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While a single point of data eliminates any line that doesn’t pass through the point, sadly it does nothing to narrow down the infinity of possible lines from every point of the compass-rose that do, in fact, pass through that point. And so it is with one-of-a-kind experiences. Such as, say, writing a novel.
You’d think that having written one with which I was more or less happy (though I’d hope to do better next time), I would know at least how to go about the writing part. Sadly, this turns out not to be the case. From a creative writing perspective, the last several years have been spent trying out one method after another. In the absence of any noteworthy success, I’ve felt that I didn’t really have much to share in this forum. Hence the two-plus years since my last Writing Rookie report.
I still don’t have any solid evidence that this has changed. However, I’ve been trying something the last several months that (a) has not yet proven that it won’t work, and (b) has the virtue of being quite different from what I’d tried before. So I thought, why not share? Even if this doesn’t work out, at least it may have the social utility of any publicly failed experiment…
I won’t drag you through the sequence of my various failed attempts, which besides being rather embarrassing have by this point become somewhat boring even to me. I have, however, learned three important things about the story-writing process, at least as it pertains to me:
- Any story should succeed on as many levels as possible.
- As a writer, I am attracted to big stories.
- You need to spend time stocking the pantry with the ingredients you plan to use in the recipe.
(And how’s that for a nicely non-parallel series? All complete sentences — but one each in first, second, and third person! It says something kind of sad about the kind of geek I am that this makes me both uncomfortable and, at the same time, somewhat gleeful.)
Anyway, my latest writing strategy is kind of built around these ideas. I’ll start with the first.
Way back in the mists of time, I remember listening to Dave Wolverton talk about his writing. (This was back when he was just getting started as a national writer.) I remember him talking about going through a story multiple times and making sure it succeeded in as many ways as it could, in order to draw in as many audiences as possible. For the military sf folk, it should work that way. For those who like verbal style, it should include little linguistic easter eggs. For those who like strong and interesting characters, it should feature those. Et cetera, et cetera. He must have rattled off about 8 or 10 different ways he was trying to get his novel to succeed.
It all sounded pretty exhausting. Why not just write a story that works at the thing you like best, and not worry about the other part?
A couple dozen years later, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that Dave was right. At least, for me as a writer. It’s kind of crazy. Every story I read by other people is strong in some areas and not in others. That doesn’t bother me. But in my own stories, if I don’t try to make it as good as I can on every level I’m aware of, it turns out not to be any good on any level.
It’s not just a matter of putting my best effort into it. I’ve started to think that without trying to juggle multiple competing priorities, plotlines, characters, et cetera, I don’t actually have any idea what to put into a story. In place of an internal muse, what I have is an internal traffic director. (Maybe it was all that time as an English major.)
Which brings me to the big stories problem.
I love stories of many different kinds. I love simple stories. I love short, well-written stories that take a single character from point a to point b (and sometimes point c), but do it with such purity and grace that your mind and emotions are left aching. I like fun, straightforward stories.
I cannot write them. Instead, I find myself trying to write immense, epic, worldbuilding stories that require far too much work to do well, and a great deal more effort than I like to do at all. I can go from a to b, but not without wandering through half the alphabet first, together with random letters from Greek, Arabic, and ancient Etruscan.
Which brings me to stocking the pantry.
I used to think some people just make stuff up as they go along: characters, plot events, worldbuilding details. And I’d berate myself for not being able to do so. Whether that’s true or not for other people, I now recognize that it’s not true of myself. The words flow only when I already have plenty that I want to say (something that’s true of my other writing as well, so yay for consistency, I guess).
This has little to do with outlining versus writing in the moment. Outlining when I don’t have a lot of story parameters already figured out is just as disastrous as trying to draft at that point. And yeah, you can say that outlining is the process in which you do that kind of idea generation — but I’ve discovered that for me, there’s an entire (lengthy) process that comes before that, which is generating all the “it” of my story: the incidents, characters, details, places. Once I have those, I can proceed to outlining or drafting or mosaic-creation or whatever other kind of hybrid or substitute works for me. Until then, nothing works.
This, I now recognize, is part of what I did with No Going Back. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight (and a new theory), I can now see that all of these were part of my writing process Back Then. I was trying to do multiple things at once. I wrote a story that was as big as I could make it within the confines of the story I was trying to tell: one with multiple characters, that wasn’t just (or even primarily) about being gay and Mormon but also about growing up, choosing one’s loyalties, developing a testimony, learning how to be a good friend, and learning how to be a balance institutional requirements with everything else in one’s life. And I had a whole lifetime of thoughts and experiences as a Mormon to draw on, with no motive to hold back as I was pretty sure this was the only Mormon story I would ever write. My pantry was full, and I did my best to stuff as much of it into a single book as I possibly could — not always successfully, in the eyes of some readers at least.
Which brings me (at last!) to my latest, current method.
I haven’t been writing recently, as such. Rather, I’ve been stocking the pantry: with plot ideas, characters, details of the worldbuilding, etc. It’s hardly systematic. One day I’ll put down some worldbuilding ideas, another day I’ll work on a particular character, or the background history of my region, or try to figure out climate details. Meanwhile, I also spend time reading books and otherwise investigating topics of particular interest to me, such as medieval kitchens or the layout of medieval towns or the forests of southeast Australia.
This method has a lot of drawbacks. Foremost is the fact that, well, I’m not actually writing. There are no pages being created. And at my estimate, it will be months before I reach that point, at the earliest.
This is scary. You hear all those stories about people who get involved in an endless cycle of research and never really write anything. I can easily imagine this happening to me. But the other method simply wasn’t working. And now that I think about it, I have had experiences — not in creative writing as such, but in my professional writing, and other parts of my life — where I did this: that is, research frantically, a little randomly, and apparently fruitlessly, until suddenly one day I felt like I had researched enough and was able to start writing or make my decision or something. So I’ve had some experiences when something like this has worked for me in the past. I can hope it will be that way this time.
Second is the fact that there’s simply so much to do. Every little detail I generate reminds me of just how much more there is to do. It’s a bit like trying to fill in a swamp one truckload at a time. Progress is slow, and estimating how far I still have to go is only discouraging.
This is a method, by the way, that is well suited to doing in bits and pieces. All it takes is 10 or 20 minutes to come up with one idea and jot it down. This goes entirely against my rather lazy desire to be able to just charge ahead and do everything at once and get it over with, but recognizes the (apparently innate) limits of my creativity. I can come up with one or two good ideas a day, but when I try to push, I wind up with stuff I just throw out later.
The problem is, it doesn’t work well enough. I figure that with my other (paid) work and various unpaid project, duties around the house, and just generally being a parent, I should be able to get in about an hour of brainstorming/outlining/world creation work a day, plus another hour of random research. You can do a lot in two hours a day, if you’re consistent. Unfortunately, I’m not. Consistent, that is. And given the size of the story I’m currently working on, unless I pick up my pace, it could be decades before I have another story written, if I keep at it that long.
But any progress is better than no progress. This, I keep reminding myself. And once I reach a certain critical mass, I hope it will get a lot easier to put in the hours. Meanwhile, I try to make myself do something on it each day — to keep the process going, if nothing else. And my stack of notes keeps piling up.
And despite all my misgivings, it feels at some level like I’m actually getting somewhere with the my writing. That’s the most hopeful sign of all.