We’re so pleased to bring you today’s guest, Stuart Horwitz. Founder and principal of the editorial firm Book Architecture, Stuart has helped authors revise, polish and successfully publish their work for over 15 years, with clients who have gone on to become New York Times bestsellers and appear on shows like Oprah. His new book, Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method (Perigee) explains how. Welcome, Stuart!
Plot is a Four-Letter Word
When I work with writers, they all want to talk to me about their plot. “What is this plot you speak of?” I ask, and they say something like, “…you know, everything that happens…the important parts…the stuff that comes together and you know, means something.”
Right.. One thing can do all that? Sounds pretty complex to me. The word “plot” is singular, but these writers are using it to describe so many different elements of their story. That is why I think plot is a nonsense word, a naughty word. We don’t say it around my house.
The word you want instead is “series.”
A series, as I define it, is a narrative element that repeats and varies. A familiar element that your reader can track throughout your book.
A series can be a character. When you think about it, people do repeat from day to day. How they talk, how they look, what they believe in. It is the way your character repeats that earns him or her the praise of being “consistent” or the criticism that he or she has acted “out of character.” Getting to know someone through series is how a person becomes a character.
A series can be an object. Once an object’s identity is established through repetition we are ready for its variation: that object can be used, it can be stolen, it can age or fall apart, whatever is appropriate to communicate meaning. A series is how an object becomes a symbol.
A series can be a relationship: the repetitions and variations in the interactions between two people, their ups and downs. A series can be a location: the scene of the crime or a return to hallowed ground. A series can be a phrase that is repeated in a way that expresses the book’s theme.
How much variation, or change, occurs in each series is of course a matter of personal choice. Some characters may go through a change of heart so transformative, and the writer may portray it so well, that the reader undergoes a change along with the character, the empathic experience known as catharsis. A series can be central to the hero’s quest, or it can be something offhand yet revealing like the weather. Either way it is series which brings us into the reading experience in a unique way.
Let yourself repeat when you write. Let yourself harp endlessly on a subject matter until you get the message that actually this is what your book is about.
So we should get used to this word “series.” It probably seems obvious by now that your book would have more than one series. (By the way, the plural of series is “series.” Sorry about that.) Your efforts would not be complex enough without several of these nifty things, maybe 10 to 15. Otherwise you might just have a short story on your hands.
If you do have several series then the real fun begins. When series interact and intersect, that’s where you create real emotional impact. In some cases, two series come together and things can never be the same. But first you have to find them.
This is, incidentally, one of the best reasons to not try to organize anything in your first draft. Let yourself repeat when you write. Let yourself harp endlessly on a subject matter until you get the message that actually this is what your book is about — this right here is going to be a series which repeats and varies — and which lets us know what you’re really talking about.
When you start connecting series with each other, when you start tying ropes together to make a knot, if you will, you might end up with a net that looks like what I think people mean when they say “plot.” But you didn’t get there by writing a plot. Such a thing is impossible, because a plot is something you achieve, rather than do; something you achieve like unity, or enlightenment.
About those things we can only hope. But while we’re hoping, we can attend to the detail of series.