Monday, August 15, 2011

I Must Have Structure, Apparently

My current writing project vexes me a bit. One of the challenges I've set for myself this time around is to write a novel without either an outline or any idea of what will happen as the story goes along. I am doing this one by the seat of my pants, just to see how it goes. Every day I resist the urge to sit down and hack out a rough three-act structure; instead of pouring my ideas into a formula I want the ideas to find their own shape.

The problem with that method is that I don't know what I'm writing. I don't have a direction and without a direction I'm not moved to put pen to paper. Which means that, once I finished the segment for which I had a strong idea, I stopped writing. Last night, in fact, I quite distinctly thought, "I'm going to have to let this project go; I can't write it." Perversely, the very next thing that came to mind was an idea for a loose structure that will allow me to write the first arc of the novel. Irony is busy everywhere, as Shelly never said.

Anyway, some part of my mind realized that what my character needed, in order to be written about and examined in any sort of depth, was an activity. I need David (the lead male) to be in motion, moving through the world of the story, which means that he needs to be doing something even if that something isn't necessarily related to the primary conflict. The beautiful thing, of course, is that when the primary conflict of a novel is internal, everything your characters do is related to that conflict, because everything they do will be informed by that conflict. So it all works out and David will be running some errands to prepare for his 10th wedding anniversary. Not exactly throwing the One Ring into the Fires of Mordor, but I can poke fun at the idea of the hero's transformative journey if I like. Which wasn't the idea, but now I see the possibility so why not, eh?

I am also considering that this novel might be best written out-of-order, by which I mean that I'll just scribble out the ideas as I have them and attempt at some point after producing a lot of material to cobble together some sort of ordered draft from the bits of scattered prose. Might not. We'll see. I am no friend to disorder and there is so much chaos in this new method already that I'm quite put out of sorts enough. Possibly I'm hoping that at some point a strong storyline complete with ending will occur to me. I am being very mindful about the plot, though. I have rejected almost every idea that's occurred to me already because they're all sort of cliche. I've decided that a relatively uneventful storyline is better than an active-but-predictable one, and so I turn my back on all of the hoary old tropes. I admit that might just send me into the arms of other hoary old tropes that I won't recognize for hoary old tropes. One does what one can, though.

Also, writing about the writing process (and really, who cares about that?) without giving away too much of the actual prose is damned difficult. And I can't dismiss the possibility that this new writing project is simply something I'm doing to take my mind off the finished MS that I'm letting marinate for a month or so before I begin to revise it. I might, that is, simply be filling in time and giving my imagination something to work on that's not the philosophical detective story. I have a great capacity for self-deception, you know. Ask anyone.


  1. You're winging it! I never thought I'd see the day...

    No matter how loose my outlines are, I always seem to meander off the path and follow wherever the story leads. There are more surprises that way. It's not a very productive method of writing (for me), but I don't have any deadlines that I must meet. I can take my time.

  2. I have been inspired by Davin Malasarn's way of writing. He makes his stories up as he goes along, so why can't I?

    I wrote about 1000 words that I thought was the start of chapter 1, but I was wrong. So today I wrote 1000 words to go in front of what I'd already written. Tomorrow I may write 1000 words to go before today's work. Possibly I'll write the entire fucking thing backwards like this. It makes my head swim, but I'm still resisting the urge to sit down and come up with an outline. I agree that there are surprises this way, but I don't know if there are more surprises for me than when I outline. If nothing else, this will be an interesting experiment in process.

  3. Scott, as you describe your process, I realize that as I write my brain is constantly trying to fit what I already have or where I am going into a structure. But I try to resist it. Whenever I start moving too fast through a story, chances are I've fallen into a trap of what I think "a normal story" should be. I then have to step back and get in touch with my characters again. People don't live to fit each segment of their lives into a story, and I have to remind myself of that.

  4. Today I'm thinking about what would be surprising and interesting to happen, not about what would create a solid, traditional story arc. I think my challenge now is to defeat the reader's expectations regarding outcomes and still write an excellent book that people can't put down. The analogy I'm using is that of a magician: it's unlikely that I can make an elephant disappear from the stage, but I'm going to do do it anyway and the audience will completely believe in the illusion. I'll make eels tap dance and then I'll bottle lightning and you'll say, "Oh, of course!"