Category Archives: Writing

Second Real Day Back

events stack

Well, finally, after all the catch-up I played last week after our trip, I’ve gotten back to work. It was a productive day!

When I started, though,  as I looked at the three hundred or so  2″ x 3″  cards scattering my desk, I felt quite overwhelmed. Over time I’d used them to note down ideas as they had occurred to me — ideas about character, about incidents or events that might happen, about a character’s intentions or desires or reactions… each to its own card, but the cards all in a jumble. All waiting to be put into some kind of coherent plotline.

Augh! How was I going to do this? It was all swirling around —  random events and occurences that seemed to have no relation to one another. I needed, so I thought, to form some kind of plot line, but I felt lost in a fog of indecision.

So I went to the Lord, which I’m doing a lot more now than I have in the past — about almost everything.

“What should I do?” I asked Him, wanting to run away from it all yet again…

Well, He drew my attention to the fact that I have three placemats on my desk and enough space for another, though I don’t have one.  That’s more or less 4 sections. I could at least divide up the stack into general sections…

So I took up my stack of “event” cards (above)

And began to go through them one by one… placing some of them on the “beginning” placemat, some on the “ending” space and  just parceling out the rest of them as seemed fit, more or less where I thought they would fit in the story. Some events were predicated on others, some had to come after others… Sometimes I had two cards with different options for the same event, mutually exclusive. Sometimes I had two cards with slightly different takes on the event, or different details or trappings for it.  I just laid them all down, some in rows, some on top of other cards, some bridging two rows. Some of them I even put between the placemats when I wasn’t sure.

It was kinda fun, because I didn’t have to decide, just generally divide up the cards. Some of them I even threw away. And it was something of a comfort to find that for several of the events I’d envisioned, I’d made two, three even four cards with the same event on it.

Once I had them all parcelled out, I divided them into four piles, which I gathered together in a rough approximation of the order they’d been placed on the table.

The operative word here is “rough.”  I was not demanding that I be precise and orderly, it was just to be a general dividing of the concepts.

parts 2 - 4 small

Above you can see parts 2 -4 all gathered up and secured with rubber bands.

Where is part 1?  Well, once I’d gotten all four of my stacks divided, I took up Part one and began to lay out those cards in terms of cause and effect, order, etc.:

cards part 1

And having done that I have the beginnings of a line of events to work with. Nothing finished by any means but a start. There are lots of holes, and some of them are just ideas that need fleshing out. Some — those either/or cards — require a decision to be made one way or the other.

But that’s all tomorrow’s work. Oh, and I’m still loving my Freedom program, which I blogged about awhile back. That and turning off the phones, continues to give me what feels like a safehaven in which to relax and focus on the work… Plus something about the suspension of being available for contact motivates me to use the time to advantage rather than simply dink around.

Game of Hot and Cold

Some time back in one of the messages I listened to about living in your spiritual gift, Pastor Farley described his own experiences in developing a sermon. He said that when he starts a message, he’s often stone cold. The Holy Spirit plays a game with him of hot and cold.

That immediately made me think of something I learned back during the time I was writing The Light of Eidon: if you’re bored and don’t want to go forward with a certain plotline or situation, that’s very often a “COLD”.

I remember planning out an entire sequence involving a fire in Southdock, and then could not make myself write it. Just could not. Finally it dawned on me that maybe this was not the way to go. Once I did that, and began to think of other ways to proceed. Sometimes in fiction, there’s an event you only want to “have happened” not actually portray dramatically and it can be difficult to figure that out. Sometimes, you’re just, flat headed in the wrong direction altogether and the event is either one you’ll never use, or something to be saved for another place in the book, or even another book.

I think that’s what’s been happening with Sky. I’ve been trying to take the story in a direction that seemed interesting and just is not where I want to go.

Craft and Daft

Recently I’ve been exploring various elements of WordPress, such as the new stats page, the “follow” function, the reader page, and on the latter, the WordPress Daily Post. Today’s Daily Post was on what it takes to get on their “Freshly Pressed” page, which is a best post of the week collection, or ten best for the month. That was interesting in itself.

Even better, though, was that through it I discovered this post by Oliver at his blog Literature and Libation. It’s part of a new series on writing he’s started called Craft and Draft, but it wasn’t long before I was seeing that as Craft and Daft.

