Writing fiction - Planning your story or writing by the seat of your pants: individual writing styles
For me, one of the best feelings in the world is when writing works. That sensation of escaping into a fictional world is a precious, powerful feeling, more real when I write than when I read because I can push the characters around a little. Sometimes I can direct my story, give characters lines, jokes, but sometimes they write their own. It’s a fairly common experience but one which is difficult to describe or explain.
I once had a Driftwood client who believed she was channelling the true-to-life stories of ghosts who visited her and that she was basically writing their words for them, but for many writers, that’s just sort of how it feels to write sometimes. We realise that when you get swept up in the story is the time it really is working. That’s when your reader is hopefully swept up too, transported by your words.
Sue Grafton said in an interview with the web-site, Writers Write that ‘I try not to create so much as discover. One of my theories about these books (the best-selling alphabet series) is that they already exist…I consider my job is to figure out what I already said, and just write it down again.’
Maybe it sounds like mumbo jumbo, but Stephen King says something similar in On Writing, stating that ‘Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.’
It’s an interesting theory, and a good approach for me, not because I think I’m a conduit for stories but because I’m essentially lazy. I lark around the house for a long while before I eventually sit at my desk with a reluctant sigh. Writing is like beer, it doesn’t look so good, but it tastes great when you’ve actually got it in your hand. I forget how good it tastes until I’m there at my desk, drunk on the story.
Which is why I have to sit down at my desk, with the blinds and windows open, my writing music on and force myself to start re-reading what I wrote yesterday instead of checking my e-mails, listening to the radio, anything that feels easier than writing but still resembles work.
If I wait to get a good idea before sitting at my desk, I can be waiting a long time. Usually my better ideas come when I’m within the story. While I’ve often had good ideas when I’m letting my subconscious settle (in the shower, bath, half asleep, while driving), the real gold is excavated at my desk, and I have to go to work everyday to dig it up.
One of my characters came out as bisexual a few weeks back and I’m still struggling to deal with the aftermath. It wasn’t ideal, but once the scene led up to the revelation, there was no option. I tried several different scenes, but eventually I gave in to this one. I was a little pissed off, because it changed the dynamics I’d set up, but now it’s working and I’m feeling a little disconcerted.
I was recently told that it was surprising that some of the promotional material for my series with HodderHeadline didn’t have my name on it, but instead promoted the characters, the story, the drinks at the club my characters frequent. I didn’t mind, because the focus should be on the story, the characters and world they inhabit.
The excavation theory of this fictional world is a favourite of mine because it’s one that makes it easier for me to sit down and write. The pressure is less. They say write with your heart, edit with your head, and for many that’s true. But for many others, remaining unpublished is also true. No writing theories work for everyone.
I admit that often it doesn’t work, that I spend months frustrated, unhappy, doubting everything and ready to give it all away. Self-doubt and problems with the latest book happen for every writer, no matter how many books they’ve written.
Keeping a book diary, or asking your friends, partner or family will probably remind you that you also doubted yourself in the last book and the one before that, so that you’ll find a way to dig up that story just like you have before. You might just need different tools, a new perspective, or a cold beer.
This first appeared in the SAWriters' Centre newsletter.