Doggy essence hinders novel’s progress

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Nature trumps nurture. [Insert cliche of your choice here.] You get the idea: it’s difficult if not impossible to change your beliefs, attitudes, temperament, essence, and—most significantly—your actions.

That doesn’t stop humans from trying. Billions go into self-help and self-improvement every year. Many of these dollars produce no tangible results. (Jessica Lamb Shapiro wrote about America’s self-help culture in her 2014 book Promise Land.)

Grumpy Cat Learning

I’ve never been big on self-help, at least not on the kind that requires adhering to a plan, attending a workshop, or purchasing a book. But recently, struggling to overcome my Pantser nature as a writer, I found myself casting about for a rescue line.

Over the last year I’ve written myself to the murky middle of a novel. I have a premise, characters, and about half a book’s worth of fairly well organized chapters that actually move the plot along.

The problem is: I don’t know where I’m going.

I hear the Outliners and Plotters howling. How can you not know? What about rising action? The characters’ main goals? How can you create dramatic tension when you don’t plan out where you’re going to end up? These are great questions. I wish I had answers.

Writing has always been about exploration for me. The process of writing leads to a book’s conclusion. Someone once compared writing fiction to feeling your way through a room of unknown size with a blindfold on in search of an exit, and that’s how it feels to me. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to rip off the blindfold or map the room in any sensible way. (At least I’m not alone in this. At a recent literary event, the acclaimed writer Joyce Maynard admitted to the same modus operandi. Like me, she writes to find out what happens.)

Still, this puts the writer in an uncomfortable place. So, recently, to try to dig myself out of this hole, I thought I’d take a look at the self-help writing advice of some savvy authors, including C.S. Lakin, Kristen Lamb, and James Scott Bell.

Using a few of the tips and techniques elucidated by these advice-givers, I spent the last month doing character sketches and making index cards full of plot points for the first half of the book. I examined scenes and free-wrote ideas about the fictional world I’m creating. None of this has done a lick of good in helping me answer that crucial question: How does the book end?

Blindfolded Woman

This is not to say that the advice wasn’t helpful. I’ve been subscribing to C.S. Lakin’s Live Write Thrive for years and to Kristen Lamb’s blog for nearly as long. I eagerly read Bell’s book Write Your Novel From the Middle. All of them have wonderful insights; I encourage both new and seasoned authors to check them out. It’s just that none of them solved the problem for me of figuring out anything about that room in which I’m stumbling around blindfolded.

So, this week, I’m going back to what I know. I’ll resume writing that scene in the middle where I left off. I’m going to apply my self-help method: discovering the story from the inside. I’ll put one word in front of the other. One action will lead to the next; one scene will end and another begins. My characters will get somewhere. From there, they’ll get somewhere else. Eventually, they’ll get to the end.

This is a messy way to write. It means lots of rewriting. It means I’ll have to throw away long passages and write new ones. (During a year and a half of revisions of my novel that’s scheduled for publication this year by Sand Hill Review Press, I tossed out a whole character and about 40 pages, or about 15 percent of the book). It means I’ll never crank out a book a year, like some super-prolific authors. But that’s okay. This is the way I write. Rather than fight it, I’ll embrace it. I’ll use the helpful plot and structure advice—but after I’ve gotten that first draft down. I might even write an outline—after the fact.

Working blindly through the mysterious room is the way I do things, and that’s okay. It’s my nature. I’m an old writing dog and I’m not gonna learn any new tricks. Even Seasick Steve says so.

Have you ever tried to change your basic nature? Is who you are standing in the way of what you want to do? If you’re a writer, has the way you write changed over the years?

In case you missed it

You can read my short story Before There Was a Benjamin in the Winter Fiction Issue of Sixfold.

23 thoughts on “Doggy essence hinders novel’s progress

  1. I found you via Susie Lindau’s Blog Hop and looking forward to more of your posts. I am a cat lover…and a non-fiction writer, because fiction is HARD. Characters, dialogue, story arc…I admire you greatly.

