The case for losing the plot
As many of you know, every year I conduct publishing workshops and offer consultation to authors and would-be self-publishers. It seems to me that every year finds its own focus—the new opportunities afforded by digital technology; the creative use of novel promotional and publishing channels; the phenomenon of “digital first” imprints; and if I were to précis the key learnings from last year, the great advantage to authors of learning how to lose the plot.
In 2015, as both workshop participants and myself settled into a numb acceptance that the industry is now changing so rapidly that it’s impossible to know it all up to the moment, the focus moved to what key advantage authors could give themselves that would put them ahead of the curve, regardless of how that curve was moving. The answer is: knowing how to pitch your book—or more precisely, knowing what you’re pitching.
This is where the plot-losing comes in. In workshop after workshop, when prompted with the question, “tell me about your book,” authors responded by laying out their plot. At a certain point, no matter how good the yarn, you could sense the interest of the rest of the classroom shifting. A plot is not something you can tell. It often takes you 100,000 words to do it justice—that’s why we write the novel. And you don’t have the luxury of taking up twenty reading-hours of your listener’s life to convince them that the plot is great and your book compelling.
So, the first step is to lose the plot entirely. PLOT DESCRIPTIONS BANNED. Play with this idea, and most of you will feel as if you’ve been asked to defend yourself with one hand tied behind your back. It’s a useful analogy. I’m sure I’ve seen this method of martial arts training in some movie somewhere. And don’t worry, as with the training, at some point the hand will be untied; the plot can be brought back in again later.
Sometimes it’s useful to think in genres. That at least takes you one step down from the wide blue sky of plot. Realistically, it’s how book buyers will think of your book. “Where do I shelve it?” The sad news is, a book that doesn’t sit well on any particular shelf, although it might bring pride and joy to the author by being such a unique baby, usually won’t get sold.
Sometimes it’s useful to think in tropes. This is a boy-meets-girl story; this is a coming-of-age story; this is a new-kid-in-school story. Again, it helps your listener rule out many other options to get a quicker grasp on what your book might be about.
Which brings us to the ultimate question, what is your book about? What is it at heart, at its emotional pith?
I’m going to use the novel I’m working on as an example. First, the standard plot answer:
“My book is about a Native American woman in Seattle in the 1860s who meets a Chinese merchant and ends up moving to China. But that’s only the first part of the book. Because then the book follows her granddaughter who grows up in the highest prestige and luxury, and her move from China to Hong Kong as a refugee after the Communist takeover. And then the book follows her granddaughter who grows up thinking she’s very Westernized, but then moves to San Francisco in the 1950s and feels, in the face of racism, very Eastern instead. And then you pick up her granddaughter moving from San Francisco to Seattle, closing the loop, in an attempt to fill a hole that she somehow cannot explain.”
It’s not shoot-me-now boring—I hope. But it’s also, even in this reasonably efficient form, hard to grasp…hard to digest. The best I’d expect would be a tentative, “interesting.”
But what really, is my book about?
I think it’s about dislocation.
“My book is about dislocation—about the absence of belonging. It’s about the loss of place, through the experience of a Native American woman who moves from Seattle to China in the 1860s for love, only to find that love hollow. It’s about the loss of status, through the experience of her granddaughter who flees China to Hong Kong as a refugee, and loses all her landmarks governing how to be. It’s about the loss of identity, through the eyes of her granddaughter emigrating from Hong Kong to San Francisco, for she finds that how she sees herself is not how she is seen. And it’s about the loss of self, through the experience of her granddaughter, our last protagonist, who has never felt as if she belonged, and who goes looking to claim that belonging in one final, drastic act.”
Hopefully all who would have said “interesting” before will still say “interesting.”
Some, I’m sure, will find it equally hard to digest. But some will be more engaged by this description, because it is closer to the heart of the book: because it is closer to its emotion. Emotion. Motivation. Motion. They all have the same root. If you want motion from your listener, if you want him/her to act, you have to tap emotion.
I'm still not there yet, but I'm working on it.