Burnt Toast Editorial

The No Bullshit Publishing and Writing Consultancy

Category Archive:Novels

J.K. Rowling and Norman Mailer. How authors of blockbusters plan their plots.

One wouldn’t readily think there’s a literary or publishing connection between J.K. Rowling, author of the world’s most famous wizard since either Oz or Merlin and the late American writer Norman Mailer,¹ an author best known for his pugilistic and bruising intellectualism.

What is it that binds these two unlikely literary behemoths other than their obvious star selling power? The answer is planning the plot; what Tony Buzan would call “mind mapping” or what was known in the 1970s as “idea sunbursting”.

Currently held in the Mailer archive in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, ² the mind map of Harlot’s Ghost reveals how its author managed the monumental amount of ideas, events, and characters that propel a novel about the CIA from 1959-1964 to its 1,100 plus pages conclusion. ³

So vast and complex are the strands that pull the story of Mailer’s central character of Harry Hubbard, that each year is worked out in detail with key plot and character developments highlighted with column headings e.g. “Havanna”, “Judith Campbell” (JFK’s mistress), “Hoover and FBI”, and “RFK” (Robert Kennedy). In the column “World Events” you will find amongst many other entries: “Nixon-Kruschev kitchen debate” (1959), “Berlin Wall goes up” (1961), “Glenn first American to orbit Earth” (1962), “Kim Philby named as Soviet spy by British” (1963), and “Sex scandal forces out John Profumo” (1963).

Under the column “Miscellaneous”, Mailer identified contemporaneous keynote detail such as the films La Dolce VitaGoldfingerCleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, and Psycho; the publication of books such as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, The Tin Drum and Hertzog; and popular music hits as in Moon Riverand Let’s do the Twist. He even made a reference in the “JFK” column to Motown Records and some of their most famous acts of the time − the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

Yet, Mailer is far from being the only author whose plot planning and story outlines have been captured in formats not entirely dissimilar. Nor is it the first example of plot planning by map, for example Joseph Heller’s plan for Catch 22 was hatched in this fashion. But it is perhaps the most fascinating for its use of historical event to flesh out character and context and clearly demonstrates Mailer’s expertise in this form of literary writing.

Which brings me to J. K. Rowling. A writer whose stories could not be further from those of Norman Mailer – except in one respect – they both write (wrote in the case of Mailer) bumper-sized books with complex plots. Just take a look below at how she mapped out the plot of The Order of the Phoenix, drafted on hole-punched A4 lined paper no less!

 

¹ Norman Mailer (1923-2007). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Mailer

² For the Harlot’s Ghost mind map at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas click http://blog.hrc.utexas.edu/2011/06/16/in-the-galleries-mailers-character-timeline-for-harlots-ghost/

³ Mailer’s original intention was to write a two-volume chronicle of the CIA of which Harlot’s Ghost was the first. The project was never completed.

For an enlarged version of the mind map of Harlot’s Ghost click http://editorial.designtaxi.com/news-outline1505/1big.jpg

For an enlarged version of J. K. Rowling’s plan of The Order of the Phoenix click http://editorial.designtaxi.com/news-outline1505/3big.jpg

To purchase a copy of Harlot’s Ghost click here.

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The literary shaping of a novelist from our guest writer Marius Gabriel.

My parents’ house was full of books, thousands of them; and I have belonged to many public libraries in different countries. But two particular libraries shaped my mind more than any others. The first was in Villa Valverde, in Sicily, where I spent part of my childhood.

The Villa Valverde was a pensione which had been built by my paternal grandfather, Pancrazio Cipolla. He’d spent decades working in London hotels, rising from waiter to manager. He took his savings back to Taormina and built Valverde around 1910, as a luxurious retreat for British tourists.  It had all mod cons, including a library of English books. These had all been supplied by a publisher who specialized in such things, and were in a uniform edition of brown leather with gold tooling, proudly stamped with the hotel name and crest. The books were all Victorian and masculine – Sir Walter Scott, Charles Kingsley, Conan Doyle, Fennimore Cooper and the like.

It was here I met Dracula, and Frankenstein’s monster, and Amyas Lee, and Sherlock Holmes and Natty Bumppo, and the ‘Man Who Would Be King.’ Rather heavy going, since I was not yet ten, but I swallowed it all down in huge draughts.

The second library was at my high school, when my peripatetic parents took us from Sicily to South Africa. It was in a decaying part of the school that has long since been knocked down (we used to spear rats there during break, with compasses tied to rulers). The collection itself was large, and consisted mainly of bequests from Old Boys, some of them dating back to Edwardian and Victorian times, and smelling strongly of tobacco and damp. No attempt had been made to catalogue or filter this heterogeneous collection. They were simply in alphabetical order according to author. In my six years there, I must have read almost every volume.

I lugged home bound editions of Punch dating from the 1850s to the First World War, which was where I began to pick up what little modern history I know (and developed a fondness for weak jokes.) I found, and read with wide eyes, Henry Miller (an education of a different kind), Colette (I had to ask my mother what a Lesbian was) and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley (nothing left to the imagination there).

I read fusty old copies of Sheridan le Fanu, H. Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer and Robert Louis Stevenson. I ploughed my way through novelists popular in the 20s, 30s and 40s: Sinclair Lewis (I must have read Kingsblood Royal a dozen times), Thornton Wilder, Edgar Wallace; Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck (I adored him), J.B. Priestly (very heavy going), Daphne du Maurier, A. J. Cronin, H.G. Wells (where I learned what socialism was); Robert Graves (also pretty hot stuff) and Somerset Maugham.

I read voraciously, sometimes a book a day. I read at night, under the sheets, with a flashlight, till two in the morning. I read on the bus to and from school. I read on the toilet and at the supper table. I read without even knowing why I read at times, so long as the words on the page held me.

A tenacious memory for useless things means that many of these books are still rattling around inside my head, and will surface at odd moments; or, what is worse, half-surface, and lead me a merry dance trying to recall which book and which author, in which library, in which country, in which year…

Marius Gabriel, our guest writer

Marius is the author of eight sagas and historical novels, including the best-sellers The Mask Of TimeThe Original Sin, and The Seventh MoonCosmopolitan accused him of “keeping you reading while your dinner burns”. Born in South Africa in 1954, he has lived and worked in many countries, and now divides his time between London and Cairo. He has three grown-up children.

His latest novel, Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye, is set during World War II and published by Lake Union, is available on Amazon or by placing an order with Marius via his website. To view all of Marius’s books click on link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Marius-Gabriel/e/B000AP9HOU

You may also be interested to read Marius’s GoodReads page where he also writes a blog. If you like cooking Marius is the man for you. Baking bread being a speciality.

P.S. Marius served his author apprenticeship as a student at Newcastle University. To finance his postgraduate research, he wrote 33 Mills & Boon romances under a pseudonym. His identity as a man had to be kept secret until he turned to longer fiction under his own name.

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