Saturday, April 24, 2010

When stories run away with you

I’m firmly skeptical about the idea that there is such thing as a muse, and that characters really actually “take over” a story. I think that’s a cop-out to keep us from writing, and most of us are already very good at not writing. I think that if I have writer’s block, it’s not because my “muse” is faltering or I’m not “inspired.” It’s because I haven’t thought well or hard enough about what I’m doing and where I’m going. I’ve found that if I don’t plan well enough, I follow tangents and get thoroughly lost.

Case in point: Touched, formerly known as Intimations. I originally intended for it to be a short story, maybe 15,000 words, about a crazy Seer who was a supporting character in another story. Then I decided I could also tie it into an important piece of his background, which happened in Houston, TX. Then, I had to decide what he was doing in Houston in the 1920s, since he was Russian. I decided he was looking for someone, so I had to figure out who that someone was.

From there, I ended up building a spy story. It got more and more complex as I went along, but I was more or less pantsing the whole first draft. I knew how the story should end, but not how to get there. I would plan several scenes ahead–sometimes–but I got to the point where I had a huge, knotted plot and no idea how to untangle it. Since I was writing Intimations, as it was known then, as my first Master’s thesis, I had a deadline. Rather than pulling a Stephen King and setting off a bomb (I have an incredulous hatred of The Stand, by the way), I sweated and bled until I figured out a solution, in time to turn in my draft. At that point, it was around 60,000 words.

In retrospect, having a deadline was the best thing that could have happened to me, because I don’t know if I ever would have finished the damn thing if not for that. I was that pissed off at it. So pissed off, in fact, that it was another ten months before I could get back to work on it in earnest.

Now, I plan compulsively in every aspect of the rest of my life; anyone who knows me can tell you that. I don’t know why I don’t plan nearly enough when I start writing, but this experience has convinced me that I really need to do it. The -J in my INTJ tends to think I have “enough” plot or “enough” information to start writing. Generally, that’s the truth, and I still tend to think that an overabundance of plot and information tends to convolute the story. I’m all about letting stories develop organically, but at some point, planning and plotting is necessary.

Of course, this is just how I do it. I admire people who can just sit down and write, and it turns out pretty decently. But for me, I have to be conscious of what I’m doing, where I’m going, and how I want to get there.

Finally, I think I’ve figured out what’s going on in Touched. I actually had some pretty good ideas in the first draft, but there were several issues. Finally, I sat down today and hashed everything out by outlining the four separate plotlines. I did it in about an hour and a half, which makes me wonder why the hell I didn’t do it earlier. I can keep most of the material past about Chapter Eight, which is when I think I figured out what the hell I was doing. It’s incredibly complex, but finally, finally, everything fits.

Christ on a cracker, that took long enough.

Lessons learned:

Plot early.

Plot thoroughly.


Ask, “Why the hell is this person doing this?”

Plot some more.

Use charts.

On a related side note, today I ordered Book in a Month from Amazon Marketplace. I saw it in Borders a couple of weeks ago and was impressed with the charts in the back. As an incredibly visual person, they looked awfully shiny, and as someone who loves to organize, they looked like a neater and tidier way to consider overall story structure than, “What happens next?” I often scoff at “how to write a book” books, but the reason I tend to like the “30 day novel” type books is their emphasis on planning and structure.
And, who am I kidding. I like charts and color-coding and organization. I might be a little Type A.

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