We had the honor of interviewing guest author Anjuelle Floyd about her new book, Keeper of Secrets... Translations of an Incident. She discusses her writing process with a focus on plot.
Blockbuster Plots [BBP]: Your novel has many viewpoint characters. How did you go about plotting out the project?
Anjuelle Floyd [AF]: My collection of eight interconnected short stories, Keeper of Secrets...Translations of an Incident, is a linked novel with 8 viewpoint characters. There's one protagonist in each story for whom we see how the inciting event has influenced their thinking and actions concerning their dilemma.
For me plotting is about discovering and establishing what each major character/protagonist in my story or novel wants and then setting about to connect this desire with an icon, if you will, or a symbol, an object that appears in the story and around which the transformation occurs and is reflected.
No, I don't start out that way. I tend not to plot out my stories prior to writing the first draft.
Generally a story comes to me in an image or idea, most times an image. I know the beginning, and the climax and I have a good sense of how it ends. These things always change over the time of writing, re-writing, editing and revising. What becomes clearer is the plot.
And this is where your book, Martha, on plotting has been and is so helpful. It taught and now reminds me that there are always two levels to a plot. The first level is that of action, basically what my protagonist does in the face of her or his dilemma and what her or his actions beget--i.e. causality. One thing happens, the character responds externally, another thing happens, and so forth.
But then there is the emotional plot, if you will, the internal plot that accompanies actions. The external plot must be in place for this to occur. You book stresses this. The external plot is the action above the line. The internal is that below the line, the character's feelings, and thoughts, sensations. A story or book cannot exist on just one. And while action, plot centered novels and stories may appear to, the good ones do not.
The thing that connects the two aspects of plot for me is the symbols in my stories, around which the action takes place, for which the protagonist yearns, or that holds specific meaning for the protagonist. Each of my stories in Keeper of Secrets...Translations of an Incident has a metaphoric symbol, an emblem, that embodies the nature of the protagonist's conflict and that has shaped the character's belief system. This symbol reflects not only where the protagonist is in their thinking and consciousness at the outset of the story, but is the object that reflects the character's change or around which the characterâ€™s transformation takes place at the climax of the story. This climactic moment is what author Chris Abani, Graceland, Virgin of Flames, Becoming Abigail, calls an avataric moment.
An avatar is an incarnation, a 3-dimensional image that can embody, personify, or manifest a concept, or idea. Literary avatars, symbols, metaphors can symbolize an entire memory, or experience. It can remind us of an entire section of a work that gave the back-story of the character's life.
I like to think of avataric moments as those moments when after the character has met a series of irrevocable actions [choice actions that cannot be taken back,] decisions made when facing an external obstacle in the plotline, the character in having acted physically, or spoken, and driven the story forward, now undergoes a transformation, both against the backdrop and along side the avatar or symbol that represents the protagonist's not only dilemma, but journey and now ultimately their change or shift in consciousness and conscious action that not only leaves them thinking and feeling differently, but physically altered.
Each one of my stories has an avatar. For Raven Clarke in Dancing Siva, it is the icon of Siva dancing. For Lahni Irete' in Keeper of Secrets, the namesake story, it is the knife. A psychiatrist and Buddhist, Dr. Reynard Williams' avatar is in The Object of Compassion, the Buddhist icon, Green Tara who signifies not only Reynard's emotional wounding, but ushers in his healing, both physical an psychological.
I cannot stress how Martha's emphasis on the external aspect an author's plot drove home to me the inherent necessity for a clear plot if the story is to not only hang together and make sense, but have meaning. The plot (external) sequence of events-this begets that begets this, etc. is essentially the clothesline on which you hang the clothes of your scenes and then chapters.
Now more specifically Martha's check list helped me to see that first, each scene must have a purpose--that is either revealing information necessary for understanding the story, but also propelling the plot. The farther you progress in your book when back-story should have been dealt with, the scenes need to focus mainly on propulsion of story, plot.
Martha's checklist of what every scene needs to contain to even be a scene was especially helpful in writing short stories. You don't have an hour and a day to hold the reader with short stories. You have to get in and get out fast as Gabriel Garcia Marquez says, "With a novel you can win by a decision, but a short story you have to win by a knockout." It needs that kind of punch. Now there are variations on the kind of punch you deliver, but reader satisfaction requires an epiphany of some sort. This epiphany comes from a well-plotted story. And I have by no means mastered this art. But I know what it takes. And it takes clear and concise plotting.