Both titles work for this particular entry in the series (It’s called Craft and Draft: Character Counts), because it’s not only hysterically funny in a daft sort of way, it also resonated in terms of what the writing process is like for me.

He uses, of all things, photographs of various Lego figures to complement and illustrate the process he is outlining and explaining. That choice was brilliant. Yes, it’s exaggerated and simplified but that’s what makes it work so well. It’s easily applied to one’s own situation.

A vivid metaphor for how disconnected, discombobulated, and contradictory one’s characters (or world, or plot, or descriptions) can be — most likely will be, maybe even should be — when you’re moving through your initial drafts of the piece.

I will never forget his Lego man “hero” with the wooden leg, high-tech breathing apparatus, extra head with no face and best of all, a “period-inappropriate tricorn hat” which also happens to be on fire.  (You gotta see the photo, if nothing else. Here’s the link again. And you might as well read it while you’re at it, cause then you’ll have context for what I’m going to say next.)

I love it! As I said earlier, it’s daft, but TRUE. I call this process “cobbling,” and I’ve been doing it for some time — in fact, with every novel I’ve ever written. A process where  I just shove all the things I think I want in a scene together, whether compatible or not, with the promise that I’ll straighten everything out later. It’s a way of getting past the inertia, the inability to decide — eg, should he be high-tech (breathing apparatus) or low (wooden leg)?  And if both, how could I make that plausible?

(In point of fact that is EXACTLY what I’m facing with Sky, since it has a sort of Roman-flavored culture, but is high-tech as well, thought “high-tech” in its own way.  I’ve made the changes in the characters’ backgrounds, motivations, relationships, etc., just as Oliver described. But a lot of that has worked itself out now. At least for the beginning sections.)

This piece has reminded me how difficult this all is for me… in the sense of tolerating the chaos and uncertainty. But it’s also reminded me that there is something on the other side and that I have to go through all this to get there.

The only thing I took exception to in Oliver’s article was his contention that we force our characters to have whatever views we have decided they should have: “We force their beliefs onto them without even asking,” says he, “telling them what they’re passionate about, what they think about certain philosophical quandaries, and how they ultimately view the world.”

I’ve tried to do that. It doesn’t work. They sulk. They refuse to do what I want. Literally refuse. Everything goes blank. I can’t get them to talk or do anything. I avoid the work for days. I go back to it and they’re still stubbornly refusing to do what I want.

“No I will not go fight the fire. I don’t care if it’s dramatic, I think having the fire happen right now is a stupid thing.  Why in the world would I be out there, anyway? I’m not a fireman! And besides, it has nothing to do with anything.”

That probably sounds loony, but I’ve been through it enough, I know it’s so. Instead of me forcing things on them, I believe it’s my job to discover who they are and what their story is. When they don’t want to fight the fire, and the fire has nothing to do with anything, I need to find out what the “thing” is that I’m really supposed to be focusing on, because clearly I’ve gotten it wrong.

Of course it’s all coming out of my thinking, so maybe a better way to describe it in macrocosm is, what kind of story is it that I’m wanting to tell? What kind of characters am I wanting to tell it with? And I really have no idea at the outset. I can only muddle my way along, putting down the things that I like and seem to fit at the time without worrying about if they actually do fit.

In fact, I’ve been doing that with Chapter 3 for the last three days and I am almost to the end of it… maybe tomorrow I will be!

Sex and Violence in the Bible

Last week I had a new comment on the the guest post I did over at Speculative Faith Blog called Sex, Violence and Dark Events. The commenter, Joanna Wilson, suggested we use the Bible as a model for portraying such things, pointing out how when it comes to sex and violence, the Bible is usually quite graphic when it comes to its descriptions of violence but not so much when it comes to sex.

Her comment sent my thinking off in a number of different directions. First is that sometimes what appears as mild and bland in our English translations is that way because of the translators’ reluctance to render the evocative, earthy terms of the original languages into comparable English words. Eg. “seized violently” instead of “took” and “raped” instead of “lay with.” (“Lay with” as a euphemism has always cracked me up. Talk about bland and inaccurate!)

