anxious about this initially, but the support I received when I posted about this (thank you, Kate and others) convinced me I was doing the right thing.

It’s not easy to write about a therapy, partly because it’s such a private endeavour, partly (judging by the mistakes writers commonly make in creating a fictional therapist) because it’s so difficult to get to grips with from the outside. Maybe, on reading this, you’ll understand why I’m thanking my therapist, or maybe you’ll just have to take it on trust that this novel would never have got written, let alone published, without her. Yet because of the confidentiality inherent in the relationship, she can’t tell anyone else what part she played.

Guest Author: Belinda Rimmer

I discovered this gem in my Mslexia (Dec/Jan/Feb 2020/21) and wanted to share it. Belinda has been kind enough to allow me to do this, she has also given some insight into her writing process.

Dog by Belinda Rimmer

He’d hung a ‘No Entry’ sign on the door and added a proviso: ‘Dog in Mourning’. They were both in mourning, him and Dog. But if you could make a mountain out of grief, Dog’s would be higher.

            The vet had raised his eyebrows when Dan had told him, ‘She’ll only sleep if I hold her, and under the sheets, it has to be under the sheets.

            Maybe he was one of those rare types: a vet who didn’t like dogs. He’d said, and he’d said it sharply, ‘A dog doesn’t need holding, all a dog needs is a basket’.

            What Dan didn’t say was that at night Dog called out:’Marie. Marie.’

            The vet had wished them both well and charged a week’s rent.

            That night Dan lay beside Dog and they both cried, but Dog cried louder; and they both thought about Marie, but Dog thought about her the most; and they both had nightmares, but Dog’s were rockier, steeper to climb, more treacherous.

            Dan fetched Marie’s red cardigan from the wardrobe, which seemed to bring Dog some comfort. He brought all Marie’s old clothes and heaped them on the bed, on top of Dog. Dog stopped howling. But Dan still held him tight, and together they called her name, again and again, as if Marie were in the room next door and had never gone away.

This work was originally published in Mslexia Magazine. www.mslexia.co.uk

Dog by Kate Evans, inspired by Dog by Belinda Rimmer, January 2020

Belinda Rimmer speaks about her writing process

These days, I spend most of my time writing. Poetry is my main passion, but I am increasingly drawn to flash fiction. I find it a very hard thing to do, to create a story in so few words. I am learning as I go along, reading and taking workshops (Meg Pokrass is a wonderful teacher). I have many more poems published, but last year one of my flash fictions made it into best microfiction 2019, and the TSS Publishing list for Best British and Irish Flash Fiction 2018-2019, which inspired me to continue submitting. 

I need silence to write and often cocoon myself in a rickety gazebo, away from distractions. In winter, I write in my study at an old pine desk. Solitude is necessary, but I also need to interact with other writers. I have taken several courses with the Poetry School and belong to a poetry workshop group. My career has been varied: psychiatric nurse, school counsellor, dance development officer, arts practitioner and part time lecturer – work that has involved communicating with and attempting to understand people. I take the same approach with my writing, trying to understand my characters, their motivations, loves, insecurities. Even when writing about my own life, I try to discover something new and unexpected. Curiosity or a need to make sense of the world is a driving force.

I scribble in endless notebooks. These notes are quite often illegible, which I quite like. I then try to pick out lines that resonate, or words, or look for patterns, or whole sentences. I don’t try to make too much sense at this point. I like to surprise myself with where my writing takes me. I can always add layers of meaning afterwards. Later drafts are written on a laptop. My approach doesn’t vary much between poetry and flash fiction, although I do feel a little freer when writing flash. Ideas come from so many different sources: photographs, art, memory, inspirational people and their lives, nature. My writing can also be driven by emotion. Not being able to verbalise something leads me to pen and paper.

‘Dog’

I wondered what it would be like if the grief of a man and his dog became entwined, so it was almost impossible to know where one began and the other ended. What if a dog came to stand in for something or someone missing. In my story the characters of Dog and Marie become entwined, leaving space for readers to find their own points of understanding too.

Publications.

