Losing Structure

Veronica Sipe

People always ask writers (not me, but famous fiction writers) where their ideas come from. Those writers almost always provide answers that seem evasive to the questioners, but to me they make perfect sense. Ideas come from everywhere, all around. Ideas for stories are what happen when you take your own musings too seriously.

Garcilaso de la Vega. Compelling, right?

My ideas are usually born from ponderings on situations. I’ll read a newspaper article in which a family structure is described, and I wonder how I would feel if I were one of those people. For instance, one of the inspirations for the story I am writing now was this story on the blog Not Always Right. The connotations of the relationships therein made me wonder, and I began to hypothesize. After giving my hypothetical imaginings names and combining them with a few other ideas I had rolling around, including the youth of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and a randomly spawned Minecraft world, I had the basis of the story I’m working on now.

So I generally begin writing with a situation, an often fantastic setting, and some relationships between characters based on other people. That, I quickly realized, is not a plot for a novel. If I were a poet, maybe it could be a poem. If I were writing a movie or a TV show or a comic, I could partner with other people more skilled at constructing plot. But I want to write novels. So something has to happen. But all I wanted to write were everyday scenes, characters talking back and forth, setting and imagery.

I was learning this thing around that time.
I think it was poisoning my mind.

So, in middle school, I decided to tightly plot all my stories before I began writing, with the logic that if plot was taken care of, then I could write each scene freely and without concern for advancing the action. I would decide how I wanted the story to end up, how the conclusion would go. I took those everyday scenes I loved so much, and scattered them where they best fit. At this point I was so eager to start writing that I could barely hold myself back. But the plotting was not done. So then I defined every single scene in between  all the others, a quick summary of what would happen and how action would be moved forward, how character would develop. With everything mapped out in detailed outlines, I sat down to write a scene.

And couldn’t muster enough interest to drag me away from a game of Freecell.

The problem, you see, was that I felt like the story was told. It was done. Nobody was reading what I was writing–my writing was just for me, to get these stories and characters out of my head. And despite the bare-bones nature of my outlines, when I looked at them I could read every nuance I’d ever thought up between the lines. If I had dramatized scenes then I could have revised and connected them, but I really had nothing, and no motivation to do more.

Even at thirteen, I knew this was bad. I could never be the kind of writer I wanted to be by just coming up with a vague storyboard. I wanted to be a novelist; I wanted the only words on my covers to be my name and the title I came up with, and I wanted those covers to be on books. I didn’t want a “created by” credit on a screenplay or to share my stories with someone else. I wanted to create a perfect dream whole from my own mind and share it with a reader.

So I read every tip I could find, every book and article on writer’s block, and in the meantime I made due with my everyday scenes in which nothing really happened.

Eventually I just had to realize that it was my own impetus that was lacking. Some people did exactly as I had been doing and ended up with finished works. Other people sat down and wrote off the cuff. What was my problem? Meg Cabot, a writer I adore (and who wrote one of my five favorite books), helped me realize the nature of my problem by being a similar type of writer and sharing her own experience. I originally read this advice on her blog, but here’s an interview in which she says the same thing.

Of course, you can always change the destination.

“I like to say storytelling is like going on a trip: you always know from the beginning where you want to end up (but, of course, you never reveal this to the reader until the last page). The fun is experiencing what’s going to happen along the way. (Which is why I don’t work from an outline, but why I often get “way laid” by wrong turns. This is called writer’s block.)”

I realized that this was exactly the philosophy I needed to adopt. So I went back to that time in my process when I could barely contain myself, when writing seemed like the most exciting thing I could be doing, and I chucked out everything that came afterwards. I decided how I wanted the novel to end, and then placed the set pieces I was excited about at points in the story arch, and then I stopped planning. That is the point, nowadays, where I start writing, and generally can’t stop. Once I’ve written those scenes, new ones arise out of them, striving to connect one to the other, and the moment when multiple scenes can be combined into one long document is one of the most satisfying feelings.

Stickies is the best thing that ever happened to me.

Sometimes it’s very tempting to write things out like a storyboard, but I know that it’s bad for me (not bad for everyone; maybe it’s the best thing for you). Generally I make do with keeping plot points in my head. If I start coming up with a lot of them, I resort to short notes on Stickies. (I think Stickies still comes default with Mac OS. Here’s a PC version. Get it, it’s like ruling the world, even if you love to make outlines.)

I’ve still not finished a novel, but it isn’t for lack of motivation anymore. Usually, it’s due to too much motivation for too many projects at once. I have faith that I’ll finish one someday, but maybe I won’t. Even so, it’s a blessing to be able to sit down and write enthusiastically, even if no one but me and my closest friends will ever read anything I write.

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