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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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You Know You Can’t Hold Me Forever

When you sit down to write, to start something new, have you made a host of decisions such as point of view, tense, style, etc. or do you start writing and see what happens, see how it comes out? After all you can always revise. Do you plan your story, outline it, make index cards, jot notes on napkins, or do you set out into the forest and see what you find, hope for crumbs. Is the creative process enhanced or compromised by planning.

How do you roll?

39 Responses

  1. I don’t plan much of anything. Not even my budget. Like my budget, my writing just sort of flows and hopefully I don’t go over budget and then find myself in the hole, unable to extricate myself without breaking some sort of logic or robbing a bank. Of course, I can also go under budget, but I don’t do that with money, only with my writing. I wonder sometimes if I should be planning more, maybe I ought to do more than start with a general idea. For my nonfiction it works pretty well though, the non-planning, until I get to the point where I need it in a cohesive format that makes sense and makes people glad they stumbled across my book by accident. That’s when I call on my editor Karen, who has been able to take the bits and pieces and put it all together into something I can send out without shame.

    And my fiction is crap anyway, so first I should learn how to do it well.

  2. I plot, and outline, in a half-assed way, then I follow the outline for about five minutes until I step of the trail and get lost in the dark woods.

    Sometimes I completely “pants” too. Either way, what I end up is never the same as what I have planned.

    Oddly, when I write screenplays I rarely have that problem. They almost always turn out exactly as I plan them.

  3. I wander the forest, but keep an eye on the compass and scout a couple of trees ahead before choosing which path to take.

    And I always take little plastic baggies to clean up my metaphors along the way.

  4. I already know my story but I had different drafts to try and see how best to tell the story.

  5. I always have an idea of where I’m headed. The characters find their flesh as I move along, and surprising tangents take us, but I mostly land at least somewhere in the vicinity of the place I imagined. (That’s probably partly why I don’t write fiction every day– I have to wait for those aimed ideas to emerge.)

  6. I follow the yellow brick road. Then I sneak behind the curtain to take a look at who’s inside. I listen a lot. Voices in my head tell me what to write down.

  7. bit of both. Usually start with a character, write a scene, get an idea, make a plan, write, add more characters, write, idea, change plan, repeat.

  8. I’ve usually been a “fly by the seat of my pants” kind of girl, but the novel I’m working on started in a notebook, required a ton of research, and is completely outlined. That hasn’t stopped it from meandering and changing though. I still have moments when I say to my characters, “are you sure you want to do that?” A piece of art has to remain fluid to be alive…

  9. Outlines are like dress manikins–generic form. Thing is you gotta get some clothes on that thing. I write outside in. First the outerwear–place and time and then the lacy bits, soul and loss.

  10. It depends. I’ll give some examples.

    What I’ve been working on since mid-November is an unanticipated major rewrite of a novella that may turn out to be a novel. The main things I’ve been doing to it are changing it from first-person to third-person and making its tense as present as possible. As you can imagine, many other changes will follow from such foundational shifts. All the raw materials for the story are pretty much present already, but even those are changing where necessary.

    As a longer-term side project, or back-burner thing, I’m doing some historical reading with two related projects in mind. They’re related in that they both pertain to the same general historical event. One of the projects is to be a rewrite of a screenplay into a young adult novel. For that, what I’m gathering from the reading is general tonal stuff, since I did some pretty detailed note-taking from the source materials before I wrote the screenplay some years ago. The other project is a longer-term historical work that I’m currently taking the barest reference notes on as I read the same materials.

    I usually have a pretty good general idea beforehand what story I want to tell. How I’m going to get into it is not always clear at the start. Sometimes I have to rotate the object and look at it from many angles before I find my way in. What the POV is going to be, what the tense will be, what the style will be–often I don’t know these things until I find a good entry point, a good hook, for the story to begin. Sometimes it seems the story has its own voice, and when I find that voice, the story is able to grow much like a crystal forming.

    As everybody who comes to this site probably knows, to have a story is one thing, and to tell it effectively is something else. Every story can be its own living being. Planning the story in too great of detail can be a deadly constriction to some stories, especially shorter ones, though with longer pieces I find it’s a great help if I plan to get its various lines to come together seamlessly as the end draws near.

  11. With the exception of the book I’m working on now, which is a fantastical fictional account of something that already happened and thus is, by default, outlined for me, everything for me begins with the first line.

    And just like that, she was flattened. …

    It was just one pothole. …

    If anyone tries to tell you that the order in which you do something doesn’t matter, they’re wrong. …

    That’s how I roll. Oh, how I missed you, Betsy Lerner! Happy New Year! Fuck resolutions.

  12. I have a couple of concrete ideas for plot, POV and character that I carry around in my head for a while and then I write. There’s not much in between. I want to be an outliner, a planner, but it never happens that way.