My first thought, which I stated in my response to Joanna’s comment was that often the story being told in the Bible is not concerned so much with the sexual activity as it is other — worse — sins. Here’s what I wrote in my response (with additions):

In the case of David and Bathsheba, for example, it seems to me that story had little to do with the relationship between the participants but was instead about the steps a mature believer — the man who faced down Goliath because of his faith in God — can take when he turns his back on God.

First is the fact that David was not supposed to even be there, lazing around the palace and sleeping through the day, but out on the battlefield leading his army as  2 Sam 11:1  says clearly:

 ‘Then it happened in the spring, at the time when KINGS (like David was) go out to battle [on a military campaign] that David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, and they destroyed the sons of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed at Jerusalem.

And in case that wasn’t enough to clue us in, Uriah reinforces it in vs 11 when he dismisses David’s suggestion that Uriah go to his own home and spend the night with his wife while he’s in Jerusalem (there, because David had sent for him)

“And Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in [tents], and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? By your life and the life of your soul, I will not do this thing.”

This is the officer’s code that David himself had developed. Having Uriah throw it back in his face, you’d think he might take note. Apparently not.

We can see right there in vs 1 that David was out of it. If he’d been where he was supposed to have been none of this would have happened.

Then there’s vs 2, just to drive the point home:

Now when evening came, David arose from his bed and walked around on the roof.

This is the man who, when in fellowship with God, rose early in the morning to pray and commune with God, as he himself wrote in Psalm 143 (Let me hear Thy lovingkindness in the morning; for I trust in Thee; Teach me the way I should walk; for to Thee I lift up my soul.) and Psalm 88:13 (But I, O Lord, have cried out to Thee for help, and in the morning my prayer comes before thee.) Now he’s sleeping the days away and making mischief at night.

So the story begins with David’s failures as a king and as a soldier and a commanding officer.  And he’s rising at sundown instead of the dawn: again, wrong place, wrong time.

Second, he apparently didn’t recognize Bathsheba since he had to “inquire about” her, so he must not have known her personally. Which tells me this wasn’t about a relationship, so much as an exercise of lust and an abuse of power, and came out of the sins that God called him on through Nathan in the next chapter: ingratitude and arrogance.

Nathan then said to David, “…Thus says the Lord God of Israel,

‘It is I who appointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul. I also gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these!

‘Why have you despised the word of the LORD  by doing evil in His sight? [That is] you have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon.  Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ ” 2 Sa 12:7-10

Here God’s provided everything for David, promoted him fabulously, and he was still dissatisfied, and arrogant, despising God’s word, (which is the same as despising God Himself, as this passage also makes clear). He was so full of himself, he actually thought he could get away with murdering one of his loyal men and taking his wife, because the seven wives and unnumbered concubines he already had weren’t enough. Gross.

Since the story is really about David’s failure to love and honor God’s word — and thus God Himself — and not being humble and grateful, it seems to me that the specifics of the adultery/rape incident are irrelevant and would only distract from the main point.

Even in the area of violence, there aren’t many specifics. We know little of the details of  Uriah’s death  beyond the letter David sent to Joab telling him how to do it — that is, put him “on the front line of the fiercest battle and withdraw from him that he be struck down and die.”

Which I guess supports the point I made in my original post that such specifics only go in if they really serve the point you’re trying to make with the story.

If one were writing this story as a novel,  however, I can see where you might put in a few more specifics. Fiction isn’t supposed to be an outline, or a Bible lesson, but an experience. Authors are supposed to try to assemble enough specific details of character and setting to make the scene come alive for the reader.

And therein lies the problem, I think. Some people would rather not “live” certain scenes. In fact, I suspect all people feel that way. It just depends on the scene.

More on this in another post…

Sex, Violence and Dark Events…

That is the title of my guest post over at Speculative Faith’s Blog which should be up sometime Friday morning July 6. I want to thank you all, my readers, who replied to my request last week for ideas for this post. You can see from the title which of them was most popular.

This post turned out to be a lot harder to write than I expected. I thought I’d just knock it out, but it took me the entire week.

The question I posed myself was : “Should we as Christian novelists include portrayals of sexual sins, violence or other “dark” events in our fiction, or would that be an automatic violation of Christian standards?”

