Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Taking a Different Writing Tack

I've done a lot of reading about writing (especially about writing fiction). Enough of it that I'm convinced that reading about writing is a great way to avoid, um, writing. I've gone through more "here's how to actually get a novel written" material than I can remember.

But I do think I've learned a couple of things in the last couple of months that may result in a finished novel. Instead of trying to plot the story head to toe, I'm taking three pieces of advice from other writers, gathered from different "how to write a mystery" novel.

Piece of advice 1: Start with a bare-bones plot -- beginning, end, and at least some idea of the major challenges the protagonist(s) will face getting from beginning to end -- rather than trying to outline every scene and event in advance.

Piece of advice 2: Work on getting to know the characters before starting to write the story. One writer technique I saw mentioned (this was in an older, essentially pre-Internet, book) was going through magazines and finding pictures to stand in for the characters.

Piece of advice 3: Let the characters decide where the story goes if they seem to want to. That is, if it becomes obvious that they would do something different than what you had planned for them, go with them instead of with the original idea. Good characters are fleshed out well enough that they create their own sense of consistency and the author should let them roll with that instead of trying to bend them to his will.

I've got my bare-bones plot, which I won't share many details of. It started as a plot for a romantic thriller (based on the characters starting to form and on the notion that the conflicts are a lot easier to select /plot in romance than in some genres), but the romance element has already taken a back seat to a different aspect, based on my work taking Piece of Advice 2, and on my own inclinations. It's starting to feel like a political thriller instead, which is a lot more in my wheelhouse anyway.

By way of the "pictures from magazines" method, I'm creating database cards for characters in an app called WaveMaker (not an affiliate link), and including photos that convey how I visualize the characters (or, where the characters are real things -- more on that in a minute -- photos of the actual characters).

I'm already getting to know the main character, Kit Womack, pretty well. She's a first-term Republican  congresswoman from Florida, sent to Washington in a special election following the death of her father (a nine-term congressman) and facing a short timeline and a likely tough GOP primary (because, in a word, Trump) for re-election to a full term.

I also already do know some of the other characters pretty well, because they're glosses on people I've encountered in real life. Kit's primary opponent, for example, is based on a real state senator, and her Democratic opponent from the special election (and personal friend) is based on a perennial Democratic candidate and occasional officeholder from my area.

I'm still trying to get to know Dear Old Dead Dad, and Kit's chief of staff (formerly her dad's chief of staff), and there will be additional minor characters to get at least a nodding acquaintance with.

Then there's Kit's new campaign manager (one very early plot complication requires her to find a new campaign manager). He's a one-armed former Marine infantry officer. He's not a Republican. He's a registered Libertarian. He's mostly worked on Libertarian campaigns, but has occasionally crossed lines for candidates he likes.

Yeah, he's kind of me, if I'd been an officer and lost an arm and looked like Chris Pratt (for the record, I've never worked on a Republican or Democratic campaign, but have worked on Peace and Freedom Party, Reform Party, and independent campaigns). So I know him fairly well. Oh ... and he has a personal history with Kit, maybe (if the thing assumes romantic thriller dimensions, that's the hook).

Now, back to characters as real things:

I'm getting to know Kit's Georgetown condo (inherited from her widower/bachelor dad). I know the address and the unit number, and I have photos. I also know that it's a 15-17 minute walk, or bus ride of similar length, from the condo to the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro station, then a 15-minute Metro ride on the Blue/Orange Line to the Capitol South station. Which, in turn, is a 200-foot walk from the Cannon House Office Building, where her office is on the fifth floor (congressional newbies get the worst offices -- her dad's suite in Rayburn was snapped up by someone with seniority as soon as he retired mid-term to go home and die of cancer).

I'm treating the condo, the walk, the Metro ride, and the office as "characters" because they'll play big parts in the story. In fact, I'm trying to figure out if it's desirable, necessary, and doable to get my bad self to DC for a day to see the places in question, or if I can handle that virtually. I haven't spent time in Washington, other than passing through, since I was in my early teens.

Will this experiment result in better, or at least more, actual writing? I don't know. But I do know that instead of dreading that part, I keep feeling the urge to start. And expect to by the weekend.

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