This post is more for me than anyone else. When I sit down at the computer to write, I sometimes sit here for hours and the story is no longer than it was when I started. But that’s not always a bad thing. Editing is an important mode of composition.
My first mode is Conceptualization, where I jot down crazy notes to myself about what I think might make an interesting story. It’s shorthand, choppy, not really good English. It has to come out, though, and I tend to type 100 miles an hour in this mode. Spell check is off.
The second mode is Outlining, where I use stream of consciousness and jot down everything I think this story could be about. But I try to organize it into chapters. I don’t hold myself to that format, because later on there may be 6 new things that deserve chapter breaks between chapters 9 and 10. But Outlining gives me a map to follow. In this mode, I try to keep to the rule of three acts. In the first act, all the primary characters, their hopes, dreams, flaws and conflicts have to be revealed. We’re introducing the ingredients, even though the reader has yet to learn if we are making pizza or soup. In the second act, everything has to fall to pieces. Best laid plans, and all of that. The conflict and tension need to grow in the second act. Be aware, though, that the second act does not have to be a full third of the book. It can be smaller than a third. And then the third act is the resolution. This is where the heroine or hero are revealed. The clues have to be presented in the first act, as far as what the hero or heroine might be capable of. But the third act is when they really impress. Most of the conflict has to be resolved. And the bad guy or bad thing has to be vanquished. The only way the bad guy can win is if the book is part two of a trilogy. Even if the hero or heroine dies, their death has to somehow change the world and be a type of victory.
The third mode is Composition, where I write the dialogue and the initial narrative. But it’s mostly dialogue and blocking, almost like a stage play. I try not to get bogged down too much in details about the story, as much as I focus on who the characters are and why they are doing what they are doing.
The fourth stage is Self-Editing, where I get out Excel and track what I’ve done (Jill was born in 1956, so she was a child of the late 60’s and early 70’s, but Dave was born in 1975, and was a child of the Reagan years). That way I don’t mess up later and describe the party Dave went to in 1972, which would be impossible. This is also the stage where I get ideas for motifs. What if I put a bird or a dragon in there? Where could these images or symbols fit into the story without appearing obvious? What would they represent? And if Dave has a superpower, and yet does not use it until the end, where is the best place to tease this idea? Of course, the tease has to go in Act 1. But how to introduce it in such a way that the reader sees it, remembers the reference later, but does not completely expect the surprise at the end?
In the Self-Editing stage is when I write most of the non-dialogue narrative. This is when the narrator gets a voice, instead of just directing the stage play.
There’s a Fifth Stage, but it’s the one writers hate the most: What do I do with this manuscript now? That’s a whole ‘nother post.