After I publish a book, I tend to fall into a mild bout of postpartum depression. To head that off, I’m writing a new crime novel as I prepare to launch the finale to This Plague of Days. This new one has a very fast pace and I’m also writing it fast. This isn’t going to fall into a plotting versus pantsing discussion because, Thor knows, we’ve all hit that gong plenty hard already. Today, let’s talk about how to discover your story.
Here’s four writers to pay attention to, in case you don’t care what I think:
1. Anthony Burgess had a cool trick I’ve used. Pick three words at random. Those words will appear in your next chapter.
Go! You’ll find gooey, fudge brownie richness with that one tool alone.
2. E.L. Doctorow said writing a book is, “like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
When I wrote my first crime novel, Bigger Than Jesus, I knew the last line of the book, but I had no idea from one night to the next what tomorrow’s chapter might bring. It worked out in a really peachy way.
3. Stephen King talks about excavating the story, discovering and unearthing dinosaur bones.
Some people start with character. I often find my brush and trowel to dig the dirt away is conflict. Everybody wants something. It’s more interesting if everyone’s competing for the same thing but use different methods to get what they want. (Game of Thrones, anyone?) Through conflict, character and snappy dialogue often emerge. Direction and velocity will reveal themselves as you discover how the story evolves. It may divert from your outline. That’s okay. Follow the drama. It might lead you off the map to a beautiful place.
4. Chuck Palahniuk suggests writing each chapter as a short story.
As each story connects to the next until the end, this process cuts down on a lot of intimidation. It also lessens the danger of a saggy middle because you’re demanding more of each story element instead of relying on the reader’s patience. Each chapter is a pillar. Don’t build a weak one and depend on it to hold up the structure.
I’m going to suggest the writing process as an exercise in free association.
Free association emerged as a counselling approach in Freudian analysis. The core of the therapy was to let the mind wander and for the patient to tell his or her own story rather than take on the worldview of the therapist. This was resolution by exploration.
The key is to let ideas bubble up and connect unhampered by the choke valve of self-criticism. Criticism is for later. In the creative process, let it go and flow. You’ll go faster and arrive in places that aren’t mundane and expected. Using these methods, you’re going to cut down on procrastination, too. You’ll write more because you’re having more fun. Stop agonizing. This is entertaining fiction you’re writing, not a eulogy.
In This Plague of Days, the autistic hero of my zompoc epic (Season 3 coming June 15!) is Jaimie Spencer. He’s obsessed with the dictionary. That’s me. I collect odd factoids. I let one Wikipedia entry lead me to another and to another until I free associate my way to new plot developments. The world is made of details and small components build bigger things. That’s also true if your world is fictional. The dictionary and Wikipedia are full of the atoms of your next story.
For instance, take a swig of Doctorow.
In my current WIP, I know the destination and I have a hastily drawn outline of how to get there. It’s not deep in details. I came up with most of it while watching my son’s soccer game. The first atom was a small conceit. The idea exploded when I had my hook. More on this later this summer.
Enjoy a tall, cold glass of Burgess.
Take a random fact from Wikipedia and see where that leads you. Your foundation is already getting poured.
In the crime story I’m working on, I needed to show the love interest’s character. She’s an underdog determined to win. That led me to a story from Wikipedia she could identify with. By showing the tragic, yet heroic story that guided her life, we understand her better and we like her immediately. (Me? I’m big on pathology. Give a character a medical problem and I can use that, for them and against them. Desmoid tumors saved the life of one character in This Plague of Days, for instance. Read the books. You’ll get that reference.)
Free association comes faster from good questions.
Quick! What are the hits playing on the radio in 1974? Which manager was first to get kicked out of a baseball game twice in the same day? What was happening to your protagonist that day in 1974 when he was thinking about baseball and listening to the radio? What song titles spoke to his state of mind? These are the connections I made to write a chapter (a pillar, if you will) that could stand on its own as a short story. Hello, Mr. Palahniuk!
As the factoids build and scenes connect into a river of stories that collect and flow into one ocean of words, new connections are made. New developments float to the surface. You’ll discover new intersections in the network of your story you didn’t suspect were there when you began to write.
That’s Stephen King’s story archeology.
Good stories aren’t written. They are discovered. It is the nuance we find in the depths of free association that contribute to verisimilitude and character interplay. It’s nuance that builds, not just a book, but a believable world.
Those details you’ll use through free association? It’s not the only key to Creativity’s lock, but it’s a good one. Try it.