  13. I don’t plan at all, and I guess it shows. But “crazy good” sounds fine to me. I have no pretensions and live in/on a teflon mobius strip.

  14. I gave up trying. I just do it. I started about 30 years ago, when I was ten or so. I have a few pages here and there. In some places, I have 184. I only do it when I am unhappy. Then, I have nothing to do. And it keeps me sane. litterally. Could never quite spell that right…literrally…I can see this is not spelled right.
    But who gives a fuck?

    I do. I do give a fuck. That’s why I act like I don’t.

    There is writing and there is therapy. Everything else is overrated. Even love. I mean the two people thing. You are fucked anyway, either way. You are alone. Great, but sometimes it sucks. you are with somebody. Great. But sometimes it sucks. Fucked either way. although ways do matter. And age too. Got to stop these 30 year olds. They don’t quite have it.

    Who does?

    Do you have it?

  15. I know where I want to start and I know where I want to end up. In between, that’s where the headaches lie. I’d like to be a planner and an outliner. But then I’d like to be a size 6 too.

  16. With scripts, I’ve really plotted it out, but when I’ve tried it with fiction, I just get annoyed and write like crap…so, last fiction manuscript, I just fired from the hip and kept what ended up on the page…(s).

  17. I’m with Mary Lynne. I have a couple of ideas, something compelling to get me started and something compelling to aim toward.

    But for me it’s the journey between those two points that is so wonderfully productive. It’s in the actual sitting-at-the-computer, firing-from-the-hip writing that I discover amazing things that I never knew I knew.

  18. I admire people who draft outlines, who diligently plan their course and know, for certain, where they want to end up. I’ve tried, perhaps half assed, it’s true, to be that type but it’s never worked. It’s much easier for me to fly by the seat of my pants. I know what feels right. I also know what doesn’t. In the end, I trust my instinct.

    I will say that it’s important for me to know what my point of view is before starting out. Without that, I’m lost before I’ve even begun.

  19. Plot is the hardest part for me, so I start by making notes about it–just broad strokes ideas. Then I write the first chapter to get a feel for the voice the pacing. After that I try to get organized with a chart. My w-i-p looks like this right now:

    I’ll fill in those gaps as I go along and figure it all out …

  20. I always plan to plan but it rarely happens. Usually I get tired of planning after a page or two of fragmented notes and incomplete thoughts and just start writing. When I get stuck somewhere, I skip ahead and go back to fill in the gaps.

    That’s the strategy for fiction. For screenplays, step-by-step outlining and index cards full of notes are essential.

    Each project tends to make its own requirements, somehow.

  21. I start with the voice. I let it build up until I can’t hold it any longer, then write it down and head for the forest. I follow my nose. It’s hard to finish things this way, though. There’s always a crumb around the gingerbread tree.

  22. This question is quite timely. Having just come off five years as the crow flies (walks ? crawls ?) of finishing my last book, which has a full shelf and a half in my office devoted to notes and research (historical thrillers are not for the faint of heart – it all sounded so damned fun in the beginning), the thought of going down that road again anytime soon made me nauseous. So while The Last One sits in my agent’s hands I’ve been working on The Next One. It has one simple rule, only three words : No Fucking Research. Just tell the story. And it feels so good. Research and plotting and extensive note-taking have their place. For historicals or procedurals etc obviously you have no choice. You can’t really make that stuff up, or you shouldn’t anyway. But they can be overused and become a crutch as well, getting in the way of the story.

    I know I’ll hit the wall at some point and have to step back and map stuff out, but I’ll worry about that later. And in the meantime when I need a little pickmeup, I’ll read blogs by potty-mouthed provocateurs. Happy New Year Betsy

  23. Write a draft in pencil toward snf rnding, then type it up, then really rip it to shreads and plan every scene, then rewrite, and it’s done. The ripping to shreds is the fun part. The first drafts are basically to look for a central metaphor and figuring out the characters.
    I have reverted to old-fashioned tools, like pencils, scissors, scotch tape. Much happier.

  24. For all my books, I’ve started with a narrator and a tiny bit of a plot. The stories came out of the air and fell into place. This time I’ve tried outlining. Hasn’t worked. I have a narrator and a piece of a plot. So far the air is being stubborn, but it’ll cooperate. I just have to be patient.

  25. Are you peeking over my shoulder? Just started the first chapter today after planning for 5 months. Have the main plot and character points planned out but already in the first 500 words new ideas and scenes are popping up.

    Last time I freewheeled from one key idea, which meant the first draft came out quickly but there was so many holes in the plot it became a beast to edit. Hence I decided to try the planned route!

