Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Finding The Story

Stories are found things...relics...

Once upon a time, I started a novel, dumped it after sometime and started all over again...only to dump the second version (pretty much permanently) and rewind to the original version. Why? Because the original story elements wouldn't leave me alone. Why again? Because there is a reason behind this (which I didn't realize only until recently).

After returning to the original version of said novel, I've been struggling A LOT with it from Chapter 4 onward. Let me decrypt that. By "struggling", I mean that I wrote scenes that did practically nothing to move the story forward, only to chop them off, backtrack and then do it all over again.

It's like doing a step dance from writer-hell (wait, a cĂ©ilidh dance?), where I go two steps forward but one and a half steps backward. Then after a while of doing that dance, I took a step back from the novel and asked myself: what the hell* are you trying to do? And this was when I had something of a light bulb moment: I'm trying to find the story.

More specifically, I'm trying to find the true form of the story, not just a phantom of that story. And for that, I have to be willing to explore uncertain avenues and dig in unlikely places.

As of now, I don't know the whole story. I know what kind of story I want to tell (or at least I think I know) and I know some of its core elements. But I don't know all of its core elements. And this is what I'm really trying to do: find the missing elements so that I can connect the dots and draw the whole picture.

And lo and behold, the brilliant Laini Taylor just did a fantastic post about her writing process, which she likens to a dance between the known and the unknown. This woman. She must be divine or something. In her post, she talks about how she doesn't outline her stories before writing them simply because she doesn't know what's going to happen beforehand and she also mentions the terror that accompanies her process.

And her post speaks to me, because that thing about the outline, it's the same thing for me. Like her, I'm unable to outline future chapters in my current novel, because I don't know what's going to happen before I write them. That said, in Story Idea No. 2, I do know what's going to happen in general, but I don't know how most of it is going to happen (until I write it). Kind of the same thing really. I find it absolutely, mind-numbingly terrifying. I believe "scared to death" is the right expression for this.

For my current novel, I have a beginning, I have an idea of what happens in the end, but the thing is, I have no clear idea of how to get from that beginning till the end (again, like Laini). I wish the path from the beginning to the end was straightforward and effortless like standing on the moving passenger walkway at the airport and letting it carry you to the end. But, it's not. Instead, it's a winding cobblestone path filled with potholes and brambles (I imagine tentacles rising from those holes and trying to grab my legs).

But the thing is, I'm not sure I need a predefined chapter outline anymore, because I've started doing something else. I'm working through the story. Granted, at a snail's pace, but I'm working it out. I've kept a notebook, where I write bits and pieces from other characters' point of views, where I play with lots of ideas and generally ask myself a lot of questions, many of them of the "what-if" variety. And it helps. It. Really. Helps.

Another thing is, Stephen King mentions in his writing memoir that he believes stories are "found things, like fossils in the ground" or "relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world" and that the job of the writer is just to uncover them as entirely as possible. And I think I'm starting to get what he means. Through experience.

By experience, I mean short stories (which I recently started to write again). When I get a short story idea, I usually know the beginning and have an idea about the end but never know what happens in the middle. And when I write a short story, I usually get stuck in the middle until I remind myself of two things: (a) there are no defined rules and (b) anything can happen. And then I just walk through it and surprise myself with how the story resolves itself to finally bring me to the blissful (oh, so blissful) end.

Which brings me back to Stephen King. In his memoir, he says to just let the story unfold in an organic way and let the characters do their thing and trust that the story will end up somewhere because plotting is just us writers being control freaks. I sure don't plot short stories and they end up just fine by my standards (hey as long as I'm happy with them, I think that's all that counts). So why not trust the story in my novel to...unfold?

I think writing the first draft is about finding the story. It's about getting down everything that you "see" through your mind's eye. I may not keep all of it in the final draft and that is perfectly okay. Perfecting the story and fleshing it out and taking out the bits that don't make sense (and doing the million different things that you need to do to get it in shape) can be done in rewrites. That's what rewrites are for. I'm basically telling myself: stop being such a bloody control freak and just write the damn thing. Because I believe that stories reveal themselves during the writing itself and not before.

One more thing I've learnt is that when you tell a story (however long or short), listen to your gut**. Especially when it's screaming at you that this is the WRONG way, because your gut is always right (well, nearly always) and it probably is the wrong way.

Above all, I've come to realize that storytelling should always be about FUN. Always. You know this thing where you like telling stories because it's fun. And not a chore you have to slog through. The stories that excite me the most are the ones where I'm writing them because I'm dying to know what happens in them as a reader. And as Stephen King points out in his memoir (because he's badass like that), as a story's writer, we are also it's first reader***.

So, I think I should be writing those stories. The ones where I just want to know what happens next. And the novel I'm currently writing ranks number one in that imaginary list. Though sometimes, I feel like I'm soldiering my way through a battlefield, amidst explosions and gunfire and billowing smoke and war cries.

I will leave you with this quote by some wise guy (okay, Mark goddamn Twain) and it's in short what I'm trying to do:

"There are some books which refuse to be written. They stand their ground year after year and will not be persuaded. It isn't because the book is not there and worth being written - it is only because the right form of the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story and if you fail to find that form the story will not tell itself." – Mark Twain

* where the term "hell" is a substitute for unpalatable profanity
** when I say listen to your gut, I don't mean listen to your doubts because while your gut may be divine, your doubts are not
*** this is not a verbatim quote

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