Silk’s Post #96 — After reading a lot of how-to books and attending a lot of workshops and classes on the craft of writing, I’ve come to a conclusion.
There is no comprehensive step-by-step process to follow. At least not one that works for everyone.
Some advice seems analogous to the art of cooking. I call this the Betty Crocker Method. But writing a novel is simply not like baking a cake, where you assemble ingredients in precise quantities, then put them together according to a specified method, and cook for a recommended time. Yummy when it comes to cakes. Perhaps not so much when it comes to books.
Then there’s what I call the Central Planning Method, which reminds me of the old “paint by numbers” kits. Draw your characters and outline your plot in detail, perhaps aided by stacks of index cards or hundreds of sticky notes, then simply use words like paint to fill in the spaces. The results can be, let’s say, a tad mechanical.
Hardly anyone actually recommends the Pantsing Method, which is more often treated as the default approach of the undisciplined writer. Unless a masterpiece is produced, in which case it’s lauded as the artistic process of the true genius.
But, of course, I’m exaggerating for effect and I don’t mean to be dismissive of anybody’s pet methods. And this is not to say craft advice is worthless. Much of it is extremely valuable. Like diet books, the advice may be excellent. Following the advice is the hard part.
The difficulty comes when one tries to create a step-by-step method out of all this received wisdom that leads the writer from concept to completion. Just follow these simple instructions, and in only X days you can have a finished novel, ready to publish! This is the Holy Grail that emerging writers are desperately looking for when they sit down in front of that blank white page and wonder (maybe for the hundredth time): Okay, where do I start?
The problem is actually pretty obvious: writing a novel is not a linear process, and linear thinking will not get the job done.
Conceiving a plot, structure, theme, characters, world, and all the other storytelling requirements of a long-form piece of fiction – and then putting it into words that stir the reader’s emotions, curiosity and thoughts, compelling them to turn page after page … this is a highly complex, layered, interconnected undertaking. It can be a little overwhelming.
So, where do you start?
I’ve come up with my own Trinity Method: just three things I want to nail down before I decide to invest my time in the much longer process of writing a story I have in mind. After these three things are well and truly accomplished, I believe a writer can pick and choose among all the bits of good advice available to create her own personal method of getting the job done successfully. In fact, I’m now retracing my steps – applying these “necessities” to my book in progress.
The Gravity Field
My theory is you start in the centre, with your biggest idea – the idea around which the whole book will revolve, the idea that will create the story’s gravity field. Some might call this a premise or a theme (the two terms seem to be often confused and I find the notion of a gravitational centre easier to visualize). This could be character related (Catcher in the Rye), a thematic saga (Lord of the Rings), action/intrigue driven (Hunt for Red October), a moral message (12 Years a Slave), or any of the million variants of big ideas that give successful stories their heft. No matter how well structured or how well written, I think a book without its own strong, inspired, internal gravity field will be, if not a failure, then a small story at best.
The Lode Star
Next, turn your big idea into a log line – one sentence that tells what the book is about, introduces the protagonist, poses the problem/villian he faces, and provides a unique “hook”. This is probably as hard to do as writing the book itself, and might take as much time as writing a whole chapter, or more (there are many excellent books and online resources to help you write a good log line). You don’t need to know all your characters at this time, or your sub-plots, or every little detail about your protagonist and all the various hurdles and reversals he’ll encounter. These can be woven in later. Just fixate on the most critical elements that will drive the story (this may keep you from later being lured into blind alleys by secondary characters and distracted by plot points that are bridges to nowhere). Log lines are a common practise in scriptwriting that can really help focus a novelist. Your log line is a lode star, which (especially for pantsers) may be more valuable than a map (outline) to find your way through the plot.
Beginning and Ending
This may not be for everyone, but I’ve come to believe that the next useful step – before getting lost in the inevitable details of character and plot and setting – is to figure out the beginning and the ending (not write them, just figure them out). I’ve really struggled with this, thinking that in order to know the beginning and the ending, I needed to be able to visualize the full plot and all the action that moves the story from the first page to the last. I now think all that’s necessary is the big idea at the centre and the log line, which will dictate the arc of the story.
Personally, I like the freedom to follow my nose, so I’m a natural pantser. I’m in my comfort zone when it comes to developing characters, but I’ve come to realize that I need a bit of structural discipline – perhaps in the form of a fairly short narrative synopsis in three acts, and maybe a timeline. The rest is likely to be a somewhat messy process, rummaging around in my imagination, chasing butterfly ideas that float by outside my window, and grounding myself with research without being swept away in it.
For me, the most joyful part is always the words. Playing with them, massaging them, trying to evoke emotion and create tension and make them sing. I can’t wait to get to this part. Pure freedom. I will try to keep my internal editor at bay. She’ll show up soon enough with her blue pencil as sharp as a fileting knife, looking for cliches and purple prose and any hints of author voice.
But first, I need to get my Trinity in hand. I’ll let you know if it works …
PS – I’m standing at the end of a dock right now, lightning in the sky and the occasional shower. It’s 11:00 pm and getting cool. I have some links to add, but the funky little wifi server at the Poulsbo Marina has other thoughts. It wants to go to sleep now, please. If I can, I’ll add later!