Well, put me in camo and call me Elmer, because that’s exactly what I do–figuratively speaking.
Many authors can plot and plan, outline and scheme. They have biographies on main characters, minor characters, Great Aunt Lily's first beau's second wife. Backstories down to a T. They know their theme, the message they want to present, and how they want to present it. They know, before they write page one, what will happen in the third paragraph of page one hundred twenty-three. I even heard of one author who strings butcher paper all across her office walls to diagram with each peak and valley of the plotline.
I, on the other hand, am inherently lazy. That's too much work.
I’m an intuitive writer. I type what I have in mind at the moment it hits (unless I'm not near my computer; then I grab any ol' piece of paper I can find). I continue writing until my muse slumps, breathless, exhausted, and unable to continue. Then I reread what I wrote. Sometimes I can see what's happening and who my characters are, sometimes not. But I clamp on to what's revealed to me and build on it from there.
Everything clarifies within the first quarter of the book–characters and their backstories, conflicts and motivations, the plot and theme. I tweak, edit, change whatever I need to from one writing session to the next, and plod onward.
In every work in progress, there are times when I get surprised by what happens or by my characters’ reactions. I’ve dubbed that inevitable event “the Fudd Factor.” When I get hit by the Fudd Factor, I grab my shotgun and start chasing the rabbit to see where he leads. I’ve learned (the hard way) to track the critters far away from my manuscript so I don’t have to rip everything out when I’ve followed the wrong bunny. But I do enjoy the chase.
Results of the Fudd Factor:
1. The character becomes more real, more fully developed.
Most authors have experienced the thrill of their characters coming to life and having personalities that developed with very little help from their creators. We think, “He wouldn’t say that,” or “This is so her!” We envision how they would behave in daily life. We even hold conversations with them, sometimes to the point of arguing with them.
Sometimes, however, the character responds to the action in a way that totally floors us, but is so right, we have to explore where the response came from.
One of the minor characters in my recent release, The Cat Lady’s Secret, had anger issues that I had assumed to be simple teenaged angst. At least that’s what I had intended. But in one scene, he responded so vehemently to the stimulus offered, I had to quit writing and figure out why. What could happen in a young teen’s life to get him that angry?
Two things resulted from this exploration: (a) I had to go back and adapt his characterization and backstory a bit, along with tweaking any interaction with a tangential character up to that point, and (b) he became more interesting, even though he was a minor character.
When even the minor characters come to life, the author has created a true and vivid story world.
2. The plot takes an unexpected twist.
And who doesn’t want that to happen? If the author is surprised, surely the reader will be too.
This rabbit can lead you to more action and/or more intense conflict. It may require the creation of a new character to help or hinder your hero. Maybe it’ll deepen the theme or present an idea for a subplot. Adding layers to your story is always a good thing.
Follow this bunny where it leads, then think beyond that point. What happens next? How does this affect all the characters involved or the general story line? If the action is intense, and it occurs too early, how will you top it next time?
Sometimes, this rabbit will lead you to a useless hole, and you’ll have to dump the entire idea–hence the reason for chasing him on a surface different from your work in progress. But sometimes, the rabbit leads you to a litter of other wonderful ideas. You won’t know unless you grab your shotgun and go hunting. Or in this case, grab your pen.
The Fudd Factor–the element of surprise when something happens that you, the author, weren’t expecting–is priceless for exploring ways to enhance your story or characters. There’s no reason to fight it, or even to try to fit it into your original story idea or outline when it takes you on a different path. Be flexible. Enjoy the hunt.
(originally published in Southern Writers Magazine)