It’s a well known fact about me that I’m useless at Scrabble. This is despite being quite good, all told, in the word department and having a vocabulary which is bigger than the GDP of most countries (or, these days, their national debt). I do so love words, and I love spotting them in jumbles of letters, and I adore setting them down on the board with gentle care – none of which, of course, is any good if you’re trying to win a game.
If one could gain points in Scrabble for making pretty words, or unusual words, or ones which force your opponent to check the dictionary, then I’d win hands down every single time. But, sadly for me, the only way to win in Scrabble is to be good at something I’m utterly useless at.
My husband – who is, more often than not, my opponent on the Scrabble board – is brilliant at strategy. Not only does he think like Machiavelli, but he also has an incredible ability to place his tiles over the high-points bits of the board, and he’s great (like, frighteningly great) at doing that ‘combining’ thing, where you get to count tiles twice because you’ve made two words out of them… or something. Anyway. You’re probably beginning to see why he beats me all the time; he understands how to make the tiles work for him. I, on the other hand, think in straight lines. I don’t get much more complicated than making my word intersect with one that’s already on the board. Opportunities to clean up don’t even occur to me. I could sit looking at the game for hours and a massive juicy 40-pointer could be staring me right between the eyes and unless someone gave me a nudge, I’d never spot it.
I also notice this when I’m watching TV programmes, particularly murder mysteries and/or spy-related things. Other people tend to guess whodunnit a lot faster than I can. It’s strange; I’m pretty good at reading people when I see them in reality (better than most, I’d wager), and I love nothing more than people-watching and looking at body language – but when it comes to spotting the televisual murderer, I’m pretty useless. This, of course, means that I get to enjoy the suspense a bit more than the average person, but it does make me worry a bit about myself and my utter lack of guile.
I have no immediate plans to take over a neighbouring country, or to enter into the cut-throat world of business, or anything like that. Strategy, on the whole, doesn’t play a huge part in my life. On a more personal level, I don’t understand game-playing or emotional manipulation (though I was pretty good at it as a toddler, by all accounts) and I’m pretty much a ‘take me as you see me’ type of gal. All of this would be fine, if plotting wasn’t part of what I do on a daily basis.
Not plotting to commit crime, of course, or to do anything more interesting than move my WiP from chapter to chapter. But plotting, nonetheless. And, in its essence, all plotting is the same – you’ve got to be able to see the big picture, anticipate how every player in the situation is likely to move, and see the endgame before it’s immediately apparent. You’ve got to be able to spot the intersections on the Scrabble board, essentially, and tell who the killer is from their first appearance. It’s a skill I’m a bit too straightforward to possess, and it’s something that worries me.
I’m working through a WiP at the moment, and it’s going well. I like the characters. Already, they’ve embroiled themselves in two scenarios I hadn’t anticipated (currently, they’re still in the middle of one, and I’m not one hundred percent sure how they’re going to get out of it – but that’s what’s so interesting about writing). I figure the story is pushing along at a reasonable rate, and I’m happy with it. But then, I think about Scrabble and TV mysteries and me, and I wonder: am I, as a person and a writer, complex enough to write proper plots, ones that aren’t immediately obvious to all and sundry, ones which twist and turn enough to keep a reader interested?
Well. I’m not sure, frankly. I’m not even sure I know how to find out.
At the end of The Eye of the North, when the story was reaching its conclusion, the final bit of the plot took me by surprise. There was a moment when things just went click, and I saw – like a piece of film on fast-forward – exactly how the story could and should wind up. It was great, because up until that moment I hadn’t been certain I knew where to go with it. I loved the idea that it had come out of nowhere, even for me, and while it was a natural progression from all the set-pieces I’d placed right throughout the novel it was also slightly unexpected, and maybe just twisty enough to be exciting. Well, the book has since sold, and (hopefully) before too much longer you’ll all have a chance to read it and tell me if I was right. It’s staking a lot to expect this to happen again, and again, but maybe I should just trust my simplistic little brain to come up with the dastardly stuff while I’m not looking. While I’m cooking up clever dialogue and funny characters and set-pieces, perhaps there is a secret plotter inside me, whirring away, mixing up the threads of story that I’m feeding it and getting them nicely tangled. I hope so.
I believe that good writing is about good characters and believable dialogue, but it’s true that plot is vital, too. Having said that, I could forgive a weakish plot if the characters are fabulous, but I could never forgive poor characters in a cracking plot. Perhaps it’s just as well I’m not trying to be Agatha Christie; I certainly don’t have her way with storylines! But let’s hope I’m just complicated enough to write plots that will be interesting, vaguely surprising and full of enough warmth and heart to keep everyone interested. Fingers crossed!