Tuesday, January 17, 2012

There Has to Be an Easier Way

by Shannon Baker

Why is writing a novel such a messy enterprise? Maybe it’s not for everyone but for me, it’s like eating an overstuffed taco. You know, the kind where you take a bite and tomatoes plop onto the plate, guacamole smears your nose, juice slides down your wrist and the tortilla shatters, scattering lettuce and cheese all over the table.

This whine is from an accountant who plots on an Excel spreadsheet. I hate messes and redundancy and wasting time. I spend quite a bit of time plotting a novel before I ever type a word onto the screen. But one thing I’ve discovered about novel writing is that no matter how detailed my plots, gaping holes appear like a Flagstaff city street in the spring thaw. Not only that, but characters that begin as figments of my imagination take off on their own and change my carefully laid plans.

That’s why I treat my first draft (not-so-affectionately called Shirty First Draft after our critique partner misspoke Natalie Goldberg’s famous title for bad drafts) as a lark. I do no editing, just write as if the hounds of hell nipped at my heels. I know I will have to make extensive rewrites as I realize what won’t work and/or I get inspired by better ideas.

I finished that Shirty First Draft as the year drew to a close. Some issues nagged at me. So on December 31st, I took MWET (Man With Endless Tolerance) to a sunny patio at a pub and plied him with beers all afternoon while I told him the whole story of my book. I could do this, because I’d written the plot, chapter by chapter, in Excel and printed it out. He listened and drank and drank and listened and drank and drank.

“Here is where I think I need to pump up the danger. And here is where I need a big twist.” I pointed out the weaknesses as I identified them and where I needed his creative mind.

He nodded and ordered another beer. I allowed the book to steep in his mind, hardly bugging him… more than a few times a day. FOR A WEEK!

And then he started. “The villain should…” I answered, “That can’t happen because…” And he said, “Change that to…” And I said, “If she did that, then she couldn’t… and that would change and then the end wouldn’t…” This went of for some time, days, actually.

It turns out, he was right. My Excel spreadsheet tilted and I had to change my method to a cork board and sticky notes, and notebook paper, and napkins and anything else handy. I even stopped at a grocery store to beg paper and pen during a walk because I had one of those idea attacks and feared I’d forget the brilliant twist.

Now, despite my careful planning and writing for a couple of months ago, I’m finally ready to start writing the real book. Messy, redundant, and 80,000 words waiting to be tossed. But this is the book I want to write. I hate that I can’t force my mind to be more organized and well, that I’m just not smarter than I am. But if this is the process that brought me to a better book, in the words of New Age gurus and those way more in tune with the Universe than I, I need to honor it.

For my accountant brain, though, I’ve taken the new plot from that nightmare of a corkboard and translated it neatly into Excel.

What is your plotting process? Does anyone have a surefire way to avoid massive rewrites? If not, have you learned to honor your creative mess or do you fight it?


Shannon Baker said...

The fact that that the woman at the computer looks as though she could be Tebowing is not a coincidence. I'm willing to try anything for inspiration.

Donna OShaughnessy said...

Stunned. I am stunned. And grateful. Writing my first novel and its a mess, all over, pshychotic, Trying to reign it in and organize it is killing me. SO HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY to see an experienced writer struggling with same issues. Thanks for spilling your guts. I don't know about you but I feel better

Shannon Baker said...

Donna, isn't it funny how it helps to know others suffer from this insanity? I felt so good when Nancy Pickard told me of her struggles, with almost every book. I'm sick that way and apparently, so are you. Thanks for stopping by!

Robin Allen said...

Fun post, Shannon. Sounds a lot like my process, except for the creative book-doctor husband. And except I don't plot out my books. The story comes in the writing, which means I realize that the killer should do something in the second chapter when I'm writing the confrontation, so I go back and change the second chapter, which has repercussions throughout the book. It's not a great way to write a book, but it's how they get done for me.

Shannon Baker said...

Robin--I just started Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. Started, as in read the intro before I fell asleep last night. He ridicules "pantsers." I'll be interested to see what he has to say but I'm of the opinion that every writer's brain has its own way of working...unfortunately.

Sheila W. Boneham said...

Creativity is messy, no doubt about it! Fun(ny) post, Shannon. I don't think there is an easier way, but I also think that's fine. I weave back and forth between plotting (because I think I should) to writing "free form" and letting the plot emerge as I go (because every time I work out a detailed plot, it "tilts," as you put it, and I find through the writing that I got it wrong. And yes, it's reassuring to know that other people also find this whole mysterious process messy - and fun!

Deborah Sharp said...

Man, I can't even imagine trying to plot with an Excel spread sheet (though I can't imagine doing anything with an Excel spread sheet) I'm an obsessive plotter, and have a 35 page outline before I event start writing. Not to say that outline doesn't get VERY messy as I go, editing, changing, deleting and adding. Good post!

Shannon Baker said...

Deb--I think my first draft was nothing more than a detailed--very detailed--outline. Whatever your process, don't mess with it, it works.