Kristen Lamb wrote a blog on the difference between aspiring and authentic writers, and off and on I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon. I’ve always considered myself an aspiring writer because I haven’t been paid for what I write, at least not in money. But Kristen made an interesting point: aspiring writers think about the book they’ll write, someday, when they get around to it. Authentic writers pick up the pen and write, regardless of the struggle it involves.
And that led me to think about the nature of my own struggle with writing, why I’m not as successful as I want to be (yet, at least), and, perhaps, some of the reasons behind that.
Partly, it’s because I can’t follow all those agreed-upon rules of writing. I really wish I could follow rules. But I can’t even follow what I freely acknowledge to be good and sensible suggestions, even though I’ve tried. For years I’ve wondered why and I think I finally hit upon an answer. Not “the” answer, mind you. Just, an answer.
Let’s start by looking at some of the rules I should be following, like outlining. I can sort of do that, if I’m writing non-fiction, as in when I used to write legal briefs (another life and a long story) but that was different. Constructing a legal argument for an appellate brief is, or can be, or should be, dammit, a very formalistic process. Given that I can outline. I know what I want to prove, I know the facts I have to work with, and I have the precedents to draw from and the counterarguments to deal with.
Note, however, the phrase “formalistic process.” Crafting an argument of this sort is like constructing a proof in mathematics in some ways, i.e., it’s formalistic. The meanings of words and the structure within which they are presented is tightly restricted. Sgt. Joe Friday’s words are particularly apt in this connection: “Just the facts, ma’am.”
For me that’s relatively simple, but writing fiction was terribly, terribly hard for me. I could start things and go along like blazes for 4-5000 words and then suddenly realize I had no idea where to take things. And STOP IT, I know what you’re saying “If you had outlined you’d know where to go and what to do and yadayadayada.” Well, no, I wouldn’t, because, to me, writing fiction is not a formalistic process. It has its own logic, yes, absolutely. But fiction isn’t an argument and the structure is not mathematical.
Therefore outlining does not help me.
Let’s continue with “character development.” I confess, when I think up my characters most of the time I only have the vaguest idea of who they are and what they’re going to do. And sometimes the characters that started out as minor players end up assuming a major role in what I’m writing. “If you had properly developed your characters you wouldn’t have this problem,” I’ve been told. Yeah, and I guess there’s a lot of truth to that.
But I don’t know who the hell these people are until I see the words on the page. I can’t see them in my mind, really; I only have the vaguest notion, as I said, of who they are. I have to put them on the page and let them do something more or less significant to the story. Then, as I write, I get a feel for them.
So “character development” does not help me.
Plot development? Look, for fifteen years I developed plot and backstory for a science fiction series I want to write. The truth is that I just went around in circles with it. I don’t even know how many spiral notebooks, college-ruled, 100 pages per, I filled up that way. I knew the plot, developed generations of characters (at least by name, planet, ships commanded), I tried all that stuff, and when I said to myself, OK, enough development, let’s write the story. That worked for about ten or twenty pages, then pffft. Ten or twenty pages of fairly good, fairly engaging prose that ultimately led nowhere. I told myself as I did this that I was writing, but really, to me, it felt like I was just aspiring. Too much “thinking” and “someday” and not enough struggle, or maybe too much.
Something wasn’t coming together for me. Something wasn’t right.
Writing out a story arc? Tried it. Major character likes and dislikes? My mind goes blank. All those tricks and rules and things of that sort, all those attempts to impose a formal structure on the fiction writing process that the mathematician in me said ought to work – did not.
And the frustrating thing was that, by observation, it so obviously does work for quite a large number of writers.
So it went until 2004, when a friend told me about National Novel Writer’s Month. Fifty thousand words in 30 days? So, what, about 1700 words a day for a month? How many pages is that? Gee, I dunno, I thought, seems like kind of a lot. But then, nothing else was working so I gave it a try.
I was a finalist in 2004 and in every November since. More to the point, each year I finished a first draft of a story that had a beginning, a middle and an end. The characters had some sort of problem they solved, so the story “went somewhere and did something.” Were the stories any good? Well, they were first drafts, and relative merit isn’t the point. They were, within the limits of being a first draft, complete stories.
