Some fiction writers have a structure in place and a story arc in mind before they begin their first draft. Others follow an impulse without much of a plan. The former seek a clear sense of where they are going right from the start. The latter take their first steps down a trail when an itch needs scratching. They put their noses to the ground and their fingers on the keyboard even in a novel-length project. That is my approach. I love hitting the trail without knowing where I am going. Each time I return to the manuscript, the discovery begins. Of course there is a middle ground. I sometimes find myself in need of a bit of structure.
It happens when a free-ranger like me loses a bit of clarity about where the story is going. Even then I don’t dash madly to lay down a plot, write a synopsis or character description, or drum up a summary of found themes. Because I am so firmly rooted in the tribe of wonder, curiosity, and imagination, the most I do is reluctantly consider a timeline. Even the most minimal organization is a tool I keep in my back pocket on the long hike to my uncertain destination. I don’t want to know what’s around the next bend until I get there. Pre-writing? What’s that?
People in this tribe call themselves “first readers.” With no more than the germ of a story, we listen to our POV characters tell us where they want their stories to go. “Getting to know you” is our theme song. It’s not all that different from what readers do when the first pages of a book excite them to follow the POV character on his journey.
Now, three disclaimers…
First, those itches don’t often rise from pure imagination. Past experiences send me down trails when they seek to be revisited for the sake of deeper understanding. One beauty of fiction is that you never have to stick to the facts. Opening the gates to other experiences and to whatever rises from pure imagination (if there is such a thing!) allows for an un-definable alchemy that fills the journey with surprises. I spring from what I know into what I don’t know in order to discover the truth that matters: the emotional truth that transcends the so-called facts.
Second, an example. Two-thirds of the way through the first draft of Boundaries, my first novel, it seemed I might lose control of the emerging story line. To remedy this, I made a timeline for where I had been, then courageously tried to continue it to where I thought the story would finish. I became a traitor to my nature! Though the disloyalty was helpful, it was like trying to tame a wild horse. The two POV characters had their own ideas about where they wanted their story to go. In following them within the confines of the timeline I tried to impose, I got close to the conclusion I thought I had in my sites, but the road I took to get there bore little resemblance to the one I planned. The timeline did help me insure that no strand of the story, no emerging theme, and no minor character were neglected. I was grateful for the concession.
Third, I am not just a listener/follower. I am also the governor who wants to call the shots. What results is a negotiation. In my fiction as in my life, I become the mediator who tries to keep the negotiations fair. It can be a battle.
Some travelers rely on their road atlases, itineraries, or GPS’s. Others don’t want to know much about where their travels are going to take them. I wonder what readers think about how most writers go about it. What would it be like for you to write a story?