Friday, September 28, 2018

Behind the Scenes: First Drafts and Rabbit Trails

Years ago, when I was taking a course in short story writing, my instructor said that my ideas were too big to fit within the confines of a short story. Writing short stories is as much about the breadth of a story idea as it is about the length. It really has to be boiled down. Now that I've written a few novels, I have a better understanding of her meaning because I tend to throw in everything, including the kitchen sink.

As I discussed in my last post, there is a lot of pantsing going on as I write. I have a thin, translucent skeleton of an outline, and planned chapters get bumped down the line while I'm adding new ideas that flow as I'm writing. When I'm finished with the first draft, I'll have a lot of clean-up work to do since there were ideas discussed in earlier chapters that I may have changed or completely eliminated.

That being said, the middle of the writing process is a fun place to be. I'm not all about being a best seller or Nobel Prize winner, and I would write anyway simply because it's what I do. I make stuff up and write it down. Maybe it's a way to feel a sense of self-control in a world that seems out of control. Who knows? What I find enjoyable is the path of discovery and how the story evolves from an idea that I thought was very simple into a novel with multiple plots.

I sit down to work on a chapter that seems to be stuck with no idea how to proceed. For example, my outline simply says something like Another attack. Well, that's pretty vague, isn't it? First I have to write about the attack itself, the choreography of it, and the effects of it. Then I have to write the reactive scenes, and all of the attacks and reactions have to be unique and logical. Next, I may have another event in my outline, but I'm not quite ready for that scene yet. I'll need some transitional scenes to get me there, and I also have to make them logical and interesting.

The exciting part is when I'm cruising along, and, on a whim, I find myself in the middle of an interesting scene that I hadn't planned at all, and it works. It may help me to pull in a character that I had planned to be in the story later anyway while adding another layer of mystery and an element that is completely in keeping with the character. Of course, rabbit trails can always go the other way. I have written scenes that I've had to cut out again because they were leading me in the wrong direction and not an interesting one.

However, I don't discourage exploring rabbit trails because you may find something in the mess that is worth keeping, and had I not explored that rabbit trail, I would have simply been drumming my fingers while wondering how to proceed. The rabbit trail that didn't completely work out allowed me to understand what wasn't working and why. It allows me to refocus and write something that does work. If you wrote five pages that you had to chunk, but you discovered two paragraphs with a good idea, those two paragraphs can lead to a lot more than five pages of good stuff.

I do like having at least a rough outline because it gives me a map of where to go in case I find myself completely lost. It helps me to see the overall path of the story, but it's not completely set in stone. I encourage writers to not limit themselves to only what is in the outline. Chase a few rabbits and see where it goes. After all, this isn't technical writing; it's supposed to be creative.


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