The hummingbird is constantly in motion, a high energy creature, nervously darting from flower to flower, desperate to maintain enough nutrition to keep herself going at top speed. This flower, now this one, no, maybe that one, oops, here comes a predator…
I discovered only recently that some well-regarded and successful novelists have hummingbird muses. Such writers begin their books with no clear idea of where the story is going. Some reasons I’ve heard for this approach are that the author likes to be surprised by the characters, that she prefers to let the story follow its own path, and that she just can’t write any other way. This is sometimes called flimmering (flimmer = to flicker or move erratically.)
What astonishes me about this is not so much the fact that people can write an extended piece this way, but that they can produce one that apparently works on a structural level. It seems a little like building a house by starting with the brick in the bottom left hand corner and working on upwards. My muse is definitely an owl – I don’t begin to write the novel until I have the framework firmly in place. I generally do a long outline, a shorter synopsis and a chapter plan before I start on the book proper.
You’ll read in my bio for this site that I view myself as an intuitive writer. How is this possible when I sound like a complete control freak? Well, all the preliminary planning allows the subsequent writing of the book to flow freely and not be held up by thorny structural issues along the way. I’d normally do something like this:
1. Concept, setting, themes, characters take shape in my mind over a period
2. Research (for a historical fantasy this can be substantial)
3. Write long, fairly detailed outline (generally a lot of brainstorming and rewriting involved)
4. Write synopsis (shorter and tighter) if required
5. Write chapter plan – forming the outline into a shape that is artistically and dramatically satisfying. If things don’t work, they get changed. The chapter plan also helps keep the word count on track
6. Write book
Of course I change things as I go. Nothing is set in stone. In particular, I refine and develop the remaining part of the chapter plan further and further as I progress through the novel. But I rarely alter major plot elements while writing (such as deciding A does not marry B after all, or C falls off a cliff instead of saving the world.) Owls don’t need to do so many drafts, because all that planning means the first draft is more ‘finished’ than a hummingbird’s first draft. At least, that’s how it seems.
We all know the process doesn’t end with the completion of the manuscript. There’s re-drafting and then the editorial stuff, which takes ages. More on that another time.
Getting bogged down in your novel because of inadequate forward planning (or, in some cases, no planning) is a very, very frequent problem for inexperienced writers. People can change from hummingbird to owl and make it work. In my writers’ group, which contains people from both camps and several genres, we now work through our outlines, synopses and chapter plans together and everyone agrees on the value of the process.
Sounds a little tedious? It’s certainly not as romantic as letting the words gush out spontaneously, and for inexperienced writers the idea that a writer’s life is mostly self-discipline and hard work can be a turn-off. To anyone who has the ability to produce a good novel by sitting down at the keyboard and just letting it flow, my congratulations!
Postscript: When I was looking up flimmer in the Shorter Oxford, I found the lovely word flindermouse. It’s a variant of flittermouse, an old term for a bat.
Photographer: Tim Fulbright
Owl image also supplied by Dreamstime.com