Even when you don’t know where you are going with a book, sometimes the universe rewards your persistence with a bit of serendipity. Not in a big way, like having an actual plot, but in a small way where there are connections in a story that you know will mean something else, something big, later on. As soon as you figure it out.
Early today I was working on my character letters. I had one from Flyboy and one from Frankie but Plant Kid was being a little quiet. So then I started wondering about Mr. Mac and if there was some kind plant advice he could give Plant Kid that might help me out.
Like many writers, my brain is working on several levels at once. On some other level I remembered a recent discussion on my California Native Plants listserv about how botanists will sometime reclassify plants for one reason or another. (Can’t remember the details so this is more research for me.) Normally I don’t remember those sorts of notes on the list because heck, I can’t hardly ever remember the latin names, let alone the genus/nomenclature /etc. But this one stuck because it was about one of my favorite shrubs, Sambus Mexicana. (Why is it one of my favorites? Beautiful and huge wildlife value.)
Anyway, in an earlier letter conversation with plant kid he had asked me about his living situation and the response that evolved felt right and true to the path the story was taking. At that time I had illumination #1, what if . . . ? (Sorry, can’t tell you that. It would be a major spoiler.) When it came time to write another letter I had been thinking about him in school and wondering what he would be doing which led to illumination #2 (which I also can’t tell you but which is mentioned somewhat in a recent letter.)
Which leads me to illumination #3 and brings me back to the letter I was working on today and the advice from Mr. Mac. I was trying to figure out how or even if Mr. Mac would explain about reclassifying plants and suddenly my brain did the math: #1 + #2 + #3 = serendipity. They were all connected. In a small way. In a plant way. In an organic way. In a way that I believe will become a major thread in the story.
Personally, I don’t think I would have made these same connections if I weren’t doing the character letters. Yes, I might have made different connections but these are the connections that get me all fired up. I mean, I got those shivers you get when you know, and I mean KNOW, it’s a good idea.
Which leads me back to the title of the post.
Sometimes it just all comes together.
This is my current work-in-progress. A stack of paper over a foot high, much of it handwritten on old school lined paper which means the ink is fading fast. Add to that about another 25 MB of files on my computer. That’s after purging.
This is my current work-in-progress on index cards.
Granted that tall stack of purple prose has had close to 20 years to grow to that size. Diving back into the story again I knew it was too overwhelming for me to get a grip on the story I wanted to tell. The book was broken, I wasn’t arguing with that, I was just lost in a sea of paper. I made the mental commitment to basically throw out the old story (after reading everything through once more) and start anew. But there were some things worth saving. And because the book required a lot of research, there was no need to do it all over again. I also was, I admit it, a bit afraid of this book because it has a deeper plot and a subplot (maybe 2 subplots) and there was much more to keep track of in this book than in my others.
Enter the humble index card.
I started off with bright green for all the things that needed names. (I had decided to rename everything and everyone in the book because the orginal was a wee bit too, well, cutesy.) As I went through the stacks of papers or thought about the book I jotted down anything that needed a name on a bright green card. The town, the parents, the dog, and the daughter who may or may not be a love interst. (That goes on another card.)
As I read through the old stuff there were some of those wonderful phrases I didn’t want to let go of, even if the chance of me reusing them were slim. They went on the violet cards.
The book is about something I don’t know much about – airplanes. So the pink cards are my glossary of words that are used around planes, like Hobbs Meter and chords and elevators which do not meant the same in the real world as they do in the world of flight.
More details about planes, like the particulars about a Cessna 152 or cruising airspeeds in different planes went on the green cards.
Over the years I had read a lot of flying books and jotted down great words about flying from other people. They all went on the blue cards.
The three most important cards turned out to be orange, white and yellow.
I actually started with the white ones, jotting down just a line or two about a potential scene. I wrote down most of the scenes from the earlier versions of the book and then, of course, my brain generated new ones. I didn’t stop to evaluate it, I just wrote them down. I didn’t stop to think about setting or POV, I just wanted to get the good stuff out of the old stuff and start my subconscious working on bringing up new stuff.
As I worked on the cards I would get an idea of something I wanted to remember to consider during the writing, maybe something about his flaw or strengths or a piece of advice from someone on how to build a stronger plot. Those notes went on orange cards and are great to flip through and ponder when I’m feeling blocked.
The last cards are yellow for any questions that come up that I think I need to answer during the writing. At the moment it’s a very tall stack. It might be something like wondering if the MC is going to fall for Edna’s daughter or if he likes chocolate milkshakes or when he will find out the truth that is driving the story. As I work and a question pops into my head, I jot it down on a yellow card. One question to a card.
Now I have a stack of a little over 500 cards. Will I use them all in the book? Not hardly. Did it help me wrap my brain around the 17 versions of the book I have had stacked up in my office for years? Absolutely.
I love that the cards are portable. I can take them and some blank ones with me wherever I go. On my lunch break if I want to work on the book I can pull out a white scene card and see where it takes me. As I firm up the scenes I will whittle down the cards I keep close at hand. If I were a real outliner, this would be a good first step to writing an outline. That’s not my particular style. For me I think it is enough that I have the cards. Before I sit down to write I can thumb through and start to warm up the brain soup.
Now here’s the thing about writers giving other writers advice. Most of us love to talk about how we “do it” and quite often other writers, those just starting out, will listen to us and think that’s how they should “do it” too. And maybe you should. But maybe not. The best writing advice I can give anyone is to look at what works for someone else, take what will work for you, discard the rest and don’t feel guilty about it.