In 2018, I was joint winner of the Indigo-First Pamphlet Competition, with my pamphlet, Touching Sharks in Monaco (published by Indigo Dreams, Spring 2019) which was about childhood and personal relationships: memory and its distortions. www.belindarimmer.com/pamphlet

During the summer, I completed a 12 poem chapbook called, How To Be Silent, inspired by the life and work of the American writer Tillie Olsen. I first encountered her work many years ago as part of my PhD research. This is to be published in 2021 by dancing girl press. Twitter: @belrimmer

Janus Perspectives #5

This January I have been posting responses to an invitation I gave in my December post. I noted then that January is named after the Roman god Janus, a two facing god – backwards and forwards. I suggested people get in touch with short poems or art work which resonates with this in some way. I am delighted to complete the series with a poem from Adrienne Silcock (Adrienne Silcock | Writer & Poet). Thank you Adrienne.

Out Walking

We can’t stop long at the posts in the field
only pause and gaze back at
the old abbey on the hill
the wondrous trees and the viaduct
which brought us here.
Then inhale the beauty of the slope before us
the tall conifers, the oak and ash already
working towards green and the way
the light shivers on the lake ahead.

Brant Fell, July 2020, Kate Evans. From a series of photos of gateposts which do not fulfil their original function.

Janus Perspectives #4

The word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. In my December blog post I asked for responses to this. Today I am delighted to feature an image by artist Ruth Collett (Ruth Collett Artist), plus, below it, some of her reflections on her work. Thank you Ruth.

Comply 2. Ruth Collett. 2020.

Before the Covid 19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown I had a ceramics studio and was teaching practical arts and art history to adult learners, then suddenly I was alone in my flat 24/7 self-isolating.

Making daily ipad drawings came about as a way of exploring my reactions to the complete and sudden change of life patterns as I had been living them. This daily practise has been a major factor in maintaining my mental health, and feeling that I am still working, communicating & sharing ideas.

I have always created self-portraits as a means of understanding my evolving relationship with gender, sexuality, mental health and disability, so continuing this work on the ipad feels a natural progression.

What was surprising was my compulsion to create pattern, shape and colour to express my daily state, and to work mindfully but not critically. Using my finger rather than a stylus on the screen adds to the commitment and energy of the mark-making. I created images I would not have done in another medium – it freed me to be immediate and responsive to what was going on and how I felt about it.

Janus Perspectives #3

In my December blog, I posted this invitation: the word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. Do you have an image or a short piece of prose (up to 250 words) or a small stone (an ‘in the moment’ short poem (up to six lines), rough and ready) which either represents the year just gone or your hopes for the year to come? If you would like me to feature it on my blog in January 2020, then please send it to me.

I was delighted to receive a diverse bag of responses which I am happy to share with you over the next few weeks. Here is the offering from Suzie Millar. Thank you Suzie!

The time is NOW, not someday,
to work upon my dreams;
raise them up in real-time;
make them solid;
let them breathe.

Phot by Kate Evans. From a series of photos of gateposts which have lost their original function.

Janus Perspectives #2

In my December blog, I posted this invitation: the word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. Do you have an image or a short piece of prose (up to 250 words) or a small stone (an ‘in the moment’ short poem (up to six lines), rough and ready) which either represents the year just gone or your hopes for the year to come? If you would like me to feature it on my blog in January 2020, then please send it to me.

I was delighted to receive a diverse bag of responses which I am happy to share with you over the next few weeks. Here is the offering from writer and musician Bridget Cousins (Bennett/Cousins Music | Facebook). Thank you Bridget!

‘Yes, a year like no other’, she nodded sagely.
‘But we’re in good hands, aren’t we?
They know what they’re doing, don’t they?
And I’m glad we can go back to pounds, shillings and pence
And send all the darkies home.’
It wasn’t long before all her chickens came home to roost
And feasted on her bones.

Under the Arches by Phil Bennett.

Janus Perspectives

At the end of my December blog I sent out the following invitation: The word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. Do you have an image or a short piece of prose (up to 250 words) or a small stone (an ‘in the moment’ short poem (up to six lines), rough and ready) which either represents the year just gone or your hopes for the year to come? If you would like me to feature it on my blog in January 2020, then please send it to me.

