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Monday, October 24, 2011

On the Same Page - The Spark

On the Same Page - a monthly round table discussion on topics relevant to our writing experiences.

The six of us here at White Blank Page are all at very different stages of the writing process. Some of us are still planning, some just beginning to carve out some shape on their blank pages, some are halfway done or almost done--some completely done and starting round two. But regardless of where we happen to be now, we all remember what it's like at the beginning, how we went from being normal, (mostly) functioning humans to these completely distracted individuals who live the majority of lives playing with made up people inside our own minds.

It turns out that though we all ended up in roughly the same place, the ways in which we got there were all very different. And that's the story we're telling today.

Once a plot bunny attacks, it’s almost always clear to me which character the protagonist is, so my first step? Put myself in their shoes. This is, of course, more difficult to do when I haven’t actually experienced what they’re going to, but I am a human, and I do have emotions, and I try to play off that first. One goal for me, as a writer, is to create genuine emotion with words, and to do that, I really need to have a feel for the character. There are also times where a sentiment takes of residence in my mind - loss, fear, complete joy - or a very specific situation plagues me, to the point where it’s constantly on my mind. Both the emotional and situational experiences are variations of plot bunnies for me, and garner the same sort of reaction from me. A character is almost always the result.

Then, once I ‘get’ it, I write until I stop. I don’t think, I don’t edit, there’s no filter. I just write. Generally, this ends up totaling less than 1000 words, but it gives me an unfiltered version of this person who has taken up residence in my mind.

It’s not until after this happens that I usually take a step back and think about characterization. Once I have that little introductory blurb, it’s monumentally easier for me to figure out what a character would or wouldn’t do, what they do or don’t like. And for the record? I don’t get detailed about other characters - aside from personal appearance - ever. I let them work themselves out as I write. Sometimes, this means I am given a fun little, unexpected surprise, but really, I enjoy that. It keeps me on my toes.

With regard to the writing of an actual story arc, once I have this blurb, I normally create a very generalized outline - major events in the order in which they happen. I figure the detail will fall into place naturally, therefore making my narrative that much more believable.

And then? Well, then, I attempt to let my characters (and words) fly.

For me, it always starts with a character, and often it’s just a glimpse of an interaction or conversation involving that character. (More often than not this happens in the shower.)  For days, sometimes weeks, no matter what I should be doing my thoughts circle back to that character, each time noticing more detail.  It’s as if she (in the case of my current idea) just stepped into my head fully formed and all I have to do is wonder about some element of her character to reveal it.  Then a small few of the secondary characters start to appear in a similar fashion.  So, yes, I’m essentially quite lazy about the whole thing.

It’s when I start to ask questions about the characters—what happens to them?  How do they evolve?  How do they relate to each other?—that my role in story-craftery becomes less passive.  Like the main character’s manifestation, some of the big plot points just seem to be there when I wonder about them, but most of the plot is more laborious.

Plot is where I struggle.  I don’t want the events to seem melodramatic or forced, but I don’t want them to be too quiet either.  I always worry over the story’s arc.  Will it believably generate character evolution?  Will it have the right amount of tension?  Pacing?  Catharsis?  Plot is the biggest source of self-doubt for me.

What do I do first?  

I flesh out as many of the characters as I can.  I give them middle names and birthdays and ethnic heritages; foods and music and movies and books they love and hate.  Favorite and least favorite school subjects.  I do this so that when I’m floundering with a character’s “voice” I can go back and use the character sketch to hopefully find it again.

Then I flesh out a general plot, which I tweak and supplement gradually.  It’s in the plot adjustment that I usually add more secondary characters as I need them to develop the story.  I’m admittedly a bit obsessive, so I read the character sketches and plot outline often; it clarifies the story I want to tell and makes me more comfortable inside the main character.

Finally, I try to calm my brain and not-think enough to write, and I wish I had a waterproof laptop because my characters always do their loudest talking in the shower.

Story: A Love... Story

First, I’ll need to make some introductions. I’d like you to meet my two friends, Idea and Inspiration. This is their story.  

Idea was sort of a quiet fellow. He hung out in the dark recesses of my head. He didn’t talk very much, or very loudly, unless something really caught his attention. He was waiting for, longing for, the right inspiration.

Inspiration on the other hand, she got around. She was all over the place! It was a nonstop litany of ‘hey look at this picture, listen to this song, remember that time you went to that place?’. Everything she saw or heard created a spark, or to be more precise, a spark-lette (it means tiny spark in the dictionary of me). But she had no idea to inspire.

So sad.

Idea and Inspiration didn’t hang out in the same circles, so they never met. As a writer, I really wanted them to meet. I tried setting them up, but I think they always felt like they were being forced into these awful blind dates. Inspiration thought that Idea was a pretentious ass (and she said he had bad teeth). Idea thought that Inspiration was flighty, and laughed too loud at her own jokes.

