Brenda Clough, Hugo and Nebula nominee, author of multiple novels, short stories and novellas, as well as writing instructor, graced the Howard County chapter of the Maryland Writers Association for a talk June 18 on ‘story construction.’
Clough began her comments drawing on Dorothy Sayer’s five facets of a story taken from The Mind of the Maker (1941). The five are: Setting, Plot, Character, Theme and Tone. (Footnote: Sayer’s book is certainly available with an introduction by Madeleine L’Engle.)
Clough pointed out that certain genres favor one or the other facet. Romance is of necessity about character, while mystery and scifi tend to be plot centric. Setting is also central for sci fi. She gave as an example, her novel How Like a God, which began as a reaction to DC Comics’ short-lived decision to jetson Clark Kent’s past so that his super powers just arrived one day when he was an adult. How Like a God begins with a character who wakes up one day with superpowers “and things go downhill from there.”
The message to writers: “Whatever the plan, it should not go well.”
A confessed “pantser”––i.e., someone who does not plan out her stories, but just sits down and starts writing––Clough imagines all her characters dying at the end of her stories, but “something happens, and they don’t die.” In other words, she isn’t worried about the outcome; nor does she need to know how her stories will turn out.
She does recognize, however, something unusual has to happen in order to keep readers’ interest. “What can I do to make them more unhappy?” is how she suggests writers tackle that problem when the writer has assembled a cast of characters.
All in all, it was Clough’s “cheeky imagination” (NY Times Book Review) that kept the MWA writer audience attentive. Her comments were rarely predictable, but always thought provoking.
Clough clearly practices what she preaches, currently writing two to five thousand words a day, which in the past eighteen months has resulted in a backlog of five (or was it six) novels that she’ll get around to publishing one day when the muse deserts her.
I hope the muse keeps visiting Barbara Clough for many years to come. I also recommend that the organizers of BaltiCon 2016 sign her up immediately for a workshop. She certainly kept this writer wanting to hear more.