Construction Zone: Flexibility Within Boundaries

Some writers contend that it’s better to just toss in everything that occurs to you as you’re writing a first draft, and worry about cleaning it up later. If you’ve been hanging around here long, you know I’d really prefer to start with a cleaner story. In fact, I’ve been more careful with everything I’ve written since HPC was finished – finally learned my lesson after five drafts.

Writing “cleaner” has risks though too – the main one being missing out on story lines or sub-plots that could make the story richer, better, and more dramatic. I think there has to be room in both the first draft and revisions to explore ideas that organically come up while the story is flowing, while not letting it get too far outside the original main plot. Clear as mud? What I’d like to cultivate in my own processes is flexibility with boundaries – room for new ideas, but only as far as they enhance the original main plot.

I unintentionally set up an object lesson in this for myself when I decided to make the latest serial novel interactive. For those of you who aren’t reading Indelibly Inked as it comes out every Friday, there’s a poll at the end of every chapter allowing readers to choose some way in which the story will develop next. I generally give some options that seem logical to me, and some that seem a bit “off the wall” – and I’ve been surprised on several occasions to have one of the “off the wall” options chosen. This week readers handed me another curve ball and asked for two of the options to be incorporated – which I’ll gladly do, of course.

Whatever the readers choose, I then have the task of working it into the story. This means I can’t use an outline, because I can’t predict what readers will choose. I can’t write ahead, and most importantly, I have to work the reader choices into the story *in a way that makes sense* with everything that’s come before (without going back to weave it into the previous chapters) – and I have to resolve any sub-plots or new twists that occur due to taking the story in that direction. I have to tell you – it’s been one of the most challenging writing exercises I’ve ever done, but also one of the most valuable.

I just finished revising the first chapter of HPC, and even just in those four scenes, I still found myself stumbling across new ideas as I revised/rewrote here and there. I treated any new ideas just like I would for the serial novel – if they would require going back to add to something already done, I tossed them out. If I could add them in a logical way that would enhance and further the plot, I did, so long as I already knew how they’d be resolved later (and marked that on the revision outline). It’s working beautifully so far, and giving me some twists that I didn’t see coming, even when I revised the plot/subplot lines. At the same time, I’m not constantly going back to weave new stuff in – I can keep moving forward instead of being stuck in an endless revision loop.

How do you deal with new ideas that crop up “organically” as you’re writing or revising? Toss in everything? Set limits? Would you change anything about how you deal with impromptu ideas?

7 comments on “Construction Zone: Flexibility Within Boundaries

  1. Samantha Hunter

    Hey Jamie — this is what I think reflects the mixture of plotting and pantsing a lot of writers end up experiencing, or at least, I do. You have a general plan, but then there are a lot of unexpected turns as you write.

    Some, you go with — I guess you develop an instinct as to whether it’s right or not — others, you set aside. Sometimes I write it out, and find it doesn’t work, so I keep a “snips” file, and I put all the “extra” in there, and if I can use it at some point in the book, I just cut and paste it back in.

    It’s a way of keeping your main ms clean, but not losing any of the extra that you aren’t sure of as you go, and I also will just write little notes to myself in the snips file about random ideas, etc so I can come back to them if I need more material, or whatnot.

    Good post!


  2. Shannon O'Donnell

    Excellent post! I think this is something a lot of writers can easily relate to. I’m still experimenting to find the system that works best for me. 🙂

  3. Dolly

    Though I am intending to experiment with the next draft on editing at the same time, currently I am not against incorporating new stuff if it seems better than before.

    Obviously since I outline, I have got an idea of where I am going, so it’s not going to be just random things. But if I think of things that I believe would enhance the story (as my current plot layer that I am planning to add), then I am all in favour of adding it.

    I would love a clean first draft, but getting the best story is more important. I also do what Samantha said – if I think of something, but not sure about it, then I will make a note of it somewhere and eventually if it’s worth it, the idea will play in mind.

  4. Jamie D.

    Thanks Sam.

    I use yWriter – so recently (very recently LOL) I’ve started creating a “throwaway” scene in each chapter, where I put everything I’m cutting from those four scenes. That sounds like your “snips” file…just sort of a place to save stuff that probably won’t be used, but I want to keep in case. I think I need a separate file for my unused good ideas though too.

    I think I’m finally developing that “instinct”…but time and queries will tell, of course…

  5. Jamie D.

    Thanks Shannon! Experiment, experiment, experiment…good thing us creative types are good at that!

    Good luck developing your own personal system.

  6. Jamie D.

    Confusing working through the first time, isn’t it? I’m actually kind of glad we’re in sort of the same spot…so I can see how you handle stuff like this too.

  7. Carol

    I have to agree with Samantha. Because I’m a pantser my stories usually twist and turn as I’m writing them. I have a vague idea of how I’m getting from point A to point B, but the in between part can go in any direction.

    If I get an idea I like but don’t think it belongs in the WIP right now, I’ll jot it down to incorporate later or in something else.