Any former Girl Scouts out there? I had a very short stay with the Girl Scouts, but during my time I learned any number of songs guaranteed to drive any adult insane if you sing them for hours on end on a road trip. One of them was "The Happy Wanderer." You know..."I love to go a wandering, along the mountain path, and as I go I love to sing, my knapsack on my back."
OK, that's all I remember, but you get the gist. What does this have to do with writing? April kicked off our current thread on Friday...are you a pantser (a person who just starts writing and finds their story as they go along) or are you a planner (someone who outlines and draws story arcs before you open a single document file?)
I am somewhere in the middle, a "happy wanderer." I am horrible at outlining. When we had to outline term papers in school, I would write the paper first, then go back and outline what I wrote. Even worse, I find it impossible to think in a linear fashion. I write a last chapter, then something in the middle, then something that I know will go somewhere, I just don't know yet. For years I tried writing in sequence, one chapter after the other, only to find myself stuck on chapter two, every time. I somehow thought that writers had it all in their minds, in order and a real writer's sentences flowed, one after the other, in the right order.
Obviously, I was not a real writer.
Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird (my personal writing bible) gave me permission to write horrible first drafts. She gave me permission to write chapters as they come to me, in whatever order that might be.
I dislike rules, so my new rule for myself was "Just get the story down, anyway you can."
However, I don't start writing the minute I get an idea. I live with it for a long time. At least a year, often longer. (You don't want to know how long I've been "living" with my current WIP). I do my research. My research leads to to subplots, new characters who then beget other characters. In other words, I wander.
My first drafts are twice the size of my final one. I throw in everything but the kitchen sink. I pack for trips the same way. I put in way more stuff than I need, because, hey, you never know what you might need. When I can't close my suitcase, I start re-evaluating. Do I need this? Really?
When I get to the end of my permissibly awful first draft, I start taking stuff out. Lots of stuff. The best piece of writing advice ever given to me was in the Vermont College MFA Program. Here it is: If you can't decide whether to take something out, ask yourself "How does this move the story along?" (Or as my writing students and critique group members know it as HDTMTSA). If that character, that scene, that description does not move your action forward, take it out. In writing for kids, you really don't have the luxury of writing just to "admire the scenery" so to speak.
So the answer to the question....I know my main characters well before I start (which I suppose is a form of outline), I know my setting, and I sort of know the emotional arc of the story. But how my characters get to where they are going?...that happens as I write. And re-write. And wander.
Sooner or later I come to a place that feels like the end of the journey. I'm done wandering, and am now wondering. Wondering about the new place and characters that have been waiting ...possibly in my happy wanderer "knapsack on my back."
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman
P.S. Today is Veteran's Day, where we remember those who have served out country in war and peacetime. This is a picture of two my favorite veterans., My mom, WAVE Frances Smith, and her brother, Seaman Jim Smith of the Merchant Marine. My Uncle Jim was the real life inspiration for Jimmy's Stars.