Rethinking everything I planned to write…

Inchoate. adj. just begun and so not fully formed or developed; rudimentary.

I came across this word while reading Meg Files’ Writing What You Know and now it’s on my list of Words I Love To Say Out Loud. Right up there with Adirondack and Onomatopoeia. It’s also how I’m feeling about my writing – not so fully formed or developed. Rudimentary.

I picked up Writing What You Know on a whim while browsing the aisles before David Baldacci’s book signing to promote The Fallen last weekend. And although I’m ready to dive in to writing a specific project I’ve been noodling on for the last couple years, the more I read of her book, the more I realize I’m headed in the wrong direction. All that noodling has been for naught.With every page I turn, I’m caught off-guard – all the things I’ve been doing “in preparation” are just common traps inchoate writers fall into. I’m not even unique! My potholes are so ordinary that they’re cautionary tales in her book.

Stories aren’t hot ideas. Writers who believe they need a hot idea do very little actual writing, I’ve noticed. Writers who come upon a hot idea and outline its plot in intricate detail end up with contrived paint-by-numbers stories. – Meg Files, Writing What You Know

Yep, that’s me. I’ve got dozens of notebooks filled with outlines. A storyboard full of sticky notes is tucked away in my closet for a stage play I’ve been sketching out. Yet suddenly, here I was, confronted by the realization that following a formula wasn’t going to get me anywhere.

I know she’s right… As hard as it is to admit, I knew when I submitted my first screenplay for admission to a prestigious film program in 2006 that it was completely formulaic.

To be fair, it started out on the right foot. I’d workshopped the first half, set the stage for interesting character development. But in an effort to finish the full script before the deadline, I’d resorted to mapping out the rest of the plot and mechanically moving my characters through it like pawns on a chess board. Calculated and derivative. Neatly checking the boxes of The Hero’s Journey.

So reading Meg’s book has me rethinking everything I planned to write. I’m not saying I’ll shelve all the ideas and throw the storyboard in the recycling bin. I still think some projects warrant planning and structure and a bit of a road map.

But I believe her advice will turn out to be true – that writing the project I don’t want to write, the one that’s too hard and too personal, the one I’m terrified people actually will read is the one I should be writing. Eek!

“Stories come from people. Not from ideas, not from plots,” according to Files. And even though it’s foreign to me, I’m ready to now listen when every published author I’ve met says they begin with a character and a situation and they don’t know what will happen or how it will end until they write it. I suppose they know what they’re talking about.

An interview with the show’s creators following the series finale of LOST has always stuck with me. The gist of it was that the show is about the characters, not solving all the mysteries of their universe, as much as we begged for them to be solved. The island was a vehicle for plot, but the real story was the character development, the stories that emerged along the way as they threw different combinations of characters together.

So I humbly accept the fact that I was going about it all wrong. I will start with a character and with the book I don’t want to write because it’s too hard. And I will write without knowing how it will end. Since we’re jumping off cliffs these days, might as well make it a really big one!

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