A talk given at the Romance Writers of America conference in 1999.
This talk is put up here as supplement to an article in the RWA Romance Writers' Report, April 2010
For more information about Romance Writers of America, click here.
Flying into the mist in its purest form means that we don't have a clue about what will happen next. We know as much about our characters as we do about the people who just moved in next door; the dark moment is a dark mystery until we think "Gosh, I just wrote the dark moment!"; and much of the internal and external plot, and the goal, motivation, and conflict is discovered in bits and pieces as we go.
Perhaps it should be flying into the fog.
What is there to talk about, then?
It was someone saying that that caused me to propose this talk and work on it. It was a challenge, and I also knew that I work hard to write a book. A lot of stuff goes on. There had to be something to share.
I know I started out writing this way, and wrote two books that eventually sold and became RITA finalists. When I joined a romance writing group, however, I learned about plotting and such. I was all for it. It promised to make my life easier. However, it didn't work for me. I was struggling with this when I met fantasy author, Charles de Lint, and he told me that he never plots. That he'd hate sitting down at the computer and knowing what would happen next.
Validation. Liberation. Which is why I'm doing this talk. In case some of you need validation and liberation as much as I did.
However, there is no right way. I don't think that can be said often enough. There is no right way. No better way. No more efficient way. No more virtuous way.
Flying into the mist is NOT more artistic and free than careful pre-plotting. At the gates of heaven, St. Peter is not going to be checking which we were.
Part of our personal writer's journey is to find the ways that work for us. And they may change over time, or even from work to work.
Try different ways. If you fly into the mist, try the other way just to see. If you think you have to at least have a few fixed points to work around, try without, just to see. Find your own, unique creative method.
The nitty gritty of flying into the mist for me is, I don't want to know anything about the future, but I'm happy to know as much as possible about the present and past. Also, having written, either a scene, a chapter, or a book, I'm happy to use the plotting and structuring tools to sharpen and enhance what I have.
And that's what I'm talking about today.
A big part of it can be imagined as building the ship we fly in. That is, creating characters and situations that promise a good ride. Not establishing everything -- writing is always a process of discovery, and with fimming it's almost all discovery -- but there are some things that are likely to work.
Let's take a simple one as an example.
Point 1. A character should have a weakness or flaw.
Flawless people are boring, but more importantly, they are unlikely to create sparks as we write, but the problem doesn't have to be huge. It just has to be important to the character, and affected by the plot. Someone afraid of snakes gives you nothing if the book takes place in Ireland where there are no snakes.
Sometimes the flaw arises only because of the plot or circumstance. A person who doesn't speak Russian does not have a problem unless they are lost in Russia. The rancher is smooth and confident until he has to move to England to become a duke. The Duke is doing fine until he has to run a ranch.
The fish out of water is always interesting. In fact one of the basic guides to storytelling is to upset our characters' comfort level.
However, Point 2. It works best if the flaw opposes a strength, whether it is an inherent flaw or a situational one.
If your character is a saint, give them a point of temptation, and then make sure that is a big part of the plot.
In my medieval Dark Champion, I found out that my mighty warrior FitzRoger had claustrophobia. I didn't plan that, but the plot called for use of narrow passageways, and then it all came out.
I probably cackled gleefully because it was exactly the right foil for his other qualities. He's clawed his way up from nowhere, and fears losing his aura of power, and here's something that could make him look weak. It directly opposes his apparent strengths, and threatens what he thinks is important.
Therefore, it's a secret.
Point 3. Hope that your characters have secrets.
We can have characters with obvious flaws. She's clumsy. He has a stutter. She was a whore. He was in jail. Those are interesting, but the secret ones are better.
It doesn't have to be a huge thing like a secret baby or a criminal record. It can be of importance only to this character. Such as an embarrassing relative, a love of Dunkin' Donuts, or wearing sexy underwear. If Imogen in Dark Champion had claustrophobia, it would hardly matter because she's not supposed to be mighty and fearless.
Remember, though, we have to make the reader believe that this secret is important enough for the character to take risks, and possibly do damage, to keep it.
Let's look more at the flaw that opposes the character's strengths. If we list three positive characteristics for a character, we can then give them a flaw that conflicts with one. Ta-da! Internal character conflict!
Let's look at a cliche romance heroine who is pretty, perky, and kind. Pretty is hard to oppose, though she could be plain, but very skilled at makeup and presentation. She could fear being seen without it.
