Monday, July 25, 2011

Story Shape-Shifting

The first pink shafts of sunrise peeked above the hazy purple-blue horizon this morning as I made my way to the beach from our Daytona timeshare.

I'd been killing time in my room reading the new issue of Writer's Digest since that ding-dang rooster crowed in my head at 5 a.m. (Guess I've read too much Stephen King but there's something creepy about cavorting about on a dark beach by yourself before dawn.)

I was drawn to the WD interview with New York Times bestselling author Kristin Hannah, in which she said this about her approach for writing fiction: "Somehow, no matter how carefully I plan, I discover that errors in conception occur. I try to write my way out of those problems, allowing the characters' evolutions to show me the truth of the story."

That thought was still percolating in the coffeepot of my brain at 6:30 when I trod across the wide expanse of white sand toward the gentle early-morning surf. An "Aha!" moment suddenly overtook me when noticed variations in the beach sand that had somehow never registered before.

When you first step off the boardwalk, you encounter what I call "S" sand (because of it's many "s" word characteristics): soft, sugary, satiny, squeaky sand that feels like silk when you run your bare toes lightly across it. You just want to roll in it like your dog and coat yourself with it like a powdered doughnut.

Next comes the clumpy sand that has felt the kiss of the incoming tide; not a deluge, just enough to slightly dampen it and make it form clots and deep imprints from your footsteps.

Then you hit the hard-packed sand that has been beaten down into a quasi-cement-like quality from the relentless surf. The surf that has now retreated with the tide, leaving a sand highway for bikes, 4-wheelers, and the occasional car to traverse without fear of getting stuck. Footprints don't register on this surface; it's too compacted. You can walk up and down this swatch of sand all day and never leave a trace that you'd been there.

At last you reach the foamy surf and dig your feet into the soft sand beneath the lapping waves. This sand is pliable and fluid, forming gullies around your heels and burying your tootsies beneath it's ever-changing, ever-adapting undulations.

So much like the writing process,  I realized. From the first delightful, satiny, soft wisps of an idea that take root and then are watered by the tide of inspiration and relentlessly worked and reworked until they feel very nearly set in cement. But then, as the story begins to take shape on paper, the nuances and fluidity of the characters' character present surprise gullies and undulations you never saw coming in your detailed plot plan.

 Like the love story in my historical novel, The Distant Shore, when my plot outline called for a love affair between Aunt Augusta and the island doctor. As I was busily writing the first draft, somewhere around chapter four, out of the clear, blue sky, I noticed Aunt Augusta making eyes across the room not with the dapper doctor, but with the burly sea captain.

"Oh. My. Gosh!," I actually exclaimed aloud. "It's not the doctor, it's the captain!" I truly never saw that coming.

I then had to go back and rework the first three chapters, writing the doctor down and the captain up.  

And the sand shifted beneath my feet. But it made for a much better story, and a deeper, richer book.

I have to agree with Ms. Hannah. As safe as it might feel trucking down the hard-packed road, feeling the security of not getting stuck if we only stick to our meticulously plotted outline, we writers need to be willing to immerse our feet in the surf and allow the tide of our characters' desires, quirks, and true personalities to shape-shift the story in the way it was meant to be.