Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Preparatory Work is Finished. Now on to the Fun Stuff!

Hello Everyone!

I finished all of the pre-writing for my new novel, The Rope, the Tire, and the Tree, and now I am finally embarking on the actual writing of the story. If you have been following my blog, you know what that preparatory work entailed. For a bit of reinforcement, I will briefly recap.

The first, and arguably hardest part of beginning a novel is coming up with an interesting and unique story. In my case, I was pondering an idea for a short story for my compilation of short fiction. The genre of the compilation is supernatural fiction, so I was trying to think of an interesting tale to write that had a supernatural twist. I had completed about six short stories and several poems for the volume, but when thinking of a new story to tackle, I found myself simply rehashing old themes. I was literally starting from scratch. I had to make something out of nothing. For many of us in this position, that seems like an impossible task. What I did to conquer that obstacle was surprisingly simple. Instead of asking myself what story do I want to write, I asked myself what story do I want to READ. Well, I know what I want to read. I want to read a story that has a sympathetic, yet, terribly flawed main character. The flawed heroes are always the most fun and the most relatable. I don’t want gore, but something dramatically supernatural and fundamentally frightening without overwhelming me with horror. I want to explore the “lives” of the supernatural forces and get to know them on an intimate level, just as does the protagonist. I want something classic in nature placed in contemporary times.

As I do with my poetry, I took these somewhat abstract ideas and I tried to find an image to make them concrete. I wanted something I could see. If I can see it, I can write about it. If you’ve ever taken my creative writing workshops, you know that working with concrete imagery is fundamental to great writing. I found the image lingering in the back of my mind. It came from a poem I wrote called An Accidental Meeting that is published in my first volume of poetry. In the poem, I describe an old tire swing. Bingo! That was the image, classic, yet easy to fit into contemporary times. And, of course, I had to attach the supernatural element to that tire swing. Thus, the germ of my story was born.

Next, I developed a plot sentence. What is a plot sentence? Some have called it a cocktail party description. That is what you would say if a friend came up to you at a cocktail party and asked what your story was about. You need one maybe two sentences tops that briefly, precisely, and compellingly explains the main protagonist of your story, her conflict and how the antagonist prevents her from overcoming that conflict; in other words, the plot of your story. So, I had the image of the tire swing and the general idea of the story, now I needed to incorporate a character in order to develop the plot. I picked a main character with whom I could easily connect, a woman in her forties. Well, that’s me. I, however, am rather boring, so, I started with me and expanded outward. I developed a crisis or conflict for the woman, placed her in a situation where that conflict appeared insurmountable, and then entangled into that conflict the supernatural element (antagonists, if you will), which would ultimately bring the story to its climax.

I didn’t want the tire swing itself to be supernatural, but rather to harbor something supernatural, that is, the spirits of lives past. I also didn’t want the spirits to be pure evil, as that would create distance between them and the reader. So, I made the spirits into characters, real people who lived, then died and found themselves trapped in the properties of the tire swing. They are restless, confused, and in need of home. I wanted more than one spirit, because there is power in numbers, but not too many for fear of convoluting the story. Two spirits coming together in one tire swing and a protagonist faced with a crisis that is exacerbated and blown into the stratosphere by the manifestation of these spirits. Aha! A plot sentence is born.

“Mercy Amoretto, in an attempt to mend her nearly destroyed family, decides to clean out the garbage of her life and in doing so discovers an old rope and tire and fashions them together to create a tire swing that she hangs from a maple tree in her back yard only to discover that the connection of the rope, the tire and the tree has released the restless spirits of lives past, spirits that if not cared for, could bring Mercy and her family to eternal ruin.”

OK. That’s a long sentence. I could break it into two, but that’s it in a nutshell, my plot sentence, my cocktail party description of my story. In thinking about my plot, my protagonist and the two spirits, I realized that this was much bigger than a short story. There was a novel here, and so with the birth of my plot sentence came the growth of my novel.

From here, I began developing my characters. I will not go into detail because I have already done that in an earlier blog. But, essentially, I interview my characters by asking them a series of about twenty questions, then I take the answers to those questions and write a page or two narrative. By narrative, I mean I write a “chapter” that essentially describes each character, interweaving each answer into that chapter. For example, instead of simply saying Anastasia is eight years old with blue eyes and blond hair, characteristics that are in my list of answers, I write her description into a narrative. Here is the beginning of that narrative. The numbers represent each of the answers in my questionnaire, and notice I don’t necessarily write the answers into my narrative in the order the questions were asked.

“It’s 1970(4) and eight-year-old(2) Anastasia Madison(1) was riding in the way back of her parent’s 1967 Chevy Chevelle station wagon. There was no seat in the back, just a blanket covering a cold metal floor. Anastasia sat cross-legged facing the rear window daydreaming. The air that swirled through the partially opened window tangled through her long, sleek blond(3) hair, lifting it to fly like the tails of kites behind her.”

By doing this, I am developing Anastasia into a three-dimensional character before I even start writing the novel. I develop a relationship with her. I am thinking about her creatively, not just analytically. Again, I teach this in my creative writing workshops. It’s a fun and invigorating exercise!

Next, I drafted the ending to my story. Yes, the ending. Don’t think your story will tell you where to go as you write it, because it won’t. If you do not have an ending before you start writing, you risk rambling down dozens of digressive dirt roads until you find yourself standing over a massive precipice in where the only way to go is straight down! Figure out where you want to go before you start writing. You can change your mind later, but it’s always best to write knowing your destination! Draft the ending like you draft your plot sentence. WRITE IT DOWN!

Next, I blocked out my chapters. I took index cards and dedicated one index card to each chapter. I started, of course, at the beginning, and one-by-one, I found the heart of each chapter as well as the movement of the story. I asked myself, where do I want to go from here, and then I blocked that out chapter-by-chapter until I reached my already drafted conclusion. The exciting part of this is that I discovered by the time I reached chapter ten that I needed to introduce a new character. I needed a bridge character, someone who would serve to take the main character from here to there in a more realistic and interesting way than what I had originally drafted out. Because I have the chapters on index cards, I simply went to chapter one and wrote down the new character’s introduction on the back of the card. Then at about chapter 15 I realized I needed a stronger connection between Mercy and the spirits, a connection that stemmed from some intimate and devastating occurrence in Mercy’s life that makes her susceptible to the spirits’ influence. So, I introduced some foreshadowing and a subplot on the chapter three index card. THEN, when I reached the climax, I realized I needed a more dimensional and dramatic climax than I had drawn up in my original conclusion. So, I expanded the climax to include this added drama, and incorporated that into the draft of the conclusion I had written earlier. Consider the amount of labor I am avoiding by taking care of all of this now. If I just started writing without any preparatory work, any pre-write, and had written ten whole chapters before realizing I had to go back and introduce a whole new character in chapter one, then I would have to go through the entire ten chapters and make sure that character was accurately and flawlessly incorporated in order for the plot to move smoothly. That is an enormous rewrite that we avoided by doing all of this preliminary drafting and blocking. AMAZING!!

Now here I am. I have my plot, an in depth understanding of my characters, all of my chapters blocked out and my ending drafted. Imagine, having all of this work already done before you even write the first word of your novel! I don’t have to worry about facing that horrible, ugly monster called writer’s block. The hardest of the hard work is over. All of that anticipated badness is alleviated. I no longer have to ask, “Can I do this?” because I’ve already done it. Now I just have to write the story. And that’s the fun part, right??


So, I am at that wonderful point of writing the first line of the first chapter of my novel. I don’t want to overwhelm you, so I will go into detail about that in my next blog.
Until then, happy writing and happy Thanksgiving!!