When I started writing stories, I always set off flying into the mist. Well, I was very young. Often – no make that always, at least to begin with – I ran out of steam. Can’t tell you how many snippets of unwritten novels I have in my filing system.
One of the things I have been doing during lockdown is reading my way through them.
It was part of my general de-cluttering objective. And no, that hasn’t got very far at all, if you’re wondering. To be honest, I have binned very little yet.
Partly, this is because of how long it has taken me.
Stories Flying Into the Mist
I got back into the stories pretty quickly, to my surprise. Even more surprisingly, I remembered pretty nearly every one.
Oh, I didn’t know where the stories were going. But I knew who the people were and what was driving them.
Often, I remembered where I was when I had the idea that lit the flame. How hot or cold it was, whether or not I was alone. At least twice I left a party of friends early because I needed to get home to Write It Down before it dissolved.
Characters In the Mist
In some cases I could hear the voices on the page. (At least one was Ian Holm in his Richard, Duke of York incarnation. Much, much later, a certain Sheriff of Nottingham intruded into my imagined world and made a complete horlicks of my intended plot.)
With others, though, I felt as if I was meeting these people after a long interval, like relatives who’d been abroad for years, and seeing them afresh from my new perspective. There was, for instance, an adventure story set in Greece of the 1970s where the main character was a naive idiot who was definitely going to get shot unless she pulled her socks up.
Of course, I didn’t see that at the time. It was one of the few stories I’d actually finished and I’d run out of steam long before I got to write THE END.
By the time I did, I was sitting up an Irish hillside, toiling away every day, trying to remember hot and dusty Athens with the Atlantic pounding away below our cliff and real mist closing in on our one-track road at the slightest excuse.
Looking back, I realise that there was a real story in there, but I hadn’t been able to see round my daft main character to recognise it.
Flying into the Mist a Bad Thing?
Absolutely not. Some of the stuff I’ve been reading was just wonderful. Full of energy and possibilities. OK, it lacked just about everything in the closure department. But by golly it was fun to write and, I have to admit, after a number of years in the bottom drawer, it was still fun to read. It was going somewhere. It just wasn’t clear where. And it certainly hadn’t got there yet.
And novels are about going somewhere. The journey is important. Really important. Journeys very seldom go to plan.
When I set off to write into the mist, I knew that. I didn’t think about it but, my goodness, I enjoyed it. And, as this lockdown reappraisal has made me realise, it shows.
The Plotter’s Way
I once went to a lecture by story guru Robert McKee. I always remember him saying that a movie was all about the last twenty minutes. Everyone there wrote it down. Including me.
The whole damn movie was designed to showcase that last 20 minutes. And he proved it by highlighting all the things throughout the movie that were picked up in the last reel. It was impressive.
… there are very few movies where the best bits are in the last 20 minutes. Even Some Like it Hot, and that’s got one of the best endings ever, rising from “I’m not a natural blonde,” through “The last three years I’ve been living with a saxophone player” to “I’m a MAN.” To which our libidinous but rather sweet playboy millionaire says, “Nobody’s perfect.” Happy sigh.
But is that the best bit? Nah. Not even close. (“Daphne, you’re leading again.”)
Romantic Novelists are kinder. When I joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association, after my first book was published, someone said to me, “Are you a plotter or a pantser?”
Basically do you know the end before you start? Or do you scramble to come to a conclusion, any conclusion, when you begin to run out of your contracted wordage?
This was the age of The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. Story analysis drilled right down to the sub atomic level. I admitted I didn’t plot naturally. Astonishingly, neither did some of my favourite writers.
Even so, if I didn’t quite buy into the Hero’s Journey whole-heartedly, I certainly thought that the way I wrote my stories was not quite – well – professional.
My publisher would ask me for a synopsis. I’d labour over it for hours. Hating it. Hating myself. Sending it off at the last possible moment.
Then I’d have to keep trying to make the story fit what I’d already told the editor and, more important, the Art Department.
The story would go off course. And there I was, failing again.
