A Paradoxical Perspective on the Creative Process

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by Larry Brooks on October 23, 2013

Some people believe that the best — even the only — way to engage with the story development process is, basically, to not have one.  To just begin.  Dive in, see what happens.

To — and you know this one makes me crazy — just “let the characters speak to you.”

Okay, whatever floats your critique group chit-chat.  If that works for you, that’s great.  If it doesn’t, it explains a lot.  Including why it takes some writers ten years between novels.

I’m going to send you now to an article from the online version of “The Atlantic,” which may or may not be connected to the esteemed magazine, I have no idea.  It’s an interview with Andre Dubus III, who is an A-list famous branded author.  One who uses the F-word a lot, which may or may not be a window into how crazy and angry this business can make you.

Or, simply proving that you don’t need to manage your hubris to become successful.

If you’re one of those who listens for their characters to take over your story, you’ll love this.  You’ll hear a certain flavor of validation.

But… we hear what we want to hear. 

Because buried in Dubus III’s advice to start swimming in the waters of creative chaos is a truth, a cautionary yellow flag of acknowledged wisdom.  And on that count, he ends up completely aligning with what I believe to be the truth about the creative process, at least as it applies to the writing of a story.  And that is:

You will have to rewrite.  You will have to rewrite extensively.  You might just find yourself rewriting that story for years.  And you may never find your way out of that jungle, a jungle which you might claim is pure bliss.  That’s what you risk, what you sign up for, when you develop a story in this fashion.

There is, I believe, another way.  A better way.  Not available to all, because — like any discipline — you have to submit yourself to it.  Diving in is easy, it requires nothing of you.  It is a commitment to the bliss of getting lost, versus the outcome of discovery.  Some writers just can’t go there.  Others just like waxing eloquent about the great pain of finding their story.

Very few of those get famous.  Thing is, when they do, newer writers in particular listen.  Those bearing the scars of trying this for a few decades are quicker to filter out the truth.

Read the article HERE.  See how well you recognize that truth.  And how it sits with you.

One thing I’ve never said (though I’m accused) is that there is only one way to go about this.  I am saying that there are consequences attached to our preference and need with regard to our chosen process.

Which is why so many writers end up alcoholics, or crazy, or dead.

Here’s the unspoken truth of any process: once you get the story right, however you get there, it will look a certain way, it will cover certain bases.  That’s just true.  If it seems romantic and noble to ignore those targets and immerse yourself in the bliss of blind wandering, if that’s your process…’

… the end product doesn’t care.  The standards and criteria and architecture of a good story don’t care.

They just are.

And we get to choose how we get there.

{ 14 comments }

MikeR October 23, 2013 at 10:12 pm

Yours is very crucial advice, and it applies to every form of creative endeavor that requires a substantial amount of time.

My day-job is basically “software project rescue and repurposing,” and it sure sounds a whole lot like yours. Basically, I help companies figure out what to do with software projects that they “just started working on” when they had no idea WHAT they wanted to do or how they intended to do it. No idea. They were “pantsing.” Until some senior person recognized the problem and yanked somebody’s chain. Usually millions of dollars later.

The most astonishing-sounding fact that I present is: “you don’t have to build the thing, in order to figure out HOW to build the thing, nor what it will look like or how it works, nor to figure out whether this thing is actually what you want to build.” Writing computer source-code is easy once you know how. (So is writing a paragraph.) Trouble is, you can write junk in the same amount of time-and-effort that it takes to write something that will last.

The difference lies in the think-and-plan that MUST come first. That’s when your creative brain is really choosing among its many alternatives, and you want those choices to be CHEAP. Cheap enough that you can come up with several different ideas and not feel welded to any one of them. Detailed enough that you -can- make the decisions that you need to be able to make about them at this particular stage, but not one whit more.

