Thursday, August 5, 2010

Along for the Ride

I went to a writer's workshop three years ago.  It was presented by a woman who claimed she was a "best-selling" novelist of both fiction and non-fiction.  I had never heard of her, but at the time, I wasn't as into this industry as I am now.  (To be fair, I should probably do a little research at this point to see if I would recognize her name now.  But, I'm too lazy.)

The workshop promised to share her secrets to writing good fiction, and doing it regularly for profit.  Little capitalist that I am, that sounded good to me.  So I sat in a room full of other writer aspirants with an open notebook and opened my ears.

She suggested, first and foremost, that the writer should be prepared to outline and index-card their book.


I watched, confused, as she demonstrated this process.  She started with her opening scene, and did index cards for each of the characters in her scene, then stuck each card on the wall as reminders to her of the characters' physical and personality traits.  She then wrote down a brief synopsis of her scene and tacked that to another wall.  She explained that she was building her story, and before she put it down "in concrete" in prose, she wanted to work out the kinks -- on her wall.

She was writing her book on the wall.

Well, that's how it felt to me.

Now, I know that for many people, including the woman who hosted the workshop, this is the ideal way to do what they do.  They want to be able to shift cards around without having to endure the bulky process of cutting, copying, and inserting in a Word document or a Scrivener file.  That's fine, if that's what works for you.  I honestly did not come here to slam that approach for you, but to explain how it is that I write.

In the beginning, there is a character.  The character may be based on a real person, or they could be someone I made up whole-cloth in my head.  Most of the time, I do not have a story arc for this character; I may have personality flaws that will launch conflict, but there is rarely a clear idea of the struggle this person will go through.  I put the character in a room in my mind and try to see what that character is thinking of.  People at rest with nothing to do will generally think of the things that intrigue, entertain, horrify, sadden, or gladden them.  I then take the scenery from the character's thoughts and build the room around them.  The character interacts with the scenery, and the story starts rolling.  Eventually, a story arc establishes itself, takes hold, and paints a very vague picture for me of where we'll end up.  My job then becomes Hall Monitor.  I'm tasked to ensure all characters and all sub-plots make it to the finish line together.

I cannot index-card this process.  To do that would be to write the novel on index cards then walk away.  It has to be born in the middle of prose.  Often, the way the sentences flow when I write determines what happens next; it's very rarely much more elaborate or scripted than that.  Very often my characters will jog left when I want them to go right, when the finish line is drawing near and it would be a handy-dandy thing to not have to clean up after these creatures and have everything tie off neatly.

But in the end, I am not in charge of my story.  I am the Grammar Police, the Vocabulary Toolbox, and the Shepherd.  I am the Conductor, but I am not the Composer.  I am the Director, but not the Author.  Sometimes I think I'm just along for the ride, and a privileged spectator, the first person who gets to see this new story.

Perhaps my way of writing is primitive, but it works for me, and it keeps the voices in my head contented and quiet -- for the most part.


  1. Love it. You described your personal process to a T. I mix and match, myself, but I can't picture my wall chock-full of index cards. I'd have no room for my Doctor Who posters.

  2. I tried that method and failed, too. It kills the passion for me, and without that, why write at all?

    I'd rather put characters in a room together, like in Sartre's No Exit, and follow the sparks as they begin to fly. Conflict has always been a gut-level thing for me, so I don't know how the characters will react until I'm writing it, either. I'm not their god or puppeteer, I'm an observer like you. Discovering what characters do in the face of events and each other is what makes it so much fun me.

    Great post, MJ. Struck a chord with me. Poetic, realistic and rational, all at once.

  3. Mmm, you always make me want to hug you.

    This is my process (or lack there of) as well. I keep notes of things as I write, but not in any "stuck on a wall" way. Just to keep myself from obsessive scrolling (which I've also done). Thank heavens we're not the only one.

    Fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pantser and proud.

    - Liz