A guest post by Mike Robinson
One small illusion has sold many books, seminars, writer’s retreats, and workshops: the illusion that the process of writing a book is like reading a book. (“If only I were good enough …” or “As soon as I buy one more thing …”)
We innocently assume that fiction isn’t like, say, a term paper, a dissertation, an important business presentation. We “simply expect” the story to flow out of our creative minds and onto the page, in the reverse of what happens at two o’clock in the morning when we just can’t turn out the light. We expect this, in part, because there are too-many writer’s books which encourage that myth.
And too-many workshops use that same illusion to fill the slow months of a fancy resort’s off-season.
Since you’re reading this, you know better.
As do I. The goal here is not just to dream about writing something, but to do it. We must do it with a pragmatic economy of effort. Ergo, “no illusions.”
But what should we expect?
First, the creative process is much more chaotic, more uncertain, more “constantly full of choices and choosing” – and yet more deliberate and purposeful – than we might suppose. We’re caught off-guard when our creative minds don’t hand us “au fait accompli.” We think that there must be something very wrong with us when our Muse bombards us with alternatives and then challenges us to choose, never giving us the straight-answers that we wish for. But this is what “a blank page” really means. You’re not taking dictation. Everything that you put on that page will be a choice, and it will never be the one-and-only choice that you could have made.
Your Gentle Reader doesn’t want a blank page, though. She wants a complete meal, tastefully prepared, original yet very familiar: spaghetti, hamburger, a taco. She wants it to conform to her expected story form, for the kind of story she likes and that she expects from you: romance, science fiction, thriller, vicarious sex. Even though she doesn’t consciously know or care what a story form is, her expectations are quite specific. (And so is @Larry, when he writes about it.)
This puts you, Gentle Writer, in the kitchen. You’re surrounded by choices, from which you must choose, and which you must then fashion into the perfect, delectable dish. Trouble is, none of those choices will present themselves with “choose me, I am the right choice.” Your choices will be “right” only because you caused them to be so. You will finish and deliver your project because you applied a process that is both pragmatic and efficient.
The creative process consists of three main steps, bouncing back-and-forth between them and making choices at nearly every turn. These three steps are: imagination, selection, and successive refinement.
Imagination is the most-obvious part: “somehow snatching ideas from somewhere.”
Who knows, really, just where ideas come from – and who really cares. Imagination is the source of every good idea, and of every bad one: the trash, the tropes, the tripe, and yes, the juicy million-dollar bits that you wish that you had written and that you someday maybe will.
When you are imagining, you should simply be dreaming-up everything you can think of, without choosing. When we watch “Star Trek” where “James T. Kirk,” “Spock,” “Bones,” and “Scotty” sail on the starship “Enterprise” to encounter a space-station stuffed with fuzzy but rapacious “tribbles,” it might not occur to you that all of the things in quotation-marks within this sentence were chosen from long typewritten lists of mostly-nonsense words, but it is so.
Of course, imagination must quickly lead to selection, and this needs story form to serve as the anchor and the frame. You are assembling a new contraption that will consist of elements that you choose, but it must fit the form.
A novel really isn’t all that “novel” in its structure and design. You know from the start that you’re to create one or more story lines, each of which will move in a series of “story beats” through a progression of “plot points” and “pinch points” as @Larry so clearly describes. You also know that you must be efficient: drawing out a large number of ideas, sifting through them many times, and setting them into places within the story form where they might work, without wasting time or locking yourself too early into the long-term consequences of any single decision.
Thus, successive refinement.
Initially, you don’t know what ideas will work best, nor have you yet chosen where exactly is the best place to put those that do. These are decisions that you will make as you move from a cloudy vision to a completed work.
Therefore, you need to make especially those initial decisions “very cheap.” A three-page outline of “story beats” is a great deal easier to change than a thirty-page document. A simple paragraph describing a potential scene is “good enough for now,” given that you might never actually write(!) that scene.
It is downright strange to be exploring completely-new territory without a map, while having literally the power to decide, “I’ll put ‘Kansas’ here” while also being obligated to decide what ‘Kansas’ ought to be. It feels like you’re groping in the dark because, in one sense, you are! A better way to look at it is: “what if I put such-and-such a state here, and by the way decided to call it ‘Kansas?’” You need a process that lets you pencil-in such a decision, and to choose and change quickly.
You must be efficient and pragmatic, because you’ll be making a lot of speculative, “what if?” decisions, especially at first. You’ll discard most of them while you revise the rest. Therefore, spend no more time capturing each decision than you have to. (And, when you decide not to use a particular idea, set it aside without ever actually discarding it.)
This process of imagination, selection, and successive refinement will flow back-and-forth like an Olympic ping-pong match, until finally you’ll come up with a very detailed “final cut” of your story, still in detailed-outline form. It will be one of several. It will be the one that you finally approved.
You’ll be reading through that outline “just one more time,” and … quite suddenly … a very magical thing will happen. There, right before your eyes, is “a new, original story.” Part of you of course understands everything about this story that there is to be known about it, while another part of you is reading it for the first time and enjoying what you read.
There’s still a lot of work left to do, oh yes, and one or possibly several drafts to write, but: “there it is.” The magic. Your magic. Your story. Through what had been a formless maze of imaginings, a story now leads. You did it. You can succeed. You can see it, now.
Treasure the moment. Tomorrow will be another writer’s work-day, with ever so much more work to do. But for now, it’s two o’clock in the morning. Turn out the light and get some sleep.
Mike Robinson is a software professional who, upon digging into the principles of story architecture, quickly recognized the empathetic parallels between writing code that actually works and writing a story that does the same. He’s a frequent contributor here at Storyfix under the moniker “Mike R,” and the originator (to my knowledge) of the term “gentle reader,” which is precisely how we should think of them.
Even though we all know they’re anything but gentle, for the same reason. If you’ve ever had something reviewed on Amazon.com, you quickly learn how gentle they are not.