Thursday, February 15, 2007

How Do You Build a Story? Part II

This is mostly About Me--consider yourself warned--but I'm truly curious about everyone else's working methods.

I don’t plot my stories in advance because I have no idea what the story is until I’m inside it. What I have to begin with is usually some obsession or question, something that is bothering me. In the case of Smite the Waters, it was the problem of Kant’s Categorical Imperative as applied to international terrorism: what would happen to the world if everyone behaved like that?

In the case of al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center, it was obvious to me that there was no idea of the measured use of force. I have no doubt whatsoever that if bin Laden could have killed more people, he would have done so; indeed, I believe that if he could have killed everyone in New York City, he wouldn’t have hesitated for a moment. What if everyone acted like that? What if groups of Americans decided to act in a similar fashion?

After only a short time, I realized that this question wasn’t terribly intriguing in that form, because to think that way, the characters would have to be so far out of their minds as to be impossible to identify with—and what’s interesting about that?

But suppose their goals were more modest; suppose they decided to fight terrorists with the tools of terror? It is a commonplace that the tools and tactics of the enemy are often adopted, at least to some extent, in any conflict. Why not here?

What would adopting such tactics do to the hearts, minds and souls of the people using them? How would they rationalize their actions (to themselves and to others)? Where would they draw the boundaries on permissible behavior? (For that matter, how would the US government react to overseas terror carried out by Americans?)

For some time I’d had a vague idea of a “wounded warrior” woman as a character, though not for any particular writing project. The burnt-out soldier is a stereotype in fiction about men, but what would the female counterpart be like? Then, one afternoon, the fight-terror-with-terror question collided in my mind with this cloudy character image, and suddenly Carla Smukowski was wandering half-drunk into a porn shop in Portland, Oregon, and the book was off and running. In two days I had the 22 pages of the first chapter (that's many hours at the keyboard, since an hour per page is a blazingly rapid pace for me and two hours per page is more typical), and also had a notion where the story was headed.

Other characters then volunteered, and each brought their own complications, and by the end of the third chapter I realized that once people set off down this kind of road, their plans would naturally grow more grandiose, and that the obvious thing for them to decide was to stop attacking Muslims, and attack Islam itself by obliterating Mecca. An insane idea, perhaps, but one that had resonance.

This new idea—which I suppose most people would now describe as the premise of the novel—required backing up and adding an additional three or four paragraphs to Chapter Two, but needed no other changes. I'd written my first chapters to be fraught with possibilities since I'd been rather unclear as to where the story was heading. (I think that creating a situation fraught with possibilities, both in terms of character and plot, is all one can ask of opening chapters.)

I had spent a great deal of time in various Middle East countries over many years, so the locales required little research; and many of the technical details of nuclear matters and ships (both figure in the plot) were already familiar to me because of my education and work background. (Indeed, it would probably be more accurate to say that what I already knew began steering the story, but it was an unconscious matter.)

Once I have a clear premise and well-defined characters, plot starts writing itself. The ways characters behave—or more specifically, the ways they can behave given their natures—coupled with the logistics of the premise, narrow down the paths the story can follow.

By about page 150 (out of about 500), I knew what the situation of the climax would be (though not how the characters would respond), and the general outline of the plot became inevitable, shaped by what had gone before and the situation toward which we were headed.

In the end, after the first draft, I realized a few things had happened too quickly and easily (something pointed out to me by a number of First Readers), and I had to add some complicating action scenes to the first third and last third of the book. (I did much putting-in and very little cutting in reaching the final form of the book--even though everyone tells me revision is all about cutting). But, with the exception of those calculated additions (and the amendments suggested by my Wiz of an editor, Will Atkins), the plot pretty much wrote itself once the ungainly boat of the novel was launched.

Now, I dearly wish I could have worked all this out on yellow legal pads before writing (see Part I of this post), I really do. But I have no idea who my characters really are until I see them on the page, I have no idea what kind of book I’m writing until I hear the voice of the first chapter, and I can’t know my story until those characters begin interacting with the half-assed concepts swarming in my brain.

If you can do these things without stumbling half-blind into the actual writing of the book, I say, more power to you, and I’m green with envy.

So, How Do You Do That Thing You Do? I’d really like to know how you go about writing a novel. If you have only a few words, drop them into the comment trail, but if you want to give a longer explanation, e-mail it to me. (Or, for those of you who blog, if you want to drop it on your own blog and let me know about it, I’ll link to your post.)

Of course, according to Mr. McKee, I’m lying about all of the foregoing. Better get out those yellow legal pads.

1 comment:

cate sweeney said...

Your book sounds pretty amazing...
here's what I put on my blog about writing plans:
Hi David
I just spent ages writing about how I write and then went to publish it and it didn't save. Bugger! First rule of writing make sure you have a copy of your work somewhere.
So I'll try again, but I'm sure I it won't be so good this time (oh we always say that!)
Anyway, I'll cut and paste this to your blog too, but basically I do a bit of both planning and flying without a plane. I'll do a basic plan of the story (arc if you wanna be posh) roughly where I think it's gonna go and the main characters, but then I just plunge in and bash my way through, like Bam-bam in The Flintosnes, without going back over it that much till I finish a whole draft, or a least get over half way through, because the problem with this method is, you often realise there was something you should have put in earlier to make the plot work better, or as you found, the need to delay information a bit.

I think stage plays and screenplays have to be much more tightly structured (hence McKee's apoplexy!)and I studied playwriting, but think I prefer novel writing because we can wander off for a bit, as long as it's not too far or for too long.

I think the plan/no plan thing is something to do with (I say in my usual know-all way) right brain/leftbrain conscious/subconscious or soemthing like that... so we need to be logical and contolling to work out a plan, but we shouldn't do it too much and should let the wild creative unconscious stuff take over sometimes (in writing and in life!) because that's where the magic happens, when we start making themes and links and images that all connect somehow and we had no idea at the time, or when we find just the perfect phrase without thinking....

the downside of not much plan is I think there is a lot more rewriting to do, as I'm finding at the moment. Such as me wanting to hang onto my first two chapters because I'd just been writing my way into the characters and didn't want to let them go!

Whatever way we choose, none of it is easy, but it is (mostly) enjoyable.