I plot after having written the 1st draft, perhaps the 2nd and 3rd. I try to let my early drafts be my heart draft, what ever comes. And then once I get the story down, I begin to go back and refine, clarify and lay out just what happens, and in what sequence (plot). I did over 30 drafts on each of my stories in Keeper of Secrets...Translations of an Incident. And the 1st four stories came out of novels I have written. So I knew many of these characters very well.
Which brings me to the third aspect of my writing, equally as important as plot, if not more--character.
As a psychotherapist I write character-based/driven stories. And my first drafts reflect this. The usually read like client notes I've taken in the first session with a client. There's dialogue and action, but a lot of digression on why she or he did this and what in their history caused them to feel this way about a certain aspect in life. I'll often go into a scene of back-story.
In later stages of refinement, way down the road, I either eliminate these scenes or weave them into the front story, usually using the knitting needles of my avataric symbol--a metaphor of change and grow, evolution of the protagonist and the story. That way I can remind the reader of this info later in the story without having to spell it out again.
For instance in my lead of story in Keeper of Secrets...Translations of an Incident, Dancing Siva, I immediately introduce a dancing Siva. Unlike most of the icons we see, this dancing Siva is carved of mahogany. It was given to my major character by her first love, a man with whom she was living when meeting the character who became her husband. My major character's marriage to her husband, she aborted a child she was carrying by this first love. The fetus was 16 weeks.
I do give the back-story of my protagonist, Raven with her first love, and the dancing Siva is present all throughout these scenes. Thus when the reader sees the icon later in the story they know all it symbolizes--love, death, infidelity, guilt, loss and so much more.
For me it's all about character. Yet in many ways I'm saying it's all about plot--plot as driven by who my characters are, what in their past lives has shaped them into the individuals they are, and most likely contributed to the predicament they now face.
It's all in there. And again, relying on or rather writing toward those avataric moments, I'm searching in later drafts, once the story is all down, for the points of conflict in the story where my character(s) have to step up to the plate and do something physically. At the same time I'm watching for the symbols, the avatars, around which external action swirls that also gives rise to internal change.
Hence again I have to have a clear picture of the sequence of events, the scenes, what happens in those scenes, what's the goal, from whose view point is the scene being told, the rise of action, the tension, the emotional core, what is revealed both externally and internally, what is gained, and what is left unsaid to be dealt with in ensuing scenes.
BBP: Are you a pre-plotter or after the fact?
AF: I seriously plot after I've written the story in its entirety. Plot for me is not just what happened, but when. Sometimes I will have written in the early drafts a scene as it came to me in the first section of the story. But later I may decide I want to revise it and place it somewhere else.
How a story comes to you is not always the best way to deliver it to your readers. It's too confusing or doesn't render enough drama. But you do have to get it down. This is why I like to wait until my entire story is written before I begin to plot it out.
BBP: What methods did you find particularly useful in plotting out your project?
AF: Once I get the entire story written I then like to draw a line and write our what happens in each scene. It goes something like this:
Scene 1: Protagonist finds a mouse on her desk a work.
It needs to be one, no more than two lines--stating who, what, where, when. The scene I write supplies the how. And the scene needs to include all the elements I listed above, or else it goes.
BBP: Do you consciously develop thematic significance?
AF: Again this is a place of discovery and unfolding for me.
I don't consciously set out to write a book about a certain theme that becomes clear to me once I get the whole story down. Theme is always something I discover once the story has been written revised and refined to the point of sending it out. It's only once it's finished and I can sit back and read it as a reader, not as a writer that I can see the theme. And then that's the theme I attach to it. Readers may, and most likely do, add their own themes. I like that. That's when the story I write begins to teach me.
BBP: Plot tips to share?
AF: First, read, read, and re-read Martha's book, Blockbuster Plots. It helped me so much during my MFA program in creative writing.
Also take a novel or short story as she suggests and after reading it, go back and plot it out, scene by scene. I did that with a book I helped my daughter reading when she was in 5th grade. She's now a high school freshman. Doing that was so helpful. It taught me how to read for understanding of writer's plot.
I now notice this naturally as I read books. I And then experiment on what works best for you in clarifying the order in which things occur in your story. You may be a pre-plotter or one who does it down the road, like me.
In either case you need to have a good sense of what is occurring to your protagonist and how she or his is physically responding (action + dialogue.) It needs to be a mixture of both--and definitely it cannot be all thinking. Let the feelings and thoughts come in response to the physical and verbal actions aimed at them that occur as a result of their dialogue and behavior.
Lastly, read, read and read. A writer can never read enough. And bear in mind all that Martha says in Blockbuster Plots.