You won’t come up with “the best idea” the first time. Won’t. Won’t. Won’t. You probably won’t immediately recognize it, when you do. So, you come up with a lot of ‘em. Cheaply. And you keep them all. You take the approach of “successive refinement.” A good idea that’s written in a few terse but understandable sentences will be a good idea in twenty pages, IF it comes to that. But twenty pages of a bad idea spent stumbling to find a good idea is just a waste of time and paper.

Mindy October 24, 2013 at 7:23 am

Love, love, love the Dubus interview. Thanks for sharing that.

Joel D Canfield October 24, 2013 at 7:56 am

“I’ve learned the hard way that this novel is a 12-story building. If there’s a faulty brick on the fourth floor, that means that the eight stories I’ve put on top have to go.”

Maybe he’s brilliant and I’m stupid. I hope not.

I guess if some people aren’t capable of planning a story and making it good, they should use whatever tools they have at their disposal. If you don’t have a wheelbarrow you carry the rocks by hand.

But if I see someone carrying heavy rocks past their overturned wheelbarrow because they think it’s better somehow, I just shake my head and move on.

Nann Dunne October 24, 2013 at 8:22 am

Not all outliners produce stories that get published. Not all pantsers write stories that don’t get published. Not all outliners write stories that don’t need revised and revised and revised. Not all pantsers write stories that need revised over and over.

In my opinion, to lump people in one camp or the other and propose that one is better than the other (as some do) misses the point: Some people write their best as outliners and some people write their best as pantsers. Both camps have best-selling authors in them. PROCESS shouldn’t be a qualifier, and a teacher who tries to force a student into a process that is contrary to the student’s natural bent isn’t being a teacher, he’s being a dictator. Make suggestions, yes. Aim him in a direction you think is best, yes. But when that direction doesn’t work for him, don’t waggle a finger at him and say his way is a waste of time and energy.

Larry says, “…once you get the story right, however you get there, it will look a certain way, it will cover certain bases.” Exactly. Stick to explaining the importance of structure/architecture, and let the student find his own path to get there. Proselytizing and belittling by either side seem a waste of time and effort.

Cynthia October 24, 2013 at 10:02 am

I loved that article–I felt as if he had read my mind. Especially the part about not being able to continue if one “brick” in the foundation wasn’t quite right. If I try to write past that…sooner or later, I have to toss everything that came after and fix that one false bit.

I have had some impressive mentors over the years, including two who left us too soon: Roger Ebert, a colleague from my Sun Times years, and Blake “Blank Check”/”Save the Cat” Snyder. Roger wrote like me most of the time, running into the newspaper after a viewing and typing away–no plan, just wingin’ it. And he could almost send a review the minute he’d finished it–he was that good at it by the time we met. A copy editor’s dream!

Blake tried to teach me his “beat sheet,” and while doing that, discovered that there were writers who could not and maybe should not “beat out” a story or screenplay. For us, outlining too extensively–or at all, in some cases–kills the desire to complete the piece. I can do it, but the piece will lack passion because I’ve lost that “fire in the belly” I need to create compelling work.

We do get published–I’ve been getting published since the 70′s in one way or another–granted, I do more creative nonfiction than fiction. But Dubus was singing my song in that one. I’ve saved it as a note from a kindred spirit that I can turn to on those days when I’m feeling like my characters have deserted me.

MikeR October 24, 2013 at 6:24 pm

@Nann -

I really don’t think that any of this actually has to do with characterizing (much less “judging!”) =persons=. Instead, it’s about process.

Furthermore, it’s about “process in the hands of enthusiastic but zero-experienced individuals.” Like me.

On the one hand: I make my daily bread consulting on “software projects gone wrong.” I have about 35 years’ experience in software by now, so it’s fairly “easy.” (Heh.) But I =also= remember that the very first program that I ever wrote: was 8 lines long, took me 6 months to write, and had a bug in it.

On the other hand: I have -zero- experience in “writing a novel,” therefore I fully expect it to “take 6 months to write” if not more. Yes, I am “pantsing” quite a large number of … scenes. … characters. … ideas. All of this because, quite frankly, I have no =experience= to draw from. I don’t yet know where the rocks are.

