Who’s writing your story? When not to go with the flow

By Janet Lane

At a recent group writing session, a fellow author told us about changes in her work in progress.  Like me, she’s a plotter as opposed to a pantser, meaning she has determined her protagonist’s character arc and has planned scenes from the beginning to the end of the novel.

One of her characters was scheduled to reveal a Deep Dark Secret in the middle of the novel.  In writing a scene for chapter four, however, her chararacter spilled the Deep Dark Secret ten chapters early.

She has written and published enough novels to trust her instincts, so she didn’t protest , even though it meant she’d need to re-invent her next twenty-something scenes.

So, who’s writing her book?  Have her characters taken over?

Jenny Crusie would say she’s listening to the “girls in the basement,” the creative subconscious that knows more than our conscious, plotting minds do.

In a recent blog Agent Jessica Faust of Bookends, LLC asks if you plot for yourself or for your story. During a pitch appointment, Faust made suggestions to an author about how she could strengthen her story, but her suggestions put the author in panic mode and she refused to make any changes.  Faust calls this a “common mistake many authors make: writing for themselves and not the story.”  No matter how much you plot in advance, you can’t always control how the book plays out.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool plotter, but I, too, have found myself at a crossroads with my plot.  As characters develop on the page, changes occur. Refinements are made.  As the story reveals itself to me, more of the character’s history, instincts and weaknesses are revealed.

I carefully plotted Traitor’s Moon, book three in a series of historical stories, and the story culminated with the discovery of a treasure.  After plotting I wrote a one page, then a three page, then a five page synopsis.  I fleshed out my story board, including turning points.

At around chapter six I hit a brick wall.  My research revealed a significant battle in the War of the Roses that occurred just a hundred miles from my setting.  How I wished I could ignore it and proceed merrily on my plotted way!  But it was not realistic.  This battle took thousands of lives on both sides. My characters would have been drawn into the drama and tragedy.

I stopped, dismantled my plot, abandoned the treasure discovery, and literally re-plotted my novel based on that single historical fact.  I wove the battle into not only the plot line but also their character arc growth.

Who’s writing this story?  Because I write historical romance, history intervened.

Characters can grab the steering wheel of your plot and abruptly change its  rhythm and pace.  Reality or facts can take control.  A third possibility is that your critique partners can question motivations or plot.  This, too, can be good or bad.

If a critique partner points out a flaw that, if fixed, will significantly change your plot, we call it an RSS – Radical Story Suggestion.  With RSS comments, avoid a knee-jerk plot overhaul that could ruin your story. A good course of action would be to…

Wait.  Time – a week or two – will take the sharp edge off the RSS.  Give it over to your subconscious, and it will work for you.  Time also gives you the distance you need to consider changes to something you have already created.

After waiting, play with the idea in your mind.  Study your synopsis, avoid getting lost in individual scenes, and listen to your gut.  If you have misgivings about the person proposing the RSS, resist dismissing it and consider the idea, not the person.  Answer questions:  Is the suggestion valid?  Is your character inconsistent with his goals, for example?  Does your plot fail to make sense or hold the reader’s interest?

Wait another week.  Your novel depends on careful thought, not impulsive, hasty changes.  If it feels right, these thoughts will stand the test of time.

Finally, should you write to the market?  Should the best-seller list, or agents’ or editors’ comments be allowed to drive your novel?  There’s a wealth of information written about this topic, and here’s my take.  If the market is currently hot on ghosts and you happen to love ghosts, good for you.  Write for the market.  If, however, you can summon only ho-hum passion for the trials, if you hold no wonder or love of ghosts, do not attempt to write a novel about them.  Three or four hundred pages demand passion and commitment from a writer.  Writing a passionless novel will produce a bland book.

Ultimately, you are the one who makes the decisions about your novel.  Be open to ideas, but be protective of your work and honest when considering change.  You are in the driver’s seat.  Buckle up, keep your eyes on the road and enjoy the ride.

Have you ever hit a major speed bump that forced you to let your characters tell their story?  

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2 Comments

Filed under The Writing Life, Writing Craft

2 responses to “Who’s writing your story? When not to go with the flow

  1. This is such a familiar issue! I’m a dyed-in-the-wool pantser, but I hit the same kinds of issues with my research. Sometimes it’s a historical detail I need to include for the same reason you had to mention the battle. More often, it’s less “mission critical” in terms of the history but it’s some historical quirk my characters, in particular, wouldn’t ignore. I guess that comes to the same thing. Those usually show up in editing for me (probably more common for pantsers, I’d think) but I’ll be editing along and realize “oops – there should be a donkey in that stall, not a horse” – and suddenly my character needs to interact with a donkey when she was expecting a horse.

    No lie – that one actually happened.

    It’s fun, though, because those historical details makes the novel feel so much more “true” than just making up something that works with the plotline. I’m glad to know plotters hit the same issues too!

  2. Hello:
    This is my first time writing on this page and everything that you wrote in ‘Who’s Writing Your Story’ hit home. I found myself doing just about everything you mentioned. To answer, your question, though. i inevitably let my characters take on the role of writing the novel. Ok, I know that sounded ‘heck weird’, but let me explain. As I was writing my novel; it was as if the words just flowed into my mind, the characters and their personalities were already there played out and ready for the taking. I mean, yes I did have my roadblocks, but overrall, the plot was there. Yet as I was writing , the plot thickened – at least in my eyes. I am elated to find a best seller author who writes historical romance. My novel ‘Blood Stained Waters’ is a historical novel as well. I hope you read it as I hope to read your novel. I self published, though, so my novels are not in stores but rather online at amazon and barnes and noble.
    Yes I have dozens of questions and now having published my first novel, I am finding a roadblock in moving forward. My website is http://www.bloodstainedwaters.com and my email is ready2revive@comcast.net. Please respond

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