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The Off-Road Vehicle Mind vs. the Paved Story Plan

photo by Phil and Pam Gradwell [1]
photo by Phil and Pam Gradwell

I’ve been blogging about my journey as an author-in-progress since Writer Unboxed began nearly ten years ago. I have two published books now, and if you’ve followed this site for a while you know that neither was particularly easy for me to write/rewrite. I’ve often thought that it would get easier at some point — that I would figure out something critical and use that insight to march forward into a new script with confidence.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that nothing’s changed over the last decade, because much has. I understand why I write what I write, for example. That helps.

And then there’s my process.

When I conceived of the story for book #3, I worked through a very specific, complex backstory, and eventually used that to create a detailed synopsis for the fore-story. Using a synopsis is an approach I’ve never tried before with a first draft, but it’s something that’s worked well for a few of my author-friends. And I felt good – great, even – about the story itself.

And you know what happened, right? Take a guess.

Hello, block. I couldn’t write much of anything beyond the first few scenes. Some part of my mind had its leaden brain-foot on the brake pedal of my creativity. Sure, I could write a bit. But I found that whatever I did felt wronger than wrong. The cutting-room floor soon had far more scenes on it than my manuscript had in it. The act of writing began to feel like the worst chore imaginable. Weird when I still cared about the story, still wanted to tell it, still cared about the characters.

What was going on?

A journey in which every step is planned is not a journey at all, but a tour.

What finally instigated some real progress was to veer away from my planned synopsis. Mind you, my backstory and the story’s ultimate destination remained the same, but I was no longer heeding the pre-conceived plan. This character’s perspective (say this, have her do that) turned into that other character’s perspective (let him say what he’d like, just be sure he gets to destination Z by the end of the chapter).

I had gone off-road with the plot.

I think my inability to stay on the paved path ties in with boredom. I don’t like predictable stories as a reader, and I don’t seem to like them as a writer, either.*

Boredom Synonyms Boredom Antonyms Thesaurus.com [2]
*Oh, look, antonyms for boredom include pleasure. This might explain why every time I sat down to write I felt like jabbing my eye out with a pencil. Note that even my method of self-torture had become boring.

An air-tight plan might be great on one level (yes, this story will work), but it leaves me uninspired on a more fundamental one (who cares, not me; what’s on TV tonight?). I need for the characters to develop on the page, through interaction with other characters, through interaction with their environments. I need for ideas to evolve dimensionally and that only happens for me in the course of writing a draft. My subconscious mind likes claiming some of the work of story, then handing it up to my conscious mind later like a gift. And I appreciate those gifts, maybe more than anything else in terms of the process itself.

Maybe the gift of knowledge from this book will be that I need to treat the writing of a novel like a journey rather than a tour of places already scoped out. Because I, too, want to turn over that rock, check out that side road, talk to the locals and find the best pub not yet discovered. I want to be excited to learn what comes next as my characters explore the territory I have yet to imagine. That, for me, is what makes the telling fresh and authentic, and keeps me connected to the story – as a reader and a writer.

Are you ever uninspired by your own story plans, even if you love the story itself? Why do you think that’s the case? What do you do to combat that block?

About Therese Walsh [3]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [4], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [5] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [6], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [7] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [8] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [9]). Learn more on her website [10].