Confessions of a Story Fixee

Not long ago I wrote an article entitled Confessions of a Story Coach, which appeared on the Writers Digest website (September 4th), and more recently, right here until Google’s clear-as-mud ranking rules forced me to take it down.

I thought it might be helpful for those on the fence, and moreover, those who have a little voice telling them their story isn’t there yet, to see what it looks like from behind the catcher’s mitt.

To be honest, it’s not that I’m looking for new business as much as it is calling you to a higher awareness of how your story aligns with the principles of story architecture and story physics.

Nann Dunne  is a widely published pro, which adds an interesting dimension to this process (the high bar of story physics spares no one), and her willingness to share her experience. The “issue” with her story fell right in line with what I’d written about in that WritersDigest.com piece, but like so many of us who bring passionate thematic urgency and intention to our fiction, she didn’t see it at first.

Not seeing it before you send it out there can be a deal killer.

*****

My Conceptual Kick-Start Story Analysis Adventure

by Nann Dunne

One writer’s experience with being informed her story could be better.

I offer my experience as a prime example of how valuable Larry’s Conceptual Story Analysis (the $50 level) can be.

At 20,000 words into my work-in-progress, the story was going along well, but it lacked pizzazz. Something needed done, and in spite of having six published books, I couldn’t figure out the problem. I’ve been an editor for more than 30 years, and I recognized that I was too close to the story to grasp what was required to boost it to a higher realm. So I decided to take advantage of Larry’s Story Analysis offer.

(Note: Larry didn’t read those 20,000 words, that’s not how the program works, and why it’s so affordable.  It involves a pointed, take-no-prisoners Questionnaire that focuses on what the writer knows, and doesn’t know, about their concept, premise and first plot point.)

I had spent a lot of time on the Concept and Premise of the story and felt I had them well in hand. Nevertheless, it took a lot of self-urging to submit the bare bones of my newest creation to someone else’s judgment. But I stiffened my spine and sent for the questionnaire. At the end of the questionnaire, Larry provides the opportunity to add some remarks that are relative to the purpose of the analysis, and I mentioned a dramatic subtext that I planned to run as an undercurrent to the story.

Larry explained that my Concept was thematic, not dramatic, and while not wrong, a dramatic Concept would make it easier to involve the reader and keep them anxious for more. He strongly suggested that I inject more power and urgency by bringing the subtext to the forefront and using it to underpin the rest of the novel instead of vice versa.

 Okay, I admit I’m not the type of person to accept advice without scrutinizing it. I pondered Larry’s words for several weeks. I tossed my story’s proposed scenes back and forth, first with my original take on the story and then with Larry’s take on it. Finally, I had an “aha” moment when I realized what Larry meant and how I could implement it.

 So I’m approaching my story with new purpose. Thank goodness, I had written only 20,000 words. A revision will fit nicely with what I already wrote. I won’t have to trash most of the scenes; I can just move them around.

 I thank Larry for showing me the right path. Now the bare bones of my story have stronger muscles to fill them out, and I look forward to creating a better story than I first devised. Having a second set of eyes examining my intentions was just what the doctor – or in this case, Larry – ordered. He put his finger precisely on the sore spot and healed it.

 I’m grateful for his analytical abilities.

*****

A professional editor for many years, Nann Dunne has five novels and a number of short stories published. Her latest offering is a collection of her short fiction, Shaker and Other Stories.  You can listen to excerpts read aloud at http://www.justaboutwrite.com/NDauthor.

 

Nann also wrote Dunne With Editing: A Last Look At Your Manuscript, available at Amazon.

*****

If you’d like some of this for yourself, click HERE (full story plan analysis) and HERE ($50 concept/premise/FPP) for the two levels of story plan analysis.

23 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

23 Responses to Confessions of a Story Fixee

  1. I had not seen our article in WD – excellent!

  2. Robert Jones

    @Nann–I, for one, can appreciate your message…as well as what Larry said in the post script. People think that being a professional makes every project a breeze. And let’s face, there are too many professionals who would have everyone think they just sit down and hammer out words like a nail gun driving the pointy end of a spike home with all due solidity and assuredness. Maybe Stephen King really does it that way sometimes. After all, he’s had a lot of practice–and is not the ordinary scribbler, even among many of his peers.