I was delighted to receive a diverse bag of responses which I am happy to share with you over the next few weeks. The first is an offering from Karla Mcdonagh. Thank you Karla!

Looking back, what a year it has been.
An eye-opener: worry, panic, living in fear, so it seems.
A change of lifestyle, a new hobby to keep some normality, oh people were keen.
Parents struggling to keep their children’s faces a-gleam.
Isolating the vulnerable, the fight for human contact became extreme.
A needle of hope, the future seems promising and today will be of what has been.

Gateway in Farndale, March 2020. Photo by Kate Evans, from a series taken of stone gateposts which have lost their function.

There’s still time to let me have your Janus Perspectives. So get in touch if you wish.

A Writing Life: Solstice Reflections

Sunrise swim. Photo by Rachel Welford

We have reached another hinge-point in the turning of the year: the Winter Solstice, or, more prosaically, the shortest day (in the Northern hemisphere at least). In some traditions, this darkest time of this dark season is seen as a moment for introspection and reflection. The lights we might dangle around our Christmas trees or over our windows, could represent the sparks of intuition and creativity which are possible if we allow ourselves to sit and be still.

2020 has been a very strange and disturbing year. For some people, it has been extremely tough in lots of different ways. I think those who initially found relief in the first lockdown, have perhaps grown weary of the continuing sense of impending (or actual) crises. Those of us who have come through 2020, have a shared experience like no other. However we have fared, I believe we will be effected by the grief, trauma and anxiety which is palpable in the environment. Whatever we may think about what has happened, we will be breathing in this collective angst whether we like it or not. It will take us all time to digest and process it. Many of us hope good things will come out of it: a greater sense of collective responsibility; more appreciation of those who work in retail, delivery, health and social care; greater awareness of the importance of the small kindnesses; pleasure taken in the natural world around us – to suggest just a few possible positives.

For me, 2020 has been exceptional in that I achieved something I have been working towards for over thirty years – a contract with a traditional publisher for my long fiction. In February I signed a book deal with Constable/Little Brown for a series of three crime novels set in Scarborough. And yes, I do have to keep repeating it, as I still have to pinch myself to make sure I am awake and not dreaming. I have delivered the first novel, A Wake of Crows. It has now been copy edited and is being proof read. I will see cover roughs in the New Year (completely thrilling, I love a good cover). The hardback and e-book is due to be published in June 2021.

The excitement and unbounded joy in writing A Wake of Crows has contrasted uncomfortably with the unrelenting grimness and bleakness stirred by the pandemic and (dare I whisper it?) Brexit.

Collage by Kate Evans 2020

An invitation

The word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. Do you have an image or a short piece of prose (up to 250 words) or a small stone (an ‘in the moment’ short poem (up to six lines), rough and ready) which either represents the year just gone or your hopes for the year to come? If you would like me to feature it on my blog in January 2020, then please email me: kateevanswriter(at)gmail.com

Thank you

Have a peaceful and pleasurable festive season, however you choose to spend it.

Gateway, Brant Fell, July 2020

Poetry Bites #10: Rehearsing for this

I am very happy to welcome fellow poet, Felix Hodcroft, as my guest for this post. He is launching his new collection Rehearsing for this. Below you will find a poem from this collection, plus some background to its writing. Enjoy!

Felix Hodcroft reading his own poem: Bosphorus

Bosphorus
Before I was – I was
an ash – a seed – a shred of
slime – I rolled on waves that
chopped and swelled – the
fishes’ muscled surge and dance – the
sun’s stain on the sea I
watched – for years – but
not with eyes.

When I’m what they call dead –
ten billion scuffed-off scrapes of
me – will tumble on cool breezes –
will kiss pale eyes that
seek what I lost – stroke warm flesh that
aches like mine – be
drunk by mouths that never
speak my tongue.

Alive’s a stuttering fumbling –
scrambling up while slithering down –
grains sifting softly in –
swept clean away.

So take this rope of breath – and
climb it – drink this cup  before it
smashes – catch life piping
hot – it soon
will chill.   

