Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Story of Powerless, Part II

First off, let me say that Powerless releases in three weeks–holy crap! If you want to preorder, check the main page to links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.

Last time I wrote on this subject I talked about the two moments of inspiration that ultimately led to Powerless. Today I’m going to talk more about how I got from grand, inspired idea to an actual story.

The day I began writing was the same day I had that second burst of inspiration, when I went from “family tries to get their daughter home following some disaster” to “family has to try to survive following some disaster and has an extra mouth to feed.” What I knew at the time was this: I had some family living in some semi-rural sort of place. Something happened so that they could not run to the store for food, had no electricity, had no phones. That afternoon I began thusly:

“Kevin drove the sharp tip of the shovel into the ground, ripping through the tightly woven roots. He cut a square of turf, then wedged the shovel beneath and levered up. Kelly and Dina dug their fingers into the edge and tugged, peeling the sod off the soil beneath as if it were the skin of an orange.”

In the half hour or so we had at Writer’s Circle that afternoon I cranked out a few hundred words and began filling in a bit of personality to each of these three characters: a determined man who felt a sense of urgency at their situation; his daughter, who was not used to hard work and was maybe a little whiny and petulant; and her friend, who was perhaps annoyingly chipper. I knew at the end of that session that I had something, but what?

I’m a card-carrying member of the Discovery Club when it comes to writing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about what I’m doing. So I went home and thought. I had a broad concept. I had a couple of characters in mind. I had a scene committed to a page–a pretty good scene, I thought. The most logical question is “What comes next?”

Is this how you heard it? I did.

Turned out I wasn’t ready to answer that question. Turned out the question I really needed to answer initially was “What came before?” and, perhaps even more important, “Who are these people?” What I had written that first day was a single point in time. An important point, no doubt about it, but I needed to turn back the clock a short bit to fill in some of the details that established the personalities of the characters and their relationships to each other, as well as the setting, and I wrote about the day of what I soon thought of as The Blackout. That done, I had two points in time in my story, and the beginnings of a line that would connect them. Asking—and answering the question, “What comes next?” each day brought me toward that moment when “Kevin drove the sharp tip of the shovel into the ground”. Eventually I caught up and passed that point, and soon found myself in uncharted seas.

While I’m drafting I spend a lot of time thinking about my story when I’m not actually in the chair writing. A lot of this thinking is of the daydreamy sort, where I’m hearing/seeing scenes and dialogue in my head while doing thins like driving to the store or washing dishes. These scenes seem to arise out of almost nowhere, and they are typically rooted firmly in the scene or scenes I had finished in my previous writing session. It’s the Back Room’s* way of trying to answer, “What comes next?” When it’s all working right, I almost feel more like a transcriptionist.

But there are times when The Back Room doesn’t work right. When the Back Room stops sending stuff up front it’s often because I’ve written myself into a bit of a corner, or sometimes it’s because I’m able to see a little further down the road than normal and there’s an upcoming event I need to get to, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to get there. That’s when inspiration and flow and all that other goopy stuff that comes from the Back Room needs to give way to the cold, hard logic of the Front Room.

Logic drove a lot of the story from there. The very first draft of my garden scene ended with my characters heading inside, having torn up a chunk of lawn that looked roughly like the state of Nebraska. They were hungry and dirty, had blisters on their fingers and were feeling a little wobbly from the hard work. When I caught up to that scene, I knew much more about the characters. Inspiration added falling temperatures and gathering clouds to the end of the scene. Logic dictated that Kevin Barton, my main character, would rush to set up buckets beneath the downspouts to catch the water (Kevin was revealing himself to me to be a surprisingly practical guy in a crisis by this point, though he’s also a bit of a milquetoast when it comes to many of his interactions with other people, which I quickly realized was a bit part of the actual story).

The deeper I delved into Powerless the more Back Room inspiration was able to work side-by-side with Front Room logic. There were a number of times when I could not proceed without having a bit of an interrogation session in the Front Room. What would Kevin do here? Why? What will Monica have to say about that? Is this consistent with their characters? In other cases something would come flying out of the Back Room that just had to be written. Then it would be up to the Front Room to reverse engineer it, to connect the wires and hoses so that the scene could be a functioning part of the story, to make sure it made sense within the world I was building.

This is already far too long for a simple blog post, so I think I’m just going to end here. I hope this has provided a little insight into the process. I don’t think there will be a part III, unless I want to sing the praises of my editor, David Downing (and I do, I do, he was fantastic to work with). Edison talked about that 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, but for me, the writing process is much more equal partnership between Back Room inspiration and Front Room logic. Things are always more fun with a partner, don’t you think?

*A long time ago I wrote about The Back Room. That post does not seem to have migrated over to the new blog, but it may be available somewhere, or some day.

2 Responses

  1. I’m a discovery writer too. Like you, I know some basic things I want to happen and a few of the characters, but it fun when they reveal themselves to me as I write.

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