I'll be taking a workshop at Savvy Authors on setting as character later this month, so I've started to consider how I think about where my characters sit, sleep, walk and talk. I've also used setting as a way to plan my novel.
After I went through the early stages of getting an idea, finding some kind of structure for it, getting a feel for the characters and doing some research for the history and location, I started writing. And stopped. And wrote, and stopped. Then, in frustration or desperation, I started listing my story by scenes focusing on where each scene took place. I made a list of settings for my novel and with the setting made a note about what I wanted to happen there, what I could see so far. If you've written plays for stage or screen you know what I mean. Here's what my list kinda looks like.
- Sacramento street, night--Coby finds Zulie
- Queenie's doorstep, night--Coby drops Zulie off, gets dismissed
- Ross alley, night--Tory lets Coby in the back door.
I've already planned the movement of the story, the three-act structure, the plot points. So what do I get out of planning by setting?
Sometimes the statement of what happens grows into a paragraph sketch of the scene, or if I'm on a roll, a whole scene. The benefit of this has been that once I have a list I also have a timeline, a series of scenes that, once they are written, I can manipulate to break up long passages. I've also been able to skip scenes and write ahead. I've done this when the intermediate scenes, the ones that don't seem quite as important, turn out not to be.
It's not that I don't know what comes next. Because I have the scene list, I do know. What's missing is that I need to thread something into the scene. This has been a tremendous breakthrough for me.
For example, I'm pretty clear about the general events of Zulie meeting the major for the first time. It's not a huge plot point, but it is something that has to happen for th story to move forward. I also know that Zulie runs and errand and meets someone that she relies on later, at the end of the next scene in fact. However, I needed to write the scene where she gets lost first. Then I wrote the scene where Coby sees her just before she gets lost. And the scene between the major and Pritchard. And the scene where she and Sascha meet for the first time.
I didn't write these because they made me happy, or because I was avoiding the other ones in their favor. All of these need to be threaded back into the unwritten ones. They need the unwritten scenes as set-ups. What in the scenes I've written is important enough to be hinted at? Have I begun an idea that I can develop, something that I hadn't thought of or noticed so far?
I also have a manageable writing plan. A couple of people have suggested a version of this, writing by scene, one scene every day. Let's see. Ninety thousand words. Thirty chapters. Three thousand words per chapter. If each scene was a thousand words that would be three months for a book, writing it scene by scene. At my slowest, that's about an hour's work. I've taken longer but I was multitasking, or half-asleep. The feeling of accomplishment is amazing. Freeing. I have time first thing in the morning, after my first work shift, to get it done. If I want to double up, I have time at work, and after work. In between, I have time to think, to let the scenes integrate, to feel into the characters in their new state.
Next month I'll be putting the pedal to the metal and getting the rest of the novel finished, testing the scene-setting model. I'll also be cleaning up earlier scenes for presentation. I'll be letting you know how it all works out as I go. Meanwhile, how do you work with scenes? Do you know where your characters are? Where they have been or where they are going? How is your timeline? How do you manage your day-to-day writing?