When I first started to collaborate with Bob Mayer, he showed me an Excel spreadsheet with all the details of the plot inserted. “This is how I plan a book,” he said. I showed him my collage for the book we were working on. “This is how I plan a book,” I said.
It’s a miracle we didn’t kill each other.
But Bob was also the one who figured out why he uses spread sheet and I go to cut-and-paste. He said that he was a big-picture writer, that he knew the whole plot from the beginning, but that he couldn’t keep the details straight. So he made an Excel doc in outline form and used that to fill in the details. But I’m terrible at the big picture: halfway through the first draft I’m still trying to figure out what the book is about. What I’m great at is details. So, Bob said, I started with the details and glued them together into one big picture.
I thought that was brilliant. But I still thought he should collage. (Never gonna happen.)
So here’s how I brainstorm with collage to see the Big Picture.
When I’m starting a book, I try to get as many sensory cues as possible: the taste of the food in the books, the sounds (music, water, street noise, whatever), and the things that feel like the book, not illustrations of scenes or characters but images and objects that evoke the mood. I used to just keep them all taped or tacked around the computer, but during the copy edit for Bet Me, I made a collage, and it helped so much that I doubt I’ll ever do another book without one. (Click on the images below to see them larger.)
I’ve always collaged, but I didn’t start to collage to brainstorm my stories until I was in copy edits for Bet Me. There were parts of the book that just weren’t working, and I’d heard collage could help, but I was skeptical. Gluing a bunch of paper down was going to help me focus my book? Not likely. But I was desperate so I dug an old shadow box out of my junk stash and used its three compartments to collage the three spaces in the book: my heroine’s public life in the outside world (bottom section), her public life inside buildings (middle section) and her private life in her apartment (top section). Most of the pictures in it I’d collected as brainstorming for the story, and then I hit the craft stores to make replicas of things that were in the book like Min’s shoes and also to find objects to represent important symbols in the book, like the chicken next to the bottle of Marsala to represent Min’s Chicken Marsala. The picture of Min’s snow globe is a photo of the vintage snow globe I found on eBay before I started the book (it sat in my office until it got knocked off a shelf and shattered and I’m still grieving for it.) The pearls aren’t in the book, I just liked the way they looked glued to the frame. At first it was just relaxing—for once, I wasn’t working with words—but after awhile, things started to fall into place. The breakthrough came when I pried a giant softball off the bottom shelf because it was just wrong there and realized I had way too much softball in the book, too. I cut those parts way back, and suddenly the book felt right. So did my addiction to collage. The Bet Me collage is the simplest collage I ever made, but it was just as helpful as the more elaborate ones to come because it helped me see the Big Picture of the book during the copy edits.
Don’t Look Down
To get out of my writer’s block and also to learn more about writing Real Men, I teamed up with Bob Mayer to write Don’t Look Down, a story that takes place mostly on a bridge over the swamps of the low country in South Carolina. The protagonist is a movie director named Lucy Armstrong (that’s her in the center), and she’s caught between her ex-husband, Connor Nash, (on the right) and the new guy she’s just met, J. T. Wilder, (on the left). The idea is not that Lucy, J.T. and Connor look like this–they don’t, at least not in my mind–but that the photos capture the characters’ personalities (that’s why J. T. is represented by two different men who don’t physically resemble each other). Everything else on here represents keys scenes or major characters, such as Lucy’s niece Pepper (the little girl sitting in the swamp on the lower right side) or Althea, the actress starring in the movie who seduces J. T. (the blonde saluting up at the top left). The song lyrics I’ve printed out and glued on represent Lucy’s conscious and unconscious desires: She’s sitting on a lyric from her character’s signature song, and behind her in the moon is another lyric, this one the subconscious underpinning to the one she’s perched on. This is the only book I’ve ever written that takes place mostly out of doors (that would be Bob’s doing) so this collage is swamp and woods and road and bridge, no interior spaces at all. I thought Bob would roll his eyes (okay, he did some eye-rolling) but, as I said above, eventually he saw it as a balance to his own writing aid: spreadsheets. The Don’t Look Down collage is a prime example of collaging for the Big Picture.
