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What the Story Knows That the Author Doesn't

"In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."—Michelangelo

I'm happy for Michelangelo, but the truth is, I don't see the finished novel before I begin, or even while I'm working. I catch a tantalizing, sideways glimpse out of the corner of my eye here and there, or see a haunting eye gazing out from the marble and pleading to be freed, but I'm invariably surprised by what I find when I have finally chipped away to reveal the figure inside.

It occurs to me that, for all the myriad books, workshops, and speeches I have studied on the craft of writing, there's an element of mystery to the process. Call it art or inspiration, muse or magic -- but at least in my case, the story knows some things that the writer doesn't.

How else can I explain the way the way that intuition prompts me to sprinkle strange, seemingly-unrelated elements throughout the story? When I take the time to think about them, I often end up telling myself, "Well, that has not a darned thing to do with anything, but I'll just prune it later." Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, it ends up being crucial to the story's resolution, an ingredient guessed only by my unconscious mind -- or by the book itself, which seems to have its own agenda.

As much as any other element, these "surprises" keep me going. As I bring the story home (or shepherd its journey, anyway), I'm equal parts terrified it will implode, exhilarated, and delighted as the hidden structure slowly becomes visible. It's a fascinating process, and I feel privileged to play a part in the same age-old mystery Michelangelo and so many others have struggled to describe.

So what about the rest of you? Do you "see" the finished product and simply transcribe the story you've been given? Do you painstakingingly plan out each element or hang out at the keyboard to wait to see what happens? Does your story take you places you never have imagined, or do you drag it kicking and screaming, step by labored step? (Some days, it sure feels like that to me!)


Joni Rodgers said…
Wise words, as usual, Colleen.

I write a beginning, and then I write an end. Then I work my way through the maze that separates the two.
Jessica Trapp said…
LOL! I pretty much feel like I'm stumbling around in the dark. I'm always amazed when some element that I threw in somehow magically works. :)
Anonymous said…
I feel like I mostly stumble around, too -- I know my characters very well, and I know what motivates them, what scares them, etc. But I don't always know how those elements are going to end up getting them where I want them to go. And sometimes, they don't go where I want them to go. *sigh* I'd like to be more disciplined, or organized, in my writing, but when I do that, I often end up with something that just sounds boring or stilted. The way I write may be frustrating at times (and definitely at odds with the tiny bit of me that desperately wants to be organized!), but this is what seems to work the best. At least for now. :)

Anonymous said…
As Joni said, these are wise words, Colleen. I think we all honor our own process - and sometimes, that's stumbling around wondering what the process is or where the hell it went. I start a story with characters - who they are, a their worst fears and where I want them to end up (HEA). Somedays, I'm 'in the groove' and the story flows, somedays I force and manipulate it along.

The surprises are small. I was in the heroes POV and he had tripped into having control of a situation in the course of a good deed. He was happy to be there, and using it to tease the heroine with sexual tension. It was fun and he was having a good time. Heroine was leary, not knowing quite what to expect. All of a sudden she cued in that he was affected by their play, too - and she took control of him and the scene so quickly it made my head spin and my fingers fly. Story surprises come the same way - some small angle that changes the course of things.

It's part of the joy of what we do.
Stephanie J said…
I think I fall into the dragging my story step-by-step category. I wish I had more of the "vision," but that's just not the case for me! I'm becoming more disciplined, as Jennifer mentioned, but like her, I worry that if I plan too much, my work will become stilted. Blargh. Oh, how I wish the publishing fairy would just come and sprinkle some magical publishing pixie dust upon me... lol
ShawnaMoore said…
Hi, Colleen --

Even though I've turned into a plotter the past couple years, my stories and characters are always in control of the story that ends up as the first draft and the final one. I always allow for spontaneity and the times when they take over and forge their proper path. Many surprises happen as the story unfolds. I learn more about the goals and motivations of the characters, their wants and desires. There are often quirky details that arise and, much as you mentioned, I usually end up keeping them in because they simply "work". With each book or short story I write, the process changes a bit. If I tried analyzing that process, it would totally cripple my creativity. I'm raising a glass to those details that magically appear from nowhere--but those which we know have been kept hidden in our gray matter until just the perfect time when they surface and add that stamp of specialness to make our story unique.

Best wishes for continued success,

Shawna Moore
Thanks so much for the excellent discussion. Glad to hear I'm not the only one who gets surprised.

For years, I wrote totally by the seat of my pants, but to sell books on proposal, I had to learn to write three chapters and a synopsis (or Colleen's Theoretical Idea of How This Book *Could* Go, as I prefer to think of it). So I do have a pretty good idea of the destination (as Joni describes). It's the route that provides the mystery - and anything can happen with a subplot.

Blowing some publishing pixie dust your way, Stephanie. Although since it's coming from my office, mundane dust is more likely. :)
Anonymous said…
I used to plot in detail, knowing every nuance of my character's personality, their goals and motivation, every twist and turn of the plot. However, recently I learned the true joy of writing is not in the planning, but in the discovery. True, I might begin with fairly rounded characters and a story idea or situation, but it's in the actual writing that I see the story come together. For me, it's a thrill to learn some previously known aspect of the story, or a hidden motivation of one of my protagonists. I think, perhaps the story was always "there" in my subconsious, and if I trust in the process of creation, the story will come.

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