Using Writing to Uncover Your Plot

NaNoWriMo update: I’m nearly 1000 words ahead of the official schedule, which is to say I am meeting my goal of getting ahead before I leave for my Thanksgiving vacation trip. I know I may not be able to meet my word count goals when I’m visiting family, so getting ahead now makes good sense. I wouldn’t be ahead, however, if I hadn’t finally had some ideas about things to put in my novel.

Laptop and notebook NaNo

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the best thing for me to do when I don’t know where my story is going and I feel lost is to write about it. My project journal is full of complaints about being stuck and clueless, which helps relieve some of my angst (and with any luck spares my friends at least some of my griping that “I don’t know what to write!”).

But what really helps is thinking on paper: making lists of things that might happen, exploring the motivations of each character, trying to explain how something I want to have a certain way got that way. Even diving into a scene that I don’t really know much about tends to lead to ideas, although I have my share of dead end, bore-you-to-death scenes that were written this way.

I don’t understand why just thinking about these things isn’t enough, but it isn’t. I can spend hours turning things over in my head, trying to get somewhere, and have nothing to show for it. Maybe it’s because most of my thoughts are about the problem and not the solution. When I decide to use paper and pen, I tell myself “Make a list” or ask myself “What could happen next?”, and I write down anything that comes to mind. I don’t find the answer right away. Most of what I come up with is junk. But hidden in my lists are usually one or two things that make me go “Hey. What if…?” and that give me new ideas. Those are the things I usually go after, because they are actions with consequences, which result in more action.  I look for the ideas that open doors instead of closing them and then I play with them, asking more questions, making more lists.

Once I’ve actually got my teeth into an idea, then thinking can be productive. But finding that idea to begin with comes with the writing.

Here’s one example of how writing solves my problems and reveals my hidden plot to me. I eked out this weekend’s word count for my novel by writing: a tearful good-bye; a humiliating search for a roommate; a description of the eccentric new roommate; and a day at work with my main character. While some of it was funny (to me at least), and some of it was a pleasant surprise (the new roommate is really odd), nothing was moving the story along significantly.

Last night, I got out my notebook and asked myself what could happen next. I thought of outside forces that could come in and disrupt things for my rather insular character. How might her parents make her life more difficult? What about that new bizarro roommate? And what about the whole premise of my book — that she is inadvertently creating superheroes who help writers?

I started writing about all of this, first as fragmented sentences, then as rambling paragraphs, in my project notebook. Some of the things I wrote down seemed both obvious and boring to me. Others got me asking more questions. The big one turned out to be: now that Action Man and Dialogue Dog exist, who else are they helping? Does M.T. hear about it? How?

And that opened the door to the struggling playwright, whose play is about to open, and who is nearly sick with dread because it is not the Thing of Beauty he envisioned. Enter Action Man and Dialogue Dog, who will help him to spruce up that script in time for the final rehearsals and opening night. Once he has a hit on his hands, he can let slip that he had superhero help in a TV interview. M.T. will hear about it. She thought she made up these writing heroes, but if other people are seeing them, too, then what exactly is going on? So far, I’ve only written the first bit about the playwright, his despair and the arrival of our heroes. I can look forward to writing the TV interview sometime in the next few days.

I also started writing about M.T.’s creative writing class today and am I glad I did. Beyond a vague idea that M.T. would be unhappy there, embarrassed by the teacher and feeling inferior to the other students, I had no specific plans for the scene. But things started bubbling up as soon as I sat M.T. down in her chair. Apparently, I have a head full of crazy student writers, plus a vivid prissy writing teacher that I swear isn’t based on anyone I’ve ever known, yet she seems very real to me. They took up most of today’s session. I stopped writing mid-scene, so I can pick up where I left off.

It’s a relief to know that I have specific ideas, like the playwright’s story, to work with tomorrow. It’s so much easier to sit down to write when there is something in my head to write about. It’s harder to have faith in that treasure chest of material I accidentally opened regarding the writing class, but I’m pretty sure there’s plenty more where that came from, even if I don’t know exactly what it looks like just yet.

As often as I go through this not-knowing/drowning-in-ideas creative cycle, it never gets any easier. The not-knowing is always scary and frustrating. The drowning-in-ideas phase is energizing and laugh-out-loud fun. I’m glad that the fun  outweighs the frustration, because I really want to write.

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