Plotting

The Janus Gate

There are times of passage in everyone's life: times when we leave the old familiar self-image and move to a new understanding. 

Author Janet Lee Carey, from her workshop Plot and Passage, 

2014 Whidbey Island Writers Conference

 

Unable to afford the real thing, I've pulled myself through a DIY-MFA these past few years, attending workshops and conferences; reading books on craft; subscribing to magazines and writing blogs; stuffing my Readability account, Pinterest boards, three-ring binders, and file folders with articles on writing craft, the publishing industry, and creative inspiration.

 

At a certain point however, all the craft advice, the bullet point lists, the twelve different ways to structure a plot, began messing with my brain and disrupting my writing. And it only stands to reason, more time studying my craft means less time working on my art.

 

Gradually this past year, I've unsubscribed from all but a few choice craft blogs and I've stopped clicking article links—except for the brilliant essays on art and creativity Maria Popova writes and curates for Brain Pickings and the occasional New York Times series Draft. Leaving a day job for the full-time writing life means a budget of one conference a year, one workshop a quarter.

 

Easing up on the intake of information allows the real gems of guidance to sparkle, as they did at the recent Whidbey Island Writers Conference, where author Janet Lee Carey tilted my writing life ever so slightly, but significantly, on its axis. In her workshop Plot and Passage, Carey introduced us to the concept of the Janus Gate. Janus is the Roman god of Passages, both literal—the history of Ancient Rome describes a long temple with two arched gates on opposite ends and a statue of Janus between; and temporal—our calendar year begins with the month named in his honor.

 

But as a literary device, the Janus Gate represents an emotional passage for your characters. One side of the Gate is safety, the familiar, home. It can also be a trap, stasis, stagnation. Your plot may push a character across the Gate's threshold into risk or danger, or perhaps into opportunity, new relationships, and a greater understanding of himself. Your plot may also hold your character captive on the "safe" side or force her to return to the old way of life, thwarting her efforts to change.

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Of course, it's the writer's job to make life difficult for our characters—that's Storytelling 101. But if we just throw events and situations at our characters without taking time to consider how choices, passages, cause our characters to evolve, the story will read like a series of Post-It Notes. As Carey states, "Character Changes Story. Story Changes Character."

 

I'm never certain when I begin writing a story how my characters will change by the end. I am learning that delicate dance between my expectations of/plans for the plot and the characters' actual responses and actions. With Janet Lee Carey's metaphor of the Janus Gate, I have this simple tool—a beautiful visual, really—of character arc and plot progression.

 

Recently, a character I've been thinking about for years made the passage from my mind onto the page. I watched as she wobbled on unsteady legs, turning this way and that, toward the unknown, back at the familiar, before she finally stopped in front of me and asked, "Which way do I go?"

 

We'll find that out together, she and I.

 

Of all the gin joints in all the towns...

Two years ago, I wrote a story based on someone who slipped in and out of my life in a matter of weeks, set in a place where my heart swelled, then shattered. The short story was published earlier this year and I was so pleased. But it's an unfinished work. It is the foundation of an idea I'd considered developing into a novel, before I settled upon the tale I'm writing now. The characters knock around in my head, waiting. When the time is right I know they'll still be there, ready to tell me what's been happening since we last met.  

Round about the same time my short story found its way to print, a slim and elegiac novel landed on bookshelves. It came to my attention over the summer and a few weeks ago I read it. I hadn't heard of the author, but the novel had solid recommendations. The high praise is merited. It is an introspective, fragile story written in quiet but lyrical prose. It's a book I'm glad to have read.

 

Except.

 

There is a French word which combines disappointment with a feeling of having been set up, somehow: déçu. I read this lovely novel and I said, "Je suis déçue."

 

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

 

The similarities between the novel and my short story are striking. All the more so because the similarities are completely coincidental.

 

Which writer hasn't heard the maxim, "There are only seven basic plots, but thousands of variations"? But I'm not just talking plot here. We each wrote a story with the same evocative setting, about a woman struggling in isolation who meets a vulnerable soul in need of rescue. The same kind of rescue, through the same means and bureaucracies and from the same sort of community. And in the distance stands another character, eager to help, if she'd only drop her defenses and let him in.

 

There's a certain beautiful karma to the thought that perhaps we worked on our stories at the same time, that there are ideas, a place and themes big enough to carry us both in similar directions but which allow us to explore different emotions, interactions and outcomes.

 

But there's a part of me that says,"Well, shit. Now what do I do?" Change the setting? No way, José. It's as integral a part of the story as any of my characters. It is a character. And if I changed the story, well, that doesn't work for obvious reasons. I feel deflated. Flattened.

 

Deçue.

 

And yet. The story I have written, the one that rattles around in my heart saying "Write more of me" is still mine to tell. As much as the other author owns the story that appears in the novel. Our stories may not be unique, but our voices are. I'll admit, I'm relieved my short story was published before the novel appeared, so there can be no question that any similarities are coincidental should I ever take my plot and characters further. But I believe once I begin writing it again, something very different will emerge. I will, as Melissa Donovan advises (paraphrasing),"Forge ahead and believe in the story I want to tell." 

 

Here are a couple of posts from great writers/writing coaches which help me keep perspective.

Melissa Donovan, Writing Forward: Are There Any Original Writing Ideas Left? (this is the post where I pulled the paraphrased quote above).

And because every writer keen on storycraft should read Chuck's rockin' blog

Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing

 

And thanks to Casablanca for having the best quotes at the right time.

Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand