Six impossible things

Process, Progress, and Works-In

The other day, one of my dear friends and I had one of those long, rambling, writerly conversations about our current works-in-progress, our process, and the horrors of the literary life. At this particular moment in time, we are at opposite points on the first two, which is to say that her WIP has been marching along steadily for weeks while mine has been at a standstill, and this is due to some extent to the fact that this is being one of those books that works against my normal process, rather than with it, while hers hasn’t thrown her any curve balls (in terms of process; plot and characters are an entirely different thing).

To be more specific: I normally do a considerable amount of pre-planning. I always have a plot outline, but seldom-to-never follow it, and I’m a rolling-reviser. I need to have a clear, solid foundation before I can make forward progress, so if I get to Chapter Eight and realize there’s something off in Chapter Two, I have to go back and fix it right then, or my forward progress grinds to a halt. She does as little advance planning as possible, which usually means that by the time she starts, she has a general idea of the basic problem, where she wants her characters to end up, maybe a paragraph’s worth of plot arc, and a pretty clear idea of what the first scene is and why/how her main character got into such a mess (or is about to get into it). She plans ahead in two-to-six chapter chunks; beyond that endpoint is thick gray fog until she writes her way up to it. She has to have characters who feel right; I need structure on the atomic level. Her prose sets up into concrete within days or hours of being written; I tinker with mine right up to the last minute.

I could go on, but the point is, our writing processes are more or less opposites. And I lay a large chunk of the responsibility for my troubles with this WIP squarely on the fact that I didn’t start with enough planning. Oh, I had a situation and a couple of characters and a lot of amusing incident…but I didn’t have a clear idea of where the plot was heading, and there were three or four different things that could have been the central problem, but all of them seemed equally important (and suitable for subplots, rather than the main one).

So I’ve been muddling along, stringing incidents together like Christmas lights dragging around the floor because they haven’t got a tree to be hung on yet. They’re very pretty, and if you follow them one at a time, they make sense in a row, but if you step back a pace, you realize they’re a tangled mess.

As a result, I’ve had to rip this story back almost to zero twice now, and I’m perilously close to doing it again. What I have appears to flow along just fine…but there are rocks underneath the surface that have a good chance of sinking the thing before it gets into harbor. Or if not sinking it, exactly, then ending up with something that leaves people thinking “It’s OK…but it could have been so much better!” without being able to articulate why it could be better.

What is particularly annoying to both of us is that the last conversation we had wound up providing me with the underlying central problem that can tie everything I have together. It annoys her because that would be plenty enough for her to go on with, and she would get to read the thing so much sooner if I would only charge forward and worry about the early stuff later. It annoys me because I need more than just the problem – I need details and backstory, who and what and why and how that got everything to this point and allowed the stuff that has happened to happen. Knowing what I know now, the events of the early story need a slightly different slant to give me the structural threads that hold the whole thing together. I may also need to rearrange some of the incidents and add a couple of scenes for balance.

Which will require going back over the whole thing now, because I can’t continue until I have that solid foundation. It’s much too easy for continuity errors to creep in and stay in if I’m allowed to keep changing my mind about what happened in what order and who was there to see it vs. who had to be told about it afterwards.

And the dratted thing is nearly a year overdue, on account of a string of family and household crises. (Most of them have been successfully resolved, but the continuing bombardment has given me the itchy feeling that as soon as I sit down to write, my sewer will back up, or another hurricane will hit the family members who live in the southeastern U.S. and I’ll end up with unexpected house guests, or…)

There are a number of possible lessons one might draw from all this: that different writers can have wildly differing processes for producing a story and still be successful at it; that talking to people who have a wildly different process from one’s own can be enormously helpful; that experienced writers can get just as stuck for just as many reasons (some good, some not-so-good) as a rank beginner; that whatever one’s process is, one periodically gets handed a story to write that Just Doesn’t Want To Be Written That Way.

Mostly, though, I just wanted to complain about my job.

12 Comments
  1. >I’ve had to rip this story back almost to zero twice now

    Now I’m picturing the story as a piece of knitting having to be frogged repeatedly, to the point where the yarn starts to look all frazzled. The writing equivalent of frazzled yarn would probably be the feeling that you’ve been going over and over the same characters and plot incidents until none of them feel interesting anymore.

  2. This really does bring to mind a piece of knitting. lol I agree with Emily there.

    I find this interesting about how writers have TOTALLY different approaches. I’ve been noticing this the last year or so. My process as a writer is *TOTALLY* different from anyone I know, then I talk with other writers and. . .it continues. Everyone I Meet is different. There are similarities, of course, but everyone has their own unique ‘combination’ of what works for them.

    I, personally, have never been a planner. A basic planner, perhaps. . .but nothing in depth. Get my characters, get a ‘feel’ for them, make a quick “ok, this is what I’m going to write about’, and just start writing. Problem is, I have found, that has left me with plots that hang in the middle because I have NO idea what to do with them, characters that fizzle because the situation isn’t right and overly simplistic plots because only one or two minor things are going on at a time. Leaving me with lots of story BITS and nothing really publishable. Pfft.

