Thursday, November 17, 2005

How Do You Approach Your Story?

Over the weekend, a couple of writer friends and I were talking about our approaches to writing. I winced when the subject was brought up because I knew that both my friends were far more organized than I am.

One of them does not begin writing until she has a complete outline of the proposed novel in a plastic colored folder--a different color for each novel (is she obsessive or what?). Her outline is so complete that it includes language she will use in the actual manuscript. It may take her three months to write the outline. However, once she sits down to write the actual novel, she is usually able to finish it in two months because of all the preparation already done.

The other starts by finding photos in magazines that she can hang in her office. She cuts out pictures that represent her hero, her heroine and the setting she wants to use. Her next step is to write biographies for her main characters. She also plans her key scenes. However, she doesn't use an outline because she wants the freedom to move her scenes around. She lists each scene on an index card. That way, when she runs into trouble, she is able to shuffle the cards to change the order of her scenes and jumpstart her process.

I was feeling very intimidated by the time it was my turn to speak. I'm the original pantser (as in "flying by the seat of my pants"). When I have an idea for a novel or short story, I scribble it down on an index card and put it in a small box that I can refer to when I need a story. That's it. When I decide to write that story, I usually play around with the idea for a day or two while I decide who the key characters will be and what their GMC (goal, motivation and conflict) will be. Then I start writing.

Because I haven't written those bios or typed out that outline, I invariably slip into backstory immediately. I don't worry about it. I just keep writing while the iron is hot. Once I've got the backstory out of my system and am into action, I look for the point where the action begins and cut out everything that I said before that point. I create a new folder on the computer called "Title/backstory" and put the deleted material in there. I NEVER DISCARD ANYTHING. It all gets cut and put into the backstory folder where I can still access it later. I dribble sentences from my backstory folder into the novel along the way.

This approach guarantees that every story starts with action--not narrative, not description and not a bunch of backstory. The action involved doesn't have to be huge. I think of it as a "moment of change." Something happens. I never start with descriptions of the setting or the weather--no matter how wonderful that description may be.

By the time I get to page 50, I'm ready for my version of organization. I set up an Excel spreadsheet. Below I am listing the headings and sample answers in boldface:

Chapter Number: 4
Begins Page 45/Ends Page 60
Number of Pages in Chapter: 16
Number of Scenes in Chapter: 2
Brief description of scenes: Kelly meets Gus; Kelly and Sara argue
Does the chapter end with a hook?: Yes
Suggested changes/fixes: Should Kelly meet Gus earlier?

The deeper I get into the novel, the more helpful the spreadsheet becomes. When I analyze it, problems just leap out at me. Examples: a seven-page chapter, a chapter with five scenes or no ending hook. I never tackle the problems while writing. I wait until the editing stage or until I run into a roadblock. It's my version of the index cards. I move things around, cut scenes (which go into my backstory folder) and add plot twists.

Interestingly enough, I was the only one of the three of us who does not insert notes or place a sticky on the printed pages that says "research needed." If I come to a point in the manuscript where research is needed, I do it THEN. I never put it off. Neither of my friends do this.

Bottom line: there are lots of ways to approach writing. What's important is that you find the way that works for you, and then have the discipline to stick to it.

Happy writing.


Sherrill Quinn said...

I'm a pantser, too, Maya. Usually start out with characters, then as I let them run around in my head and start playing the "what if" game, the setting and GMC start to unfold. But I really have no idea of scenes except for beginning, middle, and end (the black moment). So... you're more organized than I am. :)

(P.S. I do research on the spot, too. It's easier for me to keep on writing that way.)

David Garcea said...

Thanks for sharing your plan of attack. I've only written one novel, which turned out to be more like a hundred and fifty pages without a clear plot, climax, or resolution. When I get the courage to try again, perhaps I will borrow some of your ideas.