There are two approaches to plotting or structure. I think of them as ‘male’ and ‘female’ although not all men go the male route, or women the female route. But it is a useful distinction. The male way is to ‘think things through’ before beginning. It is an architectural approach, involving plans, elevations, knowledge of materials and then building brick by brick. The female way is to find out what your book is about by writing it. This involves cutting away extraneous material. It’s the archaeological approach: a bit of geo-phiz followed by a lot of digging and dusting. There’s a story down there somewhere!
I’ve always gone the second route. Yes, of course, you need to know what your book is about in rough outline – you may even know the theme; you may even know the ending. But you have not thought things through at the outset in detail, and you have no plans to work by.
I’m now in deep revision on my fourth novel, A Gift for the Magus. I have been painstakingly excavating it for about three years now, but what I have is not satisfactory. It is failing in the area of structure. Starting work on this particularly savage edit, I discovered a revulsion for lists in my notebook, lists of things to include and delete. I couldn’t even read them. And yet, as I heard in a recent lecture on Luca della Robbia, ‘you can’t feel your way in marble’. You have to know where you are going, and I realised that I could get no further, ‘feeling my way’. Then I remembered mind-mapping.
I checked the web and there are several programmes for mind-mapping. The one I tried didn’t do the job. It just produced lists with fancy clouds round them. I went back to how I always used to do it, on paper with pencils and felt-tips. Bingo! Now I draw each chapter, putting the central theme in the middle and then organising things around the edge, in fancy clouds, boxes, whatever I wish. I do great sweeping arrows linking one thought to another. And once the chapter is done, I go back and make sure I’ve mentioned everything relevant on the map.
This technique has a great benefit. Structure and plotting are, of course, classic examples of left-hand brain activities. Mind-mapping does the job using the right-hand side. It is an artistic activity, with the shapes and colours employed to highlight each thought. The very act of using a pencil, feeling the resistance and acceptance of the paper, is creative.
So if you are an archaeologist rather than an architect, try mind-mapping by hand and have great childish fun. Draw your villains. Add little details such as ‘dinner menu: stuffed quail and anchovies – mmm delicious!’ When you come to write your chapter, there will be little or no need to pause and chew your fingernails. Believe it or not, you will have ‘thought it all through’ just like a man, but in a very female way.