    I recently decided to try a new approach. I have a ‘novel’ idea in mind, and decided to try more preplanning. Get my ideas gathered (still the stage I’m in. Life is overly busy/exhausting at the moment and getting ideas is like pulling teeth. Not being good for my writing at all.), coming up with plots (plural, because some subplots would be good, and I’d like it to be a short series, so I need some ‘other’ plots so I can break the main story arch up. . .)and a proper outline. Sure, said outline might shift as I go, but at least I’ll have enough to work with and a clear idea of where I’m heading. So far. . .it feels good. Slow – when I’d LIKE to just sit down and start writing, but good, because I know that when I do sit and start writing, I’ll have something to work with and a goal to see myself all the way through – for once in my life. Meanwhile, I feel like I’m sort of working on it, because I can take my planning notebook with me and, even if no ideas show themselves, I can wave it and flip the pages already filled and say I’m busy. lol

    But, yeah, my point is, no matter how much experience we have, or what our ‘methods’ are. . .sometimes it’s interesting to challenge ourselves and try something different, just. . .because it might give us something better than what we were doing. Or, it might not, but at least we know, right? 🙂 Of course, this is easier to do when you’re NOT in the middle of something, and Not on a deadline. Yeah. . .

    Btw, Patricia, Just wanted to say thank you for your posts here on this blog. Not only do I find them pretty informative. . .but I’ve actually found them encouraging over the years. I’ve written since I was a young child, but have received bad advice and allowed people and circumstances to discourage me. That I wasn’t doing things ‘right’, or wasn’t good enough to be published. Your blog has made me realize – on whatever level I had to realize it – that there is no “RIGHT” way to go about this. We’re all unique and all have our own style. And no one is pushing out a perfectly polished 1st draft anyway. (Stuff I knew, but was tripping over anyway. hah) So – I am finally pulling up my boots and going to tackle writing something to publish for real. Might take me a bit. . .I know there’s a lot of work involved. But. . .It’s time. Passed time, probably. So, who knows, maybe in a few years (or few dozen years at the rate my ideas are coming. . .no rush, right? lol) we’ll finally see my first novel in print. Or. ..first three. Or whatever it turns out to be. 😀

  3. Sometimes I feel like I have the worst of both processes; I can’t make forward progress in Chapter Eight until I’ve fixed the wrong turn in Chapter Two. And I can’t fix Chapter Two until I’ve finished Chapter Eight and get a non-foggy view of the plot beyond.

    And I suspect that Plot is so Hard for me for a similar reason. The one thing I must have in hand is the key solution-to-the-story-problem scene near the end. But getting that key scene usually requires working out the plot to reach it, at least in outline form. Which is nigh impossible for me unless I have that key scene in hand…

    Also, I’d like to beg a post on “How to do rolling revisions.” I suspect that some of my lesser (but still large) problems come from my doing rolling revisions in a sub-optimal way. I do need to do those rolling revisions, but I may need to make them smaller-and-more-frequent, or make them a regular planned-for thing instead of launching them only when I get thoroughly Stuck, or use a different technique to tackle the actual re-writing, or something.

  4. Is it awful that I’m not even sure which of those types I am? With my personality, it feels like I should have everything all planned out ahead of time, yet I can’t outline worth a damn — I kinda don’t know what’s going to happen until I write it. Unlike your friend, though, I still have to edit the crap out of everything afterwards, over and over. Ugh.

    Thank you for “complaining” about your job — it’s much more entertaining than most people’s complaints 😀

  5. When I sit down to write, I don’t know one whit about the plot, theme, characters, setting, or genre. I don’t even know whether I’m writing a short story, novella, or multi-book epic. I once typed, “This is folly”, and in pursuing the multitude of questions these three words raised, I found 20,000 words later that I was writing my first novel.

    I consider myself in good company. Tolkien found among his students’ examination papers a blank page, “So I scribbled on it, I can’t think why, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.'” From there, as he said, “The tale grew in the telling”, and went on to become his entire corpus of Middle Earth, including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

    I write for the same reason I read: to find out what happens next. If I know in advance where a story is headed, writing becomes mere typing, a slog I can hardly bare. Fortunately, my first drafts come out highly polished and require little rewriting, because it all gets hashed out as it goes down on the page. A sentence mutates and folds in on itself three or four times from the moment I start it to the time I reach its end. Thank glob for word processors and the backspace key!

    For all this, I still contend that my process (if you can call it that) is not that different from that of the planner-types. We both make outliners—mine is just a lot more detailed. 🙂

    • Outlines, of course, not outliners. How did that get past my OCD internal editor?

  6. As a result, I’ve had to rip this story back almost to zero twice now, and I’m perilously close to doing it again.

    Oh, argh! Deepest sympathies.

  7. Hang in there, Pat – I’m sure it took you many years to devise a system and process that works for you, so keep taking deep breaths and stick with it. It’s always harder when life keeps throwing curve balls at you, though. Thanks for sharing your challenges … it would be great to have a follow-up post when you work that writery magic and bend the Universe of Unruly Wordy Things to your will again.

  8. “What kind of writer am I/What works”? <- Now THERE is a question I'm having trouble answering. This post prompted a quick memory search to "the story I wrote the most easily" and I think I've identified what worked that time.

    That time I used an "Alpha Listener" as the pre-planning stage. Said person has been seriously ill for quite some time now and I subconsciously haven't wanted to "bother" him. But… he's volunteered to Listen to my story several times – said it makes him feel productive and useful. Perhaps I should try that method again.

    • @Kin – we have the occasional “Alpha listening” session in my writing group, and it seems to work well – the author can take what works and leave what doesn’t, and everyone else just has a fun time throwing ideas around. Nice for you that you are helping someone else on a very personal level too when you use this technique :).

  9. Finding a process that works in writing a particular story doesn’t mean you’re home free. Far from it. As Gene Wolfe wisely said, “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re on.”

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003, gc@cbltd.com

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