Thursday, June 23, 2011


“…do your characters take on a life of their own, so a story veers off in an unexpected direction? Do characters say and do unexpected things? And how do you keep track of everything and everyone...?"

There are a number questions there and a number of answers to all of them (when aren’t there?) but they are all about temperament. And not of the character, but of the author.
Some authors plot out an entire book before they write it. They have an index card for each character with every detail of the their life. Birthday, education, family. Height, weight, eye colour. Their place in the family, and a whole lot of complicated stuff involving personality traits.
The main character arcs will be described and there will be different coloured post-it notes plastering their office wall (or bedroom door) for each scene (and a lot of other stuff that I don’t know about.) They will laugh to scorn the idea that a character can take over and run with a story.
How I envy those authors. How comforting it must be to have everything plotted out. To just turn up each morning, consult the notes, write the day’s quota of words and then go and have some fun. And if you believe that I've got a nice bridge I can sell you.
Okay, maybe some people can do that. Some of the time. (James Patterson, maybe?)
I can't. 
I’ve tried it.
I’ve spent hours working on lengthy outlines – I’ve never got as far as the post-it notes (because you need an outline before you can move up to that). Sadly, the finished book bears about as much similarity to the plan as a pineapple to a pear. They’re both fruit, but that’s all you can say about them. Worse, on those rare occasions when I’ve written a perfectly realized plot summary I lose interest in writing the book. Why would I bother when I know what’s going to happen?
While I do sometimes begin with a place, an image that sparks an idea, romance is character led and that is the place to start. With a character, a stranger who will keep me on my toes, thrill me, charm me, infuriate me, delight me. And with motivation.
She will have a driving passion, or be sideswiped by a moment of change that disrupts the even tenor of her life. It’s not about plotting moves, shifting characters about, it’s about cause and effect. Real people reacting the way real people do. Irrationally. Stupidly. Their heart and soul engaged.
How do I know what my heroine will do until her hero turns up and turns her life upside down. She will grow, she will learn, she will change over the course of her story, in unpredictable ways.
So do characters do surprising stuff?
Well, yes and no. (It’s amazing how that is so often the answer in writing!) Sometimes I find myself typing dialogue that appears to come out of the blue, explaining so much about the inner conflict, motivation of a character, but as we go on this journey together, I get to know her, get under her skin, get to the tender, unprotected heart she keeps hidden.
That moment of truth doesn’t come out of a black hole, no matter how much it may feel like it at times. I have to admit, though, that when it happens it does feel like magic.
So that’s how it goes. The characters, their story, develop as I write. If one of those out-of-blue moments mean that I have to go back and fix something, I do it there and then. I can’t move on until I’ve got that straight. I’m not a dirty drafter. I can’t bash out the raw story. I constantly rewrite, changing, fixing stuff as the story develops and. when I get the last line, I’m done.
And how do I keep track of everything without those index cards and post-it notes, or even notebooks filled with ideas? (My notebooks are mostly filled with facts, scribbled research notes, useful urls and are never going to be snapped up by a library’s archivist.)
This is deeply scary, but the truth is that I hold everything in my head, which explains why, at the end of the day, I often feel as if my brain is too full for my skull.
It’s not a comfortable way to write, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone and this next bit comes under the don’t-do-what-I-do, do-what-I-say, heading. Go for the detailed outline and the post it notes if you can manage it. Organised. Sensible. No panic. You have a plan and you tick off the scenes as you go.
Productive authors, the ones who leave you gasping at their output, mostly — but not invariably — use this method.
But it isn’t a black and white, one way to the other, scenario.
Most authors use a combination of the two, fine fettled to suit their own way of working. Some have scenes in their head. Glimpses of the journey they are about to take. That’s me. Some write an outline that they feel free to abandon without a backward glance. Sometimes that’s me, too. Occasionally I forced myself to write down the major points that are essential to the story; usually when I’m struggling. It helps to focus the mind.
I’ll find them, weeks later, when I’ve finished and I’m clearing up the mess of research books and CDs and bits of paper I’ve scribbled words on. I’ll look at it and think, Was that what I was going to do? Oh, well…
The thing is — and I’d like you to say this out loud now — there is no right or wrong way.
Don’t waste energy trying to fit into a box invented by someone who has written a book of rules (it’s probably the only book they ever wrote).
And out loud again — there are no rules.
Okay, one rule — I do insist on the proper use of apostrophes and any mistakes in my blogs are because they are written in a hurry in time stolen from writing my books, and not because I don’t know my ’s from my s’.
Just get your character on the page, set her in motion and — if you’re lucky — you’ll have to run to keep up.


Sheryl said...

