'Being able to plan, whether in detail or just an outline, is a critical skill to have,' says tutor Eli Glasman. Ahead of his upcoming workshop, we talked to Eli about how mapping out your plot can help you recognise traps in your writing, before you become stuck in them.
In your upcoming workshop, participants will learn to make sure that the plot stems honestly from the characters – do your characters ever take your plot in a direction you hadn’t expected?
All the time. Often while writing I will spend 'down time' with the characters - just writing out sequences that have nothing to do with the plot. What tends to happen is that they'll do something that makes me laugh, or cringe (in a good way) and I'll keep those scenes in the book because they're so much fun. The plot tends to settle itself around these moments, so that it really does feel like the characters are guiding the story, rather than just playing their part.
I'll also make sure to be as honest about the characters as possible. I'm very strict about their thoughts and actions being realistic. Taking this approach tends to lead to some surprising areas, because there's a lot more nuance. Sometimes good characters will do something bad and vica versa. It muddies the waters and keeps things interesting.
Your workshop will deal with plotting not only an overall novel, but individual chapters and scenes as well – how important do you think detailed planning is in the writing process?
It depends on the writer. But, I think being able to plan, whether in detail or just an outline, is a critical skill to have. Often times, while writing, you may find yourself at a point you can't work through. You just don't know what to write next. The reason you're stuck may be something simple, like you've resolved a point of conflict too early and have nowhere to take the story, or a character arc has veered off course. Stepping back and mapping things out, even if this is in a later stage of the writing, can help recognise those traps.
You have said that 'the real beauty of writing a story is how it allows me to think in ways I don’t allow myself to otherwise.' Can you share an example of this?
I get to immerse myself in a completely made-up environment without questioning my sanity. I love to just think about the tiny details - what texture the crust of bread feels like, or distant sounds from the neighbours. You can really get lost in it. And wrestling with words is something I don't get to do otherwise. I can spend days on a few paragraphs, always running through different ways of wording it. It's relaxing, but at the same time feels like the most important thing in the world to get it right. There's nothing else I do where I'd give myself that kind of space just to indulge.
‘The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew’ was your first novel, after writing primarily short stories – was there a difference in your plotting process for the two forms of writing?
Most definitely. The biggest one was managing subplots. With a short story, I could introduce the character, move into the central conflict, have the climax and resolve. With the novel, many of the chapters needed to do this, while also forwarding the larger story. Figuring out how much time to devote to other tangents in the story, while keeping it focussed on the central conflict, was the biggest challenge.
There was also a lot more detail I needed to think about in relation to the day-to-day life of the main character, Yossi. In a short story, I could ignore a lot of that detail, but I really needed to get stuck into it in the novel. At first, I was scared off by the idea, but it proved to be a fulfilling exercise.
You talk about working twists into your story without them coming off as contrived – can you recommend any books that feature well-written twists?
'Making History' by Stephen Fry has a cracker of a twist, which I really loved.
Also 'Annie On My Mind' by Nancy Garden has a great character revelation that was subtly realised and believable.
About Eli Glasman
Eli Glasman is a Melbourne-based author. His debut novel, 'The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew' (Sleepers Publishing), concerns a homosexual boy in the Melbourne orthodox Jewish community. His short fiction has appeared in 'Voiceworks' and 'Sleepers Almanac' and in 2013 he was placed second in the Josephine Ulrick short story competition.
About Amy Adeney
Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.