"The problem with writing is writing. The discoveries in writing will be made in writing. The solutions to story problems - structural, motivational, existential - will be found in writing. ... Your middle will not arrive through thinking, and while it may arrive in dreaming, dreaming is more likely to produce results if you fall asleep while writing."
The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, p.30
My own creative process drives me crazy. This problem probably isn't unique to me.
For as long as I've been writing, I've been what people call a "pantser" - when I've got an idea for a story, I skip the outlining and development parts and jump right in, figuring that it'll take care of itself. Who needs a plot to start with when it'll just grow out of the process on its own like a slimy, scary-looking mushroom? And I thought that's how it was done. I didn't take writing classes until much later, and it never occurred to me - apparently - to pick up a book on how to write fiction when I was younger.
By 'younger,' I mean seventeen or so, which is when I first attempted to write seriously. Prior to that I had written "novels" and storybooks and stuff, but not with any intent. I did it to get ideas out of my head, or sometimes to entertain my friends. Plot isn't really necessary when you're pandering to your own group and their in-jokes.
But this is still the way I work, and knowing how important plot is, thanks to my overpriced degree and experience (I guess), I keep feeling like I should grow up and start plotting before I write. Have an outline. Actually develop characters before I try to write them! No doubt that would make them slightly more interesting.
Have I tried to do this? Yes.
Has it worked? No.
I understand the concept. I could write an essay on it, or pass a test. I can diagnose the problems in novels, short stories, fan fiction. I can even (apparently) give good advice on improving plot and addressing related problems when I'm asked to give someone a thorough critique on their work. But sit me down with my own outline, which I will have spent quite a bit of time on, by the way, and I think I might be able to follow it for two chapters before I run off the rails and end up somewhere completely different. Part of me feels that sticking to that narrow path will stunt the creative growth of the story, but the real problem seems to come down to characterization. Like: I think Character A will do these things and make these decisions, but after writing her for two chapters I realize she'd rather do something different. I might've spent hours working on her backstory, her details (e.g. profile stuff like who her extended family is, or what her education is), and think I developed her personality, but I always find out I'm wrong.
So the character isn't going to do that in chapter three, and because she doesn't, chapter four is a wash. And we probably can't get to Point C on time; there'll need to be eight extra chapters. Maybe. Who's counting? And I can't say she won't change her mind in chapter five, because I just decided that such-and-such must've happened to her when she was a kid - it sounded good when I wrote it down just now, anyway! - and so Point C might be a no go. Oops.
This is both more fun (because I can do whatever the fuck I want and just have fun with it) and more irritating because it means I'm always going to have to waste a first draft on exploration.
Or it means I don't know what I'm doing.
Or it means I'm doing it wrong. Fuckit, then; who cares.
I like exploration. That's more than half the fun when I write fan fiction, after all. But I've never been comfortable or happy with the idea that I can't get something right on the first draft, so the suspicion that I'm always going to have to "waste" the first one makes me angry. There's no way I can get the first round right, because I don't know what it's going to throw at me, and yet that's the way I feel most comfortable in the development phase... you know, when it's actually going on. After I'm done for the day, though, I sit here and think I shouldn't do it this way. I should know better. Or do it better.
That quote at the top of the entry is something I found recently, which seemed fitting. But what made me think about all of this again - I don't normally dwell on it - was Terry Pratchett. He said two things that hit me as true-- for me.
How do you write stories? You make it up as you go along. This is a terrible thing to have to tell people.
But it's what I call "The Valley Filled with Clouds" technique. You're at the edge of the valley, and there is a church steeple, and there is a tree, and there is a rocky outcrop, but the rest of it is mist. But you know that because they exist, there must be ways of getting from one to the other that you cannot see. And so you start the journey. And when I write, I write a draft entirely for myself, just to walk the valley and find out what the book is going to be all about.
A Slip of the Keyboard, p.58-60
He goes on to compare his style of drafting with what he knows of Larry Niven, who's fond of index cards. He's "sure true writers do not work like this." Me too, except that apparently isn't the case.
So I read this, maybe two months ago, and thought if he could do it, I should give it another try. Try to embrace it. I did just say it was fun, somewhere up there. The process of discovery really can be. And when I try to change it, I clearly meet resistance on the inside, even if I think I'm trying to do the right thing. I tend to abandon stories that I start the other way, with outlines; I never abandon the ones that happen more organically. (Excluding some of the really long ones that I decide aren't working. If we're talking short stories, it's true.)
It's hard to embrace. However, it seems to me that kicking the plot into shape after might work better for me, because there's something to
shape, whereas doing it at the beginning means trying to work with very little. And it's no wonder that it's so difficult when I'm trying to build a recognizable house with only a quarter of the materials when, if I wait, the others will show up later.
It might be less profitable to fight the process than it will be to fight the issue with multiple drafts. Which I've made progress on, but I still feel deep down like I shouldn't have to. Acceptance is hard.