Musings On Structuring A Multi-Part Novel

As many of you know, I’m rebuilding the first novel I wrote. In fact, we’re coming up on the 5-year anniversary of the day I sat down at the computer and typed out the first words of the first version (14 April 2009). So much has changed since those heady first days when the story was new and my confidence ran high. You might think I would have everything thought out by now for the rebuild. I would be lying if I said I did.

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How I Got Here—Redux

I first started this blog on 31 October 2011—Halloween. I don’t think there’s any hidden significance to that date. I don’t write about horror or ghosts or witches like you might associate with that day. Since then, I’ve been lucky to attract some followers, especially here in 2012. And so I thought I’d revisit a couple of early posts to introduce you to my fiction.

A few of you may have seen the original posts. But since most of us don’t have time to go back and peruse the archives of fellow bloggers, I thought I’d make it easy. So here’s a recap of how I came to write novels.

How Did Get Here? Part 1

So how does an archaeologist come to write fiction? Some of my associates in the other subfields of anthropology might tell you it’s no great leap – they think that’s what archaeologists do all the time. You can imagine how most of us feel about that joke.

Seriously, I never saw it coming. I always got As in English classes, and my teachers and professors said I was a good writer. But once I got to graduate school, all of my writing was academic. And trust me – professional archaeological writing will never appear on a bestseller list. It’s everything good fiction isn’t – wordy, passive, and jargon-filled. Have trouble sleeping? Pick up an archaeological site report. You’ll be out in no time.

Still, over the years I’d get some ideas and think they’d make an interesting book. But ideas are easy – writing a book is hard. Then, in late 2007 or early 2008, I watched a documentary about the Smithsonian Museums, and there was a segment about a naturally formed mummy. It grabbed my attention. Researchers couldn’t match the name on the headstone with local records from the time the guy lived and died. And some of his clothing wasn’t quite right.

Now there was an idea for a book. An archaeologist excavates a burial, and something doesn’t fit. When she examines the artifact more closely, she accidentally reactivates it and the adventure begins. I tried to start it then, but the Muse wouldn’t unlock the door to creative writing. And so the idea kicked around in the back of my head with no way out. But the Muse apparently had plans for 2009….

How Did I Get Here? Part 2

In late 2008, a friend told me she had started working on her novel again. And I told her what I said in my last post. I could come up with ideas, but writing them down was another story, so to speak. I envied her talent and perseverance. At the same time, another idea started taking shape in my head from various threads – string theory, the multiverse, alternate selves. Take a character through a slice of her life in a few different universes.

That idea kept going through me, taking more substantial form in my mind, although I still didn’t sit down at the computer. But on Easter Sunday in 2009 I was talking with my mother. And at one point she said, “You’re a good writer. You should write a book.”

Something clicked in my brain. She’s right, I thought – I should try to write this story. And in that conversation, my mother told me a family story I’d never heard before. It became the germ of the last idea I needed to start the book. (Sorry, I can’t tell you what it was – I don’t want to give away too much!) Two days later, I sat down at my computer and started writing a story I would ultimately call Summer at the Crossroads. This time, the words came. And they didn’t stop. I was writing a novel. Looking back, I think that clicking sound was the Muse unlocking the door to creative writing. And that’s how I got here.

If you’re still with me, you might be asking, “But what about the first idea? What happened to it?” Oh, it was still there. But that’s another post for another week.

If you’re interested in following up on that last bit, you can find the posts here and here.

Writing – The Puzzle Analogy

The writer friend and I were talking a while back. As I’ve said, I’m a “seat of the pants” writer, and so is she. Book ideas don’t come to us in any logical way. At first we get brief glimpses of some characters who give us a few individual scenes – in no particular order. And we wonder how the heck they’ll fit together.

As we talked, I realized our writing is a lot like doing a puzzle. Those unrelated scenes the characters give us are like the “easy” parts of a puzzle – the pink flamingo or purple house that stand out from everything else. What’s harder is all that “filler” in between – the vast multihued sky and the endless field of green grass between the flamingo and house – otherwise known as the plot.

