Plot …

… isn’t that something conspirators do in attics? Or, what my editors taught me

Plot? was originally published in FOCUS, the writer’s magazine of the British Science Fiction Association, November/December 1997.

I got my first rejection letter at the age of nine, for a handwritten Robinsonade entitled “Shipwrecked on an Island” which I submitted to one of the New York publishers – I wish I could recall whom. It was an official printed rejection slip, and I was dead chuffed, in the way of a child who has been taken seriously. I discovered SF at the age of thirteen, in a rented house in Edmonton, Canada. ‘My’ bedroom was owned by the family’s teenage son who had all John Wyndham’s books and all Ian Fleming’s James Bond series (are those endings legal?), and a smattering of other writers. By the end of the summer I was well into Bradbury, McCaffery, Asimov, Clarke, Le Guin, adult comments of ‘are you still reading that rubbish?’ washing off me … A year later I cast my bread upon the waters again, sending my best (SF) story to the first volume of what would become an annual anthology of Scottish writing. It came back with a letter telling me that they thought it would be more than good enough for my school magazine. I was irked; I hadn’t been submitting to my school magazine, I had been submitting to their anthology. I did not construe it, as it was no doubt meant, as encouragement. Like the nine-year-old, ready or not I wanted to try for the big leagues. The third rejection letter I remember came when I was sixteen, and it was the one that left scars. It was dismissive: My story was pointless and incomprehensible. I had to keep reading good fiction and I would learn to write better. It was my own fault – I had not only written a science fiction short story but I had tried an experimental stream of consciousness form. And I’d sent it to a Canadian literary magazine in the mid seventies. But I knew of nowhere else. After that, I did not submit anything else for about ten years.

But at the end of my Ph.D., instead of trotting dutifully off to my first postdoc, I spent six weeks at The Banff Centre for Fine Arts, doing their (alas no longer extant) Writing I course. That was a turning point – or re-turning point. Banff taught the free-fall method, which involved hammering out on a keyboard whatever came to mind, letting it find its own shape. Up until then I’d handwritten all my drafts, then typed up the final version. Immediately after Banff, my productivity took a quantum jump. The other, longer term benefit was much of what emerged, from both myself and others, was frankly personal. Not personal in the way of confessional – though there was that, too – but personal in the way of writing from one’s own point of view. And people listened, even to the scientific, the fantastic and the fabulous.

I defended my thesis; I moved to Boston, USA, to work in the Children’s Hospital research labs. Abominable weather, noisy neighbours, rich intellectual environment – bookshops and libraries – and the company of people who, like me, had multiple interests. Three or four nights a week I’d come home from running or fencing and write from 11 pm until 2 or 3 am, the only time I could be almost certain the thudding from upstairs might stop. With my newfound productivity, and my regained sense that what I was writing had validity, I beavered away at what would become LEGACIES – then titled HOMECOMING. Into it went my experiences of exile, my sense of having grown up in two cultures and blessed/cursed with permanent double vision, my wondering as a child of the twentieth century how we will ever manage to overcome our history. Eventually the love-hate relationship with Boston wore me out; I turned my face towards the Atlantic, and said “home.”

Ah, but before that happened, I at last made it into print. The first story I wrote after Banff, drawing on a setting I knew and marrying it to a fictional story, was accepted by a small press magazine, Other Voices, one of the few which published exclusively prose. It was also my first experience of receiving special editorial attention, for it was rejected on first submission, with two comments: the ending was weak and the first person interpolative passages did not contribute. So I strengthened the ending and cut the first person passages – and the story was accepted on resubmission. In that very same week, the phone rang while I was trying to brown some two-week-old mushrooms on the stovetop. I had entered a memoir written at Banff into a Creative Non Fiction competition, and this was the editor phoning to tell me I was one of the prizewinners. The mushrooms, needless to say, were unsalvagable.

