January 5, 2012

Writing Tips #7: More Plot

Last time, we were talking about plot. About planning what’s going to happen in your book. If you missed the post, because we were holding the Midwinder Eve giveaway hop and all that, you can check it out here (I even gave examples!).

This post is a little less how-to, but still written from personal experience. Recent personal experience, as a matter of fact: I discovered this ‘impromptu plotting’ while participating NaNoWriMo this year. Currently, I’m knee deep into editing-rewriting-pulling my hair out, and as I reread the words I wrote during my frenzy I find myself thinking that, hey, it might have worked.

Which is what I’m sharing here.

My tale of ‘winging it’ began last year, as a matter of fact. It was a scene, extremely short, that just came over me. So short that it involved a boy doing something and a girl watching him. Period. But, when you got down to it, the scene did have some profound meaning – like hypocrisy and love and beauty. So I went and submitted it to a magazine.

It should have been the end of the story, but the editor actually liked the idea. She liked the implications, the language used. It won’t ever see the light, though, because it was too short.

That got me thinking. Not exactly about a way to lengthen the flash fiction piece into short story format, but about the characters. Who they were. What they wanted. And, most importantly, was there a conflict in my concept idea?

Why, yes, there was one! The girl had to choose between what she considered her cool life and the boy she watched. But what if I threw in some consequences to her choice? Not world-staggering, because there’s way too much of that already, but... world-staggering for her. And him.

That’s how I got the idea for my current project. Except, instead of starting it right away, I let it sit tight in the back of my mind. I didn’t focus so much into the story as I did figure out the characters, who they were, who they’d grow to be, what feelings I wanted to convey through their story.

And then, nearly four months later, on November the 1st, I sat down and began writing.

My opening scene was very similar to my flash piece – except longer, I like to think that tighter and, surely, more tense. This time around, there would be consequences. There was action. There was a little bit of fear and a sense of the forbidden that my original piece lacked.

Afterwards? Instead of thinking much, I kept my fingers going and let them take me on. I tried never to stop at the natural end of a scene, not until I knew what would come afterwards.

Yes, it did sound crazy and almost silly to me when I started this idea. And that’s where the so-called NaNoWriMo magic happened for me: if I didn’t stop writing, the characters knew exactly where they wanted to go.

I had been keeping them alive in my head for so long, even if their details had been slightly vague, that once I started given them a voice they just kept talking.

Of course, I did have a very vague idea of what would happen in the book. I had figured out my main conflict, remember? And I knew I had to, eventually, move the story in that direction. The amazing thing was that I didn’t have to. The story moved itself in that direction – and my leading pair threw in a couple of twists that I never saw coming!

I didn’t write myself into a corner. If there was a scene that felt too tedious, useless, or farfetched... well, then the scene was out. Granted, now that I’m editing, I have to smooth out some transitions. Three, as a matter of fact.

Smoothing out three transitions between scenes out of a whole manuscript sounds like a good deal to me.

So, what made me write faster and – I’m nearly ashamed to admit – better than my carefully planned stories?

  1. A deadline.
I’ve mentioned that I’m a master procrastinator. I never get anything done until a) I have to, or b) I get caught up in some kind of frenzy, once in a blue moon. So the need to finish my story before a set date or else face the smirks of all my friends and acquaintances (since I didn’t have a contract to answer to) made me sit down and write every day. It gave me a writing habit.

  1. Don’t write what you don’t want to read.
It also forced me to actually write during my writing time, without getting bogged down by details and research – and you know how much time I always spend on researching things. And you surely know how sometimes we writers get obsessed with scenes that are, essentially, useless for the novel but that we find oh so very cool. The deadline kept me away from those scenes, which made the book a lot tighter.

Quite simply, I had to write each day. A lot. If a scene was boring for me to write, it took double as much time as I had. If I had to think too much about flourishing descriptions and elaborated sentences a whole fifteen-lines long, it took double as much time as I had. So I kept it interesting, concise, with each thing that happened being necessary or else being kept out. This might not be the best thing for a literary opus, but for a Young Adult romance? I think it’s perfect.

  1. If you’re surprised, the reader will be surprised.
Have you ever wondered about the efficiency of your plot twists? Whether you’re planning for them enough to be believable, but not enough to make them a neon sign shining in the far horizon of your book? I know I have. A bonus of allowing the story to move itself is that sometimes you’ll find yourself heading in a direction you never saw coming. There’s, of course, a risk of this becoming a huge plot hole. But if you manage to not forget what has already happened, and to remember where you’re going (writing good chunks every day helps with this part) then it’s more than likely that, suddenly, you see the perfect way for your apparently meaningless event to relate to the main plot. And if you thought of that right before it happened, there’s two natural consequences: a) there’s a reason you thought of it, so it probably makes sense, and b) the reader won’t see it coming beforehand, because you didn’t give yourself away – since you didn’t know what you’d be giving away and all that.

  1. Allow yourself to have fun
Don’t take yourself too seriously. When you finish writing your story, it’ll still be a story: it will need a ton or re-reading, re-writing, editing... So you’re allowed to make your manuscript a bit messy. You’re allowed to write the scenes you want to see. You’re allowed to have fun and have your characters make terrible jokes and go off in inconsequential dialogue. After all, you’ll have to polish it afterwards anyway, right?

This might sound like opposed to point 2, but it’s not: before, I said not to write the scenes you didn’t want to write. And now, I’m telling you to write whatever you feel like writing. Sometimes, when we’re sticking to our plan, we force ourselves to do the former and avoid the latter...

But then again, I think the reader can tell when the author loved what he wrote. Of course, there’s much more to writing a novel than just that and yet, I think if you can get enthusiast about your story, your reader will feel that enthusiasm and will probably share it.

  1. Write down that final stop.
If you’re going with this method, then you need to write the whole manuscript. Its success depends sorely on you never losing touch with your characters, what they feel, where they come from and where they’re going, so, if you write a chunk and then let it sit down and gather dust for a few weeks... you’ll lose the momentum that made your manuscript have any kind of coherency.

And... that’s it.

That’s how I wrote ‘on the fly’, that’s why I think it can work, those are the pointers I can think of for you.

Of course, the best pointer might be ‘ignore me and find what works best for you’, but I always hated hearing that one while looking for advice so...

Anyway. What do you think about this? Works for you? Have any different technique? Something to add, something you’d like to discuss?

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