Susan’s Randoms: Organizing the Voices in My Head

Pre-baby, I would just start writing. As in page one, chapter one. No character sheets. No synopsis. No theme. No plot question. I would figure all that stuff out during rewrites.

Well, times have a’changed. Now, I have to tap into my dormant Type A personality and the left brain part of me–the one that balances the checkbook (yawn) and double-checks expiration dates on cereal while grocery shopping (double yawn).

Here is some of the prep work I do now before I start writing the book. Try not to get too bored:

1) I interview my characters like I’m full of myself and pretentious, a la James Lipton and Marcel Proust. James Lipton is that self-important interviewer on Inside the Actor’s Studio, and asks questions like “What is your favorite curse word?” and “Upon arriving at the Pearly Gates, what would you like God to say to you?” Proust-deriven questions appear on the last page of each month’s Vanity Fair and consist of “What is your idea of earthly happiness?” and “What are your favorite heroes of fiction?” More of their questions can be found here.

I’ve seen character questionnaires that take up 10 written pages. Uh, I want to find out about my character, but I need to finish a book, not a book’s worth of character interviews. Lipton’s and Proust’s questions are both short and enlightening.

2) I set aside People for a couple of weeks and pick up a book on Witness Protection, Park Avenue plastic surgeons, or any other nonfiction book I’m going to need as background for my book in progress. For the book that’s currently awaiting feedback from my publisher, I read two self-published books about women who are gambling addicts. I never thought I’d ever read a self-published book, but who knew that books about female gambling addicts were slim to nil? And who knew that they’d be great background (just with a lot more typos than I’m used to seeing)?

3) I write the synopsis before I write chapter one–and it acts as my outline for the story. As I’ve written about in the past, I love writing the synopsis. It organizes my thoughts, and it keeps me from taking my own life when I’ve written 400 pages. After I write “The End,” I get to do a happy dance. I don’t have to synopsize. Four. Hundred. Freakin’. Pages.

4) I write something called a “running outline,” a term I’ve borrowed from Elizabeth George. This helps me figure out: my scene goal, my scene obstacle, and my scene question. Case in point? Think about Pretty Woman, when Vivian is packing up to go back to her home. The slimey George Costanza (sorry, forgot his name in the movie) comes and roughs her up before Edward comes in and throws him out. The following are the goal, obstacle, and scene question:

Goal: Vivian is planning on going home.

Obstacle: George Costanza forces himself on her.

Scene question: Will Vivian stay with Edward, now that she has a bruise on her cheek and he’s icing it?

All this “stuff” helps keep up the tension–and reader/viewer interest. I usually have about 10 scenes figured out before I start on Chapter One. As I work my way down these scenes, I add more as they pop into my head. And yes, they WILL pop into your head. Why? Because you have your characters figured out. You have the point/theme/story question of your book figured out (because you’ve written your synopsis–right? Right??). And, because you’re writing. Daily. Keeping the muse’s torch lit and burning bright.

5) I limit the time suckers in my life. I shut myself off from e-mail and TV, namely. I check e-mail only once a day (which kills me, since I’m such an e-mail addict) and limit TV to shows that I’ve DVR’d and can watch when the baby’s asleep and my brain is on lockdown. You thought I was going to say I stop watching TV, didn’t ya? Hey, I didn’t say I was perfect. Or robotic.

~S.C.

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