Originally posted on Michael Runs the Gamut on December 10, 2013
The Plot Thickens (A Little)
In the last post I established that I thought my cast of characters was complete, but was it? They were all lined up neatly on the butterfly’s route (a teacher in Canada, a rock deejay in Virginia, a scientist in Mexico who teaches in Houston, a married couple driving from Houston to Massachusetts along Interstate 81, and a quilter from Dallas who was now living in Pennsylvania). The only outlier was going to be the astronaut in the International Space Station who was going to circle the Earth like a Greek chorus, commenting on the madness below.
Jury duty gave me another outlier, though. I was sitting in a jury selection room, waiting to find out if I was going to be selected, when an announcement came on the loudspeaker, asking for someone name Billy to approach the desk. A woman stood up and started to the front of the room. “Ah,” I said to myself, “Billie, not Billy.” A fully-formed scene popped into my head (I love it when that happens) of a woman named Wilhemina, who went by the name Billie, and had multiple personality disorder. I saw her in a jury room, hoping to be chosen, and everything would be going well until one of her other personalities decides to speak up as soon as she was asked a question during the voir dire. I had another character and a potential scene. I wasn’t going to turn that down.
A brush fire in my backyard gave me another scene. Before we moved to a largely treeless house in Spring, Texas (in 2011), we had a house that was overwhelmed by trees; oaks, pecans, crape myrtles. They were all old, and were constantly shedding large and small limbs. I would occasionally dump them on a large pile near the back fence, and burn them periodically. During one of these rituals (in September, 2003), I was having difficulty getting the fire started. I stuffed some old newspapers underneath, but the limbs were too green and too wet from recent rains. I resorted to gasoline. That worked, but far too well. Flames shot high in the air and singed some of the leaves on one side of one of the crape myrtles. I imagined what my deejay would do if he were in a similar situation, but I added the element of empty beer bottles, the beer having been moved to the deejay’s stomach, and the empties filled with gasoline, placed on the brush pile, then shot at with a .22 rifle once the fire was going. I also wondered if I could somehow work the butterfly into that scene too. Now I had two scenes bouncing around in my consciousness, waiting for November (and NaNoWriMo) to begin.
A business trip to Arizona in the middle of November, during which I took a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, convinced me that the character of Billie needed to be from Arizona, and she needed to take a similar ride, and later would have a horrible [something — read the book to find out], so I then had a brand new scene to explore.
Just before the helicopter ride, they took pictures of us, in small groups, by the chopper. My picture-mate was a young black woman with a British accent. I created a character based on her, named Stevie, and put her into the helicopter scene, mostly for the purpose of calming Billie down when she panicked. Stevie (whose name changed several times over the next few years), grew to become the ninth character (Jasmine, or Jas), a British college student traveling the US to search for the perfect university to do her graduate studies. Her majors were computer science and biology. She’s leaning toward biology, and has a fascination for …guess what, butterflies. Nine characters. That’s going to be a big book, I thought.
Little did I know.
I did believe, though, if it was going to be big it had better be complex and interesting. During November, 2003, I wrote 53,105 words of it, and continued into December for a few days, adding another 6,700 words. In 2005, I added another 86,000 words to it, and another couple-hundred thousand in 2009 and 2011. In 2004 and from 2006 to 2008 I worked on other novels, but periodically pulled Butterfly out to polish it, and sometimes add to it. It ballooned to well over 300,000 words, but went through two massive trims in 2012 (one in early summer, and another in October), finally ending up with a 237,000 word count.
The book changed dramatically over the nine years it was in process, and may change again. I’ll talk about my future plans for it in another post. It started with the simple idea of telling a series of different stories, all sparked by the same butterfly, and connecting the people in the stories together somehow. It ended up as a complex, overly-long dance, with the choreographer (me) juggling incidents and schedules for all of the participants, creatures, and weather events with both cruelty and compassion. I’m still deciding what to do with it next. Most of my focus now is on obtaining an agent for The Jagged Man, and continuing to work on another thriller, The Hawthorn’s Sting.
What process have you used to “choreograph” your plot?
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