What are writers to do when they have an idea and the ambition to write something they’re not yet skilled enough to write or don’t know how to tackle? How do you know if your capabilities are inadequate or you’re simply not working hard enough?
Kyle Winkler posted these questions on Twitter the other day, and they intrigued me enough to write this post.
When your literary reach exceeds your grasp
As readers first, writers can comprehend and appreciate writing at a level they’re not yet capable of producing. If you conceive an idea and attempt to write the piece but can’t pull it off for one reason or another, you’ve tried but may not have the skills to complete it or to fully realize your intention for it. Or you haven’t yet stumbled on how to approach it.
This doesn’t mean you’re not working hard enough; you’re simply working to the limits of your capabilities at this point in your career. Stephen King wrote Carrie first and The Stand later.
There’s also a difference between knowing something’s not right and knowing what’s not right—and how to fix it. This only comes with experience and continuing self-education and practice.
Enter the writing process
I recently developed a writing process I hope to perfect so that I’m always producing work. The phases I still find challenging are Ideation, Brainstorming, and Plotting—developing an initial idea into a workable plot with a beginning, middle, and ending. (Character development and theme also fall into these stages.)
“Working hard enough” may mean you shelve a piece, continue to write other things and study writing craft—for years or decades—before you get back to the piece with the increased capabilities to identify what’s wrong or what’s needed and then go on to fix it or otherwise fulfill your initial creative vision for it.
Development of a novella
For instance, I originally got an idea for what I thought was a supernatural horror short story back in September 2004 after reading William F. Nolan’s 3000-word story, “Diamond Lake.” The earliest draft of my story I produced, tentatively titled “Kissing Cousins,” was also 3000 words, dated March 2005.
But the story didn’t work, and I didn’t know why. I sent it out for critique and comments, much of which I incorporated in further drafts. It still wasn’t right, and I was at a loss to discern why.
More edits and another critique in 2007. Still not right.
In 2008 I workshopped this story at Borderlands Writers Boot Camp in Baltimore. I got some great feedback (altogether a terrific workshop experience that really boosted my writing at the time—I can’t recommend it enough), but I still couldn’t make the story work. I vaguely remember another participant saying, “The story should be longer.” That was helpful yet simultaneously frustrating because I didn’t know exactly how to do that—should I pour more words into it simply for the sake of making it longer? (This was the beginning of progressing from something’s wrong to what’s wrong.)
One of the many problems with the piece was that I relied on a lot of “telling.” Looking back on it now, it was an indication that, instead of the narrative of an actual story, I had the narrative of an outline of a story. (This is when I progressed from knowing what’s wrong to knowing how to fix it.)
In 2008, I completed a series of worksheets I’d previously developed from helpful writing texts. This got me closer to the story I wanted to tell, which I’d retitled as “Oddington.” From that process, I expanded some of the outlined portions into dramatized scenes and grew the piece from 3000 words/13 pages to 13,000 words/60 pages. I now called it “Dinosaur Rock.”
I was getting closer but, nope, the piece still didn’t come together. I shelved it for over a decade.
The missing puzzle piece
I wrote no fiction and read little in 2020, especially the second half. Terrible time with health problems compounded by COVID isolation. But at the beginning of 2021, I got back into reading writing-craft books and came upon three by K. M. Weiland: Creating Character Arcs, Structuring Your Novel, and Outlining Your Novel. (Character Arcs was new, but the other two I’d had on my shelves for five years and never read.)
What I learned in these books wasn’t new (I’ve read and studied hundreds of craft books in the past thirty years), but it crystallized a portion of my writing process. Along with the study of theme (The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams, Writing Your Story’s Theme by K. M. Weiland, and Writing Deep Scenes by Alderson and Rosenfeld), developing a workable process to get from Idea through Outlining enabled me to fill in the story’s holes so I could get to the Drafting stage. I developed many more worksheets/questionnaires that are now part of my Scrivener project template that I copy to begin a new book.
How I proved my writing process
I codified my writing process and cultivated a new idea received January 21 (for which I highly recommend Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel) into a Plot with a beginning, middle, and ending. Using the new worksheets I developed from the Weiland books, I co-developed my protagonist’s internal character arc with the external story/plot arc into a somewhat detailed scene-by-scene outline in a month. I spent another twenty-nine days Drafting. I finished April 18 with the first draft of novel #7, a 40,553-word horror/mystery. You can read more about my stats at Novel #7 Finished.
The previous paragraph is here simply to prove (at least to me) my process works.
While #7 gelled before I began Editing, I wanted to get to work on something new. I toyed around reviewing my ideas file but, clicking through my FICTION folder on my laptop, I came across the dusty “Dinosaur Rock,” and a bloody flower budded in my twisted little mind. Forgetting everything about Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick, I reviewed the old worksheets and reread the 60 pages I’d written back in 2008.
