Friday, August 7, 2020
I’m working on a novel. I’ve never attempted a longer piece like this. Previously, all of my writings have been under twenty pages. Mostly, wayyyy under. Many of them have been just one paragraph. But not in a cool “flash fiction” kinda way (I hadn’t even heard of flash fiction), more like in an I’m-too-intimidated-to-write-something-longer kinda way.
Normally, when I write, I prefer to start at the beginning and just go straight through to the end if I can, in one sitting if possible. Even if it means I have to go all day without stopping to eat or drink. I don’t know if that’s an indication of the incredible dedication I have to my craft or of what an amature I am at it. Probably both. But we all have to start somewhere, right?
The problem with that method is twofold. A.) I didn’t always know how it was going to end before I started, so sometimes I would get a little lost and have to backtrack in order to ensure consistency. It could get very confusing and cumbersome if the story was more than a few pages long. B.) If I stopped writing in the middle and then tried to go back to it later, I might be in a different mood, or I might have just lost the flow. The result of that is that I have many unfinished stories floating about in the ethereal dimension of the Google Docs alternative universe. It’s a very unsatisfying feeling. Like the writing equivalent of blue balls (I imagine).
This time though, I have tapped into my deep-seeded OCD tendencies and built a huge, intricate organizational structure for my story. There are layers upon layers of foundational components on which to build the plot and develop characters and to lay out the pattern of events. Everything is divided into tiny manageable bite-sized chunks. It’s all planned out to the very end. And I keep adding to the invisible structural elements so that the actual words that will make up the final version flow out of me ever more easily. I have written a good deal of the final, visible parts of it already, but whenever the words get bottled up and stop flowing in a torrent, whenever they turn into that pathetic dribble of brackish muck (as inevitably happens during the writing process), I just stop what I’m doing and turn to something else. Not some other aspect of my life. Not some other writing project I’m working on. Something else in the same story. Since it’s all planned out ahead of time, I can work on another scene, because I know everything that happens before and after and in between. Maybe I’m in a sad mood, so I jump to writing a sad scene. Or, if my mind is feeling mushy, if proper final-version words are not forthcoming, I can develop the underlying structure a bit more. It doesn’t matter one bit how poorly written that is because it’s all going to be removed from the final draft and no one will ever see it but me, so there is absolutely no perfectionistic self-consciousness.
Now, this may all seem very obvious, and to more experienced writers, it undoubtedly is. After all, we were taught to do outlines for research papers all the way back in elementary school. And I have made good use of those in non-fiction work. But I always felt like it would stifle the creative process in fictional projects. And, indeed, I do not recall ever once being told to use it for creative writing assignments in English class.
But what I’m doing is much, much more deeply intricate than any outline I ever did for school. In the end, I believe there will be so much bulk in the invisible, underlying structure, that it could constitute a book in itself, in length, if not in quality. This method allows me to be annoyingly formulaic and unoriginal in my structural elements, just as builders are with the initial skeletal structures of a building. With some variation in area, shape and depth, a foundation is a foundation is a foundation. Walls are walls. Plumbing is plumbing. It’s not until you get to the drywall and plaster stage, with the floorboards and tile, cabinets and countertops, that the architect’s vision becomes apparent. And even then, the paint and wallpaper, furniture, drapes and knick-knacks will drastically affect the final character of a place. No one sees the plywood under-flooring beneath the carpet. It’s invisible. No one sees the support beams within the load bearing walls that allow for additional height and extra storeys. And no one will see the behind-the-scenes structural elements that enable me to support a longer, more complicated work without it all collapsing on my head.
When construction crews run into hiccups in the building process (due to bad weather, broken equipment, indecisive homeowners, etc.), they need to be able to switch to a different part of the project or the work just stops. If the cordless drill turning the gears in my brain runs out of battery, I need to be able to switch to laying tile in a different room of my storey while I’m waiting for the battery to recharge. Why didn’t I think of this before? Duh.
Maybe lots of writers do this. Maybe no one does and it would never work for them. I don’t know. But it’s working for me. For now.