I Don’t Know What I’m Writing

I mentioned a few posts back the struggle I’m having with telling the current novel; how I’m trying to figure out perspectives and pacing and flavor and all that other stuff. The story is there, and sound, I said, but the voice is missing. And I thought that everything was cool aside from that — that it’s no problem not having the “exactly right” words to tell the story I’m trying to tell, as long as the story I’m trying to tell is the right one.

And I still think that’s right. To a point. Because the story is what matters; the story is what resonates. Everything else fits in around the story, like the transmission and the axles and the fans and the tubes all fit in around the engine in a car. Sort out the engine, and build the rest of the stuff to fit, right?

Except that’s not the whole story, either. A solid engine is great, but an engine does nothing without the rest of the car. The engine puts force behind the vehicle, but without the axles in place, without the wheels to drive the car forward, without the gas tank and the transmission fluid and all the wiring and tubes, the engine just sits there and putters away. It’s all connected; it all works together.

So it is with story. The right story might purr like a kitten, but it’s incomplete without the wheels of the proper setting, the transmission of a proper tone, and the fuel injection system of the perfect characters.

What does that mean?

Well, I’m figuring that out, but I’m also realizing something. I can allow myself to forego any concerns about the “other stuff” and just focus on the plot, the story, but if I do that, I’m going to have to build all that other crap after the fact. And what happens when you build all the different elements of a thing separate from the whole? If I build first an engine, then a body around it, then the wheels to propel it, then the axles to drive it… I’m going to end up with a Frankenstein’s monster of parts that I scavenge from the depths of my brain based on what suits my needs at the time. It’ll work, maybe, and it’ll look generally like the novel I have in mind, but it’s not going to drive real smooth. It’s not going to have clean lines. It won’t win awards.

I’m not much of an outliner by nature. I’m a procrastinator, a figure-it-out-as-it-comes kinda guy, a pantser, as I think the industry calls us. And I think there’s something to be said for taking an organic approach to storybuilding, to letting characters to an extent drive the story, to allowing the story to develop its own twists and turns and energy without meticulously planning it out in advance.

But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any plan. Just as you build a car with an overall design in mind (headlights here, this shape to the body, this kind of seat); just as you plant a garden with the preferred outcome in mind (carrots over here, tomatoes in this aisle, luminescent cabbage here); a story needs guidelines to grow. Even if you’re not a plotter, you have to know some things before you take the first steps.

Who is my character? What drives her? What is she afraid of? What obstacles will harry her? Where does the struggle take her? What should her story teach a reader? How should the story “feel”?

A story can, will, and probably should grow organically to fill in gaps and create surprise in the mind of the readers (and the author!). But for a gap to exist, you have to have the substance around the gap. The story isn’t going to build skeleton and muscle and blood all on its own. The framework has to be there to be built upon. And that means taking a hard look at the planning that’s gone into the story so far.

If I’m honest, I’ve sold short the preparatory work on this project. The story, as a result, is looking more like the Frankenstein’s monster than the smooth, sharp Cadillac I want. The good news, though, is that it’s never too late to start; never too late to turn the floodlights on and take the hard look at the story that it needs. And, seeing what it needs, the only thing left to do is to keep writing. Rather than just letting the story shape itself, shape it with the end in mind. Start taking stabs at the tone-setting language, start planting now the seeds which must blossom by the end.

Yes, you can fix it all in post. But that’s a lot of work to shrug off on your future self.

Time to face facts and start doing the legwork this story deserves.