Sometimes a writer’s muse will do unexpected things with a character or a storyline, but that’s a good thing. Don’t ignore the gentle prodding. Follow. I give you two examples of how this has worked well for me.
I’ve been asked if I use an outline when I write. The answer is: “No.”
I don’t know why, but I’ve never been able to outline events well before they occur in my fiction. When a great idea pops into my head, I immediately write it down. That’s my writer instinct. I may not know where the idea will lead, but I’m willing to follow.
That’s how the Darkness Series began. In January 1996, when I laid down to go to sleep, the opening sentence came to me: “Dropping a cat from the top of a ten story office building was not the best way to remain hidden, but it was necessary.”
I was intrigued. I didn’t know where the story would go or why someone dropped the cat off the building, but I got up and wrote it down. A few minutes later when I was trying to go to sleep, the next two paragraphs came to me. So, again, I got up and wrote down the words.
The next day I sat at my computer and hammered out twenty pages in a few hours. At the end of those pages, I found myself in a new dilemma. I couldn’t add anything else to the storyline. Anything I attempted to add didn’t fit, sounded too corny, or took away from the characters and the building plot. I was stuck, and I didn’t know why. I printed it out and set it in a box to work on later.
Two years later, during my final year at Morehead State University, I registered to take two creative writing classes in the coming fall. During the summer I took out the twenty pages and thought I would see if any new ideas stirred to breathe life into this story. Rereading the piece I realized something. I didn’t have twenty pages of the novel. What I had was the skeleton of a novel that needed depth, description, and more urgency to push the plot forward.
I took a yellow notepad and made a lot of notes. When I was content with how I would flesh the book out, I sat at the computer and spent a week working and revising with the new ideas. The last sentence of the original twenty pages now ended on page 100; but still, I couldn’t add anything else. Frustrated, I set it aside.
Once the fall semester started, we met the new creative writing professor, Dr. Chris Offutt. He stated that his class would be treated like a writer’s workshop, and on our designated days, we could bring in a short story or the chapter of a book we were working on to have the class evaluate it. When my day came, I brought the first chapter (~32 pages) of Predators of Darkness: Aftermath in and gave each student a copy. The next week they came back to critique and offer suggestions about what did/didn’t work.
After everyone in the class made their suggestions, the professor walked to the chalkboard. He drew out a diagram on the board and said, “Leonard, you don’t have one chapter here. What you have is five or six chapters.” In a matter of minutes he mapped out five chapters. I feverishly wrote down his suggestions. The best part is that something clicked. The fog lifted. And I suddenly visualized my characters, their uniqueness, and their voices were audible in my head.
Eventually, Predators of Darkness: Aftermath grew into 340 pages, and there are four complete novels in the series. Had I not written that sentence down, I do wonder if the series would have occurred. After all, I didn’t have a plot or any characters. All I had was the one sentence. I never imagined the opening sentence would spawn four more novels afterwards (Yes, I’m working on the fifth book), which is why I suggest that writers follow their muse, carry notebooks, and don’t get chained to an outline. If a character takes an unexpected turn into a dark alley, don’t stop him/her. Follow.
A couple of years ago I published Devils Den. Due to the characters in the fantasy realm of the novel, I thought that writing a novella backstory would be a good idea. However, my muse had a much different idea.
The fantasy characters in Devils Den I’ve known—in my mind, at least—for more than twenty years. The first novel I attempted was based on these characters, but the plot was too weak to develop, so I killed the story. But the characters never died. They didn’t speak a lot, but they were there in the back of my mind, maturing.
As I started the “Prequel” for Devils Den, something strange occurred. The characters wanted their voices to be heard, and they weren’t shy about letting me know. What I thought would be 40-50,000 words, came to life on a much larger scale. Twenty years of maturing in my mind, the characters suddenly brought their world to life. And thanks to Millard Pollitt, who drew an outstanding map of the realm, so many places can be explored. The plotlines are endless.
The new novel is a 148,000 word epic fantasy novel (Name and cover soon to be announced). Since the events in this novel are twenty years prior to Devils Den, and so much occurs between the two, the new book has become the first book in its own series.
So, you see, my muse took me in a different direction and definitely farther than the novella I had planned. Most often my muse knows more than I do, so I follow, take notes, and I write down what I hear and see. If there’s a better formula than that, I don’t know it.