Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Broken Middle

There's been a lot of talk on one of the Sisters in Cime listservs about plotters and pantsers. Plotters outline books carefully, in detail, before they begin to write. Some have elaborate wall charts, with sticky notes that can be moved to show a scene belongs here, not there. Some even use computer programs tailored for that purpose. When I first started writing fiction for young adults, I always knew I'd have twelve chapters, so I'd number from one to twelve on a legal pad and jot down what happened in each chapter--just a brief note. I remember once driving somewhere with a friend and working on such an outline. When she said, "In Chapter whatever, such and such can happen," I said, "Hush, Joyce, it's my book."
These days I'm a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants. I have a general idea and a few notes of what's going to happen and how it's going to end, but I have no idea how I'm going to get from the beginning to that end that's in my mind--and may change by the time I get there. My general technique is to get that first line or two on the computer screen and see what happens. Often I go through that process each time I sit down to write--worry about what to say next, type a line or two, and I'm off, usually surprising myself at the directions things take. It's an instinct thing--and it can lead to problems.
It took me five years or more and many rewrites to get Skeleton in a Dead Space to the point that it was publishable; I maybe worked on the sequel, No Neighborhood for Old Women, for two years. Late last month I wrote the first chapter of the third, untitled book and then set it aside partly because I didn't know what to do next and partly because I had other things to do and no idea when--or if--the publisher wanted this third book.
But then, wham! There came a schedule. No Neighborhood for Old Women is under contract, in the hands of the editor, and will be out in April. And the third, untitled book is due in final form at the editor March 15, to be publishedin August. I began to write like a madwoman until one day it occurred to me I was so obsessed with word count that I wasn't paying attention to where the story was goiing.  So, not quite dead center--30,000 words into what should be about a 70,000-word novel--I am stuck.
My solution: something I usually do much earlier in the process and that is reread what I've got. This time I didn't take time and I may regret it, but now I'm rereading--slowly and carefully.
I did get a boost last night from dinner with a friend who is a historic preservationist. Since my protagonist is a realtor who specializes in rennovating historic properties, she needs to be knowledgeable about what you can and cannot do with such buildings, and my friend Carol gave me valuable information that will help me along.
But like so many writers, I'm feel the novel is broken in the middle. And this week I haven't had a full day at home to work on it. Wish me luck, please.


Tess Grant said...

Go Judy!! I know exactly where you are...each time I write a book I bog down and swear the next time I'll do an outline, and I never do. I'm looking at my third book too and wondering how I'll get from A to Z. We can do it!

Unknown said...

I do that as well. I'm a pantser at ♥.

Hopefully you've hit the breakthrough. It's not fun when you feel like you're riding the fence between the beginning and the end.

Have a wonderful weekend, Judy!

rainbowriter said...

It is not necessary for me, or anyone, to know much about the plot or who you're going to murder but why. If you are getting technical input that's great. So does the killer(s) have sufficient motivation?
I am NOT a plotter and frankly, altho I am not as prolific as I realize I could have been w/o a pesky day, and often night job as well, my work is spontaneous. (The sisters have now begun a new category of "sleepers" - both a blessing and a curse.) Anyway, I cannot quote from any great "how to write" books but only the tricks I developed during revisions. Have you dropped enough bread crumbs? Do they lead to a loaf or just a fat mouse? I delight in "hiding" a clue in plain sight, ie something that makes the reader get to the climax and say "oh, that's why the door was old and didn't latch quite properly!" To me personally, such an omission is a glaring plot hole because it tends to then, when it becomes apparent to the author, to be filled in with deux a machina.
Relax and have fun. Let the bread rise to the occasion!

Nancy Adams said...

I'm a pantser, too, and always have problems with the middle. Even when the first draft is finished and I'm revising!

My current solution is to sit down and start to write a synopsis. Sometimes this process will lead to thoughts about what the big picture should be and how the main character and the villain are thinking. Because it's writing as opposed to just making a list, it will sometimes spark something to develop, and because it's concentrating on the big picture instead of details like "and then she said" it can sometimes help your imagination get to work.

Just a thought. Hope it helps.

Unknown said...

I'm pure panster. I tried outlining in the beginning as well as creating biographies of my main characters. I dropped that when I found it simply didn't work.

Now, like you, I start with an idea and at least a vague main character. But the characters grow for me as I write, as does the story itself. When I get stuck, I will usually try to throw in something that will force a character to react. It's the old 'a knock at the door' scenario.

I'm currently in the middle of an historical with characters from a previous book. I know the characters pretty well, but the plot has been changing constantly as a character will do one thing I didn't think of, and I'm off in another direction. I love writing a story like that. I'm lucky, I don't get bogged down and take years to finish such a book. My average is less than a year from start to finish, with a lot of input from beta readers, critiquers and my agent.

My recommendations for new writers is try different methods until you hit on the one that works for you. Some writing books will claim there is only one way to plot a book. Trust me, they're wrong.