Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Some questions

I received a few questions lately from a couple places.  Thought I'd share the answers here. This is the first two questions.

1) What's your process? Are you a plotter or does the story unfold as you write?

Both, I think.

Way back at the start, first thing, I dream up my characters. I get a sense of the story I want to tell about them.
Then I write a 'plot outline' that says what happens.
Then I sit down to do the long, discursive, inefficient, stiff, stupid, misspelled, repetitive rough draft.

So the first thing that gets written down is a stark little outline of the action. This is plot. This is What Has to Happen.
This 'plotting' is sketchy. Think of those three-line blurbs you get from the TV guide.

What the plot outline looks like:

Scene: The Bad Guys fire through the windows in Meeks Street and run away. Nobody gets hurt.
Scene: Annique and Grey go walking along the Dover Road. Something exciting happens.
Couple of scenes: Annique gets away from Grey and goes to England.

So first I have the Story in my head. 'Annique grows up. Annique must make a choice.'

Then I come up with a plot. The plot is the set of actions I use to tell that Story. The plot is how I pace the action and set it in logical sequences. The plot gives me a structure where problems get presented one-by-one and then solved one-by-one or stored up to get solved at the end.

Then, when I have a plot, I sit down and tell the Story inside the plot structure.

So I would 'plot' a set of scenes of Annique and Grey walking the Dover Road. I know this has to be an 'on stage' journey because the action is there to give me space to do Relationship Stuff. Also, I need to give the reader a sense of time and space passing.
I plot that, 'something exciting happens,' because the hero and heroine can't go all that distance all smooth and easy like a couple of UPS packages.

But I don't know that somebody takes a shot at Annique till I sit down to write the rough draft.

I don't go into the rough draft cold. Even while I'm writing along, I'll be using my leisure time when I'm washing the dishes and chopping onions to think about the scenes that lie ahead. I remind myself of the practical stuff I have to accomplish and the pacing needs. I shuffle possible places and characters back and forth in my head.

By the time I sit down to write the first rough draft of the scene, I have pictures and dialog. I can drop into the scene. I can go in there and throw words down.
But the rough draft continually tosses up stuff I didn't plan. I never saw it coming. Stuff that surprises the heck out of me.

2) Did the idea for THE SPYMASTER'S LADY arise from your love of the time period or did you research as you wrote?

I was familiar with the time and place.  Writing gave me an excuse to learn even more.

I knew I wanted to write genre Romance in the Napoleonic time period.
(Such sexy clothes.)
What I love about this era . . .
This two or three decades when the Eighteenth Century turned into the Nineteenth is the great watershed in how people in the Western World think about human rights and freedoms, about the importance of the individual.

There is a tremendous philosophical battle going on in this period. When the Declaration of Independence says -- "We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal." -- this is a New and Exciting Idea.

image attribution Blastmilk.


  1. Jo, I loved your explanation of your process. I've been trying to find one that works for me and find myself somewhere in the middle too. I have to know where I'm going, but exactly how I get there is part of the joy of discovery in that first draft.

    And you're so right about that time period being chock full of New and Exciting ideas. At first glance, the slower pace and simplicity is a big draw for me too. But once you look closer, you realize life wasn't quite as simple or slow as it appears even compared to the hustle and bustle we deal with.

  2. Hi Kaige --

    I'm hoping this nattering about process is useful to somebody. Maybe a word will strike a chord in somebody's mind. Maybe something I say will get a couple creative logs flowing down the manuscript production river. Wouldn't that be great?

    We all have different ways of going about the writing. The final product is what matters, innit.

    My head's in 1790 and 1803 right now. Big intellectual ferment in both periods. I'm trying to work at least some of this in. This sort of thing mattered to my folks.

    The odd thing is, the most radical of the French were philosophically correct. They recognized the basic human rights of every man, then went about chopping heads off with mad glee and decimating the population of the Vendee.

    The Brits -- who were completely wrongheaded, philosophically -- behaved with relative decency and restraint -- speaking in historical context, here.

    Then Napoleon pops up . . .

  3. Annique and Grey go walking along the Dover Road. Something exciting happens.

    What's wonderful about this is that the 'something exciting' moves the plot and is character driven. I find it both reassuring and daunting that even if you don't have it all figured out ahead of time, the reader experiences the something exciting as inevitable. The both/and quality of being able to anticipate the need for action before you know what it will be and then to write something organic to the story feels like magic to me. What a profound trust in the process this must require! And guts, of course. I'd be less nervy swimming the English channel in a sweatsuit.

  4. Hi Annie --

    You've put your finger on what's important. It's your character that tells you what's going to happen.

    You put your people in the scene. You sorta know what level of excitement you need. But it's getting inside the character that tells you where it goes from there.