I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING: A Post About Writing Process

I’ve written two stories in the past six months, and everything about them is different.

The first followed my typical writing process, albeit shortened to meet a crucial workshop deadline. It’s emotionally honest (something I ranted about the other day on Twitter), about a subject with which I have personal ties. It’s longish for a short story, probably with too much character nuance and plot-contrivance to make it salable. The character arc came first, and the worldbuilding details were shrinkwrapped around it. Somewhere along the way, with a good bunch of help from my workshop cohort, I reverse-engineered a three-act structure out of it.

The second I wrote this past month for (dear God, why?) another, undisclosed deadline. This one I wrote much like my posts on The Daily WTF: I started with the core conceit (an observation borne out of my life experience, married to a particular obsession) and built a plot around it, baking in the act breaks from the start, and adding character later. I had to outline every scene, as I just didn’t have the time to “write my way through” the story. I discovered my character arcs through the constraints of the plot: rather than figuring out what a character would do next, I had to figure out why a character would do this particular thing, and change them accordingly.

This second approach (plot-forward) has always felt artificial, almost like paint-by-numbers, or just photocopying the screenwriting book Save the Cat. I don’t write for plot; I write for character moments and worldbulding, because those are the things I look for most in stories I read.

However, and I may eat some unholy weight of crow for saying this, but the stories I write “plot-forward” just work better. My “character-forward” stories are my darlings, but no one buys them. Every story on The Daily WTF, with the flimsiest, tissue-paper-thin characterization needed to make it work, finds its audience. (Hell, the “Mercy the Mercenary” series could make a decent novella, which is how I intended it.)

Changing your process sucks. Change sucks. But you have to know when it’s time. If I’m going to continue writing for the SF market, I have to write more plausible scenarios with precision-timed emotional beats, not meandering revelations. To achieve this, plot must be the skeleton, and characterization and worldbuilding the muscle and skin, respectively. (We’ll say theme is the brain of this whole thing, and the Oxford comma the fingernails.)

That first story could sell — I wouldn’t be submitting it otherwise — but how the second one turns out will determine if my process changes. Although I think it’s better, my critique group may have other ideas! But I’m willing to change if I have to.

How about you? When have you ever had to overhaul your writing process? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING: A Post About Writing Process

  1. I wrote my master’s thesis in Anthropology in one month. I had worked on it earlier and produced a great mound of typewriter paper, then went to UF and more advanced classes for 3 years. I was given a grant to do fieldwork, assuming I could complete my thesis and a lot of other thins in 6 months. Suddenly I had no time. I looked at the old work and it was drivel. I threw it all away, changed my analysis and my theoretical findings based on my new education and wrote the thing in a month. I could finally see it all at once.
    My PhD, on the other hand, I had to outline and plan out. I just couldn’t hold a book in my head. Maybe if I’d given it 3 years to gel!
    Maybe getting good at both approaches will allow you to respond to the needs of the time and the story. They’ll be tools in your kit.

  2. Ah, well, we sometimes have to kill our darlings. On the pragmatic side, have you looked at Scrivener software? One SF writer has a nicely personal (character forward) book on her process and how she uses Scrivener for publishable novel development: https://www.amazon.com/Write-Better-Faster-Writing-Storytellers-ebook/dp/B00TUEN7IO. A lot of her techniques will likely be no news to you, but there may be a few things about plotting you’ll want to try.

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