    What I think some people forget–and many would-be writers don’t have the experience to understand–is that everyone begins with some type of plan. An artist does thumbnails, a writer creates character sheets and a plot outline. At some point, after a broad degree of experience, some of those artists can visualize their thumbnails inside their head, and writers can certainly do the same with large chunks of their plot.

    The difference going in, the transition I’ve personally had to make from graphic artist to writer, is that writing is much more multi-layered than a drawing, or a painting. A thumbnail or two, or even a couple dozen, is not going to fill the hundreds of pages (mini canvasses one and all) stretching out sequentially to create a seamless story.

    I believe that one day, I will get away with less planning…through much practice of the craft. But if that means I expect one day to never encounter a blind spot, or have a story plan that doesn’t require going back in and restructuring before it’s working optimally, then I would either be a hell of an egotist, or a damn fool.

    If writing boils down to human nature and all of its multifarious possibilities, then no matter how good I become in life at reading people, I’m going to encounter those that take a bit of extra effort to get to know, to understand. And I think our stories are like that.

    Congrats to both you and Larry for making the process work. It’s a great feeling to discover that missing ingredient. And the best writers all seek help…because they want to do better!

  3. Robert Jones

    Sorry, Larry wrote the prologue, not a post script. See how first drafts are all prone to error 🙂

  4. Thank you for your thoughts, Robert. You are so right: “But if that means I expect one day to never encounter a blind spot, or have a story plan that doesn’t require going back in and restructuring before it’s working optimally, then I would either be a hell of an egotist, or a damn fool.”

    We all have egos, some writers more than others, and that makes it difficult to reach out for help. We on this list are fortunate to have a knowledgeable “leader” to turn to. Larry is very tactful and easy to work with. I urge anyone who’s struggling with his/her manuscript to give Larry a chance to help you find the right path.

  5. MikeR

    My day-job is directing teams who do something just as complicated: writing computer software. (And yes, I get my hands dirty too.) Believe it or not, you see a =lot= of “pantsers” in that biz. People who, with really no advance thought to speak of, “just start writing stuff.” They’re actually pretty good at it, but extremely wasteful. So, one thought that I try to (gently … programmer-egoes are even more delicate than writer-egoes, maybe) suggest … is that: “if you spent more time planning your approach to the whole thing before you start on any part of it, you’ll save yourself a LOT of time and wasted energy, and do a better job. You can anticipate problems without stumbling into them, so that you never actually do. Try it.”

    Now, these are people who’ve written a lot of code, one way or the other. They can grind through it: they just need to learn how not to grind and waste time.

    Writing a novel, if you’ve never attempted such a thing before (my case …), is a much different undertaking because you don’t know what you don’t know. And the first thing to know … is to know THAT. Since you don’t yet know quite what you’re doing, you need to be very efficient with your time and with trees.

    Another thing that has struck me, early on, is: “100% of the choices are Mine.” How should this scene play out? What should it contain? There’s no answer until I choose one. (Ghostbusters: “Choose! And perish!” Indiana Jones: “He did not choose wisely.”)

    I find myself stumbling between jumping-on the first choice that comes to mind, without looking for another one, and “analysis paralysis.” But at least I =know= that I am ‘doing that,’ and it’s fairly-okay because I’m ‘doing that’ in a by-now rather large spreadsheet. I’m exploring, and learning as I go, and striving to do so economically.

  6. Matt Duray

    I had the same problem; my concept was thematic, not dramatic. Which meant the First Plot Point focused on the wrong thing, and the whole story was flawed. It’s why I was struggling with coming up with, you know, scenes.

    But then I sat down with the Concept Questionnaire and, in answering the questions, was forced to scrutinise the DRAMA, forced to explain what the core story was and what actually happened, not just what it meant (ie. the theme). Luckily I only had to shift the focus a little; the drama was there, but it was buried under The All Important Message I so desperately wanted to convey. And that message is still in there, but it’s the ghost in the machine that it should be now, not the machine itself.

