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Losing the plot: How do you write fiction or nonfiction without a plot?

The Guardian recently launched a series of short pieces by writers as diverse as Geoff Dyer and Kate Grenville on how to write fiction. The series, dubbed A Guardian Masterclass, includes Rachel Cusk on point of view, DPC Pierre on dialogue and Kate Mosse on plot. Interestingly, the series is available as an eBook for less than three pounds (US$4.45) on Kindle. Turning the series of articles into an eBook is a simple and effective way to capitalise on the seemingly endless appetite that would-be writers have for reading advice about writing.
(It also almost ensures a flurry of copycat eBooks from newspaper publishers  as they navigate the rugged terrain of 21st century media.)

Geoff Dyer, who wrote the introduction to the eBook, is charmingly disingenuous about the whole business:

The satisfactions of writing are indistinguishable from its challenges and difficulties. It is constantly testing all your faculties and skills (of expression, concentration, memory, imagination and empathy) on the smallest scale (sentences, words, commas) and the largest (the overall design, structure and purpose of the book) simultaneously. It brings you absolutely and always up against your limitations. That’s why people keep at it – and why it’s far easier to give advice about writing than it is to do it.

What do you mean, no story?
Like Walt Whitman’s narrator in Leaves of Grass, this series declares its self-contradiction. Dyer confesses that he has “absolutely no ability to think of – and no interest in – stories and plots,” while Kate Mosse insists that “a good plot is what draws [her] to a novel in the first place.” For the author of four novels, Dyer’s statement has a refreshing whiff of heresy about it. It reassured me that my inability to remember much of the plot details of novels or films I have loved is not sufficient reason for giving up on writing altogether.

The catch is that this lack of emphasis on story must be made up elsewhere. Dyer believes that

Structure and tone must … take over some of the load-bearing work normally assumed by plot.

Structure and tone! What joy it was to read that sentence. Structure and tone are the two favourite parts of any reading experience for me. Whatever sage said that we read so that we know we are not alone (Joan Didion, I believe, among countless others) was proven once again correct.

What of non-fiction?
Dyer maintains that structure and tone are equally important for “certain kinds of non-fiction, those animated by – and reliant on more than – the appeal of their ostensible subject matter.” I take this to mean that no matter your chosen subject, it’s the way that you approach, explore, arrange, and communicate your material that will hold the reader’s attention. That is the only explanation I can muster for the obscure subject matter of so many of my non-fiction reading choices.  It’s also the reason why Joan Didion sold more than one million copies of her grief memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. (Aside from her being Joan Didion.)

I confess I find most writing advice a waste of time. The best advice I ever read was from Francine Prose, who said:

Write the book you want to read.

That will be the kind of book that only you can write. It reminds me of the writing teacher who told me,  “There is news that only you can bring.” On this point Dyer manages to convince and reassure:

All that matters is that at some point the book generates a form and style uniquely appropriate to its own needs. Why bother offering readers an experience that they can get from someone else?

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