Write Outside The Lines of Your Book by Josin L. McQuein
I think everyone’s probably familiar with the idea of a paint-by-number set, but just in case, it’s a small kit that comes with a piece of cardboard that’s been sectioned into numbered zones. These zone match the numbers on miniature pots of paint, and the idea is that if you put the right color of paint into the right zones, then you’ll end up with a (slightly blotchy) replica of The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, or maybe some laughing dolphins at sunset.
It’s a simple idea that should work fine: do the work and get the result.
But here’s the thing – you’re not actually creating anything. You’re not even learning the craft of painting that well because you’re not learning the techniques that led to that original work being made in the first place. It’s practice; it’s a hobby, but it’s not a reflection of the person holding the brush, and that’s what art is supposed to be. Including, and especially, the art of the written word.
We all start off copying those who’ve gone before so that we can figure out “the rules.” This gives us the basics of structure and grammar and all that stuff that assures a reader will be able to understand our words as we write them. Once you do that, you’re capable of reproducing any piece of writing you like, meaning that you can literally take a book and retype it, if you want, but that’s not creation any more than a paint-by-number.
It is, however, a foundation. You discover which books and authors write books that you’d like to emulate. You can see how they structure their novels, chapters, and sentences for specific effect. It teaches your fingers the rhythm of typing out an action sequence, and trains your brain to change your word choices to fit the mood of the moment you’re trying to create. You get used to differences between character voices, and finally, you’ll find your own voice. And once you’ve done that, you’re ready to build your story.
I’m generally a visual person. For me, crafting a story involves needing to see it in some form before it’s actually written, and that starts with as big a piece of paper as I can get my hands on. Recreating all the Rembrandts in the world won’t help me, because I’m more of a Pollock. I throw things at that page and see how they fall, line-up, and mix organically.
I disregard the lines, if it’s notebook paper, and fill the sheet with haphazard notes about scenes, characters, plotlines, etc. Hopefully, I can manage to work things into a semi-coherent timeline as I go, so that the beginning’s in the top left corner and the end is in the bottom right, with a chaotic purge of ideas in between. Then I can go back and clean things up, pulling those ideas into a very loose bullet list / outline. Then scene-by-scene, I script my story as though it were a screenplay, which lets me get a feel for the characters’ voices as they interact with each other, without a heavy focus on the setting beyond a simple slug-line. Then it’s onto the actual “writing” part, which means translating those dialogue scenes into chapters, and trying those chapters as 1st person vs. 3rd.
It’s a long, scattered, and complicated method, but it’s what works for me. It’s all very plot centered.
What I wasn’t expecting with Premeditated was that none of it applied. The idea this time came out as an actual image. What ended up on my paper was a sketch of a girl hiding behind a stairwell. I thought it was just a doodle at first, but she looked so sad and so haunted, I couldn’t get her out of my head. I kept going over that picture, and every time I did, more details came. She sprouted a bird-shaped charm bracelet. Her clothes morphed into a school uniform, but not a regulation one. It got to the point that I wanted to ask her who she was and what she was doing on my brainstorming page.
So I did.
I did a character “interview” of sorts, and figured out that her story was all about the characters. They drove the plot, rather than the plot driving them. Instead of a girl reacting to the circumstances of her world, she was going to be the one causing the situations that others would react to. I’d never attempted or conceptualized anything like it, and I found out pretty quick that my usual methods wouldn’t work. I had to adapt them.
That’s the beauty of an organic medium; new ideas and methods won’t break it. Things can be strange and uncomfortable. Characters can – and will – surprise you, if you stay true to the personalities and voices that develop as the story progresses. All the planning and structure become the fence around a play park, containing the madness of a crowd of excited ideas running wild and screaming while they leap off swings and run up the slide instead of sliding down it.
"Go with it."
That’s my best advice on the craft of writing. It’s art, not law. You’re not going to ruin someone’s life by breaking the rules or changing your mind. If what you’re doing doesn’t work, or isn’t the way you’ve “always done” something, so what? Writing is problem solving; the same solution isn’t going to work for every scenario. If it did, there wouldn’t be nearly as many novels out there.
But what do I know? I’m just the kid who got bored with the instruction guide, and used to do her paint by numbers backward so the sky was green and the grass was blue, and trees grew brown atop green trunks.
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About The Book
Five days ago, Dinah found Claire’s diary and discovered why.
Three days ago, Dinah stopped crying and came up with a plan.
Two days ago, she ditched her piercings and bleached the black dye from her hair.
Yesterday, knee socks and uniform plaid became a predator’s camouflage.
Today, she’ll find the boy who broke Claire.
By tomorrow, he’ll wish he were dead.
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