On May 18, 2016, Lady Laisa wrote, I cannot finish anything I start writing. I know lots of people have asked about this and many, many authors have made blog posts and books written from both sides of the plotter/pantser perspective, but my trouble is that I am neither. I am smack dab in the middle, and I cannot seem to get out.
See, in one way I’m a plotter. I can’t write if I don’t know very well where I’m going. (Kind of like my dad on a trip. If he doesn’t have a very, very good idea where he’s going, he won’t go–unlike my mum who doesn’t mind wandering around a bit.) I need to know my destination and how to get there, or I cannot start out.
On the other hand, I find plotting tedious. I will plot out my story until I hate it so much I would rather take a weed whacker to it than a pen. I may write for a while, but the loathing intensifies until I sometimes I literally hurl the manuscript at the wall. I then crumple it into an envelope and leave it to molder in my closet for years. Sometimes I’ll pull it out (not often) and take a peek, and then get excited about it and write on it for a little while, but then I get drained all over again, and try instead to work on a less taxing story.
This has been going on for roughly six and a half years, and it just gets worse over time. I have about three hundred loose stories, all at various stages of completion, (I even have a whole first draft! But it is so hideous it turns my stomach to even look at it) floating around in the abyss of my closet.
Does anyone have any tips for how to write a story without knowing the plot in advance or how to outline a story without becoming desperately bored?
First off, I think congratulations are in order for about 300 stories in one stage or another. That’s a lot of writing! An accomplishment.
Christie Valentine Powell answered Lady Laisa, and an exchange between the two followed, but I’m going to save that for the next post. For now, I want to address part of the question. I’ll start by relating an incident that happened in my writing workshop last week that troubled me.
In class I gave the kids a prompt that combined dialogue and ending and asked them to write for twenty minutes. One of my very few boys finished early, so I asked him to show me what he’d done. He said it wasn’t any good and didn’t want me to read it. I tried to persuade him otherwise but didn’t push it. He said he’d work on it at home, which he may or may not do.
I felt terrible for him. For one thing, how could I be helpful about something I wasn’t allowed to read?
But also, what kind of expectations did he have for himself? In twenty minutes I didn’t expect anyone to create deathless prose. I wouldn’t expect it of myself, and I’ve been writing for a long time.
And I had this thought: He is unlikely to keep writing. Why would he, if it’s the cause of such unhappiness and self-condemnation? Then, I confess, I had a follow-up, evil thought: That’s okay. There are enough writers already. He can just be a reader. We need more of them.
When everyone finished writing, I launched into the spiel I’ve delivered here: that asking whether our work is good or not is the least useful question we can pose. I asked them why, and they got it. If someone tells us we’re wrong, that our story is good, we’re pleased maybe, but we don’t know what made it good, and we may feel suspicious. We see problems, why doesn’t this person? On the other hand, if the judgment confirms our own condemnation, we just feel bad, but we don’t know how to make the piece better, and we’re probably not in a state to work on it then anyway–too painful!
Not long ago, I heard an interview on the radio while I was driving. A woman with a young voice was interviewing a physicist about multi-verses, which are part of a theory that there may be other universes in the deeps of space that are identical to ours and also many others that may vary only in small details. The physicist said that there could be a universe in which the same interview was going forward but with different questions and different answers. And the interviewer, to my astonishment, said something like: “In that other universe, the interviewer would be asking better questions than I have.”
I didn’t crash the car. Reggie didn’t bounce around in the hatch, but he did pop up from his snooze when I pounded the steering wheel and yelled at the interviewer, “Why did you say that? What was wrong with your questions? I didn’t notice anything, and I’m a good noticer.”
In a poetry workshop I took years ago, the teacher said anyone who prefaced reading her poem with a warning that it wasn’t very good would be fined five dollars. No one had to pay up, but a couple of people came close and had to reel their words back in when they started with self-criticism.
Some of you may not agree with this, and my exemplar in the workshop was a boy, but I think girls and women are more prone to the self-put-down than boys and men. Please weigh in with your thoughts.
I’m not suggesting that everything we write is gold. First drafts need improvement. My second and third drafts, too. And no book is perfect. I’ve been listening to a new audio version of FAIREST to see how I like it, and I heard a sentence that I’d like to revise. It’s been out for ten years!
So here is the first strategy to help us finish our stories: Be nice to them. Don’t call them lousy.
But how do we combat this habit of undermining ourselves when we’re just getting started as writers?
∙ We can become self-aware of our self-attack. We can notice when we do it to. We can ask friends and family to point it out. We can pay attention to it in other people, which will help us generally be more alert to it. You may be surprised at how often self put-downs crops up.
∙ The last post was about getting useful criticism. That will help. When we see where the problems are–that they aren’t global–we can set about making matters better. If we’re also critiquing the work of other writers, we see that we’re not the only ones who struggle.
∙ Books about writing may help. I love Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser (at least middle-school level, I’d guess), which spends a lot of pages on the inner critic and how to get it out of the way. As beginning writer, this was my go-to book when I got discouraged. Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott is also great–high school and up.
The point is, it’s hard to finish anything when we’re constantly passing judgment. I’m going to call out on the blog when someone bad mouths her writing, maybe not every time, but beware! You risk being caught!
Here are three prompts:
∙ Let’s re-imagine “Rumpelstiltskin.” Instead of having to spin straw into gold, the miller’s daughter is commanded to, in a single day, create a masterpiece of a painting. Rumpelstiltskin comes along, but neither of them knows what the king considers great art. Does he like still lifes or landscapes or portraits, or is abstract art his thing? Write the story.
∙ Cinderella thinks her stepsisters are right when they criticize her. This may be a tragedy. Write the story.
∙ Your MC’s brother is trapped in a magic tower. Your MC’s stallion has magical powers, but he has ideas of his own, and rescuing the brother isn’t among them. Write the story and rescue the brother.
Have fun, and save what you write!