Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The secret rule of writing

Barbara here. I love talking about the writing process, as Rick did in yesterday's post. I also fall into the pantser camp. When all the "how-to" books lectured against it and most of the audiences I talked to were aghast, I began to think there was something seriously wrong with my writing style. But for me writing a book, like reading one, is an adventure, and I love the excitement of the unknown, the thrill of discovery, and the shock of the unexpected as much as the reader does. I know that many competent writers produce dramatic and unexpected books from carefully crafted outlines, but my creativity does not truly kick in until I am in the "writing zone". Rick points out that many a plot hole, left undetected in the outline, is unmasked in the writing. Besides that, many much more innovative and intriguing plot and character twists only spring to mind when I am totally immersed in the story. That is what is meant, I believe, when writers claim the characters took on a life and direction of their own.

After fifteen years in the writing business, and quite a few books under my belt, I have come to trust my own style. It is messy, frustrating, wasteful, and at times terrifying, but it is what works for me. I have learned that it's not enough to launch down the river with no idea what you might want to say and what excitement you might encounter; I need a place to start, fairly good sketches of the main characters and an idea of what the story might be about.  I've also learned that this all may change midstream as better ideas pop into mind, and so it's best not to waste too much time pre-thinking the story.

Readers of mysteries sometimes imagine that writers carefully craft the story so that all the clues are planted, the red herrings are in place, and the sleuth's path to discovery is neatly laid out. Not in the least. While I'm writing the first draft, all I have is a meandering path towards an unknown climax, packed with suspects, surprise twists, and no idea myself whodunit or how (indeed, if) the whole thing will get solved at all. Only once I arrive at the end do I know what happened and what the story is really about. It is in the rewrites that the clues get planted, removed, buried deeper, red herrings are drawn through the plot, characters are enriched and made coherent. In the rewrites, the whole story hopefully becomes a seamless arc.

This leads me to my one secret rule of writing. Ever since I was a child, I have never met a rule I didn't want to break, so it makes sense I would object to the "how-to" books which dictate all the dos and don'ts of successful writing. This doesn't mean I haven't read them, or that aspiring writers shouldn't read them. But I believe every writer has to find the style that works for them and feel confidant enough to follow it. They have to know the kind of person they are and the kind of story they want to tell. Every writing technique has a specific effect, and by knowing the effect, the writer can choose the techniques that create the effect they want. An example of this is choosing Point of view. First is engaging, informal and intimate. Multiple is more distancing but allows for layering, colliding storylines, etc.  Elements of setting such as weather, season, anonymous city vs. intimate village vs. desolate moor all create effects on the story you are telling. Not all effects are equally desirable – the effect of having twenty-five POV characters is that the reader feels dizzy and detached from all the characters, for example.

Pantser plotting requires a lot of patience, trust, flexibility and willingness to rewrite and rewrite until the final draft is perfect. In impatient or inexpert hands, it can produce unwieldy, unfocussed stories. But it can also produce innovative, fresh, and thoroughly surprising stories that follow no pre-conceptions and are difficult to predict. I sometimes joke how can readers figure out whodunit before the end when I don't even know!

So anyone care to guess what the one secret rule of writing is? If you can't think of one, perhaps you have.


Rick Blechta said...

Excellent post. Thanks! For me, the secret rule is that there are no secrets rules. In fact, sometimes there are no rules at all!

Hannah Dennison said...

This is a great post -- and given our email exchange last night -- you really can pull a rabbit out of a hat! Joking aside - I think I am a combination of both - I plot the first half very carefully, and then free fall to the end. However, the terror remains from start to finish that I can't pull it off.

Rick Blechta said...

"Free fall" is a very good description of what it feels like. It can be pretty scary and intimidating -- but also a rush.

Donis Casey said...

Can't pull it off...that's my absolute conviction every time I write a book, that I'll never be able to pull if off. Yet somehow it always pulls itself off!

Barbara Fradkin said...

Interesting, isn't it, that we all have the same fear that this time we won't be able to pull it off, despite our past success. Hannah, I'd had two glasses of wine; perhaps that's the trick. And Donis, I love your idea that the book pulls itself off. It does.

Eileen Goudge said...

I think of the writing process as papier mache, layer upon layer pasted one atop the other to create the final product. Messy and sticky at first, but drying to a nice finish. I, too, don't write by outline, though I used to when I was starting out many years ago. Now it all happens in my head and in the unfolding of the story as I write it. The mystery I'm working on now is the first in a series. I completed a rough draft for Book 2, then went back to Book 1 and ended up having to rewrite most of it because, having gotten to know my protagonist better, I had to have her acting in ways that fit her character.