Home would have been Edinburgh, but the closest I got was Leeds, which had a superb structural biology division, willing to take me (and my year and a bit’s funding) and my immodest ambition of trying to crystallize a potassium ion channel. I perched in my attic bedroom over the stairwell of the staff rented housing and listened to one of my fellow tenants berate his publisher in Italian on the communal phone, and worked on HOMECOMING. I had short stories doing the rounds, and one was accepted for THE GATE, but after the acceptance, publication went into limbo and it never did appear.

The first publisher HOMECOMING went to – in the form of three-chapters-and-a-synopsis – was (I think) Gollancz. I can’t remember what was guiding my choices, though I think it was the same criterion that had guided my short story submissions: They published writers I liked. Gollancz rejected it, but with one pleasingly respectful touch – for my ordinary brown envelope SASE they substituted a more robust padded envelope. I took the point and used padded envelopes from then on. The second publisher I sent it to was Random Century. In November it returned. I stoically peeled open the envelope as I trudged up the stairs, expecting the usual thank-you-for-letting-us-see-sorry-it-does-not-meet-our-needs. Instead, there was a personal letter to me from the editor, Deborah Beale. She was very interested in my writing, thought I had talent, but I was not there yet technically. There were two main flaws. I tended to overwrite. And I hadn’t really learned to plot, and on that account, my characterization seemed a little picaresque. She had a few suggestions for what I might do, and she wanted to meet me next time I was down in London.

So I manoevered a visit to London. Can’t recall how or why. I showed up at the Random Century offices in a suit, with garment bag on shoulder. Deborah appeared in miniskirt and leather jacket. In a crowded restaurant she wanted me to tell her the story of HOMECOMING. I tried. The noise and the effort wore me out; I begged off half way. Which was her point – I did not have a clear idea of the story. She was encouraging, nevertheless. She got maybe 500 submissions a year. Of those, she found about 8 authors she wanted to work with. I was one of the eight.

There seem to be two kinds of editor. Editors who must see evidence of the ability to plot from the start, and editors who regard plotting as a technical skill which can be taught and look instead for innate ability to write. It was my great good fortune that Deborah was the latter. In retrospect, as far as my true understanding went, plot was something conspirators did in cellars, not authors in garrets.

Back I went to my garret and my novel, taking Deborah’s words of advice and what gleanings I could find about plotting from my reading, and started revising HOMECOMING. A year’s work followed, in which I confronted the fact that I had not really reached the ending; I had merely pooped out two thirds of the way in. I wrote nine more long chapters. Just after Christmas, 1992, I bundled up some 600 pages, 4.3 kg of laser printed Conqueror Bond, and committed them to the tender offices of the GPO. I say a year’s work – but it was a year’s work at an average 15 hours a week. Aside from the Parkinsonian properties of research science (expands to fit the time available), I sang in choirs, practiced Aikido, swam, ran, and read voraciously. I am daily thankful I am never tempted to treat my credit card as I do my library card(s).

In the interim, unknown to me, Deborah had signed on as SF editor for the embryonic Orion. That was my second piece of pure dumb luck – she had a blank slate to fill. In March, at work, I got a phone call. Deborah: “I’ve read your novel, I like it very much …” I could hear a “but” coming in the tone of her voice, and braced myself to take it stoically. “And,” she said, “we’d like to offer you a contract.” I went into high orbit and didn’t come down for a week.

There was a but. She wanted a rewrite. In August, I got the first installment of the editorial notes, and a few weeks later, the second. They came to forty pages, covering the first two thirds of the manuscript. The remaining third returned decorated with yellow post-its.


There were two moments of illumination. Around page twelve of the notes, Deborah had written, “Lian is a secular saint …” And when I read that, I started to relax. She understood. More, she approved.

