Seven and a half years ago, I was sitting in my maiden bed, going over a notebook full of jottings and records in preparation for my wedding. The prep had been something of a nightmare – I think many women, and not just those who suffer from a high level of ADHD symptoms, will sympathize with me in that. My roommate talked me into taking a break and we watched Stargate. I recognized a plot device in the movie – two groups think they are mortal enemies until a far worse thing shows up and they have to join forces. Thinking in silence afterward, I imagined this story skeleton transplanted into the life of a woman who, like me, was just trying to put together a wedding.
The following winter, my husband and I were holed up in someone’s attic apartment freezing and desperate for something fulfilling to do. We hung out at the library, me sketching things from books and finding strange volumes to read, and eventually producing a hand-made picture book, and Josh reading history and pushing the boundaries of his personal philosophies. At some point I revived my idea for a story about a woman’s grand struggle to just pull her wedding off, ripping it through the most extreme effort from the hands of her scheming female relations and acquaintances, only to have the whole thing interrupted by an interstellar mob of some sort. In my mind it was the funniest quirky story I’d ever heard.
In untroubled gaiety I set out writing this charming novel in exactly the way I’d learned to write a short story. And round about the time that a short story would have ended, my novel petered out.
I’ve worked on a lot of writing projects since then. I have been, at times, in despair. Sometimes I have abandoned my writing for a time in a completely misbegotten effort to become a decent housekeeper. Words keep dribbling out of my fingertips anyway.
Am I about to announce that I’ve finally finished my novel and gotten a publisher?
Nope. This morning at 2 am I finally finished the outline.
I know, Christopher Paolini. Let’s not talk about him.
For the last few years I’ve known that I had absolutely nothing driving my story beyond the seventh chapter and I had to find out why. I obsessively read publishing blogs and when I find a good book about writing I read that, too. I tried taking a correspondence course but the instructor was trying to teach me how to write a very average three-page paper. I quit.
About a year ago I got as far as outlining the story up to the point where the mob interrupts. I couldn’t figure anything interesting to happen in the final chapters of the story, though. Not having an ending is a frequent but fatal flaw in beginner novels. I read a book by the author of that Rambo book (sorry, dude, I’m bad with names) and he said he writes a conversation with himself to help himself figure out where the story is going and why. I filled fifty pages in Times New Roman 12-point asking myself questions that bothered me about my story.
I tried arranging all my material in a chronological chart, including backstory and minute details about the political situation of my three worlds. Due to my inability to hold that much information in mind while creating subsequent events, I bogged down.
I consulted my sisters. Grace listened as I told her the entire plot of my entire story – the one I wasn’t able to write down if my life depended on it – and told me any teenaged girl would love to read that story. Abbey told me to write an hour a day, and called to check up on me for weeks. I slowly gained hope and began to write more often – something, anything.
I abandoned and returned to my novel any number of times. At one point I convinced myself that I’d run this story into the ground and needed to do something easier.
I decided, briefly, that I’m really a playwright, not a novelist. I conceived of a hilariously funny story about a young man with hyperactive-type ADHD in an Old West Town before anyone knows about ADHD. I began to work on it then was pulled like a magnet back to my simmering bride. When I applied the classical unities to my story, I was able to see the bones of it more clearly. I let my whole first two acts (everything I had) happen in the same house within the space of a few days, by “inventing” technology that allowed it. Suddenly I saw what was happening. I rearranged material and sketched out possibilities for a third act.
When I had a baby my mind went on the fritz. This happens; my mother in law tells me that the lore used to say expect to lose a tooth for each baby you give birth to. When our tax refund came in I started eating better and including protein smoothies and Fish oil and other nutritional supplements in my everyday diet, and things improved. When we ran out of tax refund money we began working to file for bankruptcy. I have lost the will to starve. (And I want to add that no one should ever buy a house using debt unless it’s an investment they know they will make money on. Read Rich Dad Poor Dad.)
My story lacked propulsion. There was nothing in the first and second acts that made anything inevitable in the third act. I think having character creating action that creates events that creates inevitability may very well be the essence of story.
Later, I started asking my search engine the question, “why do third acts fail?” and I found a quote from a filmmaker to the effect that when a third act doesn’t work, the problem is with the first act. I kept asking myself hard questions about motivation and the order of events. (Sequence is very, very difficult for me – in first grade I was even injured once because of my inability to make any remote sense of a game that I now think must have been a combination relay race and obstacle course.)
I read a bunch more stuff by movie scriptwriters. I tried applying any and all of their precepts in turn. At last I discovered the concept of plot points. Outlining my existing material around plot points, I finally found an energy in my story, guided my material to produce inevitability, straightened the channel and let the river flow. Reduced to that tiny outline, I was able to rearrange the order of events in order to have a more jointed connection of discovery and motive.
And last night I finished the third act. I have a story. It’s unreadable but beautiful; it works.
Seven years to write an outline.
I’m telling myself that bringing the story to life with dialogue and action will be the easy part. Just like writing 30 or so short stories, right?
I realize what’s happening here. I’m teaching myself to write a novel. In a way I’ve written several novels, each the same story, but had the good fortune to see and abandon their disasters before forcing myself to follow them to their grisly ends. When I finally finish the novel, in its full form, it must be perfect. I’ll stand for nothing less.
And I hope you will all be the first to know.
Back to work.