Monday, January 16, 2012

confessing the urge to scream (and other things)

Ever since my post last Wednesday about bones, I have been obsessed with this notion on structure. What is it? Why have I not really studied before? Where will this obsession lead me? Why am I so obsessed with it?

Our stories are cathedrals and our outlines, research and rough drafts are the blueprints by which they are built. Our scaffolding becomes the rib cages, fingers, toes of these tales. These bones are essence: they ARE the story but they are parts no one sees, from grammar and word choice to the month long backstory of the main character’s best friend that makes him come alive on page 14.

This essence is also what’s missing from my long put-off story. I have a story approaching its 11th birthday. No, I’ve not worked on it every day for eleven years, but it was born eleven years ago and I have been through three drafts and countless rewrites. Why didn’t it work? It’s a story I truly believe in but no matter what I did, what I tried it just didn’t work. And now I understand: my structure was all wrong and, therefore, the skin was too tight and uncomfortable.

But why I kept asking. WHY was the skin too tight? WHY were bones made of glass instead of iron? Simple.

I have been trying to tell this story instead of letting it come to me and be told.
I’m not sure if this makes much sense. I mean, aren’t we the writers the creators of worlds and builders of dreams? Aren’t we the knitters of flesh and blood, the architects of imagination? Well, yes, but –and here’s where things get a bit esoteric – we aren’t in control.

Before you run away, screaming, allow me to explain. We are given these visions as gifts. We can’t control when they come, if they come, and of what topic they carry when they arrive. All we can do is show up at our writing desk and hope the muse decides to perch on our shoulder. And when he or she or it does, blast off! Or, more importantly, get out of the way and write.

So. I’ve been in my own way. Actually, I’ve been in my character’s way. I’ve been forcing them in itchy wool turtlenecks that are two sizes too small. And they’re pissed and rightfully so.

What do I plan to do about it? Let out a good scream, that’s what. Over all the years and pages and ideas and edits and whatever else that I’ve poured into those 1500+ pages. I’ll scream again at my own resistance to truth telling because I’m afraid that I might offend someone (more on this in another post later this week).

And after the echoes subside, I’ll sit down with a pen, a piece of paper, and an empty mind and ask the story to kindly write itself. And I shall drink coffee, transcribe what I’m told, and stay out of the way.

Have you been guilty of wrestling a story to your own ideas? Is fear preventing you from telling the truth of your story? What about structure? How strong are your bones? Am I just obsessing over nothing? Talk to me!


  1. I love the line about the turtlenecks, great! I am struggling with how much is too much. They (whoever "they" is) says too much crap is never enough to fling at your characters, but I'm struggling with that--how far to go. Good post. :)

  2. Don't piss of your characters! They get mean when you do.
    My first book was a thirty year old story, just sitting there waiting for the right structure.

  3. I tend to write first and then develop the structure later. I find that the story comes to me better if I don't force the characters into "turtlenecks" as you said.

  4. Learning that I'm not always in control has been one of the strangest parts of this process. But yes, screaming always helps. :)

  5. One issue I've come across is that when I free write my characters get really gritty really fast. They use language I never use, do things I never do, and I find them somewhat horrifying. I get concerned that the focus of my stories is so dark there will be no readership- heck, I don't want to read what I write! This probably means something about me on the unconscious level that my characters are so dark, but that's the way it is, and why I find it difficult to even share my fiction with others.

  6. Yes, I've been guilty of that. I'm sure part of it is fear--fear that I'll tell it wrong, fear that I'm not capable enough of setting it down right.

    I'm in the middle of reading books on writing and I've realized I need to rebuild the bones of my story. I'm looking forward to it, though. :)

  7. 1500+ pages, eh? Someone is more ambitious than I.

    i'm not as ambitious. can't focus on a piece of creative writing for 11 years... whether it is on-and-off or not.

  8. LOL, I actually practice architecture. And I'm so glad you said this because I feel our imagination already knows the way. We just refuse to stop backseat driving. :)
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

  9. I have a book skeleton in my closet that I can't pull out yet because of this very problem. I'm working with a completely different cast of characters with a different story now and I'm practicing the getting-out-of-the-way part. Someday, I might pull out that first book and find the story that is embedded under all the over-written stuff.

  10. Amen! This is exactly what I did to the first draft of the manuscript I'm currently querying. I was so in love with the idea when it popped into my head and I pushed through that draft only to have a total piece of crap that killed my sweet little idea dead with all it's forced plot twists & turns.

    Once I scrapped the whole thing, started from the beginning and let the story tell itself, I had the awesome story I'd dreamed of in the first place. I just had to stop OVER-writing.

  11. Diana: Thanks for stopping by! I don’t know about those experts. When I read a story that has the characters going through all manner of crap, I’m usually hooked and cheering them on and committed to the end of their struggle more than if the conflict was just one dimensional. Good luck with the writing!

    Alex: Tell me about it! And thanks for the inspiration. Sometimes I feel a ten year + story is just too old to be bothered with. But I still believe in it! It’s
    definitely worth fighting for!

    Susan: Good for you! I start out that way but structure always creeps in too tightly and I begin to worry about it too much. Thanks for the fresh perspective!

    Meredith: It is odd, isn’t it, how we think we’re in control because we’re typing on the keys. The biggest challenge for me with writing has been the letting go.

    Carolyn: Thanks for stopping by! I completely understand. When I let my characters have free reign, I end up with stories that are raw and, as you so aptly put it, gritty. I hesitate to leave them that way, but the two times I have, I ended up with stories that one of my writing professors praised highly and encouraged me to submit. I believe I’ll take him up on that :D

    Golden: Yes! That’s my biggest fear: telling the story all wrong! You’ll get it! We both will! :D

    Jennifer: Not ambitious…wordy!! I have this Tolkien-esque ability to go on and on and ever on with a story! That’s about the only thing I have in common with dear old Tolkien, sadly!! I have more respect for short story writers that novelists. Spitting out a 50,000 word novel is no problem. Getting everything into 10-50 pages and making it a complete tale? THAT’S where the talent lies!

    Jules: I love that! Yes, our imaginations DO know the way. We just have to have the courage to actually take a back seat and let
    ‘em drive!!

    Tyrean: Thanks for stopping by! You will! I know it because I’m pulled and repulled this one story out time and time again. Sometimes, these stories just take time because they ARE so important to us, and perhaps to others we don’t yet know. But the fight is worth it!

    Tracy: Thank you for sharing that! I’ve done that three times now an I’m finally at that place where I feel I can completely let go and let the story tell itself. Just as soon as I can find some time with all this school work!


Well, hello! I'm so glad you made it. Come inside and sit by the hearth. I'll take your coat and hat. The kettle is singing and there's cake and candles and good conversation. Settle in and make yourself at home. Don't mind the wolfhounds; they're friendly if you give them a bit of lemon curd.