The obvious opposition to perkiness is secret depressions or insecurities. Doesn't much appeal to me. A more subtle one would be a secret serious goal or fear. She's pretty, perky, and kind, but she's hiding out from a stalker.
Kind would be opposed by unkindness, which is hard to pull off. However, I sort of played with this in my book Forbidden Magic, where the hero is handsome, charming, and kindhearted. But he's appallingly antagonistic and rude to his dear old grandma. It's not a secret, but once it happened the reason was a secret, from me as well as the heroine. I needed to know why. I only slowly learned that grandma had caused the death of Sax's parents and then been an abusive guardian throughout his youth.
This is how flying into the mist works for me. A combination of exploratory writing and pausing to ask why.
Point 4. When writing, stop frequently to ask why. Almost nothing is without information about the characters' past and present.
As I've said and will keep saying, flying into the mist requires constant alertness in the NOW. Radar if you want. Why did she say that? Why did he do that? What does that imply? When a character reveals something new and interesting, ask WHY it was revealed then. If it's a real shock to you, pay particular attention. It will have come from deep within the character. Something important just happened providing great energy for your book.
Sometimes it's so startling that both author and character need time to consider it. Take that time. Full speed ahead when flying into the mist is not a great idea!
However, Point 5, don't go hunting for these plot enhancers, especially shocking ones. Let them come to you.
They will. In a good story we push our characters out of their comfort zones, we throw challenges at them, often the ones they most fear. In the process they will reveal their flaws and secrets. You can depend on it.
Point 6 Not Knowing is Good. The advantage of not knowing a lot about our characters and their stories is that we're less tempted to dump all the backstory in chapter one. It helps a book flow if new things pop up as we go -- that's a natural way of discovering people and situations. In life, as a reader, and as an author.
You may be thinking that this is all plotting, but note that we haven't thought at all about what might happen in the future. Whether we think about flaws and secrets before starting or as we write, we are not plotting ahead.
Also, it is very possible to start writing with hardly anything and discover all these things as we go. I frequently get an idea for an opening scene and just write it as if it were a video playing out before me, only learning more about the characters as they reveal themselves.
This is the purest form of flying into the mist, and in this case I go with the story as long as the video rolls. The time for analysis is when it stops.
Note, however, that some of these gift openings, as I call them, go nowhere. They don't hold my interest. They don't seem to promise a good book. They're out and out weird. I shove them to the back of the disk to revisit later if I want.
I'm going to go through a book preparation scenario now to illustrate my points, but I want you to know that I'm unlikely to do all this before writing. We're going to pretend that I'm writing by the flying into the mist method.
Let's assume that we've decided, for whatever reason, to write a short contemporary romance. We'll arbitrarily take a classic romance plot -- heroine rescues male stranger injured in an accident. Let's call them Mary and John for the moment. Sometimes the real names are there at the beginning. Sometimes they come later.
So I get this scene. Mary, in jeans and T-shirt, brown hair tied back, is trekking in the mountains when she comes across a glossy SUV half off the logging road, a man on the road beside it. He's okay except for shock and an injured ankle. (It would cramp our style to have John badly injured, but we don't want him to be able to hike out of there.)
She helps him up to her cabin, which is primitive, with no electricity, propane, or anything like that. She tells him she doesn't have a cell phone, but I know she's lying.
She's bothered by this stranger being there.
She isn't a true mountain woman. She's a visitor.
Through John's eyes I know she's rather plain. He also finds her wary and grumpy. He's anxious to get help and get on his way.
Why? Where's he going in this isolated area? Through Mary's eyes we see a guy who's dressed in very expensive casual wear, moussed hair, manicured nails, flashy SUV.
Who is he?
By a combination of poking and observing them, I find things out. Flaws that oppose strengths or qualities. Mary is plain, clever, and kind. Kindness has led her to help this stranger when she doesn't want to. Where's the opposition?
Why is she on the mountain, and why does this intruder worry her? Something criminal? She might be a scientist studying the endangered furry three-toed-sloth.
Because I tend to go for the least likely, I like the idea of playing with plain. Let's pick up my earlier idea and oppose it with beauty. She's a famous beautiful movie star who is plain without all the technical enhancements. She's sought isolation to escape from the media and her plainness is her disguise.
This is good because now she also has #3, a secret. If I'd gone with the three-toed sloth it would have been hard to convince the reader that she wouldn't tell John fairly soon, but this -- there are lots of reasons she might conceal it.
She might not want John to know because it would be bad PR if he let it out. She's almost certain to worry that he is a reporter or paparazzi looking for her.
