Friday, December 7, 2012

How a Listmaker Learned to Relax--and Wing It

by Meredith Cole

I like to write lists. I like to cross things off lists and feel organized. So when I first started to write, I thought I needed color coded index cards, lists of character traits and extensive bios. I spent a lot of time organizing myself and not enough time writing. But I was prepared, darn it!

And then a funny thing happened. Once I actually started writing my book, I forgot all about my "plans." My characters grew and changed and became real people to me. The story became their story and it grew and expanded. And one day, cleaning out my files, I came upon the original bios of my first book. Many names were different, and many defining characteristics were different. They were almost unrecognizable to me. And it didn't matter.

I don't believe in totally winging it--don't get me wrong. I think writers (especially on their first book) will do better (and actually finish) if they think through a general story line and figure out their characters in advance. You don't have to make lists or a formal outline, though. You can think through your plot and character as you go jogging, or take a shower or drive to work (be careful with the last one--they haven't outlawed thinking and driving, but I'm sure it's next...). This process is helpful to make sure you have enough of a story to drive a whole novel and complex enough characters to carry it through. It's important also to make sure it holds your interest.

But when you sit down to write, don't be surprised if many of the details change. (He's an orphan--wait, why did his bossy older sister just call him? She's in trouble!) It's part of the writing process. You may be trying different hats on your character to see what fits. Don't worry, you have plenty more drafts to go before you have to settle on something. And then slowly the story and the characters emerge from the fog, perhaps different than you first envisioned them, but clearer all the time. And it's better than anything you could have imagined before you began your journey.

I still write lists (revise 40 pages today, etc.) and I still sketch out character notes. But I don't bother with the bios on the index cards. I have too much actual writing to do. And as long as my story is flowing, that's okay with me.


Catriona McPherson said...

I love lists, Meredith! The trick with them I've always found is to write on your to-do list what you're going to do "eat snickers, watch Colbert Report, check Facebook" slight exageration, but only slight. Also, when I write a list I often put on it things I've already done and cross them off right away. Sort of a head-start on the feeling of accomplishment.

Meredith Cole said...

Ooh--I totally do that, too, Catriona! It's just way too satisfying to cross things off my list to resist.