I started another book tonight, when I should have been studying for my Finance exam. The  working title is The Eight Greatest Fears of Sam Reichardt. I’m hoping by the time it’s written, long titles will be back in fashion.

This makes three active projects: No Chance in Hell (in drafting), The Falcon and the Bluebird (outlined, with chapter list), and the Eight Greatest Fears (in outline). This is probably not a great way to work, but once I get an idea, I am terrified of forgetting it, so I have to start developing it and writing it down right away. 

I don’t go through this beginning process all that often, and I was having thoughts about it, so I feel like it might be worth documenting here.

I have seen writers try to divide themselves into Pantsers and Plotters, that is whether you sit down and just start writing, or whether you make an outline first. I refuse to choose. I think both are useful tools in the writer’s arsenal, and that both are skills every writer should learn, because they lend themselves to different developmental problems. Thus, I am both.

But the outline isn’t the beginning.

The Beginning

In the beginning, there’s an idea. A mood. A theme. A concept that the writer wants to express in narrative. I work on this idea until I can express it in a one-sentence narrative. In this case (spoilers? but you’ll have forgotten all of this by the time the book is published, I’m sure) the idea was exposing oneself to fear, and the vulnerability inherent in bravery. There’s more to it than that, but this is the root of it. I work that into a narrative sentence: a woman sets out to face down her eight greatest fears.

The number eight has no significance here; I just liked how it sounded.

Now I start fleshing that out. Why does she do this? What does she stand to gain? What does she stand to lose? What obstacles does she face?

Note: I have not written anything down yet. This is all brain work, and most of it is back of the brain work.

The Structure

Once this idea has ripened in the back of my head sufficiently, I begin laying out the structure. I can’t tell you when your idea is ripe. It is a feeling, more than a specific stage of development. I often have to resist the urge to sit down and start writing, because if I write before my pre-writing is done, there will be a mess to clean up.

This process of laying out the structure is not really the outline; it’s what comes before the outline. I decide which structure I want to use, and start sketching it out on a notepad I keep on my desk. I almost always start with the three act, eight sequence structure from screenwriting. It’s very straightforward and without it I often struggle with pacing. The three act eight sequence structure helps me keep things tight.

I start mapping out the main plot points on to the eight sequences. I always, always have missing pieces here. It’s part of the process. It’s like you’re putting together a skeleton and you have missing bones. So where the bones are missing, I write down questions. 

Then I usually map this on to Dan Harmon’s plot embryo in order to square up thematic elements. The plot embryo is based on the Hero’s Journey, which as conceived by Joseph Campbell is kind of out of date and a little sexist, but the plot embryo kind of modernizes it a little bit, in my opinion, by loosening it up. 

So now I’ve got my plot points and my questions written down, and I’ve set up some thematic elements to include and have decided how the events in the story will reflect those themes.

Let it Age

This is the only solution I have to coming up with the answers to my questions. This is more back of the brain work. I have come to understand that a great deal of this creative work happens when I’m not looking. This is where those ah-ha moments come from; they are not bolts from the blue. Your brain has been working on these things while you’ve been going about your day, and when the work is done, the egg timer in your head goes ding, and the new answer is served up hot and fresh into your conscious mind.

This can take days, or it can take weeks. Don’t rush it. You’ll regret it if you do.

Flip back to the page of the notebook with your structure on it. Re-read it. Start jotting in the answers to your questions. This may bring you additional questions. If so, great. Write them down and start this step again. You are iterating. It is fine.

What happens if the answers don’t come?

There are two possibilities.

One, your idea might not be very good, or it might be incomplete. There are a variety of ways to build out an idea, including mind-mapping and brainstorming. I also particularly like telling someone else (a non-writer, that’s very important) my ideas and seeing what they come up with.

Two, your idea is good, but you’re not ready to write it yet. You don’t have the requisite experience or understanding. That is also fine. Put the page you were working on away and come back to it when it creeps back into your awareness.

The Outline

Now it is time to outline! Take your plot points, your thematic elements, and your questions and answers and open a file in your word processor of choice.

Start with the biggest simplest structure. For me, that’s Acts I, II, and III. Break it down a little smaller. for me that’s the eight sequences. Break it down a little smaller than that. For me, that means putting in all the little things I know I want to include that aren’t big enough to be main plot points. These can be in there for a variety of reasons; they can lead to a plot point, or support a thematic element, or whatever.

Keep doing this until you’re at the end of Act III. 

The Chapter List

I always write a chapter list before I start writing. I think about how long I want the book to be, and then I think about how long my chapters are likely to be on average. This depends on the kind of book, usually. Faster paced, more action oriented stories are likely to have shorter chapters, and more literary style books are likely to have longer chapters. Maybe I want a 150k word book, and I estimate that my average chapter length is going to be 3k words. I know I’m going to need around fifty chapters.

I know that Act I is going to take up the first quarter of the book (37k-ish words, in this example) and that tells me what needs to happen within those first twelve to thirteen chapters according to my outline. So I start writing down a one sentence description of what happens in each chapter. Some chapters will be blank right now and that’s okay! You’ll fill them in as you go.

This is important: you will not follow this chapter list to the letter. Things will change as you write, and that’s just part of the process. But the glory of the chapter list is that if I get stuck somewhere, I can skip a head (or go back) to a different chapter and keep writing while whatever I’m stuck on eventually gets resolved in the back of my brain.

There. Now you’re ready to write your first sentence. 

Easy, huh?

