Critical Mess

You just write everything down that you can dream up about the story. Don’t worry if the early drafts don’t make sense. You need to write and write until you understand the characters and what wonderful and horrible experiences they’re having, as well as what their relationships are like and how all those things change their lives. Once you’ve nailed that down, start revising so that the scenes unfold in a logical and satisfying order.
-Laurie Halse Anderson

Monday morning is here again, and that means another week of wrangling the big fuzzy mess of what’s in my head into some semblance of order. Today’s quote speaks to me deeply, because that’s where I am in the writing of two different projects. Characters and relationships and backstories and settings and people and places and things and all of that good stuff bubbles around in the cauldron of my mind, the characters begin to trust me enough to tell me that they’d really rather not X, thank you; they’ll Y instead, and I get an urge to put all of this mess in order. I’ve only recently discovered Laurie Halse Anderson, first through her amazing YA, The Impossible Knife of Memory, where teen heroine Hayley has to navigate her way through her single dad’s PTSD after he returns from military service, and, from the first page, I was knocked flat on my back with her use of language and emotion. Definitely stuff I would like to have flavor my own work. Finding out that she also has historical fiction, set in a period adjacent to the events of Her Last First Kiss both excites and frightens me a little, so I am only going to peek at those books on the library shelves through my splayed fingers for a while.

Shoulds are formiddable enemies. We don’t always know where they come from, but we know the stark terror they can bring about in a writer, the paralyisis, and even the death of perfectly good characters, plot points and even entire books, because, well, things should go like ABC, and this thing I’m working on here doesn’t, so…yeah…better put that away. Be a good little do-bee and follow the crowd, because all those publishers and all those readers and all those industry insiders must be right. I’m not sure if Shoulds are more like walkers from The Walking Dead or white walkers from Game of Thrones (maybe both? I’m only now getting into GoT; late adopter, I know.) They tell us we have to follow Big Name Writer’s process to the letter, when, really, we don’t, because we aren’t Big Name Writer. Maybe we’re not even in the same genre. We don’t come from the same place, geographically, psychologically, or what have you, so, really, it’s a ridiculous assumption to say that one size fits all. It doesn’t. I keep saying that because I keep needing to hammer it into my own head. Tough lesson to learn, but an important one.

This past week, the heroine for HLFK revealed something about herself that I hadn’t taken into consideration, but it makes perfect sense, makes her more interesting and makes writing this book feel a lot less murky. I think this might be my week for my hero to make a similar relevation, and I hope he does. That would make my job a lot easier. Though I’ve usually said I’m a plotter when asked if I’m a plotter or a pantser, I have learned that I need to take a third option. I’m a puzzler. Everything comes at me in one big blob of stuff, and I scramble to get it all down. In the past, I’ve felt I should have all my ducks in a row in my head before a single word hits the page, but now I know that I don’t work that way. I need the mess. I revel in the mess. I thrive in the mess.

I’ve been afraid of the mess, because it’s big, and, well, messy, and I like order. Which is okay. I can let the mess reach critical mass, then step back and start sorting it into some logical sense of order. Events fall into chronological order, which means a timeline will probably be useful, and actions have reactions, which spawn more actions, and on and on until we reach the end. The most useful piece of writing advice I’d recieved for many years was that a story can be defined as a character’s journey from wanting something to either getting it or realizing that they will never get it. When one of those things happens, then the story is over. Since I write romance, that usually means my hero and heroine are going to get that thing they want. Even if they don’t, they get something better, and, of course, they get each other. If they have each other, they can get through anything.

This is the part of the process where the magpie has most of the stuff in her nest (most of it; there will always be gathering) and now it’s time to put it all in order. I won’t lie; I wish I could get an idea and bloop, put it all on the page, exactly as is, in a set number of words per day (because, man, is that a hard Should to shed) but that’s not me. I need to splash around in the shallows, grab some of this and some of that and what-am-I-even-doing and oh-that’s-what-I’m-doing and there comes the moment when all falls in line, and yes, that’s right. Now make story.

Will do, brain. Will do.

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