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Back to basics

I’m not a beginner when it comes to writing. I’ve been at this since I was a kid, and I’ve been seriously studying the craft (taking writing classes and workshops, reading every fiction writing book I could get my hands on, talking to fellow writers)  for a little over a decade now.

And yet, after all this time–even with a finished manuscript, another original work in progress, and hundreds of completed fan fiction pieces–I still consider myself a student in many ways. I have a feeling I’ll always be.

As a reader, I love, love, love good prose and characterization. These are the things that jump out at me first when I’m reading something, and what sticks with me long after I finish. It’s no coincidence that these two things are what I tend to focus on most when I’m working on my own projects, and if I have to be honest, it’s also where my writing muscles are most developed. While this is all good, the flip side is that I’m markedly weaker on other areas of the craft, none more so than plotting and story structure.

These last two especially have haunted me for many, many years. They’re probably the reasons why, out of hundreds of original story premises I’ve developed in my writing life, only one — one!! — has resulted in a finished manuscript (although in my defense, I’ve managed to complete many, many fan fiction pieces, so I do know that I have the stamina to sustain a project from beginning to end). The idea of getting to know and interact with cool characters always excites me, but because I’ve always struggled with building the framework for the story, time and time again, I’ve seen that excitement fizzle as disappointment sets in — because it’s one thing to have cool characters, but quite another to give them an equally cool story in which they can run around and do things and grow as a result of doing said things.

This first completed novel was a grueling grinder of a process for me. It took a decade to finish and many, many times, it felt as though I eked it out bit by bit, vs. writing it in a continuous, smooth flow. Maybe the latter is a pipe dream, but I’d like to think that writers can come close to it with the right approach/technique and the right tools. So when it came to start my current WIP, I decided I was going to find that right approach and the right tools–the ones that would work for me, anyway.

For the last few weeks, I’ve thrown myself into an exhaustive search of all the different techniques out there. The good news is that 99.9% of the time, they all boil down to the same essentials: you need strong characters who have a compelling goal, are faced with daunting obstacles which they eventually overcome, and learn something at the end of it. Great. Got that. Where the different approaches vary is how to do all of this. Sounds very simple when it’s boiled down to that single sentence, isn’t it? But fleshing all of that out into a 300+ page novel, with 50-60 scenes and a whole cast of characters is where the work is.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Here’s where it gets overwhelming: these different techniques from these different writing instructors can sometimes conflict with each other. One defines an inciting incident one way, while another defines it as something else. One advocates putting the inciting incident right on the first page, while another insists it belongs after establishing what’s “normal” first. One declares that every story must follow the three act structure or will not only fail to get published, it will fail to resonate with readers in the first place, while another says that the three act structure is antiquated, too restrictive, and doesn’t allow a story to develop organically.

Gah!! What’s a writing student supposed to do to reconcile all of these conflicting viewpoints?

Can't I just write the damn thing?

Can’t I just write the damn thing??

The answer for me: stop overthinking things. Read the different techniques. Try as many of them as possible. Note what works, what doesn’t, and then in the end, go with what feels most right– and, more importantly — what results in a complete first draft in a reasonable (read: less than the 6 years it took me to write the first novel) amount of time.

Yes, the more I read about the different (and often conflicting) theories, the more a fundamental truth gets reinforced for me: good stories touch the reader. Most readers (unless they’re also writers) will probably never be able to articulate why a story touched them so, but it either does or it doesn’t. As writers, our job is not to let all of the cogs and wheels and gears show. Readers don’t need to see the engine that powers a car, only the car itself.

Do readers care whether your story followed the three act structure? Unless they’re writers trying to deconstruct other pieces of fiction, no. Do they care whether your story connects with them or not? Yes.

So as I spend these next few weeks (perhaps even months) developing my story premise into a living, breathing story, I will try very hard not to get caught up in the details of theory and who is right and why a certain approach is the right one. When it all gets overwhelming, I will stop to ask myself only the most important question of all: will this touch my reader?

I won’t overanalyze why, I won’t over-engineer the process. I’ll just trust that if I’m writing with authenticity and I’m starting from a strong premise, I’ll be fine in the end.

About writejenwrite

Silicon Valley marketer by day, novelist-in-training by night--running addict, foodie, bookworm, pop culture enthusiast, and aspiring philanthropist in between.

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