Ah-ha! He is a photographer. The one thing he snatched out of his vehicle is his expensive camera case. That's like an unexploded bomb to Mary.
Perhaps later he'll snap some photos of her and she'll tries to destroy them. (These sneaky plot ideas will slip in. The main thing is not to commit to them.)
It's an important secret. Mary may well go to bizarre lengths to hide any evidence that she's really Julia Zeta-Jones, Hollywood star. However, I will be careful not to have her keep the secret beyond reasonable lengths. When I come to the time that Mary would reasonably tell him, I'll let her do it and watch what happens. By then I know I will have gathered enough other stuff that it won't be a problem.
That is an important point. No book survives on a couple of characteristics and problems set up in the early chapters. That's what leads to the dreaded saggy middle, or the sort of book that keep going over and over the same problems. The early problems fizzle and the writer is left with nothing.
Any book is a complex voyage of discovery, with new things coming up all the time if they're allowed to. Keep your eyes focussed about a foot in front of your nose and you'll find them.
So now we have Point 6. Characters should fear something and it'll probably be another aspect of their flaws and secrets.
Who or what are Mary and John's worst fears?
For Mary it is a tabloid journalist. A papparazzi.
Okay, now we know what John is, don't we?
It doesn't always have to be so extreme, but it's hard to resist when it falls into our hands.
But what's he doing on that mountain? I don't see him looking for her. The accident would be a crazy way to make contact, and he's showing no sign of knowing who she is.
Okay, that'll come out in time. But I have a nice juicily complicated situation here.
Mary knows he's a photographer. When she asks, he says he's a National Geographic photographer looking for a bridge to photograph. Or a three-toed sloth. It's not true. Why does he say it? Because, I realize, that's what he longs to be. A respected photographer.
Mary isn't sure what to believe. If he knows she's Julia, he should get an Oscar for acting. He's treating her like a pity case -- a pathetic lonely plain spinster.
Of course, I'm fairly giddy with whys now.
Patience, patience. Don't push it.
But a scene pops into my head.
After that night of beautiful passion that's going to happen somewhere later in the book he tells her the truth, still not knowing that she's Julia. She, however, remembers the fun they had snapping pictures of each other half-naked last night.
Plot attack! Plot attack!
That's okay, so long as I push it far away and don't start writing toward it. If it comes, it comes. I could weep for the many wonderful scenes I've imagined which have never come to be. The consolation is the other wonderful scenes I found instead.
There are all kinds of other ways this story could be coming at me out of the mist. John might be a complete mystery to me. Or he might lie. I might truly think he's that National Geographic photographer until Mary tells him the truth and describes the trouble she's had with papparazzi, and I see his shock.
Then I'd be sitting at my computer grinning at the deliciousness of it. Because John, of course, would have a dilemma. Does he confess and risk losing her, or try to hide it -- for how long? Or try to figure out a way to tell her the truth in just the right way.
Mary doesn't know why John is dressed in very expensive casual clothes, with perfect hair and manicured nails, and driving that spiffy SUV up a mountain road in the middle of nowhere. Either he's up to something not right, or he's an idiot. Drugs? But not up here.
I want to know too.
So lets give John three characteristics. He's gorgeous, rich, and confident. We haven't come up with his flaw or secret. Perhaps that will tell us.
What if he's insecure?
He's a tabloid journalist, and though I don't want to slander the profession, he should be able to find something better to do with his brains. So, he's made his way up from a rough background and needs wealth to feel that he's made it, and that's where he's found he can make the best money.
Now he has all the things he thinks spell success -- great penthouse, a Porsche, the SUV, a nice stock portfolio etc, and to give it a noble twist, he's supporting his family even though they're a bunch of hopeless slobs and petty criminals.
Ah-ha! That background means he's not as secure in his wealth as he'd like to be, which would explain why he's spiffily dressed etc up a mountain. The truly comfortably rich guy would be in jeans, driving a truck.
His fear. Or fears. He fears losing the things that he think matter. He fears proving to be just like his family. He fears anyone finding out about his family.
His secret is his family, his origins. This is especially delicious if he's climbed to the top by exposing other peoples' secrets.
All these ideas are popping from just him and his trappings, and note that I've not really come up with future plot.
He's stuck in this primitive cabin with this wary, rather grouchy woman, his ankle is killing him, and he doesn't know how he's going to get on his way. The woman doesn't have a phone, or a vehicle to drive for help.
So John's not a happy cabin-dweller, but he's not presently worried about his security, his reputation, or his secret because he doesn't see any threat.