This was crucial. One of my more powerful internal censors took the form of ‘the wordly adult’, whose job it was to remind me of my naievity, my childish unworldliness: SF was rubbish. Goodness was passÈ. Heroes were out of fashion. Niceness was merely hypocrisy or weakness. In most of the books I read, the central characters were incapable of moral choice. They were the victims of social conditioning and their own appetites. Nobody knew what right and wrong were any more; everyone had outgrown such infantile notions, and even if you tried to do good, the universe got you in the end.

I had written a novel with a good man at the centre. I had written a novel about a hero with moral fibre, who made moral choices, and was ultimately rewarded for his courage. And I was afraid of being mocked for that. So with that one sentence, Deborah – a professional editor – won my trust. She was willing to follow me into unfashionable terrain, without a murmur.

So I could trust Deborah. What about myself? I had spent something like five years in the building of this edifice (if one omitted an early draft better classed as juvenilia). I had fitted it together as carefully as I knew how. Ramshackle as it was, I feared to disturb it. I feared that I could do no better. I had a good (or not so good) two or three weeks of paralysis, wherein I hardly dared touch the manuscript. I re-read the notes, and nibbled at the edges, making word-cuts. And then I had an inspiration.

In the first draft, the caur’ynani, the hostel where my central character was living, was across the river from the site of much of the main action. There was a great deal of coming and going, by bridge and boat, with description and character interaction, but not much else. And ping! It came to me that I could move the caur’ynani. I should carry it over the river, into the middle of the action. Dispense with pages of going back and forth. And plop Lian right in the middle of the flood-threatened city.

Now, if anything is immutable in my mind, it’s geography, even the geography of the imagination. And here I had wilfully and painlessly rearranged the geography of my imaginary city, to my inarguable advantage. What else could I do? I wondered.

The edit took the better part of another year. Certainly not unbroken work; there were weeks when I hardly touched it, when the experiments were going well and I needed those evenings and weekends in the lab, or the experiments were going badly and I faced a deadline. There were also weeks when the novel obsessed me, and I added the wrong enzymes to the wrong tubes and forbade myself to have anything to do with radioactivity. I started the edit in the heat of August and continued through a cold winter in an attic flat in a largely empty listed building. The quiet was its great virtue; the drafts and storage 7 heaters were not. At weekends I lurked in a tent constructed from curtains bought from the hospice charity shop on the ground floor, which closed out the worst of the drafts, and enclosed my bed, my desk, the skylight window and the heater in one drape-lined six by ten by ten cell. I discovered that elastic bandages wrapped around palms and wrists kept my hands warm and still let me type. During that winter the building was repossessed by the building society; the downstairs hall ceiling fell in exposing a veritable horatorium of unrecognizable fungi; and the builders brought in to survey the whole said they had no idea what actually kept the top floor up, since it had no visible means of support. In the spring I took the advance and applied it to the down payment on a flat. I moved, and the edit continued.

It involved work on several levels. The most superficial was simple cutting of verbiage, paring down of descriptions (I was still overwriting), and exchanges which were conversation rather than dialogue. The writing of the latter was important to get each characters’ idiom into my ear, but once that idiom had been mastered, the mastery needed to be applied to making the dialogue pointed and relevant. That was mechanical – I just cut where I was told. Unnecessary scenes had to be eliminated – “these domestic scenes are charming, but this is the third” – which was more of a challenge, but I became more ruthless as the work progressed, and I became more able to recognize what was mere chatter. I achieved the collapse of those three domestic scenes into one brief one, with a 75% word reduction, dusted my hands clean of verbal sawdust and gloated. Then there was the adjustment in weighting of the various elements of the story, with effacement of subplot, sideplots and secondary plots, contrary to my rather socialistic impulse to let everybody have their story. I say effacement, not excision, because much of what was there initially is there still, but instead of whole scenes being devoted to, say Zharlinn’s relationship with Daisainia, and Lors’ protectiveness towards Fioral, these things were either dispensed with as a bit of business, a passing exchange, or made pertinent to the main plot. To use a visual analogy, the art is in using light strokes as well as heavy strokes, sketches instead of full photographic visualization. The art is in trusting the reader to bring their own understanding to the book, and fill in what you cannot make explicit.

