There; I said it.
I don’t even want to care about plots. I can’t think that way…I mean, I actually can’t make myself do it.
A reasonable question here would be: think what way? What about plots is so hard to elevate to the level of importance?
Yeah, okay. It’s like this. I don’t write from plots. I don’t know how. I’m not denying that it can be a useful skill, and possibly even necessary to writerly success. It’s just a skill I don’t have.
I wrote a bunch of stories by composing a collection of amusing-to-me initial sentences, then picking one of those and writing a second sentence that seemed to build on or conflict with the first. The stories grew to a certain point…then took off once I got a hold on the characters involved. Note that very few of the stories were written in a single day. I would play with words for a while…then my brain would declare itself done. I’d sleep on it. Then I’d finish the story the next day, or the day after that. Most of them took less than four hours to create, all editing/rewriting included. But that doesn’t at all mean I can write a story in a single day (though sometimes it happens). I’ve tried doing a story-a-day challenge for myself, but never succeeded. Is it possible? Probably. Just one more thing I don’t know how to do yet.
Now, novels. None of them started with a plot, or even a fun initial sentence. I’ve written four of them, most of a fifth, and all of them started with…wait for it…a theme. To put it another way, they were all about ideas/emotions I wanted to explore. So I’d come up with characters and situations that seemed ripe for the sort of exploration I wanted to do, and add in other characters and situations that seemed to fit my primary (non-plot-related) goal, and eventually I’d reach the end of the book.
But but but! Three-act structure! Hero’s journey! Or four acts! Or something!
Yes. That stuff. I’ve read something well over 100 books on writing (remember: I’m old, now) and I find those topics interesting and fun to think about. No, really. I do. But…I think it was Lawrence Block who said he’s read many times that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and he can’t argue, but the knowledge has never been helpful with his writing.
Of course there’s more to it than that. Lots more. But what I do is get inside my characters’ heads, including allies, antagonists, minor characters, whatever. As I start each chapter, I ask myself: what would all these folks be doing? If whatever it is doesn’t seem to fit the theme I’m exploring, what could change that might fix that problem? Then I figure out who the viewpoint character should be (some books it varies by one scheme or another; some stick with one throughout; in some cases the switching itself, if it’s according to a pattern, influences events I select to write about–because the viewpoint character’s take on those events needs to matter to the reader) and give that character’s take on those events. So, it’s JIT (just-in-time) plotting! Software and business geeks rejoice!
It’s my interior models of the characters that drive the story…yes, I think as I go about settings, conflict, pretty sentences, and roughly where I am in one or more of those structure-like scaffolds. But I learn more about the characters as I go, and so I don’t know how to predict what they’ll do several chapters in advance. Or what events I’ll need to introduce to keep the characters from going totally off the rails.
I actually, really, no-fooling, can’t outline worth a damn. Put a gun to my head and I can probably fake it. But unless you keep that gun in place the actual book will come out some other way. Every time.
I can look at what I’ve written, figure out what is or isn’t working, and go back to fix things so it appears I had a plan throughout. Because I like stories too, you know? They’re not just written for readers. They have to make me happy. And I’m kind of picky.
But does all that need to change? If so, how? Meta-writalysis!
Let’s back up. I know how I’ve written in the past. I’ve totally been a “pantser,” and I’ve written damn near all my words first thing in the morning. Distractions distract me. Weird, I realize. But they do, and I’m not good at recovering from them. Why’s that? Maybe…
Maybe because I’m not very good at writing fiction yet? There’s a thought. On the plus side, if that’s the case, it may mean my current problems will simply fade over time. Neat!
See, I can write a blog post any time I want. I don’t have to be in the right mood, I don’t have to shut off all distractions. Sure, somebody coming up to me and starting a conversation will set me back a bit. But I don’t care a whole lot. I can get right back into the zone, the flow state, in roughly a minute. Why’s that? Well…maybe because I used to have jobs that involved writing a ton of email? And before that I wrote copy for brochures, newsletters, business plans for Small Business Administration loan applications (that was kind of a specialty), and–you get the idea, I’m sure. Regardless of the quality of my output, fiction or non-, I can just write nonfiction anytime. Not so with fiction.
So here I am, with kids. And with–might as well admit this part–a strong dislike of strictures. I mean structures? Well, either way. I don’t like having to write first thing in the morning to get it done. It becomes un-fun. I also don’t like that getting interrupted, or interrupting myself by thinking of a topic that then captures my brain, means I’m pretty much done for the day.
