When the World falls apart

Well, all right, not the real world, just the world I am currently writing about in my second book. “Oh,” you say, disregarding the whole thing, but for an author this is a big deal.

When it comes to planning, there are two types of authors: “Pansters”, so called because they write by the seat of their pants. They have a rough idea of their characters and where the plot is heading, but essentially make it up as they go along. Then there are “outliners” – my camp. We plan everything in advance, scene by scene, often in spreadsheets or on index cards. We carefully craft how the plot unfolds, the foreshadowing, who does what, when and to whom. It’s all there before we write, like directions from Google Maps.

Am I painting the impression that outliners are superior? *Laugh* Not at all. There is no correct way, and many authors take a hybrid approach. Actually, I envy the freedom that “pantsers” enjoy, and admire their ability to pull a book together on the fly. I’ve tried their approach and it didn’t work for me. I’m an engineer. I don’t think that way. Oh, all, right, I’m anal. It’s true!

So, here I am, happily half way through writing my current book, and bang! It falls apart. In a moment of total horror, I realize that the whole second half isn’t going to work – it will be confusing, unbelievable and probably very unsatisfying for the reader. Arg!

This happened on my first book, “Ocean of Dust“, too. I suspect that it happens to many authors. That first time, I panicked: “I can’t write!” “This book’s too hard,” “I should just give up and shred it all.” But I persevered, (obviously because my book is published *smile*) and went back to the drawing board. At the forefront of my mind was “what would entertain the reader?” I re-planned half the book, rewriting as little of the first half as possible.

What makes a book go off the rails like that? Many, many things. Plotting an entire book before you write a single word is a challenge, and that is the chief drawback of being an outliner. An outline is just a sequence of scenes with a few paragraphs of notes about each one. Sure, I can imagine the character’s goals and motivations at each stage, consider what they learn, how they adapt; but it’s just not possible to think of every angle.

As I actually write each scene, I’m in the moment with my characters. Suddenly, it might make more sense for them to do this rather than that. As the sentences flow, I consider that another idea is more entertaining that my current one; maybe it would add more tension, more drama. Setting this in an inn is clich├ęd, how about a street market? That’s silly that my hero could defeat the guards so easily, how about this…? All the time, I am making small deviations from my outline.

These minute deviations act like a Butterfly Effect. Before I know it, the ripples moving through my book have become tidal waves, waves strong enough to break future scenes, to rip a hole in the fabric of space itself! Well, a hole in my outline, anyway.

At the same time, I might be making changes that are more sweeping. There’s a flaw in one of my story-arcs, perhaps because my character did something different than my outline told him too. His act made sense three scenes ago when I was in his head. Sometimes my writing group or beta readers will hate a character or a scene. Maybe it was… shock, horror… boring!

When you think about it, almost nothing in life goes according to plan. It requires constant course changes in light of more recent information. Maybe those pantsers have something after all? Sometimes, you have to head in a different direction entirely. So why should writing a book be any different?

And it isn’t, of course. It just seems like a catastrophe because creative pursuits like writing tap more into the id and superego. An artist in any field will describe similar feelings of baring one’s soul to create their chosen form of art. We are no longer hiding behind our everyday mask, but bringing forth inner imaginations and showing them to the world. When this goes wrong, when my plot falls apart, it is a direct blow to my id.

Such are the challenges of writing a novel. It hurts to have hit one’s writing stride only to come to a screeching halt, and have to rethink everything. But it’s a great excuse for revisiting the plot in light of what has been written, and using all that extra knowledge to build a stronger book, a more exciting book, with a richer, more powerful second half. The caring author thinks not of the extra work, but delivering a better experience for the reader.


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