Panel featuring authors Jewell Parker Rhodes, William Konigsberg, Varian Johnson, Nova Ren Suma.
When I entered the panel room and saw all the other people in the audience, I felt relieved. Clearly, I wasn't the only person who had trouble when it came to shaping the plot. Back at my hotel room, when I wasn't too jetlagged to function, I was typing frantically to bring the novel I'd been writing on-and-off for the last eight years, to a close. Since the very start, my plot was all over the place. It had become only marginally better now that I was approaching the finish line. Despite numerous attempts to learn about what the term ‘plot’ actually meant, it just hadn’t registered with me, so I hoped this panel would shed some light on the issue.
The panelists were in agreement in that you can’t shape the character around a certain plot – it is the character who should be put in the driver’s seat of your novel. Don't worry if they lead your story down streets and alleyways you never thought you'd be venturing! Just think of your character as a lovable, eccentric friend who has suddenly come into your rather mundane life and, despite you ignoring them, demands your friendship. Go with it. If something about the story doesn't seem to fit - that's a sign that your character doesn't want to be there, that something is wrong.
As William put it, it should feel as if the plot and character are chasing each other. Varian added that he sometimes falls into a trap of making his characters not communicate for a few chapters, because that's what seems to be needed for the plot. But this strategy just doesn't ring authentic to life. Regardless of what person narrative you are using, a plot-driven story, according to Varian, would always have some distance, and sound a bit like 'he did this, she said this'. Whereas a character-driven story would feel like 'I did this, I experienced this'.
Secondary characters should follow the same rules - they should be there because they demand being there, not because they need to fulfil a certain function in your story. However, Jewell reminded, that it is a question of proportions - subplots shouldn’t exist for any other purpose than to serve the main story arch.
Nova’s first novel was unusual in that it was sold on proposal. She finds that having a basic plot outline is helpful, but it can become counterproductive if you force it on your characters. Writing, for Nova, is an act of discovering the plot. Jewell went through a similar process for one of her novels. She dreamed up the basic outline, and then left it to rest. And then one day, as she was doing the dishes, a little girl appeared, not based on anyone she knew and became one of the main characters for her book.
The act of discovery is the biggest joy of writing for me. It is exhilarating to let your characters lead the way, and I could sum up the process, using Michelangelo’s famous quote: 'I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.' William suggested that if you get stuck, you need to give yourself permission to write badly. For me, writing badly feels exactly like chiselling away at a piece of rock, to discover that there's indeed and angel hiding inside of it. But you might not get a glimpse of that angel until you have completed more than one draft.
The panelists agreed that the first draft is often just for themselves. The second draft is when they begin to think about the audience - what do they want, how does the novel need to change to suit their needs. Jewell offered her explanation - that writing, like all art forms, is a gift. And, since gifts are for giving, a novel is not complete until your audience completes it by reading it. If you're not writing with your reader's needs in mind, you are not creating art.
But before you can get to a presentable draft, you must first find a voice for your characters. Jewell stressed the importance of this, by saying that 'the audience will forgive you an awful lot, as long as there is a voice which they can attach themselves to and be friends with.'
This is particularly important for the YA market, where novels are often written in the first person, the genre in which Nova writes. She said that, with a first person narrator, it can be difficult to find a way out when you're really deep into a character. Especially, if the character has been a victim of some horrendous act. Varian added that in order to access the emotions and the back-story of a character, he must use his own. And this can be a lonely place at times. Try telling your friends that you’re in a cranky mood today and will cancel your dinner arrangements, because your character just committed suicide.
It was great to hear William elaborate on the hardships of being a writer and having to live in the real world. Just imagine - you've just dreamed up this whole Universe, with its unique and witty set of rules and such vivid characters! Only to realise that no one else cares...
That's why places like AWP are so great – if only to remind ourselves that we're not weird, that there are other people out there who feel the same, and that we should carry on doing what we're doing because, once we’re done, the world will be a better place for it.