I’ve always loved puzzles. I get this particular gene from my father who is a master problem-solver. Although I earned my degree in Art, I spent many of my early years in the workforce as an accounting professional. Art and accounting are considered polar opposites on the creativity spectrum, but the leap between the two came easily for me. I attribute this to the fact that the business of accounting is less about mathematics and more about problem-solving. And, as I mentioned earlier, I love puzzles!
There is also a creativity spectrum when it comes to writing. On one end of the spectrum are those writers referred to as Pantsers. As the name implies, these writers tend to write “by the seat of their pants”, or without any formal direction. On the opposite end are the Plotters, who carefully outline their story before beginning the creative process of bringing the story to life. There are pros and cons to both practices, as discussed in The Write Practice blog post here.
When I began my first novel, The Cry of the Loons, I did so as a Pantser. I had an idea for a story, opened up my laptop, and began writing. But as the plotline became more and more complex, I soon realized I needed some form of guidance tool if I wanted my storyline to make sense and actually go somewhere. This is when I discovered the delightful process of plotting – puzzling together a storyline. Because The Cry of Loons follows the relational odyssey of doomed lovers over a period of 25 years, I began by creating a timeline on which I marked all major events including when new characters were introduced. This was an especially tremendous help since the storyline begins when the protagonists meet – she being 19 and he a mere 13 years old. Their age difference is obviously a major obstacle in their relationship, so it was important for me to be able to refer to the timeline I had created to see how old each character would be at the time of each event. I couldn’t have a sixteen-year-old boy that had a full-time career and owned a home…not when he was supposed to be a sophomore in high school and still lived under his parent’s roof. Likewise, by the time the male protagonist turned eighteen, the female protagonist would be twenty-four, no longer in college, and having already begun her career. It was imperative I keep their life stages accurate if the story was to be believable.
Next, I created a chapter outline. In the case of The Cry of Loons, the story is told in the first person by the co-protagonist. Meaning, the male and female lead characters take turns telling the story from their own points of view. As if this wasn’t complicated enough, they also take turns telling the story in parallel timelines: one beginning when they meet in 1990, the other beginning when they reconnect in 2012. So the novel unfolds in a four-chapter cycle as follows:
1 – Female point of view, present
2 – Male point of view, present
3 – Female point of view, past
4 – Male point of view past.
This pattern repeats 7 1/2 times…I’m not sure I could have made the task of writing this story any more complex if I had tried! Hence the importance of the chapter outline. I made brief notes of each event that needed to occur and each clue that needed to be revealed by chapter. I didn’t want to reveal an important piece of the past before it became relevant in the present. Nor did I want the present characters to refer to an episode from their past that hadn’t yet occurred in the parallel timeline. It was indeed a giant puzzle.
This time around, as I begin preparing to write my next novel Crackpot Messiah, I have been diligently crafting an outline before I put a single word to paper. Thankfully, this story is to be told in the third person by an omniscient narrator as it unfolds in chronological order. In other words, it’s going to be written old-fashioned story-style…no fancy shifting points of view and no confusing jumps between timelines. Just a beginning, a middle, and an end…in that order! However, I still feel it is equally imperative I have an outline to refer to so that I know when conflicts and foreshadowing should come into play, when the action should escalate or decline, and when each character should be introduced and interact with others. I liken the process to reverse engineering, as I first need to determine an ending (a resolution) to my story so that I can work backward to figure out how the plot will fit together along the way.
Although I am chomping at the bit to write Crackpot Messiah, the discipline of puzzling together the storyline not only gives me greater confidence going into the task, but is also (at least, to me) a wildly enjoyable part of the creative process.