I recently wrote of my intention to take a step back from my current writing project to read six books with a view to understanding how their plots are put together. https://thefirstgates.com/2011/04/04/a-conference-and-a-resolution/ As promised, I’ve posted reviews of the first three books I read.
I had not planned in advance what I would read next. As I scanned my shelves, I happily found something I had overlooked, The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. I picked up a signed copy of the book a year ago when Ms. DuPrau was a presenter at the 2010 NorCal SCBWI conference (the link above explains what that is and has notes on the 2011 conference).
The City of Ember (2003) is a middle-grade, post-apocalyptic fantasy – (is it just me, or is that really in the air these days?). A movie version, starring Tim Robbins and Bill Murray was released in 2008. I will review the book when I finish, but now I want to talk about some of the comments DuPrau made at the conference, since she shared some of the ups and downs she experiences in plotting.
Beginnings are relatively easy, she said, and her goal is to know the ending (more or less) when she starts, so her story has a destination. She said wrote the first chapter of Ember, and knew the ending, ten years before she was able to complete the middle of the book. She was working a day job at the time, but even so, months went by when she didn’t take Chapter One out of the drawer because she didn’t know how to proceed. Traditional methods failed her, notably outlining.
Now this is stuff I personally identify with. At the end of the conference, I picked up a written critique of my opening by Ms DuPrau that I had arranged for in advance. It was pretty positive. I think I do openings well, and then bog down in the middle, as she describes. Outlining works to organize ideas I already have, but I’ve never been able to think my way into inventing something new. I can write my way there and imagine my way there – sometimes – but these can be round about methods. If I set out for San Francisco, but decide on the way to visit Carmel, I may eventually reach my destination, if I have enough time. In plain terms, I’d rather not break DuPrau’s ten year record!
So what does she do? According to my notes, she writes and imagines her way through the plot and keeps herself focused by asking one very specific question at a time. Both free-writing and “focused” dog walks are methods she has evolved – ones that I have also applied, though not in so concentrated a manner. In fact I found several pages of free-writing I’d done at breaks in that conference and appreciated the reminder that here is something valuable – a “disciplined” method of aiming toward an unknown destination!
The final thing DuPrau shared that day was the story of her success, and she revealed her method for that as well. After Ember was finally done, she combed Publisher’s Weekly for contact information on new agents who were just setting up shop and looking for clients. She cut a deal with the first agent she applied to who was actively seeking fantasy. DuPrau’s story is living proof that even in this notoriously difficult age for publishing, the right combination of hard work, inventiveness, and luck can open doors to success.