Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Guest Post - Maggie Harryman

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Genre – Literary Fiction

Rating – R (Strong language, adult themes)

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How NOT to Write By the Seat of Your Pants

by Maggie Harryman

I’m an avid walker. I have two or three hiking trails I frequent and know exactly how long getting around the lake or up to the top of the reservoir or over the hill will take and just what time I’ll be back to my writing desk (which is actually my bed, but that’s another post for another day). Last month, a dear friend asked me to join her hiking club and I agreed. The first hike covered about five miles of moderate terrain in a state park. Not having been on the hike before I wasn’t sure what to expect but hoped for beauty, tranquility and a quickened pulse. The hike didn’t disappoint. There was just enough variety in the topography to make it challenging without being impossible. I would have thoroughly enjoyed myself if I hadn’t been trying, the entire way, to figure out where we were going and when we were going to reach the end. I just couldn’t relax. Not knowing where I was going was driving me crazy.

I’ve always felt the same way about writing fiction.

I need a road map when I create a story – I guess someone else would call it an outline. Either way, I can’t start until I’ve got some idea of where I’m headed. On my laptop, in a file called, Here Among Us, I have literally hundreds of sub files with names like “Notes on Section One,” “Flashbacks,” “Recurring Themes,” “Plot Points,” “Early Outlines,” and the ever popular, “Stuff I don’t know where to put.”

I created an outline before I ever wrote the first word of HAU (actually the first outline was done by hand on index cards) and in the first weeks and months of writing I turned to it and each subsequent outline frequently for guidance. The cards were my map, my anchor, my security blanket. The remainder of the docs, littered throughout several draft files of the novel (I wrote six drafts in all) represent my panic at various stages during the process. I don’t suffer in silence. When I’m stuck I have to talk myself down off the ledge—tell myself that I know where I’m going, that the end is in some sort of sight. That discussion ends up in a file and eventually, helps me finish. Even if it’s an early draft, finishing it allows me to breath a sigh of relief. Having an outline in the early stages just plain allows me to breathe.

I sound a little neurotic—fine, a lot neurotic—but in my defense let me just say that the final version of Here Among Us is quite different from those early outlines. Which tells me that while I may need the outline to act as a sort of babysitter, watching over me while I take my first steps, I don’t feel the need, once I get going, to follow it to the letter. So I guess for me an outline is a bit of a crutch. And that’s fine. Because writing a novel is hard. More often than not it’s a lonely journey with absolutely no guarantee of success. If the worst thing you ever do is create an outline, then it’s just not that bad.

I’ll do that hike—the one I mentioned earlier—two or three more times before I feel I have the lay of the land. Soon I’ll start to notice things I didn’t see before, a well-worn mountain bike trail that disappears into the brush or a bridle path that’s been recently traversed. Eventually I’ll veer off onto another path, trusting that I won’t get lost, that I’m grounded in the framework of the larger park and that it’s ok to take a chance on the road less traveled and still find my way back to the car.


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