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Plot as argument, argument as plot (Part 1)

by Sara L. Uckelman

At the Fiction Writing for Philosophers Workshop at Oxford Brookes University in June 2017, Dr. Sara L. Uckelman, the published speculative fiction writer and Lecturer in Logic and Philosophy of Language at Durham University, was invited to speak about “Plot as argument, argument as plot”.  Her presentation has been adapted into a three-part series, with permission, and was transcribed and edited by Nathan Davies.  This is part 1.

How I Came to Write a Philosophical Novel

There is no ‘one size fits everybody’ approach to fiction writing.  This is a good thing, because we don’t want cookie cutter stories. Everybody wants to read different things; everybody wants to write different things. I will be saying many things which contradict what author James Hawes said, so take my words and his with a grain of salt.

Writing is an intensely personal process, so I want to start off with a bit about my own history as a writer to explain how I got to the point of believing what I’ll say here. I was writing stories almost before I was reading them. I learned how to type on my parents’ computer before I could hand-write and the earliest stories I have are from when I was about four years old. They include “Sam and Pam had ham and jam,” and “Sam and Pam play with bat and ball”. I had the alliteration down but not story structure or character development.  I wrote my first novel, Cyclesta, when I was about seven or eight. Thankfully many of the details of the story are lost to history. I remember a couple of things, though: I remember that it was way easier to make up names for the characters than it was to think of things for them to do. There was: Cyclesta, Lahharway, Carlianna Daily, and Vincent (named after my dentist whom I idolized).

I was 10 when I entered the world of epic fantasy discovering The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. When I discovered that The Lord of the Rings actually ended—a book this big ended!—I did what any self-respecting 10-year-old would do and I wrote a sequel, Fargon’s Castle. My parents, who have always been supportive of my writing, printed and bound about a dozen copies, and there is a beautiful map that my mother drew at the back.  It is full of talking butterflies and bad poetry. Fargon’s Castle was the first book of a planned four (though I only ever got about half way through book two). With this it was easy to know where to start with the story because I had something to build from. At the end of The Lord of the Rings Frodo goes to the West, and he tells Sam that someday he will go to the West as well.  So, that is the starting point for this. Frodo returns to come and get Sam to bring him across the ocean. They get on the boat, they sail, they land. Things go on in a linear fashion.

What I remember most about the process of writing Fargon’s Castle was the moment that I realized I could make things difficult for the characters. I put up a roadblock: they encountered something in the forest, and they ended up in the Windlord’s prison. Everything that they had planned was completely out of the window. It was a marvelous moment of discovery; I remember very distinctly this moment of insight, that this is what plot is—plot is when things go wrong. (This is one point where I disagree with James Hawes because I think that plot is very important!) I still think that this is part of what plot is—things going wrong—but that is only part of it. Something that I never managed to get past in early teenage-writer years is plot above and beyond things going wrong; I never quite figured out how to make a story be more than just things happening one after the other, some of them going wrong. Plot was something that managed to elude me. When I hit university, I was self-aware enough to recognize that while I could write well, I wasn’t a good writer. There is a difference between being able to put words together, to have nice sentences, to create good rhythm, good flow, good articulation—and actually being able to tell a good story.

It was around this time that grad school happened.  I wrote a PhD, moved overseas, and got married—not in that order. I discovered I enjoyed academic research and was rather good at it. So, for a good 10 years all my writing was academic; I didn’t have any time or any mental space for fiction. And I was also relatively happy with the idea that writing was the thing that I did when I was a kid. I thought “I’m still a writer, I’m just not writing fiction anymore.” So, that need was still being satisfied.

That is, until just over three years ago now, when I thought: “you know, I would like to write something. Not only would I like to write something, but I would like to do it in a way that will keep me motivated to keep writing.” You’ll hear a lot of advice that says: “in order to become a good writer, you need to write every day.” Now take this advice and if it works for you then great, but you can still be a good writer and not write every day. But I decided that I was going to try this, because so many people say it and I’m motivated by arbitrary goals. So, I set myself a task that I was going to write exactly 500 words a day.  I had to plan my sentence structures carefully! On the first day, I realized that 500 words is quite a lot, so decided to do 400 instead.

Also, to motivate myself, I set myself the task that if I didn’t write 400 words one day, then they would roll over and I would have to write 800 words the next day, and so on. On the one hand, I have more space to play with, I could can expand my thoughts more; but on the other hand, if I let this go too long, suddenly I have thousands of words ahead of me, and it becomes insurmountable. The other promise that I made myself was that I was only going to write what I wanted to write. I didn’t have to think about plot, or what a reader would think, or character development. In the beginning, I had to keep reminding myself of this because I found it hard to turn off my internal editor or ignore my view of the external audience. Since it was a personal writing exercise, I gave myself permission to do things that would otherwise be plagiarism, I managed to do this for about two months before I fell irretrievably behind because I got my first permanent job, moved from Germany to England, and started teaching undergraduates for the first time.

The process of writing became necessary to the process of moving. It was very stressful. I was having nightmares almost every night, and my writing was a chance to kind of work through these things. I could take the disparate parts of my life and weave them into a story. Even after I fell behind, I continued to write—sometimes only for a week or two at a time, with months in between. I did this for two years—until last summer—and found that I had reached 200 days’ worth of 400 words per day.  That’s 80,000 words, more than enough for a novel, and written in 400 word increments over the course of 2 years.  From these 80,000 words, I extracted 7,000 words and made a short story, “The Sum of Our Memories”.  This story is being published in an anthology titled Nothing (edited by Hannah Kate, forthcoming with Hic Dragones Press. I wrote the final word of that while I was in Melbourne at a conference. The story had come to a natural end. 80,000 words was a good number, and it was a really useful exercise.

The next day I sat down in the middle of a conference talk.  It was my 10th day of conference in a row, and by that point I was tired, bored, and didn’t really care what the keynote was saying.  I pulled out a piece of paper and I started writing.  That was the beginning of what I have been affectionately calling, to myself, The Novel. It has a title, but if I say what the title is, then I’m admitting that it is real. I still have a hard time believing, despite the fact I have 105,000 words and a solid completed draft, that I actually wrote a book. It is an amazing accomplishment. I worked on it off and on for a couple of months over summer. Then something clicked and I started writing at the beginning of September.

By mid-October I realized, “Teaching has started, I’m supposed to be doing research, and I’m spending all my time writing this novel.  I needed to figure out a way to finish it. That way was National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which started in the U.S., but is now worldwide. You sign up and agree to write a novel in the month of November.  A novel is defined as 50,000 words and although you can plan ahead of time, you do not start writing until November 1st and you finish on the 30th. 50,000 words in 30 days is about 1,666 words per day.  It is a rather hefty amount, but it is not unreasonable. I took the challenge with the intention of coming to the end of my novel.  By the end of November, I had written 105,000 words—a complete draft—and it was miraculous.

Part 2 can be found here and part 3 here.  

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