 

I comfort myself with the fact that I’m still writing. In fact, I’m writing in ways that stretch my skills more than writing fictional narrative does, because I have more experience and practice with fiction. I am expanding the boundaries of the notorious comfort zone, and making myself a better writer all around.

But I still miss writing fiction.

It has been a long time, months, since I’ve written on any of my current works-in-progress. Since starting the MBA program, maybe longer. You might say to yourself, well winter break is the perfect time to dive back into the work you love! The fact is, I’m spending more time on professional blogging pursuits than on fiction during the break.

But Why?

I’m not sure. It’s complicated. It has to do with the way that long-form artistic work functions, I think. First, to start again, I would have to go through reams of notes and read through my manuscript again before I’d know where to start or what to do. Second, it takes a while to get into and then to get out of that particular mode of work (at least it does for me), so break feels like a short time to get back into it. 

I know that sounds odd for someone who can write a book in a couple of months, but it really does depend on the mode of work. I don’t like using the phrase “flow state,” because I think it’s misunderstood, but I think that’s the closest I could get to actually naming the phenomenon.

There’s also a lurking fear in there that being in my academic frame has changed the way I write, and I might ruin the good things that are already in the manuscript. The idea that there might be an abrupt change in tone or focus of the writing as a result of having taken so much time off the project is a real fear (whether or not it’s justified) and it feels safer just to let it lie until I can really focus on it.

Which, of course, will be never. Because artists have day jobs, and there’s always things to get in the way and it’s never the “right time” to write a novel, and all of the dozen other things I railed against when I started writing. 

It’s funny, I used to be able to write any time, anywhere. I remember coming home with folded stacks of scrap paper in my pocket, a new chapter, ready to be typed into the main document.

What Changed?

I don’t know, a lot of things changed. Some personal, some environmental. My brain is different, for starters, for a host of reasons. I lead a more structured life now than I used to, something that’s necessary to maintaining academic performance and robust physical health. I guess I am more of an adult now, which isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a thing. 

There are all kinds of things that adults let get in the way of writing, like meals and sleep and housework and social events. We trade the magic of writing half a book in a week for the drudgery of not living in filth and eating cold hot dogs at our laptops. Is it a worthwhile trade? I don’t know. Both modes of living have their ups and downs, obviously.

I appreciate the stability and structure of this adult life. I am grateful for the benefits it’s had for my health and general well-being. Structure helps me use my brain more effectively, understanding when to switch frames and tasks, and how to prioritize those things. There are massive benefits to not being a largely dysfunctional but tremendously productive author.

Unlike many famous white dude authors of the recent past, I don’t have a dedicated wife to take care of me, to edit my drafts and feed me and remind me to bathe. This seems to be a privilege reserved for artistic men. So I can’t hedge against sacrificing control of my life on the altar of creative pursuits in that way.

And the things that I’m doing instead are personally fulfilling and interesting in their own ways. But I still miss fiction

What Do You Miss About It?

Oh gosh. A lot of things. The risk is part of it. You can take risks in professional and academic writing, sure, but they’re different. In fiction it’s more about taking big risks that impact an imaginary world, while professional and academic pursuits involve taking smaller risks that impact my very real world. The sense of scale and feeling of recklessness are missing.

I also have this flair for the dramatic that isn’t satisfied by most academic or professional writing. You want to bring something of your personality to anything you write, obviously, because otherwise you could just get an AI to write it for you. Your personality, your voice, is what makes you marketable as a writer. But there’s a limit to the drama that you can inject into it.

In fiction, you can find ways to allow yourself to dramatize things to absurd degrees, though, and I do miss that. I miss the feeling of drawing out tension, the feeling of releasing that tension. I miss the ability to change the scope of the writing to serve my mood, zooming way in small or pulling way back. So I guess there’s an element of power to it too. I can make whatever I want, present it how I want the reader to see it, magnify the things I find important. I am the sole view into a fictional world when I write fiction; I am the final arbiter of reality, and my own propagandist. 

There’s an element of craft that I miss there too. I mean craft is a consideration in any writing, no matter how technical; things must be read and easily understood by your chosen audience, and that’s craft. But the options are almost unlimited in fiction. I could spend  three paragraphs writing about a rock on a beach, spinning it into a metaphor on the story’s theme, or whatever. There’s a lot less of that in professional and academic writing, and the rules you do it under are a lot less lenient.

I also miss the culture surrounding fiction writing. I miss getting to discuss structure and craft with other authors. I miss that particular camaraderie. 

So basically everything, I guess.

So What Are You Going To Do About It?

That’s always the question, isn’t it? What am I going to do about it? Am I going to keep whining about it and not change anything? Am I going to dip my toe back in with some short fiction? I really should write more short fiction. Or am I going to read through my manuscript and puzzle out where I left off and what I was doing at the time, and then plunge in?

Which is easiest? Which is most practical? Which is most satisfying?

Ten years ago it felt like there would always be time for more writing. But now I’ve got three books on the back burner and it’s been years since I last published something. My education is preparing me for a career that will involve full time work, which means writing in the cracks and margins. How much time do I really have left to prioritize my fiction? Forty more years, if I’m lucky? I’ve already lived forty years and I’ve only got two books out. You can see how the pressure starts to mount.

I do not and will not have kids, but faced with questions like these I often wonder how I would advise my children in this same situation.

It would probably be something along the lines of follow your dreams! I know you can make it work! or something equally trite. Something that ignores the complexity of real life.

Because that’s the really great part of fiction; ignoring the complexities of real life.

Because the complexities of real life are soul-killing and boring, and it’s that, more than anything else, that I would want to protect my children from as long as possible.