Step by Step: Day Two of the Great Downhill

It’s 8:30, my children are in school, and I’m at a cafe in my neighborhood with Bob Dylan and the whoosh of the espresso machine in the background. But for the couple who just sat down near me to discuss their relationship, it’s an ideal place to write. (Oh good, I’m glad they worked that out. They just need to HIRE someone to do the housework.)

I know some of you are writers, and most all of you are readers, and so I hope it will interest you to hear about how someone (well, me) goes about writing a novel, or at least the end of one. And if this is not your cup of tea, I’ll be back to other things in a week or so. But for now, this is it.

It’s very true that you write a novel one word at a time, something people tell you when they sense you’re worrying too much about what you’re going to write, and this worry is keeping you from actually writing. But it does help someone like me (obsessive, anxious, list-making) to at least have a sketch of where a scene is going before I begin writing it. And that’s what a stepsheet is for.

It might not be called a stepsheet (heaven knows I can never remember the words for writing craft techniques), but when I say stepsheet, I mean a narrative I write that describes what’s going to happen in the scene. This is not anything that will become what I write. It’s written in the tone and with the speed you’d use when you send an email in response to a friend’s question: so, what’s going to happen next in your novel? It’s a testament to the tact and delicacy of my friends that no one has actually ever asked me this question. Maybe they know I’m busy asking myself this very thing and so we can turn instead to the interesting question of whether the Oakland A’s might actually win the entire World Series.

But say I had been asked this question. In answer, I’d say something like this in that hypothetical email: The main character begins the scene wanting to make amends for having so thoroughly messed up with the woman he’s discovered he really likes and naturally wants to sleep with. He also knows she might have some information about the victim and he’d like to get her to talk about that. He goes to the cafe where she works (one of those wonderful european cafes with the little machines that deliver candied peanuts, a foosball table, and bottled coke) and tries to get her to sit down. At first, she pretends not to remember who he is. But then her brother…

It’s that sort of thing I’m talking about. Now this would make a terrible novel, because a novel does not narrate events — it dramatizes them, its goal being to get you to feel like you’re within the story. (Unless you’re writing a meta-novel, which thankfully I am not and never will.) But it’s a great way to get yourself into the scene. (A scene, by the way, begins with a character having some goal in mind and, in the end, he or she has either achieved that goal, or been thwarted in an interesting way — either way, this scene should end with your readers begging for whatever follows.)

There you have it then — a sketch of how you go about sketching your chapter. It’s enormously helpful, by the way, to then launch immediately into the chapter itself. That looks sort of like this:

The cafe where Anja worked was like all the other cafes on the square, the same umbrellas advertising [must look up name of bavarian beer], the same [must ask sister what the chairs looked like? rush?], the same mix of American soldiers and German students.

One final note on going downhill without brakes: Even if it’s not perfect, your chapter will most likely be way, way better than you ever dreamed if you, like me, begin with a stepsheet and low expectations and then almost immediately launch yourself into the blank space of the page. Because what will happen — I promise — is that you’ll get to a point where you’re zooming through places you didn’t know were even there, describing a dress or a movement of the air, or a look on a face or a line of dialogue you didn’t know you had inside you. That’s what I love about writing, and the stepsheet gets me there.

Until tomorrow, BL


20 thoughts on “Step by Step: Day Two of the Great Downhill

  1. Thank you for this, BL, it is so helpful to me, I can hardly tell you. I have been avoiding The Novel because I’m petrified, paralyzed and — disorganized. This is a good approach. I figure I need to set up a schedule and be disciplined. Then, when I do have time (instead of whining about how difficult Work is), I won’t be in free fall.

    Enjoy your coffee, your writing and your weekend.

  2. I try to do just what you’re describing in my fiction, although often things shoot off in radically different directions once the writing really starts. That’s the fun of it. But I was once told by a Very Famous Writer that he outlines in great detail all his Massively Successful Literary Novels. They deviate once he starts writing (we have at least this in common), but, regardless, he has this sort of map to refer back to.

    On another note: I just mentioned your blog as one of my favorites on a big writers listserve. It will be interesting to see if your number of visitors spikes!

  3. Very, very interesting! Any time you want to write about the process of novel writing is just fine by me. I’ll never write a novel (okay, never say never, but I seriously doubt it), but I still like to hear about it.

  4. Thank you for the wonderful entry. I will try it the next time I am looking at a blank screen wondering how to pull up inspiration out of thin air. I like the idea of getting carried away and losing myself in a particular moment – for me, this is one of the best things I love about writing, but lately I haven’t had too many of these instances.

