The writing on the wall

Helga’s Post #54:

A new dawn. A new direction. If you read Karalee’s last post, ‘Deciding on a new project’, you know what I mean.

When we gathered at my house we all came prepared with up to three plot ideas each for our collaborative novel. Well you know how that ended. (Do I hear a collective ‘we could have told you so… ?)

Did we leave defeated, feel discouraged?

Nope, but thanks for asking.

In fact, I am happy to report, we finished our meeting re-energized, re-invented, and re-committed, both to our individual writing projects as well as to our 5Writers group. This is the amazing thing – just when we thought after realizing the collaborative novel isn’t likely going to work – voila! Up we came with another idea, and a much better one. It builds on the group’s synergy and will surely contribute to make every one of us a better writer. It will also add a dose of discipline to our work, something that has been – let’s be frank – sliding (with one notable exception).

What’s so innovative about each of us coming to the next meeting armed with an outline of our next work?

Simply this: Outlining is a tricky beast. It’s as much as an essential tool as a snare to creativity. Some in our group live and die by it, others (like me) are writing by the seat of their pants. All of us have tried both approaches – writing with and without outlines. All of us have lived with the realization that at least some sort of outline is necessary. So this will be a great challenge for the pantsers among the group, while the rest can teach us how to be less intimidated by the process. It will be interesting to see if they can convert us.

I am fascinated just how much time and energy is used on the topic of outlines. A quick Google search brings up hundreds of links. From agents and editors, to writing teachers to published authors, everyone seems to have an opinion. And far from the same opinion. I am leaning towards the ‘moderates’, like J.K. Rowling:

“I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write.” So, yes, a basic plot outline. If that works for one of the most successful modern writers, I think I can live with that.

Meanwhile, I continue writing my novel that I started several months ago (the one I was supposed to have finished by our collective deadline of February 5 this year). It’s slow going. I found myself trapped in plot logistics. I felt like a noose was tightened around my writer’s neck with the trap door about to drop. (I can hear the outliners: See, that’s what happens to pantsers. Serves you right!) I woke up at night thinking of a way out, untangling the web. I kept tinkering on the edges, without much success, until I realized that much more drastic steps were needed. Like completely changing the dynamic between two of my main characters, and some other radical changes like setting, stakes and motif. The eraser no longer worked. I had to use a chainsaw.

No, not as in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Rather, in order to make my story better I am focusing on increasing suspense. The kind of suspense that has a combination of both excited expectation and uncertain fear. Readers want to experience fear, because, in the words of English playwright William Congreve, security is an insipid thing. ‘Uncertainty and expectation are the joys of life,’ he said 300 years ago, and his wisdom holds true today. A good story must have a good dose of danger and conflict, which means you need a really bad antagonist, lots of twists, and perhaps a gripping love story and always a satisfying ending.

But what a good story needs above all is a writer who is committed enough to finish it. And take risks. Don’t hold back, and when you’re done with the first draft, be prepared and be brave enough to revise, cut and toss. As Margaret Atwood quipped:

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word…. A ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The wastebasket has evolved for a reason.”

That’s what it comes down to. Let’s not be too hard on ourselves when our first draft doesn’t quite measure up to a Number One bestseller. A little kindness is not out of place. And with that in mind, I am starting the weekend with a traditional TGIF cocktail, a Kir Royale. For two.


4 thoughts on “The writing on the wall

  1. Extremely well put Helga … you took the words out of my mouth, and now I’ll have to find some different words for my Monday post!

  2. I’m trying that simple outlining method on my rebuild of one WIP, and I hope it will work. Pantsing every draft the first time around doesn’t appear to have been successful. I would love to have a second or third draft where I can say, “Yes, this is on-track and where it should be.”

    It’ll be interesting to see how your new journeys evolve with these new works!

    • Thanks for your comment. I can relate to pantsing challenges. I have two WIP where outlining – a simple version – would help produce a finished manuscript.

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