I was convinced this piece still had potential and that finishing it was imperative because I had something important to say. (Certain pieces nag you for a reason—don’t give up!)
Even though part of my work was done years ago, in that I’d completed a few worksheets, I went through my entire, newly developed Brainstorming, Plotting, and Outlining stages and completed all of my current worksheets.
Lo, and behold, missing pieces showed up, and I began to see what was wrong as well as how to fix it.
I Outlined those plot holes, Drafted the dramatized narrative, and plugged the results into my Scrivener project. I compiled and printed, Edited it, and sent it off to a beta reader last week. “Dinosaur Rock” finally came out to 17,800 words/71 pages, a novella on the shorter side.
It took nearly twenty years, but because I intended to finish the piece, continued to study writing craft and occasionally worked on the story to apply new things I’d learned, I was able to move from something’s wrong to what’s wrong to how to fix it.
Certainly, I have more revision and editing ahead of me, but this piece is finally realized. And I now have a new perspective on “abandoned” ideas and Inspiration in general.
The importance of having a writing process
First, as a writer, you must have a process. Yes, your process may be different from mine, it will develop and change over time, and you may abandon its belaboring if you become practiced enough to internalize it (see Lee Allen Howard’s Eight-Step Writing Improvement Process at Wordsmithereens.net). But, unless you have a defined process, you cannot identify failure points.
Knowing your process helps get you from something’s wrong to what’s wrong, and perhaps even how to fix it.
The prescient power of ideas
Second, not to get all religious or metaphysical (well, maybe metaphysical), inspiration takes faith as well as hard work to realize.
Have you ever had an idea for a book, but either didn’t know how to execute it or didn’t get around to writing it, and meanwhile someone else published a book based on that same idea? (I’ve kicked myself more than once over this.)
I believe that Inspiration in the form of Ideas is “out there,” seeking any and every channel to be communicated to humanity. Those with sensitive receivers (a.k.a good old-fashioned imaginations) pick up on these Ideas. Fewer have the capabilities and skills to develop these ideas into a Plot that can be encoded as narrative (Drafted). Others who have studied their craft and developed a process are able to realize those ideas into a finished product (Marketed).
Ideas are like seeds that seek to propagate themes in the soil of humanity’s minds. Inspiration, whether it comes from the Divine or the Collective Unconscious or your own creative brain, needs a process to materialize Ideas into marketable material that can be consumed by the reading public.
Some writers are fortunate enough to realize this process early in their careers. And some are blessed enough to have it internalized. I ain’t one of them.
I took AP English in high school. I earned a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction. I attended many workshops and conferences and classes, read hundreds of books on writing craft, and wrote a lot of unpublishable stuff. It took me fifty years (I started writing horror fiction in second grade) of grueling work to identify and codify a process to generate fiction from Idea to Market.
Inspiration doesn’t take your present skills into account. If you’re open to receiving an Idea, you’ll get it. Your ambition may outpace your capability at this point in time, but ideas and ambition have a prophetic influence on your career: They give you something to work toward and live up to; they call you to develop your art and skills so that someday you’ll be able to realize your literary visions.
Never criticize your capabilities. They are what they are at this point in time. And that’s good reason to keep working hard, reading fiction and writing craft, studying, trying, burying and resurrecting, and trying again. You can’t force professional development, but you can get better over time if you apply yourself.
How to nurture a big idea
If you’ve conceived a story you don’t yet have the ability or know-how to write, the first thing to do is set your intention that you will write it. If you can’t be positive about it, at least remain neutral; anything else is unproductive.
Recognize it will take a while until you get to it. Know that you’ll need to think about it, consciously and subconsciously, until things percolate. Understand you must continue to study and practice to get to where you can write it.
Then do what you can on the project today, even if it’s creating a folder on your computer, starting a Scrivener project with your working title, and making a bulleted list of possible ideas for the piece. (Again, I recommend Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel for its chapter on turning your idea into a plot.)
In some small measure, you’ve moved from thought to materialization. Even if you don’t touch the project for a year or a decade, you’ve begun. As further inspiration comes, be sure to capture it.
Granted, not every idea you receive or generate will become published material. I have a slew of ideas I’ve recorded over the past thirty years that remain seeds. A few will someday germinate; others may never progress to Brainstorming. Some might make it to Plotting, where I’ll lose interest in them.
But there are certain seminal ideas that will not let you rest. They may frustrate or disturb you. They haunt you and won’t let you go.
If you’re in possession of one of these, nurture it. Though you may be unable to fulfill that vision today, don’t give up. Set an intention for fruition. Remain neutral and receptive. Do what you can do today. Develop your writing process. Study. Learn. Apply what you’ve learned. Try again.
One day, you’ll find the missing pieces that let you complete the puzzle and see the big picture.
Until then, delete nothing from your hard drive.