Thursday, January 15, 2015

Are you a messy writer?

How I start a novel: ...or this one, at least.

Some people are planners. They plan out every plot point. They plan all the arcs. They study formulas and beat sheets and structures and I don't know what. Then they get all over me for not knowing every single mark that my characters are supposed to hit.

Other people totally poo-poo the planning process. I've had people on various forums snidely tell me to Have fun planning because the rest of us are writing. (Or making troll-like comments on forums?)
Nature's model of the process of writing a novel. Image courtesy of Heber Farnsworth on Flickr.
Lots of people say, "I get to know my characters as I write."

When I used to write short stories, I also did that. I didn't plan. I just let the
story come out and let the characters reveal themselves. In fact, I did that with my first novel.

Where is that novel now? Waiting to be revised. Rethought. Entirely rewritten. Or not. Maybe it's just a relic of my writing education.

Maybe I don't have to choose one side of the planner/pantser dichotomy.

Let's talk about moderation.

I found, with my first novel, that just letting it come did not allow me to delve deeply into anything, really. It was a lot of scenes (well-written scenes, by the by) that related to each other, but didn't add up to much. It also left my readers a lot of questions about my protagonist.

Two major problems.

Sure, I spent a lot of time imagining, dreaming, channeling the characters or whatever. I also sought action, an arc in the story, and a surprise ending.

But two problems resulted anyway.
  1. I didn't have a plot.
  2. I didn't really know my character well enough to make her influence the plot and drive a resolution.
There was one critical thing I didn't do.

I didn't ask what, deep down, this story was about. Yes, I knew the character's predicament, I knew what drove her to this place, and I had a precise concept that I was working with. What I didn't know were the more complex issues that made it difficult for her to solve her problems. I just kind of had a story in which I was getting to know her and this particular issue.

If the reader wanted to know why she did something, I could give a reason. Seriously, do we ever fully know why we do things? Aren't there underlying matters? Contextual influences? DNA? The subconscious? Are we really simply a result of the things that have happened to us? I say motivation is much more complex.

Why was she dealing with this in this place and time? What did this stand for? What could it be confused with? What was it not? Why did all these other people in the story act and react as they did?

The thing that I learned is that to get to know my characters during writing is to admit that I will never know them beyond the superficial.

I mean, you can walk in and act like you know everything, but then you probably don't.

I did something differently this time.

When Leave the Frigging Marshmallows started nagging at me, I began writing. I didn't write the novel, just scenes. I wrote scenes as they came to me. They came out of order. They came from points in the life of my protagonist that I knew were not going to be in my book.

It seemed that the community novel (à la The Milagro Beanfield War) that I thought this would be was not a community novel at all. Not even slightly. It became apparent that it was a straight bildungsroman, which was fine.


Yeah. It wasn't going to be the amazing and ambitious novel I had initially imagined, but it was what the novel needed to be. And maybe I wasn't ready to write that incredibly ambitious novel. Apparently, I am not Thomas Pynchon. Maybe my brilliant literary work will be general fiction. Or young adult.

Whatever. I've got to drop the pretenses I have about myself and just write the damned book.

So I started researching things, the time period, psychological issues, effects of certain trends.

I listened to music from the year in which the novel took place--or the year in which I thought it took place. Then I realized that I didn't like the mood that music was setting in my mind and moved the time period back a couple years. That small move changed a lot in the context. It brought up new ideas and issues.

I listened to a lot of interviews and talks with people as they discussed anxiety, feminism, culture, place. I went through years of the Diane Rehm archives.

I read. I looked at old photographs.

I asked what this girl was struggling with and what it would say to a reader in the end. Then I asked what else she could be struggling with. And then I asked more questions. I asked the same questions of the other charaacters, but not as intensely, I'll admit.

And I kept writing scenes. I wrote lines of dialogue. I wrote about certain issues I thought she was dealing with. I wrote about the characters that showed up in the scenes I produced. I wrote about their lives and what they were dealing with.

After about a hundred pages of scenes, I started asking character questions. I researched the general structure of a bildungsroman. I drew diagrams and wrote out plot points and fit everything into a three act structure. I used the snowflake method and a beat sheet and, eventually, I disregarded everything.

I knew what the moment of climax was--I always did--but getting there was the challenge. Even when I had the plot worked out. Or when I thought I had the plot worked out.

I started over again. Three times. I'm in my third restructuring.

What I did not do: I did not go back and start rewriting. 

But here's the thing. All this planning got me to think about the story, it's importance, it's weight, what it's supposed to be and what it might say. It's more intentional writing. So, as I dream through the story, I can guide the dream. When I get stuck, I know I've gone in the wrong direction. I throw out my plan and things open up--until I get stuck again. Then I start planning again and things open up all over... until it's time to throw the damned plan out again.

The plan is not gospel. It's not always about plot, either. But it can be a tool to pull the imagination along into useable pieces.

Think I'm full of it because I haven't proven I can actually write anything brilliant that has been published yet? Read more on the messy novel process from:

Agatha Christie
Johnathan Franzen
Barabara Kingsolver
Janet Fitch
Tess Gerritsen

And a well-researched article in Scientific American on the Messy Minds of Creative People that seems to make a certain amount of sense.


  1. Your plan a bit, throw it out, pants a bit, plan a bit....method works for me!
    Enjoyed your post, Robin. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for reading, Christine--and for sending me to some good articles on your blog!