June 30, 2023

Sticking Points

A few weeks ago, to get myself unstuck on novel planning, I turned to sticky notes.

While I do all my writing by typing into a computer, for the planning stages, I often apply pen to paper. Usually small pieces of paper, like index cards, or small areas of paper, like the margins of a printed draft. My handwriting is barely legible, even to myself, and it's even worse when tiny, but I find a lot of value in scribbling down thoughts, despite the effort required in interpreting them later. Switching away from the keyboard into a mode with something physical to see and touch helps me generate new ideas.

The ideas I'm trying to generate right now involve that novel I've been working on that is still more like piles of sticks than a bridge. I'm in the process of figuring out all the questions about the plot and characters that remain unclear to me, and there are more of those left than I'd like.

As one example, a major part of the story I decided on long ago is that one character is involved in wrongdoing, and then at a particular turning point, another character catches them. But I have yet to construct the exact scenario in which the catching plausibly happens, in a way that couldn't have just as easily happened far earlier in the story. And ideally I want this event to be a result of some events in another plotline, or at the very least not include any details incompatible with those other events. So there are many sub-questions for each of the big questions, and it's a lot to get my brain around. I hoped that unloading some of my brain onto paper might help.

Last fall, I had great success working out the basic plot for this novel by lining up index cards on my rug. This time, I felt like trying a different, more freeform medium, so I arranged sticky notes on poster boards, some in orderly columns and others stacked up haphazardly.

Three poster boards with sticky notes containing handwriting. The boards are each a different color (white, blue, and black), and are lying side by side on a patterned rug. The sticky notes, all yellow, are arranged in various sections of the boards. Some appear carefully lined up, while others are stacked on top of each other more haphazardly. Several large areas of the boards don't have any notes.

You can guess that there's probably some sort of method to the arrangement of the stickies and blank spaces, and you might wonder whether I'm going to fill the boards more completely. I was expecting that myself, but after a couple weeks of productive brainstorming in this mode, my ideas started getting bigger than the dimensions of a sticky note, and I returned to my keyboard.

I've now typed up everything from the stickies and am working on expanding those ideas as well. I'm going to keep answering all my questions about the story in hopes that soon I'll be able to build an outline that isn't riddled with gaping unknowns. After that, the plan is to write a solid draft and finally build that bridge.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Molly Templeton at Tor.com stops and thinks about paragraphs: "Favorite books are common; favorite sentences perhaps a bit less so, but there are plenty of memorable ones. I might even, if pressed, come up with a favorite chapter. But a paragraph? This sturdy, flexible building block of writing? What even is one? Do you think about them when you read? Do you think about them differently online and on the printed page? Do you wonder why they break when they do, or go on at great length?"


Christopher Gronlund said...

I've always found myself at this point with every novel. Just a spread of Post-it notes or notecards laid out to see what might be moved and what's needed to connect everything.

It's always nice because it usually means I'm getting closer, so I hope that's your experience as well.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Yes, it feels like I'm making progress! Slow progress, but progress nonetheless!

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