There will be some spoilers in this post. I’m assuming you’ve read the lotrips stories and the Roadtrip chapters I’ve already posted, so I’ll just blather on about them without any warning. That said, there aren't many specific spoilers, and those there are will mostly be about general story structures rather than details of the plots themselves.
Are you sitting comfortably?
And this whole naked writing thing has gotten me really curious about how you write. Do you plot it all out in advance?
I know this sounds trite, but every story is different because it has a different shape. Back before I started my PhD, I used to write by instinct, not knowing what would come next. That made it really difficult, and I’d only finish about 30% of the stories I’d start.
Now, I always conceptualise the structure of the story first, in really broad strokes. So, for instance, with Kissing Orlando, I knew I needed to practice non-chonological story-telling before I tackled Falling Stars. I also wanted to practice story-telling through description rather than dialogue. To do those two things, I mapped out a very simple two-shot structure. The flash-back sequence at the start (the first shot, in which we find out about the beermat), and the sex scene at the end (the second shot, in which the beermat is redeemed).
On the other hand, because Roadtrip is so long, I’ve broken it down into Acts instead of scenes. There should be five Acts, if all goes according to plan (which it doesn’t always with big works, but I’ll talk about that in a minute).
Within each Act, I know the starting point and the ending point, and a few key scenes in between. I then invent scenes to fill up the gaps as I go along. This is fairly typical of how I work now. The scenes I see really clearly are the joy moments. They are my reward for writing all the other scenes in between. In Act 1 of Roadtrip, scenes 1, 8 and 11 were my touchstones, my joy moments. I’d lived with them inside my head for months. The rest started to fall into place once I began writing.
In Act 2, I’m currently writing towards a scene about Ben that I’m almost squeeing with anticipation about. I want to write it *so* much! It’s about half-way through Act 2.
Acts 3, 4, and 5 at present consist of random key scenes and the plot’s climax, but all the rest is just a general feeling about how the emotional arcs have to work. The scenes will start to come clear once I’m about 5,000 words out.
Do the characters decide they're going to do something and then make you find a way to write it?
That’s kind of how every scene works, actually. The touchstone scenes are all things that make me squee when I think about them, and I build the story around them. Like the final line about braille in Doll 3—I got that line and just *knew* I had to write the whole story to finish with that inversion of what people would expect, given the story’s title. In fact, I was sitting on a bus when I had that idea, and had to bite my hand to keep from squeeing out loud.
In the filler scenes, it’s a bit different. More calculating. I go, “What emotional feeling do I want to evoke in this scene? What’s its purpose within the story arc?” And then, once I have a general sense of how it needs to work, I ask, “What would this Matt or Ben (or Orli or Lij) do in this situation? And does it make me squee?”
My characters very much feel alive inside my head. That’s why I say it feels like they’re eating my brain. They want to be born and live in the world. My job is to try and make what I see in my head as convincing as possible to other people. I think I'm starting to get quite technically proficient at that act of translation.
And before you ask... Yes. They are all me. Different aspects of me. I think that’s why I like Matt and Ben as characters. You have the flashy extrovert (me when I’m performing, my public persona in other words), and the steady, ambitious introvert (me when I’m writing). Orli is the pretty me of my youth, when I used to get stopped in the street by strangers and asked for photographs with them (I’m not joking). Lij is the sarcastic me that used to wonder what all the bloody fuss was about my looks, when it was my brain that was the interesting thing about me.
Writing really is the most narcissistic job in the universe!
That’s also why I get so unsure about what I’m writing. Sometimes, even though the topics I’m talking about are fictionalised, it feels like my guts are hanging out for everyone to see. Doll 3 felt like that, because it’s about not being loved back, and that’s a really sad, lonely place to be writing from.
Do you do any editing while you're writing or does it all come later?
It depends on the scene. Some are easy and just flow out, and I only need to do minor smoothing on them afterwards. I suspect scene 1 of Roadtrip is like that (I’m still too close to it to be absolutely sure), because it was in my head so long before I wrote it. All the rough edges got knocked off before I wrote a single word.
On the other hand, I always find endings hard, because there’s so much build-up invested in them, so it’s important to get the pay-off right. In Roadtrip, scene 11 is the climax of Act 1, and I actually did go over it a few times, even on this first rough draft, just to try and get the emotional beats working properly. I suspect it will still need some more work later, as will scene 8, which is also emotionally pivotal.
The other main thing I’ve learned about writing in the last year, particularly when it comes to long fiction, is that it’s all about the leap of faith. There’s no way something 50,000 words long can be done in less than a month by anyone other than a superhuman. And a month is pushing it. So, starting out, you know that you’re in for the long haul, and that things will change as you go along. You just have to have faith that it will all work out, and that you won't have wasted months of your life on a story you can't finish.
I began Falling Stars with a map made up of about 2 pages of very roughly plotted scenes (although I'd been thinking about it, and what it needed to contain, for four years). About a third of the way through, I reached a crisis, and changed the plot from what I’d originally mapped out. Then two-thirds of the way through, I had another crisis, and had to change the plot again. Because Falling Stars is non-chronologically told, and starts and ends with the same scene, it was much harder than usual to make these kinds of plot changes. Unfortunately, in my experience, they happen at some point with every large story, although usually they aren’t as radical as with Falling Stars. Falling Stars made me spontaneously cry with frustration more than once, which doesn't usually happen!
In Roadtrip, again, I started with 2 pages of rough notes, just to help me keep the emotional arcs of each Act clear in my mind. I’ve already had to invent scenes that I hadn’t known I’d need, going by my rough map (chapter 5, for instance), but so far, I’m still pretty close to my map. I’m starting to diverge in small ways now that I’m into Act 2, which I was expecting. It’s because I know the characters better now, and can work details in that hadn’t occurred to me before I began to write.
I’m actually getting to really like taking the leap of faith required for large works, to the point that I’m seriously starting to think that I’m primarily a novelist rather than a short story writer. Which no doubt tells you all you need to know about my psychology!
Anyway, that’s probably more than you ever wanted to know about how I go about constructing things when I write, so I’ll stop.
Unless someone else foolishly asks me more questions :)