Tag Archives: trusting the process

Time to Trust

All summer, I’ve been busy working on a book on plotting. As I’ve pondered, analyzed, and explained technique for this manuscript, I realized how easy it can be to over-think fiction. Sometimes, you simply have to back up . . . and let go.

Usually novice writers start out by falling in love with fiction. We absorb books like plants do water and sunshine. Then there comes a day when we decide we’ll write our own stories. Our imagination is teeming. We’re excited. We throw ourselves into our fledgling effort and either zoom to the end–yippee!–or we hit a stumbling block and stall out.

Wannabe writers who zoom along with no awareness of problems often become what I call scribblers. They write effortlessly and heedlessly, oblivious to their mistakes, and happily create drivel in the certainty they’re producing terrific stuff. With such hobbyists, I wish them well but hope they never seek publication.

Other beginners, however, realize quickly that there’s an entire universe of things they don’t know. They falter and stop, overwhelmed by the enormity of what they need to learn.

Of this second group, some pull themselves together and seek training or continue to hunt and peck their way through exploration and discovery. The rest declare writing to be too hard and drop out.

Those who keep trying by joining writers groups, taking writing classes, networking, seeking mentors, and devouring books on writing while generating story after story will improve. Their hard work will pay off, eventually.

But sometimes the determination to learn so much and to overcome difficulties can lead to over-thinking. The placement of every comma; the heroine’s dialogue rewritten and read aloud and rewritten, rewritten, polished, tightened, rewritten and rewritten; the worry over how a subplot is going; the concern that several scenes aren’t quite right, etc. can all lead to a hyper-critical state that becomes counterproductive.

You can become so conscious, so aware, of the process that you make the mistake of trying to control it. And that’s not what pros do. Instead, they trust.

Learning and mastering technique is important because it helps you navigate the challenges of awkward plots and difficult characters. Knowing what you’re doing gives you confidence. Best of all, as Ray Bradbury pointed out, once you’ve mastered technique you don’t have to consciously think about it anymore and you can then concentrate on your story.

Therefore, relax. Accept that the process will always get you there. Learn to trust it and let go, the way when swimming you trust the buoyancy of water so you can float. Allow your story to unfold without agonizing over every word. Write the rough draft from a spirit of fun. Believe in your idea. Follow through with it and stick with what you’ve planned, but allow for little quirks and the extras that are going to occur to you when you’re in the flow.

The actual creation of rough draft should not be censored, criticized, second-guessed, or analyzed as you go. That’s too restrictive, and it will hinder you so much that you may develop writer’s block. You should never attempt to edit yourself while you’re creating. As I’ve said many times, the editing function and the creative function operate in separate brain hemispheres, and the human brain is not designed to utilize both hemispheres simultaneously. Work on one function at a time.

When an idea comes to you, embrace it and indulge it at first. Then analyze and test it. Send it back to the idea-maker and create anew. Then analyze and examine it as much as you need to until you have a solid outline. That’s what you trust–all the upfront work to check plausibility, check feasibility, check plot holes, fix plot holes, think and tweak, etc., until you have a solid plan. Then close your doubts and uncertainty, and just write.

Write with all your heart–not your mind. Write fast. Write passionately. Write until you barely know who you are when you leave the keyboard. Live with your characters. Be your characters. And wear their skin through every scene as it unfolds. Don’t look at them from some remote and safe vantage point. Stand in the dusty crossroads as war refugees trudge along. Smell the dust and fear. Listen to the rumble of trucks and the distant pounding of artillery too far away to see. Feel the beating of your heart. Clutch that silly candlestick that belonged to Aunt Ziva, the one that’s stood on the mantel as long as you can remember. It’s now a symbol of home, all you have left. Hang onto it. Don’t drop it because if you do, you’ll somehow lose connection with the past, with family, with memories of when life was happy, and with any hope that life one day will be good again.

When you’ve finished the rough draft, you can once more put on your editor’s hat. You can think, criticize, revise, and pick at it until it’s tight, clear, and riveting. Just remember that when you revise, be honest. Did you come close to what you planned initially? Or did you fall seriously short?

