Please welcome guest Katharine Britton, author of three novels: Her Sister’s Shadow, Little Island, and Vanishing Time (2016). Katharine has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Dartmouth College. Her screenplay, Goodbye Don’t Mean Gone, on which Vanishing Time was based, was a Moondance Film Festival winner and a finalist in the New England Women in Film and Television contest.
When not at her desk, Katharine can be found feeding baby birds at a local wild bird rehabilitation center, or in her Norwich garden waging a non-toxic war against the slugs, snails, deer, woodchucks, chipmunks, moles, voles, and beetles with whom she shares her yard. Katharine’s defense consists mainly of hand wringing after-the-fact.
On the Road to a Rough Draft: If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Any Road Will Do
I love road trips. This is partly because air travel is such a chore, but also because I enjoy the planning process. I always know where I’m starting, of course, and where I’m going to end. Then I pour over maps, measure distances, and look for interesting stopping points to determine the best route. Being directionally challenged, I’m a big fan of Google Maps. I approach rough drafts the same way.
Some writers proudly claim to have no idea where their story will end until they get there. Directionless but undaunted, they write a first line, and then a second, trusting their characters to get them to the finish line. I stand in awe. As when I travel, I require both a beginning image and a final image for my stories. My characters get some say in the route we take to get there, and I’m flexible about who gets to come along on the journey, but the adage, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do” holds altogether too much uncertainty for me.
Each manuscript starts with a motivation: some purpose for this virtual (and rather long) journey. It could be an image that moved me, a tale recounted by a friend, a scene witnessed, a question I want answered. Then I muse. I don’t know if I have a muse, but I definitely am a “muser.” On long walks I imagine the story around that image, scene, quotation or question. This is both freeing and terrifically anxiety producing. Freeing because nothing is committed to paper. The story is as ephemeral as the weather. Anxiety producing because nothing is committed to paper: What if I forget all those pivotal plot points and all that riveting dialogue before I get back from my walk?
If I’m being generous with myself, I think of these efforts as pre-planning. When I’m not, it feels a lot like procrastination. Either way, it’s an essential part of my process. Once I’ve satisfied my inner muser, I start planning.
For many writers, planning involves creating an outline. I am genetically incapable of creating one. Try as I might to organize them, those letters and numbers scatter themselves down the page collecting random entries. I favor mind mapping. I’m a lover of white boards, a lover of colored markers, a lover of chaos. Mind mapping allows me to see connections between characters, their goals, and issues. I also draw timelines, which allow me to see the evolution of action, the possibilities, impossibilities, gaps, and overlaps. Timelines and mind maps calm me down because they offer me a chance to download data from my brain. Using white board allows me to make changes with the swipe of eraser. I find all this noodling and doodling critical because it taps into a different part of my brain than the one that gets fired up when I enter the linear, black and white world of text.
Meanwhile, I’m filling a spiral notebook with character notes, descriptions of locations, snippets of dialogue, transferred mind maps, chronologies, floor plans, and elevations. I ask myself questions. “What if” is my favorite: my left-brain querying my right. I scribe some scenes in longhand, mostly illegible, but I enjoy the sensation and the process. Once I get to the drafting phase I switch to computer mode.
I’m also by now filling out index cards. Colored, of course. I jot down scene headings, make notes, and record character data for easy access. (Was her birthday in March or May?) I like to shuffle through these cards, line them up on my dining room table or living room floor, and put them in a file box or secure them with a rubber band at the end of the day.
Many writers happily use writing programs such as Scrivener. Scrivener offers virtual binders and index cards and provides outline templates, as well as a myriad of other functions. Not being a digital native, I prefer the tactile, kinesthetic world of markers, pens, notebooks, index cards, and white boards. And, when I finish a project, sifting back through those notebooks and index cards has the sentimental impact of looking at baby pictures: How features have changed! How musings have matured!
Having completed my procrastination—just kidding—planning phase, I begin my journey and write what I call my “data dump”: the rough draft.
Find True North
A little planning always makes the journey more effective and enjoyable. But… planning is generative and one potential pitfall is that planning can stir up too many connections and possibilities. (While those detours and side-trips are compelling, if you want to get where you’re headed, you must be judicious.) Staying focused on the nucleus of the story, that initial motivation or inspiration—what I call a tale’s “true north”—keeps me on track.
Problem solving lies at the heart of novel writing. Pre-planning and planning elevate problems that the author then gets to solve. While these activities can, at times, feel like procrastination, I think it’s the kind of procrastination that allows the brain to tell the heart to wait when it wants to commit to a relationship or a job that doesn’t feel quite right.
But that’s me. I’m always curious about how other writers work.
What’s your process? Physical index cards or virtual? Outlines or mind maps? Computer, typewriter, or pen and pad? Any good road trip anecdotes? Inquiring minds want to know.