Narrative Cartography: Mapping My Way to the End

Writing a book is like wandering in a strange country. You’d think since I made up the country I’d know my way around, but I don’t because I only think I made it up. My theory is that the core of the story exists in my subconscious and that my job is to get out of my own way and let that story emerge as I write. That’s great for a first draft, but that’s also how I end up in a strange country.

So then I take a step back and start to try to make sense of things. For some reason tonight, it struck me that what I do is make a map. I’m lost in a wilderness, and I stand in the middle of it and I say, “Okay, where’s the north star? Right there, there’s my protagonist. Now what does she want and who’s keeping her from getting it? Keep your eyes on that, Jenny, because that’s true north.” (Actually, the symbol I usually think of is Wallace Stevens’ jar in Tennessee, but that doesn’t work with the map metaphor, so we’re deep-sixing that for now.) Then all I have to do is figure out what kind of map I’m going to make to get myself to the end, keeping my eyes on the True North of the heart of the story.

Usually it’s the four act structure which I diagram out on my big white board in four columns. I look for turning points, first the point in the middle where the protagonist experiences an event that is so life-changing that she can’t go back to where she began the story, she’s too much a different person now. Then I look for the event before that, midway between the beginning and the midpoint, that also had a remarkable impact on her, turning her in her journey. And the point on the other side, midway between the midpoint and the climax, the dark moment, going to hell in the classics, where the protagonist is tested the most. Those three events divide the book into four chunks or acts, four shorter stories if you will, each with its own narrative arc that I can then diagram out on my big white board, but this time with Agnes, the map just didn’t fit the terrain. We had an excellent three act structure, but the fourth wouldn’t diagram, I couldn’t even get it on the white board, so I couldn’t find my way home.

Then I went to my intuitive map: the collage. I’d tried collaging the book earlier and it wasn’t working at all: bland, predictable, no oomph, no excitement. I chalk this up to the fact that I was writing to my partner’s outline at the time, but I may just have been pushing too hard. Sometimes you have to wander around the strange country for a while before you try to map things out. Then many months later we finished the first draft, and I rewrote and did my four act structure map and my partner signed off on it and we sent it off to our editor and it came back smartly with the rewrite notes: his stuff was great, mine needed work.

Rats. (That wasn’t what I said, but I’m trying to clean up my act.) So I went back and ripped the collage apart and threw myself into the revision of that, just taping things on intuitively, doing a first draft of the collage all over again, and ended up with something pretty interesting. The top twelve inches or so turned out to be Agnes’s life and her relationship with Shane, the hero, and it held together beautifully. Everything else was a mess (which I knew from the revision letter). So I sat down with my paper and my pen and started to look at the elements of the collage and, basically, drew a map of the collage. Instead of “here be dragons,” it was “here be the love triangle complication,” “here be Shane’s troubles in the swamp.” I couldn’t figure out what Agnes’s Mothers were doing in Shane’s swamp until I remember that they were nearby while he was under fire, just as Shane’s stripper was nearby during Agnes’s bachelorette party debacle. That had to mean something, there had to be some road connecting those, so I looked for the paths, the way the characters traveled through the story. Then I pinned the map to the wall and started to structure the collage as I added the missing pieces. And as the collage started to make sense, the book finally started to make sense; the collage began to become the map to the book that I needed.

But there was another map. I went back to the book where both our editor and agent had said that they’d have a much better grasp of what Agnes did for a living if they could actually see some of the columns that she wrote as a food critic, maybe as chapter headings. I was against that because you really need to break chapters at turn-the-page moments, and quotations at the top of chapters pretty much stomp on momentum, but then I thought, “Okay, so maybe on this one, we don’t use chapters.” And I took a step back and looked at the book again. There’s a time lock on this plot: The wedding has to happen by noon on Saturday or Agnes loses her house. With a time lock, one structure that can be effective is one superimposed on the book that lets the reader count down the time to the climax. So I divided the book into days instead of chapters. I hate chapters, they have no narrative meaning, but days had narrative meaning because each one brings Agnes closer to disaster or victory. Of course the big drawback to days is that they usually end with the POV character falling asleep, but in this book, at midnight, Agnes is either having sex or being shot at, and Shane is either having sex or killing somebody, so basically, every section ends with a bang. I also found out that with some cuts which we already knew we were going to have to make, we could almost certainly make each day grow shorter, which would give us the pacing we needed. And I could put the column quote at the beginning of each day since there was going to be a page that said TUESDAY in between each day, not just a “Chapter Twelve,” and a turning point at the end of each day, although I’m still not completely sure I can make the stakes get higher in each of them since they all have to happen at midnight. I’m not a miracle worker. The important thing is, the structure gives the reader a map to the book. She or he knows with each passing day that the climax is drawing closer because the day page is right there, tick tock.

