Sunday, December 10, 2006

Adding Characters, Changing Outline, Pre-Writing

When I looked over the fine outline I had made for THE ISLE, which is perfectly viable, not a thing wrong with it, I allowed myself to ask one question which had been nagging me when creating the outline for the story, but which I had avoided until finally I realized I just had to ask it and ponder the possibilities....

The question was, whether to stay focused as I was on four main characters, and keep the novel centered around just these four characters' experiences on THE ISLE, or whether I should keep this basic premise but expand to a larger group of characters on THE ISLE.

When I face questions like this, my strategy for dealing with them is to open a text document (I use Word for this) and write the question, then brainstorm and type out an answer. If I don't know the answer, then I brainstorm a list of possible answers, then go into detail for each possibility considering exactly how it would play out or impact other things, etc., as the case may be. Then, I read over my comments, reflect as needed, and when I'm ready to decide, either immediately or the following day, I then write a summary paragraph at the end stating which solution I chose and exactly why.

For every option I consider, I always explore the pro's and con's and list them, because when there are several viable options, it often comes down to choosing the one option that contains a certain pro the others don't adequately address, something I need for the story, in spite of whatever con's may come with it. This is typically where one direction for the story allows the characters to explore some issue or theme, and at the same time precludes them from experiencing something else that would have happened had things been different. Sometimes I can work those missed options in in other ways, but usually it does come down to some sort of "either/or" choice, and I never really get everything I want because logically it isn't possible, but I get the most important thing that will benefit the story in some essential manner.

Well, enough of the babbling....

In considering the possibiltiies, I also considered other stories that THE ISLE is related to, other well-known novels that deal with people on islands, and considered how having more or fewer people on my island would help or hinder the story and the characters' experiences, etc. I finally decided that although I had initially chosen to focus on just four characters and keep the experience rather intimate with such a small group, which made certain things more likely and more possible, I could still work some of that stuff in with a larger group but also would gain substantial drama from having a larger group present due to large-group dynamics, the sort of stuff that might happen with a larger group but that probably would not happen with a smaller group. My story is unique (of course), not a clone of other stories, but readers will certainly draw parallels to these others stories which everyone is familiar with (I'm not saying which ones they are yet). I need to be cognizant of those connections that readers will make, and it's not objectionable to me that I would pay homage in some way in my own story to some of these other great novels, while at the same time telling my own story with my own characters.

Anyway, it all boils down to the decision to go ahead and expand the group from four to a larger number, which I haven't settled on exactly yet, but I know it'll be 12 to 20 or so. Big enough for large-group dynamics, small enough that I can still focus on the few central characters and to a lesser extent with other characters who will now be present.

Apart from all of these characters, there are also the minor characters I had originally envisioned, people not on THE ISLE. They will still be in the story, although I will likely now focus more on the events that take place on THE ISLE and not spend story time before and after these events by showing much of what happens off THE ISLE with those other minor characters. Those characters may end up on the cutting room floor, but they are there as part of the back-story if nothing else.

This adjustment dictates a fundamental change in the specifics of the outline, so I am having to redo the entire outline, drawing from what I already did -- the basic premise is the same -- but now developing it on two levels, the large-group level and the individual-character level.

The past few days I've been rethinking the story, brainstorming and writing notes of how things might play out now that there are more characters, and developing other plot lines, threads that will be woven together as the individuals try to deal with other individuals and also deal with the larger group goals. I also did more pre-writing, writing another attempt at the first chapter, but I am not sure yet that I have found the proper starting point or voice for the story. I want to do more pre-writing, maybe try another two or three versions of the start of the story, maybe dive in and write a scene from somewhere in the story, just to play with the material, get a clearer sense of the characters' voices. I had though previously of doing a summary of the story from each charater's POV -- that's a very worthwhile way to prepare to write the first draft. I had a clear sense of the four characters, but with the changes, the characters have all been morphed into new versions, so I have to go back to the drawing board so to speak and reconnect with them.

Some pluses I've noticed as I work on this, ways I've grown from my work on my previous novel....

One plus has been the prose I'm writing is tighter from the get-go. Reading THE MARSHALL PLAN earlier this year has helped since the books provides concrete examples of how to write tigher prose. I commented on the book in an earlier posting and gave a few examples.

Another plus has been that I can see a way now to both plan the story and also leave things open to inspiration along the way. Having some experience with detailed outlining under my belt from my last novel, I can much more readily envision how one part of the story is tied to other parts. I can see keeping the twelve "pillars" or main plot points in mind, yet leaving it open exactly how I get from one to the other as I write the story, "discovering" it as I go. To help me keep that in-between writing on track, I can draw on another plus, which has been my increased focus on goals and complications. I focused on that aspect in my planning earlier this year and it paid off, training me to see things in that context. It's surprisingly easy to do that now, a perspective that is more ingrained than it was before. Essentially, for each scene, I have a clear goal for the POV character, and I brainstorm ways things can go wrong for a person with such a goal in that scene. I then throw complications at the character, and allow the ending to be either that the goal is not reached, or reached but not as intended, or the goal must now be replaced with another goal since the first goal proved unworkable, impossible or unnecessary. In other words, constant DRAMA, something I avoid in real life like the plague, but which is the stuff novels are made of. Of course, in selecting these complications, I keep an eye out on the larger story, the context of things, the symbolism, etc., to choose things that make sense, not just random events that are possible. Also, the characters must stay "in character" at all times in how they deal with the complications, and, yes, the complications are designed to draw out some qualities of the individuals characters who are facing them to affect their character development.

I will continue outlining until this new version is done, any day now. In spite of feeling better able to go it free-form between plot points I don't want to attempt that yet, afraid I'll get lost. I like knowing the story up front before I begin writing it. I will continue pre-writing to sharpen the characters' voices. And, within this week, I'll finally be ready to embark on the first draft outright, which I then intend to keep at until finished, and to finish it within December.

Happy Holidays to all the other novel-writers out there,


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