Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Blank Page

© Marta Stephens 2008, all rights reserved

Long before I decided to write fiction, my first love was art, so I can’t help but compare the writing process to the method I use when I oil paint. In both instances I begin with a white surface that begs to be filled. I start with an outline of the shapes (my plot), determine the perspective points (point of view character), and then decide the direction of the light and shadows (those wonderful subplots, twists, and turns). Obviously there’s more to consider when we write, but all the same, it is a layering process of writing, editing, and letting the prose rest. If you were to paint an object in the foreground of the canvas before the background was dry to the touch, you’d end up with a muddied mess. Writing is no different. It can’t be rushed.

When I start working on a new novel I consider the crime first. What happened, who did it, how, when, and why? It’s essential to the development of the plot. Next comes the cast of characters. Several of the characters such as Homicide Detective Sam Harper and his partner Dave Mann appear in all of my books, however, the villains change and I usually introduce two or three other protagonists. I write back stories on each new character to understand their motivation. A brief synopsis will give me a rough idea of the storyline; the order of the events and how I want the book to end. Details don't play a role at this point of the planning, all I'm trying to do is understand the big picture rather than the individual scenes and of course, all of this is apt to change as the story evolves. I also find that making a list of the chapters along with a brief 1-2 line description of what happens in each helps me keep an eye on the timeline. The characters and deciding how their paths will cross is the next critical step -- developing the subplots.

The second and most important thing for me to do is to get inside the character's head. I have to understand his motivation, what has led him to this point, how does the character feel physically, mentally, spiritually, and what external factors are affecting his behavior or decisions. Without a clear understanding of these things, it's hard to know how the character will act, react, and cope with the situation he is in. I also try to get a feel for what good or bad things are going on outside of the character's control that may affect him emotionally (i.e.: friends, family, job, relationships, weather, etc.).

Once I'm comfortable with the direction the manuscript is going in, I’ll type a chapter a day, let it rest for several days and then go back and work on the edits. I may go through this process six or seven times a chapter before I’m ready to move on to the next one. Eventually I’ll read the entire manuscript and start tweaking the prose and adding details.

My method certainly doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be rewrites. Bur regardless of the process used, there are no fast and easy solutions or magic wands to completing a novel. It's a never-ending process that takes patience, practice, and perseverance.


Anonymous said...

This sounds like a good systematic approach. Plus, you make it seem easy - well, maybe up until the part where you have to get into someone's head anyway!

Do you write a chapter a day unfailingly? Or can you skip a day?

Marta Stephens said...

Hi Raab!

You know, nothing I do is ever set in stone. so much depends on where I am in the process. When I have all my thoughts in a row, yes, I can easily do a chapter or more a day. But my novels tend to have complex plots and sometimes it's best to walk away from the writing. The answer to whatever it is I'm needing always manages to come around when I don't force it.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

And we all have different ways of approaching it. I love your method, Marta, because it's so precise and thorough. Mine is quite different, however, and each book starts with a vague idea of themes and subplots that I want to incorporate. I usually picture the opening chapter, a few highlights, and some of the dilemnas my characters will face. But it's never as well planned as yours. Crazy how different we all work, yet we somehow end up with decent works. ;o) That's what makes it so interesting! Great post, thanks, Marta!

Kim Smith said...

I love your methods. You are so organized!!

Marta Stephens said...

LOL nice folks like you call it organized, others call it anal. I just call it what I need to do in order to plan and think things through and know where I'm going.

I’m a list maker by nature. I have more “to-do” lists than fingers (which is why I write them LOL). I keep procedures and “to-do” lists for every project I’m working on at work as well as things around the house. How many people do you know keep an Excel spread sheet for their monthly bills—amount due/paid? And keep several years of these reports saved on the computer?

Like I said, anal and I wear the title proudly, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t get any thing done and certainly not done on time.