Monday, April 19, 2010

The WHY Of It All

What I'm reading: Killer Body, by Elle James

I spent several days working on the new manuscript, trying to pay attention to the process along the way, so I could share it here. Since I don't outline the entire book, or even the first few chapters, I thought I'd see if I can elaborate a little more on how I get from a blank page 1 to "the end." It's all about asking WHY.

Recapping last Thursday's post. I started out knowing at least the basics about one of my characters. In this case, because both had made appearances in other books or manuscripts, I knew who the heroine and hero were going to be. I then searched for whatever I'd already established for them.

Sometimes this is good, sometimes it's a snag. My heroine began as a woman on the run, so having her deal with a new identity seemed reasonable. I figured she'd want a plain, common name. Mary seemed perfect. (And easy to type). First snag: The hero's given name was Mark. Mark & Mary wasn't going to work. Or would it? Mark's name was only mentioned a few times in the other books, because he goes by his nickname, Grinch. (His last name is Grinciewicz, which ISN'T easy to type. Heck, I'm not even sure how to pronounce it.) So maybe it would work. But rather than deal with it now, I simply made Mary into Elizabeth. If I want to change it again, I can. Search and Replace can be your friend.

Next snag. She has a son. So I have to make sure she's not only behaving like a woman in hiding, but that she's concerned for his well being—perhaps more than her own. Will had enough page time in the upcoming Where Danger Hides so that I've got a pretty good handle on him.

I wrote the first scene, trying to follow 'romance' convention by getting my hero and heroine together as quickly as possible. Clearly influenced by my own recent life experiences, Mary/Elizabeth (whose real name is Jillian) was moving into her new home, arranged by a character from Where Danger Hides. Rule #1. Conflict, not Back Story. Something had to go wrong, right?

She realizes the gas isn't connected. Perfect way to introduce the hero, who for some unknown reason is sent to take care of it, even though he doesn't work for the gas company. Note to self – figure that one out. Meanwhile, being a Strong Heroine, she's going to try to figure it out and do it herself.

Opening scene is going along fine; there's some sexual tension as she deals with his hunkiness and charming grin, all the while wondering if he might be a potential threat.

Next scene is from the hero's POV. Now, here's where things slow down. My basic writing technique consists of writing stuff down, then asking "WHY?" as I look at it. If the answer is "Because I need it for tension/conflict/humor/plot advancement," it's probably wrong. The first major 'error' I spotted was having the hero appear while the heroine was looking in her car's trunk for her tool kit. WHY didn't she hear him drive up? Well, he left his truck at the top of the drive, and she was busy looking for the toolkit. But WHY did he park the truck there? WHY did he come down without a toolkit of his own? So she could be surprised and scared is contrived and cheating.

All these WHY questions require answers. This is the 'head writing' part. And, because there was a throwaway line in When Danger Calls about Grinch having a kid, I was stuck with another character to work into the story.

Answering all the WHY questions drives the story forward for me. My thought processes might not end up on the page, but (and this is most prevalent in the early chapters, while things are taking shape) the results do.

So, where it ended up: Grinch's son is asleep in the truck. It's a quiet rural area, one he knows well, and he's not concerned that someone will come by and Do a Bad Thing. But that's a bit weak, so I added a dog who would take the head off of anyone who tried anything. (Note to self: don't forget you've now saddled yourself with yet another 'character' to keep track of).

More WHY questions. WHY not go all the way down the drive? It's steep, curves, and riddled with potholes, and he doesn't want to wake the kid. Weak. What if he's not an experienced father? Just because I created the kid three books ago doesn't mean he's still part of Grinch's life. WHY not? Because his wife left him, took the kid and remarried. WHY does he have the kid now? Because she and the boy's stepfather were killed in a Tragic Accident? Works for now. Note to revisit before Grinch has to tell anyone about it. Also, having him a new and inexperienced father allows for more conflict between Grinch and the Very Caring Mother who is our heroine.

More notes: WHY doesn't Grinch work for Blackthorne when the book opens? WHY does he live conveniently near the heroine's new digs?

By the time I'd written Grinch's scene, I realized that his friendly demeanor and magnetic grin weren't consistent with a man who's worried about leaving a young child asleep in his truck. I ended up tweaking that scene, which in the end added to the tension, because the heroine sees someone who's in a rush, who keeps looking over his shoulder. She extrapolates from her own secret-keeping life, and it seems logical for her to worry that this guy might be out to get her after all.

