Friday, June 09, 2006

Changing Things or Not Changing Things

A Pet Peeve

Ok. You're writing along and come up with a situation that totally sucks. All of your ideas to fix it don't work because you set up your world a specific way. What do you do? Stubbornly stick to your worldbuilding and ditch the story because it doesn't work? Or change the worldbuilding so you can write the story you really want to tell?

At Forward Motion, an online writing community I belong to, there's a thing called a "Think Tank". Sheila Kelly, aka PBW, originated the idea. It's a brainstorming session. People come to Conference Room One. Everyone has an opportunity to ask one writing-related question and the participants brainstorm answers until the moderator calls "time". I moderated the Friday Night Think Tank for nearly three years.

One of the things I saw over and over again is that people asked for help with plotting or character development or whatever and automatically dismissed suggestions because they conflicted with something else the writer had already developed. The writer would say, "But it's this way, so that won't work." That attitude sort of defeats the purpose of brainstorming. When you brainstorm, you don't evaluate ideas. You accept them all and let them sit until after everyone's run out of ideas. Then you consider whether or not they're useful.

Sometimes an idea isn't useful the way it's originally presented. But there's a seed in it that can be tweaked and grown so it becomes a way to solve the original problem. Sometimes you have to rethink the whole thing because you've written yourself into a corner. Or you've built a world that has conflicting elements and something has to change if you're going to tell your story. Sometimes, you know what you need to do, but you're looking for a way out because it's too emotionally difficult to write the best way to tell the story. You dismiss the ideas because you don't want to go to that place inside your head.

But if you want to write your best stories, everything you write is up for grabs. You can't hold onto your words as if they were precious gems. You have to look at them in the context of the story you're telling. Delete, revise, edit, find the best ones, the ones that say what you mean. The same is true of plot ideas, characters, etc. They need to be as up for grabs as the words themselves.

Writing a story is a process. Until you've finished the draft, everything can be mutable. You're not taking dictation, although sometimes it feels that way. And even the "dictated" parts are up for evaluation, revision, editing, etc. Eventually, you get to a point where you're not changing anything essential. That's when it's time to say, "This is the way it is." And send the thing out. Or stick it in a drawer as a learning experience, depending on how it turned out. Before that, everything can be changed as you hone it to reflect the real story you're trying to communicate with your words.

So, my pet peeve is that people restrict the possibilities in their writing by making choices that they refuse to reconsider as they make other choices. For me, telling a story is about refining the choices I make to form a whole. I don't know any other way to do it, at least not with a story the size and complexity of a novel. You can't get a whole novel into your head at one time. You have to do it in chunks, and the later chunks can mean changing the earlier chunks. If you read the original premise of the novel I'm currently writing, then looked at what it's become, you'd wonder how in the world it's the same book. Well, it's the same book because it's the same basic idea. I just changed, refined, honed the details to tell the story behind the idea. That's what you have to do if you want to get closer to getting what's really in your head onto the page.