Thursday, November 10, 2011

Once upon a time

A long time ago, before I was a writer or a software engineer or a dancer or a flying angel or a horsewoman…

I was an artist.

It was destiny, in a family of people who drew and painted and sculpted, that I follow suit. My uncle actually made his living as an artist (eventually - after spending years working in an advertising agency). He has since passed on, but you can see some of his works here. As I was the first child, first grandchild, and first great-grandchild, the heat was on for me to fill my uncle's shoes. I was the Chosen One.

Except that my favorite thing to do was doodle. I didn't want to study line and work with light and shadow and color. I wanted to take a big sheet of paper and start in one corner with my crayons and pencils, and tell a story.

"Once upon a time," I'd say to myself, then start drawing. It might be a house that would hold a family and they would go on an adventure. Or maybe it was an airplane flying over some distant island and the tale would be about mermaids in the ocean and volcanoes and parachutes. Most of the time, there were animals. A forest of lions and deer and monkeys. The Great Plains, teeming with mustangs, all charging forward with long, waving manes and flying tails.

By the time I was finished, my "artwork" was a patchwork of scenes. They were fairly well drawn, with good perspective. But taken as a whole, it was a hot mess.

Nevertheless, I persisted in my art, spending a year at college as an art major, before I figured out that a) I didn't want to pursue art in the same vein as my family, and b) if I didn't get out of my parents' house soon, someone would have to die. So I dropped out of school and burst from my folks' house in a fit of marriage. Which is a story for another day.

Why am I telling you this story?

I've mentioned before that my first novel was plotted out on an Excel spreadsheet, with all of the characters and clues and a steady timeline lain out. My second novel started life in Excel, but I was never really happy with the plot points, so I went rogue and just started making stuff up. I say that very casually. What I did was open every scene with "Who is in this scene? What do they want? What obstacle can I throw at them to keep them from reaching their goal?" I am, by the way, amazed at the writers who always use the seat-of-the-pants approach. How do they know where the story is going to arc? How can they tell when they're done?

Now I'm writing the third mystery. As usual, I need to know what happened, then figure out how my character solves the case. I started with the Excel and got confused because there were a lot of new people running around in my head. Then I went to journaling these strangers and realized I could spend years writing everyone's diary. I needed to find a way to blend these actions or I'd never get the book written.

A blank piece of paper told me what to do. I sat down on the carpet, picked up a pencil and started in the corner. "Once there was a house on fire and a boy trapped inside. The house belonged to a man who had a lot of Dean Martin things. He was very sad when his things burned."

See? I'm a doodler
I wasn't drawing houses in flames, this time. There are lots of words and circles and lines with arrows going here and there and it looks like a hot mess to anyone who doesn't know what the book is about. But now I know what it's about.

If you'll excuse me, I've got some writing to do.

P.S. I'd show you my "storyboard" but I don't want to give away any spoilers.


  1. Usual approach! Thanks for sharing your process. It's different for every writer, and you're clearly a visual person. Before I was a novelist, I was a journalist, so I write outlines. I can't help it. :)

  2. Fun post, Gayle!

    For me, as much as learning the craft of writing fiction, has been learning my process. I continue to work on both.

  3. You're right, Peg. After the first book, I thought THAT was my process. Then I wrote the second one and thought, well, maybe THAT'S my process. It's entirely possible that I'll use a different process for each book, depending upon the story I want to tell.

  4. Interesting how the patterns of the future are formed in early childhood. I think we're born knowing exactly what we want but somewhere along the way it gets muddled by others' expectations.

    I'm a fly-by-the-seat writer all the way. Outlines only confuse me, and I never end up following them anyway. How do I build story structure that way? I'm not sure, but I always do. I suppose I go by instincts rather than by outlines--an inner awareness I've learned to listen to and trust.


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