Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Where to begin?

Maven Carrie RyanFirst, I owe a massive huge tremendous THANK YOU to Jennifer Linforth for volunteering to set the Mavens up with a LiveJournal feed (she even had to email the peeps at LJ to get things straightened out -- how above and beyond is that?!?). So for those of you who would like to add the Mavens to your LJ friends' list, here's the link. Thanks again Jennifer - you rock!!!

A week ago I turned in what are hopefully my final substantive edits for The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Wahoo! Naturally, this has me thinking about beginnings. After all, I've been using edits as an excuse not to write something new for a good few months now. As of now, it's time for me to start writing again. Yikes!

So this has me thinking about beginnings. While my Untitled Second Book under contract is wide open (just has to be a YA), it turns out there's a chance they're going to want me to write another book set in the FHT world with a particular character. I hadn't considered writing this book, and so now I find myself pondering what happens next -- where to start this character's journey. Immediately, a thought came to mind and I followed that trail for a while, getting more and more excited about it.

But then it left me wondering -- should I just follow my first inclination? Should I be spending more time trying out different plots, different settings? Should I try the whole "list 10 things that could happen next" to make sure I'm on the right track? Where do I want to take the character in this book?

I think this is the closest I've ever really gotten to plotting, which is kind of weird. I've never felt the need to know all these things before -- I generally just start with a person in a place with a first line and see where it takes me. Why, all of the sudden, do I feel the need to know exactly where this character goes and what this character does?

I was talking to JP recently about this whole thing and really what it boils down to is my feeling that writing a novel is really just a series of closing doors. When you start, before you write the first word, you have a million possibilities ahead of you. And with every word and every line, you begin to shut those doors, diminish the possibilities. And generally, you can never go back and follow a different path (unless you think the current path is bunk and you have to back-track).

So if I send my character down Path B, I've lost the chance to tell the story about Path A. And to me that's a little sad. And I stink at making decisions in my own life, much less anyone else's. Honestly, sometimes I find this situation to be a little paralyzing -- standing here looking at all those paths and all those doors and wondering which are the rights ones (is there such a thing as the right one?).

Which made me wonder how y'all approach beginnings. Do you go with the first idea that grabs you? Do you think out a ton of possibilities and then whittle them down? Do you worry about closing all those doors or do you love the sense of so much possibility?


Erica Ridley said...

Interesting topic! I'm a plantser (half plotter, half pantser) who likes to (mostly) plot out the story itself and then (mostly) pants each individual scene.

But even when I tried my hand at outline plotting and notecard plotting, typically the first idea that came to me and got me super-excited to sit down and write ended up being either the opening scene or the core idea of the story.

The story I'm writing now, I storyboarded with 2 of the Mavens, but the first idea that sparked the entire story concept for me definitely turned out to be the opening scene.

The last two stories I turned into my agent were more high concept beginnings. I thought, "Hey, what if..." and ran with whatever crazy idea I came up with. Those stories were also storyboarded, but not until after the first draft was completed. (Both required rewrites.)

I guess what I'm saying is, even though I'm a storyboarding plantser, I don't necessarily subscribe to the belief that the first idea is a bad idea. I do, however, believe that brainstorming often elicits ideas on better ways to implement that idea and/or fresh new directions to take that exciting initial concept.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Great post, Carrie. I never really thought about it that way. I guess, following the door analogy, I look at it less like a million doors than just a few. When I reach a point where the plot could take several routes, I usually know which one is right and I walk through. Every once in a while, I open each of the door and look inside to see where it might lead, and then make my decision. Like Erica, I plot and pants. I have a general idea where I'm headed, so maybe that's why the doors are fewer for me, and the path from door to door gives me less chance for indecision.

Which is good, 'cause self-doubt can be a killer. :shudder: Just the thought that I might have been wrong at some point somewhere makes me nauseous.

Carrie Ryan said...

Great thoughts y'all! B.E. -- I wish I could approach a door and know which one was the right one! That whole thing totally had me stumped on FHT where I loved the first 20k, but had no idea where to take it next!

Erica -- that's generally how I've always come up with beginnings too! I guess what I'm having a harder time with on this one is that so much of the book is already set for me because it's a sequel of sorts... I just have to figure out what happens!

Jennifer Linforth said...

Thanks for the shout out, Carrie. Glad to lend a hand to the Mavens.

Plantser? I like that Erica... as much as I want to be a plotter I end up being a pantser. I am in the middle of trying out different routes on the second book in The Madrigals. Once Madrigal releases, it is time to get cracking on polishing book two. It is written--but needs to stand on its own per my publisher's request. Which means writing the book to their needs. I am looking at this as a good chance to switch the book to focus on different characters, or mess with the beginning and see what happens to the plot if I do A, B or C. As much as I flub with plots, however, nine times out of ten I end up going with my original idea. Does that happen more to pantsers or plotters I wonder?

