The Tar Pit Puzzle

I'm finding increasingly with my regular clients that we spend a lot of time talking about the next book. I do this free of charge, and always will, both because I love to do it, and because frankly it's impossible to calculate an invoice for.

Anyone who wants story development advice is welcome to it, for free.

So what is it?

Like a lot of writers, I suspect, the first stories I wrote were what would today I suppose be called fanfic. (I still write fanfic from time to time, but my own writing has become a great deal more disciplined. More on that another time.) This is because it is inspired by having read a book or seen a play or a film and having thought to myself "I'd like to write something like that". As a result, I'd start with a genre, or a type of character, even a set of initial conditions (like a chemistry experiment), and start writing, and discover the story as I wrote.

This can result in a good story.

It can.


But as I learn more about stories, more about writing, and more about writers, the more I discover that writing this way requires a set of initial conditions. One set is obvious, I think: it requires a writer who has the age and experience of storytelling to be able to feel out a story as she goes, and who knows when and how to constrain the story in a way that will ensure its coherence.

Another set of initial conditions is less obvious, and sets a bit of a trap for the writer: many writers spend a number of years thinking about their first story before ever getting it onto the page. They work and rework it, live and relive it, and doing this has much the same effect as retelling it aloud; gradually the rough edges get knocked off, the redundancies removed and the tangents fall by the wayside; little by little the strong story becomes dominant, so that when she finally starts to write the story, she knows it well enough to follow it through*.

The trap is set; the writer has written her** first book, and it stands as a coherent and often deceptively simple story.

So she sits down to write the second book, and the trap is sprung: so much time, so much imagination, so much reiteration was spent on the first story that she knew it well when she wrote it, so there was precious little need for discussion, let alone planning or outlining. Not so the second book.

Many many second books come out without any clear theme, without a clear path or purpose, without an objective or central idea, or if they do it's all so jumbled up that reading it is like trying to identify an animal from the odd parts of its skeleton sticking up out of a tar pit. It might not even be just one animal. Often, it isn't.

At this point, one of my authors in particular is saying to himself "this is me, right?"

In reply to him, I can only say: "It's you at the moment; a few months ago it was someone else, and in a few months' time it will be someone else again."

What I do with a book you've already written, is to try to help you to reinforce the story, enhance the themes, develop and declutter symbolism, add depth to the characters and (especially), tighten the interdependence between character development and the story itself; and all this without having to tell you to rewrite the whole thing.

When you're learning to write, you aren't going to write a masterpiece.

Realizing should be liberating. You can, after a certain amount of hard work, say to yourself: "I made that story work. Now I'm going to move on." Keep doing that and one day you might find yourself thinking: "today I start work on my masterpiece."

It is important to just write. To get words onto the page. Nanowrimo is a really good way to develop your narration, your style, your voice. You should totally do it.. But it won't teach you a damn thing about what makes a good story.

What I do with a book you haven't written yet is help you to develop the story.

The development help that I offer, is all about discovering the story that you want to write. About asking the right questions, about finding the shape; about identifying the animal hidden under the tar. It can be a matter of drawing parallels with books you have read. It can be a matter of discovering your objective or identifying the theme that you want to explore. It can be a matter of identifying and explicitly describing the structure of the type of story you want to write.

But you don't need to talk to a specialist in story development**** to do this. You do need to have someone to talk to. Spouses can be good, if they have the patience. Parents, too, since they're likely to listen.***** Writers' groups and forums are good. It isn't other people's ideas and opinions that will help you develop your idea, though. It is your effort to articulate it. Each time you explain it to someone, you force yourself to turn a vague idea into a communicable explanation. That process will develop your idea for you.

Hmmm... am I talking myself out of customers here? I'll leave that up to my authors to reply.

I believe that until you have practised enough times to have really learned to do it, you can't develop a story alone. You have to have someone to talk to about it.


* think of Biggs Darklighter, and the whole evolution of the scripts of Star Wars Ep. IV.
** actually it's a bit of a cliché that this kind of process affects men more than women, though I only have anecdotal evidence of this myself. I don't happen to like using s/he, so I alternate between male and female imagined authors more or less at random***.
*** thinks: can you alternate at random?
**** you don't need to talk to me, either.
***** that came out badly. I didn't intend to suggest that spouses won't listen. Logically, though, they wouldn't have to. I'm just making it worse, aren't I?

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