Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Blocking Out My Chapters

Hello friends,

At this point in writing my new novel, The Rope, the Tire and the Tree, I have written my plot sentence, named and outlined my main characters and drafted my ending. Now I want to block out my chapters. Just like everything else in writing, not all writers do this. Some have a plot and characters, a beginning and an end, and then they fill in the rest as they go. I like to block out my chapters in advance for the same reason I draft my ending before I start writing the story; it gives me a path on which to travel. Certainly I will stray from that path from time to time, or even decidedly hop on to a new path all together, but having a direction in which to go makes the process not only easier, but in my humble opinion, much more fun!

I begin blocking my chapters by getting a box of index cards. Each card represents a single chapter. In the case of this story, I have a box of multicolored index cards. Because my three main characters are each from a different time period, I assign each character a color so at a glance I know on which character I am focusing. All of the characters will connect at some point, but in the beginning of the novel they are separate. When they come together, I will assign a different color card to denote that they are written together within one chapter.

Because I am working with three distinct main characters, I must be very careful not to overwork one character or chapter at the sake of another. Likewise, I must not jump around from each character too frenetically, potentially making the reader dizzy. I need to create an even flow between the chapters, connecting them on a literary level even before they come together. This is where my poetic skills come in handy. I make mention of the importance of understanding poetry writing at the end of my blog post titled "Taking the Labor Out of Starting a Story." I also teach this in my creative writing workshops. A poem is an immediate experience, filled with rich imagery and tangible emotion. Each word is precisely chosen to fullfill the essence of the poem. That is what I need to concentrate on when connecting the characters from chapter to chapter. Through carefully chosen language and narrative I want to create a sense of the presence of the characters in each chapter without always placing them there. For example, while in the midst of a game of hide and seek with her brother, Anastasia hides high in the branches of an old maple tree in her back yard. In her seclusion, her mind wanders and she daydreams of a young boy shining shoes on the streets of New York a century ago. She doesn't know how the daydream was inspired, but finds it intriguing. Two chapters later, young Walker Jacobs is sitting under a maple tree reading Ragged Dick, a Horatio Alger tale of a young shoeshine boy working the streets of New York in the 1860s. The two young people, Anastasia and Wallker, living a half century apart, share a connection with the tree and the book but have yet to realize it.

Now, I haven't actually written that scene yet, but I made note on the index card of Anna hiding among the branches with the image of Ragged Dick in her head. I know from this brief description where I want to go with it, and it will serve to point me in that direction when I get to physically writing chapter seven.

The above example is the exact reason for blocking out the chapters on index cards. As we write we come up with wonderful ideas about what we want to write about later in the novel, but we have a ways to go before we get there. We take a terrible risk of losing that nugget if we don't block it out now. So, I jot down on each index card an outline of the main arc of each chapter. What is it that I want to happen here? What is the main focus, plot movement, obstacle, etc. of this chapter? If I can answer that now, then my job becomes immensely easier later on. Also, by blocking the chapters on index cards, I can review them and move them around. What works in succession now, may not work as well in that order as I get deeper into the writing process. I can tape the cards around the computer so I can see where I've been and where I'm going, or keep them in a neat stack and go through them one by one. It depends on where I am in the writing process that day.

I hope this was helpful. When I finish blocking my chapters I will come back to you with more insight into this wonderful endeavor. Until then, happy writing!