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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Talking Shop: About False Starts

 

An aspiring writer asks (truncating and paraphrasing now):

People always say, ‘Go with your gut feeling.’ But what if my gut feeling tells me to trash the whole stupid thing and start over?

It sounds like you’ve run into the “pantser” vs “plotter” dichotomy. Ask yourself, how do you begin to write a new story? 

Do you just have an idea spring semi-formed into your mind, and then you park your butt somewhere and start writing, trusting that you’ll figure out where the story is going eventually if only you keep beating on it long enough? Or do you begin by first developing some rough concept of the plot and where it’s going, and then start writing to put flesh on the bones?

If you write “by the seat of your pants,” you’re going to produce a lot of false starts that end up going nowhere. The trick is to produce an enormous number of them, and to learn to recognize very quickly when a story idea is going wrong, when it’s not worth your time to try to fix it, and when you’re better off just dropping it and moving on to your next idea.

Think of it in biological terms. Some species are successful because they produce thousands of offspring, only a few of which to survive to adulthood. Others produce very few offspring, but invest a tremendous amount of time and energy into raising each one. 

Both strategies work. Which analogue better suits your talent and temperament? 

Personally, I began as a pantser, but over time evolved into a plotter. My best stories—in terms of being the ones I’m most proud of, the ones that were most commercially successful, and the ones that were written with the least amount of floundering and flailing around—were the ones where I began with the ending, and then worked backwards chronologically to sketch out a plot that led to and supported that ending. Then I began to write the story proper, to flesh out and develop the plot. 

I didn’t always reach exactly the ending I’d started out for. Sometimes the characters hijacked the story while it was in progress, said in unison, “This is stupid!” and took the story off in a new direction, arriving at a completely different and much better ending than the one I’d initially had in mind. But I sold and saw published every story I wrote this way.

One warning: where you’re a pantser, there is a tremendous compulsion to save every false start you’ve made in hopes that someday you’ll return to it, figure out what went wrong and how to fix it, and buff up that piece of old junk until it becomes a bestseller. 

Don’t do this. Once you discard a false start, discard it. Otherwise you’ll end up like me, with filing cabinets and hard drives filled with decades of accumulated false starts that began with great promise and then fizzled out.

For the record, I have never had an old half-finished manuscript suddenly germinate in the dark and become a successful story. I have, however, wasted an ungodly amount of time looking for one false start or another, only to eventually find it and realize that I remembered it as being much better than it actually was. In every case I’d have been better off if I’d started over from scratch with what I remembered as being the good bits in the original story idea, not the manuscript I’d actually written.

Submitted for your consideration,
Bruce Bethke

 


 

1 comment:

ray p daley said...

Speaking for myself, every piece of fiction you've published by me was my 1st idea on the theme. All the calls I subbed to and didn't get chosen for, those were my 2nd or 3rd idea.