You’re Not Going Crazy

You’re not going crazy. You’re just a writer.

Yes, I know — I know — sometimes it feels like you’re losing your mind, but the thing is this is all perfectly normal.

No, I can’t explain to you why your character has decided to act in a way that’s not what you planned. No, I can’t explain why you suddenly become obsessed with a theme. No, I can’t explain why or how your plot takes twists and turns you never heard of.

But I can tell you that it is perfectly normal. And I can give you my theory of why.Look, one of the things we’ve lost (but we’ve gained so much more!) with indie is that it’s becoming less habitual for writers to meet at regular intervals.

Yeah, conferences used to be expensive, take place over times when I’d rather be with my kids, and really be a trial for my introvert self. But one thing they did — okay, besides allow me to see editors who might buy my books, and meet some of my fans, both of which are much less important now. Well, the first absolutely, and the second my fans have access to me online — was allow a bunch of writers who would not otherwise meet or talk to get together.  Which, in turn, allowed us to know whether things that happened to us were normal, no matter how bizarre.

For instance, when I was a young writer on a panel with much more experienced writers and I talked — hesitantly and sure I was crazy — about the time a story finished itself, I was shocked to find everyone around had similar stories.

To explain, I had a plot for the short story, all written out, and I was about a third of the way into it, when I realized the story was over. That was it. All the other stuff I had planned to do? Irrelevant. It didn’t matter. The story was perfect the way it was at that moment (and in fact, sold first time out the door.) I thought this was the most bizarre thing, ever.  Because how could I have written the story so it dead-ended way before I knew it was over?

And right there, several other writers, some of them people I’d grown up admiring and loving their work, said, “yeah, that happened to me.”

So this is the post in which I tell you that your crazy experiences are all perfectly normal. All of them.

Have you had a story change mid-point so that everything is different than you thought it was? Normal.

Have you had a minor character take over and become either hero or villain?  Normal.

Have you had a character refuse to die, or conversely die when you expected him to live? Normal.

Have you ever had a story end midway (or earlier) or demand three more chapters when you thought it would be done? Normal.

Have you written a story only to realize in the end it was about something completely different from what you thought?  Normal.

But how can those be normal? You ask.  Are you not the person writing things out? If you’re not, who is, then?

Well, I don’t know, but I have two theories for this.

The first theory is insane — I am a writer, after all — and it is that we are some kind of transmitter reflecting stories sent by someone or something else.  Possibly, even, this explains that annoying feeling when you’re writing a story and you feel like it’s coming through “poorly tuned” and just slight off what it should be.  (That is normal, too, btw.)

But that, of course, is insane.

So the second theory is that our subconscious is where our true creativity lies.  If we try to hold onto it too tightly and infuse it only from our awake, aware and rational mind, what comes out is uni-dimmesional and lacking the depth and the strength of a book written when we allow the subconscious its say.

Is this true?

I don’t know.  I know that if a story doesn’t surprise me, change on me, come up with even one scene I didn’t plan, one twist I didn’t expect, it’s not as good.

I’ve gone through phases of plotting and phases of pantsing, and just about everything in between. But if I make an outline and then follow it, slavishly, unable to change at all, the story feels paper-thin and like something is missing.  The ones that surprise me, shock me and make everything I thought I knew be otherwise? Those are the stories that tend to be good.

Now… there is another side to it.  And that’s when you turn off your conscious mind completely, and let yourself be ruled by the subconscious, or the transmitter, or whatever it is.  When you do that, the story becomes what critics call “self indulgent” and readers — okay, me — call “incoherent” or “WTF?”

Sure, you can let your subconscious drive completely… eventually.  The point at which you can do this varies, and only you — and your beta readers — can judge it.  The point at which you can do that is when you’ve studied the forms and written so much that your subconscious KNOWS what makes sense/what is good plot/what form to follow and doesn’t vomit forth a formless mess.

Alternately, it’s the point at which your tuner is so perfect that you can let the signal come through loud, clear and without interference or confusion.

The point exists (for me it was different points for short stories and novels, but both existed.)  And you’ll probably know when you hit it.

Until then… Plot, (or pantse, or whatever you do) but don’t hold onto your plans so tightly that you don’t allow the subconscious to enrich it, the alien signal to come in, or the creativity to shine forth and enrich the whole thing.

Take a deep breath.  You’re perfectly normal.  Well, you’re as normal as writers get.

Don’t be afraid of your creativity.  Let it shine through. If you go wrong, you can always fix it in post.  And who knows, it might go very right, and be the most awesome story you ever wrote.

Give it a chance.


  1. Yep.

    And I finally came to realize that when I blocked on a story, it was because my subconscious knew I was doing something wrong. Once I figure out why my subconscious hates a scene–even one not yet written, it’ll flow again.

    And hooking up my MC with the perfect woman? Nope, the subconscious has a better plan, two books down the road. So I find myself writing spats and indifference. How can a part of my brain, so eloquent on the keyboard in the story, be so incapable of a simple explanation in real life?

    1. I found that reversing whatever I had thought would be next often restarts an outline.

      They go into a market to find some news? Have a dragon show up and make them run away.

    2. Huh.

      That does explain a lot.

