Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Mapping It

By Amy

I've learned a thing or two since the last novel. Mostly about craft, some about faith. It's my hope that this assuredness will help the process move along a bit faster this time. You may recall the first chapter in TETHERED took me six months. Yes, that's right, six months.

So what have I learned? It's important to listen to my protagonist for months before I commit a single word to paper. Like any other relationship, it takes time to learn about the person. The protag from my current WIP introduced himself months ago. We exchanged pleasantries and as we became more familiar with each other, he started sharing aspects of his life. I knew this time around not to rush him, that he'd just pull back, afraid of my urgency. He's a lifelong birder; he has a congenital syndrome that he almost never speaks of (I noticed it the first time he introduced himself, but was too polite to say anything); and people tend to underestimate just how bright and capable he is, him most of all.

Does this sound strange? It is. But there's a point to be made. Before a word is on the page, a writer needs to know the main theme of her work and she must know her protagonist well enough at the outset to design the threads to showcase that theme. His hobbies, fears, his greatest desire are all catalysts for the main -- and some of the minor -- themes.

Okay, something less elusive now. Setting. I love to create setting. There are times when it's necessary to be direct when describing place and time: "Inside the efficiency apartment, it’s the expected scene: scraps of paper and unopened bills littering every surface; half-eaten plates and cartons of food forming a banquet across the one counter; tattered furniture and a filthy white sheet tacked over a pair of windows." Other times, it works better to slip it in, give the readers enough hints, but leave them to wonder a bit: "It was a mid-September blue sky – cerulean Principal McDaniels might have called it – ripe with the sort of clouds the children would have wondered at during recess..." This sentence tells you right off the bat that the protagonist is at a school though without saying so. Setting can do something else. What do those sentences tell you about characters? The first hints broadly that the person who lives in that apartment is probably poor, damaged in some way, desperate. The second sentence tells you that the character is probably someone who enjoys the simple things in life -- sunny days, a child's laughter -- but feels that Principal McDaniels is a bit pretentious. It also tells the reader the protag knows the uncommon word cerulean. Hmmmm...

Another lesson I learned is the value of having a map. Reading the comments section of Lisa's post yesterday made me realize just how many people wing it. Absolutely terrifying. I do to a certain extent, but I must know where to begin and end; those first and last sentences never change no matter the number of drafts. I also have to know the crucial plot points along the way. Think of them as landmarks on a map. I may not know the names of the streets, how many miles in-between, but I do know to take a right at the pink doughnut shop and that the exterminator's office (you know the one with the giant cockroach on the roof?) will be just past the bridge. I think plotting comes back to the main theme. If you know what that is, you know what message you're trying to convey and the impression you're trying to leave your readers.

Probably the most important lesson I've learned is to trust my characters. Whenever I panic, say page 100 and then again at 150, I let them lead me. They know where to go and how to get me there. It is their story.

14 comments:

Therese said...

I've read through the comments to Lisa's post, and I'm not sure I see that winging epidemic...

Speaking only for myself: a preliminary sense of theme and direction and character are essential to begin--then I tend to write my way into the story, rather than wait for it to come. I write it to find it, trusting my subconscious.

That's why I'll prewrite as many as a couple hundred pages before I start the "real" draft.

Every novel is a logic puzzle, every writing day a consideration of potential directions. (Hence Lisa's mouse-in-maze analogy.)

Was it Richard Russo who said that story creation (in the novel) is a series of decisions made about steadily diminishing possibilities?

And magic. :)

Wayne said...

I'm a winger--I wing it. I write the first draft with the spell and grammar checker switched off and I never turn back--not during that vital first write. Once it's on paper, it's on paper. I slog ahead.

There are, I am convinced, as many ways to write a book as there are books on the shelves. Yours is certainly no less valid than mine.

The Writers' Group said...

Therese, epidemic? Hmm, no, I merely used a couple of comments from there as a jumping off point. For example, Ian McEwan doesn't plot. Clearly this works for him. As someone who gets lost all the time in my real life (I wasn't born with an internal compass), I don't want to get lost plotting. It would take me even longer to write. That's one of the more interesting points about writing is that there is no one schematic. This is mine, works for me, certainly not for everyone. Course I'm talking to the author who wrote her book in SEVEN months and sold it in a kajillion countries.

