Arielle K Harris
This will be my last installment of this Story Fundamentals series, as this has been taking up a lot of my brainspace that should be focused on writing my own stories. So I plan to cover quite a few things in this final article.
So far I’ve discussed Style, deliberately chosen as the topic of my first article as I find this to be a largely unrecognized and unappreciated part of the writing process. In it I explained why how you write is as important as what you write, and how imitation of writers you idolize is often key to developing your own unique authorial voice.
I then discussed Setting in my second article and the care you must take when creating a believable world. I showed you two maps (one somewhat more attractive than the other) and warned you about the dangers of the dreaded infodump.
In my third article I discussed Character and the importance of giving your characters autonomy from their author, and how much fun it is to have people you created living inside your head and arguing with you.
Now I plan to discuss plot, but also several other things. I’ll discuss the process of actually writing the damned story, through the help of outlining or otherwise. I’ll briefly touch upon the difference between plot and narrative. Then I’ll share the most important thing I’ve learned that a writer must do with their completed first draft before attempting to edit and revise their manuscript. And lastly I’ll tell you what the point of this whole nonsense is, how to handle criticism, and the magic secret to making a living as a writer that I was once told by acclaimed author Hugh Howey.
Just a few things, right? So let’s get on with it.
Firstly, on the topic of plot. Plot seems like an easy thing to understand and define: it’s what happens in the story. It’s how people describe a book to their friends and is helpfully summarized by the blurb on the back cover. For writers in the middle of writing, however, the #2 reason for Writer’s Block is that they don’t know what will happen next. (The #1 reason being the utter and abject feeling of fear, failure, and crushing depression, but that’s the topic of a whole other article.) They get stuck, their characters are frozen in time, and no one is able to move forward.
Some writers try to forestall this by outlining their plot in detail before they ever begin writing it, and many are successfully able to follow this outline like following the directions in a recipe. This is all well and good for those authors but if you have autonomous characters with their own motives and self-interests they may simply decide that, no, they will not be doing what you planned at all. Their sudden mutiny therefore negates all of your best laid plans, but to refuse to allow this is to browbeat your characters into becoming puppets rather than their own people, the very thing your careful character-building was trying to avoid.
I never outline much, personally. I have a reasonable idea of where I’ll start and I may know how I want it to end, and perhaps a few key scenes in between but discovering the path from one to the other is part of the joy of writing for me.
Let’s look at the recipe metaphor again. You’re making spaghetti sauce by following a recipe, you use the usual kinds of tomatoes, herbs, vegetables, all in the proscribed order. You stir and chop and mix all as you knew you would, no surprises. It works. It tastes like sauce, just as you wanted it to. Job done, but was it fun? And will the person you’ve invited to dinner enjoy it?
Let’s try again. You’re making spaghetti sauce without a recipe (or deliberately going off-recipe) and you do whatever feels right at the time. You chuck in a splash of that red wine that’s been opened for a month. You sprinkle herbs in, no measuring, no order, garlic, shallots – and what wild fool puts cinnamon in spaghetti sauce? This fool, that’s who. Soon you’re cackling over the pot as you stir, invigorated by the freedom. Your heart in your sleeve, you taste the sauce. It’s different, it’s not what you expected, but by Zeus it’s delicious. You serve it to a loved one and they look up at you in surprise. “What did you put in this?” they ask, amazed. “Cinnamon!” you exclaim, grinning with delight. It surprised you and it surprised them.
Now some people can craft a recipe that gives them that feeling of excitement and freedom, can make a plot outline that still has surprises. That’s excellent. Everyone writes differently, and there’s no rule to it. Whatever gets you writing, that’s the way you should write, outline or no outline. Recipe or no recipe. Cinnamon or no cinnamon.
However you write, I would say to keep in mind that it’s the unexpected which makes the reader turn the page, and it’s hardship which shows the true mettle of your characters. When writing you should be asking yourself what would be the worst thing to happen to your character at this point in the story, and then do it to them. Frequently. This is what furthers the plot. Don’t love your characters too much to hurt them, and don’t feel obligated to give them a happy ending. Write what the story needs, not necessarily what your character wants, or even what you want.
Sometimes the plot itself has its own motives, a bottom line akin to a thesis which the action will underscore, again and again. It has its own fate, it is fate, the unrelenting passage of time which reveals truths and horrors for the characters on their journey.
And then it ends, either a temporary end which preludes a sequel or an end with true finality. A temporary end should leave the reader wanting more, make them need that next book. Things left unsettled, questions left unasked, story arcs still arcing, things still unfinished. However, be mindful that many readers resent a cliffhanger ending which intentionally manipulates their emotional attachments to the book and its characters. Tread lightly here.
As for a final ending – well, it’s always personal preference, just like every other aspect of writing is personal preference. This is why I had a disclaimer along with my first article of this series. You know what you like to read so you use that to inform how you write. What I’m writing in these articles is based on my own personal experience. For myself, I don’t like to read neat little endings with every loose end tied up and the characters living happily ever after, everyone is still friends, they’re all having babies, and oh, the babies are friends too, how nice. No thank you, I like some ambiguity, a touch of harsh reality. Sometimes the bad guys win, or better yet sometimes there are no bad guys and no good guys and no one wins. Your mileage may vary.