I could threaten them. I could have him on his way to something that could make or break him. I could have him on the run from nasty people who really didn't like his last story. But this story doesn't feel that heavy and tense, and this way the problems will build.
As I write on, however, his fears will be triggered, and that will make plot happen. I don't know what, but I know it will happen.
Secrets and fear can motivate the most extraordinary things. If the fear is strong enough it will drive people to lie, cheat, steal, and kill, even if to an objective observer, the fear seems minor. Remember that guy who killed the man on the Sally Jesse Raphael show who implied that he might be homosexual?
It is one of our jobs as a writer to convince the reader that our characters desires and fears are powerful even if they could be seen as trivial.
Mary fears losing her privacy here on the mountain, but that's not a biggie. She can recreate it somewhere else. No, as I write I find that her deepest fear is being a fraud, because in her heart she is not the beautiful, sexy, Julia. When younger she was a gawky geek.
If anyone sees her as Mary she believes her career will collapse, she'll be subject to ridicule, and gorgeous Brad Pecks will dump her.
There's bound to be some things about the cottage that could identify her, and she's paranoid about him taking any photographs.
But John truly loves photography. He sits with his foot up taking photographs. Of the kettle, the doorknob, the sun on a mirror. A woman putting wood into a stove....
They've accepted that John is going to have to stay the night. Mary has gone to try and get his luggage out of the SUV, but it's slid further off the mountain road and she doesn't dare.
He thinks she's a wimp and is annoyed not to have a change of clothes, his shaver, and his toothbrush. I think he's also the sort of guy used to women fawning over him. He expects service with a smile, especially from the plain spinster on her mountain.
Mary, of course, has been romanced by the best. She's making allowances because he's had an accident and he's slightly injured, and she could get help.
I realize that I have to figure out the help thing. Julia Zeta-Jones would not be isolated without any way of getting help. But, she's essentially a nice person. If she could get help for him she would, wouldn't she? Phone the local police or something?
Okay, what if she's deliberately gone without the phone, but she does have a kind of panic button strapped to her. If she really needs help, she can push it and her team will be there by helicopter. Therefore, to ask for help will absolutely blow her cover.
But, I imagine how it would be if she was trying to communicate with her people without being overheard. Could be fun. And wouldn't her panic alarm system have to be set up so she could tell them the difference between acute appendicitis and needing shampoo?
So she has a kind of phone, but only to her personal assistant back in Hollywood. I have to come up with some reason that it isn't working as it should, or her people aren't monitoring it. Something believable, not a clumsy plot device. I keep going because it'll probably come to me later.
What about goals? Small ones and big ones.
In fact we know some small ones. John wants to get on to wherever he's going. He wants out of this cabin. Mary wants him out of the cabin, but she doesn't want to risk exposure.
But what are the bigger ones?
Goals are interesting things. They often have roots deep in the past, and when we uncover serious goals we nearly always find that a lot of backstory comes with them as long as we ask the magic why.
What's Mary's long term goal? It's something to do with why she's on this mountain. I could think that she's in hiding because she wants some peace but I don't think many movie stars wanting peace spend weeks in the mountains, truly roughing it alone without power and indoor plumbing. So she's actively trying to escape her wealth and fame.
If it doesn't pop into my head I'll leave it for a while. The truth is out there!
A goal does not have to be generically important, such as finding a lost child or escaping from a pit of tigers, just important to the character. Perhaps Mary's goal is to decide whether or not to take a role that would be a huge departure for her. She'd have to drop the beauty persona that's felt safe, and appear as her true self -- sterner, crisper, and more intelligent. Perhaps she's up here trying to find her true self.
As Deb Dixon points out in her excellent book GMC, urgency is always a plot bonus. So, Mary has to make her mind up in a week between taking another fluff part that is guaranteed to bring her millions of dollars and fan approval, or a risky low budget movie that might open up the new career she wants, or have her make a fool of herself.
Now I'm not sure if I like this, because my instinct is saying that it'll weigh this book down with a lot of stuff, and I'm seeing it as a fairly light book.
So I bury that. I'll let it come, let her reveal herself. As long as she has a strong short term goal, I can write.
This is probably the place to mention that I don't sell on proposal for obvious reasons. The proposal for this one would be, "Film star in hiding Mary rescues mysterious photographer John on a mountain, and they're stuck in her cabin for a couple of days. Stuff happens."
