Going with the Flow

As I said last week, my initial foray into writing fiction was flawed. In the science fiction market, the genre for my first novel, acceptable manuscript word count tops out at around 120K as a maximum for a first-time author; mine was greater than 800K and still going with no signs of ending any time soon. But I’m pretty sure it was a launch problem, not a design problem. I’m still convinced the story itself has real potential.

See, writing fiction has power—power over its audience, surely (hopefully!), but also over its writer. The ability to design my own world(s), plots, character-driven and plot-driven crises and resolutions or lacks thereof, even the research I did to make the scenarios realistic, as well as the opportunity to say something worthwhile within my storyline, rooted in me so deeply I didn’t give the rules much thought, if I even knew what they were. I just wrote.

And wrote.

And wrote.

At the time, I told people, “I hear voices in my head. They’re going to make me rich.” (Yeah, experienced writers. Laugh. You know you want to.)

Apparently, in the world of professional fiction writing, there are “plotters” and “pantsers.” Plotters map out their entire story from beginning to end, knowing where every detail will happen and how it will affect the scenes to follow, as well as where the crisis points will take place and how it will all end. Pantsers sit at the other end of the spectrum, winging every single scene, handing the reins over to their characters and their plot and the worlds they’ve built and saying to themselves (and their agents), “Let’s see where this goes.” I was (past tense) definitely in the second camp, so far to that end that I had no idea how or even if the darn thing would end. My characters would dictate story so loud that I sometimes had trouble sleeping, and so fast that my fingers could barely keep up. I was as surprised by what they did as anyone who read my work. Every time I finished a chapter, a small crew would gather to hear it read aloud, then offer their critiques and comments. It was great fun, and a wild ride, but that was only the beginning.

Most writers, I’m told, fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes, plotting the major points while allowing some degree of creative flexibility in the plan; their characters are given some leeway to drive the engine along controlled segues and side-streets, as long as the whole train ends up at a reasonable and believable juncture in the end. I think that’s where I’ve landed, at least so far. I have no illusions about coming to rest on any particular process this early in my writing career. My education continues.

I still hear the characters in my head, just not all at once. The crowd has thinned, so to speak. Those other characters, the ones I don’t hear so often any more, haven’t left the building. They’re just in another room, waiting their turn. The secret I had to discover is that one book should be about one protagonist, two at most, and the prevailing conflict that separates her from what she wants. I started working with an editor (hi Paula!), whose brutal guidance assured me that I had to cut out 75% of my content, and focus what was left. Two years and four drafts later, she finally e-mailed the words that prompted my happy-dance: “It’s ready to pitch.” My current draft sits at 119K words, and is awaiting an agent’s attention.

It’s not perfect, not yet. But I think it’s ready for representation. Books two and three (that’s where some of those other characters will get their shot) are in the planning stage; if book one takes off and my agent thinks it would make a good series, I can move forward on them. Otherwise, they can become stories in their own rights for later books. In any event, I continue to learn and grow into this craft. Because yes—writing is a craft. It takes guidance, education and practice, practice, practice to get it right (or is that “write”?).