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You oughta know (process, not Alanis)

One of the nice things about doing anything for long enough–writing fiction, baking bread, whatever–is that you start to get a feel for how it goes for you. What’s thrashing around and what’s process, what’s thrashing around that’s part of process.

Some of us have way more thrashing around in our process than others.

I think the trick is to become okay with that.

So for example: last month. I was writing a story I told someone I would write. Or rather–I was writing a category of story I told them I would write. It was a pretty loose category. And I had to write several thousand words on each of a couple stories to find out that, nope, no story here! Because sometimes the dead end is obvious, and sometimes the dead end takes awhile to find. In this case, the person I had told I would write this story was a professional editor, and I had given them the concept for one of the stories with a dead end. And they agreed that, golly gee, sure sounded like a story! But nearly 4K later, I knew that I could force it to be a clanking clattering story-like object. It would have a science fictional idea, characters, a plot, a beginning, a middle, an end, something you could point to and call setting, something else you could point to and call theme. But what I could not do was get a good story that I would be happy with.

So I tried another story, and then another, and then poof! There was the story. Hurrah! Happy ending! (It actually did happen to have a happy ending on the story I ended up writing. But I mean the meta-story I am telling you here. That has a happy ending.)

For some people, this would be completely unacceptable. Not part of the process. I am happy for them. I am so glad they have a process that works. That is their process. This is mine, where I fling myself cheerfully at things, quite often with some notion of how I think they will go but sometimes not, and sometimes I’m right, and sometimes I’m wrong. And sometimes the wrong wanders off into something better and more interesting. Yay! Process! But sometimes the wrong just dead-ends. And this too is process.

I think the key word here is “should,” as in: sorting out what I should and should not be able to tell in advance. Example: yesterday I wrote a complete short story from just a title. I knew that I did not have a story there until I sat down to write it. That is good. That is what I should know. If I thought that I did have a story there, that would be wrong. But if I thought that not having it was the same as there being no story there, that would also be wrong.

Some people can tell in advance whether there is enough for a story, before they have written nearly 4000 words. Bully for them! But that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for me to get hung up on these people and say that I should be able to tell that. What I should be able to tell is some of the time when there isn’t. The file I have open now: it is not organized yet. It has the gestalt of a story–it has the mouth feel of a story–it has the weight of a story–it has the voice of a story. But it does not have the structure of a story yet. That is something that I should know, that I should be able to tell from here. And in getting the structure of a story I will probably write enough prose on it that I will be able to tell that it is the story I think it is. Knowing the difference between gestalt, weight, voice, mouth feel–and plot, structure–that’s important. That’s something I should know at this stage, and I do know it. But should I be able to swear that these things won’t run away with me? that the structure will not morph out from under me? Eh. Can’t get too attached.

Novels are different. You have to figure out how to tell that there really is a novel there before you have half a novel and find out that there’s no novel. Because I am totally happy writing 4K words of a 6K story and throwing it away, but 60K words of a 90K novel…less happy. I mean, if you gotta, you gotta. But I think usually you don’t have to throw away more than 20K of something that might have been a novel but wasn’t. 30K at the outside. So that’s comforting really.

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