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.

 

Writing fiction in layers results in more speed and less frustration

By Model Land Company, Everglades Drainage District (Everglades Digital Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Model Land Company, Everglades Drainage District (Everglades Digital Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last week it struck me:  I’ve rarely read an article on how to write fiction—more specifically, how to actually put words down on the page!

When I started writing fiction regularly about eight years ago, I read many books and articles to help me create great plot, make dialog realistic, and strike the right balance between “show” versus “tell”.  I thought I was reading books and articles on how to write.  But instead I was actually reading books and articles on how to create great plot, how to make dialog realistic, and how to strike the right balance between show versus tell.

As a novice writer I’d sit at the keyboard for a couple hours and squeeze out two well-polished paragraphs that read as though they came straight from a book on the shelf of my local bookstore.  But the agonizingly slow pace raised self-doubt, and I’d quickly wind up with an unfinished manuscript of a story that I felt wasn’t worth telling.

Today I have a completely different approach to writing fiction compared to the past. Now I write my story in layers, resulting in a speedier process with overall reduced frustration and self-doubt.

Think for a moment about how a house gets built.  Most people don’t wake up with the idea to build a house and immediately run down to the hardware store to make a huge lumber purchase, or worse yet, buy a brushed-nickel faucet for the powder room.  In most cases building a home starts with an idea like desiring a 2-story, 4-bedroom colonial style home, then creating several hastily-drawn sketches, then more formalized measured drawings, then performing the rough framing/plumbing/electrical, then followed by the building shell until finally finishing up with the small details like soft pastel paint colors and finally that brushed-nickel faucet for the powder room.

Writing can be less painful if you write in layers:

Layer 1 – Outline

Start with a high-level outline.  I’m not talking about anything fancy here, so just go ahead and open a word processor and drop some bullet-point sentences on the page.  Re-arrange them.  Delete some.  Add new ones.  Get 10-20 sentences on paper in the right sequence that depicts the story you want to tell.  You can even insert page breaks after each sentence to visually depict the start of a new chapter.

  • Primary Lead attends wedding of his love interest to “speak up or forever hold his peace”

Layer 2 – Fleshing the Story Skeleton

Now go back to your word processor and start building in more bullet points to flesh out the story skeleton.  The objective here is not to write a polished product, but instead you just want words on the page:

  • Primary Lead attends wedding of his love interest to “speak up or forever hold his peace”
    • PL standing on church steps, conflicted whether to go inside
    • PL encounters another friend, Lauren, who challenges him on why he’s there
    • PL reluctantly goes inside, realizing he’s turned into “that guy”
    • PL doesn’t quite know his strategy, but feels this is his last chance for true love
    • Ceremony begins, bride looks beautiful, priest asks the infamous question to guests…

Layer 3 – Rough Carpentry

For me, this stage is where the real work begins.  However the frustration level is usually much lower because I can jump around to different parts of the story on different days, taking a sentence or two and writing a few paragraphs.  Maybe I spend fifteen minutes in one session, or two hours in another session:

Saturday morning arrived and I found myself standing on the steps of St. Bart’s Cathedral.  I was frozen, having now to decide whether this was really a good idea or not.  I felt a warm hand touch me on the shoulder.

“Kevin?” asked Lauren.

“Lauren!  What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to stop you from making a fool of yourself!”

It’s a sloppy mess and it won’t win me any awards, I agree.  But at least now I have something down on paper to react to when I come back to revise in another pass.

Layer 4+ – Revision

I generally find my full-length novel equates to about 20,000 words at this point in time.  What’s that, about 80,000 words shy?  Queue the self-doubt.  But alas, now you can begin seasoning your story and adding bulk.  Writing now gets even easier because you have something to react to:

Saturday morning arrived and I found myself standing on the steps of St. Bart’s Cathedral.  It was nearly six years to the day since I last stepped inside the church for my nephew Evan’s baptism.  But today was much different.  Today I was frozen, having now to decide whether this was really a good idea or not.

I stood on the granite steps for several minutes watching many smiling faces enter the church.  Every time the decorative brass doors opened, I could catch a whiff of the residual incense that burned earlier in the morning for Mr. Covey’s funeral.

I felt a warm hand touch me on the shoulder.  “Kevin?”

I turned to find Lauren with a tear on her cheek, and she immediately embraced me in a loving hug.

“You know, there’s still time to turn back…” she whispered in my ear.  “I’m here to stop you from making a fool of yourself.”

Iterate, iterate, iterate…

I’m skeptical whether there’s value to me in the lather, rinse, repeat directions provided with each bottle of shampoo.  When it comes to writing, however, I’m sold on the iterative approach to building long manuscripts.  For me, it’s invaluable to have something down on the page at each writing session to react to and revise.