  5. It certainly does interest me. And it inspires me too, particularly as I try to make the shift from writing short stories to writing a novel. The pace is so very different, in the writing and the reading.

  6. Wow, Bloglily, this is the most helpful tip I’ve ever come across for how to fill that blank page. This is precisely the information I would love to know from writers, but the usual advice is so vague that it’s not very helpful. Now, someday, when I write my novel, I will know how to go about it.

  7. I too think it is interesting to read about your process. Writing a novel is something I’ve always thought that I’d do, but have never progressed very far at all. Slaving over a few words in a blog post or a poem is intense enough that I can’t imagine where to begin with something of length like a novel — even if it were a short one! Even if I never do write one, it’s interesting to read about someone in the process of writing one.

  8. Hi Kristen, Yes indeed, the outline’s there so it can be pushed to the side whenever something more fun comes along. In a way, the stepsheet backs you into inspiration. As for your plug, you are such a sweet woman. Thank you.

    Hi Dorothy, I like to hear about things I don’t particularly want to do either, like making puff pastry, or knitting. I like to eat, and I like nice sweaters and it’s kind of cool to hear how someone goes about trying to make a decent product. But I always think, when someone whose writing I like says Oh I could never write a novel, OF COURSE YOU CAN. You’re way smarter, and more perceptive than I am, so why not??

    Nikki — it does come and go, doesn’t it? This morning was a plod for me, and I pushed through to the end of a scene, thinking oh god oh god oh god oh god I suck I suck I suck I suck. I hate that. But sometimes you have to do it and hope for a better day the next day.

    Hello Kate, I’m very interested in hearing how your short story writing helps or hinders (or neither) your novel project. I hope you post about it someday!

    Renee — I just realized, you’re a publisher/writer, like the wonderful Susan Hill (Eoin Purcell just posted something about her over at his site:

    Hi Cam, I wonder if people who like longer forms are just chattier than those who dream up poems!

  9. I always enjoy hearing about how different writers approach the process of writing a novel. So many writers have their own unique combinations of techniques! Seeing as how I have yet to attempt writing a novel of my own, I’m certain that when I finally set down to give it a go, I’ll have whole rainbow of options to try if I ever get stuck. 🙂

  10. Hi Bloglily–this is fascinating, so much so that I think I’m going to have to think about it more and write about it on my blog. I do love hearing how other people go about their writing. In my writing classes, I always spend some time asking the students how they do it–does it need to be quiet? Do they need to have food around? Do they handwrite or type? For some reason the process is endlessly fascinating.

  11. I use a similiar technique except I call it a “narrative outline.” I’ve outlind 3/4 of a novel this way but I have not thought of doing a scene and then immediately writing it. I must give it a try. Thanks for the post!

  12. Wonderful post, bloglily, and so different from the way I’m going about my novel right now – I need to think about this approach. I am so excited to watch the process of this novel – I will be the first in line to buy it!

  13. I love your posts about writerly craft – I find it really helpful (even tho’ my writing is confined to assignments and blogging right now). It’s fascinating being a witness to the completion of your novel; it’s really very inspiring.
    About the Bavarian beer, another is Paulaner …

  14. Second record Pushing ahead or rather reaching back for records. See comment Downhill Racer one.

    Ski Jumping, another ski-meister event which troubled, indeed frightened me, although it has taken me nearly three score years to confess that.

    For some obscure reason I was asked to set the track on a ski jump hill I never should have been on in the first place. I think it was either Bear Mountain or Lake Placid in New York State, circa late 1940’s The inruns of ski jumps are pretty much iced up snow, loosely raked over which some good ski jumper is asked to ski for the first time to set the track. I was the guy. Maybe cause I sort of looked like a jumper, dumb scandinavian type, maybe I had the best ski sweater, my Aunt Thyra was a terrific knitter. I of course I did not have the courage to say NO.

    So, up the ladder to the ski trestle top. Strap skiis on. Teeth chatter. Cold day, Ja. Go for God’s sake, Ja. Down I go, fast, no snow plowing on ski jump in-runs. At the jumps end, ready jump, soar. No I slip and fall on the end of the jump.. Record set, longest fall on the hill, that day or maybe ever. Crowd cheered me greatly. Yes I kept on ski jumping

    Moral Keep on writing. You may someday make an impression that surprises you.

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