Friday, October 14, 2011


I love the way ideas and circumstances collide to create today's writing theme. In this case, it's (a) chatting with a friend who's been asked by her editor to revise a story to suit the needs of a different genre; (b) reading Larry Brooks ( on how to structure your NaNoMoWrite (writing a novel in a month); and ( c) doing my own revision of a novel I'd drafted 15 years ago (needless to say, I am more skillful now than I was then and this rough draft exhibits many of the weaknesses of its time.)

I suggested to my friend that she might approach the rewrite as an exercise in structure. That is, to look at how successful stories in the target genre work, to think analytically about what elements are important (these aren't the same for all genres or types of stories). Then I got some feedback on the plot outline for my own novel and realized the underlying nonspecificity of  my characters' goals (aka chocolate pudding underfoot), definitely one of the aforementioned weaknesses -- I used to get so enamored of a world, I'd forget about "storyness." Then, although pep talks about writing tend to drive me more than a little bats, I read over today's StoryFix blog.  

Bingo! This is how to do it. 

Some writers like a lot of structure. They make outlines, diagrams, write out "beats" and plot points on 3 x 5 cards. I know one writer who writes out scenes on those cards. They have the "elevator pitch" down pat before they begin Chapter One. Then there are writers who, as I sometimes put it, "take a flying leap off the edge of reality" with no thought as to where it will take them. Often, they're highly intuitive artists; their creative subconscious minds know exactly what they're doing, and the challenge is to get their analytical and critical minds out of the way so the story can flow.

I began writing like that. What was to plan? You got an idea, you sat down and began the story... and sometimes wrote yourself into corners, sometimes got muddled and bollixed and mired in the middle. And sometimes the end didn't fit, but all of this was okay because you fixed it in revision. I learned to revise. Extensively. Repeatedly. And Very Well.

With time, I started seeing those pitfalls/minetraps/swamplands in advance, and I found ways to sketch out my way through them. I started thinking more about the whole story before I began writing it. I still don't like to over-plan. For me, a good deal of the fun of writing is exploring as I go along. I think it doesn't matter whether you outline in excruciating detail or discover the shape of the story after you've got a draft on paper. What matters is that at some point, intuitively or editorially, the necessary elements are all in place.

Which brings me to the idea of focus. Stories work because they have a central driving force (a motor, if you will). It can be a series of events, one catapulting the reader into the next. It can be the obsession of the protagonist. It can be a mystery, a puzzle, a scheme. Whatever. It's the organizing principle. One of the weaknesses of the seat-of-the-pants style of rough drafting, at least as practiced by me, is that I'm like a jackdaw in a costume jewelry store. Oooh, a shiny! Another shiny! No, I like this other shiny better! At some point, I need to pick or discern The Shiny Of All Shinies for this particular story.

That's where all those analytical pre-planning techniques can be helpful. I may not want to do all that stuff before I write the first sentence, but I can make use of them in other ways. They make wonderful diagnostic tools. "Why is this story not working?" (or, as in the current instance, this plot outline?) So I take out the doctor bag (I go read what Brooks has to say about how to plan out a novel you're going to be able to write in a month, for instance), I shuffle through its contents, I try out different techniques -- applying them in retrospect instead of in advance. And inevitably, I get exactly the insight I need to understand where the weakness is and how to take a new look at what I've got and how I can turn that into a strength.

I find it quite liberating that the words I've put down are not immutable. It was much harder to revise stuff when it was written in cuneiform on clay tablets that then were baked, or engraved in granite. Or even typed out, which is how I started. A story is a living, organic thing. You can give it a hard skeleton (internal or external) as it grows; you can let it germinate within a pre-created armature; you can allow it to toughen and solidify when it's at the appropriate maturation phase. There's no single way that's right for every writer and every story. What matters is that the final version, the one on the editor's desk, is crisp and vibrant.



  1. Deborah:

    Great post on the craft of first drafts! I think I started out at the opposite end, with the meticulous research and careful planning and plotting of the entire novel before I even got started. It worked -- and I was able to write our the manuscript pretty darn quickly -- but I felt the resulting draft lacked a certain "spark."

    I next moved on to "jumping off the cliff," starting with the vague formations of an idea and simply diving in to let the story take shape as it would. The results were okay, but not really usable. (I did this with only one manuscript. It sits on a shelf, with little to no hope of my reaching for it to do anything more with it.)

    I, too, have come to a middle ground. I focus on the key characters for a sense of who they are, where they're coming from and where they're headed (at least, where they want to go, and some of the obstacles along the way). I'll think about the setting and circumstances, and I'll sketch out a very rough plot outline.

    Then I dive in and see what happens. This leaves a lot of room for that spark of spontaneity and creative madness while still keeping the story generally on-track to arrive at its destination.

    This is one of the reasons I love NaNoWriMo and participate every year. I typically remember that November 1 is coming just in time to do some rough preparations, and then the November 30 deadline forces me to sit down and write, letting the plot monkeys do their worst/best. I've had pretty good results working this way -- "Valhalla" was my 2008 NaNoWriMo project.

  2. Thanks so much for your perspective, Jen.

    I've never done NaNoWriMo; it's always at a terrible time of year for me. But I've done shorter writing challenges - 3 stories in 10 days - and had a lot of fun.