Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Never say never

By Julie

A month ago, you may recall, I blogged about Setting as Character, and talked about starting a new project with a character who'd been haunting me for quite some time.

Since then, I've explored the new story, walking around in the daze that hits me at the beginning and near the end of writing a fiction manuscript. Some days it seems I've done nothing – no work at all.

But I remind myself that at least 50 percent of writing a new story is mental work. The hours I've spent gazing into the middle distance, likely appearing completely vacant to those around me, I've been getting to know my characters – their personalities and their plights, their quirks and their conflicts. I've been imagining them in various settings and observing to see how they act and react. I've been trying out names and hair colors and houses to live in. I even came up with a working title. (ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE, rooted in the jazz standard by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein from the 1930s. Perfect both for the era of my story and the theme.)

All these things, I've done before for other stories.

You may also remember how I called myself a "plotser" in my last post. I've typically had a general idea of where I'm going, maybe even as much as a list of ten scenes or so that could happen, and taken off running, going where my thoughts lead me, typing as fast as I can to follow them. I really enjoy this organic approach to writing. And I've had a visceral response to the thought of starting out with more than that – a shudder.

But this time, I've decided to try something new. My story is broader than anything I've attempted before, both in the period of time it covers and in scope. I began to feel a little nervous as I wrote a few sample scenes, worrying the story might get away from me. That I might either chase too many rabbits or forget to chase the important ones.

So, I've written an outline. Put your Craig Ferguson accent on and say it with me:

"I knoooooow!"

I began by writing a short synopsis, using a modified version of Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method
, then expanding it little by little into a longer synopsis.

I decided it was pretty exciting to have a synopsis written before I'm querying. The synopsis for the manuscript I'm querying now was written after the fact, and it wasn't much fun when I was so sick of the story I thought I'd scream before I finished that darn thing. (Not to mention it's apparently a heck of a lot harder to condense 400 pages into just a few than it is to start with a few and go up from there.) I hope I remember to dig out these early documents when it's time to formalize my synopsis.

These last few days, I broke the synopsis down into chapters. The trickiest part came first – combining two separate storylines (one in the present, one in the far past, two different first-person narrators) into a fairly coherent narrative. In fact, I'm still finessing that part, and feel sure I'll be doing it continuously while writing this story. It's almost as if I'd written two separate synopses, and now I'm having to weave them together and check to see if the transitions from past to present and back again make at least a modicum of sense.

So, now, I'm left with a document that lists 44 chapters, each showing which narrator is speaking, each giving a somewhat detailed picture of what happens in that chapter. I suspect, because I do like to allow my characters the freedom to surprise me, that this outline isn't static. I figure it will evolve and grow in some places and shrink in others as I write the story. I might even be required to totally revamp the thing as I go.

In the meantime, I feel strangely in control of my new story – probably more than I've ever felt before when starting a new story.

And it comes as a huge surprise to this pantser turned plotser turned almost a plotter, that I like this feeling. I'm ready to write.

What about you, readers? What have you've said you'll never do when writing a first draft or starting some other creative project? Would you consider ... reconsidering?

Photo courtesy of Flickr's syymza, by Creative Commons License.


  1. I get nervous whenever I hear myself saying I would never do something. The next thing I know - I'm doing exactly that. :)

  2. Ha ha, Kathy ... I know you well enough to say that doesn't surprise me one bit! :) I suspect you've never met a challenge or adventure that didn't have your name written all over it.

  3. Julie, this post is a fascinating example of the creative process at work. The older I get the more I avoid saying, “I’ll never…”, having had to eat those words more than once. Whether I’m writing an article, essay, novel, or a non-fiction book, I start with an outline that usually consists of no more than general key points under paragraph headings or scenes within each chapter. Whatever rough outline I come up with, I never regard it as more than a guide, a way of starting to pull together the words and scenes in my head to form whatever I’m hoping to create. The only components of my outlines that usually remain the same are the beginning and ending. How I end up getting from one to the other never fails to surprise me.

  4. I feel ya and I had to laugh. My first book was completely winging it, and it took so much editing and chopping...and replotting... **shudders thinking about it**

    My second one, I'm working on now, and I started with a basic outline which has changed many times as I've progressed. But every time it does, I go into my outline and revamp what is affected and re-organize what is to come. I've found that having the "thinking" part already worked out leaves me free to write without the nagging in my brain of "wait, how will that connect to such and such?"

    Actually I still do that a little, but it's better, and at least I have somewhat of a map to refer to.

  5. Yep, Sharla and Deborah, I do think having an outline has it's benefits and costs. Right now, I'm mostly looking forward to the writing days when I just don't FEEL like scheming. I can simply look at my outline and say, "OK, what scene was I supposed to write today?" and go. It's freeing in a weird kind of way.

    Thanks for stopping by WWW, ladies!


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