To create a proper proposal I'd have to plot ahead and I'd put too many ideas into solid form to ever be able to write the book. And anyway, I'd still not have much of an idea about what sort of book this was actually going to be, because for me, writing a pre-plotting are two entirely different things. Because I'm only pretending to write, I am pre-plotting John and Mary's book. If I were to actually write it I guarantee that it would morph into something entirely different.
I might have an editor phoning saying, "This book wasn't about saving the three toed sloths from extermination by the FDA when I bought it!"
Also, if we plot ahead, we can pile on too much baggage just in case. It's hard to judge ahead of time how many problems and complications our characters will need, so we might throw in too many just to be safe. The novel might become melodrama, and/or the pace too hurried as we try to cover everything.
And/or worst of all, the writer might crowd the beginning thinking she has to get all this stuff in immediately or the reader won't understand the book. I'm often tempted by that.
That's an important point, too. If we only let ourselves write in the NOW, the now has to be interesting, or we'll be bored. We won't slip into that terrible situation of saying, "But it gets really interesting in the next scene!" Or worse, in Chapter Three.
And anyway, remember, remember, remember, we can go back and put more stuff in later if we truly have to. We can also go back and throw out stuff -- scenes, chapters, or subplots. We can magically remove a character's fatal flaw.
In a book recently I gave one character a secret mental problem, expecting it to explode at an interesting time. I soon realized that I didn't need it, that the book had enough energy without it, so I made it not be so. It required some editing to patch over the odd hint of it, but not much. It was excess baggage.
Flying into the mist writing is exploration and adventure, not the production of finished pages.
So, writing along, Mary is trying to contact her people without letting John know she has a means of communication. To make sure that he doesn't recognize her, she's over playing the role of mountain woman, even though she's not good at primitive living.
John has an ankle that hurts like hell and a dinged-up SUV, and he's stuck in a shack with a plain, hostile, truly weird woman. She's even talking to herself. Vague images of Stephen King's Misery begin to dance in his head.
His cell phone is in the SUV. She won't go and look for it, so he hobbles down there to get it and his suitcase, but finds Mary has told the truth. The SUV has slid even farther. It can't be reached.
At that horrible moment, the truth spills out.
He has been stripped not just of communication, but of the armor he's worn most of his life. He's grubby, sweaty, and his beard is growing. He's reverting to nature and it appalls him because he grew up on this mountain, part of a tribe that everyone calls The Crazy Crandalls. Inbred, eccentric, and petty, unsuccessful criminals.
I nip back a few scenes and have Mary mention them as both scary and objects of fun.
I have his secret and his fear. He doesn't want anyone in his new life to know his origins. How does he get off the mountain without Mary discovering? Perhaps his family aren't far away. Mary could walk there and someone would come over in a noisy battered truck to pick him up.
But that's unthinkable. She would know, and even though she's nobody, he doesn't want her to know. Also, he wouldn't arrive at his family's place rich and successful in his late model SUV, but grimy, hobbling, and in Bubba's truck.
Side note. I now have another why. Why is he so different? How did he get out? As I write, it comes out in his thoughts, and also from what we know. He's handsome. He has a way with women. He's ambitious and willing to go with what he wants.
So, he's different because he's the son of a wandering charmer, and he whored his way out at 16 with an older woman.
Ah-ha! A scientist studying the furry three-toed-sloth.
Pause to wonder whether my chosen editor will freak at the teenage gigolo. Say to hell with it. It can be changed if absolutely necessary because it's not crucial, but I like it. We have a two-edged sword. His charm has provided escape and wealth, but he's ashamed of it. Perhaps he's used his charm to get some of his stories.
I could even toss in an urgency. He's promised to photograph Bubba's wedding. Two days from now. And he's the sort of man who keeps his promises. That's good. He needs a bit of honor.
Or even a little secret. He's thinking of trying to sell the photographs to the National Geographic. An Appalachian Wedding. That would blow his cover, though, and it might exploit his family by showing them as the sad characters they seem to be to him. Moral dilemma.
That's good if we see him weighting right and wrong. In my opinions, heroes and heroines should do that.
Thus far, this is shaping up nicely -- but it's so much easier to do this without actually writing scenes. This is playing with puppets. Writing is dealing with real people. It's wild. It's dangerous. We can end up in places we do not want to go. Perhaps all this moral dilemma stuff is wrong for this book. Or perhaps it needs more, and less humor.
If I realize that I'm going in entirely the wrong direction, I can rarely do a sudden turn and keep on going. A fly into the mist book should have a kind of flowing inevitability about it because of the way it is created, each incident growing directly out of the one before.
