Monday, September 28, 2009

Round Table Discussion - Starting a New Novel

Ahh, the rush of new ideas. The inspiration flowing through your veins, the thrum of themes, the envisioning of new characters. Heady stuff.

Then comes the moment you must begin to think logically about your grand ideas. You fall from the clouds of inspiration and land on the road of logic. How can I make this work? Writing, it seems to me, is the marriage of excessive imagination and cold hard logic. Spinning dreams, then tacking their feet to the floor. Before I started my current work, my editor told me she wanted me to try outlining the novel. There are a great many complexities in my next book and outlining made sense. Now that I've finished outlining, I can see the merit in outlining for any kind of novel regardless of complexity. It helped me think about character and plot elements ahead of time that, left on my own, writing scenes and narratives, would have taken much longer to think about and develop. At first, I was nervous that outlining would "squelch my muse", cramp my style. But I got over that soon enough. I was the one outlining - so I was calling the shots, and deciding how it would work. I'll be outlining my next novel as well.

For me, each novel I've written (make that one complete one and two partial ones, including my WIP) has begun with an image rather than an outline or a plot. The plot has arisen out of the image. For Latter-day Cipher, the image was that of a woman lying dead on a forest floor, with the sunlight in sheets on her body and a secret inside her. For a book that's almost complete which is a prequel to Cipher, the image was a "disaster apron" used to get newborns out of a hospital nursery in an emergency. For my WIP the image is of a lithopedia.

Actually, I've been using and talking about "controlling images" for years in conjunction with writing non-fiction. It is a concept or image that, true to its name, controls the content of the chapter or section (or more rarely) the non-fiction book I'm writing. The structure of the actual written piece is dictated by the strength and nature of the image.

Am I weird? Does anyone else start this way?

Latayne, you're such a global thinker! For me, I get my ideas from...wherever, and I definitely need to nail them down. I'm not proud. I'll expand a concept from a podcast (as for Seeing Things), snatch my friend's royalty (she was the queen of Sleepy Eye, really), or noodle over my worst fears (all of my books).

And I'm very much an outliner. Here's a picture of my cumbersome method. Every column is a chapter. Each character has his or her very own color of sticky note (no sharing or I lose the pattern). I write what happens in each scene on a sticky note. As I place the notes, I'm mindful of rising antagonism and tension. The nice thing about the sticky notes is their flexibility. I can shuffle those puppies around until I like what I see. This works well for me because I'm so visual. I've never tried to travel with this method of outlining, for obvious reasons.

I think and stew over a book idea for a long time before I put anything on paper. I keep a notebook with me for ideas for plot points, settings, occupations, symbolism, motivations. I do research until the information starts repeating itself. Then I make a rough, loose outline and flesh it out more and more, each section impacting and expanding the next, until the story is told. At this point, I make Excel spreadsheets like family trees and a timeline, plugging in plot points, births, deaths, dates etc. to make sure that it is all logical. When I'm sure that I have all my facts straight and know where the story is going, I can relax and enjoy the freedom to be creative because I know the bones are solid and strong.

I don't want to give the wrong impression. I may have been one of those kids who always colored inside the lines, but the colors were out-of-the-box. I once made my third grade teacher angry for using vibrant pinks, turquoise and purples on a special fall leaf project that she chose for me to complete. Didn't I know leaves weren't that color, she demanded? Well, apparently not!

I'm getting some great ideas here. I like Patti's post-it board especially, being a visual person, too.

My muse is neurotic, driving me to outline obsessively, and then flying off in new directions, disregarding the spreadsheet I so carefully crafted - on excel, like Debbie. Still, I like having an idea of the big picture, and an outline helps me do that, even if I ignore it.

The advantage is that I can stop writing the outline if I get bogged down, knowing that by the time I get to that part of the book, everything will be different anyway.

But all the while I'm thinking, there has to be a better way. Maybe I'll get myself a poster board and some sticky notes. What's a flaming creative like me doing with a spreadsheet, anyway?

PS: No Latayne, you're brilliant.

Oh, man, it's confession time. I'm only admitting to this because it's how I've done it with each novel I've written, and I couldn't pretend I've done it any other way. So, here goes: I start a novel with a beginning and an end in mind, and only a vague idea of how I'm going to get from the first page to the last. What's more, I work out the plot points as I go along. Spontaneity is the name of the game. Outlining scares me more than writing the novel, and, Patti, much as I love you, your method would cause me to hyperventilate.

