Friday, December 10, 2021

Writing Process? It all depends... It's so interesting (to me anyway) to think about how we imagine.

 >Hi, Alicia!  I know everyone has their own writing process, but I am intrigued by the idea of starting with character.  Do you think that it might be easier to work on the goal and motivation part as part of the character bio first and then use those aspects of what you learn about your protagonist (and to a lesser degree, the other main characters in a romance) to outline the story incorporating conflicts into turning points?



Well, I think one important step for authors is to find their own ideal writing process, and modify it as needed (different books might require different processes). At some point, most stories will benefit from being outlined or structured with acts and turning points based on character development study (including GMC- I do other analysis too). But that doesn't have to be in the beginning of the process.

For me, the sequence I do things is dependent a lot on what I "know" about the story ahead of time. There are books where I've known the characters in some guise for a long time. My last published novel's main characters have been in my head since... well, I was a teen, probably. The first book I wrote (never completed) had a mysterious Russian lady named Natasha (though she was mysterious in a different way than she turned out to be in the last book). The first  book  I  sold had a cynical "best friend" character that was named John (later changed to Tom when I rewrote the book decades later-- complicated reasons to change his name). Now these two actual characters never "knew" each other in the jungle-story-world of my imagination, but I knew them. She was always Russian but spoke English with very little accent, and she was always sort of shadowy, always named Natasha, and usually married to a sea captain. None of those stories ever got written, but I kept trying her out as the star of a story, then usually never writing or finishing that story, or replacing her with some other heroine. "Tom" actually showed up in his original form in several books, always as Tom and always the cynical friend of the hero. 

Anyway, I -knew- these characters. It's weird to say that because I kept changing aspects of them that might seem central, like their backstory and (with "Tom" -- who became Matt, see :) his profession and social status. But in my head, Natasha was always remote and yet vulnerable, and was a widow  of a man who loved her but never knew her. In my head, "Tom/Matt" was always a cynic, a "scientific" man (this was always set in the Regency time, so "science" meant being rational and curious) who withal that was kind of a super-loving person who was cynical partly to protect himself.

I'd never tried to bring them together before in my head (because, see, Tom/Matt was always the best friend of the hero, never the hero), but then one day I just thought of them talking together, annoying each other, and I thought, "They don't even like each other much."  I knew at that moment they were the only people who really understood each other.. 

So then I had to build a story ("Brighton") around these two characters who were -known- to me in their essence, but didn't have the right story yet, or pairing.. I already knew them, so doing exercises about their characters just helped me pinpoint more about what I wanted them to -do, rather than her just drift around my head being remote and vulnerable, and him in my head making sardonic comments.. 

Once I came up with the goal of them solving a mystery together, it all clicked. They could bring their disparate skills (hers intuition, his forensics-- oh, I'd transformed him from an Army  intelligence captain to a navy physician) to this task, and of course, in the meantime, fall in love. It really helped then to think of their motivations to help me plot..... I already KNEW them as characters, see.... so his external motivation became keeping her from getting arrested (she was the prime suspect), and her internal motivation was to hide from her past (the murder victim was a friend from Russia who knew her late father).

After that, well, plotting a mystery is never easy, but the goal/external motivation/internal motivation helped me a lot. I knew that while Natasha also wanted to solve the mystery, she would still be concealing something about this victim/old friend until she trusted Matt, and that should happen right at the "reversal" or midpoint scene.

So.... point is, when I already knew the characters, I used the exercises to help me fit them into the plot (or more, rather, get the external plot to develop them and the romance). 

And as for process, well, long before I got much plot done at all, I'd written several of the "romance" scenes between them, like the first scene where he comes to her aid when she reluctantly asks for it ("They don't even really like each other”) and the situation-setup where we learn that they were in-laws-- he was married to her sister-in-law, she was married to his brother-in-law (that is, their late spouses were fraternal twins who had died in the same flu epidemic years before), so they could be connected without, you know, really liking each other much.. That was sort of hard to explain, but I knew it would "fit" their emotions towards each other and the reason why she would ask him for help.. 

So I had several "romance" scenes drafted before I even knew this was going to be a mystery! Plotting then from the motivation became the way I made the characters have to open up to each other (they had known each other 13 years without doing that, after all) enough to fall in love.

Okay. So that was my-- and only mine, I'm not suggesting this as a MODEL, goodness knows—starting-with-character process.

There was another book (The Year She Fell), however, which very much started with plot, in fact, a story question-- why would the richest girl in town commit suicide (this happened in the small town when I was growing up--IIRC, she shot herself in her white Cadillac convertible, right in front of our high school, using the pistol her great-grand-daddy had carried as a confedrut gennel -- that's how we pronounced it <G> in the Civil War, or so the story went). That's all I had -- the richest girl in town. Suicide. Why.