The quicker I detect the problem, the less there is to rewrite, but often the problem doesn't become obvious until it's there, in the NOW, creating a huge rift between the characters.
Such a mistake can mean scrapping chapters, going back to the place where the divergence began. I find it is generally a waste of time to try to edit what I've written to fit the change. It's rarely satisfactory, and it's quicker in the long run to try again from scratch with absolutely no preconception about how it's going to work out.
However, I also find that it's often a mistake to wipe out all the problem. That problem came from somewhere real, from the characters and situation. If I get rid of it entirely then I have chucked something deep and powerful, and even a light funny book can use something deep and powerful. What I need to do is go back and shape it so it does not have such a cataclysmic effect.
(One example of this occurred in Dark Champion. Imogen is a young and in some ways naive woman. FitzRoger is a seemingly cold and hard man. But he relaxes enough to show her a warmer side, and she is clever so she's growing up fast, but then comes the wedding night. Things aren't helped by the fact that her confessor thinks sex is filthy and sexual pleasure is a sin, but her main problem was given her by me, the cruel goddess. Imogen has the hymen from hell. She expects sex to be awful and it truly is.
From FitzRoger's point of view, it's essential that the marriage be consummated quickly, since there are plenty of men who'd love to snatch Imogen and her property from him. In my first writing I essentially had him rape her. She was willing to consummate the marriage, but with her fear of sexual feelings, plus her agony, she becomes violently unwilling.
When I wrote on from there, I knew I'd gone way off course. She was traumatized, he was disgusted with himself, they weren't speaking. I don't always avoid unpleasantness, but my judgment was that I wasn't getting any literary reward from all this. It wasn't making a better, more interesting book. In fact, it was as if the characters had fallen into a pit. The book wasn't going anywhere.
In this case I didn't have to go back far. I simply gave him the strength of a true romance hero and had him stop. He leaves her abruptly, she's shocked, but overall ashamed of herself. She has no way of knowing her hymen is particularly tough so she feels she's weakly made a fuss over something that other women handle easily. Being Imogen, she has the courage to go and find him, and now I had interesting dimensions to the story rather than that dark pit.)
I want to look at another aspect of goal, and one that is not always considered. I call this the Constant Characteristic, and it is the character's life goal. Plot goals can be ephemeral. John's is to make his brother's wedding, but that is an incident. If he doesn't make it, his life will not be changed.
A life goal goes way into the past and will last way into the future, though it can, of course, change abruptly. Someone whose life goal is to make a million dollars, might suddenly decide it's not important and she wants to sail around the world instead. Change in the unworthy life goal is often part of a romance novel, but often we find that the change is actually a revelation of a deeper life goal.
The life goal needs to be considered at some point because it is what shapes a happy ending. Will John have a happy ending by attending Bubba's wedding? No, not even if he takes Mary with him. However, if John's Constant Characteristic is to always keep his promises, that's what he sees as his last grip on honor, then it could be. It would also mean that his life goal is actually to be proud of himself, which might lead to changes in his subsidiary goals.
Also, whatever he decides about the National Geographic could be important.
We can usually find the character's life goal by looking at what they wanted before the story happened to them.
John was driving up the mountain heading for the wedding. If someone had asked him, "What do you want out of life?" then, what would he have said?
Mary was wandering around her land enjoying the peace of unspoiled nature and longing for a proper toilet. What would her answer have been?
The possibilities are infinite, but let's pick a couple.
John wants to prove to himself and everyone else that he's not a Crazy Crandall. That's been his obsession since he escaped at 16 but he was pondering the National Geographic thing. Contemplating change. So his Constant Characteristic might be in process of changing slightly. He wants self respect and he's coming to think he doesn't have it yet.
He can only get it, however, by exposing the truth.
Before he's ready, he's being stripped down to truth by this situation. Since Mary is a klutz at primitive living, he's forced to help, terrified that she'll see how adept he is and guess.
What about Mary? Is her life goal to be a movie star? Since she's trying to decide which movie to take, the answer is presumably yes, but not necessarily in the way things currently are. She seems to be in search of her Constant Characteristic.
How many of us here are sure of what we are and what we want out of life? For most people life is a constant voyage with misty moments and some bumps and crashes. Why should characters in a book be different?
When John starts helping, Mary comes to like him better. She tells him a sort of truth. That she's an actress. That she's deciding about a part. She tells him how she got into acting.
She has a degree from a good university. She was going to do postgrad, but she was in a play written by a friend that got attention. She moved into acting by accident. She doesn't say that the play became a hit movie that launched Julia Zeta-Jones. That's still her secret.
