Wednesday, January 09, 2008


by Hannah

Can you tell I haven't had breakfast yet? I was trying to think of something with lots of layers, and pastry popped into my head. You know, Napoleons and those other yummies with the thousands of sheets of pastry and cream (or fruit) and icing... but I digress, a bit.

My own challenge in writing also has been plot. Not so much in creating one, but in creating a full set of events that together make it richer, stronger, worthwhile. I could take a thread and stretch it one end to the other. A second thread, fine. A third, even. In the past, however, I found it easy to get lost. I might start with a firm beginning, and follow my primary thread to hit key points along the way, but in between it would wander.

I learned to manage that to a greater degree, and my last draft was close. The unanimous opinion, still, was that it needed more action. There were already so many characters, so many pieces, how could it need more? As I reviewed and played with it in my mind, the answer (as usual) was that everything I needed was really already sitting in front of me. What I have discovered in this last revision is precisely how many threads I'm really working from end to end; that number is far more than I ever realized.

Before it seemed thin, and suddenly it felt rich, excessive. At first I panicked. How presumptuous to assume I could take so many elements and truly craft them start to finish! Do I really have it in me to pull the right ones at the right times, to make sure the heavier ones march solidly along and the delicate ones add depth by popping up gently here and there? How do I interlace them so they happen in the right order, like dominoes with intersecting paths?

What I have learned with this revision is that more threads are not necessarily harder. In fact, like a narrow writing prompt, it makes the work easier. I set out the main character's thread and the basic plot, writing it step by step with lots of space in between on 8 1/2 by 11 sheets of paper. I added in the secondary character's bits between. Then the third most important person. Then I made a list of all the elements: relationship with father, funny unconscious habit, details on backstory that main character is unaware of but that he -- and we -- need to put together along the way. Layers and layers and layers on sheets across my dining room table.

This was different from the outlines I had done before, different in that every aspect of every character was on the sheet somewhere, not only in my head. In doing so, it was suddenly far clearer what was important, what drove the whole thing forward, what could be eliminated. Who could be eliminated. Who had drifted into lesser importance and was waiting patiently to return to greater prominence. Best of all, I was able to find the action that was so dearly needed.

Like a baker, I am taking those layers that stretched across my table and am folding them not once, not twice, but what seems like a thousand times into something new. A confection that I hope will be as impressive in the tasting as it is in the presentation. A thousand layers in nearly that many pages? Not quite, but close enough. And now, off for breakfast!


kristen spina said...

Hannah, I love this. What an interesting and insightful way to think about building your novel. It sounds like a great exercise for revision. Thanks for sharing!

Lisa Marnell said...

Can you TELL Hannah's the funny writer in our group?

Layered pastry indeed - loved this analogy - Thanks!

Larramie said...

What a terrific visual and I also like this as a new and improved outline form. Happy baking to you, Hannah, and happy eating to your readers!

Lisa said...

I'm going to ask forgiveness on this comment, because I've lifted the following from the Dickens Challenge forum (it's in forum format, so I don't know how to provide a link to this specific comment from Tim Hallinan). We were discussing structure and he shared the following about a recent novel (one of nine he's published so far). I thought it related (especially the last paragraph) and was VERY helpful:

Since you've both read A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, this might be more illustrative of my process, if it can be dignified with such a formal word.

I knew that the photos of the torturers had been removed from Tuol Sleng, when the Vietnamese invaded, by the fleeing Khmer Rouge. I had heard rumors that one of them, a woman, lived in Bangkok under police protection. I started the book with a question: what would happen if those photographs suddenly surfaced?

I also had my four main continuing characters, Poke, Rose, Miaow, and Arthit. Everything else, including the plot strands about Superman and the disappearance of Claus Ulrich, happened as I wrote the book. I originally wrote Clarissa (Claus' niece) just as a way to get Poke involved with Madame Wing. Claus's maid had disappeared, she once worked for Madame Wing, so the connection was made. The whole thing about how heinous Claus was, etc., happened in the writing.

And, sure, I went back and fixed the first part to make everything match up. I also wrote the scene where Poke draws a floor plan of the situation right after I had done exactly the same thing to see where the hell I was.

So I'd say that 85% of that book happened on the fly. As opposed to 98% of Counterclockwise.

And by the way, I'm a great believer in retroactive outlines. At a certain point -- maybe half of the way through -- I go back and give each chapter a paragraph that begins with day and time and continues through a broad description of the action. If a character appears for the first time in that scene, I put his/her name in red. (This can be very helpful later.) This gives me a more distant view of the novel, makes it clear if I've just dropped any threads, and clarifies where in the book's time flow I am, which is something that always gives me trouble.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

I like the "retroactive outlines" term a lot, as that seems to be my approach. Well, I do outline, but so many details come as I write that to go back for revision with something more in-depth has been very useful.

Hallie Ephron ( is one of the best writing teachers, and her book, "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel" applies in more ways than I can say to every novel. She has a technique called Fly High, Fly Low, where you work similarly to Tim Hallinan, creating brief chapter descriptions, then working first on a macro level and then micro, noting key details, and pace, as well -- where is it cool and where is it hot? As I deal with these many sheet of paper I have created, her words echo in my head!

And sorry to report, I followed my dreams of puff pastry with a very boring bowl of bran flakes and raisins. Usually I'm okay with that, but today, not so much!

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks, Hannah, for your detailed description of your process. I'm always interested in learning about how other writers work.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

I love learning about how others work, too. Some proceses I'd never use, some I've adopted right away, and some I've decided would never work for me, yet later I find a twist on them that is just right. You never know what tidbits will come in handy; please share your own as well!


Anonymous said...

I printed off that paragraph about retroactive outlines. Makes a lot of sense.

And bran flakes with raisins. Ha! Me too!

Thanks for another wonderful post!

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