Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Analyze Whatever

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So, Robert wants to know about plots, and Cheryl thought writers analyzed characters, and in some odd way, those things actually go together.

For the plots, first:  I know some writers who do a lot of planning.  I don’t know how well the planning works out.  I know more writers who have no idea what the plot is going to be when they start, although they usually have a situation.  I always have to write a draft to know where the plot is going, so on those few occasions these days when I need to write an “outline”–which is not an outline the way you think of it; it’s more like a scenario, which is what publishers want before they give you money–anyway, when I have to do that, I tend to write the draft first, really, really fast, and then summarize that.

Only, I don’t tell anybody, because then they want to see the draft, and I never show first drafts to editors.  EVER.  I did it once.  It was a big mistake.

A friend of mine used to write those “outlines” when asked, just sort of throwing in whatever came to him, and then, contract in hand, money in bank, hand in a book that often had little to do with the outline.  One of his editors complained and he said, “She’s bitching at me that this isn’t the book she expected.  Of course it isn’t the book she expected, the moron.”

I don’t know.  That seems a little harsh, so I try to rush a draft.  But at this point in my career, very few people want that much from me before deciding to okay a project, and for that I am very thankful.

All that said, for me, the extent to which I know the plot in advance has a lot to do with the amount of time between my first conceiving the idea for the book and beginning to write it.  This is usually only about six months, so I don’t know much of the plot when I start, and things sort of evolve organically, as with characters.

Actually, they always evolve organically, it’s just that, if I take long enough, I know more.  And there was one book, finally published as Somebody Else’s Music, that I mulled around in my head for twenty years.  When I first started thinking of it, I wasn’t thinking of it as a mystery, and I had not yet conceived Gregor Demarkian.  I have no idea why, after several false starts, it suddenly fit into that series.  I do know that I knew a ton about what was going to happen by the time I did start it, though. 

I even knew scenes, which I almost never do.  There is a scene near the end of that book where the main non-series character, Liz Toliver, suddenly finds herself cured of her phobia of snakes.  I saw it in my head like a movie nearly a year before I wrote it.

Of course, some plots take a lot more work and a lot more planning.  All those complicated caper novels, for instance, must take graphs and charts, at least, just to keep all the pieces straight.  Maybe the writers of those plan meticulously.  I can’t tell.  There’s a perfect wonderful book out there, called Dancing Aztecs, by Donald E. Westlake.  I’d give a lot to know how much that that was deliberately planned. 

As for analyzing characters, though, I think the verdict is in.  People do not seem to do that well when they try to analyze other people, to go at other personalities in an intellectual way.  If you don’t believe me, consider most of modern clinical psychology.

I know individual psychologists I respect and admire, and think are insightful, too, but the field itself can be breathtakingly clueless.  Let me give you an example.

About ten years ago there was a child abuse case in New Hampshire.  A woman took her small son to the emergency room with a broken leg.  The ER people called in a social worker to determine if the break was really an accident or abuse, and the social worker, deciding that the case was ambiguous, decided to be safe rather than sorry and take the child into foster care while an investigation was being done.

So when the ER workers came out of the X-ray room, instead of having the kid, they had the news that the kid had been “removed,” pending investigation.

And the mother went ballistic.  To put it mildly.

But here’s the kicker:  when the mother finally forced a hearing, one of the pieces of  “evidence” the social worker presented as tending to lead to a verdict of abuse was that…

Wait for it…

The mother was angry and combative and refused to co operate.

I might have more respect for clinical psych if this was an isolated incident, but things like this happen all the time.  And they’re worse than clueless.  It’s difficult to understand how a social worker could honestly think that a “normal” response to having your child spirited away to an unknown location while you thought he was having an x-ray would be to “co operate’ with the people who did it.

Shakespeare would have known better than that.  Agatha Christie would have known better than that.  Hell, Snoopy would have done better than that. 

Any quick look at DSM-II will give you a wealth of other examples.  And virtually any other “science” that produced results this abyssmal would have been laughed off every respectable university campus years ago.  For some reason, psychology gets a free pass, and the pass is so free it gets really remarkable results.

Consider the “priest pedophilia” scandal.  Let’s not bother to go into whether or not most of it had anything to do with actual pedophilia, and consider this:

The Catholic Church got hammered for responding to this crisis by sending the offending priests into therapy, then putting them back into parish service as soon as they were pronounced “cured.”

But these cases all date from the Sixties and Seventies, a period of time when psychologists were recommending exactly this policy in dealing with pedophiles and the sexual abuse of teen-agers.  If the Catholic Church had asked for the best expert advice available at the time–and it did–that advice would have been for them to do just what they did, and what they’ve just been penalized for doing.

But nobody has said a word about the advice, or about the fact that there are certainly thousands more cases across the country where the advice was given to individuals instead of instutitions and good old Uncle Jack was sent away for a few weeks and then, at the urging of his therapists, welcomed right back into the family to take another whack at little Cindy as soon as he had a chance to get her alone.

Again, it’s not a mistake Shakespeare would have made, or Agatha Christie, either.

So my tendency is to feel that analysis is not necessarily a good way for people to learn to understand people, and understanding people is what creating characters is all about.  The psychologists I admire all tend to temper the professional “literature” with common sense–and, come to think of it, they’re all avid readers of fiction.

Written by janeh

October 21st, 2008 at 11:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Analyze Whatever'

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  1. I’m not a writer of fiction, but I spent years doing theater. I think the same thing happens to an actor as the rehearsals progress. It goes from story to lines to motivation to understanding the character to becoming the character. It’s a process, and often what you start out with turns out to be something quite different as you begin to think like that character.

    Of course, the playwright has one thing in mind, but the actor brings his/her own background to the play; hence, one sees familiar characters (Lady Macbeth) portrayed differently by different actresses.

    Yah, it makes sense. It all comes back to what the reader brings to the table.


    21 Oct 08 at 12:09 pm

  2. I admit that I’ve often wondered about plotting. Conside Dorothy Sayers “Busman’s Honeymoon” which is one of my favorites?

    Did she start with “Peter and Harriet marry and have a country honeymoon and discover a murdered body” and let it develop naturally? Or did she plan all the side characters such as the Polic Constable and Miss Twitterton in advance.

    The process Jane describes reminds me of research and development in science and engineering. You start with an idea and things change as time goes on.


    21 Oct 08 at 5:52 pm

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