Wednesday, September 1, 2010
My Pants Are On Fire
There is a story in you. And it will have to come out.
I used to have a cartoon on the fridge with a doctor giving a patient an xray and seeing a book inside him. Those words were under it.
If only it were that simple.
With me the process goes something like this: First there is the story, all inchoate and HUGE inside me. This is the time when it pushes to be written. I’ll have these fascinating characters – it always starts with characters to me – and they JUST have to be written.
Usually at this stage I know the main problem of the novel. I might also have – or not – a general idea of what the novel wishes to SAY. This is not always clear for novels. It always is crystal clear for short stories “This is a story about bereavement” for ex. Or “this is a story about how the stronger/more male culture takes the women.” Or, one of my favorites “You never know your kids.” Of course, the tech, etc. then serve that purpose. But that’s shorts. Novels, I get the character, their problem and a feel. Sometimes I’m halfway through the novel before I go “oh, duh. It’s about ... x.” And then I set about making that stronger.
And there you’re running into hints of what drives me insane. It’s the “Sometimes.” The initial push is usually the same – the feel of these characters and what they want and can’t have. But then we get down to brass tacks.
For years, I wrote outlines and followed them slavishly. Those of you who study my work, the three published according to this model are Ill Met By Moonlight; All Night Awake; Any Man so Daring. With Plain Jane, I wrote it all in one very quick run-through. It was in my head, then on the page. Fortunately, it was an unusual work. Being history “fictionalized”, the plot was not a big problem. I could have “Start with Jane as a child.” and “Put in a Cinderella structure.” Once that was done, I was fine. (No Will But His was MUCH harder, because there’s less that’s “fixed” on Kathryn Howard.)
By the time I hit Draw One in the Dark – running – I was dissatisfied with the way that the first three books read. Part of it, I realized, was that by writing the whole plot in advance – including subplots – I essentially locked myself in to an artificial structure before I PROPERLY inspected the terrain. It was sort of like the battle plans of WWI, before the generals saw what the weapons did.
No, I’m not insane. Well, not technically. I know the novel comes from inside my head. But those of you who’ve written books know, the perception of the character changes, the idea of who the villain is, and why he’s the villain. My villains tend to be A LOT more cardboard on the outline, until I come in contact with them and see them breathe and CRAVE. Some become much more horrifying – Nigel’s brother in Heart of Light who, I swear, wasn’t even a villain in the outline – and some become non-villains (Tom’s father in DOITD.)
Anyway, to counter what I thought was a hasty locking-in of events, I started plotting ONLY ten chapters ahead. This is how DOITD was written, and it gave me a chance to improve on my timing.
I wrote Heart of Light and Soul of Fire and the Musketeer Mysteries by THIS method. And then I hit a wall with Heart and Soul and Gentleman Takes A chance, which insisted on a) coming out at the same time b) not letting me plot the closure. I’m not sure how it worked with h &S but I think it worked very well with GTAC.
And then... I became a pantser. Which for someone like me, who has an absolute need of control, is sort of the equivalent of becoming a Martian. All of a sudden, I can write all the outlines I want – and do – the books WILL NOT follow them.
This is a huge problem. Weirdly, it doesn’t seem to make books harder to write, but it makes them incredibly more frustrating. I’ll get three fourths into the book and realize I have the wrong end of the stick. Sometimes, as in this case, I realize that the book I have essentially written (though some chapters are “something goes here”) needs to be completely recast and sharpened because the message is not only different from what I thought, the ... quality of the regime in question is different and my main character’s history is COMPLETELY different.
It’s also a problem because while it gives me flexibility in HOW to tell the story, it makes it impossible to put a story down once I’ve started it. Which robs me of flexibility in my career. I promised my agent I’d set the spec space opera aside and do the mystery and space opera that ARE contracted, but ALL I managed to do – already being halfway through novel – was block myself on everything. And now my only choice is to write the revision through, very quickly, so I can move on.
The main problem, though, is how stressful this method is. I will write till I stop/till I know it’s “off tune” and then I spend a week, a month (or in the case of Sword and Blood – which is still out there) three years trying to get the problem to manifest itself and the novel to gel. As we speak, for the first time in my life, I’m trying index cards. (Pray for me.)
I really am NOT at heart a pantser. And this still doesn’t feel like pantsying. I’m not meandering over the landscape, enjoying myself. It’s more that I have this very rough map, but it’s soooo wrong, I find myself taking all sorts of detours, and trying to find other maps.
So HOW do you do it? What part of the story does present to you first? And when it does, how do you coax the rest out? And more importantly, how does one cure Middle-Age-Onset Pantseyreyism?