Then I did a nonstop on the subject. That turned out to be more or less a rant, but it had a lot of energy, as rants often do, so every time I re-read it, it just carried me along and no alternative routes opened up before me. Finally, in desperation, I sent it to a friend for help, and afterward sat down and began to just list my thoughts on the matter as they came, without letting the emotion carry me off.

Turns out I have a lot to say on this subject. More than could be confined in a single blog post, so I had to work on paring it down and getting it focused. It was an experience kinda like trying to fill a plastic trash bag with styrofoam peanuts. Every handful you put in, stirs up the peanuts already in the bag. They go flying out, stick to your hand, the inside of the bag, the outside of the bag… Yeah. Very much like that if you substitute “thoughts” for peanuts.

A lot of prayers went up, and at times I had to vigorously trust  that in the end God would make it come clear. Between His help and that of my friend, I believe it did.

Anyway, as I said, it goes up Friday morning, July 6, and I invite you to head on over to Speculative Faith to see for yourself if I succeeded.  Feel free to comment there or here, if you are so moved. I’ll try to monitor both places.

Here’s how the post starts:

Ten years ago this summer Bethany House Publishers released my first novel Arena into a literary world of petticoats, bonnets and buggies. This explains its original pink and purple cover, an attempt perhaps to mitigate the fact that it was a significant departure from the usual run of Christian fiction. While Arena does include an element of romance, at heart it is an allegorical adventure with sometimes dark and violent scenes.

I’ve received a full spectrum of responses to it, from “Fabulous!”…. Read the rest here

ΩΩΩ

Quote: Beginning is Chaos

“For some people, the beginning is a time of complete chaos. You see bits and pieces of what is before you. You have a sense of what it is you must set out to do. But nothing will form yet. When you sit cown to write or paint or form movement, it’s like stepping over a cliff or into a dense fog. All you can do is trust that this impending masterpiece is going to somehow manifest itself as you work. But you do know that there is something specific ahead, and you feel the excitement of that.”  ~  Vinita Hampton Wright, The Soul Tells a Story

At first I thought dense fog was the better metaphor for how I tend to feel at this stage, but then decided that stepping off the cliff might be better. Because you’re falling and you have no idea where and it may well be to a very unpleasant end.  And you’re seeing all sorts of things — rocks, trees on the cliff face, birds, but can’t quite get a fix on any of them…

A New Week, A New Month, A New Beginning

It seems that mostly in life changes don’t get made as clearly and dramatically as they do in dramas or books. Real life — people — are messier than portrayals of them. They make moves in the right direction, then back away, or veer off, then come back, start again, only to get sidetracked once more.

Especially for those who wish to go forward in the course and plan God’s designed for them. Because we have an enemy. I have a quote on my bulletin board about that — about Satan knowing how to attack mind, body and emotions; about his intent being to stop us from going forward in God’s plan for our lives.

So last week, as I was trying yet again to be regular with writing time, and things kept coming up — holidays, losing things, having things break or go wrong — and somehow I wasn’t getting in nearly as much time on the book as I’d hoped. (It didn’t help that I’m still blank headed about it for the most part.) And that quote kept coming to mind.

I wondered, though, that if it was happening now, might that not have been what was happening all along?”  I don’t think so… but  I’m still not entirely sure. I do believe there was a time I was supposed to be resting, and gradually God’s brought me now to a different place. A different “season.”

Because on that same day a few hours after I had those thoughts I tuned in for live Bible Class from Florida (Thursday, May 31) and everything became clear.

Pastor Farley’s language was so precise to my situation that there is no longer any doubt.  He’s been teaching about our race as Christians and the challenge we have to finish, as Paul did in 2 Timothy.  It’s a race or a course that involves us being conformed to the image of Christ as we’re traveling along it, our thinking more and more being aligned with His thinking. The challenge is to stay faithful to the Word of God, not only to constantly learning and retaining it, but obeying it.

The problem is, we have an enemy, one that, as Pastor Farley said, “will do anything to get us off that road to spiritual maturity. ANYthing!”

In the past I’ve taken that to mean  primarily being faithful to daily Bible class rather than the writing. But the fact is God has given me this gift to write and a contract still to fulfill. He has called me to write this book.

