Monday, March 08, 2010

Plotting and planning

While we're on the subject of plot, it has now dawned on me--maybe you knew this already--that "plot" is a synonym for "plan." I had this flash of insight while reading this short piece by Joshua Henkin. He warns writers against doing too much planning, because "If you plan out too much, you can end up injecting characters into a preordained plot and you get...Lipton-Cup-a-Story." Instead, he tries to create "situations where something important can take place" and lets his imagination run with them.

This seems similar to the advice Robert Olen Butler gives in his book From Where You Dream. He suggests beginning a novel with an extended period (a couple months, if I remember correctly) of "dreaming" up images. You don't want extended scenes, just mental pictures that feel intriguing to you (or make you "thrum," to use his term). Note each image on a different index card. When you're done, organize the index cards till you have them in the right order; and only then do you sit down and write the novel. But, you know, you've done most of the work already, so the writing's pretty much smooth sailing. Maybe if you're R.O.B.

I tried this when my novel was already in progress, and I found I couldn't do it. That's because I could not let go of the problem of plot, of linking intriguing scene A to intriguing scene B. So I had hundreds of cards, the bulk of which said something like "L has to get a job. What job??? Has to be one that involves DRIVING." These were not inspiring. I still have those cards in a shoebox that says "Novel: Do Not Pitch" on the lid. But I never open that box anymore.

Now that I've nearly finished a draft of same novel, I have a better idea what Butler means. For my next book, I might try the index-card business again. However, I still can't get past the fact that I get most of my ideas / scenes while I am actually writing. No amount of sitting and trying to visualize can substitute for cranking words out on the page. Also, *after* I've done my session for the day, scenes tend to occur to me, which I then note down. Entering these into my outline helps me ease into the session the next day.

So, what I think would work is a process like in those old films, in which railway workers are laying track right in front of the oncoming train. (Fortunately the engineer is patient and the train is moving very slowly.) I'd start with 2-3 scenes and write, say, fifty pages. I would expect maybe a dozen more scenes to pop up from that, which I would then note in my outline. (I really don't get index cards--never have, probably never will.) Once I'm about 100 pages in, I'll probably have enough track set up in front of me that I can see my way the end. But the track will always change; earlier scenes will have to be deleted or revised. Also, amazing new ideas might show up right near the end.

That's what's happening to me now, and instead of being worrisome, it's exciting. These new insights actually put lots of earlier stuff in context, and are helping me resolve issues that I couldn't decide about earlier, no matter how hard I wracked my brain. As everyone always says, though I refused to believe it until now, you have to keep going forward despite the fact that what you have now is imperfect. You can revise your first 50 pages until the Rapture and beyond (because, if you're like me, you'll be left behind, still writing). But once you get to the end you will *still* have to revise your entire book from the beginning. You will simply not know certain things till you've finished. So there's no sense wasting time.

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