After that, I took a break from the long form and wrote a novella called “Hot Toy,” for a Christmas anthology called Santa Baby. The story is about a woman searching for a popular, sold-out toy to safeguard her nephew’s belief that the world is good. It sounds a lot more heartwarming than it was; mostly it was just Trudy stomping through Christmas Eve, kicking butt and grabbing toys while Chinese spies tried to kill her. I used a dilapidated shadow box that reminded me of the splintered shelves in the toy store, and used the frame to collage the character of the protagonist, Trudy, and the box itself to collage the plot with its antagonists and complications.The “Hot Toy” collage really nailed the feel of the entire book: it’s dark and crowded and in the forefront is Trudy, ready to take on anybody who tries to thwart her.
The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes: Mare
Then I did another collaboration, The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, this one with two friends, Eileen Dreyer and Anne Stuart. We wrote about three sisters who were witches; my sister was the youngest, Mare, so the collage I made was really Mare’s collage, just for my third of the book. In the beginning in it’s earliest form, it helped me set up the basic plot, the dynamics among the characters, the look and the feel of the book. But then later, the finished collage helped me find the magical mood of the story, along with the more practical aspects like keeping Mare’s plot from getting lost in the bigger plot of the book, and keeping Anne and Eileen’s characters in place in my plot so that Mare never forgot she had sisters. I think it’s also the most beautiful collage I’ve ever done, possibly because Mare is one of my all time favorite characters and because I loved the setting and the magical mood of the book.
Agnes and the Hitman
When Bob and I collaborated for a second time, the book, Agnes and the Hitman, was about a food critic and a contract killer. It was another story set in the low country, but this time in a big house on a river. The Agnes collage was another one that was good for place since Bob kept dragging us down south, an area I know less than nothing about. That’s why the collage is so lush and green; I wanted that deep south feeling whenever I looked up from the keyboard.
Dogs and Goddesses: Shar
Then I went back to collaborating with sisters again, this time with Anne Stuart and Lani Diane Rich on Dogs and Goddesses, a story about three women who are strangers to each other until an ancient goddess rises and calls them to her priestesses which is why the earliest backdrop for the collage was a step pyramid.
My character Shar was the oldest, and again this is really her collage, not a collage for the whole book, so her preoccupation with color and magic dominates the design. This time we were working with Mesopotamian mythology, so all that southern green disappeared into golden sands, amber and carnelian and lapis. The step temple shows the three women who become sisters and the dogs they love. Oh, and the men they fall in love with, of course.
When Bob and I decided to write Wild Ride, a book about a demon-infested amusement part, I was so devoted to collage, I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing a book without one, so I started collecting things for the collage before I started the book (the early collage is the first image to the left).
I wanted that feeling of an amusement part at dusk, all oranges and blues and blacks, with demons lurking everywhere and my protagonist looking determined but perplexed since nothing was what she thought it was. This was another collage where the elements built up thickly and the collage itself became as layered as the book, much more complicated than I’d originally intended but infinitely more interesting, a mosaic of color and tone that looked as exciting as the story I loved. It’s another one of my favorites because it just looks like the book to me.
Maybe This Time
And then I went back to solo books. For Maybe This Time, I did two collages, an early virtual one in a program called Curio, and then began a cut-and-paste version to evoke that Gothic feeling of a crumbling old house surrounded by wilderness and infested with troubled ghosts and even more troubled people. Very early on I found the green couch that’s taped to the center of the collage platform. I had no idea what it meant, but I knew it had to go in there, so I taped it down and moved on. Months later, as I finished the book, that couch became an important part of the plot. Sometimes my subconscious knows a lot more than my conscious mind, so I don’t argue any more: if my instinct is to cut it out, I cut it out and paste it down.
The early collage was almost plain, but much like Wild Ride, the Maybe This Time collage depended heavily on color for mood, lots of ghostly blues and purples and even more greens for the wilderness that surrounded Archer House. The complexity of the collage echoes the complexity of the plot and helped me keep it under control, not to mention helped me remember all the characters who were wandering around in the dark, living and otherwise. If you look at the collage in detail, you’ll notice that in this one as in the others, there are several different people who represent one character because I’m not looking for actors to play these people, I’m looking for attitudes and moods, pictures that feel like the characters more than look like them. It’s confusing for people who try to make sense of the collages as stories, but it works beautifully for me since all I need from the collage is to give me a snapshot of the book as a whole, the way the place and people should feel to the reader.
I’ve been fragmented lately, working on several books at once, but I know they’re all going to be finished at some point. Why? Because I have collages for all of them. If I can see the collage, I can see the book, and if I can see the book, I can write it.
Collage: It’s for brainstorming the Big Picture. Nothing but good times and hot glue ahead.