If you made technical mistakes or lost your way through part of the manuscript, trust the process you’ve learned and fix the errors. Then step back, say “good enough,” and let the story live. Don’t kill it by polishing the zest and breath from it.

Plan. Trust. Write. Fix. Believe. Submit.

It’s never easy. But it really is that simple.

 

 

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Finding Your Story

Writing fiction involves a variety of elements:  knowledge of the craft, story sense, intuition, preparation, flexibility, focus, and trust. Some writers can only manage to juggle a few of them. For example, a writer may cling to writing technique so rigidly that he or she is unwilling to receive constructive criticism, reluctant to revise a single word, and resistant to deviating from the initial story outline. Other writers may rely so completely on inspiration or the muse that they can’t stay focused from start to finish, and the very suggestion of planning or outlining makes them break out in a panicky rash.

Those are the extremes on opposite ends of the spectrum, of course, but they illustrate accurately the issues that some writers suffer in trying to get stories on the page.

Let’s look at these elements more closely:

Knowledge of the craft involves knowing how to write sentences well, how to convey meaning clearly and coherently, how to spell and punctuate, how to open a story, how to build conflict, how to design characters, how to deal with viewpoint, description, rising action, pacing, and how to write an emotionally cathartic climax that resolves the story in a way satisfying to readers. Craft comes easily and instinctively to some. For others, it can be an arduous, challenging ordeal of practice and study. Either way, you must know your craft if you are to become an effective writer. Not only in terms of your readers, but also in view of how the process of putting a story together needs to be something you’re so well trained in that you no longer have to consciously think your way through scene construction, for example, but can instead put your full attention on the content of that scene and what your players need to say and do in it.

In short, knowledge of the craft frees your mind to concentrate on the actual story.

Story Sense stems from your talent and how exposed you’ve been to stories. Have you read copiously for a long time? Doing so builds and enhances your story sense. Are you a film buff, one that watches movies not to examine stage direction or camera angles but the story and emotions? Then you’re adding to your story sense.

Avid readers possess excellent story sense, and that’s why they become irate if a plot suddenly veers off course or a character reacts in a way inconsistent with her design. Think of the little boy in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, protesting when he thought his grandfather was messing up the story. That’s story sense at work.

As a writer, listen to it and let it guide you. There are times when writers hit what seems to be a dead end or they face putting together a huge and complicated story event that intimidates them. But even if they lack sufficient craft to know how to handle what lies ahead, if they will heed their inner instincts they usually come out fine.

It can be challenging to obey story sense. So often we’ll think of something for our protagonist to say or do and then we talk ourselves out of it. Later, an editor or writing coach will ask, “Why didn’t Irmentrude open the door?” and you shout, I thought of that! I was going to do that! And then … I sort of talked myself out of it.

Why?

You lacked confidence in your own story instincts.

Intuition is closely allied with story sense. Maybe it’s another term for the same quality. But it’s an emotional feeling about where you should take your story next, or about what you should write about, or about which character should be your protagonist. Intuition is your gut telling you to have your hero leap off that building, even if you aren’t sure how to ensure his survival. Intuition pushes you to take creative risks, to dare let your characters say and do things that you wouldn’t in real life. Intuition is your gateway into creating larger-than-life story people and situations.

Preparation involves thought, research, planning, plotting, testing, and outlining. Good prep saves writers time. Yes, it delays actually typing words when you’re dying to get started. But it rescues you from dead ends, mental roadblocks, plot holes, and other dangers that can force your plot off course. What’s so horrible about writing a plot outline anyway? It makes you face the soft spots in your idea. If you face them, then you can fix them. Better by far to do that than write fifteen pages that later have to be thrown away.

Some writers, especially when they’re inexperienced or still learning their craft, shy away from outlining because they don’t have many ideas and they’re afraid to over-examine what they have. In fact, they may know instinctively that their idea is weak and won’t hold up to examination.

But if your story idea is so fragile that it will crumble in an outline, it’s not worth writing. Good ideas can’t be destroyed. You can examine them, thump them, test them, play the what-if game with them, invert them, change the characters around then back again, and they will hold together. What a relief that is!

You prepare by making sure you have a central protagonist, a central antagonist in direct opposition, and a clear goal. With that triad, you can then logically and systematically create a series of events that will occur as these two opposing characters maneuver against each other to achieve what they want.

