Middle of the Road

The further I get into this writing thing, the more clear it becomes that there is no one right way to do it. The important bits are writing it in clear and proper language, writing something interesting and entertaining, and to not be some precious dick about your stories. Beyond that, the rest is highly personal and utilitarian: whatever works is what you should use.

Of course, finding out what works for you can be a lifetime of effort on its own, one that can be deeply frustrating. None of us wants to waste time on trying something that ends up being a dead end. I think writers more than other people are acutely aware of the limited time we have on this earth, and sometimes fear of wasting that time can lead to not even trying.

But the truth of the matter is that it’s only through trail and error that we learn what really works for us. This will take time. It cannot be fudged.

Not that we can’t go looking for hints. This is writing we’re talking about, after all, not spoiling what you got for Christmas. By all means, pick up the present, shake it around, use all your Sherlockian skills and think hard on the matter. While all the guide books in the world will not show you the ONE TRUE WAY of writing, what they can give you is a pointer in the right direction, a short cut that might save you some steps.

If they work. For you.

And what I’ve discovered, sadly, is that I am neither a Pantser or an Outliner. This has deeply troubled me for a while. My first attempts were total Pantsing, back before Pantsing became a popular term. I would have these vivid scenes, I would have these characters, I would feel this story fluttering in my chest, but I could not get them out. I did not have the skills to take these images and sew them together. Nor did I have the confidence. After many false starts, I have a graveyard of stories behind me that never made it, never will.

I must be an Outliner, I thought. I should plan it out! If I know the whole story before I write, then the writing will come on it’s own, right?

Sort of.  But not really.

Trying to map out a whole novel at once, before hand, is near impossible for me. A whole different kind of block stops me cold. A novel is big, bigger than I can figure out all at once. There will be a certain point, somewhere around the half way mark, when my brain makes the leap and can hold it all in my head at once, but there is never a point in the beginning where I will know all that happens, how and to whom. And trying to ask that of my creative self will shut her up. Fast.

So where does that leave me? Turns out I’m firmly in the middle between Outliners and Pantsers.

I start with those same rush of initial, tangentially connected scenes, and I start building characters, start building my setting, asking what do they want, what’s possible in this world, what if. And if I am lucky, connections start appearing and things start making a rudimentary amount of sense. Those “what if” questions that spawn all those wonderful possibilities that get me started, start turning into “if/then” scenarios that plot the novel in chunks. These sections fill out, I write them, and I keep if/then plotting based on the new material.

Because the story changes as I write it. If I planned too far and to particular in advance, it not only saps all the strength out of the story for me but it gets me stuck in a new way because I feel like I can’t take advantage of whatever the subconscious throws up during the drafting process.

They advise young writers to not edit (heavily) as you write. The chances are high that when you are done, the manuscript will need large enough changes that the early editing will likely be wasted effort. And it occurs to me that the same might be true of outlining. There is no point doing the super detailed outline because the story might change drastically by the time you get there to write it. Write towards your pivotal story points (and you’ll still need at least those), but don’t lock yourself down.

Case in point: as I said recently, I planned out the next part of the story, some 15,000 to 30,000 words. I have only the bigger scenes listed beyond this, but I thought I had this chunk pretty well done as far as the outline went. And then I went and wrote a scene with one of the antagonists who took advantage of a situation I didn’t realize was even presented to her until I was actually writing the scene. I leaned back in my chair and had this George Takai, “Oh MY!” moment. The viewpoint character’s choice has a lot of potentially interesting implications. I need to play with this new development, even though it affects, nay, bugger up, the short term and undoubtably the long term story.

And that’s awesome.

So, if you’ll pardon me, I have half a pair of pants to pull on and a partial outline to tweak.

(None of this applies when it comes to short stories, at least for me. They are small enough to hold entirely in my head and as such can be played with and planned mostly before the writing. But as with everything else in this blog, and really shouldn’t need to be reminded, YMMV, of course, of course.)

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