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What’s Your Truth?

Usually– well, almost usually– I have my Writer Unboxed posts done in advance of the day before I’m scheduled to post. This month, though, I’m kind of glad that the time got away from me, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to craft my post in response to Larry Brooks’ excellent article from Tuesday, The Big Lie About Writing Compelling Fiction. [1]
If for some reason you weren’t spending your 4th of July hanging out here on WU and haven’t had a chance to catch up since, I highly recommend reading the article and also the excellent discussion that went on in the comments.

I found Larry’s article fascinating, and agreed with so much of what he had to say. In part because I could talk about my process in the way that Larry describes: “I just sit down and write, each and every day, following my gut, listening to my characters, and eventually the magic happens.” Heck, I have described my process that way– and the thing is, on some levels, it’s true.

I’ve read books on writing craft, our own Donald Maass’s among them. I think many of them are terrific. I read them, highlight them, scribble notes like, YES in the margins . . . and then utterly fail when I try to straight up implement the principles in my own work.

Have you read Save the Cat? Another terrific, terrific resource about story structure, albeit from a film-writing perspective rather than a novel-oriented one. Still, I read it and was amazed by how much wisdom Blake Snyder had to impart. I tried my hardest to apply his ‘beat sheet’ structure of plot points to the novel I was working on at the time, because I honestly thought it was a brilliant way of making both the internal and external journey of your main character as compelling as it can possibly be. It was an utter disaster. I probably re-wrote and re-outlined and laboriously re-wrote that novel half a dozen times, struggling to make the Blake Snyder Save the Cat system work for me. Eventually I just scrapped the whole thing. Maybe I’ll get back to it . . . someday. In the meantime, I’ve written 15 other novels, not one of which I outlined according to Save the Cat’s advice.

Save the Cat isn’t the only writing/outlining system that’s failed to work for me– I’ve tried other systems, other ways of structuring a story that look and sound terrific and even make utter sense to me on an artistic/craft level . . . and every time, struggling to make my story fit into the mold sucks every bit of joy out of the process and results in a complete mess. Although I DO make outlines when I write. I’m not a pantser. Basically, I have a process that works for me, and on some levels it does involve simply writing every day, listening to my gut instincts, getting to know my characters inside and out . . . and letting the magic happen. A friend of mine who’s been tiptoeing into fiction writing in the last months was asking my advice, and I’m afraid that’s pretty close to what I told her.

Reading Larry’s article, though, made me think about my process a little more deeply. No, I don’t ever manage to apply any patented story-structure advice in a strict way. But I have read the craft books, and maybe on some levels, I have absorbed the advice on an instinctive level.

More than that, though, I read constantly– and critically. Any time I pick up a book, even a light, fun read, I’m highlighting it, searching for what story elements worked for me and what didn’t, what parts I was tempted to skim, what made the characters and their journey compelling.

I watch TV and movies the same way– literally with a notepad in hand, scribbling down notes about story structure, compelling rhythms of dialogue, humor, tension, etc. If I’ve been able to soak up Larry’s principles of writing compelling fiction, I think it’s because I’m just happiest when I’m constantly immersed in some kind of story and thinking about that story in a critical way.

That’s really my process, the truth of it. Which I’ll have to be sure to tell my friend the next time I see her.

What’s the truth of your writing process? Do you just sit down and let the magic happen, or is there more?

About Anna Elliott [2]

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.