The Write Way: The Plot Thickens, Or Does It?

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Anyone who signs on to Internet bulletin boards or newsgroups of novelists will, inevitably, run across “arguments” about the benefits of outlining or not outlining before writing.  Actually the “not outlining” group is usually the most vocal. They are convinced that outlining a novel, indeed knowing what’s going to happen before you begin writing the story, impedes creativity. 

I am an outliner and proud of it.  I’m not sure where the non-outlining group believes my ideas come from.  The fact that I have many of my most creative ideas up front, guaranteeing me much less time in the editing process, doesn’t sway them.  Nor should it.  Each of us has our own way of doing this.  The time I save during editing is spent writing the outline.  Just don’t make the mistake of believing that one way or the other will assure an easy path to “the end.”  There is no easy path.

Right now I’m outlining my next novel, Sunset Bridge, which should be at your local bookstore in July 2011.  Sunset Bridge is the final book in my Happiness Key trilogy.  Fortunate Harbor, book two, comes out this July.  Writing a series has its own special problems, and problems are rife when we’re in the plotting stage anyway.  Here are some I’m pondering today, and a few possible solutions for you to ponder as you write your own story.

Names:  I blogged about this before.  Character names are important.  Ethnicity, suitability for a particular geographic region or birthdate.  I mentioned that I try hard not to have characters with names beginning with the same letter, so not to confuse the eye when reading. 

What I didn’t mention was that sometimes, we assign a very minor character a name in a novel, then later decide to feature them in another.  That’s exactly what I did.  The relative of one of my characters is named once in Happiness Key but is never on stage.  Now I want to use that character (note how few clues I’m trying to give you here?) and the name begins with the same two letters as a major character’s.

I’ve whined about this on my Facebook page all week. I’ve spent an entire day trying to solve it.  Here’s a tip. When you’re stuck on a minor issue?  Move on. Take a day if you must, but at the end, move on.  Because once you do, the answer will probably occur to you.  In this case I chose a new name for the character and an elaborate reason to cover up the use of a different name in Happiness Key.  And the moment I started writing the character’s biography, I realized I had to use the original name.  She was that person to me. And the explanation took up too much space and drew too much attention to itself. 

So moral to the naming story?  Never assume a character name is a throw away.  That may come back to bite you, and you may be stuck.  Luckily, in this instance, I think I’m okay.  Different genders, and completely different sounds, plus the character’s stories are not related.  But still . . .

Backstory:  I’ve spent two days and will spend more concocting a backstory for one of my characters that will hardly be noticeable in the novel.  I’ve researched her work setting, the city where she used to live, her former job and whether her rank there was viable.  So much more, too.   My tip?  Do just what you need to at this point then. . . wait for it. . . move on.  Save the bulk of the research for later, when you’re sure you need to know all these facts.  Do just enough to make sure your idea can work, and to develop the flavor of it to feed your imagination.  Otherwise, you will use this backstory, even if you don’t need it and it slows down your current story.  Be careful and don’t let that happen. 

Notes:  Keep them as you write and plot.  Lots of them.  Character names and detailed descriptions, including the length of their hair and any phrases or slang you’ve used.  Descriptions of setting, all setting including the interiors of homes, the flowers planted in a backyard.  Make notes of speech patterns.  You might ask why this is important during plotting?  Well, you may discover that the novel needs a sequel, as I did–in this case two.  Then you’ll need to know exactly what you’ve set up without having to go back to the original every ten minutes to make sure you’re being consistent.  

If you don’t?  It’s not uncommon in Chapter Ten to try to remember what you said about a character or a house in Chapter Two.  If you’re currently establishing facts that are going to be important to the novel, make careful notes about them in the plotting process.  If you’re doing the work, make it pay for you in the future.

Plotting a novel?  Not for sissies.  The clock ticks loudly in the background, and every little fact or item you’ve spent days digging for seems trivial when shared out loud.  Just trust me, none of the work you do up front is trivial.  Take is easy and take it slow.  You’ll be glad you did. 

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