I’ve been writing fiction for over twenty years, and this week I just figured out how I do it.
For years, I’ve bemoaned my inability to plot. Back when I was required to provide my editor with a short synopsis in order to sell another book, I was always able to come up with something. But the plotting I did seldom helped with the writing. Once I started the story, all bets were off. In fact, I learned it was much more productive to ignore what I’d plotted and simply write “into the mist”.
I am a linear writer. I rarely write scenes out of order. I start at the beginning and follow wherever the story leads—the trail of breadcrumbs along the dark, winding pathway through the forest. If I start to feel I’m getting off track, I may go back and rewrite a scene or two. But I usually find it’s better to keep going and fix plot problems at the end.
Although I’ve developed a sense of what seems to work best, I’ve never really understood the actual process. It’s almost like there’s something supernatural happening. A kind of magic. That may sound exciting, but in fact, that unknown magical element has always worried me. If you don’t understand how something works, how can you make certain it keeps happening? The fear the magic will leave me has always been there.
My faith in my writing process has been especially challenged the last few years. I seem to be much less productive than I used to be. Writing a book takes longer and I get stuck more. The magic seems to have grown fickle and elusive. Maybe I’ve worn it out. Maybe I don’t really have what it takes to create stories anymore.
I started a new book two months ago. Initially, I thought I was well on my way. I already had three chapters written from years ago. I tweaked and edited, but overall I was pretty satisfied. Then it came time to write new pages, and I found myself hideously stuck. Over three weeks I wrote three scenes, but none of them led anywhere. My characters stopped talking and froze on the page.
I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I liked my hero and heroine and was interested in their story. Why did they refuse to come to life? They didn’t seem to know what to do and how to move the plot forward. They were static and cardboard and miserably one-dimensional.
This went on day after day and I started to panic. Maybe I was too old. Maybe the magic is finite and I’ve used up my allotment. For the first time that I can remember, instead of providing me with an escape from the stresses of my life, writing itself became stressful. Like my characters on the page, I froze. When I tried to brainstorm where the story should go next, nothing happened.
I briefly considered abandoning the book and working on another project. I have a closet full of partial manuscripts. Maybe one of them would reignite my creativity. But if I tried writing something else and the same thing happened, I knew I would really be in trouble. I contribute a fair share of my success as a writer to my innate stubbornness and tenacity. No, by golly, I wasn’t going to give up on this book. I was going to will it into life somehow, some way.
One good thing about getting older is that I’m better at problem-solving. I also have more perspective. I told myself to crank down the panic and try to figure out what I was doing differently this time. What had changed?
And then a simple thought struck me. The way I write is to climb into my characters’ skin and become them. I see the world through their eyes. Based on what I see and feel as them, they come to life and start doing things.
I hadn’t done that this time. On paper, I had two fairly well fleshed-out characters, but instead of getting inside them and letting them live the story, I was trying to push them to the next plot point. I was outside of them, manipulating them. They became shadow puppets. Hollow empty ideas, rather than human characters.
So I went back, climbed into my hero’s skin and started writing. All at once, the blood flowed in his veins and he took a breath and then another. And just like that, I knew what he was feeling and what he was going to do next.
I will undoubtedly get stuck again. For me, it’s part of the process. But now I know a little bit of the secret of how it works. It’s still magic. Unreliable. Tricky. Unfathomable. But I’ve finally learned a few words of the spell, the sorcery that makes it all happen.