Six impossible things

What I Didn’t Expect To Get For Free

Different writers get different things “for free” – that is, different techniques and skills come naturally to different writers. I learned this early on, but it took years before I realized that I needed to apply that knowledge to more than my own first draft, and years more before it dawned on me that “getting it for free” applies to parts of the writing process as much as to elements like dialog, pacing, plot, and characterization.

My first critique group was initially somewhat confusing because of this misunderstanding. There I was, listening to the comments of five other people, only two of whom I’d known at all well prior to joining the group. Three of the five I knew for a fact had far more background in writing, academic training in English and Creative Writing, and actual experience with critique groups than I had.

So I was stunned when these folks disagreed about what was wrong with my stories and/or what to do about it. Like many beginners, my first impulse was to adopt a sort of majority-rules strategy – if three or more of my fellow critiquers agreed that something was a problem, I’d fix it; if three of them liked something that the others didn’t, I’d leave it alone.

That policy didn’t last even one meeting. One of the group – and only one – put a finger on a problem that nobody else had seen, but that I knew, the moment it was mentioned, needed to be fixed right there in order for the rest of the novel to work. So I fixed it, grumbling and fussing all the way, even though it didn’t have the “three votes” I’d decided I needed in order to justify making a change that was such a pain to do.

Over time, I started to notice that different members of the group were good at spotting or explaining different flaws in people’s work. One was brilliant at characterization; another, at plot; another, at stylistic infelicities. What was really interesting was that the person who was good at spotting a particular problem wasn’t always good at writing it in their own work…or at suggesting the best fix. Quite often, A would say “There’s a problem with this thing here” and we’d all agree that now that A had pointed it out, it was obvious… but it would be someone else who’d say “What if you switch these two sentences (or change that paragraph, or have the character go out the back door)?” and the writer would agree that it was the perfect fix. Or close enough to it to give the writer the idea for the real perfect fix.

I knew going into that crit group that I was a lot better at juggling plot points than I was at characterization, and that I didn’t know anything about viewpoint, really. I had, in other words, a fairly good grasp (I thought) of “what I got for free” and what I hadn’t. I even knew that other people got different things “for free” than I had. I just hadn’t expected that to translate into different people being able to spot different types of problems more easily than others.

I also didn’t realize that I got some other stuff “for free” that came after the first draft. Specifically, certain things (like interior dialog and pacing) were a lot easier for me to do in the second draft. I’m also quite capable of doing major surgery on a scene, a chapter, or a string of chapters, rearranging and deleting and inserting stuff so that it has all the parts I need it to have, but in a different order or with different emphasis than the way it started out.

This really started to hit home when I met writers who breezed through their first drafts, but struggled to make any changes even when there were obvious plot holes or out-of-character bits – not because they couldn’t see the problems, but because their work had set up into concrete in their heads and they couldn’t blast it apart to rearrange or add what was needed because when they did, to them the result felt broken even when, to an outside observer, it read just fine.

This is one of the main reasons I became so interested in other people’s writing processes – because given how long it took me to figure out as much about my own process as I currently know, I have to believe that I still don’t know everything. What if there is some writing method, some approach to writing, revising, or editing, that I got “for free,” but I don’t know about it because I’ve never tried it? Even the screwiest-looking method out there works for somebody, or they wouldn’t have mentioned it. (Though I confess to being relieved when the one that wanted you to write out 3,000 index cards with one-line ideas and characters and dialog bits, and then arrange them into a novel-like shape, didn’t work at all for me, long before I got anywhere near writing up all those cards.)

It’s also why I’m constantly emphasizing that writing works differently for different people. Because if what you got “for free” is doing dialog and revisions, then starting with a script-like conversation and layering on thoughts and stage business and setting is probably going to work a whole lot better for you than planning out the plot and setting first and trying to get everything perfectly right in the first draft. It’s also why I encourage people to experiment. Because you never know what’s going to turn out to be easier than you expected.

13 Comments
  1. “Writers who breezed through their first drafts, but struggled to make any changes even when there were obvious plot holes or out-of-character bits – not because they couldn’t see the problems, but because their work had set up into concrete in their heads and they couldn’t blast it apart to rearrange or add what was needed because when they did, to them the result felt broken even when, to an outside observer, it read just fine.” <– It's like you've crawled inside my brain. Even when people tell me my edits are better than the original, I often can't see it. It's a real problem :/

    • What I’ve seen people say that sometimes helps with the concrete effect is re-typing the entire scene in, either while you’re making the changes or after you’ve read it through a few times with the new bits and let it sit a while. ymmv

      (at the very least, it’s typing practice)

    • As I’ve described before, this is the 180-degree opposite of what I do. My “first drafts” are more like 10,000-word outlines. I print them out and put them in a three-ring binder … and then go back and add a bit here, and change a bit there, writing the new bits on the backs of the printed pages, linking them to where they should go with letters of the Greek alphabet. Then every now and then I think of something else that could go in somewhere, and wind up writing another couple of chapters (see previous topic, subplots).

