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.)
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?
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.