Editing, Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Style

Swim Lanes, or How To Keep Order in Your Writing

March 12, 2018

Nearly anyone who has worked as a consultant knows that projects are broken down into sections, with those sections broken down into smaller parts. In order to manage large projects, project managers draw up charts with sections listed along the left side and major tasks or milestones listed across the top. The same holds true for writing.

Normally, I begin on page one and write straight through until “The End.” I don’t care about the niceties of the story, just about getting the bones sketched out and words on paper. I am a self-confessed devotee of Ann Lamott’s “shitty first draft.” I only begin writing when I begin editing, moving parts around, worrying over every word, every sentence. That works for a linear novel, which is what I usually write. I decided about a year ago to write a different form of novel. New for me, it’s a novel in stories, or a series of linked stories that can stand alone if they want. That said, several different narrators tell their stories, often observing and commenting on the same actions, but from different points of view.

After I finished what I thought of as the really shitty first draft of eight stories, I put it aside for a week before going back for a reread. Oh, golly goodness, gee whiz. Three of the stories nearly knocked my socks off. The rest drew a big “meh.” Holes all over the place, missing stories, overlapping material written nearly word for word in three stories. How did I go so far afield?

I didn’t have an outline. I tried to write the way I always do, linearly. Doesn’t work if your story isn’t linear, but is more circular than anything. When the narrator of two stories commented on a letter, I put the letter verbatim in each story. So not needed. When I let one character comment on the situation but not read the letter until later, the conflict made sense.

I decided an outline wouldn’t be enough. I needed SWIM LANES. Out came the old consultant’s hat. Out came a flip chart. Out came Post-It notes and marking pens. And out came the manuscript in all its flawed glory. First, I needed to know what chapters I wanted. Then, I had to populate those chapters with characters. I had to be certain I didn’t refer to a character introduced in a different story but not mentioned in the current one without some degree of introduction. I needed to know how old each character was, what year(s) the story covered, who else was in the story, and what the central conflict was.

Whew! The gaps became painfully obvious. One reader of a story asked why one character was so angry all the time. “What she always this bitchy?” Well, no, she wasn’t, but circumstances overwhelmed her, turning her to vodka. To understand and empathize with her, I needed her backstory. Oh, my another chapter.

I had several pages of notes before I went to the flip chart. The first image here contains notes and suggestions, arrows and scratch-outs. Not easy to follow. The second image is a pencil chart of what I thought I needed.  At that time, I needed to know what year a chapter took place in and how old the central and ancillary characters were. Still not enough. The image of the flip chart is what I’m using now. I can take a quick glance, move a sticky note around, move a chapter around, all without messing up anything.

If all this works, the book, Out of the Desert, will be out toward the end of the year. I hope.

This is my story about how the novel in stories is progressing. I’m sticking to it. I’ll keep you up to date as things progress. Until them, write away, write now.

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