Welcome to the fifth post of six in a series, “I Have a Story Idea, Now What?” We’re in the homestretch now, but we’ve hit the biggest, most obvious part of writing a story: writing the story.
Obligatory disclaimer: there is no one true way to write or outline or plot or edit. What I’ll be doing in these posts is talking about how I do things, and why, and what I’ve struggled with. Feel free to use anything that seems useful and ignore the rest.
You may have wondered, back at the beginning of the series, “But Lisa, when do you actually write the story?” The answer is “at various times.” I did mention that this process isn’t a linear one, right? I’ve just had to present things in a linear fashion for the sake of clarity, and going roughly in the order I follow.
Sometimes Often Almost always as part of this entire process for me, I get stuck on something character-related, or I’m not sure how a plot point will work, or sometimes a scene idea just grabs me and I have to go write it right then. And sometimes, I’m omg sick to death of planning and take a break to write.
But sooner or later, I gotta stop “planning” and “outlining” and (my favorite bugaboo) “researching”, and actually write the damn story.
So how to do it? You’ve really got two big choices here: write it in order or don’t write it in order. Writing it in order is like seeing the story as a play. You follow your plan step by step, and let the story unfold. Writing out of order is seeing the story like filming a movie. A scene there a scene here until eventually you’ve told the whole thing.
Both approaches have their advantages. By writing in order, you might get a better feel for how the pacing is working, and how your character development is progressing. By writing out of order, you’re able to jump around based on what appeals to you most on a given day, or follow a particular thread, say, one character’s entire story arc, then weave everything together.
(A NOTE ABOUT INSPIRATION-BASED WRITING: This is directed at people who want to earn a living writing or who want to make a habit of regular writing and/or finishing stories they start. Don’t wait for inspiration. If you have a set writing time, and the only thing holding you back is “but I don’t feel the muuuuuse”, sit your ass down and write anyway. 😉 There are times when you will not want to write. When you feel like every word is being dragged out like a stubborn molar without Novocaine. When the words feel raw and broken and awful. That doesn’t mean they are. And even if they are, you can fix them later. You can’t fix words that aren’t there.)
I usually write linearly. I may have a few scenes written ahead of time, which isn’t uncommon, or I may jump over scenes, which is far less common, but mostly I write from A to Z. If I find myself writing a “boring” scene, then I have to stop and ask myself if it belongs there at all, or if I’m approaching it from the right perspective. If you’re bored writing it, how’s the reader going to feel?
“Boring” is not the same as “difficult”, though. After several years of practice, when I hit a difficult patch, I tend to put my head down and keep pushing. This doesn’t work for everybody, but it works well for me, and I’ll tell you why.
First reason is: I have ADHD. I like jumping to shiny new projects of any kind. Ask me how many projects are lingering unfinished around my house because I got super into knitting (or makeup or home decorating) for about three months, and then stopped. Better yet, don’t ask me. If I stop writing something because it’s difficult, the temptation to never pick it up again will be strong, and I’d rather avoid that, because I rather enjoy writing, and also getting paid for it occasionally.
The second reason is: it’s always going to get difficult. People who’ve heard me talk about writing before have heard me talk about this a lot because it was one of the most earth-shattering realizations I have ever made as a writer: at one or more points in your story, it is suddenly going to be the Worst Thing You Have Ever Written. You are going to question everything. You are going to wonder why the hell you thought this idea was a good one, and even why the hell you’re trying to write in the first place.
For a long time, I had a lot of stories and novels go unfinished because I’d hit this point, and decide that I was just working on a terrible idea, or that I was not a good enough writer for the idea, and I’d move to the next idea, which was new and shiny (see above, re: ADHD). And after a few rounds of “no, this idea is terrible, I’ll try the next one”, you start to question if you’ll ever have a good idea ever again.
It’s not the idea. It’s not your writing skill. You have just reached what I call the Dreaded Middle. The first time I pushed through it consciously, I was certain this was the book that could land me an agent, and I had to finish it! And eventually, the writing got easier again. I finished it, but the book was ultimately trunked. I thought “Ah! I have beaten this!”
Except it happened again on the next book. And the next. But every time, I’d push past, and it would get better again. Eventually I realized that this was just part of my writing process. For me, it usually pops up around the end of Act I, where I’ve introduced all my characters and issues, and now it’s time to do something with them. All the chess pieces are in place, but now I have to–oh shit–actually play chess. (I am terrible at chess, for the record.) Other writers experience it at different points. But the thing is, it seems to be an almost universal experience for writers. Everyone has their own trick for getting past it, and mine is just sheer bullheadedness and the awareness that this, too, shall pass, because it always has.
Ultimately, you write your story by writing it. As you go, you’ll get familiar with your own patterns and pitfalls and strengths. And the more times you manage to finish a draft of a story, the easier–or at least less fraught–it will become.
One final word, on editing as you go: I know some people for whom this works well. I am not one of them. I’m talking about line-level writing, where you’re tweaking words and phrasing. Big picture editing is a little different–if you realize you’re missing a scene, adding it in makes sense. But for me, it makes very little sense to zero in on tweaking a sentence in a scene that might get cut later, and often, it becomes an excellent excuse for not writing, because you were “editing”. If I can’t find the right phrasing or word, or if there’s a research point I should dig up and I know if I go to Google my afternoon will slip through my fingers, I move past it, leaving myself a note like so.
“I’ll show myself out,” she said [[while doing something clever I’ll come up with later.]]
“But Professor, the normal body temperature of an unladen swallow should be [[look this up]].”
Then when I finish the draft, I do a search for “[[“ and fill in the blanks. Entire scenes can wind up this way–although sometimes that’s a sign that the scene doesn’t belong there at all. The goal is always forward momentum. The more you write, the more you stay focused in story mode, and that focus continues even when you’re not writing. That’s why you’ll have a sudden character or plot epiphany in the shower or when you’re falling asleep. Your subconscious is still in story mode, picking apart the problems, and you want to take advantage of that as much as you can–so keep moving!
And if you keep moving, sooner or later you’re going to have a full first draft of your story. Next week, we’ll talk about what comes next. Questions or comments, as always contact me in the comments below or on social media!