Out of the Maze

MazeConventional wisdom states that a book must open with a passage from the most current time period of a story, but that’s not my comfort level. Organizing my story demands structure that doesn’t come naturally to me. My stories tend to ramble around like a steel ball rushing through a maze of a dozen possible pathways until it finds the way out. Characters in my stories move back and forth between assorted phases of their lives, history pokes its professorial pen into the plot, fictional landscapes resonate with the physical appearance of actual mountains. Writing strategies: flashback to early trauma, flash forward to possible resolution. Story arcs looking for the way out or at least to the end of the book. Many authors tell stories this way, weaving past events with present action, revealing the impact of old baggage, the way things long gone used to be. My problem is I write out of sequence. The charge is to put it together so a stranger, reading late at night, can follow the story without getting lost in the maze.

I write in fits and spurts, “pantsing” as some call it. Parts of the story get written out of order, and if you ever visit my home you’ll see how that distract-able method is reflected in the way I live. A dozen incomplete projects lie scattered around the room: a watercolor intended for my youngest grandchildren (drawn but not painted;) a basket of laundry ready for folding if it was actually washed yesterday (needs the sniff test first;) a partially eaten yogurt on the computer desk (probably best to toss the remainder.) It seems obvious to draw, then paint. To wash, then fold. To eat top down into the cup, then lick out the bottom. (OK, so you don’t lick.) The beginning actions of mundane tasks present themselves in obvious order.

I’ve never had any trouble starting a story. It’s knowing how to begin it that’s the problem. Writing, however, doesn’t begin at one obvious moment in time and location because life doesn’t either. Well, maybe the egg and sperm routine, but that’s not what I mean. You can detect my rambling choreography in this post. It presents a problem when I write – where to begin. I originally began The Inlaid Table in a shtetl in Poland more than 100 years ago, but the story is about the journey of a contemporary American woman. Writing 101 says to begin with the American woman, so eventually I tossed what had been a flashback masquerading as an opening scene to make its appearance later in the book. The story is stronger now. It still conveys a world grievously lost but has a direct appeal to contemporary audiences.

My third adult book took shape as an outline, a practice I’d disdained all through college. (I was more likely to fake an outline after the finished project – bad student.) Yet the outline format helped keep me on track with the progression of the story. There are still many scenes that recall past situations and some that suggest future events, but the flow is contained by the underlying structure to which I remained true. Characters consider past moments as they impact the current situation, a natural evolution of lives defined by story. A teenage boy recalls the girlfriend he thought loved him. A middle aged man remembers the woman he used to love. A woman yearns for the mother who once loved her. A pastor reminds everyone of what might yet be. A collection of past relationships and future possibilities construct the singular day of the story.

Much as I’m endeared to pantsing, (such fun to write a story as if it’s a series of incidents tumbling down steps, landing where they may,) I might resort to an outline for future books. Always, they will include portions of earlier moments and later repercussions. That’s the way life is – one ancient decision resulting in a terrible outcome, and hopefully one eureka moment leading to a glorious conclusion. The way to begin, pantsing or outline: drop the steel ball into the maze and then go for it.



11 thoughts on “Out of the Maze

  1. As an editor, I find that writers often write in circles (they like one idea so much that it cycles over and over).
    I think an outline works for most people. I used to write out outlines now I tend to draw them.
    I will say this – some people are so fanatical about their outlines that their books read like a thesis.

  2. Thank you for sharing your editorial experience. I need more of this.
    I’d love to see one of your drawn outlines. Does it look like a storyboard?
    My objection to outlines is that they often beat the creativity out of a project. I could even see the problem in high school – kids trying so desperately to make sure each point was followed by the correct number of mini-points, in the correct sequence. The subsequent papers covered their topics but the dryness made them impossible to read. Too bad some adult writers don’t know how to take down the scaffold.
    Really appreciate your comment today.

  3. I get a lot of comfort from organizing my story. Then, I know it won’t disappear half way through because I can see the steps. I’m not brave enough to venture out without a map.

  4. You’re a well organized person, Jacqui. I’m a scatter brain. Even donning the mantle of structure doesn’t always work for me. I do feel, however, the outline worked well for my most recent WIP. You could probably tell me better whether or not is was successful.

  5. When I was in school, I’d always write the final essay/story/project and then create an outline off of that. In those (many) cases where the outline was to be turned in for a grade, that would mean I had the final project done many days early, but there was no way I could outline a project before I wrote it. Simply didn’t work for me. To this day I am a pantser!

    • I’m with you on the outline – just too uncomfortable for me when I was a teenager. I’ve since learned that an outline is a great guide but not to feel obligated to it – it’s not a marriage contract. Even with the outline I wrote for my 3rd book, I strayed when creativity said I must.

  6. I shy away from the hardcore structure of creating a story. Every time I think about such a thing, it takes the love and passion out my sails. Still, I do agree that the story must have a logical path to follow. I’m not to sure that it should be a strict outline though.

    • Some of us have an internal focus strong enough to keep us on track. I prefer working instinctually but found an outline useful for one of my books on which I’d imposed another limitation. Must do what will get the story written, and for each of us, that’s a personal choice. Not having the passion to write – can’t imagine a story can come from such constraints.

  7. When I attempted my first NaNoWriMo, I made notes in a notebook as I went along–reminders who was who so I couldn’t botch them or mash them with someone else. That helped me. As far as an outline, I had written down a few ideas and then sweat on the page for the month.

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