One of the truly rewarding things about writing for me is the process of discovery. I’m an outliner, and generally have an idea of all major plot points I want to hit before I start on a project. This is not limiting in any way, but instead liberating in ways that are hard to describe.
So let’s try, shall we? In my current project, I once had chapter briefs that took me all the way through Act III, culminating in a beautiful epilogue with haunting promises for future projects. When I’m not ready to write or continue a scene, I set down what happens next in the text like so
(the blogger outlines his process)
and then come back to it when I feel the words moving.
(the writer whines about being lazy, offering excuses to people who know better)
Right now I have two open books, meaning that the projects have been started, outlined, and need a butt in a seat to bring them out. One of them is more challenging than the other, because I know not only how it ends, but have in fact written a complete novel that follows the events it relates. I know exactly how the character will react to what is coming, have already killed all the darlings I need to to get him to that place, and somehow have lost the ability to write an earlier version of my protagonist.
This, of course, is not the book I am writing at the moment. I also know the outcome of this volume, and see clearly where the future till take…well, let’s just say “most” of the characters. But the chapter briefs I set down a few years ago no longer exist, casualties of a failed backup and general apathy. I still remember them, just as I remember the process of writing them down. I see them in my mind’s eye as clearly as I do the recent evolutions of the plot that completely invalidate them.
(the writer attempts to seem witty while describing his basic creative theory)
The longer I write, the more a project opens up to me. I see places in more colors, feel the scene surrounding me and carrying me off. There are times when I forget to include background details, because at all times I see them so clearly in my head. This could be a problem, but for me it’s a gift. By focusing first on action and dialogue, the set dressings are free to either be supplied by the reader, or by myself in support of the plot during revisions.
Today, an office became a character in the book. This room previously featured in two scenes, and re-reading them I discovered that all the richness of the office was completely drawn in by my brain, not my fingers. It’s an interior space on a starship, with one door leading in, a desk, and two chairs. The chairs were necessary to have a conversation between two POV characters in the first scene, and an obstacle to a third who was attempting to do a rapid search of the room.
In each scene, only the barest details were supplied. The characters were more important, and what they were doing told me when and where to add things like chairs.
In today’s endeavors, a fourth character needed to use the room. She has a markedly different set of assumptions than any of the others, and as a result how she experiences the room changes how I write her. Now it’s time to describe the feel of the chair broken in and molded to the body of a much larger man through long hours (possibly years) of use. That lingering smell of scented tobacco that never leaves leather furniture. The feel of actual wood under her fingers while she tries to puzzle out a locked drawer, and the look of the ultramodern computer work surface integrated with the top of the desk.
Sitting at the desk, my character told me more about the other people who had used the room, and about the presence of another person entirely. This newcomer features prominently in my revised third act, and the more I can reveal him through the perception of others, the more real he becomes to me.
Once upon a time, he was just a scared kid who walked on and off when appropriate. In Book 2.0, he’s an equal to my protagonists (you read that right), an understated but very capable member of the crew.
My original ending had this person’s third appearance as a major plot point, when he suffers serious physical consequences as two of the protagonists struggle for dominance. It was through the evolution of this person that I was able to truly identify my Hero, and more solidly cast my Villain in appropriate terms. I learned I was writing a different book than I originally thought, and adjusted the ending accordingly.
Now, my walk-on is connected emotionally to more people on the ship, and by extraction, to the reader.
The person I’d originally intended to be that connection is the one sitting in the chair, and her own fall and redemption was scripted as mental trauma brought on by (SPOILERS). In Book 2.0, I realized how complete a betrayal of the character with the same name in Acts I and II this was, and wrote her back to where she should be. One of the only true scientists aboard a ship in a place where science does not follow the same rules we’re used to.
So I’ve asked myself, “why does a woman sitting in a chair at a desk that belongs to someone else matter so much to me right now?” Because the last three people to use the room did not care about the room, at least not when we were watching them in it. The place means more to her because of who it belongs to, and she takes the time to experience it as a real thing, the sum of both its parts and its history. All the elements I’d introduced earlier are there, but she has the time and mindset necessary to bring them all into place.
And by doing so, she tells me more about my companion character, as well as the protagonists who seek to control him.
(the writer realizes he’s moved off topic, and closes the loop)
An outline is not a rigid pattern or blueprint, so much as it is an idea. An outline lets you arrange actions and characters in a framework that allows for exploration. In the last 20K words, I’ve learned a lot more about what I had intended to do than I imagined was buried in those lost but not forgotten chapter briefs. I still have gripping, climactic battles scheduled, both aboard the ship and on Planet X. There will still be blood with my love and rhetoric (the blood is compulsory). But there will be other things as well. Things that matter.
2012 me is a more experienced writer than the 2009 version, and if a scene doesn’t scare me, thrill me, or make me wonder, it doesn’t belong. By this process, I reach back through written time and supply what was always there. I’ve used this to add and reveal details like sexuality, ethnicity, and general experience to my characters that are not necessarily important to the plot, but important to me.
To how I see them, how they live and act and love and fight. Both with themselves, and the rest of my victims.
Characters. Of course, I mean characters.
(the writer laughs nervously, looking away before continuing)
What I meant to write when I started this article was how awesome it felt to have a 45 word stage instruction mutate into an 880 word chapter. The 68 word instruction that preceded it became roughly half of the 2000 words I wrote today, the discovery and exploration mentioned above.
Throw-away words I dashed off last night as I was closing things down, because I didn’t want to lose the purpose of the new thing I’d invented to make a completely unintended scene work, has brought something new out of me that I didn’t think I knew how to write.
And just now, describing these descriptions has become 1400 words about how I see the page, both before and after I mess it up with my crazed scribblings.
What’s in your wallet? And for that matter, why aren’t you writing it down?