Umpteen gazillion years ago – or at least it feels that way – I read a truly horrendous excuse for a work of fiction. Mercifully I no longer remember even the title of the thing, but I do remember the result: I thought, “the stories I tell myself are better than that” (they weren’t. Probably) and started to seriously write them down.
Of course, I discovered soon after that what’s inside my head isn’t necessarily going to be the same when I’m done writing it down or typing it out or some combination of both. The act of taking the mental story and transforming it into a physical (or electronic) item that someone else can look at (maybe – my handwriting isn’t exactly good) changes what happens and the ground shifts underneath you.
Weirdly enough, even my earliest efforts weren’t that horrible. I had zero idea about point of view so I hopped heads all over the place, and I didn’t know how to use settings so there was this tendency to gravitate to talking heads in space. What I did have was a damn good instinctive grasp of the big three: plot, character, and pace. Anything else can be fixed, often with relatively minor surgery to a book (well, not the head-hopping). If the pacing stinks, or the characters just don’t gel, or the plot sucks… it’s rewrite time. And I did rewrite. A lot. Usually in longhand, with a “final” version getting typed up on a rattly old manual typewriter, after which I tried to figure out what the hell to do with it (I wasn’t exactly rolling in money and even way back then I knew that I’d have to go via the US market -which since I was living in Australia was just a little difficult).
Most of those pieces are long gone to their merciful rest, but a few survived to get retyped into my first computer and I’m surprised by how much potential there was. What I needed then was someone to point me in the right direction, and to teach me the things that I knew instinctively.
Why the things I knew?
Because I didn’t know how I knew them. I can’t analyze the pacing of a book – but while I’m writing one I can feel when something needs to happen to boost the tension level, or when I need to slow down and let readers take a breather. I can write interesting characters, but be stuffed if I know how I do it. The books that tell you how to take this character trait and that one don’t work for me. I get the whole contradictory mix and it seems to work.
Plot is even more scary. It just flipping happens. I start a piece with no idea where it’s going and end up a lot of words later with something that falls nicely into a classic plot structure complete with echoes of all sorts of things – and I didn’t put any of it in there deliberately. In fact if I try to slide something in it winds up sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb and has to be excised. Even the bloody subplots just happen. A character makes a throwaway comment and I’ve got a new subplot running.
All this is fine, when everything is working. I get a running start and favorable winds and I’m flying (or at least waddling very fast). The problem I have with it – and it’s one I haven’t been able to fix yet after mumpty-umph years writing (mostly unpaid. My first paid piece was less than 10 years ago) and trying to figure it the hell out – is that when it stops, I don’t know what to do. I block. Usually I need someone else to look at it and tell me “you need this” – although sometimes I’ve needed to spend a year or more futzing around with something else instead.
So, plotters, where the heck is the secret decoder ring to doing this at a conscious level? This pantser would really like to know.