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Myaru ([personal profile] myaru) wrote2015-11-27 03:27 pm

100 Things #19: The Valley Filled With Clouds

"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.
samuraiter: (Default)

[personal profile] samuraiter 2015-11-28 03:09 am (UTC)(link)
It is a terrible thing to have to tell people! But it is true, nonetheless. ... And yet, as I get older, I find that the greatest enemy is time. Or the lack thereof.
hilow: (Default)

[personal profile] hilow 2015-11-29 04:14 am (UTC)(link)
I'm always asking myself who has the time to write as much as they want to--or would like to. The answer of course is that nobody does. There was a great Tumblr post on this a while back that talked about the real secret to success for authors being that many of them had either the money or spousal support to be given loads of free time in which to write. The more I think about it, the truer it becomes.

It can be done around a daily schedule but there's nothing more frustrating than feeling motivated only to have to drop writing for some other daily hooplah.
samuraiter: (Default)

[personal profile] samuraiter 2015-11-29 11:35 pm (UTC)(link)
the real secret to success for authors being that many of them had either the money or spousal support to be given loads of free time in which to write.

And John Gardner flat-out said the same in his book on the subject. Unfortunately, most of us have to work, and work takes a lot out of us.
bonnefois: ghost_factory @ LJ (Default)

[personal profile] bonnefois 2015-11-28 03:37 am (UTC)(link)
I personally like the idea of short tentative summaries. That way I have a few paragraphs so that I don't forget things, but I can change them at will if the characters start organically going their own way. Just in the last few times I've had characters who were supposed to be paired turn out to have no chemistry other than friendship, and another where I switched the personalities of two characters completely. So in that, I'm somewhat half-pantsing. I do most of the drafting in my head, which is probably a horrible habit, but one I have none the less, but it's never too constricting. I have to remove some scenes sometimes if a character goes too far (one draft had a character completely changing, for example) but most of them aren't too drastic.

This is an interesting argument for "pantsing." Pansting is so frowned upon in a lot of how-to books and such. I've rare seen much in defense of it other than "this is how I do it, screw the rules I have money!" sort of mentions.
hilow: (Default)

[personal profile] hilow 2015-11-29 04:26 am (UTC)(link)
Good post. I don't write enough longform fiction (and almost never original fiction, minus a memoir which I tired of and dropped after, idk, like 50 pages) to really have an opinion on this, but I'll give my two cents anyway because this is the kind of discussion I really enjoy.

On one hand outlining is super useful and I get so caught up in panicking about not having an outlined plot that I...never start anything. I've had all these fairly interesting fanfiction ideas that I never even bothered to start because I was too much of a chickenshit to not have a plot. But when I do plot, I often get bored of the story, the world, the characters...and abandon the idea.

I have to admit that this is kind of an embarrassing habit of mine. I've had so many fun ideas that never made it past drafting because I get torn between the need to outline and the fear that if I outline too much I'll feel like I've told the story and have no need to actually write it for real.

Recently I started writing a companion piece to a friend's fanfic. Her 'fic is a one-shot, and quite lovely, about a character coming to terms with his history and his (regrettably pathetic) future; the general idea is that he manages to accept this future and find positive things about it. She wrapped her story up in less than 8,000 words. Then you have me. I'm writing it in a female character's POV. She plays a small role in my friend's fic: namely, she convinces him that things would be better if he made an effort to live (instead of giving up on life, as he was doing). In later parts of the canon it's clear that their relationship has grown a lot and they trust each other a ton: this connection is super important. It was important for us to fill in the gaps between the canon seasons to show how this had happened. It makes sense that her character would have less to think/say (as he was in a mental care facility and having a breakdown much of the time, interspersed with flashbacks of his relationship to his father), and that mine would have a ton of stuff to say (as she was taking over his job and struggling with it, interspersed with flashbacks of her relationship to her grandmother). But damn I hit 10,000 words and there's no sign of stopping. I even outlined it briefly by scene.

Scene 1, this happens. Scene 2, that happens. Short little sentences. I still got off track.

(And then I had company over for a week and totally lost motivation, but I'll probably get it back soonish... It's just a daunting 'fic to work on.)

So I think I'm at that point in my writing life where I feel that having a vague idea of where things should be headed is useful...but if you outline too heavily there's no mystery left, and if you know every scrap of detail it's honestly kind of boring to write--for me, anyway.

Besides, like you said: sometimes when you write an outline, the characters in action don't...lend themselves to it. Like what you had initially planned simply ceases to fit anymore. I get that a lot.