So let us just summarize plot by saying that you need a beginning, an ending, and some interesting things happening in between. Can we agree on that, at least?
What about narrative? How is it different than plot? Well, plot is the cause and effect chain of events. Narrative, however, is limited by your character’s point of view. Events (plot) can only be described as your characters perceive them (narrative). Thus, readers hear and see the plot through the narrative voice of the characters. It can be linear or non-linear, clear or ambiguous. Sometimes you have an unreliable narrator who deliberately keeps the reader in the dark, or misleads, or lies for any number of reasons.
Skipping ahead, let’s say you wrote your story. You had a style, whether unique or emulated, you had a detailed, well-realized setting, and you allowed your characters autonomy despite the occasional mutinies you suffered as you wrote the story to its end. You have a first draft and it’s complete and messy and wonderful and terrifying.
Now what? What’s the secret that I promised? Between finishing this draft and beginning your revision/editing process there’s one important thing you should do.
Are you ready?
Put it away.
Literally hide your hard copy, if you have one, in a drawer. Close your word processing program on your computer. Step outside, familiarize yourself with the real world. Remind yourself what season it currently is. Reconnect with friends and family members who you neglected while you were writing. See a movie, go out to eat, take a long walk, smell the goddamn flowers. Read someone else’s books and forget about your own for a while.
Do this for at least two weeks, if not longer. However long you need to disentangle your mind from your story. I use this time to send the draft to my beta readers, knowing that it may take them a week or two to get back to me with their thoughts.
Then, when you do go back to your story you’ll have a better chance of seeing it, really seeing it, for what it is. When you’re too embroiled in the process your mind fills in gaps for you, and things which don’t make sense to an objective third party seem totally clear. When you start your revisions you need to remove that perspective through distance. Come back to the story after enough time has passed so that you see can it from a reader’s eyes and not just your blinkered writer’s view.
The next step is to be brutal and honest with yourself, cut scenes that aren’t necessary, tighten dialogue, remove overly purple prose, no matter how pretty it sounds to you. Check for grammar mistakes, lack of clarity, consistency, typos. Read it aloud to yourself to hear the rhythm of the words. Editing is arguably the most important part of the writing process in the aim of creating a publishable final draft.
And finally let me finish this article by saying that this should indeed be your aim as a writer, to create work that you publish, however you can publish. A writer who holds onto her stories out of fear of failure and never puts them into the world may never fail, but she’ll never have a chance at success either. She’ll never learn how her stories are received by wider audiences than the few she trusts and allows access to her work in private. Your friends and family may think you’re the best writer they know, but it’s a harsh yet necessary lesson to see if total strangers agree with them or not. This is how you learn and develop as a writer.
You will get criticism. People talk about having to develop a thick skin in preparation for this aspect of being published but I disagree. Your emotional and mental skin shouldn’t be so thick as to prevent criticism from affecting you. It should affect you, but constructively and without devastation. Don’t dismiss your critics, you may not like what they have to say but they’re telling you the truth. At the same time, remember that they’re telling you their version of the truth.
One person may hate your book, but that single opinion doesn’t put your book into question, especially without details about why they hated it. Someone might pick up on a typo you missed or a grammar rule you flouted, and choose to judge your entire book based on a single mistake. (True story, despite having about a half dozen beta reader while I was editing, none of us caught that I’d written “dog fun” instead of “dog fur” – a slightly different image than the one intended! If I ever get famous those first copies will be the ones worth big money.) However, a pattern of several people telling you that your book is unreadable with typos and grammar mistakes all over the place, or that the narrative flow is off, or that your dialogue is stilted is something to take on board for future books. Because there will be future books. There needs to be.
Around four years ago I was given advice from the author of the bestselling Wool series, Hugh Howey. To this day he’s the only author who actually replied to an email I sent him. I was impressed by his self-publishing success and wanted to know how he did it, if there was any secret to making a living as a writer. I was wildly presumptuous to ask but I assumed that he’d probably never even see my email, let alone have the time to read it. However, less than a half hour later he replied:
The only secret I know to making a living as a writer is this: 1. Assume you never will.2. Write and publish as much as you can.3. Hope.
This advice has helped shape my path towards where I am today, and helped develop the attitude I’m trying to maintain: a complex amalgamation of harsh realism, sheer bloody-minded determination, and a cautious edge of optimism.
If you’ve enjoyed reading my series on Story Fundamentals please take a moment to consider supporting me as a self-published author by purchasing, reading, and reviewing my work. It’s a small cost to you but makes a big impact to someone trying to make a living as a writer. My novel, Bestial, is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast turned on its head, telling the story of a female Beast, a male Beauty, and a lot of allusions to traditional fairytales. It’s not what you expect. I added cinnamon.
Arielle K Harris is the author of the novel Bestial as well as the ridiculous steampunk time travel drama short story The Adventurous Time Adventures of Doctor When. She is responsible for one very opinionated toddler as well as a writer, poet, falconer, knitter of many half-finished scarves, drinker of tea, enthusiast for wine and sometimes has been known to have wild birds in her spare room.
She can be found online at her own website: www.ariellekharris.com as well as on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/ariellekharris/ and her published work can be found on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/author/ariellekharris
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