Keep Calm and…


Time, as they say, marches on.

Yesterday’s roadblock felt like a monstrous one.  I am happy to say, however, that as with all things, a bit of time and a simple willingness to return to work and keep moving forward have righted the ship.

I am sure that it must unnerve some writers to think of writing a book this way: only having a few high points of plot mapped out, flying by the seat of my pants through the bulk of it.  I’ll be honest, part of it’s simply that I’m lazy: going through and writing a detailed outline is a lot of work that I’m not inclined to do.  But another part of it — and a bigger part, for that matter, I will maintain — is that I really think it’s crazy to assume that I know at the outset all the twists and turns the story will take.

Story is a living thing.  It’s created by characters who want things, and as a result are chasing those things, working behind the scenes to achieve those things, constantly bending their entire existence toward finding those things.  Trying to predict the characters’ movements is a bit like trying to track a rabbit through a forest from orbit.  Sure, with the proper satellite equipment I can see the rabbit down there.  But as soon as it starts to move, it’s going to dip, dart, and dive, dashing under bushes and over branches and around foxes and where it ends up is anybody’s guess.  You can’t follow it from a distance.  If you want to know what the rabbit is going to do, you have to get down on its level.  See what it sees.  BE THE RABBIT.

So exhaustively planning a story just doesn’t make sense to me.  What makes more sense is developing characters with clear goals, putting them in an arena, and cranking up the heat.  A funny thing happens when you give characters the leeway to act on their own, when you don’t plot their path for them.  They surprise you.  They take turns that you weren’t expecting.  I thought that my female lead was the type to put her head down and plow through obstacles that jumped in her path, but she surprised me by rabbiting out and running in the opposite direction. Likewise, I thought my male lead was going to shut down and withdraw in the face of a setback, but like a river breaking around a rock, he has simply bounced off and begun to cut a new path.

I consider it one of the coolest parts of being a writer: that characters can (and regularly do) surprise me.  That even though I’m technically in the driver’s seat of the story, much more often I feel like a passenger just peeking out the window and enjoying the ride.  Or, to use a more appropriate metaphor, a jockey holding on for his life while the story bucks and kicks and does its DonDraperedest to throw me off.  It can be a wild ride, no doubt.  Terrifying.  From one moment to the next, I can’t tell where the story will take me next.  I know where it’s headed, but like driving in a pouring rain, I’m taking it on good faith that there will be road under my tires, ground under my feet, wind under my wings in a few seconds.

But even if there isn’t?  Here’s another cool part about being a writer:  I get to write about the fall.  The car ends up in a ditch?  I get to hop out of the car and continue the journey on foot.  The wind fails and I plummet to earth?  I get to build a parachute on the way down.  The monster catches me and swallows me up from behind?  I get to slice my way out through its swollen, writer-gorged belly.  Whether it goes the way I expect or not, the story is over when I say it’s over.  There’s no such thing as running out of time.  I can send this thing to overtime as many times as I need to until it turns out in a way I like.

This is actually what my novel is all about: the fact that a story is not a thing that can be nailed down, that the things you plan for are rarely the things that come to pass, that people you think you know exceedingly well can still surprise you.  I’m hoping that it stays accessible in print the way it worked on the stage.  I think it will, but even if it doesn’t, it’s teaching me — in a lot of ways, all over again — that as long as I can stay true to the story, I can trust in the story to find a good way to be told.

Twelve hundred solid words today, and they came easy, despite yesterday’s fears that today I’d be stuck.  Writing is awesome.

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