If you skip this preparation or ignore the triad, then you will be doing a lot of writing and tossing, again and again. Perhaps that’s your method and you persist until you finally find some sort of plot you can follow. But often, writers who are unprepared hit too many roadblocks and obstacles and end up confused, frustrated, and willing to abandon what might have become a very good story.

Flexibility means being willing to allow a story leeway. It means that despite the planning and outlining and careful thought, there is still elasticity in the story’s framework for a few unplanned details and incidents that will enhance and improve the plot. It also involves being willing to listen to an editor or agent when they make good suggestions for the story’s improvement. It means keeping yourself humble enough to continue learning no matter where you are in your writing career.

Focus is achieved through preparation, through knowing you have a solid plot that will go from start to finish without dumping you somewhere in the middle, and then sticking with it. Not rigidly, but following your outline without taking wild tangents or impulsively changing your protagonist’s motivation for no better reason than a dream you had the night before.

Focus is about sticking with a draft until the story is completed. It’s about pushing aside distractions and doubts and worries and fatigue, and continuing until you type “The End.”

Trust was perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned in my training–other than the actual craft itself. Because once you know how to construct a story and how to put the triad in place and how to line up goals, conflict, motivations, and reactions, you have to trust the process. Even with an outline, I find myself in the fog partway through a novel. I’m human. I’m a writer with a big imagination. I can conjure up fears and self-doubt as well as anyone. I can grow weary of my characters. I can be so tired I can’t hear my story sense sometimes. And yet, I have to trust that what I’ve set in motion will keep going. I know that if I line up certain pieces of any story properly, it will move successfully to the finish. And I have learned to trust that, whether I can see light at the end of the tunnel or not.

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The Slog and the Glory

From time to time, I’m approached by a student wanting reassurance that writing will bring guaranteed success or income. My answer is usually to tell the individual to choose another major. Shocked, the young person often walks sadly away and gives up the creative dream.

The reality of writing is that it bring no guarantees of any kind. Very few things actually do. Those of us who write generally do so because we can’t not write. It is a part of our heart. It is our blood, our breath, our life. We can turn our backs on it. We can close our ears to its siren’s call. We can ignore it, and we can smother it. But we do so at the peril of rejecting a gift that most people will never experience.

Of course, the writer’s life is not always kind. It’s certainly not easy. Dictating bestselling novels while reclining on a chaise longue and eating chocolate is more fantasy than reality. Just when you think you’ve come up with a genius-level story premise, you find that no editor is interested and no publisher will buy it.

And when you’re slogging along in what feels like a muddy rut to nowhere, a friend will email you and ask, Have you checked your numbers lately? They’re fantastic. Congratulations!

My writing teacher, Jack Bickham, used to say over and over, “Trust the process.” And that’s all a novelist can do when half-blind, dazed, fatigued, and unsure whether any scene in the middle of his book is working. You trust your idea and your knowledge of the writing craft. You have faith in those elements, and you just keep going.

Once I learned how to put scenes together, how to write dialogue, how to design characters, how to control viewpoint, and what pacing was all about, I had to learn trust. And trusting something can be the hardest lesson of all.

I’m stubborn. I’m deliberate. I’m inclined to take my time. I do not trust quickly or readily. I was the child who spent the entire first week of my two-week series of swimming lessons learning to put my face in the water. But once I give my trust, I give it.

When I learned that trusting the writing craft would see me successfully through the completion of a novel every time, I put my belief in it. I won’t say that every book I’ve written since then has been stellar, but I know that when a story falters it’s due to my mistakes and not the fault of writing principles.

I’ve also learned to trust my story sense and the fact that I was put on Earth to write stories. I don’t mean to sound grandiose or egotistical in expressing that. It’s just the way I’m made. It’s what I do.

For me, writing flows in a feast or famine cycle. There are lean years and fat years. There are times when I am unable to explain to anyone why I continue to write. I just have to.

Experience has taught me that if I keep going, keep utilizing my craft to the best of my ability, then just about the time I feel most lost is about when the famine cycle flips to a feast.

In my view, if a writer gives up when feeling most discouraged, then he’s never going to find the glory that follows the slog.

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