Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Swim Lanes, Or How To Keep Order In Your Writing by Betsy Ashton

Nearly anyone who has worked as a consultant knows that projects are broken down into sections, with those sections broken down into smaller parts. In order to manage large projects, project managers draw up charts with sections listed along the left side and major tasks or milestones listed across the top. The same holds true for writing.

Normally, I begin on page one and write straight through until "The End." I don't care about the niceties of the story, just about getting the bones sketched out and words on paper. I am a self-confessed devotee of Ann Lamott's "shitty first draft." I only begin writing when I begin editing, moving parts around, worrying over every word, every sentence. That works for a linear novel, which
is what I usually write. I decided about a year ago to write a different form of novel. New for me, it's a novel in stories, or a series of linked stories that can stand alone if they want. That said, several different narrators tell their stories, often observing and commenting on the same actions, but from different points of view.

After I finished what I thought of as the really shitty first draft of eight stories, I put it aside for a week before going back for a reread. Oh, golly goodness, gee whiz. Three of the stories nearly knocked my socks off. The rest drew a big "meh." Holes all over the place, missing stories, overlapping material written nearly word for word in three stories. How did I go so far afield?

I didn't have an outline. I tried to write the way I always do, linearly. Doesn't work if your story isn't linear, but is more circular than anything. When the narrator of two stories commented on a letter, I put the letter verbatim in each story. So not needed. When I let one character comment on the situation but not read the letter until later, the conflict made sense.

I decided an outline wouldn't be enough. I needed SWIM LANES. Out came the old consultant's hat. Out came a flip chart. Out came Post-It notes and marking pens. And out came the manuscript in all its flawed glory. First, I needed to know what chapters I wanted. Then, I had to populate those chapters with characters. I had to be certain I didn't refer to a character introduced in a different story but not mentioned in the current one without some degree of introduction. I needed to know how old each character was, what year(s) the story covered, who else was in the story, and what the central conflict was.

Whew! The gaps became painfully obvious. One reader of a story asked why one character was so angry all the time. "What she always this bitchy?" Well, no, she wasn't, but circumstances overwhelmed her, turning her to vodka. To understand and empathize with her, I needed her backstory. Oh, my another chapter.

I had several pages of notes before I went to the flip chart. The first image here contains notes and suggestions, arrows and scratch-outs. Not easy to follow. The second image is a pencil chart of what I thought I needed.  At that time, I needed to know what year a chapter took place in and how old the central and ancillary characters were. Still not enough. The image of the flip chart is what I'm using now. I can take a quick glance, move a sticky note around, move a chapter around, all without messing up anything.

If all this works, the book, Out of the Desert, will be out toward the end of the year. I hope.
This is my story about how the novel in stories is progressing. I'm sticking to it. I'll keep you up to date as things progress. Until them, write away, write now.

Betsy Ashton is the author of the Mad Max Mystery series, Unintended Consequences, Uncharted Territory, and Unsafe Haven. She is also the author of the stand-alone psychological suspense novel, Eyes Without A Face. Her works appear in several anthologies, including 50 Shades of Cabernet. She resides at Smith Mountain Lake, VA.


Leah St. James said...

Betsy, you've managed to amaze, fascinate and terrify me in one post! :-) I am amazed at the amount of work and effort and fascinated with your different systems. As for the terror, I am a linear writer as well, and I'm afraid my brain might explode if I were to try a "circular" method. I definitely would need that level of visual organization were I EVER to attempt anything like that though. I'm already intrigued by the story. Hurry up and finish so we can read it!

Rolynn Anderson said...

Wow! Your OUT OF THE DESERT should be called OUT OF THE MORASS! Listen, any tactic that helps a writer find her way to completion is a blessing...and every book brings new risks...and a need to tweak the approach. You used the word 'progressing.' I say, YAY!

Jannine Gallant said...

I'm always interested in hearing how another author writes. I write in a linear fashion with only a vague opening plan in my head. I learn where my story is going as I type, so in a way it's like reading a book. Surprisingly, it isn't a huge mess. LOL Best of luck with this new project!

Mackenzie Crowne said...

Wow, Betsy. As a die-hard linear writer, the process you've described is both fascinating and terrifying. Within the first hour I'd be in desperate need of that vodka you mentioned. Like Leah, I'm intrigued with the storyline and hope you'll keep us up to date on your progress.

Brenda Whiteside said...

Well, I for one am totally wanting to read this. It sounds so different and what a story line. I had a similar experience when I added murder and multiple villains to my story. I had to plot and chart, etc. Sounds like you are stretching and it will be so beneficial. You go!

Diane Burton said...

Wow, Betsy. I'm a linear writer also. I read (a long time ago) that Diana Gabaldon would write scenes (a page per scene) then lay the pages on the floor and shift them around until she had the right order. Then she would write transitions between the scenes. I think my head would explode, too, Leah, if I tried that. But, hey, whatever works. Can't wait to read this, Betsy. I'm definitely intrigued.

Andrea Downing said...

Another Wow--this sounds like a great book but I sure am glad I didn't think of it first! Good luck, and will look forward to reading it.

Alicia Dean said...

Your process is interesting, and exhausting, LOL. But, it sounds like it works well. I have tried different approaches on each story I write, and this last one seems to work well. Now, I just need to find time to actually write!