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    • Thanks for following! I am a fiction writer because non-fiction (well, at least memoir/essay) is HARD. Making it real, telling the truth while engaging readers, picking the details to share… I admire memoir writers and essayists!

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  2. Returning the favour of popping over from Susie’s party. I am no professional but I think you need to write in the way that you feel most comfortable with. Although it may take a little more time. the final edit will feel like it is exactly as it should be. Good luck!

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  3. This is something I am struggling with and my viewpoint shifts from day to day, depending which side of the bed I get out of… I can understand the call for efficiency in writing, as the writing blind method can be so wasteful, but sometimes efficiency is over-rated. It can lead to an adequate book but not to the best book we are capable of writing. Then again, it can sometimes lead to looooong delays and procrastination. An interesting debate, anyway!

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    • You have described exactly the tradeoff between the two! I’m with you: I take a much dreamier, subconscious-driven approach to writing, which doesn’t lend itself well to outlining or planning in advance. I have to rely on the editor in me (and others!) after the fact to reign what might otherwise be unwieldy after its written.

      Good luck with your process, whichever side of bed you happen to get out of :-).

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  4. Not changing my nature. Uh-uh. I am, however, in the midst of cutting a five hundred page book I’ve been working on for three years, into two books. Had to start over twice because I kept straying from the plan.

    Progress flying now on book one, and I’ve set a deadline: May 10.

    A turning point was a workshop with Jackie Michaud who had us sit down and list major plot points, read them out loud to the group. War and Peace, she said has 10 major plot points. The exercise: write — 1. so and so did thus and such. 2. Because of [1] such and such happens — all the way through to the end. A light went on. What needed to be done, and how to do it unrolled. All was clear!

    For this week anyway …

    Happy writing. Looking forward to hearing about your progress.

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  5. Outlines have never done any good for me, at least the written kind of outline. As soon as I try to follow one, I find that it’s full of flaws and basically just doesn’t work. This applies to writing non-fiction. For fiction, I want at least a mental plan. I just can’t see any point in writing it down because in pursuing my plan, there are always changes that happen because when I get to that part, I just find that it needs to go a little differently. I am a firm believer in the ability of the unconscious mind to work out solutions while you’re not looking.

    The bottom line is, if a thing doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t matter how many people swear by it. They can’t say you didn’t try. It just isn’t your way of doing things.

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  6. That’s how Stephen King does things, and it seems to have worked out well for him! As long as you’re willing to put the extra draft-time in, then it makes sense to write the way that feels best to you. I know without even trying I couldn’t enter a novel blindly. Even with my first one, where my outline was woefully inadequate, I still had an idea of where I’d take things. I’d feel too lost otherwise. But others love that pull of the unknown.

    Writers approach their work differently. As long as a solid product comes out of it, that’s all that matters.

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  7. Don’t listen to anyone. Do what’s right for you.
    I’m a pantser. There are many of us out there and some successful writers will say it’s the only way to write. Otherwise we are stuck with a map and a compass with no surprises along the way and readers love mischief and mayhem.
    I may have a few very vague ideas, but I like to let my sub-conscious work it out. It works! Let go and see where it takes you.
    Don’t believe me? Read this:
    http://writerunboxed.com/2016/01/26/how-abandon-your-outline-to-improve-your-story/

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    • This is wonderful! All the pantsers are coming out of the closet to give me encouragement. And thanks for the link. I don’t think anyone could argue with the the fact that “…some of the most popular authors in the world write organically (Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Lee Child, to name a few).” Nice to be in their company, and yours too.

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  8. “I’ll put one word in front of the other. ” And that’s the best way many times. Crafting and refining can come later. It’s just your way. All the note cards and stuff done recently trying to figure it out isn’t a waste. Your brain is mulling all that over and meshing it with your dreams. Just write.

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