This matters why? Because I want to do this for a living. The “fiction” part. I mean…I have a blast playing with ideas, when it’s all working. If I could make a living by writing only when I happened to feel like it, that’d be perfect. But I’m gonna guess it won’t work out that way.
So, right now, I’m semi-obsessed with process. Which gets in the way of content, by the way, but that’s probably unavoidable. On that topic? Instead of avoiding that problem, I’m embracing it: yes, I’m making writing more difficult right now, and that’s fine, because I need to figure out how to write when it’s hard.
So what am I doing? I noticed a few things:
- I can edit/rewrite in a crowded room, while drinking a beer and kind-of watching a movie. Like writing nonfiction, it goes better when I avoid distractions. But it’s easy to recover from distractions.
- I can only get a very limited amount of time, if I need it first thing in the morning. It means avoiding my family, during a part of the day when we’re all here. I hate avoiding my family. So if I can see or hear them…I think about the fact that I’m avoiding them, you know?
- A sharply limited amount of time might be okay, if I could generate fiction quickly. What if I could come up with, say, 2000 words? Then I could edit/rewrite later in the day, and finish a novel a month. Which I consider to be pretty much a minimum, if I’m going to seriously give up other sources of income and make this my sole/primary profession.
- Oh. Um. Yes, first thing in the morning works. But guess what? Not if I’m sleepy. I barely function at all, if I wake up sleepy. Drink coffee? Sure. But by the time I’ve had a few cups, I’m probably thinking about something besides the story/novel I should be working on. And…
- I totally, comprehensively suck at recovering from distractions, when writing fiction is the goal.
Let’s put it another way.
Writing fiction is always difficult for me.
I need to simplify that. And right now would be okay.
So. I’ve been focusing on dictation rather than typing, on the grounds that whatever else is going on, being able to “write” faster will be a big help. Turns out that if I can see the words I’m speaking appear on a screen as I speak, I’m if anything a bit slower than while typing. The editing-brain activates, and it turns out I’m better off just typing. (Ideally in a font I can’t read.)
So I turned to “pure” dictation, with transcription happening afterward. My speed, compared to either of the previous methods, promptly doubled. But then I realized I felt a bit lost in the story. What had I just “written,” anyway? Was it any good? But maybe more importantly at this stage, where did stuff happen, and to whom? I found myself worrying that I would skip essential pieces of the story, or contradict the things I didn’t remember saying the day before, and so on. Worse yet? Stopping to wait for software to transcribe my recordings slowed me back down. Instead of being able to simply read the text to answer questions and re-anchor myself, I’d start noticing all the transcription errors. Then I’d start noticing other problems with the text. By this time my brain would be in full-on edit-mode. So, about writing more? Not so much.
Is this still workable? Sure, sort of. If I took an hour each day to dictate, I’d get that 2000 words. No problem. Except that it means (a) not interacting with family, and (b) not trying to wake myself up early to get my hour in early either–that “early” part actually works okay, but it’s a problem since guess what? Kids don’t necessarily want to go to bed in time for me to wake up at 4:30am. So, do they have to anyway? Does that mean they can’t do things with their friends? Think “teenagers” before you answer. So does that mean I ask my wife, who has her own work to do, to take care of the kids both in the morning and the evening? Yeah. No.
All right. I need to make writing fiction easier. And recently I even came up with an outline. It worked! For about a day, I actually wrote about 50% faster than even the dictation/transcription method (which I used), and so three times faster than via typing. Sweet!
Only, the thing is? It took me a full day to create that outline, and the story veered off in another direction entirely soon afterward. Updating the outline is not fun for me, either. All those future chapters that now won’t happen are kind of depressing to look at.
Okay. How about outlining only what I’ve already done? I did that in the past, actually. It seemed to work okay.
If I switched back to typing, that would probably work. Maybe it would work for dictation too, eventually. But I’m simply better at writing via typing than I am at writing via dictation. Go figure. So, while dictating, I get “lost” more easily. And distracted more easily, and have even more trouble getting back into a flow.
I tried outlining via dictation, as part of the same file, thinking I could just talk about what would happen in a given chapter or scene, then dictate the actual scene. That kind of worked. But it didn’t seem to actually help the situation: I actually got more done in the same amount of time by winging it. And pre-dictating the plan for a chapter/scene doesn’t feel all that lightweight either: it takes a ton of concentration. Maybe not as much as winging it. But not a lot less. And then remembering whatever the hell I said I was going to write is a bit of a beast too. Even when that works, it still takes effort and drags me out of creative-mode.