But I =do= know this (and I think that this is one of Larry’s essential points …): even though “pantsing” might be a useful technique for an utter-neophyte to explore a particular -goal- … e.g. “writing a short scene that rings true, because you’ve never written one before” … if you try to do this for your entire project, you’ll just get lost in the woods and eaten by a grue. And thus get nowhere. You’ve got to start with a high-level structure, and within that structure, high-level(!) creative decisions, so that you can DRILL-DOWN TO those places where (in your embryonic enthusiasm …) you consciously resort to writing (and keeping …) a few “throw-away pages.”

In any finished book, you only see “the right answer.” Not a single one of the “also-rans.” Yes, my 8-line cum 10-line program eventually ran.

Jason Waskiewicz October 24, 2013 at 9:33 pm

In my “real” life, I’m a teacher. I also do a lot of sports photography for the local paper. I learned early on that I can’t walk into a classroom and “wing it”. I guarantee that, when I retire, I will not be a substitute teacher. If I plan, I have a successful lesson. My photography is more reacting to events. I can’t plan that a student will make a basket. At first, I took a lot of pictures and kept just a few. I still keep about the same number, but take a lot fewer because I planned things like exposure, where the best place to stand was, what an individual player was likely to do, and so on.

Even so, my photography is a lot more “pantsing” than my teaching. Both have a plan. The “pantsing” just means a lot more wasted effort. However, for me, photography works with more “pantsing”, and I think the article was saying the same thing about writing.

When I write, I started the pantsing route and have 9 awful novels in my basement to show for it. #10 was outlined and is the first book I’ve loved enough to start editing. Why? My planning took care of all the things that ruined the previous 9.

The article Mr. Brooks cites is lamenting the huge amount of editing needed to fix a book written by “pantsing”. I think all along Mr. Brooks has been pointing out that stories need certain features. Some authors get their by lots of editing. Some get there by planning and outlining first. I’ve realized that I prefer my hard work to take place in preparation, not afterward.

Larry October 24, 2013 at 9:50 pm

@Jason – I love the way you’ve framed this for us. This isn’t about pantsing vs. outlining. It’s about each writer finding her/his own sweet spot to do THE WORK, the context in which it is most productive and joyous. Pantsers who claim the “only” way, and the “better” way to get there are just as naively off-the-mark and self-reflecting (which, in the case of a A-lister, becomes hubris, “do it my way, because look at me, look what I’ve achieved…”) as anyone who says outlining is the only and better way. Both miss the point. Hell, I pantsed half of my last novel (yeah, it’s true), but it ONLY worked as a one-draft process because I’ve spent so long working with the fundamental structures and criteria (which is the dirty little secret of those A-lists who love to talk about their tortured pantsed path to their story).

Better to say, with confidence born of experience, that “this is what works best for me,” without having to site all the published authors who do it the same way; trust me there are just as many, if not more, famous, iconic authors who plan every detail of their story ahead of time, and my guess is they experience an equal degree of bliss in doing so. So you are right, It’s about the sweet spot for each writer.

Meanwhile, story criteria and physics don’t care, not a lick, how you stumble upon them. One writer’s stumble is another’s flight plan, and both can cause bloody knees enroute.

Michael D October 25, 2013 at 10:17 pm

The thing about it is, once you decide your main themes for your story, you don’t have to think so hard anymore about “wandering in the jungle” or “pantsing it” or “letting the story tell itself” or “letting the characters guide you.”

The theme itself is the finger pointed firmly at a well lit destination on the horizon. You can take a few windy roads or detours here and there – along the way – but you’re still going to end up in that general vicinity of those distant lights. The themes are the questions posed to the protagonist. His destination is the set of answers.

Thanks again for leading the way Larry. Hope to employ your services soon.

