If you missed our Saturday meeting on writing without an outline, here is a copy of the meeting handout:
– Sherrie Seibert Goff
Free Your Muse
The Muses are nine goddesses who embody the arts and inspire creation with their graces. Many writers are of the opinion that a plot outline acts like prison bars, restricting and stifling all the life out of one’s muse.
In school, teachers still assign students the task of crafting a plot outline, doing character profiles and identifying a theme, before they can start writing. Today we will abandon the planning method and explore the freedom of writing organically – harking to the genius of the muse.
What is a Literary Seed?
If you are like most writers, you harbor a secret story idea you always wanted to explore, but you can’t decide where to begin or how it should end, or even what the title should be. Maybe you started it and got stuck, never able to finish. Others can’t think of anything to write about at all.
Or maybe you have had the surreal experience where some tiny fragment of a lingering thought or recurring dream, or vague impression or character trait, even some insignificant scene, word or phrase stays forever and strangely stuck in your psyche like some old song? It might be just an overwhelming feeling or sensation that you can’t quite put a finger on. It seems always there, like an old memory, just out of reach or meaning, occasionally surfacing from your subconscious for no good reason. You have no idea what it means, just that it must have gotten imprinted in your mind by some fluke of the brain or distant recollection from childhood. Believe it or not, this is a seed that can grow into a storyline.
When you are out and about in the world, a tiny pocket notepad is an essential companion. If something fleeting catches your eye or amuses you, record your impression lest you forget it because inspiration is illusive and short-lived.
Select one of your poignant seeds and start to water it, examine it, think about it. Ask your muse: “What could be going on here?” “What if …?” Start writing down random thoughts that well up from your subconscious no matter how silly they seem. Query your muse with: “Who are these people? What do they want? What stands in their way?” This is called free-writing.
Just as an acorn can become a mighty oak, a tiny seed can grow into an entire novel
First Step – Finish a rough Draft
The first draft is about getting a rough storyline down on paper so that you have something to work with. Don’t agonize over the best opening sentence at this point – just jot down any old thing and keep going. Don’t stop to rewrite or revise or worry about grammar or spelling.
E. L. Doctorow said writing a novel is like driving at night. You can see ahead only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
Silence your editor brain and write flat out as if no one will ever read what you write. Some of your best writing occurs during this first draft because it is uninhibited, spontaneous and running on sheer inspiration.
Allow the characters to take over the action and determine the course of the story. Repeatedly throw another problem or predicament at your protagonist because good books are tales of struggle. You can make it through the entire first draft of a novel by asking yourself, “What else could go wrong?”
Trust the muse when she’s on a roll. A tale that grows organically in bursts of creative enthusiasm feels more natural and inevitable than an artificially outlined plot. As things get worse, the conflict, escalation of tension, and rising stakes will lead you to a moment when everything seems lost, resulting in a climactic encounter.
The hard part is quelling your left brain’s urge to edit each sentence and to go back over your work again and again. Over-editing drains the life out of the work. If you succumb and start revising before finishing the manuscript’s first draft, the work’s brilliance dulls or dies.
Second Step – Hone the Story Arc
The arts are not only about the Muse, they are also about solving structural problems. Now that you have something down to work with, ask your editor brain to step up and look for a story arc to make sure that you have a novel, not just a collection of scenes and snippets From the beginning the story should rise in an arc of ever increasing tension, building higher until a final climax and resolution are reached. Each scene and chapter should build on the one before it to grow the arc.
Hold the needs of the novel in the forefront of your mind as you begin to cut ruthlessly. If your favorite scene doesn’t have a danged thing to do with the purpose of the story, it’s gotta go. If nothing has changed by the end of the scene you do not have a scene. If something doesn’t either advance the action or serve to develop the characters, change it or cut it.
Don’t resolve things at the end of each chapter, unless you want the story to die there. Let questions go unanswered. Suspense is a key factor. Keep readers hanging on the edge by never turning the light on. End chapters on a note of mystery to grip the readers attention and keep them turning pages. Also, don’t immediately get your protagonist out of trouble. If your characters too quickly solve something without a big setback you do not have a story.
Now is the time to revisit the opening which is the most important part of the novel. Fiction demands conflict, the yeast of all drama, so make sure the opening action has a stressful effect on one or more of your major characters. Cut the deadwood that got you started writing. Maybe even throw away the first few pages to find the best narrative hook.
Writing organically will usually lead you to a crisis and ending that feels fated to happen. Once the final climax is reached then tension dissipates, all the loose ends are tied up and the story is drawn to a close – not drawn out. Make sure you provide the reader with a satisfying denouement by tying up the major loose ends of the tale, but leave trivial subplots unresolved or forgotten, up to the readers imagination. If your draft runs on too long or tries to work out too many things for minor characters, then weed out the flowerbed to better display the perfect sweet ending.
Third Step – Add More Seasoning
The next revision is a strange melding of your muse and your inner wordsmith. Now that you know what your story is about – you had to write it to know that – start again at the very beginning and revisit every single word, sentence, paragraph and scene to add more sensory detail, character development and tension to the stew. Don’t rewrite, relive.
This is where you will add everything that you left out. At the same time, delete extraneous words, useless sentences, and even whole paragraphs to improve the pace.
Flesh out your tale by enlisting more powerful description, stronger characterization and better word choice (tools that we studied in previous meetings). Bring the story to vivid life and make the desired goal very personal.
Look the hardest at any scenes that you left off-stage or skimmed through or resorted to telling, because these may be the very scenes you need to show in excruciating detail and dramatize to the fullest. Usually such “missed opportunities” result from our own inhibitions or they are things far outside our own experience. Tackle them head-on.
Slow the action down and milk these difficult-to-write scenes for all they are worth, maybe take up several pages. Go through the scene beat by beat in your imagination as if you are watching a movie in slow motion. Alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue and description, and take your time with each. Milk them. These are the scenes that will stick in the reader’s memory.
Step Four – Copy Edit
The next pass is a meticulous copy edit to make sure all grammar, punctuation and spelling is absolutely error free. Use your editor brain to start at the beginning yet again and go through every sentence. Make sure the book’s format is correct for the publisher as well.
Even if everything seems pristine and perfect, don’t send it out yet. Set it aside to clear your overloaded brain and give the book a rest for several days.
Step Five – Final Reading
You need to do a last check on the book’s flow and readability, but the fiction writer’s problem is that he can never see his own work clearly. By the time you have read what you’ve written over and over again, you are no longer capable of viewing it as a reader. Distance yourself from the story for as long as three months, then pick up the manuscript and read it with fresh eyes, as if you are the reader seeing it for the first time.
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