Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Process

The saga continues: some of you may recall that back in September, I was engaged in a weeks-long effort to deliver a proposal to my publisher with the help of one my wonderful agents, Dan Conaway. After a lot of work, thankfully none of it seen by my publisher, we submitted a proposal and it was accepted. So, I'm now scheduled to write two more novels, the start of a new series, which will focus on a pair of protagonists who are employed by an international security firm -- think a morally-minded Blackwater.

Well, now I'm elbows-deep, or is it knuckes-deep?, in outlining the first of the two novels. And for the faint of heart, don't try this at home without goggles. I'm an outliner who likes to know everything that's going on at all times in every aspect of my book, so that as I dig into my book I can enjoy the writing, savor in the new characters, and feel myself in the settings. I don't like to be thinking about plot at times like that. So I outline, big-time.

The process is arduous. My early outlines are done on spreadsheets. Each central character gets his or her column, in the rows go down the page chronologically. Sometimes there might be five or six rows to a day -- sometimes only one or two. The first outline was 64 rows deep in four columns wide. A major scene happened on each row, and sometimes in multiple columns because that scene might involve more than one of the principal characters. So, you get the point: there were a lot of words on the page, a lot of thought went into it. At this early stage of outlining I work with a freelance editor, Ed Stackler, in part because I trust Ed and like him a lot, and in part to conserve the energies of both my agents and my Putnam editor for work in the future. After consulting with Ed, I threw out the first outline. It was about 10 days of work.

I started and completed a second full outline, this one about 68 rows deep. And, yes, you guessed it: I threw it out. By this point, not only was I getting a really good sense of my characters as well as what was and wasn't working as plot elements in the story, but by working with Ed, by going back and forth with ideas, I was beginning to see the bright spot amid the dull.

This allowed me, about two weeks ago, now several weeks into this process -- four, five? I'm not sure -- to strategize about four or five key elements (scenes) in the novel. I wrote "white papers" on each of these, whether a set piece, a string of scenes, or what Christopher Vogler calls "thresholds." Each of these papers was 3 to 10 pages, single spaced, and each went back and forth between Ed and me perhaps 5 to 7 times. Slowly -- sometimes painfully so -- what would have been huge plot problems were spotted in advance, and I went to work finding ways around them, through them, over them, or under them. With each completed white paper I sensed those parts of the book that represented the biggest threats later, during the writing process. They were being caught and dealt with in advance. Some of those days I was almost euphoric as I saw that I had solved what might have been a bear trap of a plot point months down the road.

The process is so slow, it can be so frustrating, but there are of course times I just feel like starting the book and not worry about any of this until I get there. But that's always an option. Even with an outline in place, I can always abandon it. What I like about this process -- no, what I love about this process -- is the sense of freedom gained by solving these big problems in advance. For one thing I find myself incredibly excited by the story. I want to write, I'm not afraid to write. For another each time I re-work a scene, throw it out, rebuild, I learn something new about my characters. We go through this together, these characters and I, and it's in these challenges that I learn the most about them: how they will respond when in trouble; where they can stand on their own; where they scream, and why. But it is agony of course: the weeks of work, the reworking and reworking again of a small four sentence paragraph, yet one that may be a pivotal point for the plot without which the novel might collapse and fall over. Ed is paid in part for his patience of course, but he exercises his editorial compassion and restraint responsibly and with surprising dexterity. He raises red flags gently. He strains ligaments when waving the checkered.

I'm not there yet. How I wish I could write that I was. I'm somewhere early in the third spreadsheet. I left out earlier that after those first two spreadsheets I extracted all the information and wrote it out into prose, roughly 45 page documents, so it could be expanded upon and make more sense. Both of these are in the recycle pile. I need to get through about two thirds more of the novel to reach the end. My guess is this time I will be looking at 100 or 130 rows. Once Ed and I have both signed off on this scene-by-scene grid, I will, once again, embark upon the extraction process -- pulling those abbreviated scenes like taffy and stretching them into something more readable and enjoyable.

Though the process sounds painful, it's actually fun. None of the words really count, only the ideas. And although there are pressures in every aspect of creating a big, frolicking novel, I find that when the words don't count -- or maybe, it's just that they aren't ready yet, like a cake in the oven -- I can throw ideas on the page with abandon and watch for when they relate to each other, and when they do not. Out of this grow characters that interest and intrigue me and whom I learn to love. A learning process. Several months long, it now looks like. But all a part of the process. Oh, what a process!


on Twitter as RidleyTheWriter


  1. Congrats, Ridley!

    All I can say is HOLY COW! Your enthusiasm and dedication are an inspiration and your process is worth stealing, which I plan to do immediately.

    In fact, I do a similar thing with spreadsheets only I buy one of those appointment calendars at the office supply store with columns and times. I do this because I love to write in pencil (goofy, eh?) and if the timeline doesn't work I can easily erase. This also keeps me from asking the characters to do too much in a given amount of time.

  2. Patty:
    I do all my edits with pencil on paper (despite how easy it would be to do it on the computer). So know what you mean about pencils and the process....

  3. Fascinating. Your meticulous prep shows in flawless plotting.

    This post could be a complete lecture in a creative writing course.

  4. Emily Dreyfuss12/02/2009 10:58 AM

    Ridley! My coworker just forwarded me this blog post, and it made me so happy to read about your process.
    I remember clearly when I was little and you were plotting a book in just this way in your living room. You let me collate the index cards and I felt so useful, though I'm sure you were just humoring me to stop me from getting up to no good on my school break.
    I have always admired your dedication and rigor when it comes to writing. I can't wait for the new book; how exciting to be beginning something new. I'm slogging through a first draft of something right now, and dear god do I wish I had taken this process to heart when I had the privilege of watching you work--I just realized I need to move the whole bloody thing to a different country--150 pages in! Talk about a plot snag.
    I send you and your family all my love.