Saturday, December 19, 2009

Plot and the Lazy Girl

Before we get started today, I just want to announce that I’ve taken Third Place in a small contest sponsored by I entered the first chapter of A Game of Risk (book 1) and that chapter will be on display at the site’s blog next week Tuesday. Click here if you want to see the site. If you’re really interesting in honing your reviewing skills for other writers, this is a great place.

Now where was I...?

You’ve heard of Attention Deficit Disorder? Well, I have the opposite problem. My cousin has lovingly diagnosed me with Excessive Grooviness Disorder, but what it boils down to is that I am truly skilled at putting off ‘til tomorrow. And why put off ‘til tomorrow something that I can not do altogether? That’s my motto.

Oh, I’m very reliable with things I’m interested in. And at work--forget about it, I’ll take half the patient load if they let me. Housework on the other hand...yeah. I’m not going to end up on Hoarders anytime soon, but if cleanliness is next to godliness I’m about as mortal as they come.

So it is with writing. I am not a plotter. (This may explain my continued work in the romance genre.) I like to think that my version of the writing process is legitimate because it’s somewhat similar to Stephen King’s. Whatever you may think of the man--and I happen to be in the worshipful acolyte camp (Stephen, your shrine lacks only a lock of hair in my house)--he certainly can produce a story. And in his book On Writing (which I wholeheartedly recommend to any aspiring writer) he explains how he comes up with his ideas. He thinks of a situation and puts some characters in it to see how they’ll react. For example, what would a bunch of people do if most of the world’s population was killed off by a super flu? He got The Stand out of that. (Excuse me for a moment, I need to stop screaming “Why can’t I do that?!” and beating my head on the table.)

I’m back.

Anyway, my version of plotting goes something like this: Does anyone even answer wrong numbers anymore now that everyone has Caller ID? Maybe if you just wanted to shut your phone up. Or maybe if you were expecting a call from a Doctor’s office or something... Could you meet someone that way? And once I have a concept, I find a couple characters who might want to star in my schizophrenic show.

I usually only know one or two key things about a character when I first conceive them. In the example above, I knew I had a dancer on my hands (don’t ask me why, ‘cause I don’t know). I also knew she would be very hesitant to meet a stranger. That’s it. But, I put her on the receiving end of a wrong number and let the rest play out as it wanted.

Now comes the part where you very slowly reach for the phone and try to find the nearest mental health facility that might be able to come and pick me up. See, in my experience, characters know what they’re going to do. Any interference on my part results in stilted, painful scenes where the quality of the prose suffers and the action all but dies. If I simply open the mental window on their world and watch the scene as it happens, I get natural dialogue and action. I once heard writing described as “socially acceptable schizophrenia” and I couldn’t help but agree. That’s kind of how it feels.

There are a few things in the process that I cannot explain, no matter how hard I try. Like, the fact that I have an internal clock that tells me when a chapter is ending and that clock always goes off between pages twelve and fifteen. Rarely do my chapters fall outside that page count. That’s apparently how long it takes me to get through the action.

I also can’t explain why a tiny change can make all the difference. In one of my novels, I tried like hell to make the main character a brunette. I wrote it in a couple ways. I fought hard for that brown hair. But the story was hung up in my brain. It wouldn’t come out. I couldn’t get her or the other characters to do anything but hang like marionettes with no puppeteers. Finally, I gave in and let her be a strawberry blonde. Suddenly, it all broke loose and I told the rest of her story in six weeks.

When I get to a point where the story seems to run out, I just think “What if?” What if something changed? What if they got separated somehow? What if she decided to stop fighting? And then, I consult my characters and they agree to pursue that particular bit of improvisational theater and we all nod and take notes and move ahead with the parts that worked.

The other thing I can’t explain is the almost preternatural way I have of laying out bits of nothing at the beginning of a story that end up being helpful in the conclusion. I’m sure somewhere in my brain, I’m keeping track of all the breadcrumbs I’ve laid out and subconsciously working them into the conclusion, but believe me I’m never thinking far enough ahead in the beginning of a story to know that 150 pages down the line, I’m going to be really glad I said that so-and-so is afraid of heights, or what’s-her-face is getting married in a few weeks.

A writer friend of mine talked about “dead herrings” once. That’s his name for all the false foreshadowing that can be left behind if you change course in the middle of a story. He suggested that in revisions, you have to make sure that you account for any clues that readers would have had for an ending that didn’t come to be, and that you’ve satisfied everyone’s curiosity about any tantalizing teasers you laid out. I guess that’s what I’m talking about here. I just find that most of my “dead herrings” end up re-incorporated somehow. It’s probably because I’m too EGD to do the housekeeping once the story is done.

Perhaps we’ll dabble on revisions next time. Maybe not. We’ll have to see what my brain feels up to.

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