Writing: Using Resources


Circle of Enemies comes out today, and I’m supposed to be working on this novelette, but damn, I’m feeling pretty damn distracted. So! I’ll blog about writing again, because that always makes me a little extra crazy.

Let me start off by saying this is how I do it; I’m not advocating it as a method anyone else should adopt. In fact, considering how slowly I write, I should probably only offer it as a cautionary tale.

Anyway! Lists and resources. I’ve said before that I’m both an outliner and a make-it-up-as-I-go-along-er, mainly because outlining the beginning helps me decide if there’s enough story to make a whole book of things, and I’ve found it’s useless to try to plan out an ending because I can never tell what resources a story is going to give me.

Which isn’t to say I don’t have an ending to aim at. Game of Cages started off with the second scene at the food bank and the whole book was written with that in mind. But I didn’t know how I would get there until shortly before I wrote it.

But the outline (and the theme, if I have one) are all resources I use for the beginning of the book. I’m sort of circling around this because it sounds stupid in my head as I write it, but when I’m starting a story it’s this huge, nebulous thing. I envision it as a huge cloud of possibility. Within a few specific parameters (that it will be created using text, and that text, no matter how it is laid out, will be experienced by the reader in a linear manner even if the story it tells isn’t linear) all things are possilble.

Then I begin to collapse those possibilities by making choices (usually on the basis of “Does this sound cool?”: I choose a genre. I design a protagonist. I decide that a certain personal/cultural issue that has been bugging me lately will make a good theme. All of those things narrow my choices so that certain options are no longer open to me, however, they also give me the resources to create the story and solve story problems.

Which maybe seems obvious, but it’s important for me to think of it in that way. When I’m stuck on a plot point, I make a specific list of story resources to get through it. It’s not always a written list, but the tough ones get written down. This is what it looks like:

1. Who are the characters in this situation?
2. What specifically do they want right now?
3. What resources[1] do they have available?
4. What self-imposed limits do they have on their behavior?
5. What are the characters’ relationship to the other characters, their goals, limits, etc?

[1] I’m using “resources” differently here than in the rest of the post. As a writer, I create resources w/in the story to tell it. The characters, though, have their own resources within their own fictional worlds: money, skills, friends, contacts, privileges, etc. An FBI agent has different resources than a florist, and they’ll bring very different tools to bear on a specific dilemma.

All those questions are important, but the first four won’t make an interesting story without that fifth one. It’s the way the characters feel about each other that makes the story interesting.

Anyway, I’ve never met a plot problem I couldn’t solve with those five questions, even if it takes a little brainworking. The really tough ones are when I’ve made a mistake earlier in the story, and I have to hunt back to a place where I’ve used something that isn’t in the story: usually an invalid relationship, usually centered on two people cooperating when they should be at odds. A great many of my story problems come from characters who help each other when they absolutely shouldn’t.

And sometimes the solution will come from something I didn’t expect. To make up examples: a character has to fight somebody, but are there weapons he can use? Hey, didn’t he just steal a key ring in the scene before? And didn’t my former brother-in-law scare the shit out of my teenage self by making a fist with keys sticking through his fingers?

Or an amateur sleuth wants to stake out somebody’s house. In a previous scene, her brother said he was a cab driver (a job I gave him at random) so maybe she could hire him to park on the corner with the meter running?

The same held true for the climax (Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it) of Circle of Enemies: I had no idea where it was going to take place. Nada. I fretted over for a little while before I realized I needed to make a list. Because this wasn’t a plot problem, all I did was list all the locations I’d used in the book so far. Three seconds later it was obvious where the scene had to happen. In fact, it seemed so perfect and obvious that it was almost formula.

Other writers call this “serendipity” or “gifts from the muse.” Me, I think that the language I use to think about my writing process affects the process, and calling it “serendipity” externalizes it too much. It moves it to a realm outside myself that I can’t control, making it chancy.

I much prefer to acknowledge those “gifts from the muse” are really a natural part of telling a story, in which details build on each other, becoming… well, a story creates problems that needs to be solved within the story, and those details are the toolbox I use to get to the end.

That’s how I see it, anyway.

5 thoughts on “Writing: Using Resources

  1. Neerdowell

    Cool. I’ve read a few books on writing, and I’ve started looking for scenes, sequels and conflict as I read. In fact I’ve gotten kind of OCD about writing the scenes points at the beginning of each chapter.

    Thanks for sharing some of your method.

  2. Neerdowell

    Just remembered my point… All that OCD note taking hasn’t helped my writing. I have become a better reader though.

    I think my favorite writers must rely more on something that resembles your method.

  3. I assume you read Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal for his advice? I also learned a heckuva lot about telling stories from Bill Martell, who writes screenplays; his site is scriptsecrets.net.

    Good luck.

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