Wednesday 10 April 2013

Wrestling the Plot Snake: A weekend with Imogen Cooper of Chicken House

By Emma Greenwood
Guest Blogger

It’s over.

The Plot Snake has won.

I’m sitting exhausted at my desk. I’ve got my head on my arms and I can’t make sense of the words anymore.

I’ve got to that place where every word looks ridiculous and I’ve forgotten the beginning of a sentence before I’ve read the end.

There were moments when I pinned the bugger. Moments when, after days of wrestling (involving index cards, Sharpies, three act structure graphs, Vogler, McKee and other such weaponry) that I managed to get my knee on the Plot Snake’s head and force him to behave, but they were just that: moments.

Within hours he’d sprout another head and go off on his merry snakey way again exploring new terrain and saying Hey, over here! and Hi, what about this? whilst I shouted (then muttered, then sobbed): FOCUS! Please... won’t... you... just... keep still and... FOCUS.

This is my first novel. I’ve been hanging with that ‘the characters will show you the plot’ thing. And they have. Sort of. For three years. I’ve got lots of ‘strands’ and ‘layers’ and ‘sub plots’. I’ve got romance and peer intimidation and family conflict. I’ve got theme and resonance and motif. I’ve even got a ‘wider under-girding setting’ after some input at the SCBWI Conference in November. But, y’know, I just can’t pin that Plot Snake down. I can’t work out what the plot really actually IS.

*Plot Snake sniggers and wiggles his tail in defiance*.

Maybe it’s first novel inexperience. Maybe, like a new teacher, I’m just not being firm enough. I’m trying to redraft. I’m editing like crazy. It’s not for lack of enthusiasm. I’m killing my babies left, right and centre. I’m thrashing around with the Delete key wearing a determined Indiana Jones style face. But it’s not happening. The Plot Snake is out of the basket. He’s grabbed the pipe and he’s playing his own tune. I need an expert. I need a snake charmer. I need an editorial Steve Irwin.

Enter Imogen Cooper of Golden Egg Academy and Chicken House Books, winner of the Branford Boase Editor Award 2010.

“Chicken House receive many manuscripts from capable writers, often written in beautiful prose and with huge potential but with no overall driving plot,” Imogen says in her introductory talk on the Golden Egg Academy’s Mapping Your Novel weekend I booked myself into just before Easter. I’m nodding vigorously and hissing under my breath at the Plot Snake ‘See. You’re in for it now!’

Imogen Cooper and fellow Golden Egg editor,
Beverley Birch. Photo: Emma Greenwood
Imogen speaks with reassuring authority and affirming passion. “The prevailing issue,” she continues, “is that aspiring authors don’t understand what agents and publishers want. Chicken House reject some really good work, but we only have time to write a quick paragraph about why. It isn’t that we don’t want to give more feedback. It’s just there’s no time to do it. That’s why I set up Golden Egg Academy.”

“We were desperate (yes she uses the word desperate) to give in-depth level feedback. It became a kind of mission: ‘We actually really care!’. We understand that the author is a person, someone who wants to make their novel better. And we understand that there’s not enough support from editors with vast experience available to those authors.”

She goes on to explain that Golden Egg Academy’s mission is to provide access to those type of editors and to provide a wealth of experience and wisdom to emerging authors who would otherwise be fiddling around in the dark (or fighting Plot Snakes) on their own and trying to divine what a five line ‘positive’ rejection paragraph means when it comes to redrafting a 60,000 word work in progress.

“You need an experienced editor,” Imogen says, “to talk about big issues, structural issues, in your work.”

She uses a loom as an illustration: the core, the main plot of the novel, is the warp (the threads that are held in tension lengthways and tied tight top and bottom, strong and firm). The weft is everything else, the intricate patterns woven through the warp: voice, style, sub plots, character development, etc, with theme like a golden thread dancing throughout the cloth. A skilled editor, amongst other things, can help you get the warp tight.

Imogen talks about how essential pace and action and dramatic incidents are in setting up this warp thread and Beverley Birch (Yes, Beverley was there too! It was a weekend to die for!), added that children’s/YA authors are up against films, TV and games all vying for attention.

“Appealing to a modern audience,” Beverley says, “doesn’t mean dumbing it down. It means moving with speed and punching fast but still keeping the quality of the writing high.”

I left the weekend feeling I was no longer fighting the Plot Snake alone (I’ve booked a follow up editorial surgery session in May). I’m no longer second guessing the meaning of one line comments about my manuscript given by busy (and lovely!) industry professionals that simply don’t have time to input more (thank you to those that have given me feedback and encouragement no matter how brief).