Of course we’re still in the middle of rewrites. By the time this book is in stores in August, all of that may be gone. But right now, I’m happy. I’ve still got the collage to finish, it’s only about two thirds done, and I have those midnight turning points to arc and some how, God help me, I have to raise the stakes each time, and there are about fifty other things to fix, but I know where I’m going. I’m not wandering any more.

I’ve got my maps.

Clue Cake, Anonymity, and Other Unprofessional Behavior

Before we begin, a few disclaimers:

  1. I’m a friend of Anne Stuart, also known as Krissie.
  2. When Harlequin added the moral rights clause to their category contracts in 1995, I called them the Evil Empire on the internet. If I could find the place I said it, I’d link to it, but that was eleven years ago and God knows where it is now, probably orbiting Mars. The gist of it was that HQ had put into its contracts a clause that it could change anything it wanted in the books without the permission of the writers, and I said that was wrong, in several colorful ways that I have forgotten now, but in the midst of that, I definitely called HQ the Evil Empire. I remember that clearly.
  3. I read Miss Snark’s blog for the first time tonight, the entry from 11/03: Nitwit of the Day!

Unprofessional behavior. Yes, I’m talking about the Nitwit of the Day column in which Miss Snark took Anne Stuart to task for saying in public that she was unhappy with her publisher. I had never read Miss Snark before this because I have no time for anonymous writers because unless you have the courage to speak out under your name like, say, oh, Anne Stuart, you can pretty much lob any bomb you want and then slink away into the night while everybody else takes the hit, so you have no accountability and no credibility. So when I heard that Miss Snark was criticizing Krissie, I said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, nobody even knows who this woman is, she’s just an anonymous blogger sniping at a big name from the underbrush. Why is anybody even paying attention?”

Then I read the column. From the first line, I was appalled. “A big hunk of clue cake for everyone at the book buffet” is not snark, that’s just somebody trying way too hard to be cute. I’m almost certain Television Without Pity invented snark, and they’d spit on “clue cake;” if this person is going to appropriate “snark,” the least she can do is not take its name in vain. Maybe in her other entries she writes with wit and verve, but this is the only one I waded through, and wit was notably lacking. Verve also. She did seem to be having a good time, there was a definite God-I’m-amazingly-brilliant tone throughout, but since that tone present in most of my blog entries, too, I’m going to just let that one lie there.

Then she followed up “clue cake” with:

Don’t diss your publisher in public. Not now, not ever. Not even if you think you’re right, especially when I know you’re wrong.

That was when I thought, “Who is this person and why isn’t she taking her meds?” The day my agent told me “Don’t diss your publisher in public” and then followed it up with “even if you think you’re right, especially when I know you’re wrong” would be the day I’d be announcing on the net that Jenny Crusie was looking for a new agent. Talk about unprofessional behavior; this is not the way a good agent speaks to a client or writes on the internet. (I know, ironic, isn’t it?) She’s telling authors in general and Anne Stuart in particular, “Do not say disrespectful things about your publisher on the internet because I know it’s wrong. Do what I say, because I know all.” Which is when I say to her clients, “Run, Forrest, run.” Or whatever the hell your names are, which you don’t know, either, because she’s anonymous. But if you’re an author and your agent has ever said to you, “Don’t argue with me, just do what I say because I know this is right,” run. Delusion of omnipotence is a bad sign in an agent.

One reason it’s a bad sign is that it leads to bad conclusions, and Miss Snark’s Nitwit Blog is an excellent example of this. She wrote:

Here’s why dissing your publisher is stupid. It removes every desire to go the extra mile for you. Every and any.

But Krissie felt her publisher wasn’t going the extra mile and wasn’t ever going to in the future. She was already past the point that Miss Snark was threatening her with. (And by the way, why are we so sure that Miss Snark is an agent? She’s sure threatening for the publishers here.) Miss Snark’s conclusion was that Krissie should have remained silently unhappy, that her abiding sin which made her Nitwit of the Day! was that she spoke of her unhappiness. You know, this is not an agent I’d want representing me. “You told people you were unhappy? You’ve ruined your career! Go sit in the corner! Nitwit!” Miss Snark is forgetting the major tenet upon which all publishing rests: If the book makes money, the publisher will go the extra mile, the extra kilometer, the extra continent for it even if the author is the offspring of Godzilla and The Thing. And if the book doesn’t sell, the author can be Susie Nice Girl and the publisher will dump her in a ditch and spread somebody else’s remaindered copies over her body. Making everything much more complicated, if the author doesn’t get publisher support, she won’t sell. And the only way to get publisher support is to make sure the author and the book get noticed. Which is NOT by shutting up. Miss Snark can sit in the concrete bunker of her anonymity and shake her cake-stained finger all she wants, but she’s ignoring the complexity of the situation and, if she’s any kind of agent at all, she knows it and she’s taking the cheap shot at Anne Stuart anyway. If she doesn’t know it, she’s not much of an agent.