    So once again Larry, thanks for helping me achieve that clarity.

  7. I posted this once, but it didn’t show up, so you might get it twice.

    Mike, I wonder sometimes if a passel of writers/programmers NEED to write down all the ugly stuff before they can pare it down and find the beauty within. I know a few writers whose final work is really good, but the means they used to get there is staggering. You can’t talk “outline” to them because their minds don’t work that way. (I’m a pantser, too, but even I find some writers have a topsy-turvy process I could never use.) We each have to find our own way, and yes, “100% of the choices are Mine.” Those of us who say our characters talk to us might debate that. When you’re inside your character – BEING your character – you want to stay true to what your character would do, not what you would do. So your character does “tell” you what choice to make. Of course, ultimately, the author decides whether to go with that choice or not. One word of caution: Beware of analysis paralysis; it’s insidious. Make sure you don’t use it as an excuse not to write.

    My process is fairly simple. I choose my main character. I jot down what I want to happen to her and note ideas for a scene or two. I write a scene where something is going on that will make the reader want to know more. This might not be the first scene in the book, but for me, after several rewrites, it usually is. I “break all the rules” and edit as I go. As new scenes or situations pop into my mind, I jot them down, too. About halfway through the book, an ending occurs to me that will pull everything together. I think it must be percolating in my mind without conscious thought.

    From that point on, I work toward that ending and tie all the threads together. Just doing that suggests more scenes to me. Because I edited all along and kept everything headed toward one climax, when I’m finished the book, I’m truly finished. I send it to several editor friends of mine, incorporate whatever changes they suggest, and send the book off to my publisher. The only analysis I did was ongoing as I wrote. So maybe I’m not writing blockbuster best sellers, but I have a following of readers who really enjoy my books. And that makes me happy.

    BTW, take a look at YWriter5, a great program for keeping things in order in your books – especially important if you intend to do a series. And it’s free.

    @Matt: My experience exactly. So happy to have Larry point out the right way to go.

  8. Robert Jones

    I opted in for the entire plot analysis and spent half of this past year using it as a story development tool. It helped a lot. Larry nailed the main problem: too much time building up my hero and not enough building for the villain’s side of the story–and making the collision between the two core. Which I spent the past few months doing. Sound like a lot of work?

    For me, I not only have to rough out a basic outline of the plot quartiles–which Larry did say was structurally sound in my original plan–but a scene by scene outline is required. I’m a bit overly expansive in terms of ideas. So to use pantsing as a search for story, character history, and motivation, I would end up with 800 pages or more of meandering and probably at least half a dozen drafts to weed out all the bad scenes and build up the important ones. So it’s much easier to get the view from 10,000 feet for me with a simple stack of index cards I can thumb through quickly.

    I jot down anything and everything in notebooks as far as ideas while doing this. A lot of that gets trashed by the time the story plan is finalized. But it’s a weeding out process. The first ideas are rarely my best ones. And if stumped, I’ll make a list of 20-30 ideas sometimes before one hits that works for me, or doesn’t seem like a cliché. I think all those first notions that seem very typical need to be written down sometimes just to get past them in order for better ideas to manifest. Most early ideas are top of the head thinking. And from that 10,000 feet vantage point, it’s like looking down at the earth and having the view obscured by a layer of cloudy mist. So the act of keeping notebooks and writing lists is the best way I know of to physically move those top of the head clouds aside so the fresher details can be picked out.

    Once I have my scene cards turning into a workable plot, I take them to the next level of testing, which consists of identifying the mission and conflict of each scene. What’s the emotional core of that seen at it’s heart?

    The end result looks something like this (which isn’t my story, just a very generic scene that’s pretty clichéd in its own right…but will get the idea across):

    POV character: She.
    Conflict: She confronts He (her boss) about a mistake She believes He is about to make that will hurt a large number of people.

    She does this.

    He becomes a bit defensive and does that (because he feels just as strongly about the situation for his own reasons).

    She ups her game by trying something a little more aggressive, or attempts to jar him out of his blind stubbornness.

