In the past six months, everything I know about myself as a novelist has changed, except for my dedication to the craft. That’s the one constant. I write every day.
My wake-up-as-someone-else metamorphosis has to do with plot. Now I’m a believer! My characters are no longer given free reign to wander to and fro, discovering conflicts and losses, before I craft them into a narrative. Instead, I’ve been mapping the way through my new novel. I’m controlling each step of my protagonist’s journey ahead of time–a huge shift for a character-driven writer.
Here’s some background about this transformation and my work-in-progress, LOST NOTES. I fell down a rabbit hole last October while working on backstory about a particular music box. The great-great-great grandfather of my intended protagonist captured my imagination. After some coaxing and reassurance from a few writing friends, I dropped my contemporary story, created a new folder and kept writing about the past. Here are some other ways my approach to the craft has changed in the past six months:
1) My first two manuscripts are small-town stories set in Oregon with strong, voicey female protagonists. LOST NOTES is set in France, New York City and other locales–none of which are Oregon.
2) Part of the reason I’ve set novels in familiar places is because research terrifies the heck out of me. Now I’m typing on a desk piled with about 12 nonfiction books about the 19th century, the Civil War, prostitution and even (gasp) a biography. I get ridiculously excited when I discover data from an 1855 census in a pertinent neighborhood of New York City.
3) I used to write first-person. Now I’m working in third. Not limited third, from a particular point of view (the kind that’s closest to first). That would be too much like my old comfortable ways. Instead I’m running wild with omniscient. (It feels really wild. Like I’m tramping alone through wet, dense, waist-high grass.)
4) I’ve traded introspective, reflective coming-of-age type material for a wide-ranging romp of an epic. I have tons of characters swirling through five or six decades.
5) Here’s another shift. My writing has always been contemporary, current day, right now. Instead: Historical, 19th century.
6) And that brings me to my next point. It has only begun to register that people consider historical novels genre fiction. Who knew? I thought I was still writing literary fiction–and perhaps I am, because I certainly still consider myself a literary writer–but this manuscript definitely has a little bit of a (gasp) commercial heft to it.
So yes. I have traded my stripes for spots. Being around other character-driven writers over the past few weeks, and preaching about the joy of plot-first exploration to those who have never tried it, has made me realize exactly how much I’ve changed. I’m a different animal these days. The things I held sacred have been turned upside down, shaken and then dropped on the ground.
I’m absolutely enamored with the results. LOST NOTES is still in first-draft form, and I’m about a third of the way through the story, but I’m thrilled with how much progress I’ve made in six months. I still love my first two literary novels, but this manuscript is bigger, bolder and way scarier. And maybe that’s why I keep writing. To see if I can pull it off.
Anyone else had a similarly dramatic transformation? Or a small one? Where have your writerly shifts led you?
I used to be entirely character driven (so much so that I never had any idea where my characters even were until they told me), but now I’m writing mystery stories, and mystery stories aren’t mystery stories if they don’t have a plot (unless you’re using the form of a mystery but not really writing mysteries — some of David Lynch’s movies do this).
I’m not sure where I fall out re: “genre” and “literary” fiction. I think the earlier novels were a mixture, somewhere in between. But real genre fiction gives us restrictions, including an increased emphasis on plot. And, like all restrictions of this type, this can drive creativity rather than restrict it.
I wrote about these things a couple of times:
Great point about genre fiction. I have a friend writing an excellent cozy mystery, and as she tries to fit her own literary sensibilities into the form, she’s been writing some incredible scenes. I definitely see how the restrictions have allowed her certain leaps in her work that might not have happened otherwise. I haven’t spent a lot of time (yet) thinking about my new novel as genre, but it’ll be interesting to see how that classification changes or informs my draft. And thanks for the links, Anthony!
Oh, and we’ve been discussing the literary/genre thing over here:
Read this with great interest: I am intrigued by the challenge of moving yourself as a writer from character to plot but at the same time wonder where the line is drawn? You’re so right though, I’ve read a lot of genre (thrillers mainly) recently and there is so little character development in many of them. After a while you find you are just chasing the plot, if you see what I mean and once you’ve got your head around that, the books is finished…. literally and metaphorically. It rarely leaves you with much to think about afterwards. No, that’s not quite right either. But you’ve made me think….. 🙂 I’ll just read it all again.
