Monday, April 20, 2015

13 Week Novel—Week 8: The Chaos of Figuring Out a Novel

If you started this 13 week process with a new book project, you're probably still in the happy I'm gonna get this novel done! phase. For me, this lasts until, approximately, page 78. It's funny that this number has a hold on me. I started two novels before I was 12 years old and stopped writing them both on page 78. I still find this number to be one where everything comes easily—I don't know what it is, but it flows without much effort.
"Almost all interesting systems are chaotic..." says Martin Sharman. I'd include writing a novel in that. 
Image: Martin Sharman, "Quantum Ripples in Chaos"
Now, as I muddle through the last quarter, everything takes a lot longer. Parts of scenes flow, but I'm not sure where they fit. Am I introducing new stuff? I really can't care at this point. When I reread, the new ideas that I bring in may be just what is needed to help me cut out the first hundred pages. Who knows? It's just writing.

If you're writing a novel with a strong physical plot, or a character-based novel working primarily with one or two characters, I'm jealous. I want a plot-driven novel right about now.

When I started the current incarnation of this novel, I thought I working on the story of a single character with a simple external plot and an inner plot that I expected to be a little more complicated. I started with certain ideas about the plot.

I hadn't done any planning for my previous book. I wrote it all the way through, but it's sitting in a box somewhere. I thought it might be a good idea to plan this time, so I used the basic ideas of plot to develop a structure.
This kind of plotting is not applicable to every story.
As I learned more about each character and how each of them affected the plot, things became more than complicated. I'd changed the story multiple times (or rather, my characters did) and everything continued to grow. Around page 300, the story became a web of different strands that overwhelmed me.

To attempt to bring order to the chaos, I thought it would be useful to try to sort out those strands with a diagram. Here's what I came up with on butcher paper for Act 1:
This makes it seem like my novel makes more sense than it does.
I wanted it to fit into a nice little chronological line. This seemed untenable, though; it didn't show me how my storylines were weaving together, it was going to go on forever, and it did not seem to adequately represent how I was envisioning my novel—which looked, roughly, like this:
The story divides into 3 strands and becomes exciting in one regard while everything else suffers. Then they all collide.
So I stopped with the process and tried to figure out this issue with the way storylines interacted and affected each other.
This was not useful.
See? I created spiders.

If only I could figure out how each character's story and the story's themes fit with each other. What I needed were transparencies. Remember transparencies? Fortunately, I was teaching college in the time of transparencies and still had almost an entire box. Outdated technology comes in handy sometimes.

Here's what I did:

1. I went through each issue/theme that contributes to my character's coming of age story and determined the plotline for that issue, point by point—because several characters usually interact with each theme.

2. I focused on the six major characters' personal plotlines and wrote those out point by point.

3. For those same six characters, I then wrote out a plot for each one as it related to the protagonist. Yes, point by point again.
Oh my goodness... I'm realizing how much work this was now. 

4. Next, on paper, I created a visual plotline for each of those six characters as they related to the protagonist. I used Kurt Vonnegut's model for creating the “shape,” rather than the standard three act structure's mountain
Welcome to my brain.
5. After that, I tried to create a rough time scale so that the events in each plotline could coordinate where they needed to.

6. Finally, I transferred the plotline for each character onto its own transparency. This is a bit of a challenge because I needed to pay attention to that time scale and could only put a little of each plotline onto a transparency at once before overlaying another one to make sure they matched up and were staying consistent within the timeline. It's a lot of flipping through transparencies and comparing what is happening in each one.
What I came out with may look a bit daunting all together:
This actually makes sense to me.
But the ability to see how two lines work together is pretty cool.
Or rather, super-cool.
And the ability to see how they separate, so the miserable parts and the ecstatic highs balance each other until they ultimately meet and return to a new norm really gave me a better sense of how each event affects another.
This allowed me to play with the lines to think about impact and how to resolve the story.

Maybe my six transparency method isn't for everyone. All the methods we read about and try to follow are not universal either.

Maybe the best method for each of us is one we find on our own. 

For this week:
  • Keep up with your weekly 2500 words.
  • What are you doing to get through the middle of your draft? What helps you? What makes sense in your mind?
  • Check in next week. Say hi.
Coming in a little late? Find out about the 13 week challenge here. And see the first week's activities here.  

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1 comment:

  1. Whoa, it is such hard work, isn't it? Kudos to all good writers who can organize their thoughts so well. I haven't thought of starting a novel because I couldn't really keep things like this. :) For now at least.