When they say there's no right or wrong way to write a novel, this probably isn't what they have in mind. I know, I'll never be asked to teach a workshop.

But there may be hope for me. My WIP is an experiment, because I'm using Jeff Gerke's How to Find Your Story this time around. It's a multi-page worksheet that helps you consider plot points, theme, characterization, and all the things that outlining does for you. But for someone like me, who hates even the thought of outlining, spreadsheeting or synopsizing, it holds my hand through the process, prompting me to nail down details at the outset, with the intent of making the writing more smooth and efficient, and eliminating loose ends, etc. etc. I like the fact that I can be as detailed (or not) as I want to be with each specific point, and I can skip points altogether if I so choose.

Patti's post on Friday really hit home with me. Because I'm fearful every time I start a new book. And I stay afraid until I get to the last page. And until someone reads and validates it. Maybe Jeff's worksheet will eliminate some of the fear -- but I doubt it. But if it makes the story more cohesive from the get-go, which it has, that's a good thing. And anything that makes this process easier, is extremely welcome.

So, authors, which of us do you most relate to? And, readers, have we blown our cover?


Nicole said...

Sharon, I'm all over your method. I'll jot an occasional note on paper in the car or wherever so I don't forget the point. Or I'll take inventory of ages if I need to over time passage in an old spiral notebook, but even the mention of Jeff Gerke's method-book makes the hair on my arms bristle and frazzles my nerves worse than a vacant pause in the writing of the story.

You other ladies make me feel like I'm back in school! Ack! Run for the hills! (I did well in school, BTW, but I have nightmares about going back.) ;)

Lori Benton said...

Sharon, I tried Jeff Gerke's method this time too. I got through the first phase, the character's emotional journey, but halfway through the second phase, the story framework, I had to stop. The questions being asked of me about the plot at that point would have required wild guesses on my part. When I heard myself thinking, "But I can't KNOW that until I've written a good chunk of the book!" then I knew it was time to stop and start writing. I did get a few good plot ideas from attempting this method, probably sooner than they would have come without such aggressive outlining, so I would say this method is definitely worth a try. I don't think I'd do well outlining without it.

"The advantage is that I can stop writing the outline if I get bogged down, knowing that by the time I get to that part of the book, everything will be different anyway."

Kathleen: exactly. And at least I have a bit of outline to go on for a while now. I'll plunge in, knowing that by the time I reach the place where I had to stop outlining, the characters will have long since told me what happens next.

Bonnie, I like this. "Writing, it seems to me, is the marriage of excessive imagination and cold hard logic." It's so true.

Patti Hill said...

Nicole, what I like about your response is how it shows all kinds of thinkers can be novelists. Just because I outline doesn't mean the story doesn't zig and zag on me. I love those surprises! If I'm not surprised, neither will my reader. I usually have to regroup about 2/3 of the way through a novel to make sure I'm still heading toward a satisfying ending. What started me outlining according to character-line stories is my penchant to skip away from a character, leaving the reader asking, "Where did that guy go?" Writing a novel is like keeping 50 plates spinning on the end of sticks. For me, outlining helps me keep them all spinning.

Tina said...

I love this post. There are so many ways to begin a novel. It's always a little bit different for me, but usually a concept swims around in my mind for quite some time before it sees paper. Once I start to put it on paper, I might rewrite the idea several different times. This usually turns into the first chapter, but not always.

After taking the early bird at the ACFW conference, I was reminded how much I also love to just brainstorm. Writing part of the story as a different character can really open up new ides.

Pat Jeanne Davis said...

This post has been helpful. I can relate to Sharon's method of writing a novel for the first one that I wrote. But for its prequel I'm outlining, and the writing is coming easier. I realize that knowing my characters helps greatly in writing this second novel. And thanks to a professional edit of the first book that gave me much needed suggestions and direction. But I agree there is still no one right way. Thanks so much for sharing your approaches.

Nikole Hahn said...

I have a poster board with the main plot characters using different color construction paper. I also have an outline of which I have gone far away from, but it still guides me. Then, I am making out the plot on posterboard to help me keep it all straight since the plot is very complicated. The whole series is very complicated.

Anonymous said...

Great comments, everyone. I really enjoyed hearing from you, and I know my NovelMatters pals did too. We love the interaction here, and hope you do too.