I got a little bit off-track this week.
I’ve been trying to expand my one-page outline, figuring out my scenes and subplots and character moments and, you know, all the things that turn an outline into an actual story. And, because I’m still tweaking my outlining method, I’ve been looking at what other people say about their processes, reading about outlining techniques, that sort of thing.
(Also: by Tuesday afternoon, I had to accept that I was coming down with a cold. Studying craft was a way to feel like I was being at least a little bit productive, even when I didn’t have the attention span to be working. On the bright side, I’d rather get a cold now than in the last week of November.)
It was probably a mistake.
I’m not going to say the advice I was reading this week was bad. Some of it was, but most of it was… perfectly reasonable. I know that it works for some people, even if it’s not going to work for me. The problem is the sheer amount of advice out there, and the way it gets repeated. Someone writes a book on how to write a best-selling novel, someone else blogs about it, someone else blogs about it but doesn’t mention where they got the idea, and so on, and pretty soon it’s being treated as received wisdom, instead of a formula some random guy came up with sometime in the last ten years.
And if I read enough of these things in a short enough span of time, it starts to feel like if I don’t follow the template exactly, then I’m doing something wrong.
Which is absurd, of course.
There are patterns in stories, common rhythms, but a novel is not a formula; it’s not a bunch of variables that you can plug into an equation and get a consistent answer. (Or… you can. But you’ll end up with a formulaic novel.) I love the Hero’s Journey (and I’ve been using it as a guide for my broad outline, because the symbolism of it works for this particular story), but it can be problematic… and it’s far from universal. It’s a guide, rather than the guide. Even the three-act structure—as close to a ‘universal’ as we can get, in that most stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end (though not necessarily in that order, to quote Jean-Luc Godard)—only applies to most stories, not all of them.
There’s value in looking at the writing process, but I have to remember to be critical about it. I’m better off listening to what the writers I genuinely admire have to say, instead of the rules that the self-proclaimed “experts” insist we have to follow. I have to remember to focus on the art of writing, as much as the craft—and art cannot exist if I’m hung up on formulas. (Formulae?) I have to remember to abandon the maps when they point me in the wrong directions.
I have to trust myself a little more. I’ve done this before, I can do it again.