Hitting the Page with a Hybrid Process

Thursday, February 06, 2014

A mosaic of my daily notebook and notes
for my current WIP. I'm using a mixed
approach to get the novel going.
Photo credit | EKHumphrey

In my school days, I nearly always used sentence outlines when writing academic papers. Last year, after reading Karen Wiesner’s books, I started outlining my fiction. But then I ended up spending much of last year writing nonfiction. I’m still not terribly adept at outlining my fiction, so I am using a hybrid method for my current work-in-progress.

Because I’m producing pages for a writers’ group, I’m spending time writing freely—without an outline—to let my characters reveal themselves to me. I’m using the basics of fiction—POV or dialogue, for example—and writing small snippets (mini-scenes almost) in each of those areas to find my characters’ voices.

I’m taking this approach because when I went to start an outline sketch of my protagonist, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted her to be doing or her backstory. Wiesner mentions keeping my creativity “brewing” in the background—I agree. For this novel, I needed to spend more time with my characters percolating before pulling them into an outline. (Perhaps because it is my first fiction project since mid-2013?)

With this current project, I didn’t know what I wanted my protagonist to look like. I knew that many of her activities would be familiar to me because they are the ones I want to establish some specific conflicts within the novel. But she wasn’t coming alive and fully formed to me through the outlining process. Sure, I pinpointed some of her characteristics, but she needed to reveal herself and her fictional friends to me. I don’t know about you, but more often than not, that happens to me when I step back and let my writing take over. Or when I’m stuck.

Now that I’m a couple chapters in, I’m pulling myself out of the narrative to flesh out more of the characters’ stories and characteristics. I’m utilizing Wiesner’s book, but I’m also relying on my own internal compass.

I used an outline for the gluten-free book to keep focused on the areas I needed to cover. The basic outline helped me to thread the needles I laid out for myself. Also, checking off sections as I wrote them and working on a publisher’s deadline helped direct and motivate me. By creating the small snippets, I’m able to borrow those and slot them into the narrative, my outline...and my novel. If they fit, great. If not, I may massage the snippet into place.

Working in this hybrid fashion, I realize how my approach provides me with a feeling of some control and goals as well as letting my creativity and spontaneity loose.

My groaning bookshelves let me know that I’m not unique in figuring out how to plot a course through a novel. But this is a method that, for right now, feels organic and productive to me.

What have you learned that has helped you chart your course through completing a piece of writing? What have you learned—and then tweaked to suit a particular project? What’s working for you right now?

Elizabeth King Humphrey is a writer and editor living in North Carolina. She’s getting back to writing after four days of school closures due to freakish ice masquerading as snow.


Renee Roberson said...

I wish I could be this organized. For shorter works, I sometimes do character sketches for the main characters and outline each chapter with a paragraph synopsis. But with longer works, I just kind of free write the whole first draft and then go back and revise, revise, revise. If I were writing non-fiction, I would definitely have to do more outlining!

My bookshelves are also groaning from the weight of my writing craft books, many of which I've never even cracked open. Sadly? I've been contemplating buying another one this past week!

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