The best part, for me, is that 50,000 words in 30 days bit. You don’t really have time to think or judge or be critical, it’s all full throttle and maximum warp. Just write!
All well and good but until my 2010 story, which had the working title The Sluggers and the Palookas, I never got beyond a first draft.
But here’s the backstory on that. I decided, in October of 2010, that I would write a story I’d had in mind for at least a decade, working title The Once and Future Grail, science fiction set in the far, far future. That’s exactly what I started to do that November 1st. By Day 3 I was at 7000 words, well ahead of schedule, very happy with what I’d written, and something happened that had never happened on any previous NaNoWriMo.
I dried up. I’m not just talking the words were coming at a rate of one every ten minutes, I’m talking nothing, brick wall, sterility, vacuum, blank slate.
OK, so that happens, told myself not to worry, relax, tomorrow will be better. You know the drill, you can do this, you’re still ahead on word count and you can always catch up on the weekend. That was the first day. By the third day of hanging fire like that – which was seven of the thirty days the contest lasts — I was worried. Worried bad, because I didn’t understand what was going on, it just wasn’t like me to just go blank like that, I mean, what the hell?
My identity as a writer was at stake!
On the seventh day, as I stared at that blank screen on my laptop, a question just popped into my mind. Pretty simple question, you know the kind, “why didn’t I ask that to begin with”: well, if you don’t want to write that story, what do you want to write?
The miraculous is also the discontinuous and the funny thing is when it happens all inside one brain, your own. One split second you are one person; the next you are another. No wonder people think writers are a little crazy.
But that one miraculous question was all I needed to break down whatever it was holding me back, and quite spontaneously I realized, I want to write that fighter pilot novel, you know, the one no one’s ever written about the guys flying out of Port Moresby early in 1942. The one I labeled “someday” and made a note here and a note there about characters and possible plots and hadn’t done anything with in maybe ten years.
What I didn’t do next was almost as important as what I did do. What I did was, well, wait, I’ve got a great opening scene for this story, right? There’s this transport with a bunch of kid pilots aboard being flown up to the war zone. So I sat right down and started with that.
What I didn’t do, though, was think, hey, this is a historical novel! You don’t know all that much about the campaign, you don’t know that much about the units involved or the actual people, where’s all that stuff I collected? In other words what I didn’t do was try to limit myself with what I didn’t know.
I just told the story about a kid fighter pilot and how he went to war at Seven-Mile Drome in May of 1942. In twenty-one days and about 51,000 words I finished the contest as a finalist. But much more important, far, far more important, I had a first draft of a real live novel in my hands.
A year and a half later I’m finishing the third draft of that novel, now retitled as Boxcar Red Leader.
The important question is, what finally worked? After all those years of trying, struggling, what finally worked?
Two things, I think: “critical mass” and “passion.” If you write enough stories from beginning to end they may not be great stories, but at least they’re stories. I was doing what I actually wanted to do, tell stories! Now that’s authentic! I wasn’t worrying about what I was going to write, or what I wanted to write, I just wrote and told stories. The term “critical mass” implies that certain preconditions – neutron flux, number of words written lifetime, whatever – have been met. Or maybe just enough experience of authentic writing to achieve confidence in my own ability. And passion?
Ah, passion. I didn’t know how badly I wanted to write this story, how much this story was mine, how much I wanted to figure out who the protagonists are and what they went through, until I wrote it. That desire has only increased as the story went through Draft 2 and it’s still there as I write Draft 3. That passion has even carried me through all the ups and downs of editing and revision.
So maybe now I can follow the rules – but I don’t think so. The only real rule is, find whatever works for you. It editing and revision takes a little longer, that’s fine with me. So why can’t I follow the “rules of writing”? Maybe because that doesn’t feel like writing to me, and that’s just exactly the point. If it does to you, great!
But don’t wait up for me. I’m due back with my squadron on Seven-Mile Drome. Lots of work still to do!