Six impossible things

Basics: Process

The last two posts have talked about the basic parts of a plot. How you get to it – the process of building or fixing a plot – is pretty basic, too. The specifics tend to vary from writer to writer, and often from book to book, but I think it’s still possible to make some sweeping generalizations.

The first step in planning anything – whether it’s a vacation, an exercise program, a dinner party, or the plot for your novel – seems to me to be looking at what you want from doing it. If you dive right into planning a sightseeing trip to New York, full of museums and plays and climbing the Statue of Liberty, when what you want is a lazy week at the beach with a book…well, you’re not likely to be as happy with your trip as you expected. If you don’t know what you want to write, it’s easy to slip into writing some other thing entirely, which will be less fun and make you less happy (and which you probably won’t do as good a job on, because it’s less fun and happy).

“What you want to write” does not mean the plot for the book. It means what makes you excited about writing this time. What is giving you the writing itch? Is it the shape of the book? The urge to experiment with that neat structure or viewpoint technique you just saw? The idea of writing a mystery or fantasy or some other particular genre? The desire to take that great idea that somebody else botched and do it right? Characters you want to spend time with? A vague but really cool idea like “something about sentient asteroids” or “the secret cabal that’s hidden the library of Alexandria”?

Every story starts somewhere, with a character, place, joke, idea, incident, theme, goal…something that makes the writer’s backbrain sit up and go “I have to write about this!” Whatever that thing is, stash it away in a safe place and come back and look at it periodically to remind yourself why you got into this in the first place and what it was you wanted to do.

For a writer, this first step is a little more complicated, because you have to think both about what you want to write and/or are trying to do, and what your characters want and are trying to do. You don’t have to decide up front about the characters – some writers can’t, because they have to write their way into stuff like this – but you have to keep an eye on them. If your vision is of a poignant memoir about your main character’s childhood in rural Idaho at the turn of the last century, you’re likely to have problems if that character hated every backbreaking minute of his life on the farm and ran away at eleven to work in a factory in the city.

Once you have an idea of what you want to do (or maybe it’s got quite a lot of specifics involved right from the get-go; doesn’t matter, either way it’s a story-shape, it’s a direction, it’s what you want to do here), you can poke at whatever aspects of story that you don’t have yet: characters, place, motives, incidents and events, culture, problems, backstory, emotional development. You don’t have to settle on anything; this stage is about piling up an enormous heap of shiny things that might end up in the story, things that tickle your backbrain, that make you bounce in your chair and go “Oooo! Ooooo! I could do that!”

Some of these things may contradict each other, or be mutually exclusive. Some may clearly belong in a different sort of story than the one you set out to write. It doesn’t matter; the point of this stage is to make the idea pile bigger and more sparkly, not to start sorting out what to use and what not to use.

The third step is sorting out the heap of shiny stuff to decide what fits and what doesn’t, what’s useable and what isn’t. Inevitably, some of your favorite bits will have to be set aside. The story doesn’t have room for three wise-cracking thieves with hearts of gold, even if they aren’t nearly as similar as they sound. The round-the-world cruise is incompatible with the idea of telling a whole story set in a three-block area; one of those has to go. Other bits will have unexpected synergy: the moonless planet is the perfect place for the werewolves to establish a colony; the heroine’s work on underwater robots combines with the hero’s background in folklore to let them rediscover Atlantis.

The key point here is that you have to take the time to think about all the stuff you have, look for possible connections, and mentally test the things you pick and sort out against your original vision of what you want to do. Maybe you adore the idea of the heroine’s underwater robots helping rediscover Atlantis, but the thing that got you started on the story, that gave your backbrain that little zing, was the idea of the robots helping colonists on another planet. You are, of course, allowed to change your mind and write about rediscovering Atlantis instead…but unless this is giving you a bigger zing than your original inspiration, it’s usually best to put it aside for a different book.

Once the giant heap of shiny-stuff has been sorted into neat piles of characters, incidents, setting, possible plot points, background, or whatever categories your backbrain finds useful, you can look at what you’re still missing. Or you may have enough to get started, but not enough to finish. “Enough” varies, writer to writer; seat-of-the-pants writers may not need much more than that original zing to start; planners may need fifty to a hundred pages of notes, or more.

This is an iterative process: most writers go through it several times during story development and then again when they run across new shiny bits as they write and have to think about fitting them into the story, or find holes in their storyline and have to plug them. Because that’s the other thing; this neatly ordered description does not do justice to the messy reality of making-things-up.

Hardly any writer I know goes through these steps consciously, deliberately, and in this order. Nobody spends the same amount of time or mental effort on every piece. Most people have at least one part that they do so automatically and so fast that they can’t even see it happen, so it doesn’t seem like a part of the process to them at all. And lots of writers would really like to skip the thinking and iterations, especially when they’re in the middle of the manuscript, or working on a rewrite – that is, when they have a bunch of incidents and actions already written, and probably an end in mind, and the problem is to get from here to there.

The fact remains that on some level, this is the basic process for planning a story, and one of the reasons writers get stuck is that they’ve consciously or unconsciously shorted one of the steps. It may therefore be useful to consider the process as a process once in a while, look for what’s missing (or what you’re resisting doing), and spend some time on it. If you try that a time or two and it doesn’t seem to help, try something else.

Next post, I’ll start talking about the basics of description.

4 Comments
  1. I kept coming up blank because I was trying to come up with something for other people (my agent, the market). Lately I’ve decided to just write what makes me happy and it’s amazing how freeing it’s been!

  2. And lots of writers would really like to skip the thinking and iterations, especially […] when they have a bunch of incidents and actions already written, and probably an end in mind, and the problem is to get from here to there.

    *waves hand*

    *or possibly a white flag* Yep, I hate that part. I may have to go on hating that part for quite some time, novel after novel after novel….

    • @LizV

      Really? You hate coming up with ideas?? Well I guess every writer is different. But if you hate the process of coming up with new ideas so much… how did you get that pile of stuff you already wrote? Perhaps you are trying to use a “proper” method of writing to fill in plot holes. Instead of the method you first use to come up with original ideas. Then when you have a pile of useful puzzle pieces – see which ones fit your story. Maybe it will help you to break up the plot-hole-brainstorming into two tasks.

      • @Esther

        What I hate is the part where I’ve got ~2/3 of a manuscript written, and I can see the end — and I have to stop to figure out what happens in between. How to get from Q to Y, if you will.

        I love the buzz of getting ideas for A-H, probably because my back-brain does almost all of the work for me (as our hostess says, it comes so easily it doesn’t seem like a part of the process to me). And I-P can usually be generated with just a few thumps to kick-start the back-brain again. But there’s always that part that I have to put out in front of the brain and piece together as described above, and that’s Work. And it feels all the harder because I’ve got a huge chunk of stuff already written that I didn’t have to do that for.

        Trust me, it’s not that I’m trying to use a “proper” method; I never use a “proper” method for anything in writing. 😉 I am Token Weird Process Chick.

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