John has to reassess her, and he opens up a bit too, but he tells her what he wishes he is rather than what he is. He claims to be a National Geographic photographer. He takes atmospheric photographs of the cottage, saying they'll fit with a piece he's working on.
They are each presenting to the other the person they wish they were, which is what we tend to do when we want to impress people. And especially when we're sexually attracted to someone. This is all related to self-image. We all have a self-image -- who we think we are and who we'd like to be.
So what are their self images.
Mary thinks of herself as intelligent, capable, and rather superior to all those Hollywood people. She needs to do the low budget movie to prove to herself that she's not a Hollywood bimbo. John isn't treating her as a Hollywood bimbo.
John's clinging to the persona of the sophisticated, successful, wealthy guy admired and envied by all, so he's upset by his broken nails and beard, but he's thinking more and more of himself as the great photographer. He likes Mary admiring his photographs as art.
(Note. I give him a digital camera and a means of viewing them properly.)
They are really liking one another now, becoming seriously attracted, putting their best sides forward but also willing to open up a little about their true selves.
Mary admits that she's hopeless at mountain living. That she'd thought this would be idyllic and is angry at that folly, and also that she can't cope. But she's also able to find the funny side of that now.
John admits that he knows how to do things because he grew up in a cabin a bit like this one.
They've reached a point of trust, which is a natural time for them to make love.
So we're perhaps half way through the book and probably have most of what we need to finish it, but we're still flying into the mist because we have absolutely no planned scenes in the future. When will they get rescued? Will John get to the wedding? What will they do about their dilemmas? How will their interactions help or hinder them?
All still hidden in the mist.
Big question. What will their happy ending be?
Oh yes, this is a romance, so they're going to be together and happy, but in what way? Tolstoy's statement that happy families are all alike is nonsense. The way people repeat it is probably why so many don't understand romance novels.
Each happy ending is different, and one person's happy ending would be another person's nightmare. Some people long to sail off together around the world in a small boat. Others see heaven in a five bedroom, multiple-garage house in the suburbs. Others want an exciting professional life involving travel to major cities of the world. Others want a ranch and an instant family of six adopted kids.
However, as I head into the second half of the book I have to be thinking about that happy ending for these two people. Can Mary and John make it, not just to the cliche happy ending -- ie love and immediate problems solved -- but to the likelihood of a lifetime together as true mates, loving friend, enriching one another's lives in many ways?
In writing this talk I realized that this is the most difficult area to describe. I decided that for romance writers, the true happy ending is like gravity. It's there all the time. It shapes everything. It determines how our ship flies, and prevents it from hurtling into space, but we're hardly aware of it at all.
However, consciously or unconsciously, we have to create two people who can eventually make each other happy. In looking for conflict, it's easy to fail on this. If my duke falls in love with the milkmaid their chance of true happiness is very low. There's too big a gap. The changes they would both have to make would be too great.
The police officer and the criminal is another one. Of course, Nora Roberts has done this brilliantly in the JD Robb books, but Roarke is already past his criminal days, and the first thing he does as a sign of love is get rid of any companies left from his shady past.
I did an egalitarian bluestocking and the heir to a dukedom who thinks he's close to God, and as I saw it in the first glance it wouldn't have worked. If he'd truly been the hard-riding, hard-drinking, hard-wenching Regency Buck I'd decided to write about for a change there would have been no meeting place beyond tolerance.
But I discovered that Lucien was as clever as Beth, and being a male, rather better educated, which annoyed her. He was capable of trying to see other points of view and so was she -- one of the characteristics of true intelligence in my opinion. She there were many disagreements, but in the process of fighting and discussion they both changed, learned, and discovered the things they had in common that they could build on.
But what if they have nothing in common? What if John really is into conspicuous consumption and his only reading matter is Penthouse. Whereas Mary is repelled by extravagance and waste and studied classical philosophy. I'm not going to be happy with their ending.
So this is just something I monitor, and affect so it will work.
Time to mention theme and metaphor.
These are the subtleties of writing that as far as I'm concerned reveal themselves during the writing of the book. I would never impose them from the beginning. So here we are past the middle of the book. What is our theme? Can we see any metaphors?
I see a theme to do with appearance. First impressions -- the working title of Pride and Prejudice. Appearance as disguise, as shield. Love growing from honesty. I'll try to keep that in mind as I write. Eventually, I might weave it in more strongly as I rewrite and polish.
