Learning the Hard Way

February 1, 2013

I love hearing from other writers about their creative process.  Before I wrote a novel, I envisioned the process something like this:

  1. Pick an interesting setting.
  2. Design a suspenseful story line.
  3. Populate the story with multi-dimensional characters.
  4. Write one chapter per day until finished.

I figured the first three steps could be knocked out in one morning at a coffee shop, and with proper discipline, I could wrap up the rest in, oh, about a month.  Three months tops.

Then I wrote a novel.  For five years.  After crossing the five-year mark, I figured it must be finished, so I shipped the manuscript off to a professional editor who returned it with plenty of kind and encouraging comments. She also had two questions:

  • What is this story about?
  • Whose story is this?

How, I asked myself, did I spend thousands of hours writing a two-hundred-page story about nothing and no one?

The problem with my original concept of the process was that fictional characters are not little plastic game pieces that can be moved along a pre-conceived plot arc at the behest of the writer.  Like living people, fictional characters grow and evolve.  They are complex and unpredictable.  The best ones resist manipulation.

After five years of writing, I found myself with two hundred pages of stories about characters who were refusing to participate in the fun plot I had outlined for them.  They were behaving like children on Christmas morning who ignore the train set to play make-believe with the boxes.  It turned out that my characters had plans and desires of their own.  They were practically begging me to get out of their way.

My writing process is now more organic, less directional. I show up every day, ready to listen and excited to see what my characters are going to do next.  I wish it hadn’t taken me five years to learn to listen to them, but it’s a lesson I won’t soon forget.

What lessons about writing have you learned the hard way? Was there an easier way to learn them?