Archive for February, 2010

Cunning Plans & Fiendish Plots

A classic subject for blogs and other discussions on writing is plotting and whether one is a ‘pantser’ (someone who flies by the seat of their pants, not someone who writes pants/crap plots) or a ‘planner’.  And who am I to argue with such time-honoured traditions?  Except for when it suits me, of course, but today, dear reader, it doesn’t suit me, so we’re going to look at plotting.

A cunning plan in action.

In the past I’ve been both pantser and a planner, usually working to a very extreme form of one or the other.  In the past I’ve also been a writer who managed about 5,000-10,000 words of a would-be novel and then found it fizzling out.  I don’t think this is a coincidence. 

I think one of the most important factors in completing the first draft of a novel (which is often half the battle) is finding the way that is right for you.  Now, I may be speaking prematurely as I am only about one third of the way through A Thief & A Gentlewoman, but I think I have found the way that is right for me.  And yes, I know I have repeated that phrase, but to me “the way that is right for you” is vital to everything in life.  I don’t generally believe in absolutes and I think something as personal as writing absolutely requires the proviso of “here’s my advice/experience, but if it doesn’t work for you, then throw it out the window”.

And with that proviso firmly in place, this is the method of plotting (fiendish, cunning or otherwise) that works for me and has allowed me to get far further on a project than ever before, and hopefully it will see me over the first draft finishing line … 

I start with a vague idea of what I want to happen and I turn to one of my favourite things in life to help me set it out:

  • The
  • bullet
  • point
  • list!

Each event that I have in the story gets its own bullet point:

  • Girl meets boy. 
  • Girl and boy find out they’re from warring families.
  • Girl marries boy.
  • The pressures of their warring families mean girl and boy kill themselves. 
  • Families learn a lesson abut feuding (we hope!).

It is meant to be super basic at the moment – we’re talking vague ideas.  Eventually, however, this will become a list with a bullet-point for each scene in the story.  (OK, I know that sounds daunting, but I don’t find it so, especially as it’s written over time with scenes added and moved around as ideas evolve.)

I usually have these vague ideas floating about and then start fleshing out the characters involved before I come to this bullet-point process as this allows me to know how they will behave, but also whose eyes I want to see this particular scene through.  For really important events, I tend to overlap viewpoints, especially when it can create humour, tension or empathy by showing the different ways people can see the same incident.

From there I look at my scenes and think about what needs to happen between them, how the story will move from one scene to the next.  I also consider what will cause those events and how the cause will shape the form of the actual event – for example what is the exact form the warring family pressure that make boy and girl kill themselves?  This will give me scenes that come before as well as give me more detail for the original bullet points, so it might start to look something like this:

  • Girl meets boy.
  • Girl and boy find out they’re from warring families.
  • Girl marries boy in secret.
  • Boy argues with girl’s cousin (because cousin killed Boy’s best friend) and ends up killing him in a fight.
  • Boy gets banished for the killing.
  • Girl’s family arranges for her to marry another man, not knowing she’s already married.
  • Priest comes up with a plan to save the girl from bigamy and keep the couple together.
  • Girl takes poison and appears dead to her family.
  • Priest sends message to Boy, telling him about the plan and that Girl isn’t really dead, but just seems it.  Boy doesn’t get message.
  • Boy hears girl is dead and rushes to her tomb.  Unable to bear living without her, he kills himself.
  • Girl wakes and finds Boy dead.  Unable to bear living without him, she kills herself.
  • Families learn a lesson abut feuding (we hope!).

Still quite simplified, but you can see that we’ve fleshed things out a bit and that the original “The pressures of their warring families mean girl and boy kill themselves” bullet point has actually become two scenes as the idea has developed as we’ve worked out the specifics and the causes of the event.  That scene has also split to allow for the two viewpoints.  (Of course, this is Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, so as it’s not a novel it doesn’t have the two view-points as such, but if you were writing it as a novel with a third person narrator close to a character it would have to – Romeo is not alive when Juliet dies so the narrator can’t be near him for both events and Juliet is unconscious when Romeo dies so the narrator can’t be in her mind for both deaths.  Sorry, that’s quite a convoluted explanation, isn’t it?!) 