Elizabeth Parker October 27, 2013 at 2:33 am

Okay, I’m on page 43 of DEADLY FAUX, and have to do some raving here. I’ve poured over STORY ENGINEERING and STORY PHYSICS, but this is the first Larry Brooks novel I’ve read. So I had two questions going in:

1. How would the advice in ENGINEERING and PHYSICS translate onto the pages of this actual novel? Would Larry practice what he preaches? The answer: Oh, yes. The set-up, with “hero as orphan” is clear, intriguing, building inexorably to what’s going to be a bang-up Plot Point I. So *sigh of relief*– we’re in the hands of a masterful writer, and it does all work. (I didn’t really expect less, but, you know, sometimes advice doesn’t show up in actual practice on the page. In this case, it does.)

2. Getting that out of the way, my second question was–is this book going to be really good or special–in some way beyond competent workmanship? Again, the answer: Oh, yes. What has me going is the dialogue and Wolf’s “voice.” It’s witty, snappy, dancing off the page. As one character describes, it “shows heart, but with serious balls.” Add respect and intelligence, and it’s what we would all like to sound like if we were not, alas, such dunces. Very pleasurable reading.

I don’t know Larry personally (except for his books and attending one of his workshops), but I always get this feeling that, like Wolf, he is “campaigning for relevance in a world that hasn’t until lately, taken him seriously.” (Or, at any rate, not seriously enough.) I’m convinced that’s going to happen–in a big way. So keep the faith, Larry. You’ve got it going on! :)

Sara Davies October 27, 2013 at 5:59 pm

Turning process into a religious debate does seem pointless. I agree with Nann – process and structure are two completely different things. Process is how you work; structure is what you produce.

Pantsing was a disaster for me. Meticulous planning hasn’t worked yet. I need the big picture, but logistics throw me. I can’t do it in my head. I have to write something to see how it plays out. I use a loose plan and revise as I go along.

Pressure kills creativity – not methods, PRESSURE. I make more progress when I relax, calm down, and conjure my inner Horse Whisperer.

Looking forward to reading Deadly Faux and seeing how the cut & thrust technique works to maximum effect.

Congratulations, Larry.

Nann Dunne October 28, 2013 at 8:20 am

@Mike
Sorry if I bumped your toes. I read the article and wrote my comment before I read yours, so whatever I said implied no criticism of anything in your first comment. I’d like to explain further.

In the second comment, you said: “I really don’t think that any of this actually has to do with characterizing (much less “judging!”) =persons=. Instead, it’s about process.”

I think we both agree on that, in theory. Unfortunately, people do judge “persons.”

You also said: “Furthermore, it’s about “process in the hands of enthusiastic but zero-experienced individuals.” Like me.”

I didn’t see that stated anywhere. I believe Larry’s articles are aimed at experienced writers as well as inexperienced. Constant learning is invaluable.

I’ve been writing fiction for fifteen years. I have six published books of fiction. I’m a pantser. Until you’ve “walked in the moccasins” of a pantser, you don’t notice the subtle – and sometimes not-so-subtle – remarks thrown about by outliners concerning a pantser’s lack of discipline, lack of direction, lack of good sense, lack of ability. Believe me, it gets tiresome after a while. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but I feel a need to step up once in a while and defend “my” process.

If I seemed to be aiming my remarks at you, I apologize. It certainly wasn’t intentional. My intended point was, when writing, we each seem to work best when following our own path, whether it be outlining or pantsing. Story and structure are more important than process.

MikeR October 28, 2013 at 11:51 am

@Nann -

I publicly apologize to you for any offense whatsoever that may have been taken. It was never my intent. Congratulations on your published novels.

Nann Dunne October 29, 2013 at 8:15 am

@ Mike. Thanks, Mike. I rarely take offense at anything said to or about me. I was afraid that maybe you thought I was taking potshots at you. I would never do that to anyone. Words truly are magnificent tools, but sometimes they can be misunderstood. I didn’t want that to happen. This is a great site, and I wouldn’t want anyone to hesitate to offer their comments here because they were worried about being misconstrued. It happens. We explain, take a deep breath, and go on. :) Good luck with your writing. I’m pulling for every writer who honestly is trying to improve his or her craft. Your presence here attests to that.

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