  26. Usually the story or the character comes to me and I wade in. No plan. What I think I should do is outline. I should have index cards on the screen or in hand that remind me what each character is about and what they want. I should have the flow of the story down with a climax and an ending. As I write this I am thinking about the novel I’m working on. I am only a few pages into it. I think I’ll pull out and do the outline bit.

  27. I start with a general idea, sometimes even a voice or style, and along the way it may change or it may not, depending on how it sounds, flows or meanders aimlessly. Hate when that happens. Sometimes I change everything I’ve already commited to paper/the screen and start all over. Sometimes it works out alright. I jot notes on napkins, scraps of paper or try to let what’s bouncing around my brain find its way into a voice recorder I own but often forget to carry.
    The best times are when — Eureka! — a breakthrough occurs and everything falls nicely into place. Sitting down and writing, unexpected break throughs. Happy New Year!

  28. Welcome back Betsy and happy New Year.
    I write in a plotless way, enjoying the surprise of everything unfolding and clicking together. I usually tip into the first sentence and go for it, get rubbed dirty by doubt, but love the sustained tension of unfinishedness. Coming out at the end is a blessing, but then the hardest work begins: is this worth it? Will others feel it like this?

  29. Hi Betsy,
    Happy New Year.
    I met you in Miami in May 2011 (we mentioned something on Bangkok), and got in this site since then. Thanks for a good year, wonderful thoughts and helpful questions.
    For me, it depends. Sometime an idea came, I started quickly with a setting and characters, then I let the story develop itself. But there were times that I really needed a plot to guide me–a structure, not a strict plan on all elements.

  30. I wander the Forest of Words and Fog blindfolded, trusting my instincts and listening to the little creatures scamper. Sometimes I follow the song of an unseen bird into a flowery glade where shafts of sunlight blaze around dancing butterflies.

    I feel that the Universe will provide, as the story unfolds from the deepest parts of my Self. Planning is hard!

    Madeline Bassett

    • Ha! I’ve been promising myself to read Wodehouse one of these days, now I must go and do it. Although every educated person in India cut their teeth on Wodehouse (and talk like some of his characters), so maybe I already know more of him than I realize. Anyway, thanks for posting that!

  31. There is always a vague notion of where it’s going. Getting it there is the fun part!

  32. I’m one of the rolled-over types: after a time of subconsciously accruing snippets of plot or descriptions of characters, I’m mentally flattened with a fairly complete story that won’t let go of my thoughts. Journals and such are second-tier reference tools, but the Inner Nagging Voice is enough to guide me – of course, that is when it is not detouring me into self-loathing.

  33. It starts with a character and what she’s going to divulge to the world. The idea has usually been banging around my head so it’s quite complete when I finally throw it up into a loose outline. It’s just enough to provide a bit of structure without crimping the imagination. After a certain point though, the outline turns concrete so I can wrap the thing up and finish. I wish I would have come up with this formula without all the trial and error of the first time around.

    I leave open ended writing for the essays and stories I write just because for me.

  34. I have to plan, or I will get lost. I will end up on Facebook, calling it “research.” I need a polestar to guide me. That doesn’t mean I can’t wander and take side roads to discover something new, but there has to be at least an attempt at structure, or else how will I even know that I’m wandering?

    I recently got an illuminating glimpse of a different approach to memoir while re-reading Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories. In what appears to be a review of Czeslaw Milosz’s memoir (which I’m going to read in a hurry), Native Realm, she compares his views on memoir with the “probing,” “absence of reticence,” TMI-approach of American writing. For him, memoir (and the self writing the memoir) is not rooted in psychology so much as in history. But it is the specificity of the personal (whether they be memories recorded in a diary or a home account book), which renders history real, and not merely an abstraction, the stage where ideologies play. I’m probably misrepresenting him, but I don’t have the time right now to think it through more carefully; I’m not terribly off the mark, I don’t think. Reading his thoughts simultaneously calmed me down and excited me when thinking about my own memoir. I now have a larger scaffolding on which to hang the thing: the first half of the twentieth century. That’s huge, but it’s not nearly as complicated and confusing as my mind, left to itself.

  35. […] was great pickings in blog world. Agent and former editor Betsy Lerner asks: When you sit down to write, to start something new, have you made a host of decisions such […]

  36. I’ve tried it every way possible. (No metaphor intended.)

    What works best for me is simply starting with a character, a dilemma and a conclusion. Everything in between is the tough part–getting from point A to point C. And half the time I rewrite the ending, too.

    How do I roll? Around in circles.

  37. I’m an extensive outliner. For me, it’s crucial to have a storyboard. Author Cherry Adair teaches a fabulous plotting workshop about post-it note plotting. I used her method as a launchpoint and have refined my technique for plotting during my first three books.

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