If you want to write a book…

If you want to write a book…

Years ago, when I first got all fired up at the prospect of writing for publication, I went to an evening seminar that changed the way I thought about writing. I wish I could remember the speaker’s name so I could give her full credit for the experience and thank her for turning my writing world upside down in such a profound and positive way.

She said something that has stuck with me to this day:

[tweetthis]If you want to write a book, you’ve already written it. You just need to get it onto the page.[/tweetthis]

I could sum up my writing life over the past two years as “Kay learns to get the heck out of the story’s way.” And this has never been more apparent than in the short story I’m working on now.

You know I’m a plotter. I like knowing exactly where I’m going every time I sit down to write. Heck, I create spreadsheets and wrote a whole article about plotting within Scrivener.

Then, this short story.

When I first conceived the concept for my quartet of short stories, I knew in general terms what my heroines were about and what the plots were. No problem there. I had roughly plotted the first and second stories out, so it was just a matter of filling in some blanks, right? Right?


Then I started writing the second story. It went something like this:

  • First scene: Piece of cake. I knew exactly what needed to happen there.
  • Second scene: Hang on. Why is the heroine saying that? Why is the secondary character behaving that way? And where did this third character come from?
  • Third scene: What does the heroine think she’s doing?
  • Fourth scene: Holy crap, they’re not supposed to do that!

You might gather that the wheels had come off the synopsis for my second short story. Well, it turns out that the general turning points, dark moment, and climax were roughly correct, but the Girls in the Basement had very specific ideas about how the heroine was going to get to them — ideas that hadn’t bubbled up into my consciousness until I actually started writing.

This meant revising my scene-by-scene synopsis to better fit what the Girls had in mind. On the face of it, the work wasn’t all that difficult — it’s a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle — but at the same time, I became aware that the Girls just might have a few more tricks up their sleeves.

So I compromised by revising the scene synopses up to the first turning point. After I see what the Girls have in mind, I can revise the next segment of scenes up to the next turning point.

I thought at first that this was a real drag — I like the plotting experience to be tidy and consistent — but soon realized that what’s actually happening is that the story as it wants to be told is speaking to me. The story, which is already written in my head, is constantly bumping up against what my conscious brain thinks is interesting, compelling, and marketable.

Clearly the answer is not to toss out all the craft and marketing information we have at hand, but rather to integrate that external information into our story-dreaming by the Girls. And then my work is to trust the Girls to know what they’re doing.

Sounds like work, doesn’t it? And yet I suspect all this integration occurs outside my conscious awareness, like those jigsaw puzzle pieces being sifted and shuffled and rotated until they form a coherent picture. Then one day I happen to glance over at what the Girls are doing and think, “Aha! So that’s what the heroine is doing! Now it makes perfect sense!”

So the story asks me to hear it as it is, and in doing so asks me to hold the plot lightly, as a fluid and changeable thing. It’s a little scary, but it’s also freeing. Even this hardcore plotter can learn to be a bit more pantser.


11 thoughts on “If you want to write a book…

  1. So, in my blog of 5/25/2015 I chatted about my need to embrace the plotter mentality in order to make more productive use of my writing time. I found it interesting that you are talking about the opposite – the need to let go of a little of the plotter in favor of the pantser in order to allow the story to speak and tell you how it wants to be told. In the end, though, for both us and probably for all writers, it comes down to recognizing the Girls at work, and, more importantly, learning to trust them (and ultimately ourselves). I have yet to reach the point where that lesson is too often repeated!

    1. Yah, I thought that our moving to a similar place from opposite ends of the spectrum was pretty cool, too.

      What I’m not sure about is how we figure out the difference between the Girls in the Basement and our brains… I trained as a poet, so I kind of follow the words, some of which I choose because of their sound or because a particular sentence structure fulfills the lyricism of the thought. (!)

      I’m sure this is different for every writer. How do you know the difference between the Girls and just regular ole brainpower?

      1. Maybe when we learn to really let go, the two (Brain and Girls) mesh. Kinda like Sybil when her real self merged with her alternative personalities. The end of fragmentation and the beginning of wholeness. Not sure what that analogy says about writers as a species, but it made sense to me. :o)

  2. Hi Kay,
    Great post! Thank you! So, I love that quote, “If you want to write a story, you already have!” Now, it seems the ‘trick’ to being successful at getting the story on page is getting out of the stories way! If only The Girls could type, without having to include ME as the middle man!

      1. Damnit, it’s not fun for me yet cause YOU are still pointing out the Girls at work. Why oh why can’t I see it for myself? Is the forest for the trees kinda thing?

        1. But isn’t it fun when we point out the goodies to you? Think of them as “moments of delight.”

          Also, keep in mind that I had years of training in reading literature and writing poetry and fiction. After a while, it became second nature to see those things.

  3. Only problem there is, left alone, the Girls tend to wander down every tangent that crosses their paths. We’d all end up with 500K word stories that circled in on themselves!

  4. Kay: The fun part is going to be looking at the final story and discovering just what it was your version lacked that the Girls wanted included. Maybe that’s the part we need to learn: to consciously include these subliminal pieces in our stories from plotting forward!

    1. Yah, I think that’s the challenge, for sure. Back to that integration thing Lorinda was talking about a few comments up from here.

      I’m not sure integration can ever be conscious, though… It seems to be a bit more organic than that, and it comes in its own sweet time, darn it!

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