      Rinse and repeat.

      Or I realize that I’m halfway through what I thought was the plot, and I’ve only got 30K words … I just finished putting four extra chapters in the WIP, which are already putting out tentacles into previous chapters and chapters yet to come.

      I do have the last scene written, which I tend to do early on. Now I have to get there.

  2. Most articles and books aimed at beginning writers give advice on how to improve characterization, atmosphere, pacing, description, logical inconsistencies…. These I had no problem with; I got them (and a knack for elegant phrasing) “for free”. What I didn’t get was far more fundamental – and critical. I had difficulty recognizing when I had a mere event rather than a genuine story. For a long time, I wrote many pretty, evocative pieces that didn’t go anywhere before I finally figured out what my problem was. None of the books or magazines helped one whit.

  3. Huh – pretty much everything you’ve mentioned I seem to have gotten either “for free” or at least at a steep discount. The cost seems to be a DEEP problem with the bit where I hand my writing to other people to read. Even the slightest deviation from the original idea in my head sends me into a emotion tali-spin. Its like… if my communication of my words wasn’t absolutely perfect… then it is irrevocably broken. Art classes helped a ton with accepting critiques. So did uploading videos to YouTube and reading the comments. And it helps to talk out my ideas right at the start so I know there is a solid core that people will like.

    Hmm… I like this idea of a “cost” to part of writing. If audience critique is simple the part of writing I find most difficult. Then I’m not defective! 😛

    • I’m way too emotional over even the nicest concrit. It’s like if what I wrote isn’t absolutely perfect before anyone else lays eyes on it, I want to pack up my toys and go home. And I actually dropped out of art school in part because I couldn’t handle the critiques. Clearly, I will never make a living out of creating something for others to enjoy when their opinions mess me up so much.

      Good for you working through it, though, and finding things that help you 🙂

      • I have known at least three professional writers who have had serious difficulty with critical comments. One of them never showed work to anyone other than an agent and an editor, and sometimes had to have a good friend read the editor’s revisions request letter and paraphrase it. One simply never showed work to anyone they didn’t know for a fact would give them positive feedback and nothing else. And one just has an extreme aversion to revising. They’ve all had professional careers.

        Dealing with criticism is part of the job; if you don’t get it up front, you’ll face it from someone after the book is published. There are various coping techniques, including (but not limited to) not showing work A around until one is far enough into work B that one’s emotional investment has shifted, participating in “worst bad fiction possible” contests, handing one’s first draft off to a trusted collaborator who’ll handle the crit and do the revisions, deliberately writing a genre one doesn’t care about, defining all stories and comments as “practice exercises that will never be published” and only changing one’s mind after they’ve been polished up “for practice”, and probably a bunch of other things. If you really, truly can’t cope and can’t learn, then you can take Emily Dickinson as your role model, write your fiction, and stuff it in a drawer or a folder on your hard drive for your heirs to deal with in 50 years or so.

        • Thank you for sharing in such detail — it’s comforting to know that professionals really struggle with this but do manage to cope.

  4. One of the members of my online writers’ group can never get her own writing past the random-scraps stage, but she’s brilliant at brainstorming. Whenever one of us is having trouble coming up with a plot point or an explanation (“Why would the diplomats arrive at the time the plot needs them to instead of earlier? What exactly is involved in this inheritance dispute?”), we can always rely on her to produce creative and detailed ideas.

  5. because when they did, to them the result felt broken

    OMG yes, this. Once in a while I’ll make a change that comes easily and is obviously the way it should have been all along, but most of the time, “broken” is exactly the right word for it. Even if I know the change had to be made, even if I can objectively see that what was there before wasn’t working and what’s replaced it is.

    (I don’t “breeze” through my first drafts, though. Wish I did; that sounds nice. I struggle and slog. But maybe that’s a good thing since, given my feelings about making changes, I’d better get as much right the first time as I can.)

    Your discussion of different people spotting different problems, and A spotting a problem while B has the solution to it, is pretty much what I’m looking for in a writing group. It’s also why I’ve sworn off any kind of critique that doesn’t involve open discussion; that bouncing of ideas through multiple brains is sooooo much more productive IME than any kind of “sit and take your medicine” approach, and seems to be necessary for me to take anything useful on board.

  6. Thanks for this description! It perfectly explains why everyone’s process is different. 🙂

  7. I thought I’d commented on this, so coming in late…

    I get set-ups and setting ideas for free. Characters too, although I worry a bit about not being able to produce certain kinds of characters.

    What has me pounding my head against the wall is what I see as a common assumption that once you have an interesting set-up idea then a plot and ending just falls into your lap. No. No no no no no no! (Pounds head against the wall some more.)

    • a common assumption that once you have an interesting set-up idea then a plot and ending just falls into your lap.

      Oh, argh, that one! I get that too. I usually get ideas as “starting scenarios”, and what’s at stake is usually implicit in that — but there’s a lot more to a plot than just stakes.

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