In the short lull between finishing my small-town newspaper novel, “Body Copy,” and beginning the first draft of my new one, I discovered this essay by one of my favorite writers, Stephanie Kallos. It’s about the process of writing novel number two. Her description of attempting to use an outline–“That’s how real writers do it”–made me smile, then gulp. I had, in fact, vowed to be one of those organized, methodical writers this time around. With novel number two.
I’ve always been a follow-the-characters, then-find-the-story kind of writer. But my approach to the craft changed while writing “Body Copy,” and I figured my first-draft crafting should change, too. It’s supposed to be easier this time, right? Quicker! More focused! I know what I’m doing! Sort of.
Two months ago, it seemed like a brilliant idea to aim my characters toward something specific, instead of spending the next few years letting them wander around in a fictional world, uncertain. Lost. In search of plot. So, after reading Kallos’ brilliant essay, and acknowledging that my outline would surely change along the way, I lugged a giant roll of brown paper to the basement. I drew an arc, filled in themes corresponding to that arc and then scribbled scene ideas in the holes.
I shouldn’t have used pen.
Because something totally unscripted happened. The great-great-great grandfather of one of my lovebirds started telling his story during my freewrite sessions. Using a loud, historic voice. And every time I sat down to write about my supposed main characters, the ones whose lives and losses were mapped out in pen, I’d sneak over to a different document to jot down a thing or two about that spotlight-hogging ancestor. I can’t say I’ve made peace with him being the main character, but it’s sure looking like he’s worth a whole novel. My plotted-out present day scenes, the ones that made sense, increased tension and had an actual pre-planned climax, well, those are bound for the recycling bin.
Once again, I’m plowing ahead with no outline. But this time, unlike my previous attempts, plot keeps happening. What begins as a question turns into a new character tucked in a pocket of 1800s New England. Scenes are bursting into the background of other scenes, so I have to stop, paste those parts into fresh Word documents, and then be prepared to go back later. And I’m having so much fun, floating around in the middle of this story, unmoored, sensing adventure in each direction.
Not that I won’t be lugging that brown paper out again sometime soon, and writing a new outline. Call it a life preserver.