Conventional 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.