Welcome to the July edition of #AuthorToolboxBlogHop! As always, check out the main link for lots of other fantastic authors with lots of other fantastic advice. Neither I nor the blog hop are in any way affiliated with Disney, Frozen, Elsa, or Idina Menzel.
I’m writing this from Martha’s Vineyard, where I’m participating in the second week of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. For the last week and a half I’ve been here on the island, learning from authors whose skill and patience are equally admirable. If I sound more lyrical than usual, you can blame Alexander Weinstein or Kea Wilson or Sequoia Nagamatsu or Jennifer Tseng or Allegra Hyde or Christopher Citro, who are encouraging me to take chances and challenge myself and push my limits as a writer. I’ll be back to normal next month! 😉
I’m learning a lot here, and I suspect that several of the lessons will become the backbones of future Author Toolbox Bloghop posts, once I’ve had a chance to sift through them. This month, though, is devoted to a notion that I’ve held for a long time, one that has been reinforced in one or another by almost every coach I’ve had here. That is: the novel that you write will not be the novel that you intended to write.
(Note: there are probably some people for whom this does not apply, for whom novels appear fully formed and flow onto the page like well-trained puppies. If you are one of those people then I am not talking to you, and also I do not like you very much right now.)
I’ve been trying to work my way through this one for years, and I wish I’d figured it out earlier.
The problem is, I came into writing with a really clear idea of what I wanted to accomplish. I know I’m not the only one; you get an idea in your head and it’s gleaming and crystal and perfect. The people who talk about not knowing what to write sound like they’re speaking another language, the story’s right there – all you have to do is get it down exactly the way you’ve got it and you’ll be famous. Or, at least, published. Or, at least, finished.
And then you try to write it, and all of a sudden you find walls and trees and trenches rising and dropping out of nowhere, holding you back at every turn. Or you manage to get to the end and show it to someone, and find yourself getting strangely tepid reactions.
So I’ve been told, anyway. I never actually got that far – I wrote a draft, immediately realized that everything about it was ineffably wrong, and hung my head in shame.
I don’t know why this happens, exactly. It’s probably got something to do with humans being fallible creatures and novels being really, really complicated or something. Short stories and poems are even more complicated. Writing a good story involves creating characters, places, events, chains of cause and effect. Even if you’re writing historical fiction or creative non-fiction, there are still multiple lifetimes worth of things happening between the beginning of the adventure and the end. Speculative fiction writers probably have a bigger task, but maybe not.
Whatever the reason, the truth remains: most writers who write a novel don’t start out knowing what the final story needs. There are always going to be things we haven’t thought of, questions we didn’t ask until after we were already in the midst of things, character development or logical connections that aren’t made until events are underway. Sometimes these things can be attended to relatively unobtrusively, adding in a scene here or taking one out there, tweaking some dialogue and moving right along.
Most of the time, though, it’s bigger than that. Flushing out an underdeveloped character leads them to make different decisions that changes the way they interact with the protagonist, or the antagonist, or the plot. It turns out that the physics of a situation don’t work the way you needed to, or two locations you thought were close together are actually pretty darn far apart. Characters don’t have reasons for what they’re doing – often, characters don’t have any motivations, and it turns out that they’re not really doing anything except killing time until the plot deigns to sweep them along again.
And the solution to each problem comes with its own complications, implications, questions that require their own answers in turn.
The problem is, the more tightly you hold onto your original plan, the harder it is to give honest answers – and readers can usually tell. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve read where a villain’s motivation basically boils down to “because I wanted the plot to go that way”.
Why are the hero’s parents dead?
What does the love interest want, other than to be with the hero?
Who gave the protagonist their item of power, and why were they willing to give it up?
How does the group get from the castle to the swamp so quickly?
When did any of these people learn how to ride and care for horses?
Why is the one person with the skill the party needs hanging out in the canteen the day the skill is required?
And the questions only get more complicated from there. There’s only room for so many because-I-said-so‘s in a story, no matter how simple. Literary fiction writers seem to have it easier at first glance, because the plot of those novels tends to revolve around the answers to difficult questions, but that also makes it easier for writers to convince themselves that they’ve solved all of the problems. The deeper you get into psychology, the more tightly woven the net needs to be.
Eventually, at some point, almost every writer has to realize that their original plan was flawed. The story you thought you were trying to write isn’t worth telling, at least not the way you’d envisioned it. Maybe it’s not the right time. Maybe your protagonist’s life honestly isn’t as interesting as their neighbor’s life. (This happens a lot in speculative fiction, where authors spend so long fleshing out a world that they end up accidentally overshadowing their main characters.) Maybe there’s actually no logical reason for the villain to behave the way they do, and the entire conflict is actually unfounded.
When you get to that point, there are basically two things you can do. You can write your story anyway, forcing everything into place until it’s bursting at the seams, or you can let go of the tale you thought you wanted to tell and start working on the one that’s worth working on.
There’s a lot of pressure for writers to be constantly moving forward. Everyone’s always asking what you’ve written lately, when you’re going to be finished this project, when you’re going to publish, what’s next. It’s hard admit that you’re stopping to recalibrate, even harder to admit that the last few months’ or years’ work didn’t go anywhere and you have to start a new project from scratch.
But the better you get at letting go of that initial story, the easier it gets to follow the trail that eventually leads to the real one.
At least, that’s what I’m hoping!