So I started having to figure out "motivation," as that's the "why," right? (In the actual event, her motivation was never clear, though I -- who knew her and didn't much like her-- uncharitably assumed it's because someone finally told her "no" and she couldn't live with it. There was a really weird "only in rich families" twist where her parents had legally adopted her best friend when the bff's family was going to move away, so that Little Princess would never have to be sad for a single moment... and I ended up using that in a different way in the book.) 

And from the external motivation-- the why she killed herself-- I worked back to what her goal was (what she was trying to hide-- you can tell "hiding information" is a favorite theme of mine), and then to the internal motivation-- why she had to hide this.. And that was the original storyline, but it was too... depressing, and I started playing around with a mystery plot on top of that goal-motivation-- her sister trying to figure out afterwards why this had happened. (This is actually kind of the story-structure of the Hitchcock film Psycho, though in that it's not suicide, but  the sister is the one who becomes the "detective".)

Well, along the course of ten years or so of noodling around with this basic plot, I ended up changing most everything except that central story question of the richest girl in town and the odd twist of the family adopting the girl's best friend. I'd read a couple Susan Howatch novels where the story is told from several different (often opposed) viewpoints, and I wanted to try that for some reason, and I ended up deciding she had not one but three sisters, and each had some valuable piece of information about the death that they didn't know they had (and was irrelevant in isolation, until joined with the other two). And... well, it wasn't a romance, but I added the viewpoints of two of the sisters' fellas, because I wanted to experiment with first-person male POV.

In the end, what was there of the original idea? The suicide question, and the adoption, and that was about it.. The whole POINT of the book became experimenting with alternating first-person  POVs, and the idea of the suicide just was the vehicle for exploring how limited any one understanding of an event is. And as I drafted each POV section, I realized that the REAL question (and that it should be revealed as the real question after the middle) was not "why did older sis commit suicide," but "why was younger sis ever adopted?" 

In every book I've written, I think, I had a different sequence of processes. But usually I drafted some scenes or passages early to get a feel for the voice of the book. This is always "my" voice, but you know, is this book-voice curious or cagey or optimistic (I contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman said!), and sometimes to set down conversations which had arrived complete with inflection and tone of voice in my head that I didn't want to forget.. I'd usually draft scenes, just pieces of them, and completely out of order, scenes that woule arrive in my head or I wanted to work out, until I ran out of the glimmering scenes and passages. Then I'd stop and get to plotting or character work or whatever I could do next.

That is, I'd run through what was easily accessible- what I knew, the scenes I'd come up with those last few moments of semi-consciousness before the alarm clock rang--and draft those, sometimes just in bits, never fully formed. I might jot down the dialogue but not the setting, the emotion but not the description. And then I'd usually have to get more logical and analytical because inspiration had run out.

I'm not advocating this process, lol. But in every book, no matter how good I got at this, there was a point I had to get analytical, usually when I couldn't avoid plotting any longer, or when I had to figure out the why—like why does Natasha ask Matt for help rather than someone else? OR I had to have a good reason why they were stuck together long enough to overcome their conflicts and fall in love. 

Or I might finish a whole draft and know it wasn't really working, that I'd missed the point somewhere, or that it didn't evolve into some strong theme, or there were long stretches of nothing happening, or the romance didn't cohere. And then it was time to outline the whole story and go through and figure out how to fix. Often that would be when I'd start re-inventing -- come up with a better goal that allowed for more external action, make the internal motivation something worth fulfilling in the end, and so on.

Again, this is just me, but this "character-plotting" of goal/motivation/conflict can be really useful over and over again in the process of a novel (and how and when it's useful might vary with every book), not just at the beginning. I use that process to help explore the characters, to build a plot around these characters, to give the characters a reason and way to change, to turn motivation into action, to make the internal manifest externally, to make a more logical sequence of plot events.

So developing the character goal and motivation is very useful, but it's not the only development task, and you don't have to do it the way I suggest.. Mine is a way of tying character development into plot structure--making "deep structure"-- but there are other ways too which might be more effective. This is more about "deepening and intersecting" character and plot than, say, creating a more dramatic and exciting plot.

Well, that doesn't answer your question, probably, but that's what you made me think about! I'd say- different writers, different processes. There's no one way to do this. When does inspiration fail for you, when does the basic raw material you started with run out? Maybe then it's time to start looking at character development. Or maybe you need to do this first to jumpstart your inspiration, and later to fix plot problems or understand the romance.

It all depends. ;)

And I think most writers who have written a lot of books will say, it depends on the book too.. Some writers evolve one type of process, one sequence of tasks, and use that for every book (this is useful when you want to write several books a year- wish I did that). Others meander around a story idea until they find the process which works for this particular story.

So …. well, stay open. Experiment. Be unsparing with yourself and yet generous. Figure out when you need to let creativity flow, and then when you need to step back from the flow and get analytical. Most of all... experiment. There isn't any one way to write this story, or any one way this story can develop. Try things out. You won't lose the essential seed of the story by experimenting with the soil and water and fertilizer combinations. To mix another metaphor!

What about you? Can you think back and track the process of one of your stories?


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