Sigh. Looks like I'm not buying any bridges. I so know what you mean about losing interest after writing the outline. Terribly disappointing when you were getting all excited at the prospect of growing to know the characters.

Nas Dean said...

niaHi Liz,

Thanks for sharing a great post today.

Becky Black said...

I outline, but keep it flexible, because I know once the characters start walking and talking they'll also start misbehaving and going different ways than I planned. My outline changes the whole time as I'm writing.

And an outline doesn't make me lose interest in the story, it gets me excited to write it. However detailed an outline is, it's not the story. You can't give the outline to someone else to read the way you can with the book. So once I have the outline I can't wait to make the actual story exist and the characters come alive.

My favourite way to think about it is like being an architect. I wouldn't lose interest after I'd completed a blueprint, I'd want to see the building created and solid. Nobody can live in a blueprint.

Liz Fielding said...

Hi Sheryl - after reading Becky's comment I fear I maybe suffer from a short attention span!

Liz Fielding said...

Good to see you, Nas!

Liz Fielding said...

Becky, you are so wise and sensible. Why didn't I see my outline as a blueprint? Such a perfect analogy.

The only time I ever get focussed on this is about two-thirds of the way through a book and I make a list of things that have to happen before I can write The End

I stick it on the bottom of my document and delete as I get them done. Now if I could just do that from chapter one, life would be so much easier! Sadly, at chapter one I don't usually have a clue.

Marilyn Rodwell said...

Nice post Liz. I'm impressed with that whiteboard. How does one get sticky notes to remain stuck to it? Yes, I wish I could plot the whole thing, write it all out, and then start writing. Boredom sets in too quickly for me. So I'm using a mixture of both methods too!

Liz Fielding said...

Sadly not my whiteboard, Marilyn but courtesy of Google images.

Mine was never that organised - just a good place to stick my fridge magnet collection. It finally bent out of shape, was removed from the office wall and is tucked away out of sight.

I pin family photos to my cork board.

Michelle Smart said...

The one time I tried to plot a story 'properly' I got bored by the end of the fourth chapter and abandoned it for the whisper of a story that had floated in my head. I loved writing that story, having only a vague idea of where it was going. In a way it was very much like reading it because I never knew what the characters were going to do next, could only try to steer them. Now I always write that way and so far, touch wood, it seems to be working for me.
All the best, Michelle

Lacey Devlin said...

"Why would I bother when I know what’s going to happen?"

That was the exact thought I had when I tried the outline method. I like the idea of going back and fixing things as soon as something changes so that when you type The End you are done. Thanks for another great post, Liz.

Liz Fielding said...

Well done, Michelle. I hope your flights into the mist continue to bring home the mss!

Liz Fielding said...

Hi Lacey - glad to help!

Vince said...

The devil I know

"Why would I bother when I know what’s going to happen?"


For the same reason I go see La Bohèmea and Hamlet and a host of others more than once. The play’s the thing. Not the writing of the play.

To be entertained or not be entertained – that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to write to entertain oneself or to take arms against a sea of boredom and strive to entertain your readers.

Did not the bard know in advance how Julius Caesar would end?

(But if Mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy.)

Must an actor be sad to act sad? Must she be mad, to act mad? Is there no room for acting?

So the devil you know is too boring?
Must you then choose the devil you don’t know?

Is there not room for creativity
between the devil and deep blue sea?

Therein lies the rub: The illusion of freedom.

You worry that your characters will come alive and misbehave? You fear Mary Shelley’s monster! But I say onto you: Your characters must start alive! Born in motivation, eager to strut their hour on the stage and never be heard from again. (Except in sequels.)

You must decide who is master. You or your creation. Your characters can give you sound and fury but it is you who must give them significance.


"He thinks too much; : )
Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2,

Liz Fielding said...

Hi Vince :)

It never troubles me that my characters have minds of their own. It only bothers me when they don't!

And there is a world of difference between going to see fine actors bringing a great play to life and living with a story eight hours a day for three months.

Like Wil with Julius - like my readers - I know the ending of my story before I write a single word. My hero and heroine are destined to be life partners. It's the journey, with all its diversions, that brings the reader back.

My way of getting to my destination is chaotic, I admit it, and occasionally there are hold-ups and detours, but that's what keeps me on my toes, keeps me fresh.

Vince said...

Hi Liz:

I worry not about the masters who can do great things. I worry about the legions of followers who should not be flying so close to the sun.


Liz Fielding said...

Vince, if you'd seen as many writers absolutely hog-tied by the rules other people insist they should follow as I have, you'd know where I'm coming from.

I did advise an organized approach while offering the freedom to do it the way it works for you.