Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Choose your own path

From 2011-01-28

Always remember this: Not everyone works the same way. In fact, I've yet to find two writers who do work in exactly the same way. Keep that in mind when you go off reading blog after blog about what you MUST do to be a good writer. The only thing you must do is find the combination of things that will help you write a good story. The blogs you read are telling you what has worked for one or more people in the past. Don't be afraid to try some method that might appeal to you. If you found a way that works for you, that's great -- but for most writers, the path is not entirely clear on how to get from the spark of an idea through the first draft -- never mind the rest of it. And even if you find something that works for you the first time, chances are that you're going to need to try something different for some other story.

The one thing I see repeated over-and-over again is writers saying they're afraid they haven't gotten it right. Here is one thing I always keep in mind and something I have been telling people for years:

The only story you can't fix is the one you never write.

And that means writing it to The End. If you go kiting off to something new because the story isn't working, then you never learn how to fix those kinds of problems -- including abandoning work because of an obvious plot problem or abandoning it just because it no longer interests you. Why doesn't it? Figure it out. Work your way through problems. Find out what went wrong and do your best to fix it, if not in reality, at least in your mind. Study the stories that go wrong, because you will learn more from them than you will from any story you breeze through without a problem.

Writers also need to remember to run wild with their imaginations. A first draft is the place to experiment. Even if you use an outline to get the basics down, that doesn't mean you shouldn't be open to new ideas while you write. Most people know that I write outlines -- often quite extensive ones. But if you have been in chat with me while I write, you will often see a 'Oh, I need to change that' or 'I need to add that' while I'm in the midst of working. I know what I want for the opening, the middle and the end, and I can wander off the path all I want along the way. Having an outline is a roadmap. It tells me where my character is going and how long it will take him to get there, but it doesn't tell me exactly what he's going to see, say or do. There will be detours and side trips. If I have no idea where the story is going, the trip is likely to wander all over the place and not build any coherent, exciting story line. Little pieces might be interesting, but they don't always meld into a coherent and exciting whole. I might as well be writing a series of loosely related short stories.

Many people can have a good idea of where they are going in a story, even without an outline, and keep the plot and ideas in their minds as they write. I, however, don't want to risk losing the fire that first called me to the story, so I get down as much of the story as I can. I play with that idea, arrange, rearrange, add and delete until I have the shell of what I want.

However, an outline only provides a simple guideline. I know what to aim at but that doesn't stop me from experimenting. It doesn't even stop me from changing the outline if something moves in a new direction that works far better than what I'd done before. I'm free to experiment because I am working within at least a shell of what the story is about. If the story doesn't have that shell, I'm more likely to go wandering off into areas that really have no true connection with the storyline. They looked interesting, but they really belong to a different story. When ideas like that leap up, I write them down and plan to do something with them later. I have THIS story to tell right now.

So even if you're running wild with your story, be sure to keep an eye open for those cliffs. You don't want to find yourself running right off the edge. It can be hard climb back up to find that path again.


Elizabeth Twist said...

"If you go kiting off to something new because the story isn't working, then you never learn how to fix those kinds of problems."

Good point. I am working on revising stories with major issues for this reason. Thanks for the kick in the pants!

J.A. Marlow said...

Horrah to all of it! :D