In the last few weeks our lessons have been about the importance of being focused on our calling (or spiritual gift, the unique way each of us has been given to serve the Body of Christ), to step out in that area, to make it a priority.  For many years I’ve complicated the issue by whining about my uncertaintly as to whether writing was really a spiritual gift. After all, “writing novels” is not on any of the lists in the Bible. I’ve never heard anyone teach that it is, except maybe for other writers at conferences… but they’re not pastors and anyway…

I doubted.

Well. I know now, without a doubt that it IS a part of my gift (which is exhortation) — and so I have no excuse. Can’t whine any more. No, it’s not like a lot of other peoples’ gifts, but so what? There are varieties of gifts, varieties within any particular category of gift, varieties of ministries with each gift and varieties of results.

So to drag my feet and let myself be distracted is basically  disobeying the calling of God on my life. If He’s called me to do this and I go do somehing else to the point that when I get around to the book I’ve run out of time and/or energy… then that’s not taking my calling seriously.

Pastor Farley gave an example, which I’m going to personalize:  You’re supposed to be heading north on I-10 to Phoenix, but it’s dark and boring, and you can’t see where you’re going and you see some lights off to the east.  That looks more fun, more interesting, so you take an exit. To cater to your frivolous desires of the moment.

Reading email, blogs, messing with cards, reading a magazine, sying yes to other things because I think it doesn’t matter, or it won’t take that much time are frivolous desires if they are intruding on my time to write.

Pastor Farley said,

“[The kingdom of darkness] will see where we’re focused to resist and won’t use that, but something else. Something we’re not ready for. Things that look good, things the world tells you are good — your kid’s seventh sport, your job, all kinds of things. [Your house?] But if ANYTHING is taking you away from the Plan of God, it is WRONG.

For Abraham it was trying to keep his son alive [When God told him to take Isaac up to Mt. Moriah and sacrifice him].  So it can be anything that creeps into your life and takes you away from the course the Lord has you on.”

God the Holy Spirit used those words to open everything up. I used to be like this. I was pretty good at turning stuff away, turning a blind eye, keeping my focus on my work. I understood that if you didn’t do it every day, each succeeding day it would be harder to get around to it. But I lost touch with that.

And now it’s been recalled to mind, and I’ve turned a corner. Oddly, an old Thieme quote that I used to believe applied to housework as the calling as opposed to writing (as the self-indulgence), has been turned around to apply to the writing:

“Arrogance  causes you to lose your sense of responsibility. You spend too much time thinking ‘What do I want?’ rather than ‘What does God want? What is right?’ Your desires become more important than your responsibilities. You’re no longer living life to please the Lord Jesus.”

I think illustration of Abraham helped so much because trying to keep Isaac alive would not always be the wrong thing for Abraham to do. We always seem to want some form of Law. Just tell me how it’s to be done and I’ll follow it every day from now on.

And then I won’t have to think about it. I can just do it and be assured of being right. But that’s not how God does things. So many things can be wrong at one time and right at the other. And the only way we can know the difference is by the guidance of God in our lives at the time…

Dismayed, Dissatisfied and Overwhelmed

Yesterday I noted some of the things that came in to interrupt and distract me from writing daily. Today I’ll note what happened on the days that I did write — which was four days last week and three days — so far — this week.

Last monday I got into the office at 7:41am!  Hooray.  At first I hardly knew what to do. I wrote in my Morning Pages journal (from The Artist’s Way) then got down to work — for almost all day. I have stacks of notecards and papers all over the place, so I took one of the stacks which was on my main character, Talmas, and used it to update my character file on him, then threw the stack away.

Tuesday I got into the office at 7:26am, but then had to intersperse writing with other stuff. In the end I did three pages of back story on another character. I had a bunch of different notes because I’d kept changing my mind about how things were going to go, and finally pulled it together and into line with the other characters’ storylines. I waffled a good deal — is this really the relationship and sequence that makes the most sense and will be believed? I wasn’t sure. Then I realized I just flat-out liked it the best, so I went with that. It doesn’t seem like much progress, but it took most of the day.

