As I wrote last week, I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching about this story that I’m working on. It’s been a somewhat stressful time since so many things that I thought were nailed down sort of flew out the window after I completed my 5 part history here in March. In many ways, it’s felt like I’ve started from zero once more. Thus, I’ve just decided to lay everything out on the table and examine each piece to see if it’s something I want to keep or not.
My immediate reaction is to bemoan the fact that I’m needing to do this right now. I mean, c’mon – I just want things to stabilize so I can move forward.
However, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at these developments. In fact, this just fits the hypothesis that I made when I started this site: the story is merely a tool to help me heal and as long as that is occurring, I shouldn’t complain. Thus, I’m gritting my teeth and attempting to smile as I proceed to move around the circle I find myself in once more. (Groundhog Day anyone?)
It hasn’t been all bad. I’ve had a chance to admit to myself that certain things weren’t working that I’ve been trying to force for a long time. One of those things is my writing process.
My career background is in the IT industry and I’ve held a multitude of different positions: programmer, systems analyst, web developer. – you name it. And in none of them did I have the opportunity to just sit down and wing it. Coding came towards the end of a long design process – one in which everything was planned out in great detail.
Because of this, I always assumed that I was a plotter (or an architect as some folks are now calling this end of the writing spectrum). If you’re not familiar, this writing process entails coming up with a detailed outline of the story listing every scene that will be included. Once that’s done, you have the story’s skeleton. The actual writing is adding the muscles and flesh.
The thing is, even though I felt that I should be in this camp, I always had trouble getting an actual outline created. There were too many story structure methods to choose from: the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, 8 Sequences, the Story Circle, the Snowflake Method, etc. Which one was right? And when I chose one to use, I always soon seemed to run into problems making it work.
Some of them had a lot of steps which gave me plenty of direction, but I found that my story just didn’t always “fit”. For instance, one method said I needed to lay a trap for the protagonist in one section and make them fall into it 2 sections later. That didn’t make sense for my story and I struggled a long time trying to come up with something. When I couldn’t, I decided I must be doing things wrong – after all, every story supposedly fits this method. I was the problem, not the structure.
Others only had a few steps which left these huge gaps in between. My IT background told me lack of planning meant danger. These just felt like those scribbles you see on old world maps that say “here there be dragons” where areas were unexplored. Unh uh – not gonna go there.
When nothing seemed to work on the plotting side, I went over to the dark side and tried pantsing (or gardening as folks are now calling it). That meant just sitting down and typing away, putting down whatever came to mind. Only when you have a complete first draft do you then take a look at it and start trying to make sense of your story. Sure, you might throw 2/3 of it away during the editing process, but you can say you finished a draft.
I actually got the most written I ever had with this method. However, I got a quarter of the way into my story and discovered that it bore little resemblance to what it originally started out as. Some folks would say that’s good – I should have just continued and saw where it took me. The thing was, I actually lost interest in where it was headed.
That wasn’t good. So, back to plotting. (Somewhere along the line, I learned that I had to be one or the other – there was no gray areas allowed.)
And eventually something hit me. (Yeah, I can be pretty dense when I put my mind to it.) I needed to discover what worked for me and quit trying to force myself into someone else’s box.
After all, these teachers and writing craft book authors had accomplished that for themselves somewhere along the line – otherwise their methods wouldn’t have been created in the first place. Things weren’t working for them so they came up with something new that did.
I just needed to do the same thing. I needed to learn to trust myself and quit listening to all the story gurus out there. As W. Somerset Maugham wrote, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Instead of forcing myself into either strictly gardening or architecting (yes, it can be a verb – I was surprised when I looked it up), I’ve decided to take a more hybrid approach to my writing process – I’m going to garden and architect at the same time. I’m going to use one of the looser structures with the larger gaps between plot points, and get those major guideposts mapped out. That way, I can be sure I end up with the story I started out telling.
When that’s done, I can then pants my way in between. That way, I still have the freedom to let the story organically develop. I don’t have to worry about shoehorning my story into someone else’s template, adding scenes that just don’t make sense.
I find myself back where I was when I started – the 8 Sequence method seems to be drawing me again so that’s what I’ll use. The story will be divided into 8 chunks with a guidepost at the end of each. These guideposts will be mapped out and then I’ll begin writing. (I’m sure I’ll have some additional pre-planned scenes to fit in along the way and that’s fine. I just won’t be concerned about planning the entire story.)
So that’s one of the things I’ll be working on – the initial map of the guideposts. I don’t think I’ll post it on the site because it would have major spoilers but I’ll also probably come up with some kind of back cover synopsis so you can see the actual story I’m envisioning. I’ll let you know how it goes. And again, thanks for following along.
Edit: I ran across the following video a couple days after I posted this and it’s an interesting discussion regarding architecting versus gardening. (Although this is directed toward screenwriting, a lot of novel writers use movie structure methods today because story is story – no matter what format it eventually ends up. The only real difference is when it comes to page counts. A typical screenplay is 100-120 pages where a novel is anywhere from 2 to 4 times more. All the writer has to do is just proportionately adjust it.)
Photo by Sandie Clarke on Unsplash