You Can read these


review by Kevin Brophy


Kernen, Robert
Building Better Plots
Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1999.

Moore, Karen Ann
You Can Write Greeting Cards
Cincinnati: Writer's digest Books, 1998.

Perry, Susan K.
Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity
Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1999.


Instruction? Education? Inspiration? Which is it you need? Whichever it is, there is a book out there that can guide and inform you. We all know, as well, that the important thing in the end is to put all the books away and find our own paths through the infinite nothing of blank pages to the blunt existence of words on the page, and maybe books on the shelves in bookshops.

Writing is a technical craft (as well as an ideological, historical, compulsive, creative, privileged, indulgent and highly stylised pursuit) and it would be the foolish writer who thinks she can go on developing and maturing by flying by the seat of her pants and a few flimsy maxims about breaking the frozen sea within us or recollecting that divorce in tranquility. Building Better Plots (BBP) by Robert Kernan, as it turns out, is one of the better books about the technical aspects of writing long fiction: 'One must approach the act of storytelling with the deliberation of an architecrt building a skyscraper.' Kernan urges the writer to know her story thoroughly before the actual construction begins. To this end Kernan discusses the differences between chronological order of events and the order of events as told in a story, the arch of a plot and its major pillars, scene pacing, three-act structures and suspense, the twist, parallel plots and much more including an introduction to using archetypes, back stories, subplots, parallel plots and much else.

There is real meat here. And real books are used to illustrate his points about plot-building: Madame Bovary, King Lear, Macbeth, The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, The Caine Mutiny, The Canterbury Tales, The Sound and the Fury and others - a quirky mix of texts from undergraduate literature courses with a bit of middle-brow holiday reading thrown in.

Not that any of these writers ever read Kernan on plot-building. Most of them would have made lousy architects. The odd, illusionistic impression one gets here is something like seeking patterns in cloud-shapes only to be maddened by only being able to see human faces in profile over and over again. Some of the texts Kernan uses do adhere to and illustrate the big points he makes about plots, but in many of the others (e.g. Absolom, Absolom and The Sound and the Fury, Canterbury Tales, Life: an Owner's Manual) new categories (called plot devices) of 'the episodic' or the 'confusing style' or the 'tangential' are invented to make it seem that there are rules here too. It is gritty of Kernan to even mention aberrant texts in a work that purports to be a manual for storytellers when the aberrant ones so deliberately and brilliantly dismantle or ironise notions of pre-existing structures and instructions for successful sotrytelling - Or it is naïve of Kernan to consider that a manual of ever-expanding categories can in the end remain coherent about the few plot-rules that have been identified? Identifying the rules of fiction-making by showing how existing fiction has been knowingly or unknowingly constructed according to the rules is a little like the effect of a little knowledge of psychoanalysis: once you have the concepts and the jargon you begin seeing the evidence everywhere, even where it isn't.

BBP won't make you a writer. It might make you a better writer sooner than you otherwise would have been. It will help you to identify the purely conventional plot, and perhaps provoke you into putting all that good-building aside for a more wonky structure that works because it isn't 'better' or 'built' or even 'plotted'. I was at the Port Fairy Folk Festival last weekend and bumped into my cousin Susan. She began talking to me about a time when I built her and her brother a cubbyhouse at the beach. She told me I had insisted they dig out a hole in the sand and then go collecting debris from building sites and backyards in the neighbourhood. She told me that the cubby lasted for many summers, that they took vases and books down there, and it has remained with her as a memory of the one true cubby of her childhood. I agree with Kernan about architects and the building of plots, but at the same time I remind myself that storytelling is older than the profession of the architect, that storytelling is sometimes a cobbling-together, a bricolage of used-up bits that are transformed by luck, instinct, 'feel', wit or sheer hard work into a cubbyhouse that can actually be inhabited. BBP can only ever tell half the story, though it is an essential and time-saving half.

Which brings us to that normally suppressed question, 'Are you (after all) a greeting card writer?' Is greeting card writing a vocation or a chore? Is it writing?' Karen Ann Moore can answer all those questions. Her book is fascinatingly practical. It makes it seem possible to break into this world of authorless gems. You will learn how to submit to card publishers, what are the latest trends in card-types, how to fold cards, what 'prose' means to a card publisher, what poetic metres are most commonly accepted for publication. There are many examples of styles (e.g. the good news/bad news set up) and at the end of each chapter an 'idea jogger'. Probably the most important chapter is the penultimate chapter on how to submit your ideas and have them read by Hallmark or one of the other big card publishing companies. Moore's book is a lot of fun, and easy to make fun of, but really quite a challenge for any writer-poet-humourist-philosopher who faces up to the discipline inherent in writing a card that will actually get to the cash register in a customer's hand. The title of the book goes: 'You Can Write Greeting Cards'. The italics are interesting. Where does the emphasis fall between you and can? How misleading or manipulative is the title? But then again how misleading is the title, Creative Writing 1A in a university handbook?

Susan Perry's Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity promises by its title to come under the heading of inspiration. Perry is interested in the 'how' of flow as well as the experience. Flow occurs when

· Your activity has clear goals
· You have the sense that your personal skills are suited to the task
· You are intensely focused
· You lose awareness of yourself
· Your sense of time is altered
· The experience becomes self-rewarding

Yes to all of these! As with most new discoveries in psychology, it has been discovered before. Tolstoy described writer's flow in Anna Karenina in 1878.

Intrinsic motivation is the first key to flow and thinking like a writer is the second. Loosen up and let this seem like a psychosis is the third key. Paying attention to attention, building the 'muscle' of attention is the fourth key. Then learn to live with the contradictions of the shifty process of flow. Along with these keys there are many quotes from writers on the experience of writing, and the book is a valuable resources for these wide-ranging observations. Susan Perry is a social psychologist who teaches in a Writing Program (a more honest title than the Professional/Creative Writing titles we go for in Australian universities and colleges?). That is a challenge to the notion that writers should be teaching writers. Flow is a resource, I think, rather than a book, for it doesn't bear reading from cover to cover, though it is useful to dip into. All three of these books will sit on the dipping-into section of my bookcase, a section that is indispensible for writers who do a bit of teaching, and isn't that most writers now?




Dr Kevin Brophy is Coordinator of the Creative Writing Program at the Victorian College of the Arts/University of Melbourne.


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Vol 4 No 1 April 2000
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady