Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What do you need to start?

Each year around this time, I get together with the same group of writers for a weekend crash session. We hole up in a hotel and plot their next books, one at a time. It's a focused, concentrated experience. Each session is recorded and lasts around three hours, and in that three hours, the basic book will be mapped out. We use giant pads and thick markers to take notes on plot points and characterization, and we stick those notes to the walls like outsized reminder notes. Often, after the original three-hour sessions are done, we revisit a particular book to get more in-depth on a piece of the plot or to try to come up with a stronger twist.

It's an exceptionally good weekend process that has resulted in some exceptionally good books being written. We use the same basic procedure for each writer -- in terms of recording, note-taking, the basic process of Q&A-driven brainstorming -- and yet, each individual session is strongly different. These differences are based in the particular needs of each writer at the early stage of planning a book.

In some ways, Author One is the easiest to get started. She needs a strong structure and clear plot in place in order to begin writing. She writes romantic suspense, and her process begins with the external plot. The character motivation and emotional arcs come later for her -- and we know from experience that she is plenty capable of making those things work in the final draft. But she can't get to that final draft, and she has a hard time even wrangling that first draft, until she knows the basic structural pieces (initiating incident, midpoint lock, villain's m.o., final plot twist, black moment, and the like). She tends to arrive at these sessions armed with research about whatever crime her villain will commit, a setting, and some basic character backstory. So we brainstorm a clean, strong external plot and structure, and she runs with it from there. We do discuss her characters, but we don't flesh them out fully at this stage. We just get a working skeleton in place, and she gives them hearts and brains and fun bits later. She's the one who, if I ask her when they have their first kiss or first sex scene, is likely to shrug and say, "Somewhere around this scene." But I never have to worry that she'll overlook the romance in the final book -- it's just not something she needs to brainstorm in advance.

Author Two has a very different kind of process. She doesn't necessarily need the entire structure in place in order to begin drafting. What she needs is a solid understanding of the start of the book, and some firm pieces for the middle and end. She can always envision several different ways to write the first hundred pages, and she sometimes has to really think through the details on her first scene -- which should be the first scene, what must be established in that scene, and so on. She tends to come into our brainstorming sessions with a good story question in mind based on her pre-work with these early scenes, but much of the rest of the story will still feel wide open. Many of her questions to us start like this: "I know the character takes this particular action. But why would she do this?" Or, "I know this character has to eventually do this action. But how and why?"  And then we figure it out, extrapolating forward into the plot based on what the author knows about the beginning or some shadowy end point. It's a fun process because it can feel so inventive, and much of what I try to do in these sessions is show her how her existing known pieces might relate to each other. Sometimes pointing out a simple pattern or repetition can open a whole new line of discussion that leads to another section of plot being discovered. Because this author is writing a series, her big concern in plotting new books is ensuring that they are consistent with past books. And what she needs to begin is not necessarily a fully plotted book, but a very firmly plotted opening with a strong sense of how that opening will spin across the pages.

Author Three has the loosest process of all three writers. She writes purely character-driven work -- I know it's popular and trendy to claim that you write character-driven stories, but trust me, this is far more rare than the chatter would indicate. She comes into these brainstorming sessions with something akin to snapshots. She can see a character holding something in her hands. She can see another character standing in a particular room. Sometimes these are motion snapshots -- she can see a character engaged in some kind of movement, like buttering toast, and this will lead her to conclude that the toast is significant even if she doesn't know why. Usually, the first hour or so of our brainstorming sessions amounts to us trying to interpret or extrapolate these snapshots -- maybe she's a chef, maybe she runs a B&B, etc. -- and the author rejecting these concepts until she hears one that sticks. Getting to these sticking points can be a challenge, but once we have a handful, the rest of the story begins to fall into place around them. She complains that plotting is difficult for her -- and god knows, this is the curse of the character-driven author -- but we somehow manage to come up with enough plot and structure that she can aim her characters toward certain plot points as she writes them. But for her to begin drafting, she doesn't necessarily need a powerful, rock-solid structure in place. What she needs is a strong understanding of her characters, themes, symbols, and settings, and then the plot springs up from these other aspects as she writes.

So what is it that you need in order to begin drafting? Not everyone needs the same thing, and I think some of us fall into this trap of thinking that there is one best way to write a book, and all other methods are somehow less legitimate or less fruitful. Not true. Here we have three authors with wildly different approaches, and yet all three are making it happen. They know what they need to begin, and they've learned to leave certain other aspects open for discovery during the writing process. So how is it for you? Do you need to know how the book ends before you can begin writing? Do you need to know your subplots? Do you focus more on the emotions or the events? Understand your process, and it might not get any easier, but your faith in its ability to generate results will certainly get deeper and stronger.



Joan Leacott said...

I need a fully developed back story for each character and a complete scene list. The scene list is only two sentences: what happens and what's the outcome. It takes me quite a while to get these sorted, but once I do, the writing flows easily.

alexlukeman said...

Excellent post, really. It's always good to see how others think. I'm more like Author Two, although not exactly, and I can spend many days of revision on those first ten pages or so.


Leona said...

*eyes the post suspiciously* this looks a lot like a "pantster vs plotter* question...

I'm definitely a character driven writer, and as I've had offers lately (first romance novel out in July & also a short in Breathless Press's Ravaged Anthology, as well as a fantasy anthology for a small publisher, and currently have a novel in place approved on my synopsis--can't remember what that's called, and more shorts for the fantasy publisher) I know it can work to be a character driven pantster LOL In fact, I've said before, being a full plotter will kill the book for me. Even the synopsis driven one is hard for me because now I'm stuck to this thing in particular. LOL

Right now, I'm writing a short based on a new world I've envisioned, it'll be the first story I've written based solely on a world I imagined, and not on a character that I had to build the world for. The fantasy publisher has a specific world I have to work in, but it's still the characters who are driving the plot. The world is their obstacle in getting what they want.

:D tried the whole *outline thingy* (she says with disgust :D) more than once, with different emphasis on each one. NONE work for me. However, I did start making character cards...AFTER I've written about the characters, and this hasn't hurt my creative process.

green_knight said...

I need a character in a Situation. The characters usually walk in and share their challenge with me. The quadrology I'm currently revising started with one character telling another to get some sleep. And then I had to work out who they were and why it was such a big deal - turns out that one of the characters has been accused of betrayal and the other meant to find out the truth - and instead he walks in, takes one look at his friend, and tells him he's got his back.
And then I wrote 70K to get there.

And then I need to start writing. Planning ahead of the time does not work for me, and the draft needs to be done from beginning to end, because working out each scene means that later ones might change and become superfluous.

Alicia said...

I wanna be on the next retreat!

tinlizzie82 said...

I think I'm most like author three, although since I'm not much of one for labels, I have never thought of myself as being character driven, but now that I think about it, I always have these characters in my head that I find interesting and eventually my brain comes up with some image, a line of dialog, or very short scene that it falls in love with and a story gets written in order to bring that to life. Basically, I need very little to start writing, especially since I often work non-chronologically. For example, I may write out the scenes that prompted the story and then work backwards and forwards from them.

In fact, the problem I have with longer work is that it eventually requires me to KNOW how everyone gets from point A to point B to point C and when, during the writing process, I finally do know, I usually lose interest.

Wes said...

Please, please, PLEASE?????? Can I attend the next one?

green_knight said...

have you ever tried writing strictly in order? I find sometimes the momentum of 'I really want to write this scene' is a great motivator to write the ones that are chewier, for whatever reason.

Edittorrent said...

I don't know why, but the blog has stopped emailing me notices of comments. Popped over this evening and was stunned to find people have been discussing this post. Eep!

Leona, I think "plotter v. pantser" is a somewhat superficial distinction because I think we all have *some* notion of what we'll write before we write it. This post was attempting to get at an understanding of how much we might need, or what kinds of things we might need, or what we might feel comfortable discovering along the way.

Alex, I also have to have the first few pieces nailed together pretty firmly before I can wade into the rest of the book. It's like a security blanket. No matter how lost I get in the middle, I can always look back over that opening and know that some part of the story works in some ways.

Alicia and Wes, I'm a guest at these retreats. I just hope they never stop inviting me! I'm telling you, the dynamic in this group is about as good as it can be. I feel fortunate to be part of it (even if my part seems to be to parrot "Why" over and over).

Tinlizzie, this is not uncommon with character-driven authors. The best cure seems to be to write fast, if you can, and be open to tossing out entire chunks of plot and discovering new possibilities in subsequent drafts.


green_knight said...

I think we all have *some* notion of what we'll write before we write it

Theresa, not much. What you describe is a lot more information than I've ever gathered before I started to write a book; I literally mean that I start with a character with an immediate problem, and go 'who are they? What are they doing here?

The only one that's different is the one where I knew it would be a murder mystery and had the reason behind the murder, so I had to look around for suitable POV characters, but the next thing that happened was... completely up to them.

I know there are people who are the exact opposite of me in this, but every time I try to plan ahead I get clichees. If I let the characters have their heads, I get much more interesting ideas.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

I've read about type 3--maybe a more tactile sort of person? But I'm probably more type 2. I've got the plot loosely structured, the main characters well-developed, now I just start writing to see how to get to those major plot points. Enjoyed this post!

Matthew Wright said...

A lot of these issues and techniques apply to non-fiction as well, particularly writing to structure vs writing by the 'feel of it'. I write both fic and non-fic, and find the techniques vary depending on the intended content, theme, and the mood. But always to a structure.

Matthew Wright