The Word River

I tried writing my first book when I was in high school (like, 1997). It was an idea my dad gave me about a dude called “Bob the Beer Guy.” A beer salesman who was everything to everyone. When the presidential election rolls around, everyone in Bob’s area/state is dissatisfied with their candidate options, but everyone loves Bob, so they write him in and he wins. He receives national attention, backers realize his salesman attitude makes him the perfect candidate so they help him, and he ends up getting enough write-in votes to win and becomes the POTUS.  Daddy gave me the idea and I ran with it. I don’t remember how far I actually got, a few chapters maybe, before I quit. I had the idea, knew the direction and how things would play out, but it just petered out before I got far enough.

I tried writing other stories, much the same way. An idea would spark. Then a story would form. Most of them ended up like “Bob the Beer Guy.” One finally took off though. I just sat down at the computer and started typing and next thing I knew, I had a full manuscript. Of course it was extremely rough and I ended up writing my ideas down into a basic synopsis and working from that (and of course, like most first manuscripts, it now sits in a trunk and I’m completely embarrassed I ever let anyone read it). The next manuscript I completed worked the same way (with much better results, I think). Idea, then a basic synopsis, then a first chapter that took off.

When I started writing, I had no idea there were so many different ways to write a book. I thought you just sat down and typed out a story. But people use note cards of plot points, multi-colored for different characters. They use computer software and post-it notes. Cork boards and string. Basic outlines and detailed outlines. Character lists and maps. They use different colored type for different plot threads and so many more things I can’t keep track of it all.

It had me wondering: am I doing it wrong? So I tried outlining. I tried plotting. I tried a spreadsheet of plot points that a beta reader gave me, but none of that works for me. The only plotting aid that ever works is a list of characters and traits, and then only sometimes, because that involves sitting down and thinking about the characters and who they are. Which means, more often that not, I give the characters attributes. This one is snobby and that one is friendly and this one is a prick and that one is the nice guy.  It never works, because I don’t create the characters. The characters reveal themselves to me, and they only do so as I write. The more of their story I tell, the more I learn about them and how they would react in different situations. A lot of times I have to go back to the beginning and rework it because I didn’t really know the character when I started, but by the end we’re pretty intimate.

So, I’m sticking to my tried and true. I get an idea, usually when I’m trying to sleep, or in my dreams. I write the idea down and write a synopsis. Then I start writing the story. By the time I finish, the story rarely matches the original synopsis. It twists and turns and moves in ways I couldn’t have predicted.  For me, if I plan too much, I constrict the natural movement of the story, like damming a river.  It’s my job to find the river and follow it. To do that, I have to give the water room to flow, not dictate the direction it travels or how fast it goes, or what it might pick up along the way.  But that’s just how I work.

How do you write? Do you plot, or are you what they call a pantser (fly by the seat of your pants) like me?  What works for you?

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10 thoughts on “The Word River

  1. I tend to write with a little outline – just jotting down what happens in each chapter. Nothing major..and nothing too descriptive. I tried outlining but it took too much out of me. It’s interesting you use a synopsis (gah I hate them!) but…hey whatever works for you. 🙂

    • Oh, I despise the synopsis too. The ones I write at the outset aren’t well written by any means, haha. It’s more a page long information dump of what the story will be. Moving that into something I can submit to an agent is maddening though!

    • Do your outline points change as you write, or do you stick to your initial outline? My main problem is the story changes so much from what starts out in my head. (Congrats on getting published! How exciting!!)

      • For the one that got published, I stuck to it EXACTLY, but I worked on the outline for a month, so I was pretty set.

        In my current, I am sticking pretty close (10,000 words into it) I get new ideas inside scenes that are plotted, but I am pretty much staying with what was set.

        I don’t want to go off in a tangent like I have in the past, with the result of a novel with 25 scenes that I worked hard on that don’t directly drive the story forward.

        The best way to know your novel is heading in the right direction, I have learned, is to actually KNOW where you are going.

        It’s less fun than “pantsing” but it is necessary. (for me, at least)

  2. From your post, I get how important it is to experiment and adapt. I’ve always outlined, but the outlines change a lot as I get into the novel and new ideas come to me. But for my next one, I’m gonna do what Jennifer did and outline the heck out of it!

  3. i think there are as many ways of writing a novel as there are writers and you have to find the ways that works for you. i would go crazy with serious plotting and notecards and strings. i think i do more of your style of writing, with a few differences.

    i think you’re right about the characters; i do have a vague sense of who they are in the beginning, but they reveal much more depth, the more i write. i do sketch out a basic – very rough – outline, but it’s more like a bell curve with scenes plotted on it that i know i want to include. i got the idea from jim butcher, actually, and it’s the only structure that’s really worked for me. he has a lot of great ideas for writers on his website here: http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/.

    for me, my process even depends on the book i’m writing. when i wrote a middle grade mystery, i found that i did actually have to do some detailed outlining, just to keep track of my clues, red herrings, etc.

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