Friday, June 8, 2012

Allow Yourself To Think Of Alternatives

When I was a newer writer, I often believed that my initial ideas for plot and character and setting were all the right ones. What flowed organically from my brain must be the purest, most correct form of the story. I really, honestly believed this. And because I believed this I thought that any big changes would mess with the "natural flow" of the story.

Well, now I think that's a bunch of crap.

I think it was my way of trying to avoid the true work that comes in creating a novel: Revision. And I'm not talking tweaks, but the big changes that are a part of every novel's journey, whether they come in drafting or edits.

The truth is, your first ideas are probably not your best ones. I believe Laini Taylor talked about this on her blog once, that what your brain first decides is usually the easiest way out, the most contrived, cliche, trope, whatever. It likely contains the least action and the most telling. It often features a boring or repetitive setting.

Looking at the novels I used to write with my whole hippie "just follow your instincts and stay true to the organic story" philosophy and the novels I write now? I can tell you 100% that what Laini said was true.

I don't let stories just "do their thing" anymore, and you know what? I'm pretty sure that's why I finally sold a book. Because I took the reigns—I thought of better plot lines; I changed characters; I rewrote chapters; I moved things around and cut things and added things. I put away impatience and fear and let my mind wander to other, better possibilities. I listened to people who knew better than me. I took my raw ideas and molded them into something bigger.

I didn't just tell a story. I became an author.

And it's really hard for me to even refer to myself as an author, but as I've been writing this new novel I see how differently I approach the task. I'm not just shooting out into the dark hoping things will stick. I know what makes a good story, and I work with my idea until I find that sweet spot. I am in control, and I suppose that's what I always imagined an author to be.


  1. Wow! Great post, Natalie. I'm going to have to read Laini's post now. So glad you finally took the reigns!

  2. This is the exact lesson (albeit better articulated) that I have been experiencing over the last year, and have finally realized just recently. Since then, my writing has gone through the roof in creativity and production.

    This. So much of this.

    I almost cried I related to this so well.

  3. Natalie,

    I have to agree with you on many points. First of all, I definitely erred on the side of “this idea must be the best one EVER” line of thinking when I first began writing. What I do now is take that kernel of an idea, toss it around a bit, stomp on it and juggle it. Then I see where it lands. If it’s a bad idea, I file it. If the idea has grown enough to be something I can work with, I’ll start writing. If my first two novels are any indication, the idea morphs even further once I begin writing. It’s an interesting pheonomenon.

    Second, I’m right in the middle of the revision phase of my current novel. It’s no picnic, let me tell you. But this is where growth comes for a writer, and where you can see if you have what it really takes. One scene at a time. One sentence at a time. One word at a time. It’s a grind but I’m hoping the end product reflects the sweat and tears I’ve put into it.


    1. Ditto this, entirely.

      Also, I'd like to add that sometimes one's first IDEA is not right, but usually one's first INSTINCT (that thing which is at the core of your story or scene or character, and which you are trying to build an idea AROUND) is.

  4. Great post!! This is very true, but a reminder is appreciated! :)

  5. This post came right at the perfect moment! I've been debating on whether or not I should go with my original idea or the one I fully thought through and makes more sense. Now that I read this post... I think I have my answer. You're awesome!

  6. I believe very much in the power of 'flow' when writing, and am a dedicated 'Discovery Writer', but that doesn't mean I don't think about what I'm doing, and things change a lot from the time the words first hit the page and when I consider myself 'done'. And then they'll change again and again. Great post.

  7. I used to be reluctant to make changes too, because I thought that I might make the wrong changes and then my story would suck. But at one point I added an entirely new character, who totally changed the dynamic among the other characters and who changed the story as a whole. And it actually didn't suck. :)

  8. Great post Natalie. I think I often have the opposite problem. I'm sometimes too quick to make changes. I'm almost too eager to get the story to where it needs to be, so if someone makes a suggestion or if I had a passing idea (big or small) I felt like I had to incorporate it. And of course that change would have a ripple effect through out the story. And then after all these changes I'd just end up with a big, messy, mushy story. Over time I've learned to let ideas marinade before I implement them.

