Are you a pantser or a planner? That’s a perennial ice breaker when getting to know fellow writers, yes? Well, a funny thing happened to this pantser on the way to writing a paranormal series. I got stuck. Completely lost down one pant leg. After taking nearly a year to complete a bloated 110,000 word behemoth, I still had gaping plot holes and a strong sense of frustration that what I was doing to fix them wasn’t working.
I couldn’t seem to write my way out.
And yet I had done more planning and thinking for this book than anything else I’d ever written. I’d worked forever on the rules and textures of my paranormal “world,” and things still weren’t falling into place. So I got a well-known agent to read a partial, and she came back with this: love your main characters and their interactions, but your world is crazy-confusing. Simplify! I simplified and the result was shorter, a mere 89,000 word draft, that only took me another nine months to write. It was better, but not better enough. Not compelling.
I considered putting the whole thing down as a lost cause.
But then I got this sneaky idea. Perhaps even I, the earth mother of organic writing, needed more than scattered notes in various files and a “get hero/heroine to the climax scene” prompt to produce a saleable book? In the past, I’d tried outlining, storyboarding, and the dreaded one-scene-per-notecard approach–all without success. They just didn’t work with my brain.
What I needed to find was a way into the structure of story that worked for me.
The biggest thing I’ve learned over last few months is that being a storyteller, not a writer, is the essence of commercial, saleable fiction. This is not just a matter of semantics. This was a cosmic shift in thinking for me. Larry Brooks‘ Story Engineering is one book that has helped me see how to construct a complete story, not just nibble at the edges of a single problem at a time. I love lush words and unique voices in fiction, but Larry puts those dead last in importance. A killer concept and hitting the main plot points are far more crucial in storytelling, and I’ve become a believer as I’ve been able to craft a much more cohesive, compelling story using his framework.
Here’s another bit of advice I found enlightening: Start your planning with the antagonist of the story. (Kristen Lamb has a great post on this, and bonus, she’s funny.) Like most romance writers, I always start with a sexy hero or kickass heroine, you know, the fun stuff. Wrong. Even in romance, the antagonists run the show. When I looked at my WIP from the antagonist’s point of view, I discovered motivations that were both too vague and waaay too complex. This is a lethal stew, gentle readers. Perplexing powers, spells, counter spells, and yet these villains weren’t evil but merely misunderstood–and they came with confusing magical disguises! Is your head spinning yet? Mine was. What’s worse, when I tried to clarify I merely added more complexity because I wasn’t getting to the root problem. Once I looked at the entire story from the antagonist’s point of view, the reason the story refused to jell became embarrassingly clear. I was stuck down this fantasy/paranormal pant leg because I’d lost sight of the important stuff. I’d forgotten that what romance readers want is an emotionally compelling story, not an intellectual maze with no exit and super unique crazy guys in the middle gnawing on human remains that may or may not belong to the author.
So what’s your take on this? Do you have a “funny” story you’re willing to share about spending years of your writing time focused on the wrong thing, or is this just me? (Let me know, because it’s kinda lonely in Stubbornsville these days.)