Thanks for the comment! I draw the character-plot line in terms of what comes first. I’ve always started with numerous character sketches–writing from prompts, thinking about what their homes are like, etc. Then I set that character on a path. This time I started with an object, and a specific plot point, and then created a character to take the journey. I still have more plot points than character notes–but that’ll change as I go forward. I fully believe in character development! That’s why, perhaps, I still think of this novel as literary.
Interesting. I draw the line based on what seems to be driving things forward (or not), because I never start with notes. I just write a scene, with no idea who the characters are or where they are, let alone where they live, etc.
I think Harold Pinter worked this way. Somebody asked him once what had been the original idea behind one of his plays, and he said he had thought of two men in a room, one standing up and one sitting down.
That’s a neat distinction. Looking at it from that perspective, I’m still in the plot-first camp. My protagonist’s insights and growth are being driven by plot points. Not by his own internal mechanisms. It feels really authorial to do it this way, imposing my will on him as creator, but how he reacts to such things will hopefully make him come alive–and surprise me along the way.
Great to see where a transformation can lead you.
I used to hate writing in first-person (because of the POV restrictions) but I am now starting to see that a first-person narrator can play with readers’ expectations
Thanks for stopping by! As Anthony said, form restrictions (such as being limited to first person POV) can sometimes enhance creativity. So can shaking up your own methods! I love first person for the ability to get into a character’s head and see the whole world through that perspective. And it’s great fun to let the reader know something that the protagonist can’t quite see. Another longtime first-person writer (in my critique group) just tried a part of his novel in third. He said he never really quite believed the first-person voice in his novel, and this change has opened the story up in a way he didn’t expect. I’ll go back to first-person sometime, but not yet!
I’m so glad you stopped by our blog, so we could discover yours! You’ve got such a wonderful site here…I’m really looking forward to following it! 🙂
Kudos to you for pushing past your comfort zone. That’s always a challenge for us writers. We get set in our ways, and we’re so sure that the way we’ve always done it is the right way, and will always be the right way… That makes change difficult, if we ever even consider it.
I’ve always had a challenge with the whole “characters running amok” scenario. I just fall in love with them, and I just enjoy watching them live their lives. Sadly, though, that doesn’t make good story, for the most part. I especially applaud your decision to experiment with historical fiction (which intimidates me, but not my sister, S.K., who loves it!), and omniscient third — which also terrifies me. Of course, I always used to have a problem with “head jumping”…going deep penetration for one character, then in the next paragraph plunging into the psyche of another. Whoa. One person is bad enough…I don’t need to be in ten different people’s minds! 😉 I’ve never really tried omniscient, though…you make me want to experiment with it, though! Let us know how the bold writerly adventures go!
Thanks for commenting! I’m looking forward to having more writerly talks with you and your sister (yay historical fiction!). Great point about comfort zones. All I “know” how to do is write first-person narratives. And the fact that most of my writer friends write first-person makes branching out seem even more intimidating! But now that I’ve committed to third, it feels great. I have no clue what I’m doing, but that’s what the next draft is for, right? The story itself feels full and clean as it’s coming together.
That’s the kind of writer I am, by the way. Ahem. The kind I was. I’d follow my characters, love them, feed them, get them into trouble, etc. I didn’t make life too easy, but I definitely shaped the world around them and watched them try to get out of messes. This time I really feel like capital A author moving the chess pieces around. Very different. I need to get to know my protagonist better, but that’ll happen as I keep going, I think.
Characters live in my head. I live with them until they’re on the page and I can write The End 🙂
I love it when that happens! That’s one of the things I miss most in this change-of-process experiment. Henri, my protagonist, isn’t talking to me all the time. Then again, maybe a year from now, when he gets over his French countryside reserve, and when I get the whole first draft done, that may change. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!
I just write out of character…..