Friday, July 31, 2009

High Wire Act

by Tim Maleeny

As my fellow scribes have mentioned, there are two parallel universes co-existing, one in which writers outline and one in which we don't. I tend to shift from one to the other at various stages of the writing process, but on the whole live in the world where there is no outline or roadmap. This is particularly true when I begin a novel. I have a clear sense of the characters and the triggering event, something that happens to set the plot in motion. A catalyst that changes the relationships and turns the characters into allies, enemies, lovers, or all of those things.

After that it's a high wire act, taking one careful step after another, each time asking myself what happens next? I keep asking that same question with no clue what the right answer might be, letting my characters reply, wondering what they will do next when confronted with the obstacles I put before them. Will they hang in there, is their grip on the situation strong enough to hold on until the next chapter? That's a critical question, because if they won't stick around, neither will the readers.

After about a third of the story has been written, I jump into that parallel universe where outlines are law and try to convince myself that I knew what I was doing all along. I build a retroactive outline, looking for patterns in what I just wrote. What is the rhythm of the characters' points of view? What is the trajectory of the story? Once I finish this outline of the first third of the book, the ending becomes crystal clear to me, whereas before it might have been a faraway destination, ill-defined and beyond my reach.

The further into the story I get, the faster I write, so towards the end it feels less like writing and more like channeling. Often during the second act I worry that the book is going to be too short because I'm seeing several chapters ahead. The ending becomes so clear that you start to feel it's closer than it really is, like a mountain on the horizon.

Once the first draft is finished, the question changes from what happens next to what have I done? Or who the hell wrote this? What do I do now? I edit, that's what I do. Line by line and page by page, remembering that the words shouldn't get in the way of the story. Chapters change order, characters change behavior as their motivations become more clear. Scenes become pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and it's my job to move them around until the true picture reveals itself.

This, for me, is the real work of writing a novel.

Perhaps if I outlined more deliberately, self-editing wouldn't be so critical. Or so painful. I'd know where all the pieces fit before I put them down on paper. But then I'd already know what happens, and I'd get bored with the story before I even wrote it, and I'd probably start another book that I wouldn't finish, either.

Writing is really the act of telling yourself a story. So I take that first step onto the high wire, knowing that once I do, there's no turning back.


Shane Gericke said...

Excellent point about channeling, Tim. I write faster the deeper I am into the story, too. Perhaps the brain has already finished writing, and is letting us to the transfer.

Kelli Stanley said...

Tim, I feel exactly the same way when approaching the end of the book ... it's like gathering momentum down a hill, the horizon line zooming up closer and closer ...
The frustrating thing is when you want to finish it at once, rat-tat-tat, in a gasping, three day marathon, but can't, because of a job. Or dishes. Or some other life inconvenience that, damn it all, interferes with the soaring, heady exhilaration and catharsis of completion.

Damn. If I smoked, I think I'd need a cigarette ... ;)



Jen Forbus said...

O.k., after this week's responses I'm kind curious about the non-outliners...has anyone been knee deep in the writing and then not been able to answer the question, "how would this character act?" Have you found yourself saying, "I don't have the foggiest idea?" And if you have, who have you turned to in order to answer that question?

And along those same lines of speeding up as you get further in, have you ever been zipping along and then suddenly go, "crap, I just drove myself into a corner I can't get out of?" Do you have to tear apart the whole structure or is there usually an easy - and most importantly, believable - fix?

I've loved this question this week because it's one I often ask in my interviews. The whole process intrigues me. Fun stuff everyone!

SusanD said...

Rebecca, I completely agree with you that if you have it all figured out ahead of time, it's no longer interesting. LOL! My technique seems to match yours pretty well. I used to write computer programs that way, too, and talk about a profession that draws really methodical, organized and plodding people. I don't know how I fell into it.

This is a great blog.