  9. Great post, Natalie. I've found that as I've been going through polishing things up before I'm sending off to the beta readers that I've been getting into revising and fixing things I didn't see the first time out.

  10. "I listened to people who knew better than me."

    Me too! *cough* *you* *cough* :D I love this post, for so many reasons. You can't be afraid to overhaul a manuscript, even though making massive changes can be both daunting and scary, especially at first. Funny thing is, the original draft is still saved somewhere (right?!) so you can always go back. But change usually means moving forward, and isn't that what we all want from our writing? :D

    Also--the listening part. So right. Listen to your CP's, your agent and your editor, and do so with an open mind, trying to understand where they're coming from with their suggestions. Remember, they're trying to help you AND your novel, but they can't help if you aren't open to the possibility of change. The changes you decide to make are up to you--and that can be as much fun as drafting in the first place!

    Yay you Nat! Love this post!

  11. At Storymakers, J. Scott Savage said you shouldn't go with the first three ideas you have (for a plot twist, etc.) because those are the same things your reader will think of and see coming. That goes right along with this, which is excellent advice. Thanks!

  12. Oh man...did this post just make the best argument for plotting I've ever read?

  13. I have to disagree here on a point of order.

    The outstanding merit of first ideas is that this is precisely what they are. Anything you think of for a second time round is a memory revisited. It may turn out great in the end for all the reasons you give but ultimately it lacks the clout of those thoughts that seem to come from nowhere (and which, for a moment, could go anywhere).

    Perhaps what is at issue here (and I'm swaying back towards agreeing with you because I'm a big fan of the blog and have no wish to bowl googlies [cricketing term: Google it] at you in your Trimomolarisciousness) is that moment between flash and grammatical flesh, when you're caught as if between dreaming and consciousness when the rules are necessarily neithernorular — perhaps there is a space for a slack kind of vigilance here, to have the wisdom to snuff out non-starters of ideas while remaining open to the enabling game of "yes, and...".

    I'm all for plotting (that way you can write out what you know rather than confusing writing with thinking stuff out) BUT arranging things in order presupposes...things. Killing your babies is ultimately necessary, but it is the end product of not having killed too many...things.

  14. Thanks, Natalie! That's just what I needed! I just started the second draft of my novel three days ago, and I've been having a hard time with the "big changes." They scare me; mainly because I think I'll do something horribly wrong, or what I've thought up isn't good enough. Thanks for giving the inspiration I needed to proceed. You're amazing!

    Can't wait for TRANSPARENT to come out. From the reading you gave at LTUE, it sound really amazing.

    Happy writing!

  15. Way to take control, girl! I'm still writing where the story takes me, but the revisions are KILLER because I then have to reign everything back in where it's supposed to go.

  16. Way to go Natalie!! I'm going through this, too. It took a LONG time, but I now realize how essential revisions are to a novel. I mean, they're like 90% of the book!! Genuine inspiration only occurs (for me, anyway) once, maybe twice in a book. Otherwise, I have to toil over it. Change it. Tweak it until it's as perfect as I can get it. I so agree with you. You're not a real author until you realize that (and actually DO it). ;) Keep strong, and I hope you're getting decent sleep despite your new little cutie pie!!

  17. I totally, totally agree. I do plan before I write, but then I let my characters surprise me and change things up. Later, I have to go back and make sure it's all streamlined, and I cut a ton of stuff. As much as I try to be true to my character's instincts and make them an honest people, etc., it's me in the end who has control and who has to have control...or else it's just a big self-indulgent mess in the name of honest characterization. Fabulous post, Natalie!

  18. Great advice! I found your blog linked from Nathan Bransford's. Drafts 2, 3, 4 and up are great for reworking story. I think everything I've written has morphed so much from the beginning points. My first drafts are usually terrible.

  19. Thank you for this! I went through that fear of changing the novel too. Many revisions later, I learned how story is pruned and crafted from its original form into something that's more enjoyable to read. Great advice!