Can you believe it’s June already? You’d never know it from the weather on the Northern California Coast. It’s been pouring rain for days. It’s practically the Pacific Northwest.
So I’m going to spend the month of June talking about how to do everything backward. And I’m going to need your help with this. I’ve spent the bulk of my life learning everything about fiction the hard way, so I’m pretty conversant with that part, but there’s nothing like doing it wrong to bring out the unique creativity of the individual.
This conversation won’t realize its full potential without your creativity added to the mix.
Let’s start with plot, because that’s the simplest thing to learn and therefore the simplest thing to screw up:
Hook at the wrong place
Develop in the wrong way
Climax at the wrong place
Most aspiring writers have no idea what they’re going to write about in their novels—they just sit down and dive into something that seems interesting. And that’s a lot of fun! Whee, doggies. Who are these characters? What are they doing here? What are they up against? Why don’t they know it?
And this last bit is what bites them in the butt—Why don’t they know it? Because the writer doesn’t know it, that’s why. But the characters should know. They should be completely and shockingly clear on what they’re up against in the Hook. And they should be absolutely desperate to get it resolved.
When you launch into a story this way—expecting to keep this Hook in the final draft—all you do is share with your reader your own fogginess and indecision about your story. And they don’t want your fogginess and indecision. They have plenty of their own.
Unfortunately, your characters can’t possibly know, in all its depth and import, something you don’t know. You need to know why you’re starting where you start. That Hook casts its shadow forward over your entire novel.
And because these aspiring writers don’t know what their novels are about when they start writing them, they have no idea where to take them. They just keep writing scene after scene, bumbling along, feeling around in the dark, wondering what on earth is going on.
Again—all kinds of fun and excitement. For the writer. Beyond boring for the reader. The reader needs you to have already figured out what on earth is going on. Otherwise, they’ll go find a writer who has.
You would not believe how much of my time I spend kindly separating the wheat from the chaff for aspiring writers. “This scene is fabulous and gripping and carries your story forward exactly right,” I’m telling them. “These other ten scenes must have been great fun to write, I know. But they’re your background notes. They belong on your desk, not in your novel.”
If you could figure out just how much of my time that takes. . .you’d know just how much money you could save by doing that part for yourself.
And when these aspiring writers finally burn themselves out on all this random fantasizing, they tend to throw up their hands and end on the real point of all this for them: a long, detailed description of how happy all the characters are when they’re no longer struggling anymore. This can go on for a really long time. This can go on for chapters.
Which just caps off this exercise in writing for the sake of the writer. Unfortunately, this is vastly different from writing for the sake of the reader.
Even John Gardner was told to cut 1/3 of his 1970s magnum opus, The Sunlight Dialogues. (He did.)
Because this is the crux of the matter: you can write your first draft solely and entirely for your own sake if you like. Everyone knows how thrilling that is, what a pleasure to the writerly soul. We all wallow in it, to some extent or another. Otherwise, why would we be doing this work?
But if you want to sell that novel, that final draft must be plotted with unerring care and precision for the sake of your readers.
Next week we talk about how to characterize wrong.
The week after we talk about how to write wrong.
And the week after that we talk about how to revise wrong.
Plus, of course, we need 9 Ways to Find the Time to Write.
I can’t be the only person who learned all this the hard way.