Puzzling together a storyline

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.



The Little Writer Who Could

This is the story about how I never aspired to be a writer.

It is a story based on true events. My account of those events, however, are only as accurate as my faltering memory.  It is for that very reason that I first sat down with my laptop and unwittingly reinvented my life.

My story begins in grammar school where I learned to wholeheartedly despise the subjects of language and composition. I would have rather gouged my eyes out with a #2 pencil than diagram sentences. I felt it was a monumental waste my of time to learn the elements of sentence structure when I was certain that my innate understanding of syntax would adequately carry me through life. My laissez-faire attitude led to me garnering mostly Cs and Ds in those subjects – about which I gave zero f*cks.  After all, it’s not as though my dream was to one day become a writer.

My mother used to read to me before bed each night. When she grew tired of reading the same book eighty-seven times over, I took the task upon myself.  By the age of four I was a fluent reader.  By kindergarten, I would be asked to fill in for my teacher to read books aloud to the class during circle time. But, unlike my father and older sister who can swallow a 300-page novel in one setting, I was – and still am – very slow to slog through a book. To add insult to injury, my middle and high school curricula were packed with required readings that flowed like molasses. I had been weaned on Dr. Seuss, raised on Judy Blume, and had come of age with Kurt Vonnegut; the Scarlet Letter and A Tale of Two Cities did nothing but put me to sleep. My education wasn’t entirely for naught, however. Intermingled with the narcolepsy-inducing Beowulf and The Red Badge of Courage were some of the greatest loves of my life: Lord of the Flies, The Great GatsbyTo Kill a Mockingbird and The Grapes of Wrath.  It was my regard for these titles that sparked a desire to later work my way through a list of other classics. I became a voracious reader: first of literature then of memoir, commercial and genre fiction. As much as I loved to read, I had no interest in writing.

As I grew into adulthood I began to realize I had a gift for storytelling.  When I would relay a recent experience to friends or family members I would often use humor to entertain my listeners; I would spin an ordinary incident into a comedy sketch and keep my audience in stitches.  Over the years, I collected an arsenal of topical anecdotes which could be plucked from my vault when the situation called.  Later, when I became a mother and my brain cells began to die off en masse,  I decided it might be wise to preserve some of my best stories for the sake of posterity.  Should my descendants ever inquire about me, I wanted for them to be able to read all about the time that great-great grandma Kristin got into a bar brawl.  So I set about to do precisely that. But, I didn’t consider myself a writer.

I scribbled down about a dozen or so stories before I lost interest in the project (my life wasn’t nearly as fascinating as I had originally thought.)  For lack of subject matter, I decided it might be fun to try pulling a story out of my rear end rather than rely on my life to provide comedic fodder.  Once I conceived of what I felt was an interesting storyline with a unique twist, all I needed was to sit down and pound out the next great American novel.  Except, it turns out, that writing – serious writing – is a heck of a lot more difficult than just jotting down your recollection of the time you visited France and accidentally familiarized yourself with a bidet. In fact,  it turns out that those boring lessons on grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure would have come in handy after all. It also turns out that there’s more to writing a book than just having an idea for a story.  I began to invest a great deal of time and resources into learning the craft: plotting a story, creating a hook, building a climax and all the other important elements of novel-writing.  Yet I still didn’t dare to call myself a writer.

I thought that real writers had cottages in Nantucket and summered in Europe – they weren’t stay-at-home moms who live in Wichita, Kansas and wrote from their kitchen table. I thought real writers woke up every morning with their journal in hand and went to bed each night with 5000 words under their belt – surely they didn’t go days, weeks, and sometimes even months without touching their beloved masterpiece.  I thought real writers had MFAs and congregated in elitist groups where they would wax poetic to one another – they weren’t without formal discipline and their social circle didn’t consist primarily of the ladies in their neighborhood bunco group. If this was the criteria, I most certainly was not a writer.

If it wasn’t for the support and encouragement of the select few friends I allowed to read my writing, I likely never would have finished the novel, let alone pursued publishing. Feeling empowered, I registered for writer’s conferences in NYC and San Francisco where I met a myriad of people from all around the globe. Every race, religion, sexual orientation, political faction, and socioeconomic group was represented.  We couldn’t be a more diverse group of individuals.  But we had one major element in common: a passion for conjoining words into thoughts that bridge the distance from the page to the soul.  Sure, some of them had quaint retreats where they could dedicate themselves to their writing, others carried tattered journals that had obviously seen a lot of mileage, and still others looked down their noses as they stood on their soapbox of artistic integrity.  But the vast majority of the people at these events were similar to myself in that, by no direct intention, they had found themselves creating stories that the world needed to read. Could it be that each one of us were writers?

As of this moment in time, I have completed my first full-length novel (well, nothing is complete until the publishing editor signs off on it, but you get the idea) and am preparing to begin the first book of my new trilogy.  Although I am not yet published, I will be.  I absolutely will be.  In the meanwhile, I now say with full confidence: I AM IRONMAN.

Maybe not so much.  But I AM a writer!