Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dumbo's Feather

Writers are everlastingly curious about one another’s method. We imagine others have what Stephen King referred to his in superior book, On Writing, as Dumbo’s Feather.

 Other writers, you see, have a secret method.

I want one too. That touch of magic that will lift my brain to soaring heights, imbue it with deathless prose, stunning plots, and memorable characters that move and inspire readers. Instead, I have developed  an approach that a friend told me was the worst writing method she had ever heard.

Most writers either do meticulous outlines or fly by the seat of their pants. I use a weird combination of logic and intuition, the same as I do in real life. I sort of know the ending when I begin. Although it doesn’t always hold. After tacking five plot points (printed on pink paper) on the cork strip I’ve glued to my row of bookcases, I merrily begin—usually by following the image that impelled me to write book to begin with. The five plot points are a blend of Syd Field’s guide to structure for screenplays and Aristotle’s Incline.

I outline each chapter after it's written. What’s more, it’s color-coded. The first draft is “Pink for Promise.” The second draft is yellow--for “The Light is Beginning to Dawn.”  The third draft includes the editor’s critique, and it’s blue—“True Blue,” because it’s “truing up.”

Each outline page lists the number of the chapter, and the setting of each scene, followed by the chains of events that take place. Each link of the “chain” is patterned after old-fashioned chapter headings that began—Wherein: Tom loves Jane. Jane is not impressed. Jane only likes his dog. (You get the drift) While I’m  tacking each completed chapter outline on the cork strip, I’m making notes of things I need to know and do

These are very, very odd little notes. Such as: Why do you keep changing the color of her hair? What was the price of corn in 1880? Should I castrate him or just kill him? This scene is in the wrong place.

My muse simply doesn’t approve of my looking up stuff that won’t contribute to the story. The darling thinks is a waste of time. When I finish the first draft and discover who is going to show up for the book, I cut and paste the questions into the logical chapter, and answer them. This makes for a quick and reasonably coherent second draft. That’s the one my agent and editor sees.  

Historical accuracy is extremely important to me, as I'm an accidental academic in real life. The Lottie Albright series is a combination of contemporary and cold case wherein the old case is actually causing events in the present. Since it’s also a blend of whodunit and suspense, the chain of events is critical. If there’s nothing going on in a chapter, it really should go.

Naturally, my weird ways puts me in a peculiar position with my editor who wants to see the first 100 pages before she encourages a writer to finish the book. I can’t come up with the first hundred pages until I’ve written the whole thing. And I can’t produce a synopsis in advance either. But the rules don’t prohibit one from writing more than the 100. And I can and do come up with a synopsis much, much later.

I’m perfectly willing to rewrite as long and often as necessary Truly, I am. And there are many, many more colors of copy paper for sale at Staples!

Charlotte Hinger


Donis Casey said...

Wow, that's quite a system! Your thought processes are infinitely more organized than mine.

Irene Bennett Brown said...

I like the idea of having five plot points up where I can see them as I work. Great idea! Thanks, Charlotte.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Donis--Please remember this it all done chapter by chapter AFTER each chapter is written. However, being able to see the outline after I've written it works wonders.

Sort of like detectives tacking up what they know about a suspect on a whiteboard.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Irene, even if I don't know what the five plot points are--just seeing where I should be going in x no of pages, helps me. For instance, in about 50-100 pages, you should hit the first big threshold where everything changes