Sorry, cat lovers, no actual cat content in this piece, but the title is bound to attract readers who are fond of cats (or who definitely are not) and those who just want to know what kind of mess into which this cat has managed to stumble.
I’m writing about titles this time because I’ve come to believe that a writer without a title is a writer without a plot. Successful writers seem to be able to invent a compelling narrative from which a title is bound to emerge. Pride and Prejudice, for example, or Gone With the Wind. Lots happens, characters bounce vividly from page to page, scenes and setting take the reader from the armchair to a different world, and, at the end, the author looks back and says, “Ah, this book is about the ways in which pride and prejudice play themselves out in a complicated romance,” or, “Huh, an entire culture and way of life is no more. It’s almost as if it has just gone with the wind.”
I, on the other hand, work backwards. I start with a title and see what happens. What happens is that I end up with a reasonably compelling title and a jumbled narrative contriving somehow to attach itself to the title I’ve chosen. Had I started with Gone With the Wind, I might have ended up with a novel about tornadoes or gastric distress. I had written one or two ungainly novels now securely tucked out of sight before finding a title that pulled me into trying to publish the book. The Christmas Quilt was about a woman whose life had flattened. She becomes a fabric artist, is befriended by an older and very wise woman, deals with lots of life stuff, and finally overcomes her family-of-origin issues in order to create a Christmas quilt for her mentor. Memory’s Door was about a schoolmaster returning to the school he had attended. Opening up memory … you get it.
In the midst of writing these, I turned to Save the Cat, a book by Blake Snyder intended to help screenwriters shape their work so that a likeable character does something likeable in the process of moving through key stages of plot development. Snyder was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and suggested that audiences respond to what he called primal themes. The Snyder school of screenwriting presents a version of an outline known as a beat sheet (The opening, the hook, the first plot point, the first “pinch point, mid-point,the second pinch point, the “lull”, second plot point).
Sounds relatively easy.
Yeah, but no.
I’m can come up with an opening: Guy walks into a shoe store, tries on a shoe, and is transported to a land of unicorns and ogres.
That’s it. That is as far as I get. The truth is that I don’t want to read about the adventures of this imagined customer jarred out of a conventional life. It’s dumb. Even if this ostensible hero saves a unicorn, I’m not sure I care. Would I buy a book entitled, Save the Unicorn? Would anyone?
My eldest son generates narratives by the score. He grabs a genre, immediately figures out what the beat sheet would look like, adds some snappy patter and a few highly original plot twists, and is off and running. His screenplays actually work. After listening to me waffle and complain time and again, he offered what ought to have been a slam dunk piece of advice: Just use the plot structure of The Maltese Falcon. Apparently lots of writers do, making use of the Falcon’s plot and following the often quoted advice given writers like Dashiell Hammett, “When in doubt, throw a body at them.”
So, I read the book, look at the movie and get completely sidetracked by “what’s it”, the Macguffin, the goofy undescribed something that sets the plot in motion. Hammett’s book has an object known as the Maltese Falcon, but it could have as easily been the Nebraskan Gopher. The “what’s it” doesn’t matter.
But it does to me … because it is the title of the book, and against the laws of God and man, I start with the title. No traction, no beat sheet, no novel. My version? The Real Rothko, in which ill described characters get hot and bothered about a forged painting. It’s not a bad title as Macguffin titles go, but who, what, where, and why?
Here are the titles currently under consideration should I find the chutzpah to try a novel again: The Lone Gunman (obvious plot, angst, ammunition), Eating My Best Friend (plane crash/bus crash/crash of some sort, survival,ethical quandary, cooking) Queen of the Dairy (Coming-of-Age set in a Dairy Queen), Long Throw From Third (Rookie makes the Big League), The Forgotten (superheroes that didn’t make it), Too Close (claustrophobic tries to work on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange), The Dick Kazmaier Story (Heisman Trophy winner from Princeton who decided NOT to play in the NFL), Don’t Do That! (open to suggestion).
I explained all of this to a friend, and in the explaining came to the conclusion that I don’t seem to be able to tell a story, which is ok in writing non fiction or this blog or even plays. but not ok in writing a novel or for film. I’ve done three plays and feel ok about them, although they lack the kind of inciting situations that drives narrative; nothing much happens. I can do voices, however, so conversation suits me pretty well.
Reunion pulls characters to a college reunion. Years have gone by. They have changed. They talk, nothing much happens. Oh, I guess the guy whose marriage is in trouble does not have an affair. Plot hinges on something NOT happening. Changelings brings a room full of transnational adoptees together. If I could compose, it could be a series of vignettes, a musical like A Chorus Line. But I can’t, so it’s still a series of conversations about growing up with curious notions of identity.
With a final apology to cat people who have inadvertently wandered into this confession, I return to the kind of writing I seem to be able to manage – conversational, mildly whimsical, and far, far from narrative fiction.
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