Pattern Creep and Plot Wander

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.

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For 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.

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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.)

921359I 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”.

17333223That’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.)

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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!

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© Words and photographs Jessica Norrie 2017

Plus ca change…

So pleasing when a neat link arises between one’s own work (last week’s post about books that made me European), and something rather grander (the recent news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature).

If the Nobel Committee asked me which songwriters deserved a prize for both literature and peace, I’d say the French (and Belgian) ones. George Brassens, Jacques Brel, Barbara...and which interpreters of them deserved something too, for reaching out and breaking down barriers: Piaf, Juliette Gréco singing the words of Brassens, Aragon, Queneau – and Brel again, who crops up everywhere. The work of these songwriters/poets/singers foretold the work of Dylan decades earlier with just as much brio, panache, joie de vivre and on occasion angst (why are none of those English words?) and, dare I say, it more tunefully too.  Let’s have a look at a few gems of poetry, simple philosophy, politics and music.

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I heard the songs of Brassens as a child, not realising he also wrote poetry and novels. He lived in hiding for five years in Paris after escaping from a German forced labour camp.He was a true European, with a musical Italian mother who was a strict Catholic and a liberal, anti clerical French father. His songs are often jaunty and cheerful, but the lyrics are uncompromising.

Brassens wrote Chanson pour l’Auvergnat in 1954. (For copyright reasons I’ve not reprinted any of the original in this post, but given my own unpolished English summary instead. It’s easy to find both lyrics and performances online, by Brassens himself, Juliette Gréco and relatively recently Manu Dibango among others.)

This song is for you, the Auvergnat who without guile, gave me four sticks of wood, when my life felt cold. You gave me firewood when all the good chattering people had shut the door in my face, only firewood, but it warmed my body, and even now  gives a joyous flame to my soul.

He goes on to praise the hostess who gave him bread, when “there was hunger in my life” and  no one invited him in, and tells how her welcome still warms his heart. Finally the stranger/foreigner (l’étranger means both in French, how UKIP must envy that) who, watching as the police arrested him, gave him an awkward smile of encouragement rather than laughing and clapping with the watching crowd. That sweetness still burns like the sun in his soul.  When you good people die, he says in each chorus, may you go to heaven.

Some parallels here, surely, with the situation of migrants to Europe? Let us hope they meet an Auvergnat…

Piaf sang of the kindness of strangers too, in a song you will all know the tune of – daah, Dah, dah, Daah, dah DAAAHH but whose story you may not have known:

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Come in, Milord, sit down. It’s so cold outside but you’ll be comfortable here…Put your feet up!

The singer is a prostitute and her client a English aristocrat. She’s flattered that he’s come to her, she’s seen him go proudly past, a beautiful girl at his side (so beautiful it made her shiver), a silk scarf over his shoulders. Then today the girl left on a ship, threw away his love, broke his heart. How sad love is, and life itself…but you can find new chances for happiness. He’s a great lord and she’s just a woman of the streets, but she can sympathise…(as the the music slows and Piaf speaks in a shocked voice rather than singing) “but you’re crying, milord. …there, there…it’s not so bad…give me a little smile?…that’s it..bravo!“and the music speeds up, they dance,  and the man is comforted, for a while at least. This brilliant song turns social standing on its head: the poor street girl has the generosity and power to comfort the aristocrat in his moment of fragility – and yet she and we know he will probably survive longer and more comfortably than she. The songwriters were Marguerite Monnot and Joseph Mustacchi.

Thirdly, “Barbara”. She was born Monique Serf  in Paris to Jewish parents from Alsace and Odessa.
barbara-3She spent the war in flight from the Nazis, yet her song Göttingen (1965) must surely be the soundtrack to peace and reunion everywhere. She visited the German town and wrote this haunting song about how Göttingen’s parks and schoolchildren and roses were different to those in Paris, but just as beautiful; about how when there is no shared language you can still smile at each other, and about how she fears another war between France and Germany because there are people she loves in Göttingen. She recorded the song in both French and German, and it was quoted by Gerhard Schroeder at the celebrations to mark 40 years of the Elysée Treaty of Reconciliation. Do listen to it – but be warned, it will become a earworm and so it should.

I don’t mean to look only at the past (and I have nothing against Americans or Dylan!) Last week I suggested Books against Brexit and will return to that, but for now I seem to have swung towards a (better) Song for Europe. How about the wider world and the present? Fortuitously, this came onto my facebook page today. It’s good to see the tradition of moving, constructive, poetic song writing in response to power and exclusivity is still going strong: This American Life asked Sara Bareilles to imagine what President Obama might be thinking about this election. She wrote this song, which Leslie Odom Jr. sings. It’s free to download until December 3. Credits at the links given.

Songwriters: Brassens, Georges Published byLyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Monnot & Mustacchi Published byLyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group Barbara:my sheet music ©Les Editions Métropolitaines, 11 rue de Provence 75011 Paris

© Jessica Norrie 2016