Plotting with Sophie Hannah

My Work in Progress and I languished, less WIP than RIP. But all was not lost, with the opportunity of advice from a bestselling writer. Sophie Hannah was giving a Guardian Masterclass last Tuesday. When my previous books were ailing, doses of professional writer wisdom revived them. Another Masterclass, days at Jane Austen’s house and RIBA/The British Library, and evenings in Bloomsbury were just what the doctor ordered.

I’ve been mired in familiar worries, explained in previous posts, that my poor plot and sluggish pace will yield an unpublishable book. Hannah was having none of that. Her PhD in Positivity trumps my Diploma in Negative Thinking. I once met another course leader who allowed “Yes, and…” and banned “Yes, but…” They’d be soulmates.

First Hannah had us write one thought about “our thriller” in the Zoom chat box. Participants wrote of frustration, being stuck, dead-ends, plot knots, losing faith, lack of time/inclination, and not having even started. Clearly I wasn’t the only one stuck in the mire.

Hannah runs a 14-week course called Dream Author. These two hours were a brief introduction. Anything in italics is a direct quote from her.

The facts about your book are less loaded and awful than your thoughts about it. You maximise your chances of the desired result if you realise the difference between facts and thoughts. Facts are neutral, objective. We have thoughts about them, and we can choose to have positive ones. We can audition our thoughts, only casting the helpful ones. Thoughts lead to better feelings. Positive feelings drive our actions. Actions get results.

Fact: I have written 30,000 words of Novel 4. Thoughts: “What great material from which to edit the best parts” OR “Shapeless waffle”. Audition: reject second thought. Feeling: I like editing (this is true). It’s a chance to select the best I can do. Action: I’ll edit maximum ten pages a day (manageable goal). Result: tight start that’s easy to build on.

Yes, but… was in my head. Yes, and… cut in Hannah. Discover the things that work by trying out the things that don’t. Even unsuccessful things are useful.

To get started, imagine your ideal reader. The instinct is to think of groups (women/animal lovers/YA). Hannah prefers to envisage an individual, an avatar, perhaps yourself. Write the book you’d read, themes and characters that fascinate you, with the writers you enjoy in mind.

To generate idea, you need to regard everything with curiosity, as a possible starting point. Yes, and there are so many: overheard conversations, tiny one line news stories, a glimpse of a church from a train. My third novel starts with a pub sign. Hannah’s right, stories come from small beginnings. You can take an everyday situation and just change a few details to make it weird.

Start by writing the blurb! Yes, but a blurb’s meant for the cover of the finished novel.

Exactly! Writing the blurb helps you visualise the final product. PLUS it provides the overriding question the story promises to resolve for the reader. I do like this idea. As Hannah says, writing the blurb makes YOU aware of what you’re undertaking – tone, setting, characters, mission statement. Put the character in an intriguing plot situation, and as you write keep referring back to that central question. Her blurb for her most successful book, Haven’t They Grown, promises to show how an impossibility can appear possible. (Her description had me so hooked I ordered one.)

Now the planning. This is where famous bestselling author Sophie Hannah, and I – indie author with just a few exclusive fans – differ. Her planning takes her at least two months. The novel’s 80-100k words then take her about 4 weeks (!) and her revisions 3 days (!!) because she’s solved structural and editorial problems at the planning stage (!!!) My planning, er, happens as and when. My first draft takes me around nine months and as for the subsequent drafts…. I ignore, er, consider, er, solve problems when they derail me or someone points them out.

Yes, but I really ENJOY writing whereas planning is a necessary evil. Although, supposing I did want to try, how would such a detailed plan look?

Right. It may run to 100 pages, full sentences describing the chapter rather than the chapter itself. It includes dialogue. It’s effectively a plan and first draft in one. You can depart from it, but it’s like a handrail on steep steps. If you know it’s there, you can relax and not use it. Relaxed, you’ll write better. Successful books usually have a solid, shapely structure – readers don’t realise but structure is what keeps us hooked.

Hannah’s plans are plot led. Realistic characters aren’t fixed, they react to events. Hannah puts them through the same fact, thought, feeling, action, result sequence she described in the coaching session. This method of developing characters is not at all “me”, but I’ll try it. I’ll embrace it! Yes, and I’ll follow her other advice, to address ”plot knots” by noting them, identifying what’s NOT working and taking the least worst alternative. Believe in advance your decisions will be right, and commit. If I decide planning’s fun, it will be! I’ll give myself achievable goals, celebrate success and trust myself to create something good.

So, a jolly practical pep talk. Yes, and in other news, my lovely German translator has a project for an online reading of The Infinity Pool / Der Infinity-Pool. Yes, and a delightful fellow author/blogger/creative writing teacher has offered a guest post and review for The Magic Carpet. Yes, and in a hopeful sign for Novel 3, the editor at the publisher I dream of working with has informed my agent that her long silence is because she hasn’t yet read it, not because she’s ruled it out. Opportunity knocks!

Jessica Norrie 2021

20 thoughts on “Plotting with Sophie Hannah

  1. This is a really interesting post, Jessica. I think I can imagine having a go at writing the blurb first but the thought of two months of planning is daunting, although if it leads to writing the book in a few weeks and only three days of revisions…
    Congratulations on the proposed online reading of the Infinity Pool – and on learning the editor hasn’t read your ms rather than ruling it out. Fingers crossed she likes it when she does find the time to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, writing endings first is a good tip and I do it too. The blurb first is whole new level though! Mind you when I was little I used to make books; I’d write the “About the Author” paragraph on the back flap, add a drawing of myself and as often as not that was as far as I got!

      Like

  2. Thank you for the encouraging update on how you’re doing, Jessica! I read Hannah’s plotting suggestions with a great deal of interest, as this is a weak area of mine. Maybe I’ll even try some of them.

    Liked by 1 person

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