From there you also think about what is needed in this plot, such as the introduction of the key characters and setting up the idea of the feuding families (that latter of which old Shakey does with that brilliant “I do bite my thumb, sir!” opening scene) and add those in.  This is where I weave in the ‘set up’, by which I mean things such as the clues seen early on in Poirot but not initially appreciated for their full significance (like “Ah, but you have been to Egypt, non?  And so had the killer!  Duh duh duuuuuuh!”), or the mention of that clever little weapon hidden in our heroine’s knickers that will save her life in the penultimate scene (such as Roald Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood who “whipped a pistol from her knickers” and swiftly dispatched of poor little wolfy).  So you go back and add an early scene where the protagonist overhears a conversation but fails to appreciate its significance, and another scene where we meet the protagonist’s teacher who also gives them a gift or teaches them a technique, which of course will save them in the end. 

Which also reminds me – I try to make my scenes work hard for their place in my story.  By which I mean that scenes have to fulfil more than one role, such as the above introduction of the teacher and of the important object.  A scene that is only doing one job just isn’t pulling its weight.  Sometimes it can be hard to imagine how you can make that scene that introduces Bob do something else, but if you give it some thought and look at how other people do it, you’ll soon impress yourself with your cunning by showing the reader Bob’s relationship with protagonist Jane, showing characterisation of Jane and Bob (Jane through her thoughts, words and actions and Bob through his actions and what he says to Jane) and setting up mention of the strange spate of catnappings on page 12 of the local newspaper that Jane is using to wrap up the glass Bob just broke (because he’s clumsy which is part of the characterisation you’re showing to the reader) … and so on. 

At this stage I find the major scenes tend to become quite long in their bullet points because there are so many important details that I need to remember to include, which is great because those major scenes can be rather daunting to write and can be easy to get lost in.  This bullet-point method also allows me to tick off scenes as I write them, which gives the list-writer in me a sense of achievement and reminds the writer in me that I’m one step closer to finishing the first draft. 

It’s also a great foundation for those snippets of conversation that come to you on the bus.  By knowing that at some point Jane and Bob will have a discussion about Bob’s vegetarianism and Jane’s love of meat, my mind will have that idea on the back-burner and when I wake up with that great bit of punchy dialogue, I have somewhere I can keep it safe, rather than just writing it on a scrap of paper that gets lost or in a notebook and not being able to find it when I come to write the scene.  Because when I come to write the scene, I’ll have my bullet points (that usually get printed out and scribbled on and then re-typed and re-printed to include the scribblings when the paper’s about to fall apart) with that snappy conversation and I can decide whether I still think it’s great or whether I think “whatever was I thinking?!”

I enjoy the whole process of plotting in this way, it’s a time for getting stuck on a problem, puzzling over it, then deciding to go for a bath and having that eureka(!) moment while you cook dinner.  It’s really fun weaving and winding your webs of intrigue and inter-connectedness – Hell, it’s the only way I can think of that allows a person to spend days fiendishly plotting without being a Bond villain!  And I do like a good bit of fiendish plotting.

Kitty doesn't care about plot, so long as kitty gets to sleep.

 Now, I know some argue that this approach doesn’t allow you any space for creativity – I’ve even said it myself in the past when I’ve been pantsing and even on previous attempts at planning – but I find this particular way of working does the opposite for me.  I can always change my bullet points at any time, I can copy and paste the order of events or just delete them, or split scenes up to allow for a flash-back half way through, but having that list there actually allows me more creativity when I’m doing the fun part of actually writing the scene.  Rather than sitting down and feeling tense and stifled because I’m thinking:

oh Gods, what’s meant to happen in this scene?  How on earth did I write myself into this rut?  I know I need to get to Lord Devilish’s house for the big climax, but how the Hell do I get there from here?!  Man, I really don’t want to write this scene if I’m just going to have to delete it when it comes to editing … Angst!

I get to say to myself:

OK, I know that Jane needs to ask Bob to the dance at Lord Devilish’s in this scene, and that he’ll think he’s finally getting lucky, but that he’ll be disappointed because she’ll explain she’s only doing it because she needs a date who’s quite plain and therefore won’t draw attention to himself.

And I get the simple enjoyment of that dialogue with a bit of sulking by Bob and back-pedalling by Jane and those fun little thrilling signs for the reader that they both like each other but don’t want to say, whilst still being safe in the knowledge that I’m taking the story in the right direction. 

In short, the bullet points tell me what has to happen in the scene, but I get to enjoy seeing how the characters take me there – and sometimes they surprise me.

If you’re stuck in a plot-rut or just can’t get past chapter 5, then maybe it’s time to try something different, try pantsing or this planning method, it might just help.  And scribblers, do tell me about your own cunning planning methods – I love to hear about the different ways people work!