    He says if She feels that way, She’s off the project altogether because He can’t have people who aren’t giving the project their all.

    So whatever good intentions She may have had going in are now flipped over and blocked. He’s reacted in exactly the opposite way she expected. And because I’ve planned out all those lists and details, I know the subtext, what She’s thinking, what He’s thinking, and how what is said and what is meant have spiraled into two different things out of the circumstances involved. He may have just dropped a bundle into the project and thereby poured his entire future into the outcome minutes before she came into the room voicing doubts. He’s pissed. Why hasn’t she said something before? Has a third party kept certain details from her? Does she have turbulent problems outside the office that’s effected her judgment? Whatever it is, I’ll know by now. So it isn’t just conflict for the sake of having random conflict–figure out the reasons later. I understand why both sides have taken their particular stance…because I’ve danced, slept, ate with both of them for months during the planning stages. So hopefully what each says and does will be fused with built in reasons before going in.

    The drafting process still allows for unexpected nuance and spontaneity. But I’ve cut into each scene very close to the main action and have gotten out quickly. The spontaneous musing that so often drops from the ether while drafting is now able to do so more within the moment of a given scene, no aimless searching, or tangents that may, or may not, lead to something good. And if a better idea does occur to me, how much easier is it to wade through my scene cards, or reorganize scenes written with specificity of character in mind, than to reorganize an entire draft that still may pose many questions due to the search for story being incomplete?

    In the end, it comes down to preference. I could be pantsing my way through draft 3, or 4, and maybe discovering all those same answers. If I had a simpler story, or if my mind worked differently. Since it doesn’t, this is what I’ve got. So it’s either do it this way, or write those Stephen King sized novels from the start and hope they find an audience.

  9. Robert, thank you for sharing your process with us. I really enjoy hearing how other writers work. We are each unique, but sometimes one can get an idea from another’s way of doing things. Index cards seem to be a big favorite; some people even use multicolored ones to signify different aspects, e.g., subplot 1 vs. subplot 2. I keep that in mind in case my brain can’t hold all the information I need to know as I write. I do keep separate pages for research that I can access as needed. But I tend to bounce tons of possibilities around in my head before accepting or rejecting them. If that ever fails me, I think I’ll adopt the electronic index card method (electronic, because I have difficulty writing manually–my right hand is impaired.). It makes good sense to me.

  10. MikeR

    @Nann –

    I’m not saying that “computer programming” is too-like “creative writing,” because programmers, in-effect, build “machines.” Software has millions of interlocking “moving parts,” and inherent internal complexity, that a work of fiction doesn’t have. But the notion of “pantsing,” and of the problems with that approach, still apply to both.

    You’re doing a creative-work. To some degree, you’re necessarily making it up as you go along, and working-out problems as you subsequently and inevitably discover them … moving the work toward completion by means of a process of “successive refinement” and with the help of “pro/peer review” e.g. Larry. The trick is to try to not be a beagle chasing rabbits with his nose always two-inches above the ground (and, ouch, running into the fence).

    The two efforts are =quite= different: if they weren’t, I’d be a novelist right now. “Discovery” is much a part of the writing process. But you don’t necessarily want to write “tens of thousands of words,” to “discover.”

    — Also: If a comment doesn’t “post” (you get a white screen), hit “back” and check the comment. Your e-mail address will have been lost. Type it in again and “submit,” and it will post this time.

  11. Robert Jones

    Posts that take longer than a few minutes to write never post right these days here (new software?). I have to copy my post, refresh the page, paste, then submit.

    Nann: I’ve used colored index cards to seperate each character in the beginning. Smaller roles each got white cards because there weren’t enough colors to do more than my main cast. Once my story got to the phase of listing conflict, subtext, etc…I just used white. It symbolized a uniform wholeness to me.

    MikeR: I think you are very correct, and wise, to notice the parallels between the creative aspects of your job and apply some of them to your writing, and vice versa. They say that one creative project can fuel another, but one project can actually break down aspects of the other in ways that lend objectivity. Possibly even enhance our confidence when we can look at some aspects of one project and say, “Hey, I already know how this works,” because we’ve already experienced those parallels elsewhere.

