“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
The first draft of my third novel (a cosmic horror/terrorism thriller mashup) is almost finished. Most days I’m having fun with it. There are a lot of cool elements and crazy scenes that I can’t wait to unleash on readers, but the writing process has also been fraught with uncertainty. I mean, it usually is, but maybe more so for this book. Or maybe I just don’t remember the doubts I had about the other books when I was writing them because by the time they’re finished they make sense and it gets harder to recall the days when they didn’t and the times when I struggled to find the path forward. I’m also working faster than I ever have before because now I have deadlines, so that could have something to do with it.
I’m an intuitive writer, a seat-of-the-pants improviser who does a fair amount of revision. I can’t see what’s at the top of the staircase when I put my foot on the first step. For me, that uncertainty keeps the writing fresh and spontaneous. I never feel like I’m just transcribing some preordained plot. But it also means that I arrive at junctures along the way where it’s hard to put words down because I just have no idea what happens next.
At those times I always ask WWCD? What would this character do? Not what should I make this character do to move the plot from A to B or C to D. What would she do next that is most true to her background, personality, hopes, fears and motivation at this moment based on everything I know about her. If I can write a scene in which the character makes her next move based on those authentic influences, then the story takes a step forward on solid footing. And then I pick another character and ask the same question: WWCD? And this person—ally or antagonist to the main character—comes up to bat with all of their own drives and flaws and tendencies.
If I know my characters well enough, if I know what makes them tick, they will inevitably have experiences that involve tension and conflict, love and hate, victory and defeat just by interacting with each other under the pressures of the premise.
As long as the premise and characters are rich with opposing forces, you don’t need to plot. This is nice because the reader never gets that feeling that the characters are just slot cars propelled around a track that was already laid out before the writer pulled the trigger.
Regarding premise, or situation, it’s a well-worn axiom that speculative fiction is born of the question “What if?” But that question is good for more than just starting a story. I keep it in my front pocket all the way through, and the notes of mine that most resemble an outline are lists of what if, what if, what if… Over and over again through various permutations, most of them rejected if they don’t jive with the internal logic of the story or the integrity of the characters.
Some writers get good results from plotting. Their brains just work differently from mine. I think I might try outlining my next book in advance because for once I know how that one will end. The ending came with the concept and I’ll probably have to build back from it to some extent, but the energy of that story still comes from what I know about the characters.
I think most of us read for the characters. To experience extreme empathy within the safe context of fiction, to vicariously escape into different points of view, to wonder what we would do in someone else’s shoes. So my advice to writers who are trying to find the confidence to start telling a story that they can’t yet see the end or even the middle of is Know Thy Characters. They will show you the way. When you get lost, dig deeper into the characters. I don’t think I’ve ever felt my way through a story as intuitively (blindly) as I’m doing with this one, but I’m pretty sure if I let the characters keep doing what they need to do, everything will fall into place. Soon.