A Plotter’s Process
It’s an age-old question. How much work do you do before you sit down to write? I read once that Emily Dickinson composed everything on little scraps of paper, with very few line-outs. She didn’t change words after writing them down. That suggests that either her muse was VERY smart, or she pretty much thought things through before she even got started.
I’d guess Emily Dickinson’s muse was smart, but also that she planned before she wrote. I would say, and this is just me talking here, that she was a plotter, not a pantser. Maybe that’s not a fair analogy, I mean, clearly there are more resources available now than there were in the 19th century – resources that allow you to do as many re-writes as you want if you’re not happy with how things are coming out. Maybe if Emily had access to a laptop and a thumb drive, her whole approach would have been different.
Or maybe not.
Some people can sit down with a good idea and just go with it, letting the story unfold as they put it on the paper or type it into a Word doc. They write by the seat of their pants, if you will. Through the revision process, they make adjustments, strengthening the characters and tightening the plot. For that initial draft, however, they’re writing blind. I’ve tried that approach and you know what? I’m not so good at it.
I’m much better if I lay the groundwork ahead of time. I make an outline that shows me the goal/motivation/conflict of each scene, and I create detailed character sketches, because the more I know about the characters, the more I can work into the story as it goes, making it richer and, hopefully, more fun to read. That’s not to say that once I get started writing things won’t change, because they surely do. I’ll tweak stuff right up until, well, there isn’t a piece I’ve written that I wouldn’t like to go back and revise one more time. A lot of brainstorming happens, though, before I open a new doc.
One of the resources that has helped me the most in pulling things together before I start is the Debra Dixon book Goal, Motivation & Conflict. This book taught me to make every scene count by understanding and articulating what each of the characters were trying to accomplish in any given section of the work. All the clever dialogue or fabulous narrative in the world doesn’t do much good if there’s nothing really happening underneath it all. Knowing the ‘why’ informs the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.
What’s my motivation, Mr. DeMille?
It’s a valid question. I like to know my characters, to understand what it is they ultimately want and need. I created a character template that’s cobbled together from a couple different worksheets I found on-line. Here’s a link to one of the sources I borrowed, the blog of author Jody Hedlund. The other worksheet I stole from used was by Jenny Meyerhoff. Check them both out, and then put together your own version. Try it out on a couple of characters and massage it until you get it right.
The other thing that helps make the characters real to me is to find pictures that show me who they are. And not just faces – I want bedroom shots, exteriors of houses, and views of the city where the story is set. I’ll copy anything that tells me more about who these people are and what’s going on in the story. I used to keep them all in a folder on my thumb drive, but now I found an even easier resource.
I make a board for each story, and populate it with images that are related in some way. Here’s a link to the storyboard for Tangled Dreams, a short piece that’ll be coming out soon. And here’s a link to another short story I’m in the process of revising, The Ring Toss. I’ve seen other author’s sites where, rather than boards that are unique to each piece, they have boards for characters, scenery, or period costumes. Pinterest is a pretty cool site (although it can be a very easy way to kill hours at a time) and it offers a nice way of organizing images that enrich your writing.
All of this process takes time – especially if you get sucked into a never-ending game of ‘just one more page’ on Pinterest. And people who have unlimited time for writing are the exception, not the rule. I find, though, that doing the prep work is really more efficient, because I don’t end up with tangents that go nowhere or get caught up in revision hell.
I have a healthy respect for writers who can spin whole novels with nothing to guide them but their muse. I have even more respect for Emily Dickinson, who did all the prep-work in her head, before writing down a thing.