Either way I think writers have to be flexible. I never intended the book I have with my publisher to be a series... more like a trilogy. The change means rolling with the punches in terms of what direction the book takes.

I agree with Erica--brainstorming is our best friend!


Bill Clark said...

what it boils down to is my feeling that writing a novel is really just a series of closing doors. When you start, before you write the first word, you have a million possibilities ahead of you. And with every word and every line, you begin to shut those doors, diminish the possibilities.

Very poetic, Carrie - and very true! But I agree with b.e. that self-doubt can totally derail you, so I think you should look through the other end of the telescope, as it were, and focus on all the doors you have yet to open.

I generally just start with a person in a place with a first line and see where it takes me.

I think many of the great writers would agree with this. "Call me Ishmael." "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." "I went down to Manderley yesterday." "It was a dark and stormy night...."

OK, maybe not that last, as Bulwer-Lytton hardly qualifies as a great writer (but his opening line has achieved its own special form of immortality). Anyhow, my feeling is that a story should be organic, developing along the way as the characters (and author) develop, and not strait-jacketed into some pre-ordained plot arc. And that's my two cents' worth. :-)

Jackie Barbosa said...

I'm fascinated by the idea of writing a story being like closing a series of doors because I so don't write that way. And it's so poetic, I almost wish I did.

Like Erica, I'd call myself a plantser, but I never start a story without having a pretty good idea where/how it'll all end up. Certain points along the way may not turn out exactly as I'd initially envisioned (although, in many cases, I haven't envisioned them at all).

Generally, though, my characters seem to drive the plot and which doors I can choose are pretty tightly circumscribed by who those characters are. There are things they'll do and things they won't. If I try to make them go through a door that isn't right for them, they'll scream bloody murder and bring the story to a screeching halt.

Which is kinda where I got to in the current WIP yesterday. Just 2,000ish words from the end.


But don't worry, I'll fix them. Or more accurately, I suspect they'll fix themselves.

Anonymous said...

Carrie, this is SO INTERESTING in light of the path in FHT. Hello? Does anyone see a correlation between following a path to the unknown in FHT and following a path to the unknown in writing from your gut? I say do what worked for FHT: follow that initial instinct. Like you said, if it turns out so-so, you can always back-track and choose another path. Good luck with the new beginning!

Darcy Burke said...

And I stink at making decisions in my own life, much less anyone else's.

Amen, sister. The older I get, the less decisive I seem! Gah! It's interesting you posted this today because I wrote my post for tomorrow yesterday (everyone following that?) and it's about whether or not to link books! I'm probably not helpful at all, but interesting that we're thinking of the same things.

I think I have to have a mapped out plot. I didn't really do that with the first book I wrote, and it was god-awful. I kept having to go back and tweak stuff (ad nauseum) and I finally gave up. Now I'm a firm believer in identifying key characters, story threads, overall plot. I'm pretty sure I need my TPS report, my storyboard, and all the lovely stickied scenes - some of which are more defined than others.

As for beginnings specifically, I generally think of a character and some heinous backstory idea that will play out. That's the scoop with the h/h for the next two books after Her Wicked Ways anyway.

Fabulous post, Carrie. Very thought-provoking. :-)

lacey kaye said...

I thought this blog was so poetic, I saved it, and then I totally forgot to come in and comment.

I, too, run with the first idea. While plotting, it may change. But I find it fascinating that we all do the same, that all books are mostly based off of initial gut instinct. Then the question is whether to write them or not.

Darcy, I totally thought of you, too.

Anonymous said...

That is so much like how I've seen it that it's a little spooky. Not the closing door thing, but how mind-boggling all those *choices* are. I'm always worried that I'll choose the wrong paths for my characters and they'll lead nowhere. Sometimes it's overwhelming.

Can you return to the world you created, and tell a story about a related character, having them choose some of the paths you didn't get to explore the previous time around?

B.E. Sanderson said...

That whole thing totally had me stumped on FHT where I loved the first 20k, but had no idea where to take it next!

Ack. I've been there, too. When that happens, I grab a notebook and a pen, and do some free writing. I actually write questions like: "Where do I go now?" and "What is the point?" and "What am I trying to say here?" Then I try to answer them. It's like talking to myself on paper.

But I've been told I'm a little off sometimes. ;o)

Carrie Ryan said...

Everyone say hi to my sister -- I love how she reads all my blogs and comments with such great support :)

I'm so glad y'all liked the post and I'm especially glad to hear so many people say that they often write the first idea that comes to them. That makes me feel so much better about jumping into my new idea with both feet!!

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