Then there was the major work, which was on the story itself. The words “plot point” recurred in the notes with such frequency that Deborah remarked upon it herself. She had, she said, never had a writer who insisted on writing so much around and to the side of the story, creating incidental characters and events which did not bear on the central thrust of the story. I tended to land the reader into a scene and let the significance of that scene be known only later, creating the sense that “one is at a party, witnessing multiple character interactions without knowing what it all means”. I had to learn to be much clearer about how one event led to the next, and make that explicit as I moved through the story scene by scene. I had too many characters who were not essential to the plot itself. I had too many characters, full stop.

For instance, in the original version of the chapter in which Lian meets Daisainia, on the way – from the other side of the river – he also met Arkadin, Illuan D’Vandras and Tor and several other people, and it took him ten pages to get where he should have been going. In the final version, Lian met Arkadin – I was not giving that up – and then went up the hill and ran across Daisainia. Illuan D’Vandras appeared for the first time when he was needed to give Daisainia grief in the caur’cali. Tor became a walk-on, and the several others found something else to do. In the original version of the caur’cali, Daisainia’s executive meeting, the people there were the correct people for the politics – but they weren’t the people who were most important in the rest of the story. Some of them had very little to do thereafter. In the final version, each and every one of the attendees were significant in the rest of the book through to the climax. They lined up, for and against, the returnees.

Essentially, the dramatic load devolved upon far fewer characters. The others were still present, but as part of the backdrop. Their stories were merely sketched in, or suggested.

It was all in the manuscript. It merely needed to be dug out.

I had an remarkably easy time of all this. It took long hours, many miles of shoe-leather and hard thought (I think best while walking), but I felt no possessiveness over my own words. If I agreed with Deborah’s suggestions, I followed them. If I disagreed with them – if they contradicted something about which I was certain – then my task was to convince her.

A case in point was the matter of Sidor and Illuan. Could they be combined, the notes asked? Sidor was Daisainia’s grandfather and lukewarm supporter. Illuan D’Vandras was her adversary. In my mind they were two distinct, and essential people, and what I had to do was convey this conviction on paper. The emergence of the plot from the undergrowth helped that, for each of them had his own scenes. One, Illuan, came to dominate, being much more active. The other was effaced.

The most detailed annotation was over the first third of the novel. By the latter half, I had made such drastic changes that, as Deborah had predicted, a large portion of her notes (on post-its) were no longer relevant. I also was much surer of what I was doing; I knew how long a piece of description should be to avoid slowing down a scene, and I had a stronger instinct for pacing. I had a pared-down cast, whom I could slot into events. I realised that, far from being a realistic slice of life, the novel is an utterly artificial, and, for all its richness and detail, utterly homogenous structure. By analogy with ferromagnetism, all the little magnets in the big lump have to line up in one direction.

I returned the rewrite in late Summer of 1993. It had lost a quarter of its length and had been retitled LEGACIES. In December, Charon Wood sent the final editorial notes, mainly involving the ending. Mainly, she wanted more action, especially at the climax. That was probably the hardest part of the rewrite, making that showdown work; I was averse to melodrama, to action for action’s sake. It was done over a quite intense several weeks – I’d do my day’s work, come home, work for three or four hours, then go out for a walk, usually in the rain, trying to loosen up my back and unclench my brain so I could sleep. But I got the showdown in the end, using the loves, hates and pressure points of the characters who were there, with a little help from my favourite loose cannon, Thovalt. The answer, as Deborah had said to me earlier (quoting someone – Geoff Ryman, I think), is always in the manuscript.

