Tuesday, July 8, 2008

This wasn't in the outline!

The characters in my works-in-progress do some crazy things when I allow them to have their own way. Crazy-good, and crazy-crazy. Saying things like that to non-writers always gets a raised eyebrow, a look that says clearly that I am the crazy one. Of those who write, there are some who understand me completely, and some who give me that same look.

I've always been the kind of writer who wrote the required outline after my paper was finished. Ideas form more easily for me mid-sentence, flowing out from some center with just a little help now and then from a nice thesaurus or perhaps a consult to the old MLA Handbook. Still, when I'm writing a long work like a novel (which, you understand, I am in the middle of doing for precisely the second time, which makes me far from an expert on this), I feel like I should kind of know where the piece is headed. I wouldn't want it to be just a big long ramble leading toward nothing, after all. I know enough about plot structure and such that I feel like I should put some rational thinking into building conflicts and developing a turning point for my character. Plus, it's really handy for me to know how the story ends, or at least the way I think it will end.

Give my rational brain a chance to stack up some conflicts, pin a climax scene at the top of the chart like a tail on the donkey, make lists of research subjects, and analyze word counts of similar works, and I'm all set. Then I start to write.

And my characters do crazy things.

Sometimes it's a small thing, like in my current WIP (work-in-progress) when Max was sitting in the waiting room waiting (duh) and suddenly he got up and decided to hurdle some chairs. He really made me laugh when he landed on top of the social worker like that; I hadn't seen it coming.

Sometimes it's a huge thing, like in my first novel, when Colleen fell in love. That was not something I could just ignore, you know? Here I am writing about a woman who discovers her own powerful woman self and frees herself from her dependence on her mother, and now she's hanging on this guy? Plus it really complicated the ending, to the point that I almost had to rewrite the whole thing. And as if that all wasn't enough, it forced me to dance right up to the edge of a sex scene--not a bit easy to do!

But, Elissa, you wrote the story. Can't you just...not have them do those things?

Not that simple. Take this morning, for example. I was writing about Max, and out of nowhere he meets this character, Julia. Just for the record, she wasn't even on my radar, not even close. Then suddenly, there she was on the porch swing, waving. OK, no big deal, I'm thinking. A walk-on part. Everything seems to be going according to plan.

I discover that she is a sculptor when another character mentions it. Oh, cool. I like sculpture.

Then Max starts wandering over to the garage studio. OK, I can deal with this. I'll just have her working with some clay. No big deal.

He rounds the corner, and there's Julia, in full welding gear, sparks flying. Uh...OK. Well, I don't know much about welding, but as long as Max isn't doing it, I think I can handle this.

Then she has to go and ask Max if he wants to try. And he has the nerve to agree. And then there I am, sitting in a coffee shop, watching online video tutorials on MIG welding and poring over comments on a welding forum to get an idea of what it would feel like to hold the torch for the first time.

With those words, I just have to say that anyone who has written a book before the advent of the Internet and all the amazing resources available there is my absolute hero.


CDP said...

I like these posts about the process. I've never tried to write fiction, but I imagine that it's similar to writing a paper or a blog post; sometimes, you discover what you're going to say or what's going to happen in the case of fiction, as you're in the process.

Shana said...

I love reading about your writing process. When I write (nothing creative, of course) I can't write by an outline either. I have to write as I go; as ideas come to me.

Angela said...

I'm a semi-organic writer: I outline, but only to a certain point. I always have a few 'set pieces' (scenes) in my head, but how I get from set piece to set piece is anyone's guess. I always know the first and final scene ( or at least the climatic scene) too. A huge part of the fun is drafting and not knowing what will happen until I write it.