Friday, June 03, 2016

Now or Later

Barbara's post on Wednesday reminded me again that I shall never a pantser be. Every time another writer describes the process of plunging in and powering through a first draft, I am stunned. Well, not as much as I used to be. But I am still struck by how different our processes are when it comes to writing a book. 

I think of myself as a hybrid, falling between pantsers and plotters in my approach. But the truth is, even though I don't put every scene down on paper before beginning, I do have a mental outline. That outline in my head evolves and changes as I get to know my characters. I need to know my characters pretty well before I can begin to write. I need to know what motivates them. I may be wrong, but I need to believe I know why they are about to do what I expect them to do. Of course, sometimes as I learn more, they do something I didn't expect. In fact, that often happens. But I set out with the sense that I know what is going to happen and why.

Instead of plunging in, I try out scenes in my head. I have gotten better at this over the years. But it is still a lengthy process. I have been trying to get past the first couple of scenes in my 1939 thriller for months. I thought the opening scene would be at Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. While I was at a writers retreat in Vermont last summer, I dashed off that first scene to share during our evening reading. I thought I would be able to move on from there. I had introduced my protagonist. I had introduced his foe. We were ready to be off and running. But here I am, months later, writing and rewriting that scene.

I've mentioned before that I need to warm up before I can begin to write. That first fifty pages that I write over and over. But this has been something different. Even though I thought I was beginning the book in the right place, it felt wrong. I tried going back to the train station and showing my protagonist, a sleeping car porter, rushing to get to Marian Anderson's concert. Stopping to help a woman find her grandchild in the crowded station, trying to get a taxi, arriving late and finding himself in the back of the crowd. Seeing his antagonist. . .

I thought I had it when I wrote that scene. It took me two tries and two failures to launch to realize that opening was wrong, too.

Then a few days ago it came to me. A scene involving my villain that was directly related to the title of the book and that neither he nor I saw coming. What happened scared us both silly. If my villain is on his own "hero's journey," he is now committed to his path. And that elevates the encounter with my protagonist at Lincoln Memorial -- an encounter that I can write from my protagonist's point of view with no words spoken between them. 

I think it's going to work. It feels right. But I still haven't put it down on paper because what happens in my new first chapter has given me information that I didn't have before about my villain.

A pantser would plunge forward. I'm deliberating. Hybrids and plotters are more prone to edit as we go along. To edit before we even start to write. To edit as we are writing. That doesn't suck the life out of the story for me. But it does mean that the first draft does take forever to finish.

On the other hand, when I write "the end,"there are revisions left to do but no major rewrites. My revision process begins with the chapter summaries I wrote as I was doing my preliminary work. I compare what I expected to happen in my book to what actually happened. I often do an outline of the first draft so I can look for gaps and gaffes. After a read-through I'm ready to send the first draft to my beta readers. I need to send it away so that I can take a break and let the manuscript set before I plunge into revisions. . . assuming I have the time to do that. The downside of taking so long to get started is that one has less time if a deadline is looming.

But I can't do it any other way. I need to ponder and back track and stare at the wall for days and weeks and months before I can start. I need to edit as I go. I think it has much to do with personality. Spontaneity is not my middle name. But I do enjoy planning.

It seems to come down to now or later. Crawl along, cleaning up as you go and tidy up later. Or, plunge in, get a first draft and then do a major clean-up. No getting around it. However we do it, writing a decent book requires writing and revising. Now or later.


Carolyn McBride said...

Thank you! I thought I was the only one who did this. I actually stepped away from my newest manuscript last night because the opening scene just wasn't coming to me. But in my head, I see snippets of other scenes, later on in the story. I have always written in chunks, I write the scenes as I see them, as the characters whisper the to me, then go back in and fill in the in-betweens. I thought this was wrong, so last night I went back to the beginning. But my Muse and I fought the whole time.
I don't know about anyone else, but I write have to write it as I 'see' it. end, middle, beginning, then all the in-between stuff.

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