Metaphor is something physical that reflects the theme and value of our story. It might be a mask, perhaps as decoration in the cabin. Or what about make-up. Perhaps John discovers a very swish set of make-up there even though Mary never uses any.
Perhaps photographs could be metaphors. John is taking those atmospheric photos of the cottage. Perhaps they could show how appearance changes. How it can look beautiful or decrepit depending on angle and light. Illustrating therefore how little substance there is to defined appearance.
Okay, so what about all those nifty plotting tools still in our toolbox. We can pull them out at any time to sharpen and polish what we've written so far. The amount of work will depend on how good our instincts are, but there will be work to be done. Hopefully, what we've written is true, but that doesn't mean that it's perfect.
What I mean by that is that the incidents actually happened pretty well as we've given them, but that they might not be written to greatest effect.
Let's look first, and very briefly, at goal motivation and conflict. Our characters have talked to us and to each other about some of their GMC, and they've deliberately hidden other parts, which is even more revealing. We can sit down and write GMC charts of what's happened thus far, and probably learn a lot. We may want to cut some writing that's irrelevant, or insert scenes that will strengthen GMC.
Then there's hero's journey. We'll probably find that we've done parts of this by instinct. Mary's hero's journey may have started before the book opened when she was offered the chance to do the low budget movie. It's her call to adventure, but it frightens her, so she's up on the mountain trying to find the strength. John could be her mentor or ally.
John's journey might start on the mountain when he truly realizes what he wants from life, but draws back from the challenge.
If we're not totally happy with our characters, or they are uncommunicative, then at some point we might sit down with character charts, enneagrams, star signs, etc etc to find more about them with what we already know.
If I'm stuck on the writing for some reason, then I will try two other things, and this applies whenever I'm stuck, anywhere in the book.
1. Bubble diagraming
2. Character interview
These are not ors. I might do a bit of each.
For scene tinkering, look at scene and sequel. Each scene should have a little goal, and some problem with it. To drive a book forward, the characters need those minor goals as well as major ones, and one should flow from the other, or we'll have a jerky episodic book. With each scene, what do they want, how do they try to get it, and what happens as a result?
There's that scene when Mary realizes that there's an undesirable animal in the cottage -- rat, bat, porcupine, bear. Depends on the effect I want. Not skunk. Feels overdone to me.
She's not going to squeal for the man to deal with it. Her goal is to handle it by herself. Perhaps she manages it, and it gives her new confidence. Perhaps she manages it but ends up with important things smashed -- like her cell phone, or his camera. Perhaps she fails and John deals with it easily, making her angry and insecure. Or perhaps she decides he's her hero. Perhaps it makes her wonder exactly who this guy is.
I wouldn't necessarily do this analysis for every scene I've written, but it's particularly useful when a scene seems weak or wandering.
Use any and all tools, but if you're like me, you'll want to avoid the temptation to use them to plan what might happen next.
However, I find that toward the end of the book, the mist does tend to thin. I know so much about the characters and their situation that predictions become inevitable. I still work very hard, however, to live in the moment, not steering toward any particular future.
The key is the reversal of the usual advice, Don't Look Down. In this case, it's Don't Look Up. Don't look ahead and worry about how much more you have to write, about whether you'll have a dark moment. Never peer anxiously ahead to find a place to put in that really, really cute scene that you're so proud of. Be thankful of the mist that lets you only look at the moment.
As you'll see, for me, flying into the mist means not paying too much attention to how much I've written, particularly in respect to the desired length of the book. Admittedly over the years I've developed an instinct about length, about what length a story is flowing toward, from a 25,000 word novella, to a 100,000 word historical, but that only means that I'm usually no more than 20% off, usually over. I seem to always have to do a lot of cutting.
But thinking about length, especially in the final sections of the book, is disastrous. It distract from the NOW, but can also lead us to try to hurry things, skip things, or to try to spin things out.
Write what happens until the story stops and then worry about length. Writing long is best because cutting, though painful, always leads to a better book. Writing short requires going back to see what aspects of the story we haven't explored, and of course there's always the danger that when we insert something new, it changes everything.
But that's the flying life. Publishers can adjust the font size, and a larger font is not a bad thing. Or there's even the possibility of selling to a different publisher or line which requires fewer words.
Or, if those are not options, we just have to shoulder our weighty toolbox and wade in to fix it line by line, scene by scene, chapter by chapter.
Yes, it might have been easier to plan it out ahead and stick to the plan, but we who fly into the mist don't have that choice. We're stuck with the magical process of always writing in the NOW. It's the way our magic works.
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