    Over time, I’ve found many parallels and lessons I’ve learned creatively applied to a host of other things in life. It’s a take on that age old question…does life immitate art, or art immitate life? Yet, the question itself reflects the answer. If we were to cut an apple in half, press one half against the glass of a mirror, does it not reflect both halves, making what was lacking whole?

  12. Gentlemen, I’d like to combine two of your statements and reflect on them.

    1) From Robert: “Hey, I already know how this works”
    2) From MikeR: “Discovery” is much a part of the writing process. But you don’t necessarily want to write “tens of thousands of words,” to “discover.”

    Knowing how something works isn’t enough to ensure you can duplicate it, although it can help in the process. A child can know how a bicycle works, can even watch movies of other kids riding their bikes, but until that child climbs on a bike and tries it himself, he isn’t a bike rider. And until he rides the bike over and over, he most likely isn’t a proficient bike rider.

    Most of us know “how” to write, but turning that knowledge into a publishable book takes a lot of work. Sometimes you do have to write “tens of thousands of words” to reach “discovery.” We would all love to write a first novel that becomes a blockbuster, but few do. My thought is to write, write, write, and as we’ve all been told, revise, revise, revise. You can absorb all the rules, but you learn to write by WRITING. We can be expert analyzers of others’ books and be able to recognize an expert writer over an amateur one, but we can’t call ourselves authors until we slog through the early learning stages and put our thoughts on paper to be judged by the multitude.

    One needs to acknowledge when it’s time to stop bending our brains, stop analyzing, stop comparing, and just WRITE. I strive to make each book I write an improvement over the previous one. And I hope that continues to be the case. Don’t be so concerned about your book being perfect that you never get it completed. Holding that first published book in your hands is a huge motivator to continue writing. And learning, And improving. And giving your dreams a chance to materialize.

    Side note: I’ve been having trouble with post submissions, also. MikeR, your tip didn’t work for me. I go to a different browser and post it – not always the same browser! I have noticed that if the Submit button doesn’t have (Spamcheck Enabled) under it, the submission doesn’t work.

  13. MikeR

    @Nann –

    I heartily agree with you.

  14. Robert Jones

    Me too. Can’t fault that logic. Though my taking the year to plan was also a year of learning, picking up where I had left off a while back in an attempt to encapsulate as much as I could to add to my knowledge. My current work in progress isn’t the only thing I’ve written during that time, or the time since last I delved into the learning of craft. In fact, I’ve been writing stories in one form or another since I was a kid. But my current story became my physical homework to apply as many lessons as I could, those gems of craft books becoming my daily text books, to see how their precepts worked on paper (much like a classroom) instead of just intellectually attempting to understand how it worked from reading theories in a book. So when I say I’ve spent the past year in “intense” study and planning, I’m not just churning facts around in my head and thinking one day I’ll attempt that novel. I’ve attempted several. This year has been my attempt to truly kick myself in the ass and drag my craft to a new level. Because I want to become a published author in the not so distant future.

    However, Nann, the truth in your words is certainly echoed by the fact that creative writing, for all its numerous books on the subject, has very few that covers more than the basics over and over again. It becomes a weeding out process that I’ve likened to a trip through an endless maze, gathering useful snippets here and there, a gem of a craft book coming few and far between. In the end, you do end up having to climb on that bicycle and learning the twists within the maze by riding it until a level of skill and comfort are achieved.

    In art, there are numerous techniques taught for every aspect of it (drawing painting, lighting, perspective, etc.), and you can’t just sit down and do a professional job by studying one or two aspects of it. Not to mention the different criteria for an abundance of tools involved. Granted, it still boils down to practicing with those tools and techniques until the feel comfortable, and there’s certainly still a weeding out from what is personal theory and what is universally useful. Writing stories, however, being one of the oldest crafts, still has a lot of unexplored territory in comparison to most other arts.