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From Duct Tape Dummies to Dreamy Fabric

Alas, there is still no sign of the internet finding its way to my apartment any time soon, dear reader!  However, I have discovered that my favourite Nottingham café has free wireless, so I intend to pop over there one day this week and do a proper post with photographs taken by yours truly.  Especially as The Fabric of Dreams arrived last week.  It is quite lovely indeed – even more gorgeous than I expected!

And I really should take a photo of Rosie-Apple*, my duct-tape dummy!  She still hasn’t been stuffed yet, but Miss Rosel and I had rather a lot of fun making them a couple of weeks ago and have found cheap’n’cheerful floor lamps on the Ikea website.  And a cheap’n’cheerful floor lamp could be just the thing for a cheap’n’cheerful duct-tape dummy base.  Once we’ve made the Ikea trip, then Rosie-Apple will be upstanding and stuffed, rather than a fairly floppy silvery thing hanging in the store room like some sort of duct tape fem-bot.

Speaking of the store room – next weekend The Boy and I should be sorting through it and clearing it out so that it may become my study area.  Huzzah!  I’m uber-excited about that!  Is it sad that I’m looking forward to having a pin-board?  Yes, I thought so.  Of course, I’m even more excited about having A Room of One’s Own, but I know that isn’t something it’s sad to be excited about.

* There is a reason for her having such a ridiculous name, but that’s a tale I’m far too ashamed to tell … maybe one day …

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This week I have been mostly …

I just wanted to give you lovelies a quick update on what I’ve been up to …

  • Applications – a couple for jobs and a couple for PGCEs.  They take up a lot of time and are quite dull, but they need doing, alas!
  • Tulle skirt.  Meh.  It’s finished, but it looks frumpy and I’m not impressed by that!  I’m plotting ways to possibly de-frump it, or else it’s going in the bin (well, probably not the bin, but the pergatory that is under the bed).  Maybe making it a lot shorter (it’s knee-length at the moment) will help, but I’m a bit anxious to do that as once it’s cut, there’s no going back!
  • Reading – I forgot to mention this in my “You Should Read This” post, but You Should Read This (Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic).  It’s one I bought before we moved but hadn’t got around to reading yet and I’ve just picked and ye gods I already love it something rotten.  I’m only a few chapters in and I suspect it might become my favourite book ever.  Yes, that’s how much I love it.  I might have to write a full review once I’ve finished it, but for now I’m going to gush about the things I love about it: the writing is ohmygodsIwishI’dwrittenthat amazing – certain turns of phrase she uses are so simple and yet so perfect it leaves me wondering how anyone has ever described that thing in any other way, and this especially impresses me because these days I am so picky about writing that I can’t help but see every single flaw, so for me to be wowed this much is rare; the characterisation and characters – they are so incredibly real from what I’ve read so far, the chapter I’ve just finished in particular gets under the skin of that character so utterly that I felt I was seeing into the mind of another person, not reading made up imaginings; which brings me to that imagination – this is fantasy at its best, in my most humble of opinions – I’m quite well read in the genre and the ideas she comes up with are so unique and original without being too outlandish or unbelievable, which is exactly what fantasy should be.  OK, must stop gushing about Robin Hobb now, but I have major Writer Envy and Awe and Love and Wows!
  • Valentine’s-ing – the Boy and I don’t like going out for dinner on Valentine’s Day, it’s just a bit cheesy for our tastes, being out with loads of other couples and so on, so we went out on Thursday for a quiet meal and on Sunday I baked him cupcakes (raspberry with vanilla icing and red sparkles- yay!) and we got Yo Sushi take away (YUM!), watched our guilty pleasure (Smallville) and then went to a pub quiz.  It was a lovely day.

I should’ve taken pictures of the cakes, I know, but they were just too yummy not to scoff all at once … but here’s some sushi to look at instead:

I heart sushi!

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You Should Read This…

As I am still internetless, I am swapping The Saturday Shoe for a Sunday Read (which I am typing in my lunch break at work on Friday).  I’ve read a few things lately which made me go “Oh yes!!” and I want to share them – call these my Valentine’s gift to you:

The Dreamstress’s post on Fabric: What is ‘Historically Accurate’? is an excellent article on fabric choice for historical sewing.  She wrote this back in October, but I must have missed it then, so I’ve only just read it myself – it gives modern and historical seamstresses something to think about.  She puts it so well, that I don’t want to describe anything more – go read it!  (And be sure to check out the comments – very good thoughts, especially Clara Florence’s summary.)  Of course, generally go and read her blog if you don’t already – insightful, fun and full of swoonworthy things (aka, pogey bait!).  And if you don’t know what pogey bait is, then you definitely need to go and read her blog!

