Building a Book

I’m trying to build a book. I began about eighteen months ago, with a very clear concept of my protagonist. Like me, P has recently entered a new phase in her life, and is a little bit at a loss. She knows what she’s done and who she’s been. But what’s next?

I asked myself, what if just as P was beginning to figure stuff out, a stranger (S) walked into her life, making a claim that not only threatened P’s plan for the future, but also cast doubt on her assumptions about the past?

That’s the basic idea. I knew what P’s plan was, and what S claimed. I knew, in a broad sense, how P’s response to S would evolve, and how it would all end up.

I understood P’s motives, but wasn’t sure of S’s. I had a basic idea of the most important auxiliary characters – their roles in the story, if not their specific characteristics. I knew the story’s beginning, middle and end, but had only a vague sense of all the stuff in between.

But that was okay. Those details could work themselves out. Right? I just needed to start writing, go with the flow, get as many words down as quickly as I could, and sort it all out later. There’s a technical term for this approach. It’s called pantsing. As in writing by the seat of your pants. Which comes from flying by the seat of your pants. Which, according to this, comes from the early days of aviation, before today’s fancy instruments, when pilots “read” the plane’s reactions by how it felt under their butts. But I digress.

With only the broadest idea, I pantsed the hell out of my story for about nine months, producing many words very quickly, vowing not to stop or look back until I had reached the ending. Following some advice a then-soon-to-be-famous writer gave me in a writing class some time in the 20th century, I kept adding complications. It worked for a while. And then it didn’t. I added so many complications and side tracks that I lost track of my ending. In fact, I never even go to the middle. One day I looked up and realized I had made a huge mess. And I had no interest in cleaning it up.

So I wrote some columns. Played with some picture book ideas. Told myself I sucked. Told myself I didn’t suck. Got a new agent. Revised my other book manuscript. Wrote a short story. Started another short story, but lost interest before I finished. Searched through my files of unfinished projects, and rediscovered my germ of an idea about P trying to plot her future, and S showing up with her inconvenient claim. There, waiting for me beneath the mess of complications and the wild rumpus of unchecked verbiage, were my original beginning, middle and end. And they were still warm.

I decided to try again. Only this time, I would do the opposite of pantsing. I would plan.

I began with the broadest possible, most generic outline. Act I: Introduce character and establish problem. Act II: Complicate. Act III: Resolve and conclude. I divided each act into five chapters, flagging chapters 3, 8 and 12 as tipping points, the halfway-point peaks in the narrative arc of each act. Chapter 8, the dead center of the book, would tip the entire story.

Next, I turned my generic outline into a questionnaire. For each chapter, I asked myself the same set of questions. Where and when does it take place? What are the main events? Which characters are involved? What are the characters’ mental states – the assumptions, dispositions and desires that drive their behavior? What background information does the reader need to learn at this stage? How could the chapters’ beginnings and endings create suspense and help draw the reader through the story?

As I filled in the blanks, I kept a running list of characters and their basic information in a separate document (it’s amazing how easy it is to forget things like someone’s name). When I got frustrated that I wasn’t writing, but only writing about writing, I added first and last sentence(s) to my outline. How many of these sentences will end up in the draft? It doesn’t matter. Writing them helps me figure stuff out. And it helps me remember what this whole exercise is about.

I’ve gotten my form about two-thirds filled in. I think I know how to get from chapter 1 to chapter 8 (the book’s midpoint), and how to get from chapter 12 (the tipping point in Act III) – to the ending. But I’m still a little murky about what how to get from chapter 8 to chapter 12.

But that’s okay. Right? We’re about to go visit family for a few weeks, and I won’t be doing much writing. When I come back, maybe I’ll discover that my unconscious has filled in the rest of the blanks while I was thinking about other stuff. Or maybe I’ll decide it’s time to start writing. If at Chapter 8, I’m still confused, I can always pants.

Like my protagonist P, I’m on the brink of something new. But while P believes she has finally figured everything out, I know that any minute, some unexpected S could wreck havoc on my plans. If and when that happens, I hope I handle it better than my poor protagonist.

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4 Responses to “Building a Book”

  1. Linda P. Epstein Says:

    That is totally impressive.

  2. Amalia Gladhart Says:

    I like the way you describe your outline process–marking those tipping points sounds helpful. I’m at a similar place, except trying to back off and play a little more before I lock myself in to trying to make a particular idea work.

    But I thought “pantsing” was a nasty prank?

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