    So when you come across books like SE and SP, that actually defines plot structure in a scientific manner that everyone can use, it’s a unique treat, criteria defined. I’m not sure if most writers would benefit from some art classes where structure is more clearly defined until the overall process can be researched and understood (what a revelation that would be), or if artists who come to writing would be better off learning it from a blank state because most things just aren’t defined that broadly here.

    The great thing about writing is that, when done right, it can be a more intimate experience for each reader, a more emotional experience, than most arts. People want to laugh and cry, and do so all the time when wrapped up in a story. Compared to a group of people rounded up from the local book store, or even a movie theater and paraded through an art gallery, the number who spontaneously burst into to laughter, or tears, based on the impact the artist had on them would be relatively few. A sad statement, to be sure. But writing may be one of the few truly impactive arts on a public dulled down and dumbed down by mass media overload.

    At this point, it’s onward for me. I’ve moved on to scripting and putting everything together. Which is what the coming year will be all about.

  15. Robert, when you finish your story and get it published, I’d love to read it. Be sure to let us know where we can purchase it, please. And good luck with it!

    You say: “The great thing about writing is that, when done right, it can be a more intimate experience for each reader, a more emotional experience, than most arts.”

    That’s true, of course. And it’s an emotional experience for the writer, too. If your words don’t have an intimate impact on you, they probably won’t on the reader, either.

    I wrote three books that got published before I finally admitted to myself that I needed to know more about the craft. I had worked in corporate editing for many years, but fiction editing is a whole different dimension. So I “took off” two years from writing and did nothing but study the craft—mostly online. Once I felt secure in my knowledge, I started writing again. I also began editing for some small publishers. I had to turn some books away because they just weren’t well written. The sad thing is, it’s just as time-consuming to write a bad book as it is to write a good book.

    Authors need to study and learn the craft. I’m probably singing to the choir to say that on this list. At least I hope I am. Larry has given us all so much valuable information. I sometimes feel all we need to do beyond learning from him is to find ourselves a good story to tell and start writing it.

  16. Robert Jones

    Nann–Two years off from writing as an already three times published author to study craft? I have to say I’m totally impressed by that. As creative people, we have to be completely self motivated. Maybe even more so than the rest of the world because we don’t have a lot of billboards and rock star celebrity types telling us to go sit alone in our studio like hermits and emerse our brains in study. In fact, most of our social rules and pop-culture icons are concerned with the self image, working from the outside in, not the inside out. Another backwards philosophy among so many.

    Thank you for sharing some of your personal story. I think it’s important to share our stories and sturggles to inspire others who may feel their own efforts contradict life’s rules. God, I hope they do. Because life isn’t set up to make it easy for the average person to follow their bliss. No one is going to do the work for us, and every overnight success, each important discovery, are all built on years of hard work, study, and a string of failures that we’ve learned some small fragment of the process from, picking ourselves up and moving onward toward the next “Aha moment.”

  17. MikeR

    @Robert – I think you hit a nail on the head a few posts back when you observed, “I already knew the subtext.” “I already know why both sides have taken their particular stance.” (And, if you wish: “I have devised what the reader will THINK was ‘the reason why.”) You simply can’t do that effectively by “stumbling along.” The reader is stumbling along through your story, which means that you can’t. Otherwise, “both of you are lost in the woods,” and, sooner or sooner, the reader’s gonna figure that out.

    And all of these things are =choices.= The rabbit’s in the hat because you put it there, and because you picked-out that particular hat (and rabbit). And because you picked the table and the tablecloth (and cut the cloth to length), and made sure it matched with the backdrop, which you picked too. Starting with (except in the case of the rabbit) swatches, catalog photos, and Captain Kangaroo-esque “construction paper and paper fasteners.” (Was there -anything- the Captain couldn’t build with those two things and a pair of school scissors? No.) Planning, planning, planning … measure twice, cut once.

    My particular project is set in a real city (mine), at a non-existent hotel, a real mansion in a real place (where it really wasn’t), a factory worker’s simple squalid home with the first color TV in the neighborhood, a black man’s shack that’s as proud as mamma could make it with no money to spend, and a couple of other ancillary sets which I can place on the map. In my quest for authenticity, I have rediscovered the library – the newspaper “morgue.” Microfilm machines. Reading what people actually wrote in the days when people actually read newspapers. And I will tell you this: the ideas that I am -finding- are a great deal better than the ones I dreamed-up. They’re rather a mess right now, but that’s okay: I expected that.

