Type A’s Messy Marvin Approach to Writing
In the Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup commercial, the bespectacled Messy Marvin floods the family bathroom while playing with boats in a tub. Suddenly, the water pours from the bathroom into the main room, later crashing through a wall. However, when Messy Marvin makes his chocolate milk using a spouted bottle, it’s an act of perfection.
Despite my Type A personality, my writing process resembles one of Messy Marvin’s crash courses. The process involves free association for 300 pages, no outline to map the terrain, and characters dropping in with surprises that rival the dramas presented in Mexican soaps.
For example, I wrote my first novel three pages a day, longhand in two spiral notebooks. I worked without a general direction. While I started with two main characters Joan of Arc married to Saint Francis of Assisi, other saint characters crept into the writing process and I ended up juggling subplots. The end result, a multi-narrational comedy miraculously manifested into a neatly typed manuscript. But that came after my upside down blog novel adventure and the rounds at Harper Collins UK’s Authonomy site.
For my next two novels, I adapted the stories from screenplays. That bode well for a plot. However, I faced the daunting task of writing 200 more pages of description and changing the story from present to past tense–a messy process indeed!
Again with my current novel, I’m praying to the plot whisperer to show up as I wade my way through my characters’ personal dramas, not to mention plot twists at the wrong time in the story.
Perhaps, I learned to write by watching too many movies by Surrealists where viewers were forced to invent their own plots as they swam in the movie maker’s stream-of-consciousness. It’s not far off to say that I write the movies I see in my head and I often hear the characters’ conversations long before I know the plot.
But this makes for a chaotic writing experience, sitting down at the computer to reach the daily quota of words without the ability to articulate my novel-in-progress to others. I hardly ever work out the plot in the first draft because at that point, I’m wading through the chaos of my characters’ lives. During the second and third drafts, a plot emerges and then later, once I understand the characters’ motivations in depth, I add the nuances.
It’s not uncommon for me to write the first draft, come up with a list of questions and then launch into research to fill in the gaps. I hardly ever follow the examples of former writing teachers which began with research and writing a general plot with the characters’ motivations. Many of my stories started out as “what-if” scenarios as was the case with my unpublished novel Super-Nature Heroes, which started out with what if Joan of Arc married Saint Francis of Assisi in modern Manhattan? You could even call that a plot.
However, my Type A personality can only take so much chaos before I turn into an anxious insomniac. Just as I can’t stand dust on my computer screen, stories without plots drive me crazy. To calm my anxiety, I started a notebook for my current novel in which I keep notes of each of my main characters including their Zodiac signs, childhood traumas that impact their lives, and clips of back stories that led my characters to their current insecurities and drives.
When I find myself stuck in that desert wasteland between pages 100 and 300, where plot-building either makes or breaks a story, I meditate on each of the characters and their current entanglements, then working with their motivations, I jot down lists of possible realities for each character. Often, I incubate possible story lines while I dream at night. Then when I wake up the next morning refreshed I feel like the plot whisperer dropped in for a visit.
The theme of the 2013 Chuckanut Writer’s Conference (Bellingham, Washington) revolved around the neurosis that authors suffer during the writing process. However, at the time of the conference I didn’t lump myself into this category. After all, I’m fully-functional, I organize my schedule, complete my to-do lists, and even juggle several projects at any given time, while buying groceries and cooking three square meals a day.
However, even Messy Marvin resembled a normal boy on the surface, despite his constant disasters waiting to happen. For me, the writing process breeds chaos, but the kind that causes me to thrive from the myriad of puzzles it provides. Instead of psychoanalyzing myself, I focus on the characters’ messy dramas. And then I go drink a cup of hot chocolate without spilling any on my computer.