The Journal: Plotting Revisited

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Topic: Plotting (AKA Writers Boring Themselves) Revisited
* Of Interest

Quotes of the Day

“Go to bed early, get up early—this is wise. Some authorities say get up with the sun; some say get up with one thing, others with another. But a lark is really the best thing to get up with. It gives you a splendid reputation with everybody to know that you get up with the lark; and if you get the right kind of lark, and work at him right, you can easily train him to get up at half past nine, every time—it’s no trick at all. Mark Twain in “Advice to Youth,” 1882

“The hypocrite’s crime is that he bears false witness against himself. What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one. Only crime and the criminal … confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.” Hannah Arendt

Not that much to do with writing, but I love those quotes. And then there’s this one:

“When Peter Thiel interviews someone he likes to ask the following question: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” Thiel’s response, from his book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future: “This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular.” [emphasis added] “Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.” from “The Single Best Interview Question You Can Ask” (More on this later.)

Topic: Plotting (AKA Writers Boring Themselves) Revisited

Howdy. Horse of a different color here.

PG posted an article from Tiffany Yates Martin (via Jane Friedman) on plotting. In the article, Tiffany wrote, “Creating a story without at least some idea of your plot is like planning a trip without a route: You’re likely to wind up meandering, stuck, or lost.”

Tiffany is right. If you go without a plan, there’s a fear that you’ll “wind up meandering, stuck, or lost.” But some of us see that as a good thing, an exciting thing. Instead of seeing it as something to fear, we see it as something to look forward to.

For successful prolific fiction writers who’ve learned the secret (psst: “Let go and trust yourself.”) plunging into that unknown is the sheer joy of being a fiction writer. It’s why what we do is never work. We embrace and enjoy that fear of the unknown. We just write. We let our characters tell the story that they, not we, are living. Via Bradbury, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

There really is nothing to fear. After all, you’re only writing a story, not charging a treeline filled with enemy combatants across a rain-drenched, muddy field during a lightning storm.

If you let go of control and trust your characters, they will lead you through the story. Again, it’s their story. You don’t have to know where it’s going. They do.

And as if to complement Tiffany’s post, James Scott Bell is at it again over at the Kill Zone blog.

This time his post is all about how very hard you must work to write excellent fiction: “You’ve got to strive for unforgettable. You’ve got to write diamonds that sparkle through the rock piles and gravel pits of content.”

Wow, how very dramatic. But seriously?

Bell used Sturgeon’s Law (“ninety percent of everything is crap”) to corroborate his own claim that there is a “veritable tsunami” of “indie output” and “most of it is bad.”

Okay, a couple of things:

One, I’ve never heard of Theodore Sturgeon, despite having heard of and read the work of at least a dozen science fiction authors from the same era (1918 to 1986).

Two, according to Wikipedia, Sturgeon made up the statistic as a response to critics, who “often derided” science fiction “for its low quality.” It isn’t based on any sort of actual evidence, empirical or otherwise. So to put his silly quote another way, “Oh yeah?”

And to all of the above, I say bullspit.

I can make up statistics as well as anyone. For example, 99%+ of indie authors who aren’t immediately overwhelmed with sales probably stop writing fiction and find something fun to do, thereby decreasing, if not the size of the “veritable tsunami,” at least the percentage of it that is “crap.”

To go back to the third quote of the day for a moment, if Peter Thiel asked me, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” I would respond, “Writing fiction is easy and fun. You only have to learn to trust yourself.”

And if he asked, “Why do so few people agree?” I would respond in two ways. Regarding newer fiction writers, I’d respond with his own words: “It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she [or he] knows to be unpopular.” And unfortunately, regarding writers who’ve been around awhile, especially those who also write non-fiction how-to books about writing, I would respond, “It isn’t in their own best interest to do so.”

Here’s the truth, New Fiction Writer: You have learned a great deal more than you realize about Story. Like Shakespeare and Stephen King, you were probably telling stories to your parents before you were even aware there was an alphabet. And since then, you’ve absorbed Story from reading, listening, and watching television.

But for the intellectual and psychological reasons mentioned in Thiel’s amazing response, the hardest thing of all is to trust that. If you can bring yourself to trust what you know, and give yourself over to your characters and the story that they, not you, are living, you’ll be fine.

The notion that great storytelling is hard to do is silly and pretentious. It is the fresh, steamy stuff in which the best mushrooms grow.

Authors—AKA Those Who Have Bled on the Page as an Angelic Choir Sang in the Background—serve up a dollop of it now and then to shore-up their own self-image with a layer of ego satisfaction and mystique. After all, [forearm draped over the forehead] those Authors have Endured the Terrible, Exhausting Travail of—well, um, tapping a keyboard to put words on a page.

Well, and maybe they serve it up to sell their nonfiction books on writing, in which they regurgitate the same failed but accepted notions, which may be summed up thusly: If writing isn’t akin to hard labor, the end product can’t possibly have any value.

Meanwhile, we regular writers aren’t mired in all that bovine excrement. We show up, put our fingers on the keyboard, check in with our characters and get on with it. We aren’t striving for perfection. We understand that we’re only entertainers, nothing more. And the readers are far better off for our ability to trust what we know.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Didn’t Run… Slept!” at Read what he says about buying his lectures and workshops right now.

See “Introducing…The Fear Thesaurus!” at Sounds interesting. As usual, to be perused/learned with the conscious mind and applied with the creative subconscious.

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.

4 thoughts on “The Journal: Plotting Revisited”

  1. You may be aware of Theodore Sturgeon’s work if you ever watched the classic *Star Trek.* He wrote two very popular episodes of the original series, “Shore Leave” and “Amok Time.”

  2. I loved the Mark a Twain quote. Had me laughing.
    Trusting yourself (subconscious) is the hard part.
    A writer is the worst judge of his own work. One man’s crap may be another man’s treasure.

    • Yes, a writer is the worst judge of his own work, and that applies both when the writer thinks it’s good and when the writer thinks it’s bad. Publish anyway, then move on to the next story. Keep moving forward.

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