Six impossible things


As many readers of this blog know, I am a knitter, and have been for years. When I first learned to knit, I wanted strict directions for anything more complicated than a rib-stitched scarf: a pattern that calls for this yarn and that needle size. I focused on learning the stitch pattern and making my stitches even. The only thing I ever changed was the color of the yarn.

Gradually, that changed. First I couldn’t find that yarn (this was pre-Internet, pre-Amazon-availability-of-everything-imaginable), so I had to substitute something else. Then I discovered that even if I had the exact needle size and yarn the pattern called for, I sometimes had to go up or down a needle size to get the pattern to come out right. I learned to modify patterns to be more exactly to my taste. I learned that different fibers (like wool compared to silk) produce dramatically different results, even if everything else is the same. A couple of memorable disasters (not all of them mine, fortunately) taught me to think carefully about the interaction between the yarn, its color, and the stitch pattern.

As a beginner, I thought all I needed were the directions. Now that I have more experience, I realize that those are just an approximate starting point. What I really need to know is whether I can get the stitch gauge, whether I like the resulting fabric, whether that fabric is appropriate for what I want to make (a lace parka would not be terribly functional). In other words, I start from the assumption that whatever pattern I’m making will have to be adapted in some way to get the results I want. What I need is additional information about how my materials work under different conditions, so that I can make good decisions about the modifications I’ll have to make.

Writing works much the same way, only more so.

When I was first starting to write, I wanted directions. Unfortunately, fiction writing doesn’t really have workable patterns the way knitting does. Oh, there are loads of how-to books and programs out there that have formulas for writing a novel, but they don’t produce predictable results, the way a knitting pattern or a recipe does.

Some of this is because, “TV Tropes” aside, the fundamental materials of fiction writing are not standardized in the ways yarn or cooking ingredients are. You can’t go to and order a hero, a sidekick, six incompetent minions, and a villain, the way you can order Size 6 knitting needles and eight skeins of worsted-weight yarn in four colors, or a pound of butter and two cups of milk. Nor do the tools of writing constrain what you produce. A given knitter will make roughly the same size stitches with a given needle and yarn, predictably; a measuring teaspoon gives you the same amount of ingredients every time. A computer keyboard will produce whatever combination of letters you (or your cat) presses, regardless of whether they are even words, much less whether those words make sense or eventually produce a pleasing story.

The rest of it is because fiction isn’t supposed to be totally reproducible. Much as I love The Lord of the Rings, I don’t want every single fantasy novel I pick up to start with Bilbo Baggins’ eleventy-first birthday party. Nor do I want every mystery I pick up to be a faithful reproduction of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. (At the very least, I want some of them to be Have His Carcass, Busman’s Honeymoon, The Nine Tailors, and Clouds of Witness.) I don’t even want new books to be blow-by-blow imitations of my favorites, starting with Fidlo Raggins’ party or Henrietta Wane’s college reunion. I want something that’s similar to my favorites, but different from them.

Writers are thus faced almost immediately with the need to wing it – to make fundamental decisions about story, structure, content, etc. without having a reliable guide to things that are known to work under the most common general conditions. No pattern.

What worked for me, as a beginner writer, was ignorance. I hadn’t taken an English class since high school, and there were no Internet blogs or forums to explain to me all the vital aspects of writing that I obviously didn’t know how to do. I knew I wanted to write a story, so I sat down and wrote one. (OK, it took me five years, but that was the basic action plan.) I thought about the people and the story and I fumbled around figuring out what scenes I should have and where they should start and finish. Most of my decisions were not based on information about the various elements of fiction-writing and story-telling, because I didn’t have that information. Instead, my decisions were based on what “felt right” or didn’t, given the story I was trying to tell and all my default assumptions about it (which I didn’t think about because that’s how default assumptions work). In many ways, it was the equivalent of following a pattern; I could focus on the few things I knew I needed to learn (like dialog and scenes) and let my defaults take care of everything that I didn’t yet realize I needed to know more about.

It’s practically impossible in these days of Internet forums and writing conferences to remain unaware of the pitfalls and requirements for writing viewpoint, dialog, description, infodumps, action, etc. One can, however, deliberately limit one’s focus to one or two things in a given draft, so that one isn’t consciously trying to absorb, integrate, and apply the vast quantities of information available all at once. If one’s intuition and/or defaults are adequate, this can result in a workable manuscript; if not, one can always revise in layers, concentrating on a different area each time.

  1. I sometimes wonder if all that advice out there isn’t doing today’s newbie writers a disservice. There are so many rules, so much how-to being flung at them, that trying to find their own defaults and learn to trust what feels right must be like trying to stay dry under a fire hose. While I was damned glad to find the few relevant pointers when I finally figured out what I still needed to learn, if I’d had *all* that “help” when I first started to write, I might not have started at all.

  2. I agree with LizV. A lot of members of my online writers’ group seem so fixated on a set of arbitrary rules that their critiques miss the forest for the weeds. There’s no substitute for doing enough, and varied enough, reading to develop that “felt right” instinct.

    • There used to be a saying that you have to get a million words of crap out of your system before you can write anything decent. Perhaps part of the process of removing crap is finding out what works, and what works for you.

  3. I make a distinction between “craft” which has some fairly firm rules (e.g. format dialog so that each speaker gets his own paragraph) and “art” where the rules are fuzzy guidelines if they exist at all (e.g. when speech tags can be left out, when to use “said” vs some other word, how and when to use stage business).

    There are times I wish that some bits were more craft-like – in particular, creating plots. And I realize that it’s a fool’s quest to look for firm rules about such bits, but I often can’t help being a fool.

    • I once heard all plots described as “Character gets problem, problem gets worse, problem gets resolved”. Now for short stories the “gets worse” part won’t fit in the word count. (Sometimes not even the “resolved” part fits) But for the word count of a novel you’ll need plenty of words describing the problem getting worse.
      Or the actions the hero is taking is MAKING the problem worse.
      Or the full complexity of an issue takes the word count.
      Or simply arriving at said problem (in time) to solve it.
      Or a first, minor problem to let the reader know how the character deals before the BIG one hits.
      Or a series of minor issues as the clock ticks down to an event. (like graduation or a wedding)

      And “resolved” doesn’t need to mean the problem gets fixed. Dead people don’t have a lot of problems after all. (Well, except for zombies, vampires, ghosts….) Dealing with the fact of death or other trauma won’t undo the original event either.

      I found that looking specifically at what a character’s problem is and how it starts/ends is a good way to figure out where the word count needs to be. And where the ending lands. Plots with more exotic shapes usually deal with problems too big to fit in a novel (like a war) or too big to be solved at all (like philosophy and death).

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