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.

9 thoughts on “I Don’t Know What I’m Writing

  1. I feel your pain. I have made several false starts by ‘pantsing’. Usually the story comes a cropper at around the 25,000 word mark. While it flows beautifully and there are some nice twists and interesting characters developing, it’s by that 25,000 mark that the story nags for something deeper to carry it through the middle and out the other side. I sit staring at the last chapter, characters frozen mid-scene, and I wonder “why? What’s it all for?”

    These have been wonderful writing exercises, but it won’t do, will it? I can’t spend my life writing awesome beginnings – the market isn’t there! The people demand a middle! They want an end! So this time I’m taking weeks to plot and plan. Months if I have to. Years if I must.

    Fact is, I’m no ‘pantser’. I want structure. I want themes that resonate throughout the story and junk. And I want that right at the beginning, before I start writing.

    Not to say that I’m inflexible – if the story changes midway through, so be it, but I need a reliable map to get me into the middle in the first place, and I’m no good at retro-plotting.

    So structure, plotting, planning – but how to do it? A couple of attempts turned into shorthand-pantsing – I reached the “why?” point a good deal sooner, so I guess I saved time, but I still couldn’t answer. I gave it up in disgust.

    Recently I bought The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. I love it. I hope by the next time I reach 25,000 words and ask “but why?” I will have a good enough answer to keep me writing onwards.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I definitely had my own share of false starts — 10 or 15,000 words and then I’d run out of steam because I had no idea where things were going. I’ve improved my practices enough to know generally where I want things to go before I begin, but I deliberately leave a lot of things open when I’m starting out, because outlines really do make me feel boxed in.
      But one way or another, we have to find a way to finish! I think that even getting to the end of a project — even if it’s crap! — is its own reward in a way. There’s a sweet spot between plotting a thing to death and pantsing it from top to bottom. Unfortunately, I think that sweet spot is about a mile wide with a landing area of about a couple feet for any author.
      Anyway, keep at it, but beware of trying to write the “perfect” story. THAT oasis will forever elude you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I hear you!
    I’m a plantser – a bit of both. That’s good in some parts not others.
    I have only a short bit of time each week to write, so the engine-plot is chugging along with the occasional cough-splutter. The development of certain parts of character and setting though will need to be added after the fact. :/
    I can see when I’ll be able to do that though, so it’s okay.
    Good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m trying to find a unifying core to my story. I’m not expecting my planning to interfere with the creative process – it’s not the kind of plan that fixes your story into unalterable packets of action and dialogue. Rather I expect it to free me from being trapped in the quagmire of a limitless imagination.

    In a story world where *anything* could happen in the next paragraph, it’s almost impossible to decide which of the bazillions of choices is the right one to carry the story. What is the point of it? Why not aliens? Why not werewolves? Why not mind-altering drugs? Why not anything? Which is best? Why?

    So the thing I love about John Truby’s method is that you begin by whittling your story idea down into nice clear objectives – objectives that can flex as your story develops, but that give clarity and direction to ideas. So that while aliens, werewolves and drugs all remain options, you are better able to judge which option can best draw out story relevant character traits, locations, themes, and keep you consistent throughout.

    I dare say this all comes naturally to more successful, or practiced writers, but I read the book with a sense of deep relief.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right on; sounds like good advice. I think that’s what can be so paralyzing about the blank page: the fact that you can write anything that comes to mind. I like the way you stated it: a “whittling down” of possibilities.


  4. Admittedly my experience is limited, but it seems to me that you can write whatever you like *up to a point* (25k words for example) and they you’ve got a bucket-load of explaining to do. All these wonderful mysteries that have been set in motion via the anything-goes philosophy must be paid for by convoluted passages of tedious explaining (whether through dialogue or exposition), or by brutally applied plot twists that expose the authorial ham-fist. Even if you don’t choose to explain to your reader just yet, the writer must understand the actions of these characters in order to write on.

    I suspect an experienced or more savvy writer would avoid this with a natural appreciation for the holistic nature of their story, and I read that there are pantsers who just go with it, making the necessary edits and rewrites until they get it just right.

    My background is in science, so I like the sound of John Truby’s holistic method. I like to have my apparatus set up before I begin the experiment. Pass me the Leibig condenser please…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Which is probably why most people that try writing a novel peter out after about a month… they run into the problem of making good on their promises and don’t know what to do! (I know that’s what happened to me many years ago.)


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