Virtues of Flying Into the Mist
The truth of course is that every writer finds their own way. My lockdown audit showed me that some of the best stuff I’ve ever written was going nowhere.
I took several long walks and tried to work out why.
There are probably a lot of reasons. But the one that struck me most forcibly was this: when you’re writing into the mist, the reader finds out about stuff at the same rate as the writer does. All the dimensions, all the possibilities are still there. The unknowns are still there. Just as they are in real life.
So What Next?
The book I am writing at the moment is one where I know an awful lot. I was beginning to think I knew everything, and all I was doing was a short-back-and-sides sort of edit.
But reading those old pieces has shown me that I can’t do that, not without short-changing my characters. I know a lot about a characters at some major turning point in the story? Well, change viewpoint and look through the eyes of someone who knows less. Heck, what about someone who’s coming to the whole thing new and knows nothing?
And suddenly the excitement is back and the book is untidy and unstructured and alive again.
Wish me luck!
It’s hair-raising sometimes, but definitely more exciting. I gave up planning when I kept having to rejig the plan as new ideas emerged. Also find old stories have unexpected merit. These days my craft is better so writing into the mist is not as dangerous or prone to falling on face.
Here’s to your next misty opus!
Thanks for the encouragement, Liz. I suppose it’s true that I, too, know more about shaping a story now, so that may well help.
I have a lifetime of those stories eagerly embarked upon that never got past the intriguing beginning, Sophie. Mostly, these days, I have a few scenes in my head, can see an ending that I’m writing towards, although the journey is always only as far as the headlights can reach in fog. Experience has taught me to back out quickly when I’ve gone down a wrong turning – and that’s the only part of writing that gets easier. The wip, however, started with two characters, a garden and some dead vegetation and I was half way through before I had a glimmer of where the journey was taking them. Writing this book has forced me to put all my faith in my “process” and, eventually, begrudgingly, it has delivered. Sadly, plotting just doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it. The end result is so far off my carefully constructed plot that I could use it again. But it does help if you have a roadmap – even if it is only a rough sketch on the back of an envelope drawn by someone you stopped and asked for directions.
Well, I know where it ends, Liz. The map in between is very blurry at the moment, though.
Wishing you all the luck in the world, Sophie! I cannot write a synopsis without losing interest in the book. I know roughly how the story will end, but how the characters will get there? That’s the fun of writing it! So I know exactly how you feel. In fact, I am about to revisit at least one of my “bottom drawer” stories and see if I can revive it. Maybe it has something to do with spring, and all those new possibilities! Thank you for posting this, I am sure many of us can relate to it.
Thank you, Sarah. I’m sure spring has something to do with it!
Wonderful! Those stories we all keep hold of always prove useful in the end!
I am tempted to go rooting even deeper in the cupboard now!
Sounds exciting. Let me know what treasure you unearth?
They were a real surprise, Jennifer. Raised my spirits no end!
I SO identify with this. As Sophie knows, I too am currently writing an into-the-mist story, the sequel to the vampire story I produced for Beach Hut Surprise. Since my vampires, Theo and Lucinda, have upped sticks and gone to Paris, all the other characters in this story are new and I’m really enjoying getting to know them. As to the plot…? The story includes a murder (new departure for me) and at the moment I have 5 possible suspects. Which one dunnit? Not a clue. May have been someone else altogether. Like the readers, I’m discovering more as I go along.
Happy flight, fellow traveller!
A very good post. It made me think, it made me think an awful lot and I stress awful. Thank you.
Extremely glad if it helps you at all. Bit worried if it gives you nightmares, though.
In my case, it’s taken me a long time to accept that hitting a barrier in my writing is often (make that damn nearly always) because I keep trying to plot out the next bit, instead of letting the characters take me there. Flying into the mist may be a bit wasteful, when you go down blind alleys and have to go back and junk a couple of scenes. But, for me, plotting-from-cold kills the story stone dead.
Good luck with your thinking – and whatever you decide to do thereafter, Amorina.