So. Now what?
Well, look. This really shouldn’t be hard. I have a voice recorder I can hang around my neck. It works very well, too. All I have to do is talk, right? I like to talk. While this may seem to be an oversimplification, to my way of thinkin’ it fuckin’ just ain’t, nohow. I need to find a way to make writing as easy as talking. Gotta. Today please.
Obviously this stuff has been on my mind. So yesterday I came up with an idea. You know what I did next? Woke up at 2am, started thinking about it, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I still haven’t been back to sleep as I write this, and it’s now about 8:30am.
So. Not implementing the new idea today. I want to try it, but I want to try it when I’m reasonably alert. I don’t want to discourage myself unnecessarily.
What’s the idea? Not all that much of a difference from earlier ideas, really. It’s this:
- Start a writing session by thinking about the chapter/scene I’m about to write. Decide where everything happens. Decide which characters are involved, and why.
- Dictate all that into my phone, which uploads to Dropbox. Then my laptop downloads the files, transcribes them, and re-uploads them. Then they’re available on the phone. For short files, this only takes a few minutes.
- Repeat Step #1 for any other chapters/scenes I want to write in that session, or on that day. Ideally I’ll have enough of a grasp of the near-immediate future of a book to do that. If not, no problem. Just stop, and proceed to #4 below. Also ideally, by the time I’m done with the last of these, the transcribed version of the first will be on my phone. While we’re going with the ideal results, maybe I’ll be able to think about this stuff usefully while taking kids to school and giving them wedgies if their pants seem too low. (No, I don’t really do that. But I totally would, if they actually tried “sagging”…sadly, they seem to know already that it’s a bad idea. Maybe someday.)
- Pull up my mini-outline for the chapter/scene I want to write. Stare at it. Dictate the chapter/scene into the voice recorder–but no transcription is allowed until the novel is complete. No edits or rewrites. The goal here is to be able to keep going–so does this process work, or not? It’s totally fine, if something is bugging me, to dictate a note to myself in the middle of a chapter/scene. The main thing? It needs to get out of my mind, so the note needs to be the equivalent of fixing whatever I thought was wrong when I dictated it. I think that part will work fine, since it matches up with the notes I used to leave for myself while typing.
- Repeat #4 as needed/possible, or go back to #1 if needed/possible. Or drink a beer, maybe.
I realize there’s nothing earth-shattering here. For which you should be grateful! If I shattered the planet, where would you live? But it is a new approach, and I’m going to give it a try…tomorrow morning.
This may actually work. Here’s why I think so:
- The pre-outlining doesn’t strike me as all that difficult, given that it’s only for a single chapter/scene at a time, and if it’s hard to figure out more than that…that’s okay. I can do it later.
- It should make dictating the actual fiction easier: fewer decisions, less need to think of several things at once. No need to stare at an outline that’s either insufficiently specific or referring to a path my actual written/dictated plot didn’t end up taking.
- It doesn’t ask me to figure out the plot very far in advance.
- I’m leaving myself no way at all to edit fiction before the novel is complete. I’ll be guessing about word counts and chapter lengths, but I figure I’ll have a general idea. And that kind of thing is easy to fix later anyway.
- It also avoids another problem I’ve had with outlining where I (at outlining time) wrote things that made sense to me and felt sufficient to describe a scenario, and (at writing time) later wondered what the heck I even meant. The writing time will be very very close to the outlining time. Or should be.
- It seems like I might get better at this over time. But…if I get stuck while dictating? I can either push on, or stop and redo my mini-outline, depending on what seems best. And I ought to figure out, by doing this a lot, just how much detail I do or don’t need.
So that’s it. I’m going to spend the rest of the today doing non-writing stuff, of which I’ve put off an awful lot lately. And I have to tell you, it sucks that today is Friday–that means I’ll have the kids in the morning, and can’t test how this scheme works over anything like a full day. But I ought to be able to try at least one scene.
And if I’m right that dividing the work like this means I can learn to do it any time of the day? That’ll be huge. I’ve always kind of rolled my eyes at people’s claims that you can write at any point, whenever you get a few minutes to spare…yeah, sure, if you happen to know exactly where you were in your story and have the right tools with you.
But maybe. We’ll see how it goes.
Have fun out there!