The Agony and the Ecstasy of Making Things Up

This week, my novel writing students have to think about whether or not they are “Outline People” or “No Outline People,” or (more likely) something in between. I decided to write about this, too.

What’s my process?

I'm probably on the left side of the spectrum....
I’m probably on the left side of the spectrum….

Here’s how I know I’m a plotter.

This is how I taught myself to write a novel. By writing a nonfiction novel rather than a fictional one, I didn’t have to “make up” plot. Actually, I had more plot than I knew what to do with.

Plot as a Given

What I’ve discovered is that I need a sense of the overall architecture before I start building, a blueprint, even if I end up modifying it.

Right now, I’m working on a novel tentatively titled, Mrs. Cole Porter. The first thing I did was create a storyboard. Cole and Linda Porter’s “real life” provides the base time plot, or at least a rough outline of it.

I spent a few months reading all the Cole Porter biographies, and these are the best.

  • The Life that Late He Led by George Eells
  • Cole Porter: A Biography by Charles Schwartz
  • Cole Porter by William McBrien

As I read these books, I used created “event cards” and “scene cards.”

Every time the biographers wrote “On such and such a date, Cole and Linda went to the Hotel Ritz…” I made an index card.

Since their lives are extremely well documented, I made a lot of cards, as you can see.

Obviously, I’ve got too many cards.

I remind myself daily that I’m writing a novel, not a historical biography.

My novel can’t cover all of those events, especially not in real time. I have to select specific episodes on that timeline that are ripe for dramatization.

Example: Trip to Egypt

One episode I very much want to dramatize occurs in 1908-1909. Here are the cards from 1908 to 1912.

1908-1912

Here’s what’s important in those cards: Linda’s douchebag husband, Ned Thomas, is going to have a car accident in 1908. She will nurse him back to health. His mother will be so grateful for this that in 1909, she pays for an Egyptian cruise down the Nile, which will include their friend and guide, Lord Carnarvon—who, like Ned, loves horses and fast cars.

Aside: All of that is true except that I don’t know for sure if Lord C was there, but in my imagination, he’s definitely there. I very much hope the reader will recognize Lord Carnarvon as the man who discovered King Tut’s tomb and the former owner of one Highclere Castle, also known as Downton Abbey.

I don’t know for sure if Linda ever went to Highclere, but in my novel, she’s going there. Fer sure.

This series of events—the car accident, the trip abroad—is important because

1.) It instills in Linda a love of travel and a love of ancient cultures, especially Egypt.

2.) She’ll equate her fastidious scrapbook practice with the burial practices of the ancient Egyptians, a way to live forever, which is important to the novel’s themes.

3.) As soon as her douchebag husband gets better, he returns to being a douchebag, but this trip to Egypt is going to give Linda the inner strength to finally leave her husband in 1912.

4.) when Linda marries Cole Porter, they will go on an Egyptian cruise just like this.

How many chapters do these ten cards represent? I’m not sure.

How many scenes do I need? To get from “Car Accident” to “Nile Trip” to “Leaves Husband”?

Do I dramatize Ned’s accident and her coming to care for him? Or do I start with them on the Nile and fill the reader?

I have no idea, but it comforts me to know that I’ve got something to head towards.

Give yourself an assignment

The way I’ve been writing the novel thus far is that the “real events” give me ideas for scenes, and I draft them quickly. Every time I sit down to write, I give myself an assignment.

  • Okay, write the scene when Linda goes to Ned’s side and says she’ll take care of him.
  • Okay now write the scene where they are going down the Nile and/or she sees the Sphinx. Explain what this does to her.
  • Okay now write the scene where she picks up the morning paper and sees in the gossip columns that her husband was out with another woman the night before.
  • Okay now write the scene where she confronts his family and demands the lucrative divorce.

This novel (which is based on a true story) requires me to be a plotter. I don’t want to stray wildly far from the way things happened. But it also requires me to be a pantser.

Playing with Dolls

Writing is like playing with dolls. I take up my Linda doll and move her around the dollhouse (a given). I know what her houses look like, because she had them photographed for Architectural Digest and other magazines, and because her house in Paris and her house in the Berkshires have recently gone up for sale.

“…I take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”
–Sharon Olds, I Go Back to May 1937

But then I start speaking as her (not a given). Sure, some scenes have been already been scripted a bit. I know what choices she’s going to make in her life, but I’m free to invent how and why she makes those choices.

That’s the “pantsing.” That’s the part of the writing process that can’t be outlined or scripted.

That’s the part of the writing process that fills you with something like ecstasy.  

Realization

What I’m coming to terms with is that some of the scenes I’ve dramatized (or really, really want to dramatize) will have to be summarized or cut entirely or the novel will be 1000 pages long.

To use another analogy: I’m like the documentary filmmaker who has to cut hundreds of hours of footage down to a story that’s 90 minutes long. She can’t regret the time she spent shooting all that footage, and I can’t regret the time I spent creating more scene cards than I can ever use.

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

10 comments

  1. Elizabeth says:

    This is just fascinating. Love the way you break down the process and the comparisons with filmmaking and doll playing. So cool having a window into a novelist’s mind. And I can wait to read this when you finish!

  2. Elizabeth says:

    This is just fascinating. Love the way you break down the process and the comparisons with filmmaking and doll playing. So cool having a window into a novelist’s mind. And I can wait to read this when you finish!

  3. Did you go to a Downton Abbey preview like we did? That’s where we got the funny cut-out doll sheet.

    You effectively summarize the problem for anyone who must carry out a lot of research before writing. What do I do with it all? How do I tell all the scenes I’d love to tell? This is the one area in which historical fiction is far harder than any other kind. And maybe it’s the reason many of my students are scared of writing it.

    • Cathy Day says:

      John and Elizabeth,

      Thanks for reading and for commenting! John, no, I didn’t go to the preview. I just swiped this image off the internet. And I’m glad you can commiserate!

  4. I LOVE this. I can’t wait to do a similar, illustrated post with my own novel. And you’ve really inspired me, because my next project is a lot bigger and requires even more research and a bigger sweep of years.
    I’m somewhere between the first two on the left in terms of outlining. I have a grid for The Lost Son that maps out the plot and the turning points. And when I wrote it, I created a list of scenes that needed to be written and named Word documents for them, all saved in a folder. THen when I sat down to write, I’d look at the list and pull up the document I needed to work on that day.
    Thank you for this!

  5. I LOVE this. I can’t wait to do a similar, illustrated post with my own novel. And you’ve really inspired me, because my next project is a lot bigger and requires even more research and a bigger sweep of years.
    I’m somewhere between the first two on the left in terms of outlining. I have a grid for The Lost Son that maps out the plot and the turning points. And when I wrote it, I created a list of scenes that needed to be written and named Word documents for them, all saved in a folder. THen when I sat down to write, I’d look at the list and pull up the document I needed to work on that day.
    Thank you for this!

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