      I have a great respect for the subconscious. I have a strong suspicion that women are better at trusting it – that ‘gut feeling’ – and acting on it. That accounts for “women’s intuition” – not supernatural, but noticing something below the level of conscious thought. They cannot explain it consciously, but have learned to trust those rumblings beneath the surface.

  2. “Take a deep breath. You’re perfectly normal. Well, you’re as normal as writers get.”

    If that’s true, we are all so screwed… ~:D

    Some days the story is very clear, and I can’t type fast enough.

    Other days, like today so far, its stuck. I know what the story is supposed to do, but it isn’t doing it. The characters are all looking at me with the raised eyebrow of expectation. “Well? What now, O great author?”

    These are the days when I write something anyway, and maybe it moves things along or maybe it doesn’t. If by 10:30am its still stupid, and the characters are rolling their eyes and yelling “come on old man, really?!” then I’ll go cut the grass or something useful like that. Maybe I’ll weld something today, there’s metal needs to be melted here at Chez Phantom.

      1. If by “edit” you mean take a chainsaw to it, then yeah. ~:D

        I went through a period a couple years ago where all I could come up with was the main characters making cow eyes at each other and making out all the time. Monster arrives, they’re making out. The cops come, they’re making out. World’s going to end… Yeah.

        The chainsaw got some miles on it. Now they seem to have gotten that out of their systems. For the most part, anyway.

  3. Now I understand why so many writers say, “Oh, I could never use an outline, it’s so restricting.”

    It’s not a sacred revelation, it’s just words on paper. I look on it as a map from Here to There, with the caveats that there will probably be detours and one may well end up at There-Prime. (Which is why, after the book’s finished, I usually have to write a whole new synopsis so that Cedar can start thinking about the cover art.)

    1. I either have a scene by scene outline or NOTHING, depending on the book. Some books just dictate. When that happened (AFGM) I thought I was going insane.
      Most of my outlines twist and turn. My revision is making everything “point right”

    2. My problem is that I’m very good at writing procedural manuals, so the moment I start outlining I get into the wrong headspace. This is not to say that the framework of the story doesn’t exist in my head, but if I outline it, it goes straight to tech-speak.

      1. Flipping the headspace is definitely a thing – I’m similar thanks to dayjob analytic writing.

        You could try outlining at a different phase rather than the beginning – say, after a few character scenes interactions, when the story and world are more developed – and see it if kickstarts anything.

        Plus, you probably have good technical skills for pulling out scenes that belong elsewhere.

        I remain convinced I must cram the idea down in depth before the muse cackles and yanks it away.

    3. I tried an outline once (on an enormous piece of fanfic). Had the secondary character all set to spill his big secret in Chapter 14, had all the dominos in place for it, and he clammed up. I could not write a decent paragraph to save my life until I removed the secret-spilling goal, and then it flowed just fine. He eventually talked around chapter 23, and I’ve never tempted the Outline Gods since.

  4. “You’re not going crazy. You’re just a writer.”

    That’s what the Incan Monkey God keeps telling me.

    1. well, at least it wasn’t the Pencilan Monkey God

      But you probably don’t know bout them, they got erased.

  5. I make crib notes [in brackets] below the current writing point, with ideas about what goes where, and to remind myself to foreshadow. Otherwise? Heck, I’m 28K words into a book I’m not supposed to start until November, while the book I need to be writing is sitting off to the side, not willing to budge.

  6. I could be going crazy. More or less independently of writing efforts, if decisions to put time and energy there are a symptom of spiraling into disorder in the rest of my life.

    Okay, not a terribly persuasive argument.

  7. What if you’re working away on WIP #456, only to realize that Abandoned WIP #123 was organized around the wrong idea, and needs to be rewritten after about the first 3K words, and here’s how… and once you start writing it, about 5 chapters (and several weeks of writing) later, you wake up to write on it… only to sit there going, “You know, #456 really needs a second POV character to really flesh out the world and explain what’s going on. And I know exactly the scene where they should come in!”

    1200 words later, I’m all “Brain? Brain can I go back to #123 now? I have the scene sketched out, I could… no? Fine, I go mow the lawn.”

    And then I’m sitting at work, and brain says “Now, on #456, the next scene really needs to start about an hour earlier, for the characters to mirror each other and present two versions of how it could go…”

    As I’m trying to deal with federal regulations.

    Are you sure this isn’t what going crazy feels like?

  8. I’ve had points in my stories where my characters have suddenly told me, “Hey! I sound like David Tennant, because there is nothing more nerdy and geeky than a purple unicorn-pegasus librarian nerd that sounds Welsh!”

    I have another character that grabbed me by the unmentionables and said, “Darling, add at least one more letter to my cleavage if you like these where they are.”

    Oh, and did I mention that I had a plot line that just…happened…when two characters ran into each other.

        1. I am absolutely game if someone wants to make a deal for the movie rights on my web serial. 😁 Magical Viking adventure would have a market, right? But the golem shows up in book 5.

  9. On the other hand, it is also perfectly normal to be someone who outlines, who works methodically, and who has stuff come out exactly on schedule. There is nothing lacking in creativity about being a Trollope.

    Same thing with those who wrestle creatively with an outline for weeks, like David Drake, and then just write every scene as blocked out.

    Or with people like Bujold, who write the dialogue first and then fill in the descriptive prose.

    As long as the project gets done, no point worrying about the neurologist of creativity.

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