There being none so pious as a reformed sinner, I became a plot-obsessive. There was a mental blue pencil poised over everything I read. I growled over Gail Godwin’s A Southern Family, where in the middle of the first page she embarks on a long detour about one character’s grandfather. Irrelevant! I gnashed my teeth over Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Come on, quit being coy, whodunnit? Someone oughta have dunnit! I read a lot of mysteries. At the back of my mind was the fear that my newly acquired skill might prove ephemeral. It might have been quite specific for LEGACIES, and evaporate with the yielding up of that big padded envelope. So I exercised it at any and every opportunity. It was fun being a back-seat plotter. Getting back in the driver’s seat was another thing entirely.

There was no avoiding it. While waiting for the first set of editorial notes on LEGACIES I had dug into what I thought would be my second novel, an expansion of a novella I had written two or three years earlier about genetic engineering and global climate change. I read up on global warming, the dust bowl years, genetic engineering. But when I put it before Deborah, she nixed the idea – the market for near future novels was poor. Could I move it further ahead?

I’d wanted for a long time to write a novel about a waterworld, having had a ‘thing’ about the sea and having studied oceanography, courtesy of the OU [Open University], and I’d given no small thought to how humans should be adapted to ocean. So I moved the basic idea some thousand or more years into the future, considered what form it would take, and set it on a human colony. That involved more reading, and some entertaining picking of real-estate. I’ll have that star, please, and that one, too. Once LEGACIES’ final edit was dispensed with, I got launched – and sank like a lead canoe. I laboured onwards, but the novel resolutely failed to catch fire. The characters would not come to life, or even be mildly interesting.

Deborah and Charon had, by then, given up their positions at Millennium and been succeeded by Caroline Oakley. In the end I apologetically sent the first eight chapters, and asked for feedback.

She spent two hours with me the next time I was passing through London, conducting a Socratic examination of the background of the story. She made me realise that though I had set up the genetics and ecology, and even the computer science, I had given insufficient thought to the wider picture. What were the institutions governing this planet? How were decisions made? Who enforced law? What would be the consequences of …? On the northbound train I scribbled down everything I could remember of her questions in my notebook. I started trying to answer them. Out of the answers came that body floating in the water, whodunnit, whydunnit, and with what. I made some decisions of my own, too, bowing to the exigencies of drama and the limits of my skill. No matter how faithful I thought it was to the shape of things to come, I could not get emotion transmitted by telephone or comlink or whatever. I had to give people reasons to be in the same room. That gave my novel Rache of Scole, with his reactionary background and personal touch. I gave my characters established relationships, both blood and social, with each other. I gave them history. I can’t say the writing was straightforward thereafter – the pages of self-interrogation in my notebooks testify to that. There were times I likened the story to a plate of too much spaghetti and other times I remembered a woman sculptor who had described trying to weld a length of metal in place to suggest tension and being thwacked, over and over, as it sprang loose. Bits of my novel kept springing loose and ‘thwacking’ me. But that, I think, is because I knew where they fitted. I wanted them in place, under tension. With LEGACIES I had no such stern demands of my structure. Bruises aside, I knew where I was headed, and who I needed to get there. Which is just as well because I went off in the middle of the writing and became a medical student in Calgary, and submitted the novel late in my first year, during renal. (There’s a scribble in the margin of my lecture notes: “Rache’s kidneys!” as I realised I’d never addressed what my characters drank in the middle of an ocean.) Life was full of little pings! and oopses! as I continuously turned the novel over in my mind and things occurred to me – like characters being in two places at once, or currents flowing in two directions simultaneously, or places where I could simplify the story. I became a great adherent of the KISS principle. I wrote everything down and saved it up for when the editorial notes came in.

Those took the form of a four page FAX of questions, and suggestions that certain issues were not distinct enough, and certain motivations not apparent enough. There was little extensive rewriting needed; I mainly had to give more attention to Cybele in the early chapters, given the weight she carried towards the end. In a way, I think the form of the novel helped with the plotting, in that it was closer to a mystery or novel of conspiracy than any other form, and that has a better-defined structure than the quest structure of LEGACIES. Or maybe I was really starting to get the hang of this.

Deep breath, back to keyboard, do it a third time and find out.