Now let’s look at what Krissie actually said in her interview on All About Romance, and then think about what a good agent, safe in an anonymous blog, might have written.

So now I’m with Mira, who promised to love, honor and adore me. And maybe they do, but they could do more. I know every writer says that, and I hate to be greedy and ungrateful, but they’re not so much about the books. They’re about slots and numbers, not about passion for what they’re putting out there. Or so it seems to me. But then, right now I’m pretty disillusioned about the lack of support from them. I’ll get over it. Maybe they’re right and I’m wrong and I’m a middle of the road writer. No, they’re wrong. I’m a goddess. And maybe I’ve misjudged them. It seems to me that they look at my books like boxes of cereal on a shelf, and they’re in the business of selling cereal, not loving it.

Now a smart agent looking for a blog topic would read Krissie’s interview and say, “This is something that everybody in publishing knows but nobody talks about in public (except for Anne Stuart) that some houses are better at taking books to the next level, and I could do it thoroughly because I’m safe behind my anonymity. Or I could go safer and talk about what it means when a well-known author like Anne Stuart is so discouraged about fighting the good fight to get to the top after twenty odd years in publishing that she says, in public on the internet, ‘I just don’t know anymore,’ there’s a good blog in that, what publishing does to the long term author. Or I could go even safer and talk about what happens to both the author and the publisher when communication breaks down to the point that the author becomes so unhappy that she tells an interviewer about it and the consequences for both of them.” But Miss Snark went the safest and most self-centered route of all and said, “Boy, if I call Anne Stuart a nitwit, I can get myself a snappy little column out of this. Because nothing says ‘smart agent’ like making a big name author look bad while sucking up to publishers.” Which is why I’m really starting to think that Miss Snark is not an agent. No good agent I know would ever sound like this. Of course, she’s anonymous, so that makes a difference. Maybe in public, she hides this side and acts like a professional. That would help her keep clients.

The aspect that really makes me think Miss Snark is not an agent is that nowhere in that column does she say what she’d advise Krissie to do in her situation. She has a great time talking about how stupid Krissie is and what a huge mistake she made in speaking out, none of which is helpful in any positive, pro-active way to anybody, but she never says, “If I were Anne Stuart’s agent, here’s what I would have recommended she do in her situation, given her unhappiness with her publisher,” and my guess is that’s because she doesn’t have a clue what Krissie should do. Well, that, and also because there’s no FUN in that. Why be a thoughtful professional when you can be a name-calling mean girl and get the rest of the kids to laugh with you? It’s one thing to call an author to task and say, “That was the wrong thing to do,” but when the agent follows it up with insults instead of insights, I’m not impressed with that agent’s skill set.

But my favorite part is the end where the anonymous blogger makes fun of the author who signed her interview (“Anne Stuart couches her nitwittery behind ‘oh I’m always honest’”) by saying this:

And if you want to comment or email me all atwitter about this post here’s what I have to say to you: ‘I’m always honest’. It’s not true of course. I’ve learned that discretion is the better part of being a grown up.

Well, of course I recognized the maturity in “clue cake” right away (I know, I have to just let that go, but cutesy writing sticks with you like bad shellfish), and I suppose you could stretch and call an anonymous blog “discretion” if someone was doing cutting-edge industry commentary, but that’s not what this blog was; this blog was just plain wrong. Authors can criticize their publishers on the internet and still behave professionally. And survive. With those same publishers. It happens. If you’re me, it may turn out to be one of the smartest things you’ve ever done. If you’re Krissie and some anonymous blogger decides to take a ride on you and call you a nitwit, that’s annoying, but your name gets spread over the internet, and any ink is good ink, plus you’re the New York Times Bestselling Writer and she’s just an anonymous blogger, so you win. Speaking your mind as an author is not wrong. You do not have to gag yourself in order to be successful in publishing. You do not have to shut up to survive. There is no party line you have to toe in writing, damn it, that’s why we’re writers, we do not censor ourselves for the money. That’s a vicious message to send to writers. Who the hell is this woman, Karl Rove? Oh, right, we don’t know. She’s ANONYMOUS.

Okay, by now it’s clear that it’s the anonymity that sticks in my craw. People without the courage of their convictions. Or their clue cake. (Let it GO, Jenny.) People who can say anything because there are no consequences except for all the writers who are now afraid to speak what they think and all the agents out there that people are now suspecting might be Miss Snark and wondering if they’ll turn someday and snarl, “Because I know you’re wrong and I’m right so TREMBLE AT MY FEET, NITWIT!”

And eat your clue cake.

(Okay, okay, I’m OVER it.)

Anonymous blogs that make incorrect statements about the industry without insight or illumination, fueled by ego and tainted by unprofessionalism, ridiculing writers to silence them by threatening them with the end of their careers. Oh, please.

Call me when somebody signs her name.