There's something about writing fiction that is drastically different than writing straightforward manuals or strategy guides. Yes, yes, the content is clearly different, boring versus fun. But there's something I never saw coming with fiction, and that's the sheer amount of time it takes to write.
With videogame manuals, strategy guides, art books, etc., the timeline and its steps are straight forward. Chapter One covers the heroes and enemies in the game, Chapter Two covers level one of the game, and so on. It's normal to lay out a timeline and estimate, "It will take one to two days to write each chapter. On that timeline, with 30 total levels, I should be done with the full rough draft in approximately one month." Easy peasy.
Shouldn't writing fiction be the same way? Just outline the chapters, bullet point out the story beats and character arcs, and know from soup to nuts what's supposed to happen. Tell the story. Simple, right? But here's what actually happens.
The chapter in question was initially outlined for my seventeen year-old protagonist, Lily Blackwood, to meet with her father at home so they can hit the bustling streets of the French Quarter for a Halloween parade. The chapter began with Lily at home, rushing through her room to get into her gypsy costume.
As the words flowed into the keyboard describing Lily's flurried readying, a nagging but now familiar voice interrupted my concentration.
"Looks good. Now her phone buzzes, 'cause she gets a text. It's from me, Bren."
I stopped typing to listen to my character, Brendan. As Lily's best friend and trusted confidante, Brendan knew she would be on her way to a Halloween parade. He also knew she'd most likely run into Remy, his arch rival in the battle for Lily's affections. So as Brendan suffers an unrequited crush on Lily, he had to jump in and remind me that he knew about the parade and who would be there. This is how my conversation with my character went.
"OK, you want to send Lily a text before she leaves for the Quarter. What's the text say?" I rubbed my forehead, annoyed.
"It says, 'Hey Lil, I'll see you guys at 6:30 on Royal Street'," Brendan dictated.
"But you can't go to the Quarter on a Saturday night," I guffawed. "You need to stay at the restaurant until at least eight o'clock. Who'll take care of the restaurant while you're at a parade? What would your dad say about you shirking the responsibility of the restaurant? He's depending on you. Halloween brings tourists, tourists want good eats, and Halloween is a big money-making night."
"But I want to go to the parade too. You know Beau can handle it without me for one night. Sheesh," Brendan folded his arms. "I mean, I saw Lil's gypsy costume. That's hot. I can't miss that."
"Does that really propel our story in any way if your butt goes to the parade too? I mean, really," I scoffed.
"But I provide comic relief," Brendan argued. "Plus, I'm worried about Lily running into Remy there. I need to interject if he shows up."
"Interject? How so?" I squinted, trying to picture third-wheel Brendan standing next to Lily and her father alongside the rolling floats of Royal Street.
"You know, I'd interject into McDonolly's advances with witty repartee and whatnot."
"You think Beau won't implode at the restaurant? Alright then, we'll change it all," I sighed and blew a raspberry at him.I drummed the DEL button profusely and, on fresh white pixels, began to type again:
Lily's phone buzzed and dinged, the screen brightening as an incoming green text bubble appeared. "'Hey Lil, I'll see you guys at 6:30 on Royal Street." Brendan's note read.
And with three characters at the parade, the chapter grew in length…
In the next chapter, my outline dictated that Lily go to an infamous cemetery alone under cover of darkness.
*Lily pulled out the large black satchel from the closet and dropped in a silver lighter, blessed candles and tarot cards. *
Another familiar voice interrupted my typing, this time female with a Haitian-French accent.
"Non, non, non. This will not do. Why would I allow young Lily to go alone to the grave of a madman? She does not yet know all of the steps she needs to protect herself."
It was Clara speaking to me this time. She is a voodoo priestess in the French Quarter and gives Lily guidance on how to maneuver in the world of spirits.
"But Clara," I retorted. "Lily needs to be able to face danger on her own. How will she grow as a heroine if she holds your hand through every little exploit?"
"But this is not just a little exploit," she protested. "Il est très dangereux! I must go."
"But-" I exclaimed. I could feel her staring adamantly at me with narrowed eyes.
"Non. I must go. C'est finis."
"Well, okay. Um…" I stared at my initial outline. "If you go, then all of this needs to change. Wow…that's going to add quite a bit. This chapter will need to be broken out, maybe into two separate chapters?"
It took the entire weekend to write because, with Clara's arrival on the scene and the increased number of characters interacting, there needed to be a lot more dialog and the action unfolded differently. Lily's path ultimately took a different route, becoming more complicated than before.
"And then I try to kill her," a honeyed voice interjected.
"Wait, who are you now?" I stopped typing to listen to another character speak.
"Mellisande, Remy's ex. You know how much I can't stand Lily. I want her out of the picture. You left me hangin', remember? When I threatened Lily a little while ago?" Mel rolled her eyes, tapping her foot impatiently. "Empty threats, hon. I follow through when I make a threat."
"But I'm already at 75,000 words, Mel," I said with a sinking heart. "I'm way late on my deadline. Look, you'll have plenty of time to try to kill her in Book 2, okay?"
"Nuh-uh, shug. I can see that Remy has his eye on her and that just won’t stand. I'm headin' to the Quarter right now. You said she's in front of the store? On the sidewalk?"
"No, wait! You get back in school! Really, I don’t have time for this..." I shook my head. Sigh. After tip-tapping the DEL key repeatedly, I began to type the new scene.
The sounds of sobbing pulled Lily from her inner dispute. She glanced back over her shoulder. Without realizing it, she had automatically walked to the street with the art studio and found herself across from Remy's second floor apartment. The abject girl with unmistakable fiery red hair leaned on the locked private entrance on the street. It was Mellisande.
Mel was right, as were Brendan and Clara. And so it goes like this from chapter to chapter. The estimate of "a chapter a day" becomes "a chapter each weekend."
Writing fiction is like time travel. I sit down at my laptop and the words begin to pour out. It’s ten o'clock in the morning. The next time I glance down, it's because my stomach is growling, which is annoying because it's interrupting me. But the time has changed. It says 12:30 pm now.
And here's the funny thing. These characters all have such distinct personalities. You can see their faces, their gestures, how they stand, how they walk. You can hear their thoughts and know what they feel about each situation they’re in.
In the initial outline phase, you haven't had a chance to get to know “everyone” yet. But once their words and actions hit the page, they develop. And yes, they argue with you. They interrupt. They have better ideas than you did when you wrote the outline. And their voices, well that is the key. Their voices, not yours, start to tell you their story.
Do you hear voices, too?
***NOTE: The story text shown is for illustrative purposes only and does not reflect final wordsmithing going to print.