    When you truly immerse yourself in a time, “truth is a great source of fiction.” But you have to purposely delay the process of committing to a particular course, of “writing a whole bunch of words,” knowing also that your subconscious mind is always one step ahead of you anyway. I know that I’m setting my tale in a very volatile time (early 1960’s) in which clichés and “race cards” lurk like so many land-mines, and I want to do something different.

  18. Robert Jones

    Mike–there’s a quote from one of the original Sherlock Holmes stories that says, “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. There is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace.”

    Researching history proves this every time.

    I’ve tried “stumbling” through a few stories in my day, misleading the reader with deliberate confusion, then trying to tie all of it together in a way that makes sense. In a short story, it worked. Even if I discovered something that changed the entire plt, there wasn’t a great deal to rewrite. Then I began expanding into novels and it worked less and less. Looking back, even the times I thought it worked the story usually seemed contrived without a lot of reworking it.

    At best, it’s exactly like Larry says, a search for your story, looking for that moment that brings it all together. Then you have to readjust, rewrite, and attempt to give everything that came before some kind of purpose.

    I understand pantsing. Might even be able to pull it off with greater success now that I understand structure better. But I wouldn’t recommend it to my friends. In fact, one friend who claims to have had great success pantsing with short stories tried a novella length story and everything I told him that would happen, did happen. And his attempt was not successful. That story has now been put aside to see if it can be worked into something one fine day.

    Multiply that novella length about three times into the proportions of a novel, and you’ve trippled the chances for confusion at best. It’s fun to dive in and discover a story on the fly. Been there and done that. It’s also more fun to just put words down on the page and feel you’ve accomplished something more than planning and taking notes. Then what happens is all that writing and rewriting to find the story and fix mistakes turns into severe burn out. I believe this illusion of fun and discovery is why most people never finish their novels, or produce something that makes readers feel like they’re stumbling without the precision of purpose. And therefore produce a manuscript that isn’t publishable–if readable at all.

    I don’t play that way any more. If you break each level of planning into different stages, it’s still a lot of work. But each stage can be made to feel a bit different, accomplish a bit more. So by the time you get to drafting, that stage of the process is fresh. And from my experience, those wonderful and spontaneous discoveries still happen. They just happen in a way that improves what you already have and there’s no following stray thoughts out into left field to see if they might lead to something wonderful.

    Planning is a better writing experience, in my opinion. A more “sure of yourself” feeling is given to the drafting process. I think it also puts the story and writer through a bit of a trial by fire. If either story or author can’t withstand the idea of research and planning, I would probably assume they are looking in the wrong places, or not cut out to write novels. Because you have to be a “story detective,” gathering facts first.

    And, if I may finish with another maxim From Sherlock Holmes, “It is a fundamental mistake to theorize before one has all the facts.”

  19. MikeR

    @Robert – As you well know, I totally agree with those sentiments.

    “Writing scenes” is certainly creativity … and planning what a story might be, is too. Coming up with disconnected ideas, not yet sure what/if to do with them, is too.
    “Pantsing” (yes, “pantsing”) a scene, is too.

    The biggest problem that I see – have always seen – with “pantsing” as a creative approach “for the whole thing,” is that it follows the very first white-rabbit trail that it comes to, treating every single twist and turn as somehow “final, set in stone,” until finally the author realizes that he has either become lost in the forest or has run into a fence. The odds of you actually succeeding at such a thing – at anything – are slim-to-none.

    (Have not ALL of us sat through, say, an incoherent PowerPoint presentation that rambled, had no structure whatsoever, said nothing, and made no sense? 😀 Of course we have.)

    “Pantsing” in small doses is like improv theater: put a few actors on stage, give ’em a scenario, and, “ACTION!” See what they do. Very useful (at least to me) as an avenue for discovery. But a nonsensical way to try to handle the whole book.

