When Therese told me that WU would focus on plotting this month, my original reaction was, “Uh-oh.” Plotting is by far the most challenging part of writing for me. However, since I was plotting and carrying out a novella through January, it was a good time to observe the process.
There are several challenges:
–A book doesn’t come to me in a linear fashion.
–I don’t seem to like to know too much ahead of time, but…
–I do require a general structure to work with, one that is flexible but also provides some kind of girding to hold up the characters and ideas and themes and moods I’m working with.
As I plotted and carried out my novella, I realized that my plotting methods are designed for the severely right brained; I am always holding the entire project loosely in my head, a collection of images and emotions and impressions. It feels to me that a story is a living entity, living somewhere, whole and beautiful and complete. My job is to draw it over to the physical realm as authentically as possible. To do so, I’ve created a system of worksheets and plotting rituals that are tools for brainstorming my organic process.
By the time I sit down to write a novel, it has nearly always been bubbling away on the back burners of my imagination for a year, sometimes far longer. I usually begin with a character and a situation, and as time goes by, the book begins to pull itself together, taking a snip of dialogue there, a beautiful room in a magazine, a sizzling steak, a piece of glass, a photograph, and often quite a lot of surprisingly concrete details, like a scarf or a dish or a gesture that is peculiar to one character. Eventually scenes, themes, character arcs begin to emerge. During the brewing period, I don’t write anything down. If the characters, themes and ideas are strong enough, I’ll remember them–sort of a natural selection of the ideas world. (If I do a lot of research, I’ll simply make notes about the materials I’ve read so I can find them again later.) By the time I’m ready to start writing, I will know most of the story (albeit vaguely), main characters, a few scenes including a strong opening image, a major conflict or opposing force, and a visual or a scene from near the end of the book. This is when it’s time to start sketching out the story as it has assembled itself to this point.
That’s plot step #1, sketching out a little bit of the story—beginning, middle, end. For The Lost Recipe for Happiness, I knew it was about a woman chef who would get her own kitchen; that she had a dog and a lingering injury from a car accident of which she was the lone survivor, and that she would, eventually, have to make peace with her life. I knew I wanted to set it in Aspen (because…well, if you’ve ever been there you know it is amazingly beautiful) and that my protagonist was from New Mexico because I am insanely in love with the food of Northern New Mexico and wanted to write about it. [Read more…]