It seemed hopeless. Maybe Idea and Inspiration weren’t meant to be. Maybe they were both going to grow old, and lonely, and eventually die alone.

Until something amazing happened. Idea and Inspiration just happened to wander into the same place, at the same time. Their eyes met across a room filled with other Ideas and Inspirations, and something clicked. Bad teeth and loud laughter be damned! It was magic.

From then on, there was no more Idea and Inspiration. It was all IdeaandInspiration. They were together constantly, chatting and cuddling and making goo-goo eyes at each other. It was slightly nauseating, but pretty darn cute too.

The two are engaged now. Writing their own vows, of course. They’re mad for each other, and I’m quite certain they will live happily ever after between the pages of my novel.

Summary: No matter how much I want it to happen, I can’t make it happen. For me, I just have to let it happen.

I get inspiration in tiny, very specific lightning bolts: a glimpse of a scene, a character, a plot device.  It’s up to me to think that into a storm, from the calm before to the pelting-rain climax.  Generally (and to a huge degree with The Book), I’ll start with music.  Something about that scene or character or plot will suggest a mood to me, and I’ll start listening to things that evoke that same mood.  This basically acts as background noise while a more complete picture starts to unfold in my head.  For this part of the process I’m a big fan of either mind-mapping software or a good old piece of paper and a pencil for classic brainstorming.

Once I have that picture in my head and I’ve jotted down a few “must keep this” notes about it that came from the brainstorming, I start to write.  I’m a terrible outliner, and while I try with every new project, I find the frustration of not writing outweighs the benefits of a really full outline for me.  For The Book, I think I have a single page of notes that I wrote before I began seriously writing it.  (I had nothing at all while I wrote the first two thousand words or so, which I did in a couple of hours on the mistaken belief that if I got the character out of my head, he’d shut up so I could go back to the project I was working on at the time.  The above process of music/brainstorming came between that first 2k and the rest of the book.)  I have a whole notebook full of “don’t you dare forget to include this now you’ve hinted at it” scribbles that I jotted down with one hand while typing with the other, but I don’t consider that outlining.

When I start seriously writing, I know the beginning, some major events, and the ending.  Pretty much everything else happens on the fly, or happens in a way different to my original vision.  SuperAgent and I recently had a funny conversation in which I told her that, while a specific and very influential character had been in my head almost from the start, I didn’t know until about halfway through writing the book whether she’d turn out to be good or evil.  We had a good laugh over how different the book would’ve been if it had gone another way.  At least one major event wasn’t planned at all, and another was made much more dramatic.  I think I cut one, too.

So, yes, I go on mood and that one tiny thing that was the original lightning bolt.  Other things change, intensify, or disappear entirely, but those two things never do.  And then I just write, one word after another.  Eventually, the blank pages fill up.

I know for me it all begins when some element of real life embeds itself into my subconscious and eventually spits out a plot bunny. (I know, it sounds painful, but it’s not fatal.) That’s actually the easy part. It’s everything that follows which is hard.

Starting a new story is seriously overwhelming. How do you go from idea to words? I’m a big believer in visualization; Closing my eyes and imagining how the story should unfold, what my characters look like, how they speak, their surroundings, and even minuscule details such as paint color or textures. Once I see it, I can write it.

I can give pros and cons for whether to outline or not. It’s personally preference. I’ve done it both ways for small stories I’ve done. For my current project, which is obviously the most serious I’ve been about writing, there is no detail in which I haven’t outlined so far. With my level of OCDness and the want for complete organization, this is what works best for me. It makes me a more confident writer.

I need as much quiet or have as little distraction as possible.  Of course, with a husband and talkative six-year old, a quiet house isn’t always going to happen. In those cases, a Starbucks, or any place where I don’t have to worry about laundry, will do just fine.

Lastly, a couple cocktails never hurt any writer trying to get through a difficult scene. Just sayin. 

Most often, I get story ideas in the shower or in traffic. Sometimes it will come out of nowhere, sometimes it’s a lyric or two that’s stuck in my head, but all of a sudden I have pictures painted in my head that weren’t there before.

How do I go from pictures in my head to an actual, cohesive story? I do character sketches. I bullet point everything I know about them. Name, age, physical description, pertinent backstory, brief highlights of what’s going to happen to them. I sketch them out until I know all the whys, if not the hows.

And then... I start writing.

I’m not really much of an outliner. I know in my head the big points that need to happen, and generally in which direction I’m headed, but all the little details? I just let those happen. I’ve found that if I get too specific in my outlines I don’t get very far. It’s like I focus so much on making it match exactly that I end up immobilized.

I’m a pantser, as Tahereh Mafi would say. Which is ironic, as most often when I’m writing? I am not, in fact, wearing any pants.

So there’s that.  

What sparks the stories that come alive in your head?


Anonymous said...

I get them when I don't have a pen or paper on hand. But mostly it's when I'm taking a walk or working out. Thanks for sharing.