I’m troubled by an earworm, an old folk tune with the lyrics run amok:
‘Twas a sunny May morning, the last of my youth,
As I plot wandered happy and free,
When Squire Pattern Creep in his herringbone tweeds,
With his wiles was the ruin of me.”
You what? I’ll explain. The expression “pattern creep” came from my mosaics teacher. What it really means is, you’ve got so involved in sticking on your little bits of tile that you haven’t noticed they’re not cut regularly, or they’re not stuck evenly, or they’re sliding around in pools of too much glue. Beware! Stand back! Your intended image has “crept”.
This especially affected me last month when I went on a weekend course at the wonderful Phoenix Studios. I embarked on an ambitious mosaic panel – a herringbone design to echo my parquet floor. But I hadn’t allowed for my mediocre measuring skills and trembly tessellations, for my hand cut tiles being so much smaller and more numerous than real parquet pieces, with more potential for departure from my plotted line. Ever heard of curly herringbone? The sagging lines couldn’t be resolved. There was nothing for it back home but to chisel bits off here and there, then whole rows, and then the whole bloody thing and start again in the centre, with more meticulous selection, cutting, and sticking and no ragged border to lead me astray from the wings.
As a writer, the syndrome is familiar. Mosaic Pattern Creep is not some Jilly Cooper seducer in a paisley dressing gown, it’s a tendency also known as Plot Wander, and I can’t be the only novelist/ story writer/ blogger to have been ambushed by it.
I started a novel about the power of fairy tales for children, all poetic language and lyrical images. My turns of phrase were romantic and swirly, elegant and mysterious, and my characters were filled with wonder. For about twenty five pages. Then my characters stopped soliloquizing and began pontificating. The story turned to gritty social realism, about the education system and racism and modern poverty and grime.
I started a novel about a vulnerable, misguided artist who tried to sell her work door to door, unaware that her images could be misconstrued and she was pulling herself into danger. It was sinister and disturbing and I wanted the reader to shout “Watch out!”, and run after her to stop her before something terrible happened. The tension lasted a good, oh, thirty pages. Then somehow it became into a description of the road I lived in and the households within it. Nobody was ever going to escape their everyday cares reading that.
I published a novel about a beautiful island full of characters with wonderful illusions and high minded ideals, coming into conflict with morally upright, hard working, underprivileged locals. It was menacing and threatening and tense – for about forty pages. Then the themes got lost inside the characters’ introspection and reviewers accused the plot of disappearing. (To be fair to myself, although the book wandered away from the crime genre, it’s held its head up as contemporary fiction, I had a nice new review only yesterday.)
I tried a sequel, my previous heroine with a new relationship plucked from a new set of characters. After about thirty pages the warning signs appeared: paragraphs about shoddy building practices, a runaway housing market, and casual refugee labourers. I had ideas of an updated The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and was tumbling headlong into the same traps Robert Tressell did, of long winded, well meaning worthiness. (That’s not to say I don’t have great affection even for the boring parts of the original and still play around with the idea sometimes.)
I’ve written (counts back) about seventy blog posts that have begun with one premise and, often enough, wandered off down the side alleys of another. Does it matter so much, in a blog post? You can always return to it and edit it. You can always just add a few more tags. The links will probably only ever be read as part of Facebook posts or Tweets where patterns don’t just creep, they ricochet. But a story, a novel, should really be complete and unified at the point of pressing “publish”.
That’s Plot Wander. It infects greater names than mine. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch comes to mind. The Lord of the Rings, too, and later Bill Bryson when he gets lazy and just repeats himself (I’m going to make some enemies here.) A minor case of Plot Wander may only involve an unnecessary character, or an unresolved question that didn’t matter much anyway. Severe Plot Wander has more dramatic symptoms: a character inexplicably changes name, age, or gender; the voice of a narrator doesn’t match their personality; a rural setting suffers from urban blight; a total change of genre occurs from one chapter to the next.
Does Plot Wander occur because the author is sabotaged by things that matter more – you could argue racism, housing, education and deprivation are far more important than any silly little love story or unsolved crime I could invent (it’s just that plenty of other people already commentate them far better than I could). Is Plot Wander some kind of automatic safety device, stopping an author from embarking on trite stories with unoriginal characters? (In that case, why does it work the other way too, halting a perfectly decent story and turning it into mush?) Is it that all an author can write is innate and pre-programmed (in my case gritty social realism) and s/he has no more chance of escaping it than of changing DNA?
You set out an idea. You tweak it, consider it, arrange it,choose the colours, and you think it has the potential to be great. You put it together, concentrating hard (you think) dedicating days, weeks, months to the composition. You stand back. It’s a loose, illogical, low impact shambles. (Was that Plot Wander or a new enemy, The Confused Identifier? One minute I’m referring to the author as he/she, the next they have become you.)
You (?) get out the chisel and you start again.
(By the way, the sculptures – celebrations and discards both – are from the Phoenix Studio gardens where we take our lunch breaks. Do have a look at their courses. Chipping away at stone, life drawing, fine art and crafts are a wonderful complement /antidote to hacking away at words.)
‘Twas a freezing May morning, in my senior years,
And I’d scribed the bright words from my head,
When I saw on the page my ideas gone astray
Plot Wander had grabbed them, and fled.
Pattern Creep warning (or is it Abrupt Ending Syndrome?) I’ve blogged weekly since April 2016, and all without pay. When I was in paid employment I had holidays. My Union (me) thinks I may be due a short break. It depends where the plot takes me. I’m flying away – see you when I see you!
© Words and photographs Jessica Norrie 2017