“I never plan things. I start writing them, and it’s like a magician forces a card on me. ‘Pick a card!’ I couldn’t start it if I knew what I was going to do.” – William Gibson
I’ve said it before in a slightly different context, but now it’s time to explore the idea to its logical conclusion. So repeat after me: “I’m a writer. And I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”
I’ve talked about “foxes and hedgehogs” to compare and contrast different approaches to writing. Today I want to talk about different approaches to process. Specifically: how do you begin? As with the whole fox/hedgehog metaphor there are no absolutes, but there is a spectrum, and we tend to gravitate toward one end or the other. In short, to begin a project we either tend toward Order or Chaos.
Order is easy to understand. At the extreme end of the spectrum these are the writers, regardless of what medium they’re working in, who absolutely have to know where the project is going before they can write a word of it. They may not touch a keyboard for months, or they may produce a written outline longer than most novels. Regardless of the method, the approach is the same–they work everything out beforehand. Characters. Plot arcs. Subplots. What happens in Chapter 34 and how the groundwork will be laid for it in Chapters 1-33. It’s all conceived, planned, and ordered before the “actual” writing begins. Frankly, how anyone can do this is a mystery to me, but I know that the result is as likely to soar as it is to plod.
And then there are those of us on the Chaos end. This is the one thing William Gibson and I have in common (other than we’re both male carbon-based lifeforms). Chaos is where we begin, and this is our refrain, brothers and sisters–“I don’t know what the hell I’m doing!”
If you’re in the same boat, cheer up. This is not a lament. This is a joy, this is a liberation, this is a farkin’ hallelujah! Here’s a story, and most likely we have less than a clue what it’s about. Yay! We’re finding out in almost exactly the same way the reader eventually will: one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one page at a time. Brilliant work is done this way, too. As is, just as with the planned method, junk. The process is no predictor of the result.
Mystical? That word in this context is a bit too facile, to my way of thinking. Just because you don’t understand a process doesn’t mean a process isn’t taking place. Those of us who start at the Chaos end of things sometimes tend to over-romanticize it, and I’ve been guilty myself. At core it’s just a different way of working, to accommodate the sort of brain that is wired to use it to best advantage.
Speaking of advantages, I cheerfully admit that those who plan, who outline, have some distinct ones. A big advantage is that they know where the story’s going. The big disadvantage, in my opinion, is exactly the same–they know where the story is going. That doesn’t completely shut the door on serendipity as doubtless any of them would tell you. Outlines aren’t graven in stone. On the other paw, it doesn’t exactly throw the door wide and invite the unexpected in, either.
Regardless, order does assert. We follow (A) for whatever reason, but choosing (A) excludes (B). Possibilities narrow, focus appears. Your story starts to choose its form and give clues to where it is going. You don’t fight that, neither do you give in. It’s a hypothesis, no more and no less. An approach. You test it. If it works, you go with it for as long as it does work. With the understanding that, despite a promising few pages or chapters, it might not go anywhere. It might be right, just not right enough. Let’s state the obvious–Chaos is not efficient. People who work everything out in advance seldom have to throw anything out, whereas it happens to us all the time. But when the story’s done, it takes a better reader than I am to tell which method was used with more than 50/50 accuracy.
So why work this way? Speaking only for myself (and, apparently, William Gibson), it’s either that or nothing. I am literally incapable of doing it any other way. I used to confuse this with being unable to plot, as in “sit down and plot out the story.” I can plot a story, but first there has to be a story. It has to have a genesis on the page. After that, if the complexity of the project requires mapping out the road ahead, it’s doable, up to a point. Order asserts itself in a story, sooner or later. Patterns emerge. That’s the key–Order emerges. We just don’t start with it, nor can we dictate it from above. Once it’s there, we can use it just like an outliner can, but not before.
One more disadvantage: Working from Chaos is scary, no more so than when you’re just getting started. There’s nothing like staring at a blank page with no clue what you’re doing and no real track record to suggest you can do it to make a writer sweat. It’s hard to embrace your ignorance and call it by its rightful name–possibility. All you know for certain is what you don’t know, and what you don’t know is pretty much everything. If you work through, if you persevere, then suddenly 10-20-30 years have gone by and guess what? You still don’t know what the hell you’re doing. The difference is that, eventually, you understand that this is not only ok, but marvelous. Even if it never stops being scary, one big advantage does remain: How can you grow tired, or bored, or jaded, when beginning a story always is and always will be just like the first time?
There might be a way, but in the meantime? Close enough for Zen.