Wednesday I thought hard about the book and got nowhere. I was all ready to rail on in my current journal about my frustration, dismay, lack of progress and sense that there’s both too much here and nothing at the same time, then discovered that I’d already done that. In my journal entry from March 1, 2007

Ahem. That’s five years ago. When I was starting The Enclave. Which was mildly alarming — the fact it’s been almost exactly five years since I started a book. Of course it doesn’t seem like I’m “starting” Sky because I’ve been picking at it for about four years now in between all the other things, and do have seven chapters written.  But since it’s been more a process of two steps forward, one step back, maybe it just seems like I should be further along because of the time, not the continuity of work.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote at the start of The Enclave, 5 years ago:

“[This morning] I was bugged, condemned and dismayed because I’d started to look through my notes and was not only dissatisfied — it’s not right, it’s not compelling , it’s not going in the right direction, I don’t like it — but overwhelmed by all the ideas and info and possibilities, and at the same time clueless as to which to choose. When I finished wrestling with it — and by then it was only noon — I was exhausted!”

Exactly how I felt with Sky. And still do most of the time. Trying to get my head around the world, which is only partially conceived, and the characters and some kind of actual plot  is both overwhelming and confusing. Yes, that event would be an okay thing to happen, and that detail of setting is cool, and this conversation would be nice, and yeah, I did have the idea that he would rescue people, and then there are the Mole People, those are cool, but I have no idea how they relate… and the ma’el– Should that be their name or should I change it? — and the Artifacts – how do they fit in? And…

AAAARG.

So I went off to Good Reads, which I’d only just learned about and read some nice reviews about The Light of Eidon

Ahem.

But I did want to set down one more quote from that same journal entry in March of 2007  because it also applies to me working on Sky. I guess it’s not surprising that I would wrestle with the same personal flaws and tendencies every time, but it always seems Amazing and Startling to me when I discover that I do.

So, continuing from the March 1, 2007 entry:

“I realized I’d had unrealistic expectations (ie, “see the entire storyline in pleased and confident clarity”) and that of course it would be like this (chaos, too much to process, nothing that seems good) and I should have set some sort of specific and reasonable goal like, “look through the material and see if anything occurs to me…” rather than beat myself up for reasons that are absurd and even… well… insane…”

So that is what I’m trying to do. Just look through the material and see where God leads me. Without expecting it all to fall into place at once. Or even in a day. 🙂

A Fresh Infusion of Interest

Well today, after having taken a month-long break from writing (though even before the break I was having trouble with intrusions and interruptions and lack of motivation)… today I came into the office feeling completely out of it. As I wrote in my log this morning, “I have this book to write and absolutely no interest in writing it. No excitement, no anticipation. Am I even supposed to be writing it?” Worse, I had no idea what to do to renew my interest in it.

Well, as it turns out Pastor John Farley has just been teaching about how sometimes God leaves us in dark places, where we’re confused, where we don’t know what to do, where “the excitement is gone” and we need a fresh infusion of life and energy. Could that possibly apply to my situation with Sky?

So I went to the Lord, and asked for it. Then I went off to do Morning Pages again for the first time in a LONG time because I could think of nothing else to do. They were somewhat helpful. When I was done I took down my logs from during the time I was writing The Enclave and randomly opened to a page where I had highlighted and boxed in the following words from a message by Pastor Bob in 2008:

“I am convinced  this spiritual life is not about us. You must go at the pace God has determined. Your own ways, plans, will and power need to be handed over to the Lord Jesus Christ.  You must learn to enjoy the ride. Don’t let the Kingdom of Darkness [or your own flesh] come and say you’re going too slow, you’re not where you should be. God will tell you that, and it will be conviction, not condemnation.”

Well. Could that be any more pointed?

I went on from there and as the day progressed, the chaos in my notes and in my mind slowly subsided. Order began to take over. New ideas came to me. I saw ways to put the old ideas together where before they just lay there like spilled laundry on the floor, nothing seeming to go with anything else.

But now that’s passed. I have the beginnings of a new vision, an infusion of fresh life… For today at least. But today is all I’m told to concern myself with.

Thank you, Lord!

[I am, by the way, finished with chapter 4, chapter 5 has already been sketched out (years previously) and I started on ch 6 this afternoon. See the little Chapter progress widget up on the left!]

I Do Outline Eventually

The comments on Monday’s post (The First Draft is a Slog) got me thinking more about my process, especially as relates to outlines. Becky Miller’s link to  a post on Harvest House editor Nick Harrison’s blog about getting stalled because you’ve let go of the tension, also sparked some thoughts.

