Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 9, 2008

Sharks in the Kitchen

Back in my too many years as an English major, I was crazy about Virginia Woolf and took on a certain amount of her disdain for plot. I had time and patience then, and could happily read hundreds of pages in which not very much happened. When I started writing short stories, Alice Munro was my model: sitting at a kitchen table talking? Yes! Who could ask for more?

Some things have changed for me over the decades. I’m still pretty patient, still have a few Virginia Woolf novels and journals on my shelf (and a VW doll), and read Alice Munro from time to time: I liked Runaway. But as a writer, I want people to move faster through my stories. While I’m personally fond of the word “quiet,” seeing that word in a rejection letter makes me get pretty loud. So I’ve come to study and think about plotting more. I’m looking at my manuscripts for places I can put in secrets and screaming and the kind of drama I try to avoid in my life.

When I complain to my husband that I need action, he’s quick to suggest monsters, blizzards, sandpits, sharks, tornados, extraterrestrial attacks etc. for me to toss in. Thanks, honey. Maybe I should listen, but, I don’t know, we all have our strengths. Still, if you feel plot-challenged like me, and determined to step it up, you might want to read beckylevine‘s interview with Martha Alderson . If you comment on Becky’s blog, you have a chance to win Martha’s dvd, Plot Guide for Children’s Book Authors. (gosh, even I could do that, and I did!)

Sarah Sullivan in thru_the-booth is also taking on plot this week, starting with Pink Panther and promising Aristotle’s Poetics in the next day or two. So this made me think of (you see why I love VW’s stream of consciousness?) a fiction professor who told us we should read the Poetics over lunch at least once a year. I’ve tried, but the cheese sandwich seemed like the best part. Maybe I’ll try again: the picture of an upside-down V is compelling. But after drafting this last night, I dreamed I was off to the funeral of this beautiful professor, who must be elderly but not dead. On the way, a shoot-out slowed down traffic, and a victim ended up in the back of my car telling me her story. So I was going to be late, then even later when my dog ended up with me in the parking lot. I was taking Parker to a friend’s house, getting distracted by random paintings and weavings along the way, so I never quite got there. I know this is a dream and not a plot, but is this hopeless?



  1. Jeannine,
    Every time I log onto your blog, I’m finding myself facing the exact same issue. I’ve spent the morning in a cool coffee shop, trying to untangle the mess I’ve gotten myself into on this latest revision–seems that I’ve revised what little plot there originally was right out of the book. So now i’m thinking action, action, action, and that awful niggling question what is happening right now that will keep the reader turning the page. Yet, I also think it’s so important not to get too formulaic, which is what happens, or what is happening to me this morning as I contemplate action separate from character. Simply questions to ponder–over and over again.

  2. This is something I’m working on, too, Jeannine. Thanks for the great link!

  3. I know you will get back to the right place, but it can be so frustrating. Yeah, we won’t allow sharks in your ms, but you’ll come up with something greater.

  4. You’re welcome, Mary! Sometimes a nudge of theory can land me a new place, and newness is almost always good. Good luck with your plotting!

  5. I’ll top your sitting with coffee talking. I just read Sister Carrie (fiction for research, how about that?), and two of the three main characters spend, oh, maybe 70% of their time alone in a rocking chair. One of them rocks in front of a window, at least, but the other just stares off into a dark room.
    Virginia Woolf’s prose makes up for her–lack of plot? confusing plot? 🙂
    I think your dream sounds very much like a first-draft plot. Now all you have to do is figure out why Parker is there, and you’ll have it!

  6. Virginia Woolf
    I just started reading my very first VW. To The lighthouse.
    Am I going to go nuts? So, far (and so very little far), I find the “thoughts” interesting. She is the master of the ten-mile sentence. But it hasn’t lost me yet.
    I did just jump to Wikipedia to get that further varification of little plot but a lot in introspection.
    I might find that interesting. Getting into someone’s head.
    Any thoughts? Cautions? Recommendations?

  7. Oh, Sister Carrie was also a college favorite. I can’t remember a thing about it, of course, but ah, the rocking chair. I suppose that was what called to me. It’s kind of sad…

  8. Re: Virginia Woolf
    All right Slatts! Kayaks and Virginia Woolf. I’m impressed.
    I don’t think you’ll go nuts, or only in a good way.
    I think if you think of it as music and color that will help.
    This is, as it is for many, my favorite Woolf novel. You get to see not only lighthouses but people as shapes. And thinking in terms of the alphabet: who of us gets so far as Q or R?
    Luckily for you there’s no test. Just let it roll over you.

  9. Kayaks and Virginia Woolf….
    Thanks, Jeannine
    That’s a great “FRIEND” endorsement! I look forward to discovering what makes her Virginia on the inside.

  10. I can totally relate to your schoolage love for Woolf (ditto for me and Faulkner) and long, windy streams of consciousness. But my students have brought out the ADD in me and now I’m getting into the whole “get to the point” plot thing. They have corrupted me.

  11. plot-corrupting youth
    I think I love your students.
    But those were the days — I can see those shiny black spines of Faulkner paperbacks on the kitchen bookshelf of a friend. Absalom, Absalom, what the heck is that?

  12. Re: plot-corrupting youth
    I love my students…but that love might fade (as I’m grading finals this week! Ack!)
    I just read the subject line of your comment and laughed out loud. For real.
    I think I was smarter when I was younger. I can’t remember half the stuff I read.

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