Two weeks have elapsed. The Plot Snake has been as tricksy as normal but I don’t mind so much. My discussions with Imogen about my manuscript have given me a direction that I know is worth pursuing. There have been tears and I’ve banged my head against the wall (literally) on quite a number of occasions. But I’m not wrestling on a second guess anymore.

Wrestling the Plot Snake when you’ve had input and guidance from an editor as experienced as Imogen Cooper doesn’t cause the same waves of Novel Panic as going it alone; you’re not getting this voice inside saying, ‘you’re putting in all this effort but you could be wasting your time, you could be barking up totally the wrong tree’.

Imogen Cooper .. er Steve Irwin ... at work .

So c’mon Plot Snake, have a go if you think you’re hard enough. I’ve got Steve Irwin on my side.

At the time of going to press there are still a few places left on the next Golden Egg Academy weekend: Through the Narrator’s Eye (voice, tone, point of view and narrative angle) led by Beverley Birch and including a one-to-one with either Beverley or Imogen. See you there?

Oh and btw RIP Steve Irwin. You were the daddy.

Emma Greenwood is the Green Columnist for Liberti magazine and author of work-in-progress, Seagull Eyes, a contemporary teen novel that was long-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition 2012. Emma also writes teen-voice short stories and has been published by Mslexia and Cinnamon Press. She writes every day at the kitchen table but can type 55 wpm under the bedclothes on her iPhone because the muse invariably visits in the early hours when everyone else is asleep.


  1. Brilliant! My Plot Snake is a multi-headed hydra of a thing - and Imogen's helping me tame it, too. Good to see you & read your response.

    1. Great to meet you too P! Good luck with the taming.

  2. You have nailed what it's like, Emma and here's my good wishes for you nailing that ol' snake too.

    1. Thanks Jan. I'm hoping that with snake wrestling training from Imogen I'll have it pinned and behaving soon.

  3. It's wonderful to know that when you get in a fix, there are wise and helpful people out there who can advise and encourage. Good luck with the plotting, Emma.

    1. And it's great to be able to access them! Hurrah for Golden Egg!

  4. Great post Emma, Thank you. I think that driving advice - what is at the core of your novel, why are you writing it - is the best one for getting the reigns on that blessed snake...but I know what you mean - boy do I know what you mean - I'm on my fourth teen novel ( I'm not even counting anything below 20,000 words) and I'm just beginning to get it...

    1. Thanks Kathryn. It good to know it's not just me! When I first wrote this piece I thought: am I confessing too much, am I being too honest? Then I thought 'what the hell' and sent it to Candy before I could change my mind.

  5. What a great analogy! It really is a constant battle. I've often scribbled CAUSE AND EFFECT at the top of my notebook to remind myself that things don't just happen and that my hero must actively make decisions that move the plot along!

    1. I'm very prone to writing lots of lovely description or tense moments with not much action. My MC was all very 'internal struggle'. Imogen and Beverley have challenged me to write dramatic ACTION, which doesn't (at the moment) come too naturally to me. I have to really push myself to do it. But I can see the benefit. I've been wafting around in 'let it all hang out creative mode' for too long and it's been 'owning' me. I need to 'own' it and inject a bit of discipline and structure. Thanks for letting me guest again! :0)

  6. After years of writing with no plan, I now plan. The trouble is, my plan keeps changing, just when I think I've got it, I start writing and think - NO - that's not it, and the whole thing starts again. That snake just keeps getting stronger. I am going to the workshop in April. Can't wait.

  7. Tricksy reptiles! Why can't they just keep still? See you in April! :0)

  8. I am a firm planner and I highly recommend the book Save the Cat for a merciless but amazingly effective look at plot structure.

    1. Oh! I just downloaded Save the Cat on my Kindle!

    2. Thanks Miriam. Will take a look.

  9. Great post, Emma. The honesty of Notes from the SP is one of its many great strengths. The words chime; the journey seems less lonely - for a few minutes at least.

  10. I have two books published and now want to try a mystery book but my plot is so thin it looks like a worm not a snake. Just a few scenes and one large underpinning plot. Reading your thoughts has been helpful. Thanks so much.

  11. wonderful to grasp that once you get in a very fix, there square measure wise and useful folks out there World Health Organization will advise and encourage. smart luck with the plotting, - See additional at:
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