Now, if I were a plotter, I might have figured all this out before putting a single word on the page. But I don't think it would have saved me any time. For me, writing is plotting.

Tomorrow, my guest is author Debra St. John, who's another one with issues of the house and home. Come on back!


Debra St. John said...

Hi Terry,

I'm looking forward to visiting tomorrow!

And I love the WHY? approach to writing. I'm going to have to try that. I've been somewhat stuck on my WIP. Apparently I haven't been asking the right question! Thanks.

Stacey Joy Netzel said...

Terry, I'm a loose plotter, but reading your process on this is very interesting. I can see the potential to help me figure out smaller details in a scene by forcing good solid answers to my own Why? questions. Thanks for sharing. :)

Terry Odell said...

Debra - looking forward to having you. And glad I was helpful.

Stacey - I'm a trial and error writer. Learning on the job, but asking WHY, I hope, will keep the reader from doing the same thing--and not liking the answer they get!

Elena said...

Terry, I have a problem with her letting him in the house in the first place. For one, places that send people to your home generally nowadays will tell you not only who they are sending, but what their photo ID hanging around their neck should look like. The electric company said that the service man they were sending was a contractor and told me the company name on the side of his truck. If they don't, and you ask, they will. As far as I'm concerned, if they can't answer those questions, I cancel. If I had a gas leak and for some reason the gas company wouldn't tell me, I'd call the fire department. You learn hypervigilance pretty quickly in those circumstances.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I like asking why. It definitely helps me make sure the motivation is all there and that the plot makes sense!

Carol Kilgore said...

I'm a why person, too. I try to answer them all, but sometimes my answers don't hold up and I have to ask again on each draft.

Katie Reus said...

Ah, find and replace has become my BFF lately :) I'm in the process of asking a lot of 'why's' right now too!

Hart Johnson said...

Terry, this is great insight into your writing process--it is so deliberate and thoughtful! I feel like a fraud now. *hangs head* seriously though, I love how you use why to tweak things and improve the story!

Nancy J. Cohen said...

These are great questions to ask to lay the motivational groundwork for all your scenes. I would add HOW to the list and maybe WHO. As in, Who is going to fix the gas leak and How will he/she do it? Why does it leak in the first place? Who has the knowledge to deal with it? It's questions like these that make us scratch our head and wonder, Why didn't I think of this before? I also talk about writing your characters out of a hole on my blog

Mason Canyon said...

The whys and whats are what keeps the reader glued to the page. Interesting post.

Thoughts in Progress

Terry Stonecrop said...

I'm not a plotter either, so I like this idea. Thanks for showing us how you use it. And yes, dogs are really characters. I love writing animals and their personalities.

Terry Odell said...

Elena - I agree (she wasn't in her house when he showed up) but those are all very good "Why" questions.

Elizabeth. Yes, nothing like getting a reader confused or upset with a character to stop a read.

Carol - The earlier in the book, the more changes for me.

WT- everyone has a different process, so don't bang your head. If you get to 'the end', that's what matters.

Nancy - yes, I saw your blog this morning. We have to remember to plug all those plot holes.

Mason - Thanks. If a character does something I don't understand, it'll pull me out of the story

Terry - glad sharing my method helped you.

Susan Macatee said...

I still can't decide if I'm a panster or plotter. I used to write a very generic plot, mostly so I'd know how the story was going to end, but I'd get stuck in the middle of the book. So, I tried plotting out the whole story beforehand, but I still have to revise my latest plotted out manuscript, because it's just not working. Now, I'm thinking maybe I should try a combination, mostly because I'm thoroughly stuck in plotting out the middle of my latest venture. And I'm itching to start writing those early plotted out scenes.

Terry Odell said...

Susan -- I'd say your a Plantser. I think I am too.

* said...

Asking "Why" can lead me to better writing. I demands more and pushes me further.

As I always say, "Write on!"

Sue Perkins said...

I'm a "Why" person writer too, but I don't ask the big question until the end of the book - or until I get stuck. Nice article Terry

Patricia Stoltey said...

This is great, Terry. I'm going to put a great big "WHY?" right above the desk where I'll be poring over my first draft the next few weeks. Since my plot has a lot of twists and turns, I need to answer this question every step of the way.

Terry Odell said...

Terresa - asking questions helps keep things moving in the right direction, doesn't it?

Sue - If I waited, I'd have such a tangled mess, I'm not sure I could fix it. I know people who can write straight through without ever editing until they get to the end, but that hasn't worked for me yet.

Patricia - between Why and a tracking board, I figure I can keep things straight. At least I hope so.