Plots and Characters

I’ve always taken a middle road on the plotting versus pantsing spectrum. I would argue for both sides as I have friends who manage both ways to varying degrees of success. That is not to say that there is any correlation between the success of those who write with full plots versus those who write off the cuff, but that each writer has a different degree of success with the method s/he chooses.

Lately I think I’m shifting more into a plotter. Okay, there’s no doubt about it. And the more I figure out the difference between figuring out a plot, the more I like it. Yes, the only part I loved about those little outlines with roman numerals was how nicely they lined up – the nerd in me has a sick fascination with overly ordered things like lined up books (alphabetized by genre, author, and title) in a bookshelf.

I know there is more than one way to plot. I wonder if many of the writers who say they don’t plot (yet there are inklings that their instinctual way of feeling through a story might be started off with organizing thoughts in a writer’s head) actually work through some of those issues but don’t formally write them down. For the rest, sometimes it’s about asking the right questions.

These questions are not just about plot. They’re also about characters and settings and anything else that makes it into the novel. One of the character templates a friend of mine loaned me always had a couple gaps though the questions themselves were exhausting. I’d pick and choose, but often I skipped things like “what would be in X’s wallet?” What does it matter? I’m in a fantasy universe and they don’t have wallets.

Maybe the point I should have been chasing was something broader. A wallet is often one of the things we won’t leave home without. We put things in it like identification and money and sometimes photos of our kids. We also grab keys, cell phones, and other items and stow them in our pockets or purses. [Or voluminous diaper bags – but that’s a different character.]

I’ve been checking into these and backing up. It might be the easiest thing to set down what the character physically looks like. An appearance trait that might even be changed down the road if I decide something else fits better. But the internal parts are not so easy to lay out on paper, and they’re also not as easy to change in a book. “Oh, Lucy isn’t recovering from an overdose of her mother’s guilt trips anymore because I decided her mother needed to not be in this book and I killed the character off.” So every reference to the mother needs to be removed, but also every time Lucy reacted to that guilt trip by doing something without her mother entering the scene. That rewrite would take significant effort to realize the changes in Lucy.

Also, I need to remember to put things in context for cultures if I make them up. It’s simply part of the world building that sometimes doesn’t make it to the character level. It’s one of the fun things about writing nonhuman characters, but also one of the challenges. What is fashion like for a race that doesn’t have a strong sense of vision? They rely heavily on sense of smell, so it makes me wonder if there are trends in scents, rather than colors. “Dogbreath is in this year. I think I’ll hibernate for the winter.” It just opens so many possibilities that hadn’t existed before.

I love world building. I worry sometimes that my races are too much to add into the fabric of the story, but it’s just too much fun for me. There are authors who have done it well, and I’m sure many more who have not that I simply haven’t read yet. As long as I don’t stop the action for info dumps, I suppose I’m not doing too bad.

The world building leads me back to the plot and the characters and the setting and all the rest. And as I’m looking at my worlds, I’m trying to stretch myself so I can ask the right questions and get the right answers in the beginning stages when changes are easy. Like if the character had to leave his residence in the middle of the night for some catastrophe (something on the order of a house fire), what would be the thing he couldn’t leave without? And not forgetting to find the unique voice of that character as we go. Because it’s different if he says “my firstborn” versus “I couldn’t leave without my beloved daughter.” And it’s knowing the difference that will make the novel great.

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Are You Ready To Write That Novel Yet?

There are a lot of ways to ask and answer this question – but the one I mean today is “How do you know you’re ready for that idea that won’t leave you alone?”

It’s not something we’re ready for at all times. The idea hits me and I want to run with it. The problem comes along later, when I realize the idea was not fully formed and is in dire need of tweaks and research and who knows what else… And when I run into that wall I end up with a partial draft of something that I’m not sure what to do with, because the idea takes a turn every time I actually finish the front end stuff.

Somehow that leads me to the idea I wasn’t quite ready to write it when I started setting fingers to keyboard. Later, when the ideas mature, I can put them in different combinations and make something better.

Example: I just pulled two ideas from my snippets and merged them with another idea I came up with more recently. While they were not related at first, this time they seem more suited to weaving together. Once I started down that path, a torrent of words spewed forth. Then I read my old notes and found nuances I had forgotten. I’m still trying to pin them together.

I’m not sure if it’s enough to write that novel yet. I have a couple different viewpoints I want to show in this world I’m creating, but I haven’t figured that all out yet. So it might be a few novellas woven together into a book. It might also be a series. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly how much I have to say before it begins.

Other times I am not sure if I’m ready to say exactly what needs to be said. At least I have time to manage to think about it. I am focusing on editing my last manuscript (still working due to moving and having a baby and everything else that gets in the way of pure writing pursuits), yet in the meantime I still doodle and dream up thisĀ alternateĀ place that sings to me when my creative side takes hold.

I’m not sure I’m ready to write it yet. The two year old and the two week old are definitely taking most of my waking hours and will continue to do that for some time. I’m also not sure what my message is, but somehow the idea won’t leave me alone for the moment.

It’s a little like when the unicorn kept telling me he was the one who wanted to skewer my last protagonist. Silly unicorn, she’s got her own magic to protect her. Now if only she could control it… But that’s another story that hasn’t quite been finished yet. I promise I will when I’m ready. The question of how to know when I’m ready troubles me, but I write hundreds of thousands of words in a year (250k+ last year). I have time to figure out drafts and redraft them later.

I’ll admit it would be seriously more efficient if I could figure that all out before I start drafting, but so far I haven’t been able to help myself. What do you do when that idea takes hold of your brain and won’t let go? Do you write it? Do you start building the world? Do you outline (or whatever other plot devices you use to figure it out before you write)? Or do you take a little snippet and let it simmer for later?