The first book I wrote (Cry of the Peacock) came to me by way of a dream. It was just a scene, really, but I was fascinated by the idea of someone who seemingly had every opportunity before her and yet was not certain that was where she really belonged. I had no real faith then in my ability to write a full-length novel, but I decided my first goal would be to outline it. If, having done that, I could come up with a real character and a plot with plenty enough scenes and “things” to write about, then I’d go ahead and do it. After several weeks, I had a significantly lengthy outline and so I began writing, constructing each secne, point by point as if the outline were a laundry list, until I had a beginning, a middle, and an end.
But it was a mess.
I had barely finished that novel when I decided I wanted to write another, a sort of “other side of the coin” story from what Cry of the Peacock had become–another look at wealth and inheritance and marriage law. And so I did the same thing again. I wrote an outline and stuck to it. But it wasn’t working. It was messy and lacked focus. And it was LONG. I needed help.
After engaging a friend to edit for me, and being shocked by her opinion (and my reluctant realization) that I would have to rewrite them both (as well as the third I had, by then, begun), I began to realize that this method of writing to a fixed outline was not going to work for me.
It was such a gut-wrenching process to start from the beginning and try again. I knew what I wanted the books to achieve but not how to get there. The books did, for the first several years, find a significant measure of success. So much so that when my life began to crumble in 2015, I had that early success to lean on to give me the confidence I needed to strike out on my own. That was the plan, at any rate. But plans have a way of revising themselves. What is the saying?
Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.
World-building and plotting go hand in hand that way, as I’ve found in the course of writing Absinthe Moon and its sequels. I have this sort of abstract idea; I know who the characters are, what their struggles are, what they want and what they represent; I know where the story begins and the great goal I want them to be striving for. But the in-between bits are elusive until I actually start writing. As with the structure of the world they are in (or even the time-setting I choose, in the case of my historicals), I don’t know what they need until I begin the writing process. Imogen’s desperation to avoid becoming an heiress, for instance, (Of Moths & Butterflies) makes no sense without the backdrop of the Married Women’s Property Act and how its passing, and the delay of its enactment, provided a perfect opportunity for a wealthy woman not yet of age to be sold into marriage to the highest bidder. Neither does her plight make sense if one does not take into account the complex psychology of trauma. These are things I didn’t realize I needed to understand until I began delving into her character and really exploring the complexities of her psyche.
In this way, plotting, for me, is almost like trying to recall lost memories. I’m fleshing out a part of myself, not just some fictional character I pulled out of thin air. They live and breathe and have stories that require telling–and which others need to hear. Writing, for me, is not about spinning some fantastic yarn for the sake of mere entertainment. While I hope they will be entertaining (I have no hope of selling them, after all, if they are not) my aim is to convey something real and existential about the human condition. Not everyone is going to relate to Imogen, but she’s real. She is me. And as I read the reviews I can see that there are many who relate to her story on a deep and meaningful level, while others dismiss her as an implausible character with unrelatable trials who approaches the world in a completely irrational manner. Such is the nature of trauma, of which the stories of Dickens and Hardy, Eliot and Collins, are rife.
Even in my own life, I once lived by schedules and routines and fixed expectations. I have found that this system of attempting to force certainty out of an uncertain world no longer works for me. Possibly it never did, but only divorce and loss have forced me to realize it. If such is the case in my real life world, why would I assume that plotting a novel would be any different? My life’s decisions are made by careful study, by feeling out the needs of each moment, spending some time in meditation each day with a blank mind and an open awareness, ready to take in what comes. And by such a method, I find my writing both my life and my writing works much more fluidly and is far more impactful.
I’ve been practicing this in particular of late with my collection of short stories (formerly Sixteen Seasons and yet to be re-released). I wrote them some time ago, more as a challenge to myself than for an audience. I plotted and planned many of these as well, and it shows. Some of them are weak or seem pointless. This last month, since I finished the manuscript for Odessa Moon, I’ve taken some time out to reexamine those stories. Some of them are really quite good, and I’m very proud of them, but I’ve decided to retract several others. In their place, I wanted to offer something new. A couple of these, as well, have come to me by way of dream. As with Cry of the Peacock, the ideas came to me by way of short scenes, by which I then began to imagine a context. I begin a rough outline of the major points, and then I let the scenes unfold in my head, playing them out from the beginning until I hit a snag–something I don’t understand or can’t work out. At night, I’ll lay in bed and play through the different scenarios, sometimes going back a bit where a fork in the road might have taken me in a different direction. Suddenly something snaps into place. It’s no longer a point I have to remember, but a memory, like it actually happened, It becomes fixed. The next day I write, at least as far as I can see the story so far. If there is more to write than I have time for, I’ll jot down a rough bit of outline, but it isn’t set in stone. And then I’ll search out what comes next. By using this meditative sort of method, I feel like I’m channeling more than writing.
There is a concept of the more esoteric theories regarding time and space, and that being that time isn’t linear. In fact a good plot line isn’t linear, either. It’s circular. It makes a point, or introduces it, perhaps merely suggests it, and then comes back to it later, driving the point home. At any rate, it has been suggested, that, if time is not linear, perhaps what you are trying to create has already been created, and so, rather than trying to build it up from the bottom up, you can summon it back from some future form in which it was fully alive and perfect. In this way one might set the intention of tapping into one’s own future greatness. I really believe in intention, and I equally believe that we are much wiser and understand much more than we give ourselves credit for. If someone had told me that I would one day be writing a multi-volume dystopian series set in a post-apocalyptic future, and one that deals with world governments, high-tech fuel sources, and DNA modifications, I’d have told them they were crazy.
And yet, for some inexplicable reason that I have not yet begun to understand, here I am. And while I love Absinthe Moon and what the series is becoming, I can’t wait to get back to writing historicals. That’s where I really feel at home.
In the mean time, I have these short stories to tide me over. Perhaps you will enjoy them, as well, when they are ready. But that is an announcement for next time.
Until then, happy holidays, everyone!