It’s always amazing to me when a book makes a shift from being just an idea or a concept to an actual story with a life of its own.
Sometimes it’s a result of changing format, like when I moved from straight prose to free verse in Hugging the Rock.
Sometimes it’s because a book has percolated long enough that it just bubbles to the surface in a boil that pours onto the page (after over 25 years of simmering as it did with Can I Pray With My Eyes Open?)
Sometimes it’s because you just keep asking your character the same question over and over again until he finally answers you just to get you to shut up. And then you make a phone call or two or three or ten (I lost track) to verify what’s real and what’s not and before you know it, you have piles of conflicts and questions without answers and people keeping secrets and dozens of scenes waiting to be written.
And so it begins.
And not all of it takes place on solid ground.
That’s the question of the night. My husband the non-writer let me yammer at him for a bit tonight, spinning absolutely useless ideas, crappy, stinky, I can’t believe you even said that ideas, in the hopes that I would eventually flush the good ones to the top. No luck. Did I mention how much I hate being at this beginning part of the book? Sigh.
I know the story is about M. I know what she wants most in the world. I don’t know what her parents are like but I do know that they are not the sort of people I would make eye contact with on the street. I don’t know if she really did the terrible thing I think she did and if she did I don’t know why. And if she didn’t do the terrible thing I think she did then how did she get into the class she’s in? And if she did do it, why did she do it? What could one kid say to another kid that would cause this to happen? She might be fat. But maybe she’s not. She might have a younger brother. But maybe not. She might have a talent at something but I have no idea what. She doesn’t have any pets and I wouldn’t want to sleep in her bed.
I did mention, didn’t I, how much I hate this part of getting started?
And then there’s her name. Which I know is her name. Absolutely her name and no one else’s BUT there’s a worry there. If you look her name up in a book someone might connect it to Hugging the Rock and then I wonder if people will wonder what the heck is wrong with that writer that she’s so obsessed with those things? Man we writers are a worrying bunch, are we not?
So it all comes down to I don’t know.
Kelly – 4 days until May 1st and then it’s time to go looking for these answers through the actual writing.
When I decided that I was pretty sure that I would go back to work on VZ, I started asking myself a lot of questions about what was wrong with the 20+ other versions I’d written over the years. There were a lot of things. Everyone in the book was too nice. The main character talked to himself and “thought” everything instead interacting with people. I had a mom that did nothing, added nothing to the story and another character that asked questions I never answered. It was FILLED with cliches. Oh and plot? Barely visible.
So I killed off the mother and brought the stuff that happens with questioning character to the front of the book. I kept the planes and the dog and the cross-county move but I lost the orchestra and maybe the fire. I think I’m keeping the gang but they need some help and a name.
I gave the main character a little sister but I needed something to weave her deeper into the story, something to connect her to her brother at the same time as it pushes her away. And last night, after many hours of not being able to sleep, I figured out what that is. Oh my. It excited me so much I wanted to get up and write but I knew the alarm for work would go off in a few hours and I needed sleep. Which was a joke because of course my mind was racing with the possibilities of what this could do to the plot. And I barely slept at all. And then today, after brainstorming with a friend, I realized I could add another layer (and take advantage of some great research that has been sitting in my drawers for 15 years). Whew!
Exciting stuff. Now if I can just get the darn thing written. And after all these years with the book I never really could tell anyone what it was about. Obviously I didn’t know the story very well or wasn’t telling the right story. But now I know the basic theme. And feels right.
What makes a family and when is it okay to keep a secret?
Once I know the next project I’m going to work on it never really leaves me, even when I’m busy doing other stuff (like looking for a car). So it’s no surprise that yesterday as we zipped along the backroads through the redwoods on our way to Santa Cruz, that Frankie and Max popped back in my head. I’ve got about 45 minutes of good thinking time there and I put it to use trying to decide where to start the book. A couple of months ago I thought I knew. I had the opening line even. But yesterday I realized if I started there I would have skipped the day that was different. That day that sets everything else in motion for the story.
“Make it a flashback,” said my husband.
I made a face. ”Or not,” he said, quickly changing his mind. The trouble with a flashback when you’re not that far into the story it’s hard to care about what’s happening to the characters. But if I start with the day that is different, the day that changes Frankie’s life, I worry that the focus will be on what is no longer there than on Frankie and Max. I mean, the day that is different changes things for Frankie but it’s not the big black moment that comes later in the book. I started trying to figure out if the day that the really REALLY bad thing happens is the place to start or not. Would it have more impact if we see the characters in a happy normal life BEFORE the really REALLY bad thing happens? I mean don’t you have to care about the characters for there to be a strong impact on you when things happen to them? Then I thought maybe I’d write the big chapter and then after that would be a page that said six months later or one year later but then I wondered if that was cheating the reader somehow.
In my head I backed up the story a bit more, just one chapter I’m thinking to show the relationship with everyone, lull the reader into a gentle read, (which means the voice would have to be 100% compelling, I’m just not sure. Or I could just write a short scene of the
My husband let me ramble for most of the ride and then ventured another suggestion. “I think you should just right about IT and then you can add a new beginning later, if you want to.” And I know he’s right because it will plunge me right into the story but boy, it’s going to be really tough writing. Another thing to do would be to show the black moment right at the beginning and then go back to the beginning of what led up to it all. I don’t know if that would work or what readers thinking about that type of story. I’m going to have to go to my bookshelves and try to find books were written that way. Right now the only one I can think of is When Dad Killed Mom by Julius Lester
This is just me, thinking out loud, and trying to get brave enough to write about the really REALLY bad thing.