Often Wrong

So I’m working on yet another story, and I’m not gonna give you any details, for fear of jinxing it, but it’s…flowing, in that terrifying way that some stories do, where you go to jot down a line and it picks you up and throws you down and the line turns into 1200 words without you being quite aware of it.

I fear this. Catholicism is imprinted deeply in my family’s DNA, and thus anything that comes easily is automatically suspect and probably undeserved, but beyond that, stories that grow too quickly and easily often lack backbone, and when the words suddenly stop being easy and you have to gouge each one out from the stones inside your chest, well…sometimes that story dries up and blows away, and that’s the end of that. So I am approaching it with caution, in case it turns on me.

This does, however, put me in mind of a couple of comments on the last post I did about writing advice, where a surprising number of people said that their problem with writing was that in five minutes, they know the story and then they’re bored.


Obviously if you are bored it is difficult to write without also boring the reader, but I would suggest anyone suffering from this give it a go anyway, at least once, because even when I think I know a story, it’s amazing how often I turn out to be wrong.

Even in a fairy-tale retelling, where you pretty well know the plot and what happens, it’s amazing how much room there is to be wrong.

When I started writing this thing, I knew the heroine’s father was not around for some reason, I knew that she was a gardener and had a couple of sisters (one does, in fairy tales) and I knew more or less the plot.

I did not know that she had a very stupid horse that stumbled when he tried to run, that the hero was a smartass (I didn’t know that, in fact, until he opened his mouth and said something sarcastic) that the plot would involve birch trees, that one of the heroine’s sisters was dangerously insightful and the other one cried non-stop, and that a scene I’ve had floating around in my skull for years would suddenly glom onto the end of the story like a remora.

This is a lot of things not to know when the plot, being a fairy-tale, is rolled out in front of you like a forest path, with helpful crones and talking animals to point the way, excellent lighting, and complimentary copies of The Hero With A Thousand Faces placed every thirty feet.

It’s much more pronounced writing something like Dragonbreath, where, in fifteen thousand words, I generally find out that something tied into something else in a way that I never expected and I wander around going “I AM A GENIUS!”*

Someone—I think it might be Patricia Wrede, but hell if I can remember—said that her method of writing is to outline the book, write a chapter, say “No, no, this is all wrong!” and throw out the outline, write another outline, write another chapter, say “No, no, this is much worse!” throw out the outline, write a new outline, write another chapter…well, you see the pattern here. That’s a lot of outlining, certainly more than I would do, but it’s gratifying to see that other people are also often very wrong in what their story was about and where it was going.

To go at it another way, there are books that are intensely plot driven. They know who they are, and may be excused to go sit in the hall and pray for our souls. Most of the books that I enjoy, however, and certainly the ones that I write, are basically an excuse to hang out with the characters, and occasionally in that world. The plot is important, but the book is a great deal more than the plot.

One of my absolute favorite books has a plot as follows: There’s a princess. She doesn’t fit in well, so she takes up killing dragons, and then there’s a really big dragon that she has to kill. Then she kills a wizard, who was sending an army to take over the kingdom, and comes home with the magical McGuffin and saves the day.

And this is, more or less, the plot. And the fact that I have reduced Robin McKinley’s elegant and brilliant Hero and the Crown to that synopsis means that a YA fantasy hit squad will be coming for me shortly, because that is so completely and utterly not what the book is about, and does massive injustice to a story that I read until the binding fell apart and I had to buy another copy. Knowing the plot of that book does no good whatsoever—you have to sit down and read it, because the plot is the least of what the book is.

If that makes any sense.

So, anyway. If you genuinely know everything about the story already, them’s the breaks. I’d suggest trying to write it anyway. It is possible that it will plod along in exactly the fashion you envisioned, in which case your boredom is entirely understandable, but hey, you never know. You might just be wrong.



*Still outnumbered by the amount of time I spend wandering around going “I AM THE STUPIDEST THING IN CREATION AND ALSO A HACK AND I THINK I FEEL A ZIT COMING UP ON MY FOREHEAD.”

5 thoughts on “Often Wrong

  1. Wolf Lahti says:

    Everything about this post is so right, I don’t even know what else i could say.

    I may just make myself a Mary Englebreit-style poster that proclaims “Plot is the least of what the book is” and position it above my monitor. That would be helpful.

  2. TanitIsis says:

    I love the way your mind works, and I love your posts on writing. If you’re a hack, I want to be one too.

    Also, the first volume of Dragonbreath has become, in our house, one of those books that has been so-loved that it needs replacing.

  3. Al the K says:

    So then we also have the movie “Casablanca”: bar owner helps his ex get to the airport. Hmmm, what’s playing down the street? Hee.

    It makes me happy to know that you are on the same E ticket ride as us when you’re writing as when we’re reading. So, we’re now just turning a corner and OMIGAWD!!! . . .

  4. Tarliman says:

    There are books where the plot is a handy timeline to hang character development events on, and everybody knows that it’s the decorations, not the tree, if I may be forgiven a seasonal metaphor. Then there are books where the plot is the raison d’etre, and the characters are just there to tell the story, and sometimes those books feel like polemic, and sometimes they smell like rantage, but quite a few tell a cracking good story. The long-running TV series Law & Order is an example here – it’s the system that the story is about. The cops and the prosecutors and the defense attorneys come and go, but the legal system grinds on, and that’s where the story lies. I’ve read and enjoyed plot driven stories, and read and enjoyed character driven stories, and don’t necessarily prefer one over the other. However, as Marion Zimmer Bradley said, there is one plot and only one that consistently sells: A likeable character is in a bad situation and somehow wins through, or, more colloquially, Joe has his butt in a bear trap and has many adventures getting it out. Likeable characters pull the reader in, make the reader care about the events, and give the reader something to relate to. It’s hard to relate to a political principle, although Marxism and I had a brief dalliance before the slanging match over the misuse of the word “bourgeoisie”. It’s easy to relate to Joe.

  5. Owlor says:

    Something I’ve noticed about my writing is that the basic plot generally remains about the same trough each outline (tough that one’s no stranger to going on wild tangets either), but the GENRE might shift widely. Somehow I’m jsut really bad at figuring out what type of story ap articular story needs to be.

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