But sometimes I look at a scene I’ve written and wonder how it can possibly tie into anything else – like the opening to Kathryn Donnellan’s universe in Summer at the Crossroads. That’s the first scene I wrote in that section. Kathryn hears a news story on the radio about the first lady’s upcoming trip to another country, which is an attempt to restore relations. They soured after the previous US president took an ill-advised stand and a diplomat was caught hacking into the State Department’s computer system.

Where was I supposed to go with that? But as I wrote, the “filler pieces” came together. Just like a puzzle, it wasn’t always easy. Some pieces didn’t belong in this particular story and had to go. Others didn’t fit where I originally thought they would. But the pieces of Kathryn’s story ultimately fell into place and formed a cohesive whole.

Of course, now Kathryn thinks that’s how the sequel should go, too. So I’ve got a plot that includes events at a winery in Oregon, an intrusion into her private life, and orders at work that could destroy a friendship. Those are the pink flamingos and purple houses. But how the heck are they going to tie together? I just have to take a deep breath and trust my characters. They know what they’re doing.

Where am I heading with this post? Well, just as there’s no single “right” way to assemble a puzzle, there’s no single “correct” way to write creatively. It’s not always easy, but we all find the method that works for us. Maybe the “easy” parts come to you first as they do with me (do the border, then grab the pieces with the obvious patterns/colors from the box) – we’re the “pantsers.” Or  maybe you get everything laid out first (border pieces, then group ALL the pieces by category before you even start) – you’re the “outliners.”

Each approach has its advantages – and disadvantages. Neither is “better” or “more professional” than the other. And there’s no reason to envy someone who approaches writing from a different direction that you do. If your method works for you, then it’s good.

So readers, which of you are the pansters? And who are the outliners? Or do you consider yourself a combination of the two?

How Did I Get Here? – Part 2

In late 2008, a friend told me she had started working on her novel again. And I told her what I said in my last post. I could come up with ideas, but writing them down was another story, so to speak. I envied her talent and perseverance. At the same time, another idea started taking shape in my head from various threads – string theory, the multiverse, alternate selves. Take a character through a slice of her life in a few different universes.

That idea kept going through me, taking more substantial form in my mind, although I still didn’t sit down at the computer. But on Easter Sunday in 2009 I was talking with my mother. And at one point she said, “You’re a good writer. You should write a book.”

Something clicked in my brain. She’s right, I thought – I should try to write this story. And in that conversation, my mother told me a family story I’d never heard before. It became the germ of the last idea I needed to start the book. (Sorry, I can’t tell you what it was – I don’t want to give away too much!) Two days later, I sat down at my computer and started writing a story I would ultimately call Summer at the Crossroads. This time, the words came. And they didn’t stop. I was writing a novel. Looking back, I think that clicking sound was the Muse unlocking the door to creative writing. And that’s how I got here.

If you’re still with me, you might be asking, “But what about the first idea? What happened to it?” Oh, it was still there. But that’s another post for another week.

Any other writers have a similar story? Or a completely different path?

How Did I Get Here?

So how does an archaeologist come to write fiction? Some of my associates in the other subfields of anthropology might tell you it’s no great leap – they think that’s what archaeologists do all the time. You can imagine how most of us feel about that joke.

Seriously, I never saw it coming. I always got As in English classes, and my teachers and professors said I was a good writer. But once I got to graduate school, all of my writing was academic. And trust me – professional archaeological writing will never appear on a bestseller list. It’s everything good fiction isn’t – wordy, passive, and jargon-filled. Have trouble sleeping? Pick up an archaeological site report. You’ll be out in no time.

Still, over the years I’d get some ideas and think they’d make an interesting book. But ideas are easy – writing a book is hard. Then, in late 2007 or early 2008, I watched a documentary about the Smithsonian Museums, and there was a segment about a naturally formed mummy. It grabbed my attention. Researchers couldn’t match the name on the headstone with local records from the time the guy lived and died. And some of his clothing wasn’t quite right.

Now there was an idea for a book. An archaeologist excavates a burial, and something doesn’t fit. When she examines the artifact more closely, she accidently reactivates it and the adventure begins. I tried to start it then, but the Muse wouldn’t unlock the door to creative writing. And so the idea kicked around in the back of my head with no way out. But the Muse apparently had plans for 2009.

To Be Continued – if you haven’t seen them yet, I’ve posted the current drafts of the opening scenes to both books