  20. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–I had a thought after writing my earlier post. Not sure if it applies to you, but thought I would share it anyway.

    As an adendum to my previous post, I felt inclined to issue the usual warning that too much research can also run your ship aground. From all you’ve written about your story, it sounds like a really good one. But the fact that you live in the town where it happens, have a library with a glut of history concerning the period you’re writing about, made me wonder if history could be getting too cemented into place so that fiction becomes hard to weave in between the lines because you’re too close to it all.

    If so, it may be helpful to remember that all history is a weaving of fact and fiction, usually designed to benefit those who cemented those bricks into place at the time. Fiction writers need to take what works within their story world, possibly bending some of it to fit, and leaving whatever doesn’t. It’s like an artist drawing a portrait of a delicate, beautiful woman, understanding what to put in and what to leave out. Because on paper, every line you add, even if they seem to be there in reality, ages the woman, takes away from her delicate beauty. You chose what’s most important to capture the spirit of that beauty.

    Sometimes good ideas can be amalgamated into the life of a character so that one life may stand for many in a symbolic way. Other times the “what if” needs to consider that maybe something else happened entirely behind the scenes that never made it into the history books. In a contest between real life and fiction, fiction sometimes has to win if it serves the story best.

    Some questions:

    Do you have your ending in mind? Do you know what some, or all, of your major plot points will be? It would seem if you had some type of through line to use as a pass or fail guide to see what fits from history and where, that may help you a great deal. From what you’ve said previosly, it sounds like you have something pretty conceptual going on, but if you haven’t yet invested in Larry’s help. it might well be worth at least trying the $50 kick start plan. If you concept turns out not to be as concrete as you believe, that could be holding you back. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found that to be the problem when I hit a dead end, or my plot just wasn’t working as I had hoped.

    Nailing the concept and working out those opposing points for my hero and villain better afterward is what brought things together for me on my current story. In a large way, I might add.

    Hope some of this is helpful 🙂

  21. MikeR

    @Robert – “I’m not quite there yet, but I’m not stuck.” I have ideas for what the ending should be, and what the major plot points should be, and that there are actually a series of sub-plots that will be involved around the main through-line story. But, I haven’t decided yet.

    I want this story to give you an authentic experience, of what is turning out to be a very interesting and pivotal time that was not yet regarded by those who were actually in it as being “a pivotal time.” For instance:

    – the passenger railroad was dying, but not dead yet.
    – civil rights and race-relations were certainly a growing issue, but this city “was no Selma.”
    – there was a hideous pollution problem. (The Clean Air Act started right here.)
    – there were three distinct classes: the industrialists, the common white worker, and the black community. All three “knew their place,” and didn’t necessarily see “their place” as being either dominant or inferior. (This point is key. Especially here, “it wasn’t quite like the history-books told you.”)
    – the handwriting was on the wall for a great many things that “would not remain the same and would never be the same again,” but this was only now becoming clear.
    – the changes that were taking place were evolutionary, not sudden; but they were inexorable. “With a whimper, not with a shout.”

    It was the best of times … oops, that line’s already been taken.

    And they all three interconnected at a hotel across the street from a train station, as the story opens on (yes, I know …) a dark and stormy night. Not in an Agatha Christie sort of way.

    There will be one main, central, story-line, but there will also be three others intertwined with it, corresponding to three central players, which provide the context for what drives that central story-line in some unexpected directions. For what makes it impossible for the story-line to go in other, easier(?) directions. (He said, mysteriously …) 😉

    The things which drive their perceptions, and thus their actions, are not what we would have in the same situation today. They were a product of their place and time, and those things are different from the 21st-century reader steeped in a generation of “cultural correctness” that followed from those times.

    I admit it – I am enjoying this phase of the project. In some ways, I think the story will surprise me, too, when I finally choose what it will be. I hope it will be “a good read.”

  22. Robert Jones

    Mike–It sounds like you’re moving in the right direction with a very interesting period piece. But I’ve always thought that. Looking forward to the day I can read it and see how it all comes together.

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