Sunday, January 8, 2012

Beginning in the Middle

     Beginnings are easy... and hard.
     Chapter One goes so smoothly.  I should know.  I have at least a a hundred "Chapter One"s crammed lurking in my document file. Yes, sir, I can rip off a chapter one without breaking a sweat.
     Then comes Chapter Two.
     Uh-oh.  There is no Chapter Two. There is no Chapter Two because I can't think of what happens right Chapter One.
     For years, this inability to come up with a Chapter Two (let alone a middle and an end), convinced me that I really wasn't a writer. Real writers know what happens in Chapter Two.  If I could only have written a book of collected first chapters...
     Despite this discouraging notion, I kept on writing and saving first chapters. Not being able to finish something didn't prevent me from writing. Writing is a compulsion. I can't not write.
     Eventually I figured out what I was doing wrong.
     I was writing without really knowing my characters or story.  Writing a Chapter Two was like trying to introduce people you've just met.  I didn't know anything about them, so there was that awkward pause after names have been exchanged where you are expected to add a little tag, such as "Bob is a big curling fan" or "Jane is just back from kayaking the Amazon."  The blank space beneath the words "Chapter Two" is the writing equivalent of that awkward pause.
      "But," you might say, "aren't you supposed to write down an idea as soon as you get it, so you won't forget it?"
      You would be absolutely correct.  You write down the idea. Then you put in your files and leave it there for awhile.  Get to know your characters. I mean really get to know them. When you meet someone new, don't you ask a few questions before you decide whether you want to spend time with them or not?
     The same is true with a new project.  Make sure this is an idea, characters, story you want to live with for a year or longer. Yankee Girl took five solid years of writing, revision and editing. By the time I was done, I was ready to send the entire cast of characters over a cliff in a car, Thelma and Louise style. ("And then they all died.  The End.")
     I have learned that what I used to think of as "inspiration"(the kind that ran out after ten pages), is really just discovering a story "seed." Seeds need to germinate to be useful (unless, of course, they are salted sunflower or pumpkin seeds). So I quickly write down whatever brilliant notion is burning in my brain cells at the moment,. . .and then leave it for awhile.  Sometimes, characters and story grow in the back of my brain over a year. I call it "crockpot writing";  throw in some ingredients, put it on low heat, and come back at the end of the day.  Sometimes I have dinner; sometimes I have a big mess. (I am not a good cook.)
     Once I decide I have something worth working on, I make it a point to not write chapter two.  I review what I know about my characters and story. Usually, a scene, an image, a conversation, something materializes.  I don't worry about where in the story trajectory this scene comes.  I just write it down.
    This is how I learned to avoid the "Chapter Two Plot Fizzle." I write out of sequence. . .at the least in the beginning of a project.  I write whatever is on the front burners of my brain.  If there isn't anything immediately, I will revise the last page (and only the last page) I wrote. This puts me back in the groove and a new scene or something will emerge.  At some point, I begin to see where all these pieces of writing fit together, and where there are holes. Now my writing has a starting point and a destination.
    I know that writing out of sequence doesn't work for everyone, but it works for me. I wrote Yankee Girl in sequence and wound up with a 400 page first draft.  Most of what I cut was stuff I wrote fumbling around for the next plot point.
    Over the holidays I had a creative flash. Out of nowhere, a teenage boy appeared in the backseat of a car.  His parents' car.  The parents are in the front seat. I knew where he was going, why he was there and what he was thinking.  I wrote all that down.
    I won't see my teenage boy again for a year or so.  Right now, I don't even know his name. (I do, however, know his girlfriend's name.) I don't know how or even if  he will work out his problem. I'm not worried about that.  I am finishing up my current Novel Out of Sequence.
    The Boy in the Back Seat will wait for me.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


KateCoombs said...

This makes a lot of sense--I've had that experience as a writer!

Anonymous said...

lol, there is a book I read when I was younger called "The End" everybody dies too. I need to go Google it now. I can't remember the author. I am still trying to find so many voice...right genre for help me realize I am not alone. I am so thankful for this comment challenge.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Please don't wait a year to respond to The Boy in the Back Seat. Finish up your *#&$@^ current novel, and ask him what his name is. Your readers want to know!

JenFW said...

Boy, can I relate to this.

The problem occurs when I don't get back to the story. Ever. Sometimes, I think pushing through NaNoWriMo-style is necessary just to find the story.

When I do NaNoWriMo, I write scenes, all out of order, as they come to me, and figure I'll worry about transitions later. Later needs to get here already!

Annie said...

Loved this post! I could definitely relate to it--I am now off to write out of order. I can't wait!

Anonymous said...

What an interesting insight into the writing process! Nope, I don't think I'll ever write a book!

mary ann rodman said...

Wow! I am so happy to learn that I am not the only one who writes out of sequence!! The one time I did NaNoWriMo I wound up writing pages and pages wandering up cul de sacs and side streets, looking for my next plot point. Again, this is due to not knowing my characters before I started writing. Next time, I will take whatever idea I've thought of IN ADVANCE before I start thundering off XX number of words per day.
And now, for Gretchen, I am going to visit my Boy in the Back Seat...I know enough to write what he is thinking on that car ride. That's enough for now.
Thanks everybody for commenting. This is what I love about blogging...connecting with you all.

Darshana said...

nice write-up. i am a pb writer but face similar problems. right now I have a great idea "seed" but its the climax of the story.
i have no idea how to get there.

i have a lot of "seeds", hopefully they will germinate this year.

April Halprin Wayland said...

I'm not the only one who has drawers full of great first ideas?!?!

A book of chapter ones. not a bad idea! I'm not joking. Really. I mean it. It will be the novel equivalent of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg.

And I love your term, “crockpot cooking”...and I've always told students to let their ideas cook! No wonder Jama's blog, Alphabet Soup is so compelling...combining writing and cooking is not only a great metaphor, it's delicious.