Wayne, I would probably shave months and months off of my writing time if I could only wing it. I envy that trait in others, coure, you're a pilot, used to winging it. I'm a terrible control freak, unable to move onto the next paragraph until I've worked over the previous one a thousand times. It's an illness. But you're absolutely right, everyone has his own process and having been to your website, yours clearly works for you.

Amy

Larramie said...

If only there was a GPS writer's navigational system.... ;)

Mardougrrl said...

I definitely prefer writing with a map--two of my manuscripts were written with a firm sense of certain milestones and an end, and I found that more enjoyable than the manuscripts that arrived vague and incomplete. And that sense of enjoyment is necessary to keep me writing.

I like your idea of listening to your protagonist without starting to write immediately. I am doing that now, and it feels so counter-intuitive, like I am procrastinating, but yet...I know that this time, I am not.

I think.

The Writers' Group said...

Larramie, wouldn't a GPS for life be something? Think of the time and heartache we'd save.

Mardougrrl, I know! I get antsy, feel a little guilty, but it eventually works so well for me to be patient and still. You can't hurry a friendship, right?

Amy

Lisa said...

This is so relevant to what I'm experiencing right now! My natural inclination is to let things percolate and to carefully map and plan. But -- I decided to try the Dickens Challenge experiment that Tim Hallinan launched a few weeks ago and it has taught me some surprising things. The idea was to launch into a story and completely wing it, publishing a draft chapter every week. Initially I couldn't imagine even trying it, but through the process of working without a net, I've has some surprising revelations. I am frustrated at the lack of time to let things simmer and develop, but at the same time I've been surprised and at times, delighted at what the deadline has done for me. I would not ever use this approach out of choice, but it has taught me a few things about structure that I wasn't expecting. For more insight into how winging in the extreme has worked for the nine people participating, you can check the Dickens Forum site that's liked at my place. I don't think this will be my ultimate/ideal process, but I'm glad I've tried it.

Kira said...

Do you all write from A to Z? That is, Chapter 1, then Chapter 2, etc.? I'm finding my mind, and my writing, skips around.

I wrote a short story, then a character jumped out and demanded equal time, so I'm writing a prequel. Now I think it all could be a novel, but I find that on any given day, I might be thinking of finishing the first story (which isn't the first part of the novel), or the second part (which is, or maybe it's the middle), or the prequel short story, or... You get the idea.

Is this insane?

I do have a sense of the arc my main character takes, but I'm just not sure it's interesting enough to make a novel. But I'm also still too new at this to really worry about that. Right now, I'm just trying to transcribe all the stuff they are telling me.

I find that anytime I'm not writing, I'm in fact "writing." Composing and problem-solving in my head. Used to be called day dreaming and I've always been a master, just ask my third grade teacher. Now it's useful! Forget a magazine for the doctor's waiting room? No problem. "Write"!

The Writers' Group said...

Lisa, that is absolutely fascinating. Maybe I should try it as an exercise. It's just so different from my norm...

Kira, I'm definitely an A-Z writer. For me, it's like cleaning -- my other passion. Go figure. I need to finish one room before I move onto the next. I know lots of people who skip around, though. Many of whom scatter their drafts on the floor and rearrange chapters even. The important thing to do is find the process that works for you, don't you think?

Amy

Therese said...

It seems I may have misunderstood your declaration of "Absolutely terrifying" in relation to the sentence preceding it.

Yes, that we all find our ways differently is very cool. You won't be surprised to know I have a pretty decent sense of spatial direction and rarely get lost when traveling. :)

Many paths to the same destination, right?

Usman said...

Amy, I don't have the patience you have. And I am a celebrated 5 star winger.
But I like the idea that your protag has to be clear in your mind... although he/she only becomes clear in my mind once I start putting words to paper.
Interesting thoughts.

The Writers' Group said...

Therese, I can only speak to my own process on writing, hence terrifying referred to winging it would paralyze ME. Though I'm addicted to all of the books on how to write, I couldn't ever do one myself. I just don't believe there are rules for this.

Usman, it's not patience, it's my neurosis. Before I eat a dish, I must know all of the ingredients; before I drive anywhere, I must have absolute directions; before I write; I must know my protagonist. I bet yours is a far more adventurous life.

Amy

Carleen Brice said...

I start with a map, but the landscape sure does change as I go.

The Writers' Group said...

Doesn't it though, Carleen? BTW, we're just weeks away from the release of Orange Mint & Honey. I hop everyone has either pre-ordered or alerted their independent bookstore to reserve a copy. I'm so looking forward to this book.

Amy