Letting go of the tension means you’ve resolved your main line of conflict long before you reached the story’s end… which is not a good thing. And the outline method I use does address this potential pitfall.

(I was amused by one of the author’s suggestions for figuring out what to do — i.e., consider that perhaps you don’t have enough plot for a novel.  I have never had the problem of too little plot material for a novel.  LOL!)

But back to the subject at hand, which is that eventually I do outline. In fact, before I ever start to write, I spend time gathering notes on 3×5 index cards I’ve cut in half. (being smaller, more cards can be laid out than if I used the 3×5 cards whole)  Notes about characters, the world, possible motivations, possible events, incidents… So it’s not like I’m diving blind into the book. If anything, it can feel like I have too much material. Some of it I’ll use; some of it I won’t. It’s hard to know, sometimes, which is which.

In her book Novel-in-the-Making, Mary O’Hara (also the author of My Friend Flicka) talks about various ideas for what might happen needing time to sort themselves out. At first you may not be able to tell which one you like, which one fits, but over time they will sort themselves out as some rise to the surface while others sink into oblivion.

All this work with the cards is a way of allowing some ideas to rise to the top and other to sink out of my awareness.

Once I’ve gotten started though, tested the waters a bit, as I said I do have a form of outlining that I use, which is based on information Jack Bickham provided in his Writer’s Digest Elements of Fiction Series book Scene and Structure.

The structure is based on cause and effect and the notion of alternating “scenes” and “sequels”, all oriented to an overall story goal.  Bickham uses an example of Fred needing to be first to climb a mountain .

“I must be the first to climb that mountain,” Fred said.

Thus the reader wonders, “Will Fred succeed in being the first to climb the mountain?”

So Fred begins his quest. First up, he must convince the bank to give him a loan of sufficient money to  finance and equip his expedition. Thus, in the next scene, taking place at the bank, his goal is to get a loan.

If he gets the loan, everyone’s happy, and his plan moves forward but the reader will be asleep, or worse, annoyed, wondering why he was made to read through such banal material.

No, we have to have conflict. Therefore, the banker is opposed to Fred’s absurd notion right at the start and they have a fight.

This little scenario illustrates the components of a scene

First, it is active, something that could be staged in a play. It has a viewpoint character (Fred) with a goal (get a loan), and an obstacle to his achieving that goal (the banker). He and the banker conflict over the goal, and the scene ends in disaster for Fred’s goal. (the banker says no, and never come back to this bank again; the banker says yes, but you’ll owe me for the rest of your life; or yes, but you must take my bratty, 14-year-old son with you.)

A sequel, on the other hand, is static, it’s reflective. After the above scene, Fred will have to go away and think things through. Review what happened, deal with his emotions, decide what he really wants, consider his options and come up with a plan of action, which should involve a new goal related to the overall story goal of climbing the mountain.  A sequel then, recounts the character’s feelings about what’s just happened, these move into thoughts about what to do next, and culminate in a decision.

I try to organize my stories based on this framework, and I’ve found it helps at least not to end up with everything wrapped up before you want it to be, seeing as the scenes always have to end in some sort of disaster, or they’re not a scene.

Obviously there is a LOT more to all of this, or Bickham wouldn’t have been able to write an entire book on the subject. And it’s not quite as simplistic or as formulaic as I’ve made it seem here. Sometimes the viewpoint character is not the one with the goal for example, but the one being acted upon. That is my situation right now with Chapter 1. My POV is reacting to events that have suddenly come into her life, which is part of what’s making this chapter so difficult. Plus elements of the hidden story are emerging, but of course, neither she nor the reader will realize that at the moment.

Anyway, I had written about two-thirds of Arena, got bogged down, got hold of Bickham’s book and spent three weeks reworking the book in accordance with the scene/sequel structure. I think it helped a great deal. I’ve used Bickham’s approach on all my subsequent books, though maybe not as religiously as I did in Arena. After awhile you start to get a sense for doing it automatically. But when you hit a wall, it’s these principles that have most often helped me get around/over/through it.

And just writing about all this has been helpful as well. Because I have rediscovered all those note cards I had, which I knew I had but didn’t feel ready to look at yet… Maybe tomorrow I will.