Waiting for lightning

Intracloud lightning by Jonathan Ball, Arkansas, 2011.


I don’t understand complex plot maps.

I don’t mean I can’t comprehend them. I mean I find their existence hideous. Plot maps are to novels as cadaver parts are to a human being. We’ve all read that one, right? First science fiction novel, 18 year old young woman wrote it on a bet?

I’m not saying novels shouldn’t be well-crafted. I’ve had my own issues with being indulgent in storytelling… but here’s the thing. Telling a story isn’t assembling a house, or building a ship, or any of those horrible, soul-crushing metaphors you’ll find in writing-advice books. Telling a story is augury. It’s speaking to the dead. It’s channeling a parallel universe where these events are happening. If it isn’t, set the story aside and try again.

If I knew what I wanted to say, I’d write an essay. Part of the glory of fiction — and I mean, don’t look directly at it or you’ll be consumed kinda glory — is its revelation.

I tried using a plot outline in my first three novels. The characters kept rebelling, and I gave up. I thought the good guys would conquer the invaders with some glorious twist, but they didn’t. People died on both sides, and the remaining protagonists just left. Why? That’s what they told me they’d do. Frankly, it’s what most people do in response to war. They mourn the dead, have deep trust issues, and move.

I’m writing something now that is alive. It will be my fifth novel. I worked out more details before writing than I’ve ever done before, and it has helped — but it was mostly character motivation and background stuff. The plot is one sentence. I expanded it to five sentences, for more detail. That’s it. All I know for sure is the event that kicks things off, and where I think it’s headed. It came to me on one of my nightly three mile walks, and felt true. After I wrote the first 1,000 words, I knew it was true. Now I’m just channeling.

The trick to channeling is, you have to keep the connection fresh. I’m writing every day. Even on the busiest, most exhausting days, I have no excuse not to write a paragraph, if not a page or two. (Thank you Google Docs, the miracle of the Cloud, and the ability to write on PC, tablet, or phone with automatic saves). On the good days, I write several pages, and Nick and Tina and the rest tell me what’s happening and why and how they feel about it. Sometimes they sit quietly and wait for me to wipe my glasses so I can see better. But they always talk to me, because I’m there every day, listening.

If I don’t do that, they’ll cut the connection. You can’t disrespect the spirits and expect them to talk to you. They don’t care about your plot map and rising action and dénouement. Without them, all you have is a stitched cadaver, waiting for lightning.


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