Monday, February 19, 2007

Why I Can't Plan My Stories (Mea Culpa)

In Which Our Hero Sits Down to Outline

ME: (delivered with a hearty but clearly false tone of confidence, possibly slapping own thigh while dropping into chair) Right, then! We’ve established that the detective suspects Carolyn stole the key, and Carolyn lets him go on thinking that. Why?

MIND: She’s protecting someone.

ME: Who?

MIND: Isn’t it ‘Whom’?

ME: Don’t get picky. Who or whom is she protecting?

MIND: From what?

ME: From the detective! Why would she do such a thing, anyway?

MIND: Probably her childhood…

ME: You’re right, you’re right. We don’t know anything about her background. Where did she grow up, who were her parents—?

MIND: Madge and Sheila.

ME: Huh? Madge and...Sheila? Both women?

MIND: Same-sex marriage. Or Madge killed her husband with Sheila’s help. Or maybe one had a sex change. That would be kinda interesting, wouldn’t it, having a transgendered parent? Fertile ground. Ten bazillion times more interesting than this recycled Chandleresque wannabe crap you’re trying to foist off on me. But every time I try to get creative you slap me down with your constant criticism and carping and—Hey, look, a blackbird!

ME: Where? Oh. No, that’s a starling. Get back on track here. What does Carolyn want?

MIND: Bagels. Blueberry bagels with cream cheese. I think starlings have longer beaks than that.

ME: 'A bagel' is not what Carolyn wants. It’s what you want. Now buckle down and think about this damn story!

MIND: (begins to whistle My Sharrona and drum on the desk in an unusually meatheaded fashion.)

ME: Stop that…stop it!…A least not that song!

MIND: Fine. How about, Don’t cry for me, Ar-jun-TEEEEEEE-nuh

ME: No, not that, either! I'm begging here. What am I supposed to do with you, anyway?

MIND: Blueberry bagel, toasted, with cream cheese. And none of that low-fat imitation glop. Real cream cheese.

ME: Okay, I give, I surrender, we’ll go get bagels and coffee. But when we get back, we have to buckle down and do some work, right? ...Hmm, so where’s my wallet and keys?

MIND: Do I have to keep track of everything?

Guess what? When we get back from bagels, nothing happens. And that’s on a day when my imagination is being cooperative. On other days my mind slouches against the wall like a sullen teenager, arms crossed over its narrow chest, refusing all eye contact and answering only in grunts.

I blame myself, really. I ought to have sent my imagination to obedience school when it was still a pup. But it’s too late now. The only way I can get it to help is by using primitive child psychology: “Mmmmm, yummy! Look, Daddy’s eating. Daddy's eating it all up!

So I just write, and pretend I’m having fun. Since I usually am—I trance out really easily, especially when I’m focused on fiddly craft details—soon the imagination joins in, and a good time is had by all. But unless I have writing as a distraction, I can't even think about my story. (Okay, I admit that doesn't make much sense. So sue me.)

I like to claim I wouldn’t have it any other way. But the truth is, if I ever get another imagination, it’s obedience school for the little bastard as soon as it’s old enough to romp across the kitchen floor.

The way I write novels makes defense contracting look like a paragon of efficiency.


roger said...

Ha-ha! Brilliant. I'm trying to think of my writing method. I used to dive in with only the vaguest idea of where I was going. But several unpublished novels later, I worked out that I needed to do a little bit more planning. I like to do what I call 'cooking' where I just mull over things for a long time. If I'm writing one of my crime novels everything has to be really plotted out. I now use sheets of A3 tracing paper to write my story strands on. I can lay them over each other to see how the layers connect. I also have to work out a time line pretty tightly. But even Taking Comfort, which was not so much a genre crime novel, had a lot of work put into the story. I treated it a little like a screenplay - you know, structure is story (now who said that?). In fact, I wrote it as a screenplay at one point. Then I realised it had to be a novel.

Another thing I do when I'm starting out is get a lot of different coloured index cards and different coloured pens. I write character details on the cards - colour coded depended on which plotline they fit in with mainly. Of course, the characters overlap, but they usually belong to one strand or another. Then I completely ignore the cards and write the book. (Well, sometimes I check back, just to make sure I keep things consistent.)

In my crime books (2 written so far, so that hardly qualifies me to speak with any great authroity - but I do what I do) I also find it quite useful to write a developed chapter by chapter synopsis, before writing the book itself. In this synopsis, the final denouement will be written quite fully, with a fair amount of the dialogue in place. I have found both times that I have used a lot of this dialogue when I actually get to the writing itself. So I suppose what I do is write the ending first! Weird, hey?

Great theme you've got going here, David.

Lucy McCarraher said...

Now there's someone who's far more planned and plotted than me. Chapter by chapter breakdowns I do, like Roger, but index cards - that's a step too far. I did do a family tree for the 1940s storyline in Kindred Spirits, and I do jottings about characters - usually on pieces of paper I then lose. But I certainly do the "cooking" part like Roger - two to three months minimum, I think. And try to consign detail to the filing cabinet in the back of my mind where I find I can usually retrieve it quite easily when it's required (I suppose that's the thing called memory - but if I call it that I get panicky and think it won't work.)
I'm thinking of putting Kindred Spirits on the web as a free download, or only for the cost of giving me feedback. Does anyone have any reasons why this would be either a good, or perhaps a very bad idea?