Saturday, November 14, 2009

Writing Life: The True Story

This evening while working on my novel I realized that the story has changed again. This is a surprise even after working on it for so long. I'll back up a little so you know what I mean. When I first drafted this novel during the NaNoWriMo, it was a complete story with character arcs, plot twists, and a surprise ending. Even so, I knew the story wasn't right. I tried to write the second draft but realized I couldn't do it until I figured out what the true story was. I assumed I would find some kind of subplot or some change that would shift the story to its proper place. That didn't happen.

I was at a loss and spent some time making notes, trying to do character sketches, plot outlines, time lines, and deadlines in hopes that something would shake free but I wasn't making any headway. When I joined my writing group I would use my hour to write a scene. Soon, I was writing down scene after scene without thinking much about where they fit in the story or even if they belonged there at all.

I was getting a better sense of the story but I had a big problem. My novel is a historical mystery and there are several attempts on the major characters' lives but I didn't know who was behind the attacks. Once again, I went back to laying down more scenes. I pondered, free wrote, outlined some more, but none of the scenarios I came up with made sense. Still, I felt I finally had a handle on the story itself. I was now on the third version of it and feeling fairly comfortable.

I started an online writing course by Holly Lisle called "How To Think Sideways." I like Holly's approach. It's very nuts and bolts which is what I need now. I've read a lot of articles and books on writing but many of them are heavy on the ideas and light the how-tos. With the help of this course I feel I'm making great progress, finally. I'm at the point where I'm making plot cards for my scenes. This evening I happily did 12 cards for the major, critical scenes, Holly calls them candy bar scenes, and...and I realized my story has changed yet again. This is the fourth version of it.

Keep in mind that my historical mystery is based on events that really happened. There's quite a bit of documentation about it so the story can't vary all that much, right? Wrong. The basic arc of the story remains the same but the fictional characters' secrets and personalities are driving the story in ways I couldn't have imagined when I wrote the first draft. It's wonderful, fascinating stuff. My challenge is not to fail my readers and to get the story on the page in such a way that does all that wonderful, fascinating stuff some justice.

I have to say had I taken Holly's course a couple of years ago, I would not be in the place where I'm at now. Back then I spent quite a bit of time trying similar techniques but didn't make the same kind of progress. The reason is I needed to flail around so I could figure it out. I needed to give myself time to explore. Now I have a bunch of scenes I probably won't use in the novel but all of them are important because I was able to learn more about the characters through writing them and trying different versions of the story.

All the books I've ever read barely touches on this idea. Sure, many of them say after you write the first draft you have to figure out if you're telling the right story but they didn't say it would take me two years to figure out what the story was nor did they suggest how to go about doing that beyond asking a handful of questions. I keep wondering if it's going to take me this long when I finally get around to writing my next novel.

When I look at my 12 candy bar scenes I see a great story with richness and depth. Everything really fits now. God, I hope I have the skill to put it on the page so my novel is as compelling as I hope it's going to be.

I can't wait to write the second draft.

1 comment:

anne said...

I had no idea there was so much involved in writing... guess that is why i never took it up for fun!

I do a lot of writing for work, but it is all non-fiction composition, and that seems to flow pretty well for me.

I cannot imagine trying to organize a story like you are, to get it on paper - I admire the work you are doing here!

Thanks for sharing!