Writing fiction, like I do, is process of revelation. We’ve all heard it asked, either as writers ourselves, or listening to the fans approach the Famous Author, “Where do you get your ideas?”
There’s rarely a good answer to that, because ideas are everywhere, there for writers and non-writers to pluck out of the air and play with. What I want to talk about here is instead the evolution of story. At this instant, I’m taking a short break in a story that I’ve been working on for a few days. From the beginning, I knew a few ideas. I knew who the main two characters were, and what had to be resolved. That was about it. I could write it out in one sentence, if you allow a few commas.
But that isn’t a story.
There are times I write an outline, often it approaches first draft status by its own word-count. A really good outline, with the characters developed and the side plots spelled out, can make the writing very straightforward: Take sub-point 2.a.5 and flesh it out in a sensory-engaging set of paragraphs. Repeat with next sub-point.
Today’s story isn’t like that either. I don’t have an outline for this one. I began with an introductory scene, to get a taste for the main character. Not for the reader to get that taste, but for me, the writer, to turn a name into a person.
In stories like this, the real plotting happens in bed, lights out, before I go to sleep, or when I’m swimming laps, with my goggles and snorkel, staring at the featureless white of the pool bottom, oblivious to the outside world. A scene has just been written, what needs to come next?
The character and her recent actions are fresh in my mind. Vague ideas about where the story should go begin to appear like memories. Sometimes it’s the very next thing that must happen, often not. Events appear in whatever order they please, just as if I’m remembering the scenes from times past. I am simultaneously experiencing the story, and judging it. Minor characters appear, with their backstories. They’ll spill their life stories, sometimes, and I shake my authorial head and simplify the scene, saving all that detail for later, or maybe just leaving remnants in the look in a character’s eyes or the hesitation in her voice.
I’m up in the morning or dried off from the pool and sit down at the keyboard. The next chronological scene, visualized maybe a dozen times before, gets set down in words and paragraphs, and then when it’s time, I’m off to swim or go to bed the next day.
Again, memories from future events appear, changed and colored by what has been marked down in black and white. Events get re-arranged. More important memories come to the fore. I experience the next events again, and judge what to keep — what is real — and what is not. Like closing a zipper, all those potential visions are stabilized into one.
The cycle repeats over and over. The memories of what will happen come first, and then fingers fix them into firm reality.
As an experience, it’s wonderful — much more fulfilling than watching a scene on the TV. In the end, I have a first draft. Editing is rewarding too, seeing sloppy prose become crisp, but that’s a different process entirely.
I’ve been told that my writing is visual, that “they ought to make it into a movie” and I suspect that comes from experiencing, visually, these memories of the future projected on my eyelids, or on the bottom of the pool, before the words ever line up on the page.
Take this for what it is, one writer’s experience in helping a story come to life. It’s not true for all, and it’s not even true for all my writing, but when it works, it’s wonderful.