Notes from Felix Hodcroft about his poem Bosphorus: Although I can and do rhyme, usually within lines rather than at the end of them, rhyme is not the be-and-end-all of poetry for me. I’m more inclined to use other verbal patternings – alliteration and assonance, echoes, repetitions and parallels, onomatopoeia. I find they give much more variety, energy and challenge while still, I hope, achieving that sense of heightened intensity and sparkle that can differentiate poetry from prose. Another important poetic tool for me is rhythm. I will to vary it, but generally I seek to use start-line stresses to achieve a dynamic spring and energy. I often make use of narrative and characterisation, which some people think are more the stuff of prose than poetry. I always aim for intensity, compression and a balance between accessibility and mystery.

Most of my poems arise from trying to think, and feel, very hard about things: problems, dilemmas – personal or public – to which it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to find an “answer”. Only by trying to translate my confusions into poetry can I keep reasonably happy (and, probably, reasonably sane).

I’m very preoccupied by the darkness I sense around us – often seeping into us. Plus by the challenge of really, really feeling what it feels like to be anyone apart from myself. I’ve always thought a lot about time, its passage and loops, and about death and legacy.

‘Bosphorus’ was sparked by a boat trip on that waterway, the divide between two seas, two continents. I was fascinated by the Bosphorus’s power, by its busyness, by the wildlife – fishes, birds and lots of jellyfish when I was there – by the pollution and the spectacular and stirring views of Istanbul (the most impressive city I’ve ever been to) on either side. 

These impressions, together with a sense, common when I travel, that I am holding my breath and touching briefly a life and civilisation fascinatingly/disturbingly alien, exploded into a vision of the waterway as a focus of an endless cycle of birth, death and recycling in which each one of us is but “an ash – a seed – a shred”. We can – we must, while we can – take joy from the beautiful, terrible world that lies around us. We can – we should – take comfort from the fact that others have lived, laughed and wept, loved and died, just like us. Not in black-and-white, not in any lesser way but just like us! They have grown chill and rotted but their joys and pain, their learning, the very compounds that formed their bodies and brains are recycled into us. They will, provided we allow ourselves to carry on existing, form and nourish generations more when we are but “scuffed-off scrapes”.   

I wouldn’t say that this poem reflects my ‘spiritual philosophy’. As a poet, I think it’s my mission not to have a mission, to think lots of different, often contradictory and definitely contrary things and not to have too clear a philosophy. However, having written ‘Bosphorus’ some years ago now, I still find it a poem that helps me to manage my life, and the death to come.

About Felix Hodcroft
Born (Manchester), brought up (in and around Oxford), took degrees in Eng Lit and Applied Social Sciences in my twenties. Worked briefly (18 months) as a Northern Ireland Office civil servant and, not at all briefly (36 years), as a probation/court welfare officer, based in Birmingham, then Hull, then Bridlington and finally, part-time, here in Scarborough.

I’ve been writing poetry for many years. I had a previous book, ‘Life after Life after Death’ published by Valley Press in 2010. I have never wanted to hurry into publication, being prone to the neurosis that there’s always something you could  fiddle with to improve (though, looking back on LALAD, I’m fairly happy). Such neuroses make me as much at home as an editor, anthologist and teacher/mentor as I am as a poet. Those activities, as well as the usual family traumas of someone tipping over from middle age towards – er, late middle age have delayed my second volume. 

I’ve performed and compered, collaborating with Kate and with artist Helen Birmingham to run Scarborough’s open mics and, more recently, Rotunda Nights. Also with Sue Wilsea as the ‘Hull to Scarborough Line’. None of these activities have stopped me writing but they’ve all got in the way of pulling it altogether into a second collection. As has aforementioned neurosis and an apprehension about stepping too far into what can sometimes seem the conflicted wokey-luvvie-bitchie world of the ‘professional’ ‘poet’. I’ve done it now though and would love to invite you to the on-line launch of my second collection ‘Rehearsing for This’, at 7pm on Sunday 29th November. Email me on feljen@feljen.pluscom if you’d like a link to attend, and/or if you’d like a copy of the book for just £8 including postage.