I’m sitting at my desk this morning, staring down on a giant poster board covered with multicolored sticky notes. The board is divided into columns, each one labeled with a date, starting at June 8th, 1958. The sticky notes—pink, blue and lavender—each represent a different point-of-view character in the novel I am working on right now. I made the same type of board when I was nearing the end of BENT ROAD, except there were four colors and the dates began with August, 1967.
I started this board around the time I blogged about having reached page 300, after which I blogged about my ongoing struggle with plot. My plan was simple. The board would help me organize my scenes, confirm timelines, track details, visualize the story’s arch. I even spent a decent amount of time deciding which color sticky note to give to which character. Grace is sweet, innocent—definitely pink. Julia is stubborn yet surprising calm in the face of tragedy—blue. Ania is a bit crazy—lavender. Yes, the poster board would take command of my thoughts, show me the gapping holes in my plot, confirm the balance of my multiple points-of-view. Once upon a time, I was an accountant, and we accountants thrive in such order. Debits always on the right. Credits on the left. (Or is it the other way around. It’s been a while.) We tick and tie. We label our workpapers with red ink and reference our calculations with roman numerals. This tidy white board covered in tiny pastel flags would bring me the same order.
Except sitting here at my desk this morning, my coffee having gone slightly cold, I remember that the board didn’t help me with BENT ROAD, and it won’t help me now. While my accountant brain may have slurped up the eight column ledgers, my writer’s brain does not. I wish I could outline. I wish, before I wrote the first word of a novel, I could begin with an outline, each main idea headed up by a roman numeral. I would indent the subtopics and label them with capital letters, and the next level with regular numbers and the level after that with small letters. I would use Excel so that my columns would be evenly spaced and I would format each column with “wrap around text” so that the short phrases would not invade the next column. I have tried. With every novel—I wrote a few bad ones that I never tried to sell before writing and selling BENT ROAD—I have tried to outline. I recommend the practice to anyone who asks. But even after the fact, even after the novel is nearly complete and I am attempting to outline what is already written, my brain just doesn’t work that way.
I’ve come to this realization before and I come to it again now. As we speak, lavender, pink and blue stick notes are sailing around my office like tiny pastel colored birds in flight. I have torn them from my board, crumpled them into tiny balls I can later throw at my kids when they finally get out of bed and flung them in the air. My white poster board is again white. Maybe I’ll try an excel spreadsheet next and divide it by characters instead of dates and chapters. I won’t call it an outline. I’ll leave it unnamed. I’ll think with a landscape view instead of a portrait view. I’ll use a red font for things that need to be fixed and italics for things that need to be deleted. My new spreadsheet will show me the arch of each character’s story. I’ll be able to identify where the tension dwindles and isolate repetitive scenes. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. That’ll work for sure.
A bit of news - the audio rights to BENT ROAD recently sold, so should you prefer an audio version, it will be also be available.