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The Problem with Plotting
Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. – Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
I’ve written a lot of fiction over the years. Innumerable false starts. Five complete manuscripts. One submission. Half a million words. Or more.
I tried to tell myself I was learning through doing but I was mostly making the same mistakes over and over again, painting myself into the same plot corners, going off onto the same tangents, losing sight of my theme, seeing my characters devolve until they were so far gone there was no way to put them right.
These are the perils of writing hot.
But whenever I outlined I felt like I was telling two stories. The one I believed in, and the one I did not. Sometimes these stories supported each other but more often they were like two parallel lines that could circle the earth forever and not intersect. These were the manuscripts I didn’t complete.
The ones I finished ran hot for 80,000 words and ended by dumping my characters into a place that didn’t finish the story I’d set out to write.
The Wisdom of Bradbury
You, the prism, measure the light of the world; it burns through your mind to throw a different spectroscopic reading onto white paper than anyone else anywhere can throw. Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper. – Ray Bradbury Zen in the Art of Writing
Then I read a book by Ray Bradbury called Zen in the Art of Writing. For the first time I realized that it was possible to approach the craft in a way that seemed craftless but wasn’t.
That only problem was that I didn’t understand how Ray Bradury did it. I didn’t understand how Bradbury’s 1000 words a day could bring his characters to the a place that meant something. I didn’t understand how by bringing them there, he brought me along too.
I know that there are probably a lot people who don’t cry buckets at the end of Fahrenheit 451 but I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of writers who have been inspired Zen in the Art of Writing (affiliate links). They’re the writers who sit down at the keyboard every morning with a sense of expectation. The writers who see what they do as an adventure. The ones who let their characters lead.
Zen and the Art Writing spoke to me. I identified with the way Bradbury wrote. I loved that we had the same birthday. I was thrilled when I learned that we shared the same (very large) family tree.
But my novels still didn’t end up in the right place, the way his did. And I somehow missed what he said about rewrites.
This afternoon, burn down the house. Tomorrow, pour critical water upon the simmering coals. Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow. But today-explode-fly-apart-disintegrate! The other six or seven drafts are going to be pure torture. So why not enjoy the first draft, in the hope that your joy will seek and find others in the world who, by reading your story, will catch fire, too? – Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
I got discouraged. For a time, I stepped away from fiction. I wrote 100s of nonfiction articles and struggled to the halfway point of more than one nonfiction manuscripts before I gave up. And then I came back to fiction and found a new story that would not let me go.
It was about second chances. Starting over. Coming home.
It spoke to me because there are things we can do in novels that we can’t do in life. Things we can create that have no true counterpart in the world as we know it.
My New Project
Write a thousand words a day and in three years you’ll be a writer! – Ray Bradbury
I had been praying for clarity and now I was beginning to get it.
As I kept writing I started to see that my plot wasn’t an exterior construct. Instead, for me, it came from the story itself. But I saw that I had a role to play too. I saw that needed to develop the plot as I went along. I needed to question it. I needed to shepherd it. I needed a vision of my story that would keep it on track.
I learned that, in my writing, the story must inform the plot without ever taking full control of it.
I will probably never construct the kind of subtle yet intricate plot can’t be fully appreciated until the story is finished and taken apart and reverse engineered. But I do think that I’m beginning to get a sense of what I need to do – and what I need to learn.
But I have heard farmers tell about their very first wheat crop on their first farm after moving from another state, and if it wasn’t Robert Frost talking, it was his cousin, five times removed. I have heard locomotive engineers talk about America in the tones of Thomas Wolfe… I have heard mothers tell of the long night with their firstborn when they were afraid that they and the baby might die. And I have heard my grandmother speak of her first ball when she was seventeen. And they were all, when their souls grew warm, poets. – Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
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