Theory vs. Reality (part 2)
We’re going to continue our last post but dive a little deeper into the writing process itself instead of the whole publishing aspect.
There’s a lot of information out there about the specifics of writing a novel, both in print and online. And even that term--specifics—should give you a clue that such info might be more theoretical than practical. Not that it might not also be valid. For some books, and for some writers, it may be great. The trouble comes from the aspiring writer blindly assuming that whatever writing formula they’re reading is the one true way.
The problem isn’t that there’s no ‘true way.’ It’s that there are infinite ‘true ways.’ This is pretty obvious in hindsight, but when we’re starting out we tend to look to someone who seems further along in the process as possessing special knowledge, and we tend to give it more weight than we otherwise might.
Case in point: Way back when I set out to write my OBFN (Obligatory Bad First Novel, discussed earlier) I followed whatever writing wisdom I could find in the pre-internet age. I’d read a book on ‘how to write a novel’ which basically laid out the one true path to success as something like the following…
Take a piece of paper and number it down the side from one to twenty. After each number write one sentence describing what that chapter will be about. Number twenty pieces of paper and place the respective descriptive sentence at the top of the top of each. Fill each page with more detailed descriptions of the events in that particular chapter. Then—finally—take each page and expand your notes to ten-plus pages of text for each.
I followed that basic template fairly closely, and I had a detailed forty-page outline completed before I’d written even one word of the actual book. So yeah, I knew exactly where I was going. The beginning, the middle, and the end. In detail. And every stop in between. Also in detail.
With no chance in hell of getting lost.
Which--for me—was definitely a bug, not a feature.
To be fair, it worked. Sort of. I mean, I got a coherent novel out of it. But by the time I got around to the actual writing of it—which basically consisted of me transcribing and expanding whichever chapter outline was next on the list—it seemed closer to doing homework than creating an inspired work of fiction. The creative part of my brain felt boxed in by the overly-prescriptive outline, unable to wander and ramble and follow those magical hunches and impulses and “aha!” moments that can occur when the borders of your playground are a more suggestions than walls.
I also followed other conventional wisdom (for this type of book, at least). I wrote in third person, for the theoretical benefit of a higher/broader vantage point (plus it allows the reader to know things the viewpoint character may not). For similar reasons (having a broader palette) I had multiple viewpoint characters. And I would occasionally explain stuff to the reader in an expository aside, as was the convention in this subgenre (techno-thriller).
All of which may be perfectly fine advice for some writers out there, but not for me. The writing of that thing was grueling, and if all novel writing was like that, I wanted nothing to do with it. Seriously, it was more fun writing how-to pieces and product reviews and articles for magazines.
So the next time I went to write book-length fiction, I tossed all the stuff I should do “in theory” and went with what felt right—for me—in reality.
I had an idea for a story that resonated with me, regardless of where the pundits thought the market was going. As far as I knew there were no agents or editors clamoring for my particular type of story, but I didn’t care—I really wanted to write it. I saw the opening scene unfold in my mind’s eye—and a vague glimmer of where it might go afterward—and that was enough. I just jumped in and started writing. In first person, with a fair amount of internal monolog. I wanted the reader to be in the protagonist’s head… maybe even feel like they were the protagonist…and I felt the best way to do that was to put myself there. I gave up the breadth of third person and multiple POVs for the narrower but deeper viewpoint of close first. I didn’t spoon feed the reader every little plot point… some things were left a little under-explained, leaving it to the reader to figure it out from context, or perhaps from later events.
There was no specific “inciting incident within the first 15 pages of the manuscript,” there was no specific “antagonist” for our “hero” to plot against and defeat, there was no specific “unfilled desire laid out in the first thirty percent of the book.” (The damn thing wasn’t even in three discrete acts… it had four.) During the writing of it I probably broke at least a dozen of the Seventeen Magic Rules to Writing Success. But it worked. At least for me. And—as near as one can ever tell—maybe even for some of the readers. But more important, I can think of numerous other books (more successful/well-loved/best-selling/award-winning than mine) that don’t follow any of the above “rules” either.
So my primary takeaway from the experience was this: Yes, there are lots of books and websites that will tell you—in theory—exactly how you should go about writing your book. And while they may work for you, they also may not. Because…
Because in reality, you aren’t them. You’re you. And the story you have to tell—the one that comes from inside you—can’t possibly come from anyone else. So why would you avoid the unique, wonderful thing you have within—the thing no one else can do—just because someone, somewhere, says “do it like this”…?
In reality, most editors aren’t looking for “the latest and greatest.” (Because, among other reasons, the latest things you see on the shelves were acquired a couple of years ago and written a couple of years before that.) They’re looking for a good story. And one of the components of a good story is that it feels new. (Another is that it feels inevitable, which sounds contradictory but isn’t. But that’s another topic.) Even a classic boy-meets-girl story can feel unique and wonderful and fresh if the author has a different take on it… and doesn’t forsake her idiosyncratic vision for some theoretical/conventional wisdom about how it should be done.
In reality everyone has a different workflow, and the proclamations about when and where you should write and which POV and how much per day, etc., matter to exactly one person—the person making them, because we can assume those standards probably work… for them. Yes, there may be benefits to having some structure to your writing schedule. In theory. But in reality we write when we can, where we can. Which may vary greatly, not only between writers but for the same writer, depending on the vagaries of life.
And that’s the big point: Regardless of anyone’s theories, there really are no rules. No must-follow formulas. No one true way. Try out various methods and workflows, dump the non-starters, and go with whatever works for you. Being aware that that may change between projects, or even during them. (Heck, the absolute anarchy and uncertainty around this are half the fun. If you wanted predictable, you’re in the wrong line of work.)
Because in reality, anything that gets you to “The End” is the right process… for you, for that particular work, at that particular time. That’s all we can ask for. And that’s enough.
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This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.