While I would similarly recommend reading all of American Duchess’s blog (guaranteed to make you chuckle and envy her design/stitching skills), I would particularly highlight her series on Why We Costume – Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Abby is one of those people with such excellent knowledge of sewing and 18th century clothing, I would like to hate her, but I’m afraid she’s just far too helpful and generous with her knowledge for that to be possible!  She is a lovely lady and her post on the sad death of Alexander McQueen sums up what I think many people feel about this.  She also includes images of his gorgeous clothing to remind us of what the fashion world has lost.

And on a lighter note, a final quick post to make you laugh – Madame Berg can always be relied upon to find the most random things the internet has to offer!

And now, dear reader, I must retreat back to internet-less land.  Until next time!

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You know you’ve read too much fantasy when …

… you mis-read “major explosion” as “magical explosion”.

Oh dear.

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For the Love of Damask

Squeeee!  Please excuse my excited and brief post, but I just won this gorgeous fabric on eBay:

Pink cotton damask, 2.6m by 1.25m.

OK, I know it’s not 18th century, but I thought it looked rather 17th Century and I love it. 

Oh, and did I mention I got it for £1.04?


I want to make a 17th century gown at some point and when I saw this fabric I knew it was The One for the bodice (with a plan petticoat, probably) … Of course, it’s likely that I’ll do some proper research on 17th century fabric and find that it’s completely wrong, but nevermind – in that case I’ll make it into a 17th C inspired jacket (cropped with toned down poofy sleeves). 

What is with my obsession with jackets?

Anyway, I think I’m going to have to be quite cunning in getting a bodice out of this stuff – I might have to go for a non-poofy-sleeved era or at least a smaller-poofy-sleeved era! 

Either way, I’m all kinds of pleased!

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Not having the internet at your beck and call suddenly makes you get on with a lot of other things (or at least it does me).  In the time I’d usually spend researching and looking up things, I’ve been pondering what to make to go over my stays. 

Hmm ... maybe not?

Of course, there are things I would love to make and float about in, playing dress-up.  But there are also limitations, such as:

  • Money
  • Skill, or lack thereof!
  • Ability to get hold of a decent pattern (that is both cheap and fairly easy to follow).

Money is probably the main limitation (as I should imagine it is for most stitchers!) as it has the biggest effect on what I can and cannot make – nothing with masses of fabric (francaises are instantly out!) and nothing that I can’t justify making.  By which I mean that I can’t make something I’ll (probably) never wear.  So, much as I want a polonaise, I don’t have an event to wear one to to justify making one (sigh!).  (Well, there is an event in March, but I’m unlikely to have completed anything by then!) 

So this leads me to items that could work for modern wear:

  • The hooded quilted jacket in Patterns of Fashion (my version would not be quilted, but made from a grey wool, most likely).
  • A chemise a la reine (although I am currently considering it likely that I’ll make a modern dress inspired by a reine, because being of the short and curvy persuasion, a full-length, froofy white dress is probably not the world’s best idea.  The only changes will probably be to make it knee-length and not white, though I might go sleeveless.)
  • A pierrot jacket.

At the moment, the most likely one is the pierrot jacket because it would be very much wearable for day-to-day wear as long as I make it from a suitable fabric.  Plus, there is a pattern in The Cut of Women’s Clothes, which the lovely Johanna has used to make a very pretty pierrot.  I got the book from the library at the weekend – free pattern?  Check!  I will most likely change it to a zone front, though, as I love them something rotten!

Pretty Pierrot with Zone front from the Kyoto Costume Institute

The question being – what kind of fabric would work well without being too delicate/precious to use for every day?  I’m probably thinking a cotton, but I’m not sure which weight would work well – anyone?  Silk would be lovely, but again we come back to expense and it not being an everyday fabric for a 21st century girl.  There is a gorgeous cotton brocade that I have my eye on, but it’s so very not 1780s/90s!

Which then brings me to the question of whether I want to try a synthetic and go for the ‘look’ of accuracy, rather than actual accuracy.  I could get a synthetic taffeta or duchesse satin affordably (which would also be washable), whereas either of these in silk would be out of my price range and non-washable.

Then there is another question of working out a cunning fastening method that would allow me to wear the jacket over stays in a (mostly) historically accurate way, but that would still fasten up over my un-corseted form.  The problem isn’t so much any sucking in at the waist, it’s more that I have a smaller chest measurement in stays than in modern underpinnings.  I’ve had a couple of ideas for how to get around this, but as this is meant to be just initial thoughts, I’ll leave that until another day.  My main concern at the moment is about fabric …

I ask you, dear reader – what’s a girl to do?!

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